KF Seetoh on Singaporean Street Food
The excitable KF Seetoh with a plate of char kway teow at last night's Taste of Singapore
Eleven years ago, KF Seetoh realized that Michelin was "bullshit, man," and started work on his own guidebook, the Makansutra. He's half joking on the Michelin front, but he thought that Singaporean food, with its delicious blend of Chinese, Indian and Malay influences, deserved a serious guidebook of its own. He wrangled a team of "food police" to help him evaluate Singapore's many hawkers stalls and restaurants, and the resulting tome has become very popular— like Zagat mixed with the prestige and repute of the Michelin guide. Seetoh never accepts advertising from eateries, a policy that, he says, "gives me a good reputation and keeps me poor."
The book awards chopsticks instead of stars, and is organized by dish. So if you're looking for the ultimate roti parata, you turn to that dish's page and find the restaurants that made the grade this year. The very top honor is three pairs of chopsticks, which is categorized not as "excellent," but as "die, die must try." Singaporeans take food seriously.
Seetoh puts out a new version of the Makansutra every year and a half, and now has editions in Malaysia and Indonesia. He has played Singaporean food tour guide to Calvin Trillin and Anthony Bourdain. Today, Seetoh is in New York. The Singapore Tourism Board has flown him and several hawker cooks in to give classes at Whole Foods today.
We talked to Seetoh last night about the hawker food culture in Singapore.
Much of your book concerns street food, or hawker food. What's the hawker food culture like in Singapore?
Everyone, even millionaires eat at the hawker centers. Everyone loves it and eats it everyday. Indian, Chinese and Malay food has intermingled, so that now you have Indians frying noodles. Usually each hawker specializes in one dish that they've been making for years.
Your ultimate rating is "die die must try." What would you eat if it were your last night on earth? What's literally your "die, die" dish?
Peasant food. I'm Cantonese and my father taught me to eat many strange and wonderful things. For my last meal it would have to be rice porridge with a salted duck egg. Simple.
Since you divide your book by dish, are there any dishes that you're always looking for and never quite find the perfect version?
There is never a perfect dish. But I enter into another dimension with it, telling one version of a dish from another. It's never about the best, it's about delving into the soul of that particular version.
What do you want to eat while you're in New York?
What I respect New York for is the diversity of the restaurants. Calvin Trillin mentioned that you can find three Uighur restaurants here! But you can't get good Singaporean food here. The chefs in Singapore are making too much money to want to come! 'Why go overseas? The sun shines everyday here, my son is at Harvard and I'm making money!'
I always go to Peter Lugers when I'm here. It's like a pilgrimage to the mecca of steaks. I'm trying Per Se for the first time. And JG Melon and Shake Shack to see which burger is best.