As Street Food Dies, One Remains

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cheryltan_dec01_satayfood_post.jpg

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.

cheryltan_dec01_satay_post.jpg

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.

These vendors began disappearing from the Singapore streetscape in the 1960s when the government began moving them into centralized hawker centers for sanitary reasons, however.

In Tiong Bahru, the satay man is tepid about talking. (It quickly becomes clear that he is nervous about being interviewed because he probably doesn't have a license.)

Repeatedly asking to only be called "Ah Pui Kia," which means "fat kid" in the Chinese dialect of Hokkien, he says in Mandarin that he has been selling satay in the neighborhood since 1977, when he inherited the cart from the satay man who had it before him and taught him his trade. In fact, Ah Pui Kia says he first started learning how to make satay when he was 11 and entered the business because "I didn't know how to do anything else."

Working alone, he makes the marinade for the satay and the peanut sauce by himself. (And he's certainly not about to share his prized recipe with anyone.) Each dish is served with with sliced cucumbers to counter the heat of the peanut sauce and optional ketupat, rice packed into a square and wrapped in fragrant tropical pandan leaves.

Despite his determination to remain under the radar, Ah Pui Kia is something of a celebrity in his neighborhood. Terence Ang, a director of artist management for an advertising firm, says he first heard of the satay man even before he moved into the area and was attracted by the fact that his new neighborhood had a living relic of Singapore's culinary past. "You really don't see this any more," says Ang, who's even hired Ah Pui Kia to perch his cart outside of his ground-floor apartment and make satay during some parties.

Ah Pui Kia, of course, is blase about the fans that he has. All he cares about is selling satay every afternoon in Tiong Bahru. "If I have food to eat, I have clothes to wear, that's enough," he says, noting that he's counting the days till he can save up enough to retire to a home he inherited in China.

As for what will happen to his cart after he retires? He's not too concerned with that--he's just hoping not to pass his trade onto his 6-year-old son or 8-year-old daughter.

"Eat for a day, live another day," he says, summing up his thoughts on what he does. "That's all."

Where to find Ah Pui Kia: He's generally in the vicinity of the Tiong Bahru market, at the corner of Lim Liak Street and Seng Poh Road in Singapore, in the afternoon. More specifically, he typically can be found near blocks 17 and 19, Tiong Bahru Road, in the mid-afternoon. He also is willing to cater to parties -- as long as you pay for or provide transportation for him and his cart. There is a 300 satay stick minimum order for private parties. Contact him at 011-65-6275-4943--just ask for the "Satay Man."

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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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