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Commentary: Even COVID-19 won’t stop Singapore’s penchant for queuing up for food

If Singapore’s foodie culture is so ingrained that we will endure long queues for our favourite dishes, we can channel it to keep our F&B industry afloat, says Karen Tee.

Commentary: Even COVID-19 won’t stop Singapore’s penchant for queuing up for food

Queue for wanton noodles in Yishun (Photo: Chef Kin HK Wanton Noodle/Facebook)

SINGAPORE: After social media got wind of a former Crystal Jade chef who struck out on his own to start a Hong Kong-style wanton noodle store in a Yishun kopitiam, the not-so-surprising happened – people flocked to the stall, stoically braving hour-long queues and even rainy weather.

In the little red dot, this is a tale as old as time - from Shake Shack burgers to one-Michelin starred bak chor mee, bubble tea to Ikea meatballs. If food is our national passion, queuing for food is undoubtedly our national sport.

But with F&B establishments aplenty across the island, there will most certainly be other - and less crowded - places that offer an equally delectable dish. So why go to all this hassle?

QUEUES OF FOMO FOODIES

Call it old-school kiasu or millennial-style FOMO (fear of missing out). Perhaps it taps on our desire to score bragging rights by being among the first to post about a new hyped-up F&B place before it invariably loses its novelty.

When colourfully-named American chain Eggslut opened its first Southeast Asian outlet at Scotts Square a few weeks ago, many rushed to be among the first to try its famous wobbly eggs on opening day.

The earliest diners were reportedly in the queue by 8am - three hours before the outlet even opened for business.

Queues form at Ghim Moh hawker centre as Singapore's COVID-19 Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) restrictions kick in on May 16, 2021. (Photo: Corey Sta Maria)

Fast forward to a few weeks later when I perked up at an acquaintance’s social media post on how the lines had dissipated and that it took her a mere 10 minutes to order a takeaway meal.

It appears that the FOMO foodies have moved on to something else - maybe those wanton noodles. Perhaps it is time for me to swing by to try those gooey egg sandwiches.

One thing is for sure: Those queues, however short-lived, appear to have a trickle-down effect that can last even after the lines are gone.

Would I be that curious about Eggslut if not for the initial queues? Probably not.

Yet, would I stop by the wanton noodle stall if I happened to be in the neighbourhood, now that I know it is run by a chef with a culinary pedigree? Probably.

UNDER THE RADAR CULINARY GEMS

Still, the beauty of Singapore is that we do not need to be queue-chasers to be in-the-know about food.

We all have favourite haunts we would be loath to see appear on must-try foodie lists or at least one friend who clues us in on “secret” food destinations with reliably delicious chow sans the long lines.

There is also a certain cachet in being that person who “discovered” lesser-known places before they hit the big time.

At this point, I would like to not-so-humblebrag that for more than a year, I have been recommending the underrated modern Indian restaurant Thevar at Keong Saik Road to friends seeking a gastronomic treat.

While it had consistently garnered favourable reviews, it was not difficult to score a reservation, unlike other places with months-long waiting lists.

But now that Thevar has deservingly earned one Michelin star, a quick check on its reservations page shows seats are far harder to come by.

So if you discovered the place before everyone else did like me, now is the chance to score some foodie points, to post and remind everybody you were there first – before it got famous.

FILLED BELLIES AND FULL HEARTS

It is endearing to know people are passionate enough to not mind the wait to get exactly what they are craving for.

The one-starred Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle stall at Crawford Lane has drawn long queues through all its years of operation - before the “Michelin Man” even glanced Singapore’s way - and continues today despite numerous stalls popping up with similar offerings.

Hill Street Tai Hwa's Pork Noodle eponymous dish. (Photo: Nisha Karyn)

Having patronised these competitor stalls before, they definitely help to satiate that craving when we cannot spare the time queuing. But nothing beats the original and it is most certainly among the best versions of bak chor mee in the country.

No doubt, there are probably few other nations who take food as seriously as Singapore.

This fierce devotion to food might be what keeps Singapore’s vibrant F&B industry going, through the prolonged uncertainty of pandemic-induced stop-and-go dining regulations and disinfection closures.

CHANNELING SINGAPORE’S FOODIE SPIRIT TO LESSER-KNOWN EATERIES

I was touched when I read a recent heart-warming report about Dignity Kitchen, a social enterprise food court that works with the disadvantaged and differently-abled. The establishment had been hard hit by recent changes to dine-in limits and had put up pictures of its empty venue on Facebook.

The next day, (socially distanced) queues had begun to form as kind-hearted patrons showed up to fill their bellies and support the business.

It made me think about the F&B places in the once bustling Central Business District, reeling from the double whammy of default work-from-home arrangements and the two person dine-in rule.

Last Friday (Oct 1), as I strolled through the Marina Bay area around “happy hour”, most eateries were startlingly empty, with more staff than diners.

More disconcertingly, a recent Instagram video by local restaurateur-chef Willin Low showed a number of F&B outlets, in the same building as his CBD restaurant, that had shuttered as they were unable to outlast COVID-19 restrictions.

Concerned netizens have also shared the challenges faced by hawkers on social media, including on the Instagram account @wheretodapao which helps provide some online exposure. Hawkers in the CBD like Maxwell Food Centre have been particularly hard hit by the absence of working crowds.

How many more casualties will there be before this is over?

Empty seats at an eatery in the Central Business District, 1 Oct 2021 (Photo: Karen Tee)

Perhaps now, more than ever, is the time to rally that enthusiastic foodie spirit - with a difference.

Instead of queuing at already Internet-famous places or ordering the same old thing from established international chains yet again, why not show some love to lesser-known places unique to Singapore that could use a boost if you can?

Who knows, you might just discover the next big thing, before the rest of the country catches on. How’s that for bragging rights?

And more importantly, you could play a role in helping a part of Singapore’s proud food heritage stay afloat during these tough times.

Karen Tee is a freelance lifestyle, travel journalist based in Singapore.

How can hawkers continue their craft in a pandemic world? Listen to CNA's Heart of the Matter:

Source: CNA/ch

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