Hipster hawkers are in the news at the moment, thanks to the recent announcement that the new hawker centre at Pasir Ris Central will have a section devoted to "creative cuisine".
The centre, to be run by NTUC Foodfare, will have two floors and may also offer events such as art markets, craft fairs and music gigs to draw in the crowds.
Food critic Wong Ah Yoke approved of the move, saying this can help encourage young hawkers to venture into the trade.
But young food entrepreneurs have already been plying their trade at hawker centres. They offer a range of options, from new style takes on traditional fare to dishes not ordinarily served alongside fishball noodles and prata.
Here are some of the choicest picks, discovered by ST's food critics.
1. Rebecca Lynne Tan recommends
The Burning Oak
The Duck Confit, Hungarian duck legs with mashed potato, warm pickled red cabbage and pomegranate sauce ($18)
Photo: The Burning Oak/ Instagram
Mr Jeremy Han, 25, chef and owner of The Burning Oak at the Bedok Marketplace in Simpang Bedok, is an example of a hipster hawker - an innovative food vendor who offers his interpretation of street food.
The Temasek Polytechnic alumnus, who has a diploma in catering and culinary management, offers Japanese rice bowls topped with chargrilled meat and pickles, and a bowl of miso soup. Prices start at $12 at this two-year-old stall.
The Combo, a rice bowl with an onsen egg and slices of wagyu rump cap and Iberico pork cheek. ST Photo: Rebecca Lynne Tan
I tried the Truffle Wagyu bowl ($16) - slices of chargrilled Australian rump cap wagyu, minced beef with a dash of truffle oil, topped with an onsen egg; and The Combo ($16), a rice bowl with an onsen egg and slices of wagyu rump cap and Iberico pork cheek.
The stall's beef and foie gras bowl ($20) was not available the day I dined there.
At night, the stall also offers grassfed Angus short rib skewers ($6).
Here, I appreciate that the slices of beef have not been slathered in sauce. At many stalls (restaurants included), the beef is swimming in sauce, which I dislike.
I also like that the flavours are more muted, not too sweet or so overwhelming that you cannot taste the well-seasoned beef.
But what truly stands out for me at The Burning Oak is the Iberico pork cheek. You can order just the pork (without rice) for $12 for 140g.
It is marinated with soya sauce and honey, and sous vide for 10 hours before it is chargrilled to order. The pork is supple and has a gorgeous blackened char with a pleasant crunch.
I like beef, but I would order this Iberico pork bowl in a heart beat.
WHERE: 02-16 Bedok Marketplace, 348 Bedok Road
OPEN: noon to 2pm, 6 to 9pm (Tuesdays to Sundays), closed on Mondays
2. Eunice Quek recommends
Photo: Melissa Chue/ Instagram
The Saveur co-founders who drew crowds to their restaurants by serving upscale food at reasonable prices have gone their separate ways. But I am glad they are still in the food scene.
I am even happier that they are sticking to their guns and continuing to provide affordable food.
Mr Joshua Khoo, 33, now runs a hawker stall at Amoy Street Food Centre called Taste Affair, while Mr Dylan Ong, 30, will open a restaurant, called The Masses, at 85 Beach Road in two weeks' time. So while I await the opening of The Masses, I head to Taste Affair, which offers a simple menu focused on aglio e olio-style angel hair pasta or paella- style rice flavoured with saffron.
Choose from ingredients such as sake butter clams ($6 with pasta, $6.50 with rice); poached chicken leg ($5); and diced prawn and chorizo sausage ($7). A poached egg, as well as sauteed mushrooms or vegetables, complete the meal.
Unfortunately, the rice had run out by the time it was my turn, so I pick from the pasta menu instead.
The sake butter clams with pasta, which is served in half a cardboard box. ST Photo: Eunice Quek
My favourite option is the sake butter clams - I get a generous portion of 12 clams on my plate and they are sweet and juicy. The mushrooms are sauteed till tender and the egg has a perfectly runny yolk.
I notice finely diced dark bits in the pasta and they turn out to be Mr Khoo's "secret ingredient" of kombu (kelp), which adds a touch of umami to the dish. I think the chilli oil could be spicier, but that would mask the delicate kombu flavour.
His career of cooking in restaurants shows in the plating of the food. While it is odd to have the pasta come in half a cardboard takeaway box (his effort to "go green", he says), everything is plated neatly. I also get freshly ground pepper on the egg as well as grated cheese.
Some diners give up queuing when they notice that Taste Affair is a two-man show. My suggestion is to go as early as possible or be prepared to queue for at least 20 minutes in the stuffy food centre with the Central Business District crowd.
Mr Khoo and his partner Joel Tan, 34, are, after all, working in a cramped hawker stall. And I will be happy to queue again for the rice.
WHERE: 02-128 Amoy Street Food Centre, 7 Maxwell Road
OPEN: 11am to 2.30pm (Mondays to Saturdays), closed on Sundays
INFO: Taste Affair Facebook
3. Eunice Quek recommends
JIN JI TEOCHEW BRAISED DUCK & KWAY CHAP
Photo: Seth Lui/ Instagram
I'm all for creativity in the food and beverage scene, as long as it doesn't cross over into becoming a gimmick.
One stall that marries tradition with innovation is Jin Ji Teochew Braised Duck & Kway Chap at Chinatown Complex Market & Food Centre. While it has been there for 34 years, it is second-generation owner Melvin Chew, 39, who has jazzed up the menu without losing the authenticity of his late father's recipe.
For the past three years, Mr Chew has been running the stall with his mother Lim Bee Hong, 60. It offers braised duck rice or noodles (from $3), as well as kway chap items such as big and small pig's intestines, tongue, ear, stomach and skin.
But to cater to younger diners, his menu features braised duck bento ($6) as well as a Combo Jumbo set ($8), which also includes tau pok (fried beancurd puff), braised tofu and a small selection of pig innards.
Jin Ji Teochew Braised Duck & Kway Chap's braised duck bento comes on a lacquered platter with a cup of hot soup. ST Photo: Eunice Quek
The braised duck bento comes on a lacquered platter with a cup of hot soup.
You've seen chicken rice balls. Here, I get three balls of yam rice, separated by tender braised radish slices, and topped with freshly fried shallots.
There's sliced braised duck and a generous serving of cucumber slices, coriander and salted vegetables. The salted vegetables are cooked till soft, but not mushy.
A crowd-pleaser is the ramen- style ajitsuke tamago (lava egg), with a perfect, custard-like texture and gooey egg yolk.
The herbal soup has a cinnamon flavour that I find too strong at the beginning. But after sipping a few spoonfuls, I end up drinking everything straight from the cup.
For those who want a bit of everything, get the Combo Jumbo set. I do not like pig innards, but at this stall, the offal is cooked in the umami "mother sauce", which masks any "porky" smell one commonly associates with kway chap. Mr Chew lets on that one special ingredient in the sauce is cognac - which indeed takes it to the next level.
Don't forget to get a saucer of his housemade chilli, vinegar and garlic sauce - you'll want to dunk everything in it.
If you don't want to eat at the swelteringly hot hawker centre, you can choose to take away as the meal is packed neatly into a bento box.
It is heartening to see Mr Chew's passion and dedication to his craft as he continues his father's legacy. Hopefully. he will inspire more young hawkers to follow suit.
WHERE: 02-156 Chinatown Complex Food Centre, Block 335 Smith Street; tel: 9018-9052
OPEN: open: 10.30am to 6.30pm (Saturdays to Thursdays), closed on Fridays
4. Kenneth Goh recommends
Clockwise from left: Lemon yogurt loaf cake, apple crumble, banana walnut muffin and chocolate chip muffin. ST Photo: Kenneth Goh
Cupcakes piled with frosting and loaded with cream may be trendy, but I am steering clear of these cloyingly sweet treats.
While I was having lunch at Berseh Food Centre in Jalan Besar recently, a huge bright yellow poster catches my eye and leads me to Muffles, a five-month-old confectionery stall located at a far end of the hawker centre.
Muffles is a mash-up of the words muffin and waffle, so it is not surprising that half of the display counter is taken up by about nine variations of muffins ($1.50 to $1.60), in flavours such as cranberry, banana walnut and macadamia white chocolate.
These muffins look neither hip nor sexy, but they are liberally studded with ingredients such as blueberries, chocolate chips and walnuts.
I like that the muffins are softer and more airy than those at most bakeries. Owner May Chow, who is in her 40s, uses lighter cake flour instead of plain flour to achieve the muffin's pillow-like texture.
Chocolate Chip and Cranberry Muffins. Photo: Muffles/ Instagram
Her chocolate chip muffins ($1.50 each) are dotted with so many chocolate chips that I think I am eating a chocolate cake packed with gooey melted chocolate. The coffee walnut muffin ($1.50) is laced with ground coffee beans that barely make an impression, but this is mitigated by the good amount of chopped walnuts. For a heftier bite, go for the banana walnut muffin ($1.50), moist and dense from the banana puree stirred into the batter.
Besides muffins, Muffles sells egg tarts, brownies and pandan ogura cake, a cotton-soft sponge cake perfumed with pandan juice and coconut milk.
These diverse bakes are accumulated from Madam Chow's 15-year career as a pastry chef in hotels such as Mandarin Orchard Singapore, Resorts World Sentosa and Days Hotel in Novena. In June last year, she decided to strike it out on her own.
Another gem is the apple crumble ($3), crammed with a Granny Smith apple and raisin filling that is more tart than sweet. The filling is coated with a cinnamon and caramel sauce. Biting into the top layer of crunchy and buttery streusel tones down the acidity of the filling.
The most expensive item is the slender loaf cake ($5), which comes in carrot, banana and lemon yogurt flavours. My favourite is the zingy lemon yogurt cake, which has a sour tang and lemon zest flecked all over the cheerful-looking yellow block.
Making up the other half of the stall's menu are waffles, made with buttermilk and pandan batters concocted by Madam Chow. Options include the Breakfast ($3.50), where the waffles are sandwiched with scrambled eggs, ham and cheese, and a S'mores waffle ($3.50) topped with melted marshmallows.
However, waffles will return to the menu only next month, after Chinese New Year, as the stall is overwhelmed with cake orders. This definitely calls for a return trip to satisfy my sweet tooth.
WHERE: 02-54 Berseh Food Centre, 166 Jalan Besar
OPEN: 8am to 5pm(Mondays, Wednesdays to Sundays), closed on Tuesdays
INFO: Tel: 8298-0298 or Muffles Facebook
5. Rebecca Lynne Tan recommends
Yuki Onna's (clockwise from top left) Cold Truffle Hotate Somen, Truffle Beef Yakiniku & Foie Gras Don, Onsen Egg, Oden, MYOB (Make Your Own Bowl). Photo: Rennie P/ Instagram
This secret is too good to keep. So, I'm telling you. Just you.
I've found the best and possibly cheapest alternative to French restaurant Gunther's signature cold angel hair pasta with oscietra caviar.
At $14.90 a pop, the version at Japanese-inspired eatery Yuki Onna at Far East Square is a quarter of the price.
This version uses the much cheaper lump fish roe instead of oscietra caviar, and somen in place of angel hair pasta, but don't turn your nose up just yet.
Owner Eelin Goh, who used to work in finance and owns protein salad shop Ice Queen at One Raffles Place, says her somen dish is, in fact, inspired by chef Hubrechsen's.
Indeed, many restaurants and aspiring chefs have created similar versions over the years. Da Luca, an Italian restaurant at Goldhill Plaza, for instance, has a similar pasta topped with scallop and uni for $88.
Yuki Onna's (clockwise from top left) truffle beef bowl, poke bowl and cold somen with scallop. ST Photo: Rebecca Lynne Tan
I like that Ms Goh's somen is cold, aromatic and refreshing. Truffle oil? I'm not complaining.
There's just enough konbu dressing to coat every strand of noodles. Somen is a good choice, too, because it absorbs flavours beautifully.
A cold noodle is also perfect for Singapore's hot weather.
Another good cold noodle dish here is the Spicy Salmon Udon ($14.90), where thin udon is tossed in a sesame oil and soya sauce- based dressing, chilli padi and scallions, with chunks of salmon sashimi, all topped with tobiko. The Truffle Beef Yakiniku with onsen tamago ($16.90) is a tasty treat too. The beef is sufficiently tender.
The eatery also serves poke bowls, bara chirashi and side dishes such as onsen tamago with ikura.
Yuki Onna will also be serving liquid nitrogen ice cream from Tuesday. Ms Goh used to serve it at Ice Queen, but has had to scale back because of manpower constraints.
Her made-to-order coconut ice cream is heavenly. A novelty? Perhaps. But it is light - not creamy and cloying - and makes me feel like I am tucking into snowy coconut clouds. Served with toppings such as red rubies, it will be priced at $6.50 a serving. Other flavours will likely include acai berry and forest berries.
The eatery also serves uni on toast (three for $12 or $2 each up to a maximum of three pieces when purchased with a drink) during happy hour. But it is not available all the time - it depends on her sea urchin supply.
Sake prices start at $9 for 250ml. A 1.8-litre bottle is priced at $60 and a bottle of prosecco costs $38.
I'm entrusting you with my secret. Keep it safe.
WHERE: 01-01 Far East Square, 3 & 4 Amoy Street
OPEN: 11.30am to 10pm (weekdays), closed on weekends, last order for food is 9.30pm, happy hour is 5.30pm till closing
6. Rebecca Lynne Tan recommends
Shiro Maguro Boru at Boru Boru. Photo: Boru Boru/ Instagram
I tried a few donburi bowls from Boru Boru recently, a little Japanese food stand in Candour Coffee, a cafe along Beach Road. They are good, fresh and surprisingly cheap. Prices start at $9.90 a bowl.
Boru Chirashi at Boru Boru. ST Photo: Rebecca Lynne Tan
The Boru Chirashi, priced at $13.90, is a steal - it comes with large chunks of diced salmon, tuna, octopus and cooked prawn, marinated in a shoyu dressing over sushi rice topped with nori, roasted sesame seeds and ikura. The dressing is sweet, but not in an unpleasant way.
I also enjoy the 48 deg C Salmon Boru With Triple Egg ($16.90) and mentaiko. It comes with an onsen egg, flying fish roe, seasonal vegetables - my bowl had corn and edamame - and furikake.
I seldom order cooked salmon because it is usually overcooked, but here, it is cooked sous vide to perfection. The fish is still moist and supple in the centre, covered with aburi mentaiko - simple, tasty and satisfying.
Other offerings include cold Truffle Somen ($13.90) and a Wasabi Mayo Boru bowl with salmon or tuna (from $9.90).
WHERE: Boru Boru at Candour Coffee, 41 Beach Road MRT: Esplanade
OPEN: 11am to 9pm (weekdays only)
INFO: Boru Boru Facebook
7. Rebecca Lynne Tan recommends
FISH & CHICKS
Photo: Eugene/ Instagram
Fish & Chicks, a Western stall in a coffee shop in Ang Mo Kio, specialises in battered and grilled fish, and chicken - grilled, fried, with various sauces and marinades.
It serves everything from lemon butter grilled fish ($8.50) to Mexican grilled chicken ($8.50).
Best Of Both Worlds fish and chips from Fish & Chicks. Photo: Rebecca Lynne Tan/ Straits Times
I was craving fish and chips and its Best Of Both Worlds set ($13.80, photo) called out to me. It comes with two sizeable pieces of battered fish - one topped with savoury salted egg sauce and the other slathered with a sweet-spicy chilli crab-inspired gravy - plus chips and a side dish.
The crisp batter, fried to a deep golden brown, encases a flaky, steamed piece of fish.
WHERE: Fish & Chicks, Block 531 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10 MRT: Ang Mo Kio
OPEN: 11am to 9.30pm daily TEL: 9828-3490
READ MORE: 5 affordable seafood places in Singapore
8. Kenneth Goh recommends
PLUM & RICE
Photo: Julius Lim/ Instagram
A zen-looking wooden signboard caught my eye from the rows of loud signboards during a recent visit to Bedok North Market & Food Centre.
With its Japanese-style facade, I expected to find bento sets and donburi (rice bowls) at Plum & Rice. However, the four-month-old stall serves pink-coloured rice and braised pork belly.
It turns out that the rice has a rosy pink hue from being cooked with pureed umeboshi or Japanese preserved plums. Starting at $4, these Japanese-inspired rice sets give solid bang for the buck. Each comes with a choice of umeboshi rice or porridge, braised pork belly or pork shoulder, a side dish and free flow of soup.
The trio, Mr Gladwin Yap, Mr Eric Lee and Mr Raphael Sim, all 26, met in and graduated from the Singapore campus of The Culinary Institute of America. Inspired by the Japanese breakfast staple of umeboshi and rice that they ate on their holiday to Japan last year, they decided to incorporate the plum into their menu.
Umeboshi is said to alleviate fatigue and indigestion, among other benefits.
Instead of serving hipster Western cuisine, they chose comfort food.
Mr Yap says: "Many youngsters do not have time to eat dinner at home these days, so we decided to serve the down-to-earth food that our parents cook."
The braised pork belly umeboshi rice set comes with a side dish and free flow of soup. ST Photo: Kenneth Goh
Most popular is the braised pork belly rice set. On the small platter are seven plush blocks of pork belly, slow-braised for two hours. I recommend the umeboshi rice. Its chewiness is an interesting textural contrast to the meltingly soft fat of the pork. The acidity and sourness from the umeboshi flakes in the rice cuts through the oiliness and richness of the meat. The rice is also sprinkled with furikake - comprising cereal bits, curry leaves, seaweed and dried shrimps - which gives each spoonful a subtle spicy finish.
Those who are more health conscious can opt for the fish set ($6), which features a thick slab of cod that is coated liberally with minced garlic and fried garlic bits.
The clean-tasting cod, which is cooked sous vide, is best accompanied by the umeboshi porridge. It is topped with a dollop of umeboshi puree, to be stirred into the grains. The zinginess of the plum is more pronounced here and teases the palate.
The side dish of chilled cucumber is a good palate cleanser. Seasoned with sesame oil, garlic, light soya sauce and bonito flakes, the sour cubes leave a satisfying tingle in the mouth. The stall rotates its side dishes and the others include tau pok (fried beancurd puffs) with beansprouts, and cucumber with black fungus. If these are not enough, the fried tau pok stuffed with pork, prawn and water chestnuts ($1.50 for two pieces) makes a very moreish snack.
Complete the meal with soup. The roster changes daily and includes pork ribs and corn; and black bean and wintermelon.
WHERE: 01-45 Block 216 Bedok North Street 1 Market & Food Centre
OPEN: 8am to 2pm (Tuesdays to Sundays), closed on Mondays; tel: 9130-1200
INFO: Plum & Rice Facebook
This article was first published on The Straits Times