SINGAPORE: When it comes to school food, most Singaporeans may recall the kindly aunty or uncle in their school canteen who served up S$0.80 fishball noodles or S$1 chicken rice.
While these two dishes are still staples in canteens, new offerings like kimchi tofu, cajun chicken and coffee have sprung up at schools across Singapore.
At Princess Elizabeth Primary School, a vegetarian stall serving kimchi tofu is a popular choice among students.
Madam Violet Lee, who runs the stall with her mother, was picking up her son when she saw an advertisement outside the school looking for someone to run a vegetarian stall.
The 38-year-old, who is a vegetarian herself, used to work in the marketing industry, but has always had a passion for cooking and baking. After she saw the ad, she decided to take a leap of faith by quitting her job and becoming a canteen vendor at the start of 2022.
“I shared the notice with my mum on the same day. I think the thoughts in my mum’s head were more like, ‘I don’t know how to cook vegetarian dishes’, because she’s not vegetarian herself,” said Mdm Lee with a smile.
“But I slowly convinced her that her good cooking can actually fill that gap.”
While getting kids to eat their vegetables is no easy feat, Mdm Lee manages it easily, serving up bittergourd, okra and eggplant dishes on different days. She assures us that they are popular with the students, though it did take a while for them to realise that vegetarian food can be tasty.
What happens when she encounters students who tell her they don’t like vegetables at all? Mdm Lee says she starts by offering them dishes with vegetables “hidden inside”, like eggs scrambled with tomatoes, carrots or spinach.
“I also met teachers who didn’t like bittergourd, but I told them to give it a try.”
Queues quickly form at the stall during recess time, and even the teachers are a fan of the food, CNA observed during a visit in September.
Besides kimchi tofu, Mdm Lee prepared another of her popular dishes, pumpkin with omni meat – a vegan meat substitute – served with brown rice for the CNA team to try. It’s not difficult to see why the students keep coming back for the homestyle meals.
“I focus a lot on real ingredients and also introducing a lot of subtle twists to the cuisine, so you don’t feel like it’s vegetarian food.”
Mdm Lee makes everything from scratch, including the kimchi and rempah that she uses in curry or assam dishes. “We know that the children like spicy food here,” she said.
The menu changes daily so that students look forward to their meals in school.
“Sometimes they will come up to me to ask me to cook certain dishes that I’ve cooked before that are to their liking, or even dishes they would love to try,” said Mdm Lee, adding that many students have requested the return of ddeokbokki, Korean rice cakes in spicy sauce, or okonomiyaki, a Japanese savoury pancake.
Her son, now in Primary 4, brought all his friends to try her food when the stall first opened, and often serves as her taste tester and assistant at home.
To account for the recess and lunch crowds, she prepares up to 15 to 16 dishes a day, and takes preorders for lunch during recess to avoid food wastage.
“It’s tiring for me at the end of the day because I’ll be hot and sweaty. But I enjoy it when the children thank me after their meals for the good food, or sometimes they come up to me to say that they enjoy the variety that I’ve put up for them so far.”
Mdm Lee intends to continue as a canteen vendor even after her son graduates from the school, and hopes to eventually open a vegetarian hawker stall as well.
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RETURNING TO HIS ALMA MATER
At the age of 29, Mr Wan Hasnirauuf Hassan had already completed multiple stints in the F&B industry ranging from fine dining to catering, and was looking for a way to start his own stall.
Mr Wan, who has a culinary diploma from the Institute of Technical Education, is an alumnus of Boon Lay Secondary School. While browsing online for stalls for rent, he came across the listing for a canteen vendor in his alma mater.
“I thought maybe it’s fate, that it’s a calling for me to come back to the school and cook for the students,” he said.
He decided to open up a Western food stall, and quickly realised that students prefer local-style Western food, like chicken chop, pasta carbonara – “not so fancy” dishes.
“I tried to experiment with dishes like quinoa salad, couscous, but I think that students have yet to open up to that,” he said, adding that squid ink pasta was also met with mixed reactions.
“It’s more about experimenting and trying to open up the students’ horizons when it comes to food.”