While my previous post may have suggested that all my meals in Singapore were just plates of chicken rice, that wasn’t quite the case. As iconic as chicken rice is, there is far more to Singaporean cuisine with its rich culinary history blending the cuisines of its predominantly Malay, Chinese, and Indian populations. So in addition to chicken rice, I definitely ate a few plates of 2 other celebrated dishes in Singapore: kaya toast and char kway teow.
Kaya toast is a fairly typical breakfast in Singapore, though in many places it’s available all day long, usually with a cup of kopi (coffee) or teh (milk tea). Kaya toast is made of bread that is slathered with kaya jam (made of coconut milk, pandan leaf, eggs, and sugar) and butter. It’s traditional to also dip the pieces of toast into a bowl of soft poached egg to provide a bite that is simultaneously sweet and crunchy but also savory and gooey. And while I was in Singapore, I had the privilege to taste a few different versions of kaya toast at the following places:
五十年代 (Chinatown Complex Stall 02-048) – Tucked in the labyrinth of the Chinatown Complex is this “1950’s” style stall serving kopi and kaya toast. Being a fan of milk tea, I decided to get the tea and kaya toast. The tea was very nice with a good balance of strong tea flavor and creaminess of the condensed milk. I still prefer the very similar Hong Kong style milk tea, but it is very similar. As for the kaya toast, it was simple but heavenly. The kaya jam was slathered evenly and the butter melted through to create a very rich, sweet taste the balanced nicely with the perfectly toasted bread.
Rasapura Masters (Marina Bay Sands) – Later that day after an afternoon at the Gardens by the Bay, my friend and I took advantage of the air conditioning at the Marina Bay Sands. We ventured to Rasapura Masters, a high end mall version of a “hawker center” (similar to a Food Republic). Seeing that I wasn’t that hungry, but wanted more caffeine, I went to the stall for kaya toast and ordered a set. As expected for a high end mall wannabe hawker center, it was not only the most expensive kaya toast, but also the least tasty. The kaya jam was less sweet and the bread was definitely soft and not toasted much, if at all. Worst of all, there was a thick slab of butter that was served too cold so it was just this thin solid slab of butter in the middle that made the flavor uneven.
Ya Kun Kaya Toast (Bugis Junction) – On my last day of Singapore, my friend and I took a final pit stop at the well regarded Ya Kun chain. While I knew that it’s a franchise, this was probably in the middle of the two other kaya toasts in terms of quality (which may be due to poorer standards at this particular location). The bread was toasted, but not quite as warm and crunchy. This meant that while the jam was tasty, the butter didn’t quite melt all the way through meaning a very uneven flavor. The tea was pretty good though.
All in all, of the few places I tried,五十年代 was certainly the best.
Char Kway Teow
Aside from kaya toast, I also ate a couple examples of another classic Singaporean / Malay of Chinese descent dish: char kway teow. Char kway teow, for those unfamiliar, is a dish of flat rice noodles, chives, eggs, onions, garlic, dark soy sauce, and seafood (in the case of Singapore: cockles). While the rich seafood taste makes the taste fundamentally different, the dish’s basic aspects are similar to the Cantonese stir fried beef rice noodles. I’ve had the dish a couple of times in the United States, but was curious to see how a truly authentic version of this dish tasted. Even in my limited time, I was fortunate enough to try two versions of the dish:
Tiong Bahru Fried Kway Teow (Tiong Bahru Food Centre Stall #02-11) – They literally serve only 1 dish at this stall and your choices is essentially whether you want the $3 SGD “small” plate or the $4 SGD larger plate. I opted for a small plate as it was my second bite of food that lunch after a plate of chicken rice. I waited about 10-15 minutes in line and got the nice plate you can see above. After sitting down, I basically inhaled the dish because it was just that good. The noodles and other ingredients had a nice “wok hey” being slightly crisp and not too oily. The cockles, while not being my favorite seafood, provided a nice chewy texture to balance the soft bites. The slivers of bean sprouts countered with a nice crunch and all of it together was heavenly.
Food Opera (Ion Orchard) – While Tiong Bahru’s char kway teow is simple and utilitarian, the one at Food Opera was a bit fancier. First, it’s lay atop a dried pandan leaf as if the days when pandan leaves were the dishware of choice was glamorous. Then it’s got a potpurri of various seafood items that make it seem more luxurious. In terms of flavor it’s got a little too much egg and doesn’t quite get that slightly charred wok hey as Tiong Bahru, but it’s still pretty solid.
And that’s a wrap for Singapore, by far the best city in the world in terms of value ratio of flavor to money spent.