Singapore cuisine is undergoing puberty. In the last decade of so, it has quickly evolved from simple, austere hawker food to the stand alone eateries with some even trying to elevate it to the level of fine dining! During this time, many players are experimenting with different models to cash in on a heritage brand name. These investors would typically buy out a hawker’s brand and morph them into modern eateries island-wide. There has been some successes, but many of them are dismal flops. Instead of helping to preserve an age old brand, they have simply stripped a culinary gem of its soul and turn it into comestible zombies.
The very nature of hawker food is artisanal. Each bowl of noodles is more than a sum of its parts. You can produce the different components in a central kitchen and teach someone how to put it together, but only a hawker master who had spent years cooking the dish is able to breathe life into the dish. That is why, most people identify hawker stalls by the hawker, rather than the signboard.
If this trend continues, our shopping centres will be filled with soulless branded eateries! (Many of them already are) We need to have mechanisms designed to help hawkers break out of their hawker center mold and set up their own cosy eatery without the need for aggressive expansion from the word go. It is a perhaps a pipe dream in today’s competitive market where high rentals are necessitating higher volume sales. Many eateries achieve this by rapidly expanding in order to justify a central kitchen. But, is it possible to have a model where the economics are such that the owner hawker is happy and financially comfortable with just the one eatery? I think, it is. It is the reality for many eateries in Japan and elsewhere already. The only boundary that needs to be breached is the perceived price ceiling of the dish.
The place that I am recommending today is an example of what might work. The young couple behind it are Seth, whose father owns Big Eater Seafood, and Yvonne, a graduate who left her bank job to join her husband in their new venture. Our young hawkerpreneurs have set up an eatery which I feel has the right balance of comfort, price and quality that Singaporeans can accept. Essentially, they are selling a quality bowl of prawn mee in a setting and at a price that is comparable with the ramen shop just a few doors away!
You might be wondering why the character 大 (big) is repeated three times in their shop name “大食家大大大虾面” Or, maybe you didn’t even notice it?
Well, their prawns come in three sizes. 大, 大大, and 大大大. So when you order a bowl of prawn mee, you get to choose the size of prawns you want! Quite innovative.
The eatery has been opened for three months and they took some time to find their footing. Some of their early reviews were quite indifferent. But kudos to the young couple who continued to work hard at improving their dish.
The prawn stock is very good. It is a Penang style stock which is bright orange in color rather than the local version which is dark brown. They had initially added the sambal chilli into the soup which is what is usually done in Penang style prawn mee, but found that some customers weren’t used to having a spicy soup. So they decided to serve the chilli separate. The soup is reminiscent of the one from Wah Kee prawn mee, although it’s not quite as robust. Still, it is satisfying enough. 4.25/5
The dish which really stood out for me was the big prawn white beehoon which is a misnomer since it is quite different from the seafood white bee hoon that we are familiar with. The main difference is the stock used to cook the beehoon. Instead of using a chicken or pork stock, Seth uses their robust prawn soup which tints the beehoon with an orangey hue such that it really can’t be called “white” beehoon anymore. After charring the beehoon with fire and smoke from the wok, the prawn soup is added and the sauce is reduced. This not only infuses the beehoon with the irresistible crustacean flavour, but also reduces the stock and concentrates its flavour! What results is an umami bomb which explodes with every mouthful. I would choose this over a standard white beehoon any day! 4.5/5
What does need more work is their dry version which really lacks punch. What it needs is a good prawn oil or concentrated prawn broth in order to make it “prawn” mee. If not, it just tastes like Hokkien noodles with black sauce. 3.5/5
A nice side dish to order is their prawn cakes. The filling is made from chopped fresh prawns and sotong (squid) paste and has a good bouncy bite. 4.25/5
Really promising eatery opened by Gen Y hawkerpreneurs. I am hoping that they will not be tempted to expand too quickly but just focus on maintaining and improving on the quality of the dishes first. The big prawn white beehoon is the dish to go for. There is still some room for improvement for the prawn mee soup and plenty more room for the dried version.