Singapore food masters fight to keep food heritage alive in new Street Food course

At just 14, master chef Sin Leong started working in the kitchen, washing dishes to hide from the Japanese during the WWII occupation in Singapore. 63 years on and he’s still in the heat of the kitchen.

“Why did I not change careers? Because I like to cook, and I like to experiment with cooking,” said the still sprightly 87-year-old in Mandarin.

Together with fellow master chef Hooi Kok Wai, Sin belongs to the older generation of cooks, whose culinary skills and cumulative know-how are in danger of being completely extinguished in years to come.

And both hope to pass on their knowledge, trade secrets and age-old recipes to a willing and hungry new generation of young hawkers in a new programme called the Street Food Pro 360 course.

Organized by Makansutra and National Trades Union Congress’ Employment and Employability Institute, e2i, the street food professional course aims to “preserve, professionalise and create new possibilities” in the comfort street food industry.

Speaking at a media briefing on Monday, Makansutra chief executive KF Seetoh said the course will help to “address the continuity of tomorrow’s food culture” and provide participants with a “360 view of what they can do in the industry”.

Learning from the best

Hooi and Sin are the final two surviving members of the “Four Heavenly Kings” in Singapore, the original chefs behind iconic dishes such as chilli crab, yam ring and the prosperity raw fish salad.

Sin opened his own cooking school in the 1960s after taking the advice of his shifu, chef Luo Chen from Cathay Restaurant, “to keep the culinary tradition going”. Sin said, “Shifu always emphasized on sharing recipes with students”.

Both chefs also highlighted that working in the food industry can lead to a successful and a prosperous career. Hooi said, “There is a future in being a food hawker. You can be prosperous and successful.”

Besides Seetoh, Hooi and Sin, Singapore food stalwarts including Wee Nam Kee Chicken Rice, Casuarina Curry Restaurant, Alhambra Satay, Tian Tian Lai Fried Hokkien Mee and Fatty Ox Hong Kong Kitchen, will also be involved in conducting the course.

Owner of Causarina Curry Restaurant, S. Ramanan belongs to the third generation of his family working in the food industry. The 47-year-old has been working in the family business for 25 years, and is eager to impart his prata-making skills to course students. He joked, “I don’t know anything else!”

Abdus Salam has been working at his father’s Indian rojak stall, Abdhus Salam Rojak, at Ayer Rajah Food Centre, since he was 16. He started taking over the operations of the stall three years ago, but is still working towards mastering the cooking skills to match his father’s expertise. The 27-year-old hopes to share his experiences of operating in food industry to course students. Salam said, “The younger generation are not taking up [in the food industry] because they think it’s not suitable. I would advise them to see the larger picture - the food trade is a never-dying trade.”

Long hours

The 30-hour course, held over 10 days, will cover operations and management classes, street food and cooking demonstrations. Seetoh admits that it is not an extensive course, but provides a “first-layer look” at the street food industry.

Young hawker Douglas Ng, 23, is among those looking forward to the course. He recently struck out on his own, setting up his Fishball Story stall at Golden Mile Hawker Centre.

Ng added that older hawkers have questioned his decision to work in the industry, “They are all asking me, ‘Why are you doing this business? It’s very tough, every day must work long hours’.“ He confesses that the work is tough, and “there is no work-life balance at all”.

Calling himself a “passionate cook” who does not have any formal training, Ng — who regularly clocks in 16-hour days — hopes to learn how to work effectively, and pick up methods that will help him maintain and improve the quality of his food.

The programme fees are $3,000 but e2i will be providing a 90% subsidy for Singaporeans and Permanent Residents. The course will be conducted in the last quarter of the year. Applications are open from now to the end of September. Prior experience in the food industry is not necessary. Interested applicants can send their queries to .