We created a smaller iteration of Eating Together for the Asian Civilisation Museum earlier this year. It’s called the Museum of Eating, which included a new section about the material culture of hawker tools. Here’s the writeup, and Jovian Lim‘s beautiful photos.
MUSEUM OF EATING
Eating is a universal act. The ways we eat, however, are cultural and personal. Where we consume our meals, who we chat with over lunch, and what we use to put food in our mouths all affect how we think about our food. In the Museum of Eating, we go beyond the typical foodie conversations about chefs, ingredients, and tastes to look at the designs and techniques used to cook, contain, and carry food in Singapore.
Consider the Wok
Kitchen utensils are common across the world, but look closer and you’ll find variations born out of cultural differences. Singapore hawkers have fed many generations with their good, quick meals. These dishes and the tools to prepare them have persisted despite the onset of modern industrial cooking. But to feed a larger and an increasingly time-starved population, hawkers have had to devise better ways to use or even re-design these age-old tools. Whether it is a wok or a scoop, these kitchen utensils have not just enabled faster and better cooking, they also record the craft and considerations these hawkers have put into perfecting their dishes.
Popiah is a spring roll filled with stewed turnip that is delicious when moist but not soggy. Glory Catering is well-known for such mouth-watering popiah, and they can consistently produce them thanks to a perforated scoop designed by the owners, the Chin family. A typical scoop tends to pick up too much turnip juice, and that aluminum tool falls apart when the cook presses down on it to drain out the liquid. The stew cannot be drained beforehand either, because it’s what keeps the turnip juicy and tasty. Glory’s inventive tool comes with more than 400 perforations to drain more quickly, and its trough shape lets the staff scoop the exact portion of filling, in a shape that is easy to fold into a roll. Truly a handy way to capture Glory’s craft in making popiah.
Wee Nam Kee cannot cook chicken rice without the S-hook, says owner Wee Liang Lian. For this Hainanese chicken rice seller, the S-shaped tool works like an extension of the chef’s fingers, handling up to 100 braised, poached, and deep-fried chickens a day. The tool is everywhere in their Marina Square kitchen: used to hang-dry raw chickens above the burning flame, to anchor boiling chickens to the rim of the pot so their delicate skin stays intact, and finally, to show off their spotless, tan, and unblemished fair skins in the store’s window display.
WOK, FIRE & SPATULA
Speed literally helped char kway teow seller Ng Chang Siang cook up this set of tools. The anxious cook sped up “like a Ferrari” whenever a line began to form for his noodles, and his forceful strokes gradually filed an edge off his iron spatula. But he noticed the more the tool had given way, the less strenuous cooking became, because his arm and wrist could now align. From then on, Ng got a supplier to custom-make angled spatulas for him. He also had a shallower wok made to his specifications to complement the new tool. This way he could accommodate a big batch of pre-cooked noodles and fulfill an order in just about 30 seconds. He simply needs to separate a serving from the pile and finish it off with the other ingredients. To ensure quality was not compromised with this cooking method, Ng even concealed some of the burner holes so that the reserved noodles do not overcook. These tools and methods have been passed on to the younger Ng, who continues his father’s tradition of dishing out plates of the famous Hill Street Fried Kway Teow in seconds.