Not many of us would consider a career as a hawker.
In a story told to us by a restaurant business owner, one of the staff he hired vanished two hours into the job, and there were others who did the same, too, because they found their kitchen “too hot”.
A stall owner selling drinks and toast in a hawker centre said they stand almost 10 hours a day!
But long hours and hot kitchens don’t intimidate these three friends who became hawkers because they want to preserve the significance it has for them and for all Singaporeans.
The Pit Of A Preserved Plum
Raphael Sim, Eric Lee, and Gladwin Yap are 27-year-old graduates of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Singapore.
They are also founders of Plum & Rice, a hawker stall in Bedok that specialises in incorporating umeboshi, a type of preserved plum commonly eaten in Japan, into regular local fare.
“While touring around Japan with Gladwin, we chanced upon umeboshi and learned that the locals generally have it in the mornings or lunch,” Raphael said.
“A little bit of research later and we further learned about some of the health benefits of umeboshi such as relieving fatigue, anti-ageing, and aiding in digestion.”
But they worried that the tartness of the umeboshi might be overwhelming for Singaporeans to be eating by itself.
So they removed the seed and made a paste from the flesh of the pickled fruit and mixed it into the rice to “mellow out the flavours”, Raphael described.
“To amp up the flavours, we decided to add our own interpretation of furikake, a Japanese rice seasoning, with inspiration drawn from cereal prawn.”
The whole research and development process took them about two months until business began in the start of December of 2016.
From then on, they continued adapting and improving their flavours.
I was curious to know about the process of getting a hawker stall and asked Raphael.
He said they had obtained a Food Hygiene certificate first, then they tendered for a stall on the NEA website.
They registered for a stall licence once their bid was successful.
“The process is a simple bidding exercise on the NEA website where a list of vacant stalls would be released every month. We took some time to find a suitable hawker centre out of the selection that were up for bids,” he assured.
Preserving The Work Of Pioneers
They think that one of the largest changes in the hawker industry is the increasing number of pioneering hawkers “pulling out of the trade”.
“This has left a vacuum in the industry and places our food culture at risk. Additionally, cost is a large hurdle for new entrants to the hawker trade as well,” he stated.
Raphael reminisced, “The hawker culture is a significant part of Singaporean’s lives; from the meals we shared with our families, to gatherings with friends, or for the simplest desire to satisfy our craving for a particular favourite dish.”
“As much as it is about the food, it has always been a place of comfort.”
However, one of their challenges they faced starting out was having to convince people who seemed “cautious” of their pinkish, preserved platter, to try.
He said it took some patience to explain the food they’re serving.
On their families and friends’ reactions, Raphael shared, “Initially they were curious as to our choice, and no doubt they had their worries, however we explained our decision and they gave us their fullest support.”
In the beginning, he admitted that they had felt discouraged “a couple of times”, but that faith and support from their families and in themselves kept them going.
Sometimes customers praise their stall’s neatness and cleanliness, and patrons express surprise that “three young guys” are running a hawker stall together, he told me.
Usually, unique food combinations or concepts at hawker centres tend to be a bit more pricey.
For example, this $22 Lobster Nasi Lemak dish or $13.80 Fish & Chips with chilli crab and salted egg sauces.
But a meal at Plum & Rice only costs between $4 to $6 – plus, soup is free flow for any purchase of a set meal.
On how they decide the pricing of their food, Raphael said they “studied” their neighbours’ price ranges at the hawker centre and observed the hawker centre’s demographics.
These young hawkers start their day early in the morning, preparing the stall for opening by 8am.
The three of them have no fixed roles in the kitchen – they handle everything from serving customers to food preparation.
When 2pm comes, they’ll have their lunch and clean up the stall after.
Precious Pips Of Wisdom
Raphael shared that they are working in a challenging environment which demands cooking and service be “in tandem”.
It’s also an environment that requires them to continually improve across different areas.
“We wished we had known how back-breaking the work would be; the challenges of working in an open environment, coupled with the constant (delivery of) service,” he added.
On working with friends, I asked him how do they prevent or lessen the friction that comes with this situation.
“We each have our own areas of expertise and we stick within them and consult each other to maintain a smooth relationship,” he said.
“Besides that, there will definitely be decisions that we will not all agree upon unanimously; for that, we would sit down to discuss the issue and come to a general consensus amicably. Mutual respect is the key.”
Raphael encourages aspiring hawkers to “strike while the iron is hot”.
“While risks should be calculated, one should not use it as an excuse to procrastinate decisions.”
He revealed that they are looking to expand and come up with a different concept, but he understands that plans can change so they are keeping themselves open to the market.
Plum & Rice
Blk 216 Bedok North Street 1
Featured Image Credit: Jacky Lee, THEBOYWHOCRIEDACTION