Food for thought: Nathan Hartono and Norman Hartono
Grandsons of TungLok Group founder Tjioe Ji Nan speak about what food means to them, Singaporean cuisine, and their favourite street food haunts.
Nathan (left) and Norman Hartono
Norman and Nathan Hartono have food in their blood. As grandsons of TungLok Group founder Tjioe Ji Nan, the dashing duo grew up surrounded by the art and business of gastronomy, and it is safe to say their palates and worldly appreciation for food is a fine reflection of their upbringing.
Judging from nathan hartono’s toned physique, you’d think Instagram shots of his meals are hashtagged #eatclean. But the Berklee College of Music undergraduate is the first to admit that spicy, savoury, calorie-filled hawker fare and Asian cuisine is what he misses most when in the US. His solution? Cook them himself—Nathan has whipped up pots of Japanese curry and even soto ayam (chicken noodle soup) for his mates in Boston. Cooking, he says, is his second love. His first is performing, which has taken the 23-year-old to over 100 stages around the world and extends to theatre productions such as Pangdemonium’s Spring Awakening. The crooner is currently on a one-year break from school to focus on music projects.
Food is… such a huge part of Singapore’s culture. The day the local food scene disappears is the day I will not recognise this country anymore. I imagine a scene off post-apocalyptic movie The Road. Just... horrific.
The first thing that comes to mind when I think of local street food is… three words: bak chor mee (minced meat noodles).
“Singaporean” cuisine definitely exists. I know there has been lots of chatter about the origins of various dishes. But tell me, when you’re at a hawker centre and it’s 40°C out, your brow is sweating, your nose is dripping, and you have a Milo-peng (iced Milo) on one side and a bowl of laksa on the other, and you cannot be happier—where else but in Singapore?
The street food haunt I frequent is… The Roti Prata House at Upper Thomson Road because when you’re hungry at 1am, and just feel like having something so good, yet is so bad for you? Well, this is one of my go-to places for just that. There’s nothing quite like the crispy garlic prata and Maggie mutton masala here, washed down with bandung.
Following training and working in the family business, Norman launched Dancing Crab in April this year, adding to TungLok Group’s list of over 40 restaurants in Asia. Together with his uncle, the group’s executive chairman Andrew Tjioe, the 26-year-old looks to elevate the eating-out scene with robust, country-style Cajun seafood and Creole cuisine. A self-proclaimed food snob and slob, Norman picks flavour over presentation any day. He says, “Presentation does help the diner visualise the time and effort put into a dish, but ultimately, as long as you give it your best and really care for the dish you are making, presentation techniques are a side product of such care and concern.”
The street food haunt I frequent is… the Singapore Ampang Yong Tau Fu stall at Beng Cheng Restaurant at Upper Thomson Road. This is a recent discovery, but has quickly becoming my top favourite among all my go-to local food places. I was quite a picky eater as a kid. But during dinner time, I’d always go for the fried bean curd and tofu items first. The texture and the taste of crispy fried tofu drenched in oyster gravy never fail to have me swooning. Unfortunately during the past decade, for some reason, I rarely came across this, until recently when a colleague brought me there.
Food… stimulates different senses of taste, smell and touch. It is often a nostalgic affair that brings back memories of a simpler time and familiar feelings of joy. At the same time, new flavours and dishes create new memories that build on the old ones, making it a more profound dining experience.
Even though local street or hawker food… bears no single ethnic history, it is a result of the racial melting pot that is Singapore. One cannot not deny that there is such a thing as “Singaporean food”. With ingredients and cooking methods coming from all sorts of ethnicities, the food, like its people has developed its own identity.
My other food haunts are… bak kut teh prawn mee at Adam Road Food Centre, and lor mee and wanton noodles at Tiong Bahru Market.