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SINGAPORE, April 12 — Most of us Malaysians who have grown up savouring delectable hawker eats under the open sky — sometimes shaded by leafy trees, at times within the compound of someone’s home, or even at some random back alley — would raise an eyebrow when talking about “hawker food” in Singapore.
For one, the atmosphere is totally different; the stalls have partitions and are numbered systematically in a food court. They of course come across as relatively sterile.
Not that these are bad necessarily bad; in fact a clean and comfortable environment should be applauded. But it might be the strange feeling of déjà vu one gets from eating at the various food courts... they somehow feel the same, lacking the authentic oomph of having a bowl of noodles on the street (hence the term “street food” perhaps?) and at times they resemble one another; especially the newer stalls in refurbished food courts.
Secondly, and this is also a problem plaguing the Malaysian hawker food scene, the stalls manned by the original owners are gradually losing steam. The younger generation (let’s call them the i-generation) is shying away from continuing the legacy, understandable as sweating it out behind a pot or a wok for hours may not even earn you as much as a day sitting in a fully air-conditioned office typing away in front of a PC. Plus, there’s a certain lack of “glamour” being associated with frying char kuey teow, wrapping wanton dumplings or brewing a cup of kopi O, I presume.
Anyhow, I have learned that if one travels slightly further away from the city centre or tourist-centric establishments, and head towards the most unassuming corners of Singapore one will find culinary gems. These are usually on the ground floor of HDB flats; certain cze char places or what we call dai chow in Cantonese that are usually open for lunch and dinner, catering to the hungry needs of residents around the area.
These stalls are usually still run by the locals, or at least Chinese from either Malaysia or sometimes from mainland China. In summary, the quality of the cooking is still well-maintained, unlike some places run by foreign workers (yes, I am talking about places in Kuala Lumpur, more or less).
Nevertheless, my short stint on this tiny red dot might not have allowed me to unearth the hidden cze char gems but there are a couple in particular that I wanted to recommend here; partially due to influence from peers (fellow Malaysians) who love to eat as much as I do.
The thought of devouring chunks of sweet and sour pork (gu lou yuk) has never failed to excite me; stemming from my childhood makan feasts at restaurants like Mar Poh, Soon Lee and Wong Koh Kee in Ipoh. Those are some legendary brands but at Bgain 22 Old Street Coffee House at Block 22, Havelock Road near Tiong Bahru in Singapore this cze char place managed to whip up a pretty decent version of my favourite dish.
Aside from that, their rendition of the raging hot har cheong gai or belacan fried chicken wings (and voted as one of the MOST iconic dishes apparently, almost eclipsing the hype that was chilli crabs) was not too bad either. Crispy chicken wings perfectly deep fried and served piping hot from the wok; the pungent and complicated layers of flavour from the fermented shrimp paste permeated through every bite, and the wings never needed the accompanying chilli sauce in my opinion.
Another dish that came highly recommended by the woman taking our orders was the deep fried fish roe. Yes, sac-full of briny, fish roe coated in flour and deep fried to crispiness. Although this was not universally liked by the others, I imagine that this would be perfect when accompanied by copious pints of cold beer.
Moving towards the west in Clementi area is a pork-free Chinese restaurant named A-Poh Kitchen.
The focus of A-Poh Kitchen is on sweet and sour dishes. They also do various types of spicy dishes including their famed curry fish head (or in our case, curry fish fillets). But the spiciness level is really mild, so it is perfect as an introduction to spicy dishes for the kids or those who cannot tolerate fiery dishes. The fish fillets were deep fried, then cooked in the bright orange curry with long beans and okra.
We also sampled another “spicy” dish that was long beans stir fried with shrimps Nyonya style which was really devoid of any heat factor despite the fiery orange appearance. Other notable dishes include the pandan chicken, and deep fried squid with crispy oats.
You can usually get away with paying less than $20 (about RM54) per person when dining at simple cze char places like these. Even better, they usually offer noodle options, or even individual portions for lone diners so you can expect items like fried rice or fried noodles or even sweet and sour pork rice, ginger and scallions fish fillet rice for about $5 per portion.
Now, time to plan a few more cze char food runs in Singapore before I make the next move ...
Bgain, 22 Old Street Coffee House @ 22, Havelock Road,
#01-669, 160022 Singapore.
A-Poh Kitchen, Block 354, Clementi Avenue 2, #01-223 Singapore
James Tan loves good food and blogs at Motormouth From Ipoh (www.j2kfm.com)