Posts tagged how to
Everything You Need To Know About Southeast Asian Street Food, Night Markets, and Hawker Centers

Ivan here.

Jennie and I dedicated the whole month of October 2018 to exploring street food culture in Singapore and Malaysia. We wanted to find out whether we can truly “know” a place and its people by simply walking around and eating our way through it.

Spoiler alert: it’s possible.

 
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Jennie and Ivan’s Singapore & Malaysia Street Food Itinerary


Here was our itinerary: October 1 - 31, 2018


Malaysian food is complex, diverse and criminally underrepresented in North America. It’s the perfect blend of Malay, Chinese and Indian influences. In practice, this means shrimp paste and sambal meets soy sauce and lemongrass, rice steamed with coconut milk dates Indian roti and curry.

 
 
Jennie’s note:  Ivan literally had nasi lemak every opportunity he got. He was obsessed in Singapore and Malaysia.

Jennie’s note: Ivan literally had nasi lemak every opportunity he got. He was obsessed in Singapore and Malaysia.

 

And as someone not prone to hyperbole:

Malaysian nasi lemak might be the most perfect breakfast dish ever invented.


Street Food 101:

How to Find Good Street Food in Southeast Asia


Maybe it’s an inborn talent of the Taiwanese, but for someone who’s not overly fussy about what he eats, I do have a knack for finding good street food. You can chalk this up to the power of deduction.

Because once you’ve eliminated the tourist traps and places that will definitely give you food poisoning, whatever remains, however rundown-looking, must be freaking delicious.

In this post, I’ve compiled a list of 9 general guidelines (not rules) you should stick to when you have a mental list of foods you want to try, but don’t know which vendors to pick. Where online sources are either non-existent or unreliable, and the only thing you can depend on are your senses and instinct.


9 Non-Obvious Tips for Finding Good Street Food in Asia and Southeast Asia


1. Always arrive late to the meal

Street food is an iterative process that gets better as the night goes on. Like a car engine sitting in a winter driveway, vendors need time to warm up. The first couple of batches are just to get themselves in rhythm. Which is why in Taiwan, no self-respecting local arrives at a night market before 7 PM (usually closer to 8).

2. Do a complete walk-through before choosing a stall

Pay attention to what’s going on both behind and in front of the stall: how old are the cooks (i.e. how long have they been doing this)? How fresh are the ingredients? What’s the average age of the customers? Are vendors getting high off their own supply? What are they feeding their own kids? In Penang, Malaysia, in a food court full of exotic seafood and spicy curry broths, I saw a vendor’s kid ignore his smartphone and inhale a plate of chicken wings and plain white rice from a neighboring stall. So that’s what I had for dinner that night. That kid was onto something.

3. Understand queue dynamics: what kind of line is forming?

Conventional wisdom says to go where people (preferably locals) are lining up. Whichever stall has the longest line, must be serving the best food, right?

Not always. Long lines=good food is the kind of lemming-like thinking that leads to the rich getting richer, until one day, global inequality brings about the collapse of our institutions. Somewhere, at the end of a long, random queue, lurks the future Starbucks of street food.

Here’s a real-life example: Jennie and I were in Tokyo for the first week of December. Passing by Shinjuku on a Saturday afternoon, we saw locals lining up around the block for, get this, Taiwanese bubble tea.

Turns out the Kaohsiung-based franchise Gong Cha recently opened their first stores in Japan. As a Taiwanese, is Gong Cha the best bubble tea ever? Not even close. But it’s definitely the most expensive and trendy. Another example: tourists queuing in front of Ichiran Ramen (ubiquitous across Japan; basically the Mcdonalds of ramen) as if its famous tonkotsu broth offered the elixir to everlasting life.

Editor’s Note: To be fair, Ichiran Ramen is decent (in spite of hype) and the dining concept is pretty unique. But the Fukuoka chain has been around in its current form since the early 90s. When Jennie and I were last in Japan ten years ago, nobody cared about Ichiran. The only thing that’s really changed is the size of the company’s marketing budget.


4. Pay attention to old people

This tip works especially well at lunchtime and in the mid-afternoons. Prime old people hangout times.  When you’re faced with the prospect of choosing between hundreds of food stalls selling the same items, you can’t go wrong gravitating towards groups of old men (“uncles”) or women (“aunties”) clustered around that one stall drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes.  

The same logic applies for the people behind the counter. You’re looking for older vendors with a no-nonsense, take-it-or-leave-it attitude. Avoid bored-looking teenagers and twenty-somethings behind the wok. That’s just slave labor dressed up as filial piety.

5. The more gimmicks the food has, the more disappointing it will be

Gimmicks: your food wouldn’t need them if it was anything to write home about. Delicious food, by definition, should speak for itself. It doesn’t get improved with sparklers, or if it’s shrunk down into kawaii (Japanese for cute) mini-sizes, or if it’s cut into the shape of Hello Kitty. Pretty much any optimization for Instagram is guaranteed to make zero difference to the actual quality of the food - but a noticeable difference to the price.   

6.  A steaming pot of broth right out front is usually a good sign

Any food that’s cooked in front of you and not carried in from the back is generally a good sign. But something old that’s already boiling in a cauldron out front is even better. Lao tang tou, or “old soup broth,” where fresh ingredients are added daily but the soup is never changed for decades, is history you can actually taste.  

7. If a vendor has more than 1-2 specialty dishes on the menu, they don’t understand what the word specialty means

Fat menus lead to thin wallets and disappointing meals. This holds especially true for street food and small vendors, where you know they don’t employ a staff of two dozen specialists in the kitchen. Having more than two specialty dishes means you’re trying to be everything to everyone. Nine times out of ten, you’ve already failed.

8. Avoid the aggressive or over-friendly salesman

A salesman is only as good as the product he or she sells. But the better the product, the more it should sell itself. Especially when it comes to food, where you (typically) don’t need an instruction manual. Therefore, the very presence of an overly friendly salesman is a sign that the food should be avoided.

9. Be careful when choosing “well-rated” and decorated establishment

Say I’m the owner of a hawker center stall in Singapore. I’ve been working at my craft for half a century, sweating away in the equatorial heat. One day, a critic from an unnamed French tire company rides in on his horse to review my life’s work. Based on...what? Do I go into their factories to grade the quality of their tires? Do I look like I’m baking baguettes here?

Now I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the Michelin Man is an untrustworthy fraud. If anything, he looks like someone who would know all the good places to eat. What I am saying is that in the world of night markets and food stalls, “prestige” is often not based on the most up-to-date information. Quality and standards in the food world are fickle and subject to change. Margins are low, competition is fierce, and customers are always seeking newer thrills (further reading: how much does it cost to run a hawker stall in Singapore?).

International fame also tends to skew your incentives.  When most of your clientele becomes one-time customers (i.e. tourists), instead of people from the block you have to pass by on the street every day, would anyone notice if you raised the prices and cut some corners?

And if someone did notice, would it be your problem?



Back to Basics: Making a Budget
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Ivan here.

In the previous post to this “Back to Basics” series, I talked about how millennials making $2,500 a month should allocate their paycheck.

To summarize, they should mentally divide their paycheck into three equal parts (~33% each):

  1. Rent and Bills Fund ($833)
  2. “Present Me” Fund ($833)
  3. “Future Me” Fund ($833)

Another way of thinking about this is:

  1. My overhead (i.e. fixed costs)
  2. My short term needs (i.e. money I need within 12-18 months)
  3. My long term wants (i.e. money I need beyond 18 months)

This is how things should look in the perfect world. Unfortunately, saying that the world is not perfect might be the understatement of the century. Most people aren’t even remotely rational or sane.

Source: https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/PSAVERT

Source: https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/PSAVERT

In 2018, the U.S. personal savings rate is 2.8% - a historic low. This is partly a symptom of our two-tiered economy where the rewards disproportionately benefit the top 40%, while technology and trade outflows decimate the bottom 60%.

The other part is people feeling too pleased and comfortable with themselves.

It’s been almost a decade since the last recession. We are now in the longest bull market in post WW2 history, where the value of most assets have been rising (eg. stocks, real estate, bonds), while consumer prices have been falling (eg. Amazon, airline tickets). “Dumb money” has entered the market in droves, peaking in December 2017 when cryptocurrencies hit their record highs. “FAANG” stocks are now being priced for perfection. Nothing could possibly go wrong, right?

This is my opinion, but there’s no better or more urgent time to start thinking about making a budget than times like these. In a market economy, rewards often go to the few at the expense of the many, because the many are typically unwilling (or unable) to take short term pain for long term gain.

Or to quote Warren Buffett: “Be greedy when others are fearful and be fearful when others are greedy.”


Making A Budget: What is a Budget?


A budget is the marriage between our aspirations and reality. It’s also an expression of our priorities. People in project management probably know this diagram:

pick two - fast, good, or cheap. You can't have it all.

Since resources are limited: fast and cheap won’t be good, cheap and good won’t be fast, good and fast won’t be cheap.

The same concept applies to your budget and paycheck.

Out of your financial needs, you should prioritize two:

  1. Overhead (Rent & Bills)
  2. Short term needs (Present Self)
  3. Long term wants (Future Self).

With the average millennial’s $2,500 a month after-tax paycheck:

  • High overhead and short term needs means punting on your debt and retirement and letting interest accumulate into your midlife
  • High short term needs and long term wants means living in an undersized apartment in an undesirable neighborhood (or even city)
  • High overhead and long term wants means living on cheap groceries and never eating out, traveling or shopping.

Now pick one.


The Fairness Argument: Millennials, Baby Boomers and Their Finances


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Jennie and I have seen the panic in peoples’ eyes at the mere mention of a budget. The conversation usually starts off with a question:

How can you afford to quit your 9 to 5 and travel around the world for over a year?

Our answer: a combination of privilege and having a budget that prioritizes a few things for a long period of time. Specifically, we keep our overhead way below what most are comfortable with, so that we can save for our long term wants without sacrificing the small pleasures that keep us going day to day.

For example, before we “graduated” to our $1,395 a month studio apartment in West Los Angeles, Jennie spent years renting a closet-sized room on the outskirts of Boston for $450 a month, while Ivan paid $650 a month (Canadian dollars) for a basement unit on the outskirts of Toronto. We made these short-term sacrifices by choice.

At this point, we usually get one of two responses:

  1. Denial: “I could never do that. That’s just not who I am.”
  2. Blame: “You’re privileged and definitely not the norm. Our system is rigged to benefit the top 1%. The most important thing is to fix the system instead of putting unrealistic expectations on ourselves.”

Jennie and I have had variations of these conversations with fellow millennials over the past two years. We empathize with these feelings because they’re based on kernels of truth.

But there’s a difference between what feels popular, good or just (i.e. the right thing to say) with what’s rational and productive (i.e. changing with the facts).

Looking through the windshield, millennials have it tough. Looking at the rearview mirror, baby boomers have had it easy. But it’s also true that everything looks easy with hindsight. The road ahead always looks dark and uncertain- for every generation, in every time period.  

Expecting to achieve the same results as our parents by doing the exact same things they did defies basic laws of markets and evolution.


The Biggest Misconception about Making a Budget


The biggest misconception people have about budgeting is that having one means denying yourself everything.

This may be true for people making under $37,000 a year, which according to MIT’s living wage index, is the minimum salary a single adult needs to live in San Francisco, the most expensive city in the country.

But not all of us live in San Francisco. And if you’re above the $37,000 threshold, having a budget is not only a realistic option, but a necessary one.

To say that a budget means denying yourself everything, we first have to agree on what “everything” means. Does “everything” include vacations to foreign countries? Drinking and dining out a few times a week? High-end gym memberships and yoga classes? Personalized chauffeurs that drive us to and from bars (Lyft/Uber)? Does “everything” include a cleaning lady (this is real. we’ve seen this) that comes twice a week to tidy up our one bedroom apartment?

Where does “everything” begin and where does it end?

 
aspirations vs reality budget
 

And that’s what a budget is for: to draw a line between our aspirations and reality.

By and large, millennials want a luxurious life, for a less than luxurious price, before we can realistically afford it. Because “everything” was what we’d imagined we’d be getting when we became adults.  

Ironically, sacrificing short term gratification for long term goals through a budget, is the most “adult” thing I can think of.


3 Tradeoffs We Made With Our Budget


Let’s bring it back to our hypothetical millennial. $40,000 salary, $40,000 in student loans, $2,500 a month paycheck, divided into three funds in the “ideal world”:

  • Rent and Bills Fund ($833)
  • “Present Me” Fund ($833)
  • “Future Me” Fund ($833)

Here are three ways Jennie and I approached this problem in the real world:

1. Underspend on overhead: keep rent & bills to
less than 30% of our after tax paycheck.

This means at a $2,500 monthly paycheck, around $650 was allocated to rent and bills. And we’re not talking hypotheticals here:

  • In 2014, Jennie made $42,000 a year. As recently as 2014, Jennie’s salary was $42,000 in a high cost of living city (Boston). She paid $450 per month for rent & bills to stay in a closet-sized room in a house shared with two other roommates.
  • In 2012, I made $58,000 CAD. My starting salary in 2012 was $58,000 (CAD), paying $650 per month in rent on the outskirts of Toronto, while my peers rented one bedroom apartments in the downtown financial district. We were consultants, usually traveling four days a week, and were rarely home.

If we had had $40,000 in student loans, we would’ve paid it off aggressively within three years. Instead, the extra savings went directly into our fuck-off fund and retirement. No debt and a fuck off fund allowed us to swing for the fences in terms of raises and higher paying jobs. Higher earnings in turn, funded our fuck-off fund, retirement and other long term goals. A virtuous cycle begins and gains momentum (this happens much quicker than you think). Meanwhile, our overhead stayed fixed on one year leases.

2. Underspend on depreciating items in favor of value add experiences

Jennie gave away her car to family and started taking the bus. The total cost of all the furniture in our home is under $1,000. We don’t have the latest technology in our home or in our pocket. We make little to no new clothing purchases outside of travel gear, clothes which will eventually have to fit into 40L backpacks.

In return, we traveled across America by Amtrak rail, held our wedding in Taiwan, honeymooned in Okinawa, attended the jazz festival in New Orleans, made business contacts in San Francisco, camped in Death Valley and Joshua Tree, spent quality time with family and friends in Taipei, Albuquerque, Denver, Boston, and San Diego.

For us, the small adjustments meant bigger returns on experiences that we love so much.

3. Planning months (or years) ahead for large purchases
so we don’t have to deny ourselves small ones

Our dirty secret: we divide the cost of large purchases across multiple months to absorb the impact.

We never mentioned this explicitly in our money diary, but we bought a $1,000 camera last year in July 2017 to bring on our RTW trip. Using an accounting gimmick, I divided that expense into two $500 items, and logged them in our budget under “Education & Investments” in July 2017 and August 2017. This “smoothed” out our spending, but more importantly, we did it because Jennie and I had already planned out this purchase eight months in advance - so we “freed up” $500 in the budgets of July and August to absorb it.

In return for long term planning for large purchases, we never have to deny ourselves smaller ones. Whenever we have a craving: for tacos, chocolate, a fizzy drink, coffee, donuts, macarons, bubble tea, the occasional take-out etc, we never have to “check our budget” to see if we can afford it. Even if we go slightly over-budget in some months, who cares? Buy it, log it, and move on. Micromanaging small transactions wastes precious time and headspace - and it really isn’t our style.


Finding Your Budget Sweet Spot


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There are many variations to a budget that can be tailored to the things and experiences that matter to you. Jennie and I aren’t saying that our way is the “right” way.

But the common thread of all budgets is that something's got to give. And if you sweat the big, uncomfortable things (you know, the material things we tie unnecessarily to our self esteem and identity), the small things take care of themselves. 

In our case, we said to ourselves:  "fuck paying overhead and let’s live for the now and for the future. If we have to live in squalid surroundings or tight studio apartments, then so be it. At least we'll have each other." 

That was more than we could’ve hoped for after six years of long distance.

After reading this, some might be disappointed that I haven’t provided any answers on “what to do.” Fortunately, that’s not the point of this series. Nobody can tell you what to do, or convince you to do something you’re not ready for. Money is less a math problem, but an emotional & psychological one.

The only thing we can control is an awareness and understanding of each trade-off we make. We need to construct a budget that takes into account those trade-offs: between overhead, our present self and our future self. Finally, we need to ask ourselves whether we can learn to live with the end result.

Because perfection is the enemy of the good.