R2D2 v Ah Hock: Hokkien mee showdown

Chef Alan Teo, 39, finishes cooking his dishes using the Cooking Machines behind him at Tung Lok on Dec 6, 2013. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM
Chef Alan Teo, 39, finishes cooking his dishes using the Cooking Machines behind him at Tung Lok on Dec 6, 2013. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM
Chefs wait while Cooking Machines do their work at Tung Lok on Dec 6, 2013. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

I boarded a Star Wars space ship Friday morning.

With some twenty other "passengers" garbed in compulsory white gowns and caps, I was marched into an air-tight room about the size of a Housing Board five-room flat. In the air lock, we saw more men dressed in storm-trooper white. They wore taller hats and they lacked the warmth of a Singapore Airlines stewardess.

I caught sight of an old friend. Sitting in a corner of the room is what looks like R2D2, a cute robot that I first saw on the now torn-down Odean Bras Basah cinema some 36 years ago.

But this R2D2 looks odd. It has the familiar drum, but its gaping mouth and over-sized touch-screen controls are out of place.

It was no R2D2, so I stopped day-dreaming and came back from a galaxy far, far away to a second-floor kitchen at a Upper Paya Lebar factory.

The R2D2 clone is a China-made robot called "snack cub" bought by home-grown restaurant chain TungLok to expand its catering arm.

I was at a media show-and-tell for TungLok to demonstrate that its three new robo-cooks can beat human chefs by cooking more food and doing it faster.

This is how they work: Raw ingredients are tossed into a heated, rotating drum. Instructions are punched into a touch-screen. The robots will adjust the time, temperature, rotating speed, and even the amount of oil. Minutes later, the drum pours out the food into trays, piping hot and ready to be eaten.

The robo-cooks whipped up six dishes, including Hokkien mee, kung pow chicken, braised tofu and sambal long beans.

The guests - which included labour chief Lim Swee Say, Spring Singapore chief executive Tan Kai Hoe and curious reporters - were invited to sample the food.

I hesitated.

The thought of eating something that the R2D2 clone swallowed and vomited out of its gaping mouth was unappetising.

But others were happily picking away the food, although I could not tell if they nodded and smiled politely so as not to offend the hosts or enrage the robots, or they genuinely enjoyed what they were eating.

I sheepishly picked up a small portion of Hokkien mee, after a TungLok staff cajoled me a second time. It was too rude not to be seen holding any food or eating.

The noodles tasted... normal. They were not smack-your-brain-wasabi delicious, but there is nothing objectionable. The texture is just right and the prawns were neither over- nor under-cooked. It is something I will pay maybe $6 to eat in a food court when I am hungry, but I won't be joining any waiting line.

For now, it does not come close to my favourite $3 a plate "wait 30 minutes" Ah Hock Hokkien mee at Chomp Chomp.

But if Ah Hock who looks is in his 60s retires, I just might have to learn to like the robo-cooked Hokkien mee.

Given the labour crunch, the odds are stacked against me.

TungLok's new robo-cooks boast over 1,000 combinations in their pre-programmed menus.

I can only hope that one of them comes close to Ah Hock's recipe.

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