Some call him the Guru of Grub; others, the Makankaki Master, but KF Seetoh, by any name, is Singapore’s most recognized and celebrated expert on one of the country’s greatest and most beloved national treasures: food. Not just any food, but hawker food – the food of the street; the soul of Singapore.
Since 1996 Seetoh has dedicated his life to writing, photographing and understanding the street food of Singapore, heading to every place where queues for food form. “Back then there was no guide to the food here,” Seetoh explained as we shared some carrot cake at Makansutra’s own Glutton’s Bay food center beside the Esplanade. So he was inspired to compile information about the food and the hawkers. The hardest thing was identifying the places to try. “It took a lot of talking to people on the street, to taxi drivers and to people cooking food,” he said with a broad smile. The result: Makansutra, Seetoh’s undisputed go-to guide for all things hawker in this land of the food obsessed. Over the years, Makansutra has sold countless copies, guiding locals and foreigners alike to hawker food that is good, great and “die, die, must try.”
Today, Seetoh and Makansutra collectively is a Singapore food institution, with books, television programs, websites and an app. His makan-team consists of 30 full-time employees plus a cadre of volunteers who are profoundly passionate about food. It’s uncontested that Seetoh’s contributions to food knowledge and accessibility is unparalleled in Singapore. He has promoted the nation’s cuisines into the world-renowned phenomenon that it is today. Many say that this accomplishment alone puts him in a special, iconic place. “Anyone who’s anyone in the world of Singapore food knows Seetoh,” says irreverent food rogue, Anthony Bourdain. The New York times has written about him. Martha Stuart insists that he be her guide whenever she visits and has had him cook laksa live on her TV show. The list goes on and on.
It’s an impressive thing when someone works hard to reach the pinnacle of success and then decides to take it to an even higher level. And for Seetoh – who believes that street food feeds not just the stomach but the soul – the mission of making the cuisine of Singapore accessible to all is just a start. “I could just keep doing what I do,” he explained in his usual, affable manner. “But my life’s work still lies ahead of me, and I won’t die comfortably until it’s done.”
“Street food is a global phenomenon,” Seetoh explains over our crunchy prawn paste chicken wings. “It’s an age-old, earthy profession that has sustained people since the beginning of modern society.” Indeed, the majority of people in developing countries today still depend on food prepared by individual cooks in simple outdoor or rustic kitchens. In Singapore more than 80% of the local population eat at least one meal a day in a hawker center, food court or kopitiam; in Bangkok and Hanoi that number is even greater. But that tradition is changing and, to some degree, dying. “As societies modernize and the hawker legends get older there are fewer people to pass the street food heritage on to,” Seetoh explains. “Working a food stall is tough, solitary labor; hardly the favored path in today’s youthful, social network-driven society.”
Combine that with the nature of the street food world – a “fractured society” as Seetoh sees it – and what you have is a fading, fragmented industry composed of individuals working alone and selling their talent for a couple of bucks a plate. “Aside from possibly expanding the number of stalls, there’s little growth opportunity for hawkers and no sense of belonging to something greater than just their own thing.” And that’s where Seetoh comes in.
The World Street Food Congress
Recognizing the benefits of collaboration, Seetoh has masterminded The World Street Food Congress, the first forum designed to connect the splintered street food world. The WSFC aims to form a globally-unified body where new ideas, synergies and opportunities can be created over street food. The three principle objectives are to preserve the culture and craft of local street cuisine, to create a unified “industry” of street food with consistent professionalism, and to develop new opportunities through collaboration among street food cultures globally.
But even KF Seetoh can’t assemble a global forum alone, so he’s formed a World Street Food Council, comprised of a collection of the best minds in different food-related disciplines around the world to join forces as vanguards of the industry. We’re talking chefs, writers, F&B developers, food & lifestyle celebrities and innovative social thinkers who will spirit the cause of a unified street food world in ways that have never before been imagined. A few names which may ring familiar: Anthony Bourdain, James Oseland (Editor-in-Chief of Saveur Magazine and Top Chef judge), Brett Burmeister (coveres the food truck culture in the US), and some of the very best chefs and restauranteurs from around the globe. “Enthusiasm about WSFC has spread like wildfire and this is just the first year of it -- we're just getting warmed up,” Seetoh says. “Everyone that I talk to about it wants to play a part.”
The WSFC Kickoff
To attract the world’s attention to the World Street Food Congress, Seetoh will host The World Street Food Congress 2013: From Street Market to World Market. From 31 May to 9 June in Singapore’s F1 Pit Building & Paddock. The event will consist of a 2-day Dialog conference alongside a 10-day street food jamboree featuring some of the world’s best street food masters serving up their cultural specialties. This isn't just about local food of Singapore, or even Asia; chefs from the US and Europe will also be here to cook up a storm. The event will also present the first World Street Food Awards to acknowledge and recognize the best street food cooks and their food.
“Street food is not just about stuffing your stomach,” Seetoh explained as we dove into a plate of glistening
mee goring puti. “With street food, you may eat the food, but you digest the culture.” It’s that basic philosophy that renders KF Seetoh more a food culturalist than food critic. “Behind every hawker’s plate of noodles or bowl of soup is a story – usually an ancient one – and knowing that story preserves the heritage and makes the food taste better.” And through WSFC Seetoh will help the soft-spoken world of street food cooks have an organized place to tell those stories through their food – well into the future and all around the world. And in the course of doing so, new street foods will emerge and new stories will need to be told. Which is a valuable thing because, as KF Seetoh would say, “if you don’t eat the culture with every bite, you’ll always be left hungry.”
For more information about World Street Food Congress go to www.wsfcongress.com
Foodwalkers note: This piece, in slightly different form, was previously published in
Singapore American Newspaper, March 2013