The adage that nothing can be cheap, good and fast could be modified, in the case of the street food of Singapore, to the dictum that if an establishment offers the first two qualities, it is a phenomenon too good to last. The imperative of rent, both economic and excessive, and the expectations of consumers who crave high quality and cry blue murder when hawkers attempt to recoup the overheads of a service subject to contemporary cost structures conspire to edge out what were once hives of casual feasting and communitarian exchanges. Some proprietors succumb to the lure of franchises that profit from the mass production of coffee and curry puffs with little to boast of save names that may have once commanded a sense of currency. Others work themselves to the bone and vanish when leases are up and spirits are down, having little to show from years of toil but a legacy of smoke and fleeting flashes in the frying pan.
What passes for culinary tradition today is all too often an ill-thought affair of slick veneers helmed by cooks with no sign of pride in their craft or prejudice against creations made by hands with no heart. The craft of one century has not the wile nor the conventional wisdom to survive the penuries of an age that offers lip service to those who make a living from manual shifts but gives short shrift to the value of lowly aspirations. Those who manage have little in common from those who make, and neither do what they do for anything other than to earn a living. The few who do it for this thing called love harbour no illusions that a lifetime of mastery over wok and fire will not outlast a generation bred to shun cramped stalls for shackled cubicles.
The scent of fresh carrot cake (for ‘radish cake’ is an unnecessary concession to dessert islands of faraway parlours) is one that recalls empty streets in peninsular towns, hours after the last shop has raised its boards and flung sturdy locks around the weakest link of their iron gates. In this void of human activity, the hawker offers an oasis of light, a magnet of organoleptic stimulation that reaches beyond the surrounding block to tempt and entrance passing drivers (for many then still ate the wind with their windows down) to cave in to the desire for a supper of stir-fried daikon, which would be rapidly packed in waxed paper and devoured with toothpicks that pierced every last crumb.
Such scenes are now unheard of in a country of organised labour and sanitary streets. A few gems pop up (and quickly splutter) on occasion in the branded terraces that infest heartland malls, but by and large the clippings and star-studded accolades that adorn tattered panels mean little to hungry bodies and less to those hired merely to stir and serve. And when one is inclined to simply eat to leave, the reply that only dark carrot cake is available is met with resigned bewilderment. For the complexities of the modern food supply chain has rendered it impossible for a stallholder to refrain from adding a sauce of evil to the raw ingredients, and so what is delivered on a plate of doubt is apparently the final stage of a factory where batter is pre-mixed with soy and given a lukewarm touch of heat before distribution and sale to patrons who pay the price of bland fare and tasteless efficiencies.