Get schooled about the Asian fare found at SG’s food centres.
You may have seen or tried some of these items at coffeeshops, food courts and even restos, but what do you actually know about SG’s hawker fare? Sort yourself out with these fun The Finder factoids about roti prata, laksa and the like.
(image: Dios Vincoy Jr for The Straits Times)
The juicy steamed chicken, accompanied by wonderfully fragrant rice and garlic chilli, is one of Singaporean’s favourite national dishes.
Brought to the island by Chinese immigrants from Hainan Island, China, the original version was made with bony Wenchang chicken from the Wenchang city area in Hainan; rice thickened with oil; chilli sauce; ground ginger; and a mix of oyster sauce and garlic. In Hainan, the dish is made with stock from both pork and chicken bones, but Hainanese chefs in Singapore make their stock only from chicken.
CNN listed chicken rice as one of the 50 best dishes in the world in 2011, and has been raved about by celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay and the late Anthony Bourdain on their visits here. Ramsay even took on the SG-famous Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice in his Hawker Heroes Challenge in 2013, but lost to the renowned stall.
The Peranakan dish of rice vermicelli noodles in a rich, creamy and spicy coconut gravy combines the very best of Malay and Chinese cuisine, and according to The Oxford Companion To Food, its name was derived from the Persian word laksha (meaning “noodles”). Laksa is also said to have originated from the Straits of Malacca, which Persian traders would often visit.
In the 1950s, earthworms were added to laksa for saltiness, and maggots included to the dish to “eat away bacteria”. Today, the definitive Katong laksa contains prawns, cockles, fish cake, taupok (fried bean curd), beansprouts and hard-boiled eggs.
The perfect breakfast or tea time snack, the toasted sandwich with kaya jam (a jam made with coconut milk and eggs) and cold butter is often paired with two soft-boiled eggs. It was adapted by Hainanese immigrants who served as chefs in British households and made breakfasts with toast, butter and jams. When these immigrants opened kopitiams (coffeeshops), they replaced fruit jams with kaya, and the rest is history.
The oldest Hainanese kopitiam in Singapore is Kheng Hoe Heng Coffeeshop, set up in 1919, and which was renamed Killiney Kopitiam in 1993. Ya Kun Kaya Toast, another heritage brand, started in 1926 and was known back then as Ya Kun Coffeestall.
Derived from the Arab dish of kebabs on metal skewers, these succulent, spice-marinated meat skewers of chicken, beef and lamb are the ultimate suppertime food in Singapore. Here, satay is barbecued on wooden skewers or sometimes on dried, thin stems of coconut made into sticks, while the ground peanut sauce is made with spices like coriander and cumin seeds.
In ’60s and ’70s Singapore, satay was served by unlicensed hawkers at bus terminals, such as on Beach Road, at makeshift portable stalls. Hygiene standards were very different back then — customers would often dip (and double dip) their satay skewers in a communal pot of sauce! Until 1995, the Satay Club, a collection of night-time satay stalls at the Esplanade (the first Satay Club was near Beach Road), was also a famous place to get your fix of these meat sticks. Today, you can head to Lau Pa Sat or Telok Ayer Market to pick from about 10 satay stalls.
An Indian Muslim dish, roti prata (meaning ‘“flat bread” in Hindi) is crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside, and eaten with dhal (gravy made from lentils) or mutton curry. Brought here by Indian immigrants, it is said to have both Punjabi and Muslim origins, and is a popular breakfast or supper food.
In Malaysia, roti prata is known as roti canai, and it’s best enjoyed with your hands — so put away your utensils! Today, popular variations of this flat bread include cheese, mushrooms, ham and even hollandaise sauce. Like Hainanese chicken rice, it was also listed in CNN’s list of the world’s best foods.
(image: Dios Vincoy Jr for The Straits Times)
Meaning “thin pancake” in Teochew, this savoury local delight is composed of paper-thin popiah skin (a soft, thin paper-like crepe made from wheat flour) stuffed with a filling of cooked turnips, vegetables and meat. When it is deep-fried, popiah is then referred to as a spring roll. Spring rolls are eaten in south-eastern China, such as Fujian province, in springtime when there were plenty of vegetables.
While popiah can be served as a main, a snack or side dish in hawker centres, popiah parties, where guests “roll” or made their own popiahs, are also common. In 2002, a Guinness World Record was set for the world’s longest popiah, that measured at 108 metres, by Thomson Community Club. This impressive pancake wrap was made by over 500 grassroots leaders and residents.
This dish of mud crabs (stir-fried in a thick sauce that’s sweet, savoury and spicy all at once) is one dish Singaporeans are especially proud of. It was invented by accident by Madam Cher Yam Tian in the mid 1950s, when she used bottled chilli sauce instead of tomato sauce when frying crabs at her pushcart stall. The dish was a hit, and she went on to open the (still popular) Palm Beach Restaurant in 1962.
Chilli crab has such a cult following here that it’s even spawned the Tiger Beer Singapore Chilli Crab Festival, held in London and New York, a few years ago. In the 25th season of the reality travel TV contest The Amazing Race, contestants had to complete a challenge of cracking two pounds of chilli crabs at an outlet of the Red House Seafood restaurant, famed for its rendition of this dish, when they were in Singapore.
Palm Beach Restaurant
1 Fullerton Rd, #01-09 One Fullerton 049213
Red House Seafood Restaurant
60 Robertson Quay, #01-14 The Quayside 238252
This deep-fried pastry, filled with curried potatoes, meat or sardines, dates back to the 1800s. Influenced by the British Cornish pastry, the Portugese empanada and the Indian samosa, the Malay version of this puff is known as epok-epok or karipap, though some have mentioned that there are slight differences between them.
The curry puff’s crescent shape was fashioned by the Malays, who used the shape as a nod to their Islamic faith. Though the potato and sardine fillings are the most traditional, these days you can also find them stuffed with durian, red bean, bird’s nest and even, custard, some of which you can try at an SG-heritage snack and food chain, Old Chang Kee.
By Christopher Ong Ujine, 24 July 2018 / Updated April 2019
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