Commentary: Is the Michelin Bib Gourmand overrated?
The much vaunted food guide is an excellent promotional tool for marketing Singapore as a foodie destination abroad. But we locals don’t need to rely on it to know where the best nosh is, says Karen Tee.
SINGAPORE: The Michelin Bib Gourmand list has expanded this year but instead of there being something for everyone, it seems many are not entirely pleased with what’s on it.
From huffy declarations about how some joints do not deserve their place on the list to smugly cryptic asides from those who are glad their favourite spots remain undiscovered, we’ve all got something to say.
Of course, food and taste is highly subjective. So it is natural that when it comes to rankings on food guides like the Michelin Guide or The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, there is invariably chatter over whether the awardees are deserving, or not.
Still, there is something about the Bib Gourmand category that is particularly controversial. Since it spotlights eateries that offer diners a “complete and high quality menu priced at a maximum of S$45”, our beloved affordable local food is naturally heavily featured. In fact, of the 58 recognised establishments, 33 are hawker stalls and six are street food outlets.
Now, it is common knowledge that Singaporeans are incredibly proud of our local cuisine - the Michelin Guide even believes people here get into fist fights over where the best versions of various dishes can be found.
While there hasn’t been a recorded incident of foodies exchanging blows yet, the passion for food is real. So, when a bunch of anonymous inspectors compile a list like this, it can feel like outsiders are parachuting in to make pronouncements about what is our “best” chow.
Cue widespread displeasure.
A VIBRANT HAWKER SCENE
This cacophony of dissent bodes well for Singapore’s food scene. So much has been said about the dying street food culture that it sometimes seems like there aren’t many worthwhile hawker stalls to dine at anymore.
Instead, the Bib Gourmand has ignited a vibrant debate about who our top hawkers ought to be, with just about every person having his or her own list of favourites. It is a good sign that our hawker culture is thriving with enough breadth and depth to satisfy all our varied palates.
Then there are the pragmatists who are happy that their favourite spots have been left out the Guide. Why? They do not want to deal with longer queues should these places become wildly popular or worse, have to pay more if prices increase.
Personally, I wish that these good finds are shared with more people, but maybe I’m just a glutton.
More broadly speaking, in a country where a disproportionate amount of significance is placed on rankings of all sorts, this “couldn’t care less” attitude points collectively to our growing confidence in our food choices that we do not need the affirmation of a guide to know where the good stuff is.
A GUIDE FOR TOURISTS
At this point, it is worth taking a moment to remember the origins of the Michelin Guide, which now has editions in many cities around the world. The guidebook was started by the founders of the tyre company to encourage motorists to drive more frequently by providing travellers with useful tips like where to stay and places to eat.
Until today, it is still predominantly targeted at tourists, with the Bib Gourmand’s affordable listings complementing its main star system which typically spotlights fine dining restaurants. (Why some hawker stalls have been awarded one star, while others get a Bib Gourmand is another debate for another commentary.)
What is interesting though, is that in many foodie destination cities, locals tend to have a different opinion on what should make the cut, compared to what travellers might think.
For example, on a recent trip to Thailand, I happened to wax lyrical about my meal at the one-Michelin starred Paste Bangkok.
My Thai companions gave me what I can only describe as a sympathetic “poor clueless tourist” look before telling me that some locals do not feel the same way about that particular restaurant. The next time you are here, we will bring you out for authentic Thai food, they reassured me.
Regardless, my mouth still waters when I think of my excellent meal. The chef’s fluffy souffle-like omelette topped with generous chunks of crab meat and the wondrously umami pomelo salad, resplendent with the flavour of fresh, juicy prawns, were revelations and, I think, well-deserving of a star.
And while it is always a treat to have friends who will bring you to their secret haunts and neighbourhood treasures, as a traveller I am glad for such guides which offer a decent shortlist of places that have at least met a range of standards consistently.
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In Singapore, the Michelin Guide’s presence here is in part due to the efforts of the Singapore Tourism Board to elevate the country as an international dining destination.
This is a similar case to a number of other cities where it has launched in recent years. When viewed through this lens, the Guide has certainly achieved this aim.
And even if there is disagreement on what should make it onto the Bib Gourmand list, it is good to know that there is an element within this international publication where our local hawkers and chefs are honoured for their humble but delicious fare.
Perhaps, the next step will be to promote a locally generated guide like Makansutra or review sites like HungryGoWhere or Burpple - all of which have a plethora of foodie content but come with their own set of pros and cons - to tourists who wish to deep dive into our multi-faceted hawker culture.
In the meantime, it would be churlish to dismiss the Bib Gourmand entirely just because of some differences in opinion.
Instead, the next time you are looking for a new place to grab a meal at why not look through the list to see if there’s anything you haven’t heard of and give it a try? After all, it never hurts to discover a new gem.
Karen Tee is a freelance travel and lifestyle writer. Six years ago, people thought she was crazy to leave the security of her full-time job. Today, most want to know how she does it.