More Dignity in the Kitchen
By KF Seetoh - Friday, Jan 29, 2021
Even the physically and mentally impaired or disabled can be a part of this Unesco recognised intangible hawker culture in Singapore. They can churn out complex dishes like claypot rice and the good ol’ laksa. “It’s how you teach them, we have to reinvent the whole notion of normal training.”, says Mr Koh Seng Choon, the founder of Dignity Kitchen. I’ve known him since he embarked on this truly social enterprise mission- to train the displaced, disadvantaged and disabled to cook and operate hawker stalls. He began with three humble hawker outlets in Balestier a decade ago in October of 2010. It was all part of his mission to empower and train the disabled and displaced.
I’ve known him since day one and he has come a long way from those initial stalls, one of which was a mother and her blind son, “the challenge was to train the son to be a cashier.. and we had an intellectually disabled patient selling dessert.”, adding “I was naïve then”. He sought help from big-hearted professionals in the industry and today, if you order local beverages from the hearing impaired at this food court, you will be instantly taught how to hand-sign kopi-o, teh-c, kopi siu dai etc.. all part of the skills in his bag of tricks. He even taught a one-handed amputee (due to traffic accident) how to cook and serve chicken rice. Just imagine how he would chop the chicken. Or what he has to come up with for the mentally challenged to cook claypot rice.
The claypot rice uses an automated cooker to easily help the cooks achieve good results
This current location of his Dignity Kitchen is the third he had moved to and it’s by far the largest. It comes with a training department, cooking classes for the public, an office and even a karaoke section (not currently used due to Covid) for corporate dining sessions. He also opened an outlet in Hong Kong in 2019.
This iconic red building is their new headquarters
The interior is basic, newly renovated and has 8 stalls manned by the disabled
The food. Firstly, it’s a halal certified eatery and if you go with no prejudices, you won’t be able to tell that the laksa ($4) was made by disabled folks. It came rich, boldly lemak and the pieces of steamed chicken, fish cakes, egg and taupok (no cockles used) made it all look so handsome. But when you stir that separate little plate of sambal in, this laksa transforms and it can put many able laksa hawkers to shame. The chicken rice ($4), while not chopped as perfectly as the top hawkers, was very comforting- rice was not oily yet flavourful, the chicken was soft and smooth and the edge, was the portion of achar (pickled spicy greens), an old school and authentic rendition hardly found today. I love this one- the pickles reminded me of the chicken rice in the Raffles Hotel area (the old Hainanese streets) back in the day. The chilli was not watered down and spicy, and the black sauce was the thick caramelised type. Their Kolo Mee ($5), was another favourite- it’s the noodle texture and the basic soy, sesame oil enhanced sambal sauce that did me in. They use a special automated stove for the claypot rice ($6), the operator just had to put the ingredients in and it did the rest. I only suggest to Seng Choon that he let the rice sit another 10 minutes in the pot to achieve even more of the roasty rice crust. They also use a Malacca hae ko (prawn paste) for the rojak ($4) and somehow, it was particularly moreish- just enough sweetness and not overwhelm by the tamarind juice or chilli.
The laksa is rich, aromatic and bold
The noodle texture in the kolo mee has a delightful aldente texture
Back to his bag of tricks. He used strong automatic pocket vibrators bought from sex shops to get the attention of the hearing impaired and taught the visually impaired to measure size of dollar notes with their fingers and palm. He taught the amputee to chop chicken with one hand using a chopping board with a steel pin in the middle, that holds it in place as he chops. Simple innovations that work.
You are a food hero Seng Choon, you fight poverty with deliciousness!
69, Boon Keng Road
Closed Sunday and Public Holidays