A close Singaporean friend of mine, who lives in London but is a gastronomic nationalist (the best kind of nationalist, in my book), has been needling me to do more reviews of local food. And, while sipping lime juice and munching on buttermilk waffles at Hungry Kraken, I came to some sort of realisation about my dear friend’s request, and the questions it raises.
Let me hypothesise. Two parallel dynamics exist for different sorts of food in Singapore (and I suspect they exist generally, anywhere food is considered a big thing.) Namely – established cuisines (bak kut teh in Singapore, fry-ups in Britain, bagels in New York City) are viewed by how long they’ve survived, which means that generally the oldest, the ones whom everyone has reviewed and around whom a consensus has formed, are the worthiest ones. (Not to say a consensus is always right, just that it exists.) But this is not the zone reviewers want to be in; this is where they want to have been. It is in the new, the just introduced, the Zone of Maximum Novelty, that a reviewer would like to be in, sipping the newest takes on coffee and cocktails, building that critical consensus, and basking in honour and glory. Well, at least one of the above.
Unfortunately, the Zone of Maximum Novelty in Singapore’s food scene seems to be the unceasing pursuit of turning bits of Singapore into little corners of some other country. Sometimes the choice of corner is a bit dubious too. I mean, Richmond Station, really? Are you offering a vast variety of food plants and/or venison, in tribute to Richmond’s great landmarks (Kew Gardens and Richmond Park)? I thought not. I digress from the matter of the reviewer’s dilemma, though. How does the Zone of Maximum Novelty, in an environment like this, also provide something that is somehow local?
Well, enter Hungry Kraken. Set in a niche deep in Burlington Square, the place has been open for two months, and has a slightly austere look if not for the pop art menu and wall paintings. The menu is similarly short, centred around waffle burgers, chicken wings and smoothies. I go for the burgers.
The waffle burgers all have the same basic form too, differing only in their dressing; I get the classic with honey butter, and try their sambal sauce as well. Attractively carmine and glistening, the sambal looks as beautiful as it smells, generous with the belacan while packing a slow but hard kick. The honey butter, which is served melting and running in rivulets on the chicken patty, is almost the exact opposite – mellow and rounded, the butter wisely taking a backseat to the honey’s fragrance while contributing its creaminess.
It’s a good thing they’re cautious with the butter too, because there’s plenty of dairy elsewhere. I’m generally cynical about the substitution of buns in burgers, but these waffles work because they’re good as is. Griddled to a deep nutty brown in the centre, but still pale at the edges, the waffles are a palette of textures, the crusts scone-like, the edges wispy and stretchy, the insides a little gooey; they’ve somehow managed to not lose the mild tangyness of the buttermilk. And between the waffles, the chicken patty is dense but not too heavy, well seasoned with pepper and a fresh fragrance that eludes me until I’m almost finished – turns out it’s celery.
Is a well-executed twist on a burger enough for a good meal? Sure. But lunch at Hungry Kraken has turned out to the most enjoyable meal I’ve had since starting the blog, because of Ivor, the proprietor. Blond-fringed with a ready smile, he’s displayed some albums next to the menu board that I’ve never heard of; asking about them leads to an hour-long conversation. Ivor freely admits he’s a burger-and-fried-chicken person, but he’s also a designer, and a guitarist and songwriter; it turns out those records are the albums released by his band and those of his friends, part of Singapore’s Mandarin rock scene, displayed as a sign of support, of garnering awareness. He’s got further plans for the place, too – a TV to display animation works by Singaporeans; art and poetry displays on the walls; even a Youtube channel.
And so, amusingly enough, I seem to have stumbled on an answer to my friend’s dilemma. It’s all very easy to say that a place has ‘passion’, but Hungry Kraken is a little bit different from your usual joint (even the especially passionate ones). Chatting in the afternoon lull, Ivor always returns to the idea that his burger joint has another purpose – providing a platform, a venue, for a local creative community that often receives derisory attention and support locally even as it garners raucous applause abroad. Mentioning sell-out tours in Taiwan and Hong Kong when few know them at home, Ivor is wistful and hopeful at the same time.
And what can be more heartily, devotedly Singaporean than this? Creativity in the food, staying a step ahead of the tide of waffles-as-desserts; attention to detail, from the seasoning of the patties and wings to the quality of the sambal. And a healthy dose of optimistic cultural patriotism to boot. Rock on, Hungry Kraken. I’ll gladly come for the waffle burgers and stay for the chatter.
Burlington Square, 175 Bencoolen Street
Hours: Daily, 11AM – 7PM