$3 Laksa VS $35 Laksa Pasta: Are Singaporeans Willing to Pay For F&B Innovation?
Updated: Apr 24, 2019
Laksa linguine. Hainanese chicken rice risotto. Ondeh ondeh pancakes. In the hawker food mecca that is Singapore, trendy restaurants and cafes are also taking cues from the city’s familiar flavours, putting a local twist on global cuisine. It’s one way that they’ve been wooing the new generation of diners, who are always after the most unique food trends and concepts.
But do Singaporeans really love these food trends – with, you know, the much heftier price tag thrown into the picture? Put in a straightforward business perspective: Would diners actually order these dishes? Or, would their eyes simply glaze past the menu item after thinking, “Hmm, sounds interesting!”?
It might be difficult to imagine that diners would be willing to pay a premium for locally-inspired food, yet decide to not patron a hawker stall when prices increase by the slightest bit. When modern hawker stall Fishball Storyraised the price of a bowl of fishball noodles from $3 to $3.50 – a commitment to quality naturally came at a higher cost – they were met with a 40% dip in business. This situation is not foreign to many hawkers. Hikes in rental, ingredients and operating costs are eating into their already lean profit margin, forcing them to raise prices of their dishes in order to sustain their businesses.
Yet at the same time, we hear success stories of more upscale restaurants serving Singapore-inspired food. At modern-Singaporean restaurant Wild Rocket, homegrown chef Willin Low serves a piquant Laksa Pesto Linguine embellished with tiger prawns. It’s been a menu favourite since the restaurant first opened its doors in 2005, and still remains an off-the-menu favourite today – customers still request for this legacy of a dish even after it’s been replaced by other mod-Sin dishes on the menu, so it remains a secret, by-request-only treat for in-the-know diners.
Over at CHIJMES, one-Michelin-starred Whitegrass injects elements of local food into each of his dishes. A fork-tender slow-roasted iberico pork neck, for instance, rests on a bed of silky scallop and steamed shiitake custard, and the entire dish is livened up by a pork rib broth that’s unmistakably reminiscent of bak kut teh. In an equally well-loved interpretation of local favourites, chef Han Li Huang of experiential restaurant Labyrinth reimagines Singapore’s famed chilli crab, serving it in the guise of ice cream alongside deep-fried flower crab.
Of course, not all mod-Sin restaurants turn out to be stellar successes – the ones lamented as “gimmicky” are eventually weeded out, while those that don’t quite measure up (in other words, “I’d rather just eat it at the hawker centre”) simply don’t make it. Hawker food is already this good, so to top it or even match up to it is a tall order. But chefs are rising up to the challenge.
So, as far as restaurant dining is concerned, it seems that when food is good, people will be willing to pay for it.
Perhaps the problem, then, is that good old hawker fare is gravely undervalued. Even Chef Han admits that Singapore is still stuck in a colonial mindset: “There’s the mentality that hawker food is cheap and ang moh food is fancy.”
Search for food reviews on any of these restaurants and you’ll find a striking pattern – even those who do patronise many of these mod-Sin restaurants seem to feel the need to “defend” hawker-inspired fare and spending money on it. “How something local can be transformed into something atas (high-class) was such a pleasant surprise,” says one reviewer, as though “local” and “atas” stand at opposite ends of a spectrum. It’s as if to say flavours typically associated with hawker fare are only of value when they undergo an elaborate enough transformation. Defenders of the humble laksa or chicken rice would balk at such a notion. What’s so undeserving about hawker food?
Rachel, 27, an avid food instagrammer, is one such person. Her argument: Yes, these “inspired” dishes trigger nostalgia and are worth appreciating, but why wouldn’t the actual hawker dish trigger even more nostalgia – and most certainly at a fraction of the price?
But that doesn’t mean Rachel – or many of those we spoke to who prefer traditional hawker meals – is against the mod-Sin movement. “As long as I can still get my cheap food at my kopitiam, I’m fine with reinventing dishes,” she comments.
This “to each his own” mindset is echoed by Lee, a second-generation Hainanese chicken rice stall owner at Kim Keat Palm Food Centre. Given the vastly different price points, traditional hawker fare and mod-Sin dining cater to different audiences, and he sees no problem with the two co-existing in harmony without any either one taking away from the experience or enjoyment of the other.
So, are Singaporeans willing to pay?
Objectively, dishes from mod-Sin restaurants are worth more. The ingredients used are often more premium and cooking methods require a more complex finesse; you’re also having your meal in a much more curated setting. And it works, as many Asian flavours pair well with wine, since both are fermented.
Judging from the success of the mod-Sin style of food today, there definitely is a significant market of diners willing to fork out a premium for it. The market might not include everyone, but the demand is large enough to warrant supply. Perhaps the next step for Singaporean diners is to appreciate the inherent value of local flavours, regardless of whether they feature in traditional hawker dishes or in the finest of fine dining.