Street Food (2019) s01e08 Episode Script


[tranquil music.]
When I was young, every morning I would smell the aroma of steamed rice.
The smell of the palm sugar, that's the best smell.
The whole house would smell like caramelized sugar.
Dad, how is it? Hm, very nice.
- [Aisha.]
Sweet? - Yes.
My turn.
As a child, I kept coming back to the kitchen.
I was comfortable there.
That's where I can see my future.
[indistinct chatter.]
What is Singapore and what is the meaning of life? One hundred cents.
[KF in English.]
We're a very young country.
We're Chinese, Indian, Malay, Peranakan.
[KF in Hokkien.]
Finished? [in English.]
We've got no language, which means we've got no songs of our own.
We don't have a national costume like all of our neighbors.
So nothing roots you except for food.
The whole cityscape that you see, all that action wasn't there just 20 years ago.
A lot of Singapore's very rapid development comes about, because we're geographically at the heart of Southeast Asia.
People came here to trade, and when people come, food has to come.
Food is such a big part of the Singaporean identity.
Everyone in Singapore is a food critic, everyone has an opinion on food.
You can get into some really brutal fights by declaring that this stall sells the best chicken rice in Singapore.
There's no street food in Singapore.
We have hawker centers, each about the size of a football field.
Housing up to 100 little 10x10 foot hawker stalls.
In a hawker center, it's packed with people, all sorts of people.
All colors, all race, all creeds.
And you can order anything.
Fried rice, fried noodles, fish head curries, stewed offal.
It's a portal to a world of culinary heritage.
These dishes, they are no longer Indian, Chinese, Malay, Peranakan.
They are just Singaporean dishes.
Chicken rice, chili crab, wanton noodles, and putu piring.
Putu piring is a traditional Singaporean treat.
It's a steamed rice cake filled with gula melaka, which is palm sugar, melted down.
They place the rice flour in little metal tins, and they put the metal tins into a steamer.
There's this rhythm to it.
It's served with grated coconut and squares of pandan leaf, so it has that subtle, sweet vanilla fragrance.
It's got so much history.
And when you mention it to anyone in Singapore, everyone knows about it, and then "Oh, yeah.
I used to eat it as a kid.
" But Aisha's stall is one of the rare few that still does it.
But she has started to realize that if we don't start identifying things that are important to our culture, and that we want to keep, then we'll lose it, and we'll lose it forever.
Putu piring is a family tradition.
Excuse me.
But these days, it's rarely found because it's such a difficult dish to make.
[Aisha in Malay.]
Where is this sugar from? [woman.]
It's from Indonesia.
- [Aisha.]
Oh, Indonesia.
- [woman.]
Yes, Indonesia.
[Aisha in English.]
My great-grandmother used to sell putu piring by the roadside.
[tranquil music.]
My mother liked to help her out, so my great-grandmother passed all her skills to her.
So putu piring is in my blood.
[Aisha in Malay.]
Good morning.
Is the pandan leaf here? - [Mr.
The pandan has arrived.
- Two kilos.
[Aisha in English.]
When I was young, I help out at my parents' putu piring stall.
[in Malay.]
It's fresh.
I want all of these.
- [Mr.
All of them? - Yes.
Are the coconuts ready? Only three.
The small ones.
I don't want the big ones.
[Aisha in English.]
My dad taught me how to make putu piring.
And after a few days, I was able to master that skill.
Thank you! With the putu piring business, I was the next generation to take over.
To get to where Singapore is today, slick, modern, wired, a lot of things we had to give.
In the '80s, we were industrializing, foreign companies came, businesses started expanding.
Everybody wanted to work in fancy banks.
And for about 20, 25 years, nobody went into street food, nobody went into hawkering.
There was this dark era.
So the hawkers that you will come across in a hawker center are generally older.
[in Hokkien.]
You are 69? And I am very happy.
[KF in English.]
People who have been doing that same dish for 40, 50, 60 years, and these hawkers have fantastic secrets.
They never went to culinary school.
They just learned the hard way.
They have a respect for what they do.
[Master Tang in Cantonese.]
If you ask, "Why don't the noodles get mushy in the soup easily?" I would say, "It's because you are doing it right.
" It all comes down to craftsmanship.
In order for the noodles to be springy, you have to knead the noodles by hand.
Nobody taught me these things.
I created the secrets myself.
I was born in Hoiping, China.
During the Japanese invasion, I had to head to the mountains every day to avoid the Japanese patrols.
So I fled to Hong Kong.
I was 15 then.
I found a job at a restaurant making wanton noodles.
[KF in English.]
He was a slave.
A kitchen slave for many, many years.
He learned to make noodles.
He learned to make his own wantons.
And he just did that, nothing else.
He's a noodle master.
[Master Tang in Cantonese.]
I left for Singapore in 1977.
I kept making noodles.
Making noodles in an old-fashioned way.
I love to make noodles.
I love to work.
I will work until I have to retire.
[Aisha in English.]
When I was in high school, I had a home economics class.
They taught us pastry and baking.
The first day in class, I did not do a good job.
When baking, my cream puff did not puff up.
But it actually encouraged me to be more into baking.
I was intrigued by the process and the methods.
I wanted to know more about the ingredients, like, what can this ingredient transform into? Thank you.
I realized what I really wanted.
I wanted to become a pastry chef.
When I graduated from high school, I was thirsty for more skills and knowledge.
I decided to further my studies.
I applied for school in America, at Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island.
When I told my parents that I wanted to go to America, they were totally reluctant.
They wanted me to continue with the tradition of putu piring.
But I told them that I have a bigger ambition.
It took me almost a year to save up the money.
I earned it from putu piring.
The first day in class, I was the only international student.
At first, yes, it was tough.
Very tough.
But I wanted to learn everything.
I stayed after school.
I signed up for extra classes.
I really, really wanted to become the best pastry chef in the kitchen.
In America I felt free.
I got to be who I wanted.
After I finished my program, I managed to get a job at Boston Harbor Hotel.
For the first time, I entered a real professional kitchen.
I was happy.
And I did not want to go back to Singapore.
There's an ongoing debate about the continuity of hawker culture in Singapore because the success of the hawker culture has, sort of, endangered its own survival.
A lot of these first generation hawkers are retiring or they're dying without anyone to take over the business.
But at the same time, also, I think the hawkers, themselves, maybe don't want their kids to take over the business because the thinking is, "Well, I worked so hard so that you don't have to.
" [KF.]
Chilli Crab is a totally Singaporean dish.
It was invented in the '50s by hawkers that sold seafood by the seashore in Eastern Singapore.
And Keng Eng Kee, which became KEK, their version is a legend.
For years, it was run by a quiet little old man, just there with his wife, waiting for customers.
Very proud man, spoke very little.
He let his food do the talking.
Made with limes, sambal, chilis, eggs, and seafood stock it's heaven on earth.
My father, he doesn't really encourage us to do the same job as his.
He makes the hard work and he hopes that we study hard so that we won't be following him doing this hard job in the kitchen.
People said, "You've got to let your son and your children take it into the next phase.
" [Paul.]
They always thought that this line is too much for the youngster.
But, I think we proved that we could.
So it was after a while, the father reluctantly let them try.
It's my father's very own recipe.
If I don't follow, I think he will kill me.
It took me 15 years before my father hand over the wok to me.
It takes years of experience.
We are still learning how to progress.
You have to evolve to carry on family traditions.
There is a new generation of young cooks and hawkers.
You need them to preserve that skill set, that heritage, that craft.
Otherwise, that's another dish that's gonna fade into the sunset.
In America, I was very comfortable.
But one night, my phone rang.
It was my mom.
Her voice was different.
She said, "The shop is not doing well.
All of the staff quit.
Can you please come back and help us?" In my culture, my tradition, we don't normally say no to our parents.
When she said that, I understand that I have to leave what I'm doing.
I felt so disappointed because I was so close to making my dream come true.
But I understand that what I love to do will not be part of me.
When I left America, I knew that I would not be back.
When I came back to Singapore it was tough.
The business was struggling because the process of making putu piring had not changed since my parents started the business in the '80s.
It was exhausting and time-consuming.
We had to do everything from scratch.
We had to steam our rice flour and chop the palm sugar.
We couldn't save money.
It all went down the drain.
I felt depressed.
And I asked myself if it was a mistake to come home.
From Thailand.
Back in the era, postwar, before independence, there were no jobs, and there were tons of migrants.
The Chinese came, the Indians.
The early Asian migrants that came had to feed each other.
The Chinese fed the Chinese, the Indians fed the Indians.
People just coming up with stuff, trading little secrets here and there.
Today, thankfully, it's preserved.
We are still eating recipes that came from way back in the '40s, '50s, '60s.
I will safely say that chicken rice is the comfort food for many, many Singaporeans.
There's a kind of an attachment, a bonding among all those who have grown up with chicken rice.
There's a lot of arguments over whether the Malaysians started it, or the Hainanese started it.
We, Singaporeans, found a unique way to bring out the flavor of the chicken to bring out the flavor of the rice.
That's what makes it so different.
Everybody has their own particular recipe.
I follow exactly what my father did way back in the good old days.
It was in 1971, he started Sin Kee Famous Chicken Rice.
And as they say, the rest is history.
First, we poach the chicken.
When it's done, we put it through a water bath.
And then you hang it up to drip dry.
Then you are able to bring out the gelatin from the chicken.
I want to retain the kind of flavor that everybody knows, and I think that it is worth keeping.
I would say that my chicken rice is still as authentic as before.
My kids, they are not interested in this.
So I share our recipe with my colleagues.
So that future generations can still savor the kind of authentic flavor that my father started initially.
The first year back in Singapore, I was full-time in putu piring.
During that time, I had lunch every day in the chicken rice stall just across us.
And that's where I met Nizam.
He was selling chicken rice.
He makes me laugh a lot.
[recites Arabic prayer.]
Look, you have it.
[Nizam in Malay.]
Don't mess with my food.
I would always walk in front of her stall.
I would ask how she was.
That's how it started.
I saw her walking in the morning, returning in the evening.
It's tiring.
They had put in a repeat order.
It's not easy to make putu piring.
[both laughing.]
[Aisha in English.]
He saw that I was unhappy and he opened up my thinking.
[Nizam in Malay.]
My heart felt like I wanted to help her.
[Aisha in English.]
I told him that I wanted to become a pastry chef.
And he actually said "You already are.
You are still part of it.
But, you have a bigger responsibility.
You can make sure that putu piring will be forever.
" I was like, "Wow.
" He changed my life.
The cars at the back were honking [imitates car horn honking.]
And I was like, "I don't care.
" [Aisha.]
After I met Nizam it was a new chapter of life.
We work together.
And we could see that in order to keep putu piring going, we had to make the process easier.
That's where innovation comes in.
[machine rumbling.]
By using machinery, we realized that we could cut down the time it took to process the rice flour from ten hours to two hours.
At first, my parents were against it.
They were worried that we wouldn't be able to maintain quality control.
They wanted to keep the process the same.
But I told them that time changes.
We have to combine this innovation to continue the tradition.
After seeing that the quality of the rice flour is still the same, they agreed to whatever we are doing.
I decided to open a central kitchen.
The young generations started to know putu piring.
And that's where our company began to grow.
We opened four outlets and soon we will have five.
[Nizam in Malay.]
As of now, we are modernized.
We have machines but we maintain the traditions.
[Debbie in English.]
She's not just running the business, but she grew the business.
She found a way to integrate her own ambitions while improving on the traditional methods, and that's really remarkable.
Singapore is a very small country.
We just have to evolve, evolve, and evolve.
Because moving on into tomorrow, you have to know where you came from.
If you recognize that, you can stand up tall and proud.
I am who I am.
If hawker food were to disappear, we would lose our identity, and our connection to history.
We need to celebrate these hawkers.
It's all that's left of who we are.
This is our heritage.
Our culture.
And that's what roots us together.
[in Malay.]
Come on, let's make satay.
- I want to blow - Let's make satay.
Let's make satay.
Now, me and my husband, we have three kids.
- Ahh! - [laughing.]
I don't know what their future is going to be like.
But I do hope that the three of them will work together and continue our tradition.
I want this putu piring to be forever.
And I think the future of putu piring has only just begun.
[tranquil music.]
Subtitle translation by Choy Wei Quan, Siti Syirah Salleh