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Singaporeans react to Netflix's Street Food: Does putu piring represent us?

CNA Lifestyle looks at the polarising reactions to the Singapore episode of the food series, and comes away asking: What four dishes could possibly do that?

There is a particular group of culinary experts that develops and perfects the same dish over decades and never quite gets to share the same glamorous spotlight of their fine-dining counterparts. 

Which might explain why Netflix’s recent offering Street Food – from the creators of acclaimed series Chef’s Table – has become one of the most talked-about food shows to emerge in a post Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations/Parts Unknown world.

The first season of the gastro-docu series traipses around Asia over nine episodes, inviting audiences to appreciate the traditions, cultural heritage and dedication behind the dishes found on street corners and in markets embedded in some of the most delicious cities in Asia.

Reactions to the series have been polarising.

From Malaysia’s feathers being ruffled about their grub being excluded from the list that comprises Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines, Japan, India and Indonesia; to Filipino director Erik Matti criticising the Cebu episode as bordering on “poverty porn” and based on “bad research”, Street Food has been receiving its fair share of flak on the Internet.

The Cebu episode from Street Food. (Photo: Netflix)

"The title of the show should be ‘Look At How Hard Life Is In Asia And Family Is Important’," reads one Reddit comment. "Exploitative" and "try-hard" are other reactions online.

Yoonsun Cho from the Seoul episode in Street Food. (Photo: Jisang Chung/ Netflix)

Some Singaporeans CNA Lifestyle spoke to also expressed disappointment, lamenting that the food choices made in the Singapore episode were not entirely representative of the local hawker culture.

The episode featured the late Master Tang’s Wanton Noodles, KEK Seafood’s Chilli Crab, Sin Kee Famous Chicken Rice and Haig Road’s Putu Piring.

Aisha Hashim, one of the few Singaporean hawkers still making putu piring (steamed rice cake filled with melted palm sugar and topped with shredded coconut) was the lead Singapore story.

Viewer Steven Liew felt that the series was poorly researched and was surprised that it chose to focus more on the owner of the business rather than the food that they sold.

"I love putu piring, but is it synonymous with hawker food in Singapore?" he said. "The focus on the hawker wasn't even on their recipes, or what made them stand out."

“In that same Singapore episode, there were the two brothers, and they were shown cooking, but I have no idea what they were preparing. In the end, the show is less about the food or culture, but more on the sacrifices and challenges faced by these hawkers."

For Robert Goh, it was a missed opportunity to show the world what Singapore street food is really like. “Putu piring does not come top of mind when we talk about Singapore street or hawker food,” he told CNA Lifestyle. "Yes, the other choices of chilli crab and chicken rice for sure [is representative of Singapore cuisine]... I was thinking mee pok noodles instead of wanton mee would be more Singaporean, no?”

Putu piring, made out of steamed rice flour, melted gula Melaka, grated coconut and pandan leaves.

There are, however, Singaporeans who not only enjoyed the focus on a lesser-known Singaporean dish like putu piring, but also appreciated the human stories behind the food.

Lina Rahim told CNA Lifestyle she was touched by Aisha Hashim’s story, even though putu piring, she said, almost never comes to mind when you think of "Singapore food".

“Perhaps if it started with, say, nasi lemak, then maybe it won’t be so divisive?” she said. “Anyway there’s no such thing as a perfect representation of Singapore food and it was nice that we saw a dish beyond the usual fare.”

For Lina, who is an avid fan of food shows, it was all about the stories.

Ms Aisha (middle) and her parents. (Photo: Mediacorp)

“I think the series chose people who had interesting stories to tell, and the putu piring story was touching," she said. "It was about how she sacrificed her own dream of being a pastry chef to take over her parents’ business. What could be more Singaporean than that?”

"[The synopsis of the show] said it was about street food and the people who make them after all," added Lina. "The Ho Chi Minh episode was about a lady who cooks snails. The pho was secondary."

Gold 905 radio personality Denise Tan – who helms the Lunchtime Jukebox show, as well as the station’s weekly food guide segment Makan Kakis – thinks that the polarising reception to the Singapore episode could be attributed to the fact that Singaporeans might come with “a certain expectation and shorthand with the street food scene in Singapore”.

Nizam Iskandar and Aisha Hashim are the husband and wife pair who now run the family business, Traditional Haig Road Putu Piring. (Photo: Mediacorp)

Tan enjoyed the focus on putu piring – particularly for its backstory. “I think that the running theme throughout Street Food is having to go into this job out of necessity and hardship. It's also about carrying on for the next generation."

"For the Singapore episode, because our street food culture is actually hawker centre culture, there's less of the emphasis on struggling to make ends meet and more on how are we going to sustain our food heritage and culture.”

Truoc’s snail dishes in Street Food (Photo: Ehrin Macksey/Netflix)

With a plethora of proudly-local dishes Singapore has to offer, perhaps the question is this: What is an authentic representation of hawker food in multi-cultural Singapore? Would any four dishes assembled on television achieve that?

“I think that the one thing we have to keep in mind is that I don't think any of the people from all the different countries watching are thinking, ‘Yes, this is exactly representative of our country's street food scene' either," said Tan.

Former Crystal Jade head chef Tang Siu Nam passed away in Hong Kong in February 2019. (Photo: Facebook/KF Seetoh)

"I don't think you're ever going to please anyone because there are too many places, too many areas, too many types of food for one to be fully representative of any country’s street food scene."

So while the series may not give a complete sweep of a city’s authentic street fare in 30 minutes, perhaps we should consider what it offers: Making the usually invisible, visible for the world to see. Whether it may be someone's backstory or a city's disappearing cuisine.

Source: CNA/gl