Saturday, May 24, 2008


Singaporeans are a tough crowd - and this rings especially true when it comes to good food. I have come to learn that just about everyone in this bustling metropolis is a critic. Just ask a small group of locals where to sample the best chicken rice or char kway teow and you will ignite a heated discussion often only seen in parliamentary debates in other countries.
Add to the fact that this little island is filled with thousands of eateries and food stalls hawking popular Singaporean street fare - and good ol' economics kicks in - the consumer becomes king and street food is unbelievably cheap courtesy of a competitive market. Compare this situation to my adopted hometown of Perth in Western Australia where only a handful of restaurants serve South East Asian street food. Coupled with a large immigrant population and locals who have learnt to love hawker food and you end up with a a plate of char kway teow beinh charged at around AUD8 (approx 11 SGD). But that's not all - the quality is often lacking even at this price and for some reason - it just ain't quite the same... and yet, the consumer with a lack of choice still forks out willingly for mediocrity.

But back here in Singapore where the consumer reigns supreme, we get the other extreme - even at low prices (around 3 SGD) for an average hawker dish, consumers are critical of the quality of what gets served to them - and they're not afraid to show it by voting with their feet. It took me a while to get used to this mindset - that paying what would purchase half a cup of coffee in Australia for a full meal which has been painstakingly prepared, somehow still entitles you to an opinion on whether it was worth the money.
In a competitive market, the average hawker finds ways to beat the competition by feeding the critical consumer something different to set themselves apart - and thus differentiation is born. Seemingly regular long time favourites of this island are given a twist either by method of preparation or addition of an unconventional ingredient. Some of these remind us not to fix something that ain't broken - others succeed and reap the rewards from their efforts.
Zhong Yu Wanton Mein located in the Tiong Bahru hawker centre (#02-30) is a great example of the latter. As with most hawker stalls in Singapore, this stall specialises only in one dish, being Hong Kong style Wanton Mein (with soy chicken and char siew variations). Starting at $2.50 per serve, this seemingly humble dish includes hongkong style thin egg noodles, char siew and boiled choy sum, all smothered with a delicious home made broth. Oh did I forget to mention that you get a bowl of clear soup with handmade wantons as well?
"What did that boring lesson on Hawkernomics have anything to do with this?" I hear you almost scream. Well, our lesson today has not only helped us to explain why this meal is so cheap, but also revealed the reason for the perpetual long queues at this stall. King consumer lining up for widely available dish = differentiated product. And so I investigated... all in the name of economics.
Biting into the thin egg noodles, I was impressed by how al dente it was and the lack of "gooiness" often found in this dish. Having lined up for 15 minutes gave me the opportunity to observe the owner in action - and witness that he constantly tested every batch of noodles which were briefly cooked and subsequently dunked into a separate vat of hot water to rinse off any excess starch. The firm to bite noodles were then placed on a plate before a clear brown broth (which I imagine to be made from a stock of pork and chicken bones) is poured over. Noodles, being the first element of this dish, gets a big tick.But back to differentiation - what the owner has done to attract such long queues is the char siew. Instead of the thinly pre-sliced variety which is always a tad dry, the owner of this stall only uses meat from the inner leg of Indonesian pork (which he insists is better than the Malaysian and Australian imports more commonly available here) for his char siew. This results in wonderfully marbled meat which is melt in your mouth tender and oh so tasty. Admirable attention to detail and the result - a Char Siew Wanton Mein that is distinct from others and attracts a strong following.
I also decided to try out their sui gow (prawn dumplings) which were very well made. Each handmade dumpling encased minced pork, water chestnuts and a whole succulent prawn. The freshness of the ingredients were evident and capped off an excellent meal - all for under SGD5.
Some may argue that its unfair that for all his efforts and the quality of the Wanton Mein, the owner of this stall probably takes home much less than the average hawker in Australia who serves up an inferior version. But such is life - and who ever said that Hawkernomics was fair?


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