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Bjorn says: Why must Asian food cost less?

Photo: Ahmad Iskandar Photography

If you want street food prices, go eat on a street, says Bjorn Shen

Twenty-four bucks for a wagyu cheeseburger? No problem, you say. Now, what happens when you take the same amount of that same meat, and turn it into a $24 plate of fried rice? People start crying blue murder. More often than not, these guys don’t acknowledge the fact that there’s actually quite a lot of wagyu in it, as described on the menu. They just rage on about the criminal ‘$24 fried rice’. Yup, that’s my restaurant, Bird Bird, and my Big Mac Fried Rice they’re complaining about.

The infamous David Chang said it before. The culinary bad boy himself suggested that ‘there’s a weird cost association that if it’s Asian, it has to be cheap’. It doesn’t.

Malcolm Lee, chef of modern Peranakan restaurant Candlenut, states a similar analogy: ‘Why are people willing to pay $3 for a well-made croissant, but not $3 for a well-made Nyonya pastry? Both are made from scratch – one has good-quality French butter, the other has freshly extracted coconut milk. And yet people are willing to pay for one and not the other.’ Malcolm boils it down to the word ‘craft’: people don’t assign enough value to the craftsmanship that goes into elevating an Asian dish. One of the ways he does so is by using premium ingredients such as abalone, Iberico pork, quail, wild snapper and grain-fed beef shortrib. You’d wonder why anyone would still be thick enough to compare it to their grandmother’s cooking and call out a $65 12-course feast as overpriced. Sadly, they do.

Yuan Oeij, chairman of the Privé Group, which recently launched its first Chinese concept Empress, agrees that not everyone immediately appreciates what a restaurant is trying to do with its concept. ‘If people just compare food with food, then it’s easy for them not to afford value to other things such as service, wine programme and the overall experience,’ he notes.

Comparing prices of restaurant-level Asian food to hawker/street Asian food misses the point in the most epic way. If you want Asian food at street food prices, go eat on the street. Simple. You have to bear in mind the sum all of parts – rent, branding, interior design, creativity, research and development, premium ingredients, staffing, training, and beverage programming all cost money. A lot more money than it costs to set up a street food stall. Yuan reminds me that a lot of premium that he attributes to the cost of a meal goes to the setting. I can’t help but agree.