The traditional hawker centres of Singapore are the inspiration behind several of the city's new eating out concepts
A lasting memory to many visitors to Malaysia and Singapore, particularly those of a foodie persuasion, is the hawker centre. These are open air complexes that house food stalls of every stripe, and are frequented by families with children and groups of friends, young and old. A typical dish in Singapore might only cost the equivalent of £1.50, but there's no snobbery about that: rich and poor go there to tuck into chargrilled satay, Indian roti with curry, bubble tea, bowls of laksa, and freshly wok-fried char kway teoh.
The hawker centre tradition grew up in the 50s and 60s in response to questions regarding health and safety practiced by unlicensed street vendors.
More recently, the hawker centre as was went on to be replaced by food courts with all the American shopping mall connotations that the phrase implies.
The development of the genre has taken a more stylish turn of late.
The most celebrated of the new breed is hardly a hawker centre, but its lineage can be traced to them. Straits Kitchen at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Singapore dubs itself "Local cuisine in a contemporary market place setting."
Japanese designers Super Potato (of Roka and Zuma fame in the UK) were brought in to give the concept a cool new look.
The 260 seat room, opened in late 2005, is divided into separate areas by glass walls and layered wooden pillars, organised around the central area where chefs prepare fresh food – Malay, Indian, Chinese and local Peranakan – to order. Shelves lining the walls, and under the stations are piled high with bottles, plates, glasses, bowls, huge jars of spices and large pestles and mortars.
The key difference between Straits Kitchen and a hawker centre isn't just the price – that has had locals grumbling since it opened – but in the range offered, and attention to detail. The chefs are organised around cuisine type, so at the Indian kitchen you'll find handmade flatbreads as well as fish head curry; a hawker would traditionally just serve one dish albeit to a very high standard.
Dishes aren't served on plastic plates, but on a covetable range of tableware to suit each cuisine from copper karai dishes to Chinese blue and white, vivid floral porcelain or banana leaves.
There are discreet corners, romantic tables for two, space for groups at long banqueting tables – all amenities the practical bolted-down-furnitureaesthetic of the hawker centre can't offer. There's waiter service too, although it's limited to clearing, serving drinks, and offering the menu; guests still queue as they would at Newton Food Centre or the Tekka Centre.
Designer Adam Tihany came up with an altogether different concept for The Line at the nearby Shangri La Hotel. This boasts a more modern, almost Bond look, set by a pool and lush interior garden, and with bright white leather Eero Saarinen chairs, glass fronted storage, and a vivid turquoise and orange colour scheme.
Don't think the hawker experience as food court hasn't had its day. Food Republic opened at VivoCity mall in 2006, bringing in 30 hand-picked traditional stalls selling local favourites – like shaved ice desserts, laksa, Haianese chicken rice and Hokkien Mee – to feed as many as 900 guests at a time. The quality of the food is considerably higher than any Western visitor – used to US food courts – would imagine. Style-wise, it represents a nostalgic trip back to the 1900 to 1940s period – ‘a time of political uncertainty when the simplest things in life were greatly treasured' – with features like aged wood beams, floor and roof tiles, cane furniture, and old bird cages and bicycles.
Sounds a bit Disney, as does their next concept, based on classic European library interiors. But the concept works well and the quality's high.
Hugely commercial perhaps, but it goes some way in showing how the hawker concept could translate globally.