Singaporeans may well be enjoying a chuckle as they tuck into their regular weekend fare of mee pok, char kway teow, nasi lemak or roti prata this morning. The bemusement arises from the elevation of unfussy street food to the tony heights of culinary excellence, with the recent introduction of the Michelin guide to Singapore food. Nineteen hawker stalls made it to the list, two of which aced a prestigious Michelin star. The incorporation of hawker fare is a positive thing because the Michelin guide is to food what the Oscars are to Hollywood. As Michelin's first Asean culinary map, the guide formalises what Singaporeans have known all along - and which more foreigners are likelier to now - about the variegated menu of tasty food on offer here.
The guide serves as a tourist hook about Singapore's attractiveness in serving up good food in humble places. There are some caveats. The list is not definitive because its range is "not expansive enough" as one critic noted. Also, those familiar with the awards warn of the Michelin curse, whereby conferment may create unsustainable pressure on winners to maintain quality. Regular patrons may also be put off if winners up prices steeply to cash in or to meet higher rentals.
While Michelin recognition and local awards like the Singapore Hawker Masters are useful, the urgent problems are more prosaic, such as the absence of a hawker pipeline, teaching hawkers business literacy, good rental spaces and crafting a fair balance between pricing and profitability. Our hawker culture lives because the food tastes great, is multi-ethnic, cheap and convenient. It thrives because it holds a familiar sense of home and of being Singaporean. External kudos must be celebrated, but it is Singaporeans - and their fiercely loyal tastebuds - who determine the fate of hawker fare. As much as talented chefs, diehard and casual foodies help to keep it going.