The weird and wonderful scents of Singapore overwhelm the unsuspecting visitor. In Little India, cumin and cardamom will captivate you. In Gardens by the Bay, you’ll be enchanted by jasmine and lemon trees. And in Chinatown, past the banks’ proud glass towers, you’re greeted by the aroma of raw fish and cooking stalls. Crowds surge in the narrow streets, propelled along by their appetites. Old men playing mahjong fill the Chinatown Complex’s main plaza, with European backpackers looking on in awe.
Chinatown Complex is a dominant concrete block that holds an inconspicuous secret: stall number 02-126. In a space measuring four square meters on the second floor, two cooks conjure up their specialty: melt-in-your-mouth chicken in a velvety sauce. It’s the best street food in this Southeast Asian city-state and the cheapest Michelin-starred meal on the planet.
In summer 2016, the Michelin Guide awarded the Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle street food stall a star. Just 2.50 Singapore dollars, which is about 1.60 euros, buys a gourmet meal here. Is that possible? Is it seemly, considering that elsewhere people shell out hundreds of euros for eight-course menus at classy restaurants bearing the same guide’s stars?
“Michelin and my food—how do they go together?” is a question Chan Hon Meng, who opened the stall in 2009 and has been running it ever since, still asks himself. The guide was all about first-class restaurant food, that much the Malaysia-born chef knew, so it had nothing to do with his world. Little wonder that he was flabbergasted to be included among its ranks. Chan, 53, sports a simple shirt, black pants and a tidy brush cut. His ears stand out a bit, as do the veins marking his lower arms like rivers on a map; his hands are covered with calluses.
The star has changed remarkably little about the rhythm of his life. He still rises at five each morning, walks 20 minutes from his apartment to the stall in Chinatown, takes delivery of fresh chicken from Malaysia or Indonesia, cleans and cuts it, concocts the sauce according to his secret recipe and finally rattles his shutters open at ten.
Such discipline applied to street food and the passion for cooking may have convinced the testers to bend a rule. In 2016, for the first time ever, the renowned Michelin Guide awarded stars to not one but two street food stalls. “The ability to create sublime products from simple things is a great form of art,” said Michael Ellis, international director of the Michelin Guides, elaborating on his decision. Both the star-awarded stalls are located in Singapore, cook Chinese food that costs a tenth of other Michelin-starred establishments’ dishes, and could not care less about fancy decor. No cedar or artworks distract from the culinary experience.
Yet while Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle serves up various cuts of pork in a bowl for about ten Singapore dollars—liver pounded to delectable tenderness, wontons and meatballs with noodles and the house chili sauce—Chan asks just a quarter of the price for his authentic chicken dish. It’s the bargain of a lifetime: haute cuisine quality with a hot-dog-stand price tag.
“High quality cooking, worth a stop,” is how Michelin defines one-star restaurants. It goes on: “Exceptional quality products, unmistakable finesse, perfect flavor, cuisine prepared to a consistently high standard.”
So it doesn’t take a lot of money for locals and tourists alike to get their hands on this legend-steeped chicken. What they do need in abundance, though, is time. These days, the food court at Chinatown Complex looks more like the entrance to some popular New York or London night club, complete with ropes keeping the hopefuls in an orderly line. This morning, 60 hungry street food fans snake slowly past the other stalls, hoping their turn will come in two hours—“slow food” takes on a whole new meaning.
It’s a good opportunity to reflect on what makes Singapore so special in the culinary cosmos. Three cultures—Malaysian, Indian and Chinese—come together here. Their cuisine is best enjoyed at the stalls in hawker centers. Built in the 1950s and ’60s, these complexes aimed to get the street food off the streets and into a more hygienic setting in an effort to improve quality control. At first, only the city-state’s poorer residents came to the food courts. Now that Singapore’s high per-capita income has transformed it into the Switzerland of Southeast Asia, the hawker centers have become a hip magnet for well-heeled locals. At many of the stalls, they are served by elderly men and women who keep this multicultural locale’s best culinary traditions alive.
With his one-dish philosophy, Chan Hon Meng is a low-profile star in an industry of supercharged egos. British chef Gordon Ramsay famously bellows at his cooks on camera. Hawker Chan, as he is known here, bows to each guest who requests a selfie. Chan has expanded from one to a little network of stalls, dubbing them simply Hawker Chan because it’s easier to remember than the name of the stand in the complex. Within a single year, he opened two locations in Singapore and one each in Taiwan and Thailand, with Indonesia and the Philippines in the pipeline.
The master rubs his face with his palms to stay alert. Oblivious to the leaden sky outside and protected from the elements, Chan sits in an air-conditioned restaurant. It’s his own venue, the first in the Hawker Chan chain, located on a side street next to the Chinatown Complex. Although it can seat about 80 diners at Formica tables, staff in freshly laundered uniforms still need to help the guests keep calm. There’s a wait here as well, but at off-peak times it may be only 30 minutes. And the food costs a dollar more than at the stall.
Chef Chan tells the story of a trip to New York, his first flight to the other side of the world. Working alongside an American star chef in Manhattan, he whipped up a menu for paying guests. Then he got back on a plane, flew twelve and a half hours to Dubai and another seven to Singapore. A 13-hour time difference, while back in Chinatown chickens were being chopped up nonstop. He shakes his head, still not quite able to grasp the turn his fate has taken. But success does breed ambition. His dream: “Become number two after Kentucky Fried Chicken.”
Hawker Chan speaks only Mandarin, not a rarity in a city where over two-thirds of the population are Chinese natives. A young woman is on hand to translate for him. She works for Hersing, a company that specializes in brand management—that is, the science that will turn Chan into a brand name. Hersing claims to have invested a million dollars already. Interviews, cooking tours, fast food restaurants—Hawker Chan has literally hitched his wagon to a star.
And why shouldn’t he? After a life at the stove, nose to the grindstone like the rest of the country, diligent and disciplined day after day, he worked his way up from assistant cook to head cook, and then finally opened his own stall nine years ago. While all around him a port city abandoned by Britain morphed into a modern financial hub, Chan, in his own humble style, fulfilled the dream of calling his own shots.
At long last, the food arrives. The meat is tender, slightly juicy. Its consistency is reminiscent of a firm paté, not even remotely related to the dry, rubbery broilers some other fast-food purveyors churn out. The chicken practically falls off the fork as you cut it, the dark sauce tinting the crisp skin a chocolatey brown. It goes without saying that the master won’t reveal his recipe, his most valuable asset. He presides over its preparation with an eagle eye. All he’ll say is that coriander, ginger and angelica root are added to the soy mix. That’s what makes it slightly sweet, melting on the tongue. Heaven!
Even though he still works from morning till night and lives in the same apartment—Master Chan tries to maintain a low-key lifestyle—many, many eyes are now upon him. And not just peeking through the windows of his little stall, but from every corner of the culinary universe. They watch as he continues to pursue his happiness. At Guide Michelin, they don’t need to see any more to be convinced of his unwavering skill: This year, Chan holds on to his star.
Further photo credits: Carrie Meier-Ho / Harrys Ding, Asia City Media