Forget service with a smile. When I join a long line at a popular stall, I anticipate some mild abuse. That’s how I can tell the food will be good.
It’s not just getting yelled at by hawkers and food stall operators that binds us together in a shared Singaporean experience, but also the fact that more often than not, our indignance does not prevent us from going back for subsequent rounds of scolding. Call us suckers for good food with a side of punishment.
Granted, for many of us, our enjoyment of a meal is closely tied to the emotional experience surrounding it. But those who love food with a vengeance will put themselves through self-immolating ordeals like travelling many hours for a taste of something yummy, picking the longest line at a swelteringly hot food centre to join, and being straight-up insulted by the person providing the food.
“Don’t want to wait, then don’t eat, lor,” my colleague was admonished after her mother observed, while ordering at a well-known noodle store, that the queue had been very long.
Meanwhile, my editor, when she finally got to the end of a long line for prawn noodles at a famous stall with a prominent award, asked if she could have a takeaway of just soup without the noodles. When she was told no, she asked if she could have the soup and noodles packed separately. The stall keeper was deeply offended by this. “I know what you’re trying to do! I won’t sell to you,” she was roundly told off.
There’s just something, I guess, about being the professional gatekeeper of great food that turns people into the Kanyes of the hawker world. Like cha chaan teng servers in Hong Kong, they don’t even try to hide their contempt for us, mere pilgrims offering up our S$6 for a fleeting trip to tastebud heaven.
It’s simple demand-and-supply economics, really. These people aren’t your grandma cooking for love. They are power-crazed dictators. They’re the dragons who guard the proverbial princesses. They have the one ring to rule them all.
Think of the lady who’s possibly Singapore’s most famed grumpy hawker, the prawn mee auntie at Pek Kio Market (not the same stall my editor was banished from) who is best known for her fragrant, umami-laden noodles and for death-staring at customers from under her eyebrows. How do you think she sleeps at night knowing that visions of her prawn mee dance in people’s heads? As sweetly as her prawn head stock, that’s how.
But Auntie’s reputation precedes her: She only scolds the people who, for example, allow their pregnant wives to teeter around carrying precarious trays of hot soup to their table, she once told my colleague in an interview.
I’ll hazard a guess: Getting up long before sunrise; the intense heat of the kitchen; the pressure of keeping up with the long lines; a million things to keep an eye on all at once; woks brimming with boiling oil; long hours on their feet – mathematically speaking, it’s quite logical for grumpiness levels to be directly proportional to the number of customers banging on the door for food. Especially if some of those customers are Karens.
“You should never provoke a chef,” Mr Grumpy quipped wryly. “They forget their knives are in their hands.”
The fact is that although their job is ostensibly to cook, they run a finely tuned military operation. Everything runs on precise timing, temperature control and forward planning. One tiny hiccup could affect all of the next hour’s customers. Hawker uncles are “uncle” in name but “encik” in practice.
And, that’s especially true when your profit margins are as low as a few cents per plate sold. There’s a difference between service and hospitality, as defined by:
Service: Getting a plate of food from Point A to Point BHospitality: 20 per cent service charge and 10 per cent GST
Perhaps this explains why my friend said of the Pek Kio prawn mee auntie, “She’s not rude to me. Because I always order the biggest, most expensive bowl.”
Culinary school graduate Shanice Lim, who started her own hawker stall five months ago, wonders if she might turn into an ogre herself one day. The 25-year-old worked in a three-Michelin-starred kitchen before opening So Lemak, a stall in Bedok serving nasi lemak with fried prawn paste chicken.
“Sometimes, they don’t mean it, it’s just that they’re so busy,” he said. “Imagine you have to remember seven orders and there’s a person trying to be funny and indecisive when they’ve already been in the queue for 15 minutes. ‘Er, I want white carrot cake. No, black.’ I understand why they’re sometimes not very pleasant.”
But, he has a strategy for dealing with attitude.
“I have a little game when I go to grumpy hawkers. I just want to make them smile,” he said. “You know how they like to call you ‘shuai ge’ and ‘mei nu’ no matter which end of the good-looking spectrum you’re on? Just call the uncle ‘shuai ge’. That little bit of praise makes the uncle look you in the eye.” (Lim confirmed that this does, in fact, work.)
Desmond continued, “Another trick is to say, ‘Long time no see. How are you?’ before giving your order. Or praise them: ‘Business is very good, isn’t it!’ or, ‘Mei nu, you got a haircut.’ The next time you visit, they’ll take your order with a smile. Of course, be truthful – don’t lie! But, I’m sure you can find something to be positive about.”
The disclaimer, he added, “is that not all will entertain you. So, don’t wish for a reply. Just be generous with your words. Over the years, I realised this makes life easier.”
Yes, a simple shift in perspective can be very helpful in dealing with all of life’s trying situations. When I’m braving a stall owner’s attitude for their superior quality food, I think of it as a tax you pay for a luxury good, like COE when you buy a car. Never mind that it’s Stockholm syndrome for foodies – it isn’t so much masochism as measuring the trade-off (are you prepared to settle for not-as-yummy food served with a smile? If so, go somewhere else) and asking yourself if you’re willing to pay the price. Once you make peace with this, other people’s words will be water off a duck’s back as you tuck into your kway chap, prawn noodles, nasi lemak or chicken rice.