At the beginning of the Singapore episode of the Netflix show “Street Food: Asia,” K. F. Seetoh, the Singaporean curator of the new midtown food hall Urban Hawker, sets the scene. “We’ve got no language,” he says. “We don’t have a national costume like all of our neighbors. So nothing roots you”—big pause for effect—“except for food.” This food is defined not only by particular dishes and styles of cooking (an eclectic mix born of immigrants from all over Asia and beyond) but also by where it’s made: at hawker centers—open-air food courts—which are collectively inscribed on UNESCO’s list of “the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.”
Seetoh, a photojournalist and writer who found his calling in starting what he describes as a street-food-advocacy company, was a friend and collaborator of Anthony Bourdain’s, and a consultant on a Singaporean-inspired food hall that Bourdain was once planning. (It fell apart before his death, in 2018.) Urban Hawker (under the umbrella of the food-hall operator Urbanspace) is an edited version of Bourdain’s grander, more international concept: a collection of stalls imported directly from Singapore, with some local businesses thrown in.
As in Singapore, the menu at each of Urban Hawker’s stalls is small and specialized. Hainan Jones (co-owned by Seetoh) offers little but Hainanese chicken rice, one of Singapore’s most ubiquitous dishes. Behind a narrow counter, whole birds are poached in chicken broth, then plunged into an ice bath. The meat, carved into neat, juicy segments, is served at room temperature with hot rice (steamed in more broth and seasoned with lemongrass, pandan leaves, and ginger), plus cabbage soup and condiments: a lime-garlic-ginger chili sauce and a black-caramel soy sauce. It’s easy to see why a Singaporean pastry chef featured in “Street Food: Asia” describes eating it every day for lunch and marrying the man who served it to her.
The daily consumption of chili crab, another Singaporean standard, available at a stall called Wok & Staple, seems less advisable—not least because a single Dungeness crab will set you back about sixty dollars. As an occasional treat, it’s delightful: a tangle of legs, whose hard shells crack open to reveal succulent meat, swimming in a ruddy stew of sambal, tomato paste, ginger, onion, and silky wisps of egg, to be sopped up with sweet fried mantou, tiny, fluffy buns with crackly, golden exteriors. Flip over the crab’s enormous carapace to scrape out the guts, which taste like a tantalizingly funky sausage.
At other stalls, you’ll find wonton noodle soup (Dim Sum Darling); biryani and murtabak, a stuffed flatbread (Mamak’s Corner); and curry rice with scissor-cut fried chicken and fish-and-chips (Smokin’ Joe). None of those would quite draw me back, but I’d certainly call again on Mr. Fried Rice, especially for a version of the eponymous dish that comes topped with shrimp-paste-battered fried chicken. At Prawnaholic Collections, I loved the char kway teow—wide noodles, fish cake, sweet Chinese sausage, shrimp, and morsels of fried pork fat, all slicked in a sweet soy sauce—and a soup crowded with shrimp and silky, falling-off-the-bone pork ribs, plus fish cake and egg noodles, in a fragrant, cloudy broth. At Lady Wong, an outpost of a New York-based bakery, I was especially taken with the rainbow kueh lapis, a beautiful steamed Indonesian layer cake made with tapioca and rice flours, coconut milk, and pandan extract, the rare example of a whimsical dessert that tastes as good as it looks.
The kueh lapis is a metaphor, perhaps, for Urban Hawker. You might mistake it for any of the other flashy food halls that have opened in New York in recent years, which tend to feel corporate and forced, with a random mix of stalls serving food that seems phoned in, even from legacy restaurants. But Urban Hawker, as a more effective expression of the essence of Singaporean food than any single restaurant could be, has a point of view, and that makes all the difference. (Dishes $1.85-$59.80.) ♦