I’ve actually been meaning to write (rant?) about this for awhile, but was finally prompted by an article in today’s New York Times. In the article, Julia Moskin outlines a stingray crawl around New York City, for which she relies on the help of an expert. Of course, whenever anyone needs an expert on Singaporean food, they call KF Seetoh. For those who don’t watch Top Chef, Seetoh was recently featured on the season finale of Top Chef DC, which took place in Singapore. (He was also on th Singaporean episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and has been consulted for other NYT articles that relate to Singaporean cuisine.)
Seetoh’s reputation as an expert on Singaporean food is not unfounded. He started a guidebook to hawker centres, called Makansutra, which I found incredibly helpful for its description of each dish. His company has expanded since then and now includes two food courts designed to look like hawker centres - one in Singapore and one in Manila. While I think these recreations of hawker centres have similarities to EPCOT’s versions of other countries (commercialized, sterilized, and a tad-bit touristy), I support the idea of the preservation of hawker centres and hawker fare. To that end, in coordination with the Singapore Food Festival in 2005, Seetoh designated as “Hawker Food Legends,” 12 of the “best and most popular hawkers who have been dutifully dishing out their cult signature flavours for decades.” These awards appeared to be annual, although they were renamed “Street Food Masters” and sometimes included newer hawkers. However, as far as I know, no such awards were announced in 2010. (The Singapore Food Festival, when the awards are generally announced, is held in July.)
Thus, Seetoh is generally credited as being not only an expert on Singaporean hawker food, but also as the leading figure in a crusade to save it. According to the NYT, “One of Mr. Seetoh’s primary goals is to preserve such dishes, which he sees as a product of diverse, resourceful and often desperate communities. The hawker food will be lost, he fears, as the population becomes affluent and aspiring cooks can afford Western education — culinary or otherwise. Asian cooks are opening French and Italian restaurants in the cities now, he said, and the traditional hawkers are aging. ‘They are old, and their sons are old, and their grandsons go to Harvard,’ he said.”
I agree that hawker food may be a dying tradition - and have the research to prove it. Consequently, I respect the work KF Seetoh has done to promote hawker food. However, one day in Singapore I discovered that my hawker-food hero had let me down. And here is why:
HOW CAN YOU CLAIM TO WANT TO PRESERVE LOCAL HAWKER DISHES AND THEN PROMOTE A FAST-FOOD CHAIN – AND AN AMERICAN ONE AT THAT??