There are many stories in the media of young hawkers who chose to give up their cushy corporate jobs to inherit their parents’ business. However, Gwyneth Ang’s trajectory to being a prawn noodle hawker is a unique one. “I have no particular mentor, when it comes to prawn noodles,” she shares candidly.
A culinary school graduate, she has more than 10 years of experience working as a professional chef at acclaimed restaurants such as Burnt Ends, which has consistently made the list of the world’s 50 best restaurants.
Why would a chef who has been used to working with the most premium ingredients and in the most luxurious of kitchens want to work in the tight and stuffy confines of a hawker cubicle? Read on.
(Disclaimer: The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
The idea of selling prawn mee first came to me when… I went around asking all my F&B mates about their death row meals. Nobody mentioned anything about fine dining establishments or any of the best restaurants in the world. It all came down to childhood food and staple food dishes like hawker food. A bowl of prawn noodles, Penang-style in particular, is my choice of a death row meal.
The prawn mee of my childhood was… something I only got to eat once in a blue moon. My mother would save prawn shells until she had enough, and took time to cook on the weekends despite her busy work schedule. Everyone would rush to fill their bowls and go back for refills because it is that good. Those were the rare moments that the whole family got to sit down for a shared meal. My grandmother also used to sell this dish in Penang, though I have not tasted her version of it.
Life of a hawker, compared to being a restaurant chef, is… way different. Business aspects aside, being a hawker means you have to wash your own dishes, pack your own goods, and open and close the stall yourself every single day. On the other hand, restaurants are operationally more effective because of the availability of space and distinct, delegated work roles.
At the end of the day, it is all about… serving tasty food, though a restaurant chef and a hawker face very different expectations and needs of the customer. What might be tasty to someone paying $100 per person for a meal versus someone who only wants to pay $3 for a meal greatly differs.
The secret to a good bowl of prawn noodles is… fully extracting the flavors of the prawn shells. I use techniques such as frying the shells, blending it, squeezing the debris to maximize flavor extraction.
To compete with older generation hawkers, I… have to draw upon my skills and understanding of ingredients. Most hawkers who have been cooking prawn noodles for years rely on the traditional means of doing things – the secret recipe or techniques passed down within their family. However, what might have worked in the past might not be the best way of preparing the dish.
Being a hawker and understanding hawker culture first-hand has taught me that… the foundations of Singaporean cuisine are built on utilizing the cheap and most readily available ingredients. The function of hawker food was to feed the working class in the past at a relatively affordable price. This realization clarified, for me, what I want to do and achieve as a chef. Anyone with a reasonable understanding of cooking techniques and principles can cook a good meal from the best products in the world, but not many can make cheap cuts or offal taste good.
My thoughts on new-age hawker dishes that are made for the ‘gram are… that they will not last long as novelty wears out quickly. Everything you put on the plate has to come together to make sense. If it does not taste good as a whole, people will not return and you will be forced to change your product. Though it is tempting to add new ingredients to my bowl of prawn noodles for menu appeal, I do not consider whatever does not work taste-wise, no matter how good it looks on the plate.
When we first set up shop, the hawker vendors next to us… were shocked at how old my partner and I were (we are 27 and 24 this year). However, though we were indeed very much younger than them and were their business competitors, they were very friendly with us. I see them as my friends and took the initiative to learn the songs they like, their favorite subject topics, and thus blended in easily.
Customers that we have met… are a mixed bag. While there were many people who were pleasantly surprised as the level at which we cook, others refuse to taste our food because of our youth, and gave a lot of “advice”. I listen to them with an open mind, but at the end of the day, you cannot please the world word, and we have to just do what we deem is right.
Cooking good prawn noodles overseas… is possible. Though the flavor will differ depending on the ingredients you are able to get, you will be able to find a reasonable substitute for most things. The most important ingredients in prawn noodles are pork lard, shallots, prawn heads (the type of prawns does not matter as long as you have enough), pork big bones, pork ribs, beansprouts and kang kong. Unfortunately, it is hard to find a substitute for kang kong. This is more important than you think as the vegetables play an important role in making up the characteristic ‘prawn mee’ taste. You will understand when you drink the soup before and after you add blanched kang kong to the broth and give it a stir. It is very subconscious, but the layering of the vegetal flavors with that of the prawn and pork is what makes it delicious.
One advice for home cooks making prawn noodles at home is… MAKE YOUR OWN CHILLI. Even with Tungsan (the biggest Chinese condiments and dry goods supplier in Singapore), I cannot find a good chilli sauce to go with the noodles. Off-the-shelves condiments are meant to be a base or supplementary flavour for your chilli. At the stall, when we cook our own chilli, we finish it off with pork oil (extracted from pork lard) and a splash of soup. Add white pepper for your typical Singapore dry prawn noodles chilli kick.
505 Golden Mile Food Centre, #01-93