Nope, I’m not talking about Willin Low, the acclaimed godfather of modern Singapore cuisine (that would be a separate interview altogether). This is another lawyer-turned chef, Lynette Zheng (@lynettezhng) who is the head chef of Singapulah in the UK. Singapulah started as a pop-up in Soho, where it served up some of Singapore’s most beloved dishes to hungry Londoners. It emphasizes authentic flavours and textures, even though head chef Lynette Zheng finds fun in reinterpreting and putting her own stamp on these dishes.
Cooking is Lynette’s second career. Formerly a lawyer for 5 years, she is a self-taught chef, opting against culinary school to spend time researching and practicing on her own. “The Internet and books were my education in cooking,” she says. Since her time staging at restaurants in the Singapore and the UK, including the former Cheek By Jowl, Labyrinth and The Clove Club, Lynette is now based in the UK where she now helms the kitchen at Singapulah.
Though Singapulah’s three-month run has concluded, the team plans on opening a permanent location in Victoria. In the meantime, I was happy to speak with Lynette, who shared candidly about hawker food and its future.
Singapulah aims to… introduce Londoners to Singapore’s beloved hawker classics – dishes that are so loved in Singapore but that might not be as well known overseas. We haven’t set out to reproduce hawker food exactly as I don’t think that fully translates in a restaurant setting.
I would ideally like to feature more dishes from all the ethnicities in Singapore. I want to show as much diversity and breadth as possible, and that encapsulates all the different cultures living in Singapore. Londoners might recognise iconic dishes like chicken rice, laksa, chilli crab, satay but they probably aren’t going to know about bak chor mee, mee siam, hokkien mee, roti john or chwee kueh. It’s really nice to be able to introduce these dishes to people here so I hope to keep doing that!
So far the response has been… largely positive! I find many Singaporeans still embody “kampong spirit” are very eager to support the Singaporean community, especially overseas, and especially when it comes to food. After all, food is arguably a big part of Singapore’s national identity! Many of our customers are homesick Singaporeans craving the taste of their favourite foods, and it’s been really special to be able to provide a bit of a sense of home for them.
Hawker food in Singapore is… too cheap. When you think about the level of skill, expertise, and effort that is required to produce say, a good hokkien mee, $3 per plate really doesn’t reflect what goes into the dish. Many others have said it before, and I’ll say it again – why are we ready to pay premium prices for food products from other cultures but not our own? There is a strange disconnect there.
That said, I also understand the view that hawker food is meant to be accessible to all. I do think that’s one of the wonderful and unique things about the food scene in Singapore, that there’s great variety, availability and accessibility. So maybe we should promote even more variety in our hawker food such you get products at different levels of quality with the appropriate pricing to reflect that quality.
In 10 to 20 years’ time, I predict that… we will witness the dying out of many traditional hawker foods and artisanal techniques.
At the same time, we’ll see many more hawker stalls being operated by large companies with central kitchens producing food at volume and/or we will see many more hawkers purchasing prepared products from such companies. There is a place for such products and they do have their own value but that cannot really be hawker culture.
When we talk about preserving hawker culture, we are really talking about… preserving traditional dishes and techniques so that we can continue enjoying the foods we grew up with and love. Our parents and grandparents’ experiences with hawker culture would differ from ours, and ours would differ from our children’s. For example, I remember the stories my grandparents told me about the street cart vendors and “kok kok mee” being delivered to shophouse windows via pulley system. All of that doesn’t exist anymore and only lives on in memories.
To preserve hawker culture, we first have to… redefine the idea of affordability in relation to hawker food, but this is difficult because I think affordability and hawker food have traditionally been synonymous.
The problem is, I don’t think young people will be keen to take up the craft unless they know that the significant labour that they need to invest in learning and producing great hawker food will be rewarded in the end. So we must be willing to pay more for high quality products.
We will also need to be open to seeing an evolution of our hawker food because I think many young people who enter the industry will want to do things in their own way, perhaps employing modern techniques for consistency and/or efficiency, changing out certain ingredients, and borrowing / taking inspiration from other cuisines. These new ideas will also form part of the fabric of our hawker culture.
The most challenging aspect of learning how to cook hawker food is that… recipes and techniques are not exactly open source in the hawker world so there are lots of gaps to fill on your own. I read everything I could about all the different foods online, including all the history, the different variations and techniques involved – ieatishootipost is a great resource for this. Then it was a matter of trying out different recipes until we produced something everyone in the team was happy with.
I think the main challenge in training staff is in familiarising them with the flavours as most have never even heard of Singaporean food, let alone tasted it. So their knowledge and palate needs to be trained first and foremost to understand how each dish is meant to taste. Producing most hawker foods is in some ways more art than science as you can’t necessarily achieve the end product by just following a recipe slavishly. The cook needs to be able to adjust quantities on the fly according to taste/flavour. That said, I think it’s just a matter of taking the time to explain the flavours and cooking techniques as a good cook should be able to cook anything!
Sourcing ingredients to create Singaporean dishes… does take some effort and resourcefulness. We’re lucky in London that we are able to find many of the ingredients that we need to produce Singaporean dishes. For example, we have even been able to find calamansi limes and laksa leaves.
We make most things on the menu from scratch because… it’s sometimes the only way to produce the level of quality that we want. It would be a real pity to produce a great dish but then have it be let down by one lousy ingredient/product. Honestly, sometimes it’s simply bo pian (cannot be helped) because you just can’t buy these products.
When sourcing for ingredients for Singaporean dishes overseas… try taking a look at Thai and Vietnamese products. I find that lots of Thai and Vietnamese ingredients are perfect for Singaporean dishes. For example, Vietnamese bun bo (sometimes called Jiangxi style vermicelli), a rice noodle sold in dried form, is basically the same as the thick vermicelli we use for laksa and certain Thai and Vietnamese shrimp pastes can make great har cheong gai.
At the end of the day, hawker culture is about… soul. It’s so hard to describe but it’s that level of familiarity and affection you develop with your favourite hawkers; when the uncle or auntie remembers your usual order, that you like mee pok not mee kia and you hate beansprouts. I think that’s why when I return home from overseas I immediately make a beeline for my favourite bowl of mee pok – because I get that feeling that I’m really home. I really hope we manage to preserve this soul as I think that’s the whole beauty of food.