Hawker food in Malaysia is better than in Singapore. Ok I said it. The friendly competition between these two neighbouring food-obsessed countries is an ongoing bone of contention. At least in Penang that's definitely true. And this past weekend when I was there I realised why. Because it's like time stood still in Penang. Most hawkers still operate from a mobile stall, cook with charcoal, the obsessive attention to detail, preparing the dish in the same way it's always been, with love and soul. One of our most mind-blowing meals this weekend was Char Koay Teow from Kafe Heng Huat on Lorong Selamat. The lady chef has an electric fan constantly stoking her charcoal stove to keep her wok stonking hot, another fan behind her presumably to keep her cool, and a bouffant shower cap type contraption to keep her hair in place. It's quite a sight to see, smoke billowing out onto the street from her little stall, her in a constant dance of wok frying the noodle, and the air is absolutely smoky delicious. It's a crazy tiring thing for her to do day in day out, and I love her for it. Because her char koay teow is so good we could weep. Or eat another 10 plates. Which we didn't, in remarkable self-restraint.
That's not to say there aren't good crazy mad hawkers in Singapore. There are, and as long as the Ghim Moh chwee kueh lady continues to steam her rice cakes in pork fat, my other half will eternally be blissful. But they're certainly fading out in Singapore. These hawkers grow old and retire, their kids may not want the same laborious work, the old hawker centres get renovated into shiny new food courts and people trade in their charcoal stoves for cleaning burning gas or electric ones, and slowly it changes. It becomes a formula, it becomes generic. But you can taste love and care and pride in food. It feeds your soul. We may not be able to do anything as hawkers age, but we can create something new. Like Papa Palheta, where its all about the brew. Like my friend Goz, who runs a Singaporean supperclub plusixfive (albeit in London), and painstakingly handmakes every kueh pie tee shell even though easier options exist, and I believe people respond to his manic exuberance, because you can literally taste it. And it makes you smile. (Or stuns you into silence).
Wherever you are, keep doing what you're doing. Heart.
Imagination Saves The Universe
- Soul food