If you like eating well while traveling on the cheap, you can do a lot worse than Southeast Asia, where amazing food is sold for a bargain throughout Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. This well-trodden “Banana Pancake Trail” has expanded lately, to include parts of Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. But one tiny country in the region stubbornly resists inclusion in the typical backpacker’s itinerary, not least because the country also happens to be the most expensive city on earth: Singapore.
The NYC-sized city-state at the southern tip of Malaysia takes first place in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2017 Worldwide Cost of Living Survey. As one of the world’s most densely populated countries, land is at a premium and virtually none of it is dedicated to agriculture — so almost all foodstuffs are imported. Which is why it’s odd that tucked away near the back of a food court in Singapore’s Chinatown there’s a humble stall where a man and his wife will sell you a plate of gooey, sweet and savory Cantonese-style soy sauce chicken that, at $2 Singapore dollars (or about $1.50 USD) is the cheapest Michelin Star meal on the planet.
Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle is located near the famous Buddha Tooth Relic Temple (which houses a fragment said to come from Buddha’s grill) in the Chinatown Market Complex and Food Centre, one of the “hawker centers” to which the Singaporean government moved food vendors decades ago, in its efforts to clean up the city’s streets. The owner is a Malaysian-born chef named Chan Hon Meng, but most people know him simply as Hawker Chan.
If you find yourself in Singapore looking for an ultra-cheap, gourmet meal, pay Hawker Chan a visit, but get there early, because his line gets long. Fast.
On the morning I visited Hawker Chan’s food stall, a throng of customers was already there waiting as his wife buzzed around the premises, busily preparing to open for business at 10:00 a.m. Even in the crowded chaos of the hawker center — where echoes remain of the teeming street life of old Singapore — the staff has to block off a big section of the common eating area simply to accommodate the Hong Kong Soya Sauce line. Waits of an hour or more are not uncommon.
When I arrived at the front of the line, Chef Chan handed me a white styrofoam plate piled high with soya sauce chicken over rice and a side of beans (one of the few Michelin Star meals on the planet you’re served standing up). I found a stool at a communal table and hunched over my humble plate amid the racket and commotion of the hawker center. The moment I took a bite of Chef Chan’s soya sauce chicken it grabbed attention away from the din that surrounded me—the chicken’s gooey exterior was sweet and salty, the flesh meaty and moist.
As I ate, Hawker Chan came to sit with me. Between bites, I asked him how his life had changed since he became the first “street food” hawker awarded a star by the Michelin Guide, one of the highest honors in the culinary world. The main difference, the chef said matter of factly, was that an uptick in business has allowed him to hire help, so his work day lasts from about 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., instead of 5:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
When I asked him how he conceived of his recipe he wasn’t cagey, just extremely matter of fact in the way of a true artisan: experience and customer feedback, he said. And what makes his Cantonese-style chicken and rice special?
“It’s the method and experience that counts.” he said, eyeing me as I sucked on a bone.
Clearly, Hawker Chan — who is of Cantonese (i.e. Hong Kong) ancestry, but grew up with farmer parents in Ipoh, Malaysia, and left school at age 15 — is an understated, no-bullshit kind of guy (on the morning after the gala at which he was awarded a Michelin Star he was back at his hawker stall, as usual). His soya sauce chicken is similarly straightforward: Its two most prominent ingredients are, unsurprisingly, sugar and salt; though there are other spices at play (he wouldn’t tell me which).
With my plate rapidly vanishing, I asked Hawker Chan why he doesn’t increase his prices now that he’s a Michelin Star-winning chef.
“I have regular customers and I don’t want to disappoint them with a price increase.”
Since making headlines, Hawker Chan has expanded his empire beyond his closet-sized stall in the Chinatown hawker center. He opened a casual dine-in restaurant nearby, and has plans in the works to open a new location in Melbourne, Australia, in October of this year. You can skip the line by dropping by one of those locations, but for the proper Singaporean hawker center experience, eating in the open air of Chinatown amid Buddhist shrines and the potpourri of foods from other vendors, you’ll have to visit the original with $1.50 to spare.