Despite his attachment to the hawker food scene in his native Singapore, TV host and food critic KF Seetoh has started to look elsewhere for his next challenge. “Everybody wants to come out of Singapore, our street food culture is very crowded,” Seetoh confides. “Very little air left for hawkers.”
Seetoh and his hawker friends have picked up on the freshening breeze elsewhere: they're opening a new hawker venture in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, where Seetoh believes an untapped market for chicken rice and char kway teow (among others) lies ripe for the picking.
“The established street food destinations in Southeast Asia are already very well known – Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore,” Seetoh tells us. “I believe the Philippines will be the next.”
- Food Trip: Read about Southeast Asia's top cities for foodies.
Singapore Hawker Classics Make Their Philippines Debut
The new Makansutra street food market in Manila is about to put Seetoh's faith in “the internationalization of heritage, comfort street food” to the test.
Located in a prime 14,000-square-foot section in Manila's SM Megamall, Makansutra unites 11 hawkers from Singapore and Malaysia under one roof, serving about 60 classic dishes from across the South China Sea.
These include World Street Food Congress favorites like Singapore’s Alhambra Padang Satay; Donald & Lily Nonya food (Nonya Mee Siam and Laksa) from Malacca in Malaysia; and Jin Ji Kway Chap and Braised Duck.
Several Singapore hawker favorites will make their Manila debuts via Makansutra: Teochew Kway Chap and Braised Duck (rice noodle with pig offal and braised duck); Singapore Bak Kut Teh (pork rib broth) cooked with sugar cane; and Geylang Claypot Rice from Lorong 33, Geylang Road, which Anthony Bourdain has also included in his soon-to-be-launched Bourdain Market in New York.
- I'm Not Worthy: Read about Southeast Asia's street food masters.
"Curated Eclectic Chaos"
The space in Megamall follows what Seetoh playfully calls R.I.C.E.: “Retro, Industrial, Chic, Eclectic; that's the brief that I gave to the designer,” Seetoh tells me as we walk through the interior, workmen applying final touches to the finishes.
“It looks like an industrial park coming together in a back lane, where everybody's set up their own stalls and set up their own tables and chairs,” Seetoh explains. “It's supposed to have a curated eclectic chaos: every stall has its own identity, and there are at least six types of tables and chairs mixed up.”
To that end, the contractor seems to have had a field day repurposing all sorts of material. “We're using old corrugated sheets, like an old streetside,” Seetoh tells us. “This is where the industrial part comes up, little bits and pieces of industrial trash that we put together.”
The hawkers get stalls with high-end kitchens that can handle anything thrown at them – particularly handy as the menu evolves over time. “All kitchens are designed to do way more than meets the eye,” Seetoh tells us. “Maybe three months down the road, we'll say, hey, why don't we do nasi lemak? Why don't we do this, why don't we do that?”
- You've been Nasi: Read about the classic nasi lemak served in Penang's Sri Weld Food Court.
Culinary Cultural Exchange
Expanding to Manila was a no-brainer for Seetoh. The recent World Street Food Congress in Manila's Bonifacio Global City attracted over 70,000 people for its five-day run. Getting his friends to join the venture was an easy sell after that.
“They know the potential of exporting this culture; it's so well-loved,” Seetoh explains. “Good food like chicken rice is delicious anywhere you go!”
Seetoh's Philippines-based business partner in the venture, chef and culinary curator JJ Yulo, believes the gap between Singapore and Filipino taste buds won't prove to be as wide as some fear. “When we Filipinos think of Singaporean food, they might say, 'I've never tried it before,' but when we eat it, 'it's OK, I know these tastes, I know these flavors!'” JJ says.
“The menu is carefully thought out and curated,” Seetoh adds. “They're all popular items that Singaporeans and Malaysians miss and our Pinoy friends will love.” Allowances will still be made for unfamiliarity: each stall will bear signs explaining how each dish is to be enjoyed the Singaporean way.
“It's a form of culinary cultural exchange,” Seetoh chuckles. “For example, how to dip dough fritters into bak kut teh, these are things that [non-Singaporeans] wouldn't know!”
- Eat's Plenty Crazy: For more on the Filipino food scene, read about the food frenzy covering Manila and Pampanga.
Breaking Down Barriers for Hungry Young Chefs
To bridge the gap in more profound ways, Makansutra intends to instill the hawker entrepreneurial drive via its employment of 80 Filipino cooks and chefs on the property.
“The lure of the whole business is, it's something that can empower people, it's something that can create jobs,” JJ explains. “I buy into this whole 'food-being-democratic' thing – that you can get some guy who hasn't had the same breaks we had, if he wants to work hard enough, he can make it a good living.”
To that end, JJ and Seetoh have reached out to different charitable foundations in Manila to help provide manpower for the Makansutra Manila property, hoping that the passion and drive typical of Singapore hawkers will trickle down to a new generation of future Filipino hawkers-to-be. The timing is just right: the recent Singapore debut of the Michelin Guide has just demolished another psychological barrier for poor but passionate chefs.
“The young chef will go, 'Wow! You mean I can get a Michelin star just frying noodles? I want to be part of that,'” Seetoh explains. “We want to say, you don't always need a fancy degree. We can share with you the idea of being a successful one-dish entrepreneur, like the successful hawkers in Singapore.”
The aim is nothing less than to spread the word of heritage street food culture and industry, so strong elsewhere in Southeast Asia, onto fallow ground in the Philippines, beginning with Makansutra Manila. “When you eat street food that's professionally done, nobody cares who you are; they only care about your food,” Seetoh tells us. “Is it good, authentic, progressive? This is a conversation we want to start.”
The Makansutra street food market in Manila food hall will officially open on the first week of September in SM Megamall, part of the Ortigas financial district and directly accessible by MRT.
Prices will range from PHP 100 (about US$ 2.15; read about money in the Philippines) to higher “market rates” for seasonal seafood like crab and deep-sea fish items. Most one-meal dishes will be affordably priced around PHP 200 (about US$ 4.30) each.
To find out more about KF Seetoh and Makansutra's latest projects, visit their website: www.makansutra.com.