Earlier last month, I had a request from a friend to discuss some of the better cheap eats in Singapore. It is very possible to find good prepared food on a lower budget (good as measured on an absolute scale), but they tend to be rarer, as the ingredient quality declines and larger amounts of labour are needed to make the food taste as good, ceteris paribus. Luckily, Singapore’s hawker culture (where hawkers cook two-five dishes for many years) tends to encourages expertise among those who aim towards it. Unluckily, it is dying off.
However, I don’t really think all this doom-and-gloom about food-courts replacing hawker-centres is warranted. 50% of the food in a neighbourhood hawker centre is terrible. Scrub-your-mouth-out terrible. You know what I mean: the stringy overcooked chicken that sits limply above your MSG-sweetened chicken rice. The sad dry excuse for char siew that rests below cheerfully lye-drenched-and-dried wonton noodles soaking in a sauce that’s too sweet and too spicy at the same time. The laksa that has so much coconut milk, you’re almost drinking it straight from the can. Kaya toast that has too little kaya, a rubbery you-tiao (dough fritter). Don’t get me started on lor mee, or mee siam. The only thing I’ve eaten that hasn’t been screwed up majorly in some way is probably briyani. At least half of the hawkers exist to provide cheap and edible food first, and taste is an afterthought. That’s fine with me, it just isn’t what I’m looking for. Food courts may not be able to provide that great hawker dish in an old-school hawker centre, but it caters to a (relative to hawker-centre) higher income clientele, which means that the standard of cooking has lower variance around a higher mean, i.e. slightly higher standard overall, but you won’t find your grandfather’s carrot cake there. The opening of a new food court in, say Tampines, is a signal that someone, somewhere, thinks that that region of Tampines has a relatively higher income, a steady-flow of human traffic. A cause for cheer, I’d say.
As Tyler Cowen says in [the Japan chapter of] An Economist Gets Lunch, Economics is all about choice at the margin. So here’s a short list (non-exhaustive) of food I think is very good, and is on the cheaper side.
[None of the pictures below are mine. All credit to Leslie Tay; Camemberu for shooting pictures]
1. Hot tau huay from Beancurd City (Little India). Holy! My spoon goes straight through the beancurd! This is the highest level of silky smoothness, I can imagine no smoother. Makes a mockery of Rochor Road tau huay, which is much harder. Apparently this is by the youngest brother of the Rochor Road Family
2. Yue Lai Xiang Cheng Tng (Bedok Corner Food Centre) – cheng tng.
3. Xu Jun Sheng (Joo Chiat Road) – great Teochew cze char. For me the combination of their turnip-omelette and Teochew porridge is sublime
4. Por Kee eating house (Tiong Bahru) – champagne pork ribs. My first post on this blog was about Por Kee. I love their champagne pork ribs; it is sweet-sour in genuinely appetising way.
5. Mee pok from Tai Hwa Pork Noodle.
6. Bak Kut Teh at Outram Park Ya Hua is delicious. Slather on the black sauce with chilli.
7. Katong Sin Chew cake shop in Bedok North serves the best, most pillowy and juicy coconut buns in the world. Get them at 3pm when they’ve just baked them. They’ll sell out within the hour. Their kaya cake and red-bean buns are good as well. Sorry, couldn’t find pictures.
- Mos Burger Ebi Burger, Mos Burgers anywhere. Great sweet sauce with two warm rice patties and a crunchy prawn patty. A common workday snack for me.
- Zhen Zhen Porridge (Maxwell Road Hawker Centre) is very thick. Expect to queue.
- Bedok Block 216 – Vegetarian beehoon, but with half beehoon and half mee (fried malay egg noodles). ask for half beehoon and half mee. This was a common childhood breakfast, and I still eat it often on the weekends.
- International Nasi Lemak (Changi Village) – nasi lemak.
- Tan Tu Tu’s coconut kueh. Try the peanut, and the coconut flavors.
- Bengawan Solo’s green pandan crepe wrapping a shredded coconut and gula melaka mixture. Another childhood favorite.
- Also, if you’re queueing up at Maxwell Road and Tian Tian is too crowded, you can try Ah Tai chicken rice, which tastes just as good to me. (he is after all, Tian Tian’s old chef). [Don’t get hei-bai (soya bean milk with grass jelly) from the stall opposite; it tastes disgusting.]
- Tian Tian chicken rice at Simpang Bedok has better roast chicken than white chicken, surprisingly.
- Alex Eating House, near Bugis (if you’re working nearby) has good char siew rice. Nice char.
- Ah Loy Thai has a nice Pad Thai. Don’t get the squid though, it’s just drenched in butter.
- Din Tai Fung is very consistent. It has the most technically excellent xiaolongbao I’ve tried in Singapore. [Unlike Paradise Dynasty, where the skin tends to sticks to the steamer. I had one xiaolongbao in Paradise Dynasty stick to the steamer and break when I tried to lift it up with my chopsticks. I asked the waiter to change it for an intact one; he kindly obliged. When the replacement came, I lifted it up with my chopsticks. It broke again.]
- Sea coconut with lime on ice. Very hard to go wrong with this one, even in a food court.
- Green bean soup. Another evergreen.
- If you’re a fruit fanatic, you can go to Pasir Panjang wholesale centre. There you can get a box of fresh Rainier cherries (when they’re in season), or golden kiwifruits, whatever floats your boat. They’re fresher than at your fruit resaler or your NTUCs.
- Donut peaches.
- Red dragonfruit.
- If you’ve ever wondered why Japanese grape candy tastes so unlike our grapes, try Kyoho Grapes and your puzzlement shall be dispelled. Japanese grape candy tastes like Kyoho Grapes, and the cheapest Japanese ones I’ve found so far are in Fairprice’s Finest in Somerset ($20 for a bunch)