Singaporean street food : Kaya toast & C coffee

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Breakfast, for me is one of the best meals of the day and Asia doesn’t usually disappoint with great meals like nasi lemak, roti chanai, fried rice and congees. Cornflakes are boring, anyway.

Add another breakfast champion to the list, kaya toast!

Kaya, in Malay means rich, which is  very accurate as the spread put onto the toast is a thick, off green colour of coconut, sugar and pandan which is thickened and emulsified with egg. The resulting jam is thick, creamy and has a custardy consistency.

The jam is made into sandwiches with griddled, smokey bread and generous lumps of proper butter. Healthy stuff.

A regular and popular addition with the Singaporeans is ‘soft boiled egg’s which, to a European like myself would imply a soft boiled egg, or dippy eggs but they are served with the albumen half turning white, in a semi-translucent soupy mess. The eggs are mixed in with sweet soy before eating with the toast.

Kaya toast

Kaya toast, including soft boiled eggs (left) Original Kaya toast (top right) Coffee C (bottom Right) and french toast with kaya spread (centre)

Due to having our camera stolen in Indonesia, I don’t have any original images from our eating adventures. Images here are used under a creative commons license via Flickr. These image has not been altered and you can view the originals at the following link – Thanks, Hajime NAKANO

Coffee C is the perfect accompaniment, thick, dark coffee which is brewed the old-fashioned way and poured from a jug that looks disturbingly similar to a watering can.  The ‘C’ is for condensed milk, which is added to sweeten and lighten the treacle like coffee.

Kaya toast is another famous heritage dish of Singaporean food culture, it has been around for a while and like a lot of Singapores staples has arrived with the Chinese population many generations ago.

Ya Kun, a recently franchised chain in Singapore is an old favourite. The story goes, that Loi An Koon, set sail from Hainan to Singapore in 1926 and began working for a coffee stall, his entrepreneurial spirit drove him and two other Chinese immigrants to open their own stall. Three then became one, but he married and his new wife was the creator of their famous kaya spread. He roasted his own coffee and carried on for decades being very popular as a street vendor until in the late 1990’s one of his children franchised the brand and now they have outlets all over the city.

It might be excellent marketing, it might be a nice story of triumph, but either way they still make very good, popular coffee and deliciously moreish toast.

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Singaporean street food : Chai tow kway (fried radish / carrot cake)

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Carrot cake? You walk into a Singaporean food court and you’re see signs for carrot cake?  Have I stumbled into the church fête? Actually, Carrot cake doesn’t contain any carrots, and it isn’t a dessert!

The reason for this misnomer is due to the mandarin word for one of the main ingredients, daikon, a type of Asian radish can also be called a ‘white carrot’ local name is chai tow kway, but everywhere I saw it advertised as carrot cake.

In Singaporean food courts it comes in two varieties – Black and white. Black is cooked with soy sauce whilst white is not.

I was intent on trying this strange ‘cake’ and opted for white.

For my $3 I got a lot more than I expected –a previously steamed daikon cake is wok fried with a subtle hit of chilli, spring onions and egg. The egg was just so, coagulated and binding all the other ingredients in place, texturally it’s pretty similar to an omelette, with hints of spice and veg. The cake has a wonderfully naughty texture of crispy bits with a soft middle which flirts dangerously close to mushy.

The carrot cake heart stopper

The carrot cake heart stopper

Whilst it’s got obviously dangerous charm in the arterial blockage stakes & ticks all the boxes for fried nomnoms, I found it a bit less exciting and lacking textural variation after scoffing through about half the plate. Share it with a grease hunting loved one, and have a salad on the side…  

It need not be said that this is to be avoided for anybody who believes in dietary regimes.

You can try carrot cake at just about any food court or hawker centre, it’s not hard to find.

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Singaporean street food : Char kway teow (stir-fried rice noodles)

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Char kway teow, like chicken rice is another Singaporean food court staple, but variations exist in Indonesian and Malaysian food also.

Thick, wide rice noodles are stir fried with dark & light soy sauce, onions, garlic, Chinese sausage, beanspouts, cockles, sliced fishcake, egg and chives. The soy turns the whole dish a brown colour.

Historically char kway teow was invented to fuel the labourers in colonial Singapore, it was a cheap filling meal, with plenty of carbohydrates to keep the workers going. It was cooked with lard, presumably to add extra calories and also flavour.

Char kway teow

Char kway teow

Fast forward to the modern day and there’s a bit of a cultural shift, as modern, cosmopolitan Singaporeans aren’t working in manual or labour intensive jobs and mostly aren’t that poor either. The traditional, fatty, char kway teow has evolved to suit the healthier eating people are more accustomed to. Many char kway teow stalls now hang a ‘no lard’ sign.  There are also hawker stalls that modify the dish and add greens to the mix, too.
Char kway teow is Singaporean heritage that’s falling out of fashion due to the high fat content – It’s likely in a generation or two when the current hawkers hang up their aprons there will be no one to take their place. A  very realistic reminder of the precarious position endangered dinners can be in.

The flavours are well balanced for what seems like an arbitrary mix of ingredients; the original sellers were fishermen and farmers who supplemented their income by moonlighting as chefs in the evenings. The Chinese sausage and cockles offer sweet and salty tones respectively and the beansprouts provide a bit of crunch. In terms of edible Singaporean history, char kway teow is up there and absolutely worth trying at least once.

It’s worth noting the cockles aren’t the same in char kway teow as the sort myself and other Europeans would be used to. As a child, my dad would always buy pickled white cockles from the fishmonger on Saturday mornings, lace them with vinegar and we would eat them with wooden chipforks. I still love that taste, they might look like tiny bird foetuses and are full of grit, but it reminds me of my childhood. The cockles used in char kway teow are called blood cockles (si hum) because they are red and contain haemoglobin. the same protein that makes blood red. This imparts some of the rich flavour that char kway teow is so well known for and is quite a different taste.

Any food court, or hawker market will provide you with the hit of salty, smokey dark noodles. Maxwell road food court is well versed with tourists, and many of the stalls offer dishes in $3/4/5 price brackets making it perfect for singles, and groups to share.

Another variation, which I hopefully will be trying in the coming weeks is ‘Penang style char kway teow’, which I’ve read is not so sweet.

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Singaporean street food : Hainanese chicken rice

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Singapore is one of those countries where everyone is obsessed with their food, which is good for transient foodies because standards are high and choices are vast.

Follow the general rule of go where the locals go and get in line. You will be rewarded with either the cheapest, or the tastiest place, but the locals obviously know something and that’s why they’re queuing. Singaporeans are very patient, especially it seems when it comes to food queues.

Chicken rice, one of the national dishes of Singapore with thousands of stalls, restaurants and places to eat it. Everybody likes it a certain way and has their favourite place. Ask a group of Singaporeans where to go and they will argue amongst themselves about the best place including the merits of the food, opening hours and location for an unnecessarily long time – I know this, because I asked.

The meal consists of chicken, slowly poached (never boiled) in a fresh ginger and spring onion broth to flavour the meat. Sometimes when it is cooked it will be put into ice water to firm up the skin and create a bit of jelly, the chicken is served cold in this instance, but can be served warm too. Sometimes the chef serves it up sliced on the bone, and sometimes without.

The meat is served with aromatic rice, flavoured with fried garlic and cooked in chicken stock, to enrich the rice and gives it a glossy appearance & slightly oily texture, but in a good way.

The chicken and rice is served with sliced cucumber and a side of chilli sauce, spiked with fiery heat and flavoured with garlic.

Delicious!

Delicious!

Most places offer the chicken rice combo for around the $5 (Singaporean) mark which includes a soup also, made from the chicken stock poaching liquid.

By means of observation, there seems to be no ordered or standardised way for Singaporeans to eat chicken rice. I tend to eat the soup first and then everything else together. Some people pour some of the soup over the rice and others eat the soup in between mouthfuls of the chicken & rice.

It’s always nice to know that you’re not breaking some unwritten cultural code or social taboo by eating in the wrong order. We’ve learnt from experience that it’s embarrassing to be told how to eat correctly.

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