For the past few months, New York’s foodie scene has been abuzz. The excitement centers on a new food market dreamed up by none other than Anthony Bourdain—part über farmer’s market, part international hawker center, the design is inspired by Blade Runner and the hidden gems of Tokyo. Even to jaded New Yorkers, it is cause for a stir. And to pull off this gastronomic feat, the chef had to call in his most respected associates.
Before Bourdain rose to celebrity chef status, photojournalist KF Seetoh was palling around Southeast Asia on his motorcycle exploring the culinary scene for Asian TV. As his career progressed, Seetoh found himself interested in speaking not just through people, but through food as well. In 1997, he launched Makansutra (a play on the Malay word for eating, makan, and the Kama Sutra), a food and culture company headquartered in his hometown of Singapore. This is a country that has a word dedicated to the unadulterated pleasure derived from food, shiok, so when Bourdain was set to create an authentic hawker center in New York, there was no one more important to consult with than this revered Singaporean culinary guru.
On a Friday evening in Singapore, Seetoh sat down with DuJour at one of Makansutra’s aptly named hawker centers, Gluttons Bay.
Seetoh reveals his mantra behind creating the ultimate food haven for his patrons, saying, “I want you to eat like you haven’t eaten in ten days…. The simplest joy is food.” Now one of the wealthiest nations in the world, Singapore was once a “stressful, migrant society,” Seetoh explains. “When these men came here, they didn’t bring their wives with them. This was El Dorado.” Cravings for the tastes of home and heritage can help to explain the astronomical number of street vendors in the 1950s on an island slightly bigger than Manhattan.
As for Bourdain’s hawker center in NYC, Seetoh says, “It’s high time… I want Westerners to be loving things that they can’t pronounce.” But there’s more in the works than meets the eye, and it’s all a part of Seetoh’s grand plan for Singaporean food culture.
From tech companies to the heartbeat of the nation, food, Singapore is always looking forward. Molecular gastronomy is as at home in Singapore as it is in Copenhagen. As in most countries and cultures, sometimes modernization comes at a cost to cultural preservation and mores of the past. Hawker centers and street food are a part of this dying culture, not only in Singapore but also in other Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia and Thailand. These are family recipes, passed through generations. However, as the younger set becomes more affluent, they lack interest in following in their parents’ footsteps.
With Bourdain’s hawker center in New York City, Seetoh sees preservation. In a nation world-renowned for its food scene, there is no culinary institute. Seetoh has already taken steps to start one with Makansutra’s Street Food Pro 360 course, which focuses on the business end of street food. Professionalizing this industry will bring about major transformations, and Bourdain’s hawker center gives Seetoh an international platform to bring attention to the cause.
“It’s going to be a 360-degree experience,” Keetoh muses. “I want you to hear the languages, see the people, smell the ingredients. This is what the journey of life is about.”