A chef, an eater and a farmer walk into a hawker centre, and they don’t like what they see. They see conglomerate-owned sublet stalls draining profits from the independent mee pok man, hawker family trees getting uprooted, and people who won’t pay 50 cents more for good chicken rice. This may make them lose their appetite, but starved for ruminations they are not. At STORM’s Keep It Going panel discussion “Feeding The Hunger Of the Masses”, World Gourmet Summit wunderkind Peter Knipp, Makansutra divinity KF Seetoh and Bollywood Veggies gentle warrior Ivy Singh-Lim unleashed a feast of delectable observations, ideas, questions, and answers.
Disclaimer: No words were minced in the making of this food fight.
The Hunger Games
“Let’s not even talk about sustainability in terms of food, let’s talk about it in terms of people,” declared Peter Knipp, who arrived in Singapore in 1978 as a hotel chef, and today runs a restaurant design consultancy and the country’s best curated and most respected food festival, the World Gourmet Summit. And this was how Knipp and fellow panelists KF Seetoh, local food champion, and farmpreneur Ivy Singh-Lim dug into the bittersweet issue of what our island state might look like if we continue hurtling down the newly paved highway called “the future”, with no offramp nor onramp strategy to include change.
All three have been well fed, whether by self-made careers or born with a silver spoon like Singh-Lim, yet they remain ravenous for ideals that go beyond where one can find the perfect prata. The story of Seetoh best sets the table for why the panel eschews merely noshing on makan: “Really fed up” with his commercial job almost 20 years ago, Seetoh “threw good money” away to put his skills to “writing, taking pictures and talking cock” about Singaporean street food, leading to the bestselling Makansutra books, TV show and Gluttons Bay hawker centre. The rest is locavore lore, but over the years, it’s changed.
“The disease of affluence came in … and now I’m using street food culture to address another pressing issue: the continuity of street food culture.”
And that current anxiety about the disintegration of our hawker heritage, a dread that is rapidly hitting Singaporeans where it hurts most — our gullets — succinctly epitomises how all panelists and a growing number of us are asking what went wrong and how long can this go on.
Modernisation in the last century brought the heavy processing of food so we can get it quickly and easily (it also lasts longer, in a twisted warp of sustainability, albeit drained of nutrition, flavour and taste). Industrial plants ravaged farmed plants and the microwave replaced Mum’s cooking.
Singh-Lim reminded that 40 years ago, almost all the food feeding a then 1.6 million population was grown locally, and that Singapore was “the centre of excellence of agriculture” in the region.
“The government doesn’t talk about food security,” she states. “Fast forward and everybody was put into a cage because of HDB flats, and that’s why we don’t have artisans, workers or farmers any more — they all work in a factory,” referring to the multi-national and local corporations that have driven Singapore to 21st century financial success.
“Who are the farmers now — the government are the farmers now,” responded Seetoh, quick to pick up on the analogy. “They try to plant ideas, engineer this, create that, and want world-class successes. They seed durians all over the country, and guess what? They get lemons.”
Seetoh’s “lemons” are what Knipp referred to as the new generation representing an “academic-driven culture” under tremendous social pressure to flaunt a prestigious job and revel in material comforts. As a result, he observed, people are applying for positions they may not be qualified for, demanding higher salaries, yet unwilling to promise a corresponding level of productivity. In one of the many anecdotes he shared on hiring challenges, Knipp told of a sales manager interviewee who insisted on a $10,000 monthly salary over a $5,000 base pay with a commission structure that could net him up to $12,000. That was just one lemon that has left a sour taste on Knipp’s palate.
“Why don’t we first sustain a country that was built by the grandparents who’ve done a great job, and the parents who have brought (this current generation) up?” Knipp asked. “Who’s going to run the country in the future — can it only be run by intellectuals? Is the next generation ready to lead this country into the next generation? Today, at this moment, I have my doubts.”
Agreed Seetoh, who faces the same recruiting frustrations: “This new breed is young, intelligent, very wired, very connected, but in a sense, they’re stupid, because it’s artificial intelligence.”
Jiak Pah Buay?
A common Singaporean greeting is the colloquial “Eaten already?” typically asked in Hokkien dialect. We think we have, because food is our national pastime. But does our hungry hobby tell us what and how we want to eat?
That many Singaporeans rave about local street food favourites — the acceptable and popular code of consumption conduct — without truly understanding the history behind each dish represents, to Knipp, a lack of true appreciation of what they’re eating and in understanding our culture. And the proliferation of restaurants backed by more Michelin stars than stars on our flag has catalysed the opening of more than 800 new restaurants a year, of which 30% are short on the quality — the stamina — needed to last beyond a year. The reason for this is, Knipp explains, business investors who want to park their money in a fun hobby and chefs who aspire for Bourdain-esque fame; not craftsmen who genuinely want to create and serve with passion.
“Self-analysis is not a strong point of this community — face is more important,” surmises Knipp. “Money is a result of a dedicated effort and a quality product. Sometimes it comes a hundred or two hundred years after you’re dead.”
Singh-Lim, who believes “change is the greatest hunger in the world, and we as employers and entrepreneurs should address that,” found that hard to swallow. “When you pay a person peanuts, how do you expect that person to have passion,” she questioned. “If people get hungry for change, they want to earn some money first – that’s the basic requirement.”
Seetoh, sitting forward in his seat, sighed, “By the time you’re 70, you know what the cheapest thing you can eat is? Stuff from the one-Michelin star people. There will be no more hawkers.”
This Singaporean hunger — whichever definition you choose to agree with, or not — will lead to disheartening dystopias no amount of antacid will relieve, if left unchecked. Singh-Lim believes “if our great leaders don’t change, there’s another word called ‘revolution’, while Knipp ponders from a more personal perspective: “Fifteen years from now, my sons — the young people that I see today — will they be able to have work-life balance?”
Sticking to his street food sutra, Seetoh points out that Singaporeans take a $3 chicken rice for granted. “Chicken rice from $3 to $3.50 becomes front page news, but nobody talks about people up there being overpaid. Where is your $3.50 or $4 chicken rice coming from when your child grows up?”
Singh-Lim’s fears may veer to the extreme, but her antidote is comforting and pleasing — and she has put her money where her mouth is in the pastoral pastures of Bollywood Veggies. “The power of nature to feed the tired and ravished soul is critical to mass survival,” she offered. “A ‘PAP’ garden – a ‘prim and proper’ garden – is not the answer. We must have respect for people.”
Knipp personifies what he believes Singapore needs. As an ang moh who has made Singapore home for 35 years, Knipp embraces that the “responsibility of everyone living in the country is to preserve the culture of the country they’re in…. People need to understand their own abilities, capabilities, strengths and weaknesses to fulfil this responsibility.
”It is possible to live comfortably in Singapore if you make the right personal lifestyle choices and make the right sacrifices for passion.” He also wonders if “recession might be the best detoxification” for people to start reflecting on shifting priorities, should they have to choose fried Hokkien mee over foie gras.”
And if you stick with Seetoh, the first course of action is clear: “The newer generation of hawkers are damned good-looking and smart, and they’ve ditched their degrees and marketing jobs to spend six months learning from their parents — they are street food professionals,” he shared. “There are opportunities in there — that’s what I’m trying to sell. A hunger, a yearning for dynamism in this food culture.”