Fulfilling Bourdain’s Vision, A Singaporean Hawker Center Opens In New York

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“We’re not just selling food, we’re telling stories,” says KF Seetoh, pointing excitedly to the various stalls lining Urban Hawker, the Singaporean food hall that opened officially yesterday in New York. He means that every vendor whom he’s brought over from Singapore to open an outpost here has a tale to tell about the creation of their signature dishes. But the overall concept has a story as well.

“In 2013, I met Tony,” he says, referring to the late travel/culinary icon and master storyteller Anthony Bourdain. ”He came to one of my events in Singapore and he saw that I brought 47 international street vendors to it. He saw what we could do.”

Seetoh, the founder of the World Street Food Congress and Makansutra, a company to promote heritage street food culture worldwide, and Bourdain began to discuss recreating the UNESCO designated hawker centers, the stall packed purveyors of the city-state’s Malay/Chinese/Indian/Peranakan melting pot cuisine for a couple of Singapore dollars per dish. Bourdain picked the spot, Pier 57 on the Hudson River, one large enough to encompass the range of vendors he envisioned. His death in 2018 ended those plans. But Seetoh pressed on. He met Eldon Scott, the president of Urbanspace, which operates several food halls in New York, suggested they open one here and got a fairly quick positive response.

The food hall that just opened in midtown Manhattan is a scaled down version of the sprawling one that Bourdain envisioned—17 vendors of which 11 came over from Singapore with 6 local ones added by Urbanspace including a full service bar for Singapore Slings (not typical but a nod to the New York market). As Seetoh explains, the food offerings are completely authentic. “We had to make sure of that, that it would fit into any hawker center,” he says. “We can get any of the ingredients that we need. The bosses came over to make sure it is made the way it is at home and then a Singapore head chef will be based here to continue.”

Among the prime offerings that have been drawing crowds since the soft opening last week: at Hainan Jones, the Singapore national dish, chicken rice, which looks deceptively simple—poached, roasted or fried chicken served with deeply flavored rice and broth and accompanied by lime chili, dark soy sauce, and minced ginger-but as Seetoh recalls, when Bourdain first tasted it, all he could say was “wow.” An example of the young entrepreneurs or “hawkerpreneurs” that Seetoh likes to promote is Alan Choong who started his prawn noodle stall four years ago at the age of 23; his Prawnaholic Noodles here serves Special Prawn Ramen with torched pork belly, crispy pork lard, prawns, fish cake, and ajitsuke tamago. Also on the menu: Wok Fried Hokkien Prawn Noodles, Fried Oyster Omelet, and Signature Torched Sesame Pork Rib Ramen.

Wok & Staple by Dragon Phoenix is an offshoot of a very famous restaurant in Singapore. “What Peter Luger is to New York, Dragon Phoenix is to Singapore,” says Seetoh. The chef Hooi Kok Wai is credited with creating another of the city state’s signature dishes, Sambal Chili Crab, and another that resulted from a love story: the yam basket filled with stir fried vegetables, created for the vegetarian family of a waitress with whom he was in love. Other stories are behind the laksa offered at the stall Daisy’s Dream: 11 years ago Daisy Tan at the age of 60 and no longer cooking for her family as much decided to turn her family recipes into a stall and then a full service restaurant. Beneath the elaborate neon sign at Smokin’Joe, Joseph Yeo is creating the Josper grilled meats and curries that are remnants of the Colonial era when Hainan immigrants worked in the homes and offices of British colonials in the 1920s. When the British left, their culinary favorites remained.

All of the 11 who came over had to jump through various bureaucratic hoops to get licenses here, according to Seetoh; many more expressed interest but these were the ones who had the fortitude to go through the process. And this may just be the first step for them. “Now that they’re here, they want to grow,” he says. “They’re looking at where else they can expand.” So even if a full scale hawker’s center doesn’t result, Singaporean specialties should start turning up in other U.S. cities.

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