Singapore’s ‘Hawker’ Centers Setting Up In New York City

Ginnie Teo
New York Daily News

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Ginnie Teo reports, “The 14,000 square-foot space, on W. 50th St. between Sixth and Seventh Aves. in Midtown, will be called Urban Hawker and house 17 stalls with a seating capacity of about 200.”

New York

Wok this way. Singapore’s famed “hawker” centers, ubiquitous foodcourt-like venues for communal vending and dining, are making their way to New York City.

Armed with a bevy of secret recipes and big dreams of expansion, 11 established Singaporean chefs — or hawkers — are flying 9,500 miles from the Southeast Asian nation to set up shop in a brand spanking new food hall set to open in late September in midtown Manhattan.

“When something happens in New York City, the world takes note and our hawkers are something we are proud to show off,” said Singaporean street food expert KF Seetoh, the entrepreneur who spearheaded the venture. Food hall operator Urbanspace teamed with Seetoh for the project, an idea borne when he met the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain at the World Street Food Congress in Singapore in 2013.

The 14,000 square-foot space, on W. 50th St. between Sixth and Seventh Aves. in Midtown, will be called Urban Hawker and house 17 stalls with a seating capacity of about 200.

“New York has a vast enough diaspora of international palates and is ever-curious. We’re just selling good food from a reputable foodie nation,” Seetoh, who personally chose the lineup of chefs, told the Daily News.

Singaporean cuisine is largely influenced by the culinary traditions of the Chinese, Malay and Indian people who populate the country, which cheekily considers eating akin to “a national pastime.”

For years, many of the estimated 3,600 Singaporeans living in the New York City metropolitan area have indulged their cravings for homestyle cooking at a handful of Southeast Asian eateries, like Nyonya in Manhattan’s Chinatown and Queens’ Malay Restoran. But the food hall will bring together a new wave of entrepreneurs who are redefining the dining experience, catering to expats while aiming to introduce the relatively unknown cuisine to a much broader audience.

Urban Hawker’s menu will introduce diners to Singapore’s hawker cuisine, which was recognized by the United Nations’ cultural agency UNESCO for its cultural significance in 2020.

Set up in the 1970s in an effort to clean up the country with a population of 6.5 million by moving longtime food vendors, or “hawkers,” off the streets, hawker centers became an essential part of Singaporeans’ way of life.

A scene in 2018′s hit “Crazy Rich Asians” starring Constance Wu and Awkwafina, was filmed in one of the country’s most famous hawker centers, Newton Circus. The practice of diners sitting at a shared table with plates of mouth-watering food prepared by numerous vendors in the self-service outdoor area was a radical concept for some Western viewers.

“Singapore hawker cuisine is underrated for too many years. It’s finally time for it to be in the spotlight,” said Roy Tan, 43, owner of Daisy’s Dream Kitchen, and one of the chefs making his way to the city. He will be selling Nyonya-style cooking, which blends Chinese ingredients with spices.

He hopes New Yorkers will take to his dishes of nasi lemak, which is fragrant rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf, and coconut curry chicken, but thinks that by bringing a slice of Singapore to the city, he will attract other Singaporeans, too.

Data provided by the Singapore Tourism Board indicate that there are 3,600 Singapore-born residents in the New York Metropolitan area, working in a variety of sectors like finance, tech, arts and professional services.

Other stalls opening include White, which will serve a rice vermicelli dish braised in seafood stock; Prawnaholic, serving prawn noodle soup, roasted pork ribs and shrimp in a rich shrimp broth, like a ramen but with thicker broth, and Wok & Staple by Dragon Phoenix, famous for its chilli crabs, with sambal, eggs and stock.

Sulaiman Rahman, 55, owner of Padi @ Bussorah, is packing up and uprooting to America. Moving here on a business migration visa, he said, “I’m going to teach Americans how to cook Singapore-Malay food.” His stall will serve nasi padang, which is steamed rice served with a variety of pre-cooked dishes.

Ingredients have proved surprisingly easy to find, chefs told The News, even though some say they have adjusted to use supplies that are more readily available. “What is half and half milk? We’ve never heard of it before, but we will adapt and use it,” said Terry Neo, 37, who will be serving plenty of hot kopi, Singapore’s version of coffee, in his Kopifellas coffee shop.

One issue that proprietors have yet to settle is pricing, but it is safe to say that patrons expect to pay more than they normally would in a hawker center. In Singapore, these dishes would generally set you back about $3 to $5. Instead, Urban Hawker stalls will likely charge around $12 to $15, some of the chefs said.

Lee Syafiq, 30, owner of Ashes Burnnit, said the Urban Hawker food hall is just the beginning of his American conquest. He is going to be selling burgers with a twist, dressed up with peanut sauce, fried shallots and green chili.

“If we can make it in New York and America, which is the land of opportunity, then maybe we can spread all over the states,” Syafiq said. “Now New York, next Chicago, then Florida … who knows?”

©2022 New York Daily News. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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