Melvin Chew is a second-generation hawker who runs a kway chap stall with his mother at Chinatown. You might have read about his kway chap bentos, boasting an oozy lava egg and taro rice onigiri, on the media. Or maybe you have seen his posts about his inventive dry kway chap and arkzhang (his ducky take on bakzhang).
Melvin took over the reins of his parents’ stall, which has been operational since 1983, at the sudden passing of his father in 2014. “I have always enjoyed eating kway chap. I think I have covered 80% of the kway chap in Singapore,” Melvin says about this dish that is hardly known outside of Singapore. Calling kway chap ‘uncle food’, he makes use of social media and revamps the presentation of his food to draw in a younger crowd. Here’s what he has to say about innovating such a traditional dish.
(Disclaimer: The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
My favourite piggy part to eat in kway chap is… large intestines and skin, although I enjoy all parts of the pig.
A great plate of kway chap and Teochew duck lies in having… the right quantity and quality of herbs and spices, the use of a good quality dark soy sauce, and the age of the sauce. The older the sauce is, the better it is.
I innovate to… attract a new, younger crowd because a lot of youngsters think of kway chap as ‘uncle food’. If you compare kway chap to chicken rice or bak chor mee, you will discover that it is less popular to the younger generation. I came up with the tamago and bento sets because a lot of people enjoy Japanese food. Since I have a good braised sauce, why not I use my braised sauce to marinate the eggs instead of using soy sauce.
My principle when innovating is… is to still maintain the old-school traditional taste. Initially, my older customers found it hard to accept the creative ways of serving such a traditional dish, but when they tried the new dish and realized that the traditional flavours were still there, they accepted it. My mother, too, was against it, but relented after the media started coming and customers began complimenting our food.
The difference between being a hawker now versus in the past is… that now being a hawker is more recognized as a profession. This can be attributed to the nomination of UNESCO and hawkers making it into the Michelin guide, thus foreigners recognize our local street food more. Also, many big branding F&B companies, such as Fei Xiong and Gao Ji, had their humble beginnings as hawker stalls. In the past, you can always hear elderly folk telling their children that if they do not study well, they will have to sell char kway teow.
I enjoy being a hawker because… I am passionate about cooking and protecting our local food culture. I feel a responsibility to protect the skill and the trade, to keep hawker culture alive. Of course, my job has also allowed me to meet a lot of customers who have become friends.
My “dry kway chap” was inspired by… the way I cook the dry version of duck kway teow. It is like a bowl of chee cheong fun, with duck gravy and my own sambal. Singaporeans seem to really enjoy dry versions of soup dishes such as wonton mee, prawn mee, mee hoon kueh and bak chor mee. So why not try a dry kway chap? Some of my friends have tried this and they love it.
Some kway chap stalls use washing machines to clean innards… but I think it is better to wash by hand. Using washing machines will damage the intestines, as they will be spinning in the machine for so long. We also need to remove the inner fat, which can be dirty and smelly. Machines cannot do that. At my stall, I practice soaking the intestines in vinegar and salt for 2 hours. After the soak, I blanch them in a mixture of hot water, galangal and salt.
Serving Anthony Bourdain at Makansutra Manila was… an honor. I was very proud to serve him my duck and kway chap and to have him compliment my food. He is a street food icon. Definitely sad that he left us so early.
My thoughts on the possibility of artificial intelligence (AI) replacing hawkers are… that over-dependence on machines will be the death of old school food. Food like char kway teow, char Hokkien prawn mee and other tze char dishes still need someone who has the skill to fry and control the fire. Machines will not be able to give the dish the same wok hei as when an actual human being mans the stoves.
For this reason, you rarely see younger generation hawkers selling these dishes, because of the skill involved. Young people prefer to do food businesses that can be easily processed and duplicated, with the end goal of having chain businesses in the future.
Social media for a hawker is… very important, to showcase their food to the public. It is crucial to our success, but we still have a long way to go – there is no end in learning. Hopefully we can continue and keep on improving and doing better than before.
Jin Ji Teochew Braised Duck & Kway Chap
335 Smith St, #02-156