As Street Food Dies, One Remains


Photo by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

In the sweltering sun, a portly man slowly wheels a wooden cart along a grid of narrow, concrete pathways in Singapore's Tiong Bahru neighborhood, stopping only to bellow, "Sataaay! Sataaay!"

Instantly, men and women start surfacing from the surrounding warren of apartment buildings. The satay man begins pulling out sticks, generously threaded with pieces of marinated pork interspersed with hefty chunks of fat. And the grilling begins.

The air fills with the crackling sounds of pork sizzling, fat dripping, on the hot coals in the small grill attached to the back of his cart. And the smell of charred pork soon becomes so intoxicating it's all you can do to stop yourself from gnawing at your own arm to stave the hunger.

The most noteworthy thing about this satay man is the fact that he exists at all.

At Singapore 40 cents (U.S. 29 cents) a stick, this man's satay is a relative bargain--especially since it comes with a generous helping of the spicy peanut sauce spiked with sweet, crushed pineapple that is the hallmark of Hainanese-style satay. (This Chinese version differs from the much more ubiquitous Malay-style satay commonly found in the U.S. in that it's made with pork and comes with the sweetened sauce.)

But the most noteworthy thing about this satay man is the fact that he exists at all. While mobile hawkers like him once filled the streets of Singapore, selling anything from curry puffs to complex soup noodle dishes from carts or trishaw-propelled stalls, they've all but disappeared in this hyper-modernized country.

"They are non-existent now, except for a few illegal ones in Geylang (Singapore's main red-light district) and some really old housing estates," says KF Seetoh, Singapore food TV host and creator of its Makansutra hawker guide.

These vendors have been part of Singapore's history since its time as a British colony in the early 19th Century. Dr. Mark Emmanuel, an assistant history professor at the National University of Singapore, notes that these hawkers survived and flourished even during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore in the 1940s. In fact, the Japanese propaganda magazine, Syonan Gaho, in 1942 featured a hawker stall as part of a portrait of normal life in occupied Singapore, he says, adding that a government survey in 1948 recorded 7,000 hawkers and up to an estimated 20,000 illegal hawkers in the country at the time.


Photo by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

The traveling hawkers sold Malay, Chinese and Indian noodle dishes, snacks, and drinks. Some sold dishes from baskets perched on their heads or boxes mounted on the backs of bikes; others hoisted long poles onto their shoulders and dangled two large boxes from the ends of the poles. If the hawker sold a grilled or hot dish, one of the boxes sometimes bore a heavy charcoal stove.

Dr. Emmanuel notes that noodle sellers, who usually announced themselves by hitting two sticks together to make a "tok-tok" sound, were known as the "tok-tok" men. "They usually had larger push carts that could hold a vat of boiling water in order to boil the noodles," he says.

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Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan is a New York-based food and fashion writer. She is the author of the recently released A Tiger In The Kitchen, a food memoir about learning about her family in Singapore by cooking with them.

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