One hawker stall in Singapore, whose family has been making curry rice the same way for 76 years, adds cultivated chicken to the menu.
The thing about Singapore’s famed hawker stalls is that they are time capsules. Through decades – centuries even – recipes, quality, ingredients, they remain unchanged. These are recipes passed down from generations, the secrets treasured and kept as family heirlooms.
Fathers take their daughters to Saturday lunches, sharing stories about how he and her grandmother would once do the same. Hawker stalls, traditional in themselves, become a tradition for other families.
And so the other thing about hawker stalls is that when something changes, it becomes a very big thing.
On a sultry, sunny day in Singapore’s Tiong Bahru neighborhood this February, such was the case at Loo’s Hainanese Curry Rice. Loo’s is renowned in Singapore for its fragrant, velvety and spicy curry rice, which it has been making the same way across three generations since 1946. The recipe is so old, in fact, that it’s older than Singapore as an independent nation – by nearly two decades.
But on this day in February, the chicken Loo’s would serve on its turquoise tables and turquoise plates -- the golden curry sauce draped over pillowy mounds of white rice, creating a vibrantly colored cascading pastel – would, for the first time in hawker history, come not from a slaughtered animal but from cells grown in a clean, sterile environment.
It seems odd – this mixing of new and old, of tradition and revision. But to Loo Kia Chee, always affectionately referred to as Mr. Loo, it makes sense that history runs through the humble hawker.
“I think tradition and modernization do not clash with each other,” Loo said. “When I first learned about this cultivated chicken, I saw it as a great invention for humanity.”
That might be good and nice, but people don’t come to hawker stalls for change. They come for consistency, they come for the taste of their childhood. Loo’s is so popular that it often has a line queuing around the block as early as 8 a.m.
It’s that level of fandom, of ingrained deep appreciation for Loo’s that brings people across generations back.
At one of the tables that February afternoon was a father and daughter. The father, when his daughter was very young, brought her to Loo’s regularly. They ate the curry rice together, savoring both the food and the time together. As the daughter grew up, she began to learn about the meat industry’s dire toll on the environment. She coaxed her dad to try plant-based meats like Impossible or Beyond. He rebuffed her. Traditions and habits are hard to break.
But now, at their beloved Loo’s, this was different. This wasn’t a plant-based substitute. This was real meat, made from cells, cooked by the same man whose food they both knew and loved.
“It’s good to have alternative,” the father said. “instead of the traditional way of eating chicken.”
Suddenly, a new tradition was born.