It’s been three weeks and I’m still thinking of the delicious hawker foods I had during my holiday in Penang, Malaysia. Fortunately, I can again satisfy my cravings next week, when I’m in Singapore.
Hawker foods are facing a crisis of sorts in the Lion City as few youngsters are drawn to the trade, due to the hard work and long hours involved. There’s also that tacit belittling of their craft by the very people they serve, which is reflected in the prices. While Singaporeans are prepared to pay, say, the equivalent of HK$80 for a serving of spaghetti Bolognese, they would balk at paying even half of that for a bowl of laksa. Validation, be it in the form of Michelin stars, social esteem or reasonable profits, will help continue the hawker tradition.
A female “hawker” about 900 years ago created a famous soup that can still be found in many Shanghainese restaurants. Fleeing the war between the Chinese and the Jurchen, the woman, who went by the name Song Wusao (“Fifth Sister-in-Law Song”), settled in Hangzhou, capital of the newly founded Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279), where she sold her fish soup. It gained popularity among refugees from the north because the taste reminded them of home, but when Emperor Gaozong himself ordered a takeout and, in today’s parlance, gave it five stars, the soup became a nationwide sensation.
While the delicately flavoured thick soup served in Chinese restaurants today may or may not resemble the original, the creator lives on in its name: Songsao yugeng (“Sister Song’s fish soup”).