If you bother to chat with them, you will hear how they enhance the natural sweetness of the prawn stock with mirepoix, a French technique of making vegetable stock reduction. And then it strikes you- these young-uns sweating in our hawker centre stalls are graduates from the Culinary Institute of America (Tampines campus). If the institute’s head honcho Ms Eve Felder hadn’t told me about how some of their graduates take on these seemingly unheralded jobs in hawker centres, to continue the local culinary legacy, I would’ve just given them a passing glance here. Most hawkers just simply use shallots and rock sugar and won’t even know how to spell that French word.
So we stopped by, ordered the most decadent version in their menu (from $4 to $8), the $8 rendition with pork ribs and “pacific prawns” not the usual tiger or grey prawns. Both dry and soup version, mind you, and I stood in line to observe every move they make trying to decipher if top flight culinary graduates do it differently. Cooking and blanching the noodles is Gladwin Yap- he portion the noodles and lets it simmer for about 40 seconds, spoons the chilli sauce combo onto the bowl then carefully tosses the noodles and chilli or soup, before his fellow graduate partner, Raphael Sim, also aged 28, tops it with pork ribs and prawns. Like all seasoned hawkers, they are a smooth tag team in action, except, they had been hawkers for only 1.5 years. “We started with Plum and Rice and we switched to this menu about five months back.” and Raphael said it was also about what the customers wanted. Their old Japanese inspired pink plum rice served with braised meats and fish, was not exactly warming the cockles of the heartland customer’s heart.
Back to their makan. The initial visuals was quite picture worthy. Raphael carefully places three handsome looking prawns (tail and head intact) laid nicely beside a row of carefully chopped and soft pork rib chunks. You can see trained knife work in action and those ribs were fall off bone soft and moist. Those prawns were firm, sweet and crunchy as they were carefully pre-blanched for texture and doneness. Next, the all-important stock. Yes the mirepoix does give it a soft edge and the prawn stock came what I call “new-style”, where they roasted the shells and heads, blended them and simmered it, and it came brown and dense looking. The older style simple roasts and boils it other ingredients and it comes clearer. Both, if done well, are equally adorable, and these boys hit the mark although personally, I like it a notch sweeter and not as boldly umami as theirs is. But I slurped it all up and their dry version, had a chili paste mix that was comfortably spicy. That bowl was cleaned up too at meal’s end.
But the key difference in their operations, that I think many, especially new hawkers should emulate, is their service. They ask for your orders earnestly, double check for clarity and collect and return your change- with both hands and a smile with a “thank you” to boot. This is pride and it’s what we all need in what we do, even as hawkers who are moving towards a Unesco recognition for their food culture. I love their parting shot. “Don’t think too much, just cook and serve it well. We like to see the joy in our customer’s faces when they eat it.”
Prawn & Mee
#01-45, Blk 216, Bedok North Street 1
8.30am-2pm, close Monday