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Singapore’s Hawker Culture is now UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage

Singapore’s Hawker Culture is now UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage
Singapore's hawker culture has existed since the 19th century, Photo Credit: Kapi Ng/Shutterstock.com

What makes the melting pot of Singaporean street-side makan so special?

Prannay Pathak
December 17 , 2020
09 Min Read

There’s hardly anyone who doesn’t enjoy a good parantha. They go with unsweetened butter, thick curd or light buttermilk and with all kinds of achaar. Hell, they can even be washed down with a nice glass of lassi. But that’s when you’re in India. What to do when you’re in Singapore? Well, then you have the prata—available with the next hawker as you take a walk down to the open-air stalls plying their takes on the fried Indian flatbread at the aptly named Chomp Chomp Food Centre. Crispy exterior, tender inside, and eaten with mutton or fish curry, these darlings that come in many variants can be quite filling.

But that is not even the best that Singapore’s legendary hawkers have waiting for you. The Char Kway Teow, with the best of the wok’s charred flavours, isn’t just a Singaporean favourite but also struck a chord with the late Anthony Bourdain when he was here. Then there’s Siamese mee, delicious prawn noodles, Hainanese chicken, satay, carrot and rice cakes and fragrant curries. These form part of a million different specks of flavour just casually wafting around in the general chaos of a hawker centre. Not that it needed a stamp of approval—but this chaos was just awarded UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage status.

 
 
 
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Approving the application was a matter of just three minutes for the 24-member delegation, who took the decision unanimously and without debate. With this, Singapore has joined the likes of Belgian beer, Georgian winemaking, and coffee culture in Turkey among other food-based forms of UNESCO-recognised intangible cultural heritage. The country has one other entry on a UNESCO list—the Singapore Botanic Gardens are a World Heritage site since 2015. UNESCO will check back in 6 years to check on the validity of the status.

Read: What's the Deal with Indian Chinese?

About the accolade, the prominent food critic and public figure KF Seetoh wrote on his Facebook wall: "Firstly, the hawker lines aren't going out the door overnight just because. As enterprising Singaporeans, we gotta leverage on this recognition, for when the airport doors re-open, the world will come hungry and with a vengeance. They will experience hawker food with a third eye and engage both right and left brain when they next devour. It's no longer just about what and where to eat but also, what are the stories and opportunities behind this makan culture."

Read: 5 Vietnamese Foods You Need to Try

It is no more a privilege for the cosmopolitan trading centre to have its hawker culture awarded as such than it is for the international body to bring it under its recognition. Going back to the 19th century, Singapore’s hawkers have been a significant historical factor in its emergent modern face. Just like its vibrant demographic that comprises people of Indian, Chinese, Arab descents, along with the native Malays, these flavours that one gets in Singapore’ squares, parks and pavements are a veritable melting pot of diverse gastronomies carefully organized into family recipes as well as the outcome of a demand for quick 'makan' that one wouldn’t just stuff, but savour on the go.

Cheapest Michelin-Starred Meal
What? Really? Well—we don’t want to overreact because you most likely know already that Chef Chan Hong Meng, one of Singapore’s iconic hawkers, was awarded a Michelin star in 2016, and you can eat his signature soya sauce chicken rice for just two dollars (whenever travel opens up between India and Singapore, of course) apart from his scrumptious roasted meats and wonton soup. Hawker Chan’s is a quite successful enterprise since that first moment of glory, expanding to other locations in Singapore and even abroad, and other hawkers have followed suit. 

Read: Singapore's Michelin-Starred Hawker Chan Talks Straight

The art and the artist: Chef 'Hawker' Chan's wildly popular Soya Sauce Chicken Noodles is priced at just $2To eat at the first Hawker Chan outlet at the Chinatown Complex Food Centre or at the other famous stalls, you will have to join the trademark long queues they are known for. In fact, as you may have already guessed, you pay with time and not really money to eat the otherworldly luak, the indescribably delish Sri Lankan crab served with a savoury sauce, or the hearty Nasi Lemak that are served at these stalls. If you can’t figure what to eat, better think waiting in the longest queue. And if you want to eat what Anthony Bourdain ate here, here's the information.

The Teh Tarik Phenomenon

 
 
 
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The brilliant new podcast Take a Bao talked about the future of Singapore’s kopitiams, a colonial-era heirloom, but if you are out and about early at a hawker centre, it could really be a good idea to help yourself to some teh tarik—which is just like milky tea back in India, but pulled from a great height so as to mix black tea and condensed milk nicely. The beverage is believed to have been introduced by Indian Muslim immigrants after the Second World War. But if you’re just not a tea person, kopi is your poison, and here are seven go-alongs you can order with that for breakfast.

Watchful Revival after the Pandemic
After the Coronavirus put a spoke in their wheel, many hawkers were forced to go digital, partnering with food delivery platforms, but the extortionate commissions (30-35%) forced the former to rally together and come up with Facebook groups and WhatsApp forms and sell to customers directly, reported The Straits Times.

Da-baoing, or takeaways, became the mantra for those looking for the hawker experience during the initial days of Singapore's Circuit Breaker

The Circuit Breaker, or Singapore’s version of a lockdown, sent its 13,800-odd hawkers packing for the April 7-June 1 period—with only deliveries and takeaways (da-bao in the local parlance) allowed. June 19 saw a cautious reopening of hawker centres, of course in accordance with hygiene and social distancing guidelines. Additional cleaning measures and plastic table shields were introduced, and the industry started picking gradually.

Read: Fresh COVID-19 Cases Delay Launch of Singapore-Hong Kong Travel Bubble

It is interesting to note that hygiene has been a point of consideration in Singapore’s hawker cultures since the 1950s, when authorities decided to sanitise these establishments and bring them into purpose-built centres. Regulations were put into place—chopping boards made of stainless steel were introduced over wooden ones, cooked and uncooked meat was required to be kept separate, gloves were made necessary. There has even been a hygiene-rating system in place, a fresh overhaul for which is in the works.


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