We Singaporeans take immense pride in our hawker culture. We will do anything to protect and honour it, even nominating it for a UNESCO listing.
However, our precious hawker culture might soon face endangerment. Simply put, many of our hawker uncles and aunties are getting on in their age. They won’t be able to continue working in the long run.
Fortunately, a recent wave of young hawkers has injected new blood into the hawker trade. 27-year-old Tan Wee Yang is one of them.
This Gen-Y hawker is the owner of Ah Tan Wings, which is well-known for chicken wings!
Wee Yang, or more affectionately known as Ah Tan, started his business in 2017.
Back then, it was just a humble stall in Yishun Park Hawker Centre. Today, after almost three years in business, he is the proud owner of, not one, not two, but three stalls!
Curious as to how the young hawker became so successful, I went down to his newest stall in timbre+. The third and latest outlet of the Ah Tan Wings franchise in Ayer Rajah opened only recently in July 2019.
The 27-Year-Old Hawker
When I met Ah Tan, it was already late in the afternoon. Yet, the poor soul haven’t had his lunch.
It turned out that the young hawker had been shuttling among his three stalls, and does so daily.
Unlike many of his counterparts out there, Ah Tan doesn’t have any culinary background. In fact, prior to his hawker career, he was a salesperson. It was his love for fried chicken which eventually made him switch careers.
But I wondered, of all fried chicken variations, why did he choose to go with har cheong gai?
Har Cheong Gai: A Family Favourite
Apparently, har cheong gai is a dish which Ah Tan and his family would often have together. However, he never found any places that specialised in them. Most places only offer them as one of many dishes, such as in zi char stalls.
This sparked a thought in Ah Tan, that maybe he could try something new – specialise in har cheong gai.
The adventurous young man, merely 25 years old then, as a result, started having pop-up stalls. He spent his weekends setting up booths at various events in addition to his full-time job.
After nine months of experimenting, Ah Tan realised that he enjoyed serving customers and the “kampung spirit” of the hawker community. So he decided to take the leap of faith and established his first brick-and-mortar stall in 2017.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for him. The first year was especially tough. Many people were unfamiliar with his stall, and sceptical of his har cheong gai-centric concept.
Slowly but surely, business began to pick up as news of his har cheong gai stall started spreading through word-of-mouth. Customers soon turned into regulars.
Eventually, Ah Tan felt confident that he was able to expand his business, so he opened up more stalls. Customers no longer needed to travel all the way to Yishun for his har cheong gai anymore.
With such a compelling story, we couldn’t wait to dive into Ah Tan Wings’ har cheong gai!
Har Cheong Delights
Now, chicken wings are one of my favourite dishes in the world. I grew up eating them and have extremely high standards for them.
Ah Tan Wings’ signature Atas Wing Meal (S$6.30/with drink, S$5.20/without drink) came with two whole chicken wings.
Right off the bat, the gorgeous golden-brown hue on the har cheong gai excited us. We noticed there were tiny flakes of extra batter all over the chicken wings too.
Apparently, Ah Tan Wings has a very special two-step preparation method for their har cheong gai.
Most places serving up har cheong gai would simply deep-fry their wings once and serve them afterwards. However, Ah Tan Wings actually deep-fries theirs twice—and that’s not all.
They first mass-deep-fry their har cheong gai and leave them to rest. Then, they deep-fry it for a second time only when a customer orders it. As such, our har cheong gai wings were sizzling-hot when they arrived.
Not only that but for each time they deep-fry the wings, Ah Tan Wings uses a different batter.
They added the second batter while, at repeated intervals, lowering the wings into and lifting them out of the deep-fryer.
This technique, Ah Tan said, was very much Japanese-inspired as that is how they make tempura.
The unique method was also the reason for the coat of tiny batter flakes on the wings.
They made for an added soft crunch, which was very satisfying indeed.
As a bonus, the meat within was ultra-juicy and silky-smooth too, checking all the boxes for a good chicken wing.
What truly impressed us, though, was how there was a strong taste of prawn paste in not just the chicken skin, but also the meat.
Ah Tan revealed that he actually marinates his chickens for two days. This is so that the flavour of the shrimp paste can soak through the chicken skin and permeate through the meat.
It definitely made a difference, I’ll tell you that. Most of the har cheong gai I had elsewhere only had flavour in the chicken skin and not the meat. It surely wasn’t the case at Ah Tan Wings.
Ah Tan recommended dipping them in his housemade chilli sauce.
He specially curated the recipe for this chilli sauce so that it’d complement his har cheong gai.
The chilli certainly packed a punch, yet its sour notes made it bearable and rather addictive. You can bet I didn’t waste any of it.
With such a great start, we were looking forward to the Almighty Cutlet Meal (S$7.90/with drink, S$6.80/without drink).
This time, the har cheong gai was in the form of a cutlet, and a really sizeable one. It was so huge that it barely fitted within the plate!
Like the wings, the chicken cutlet had the same satisfying crunch in every bite.
To our surprise, we actually picked up a more prominent umami flavour in the cutlet.
It was evident that the prawn paste marinade had fully permeated the meat.
Together with the skin and two layers of batter, it sent a wave of har cheong goodness into our mouths that was to die for.
You may also enhance its taste with a squeeze of lemon juice. We found that the zestiness helped to balance out the overall oiliness very well.
Additionally, both meals came with cucumbers, a sunny-side-up, as well as their housemade chicken rice.
The sunny-side-up had a perfectly runny yolk which we (almost) couldn’t bear to ruin.
As for the chicken rice, we felt it was unique as it wasn’t very oily.
It turned out that they didn’t use any chicken fat at all. A great number of herbs and spices, such as lemongrass, garlic and shallots, went into it instead.
Not only that, but the rice also had a consistency similar to glutinous rice. It was slightly dry, but the herbaceous notes and guilt-free mouthfuls kept us going back for more.
Not to mention, their housemade chilli went exceptionally well with the rice too. Its sour twang brightened the flavour profile of the rice.
If you prefer to indulge in pure fried chicken goodness, the wings are available A La Carte (S$1.80/piece, minimum order of two) as well.
Get a bunch and share them with your dining kakis so they won’t keep eyeing your plate!
“Going Into The Industry Is Easy, But Not So Much Staying In It”
Ah Tan admits that being a hawker is definitely more demanding than a normal office job. The longer working hours and less-than-comfortable environment aren’t exactly the most ideal conditions to be working in.
That said, he feels a great sense of achievement and satisfaction being in the industry—doing what he likes for a living keeps him going.
Looking back, Ah Tan has had many setbacks. But these, according to him, are part and parcel of the journey. First-generation hawkers like him are especially vulnerable to them.
So his advice?
“Try it out. If you have an interest, go for it. In order to succeed, however, you have to persevere. You must feel the ground and constantly adapt to keep getting better.”
As he eloquently put it, entering the hawker industry is easy, but not so much staying in it.
Ah Tan’s ultimate goal, for now, is to make his har cheong gai more accessible to Singaporeans.
He intends to open up more Ah Tan Wings stalls to cover every region in Singapore.
Right now, the Gen-Y hawker has three stalls in three different regions under his belt.
In my view? He’s on the right track.
Expected Damage: S$1.80 – S$7.90 per pax
Our Rating: 5 / 5
Ah Tan Wings
73A Ayer Rajah Crescent, timbre+,#01-30, Singapore 139957
Ah Tan Wings
73A Ayer Rajah Crescent, timbre+,#01-30, Singapore 139957