This story was first posted on T: The New York Times Style Magazine Singapore on 26 November 2020.
To feast in a hawker centre in Singapore today is to be barraged by the senses.
It is an open-air food court — one that introduces pan-Asian food to the world — where stalls are lined adjacent to one another in neat rows, with tables cluttered in front of them. But the tables rarely belong to any particular stall. Patrons are welcome to sit anywhere, and that’s likely where they will experience the heat, catch whiffs of spices and smokes, take notice of the raucous banter between a hawker and his customer, and observe in awe at how sumptuous dishes were made and plated.
In a hawker centre, an assortment of cuisines satiates the palate. Locals are known to debate which hawker vendor serves the best rendition of a particular dish. From a roti served with spicy curry to a bowl of wheat noodles drenched in prawn-and-pork broth, a plate of poached chicken served with rice cooked in chicken stock to a herbal pork ribs soup simmered and served in a traditional claypot, the choices are aplenty. Such are the wonders of the Singaporean food scene and the Singaporean cuisine.
At a time when globalisation continuously introduces new cultures and, thus, brings in new trends to the realm of gastronomy, new twists to traditional cuisines are often a delight to spectate and to taste. And while Singapore is never short of such surprises, it begs the question if local cuisine would be as authentic as it once was when subjected to such twists.
For Singaporean photographer, Brian Bong, this lingering afterthought is what spurred him forward to create his recent photography project, “For Here or Takeaway”. In the eight-part photo series, Bong takes inspiration from dishes commonly found in the hawker centre, modernises them, and reimagines them in a new manner. The outcomes closely resemble the likes of café offerings.
In one of his photographs, the 26-year-old Singaporean reimagines the Nasi Lemak, a dish comprising fragrant rice cooked from coconut milk and pandan leaf and topped with other ingredients, as an American burger. With roots in Malay cuisine, Nasi Lemak is a dish most commonly found in Singapore and across Southeast Asia. It is also considered the national dish of Malaysia. Bong’s Nasi Lemak burger sees buns made of green coconut rice, patties made of fried anchovies and roasted peanut, cheese made of eggs, and a sauce made from the dish’s signature spicy sambal chilli.
In another, the quintessential roasted chicken rice is reconstructed as a brunch waffle. In the image, the otherwise fluffy and crispy waffle is made of rice, evidently pressed together and toasted by a waffle maker. The roasted chicken becomes the topping, with chilli and sliced cucumbers on the side.
“I had initially planned to pursue a project exploring how chefs observe and preserve authenticity in the food they serve in modern times, but I realised that authenticity is a subjective experience,” Bong explains. “The ingredients, culinary techniques, taste as well as one’s understanding of the culture behind the dish play a part in influencing this perception.”
Like Bong, Malaysian anthropologist Tan Chee-Beng echoes the same ethos. “Authenticity, after all, is very much a personal taste and personal nostalgia,” Tan explains in the book, Chinese Food and Foodways in Southeast Asia and Beyond, which he edited. “The authenticity of food is based on personal experience, and there is really no authentic ‘authentic food’.”
Today, the idea of westernising or modernising local dishes as a means to introduce Singaporean cuisine to the world is not uncommon. In fact, there is a culinary expression, or movement, highlighting the evolution of contemporary Singaporean fare on our island-city: “Mod-Sin” cuisine.
Short for “modern Singaporean cuisine”, the term was coined only in 2005 by pioneering chef Willin Low of Wild Rocket Group. It celebrates local dishes, ingredients and flavours by thrusting them alongside one another and creating something new (but still nonetheless Singaporean) in the process. With new-fangled creations, like Low’s “Hae Bee Hiam and Compoy Spaghettini with Tiger Prawn” or “Sri Lanka Crab Butterhead Ravioli with Laksa Pesto Glaze and Laksa Cream”, popping up in both fine dining and hawker scenes, Singapore’s culinary vernacular has diversified and expanded.
For Bong, the act of glorifying local cuisine does not encroach on a dish’s authenticity. “While it is good to preserve tradition, I think the act of modernising food and incorporating elements from other cuisines into them shouldn’t be shunned, if done purposefully,” he says, hinting that culinary cultural appreciation is an important notion to keep in mind.
In Singapore, the hawker culture has once again garnered the spotlight. Having submitted a nomination dossier on hawker culture into UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity last year, an expert evaluation body has recently strongly recommended it to be inscribed on the coveted list. Bong’s project is, thus, even more apt today.
At its core, “For Here or Takeaway” is meant to rile up a debate on whether traditional food, when modernized or adapted into other forms, is still as authentic as its traditional modes. Whether it is a pie inspired by a bowl of Laksa (a spicy noodle soup with roots in Peranakan cuisine), or a cheesy pizza inspired by Roti Prata (an Indian flatbread dish), Bong’s works hint at the evolutionary nature of food, and perhaps even highlights how our everyday hawker fares have been taken for granted.
“Even when reconstructed or reimagined, the dishes still retain their original elements,” he says. “It’s certainly not what Singaporeans would expect, but hopefully these images may spark a conversation on what authenticity is.”
What is your day like? How much do you sleep, and what’s your work schedule?
As a freelancer, there is no fixed work schedule nor is there a fixed sleep routine. I try (the keyword is “try”) to get 6 to 7 hours of sleep a day. How much I work or rest depends on the scope of my creative projects and their deliverables.
How many hours of creative work do you think you do in a day?
Shoots typically span 4 to 8 hours on a single day, depending on the job scope. When it comes to editing, I try to be as meticulous as possible. This is why for complex editing jobs, I may spend as long as an hour to clean up or retouch a single image.
When you start a new piece, where do you begin?
Understanding why I would even want to do it. I don’t exactly believe in doing something controversial for the sake of it being controversial. And whenever I hit a creative roadblock or want to keep myself motivated to finish it, I look back to remember the impetus forward.
How do you know when you’re done with a piece of work?
You never really know when you are done, even when you have a deadline to work with. There’s always that feeling of wanting to do more or change something to make the work more complete, but there’s also value in imperfections and doing nothing. Sometimes, it’s just your inner demons getting in your way.
Have you assisted other artists/photographers before? If so, who?
I once did a short internship with a local media production company, Tristeps Studio. I was mentored by the lead photographer James Lum, who taught me a great deal about my craft and knowledge in this industry. I also managed to meet several interesting people, including Singapore’s well-loved drag queen Kumar, on sets.
Are you binge-watching any shows right now?
I have been so busy I haven’t had time to binge on any shows lately. In today’s challenging climate, I guess that’s good!
What is the last thing that made you cry?
When I lost one of my closest friends, who passed away, back in 2016.
What do you usually wear when you work?
A black or very dark, muted shirt or T-shirt with jeans.
If you have windows, what do they look out on?
A row of buildings and houses in full colour being lit by the sun, and I can see its rays shining down on these structures. It’d be breathtaking to gaze upon and equally relaxing too. I promise you what I envision is way more interesting than how I describe it.
What’s your worst habit?
Procrastination. I listen to music for a very long time and let my mind go places.
What embarrasses you the most?
Do we really have to go there? Professionally speaking, when I forget to take the lens cap off during a shoot. It does amuse me sometimes how people are observing me, but no one really notices or tells me about the cap that is still attached to the lens.
Do you exercise?
I am not a fan of exercising, but I do know that health matters so I try (once again, the keyword is “try”) to exercise with runs or High-Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT, workouts.
What’s your favourite artwork (by someone else)?
“The Chronicles of San Francisco” by JR. When I visited San Francisco (SF), I found out that he had an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and it was this massive art piece that stitches together different people in SF from different locations. It was quite a spectacle to witness, and I remember just hanging around the exhibition for a good 2 hours to take it all in. I was so overwhelmed and so mesmerised by how surreal it was.