Tag Archives: Singaporean

Singapore Continued: Char Kway Teow and Kaya Toast

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

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.

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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:

 

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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.

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Chowing on Chicken Rice in Singapore

Hainanese Chicken Rice is considered the national dish of Singapore for good reason. You can find the dish anywhere, it’s cheap, and even the worst renditions you might find are still pretty tasty. And, of course, there is history behind the dish. While the dish is practically synonymous with Singapore, it does have roots in a style of chicken preparation from Hainan that was spread and then adapted when a substantial diaspora of Hainanese people immigrated to Singapore.

Given its vaunted status and my fondness for the dish, be it in Cantonese, Thai, or Malaysian form at restaurants in the US, I had to eat some chicken rice when I went on my recent vacation to Singapore. Thus, in just 3.25 ish total days in the Lion City I ate my way through 5 different chicken rice dishes. This is obviously just a small sampling of the amount of chicken rice available in the city-state, but enough that I can give a decent review on this blog and determine the best I have eaten (so far). 

So without further ado, here are the 5 different chicken rices I had in Singapore and my thoughts on them:

Chicken Rice at Lao Wang Chicken Rice

Chicken Rice at Lao Wang Chicken Rice

  • Lao Wang Chicken Rice (Chinatown Complex; stall 02-113) – First up was Lao Wang in the massive Chinatown Complex hawker centre. To be completely honest, I went to Chinatown Complex to try to get a taste of Liao Fan’s Michelin-starred soy sauce chicken. However, they were closed and thus I got to try my first plate of Hainanese chicken rice at Lao Wang. The rice was fragrant and full of the poached chicken stock while the chicken was tender and flavorful. However, the one thing that was off for me was the gelatinized fat underneath the skin that gave a slightly off taste and texture. While I understand it is procedure to bathe the chicken in ice after poaching (to presumably stop it from overcooking and separate the skin from the meat), the chicken was, perhaps, a little too chilled.
Chicken Rice at Tiong Bahru Boneless Chicken Rice

Chicken Rice at Hainanese Tiong Bahru Boneless Chicken Rice

  • Tiong Bahru Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice (Tiong Bahru Plaza; stall 02-82) – Next was Tiong Bahru’s hawker centre (Tiong Bahru turned out to be my favorite neighborhood on the trip). I went to the Michelin Bib Gourmand recommended stall near the plaza entrance. The chicken was subtler in flavor and a little chewy, but I did like how it was light and not greasy. This, however, did lead to a less flavorful rice which was disappointing. All in all, it was pretty good and I could definitely see why Michelin recommended it, especially for $3.50 a plate. However, I hadn’t had the perfect chicken rice just yet…
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Chicken Rice at Tian Tian Chicken Rice

  • Tian Tian Chicken Rice (Maxwell Food Centre, stall 01-10/11) – After returning from a brief day trip in Hong Kong my friend and I went to the Maxwell Food Centre, homed to the famed Tian Tian Chicken Rice stall, listed as the best chicken rice in many, many chicken rice articles and recommendations. So I sauntered to the long line and waited 20 minutes until I got to the front of the stall and pay $5.50 SGD for my plate of chicken rice (by far my most expensive chicken rice, but I suppose they have to pay rent for two stalls). A couple minutes after paying, I received my tray of chicken rice and scurried to my table to eat it. I must admit, that first bite of rice was heavenly. The rice was so fragrant with the rice aroma of the chicken stock and a hint of garlic that I felt like my brain hit instant euphoria. However, I’ll also admit that the chicken itself was just okay. It was juicy and flavorful, but also a little bit chewy which perhaps meant being slightly overcooked. Though, in fairness, I’ll also add that their chilli dipping sauce was the best.
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Chicken Rice at Ah Tai Hainanese Chicken Rice

  • Ah Tai Hainanese Chicken Rice (Maxwell Food Centre, stall 01-07) – Not having enough chicken rice for lunch, I decided to make a beeline to Ah Tai Hainanese Chicken Rice, which was started by a former Tian Tian chef that was sacked a few years ago. While they did not have the precise chicken rice plate I wanted, I got the chicken rice set which seemed close enough. For $5 SGD you get a plate of rice on the side with chicken and veggies on a plate together than the chicken on top of the rice. And after eating a bite of the chicken, I knew I had found my chicken winner. It was tender and succulent, with the tanginess of the chicken fat gravy on top punching this extra level of umami that was just amazing. The rice wasn’t as flavorful as Tian Tian but it had just enough chicken flavor and fat that it was a pretty close second. The chilli sauce here was a little thicker and spicier than Tian Tian, so while it wasn’t as well balanced, it did give a nice heat to help enhance and cut a little of the saltiness.
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Chicken Rice on JAL

  • Japan Airlines Economy Class (SIN-HND on JL 36) – On my flight back home via Tokyo I got a surprise extra meal of chicken rice as part of Japan Airlines’ celebration of 40 years of service to Singapore. While the chicken was pretty tender and juicy, suffice to say that it paled in comparison to most of the chicken rice I had in Singapore. The rice definitely wasn’t as flavorful and you didn’t quite get that tender skin and fat that you would get on the ground. Nonetheless, it was fairly excellent for airplane food so I’ll still give Japan Airlines A+ for effort and execution.

All in all my favorite chicken rice goes to Ah Tai Hainanese Chicken Rice. Honestly the most ideal is to get the rice and chilli sauce at Tian Tian and walk over to Ah Tai for their chicken and broth. That said, it’s a bit of a hassle to do that given the possible waits at both stalls. So when push comes to shove I would chose Ah Tai. While the rice itself might be the most important factor of the dish, Ah Tai’s overall marks with its tender chicken and decent rice barely nudge it on top of Tian Tian.

That said, I have not nearly tried enough chicken rice in Singapore so I look forward to more meals of the renown dish the next time in back. Perhaps after the next trip I’ll be just as opinionated about chicken rice in Singapore as I am of dim sum in Hong Kong.

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Food Alley at Westfield Santa Anita, Arcadia

For a couple of years now I have heard about the growth of exciting, quality Asian dining establishments in Westfield’s Santa Anita Mall. First, it was Hai Di Lao, the first American branch of the pricey Sichuanese hot pot chain. Then it was the development of Meizhou Dongpo’s second US location and Din Tai Fung’s new larger 3rd Arcadia location. 

All this development has not been limited to big Chinese or Taiwanese chain restaurants. Late last year Westfield Santa Anita opened “Food Alley”, a food court of sorts between the Nordstrom and Din Tai Fung that doesn’t have your typical Panda Express or Sbarro mall food court options. To be clear, there still is a regular food court at Westfield Santa Anita on the first floor near JC Penney’s for all your McDonald’s and Sarku Japan cravings. However, Food Alley contains some out of the box, Asian oriented stores with food that I have never seen in any American mall.

Thus, I had to try out these eateries and see how they matched to all the great restaurants that dot the strip malls elsewhere in the San Gabriel Valley. Since it would be very difficult to try them all by myself, I asked a friend if she would be interested in joining me and she thankfully said yes. These are the dishes and places we tried:

Hainanese Chicken Rice at Side Chick

Hainanese Chicken Rice at Side Chick

  • Hainanese Chicken Rice at Side Chick – Our first stop was at Side Chick, where the star dish is the Hainanese Chicken Rice. The chicken was moist and flavorful while the rice was a little dryer than I like (though saved a little by the church of the fried garlic). I loved the ginger scallion, sambal, and vinegary soy sauces that accompanied the chicken. While the rice is not as good as Savoy, the vaunted Hainanese Chicken Rice slinger in Alhambra, I think Side Chick has the edge as my favorite Southern Californian chicken rice spot for the chicken.
Spicy Niku Udon at Tsurumaru Udon Honpo

Spicy Niku Udon at Tsurumaru Udon Honpo

  • Spicy Niku Udon at Tsurumaru Udon Honpo – While I would have wanted to try more bowls of udon, we were starting to get full from the Hainanese Chicken Rice. We settled on the spicy niku udon. I liked the chewy udon and tender beef slices, but wasn’t really feeling the thicker, kimchi laden broth. While I wouldn’t get the spicy niku udon, the udon and beef were definitely good enough that I am eager to try other bowls of udon the next time I am there.
Pork Soup Dumplings at Din Tai Fung in Westfield Santa Anita

Pork Soup Dumplings at Din Tai Fung in Westfield Santa Anita

  • Pork Soup Dumplings at Din Tai Fung – Since the new Din Tai Fung was around the corner, I just had to try some soup dumplings. I ordered a half order of 5 soup dumplings. While none of them broke (making them better than the Glendale and South Coast locations), there were a couple with dumpling skin tops that were a little thick and chewy. They were certainly good but not up to the standard of the original Din Tai Fung in Taiwan.
Japanese cheesecake at Uncle Tetsu

Japanese cheesecake at Uncle Tetsu

  • Japanese Cheesecake at Uncle Tetsu – For dessert we had the Japanese cheesecake at Uncle Tetsu. The several slices were, in a word, sublime. It was like a creamier sponge cake that was light and fluffy and just a touch sweet. Honestly, if I didn’t have as much self control that night, I might have eaten an entire cake.

All in all, Food Alley blew away my expectations and definitely was the tastiest mall food court I have eaten at this side of the Pacific. And yet, I didn’t even try any ramen or skewers at the Backhouse nor any drinks at Matcha Matcha. If this is what new, modern mall food courts will be like from now on, I guess I’ll be spending more money shopping at Nordstrom and slurping noodles across the country.

 

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