Our hawkers are really a big part of our lives here in Singapore, don’t you think? Most of us would have grown up eating from the same hawker stall for years and and these hawkers would have become much more than just a person who sells food.
I am sure that this particular lady hawker at Soon Heng Hot and Cold Desserts would have many regulars who have grown up (or grown old) eating at her stall. I have met many hawkers but she was the first one I met whose smile was sweeter than her desserts!
I get a lot of different reactions whenever I pull out my DSLR camera. Some hawkers ask why I am taking photos. Others continue to work as if I wasn’t there. But when Mrs Yang saw my camera, she quickly struck up her kawaii pose!
What first drew me to the stall was the availability of lian zi suan. (Lotus seed soup) This traditional Teochew sweet soup is not easy to find nowadays because of the rising cost of lotus seeds. (A 200g pack of lotus seeds at the supermarket costs around $ 6!) The only other stall that I have come across that sells this is “House of Dessert” at Tampines Round Market. They actually stopped selling it for a period of time because of the increase in price of raw lotus seeds. Thankfully, they started selling it again last year.
This soup is not difficult to cook but it is easy to get it wrong unless you get a tip from grandma (or from the internet nowadays). Most of us would intuitively soak the seeds first before cooking, but this is the last thing you want to do as the seeds will ever turn into the nice, mealy, powdery texture no matter how long you boil them. Instead, the seeds must go straight into hot boiling water for a while then followed by either a slow simmer or steam. Once they are soft, simply add them to syrup which has been thickened with tapioca starch.
For all that trouble, I think most people wouldn’t mind forking out the $ 2 for a bowl of lian zi suan at this stall. I think this is probably also the cheapest place where you can buy this in Singapore. In fact, all her other desserts are also just $ 1! Talk about old school prices. When I asked Mrs Yang how she managed to keep prices so low, she just smiled and said that its her way of keeping her customers happy!
Aside from the lotus seed soup, her tau suan is also very good. 4.25/5What was impressive was how her you tiao remained so fresh! I managed to try some of her other desserts like cheng tng and honey sea coconut. They were average but at $ 1 a bowl, I don’t think anyone is complaining!
Old school sweet soups served with an even sweeter smile which will make you smile even more when all you need is some spare change to enjoy it!
Joo Heng has been famous for the longest time and it was one of the first zi chars which blogged about in 2006 when I first started to prowl the streets of Singapore in search of its best food. Since then, Mr Soon, the marathon runner owner of Joo Heng had passed on and his son, Mr Soon Kay Lock,is now operating the restaurant full time.
There are very few zi char restaurants in Singapore where the owner happens to be a chef and who still insists on going to the market to buy fresh produce every morning. When I asked Mr Soon why he still makes the effort to visit the market himself, he told me that that really is the only way to ensure that he gets the good stuff!
Our kakis all found the food marvellously moreish with flavourful sauces begging to be paired with a mouthful of rice. We all agreed that the best dish of the day was the sliced fish with ginger and shallots. The fish was done perfectly with a wok hei that is so thick that you won’t have to nudge your nose to the plate, clear your nostrils and take a deep breath in order to detect it. 4.5/5 The other dish which I really like is the minced pork with salted fish. Chef Soon still chops the pork by hand every day in order to achieve that wonderfully bouncy texture and uses Mui Heong salted fish from the East Coast of Malaysia to give the dish its distinctive flavour. 4.5/5
The rest of the dishes were all very good albeit not as outstanding as the first two I mentioned. Connoiseurs of pork liver (of which I am not) would enjoy the sauteed pork liver with ginger and shallots which our kakis agreed was expertly done such that the liver slices were still tender yet cooked through. The prawn tofu is good 4.25/5 but my favourite would still be the one at Sik Bao Sin which is thick with rice wine fragrance. The Song fish head with bean paste was a little oversteamed that day so the meat was a little tough and I felt it needed more bean paste. 3.5/5
People who have eaten at Joo Heng a long time ago would have you know that they were much better in the past. That may be true, but there is no way to be objective about such platitudes. The tastiest ingredients of any given dish are always a ravenous appetite garnished with a sprinkling of nostalgia. But if you are looking for a satisfying meal of rice and several dishes, then Joo Heng will still deliver the goods, and very quickly, I might add.
The Michelin Guide has put Singapore’s hawker food on the world gastronomy map with the announcement of 2 One Michelin Star Hawkers this week, viz Hillstreet Tai Hwa Bak Chor Mee and Hong Kong Soy Sauce Chicken. Now we can boast that Singapore is the cheapest place in the world where you can eat at a Michelin Star establishment! Two dollars! Yes $ 2 is all you need to eat a Michelin Star meal!
When I published “The End of Char Kway Teow” in 2010, my intention was to “glamorise” hawker food so we Singaporeans might realise the uniqueness of our own cuisine and not take it for granted. Having spoken to so many hawkers, I realised back then, that most of our hawkers are due to retire with not enough young hawkers wanting to take over the wok. Most young aspiring chefs want to cook French cuisine and eschew local food which is often seen as “low class”. Thus, “The End of Char Kway Teow” was meant to sound the alarm that unless we do something soon, there might not be a Char Kway Teow worth eating in the future!
Now that our hawker food has officially been anointed by the Michelin inspectors are food worthy to be placed alongside the best cuisines in the world, I am hoping that it will motivate more young Singaporeans who are planning to go into the food trade to cook Singapore food rather than some foreign cuisine.
Young aspiring chefs now have a role model in Malcolm Lee of Candlenut who, at 32, has managed to earn himself a Michelin Star and put Peranakan cuisine on the world stage. Like most young chefs, he had dreams of becoming a Western chef, but his passion for his own heritage, inspired by his mother and grandmother, pushed him to discover his roots. To me, the message is very clear — if you are a Singaporean cooking Singapore food, you will stand a better chance of winning a Michelin Star then if you try to compete with all the other French Chefs of the world!
Earlier, the announcement of the “Bib Gourmand” awardees caught many by surprise, not least Manfred Lim, the man behind the wok at Hong Heng Fried Sotong Prawn Mee. The Bib Gourmand is usually regarded as those stalls which are just shy of winning a Michelin Star but are still providing really good food for less than $ 45.
The social media was abuzz with Singaporeans expressing their disagreement with some of the awardees. This is not unexpected as we Singaporeans are really passionate about our food, and when we know that there are stalls that are far better than what the inspectors picked, we just need to “let go” some steam! After all, what do these foreign inspectors know about hawker food anyway?
I have quite a different take on this. I don’t see the list of 2 Michelin Star and 17 Bib Gourmand hawkers as a comprehensive list of all the best hawker food in Singapore. After all, I have been doing reviews for a decade already and I have yet to cover all the best hawkers myself! Bear in mind that there are 6500 hawkers in the NEA run hawker centres and another 10,000 stalls in coffeeshops, cafeterias and food courts. So 19 is just a mere 0.1% of all the hawkers and I am quite sure the inspectors don’t have the resources to try them all.
Of course, I don’t expect that the inspectors will know as much about local food as we do but what they have is the vast experience of eating from some of the best restaurants from all over the world. So, when they assess our hawker dishes, they are grading it according to the best foods that they have eaten in Japan, Europe and the US. That, to me, is HUGE! Because it says to me that our hawkers are able to cook up a dish that is comparable with the best in the world and if some of the ones they picked are what we regard as just average, then wait till they get round to the other gems! We should be looking forward to more Michelin star hawkers in next year’s edition!
The inclusion of Hong Heng Fried Sotong Mee in the Bib Gourmand list came as quite a surprise to a lot of people. Not least to myself who have written extensively about the dish. I thought that I had every famous Hokkien Mee covered already, but instead of picking the really famous ones like Geylang Lor 29 Hokkien MeeNam Sing Hokkien Mee, or any of the five most famous hokkien mee stalls, they picked one that has escaped my foodie radar for the last ten years!
It turns out that Hong Heng has been around for as long as Tiong Bahru market and food centre has existed and has its fair share of fans. Manfred is a third generation hawker who took over from his mum who in turned took over from another relative. He is an unassuming man in his early forties who was himself surprised to have been won the award!
I felt that the fried Hokkien Mee was well fried and it has all the elements of a good Hokkien Mee, viz, the noodles have been given adequate frying time such that they are nicely charred before the stock is added and they still include some slices of pork belly to the dish. However, I have to admit that like most Singaporeans, I felt that there are other Hokkien Mee stalls which are more worthy of the award. That is not to say that they don’t deserve it. I am very happy that Manfred’s dedication to his craft is finally gaining recognition. All I am saying is that, if Hong Heng can get a Bib Gourmand Award, then we should be seeing more Hokkien Mee stalls in next year’s edition of the Michelin Guide! 4/5
Many people have been expressing their concerns about long queues, lowering of standards and increased prices of the award winners. I too have these concerns. However, do spare a thought for the hawkers who have laboured so long to provide cheap and good food for us. Let’s take a step back and look at the bigger picture and ask not how the Michelin Guide will affect you, but ask how it will benefit the hawkers, the chefs and Singapore as a whole. We have the ambition to become the culinary centre of Asia and this is a significant milestone along the path to that goal. Let’s consider how the Michelin Stars might play a part in preserving our hawker heritage in the long term rather than how it will affect our own pockets and conveniences in the short term. This is our hawkers’ finest hour, let’s not rob them of their well deserved honour!