Few would dispute the fact that the real winner of last night’s Hawker Heroes event was our local food culture. Over the last few weeks, Gordon Ramsay has helped generate 2.5million votes from Singaporeans as we chose which of our local Hawker Heroes will go up against Goliath. It has once again put our Hawker food culture in the spotlight.
When I published “The End of Char Kway Teow” in 2010, it was meant to be a wake up call to all Singaporeans to be more aware of the fact that without a new generation of Singaporeans to take over from our aging Hawker masters, our beloved Char Kway Teow may be facing certain extinction within the next two or three decades. Sure, Char Kway Teow will still be around, but only as a poor reflection of the past and lacking the soul and artisanal quality of the Hawker masters who were disciplined enough to hone their wok skills over many years of practise. You may already be familiar with this particular brand of souless, anonymous Char Kway Teow in many air-conditioned food courts.
Last night’s competition was done more as a publicity stunt rather than as a real contest to find out if Gordon Ramsay can master Singapore cuisine in three days. There were just too many confounding factors. Amongst which was the glaring fact that it wasn’t a blind tasting and participants knew which dishes belonged to Gordon and which belonged to our Hawker Heroes. The population of voters were also skewed as the vast majority of the 1000 participants who bothered to line up were Gen Yers, some of whom had started lining up outside Newton Hawker Centre since 1am. One can list many other factors which had led to the 2-1 result, but it would be a pointless debate since the aim of the campaign was to generate awareness of our local food culture. However, that does not mean that we can’t learn something from the whole thing.
When I tasted all three dishes at the start of the evening, I was convinced that our Hawkers would win Laksa and Chilli Crabs while the the battle for Chicken Rice would be a close call. I thought Chef Ramsay did a pretty good job of the chicken rice. The rice was fragrant and the texture was good and the chicken was plump and tender. His weakness was in his chilli. Tian Tian’s chilli had a wonderful fruity bouquet which came from hundreds of freshly squeezed calamansi which Chef Ramsay’s lacked. It would have been a sure win except for the fact that a lot of the participants didn’t even try the chilli!
On the other hand, there was never a doubt that 328 Laksa was going to win. The savoury broth that that was full of the umami goodness of specially selected Hae Bee (dried prawns) — the hallmark of a great laksa — was a sure winner for me. Not only did Chef Ramsay’s version lack this, it even looked a little wierd. The first thing you notice even before eating it was that it had a greenish yellow tinge that really wasn’t characteristic of laksa. And how many people noticed the hard boiled egg? I don’t think I have ever had hard boiled egg in laksa.
Chef Ramsay’s Chilli Crab win came as a big surprise. When I tasted the chilli crabs early in the evening, I was convinced that Jumbo will win. Chef Ramsay’s sauce was too heavy, too sour and lacked that natural sweetness of the crabs. Earlier on, he had quipped that he thought it was crazy that tomato ketchup was used in Chilli Crabs. I believe he might have used tomato paste instead, which resulted in a stronger tomato flavour, akin to Indian style curries. He chose to steam his crabs first and then cook it in the chilli sauce whereas Jumbo’s style was to cook the crabs in the sauce itself. Most of the Chilli Crab masters I spoke to tell me that the key to Chilli Crab is to be able to capture the sweetness of the crab in the sauce and the way to do this is to cook the raw crab in the gravy. It is a slower method but it results in a sauce that sweet with crustacean flavour.
So how did Ramsay manage to win Chilli Crabs?
When I checked the scoreboards at around 8pm, it was clear that all three Hawkers were in the lead. Most of the participants I spoke to at that point told me that they preferred Jumbo’s version as Chef Ramsay’s tasted too sour. But by 9pm, Chef Ramsay had managed to claw his way back, winning by a narrow margin. What happened?
Right after the results were announced, I happened to speak with KF Seetoh who told me that Chef Ramsay had tweaked his recipe when he realized that he was lagging behind. I managed to taste his Chilli Crab at the end of the event and it was indeed quite different from the version he served earlier in the evening! It was much more balanced, spicier and less sweet than the Jumbo version. As an experienced competitor, he was aggressive and he knew the how to play the game. Not only did he changed his recipe mid-game, he also went around swaying voters.
So how do we view this 2-1 victory?
Rather than patting ourselves on the back and simply conceding Chilli Crabs to Chef Ramsay as a consolation for taking up the challenge, I think it is a clarion call for our best hawkers to start upping their game. That a Western Chef can come to Singapore and in three days come up with a version of Chilli Crab that more Singaporeans prefer should sound the warning that what we have long considered to be the crown jewel of Singapore cuisine is not as robust as we think it is. Perhaps this is a call for Jumbo to sit down and start re-thinking their Chilli Crab recipe and really asking themselves if what they are serving right now is really the best Chilli Crab in the world or that it can be better. Instead of blaming circumstances, this can be a big PR opportunity for Jumbo to go back to the “Ancient Paths”, to the old, tried and tested ways of doing things and capture the true essence and excitement of Chilli Crabs for Singaporeans once again.
But Tian Tian Chicken Rice and 328 Laksa shouldn’t be too comfortable with their win either. If Chef Ramsay can win such a significant number of votes in just 3 days, can you imagine what the results would be like if he should be invited to come back again next year and reproduce the same 3 dishes?
Let’s get one thing straight. The real parties who were handicapped here are Tian Tian and 328. They have been handicapped by us Singaporeans who through the years have told them that we want a plate of Chicken Rice or a bowl of Laksa for $3. Chef Ramsay on the other hand has access to top class hotel kitchens and the best produce that is available to produce a plate of Chicken Rice or a bowl of Laksa worth $30. If you ask me, that is hardly a level playing field.
It is great that Tian Tian and 328 Laksa managed to win this year. But if the challenge were to be repeated again, we really need to allow them to compete at the same level as Chef Ramsay. They should be giving the freedom to use the best ingredients to produce a bowl of Laksa that is worth $20. That would then put them on the same level as some of the best Ramen in Singapore. With a $20 a bowl target, I believe that they will be able to have the freedom to use the best ingredients they want in order to produce a plate of Chicken Rice and a bowl of Laksa that is of 3 Michelin Star standards.
If you would like to taste this level of Chicken Rice and Laksa, then I have great news! Both Tian Tian Chicken Rice and 328 Laksa have agreed to take up the challenge of producing the Ultimate version of their dishes in this year’s Ultimate Hawker Fest which will happen on 19 October. Our Anxin chicken farmer has now already started growing the chickens that Tian Tian will be using. These chickens will be fully corn fed and raised in special conditions in order to produce the Ultimate Chicken for Chicken Rice. 328 Laksa will also be rethinking their Laksa to see how they can produce a $20 version of their dish. Perhaps Lobster and scallops to in the Laksa? We shall see!
Should Chef Ramsay be in Singapore at that time, I hope he can pop by so that we can really show him a 3 Michelin Star version of Singapore food! Until then, it is up to each of us concerned Singaporean foodie to continue to keep our Hawker Culture alive by encouraging our hawkers to keep striving to improve and stay ahead of the game!
Our Ultimate Hawker Fest is a fund raising event in aid of Touch Community Services. We are now looking for major sponsors. If you can help, please write to [email protected].