Sep 5, 2010
It is tedious work, but some hawkers still make their food from scratch as they do not want to compromise on quality
Retiree Rose Chee, 73, and her housewife daughter, Geraldine Lim, 40, have had many meals over 30 years of eating at the hawker stalls in Ghim Moh market.
And while they enjoy a variety of food, they almost always order a serving of chwee kueh from the Ghim Moh Chwee Kueh stall about once each week.
Mrs Lim, who was tucking into the tasty steamed rice cakes with her mother and toddler son last Friday morning, says: 'The chwee kueh here is just right and does not have too much of that garlicky flavour that most other places do.'
She adds that hand-made chwee kueh is one of the dishes that has become 'increasing rare' and wants to eat it while it is still available.
'I much prefer coming here than going to a food court, where everything is from a factory.'
In Singapore, where stall owners can easily buy perfectly manufactured food items from factory suppliers, there are still some operators who go the extra mile, taking pride in making food items from scratch.
LifeStyle went in search of some of these stalls (see stories on this page and the facing page).
Their fishballs and beefballs are spherical but not perfectly so. Popiah skins are a little jagged at the edges.
Baos have feather-light skins, and chendol - those distinctive green, worm-like dumplings - are soft and flavourful. They are not a radioactive green from colouring, either.
Although the work is tedious and labourintensive, food operators say they continue to make things by hand because they want to maintain standards and continue their traditions and heritage.
Furthermore, they say it just does not taste the same if they do not make it themselves, and customers will know it.
When you make it yourself, you have more control over the taste, hawkers say.
Madam Yvonne Lee, 42, who owns rice roll stall Freshly Made Chee Cheong Fun at Old Airport Road Food Centre, says: 'It just tastes different, the texture is also different. When we make fresh chee cheong fun, we can control the taste and texture, which is smoother and softer.'
The founder of the Makansutra food guide, Mr K.F. Seetoh, 48, agrees.
He says: 'It is a world of difference. It is not rocket science, it is just hard work.'
Yet, customers do not have to pay a lot for all this hard work. A hand-made bao costs 50 cents.
Perhaps hawkers who hand-make their food items should consider increasing their prices to justify their hard work and long hours, some people in the food industry suggest.
Food consultant Violet Oon, 61, says: 'Food from scratch tastes wonderful. It is very difficult and takes a lot of work - the prices people are paying do not justify the effort.'
She adds: 'And because it takes so much time and effort, these operators end up making less. And in my opinion, if you want to eat something that has been made from scratch, maybe you should pay three times its current price - time is much more expensive than food costs.'
Indeed, the cost of making food by hand has gone up over the years.
But the competitive nature of the food industry serves to keep food costs down, foodies say. Charge more and people will head to your competitor two stalls away.
Some hawkers also say they are not in it for the money. They know the work is hard, but they would not have it any other way - they would still rather make their food from scratch than order items from a factory.
Ms Jeanette Lee, 30, a business administration graduate who currently works in the insurance business, plans to take over her parents' chwee kueh stall at Ghim Moh market when the time comes.
She says: 'You can't just throw tradition away. For me, it is part of family roots. My grandmother started the stall 51 years ago and I want to see this through another generation.'
With additional reporting by Huang Lijie
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Teochew Hand-made Pau
ST PHOTOS: BENJAMIN NG, AZIZ HUSSIN, AIDAH RAUF, MARYANNE TAN
Where: Block 127 Toa Payoh Lorong 1, 02-02, tel: 6254-2053
Open: 6am to 2pm, Tuesdays to Fridays, 6am to 1pm, weekends. Closed Mondays and alternate Tuesdays
His father sold mee chiang kueh, thick springy pancakes filled with peanuts and sugar, but Mr Yeoh Eu Tiew was not interested in following in his footsteps.
Instead, he has carved out a niche selling steamed buns or bao, after learning how to make them from scratch from eight people.
And it is with much pride that the 59-year-old says that his son, who is 38, will take over his 18-year-old business.
Father and son have invested about $80,000 to lease a factory space in Senoko about the size of two hawker stalls.
When it is ready, they will make their bao by hand there.
Currently, the stall in Toa Payoh is cramped, Mr Yeoh says. He rents another shop space opposite his main stall to store the steamers.
He wakes up at 4am to begin the day's work at the stall, which involves making the dough for the buns - a mixture of flour, water, sugar and yeast.
The stall sells small bao filled with ingredients such as char siew (barbecued pork), lotus paste, red bean and kong bak (stewed pork in dark soya sauce).
Prices are between 50 cents and $1.
He says in Mandarin: 'It smells more fragrant and tastes better when you make bao by hand.
'It is a tiring business and I feel that I never get enough sleep, but one must have the stamina and perseverance to be in this trade.'
Rebecca Lynne Tan
Freshly Made Chee Cheong fun
Where: Old Airport Road Food Centre, 01-155, 51 Old Airport Road
Open: 7am to 9pm daily
The Lee sisters - Yvonne, 42, and Ivy, 38 - learnt how to make fresh chee cheong fun (rice noodle rolls) from their mother when they were teenagers.
They learnt the craft at a stall in Lorong Ah Soo that their mother, Madam Goh Ah Moi, ran 25 years ago. The sisters moved their stall to Old Airport Road Food Centre 10 years ago.
They also own two other stalls, in Marsiling Crescent and Chong Pang Yishun, run by another sister, Sally.
The chee cheong fun at their stalls are made to order. Fillings include prawn, char siew, mushrooms and scallops, and prices start from $2 a plate.
The rice rolls are made from a mixture of rice flour and water that is poured on a square sheet of cloth. It is placed on a steamer for less than a minute.
The sisters quickly remove the delicate rice sheet from the cloth, placing it on a marble top where it is then rolled.
The result is a smooth, soft and thin chee cheong fun, which is very different from factory-made rice rolls, which are thicker and more chewy, says Yvonne.
The quality of the flour is important, she adds. But the key to perfect chee cheong fun is that sheet of cloth.
Even the type of cotton used is vital. Some turn out chee cheong fun that is too soft or sticky.
The sisters say they have not thought about succession yet, as their children are still young.
But they hope that in time, the kids might want to learn a thing or two about how to make the perfect chee cheong fun.
Rebecca Lynne Tan
93 Wu Xiang Xia Bing
Where: Block 93 Lorong 4 Toa Payoh, 01-33
Open: Noon to 9pm, closed Thursdays
Mr Seow Kim Yam is mildly amused when you ask why he chooses to make his five-spice meat rolls and other tasty fried treats from scratch.
To him, the question is curiously existential and almost banal.
The 58-year-old hawker says in Mandarin: 'I am a hawker. I have to make these things to sell.'
Indeed, he takes great pride in the tradition of selling hand-made food. He says: 'If I get items from a factory, I cannot be sure of the freshness and quality. Also, the variety would be limited.'
His stall sells more than 20 types of savoury fritters such as five-spiced meat rolls, prawn fritters and sausages.
His wife, Madam Yip Kwai Fong, makes unusual concoctions such as chicken rolls stuffed with water chestnut and wood ear fungus, and taupok (fried beancurd puff) filled with tofu, egg and crabstick.
He also makes the sweet sauce and chilli sauce for dipping the fritters into.
He says: 'I have no choice. The sauces have to taste a certain way to go with my fritters so I cannot simply use ready-made versions.'
The couple wake up as early as 4.30am to prepare the ingredients and begin frying the items by 8am to open in time for lunch.
He became a hawker after the beer distribution company where he worked as a salesman folded.
Growing up, he had learnt to cook by helping out at his parents' kway chap (pig's offal and rice sheets) hawker stall. He chose to sell savoury fritters to avoid conflict with his younger brother, who is now running their parents' business.
He says he is mostly self-taught and he came up with the recipes with his wife by using their imagination.
He hopes to pass on his skills to his three daughters, who are in their 30s and hold 'office jobs'.
He says: 'We have not mentioned it to our daughters yet, but when we are ready to retire, we hope they will want to carry on the business.'
Where: Block 151 Bedok Reservoir Road, 01-1743, tel: 6743-7414
Open: 8am to 7pm, Tuesdays to Saturdays, 8am to 1pm, Sundays. Closed Mondays
Deli Maslina, a traditional Malay kueh and cake shop, started with a stall near Bedok Stadium in 1980.
It moved to a bigger shop space at the ground level of Block 151 Bedok Reservoir Road in 1988, where it is still located today.
The shop sells more than 30 types of kueh and snacks, all of which are made from scratch the traditional way.
Items include corn hoon kueh, a jelly- like dessert made with mung bean flour; ondeh ondeh, a sweet potato ball with a centre of liquid palm sugar and rolled in freshly grated coconut; badak berendam, a kueh similar to ondeh ondeh but served in coconut milk; kuih kawsi, made with flour and palm sugar and topped with grated coconut; and kueh jongkong, wrapped in banana leaves and served with coconut milk and gula melaka, which is popular during Ramadan.
The shop also sells epok epok, or curry puffs, made from scratch. The stall is run by Mr Ahmad Don, 62, and his wife, Madam Mas Kiah Mohamed Shariff, 58.
Madam Mas and her helpers make all the items sold in the cake shop, nothing there is supplied by a factory.
She says there is no short cut to making Malay kueh - the ingredients and mixture used for one type of kueh cannot be used for another.
And she makes the items from scratch to keep tradition alive.
For the epok epok, a spoonful of the potato curry mixture is placed in the centre of a piece of pastry. The pastry is folded into a semi-circular half and the edges are delicately pinched together.
Mr Ahmad's daughter, Adibah, 26, will be taking over the business in time to come.
She has a full-time job in the marketing communications industry, but helps her mother whenever she can.
Rebecca Lynne Tan
Siraj Waterloo Street Indian Rojak
Where: Block 270 Queen Street, 01-120
Open: 9.30am to 8.30pm daily
Dough balls, vegetable balls, coconut flour balls and prawn fritters are freshly fried each morning at this corner stall in Albert Centre market.
Indian rojak, which was made popular by Indian immigrants from Thuckalay in the state of Tamil Nadu, is a mix of battered items along with beancurd, sausages and squid cut into bite-sized pieces.
Customers pick what they want, the stallholder fries the items again to warm them up and serves the platter with a reddish dipping sauce that is mildly spicy, sweet, sour and salty.
This Indian rojak stall has been in operation since 1978, and was first called Sabeena, after the daughter of the shop's owner, Mr Mohamed Yusof Shahul Hameed.
The stall is now run by his son, Mr Sabeek Mohamed Yusof, 39, who renamed the stall Siraj, after his mother. He also runs another stall, Sajis, in Waterloo Street, named after his other sister.
He took over the business in 1994 when his father died. Prior to this, he was working in airline catering.
The crispy balls are made from scratch but items such as beancurd, fishcake and sausages come from suppliers.
It is tedious work because the batter for each dough ball and fritter is different - a coconut ball with onions and beansprouts requires a different mixture from a prawn fritter.
The batter is made from a mixture of flour, water and various spices.
Mr Sabeek says he makes his own to keep the dish true to its Thuckalay roots. Some fritters, such as the coconut flour ball, are popular street food in India.
The sauce is also made in-house, from sweet potato, dried chilli powder, sugar, salt and peanuts. The secret is in its proportion and consistency.
He has two children, seven and 12, and hopes they will be interested. 'But they are still young,' he adds.
Rebecca Lynne Tan
Kway Guan Huat
Where: 95 Joo Chiat Road, tel: 6344-2875
Open: 8am to 7pm daily, for purchase of popiah skins. Noon to 5pm on weekends, for dine-in popiah. Home packs with skins and filling can be ordered two days in advance
Kway Guan Huat is one of a small handful of old shops in Singapore where you can still get hand-made popiah skins done the traditional way.
The skins are thin, yet soft and resilient enough to hold the myriad fillings of this do-it-yourself dish.
This particular shop in Joo Chiat Road has been in the business since 1938. It was founded by Mr Quek Tren Wen, who brought the trade to Singapore from Fujian province in China.
It is now run by five of his 16 children, including his eldest son, Mr Ker Cheng Lye, 63, who learnt to make the skins from his father.
His two brothers, Mr Quek Chin Heng, 50, and Mr Quek Kiat Siong, 47, also know how to make the skins and help run the family business.
The skins are made from a dough mixture of flour and water.
Mr Ker takes a large handful of the dough, which is a bit viscous, and swirls it in the palm of his right hand. Then, it goes onto hot cast-iron pans, which are more than 30 years old. He then skilfully manoeuvres his wrist in a singular circular motion to form a thin round popiah skin, about 20cm in diameter.
The skins are ready in a matter of seconds. It is tediously hard work but he says he is used to it.
When he was growing up, he would burn himself, and his arm would ache from holding and swirling dough in his hand all day.
Making the filling is also a labour- intensive job. The turnips and carrots in the stewed filling have to be chopped by hand into long strips. Grating is out of the question as the turnip will exude too much juice.
Asked why he bothers to make things from scratch, he says: 'There is something about handmade food that makes people crave it. You can smell and taste it. You do not get that same craving when it is factory-made.'
He says the shop will continue to make the skins the traditional way, on hot iron pans, by hand.
While the men in the family are skilled in making the skins, it is the women who are experts at making the filling and preparing the other condiments that go into a popiah. This includes chilli paste, minced garlic, prawns, egg, beansprouts, coriander and lettuce.
And during busy periods, such as over a long weekend or on festive occasions, all the siblings and even their children help out.
The family has not mapped out a succession plan yet - many of the third- generation Queks are professionals in the pharmaceutical, IT and accounting industries, and Mr Ker feels that this 'hard work' may not be one that they would want to undertake.
His sister, Ms Zita Quek, 47, says: 'This stall is part of our family's history. We do not know what will happen with the next generation. We are taking each day as it comes.'
Rebecca Lynne Tan
Shiek Najib Nasi Lemak
Where: 18 Rowell Road, tel: 6245-7134
Open: 11 to 5.30am during the Muslim fasting month, till Friday, otherwise 7.30 to 3.30am daily
Mr Najib Ali was provoked into making his own nasi lemak.
For years, he distributed nasi lemak from manufacturers to hawkers. But vendors often complained to him about the inconsistent quality and the manufacturers refused to listen to the feedback.
Frustrated, he decided to make his own nasi lemak and sell it. It was only after he moved into a shophouse in Little India five years ago that he started selling his fragrant coconut rice.
The 47-year-old says: 'We were unheard of for many years because people who sold our nasi lemak would not say they got it from us. But our neighbours could smell it from our kitchen and they asked to buy it.'
Demand was so encouraging that he decided to convert the front of the shophouse into a small food stall.
Through word of mouth, the shop has since won itself a loyal following, including a late night supper crowd that keeps it in business till 3.30am every day.
A regular customer, sales manager Marcus Tan, 48, says: 'The taste of its rice and chilli sauce brings back memories of the nasi lemak I used to eat as a child.'
Mr Najib says: 'Anyone can make nasi lemak. But making it on a large scale requires skill.'
He arrived at his recipe with the help of his wife, Fahizah Diab, after repeated tries.
Everything, from the rice and fried anchovies to the omelette and chilli sauce, is prepared from scratch.
Because of the volume of his business, he and his wife have hired eight assistants to help them and the kitchen runs around the clock.
The couple have four children aged between eight and 20, and while they have not helped out in the business yet, he hopes they will one day.
He says: 'We want them to carry on the business but they have to be interested.'
Thye Hong Fish Ball Mee
Where: Block 20 Ghim Moh Road, 01-51
Open: 6.30am till when fishballs sell out, daily
Mr Wee Pong Sai, 60, has been running his hand-made fishball noodle stall in Ghim Moh market since 1977.
Others might order their fishballs and fishcakes from factories, but he has been making his own from scratch since the stall opened and has no plans to stop doing so any time soon.
He says he learnt to make fishballs from scratch from another stallowner back in the 1970s.
The fishballs here are round but are not perfectly so, while the fishcake is also unevenly shaped.
Customers say they like the fishballs because they are soft yet springy, unlike those that are factory made.
Mr Wee starts making the fishballs at about 5am. Fresh fish is minced and then mixed with some flour in a large electric mixer, before being hand-moulded into round balls.
A bowl of noodles costs $2.50 and even though the fishballs are handmade, he says he does not want to increase prices as he does not see the need to.
The fishballs might be handmade, he says, but people should not have to pay more to have quality food.
And what about succession plans?
He is not worried about not being able to pass on the trade to future generations - the tradition will not get lost in time, he insists.
'Perhaps my nieces, nephews or my children might want to learn how to do it in the future, but I just don't have an answer right now,' he says.
Rebecca Lynne Tan
Tan Beng Otah Delights
Where: Old Airport Road Food Centre, 51 Old Airport Road, 01-174
Open: 10am to 9pm daily
The stall sells several types of otah, including the usual fish otah, and those flavoured with prawn and squid.
These sticks of spicy seafood paste are often eaten with nasi lemak (coconut rice) and is a favourite at Singapore-style barbecues.
Madam Tee Ai Geok, who is in her 50s, makes hundreds of them a day, painstakingly spooning the mixture into 15cm-long coconut leaves, which are sealed at each end with a toothpick. Prices are 40 cents and above.
Her otah mixture is made from a combination of fish paste, belacan (shrimp paste) and coconut milk.
After the paste is made, her husband, Mr Tan Beng, grills each otah to perfection over a charcoal fire.
At any one time, he is watching and flipping close to 30 pieces of otah.
Madam Tee has been helping out at the stall for more than 10 years, but he has been in the business for over 20 years, she says.
On why they choose not to order otah from a supplier, she says: 'This is our business, we can't have other people doing it for us. Of course, we have to do it ourselves.'
The couple have three sons but she says she does not want them to take over. 'I do not want them to suffer. It is a very tiring and difficult business and it is just not worth it for them.'
Rebecca Lynne Tan
Cendol Geylang Serai
Where: Geylang Serai Food Centre, 02-107, 1 Geylang Serai
Open: 10am to 6pm, daily. Noon to 1am, during Ramadan only
Few shops these days will bother to put in the time and effort to make chendol, or green worm-like strips, from scratch.
But this stall, Cendol Geylang Serai, is famous for doing so.
Whereas factory- made chendol is often a deep emerald green in colour, its version is a pale green and the 'worms' themselves are slightly fatter and softer in texture.
Chendol is a sweet dessert- drink made with coconut milk, gula melaka (palm sugar) and chendol strips.
The chendol here is made from a mixture of rice flour and water, while its green colouring and flavour comes from pandan leaves.
And, of course, it contains a 'secret ingredient', which its co-owner, Ms Intan Eunos, 27, keeps mum about.
Even what the stall uses to form the shape of each strip is a closely guarded secret.
After all, the recipe was passed down from her grandfather to her mother and then to her and her brothers. And they plan to keep the recipe in the family.
Ms Intan runs the shop with her three older brothers, aged 30, 31 and 32.
It takes about three to four hours to make the chendol each morning.
They make about four knee-high tubs each day, and up to eight tubs on weekends.
She says: 'We cannot break our family tradition.'
And although she does not have any children yet, she is confident the trade will stay in the family - when she has children in future, she plans to teach them how to make it, secret ingredient included.
Rebecca Lynne Tan
The Beef House
Where: 217 Syed Alwi Road, Gar Lok Eating House, tel: 9821-5463
Open: 9am to 4pm. Closed Fridays
The Beef House not only makes its own Hakka beefballs, but also hand-makes its yong tau foo and Hakka soon kueh.
The shop is run by Mr Chia Teck Kwang, 47, and his two brothers, Yik Chee, 43, and Yin Chee, 40.
They learnt the craft from their grandfather and father, who sold Hakka beefball beehoon soup in Hock Lam Street in the 1960s, before moving to the present location in 1980.
The trio run three other stalls in Joo Chiat Road, Fengshan Market and Food Centre in Bedok North, as well as an outlet at the canteen in Nanyang Technological University.
They began offering other items in the 1980s to supplement their main dish of Hakka beefball noodle soup.
The soon kueh, a large turnip-filled dumpling in a yam and rice-flour skin, is freshly made each morning, as is the yong tau foo, which is stuffed with a mixture of fresh fish paste and stock.
The preparation starts at about 4am and the brothers make about 30kg of beefballs each day, for distribution among the four outlets.
The springy beefballs are the size of ping-pong balls and are made from pure lean beef, says the youngest Mr Chia.
He says factory-made beefballs may contain more flour, so he and his brothers make theirs from scratch to maintain standards and keep customers happy.
A bowl of handmade beefballs costs $3 and above.
They have no plans to increase prices; making a living and being satisfied with it, is all they are looking for, he adds.
The brothers have four young children among them.
They have not discussed the future but hope the next generation will take the business to the next level - perhaps supplying beefballs to other stores or supermarkets.
Rebecca Lynne Tan
Ghim Moh Chwee Kueh
Where: Block 20 Ghim Moh Road, 01-31
Open: 6.15am to 7pm daily. Rest days not fixed
Mr and Mrs Lee Sah Bah wake up at 5am every morning and it takes just two minutes to get to work, at their chwee kueh stall in Ghim Moh market.
Mr Lee, 60, has been making chwee kueh since he was a child - his mother sold the steamed rice cakes topped with preserved radish from a pushcart business 51 years ago in Strathmore Avenue in the Queenstown area.
When he was young, he would push the cart around and help grind the rice flour by hand with a large stone mill.
He opened his Ghim Moh stall in 1976 and continued to grind his own rice flour until 1980. But that became too tedious as the shop space was small and cramped.
These days, he uses rice flour from Thailand to make his chwee kueh. The couple make 1,500 to 2,000 chwee kueh a day.
The mixture for the cakes - which consists of rice flour, water, salt and a 'secret powder' - is stirred in a large thigh-high drum, the diameter of a car tyre.
And using a small steel container with a spout, he fills 20 tiers of about 60 small steel moulds with the liquid, before steaming them for about 25 minutes.
At his stall, where his wife and younger sister Lee Lak Muay (left) help out, he also prepares the preserved radish topping, which needs to simmer and be stirred intermittently for two hours.
He says: 'The radish is cooked with onion, garlic and lard - the traditional way, and that is why it is tasty.
'I would never sell factory-made chwee kueh. It just does not taste the same.'
Four pieces of chwee kueh cost $1.20 and he thinks they are probably one of the most expensive in town.
He says his prices are higher because everything is hand-made, but he does not want to increase them any further.
He has two daughters - Jeanette, 30 and Sock Yong, 19 - and does not want them to take over the business.
But Jeanette, who is a graduate, says she wants to stay true to her roots and plans to run the business in the future.
She currently works as an insurance agent because it gives her more flexibility to help out at the stall when her parents need her.
She learnt to make chwee kueh from her father in 2007, and does not want to see her grandmother's business disappear.
Mr Lee says his younger daughter is not as keen and will be pursuing a degree in music. But he is not pushy about wanting to pass on his trade to his daughters.
He wants them to work in other industries and if he has to close his shop because no one wants to take over it, he will.Rebecca Lynne Tan