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Korean Food in the Eyes of Singaporean Students

Singapore is known for being a multicultural city and any visitor wanting to find the most authentic flavours and experiences in Singapore must definitely visit a local hawker center. Hawker centers bring some of Singapore’s most popular street foods together under one roof. They offer a wide range of cuisines from Malay-Muslim to Chinese to Western food. Much like these hawker centers, the canteens at the National University of Singapore (NUS) are a congregation of affordable street foods and various cuisines under one roof.

Meet Timothy, an exchange student from the UK, who is looking to find his way around NUS’s campus canteens. He decides to ask his tutorial mate Samuel, a second-year student from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, for help and they set off to have lunch together.

Timothy has heard a lot about the multiculturalism of Singapore and wants to see if he can get Korean cuisine in Singapore. Samuel suggests visiting Hwang’s. It is lunchtime when the two arrive at Hwang’s and they look around for a seat. Samuel spots a seat in the corner and hurries over to place his backpack on the seat and laptop on the table before walking towards the queue.

First lesson to surviving lunch time in NUS—it is generally okay to leave your belongings to chope (which is Singlish for “reserve”) seats. Belongings like laptops are left to indicate that seats are taken and there is a trust amongst students that what is left there, will stay there.

Timothy and Samuel proceed to queue for their food when Timothy notices the prices at Hwang’s are slightly different from those found outside the campus.

Lesson number two—Food is cheaper in the canteens because they cater to students who cannot afford to pay 10 SGD and above for their meals on a daily basis. Food at the canteens can be as cheap as 2.50 SGD for a bowl of porridge. Hwang’s is a little bit on the expensive side—meals there cost between 5 to 6.50 SGD—but it is still very reasonable.

“Tim, do you want to know how you can tell which stall has the best food at a hawker center or a coffee shop?” asks Samuel.

Final lesson—Singaporeans love to queue, and for good reason. Queues are mostly seen at the stalls serving the best food, so whenever we see a queue, we tend to end up joining it.

Korean Cuisine in NUS
To Timothy’s surprise, he can, in fact, get Korean cuisine in Singapore, and we, Singaporeans, are definitely no strangers to Korean food. Ask most students about Korean food on campus, and the first name that comes to mind would be Hwang’s, being iconic and synonymous with the idea of Korean cuisine amongst students in NUS. When asked about his impression of Korean food on campus, Joshua Kwah, who is a freshman from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, replied, “I only know Hwang’s and that it has branches in other places in NUS.”

Located at a corner of the campus known as the University Town, Hwang’s offers a taste of Korea at an affordable price and a convenient location. The meals usually come with two side dishes of kimchi and anchovies, a bowl of rice and soup. With 39 items on their menu, the Korean eatery casts a very wide net. Though some dishes like galbi-tang (short-rib soup) have gotten less than stellar reviews because there was simply too little meat on the ribs, most other dishes on the menu have performed pretty well in the eyes of NUS students.

Korean cuisine is popular amongst students in NUS for various reasons ranging from the influence of the Korean Wave to the students being increasingly health conscious. Sim Wei An, a freshman from the Faculty of Engineering, commented that he liked the Korean cuisine because of the “wide variety of side dishes” available and because it is “generally healthier, flavors are usually rather mild, and there are always vegetables in every dish.”

“Hwang’s also caters to those living in U-Town, a home to the pricier residential colleges at NUS. This means that 5 SGD for a meal is relatively more affordable to the people who live here,” says Ivan Ang, another freshman from the Faculty of Engineering.

On a more personal note, my knowledge and enjoyment of Korean cuisine comes from watching variety shows like Running Man where cast members regularly indulge in dishes like tteokbokki (stir-fried rice cake) and jjajangmyeon (noodles with black bean sauce). Just watching them slurp up rice cakes and noodles is enough to make my mouth water and want to head over to Hwang’s for a quick fix of Korean food.

Since exams, and my marathon of Running Man episodes, were over, I decided to head down to Hwang’s to satisfy my cravings. After meeting up with my buddies, Daniel and Ivan, we made our way to Hwang’s and placed an order. Ivan got ttukbaegi samgyeopsal (pork belly served in a stone bowl) which he described as “good value for money because of the appropriate serving size and well-prepared food.” Served in a piping hot stone bowl and with well-marinated pork belly, this dish made him feel it was worth every dollar.

Daniel, on the other hand, was looking to get a lighter, cleaner meal, hence opting for samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup). With a flavourful soup and a whopping half chicken at only 6.50 SGD, it is a very good meal for its price. As the saying goes, it is the inner beauty that matters the most. And true enough, the best part of this dish was hidden inside the chicken: a stuffing of glutinous rice marinated in a sort of ginseng sauce. Though ginseng may be an acquired taste to most Singaporeans from my generation, I am confident that the glutinous rice and sauce in this chicken did not require prior training to enjoy.

I was looking for a more filling lunch and decided to get the beef and pork belly combo, which also cost 6.50 SGD. The meat came extremely well-marinated, sizzling on a hot plate. The idea of a combo of two different kinds of meat speaks to me in particular because I am a beef and pork lover, and to be able to enjoy both in a single meal is definitely the best of both worlds for me. Hwang’s also serves snacks like tteokbokki and gimbap (seaweed roll) for those who are not looking for a full meal. We were too full, however, to have these snacks this time.

On the whole, Hwang’s leaves a very good impression of Korean food. Although the food served here may have been tweaked to suit the Singaporean palate as the chefs are mostly Chinese nationals and Singaporeans, if Korean cuisine is similar to what Hwang’s has offered me, then I am definitely a fan.

Moving on from Hwang’s, another huge part of Korean cuisine in Singapore is Korean barbeque. Singaporeans love a good buffet. Students love a good bargain. When you combine a buffet with student discounts in Singapore, the result is a natural appeal to large numbers of students looking to reward themselves for a semester’s—or a week’s—worth of hard work. Korean barbeque buffets in Singapore are typically priced at 14 SGD for an hour and a half session during non-peak hours. They offer a wide variety of meat in various marinades, as well as seafood and vegetables. Pricier buffets, such as Seoul Garden, also offer non-Korean selections and marinades like curry and tom yum.

In addition to Korean cuisine in our canteens and restaurants, Korean snacks and products like instant noodles have also grown in popularity in Singapore. Korean marts have popped up in malls around Singapore, bringing in products like Samyang Ramen, roasted seaweed, and banana milk. Such products, however, are considerably less popular amongst students in comparison to Korean dishes found in campus canteens, likely due to the high price of such imported goods. I personally am hooked on the kimchi noodles from Samyang, but when choosing between 3.50 SGD for a pack of 5 and 1.80 SGD for a pack of 6 for local instant noodle brands, my tight budget often makes the decision for me.

All in all, the spiciness of Korean cuisine has certainly left the taste buds of many chili-loving Singaporeans tingling, making its mark and earning its place in the food culture of our sunny island.

Park Sung Eun  parkse@agrinet.co.kr

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