I followed author and master food-seeker KF Seetoh around Singapore like it was my job. I mean, it was my job, that was one of the main reasons I set sail in the first place. But once I started asking him questions I really couldn’t stop. Sometimes referred to as the Asian Bourdain, Seetoh was born and raised with a deep understanding of Singaporean food culture as it pertains to its history. That’s why he’s the perfect man for the difficult task of explaining Singapore’s culinary identity.
For those who don’t know, Singapore is a city-state of about 5 million. It’s teeny-tiny, comprised of a huge population of immigrants and native Singaporeans who are almost entirely descended from immigrants…not unlike our American selves. Their advantage, in addition to also being a very wealthy country, is population control. And I don’t mean childbearing limits.
The way Singapore’s culture and system work together is remarkably effective. No, you seriously cannot spit out your gum on the street, that is real. But in exchange for depositing your trash in any of their abundant receptacles and adhering to other easy-to-follow rules, you are guaranteed not to get sick no matter how cheap the food you eat is. Everything is spotless, which legitimately makes Singapore the perfect breeding ground for the fusion of cuisines that make up Singapore’s famously inexpensive and delicious street food, found at open-air food courts called hawker centers.
Seetoh wants to immortalize this cultural facet by establishing the first educational institute to analyze and preserve what makes this food great. Over kopi-c, a condensed milk-spiked coffee, and the famous kaya toast, I asked Seetoh my most pressing questions about Singapore’s role in the ever-popular world of food culture, as well as where you go from being called the Asian Bourdain.
On a scale of one to Bourdain, how famous are you in Singapore?
CNN put me at the top of their list of the most powerful and famous people in Singapore last year. But that’s CNN. I never compare such things, though. It’s what you do that makes me think you are damn great or not.
You told me the other night on our never-ending hawker crawl: “If I ever lost my job, I would become a hawker.” What’s the likelihood of losing your job?
What I do is not a job. Nobody would hire me for what I do, and so I hired myself and will forever be hiring myself. So the likelihood is not very. I’m too weird and strange. I walk on the other side of the road to be considered normal.
You started off as a photojournalist. When did you start, and what made you move on?
I quit school in 1978 or 1979 because I didn’t believe in education. I believed in skills. I went on to study advertising art, which is a fancier term called “graphic design” today and loved it. I spent time in the army, where I became part of the military, then I became a photojournalist with the local paper while it was still private before the government muscled in. It’s no fun to scratch something out from right under your nose, so I moved to anti-commercial work. I mean I wouldn’t wake up unless you put a few thousand bucks on the table. Then in 1995, I started an online Asian photo library.
Two years after we devised that, I ran into a wall. Cross-border payment was too troublesome, so I figured to do something fun. I liked to tell stories, I liked imagery and I’m very into people’s cultures, so I picked food. People love chicken and rice! When you mention local food, people have such affinity! There was not much media around then covering it. So I started it, and oh my, did I open a can of worms! My first book [Makansutra] sold out: In Singapore, if you sell 3,000 copies, they give you awards, and I sold 10,000 copies. I did pretty well.
Tell me about the young food blogger culture here. I’ve even heard Singaporeans make fun of how hardcore it is.
It’s very encouraging to know that people want to celebrate [the culture]. But then again, there are so many bloggers. People want followers. It is such a lonely society. I’d rather have face-to-face interactions than Facebook. But Internet freedom can give them the attention and fame that they seek.
There are also those who want to capture what is true about Singapore before it become androgynous. I just penned an angry online article today about Singapore, how we are running out of ideas. Every other opening is something we have never heard of. Everybody wants new ideas and when there is something old and iconic, it’s the “same old” curry puff or samosa.
Aren’t you looking behind you to see what this country is made of before you advance? There is a world of ideas and we are a transient, migrant nation. We have inherited tens of thousands of years of culinary history – think of what India and China gave this land, not to mention Indonesia and the West.
Would Singapore cuisine as a whole be the same if one of those elements – Thai, Indian, Malaysian – didn’t exist here?
I think we would have still evolved. If we didn’t have the Malaysian culture…well that’s impossible [laughs]. Say we never had the Indian culture. If it hadn’t come then, it would have been here by now and we would have just swam right into it.
It seems like a natural progression. Spices and techniques really overlap.
Yes. The Chinese brought noodles, dim sums, stir fries. Indians brought their masalas and bread culture. You can’t establish a new culture, especially a new food culture.
Later on, Indians started looking at the Chinese and saying, “They are frying noodles!” The Chinese had been in India for many, many years. So the Indians said, “Okay, why don’t we do an Indian style fried noodle.” So they created their very own noodle dish that they called their own. Chindian food is big. It also works the other way around. The Chinese adapted the Indian curry culture. The British adapted curry because they were occupying India.
So what I’m hearing is that there are no lines?
Right, no lines. All rules are made to be broken, so as long as you know the basics. They are part of our blood and our heritage. People should look at our heritage before they come out with new stuff. So there are no true lines as long as it stems from heritage.
I know most of the food in Singapore is imported, but what is still grown here?
Some organic vegetables, some low-cholesterol eggs. Americans would hate that [laughs]. “No cholesterol? You mean it doesn’t shorten my life? Forget it!” Everything comes from Malaysia and 80% of our chicken comes from Brazil.
That’s a long way.
It is a long way. This government goes around the world to source the best. People who use the best farming practices get a visit from a representative who say, “Listen, I would like to buy a lot of your chickens.” And they’ll be like, “Well, how much and who the hell are you?” “Well, I’m from a company called…Singapore! How would you like to sell me all your chickens for the rest of your life?” And as long as they are willing to allow us to inspect the quality on a spot-check basis, who would say no?
So one of the reasons that chicken and rice is so delicious is thanks to Brazilian chickens. I had no idea.
You may think that just because they sell street food that these hawkers would use frozen stuff. But you can smell frozen chicken from 10 miles away. I don’t care how cheap it is, if you use frozen chicken, that’s like using fish to make hamburgers. So we have the best supplies at the best prices, and that is why we are able to offer chicken and rice at just under $2, around $1.80.
$2 chicken and rice is no $2 hamburger.
No, no. And nobody complains about protecting industries. We have no industries to protect, we just want to protect our $2 chicken and rice.
You mentioned your aspirations for a street food cooking academy. What would be some of the pillars of education?
Let me take this question further back. Our street food here is not institutionalized. Brothers can blog about it, but they can only do their “bad food, good food” blogs. At best, “thumbs up, thumbs down, like, don’t like.”
If it were institutionalized, people wouldn’t come into the streets and just learn to be a hawker. They could go do research, franchising, consulting, operations, and hit the international market by exposing themselves and street food in Singapore to people in other worlds. Someone could open something in America touting the world’s greatest street food flavors in Singapore. That would be great, right? But nobody is doing that now.
It’s all on your own. You’ve got to make things up, lie along the way or quote other people. Totally incomplete but all the dots are there. I hope to be able to join the dots not only in Singapore but around the world. Like Bourdain and so many people say, the world really needs a hawker centre.
What if you were asked to be the director of this hypothetical institution?
I mean, it’s a commercial outfit, it might be a clash of interest. There are so many things that I could do around the world. 85% of the world relies on comfort and street food because they have no choice. The other 15% can eat whatever they want but still often choose street and comfort food.
That’s easy to respect.
There are a dime a dozen people that come here to do yet another pasta. Molecular gastronomy is dead and gone here, as is any chef who would attempt it! Some chefs are good but they are hiding under their shells, and some chefs just feel that they need to be famous before they can be good. This is why I say we so need to institutionalize street food.
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