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story | Austin Shiner, Guest Contributor
photo | British Council Singapore
There are 108 hawker centres in Singapore. Austin Shiner, a former staff member at Yale-NUS College, has visited all of them. The Singapore Book of Records recognizes him as the first person to have eaten at every hawker centre in the country. He has many favorites. Here, are his thoughts on four of them:
70 Zion Road, 247792
It strikes me that if a food centre is not just well laid out, spacious and light-filled, and proximate to a nice little river, but also features first-rate carrot cake, char kway teow, AND kway chap, then it’s gotta be one of the best. We’ll start with No. 18 Zion Road Fried Kway Teow #17 (not a typo: No. 18 is #17) and the famous auntie. Some say she’s grumpy. I think she’s thoroughly agreeable. Carrot cake in its light and dark incarnations from Lau Goh Teochew Chye Thow Kway #26 is delicious and a feast for the eyes. Fresh, sweet, succulent innards! Boon Tong Kee Kway Chap Braised Duck #24 makes it rain awesome offal. So grab a table by the water, or take cover in Zion’s cozy recesses, and feast.
1 Geylang Serai, 402001
Of all the Singapore foods I miss terribly, it’s nasi padang that I long for most intensely. I concur that Hajjah Mona Nasi Padang #02-166 is excellent. but Sinar Pagi Nasi Padang #02-137 is my absolute favorite. Their stall sign says “Bukit Tinggi – Kapau”: nasi kapau is the particular brand of nasi padang in Bukit Tinggi, Sumatra, where a woman stands in the middle of a step-pyramid of food and uses an extremely long-handled spoon to scoop up your foods (search nasi kapau right now if want a sweet visual). Diners sit at the base of the pyramid and contemplate all of the delicious things that they’ll order when they come back for lunch #2 in a few hours. I’ve had nasi kapau in Bukit Tinggi, and it’s great, but it’s no better than Sinar Pagi, ladies and gentlemen. Come for an early lunch so that there’s not even the slimmest chance that they’ll have run out of their three or four scrumptious sambals, all of which are much more flavorful than they are spicy. Order the jackfruit curry. And the sweet potato leaves. And, naturally, the rendang, the beef lung, and the stinky stinky petai!! Make sure that the curries and sambals swirl together on your plate. Eat with your hand. Pair it with teh and away you go to a technicolour flavor fantasy land.
East Coast Lagoon
1220 East Coast Parkway, 468960
You’ll find some of the best oyster egg in the country at Song Kee Fried Oyster #15. The gentlemen who run this place must be brothers. It appears that they communicate telepathically. I also genuinely admire Defu #19 and all the otah sellers of Singapore: anybody who can run a successful food business selling only spiced ground fish grilled in leaves has got to be pretty shrewd. By the way, you say “otah” or “otak otak”, folks, but “otah otah” is just odd and “otak” means brains in Malay.
Truly, though, it’s cockles, my friends – ‘hum’ in dialect – that rise to the top of my list of essential East Coast edibles. They were meant to be eaten with a view of the water. Order them half cooked from BBQ Seafood Kitchen #4 or East Coast BBQ Seafood #60. Compare the half cooked to the full, if you like. They’re bloodier and more wild and wonderful when they’re squishily rare. Of course, sambal stingray and baby kai lan also can. By the way, I take no issue with the good things people say about Roxy Laksa #48. And the wings from Ah Hwee BBQ Chicken Wings & Spring Chicken #14 are excellent.
Finally, conventional wisdom is that Haron Satay #55 is the best on the East Coast satay stretch. It’s very good, but truth be told, I prefer Satay Power #6 at Boon Tat St. alongside Lau Pa Sat. I wanna give ‘em a shout out here since Lau Pa Sat doesn’t make the official hawker center cut, so I don’t get to sing their praises often. Do me a favor and do what I wish I’d done: ask the Haron guys if they serve babat (tripe). If they do, that’d be a game changer, man.
505 Beach Road, 199583
Just a hop and a skip from Arab St. and the Raffles we’ll find Golden Mile, our homey, compact, intimate jewel. Two floors of food are always appealing, no less here than anywhere else, but what I love especially about this establishment is its sunken lower floor and proximity to one of SG’s coolest old-school buildings.
You’ll notice immediately that you need to take a half-flight of stairs down to get to the first floor of deliciousness, which makes it feel like you’re eating your tulang from the famous Haji Kadir Sup Tulang #B1-15 in a cave, which is fitting. And then, behold! Golden Mile Complex, which is across the street (overhead walkway provided!) from the food center. What a neat building. It’s Singapore’s Little Thailand, which is awesome, and Beer Thai (yup, that’s what it’s called) is wonderful, but the building itself is the best part. Looks like it’s straight out of a retro Mario game. You can imagine how surprised my parents and I were to find quite truly the most flavorful cockles I’ve EVER had in Singapore, and I’ve eaten my share, at Adim Ann Seafood and Satay Specialist #B1-12. Just go.
More food? Yes. Just a few stalls down from Haji Kadir we’ve got Fried Hokkien Prawn Mee #B1-34. Very nice. Upstairs it’s Chung Cheng Chilli Mee #01-59 where they know how to throw together a bowl of goodness, and there are other noodle-and-spicy-things stalls up on level two that people dig, so hit ‘em up!