What Singapore's foodies taught us about the hawker scene
Meet Alvin See and Mark Ong – big time foodies, long time friends and local experts on the Singapore hawker scene. We met up with the chef/sommelier and professional food photographer for a weekday lunch at the Tiong Bahru centre where they sat us down, fed us the best char siu of our lives and explained the ways of the hawker world.
Here’s what we learned:
1. It’s okay to drink pinot out of plastic cups
Okay, so straight up – wine isn’t available at most hawker centres. You can get a bowl of thick lor mee for next to nothing but the chances of finding a chill chardonnay in the fridge next to your favourite noodle vendor is very unlikely. That said, all you vinophiles needn’t despair because there are no rules against BYO. Which means your lunch just got even more mofo.
Do as I did and carry a bottle of Tasmania pinot noir in your handbag, snag a few plastic cups and pair the sucker with that succulent char sui you’ve been craving all week. Sommelier Alvin gives this move several ticks of approval because a) “bringing your wine to the centre is much more efficient than trying to keep takeaway food warm on the ride home” and b) “char sui and pinot is a match made in heaven”. Get learned, friends.
2. Michelin stars are great, but a crowd is better
Lunch time is considered peak hour at Tiong Bahru. The business throngs pour in hunting down a bit of fried bean curd here or a rice cake there, slurping down some serious broth before rushing back to the office. But for hawker newbies like us, the most intimidating part of the process was determining which hokkien mee stall was the best. A decision made exponentially harder when you’re surrounded by several stalls all promising the same “tasty, tasty”.
Enter Mark with this piece of sage advice: “follow the crowd”. Wiser words were never said, I’m pretty sure he’s Singaporean Yoda. If you’re looking for the best wanton mee, all you have to do is find the vendor with the longest line and pull up a place in the queue. Because while awards are one thing, you can’t beat a local palate.
3. Always go for the armpit
Probably the best meal of our hawker degustation was the char sui. The man behind the pork perfection is a local legend, and the 1pm crowd was obvious testament to his skills.
Because Alvin is a very, very good human being he called ahead to order in the juiciest cut – the armpit. I was equal parts appreciative and unnerved. But fear not, it tastes like sweet yet salty heaven, and I was unsurprised to hear the stall serves up over 400 plates a day.
4. Styling your food is always acceptable
If you think 24-70mm lenses and next level depth of field is only appropriate when shooting the fine dining scene, think again. It doesn’t matter whether you’re eating off your grandma’s best china or a simple paper plate, what matters most is the food on it. And the dishes at Singapore’s hawker centres are works of art.
So, much like a twentysomething girl at brunch, don’t be afraid to rearrange the sauce dishes and stand up for a better vantage point. To see how it’s done by the pros, check out Mark’s instagram here.
5. Get adventurous with your wine pairings
Pairing wine with hawker food is an opportunity to get adventurous with your vino choices. Alvin had a few pointers for us, namely: try not to let strong food flavours overpower light wines; slightly sweeter wines handle spice well; and don’t forget about red wine, just because it’s hot outside.
Recommendations include wanton mee and a good rizza, chwee kueh and a bottle of Champers and lor mee matched with a delicate rosé. Oh, and obviously, armpit char siu and pinot noir out of plastic cups.