Words: Jane Fulcher
Illustration: Charlotte Trounce
There has long been a presumption that the Michelin committee prefers white-cloth restaurants in the style of the award’s home, France (and expensive ones at that). But across East and Southeast Asia, there is a growing collection of street-food stalls and casual restaurants garnering stars and turning this idea on its head.
Singapore’s ‘hawker centres’ often strive for perfection and prove a surprising source of culinary innovation. These open-air food courts serve casual meals in plastic bowls to hungry locals who share tables, grab beer or tea from a drink vendor and are willing to queue for hours for their favourite dish. The competition is fierce, meaning stallholders can spend years refining their version of a local dish to attract the crowds. It is because of this that they’re usually the best places to eat when in Singapore, and as further proof of their excellence, two hawkers have recently been awarded a Michelin star.
The world food authority published a guide to Singapore for the first time last year, and with it, reduced the lowest cost for a starred meal down to a record low. In July, Hill Street’s Tai Hwa Pork Noodle was awarded one star. The local institution, at Crawford Food Place, is known for its fragrant sliced and minced pork, crackling and chewy noodles tossed in a vinegar, soya, oil and chilli sauce, and topped with spring onions and dumplings. Chef Tang Chay Seng took over running the stall when his father died in 1995, after manning the pans for around 60 years. Tai Hwa Pork Noodle charges SD$5 for a small bowl and SD$10 for a large bowl, which works out around £2.80-£5.60 for a Michelin-recognised bowl of steaming pork noodles. You may have to queue for a few hours and eat it from a plastic bowl, but it’s a culinary experience unique to Singapore.
For a few months, Tai Hwa Pork Noodle served the cheapest Michelin-starred dish on the planet, before nearby Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle, in the Chinatown Complex, took its place. Finding the perfect Cantonese chicken-and-rice has long been a devotion of Singaporeans: this seemingly simple street food dish is one that can inspire such vast queues the likes of which are only seen in Wimbledon around early July. To make it, chicken is poached in a fragrant broth with ginger and spring onions, then served with rice cooked in the poaching liquid, slopped over with soya sauce. It’s a subtle and comforting mix of flavours and textures that Liao Fan has got just right – and sells for just SGD$2, or around £1.15.
Following Liao Fan’s success, the stall’s owner Chan Hon Meng has launched a quick-service restaurant, Hawker Chan, on Smith Street, and is planning an international chain of quick-but-tasty chicken joints with the help of Hersing Culinary, a Singaporean brand consultancy whose connection to cheap-and-cheerful Michelinstarred restaurants doesn’t stop there.
Hersing also owns Tim Ho Wan, a small dim-sum chain that started in Hong Kong and now has branches in Malaysia and Singapore. Hong Kong is actually home to four branches of Tim Ho Wan and two of these have a Michelin star – one at North Point and one near Sham Sui in Kowloon. The non-starred branches may look more modern and slick but the original provides the most fun experience. It is located on the unprepossessing streets north of Kowloon’s famous markets around Mong Kok. Follow the queue, brush up on your Cantonese or make friends with an English-speaking local, grab a ticket outside and wait for your number to be called by the brusque waitresses who will then bustle you to a shared table in the crowded, overly air-conditioned canteen. The food is worth every step: silky, chewy cheung fun – rice noodle rolls – that come with smoky, sweet BBQ pork or fresh prawns; extraordinarily fluffy, sweet steamed egg-cake; soft, moreish dumplings; and delicious, light, squidgy char siu (roasted) steamed buns. A generous meal at Tim Ho Wan will set you back around HK$150, or £16, for two people. If you aren’t planning to go to Hong Kong any time soon, Tim Ho Wan, with the help of Hersing, has just opened a restaurant in New York City.
Hong Kong is also home to Ho Hung Kee, perhaps the only wonton noodle soup-focused restaurant to have won a star. The restaurant, which now has an elegant spot in Causeway Bay’s Hysan Place, was first awarded a star by Michelin in 2011 but has been a fixture on the city’s dining scene since the 1940s. The restaurant’s menu is straightforward – just a few variations of wonton noodle soup and congee – but made with such fine ingredients and attention to the delicate flavours and chewy wontons that it’s worth going out of your way for. A bowl of wonton soup at Ho Hung Kee is HK$38, or HK$55 for a large serving (around £4-£6) – and if you miss it in town, they also have a restaurant at Hong Kong International Airport.
Also worth looking out for if in the region is Din Tai Fung, a chain of Taiwanese dumpling restaurants with branches throughout Asia, Australia and the US. Din Tai Fung’s Hong Kong restaurants in Silvercord and Yee Wo had a star apiece until very recently and both still hold a Bib Gourmand. Its speciality is xiaolongbao – soup dumplings stuffed full of juicy pork and, if you’re lucky, truffles. A big meal for two at Din Tai Fung should cost less than HK$300 (around £32). With Michelin sweeping away the white tablecloths to look more closely at humble but fiercely passionate eateries, it looks like the trend can only grow. Singaporeans are already engaged in ferocious debate about which beloved hawker stall should be next to win the accolade – although judging by the lengthening queues, they might do well to keep it a secret.