Interview with Doctor Leslie Tay May 20 2014

It’s not easy to beat the food guide that has been dubbed “the best guide for serious street food aficionados” by Cuisine & Wine Asia’s Peter Knipp, but Dr Leslie Tay has done it again with the revised and updated edition of Only The Best! The ieatishootipost Guide to Singapore’s Shiokest Hawker Food.

In Only The Best!, Dr Leslie Tay takes his readers with him to taste the best of Singapore’s hawker food. The guide categorises these mouth-watering hawker dishes into 30 categories, ranging from the ever-popular Hainanese chicken rice to the slowly vanishing, traditional handmade muah chee. In this second edition, Dr Tay continues his quest to introduce the best hawker food, including new additions to the already comprehensive selection. This book is all one needs to discover the very best hawker food that Singapore has to offer.

Our marketing team here at Epigram Books managed to catch up with Dr Leslie Tay despite his numerous commitments. (Did you know that Dr Tay is a doctor, blogger, photographer, public speaker AND an author?)

Hi Leslie, how have you been recently?

Oh, I’m not really doing anything special at the moment, just working the usual routine—seeing patients in the morning and exploring food places in the afternoons.

Wow, just ‘the usual’ huh? I believe all of us here at Epigram Books are really curious about how you juggle your commitments as a doctor, author, food blogger, photographer and speaker, as well as your various media appearances.

(Laughs) When you are doing things that you are passionate about, they don’t feel like commitments.  Writing about food and taking pictures of them are just my idea of fun.

Being a doctor is to follow your passion of helping others while writing about local hawker food is to focus on your passion of our local food dishes. Do you think it is possible to combine them and get the best of both worlds?  

Actually they do overlap!  When I write about a stall, leading to the forming of longer queues, I usually get a nice phone-call from the hawker, thanking me for my help.  So in both medicine and food blogging I find that I can help people! However, these two activities do differ in terms of which part of the brain is active. Medicine is more of a left brain activity which relies on the analytical aspect of the mind while food blogging is more of an artistic right brain activity. Being able to do both brings balance to my life.

Singapore hawker food is known for its easy availability, short waiting time and general low pricing. What do you think of the Ultimate Hawker Fest—organised by you last year—which attempts to bridge the gap between cheap, low-pricing hawker food, and more expensive, better quality restaurant food?

The Ultimate Hawker Fest was an event where we invited local hawkers to cook their dishes, but with a twist. On that day itself, we provided them with top quality ingredients to prove that hawker dishes are not inferior to the expensive dishes we pay for in restaurants. After all, ramen is a common hawker food in Japan but when sold at Ramen restaurants, they can easily cost 20 dollars or more. With the rising prices in Singapore, Singaporeans cannot expect hawker food to remain cheap and still be able to deliver quality.

Some of the hawker dishes are doing rather well and have prospects for growth, as they can afford to sell at higher prices. Dishes such as chicken rice, bak kut teh and zi char can sell at more than the average $3 and have higher profitability. However, dishes such as char kway teow, which require individual time, effort, using only very low cost ingredients, will not be able to remain profitable for long. Also, dishes that can be cooked in a centralised manner such as fish ball noodles with the same fish ball distributor will also have a profitable future in Singapore. There are in fact, a lot of young people breaking into the Singapore hawker scene, as the risk is lower. The main concern however, is how to get them to cook local hawker food instead of hopping on to the “Aston’s” bandwagon.

How do you think we can preserve this food culture of Singapore, which is one of the reasons for Singapore’s popularity among travellers?

We can preserve and reinvent the recipes of our forefathers, cooking these existing dishes even better than them and catering them to the changes of society.

Many consider hawker food to be a dying trade, due to the younger generation being unwilling to take up this career, plus, the disapproval of their parents. As a parent yourself to James and Megan, do you see yourself allowing them to pursue a career in hawker food?

I have always told them that in whatever they do, as long as they are number 1, they will be rewarded for their effort.  The same is true of hawker food. In society, everybody has a different passion and people should find jobs according to their passions. If my kids have a passion in this area, they can certainly pursue it with all their heart.

Your latest book, Only The Best! (2nd Edition), contains revised locations of certain hawker stores, as well as new recommendations for hawker food. Do you have anything else to say to your readers about this new-and-improved food guide?

There are not many food guides out there that take eight years to write! I made it a point to visit all the stalls myself to make sure that I only recommend the best stalls in order that our readers don’t waste their calories on yucky food. I hope that it achieves its goal.

Since we are on the topic of the Only The Best! food guide, why don’t you tell us three of YOUR favourite local hawker dishes that you featured in your guide?

Fried Hokkien mee from Geylang Lor 29, bak kut teh from Founder at Rangoon Road and char kway teow from Hillstreet Char Kway Teow.

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Only The Best! The ieatishootipost Guide to Singapore’s Shiokest Hawker Food (2nd edition) is available in most major bookstores. Or get your hands on it here. To see the many more things Dr Leslie Tay is up to—or to feast your eyes on whatever he’s eating—visit his food blog, ieatishootipost.

Apart from being an established author, doctor, speaker and photographer, Dr Leslie Tay is also involved in doing his best to contribute to the less fortunate. Profits from his events are usually donated to Goducate to help the poor, help themselves.