The $2.50 nasi lemak from the HDB block next door was Gregory's idea of that one special $2.50 meal (Photo: Hungrygowhere / I'm a Makan Girl)
The $2 hawker meal is extinct. Well, almost.
If you do find a decent one, it is like striking the lottery.
In most places, $2.50 is now considered a cheap hawker meal, but even that is fading faster than we would like.
Ask your friends or anyone on social media sites if they can find a $2.50 hawker meal which tastes good and fills you up and they will probably tell you that it is there, but you have to really hunt for it.
So let’s spare a moment before the inevitable passing of a proper $2.50 hawker meal, by remembering exactly why it is so special and which is your favourite.
I live in a three-room government-built Housing Board (HDB) flat and there is a coffee shop at the next block where I used to buy a $2.50 nasi lemak (coconut-infused rice with fried chicken and other dishes) for breakfast.
Running the stall was a really friendly Malay family, and I would always engage the son in idle chit-chat on the weather, politics or changes in the neighbourhood. His parents, while furiously cooking, would quip in with a comment or a murmur of agreement now and then.
When the son enjoyed the conversation, I would get extra fried ikan bilis (anchovies)with my nasi lemak, and I would do a gleeful leap for joy in my head whenever that happened.
The fragrant rice was not too oily, there was a decent-sized “three-part” chicken wing fried with turmeric, a hot and crispy fried egg, crunchy ikan bilis, peanuts, a thick slice of fresh cucumber and sweet chilli.
I would head back to my flat, watch the news on TV and have my meal in complete peace before preparing to go to work.
I always think that if there were one experience to boast to my overseas friends about living in Singapore, it would be exactly this. An experience that I could have anytime I want to (provided I was able to wake up extra early).
That was in 2010. Not so in 2013.
HIGH RENT, NO LOYAL REGULARS
The coffee shop went through renovation in a bid to attract more customers and the old hawkers, also residents of Clementi, moved out due to an increase in rent.
Now there is a constant change of hawkers every four months or so, due to a lack of customers who have stopped patronising the coffee shop.
To cope with the higher rents, the hawkers either raise prices, or if prices are unchanged, the food ingredients are cut back : thinner slices of fish cake, a quarter of an egg in your mee siam (rice vermicelli in tangy soupy gravy) compared to half an egg or even a whole egg in the good old days.
With the hawkers gone, so did my good and cheap nasi lemak. I also lost the six-year friendship that I had with the Malay family, because I have no idea where they are now.
More than that, a part of my personal history and my favourite enjoyment no longer exist, and there I was, thinking such moments were why I love Singapore.
THE SHOCK OF A $12 MEAL
Such anecdotes are becoming common as Singapore strives for even greater economic growth.
With $2.50 these days, it gets you just snacks such as buns, fritters and the like.
It is not uncommon to see average hawker meal prices at $4 and $5.
Some hawker signs serve as reminders of what prices used to be. For example, $2.50 may be crossed out or covered with masking tape, with the new price written over in ink advertising the new price as $3 or $4.
I had a big shock a few months ago when I decided to splurge on rice with two meats and two side dishes, in an air-conditioned food court in town on a particularly hungry day. I had to pay a whopping $12.
True, it wasn’t in a hawker centre and it was in town, but $12? How did we ever come to this point?
Very often, we complain like an outraged Singaporean. We blame everyone from the mass media, the Government, foreigners, and we swear never to go back to that evil corporation of foodcourt chains. We take a snapshot of the meal and post it on social media, hoping to stir more outrage.
But perhaps, we could take a step back and understand – no matter how difficult it is to do so – that inflation is just a fact of life.
My family has been patronising a stall selling wantan mee (noodles with pork dumplings and roasted pork slices) in Hougang ever since my 66-year-old mother was a little girl.
My late grandmother used to say the old hawker was selling noodles in the kampung (village) before the stall moved to a hawker centre in the 1970s. It is now run by his sons who are in their 50s.
My mother has seen the price rise from 50 cents to $1 and upwards over the years to its present price of $3.50 a plate.
IT’S NOW THAT MATTERS
What good, filling dishes can you get for $2.50 and under these days in Singapore? We worked our way around the island and found that eating well for cheap is still very possible. Read on and eat on
We’re still going there and probably just happy to be able to still get wantan mee from a stall that has been in operation for more than 60 years.
Yes, the future isn’t rosy because the heavily subsidised hawker rentals of the past will be coming to an end due to aging hawkers and expiring leases.
But to obsess over that is to miss out on appreciating these $2.50 meals that are still around, right at this moment.
These meals become something that you genuinely appreciate because it is so amazing that you can still find such good quality for that price, in this day and age.
So live for the moment now and enjoy them while they last.
Before you know it, $3 will be the new cheap and good and you'll wonder whatever happened to $2.50.
(The views and opinions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of insing.com and SingTel Digital Media Ptd Ltd.)