When it opens later this summer, walking into Urban Hawker will likely be an overwhelming sensory experience. Steam rising from a pot of laksa as the lid is lifted. Vegetables sizzling as they skate across an oily frying pan. Brightly lit food stalls all around, and behind each one a cook preparing a dish perfected over the course of several generations.
Urban Hawker will bear all the hallmarks of one of Singapore’s famed hawker centers—the ubiquitous open-air food courts found throughout the city—apart from one crucial detail: It’s not in Singapore. Instead, Urban Hawker occupies the space inside 135 West 50th Street in Manhattan, just a few blocks from Times Square and over 9,500 miles from the Southeast Asian city-state.
Slated to open in mid-July, the food hall is the latest project from Singaporean entrepreneur, photojournalist, food guru, and past Anthony Bourdain collaborator KF Seetoh. Once the doors open and cooks start serving customers, it’ll be the closest you can get to a genuine hawker center without booking a trip to Singapore.
“Authentic is my only sales pitch,” Seetoh tells Men’s Journal.
Seetoh, who started the Singapore-based food company Makansutra, knows a lucrative business opportunity when he sees one. That’s partly why he’s collaborating with Urbanspace (a group that operates multiple food halls in New York) to launch his new venture in Manhattan—a place he calls “the capital of the world.” But his mission is bigger than just selling food to hungry New Yorkers.
“It’s about preservation,” he says.
Hawker centers can be found all over Singapore. They’re the country’s most iconic culinary tradition, and they date back to the earliest chapters of its history, when the population expanded with an influx of migrants from Malaysia, Indonesia, India, China, and farther afield. To make ends meet, many of these newcomers began cooking and selling the cuisines of their home countries.
“The mall food court that the West is familiar with is just about bringing fast food joints into a little counter,” Seetoh explained. “Hawker centers sell heritage street food—very different from the stuff people burn in barbecues or deep fry on the streets.”
The Singaporean tradition of hawker centers is so important that it was added to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Unfortunately, like so many great cultural traditions around the world, it is in jeopardy. The first problem, according to Seetoh, is the cost of doing business in Singapore, from “ridiculous” rent rates to expensive supplies.
“Folks expect hawker food to be cheap,” he explains. “But [hawkers] pay the same for a fresh chicken in a chicken rice stall as what Gordon Ramsey would pay for his chicken at the Marina Bay Sands. It’s a wonder that people can still survive.”
Pricey ingredients are one issue, but Seetoh claims “the ultimate cancer” for hawker centers is a shortage of labor.
“Singaporeans are naturally not big on service culture because of who we are, who we’re brought up to be,” he said. “It’s the richest city in the world. Many countries that have this level of success have that same problem, but other countries will allow [businesses] to hire workers from another country that want this job. But not Singapore. They frown on it.”
Seetoh believes the best way to save Singapore’s hawker culture is a transplant: moving a team of Singaporean hawkers around the world to set up shop in a new market where labor is plentiful and customers are willing to pay fair prices.
Stripping the suffering Singaporean hawker scene of some of its top talent may seem counterproductive to saving it, but Seetoh insists the hawkers moving to New York are “actually going on a Noah’s Ark.”
“We are not killing them. We are saving them,” he said. “If they stay in Singapore [their businesses] will die.”
Recruiting a team of hawkers to relocate to New York City has been a challenge for Seetoh and his team, but he has finally found “a good selection of young and slightly older” cooks—17 of them, to be exact—who are ready to fire up their stoves when Urban Hawker opens its doors.
“Most of them are young,” he said. “The older ones that are going are there to hand over their skills and share them with our American staff so they can take over the mantle.”
What to Eat at Urban Hawker
The hawkers will be cooking an array of “Malay, Chinese, Indian, Peranakan, and even some western Hainanese” dishes, according to Seetoh. In other words, “a cross-section of the cultures in Singapore.”
Highlights include halal burgers, oyster omelets, a selection of soups and skewers, and Malay nasi lemak, a delicious dish made of rice cooked in coconut milk and served with toppings like a hard-boiled egg, crispy fried anchovies, and cucumbers. Customers will also be able to try chicken rice, an aptly-named Singaporean classic made with poached chicken and seasoned rice (it’s one of Seetoh’s favorites).
Seetoh believes the hawkers’ flavors will be a hit in Manhattan. Yet it’s also important to him that the story behind each dish gets shared.
“Singaporeans do not spin enough about our food culture,” he says. “It’s time to tell the world.”
It remains to be seen how Seetoh’s hawkers will take to New York City, or how New Yorkers will receive this new entry into the city’s crowded restaurant scene. But the Singaporean food guru is optimistic that the project will work out for one simple reason.
“People around the world love good food,” he said. “It’s not about Asian or Singaporean or European or South American. It’s just great food. You’re eating somebody else’s culture.”
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