The Straits Times says

Singapore's great foodie dilemma

Food lovers want hawker food to be delightful treats but it is not always the best dietary choice. That's not the only quandary. People also want traditional flavours to be kept alive.

Alas, hawker masters are ageing - their median age is almost 60 - and the young are shying away from such work. Singaporeans insist on affordable hawker fare but weak returns reduce the incentive for budding chefs to run hawker stalls.

Hawker centres are held up as public spaces where all can mix freely. Yet, the designs of these spaces have fallen short in the past and only now are there efforts to reconceptualise hawker centres. Some think bureaucracy is an obstacle to the organic growth of the local street food scene, while others think a committee approach might work, like the effort of the Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee which completed a report for the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources.

But just when food lovers thought crowds might flock to new-style hawker centres, the Health Promotion Board announced it is aiming to have four in 10 hawker stalls serve at least one healthier dish by 2019. Yet another dilemma to ponder? Many might equate healthy food with dull fare, but it needn't be so.

While foodies look nostalgically at a culinary past, they cannot hope to live in it. Nor should they. Lifestyles have evolved and health trends point to significant risks ahead if people keep gorging as they once did. Hence, tastes and choices must change too. The health-conscious appreciate the link between certain diets and chronic diseases. Taken to great extents, some mimic the diet of early men who ate more unprocessed food, adopt a low-carbohydrate diet, go vegan or vegetarian, or seek food that's free of gluten, dairy products and sugar. But many might just opt for some judicious diet changes which can make a difference. The processing of food also calls for greater awareness among consumers. People are often poorly informed about what they are eating: the hidden salt and sugar content, or additives like pigments fed to farmed salmon to turn their naturally grey flesh into an artificial pink hue. Food education should be a must for all.

The key, therefore, to the future of hawker food lies in the hands of Singapore foodies. They need not be denied their pleasures, of course, but increasingly, they ought to choose their food and the frequency of consumption with greater care.

More discerning food lovers will spur younger chefs to tailor recipes of even classic hawker dishes such that they can satisfy street food aficionados and nutritionists alike. So far, 63 dishes have been identified that tend to be under 500 calories. Others might be modified to become healthier (perhaps with minimal difference to taste and cost) if foodies create a demand for such food. As consumers evolve, so will hawkers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2017, with the headline 'Singapore's great foodie dilemma'. Print Edition | Subscribe