In Singapore, we have a passionate relationship with our traditional hawker food.
When we go to fill up on good old hawker grub, we usually see a familiar uncle or auntie behind the stall; the same face over the years. But when age catches up, as it surely will, we worry what’s to become of our beloved hawkers if no one is there to carry on their legacy.
This hawker’s son thought it would be a pity for his family’s recipe to go to waste, so he gave up his bank job to learn his mother’s trade at Jiao Cai Hotplate BBQ.
Now, 27-year-old Chew Zhi Jie manages his own new branch at Yishun Park Hawker Centre to keep the business going.
One Of The Oldest BBQ Stingray Stalls In S’pore
Zhi Jie’s mother, Mdm Neo, has had her stall at Yuhua Village Food Centre since 1982.
“[It’s] probably one of the oldest shops around dealing with BBQ sambal seafood,” he told us.
Barbecue stingray lovers say the sambal plays a huge part in its flavour — and Jiao Cai’s sambal comes from a secret recipe created by Zhi Jie’s father.
As a child, Zhi Jie would tag along whenever his dad made trips to a factory to cook sambal sauce.
When my dad was busy cooking his sambal, I would stand in a corner, copy his moves and pretend to be like him, cooking sambal by mixing my toys and water.
All that practice seems to have paid off, because his customers are digging the sambal he serves today.
From Handling Loans To Handling Fish
Before going down the hawker route, Zhi Jie was a loan sales executive at DBS Bank for 3 years. He also studied part time to get a degree in economics and finance.
After completing his studies, he decided to leave his job to take a break and help his mother out at her stall.
Over two months as her helping hand, he realised how tough it was for her to work on her own.
“Wanting to lessen my mum’s workload, I then decided to learn from her and take over the business in order for her to retire early,” he said.
His friends were shocked by his decision at first.
They used to hang out with Zhi Jie almost every night when he worked from 9 to 5.
Although they were surprised that he gave up his free time to be a hawker, they give him constant support and encouragement now.
His friends weren’t the only ones who were taken aback.
The elders [at the hawker centre] were mostly surprised at first when they saw this young face working there, and even more so when they found out that I gave up a proper bank job.
“Up till today, I won’t deny that some of them still have doubts whether I can make it or not.”
Regardless of the mixed reactions from people around him, Zhi Jie experienced his most satisfying moment when he finally had his stall set up for its opening day.
When I served my first customers, I instantly received compliments and I have never felt so accomplished before.
We All Begin With Blunders
Zhi Jie’s cooking gets lots of praise from customers now.
But when he first opened his stall in September 2017, the young hawker had lots to learn, and mistakes to make.
In fact, he used to hate perspiring and being around odd smells. Once in the kitchen, he had to get accustomed to its heat and fishy odour.
He had to start from scratch, learning how to slice and cook fish, manage his stall, and build up a customer base.
In the first two months, the new stall benefited from opening publicity and saw a spike in customers and profit.
However, as hype died down, the following months were quieter and Zhi Jie struggled through the end-of-year holiday season in 2017.
“2018 started well and business has been since picking up,” he said. He noted that weekend crowds boost his sales, allowing him to rack up an average revenue of $15,000 per month.
With business more stable, Zhi Jie explores fresh new ways to serve traditional barbecue seafood.
He launched two new items in May, the stingray rice bowl and sotong rice bowl, complete with cucumber slices and a gooey onsen egg.
Now seasoned with experience, Zhi Jie shared with us what makes a delicious plate of stingray.
“Sambal is definitely the key to a good BBQ stingray. Stingray meat itself is bland and sambal adds a lot of flavour to it,” he said.
When it comes to the fish, he said that preferences are subjective. “Some people like it dry and crispy while some like it tender and juicy.”
“I’ve always tried to make it soft and tender, but at the same time crispy on the fins,” he added.
The OG Yuhua Village Stall Still Goes On
Although Zhi Jie is now independently running his hawker stall, Mdm Neo has decided it’s not time to retire yet.
At 61 this year, she’s glad to continue working at Yuhua Village Food Centre since she’s in good health.
Talking about future plans, Zhi Jie shared that he wants to open another outlet if he can find the manpower he needs.
I asked if he would hope for the generation after him to take over when it eventually comes his time to retire too.
Zhi Jie responded with pride for Jiao Cai’s heritage.
It would definitely be great if my future children would be able to continue the hawker culture and of course, my family’s age-old recipe.
“But if they have their own ideas and dreams, I would fully support them too.”
Find out what else Zhi Jie is cooking up here!
Jiao Cai Hotplate BBQ
Yishun Park Hawker Centre
51, Yishun Avenue 11, #01-39
Featured Image Credit: Jiao Cai Hotplate BBQ