SINGAPORE — For many, eating Western food at hawker stalls and coffee shops used to be a luxury. It cost slightly more than your usual local fare, and it just seemed fancier to be eating a grilled pork chop with fries than, say, a bowl of bak chor mee.
Growing up, I had no idea the food was as much eastern as it was Western — thanks to the Hainanese. “Many Hainanese who came to Singapore when we were still a colony worked as chefs on British ships, for British families and later hotels,” shared Mr Teo, the chef and owner of Happy Chef Western Food, which would explain why many Western hawker stalls continue to be run by Hainanese.
This also explains why western foods at hawker centres tend to use Asian or local ingredients such as soy sauce, Shaoxing wine and chilli padi. Even the ubiquitous airy and fluffy bread buns that come with western hawker food today can be traced back to our colonial roots, when the Hainanese eventually became the first Chinese bread and pastry bakers in Singapore.
But there’s also a new generation of hawkers who are trying new things. Some are following Damien D’Silva’s cue when he set up the now defunct Big D’s Grill almost six years ago to become one of the first places to bring Wagyu beef to the coffee shop, while introducing fine-dining ingredients such as truffle oil or iberico chorizo into the heartlands. Others are well-travelled and keen to introduce novel cuisines or flavour profiles at affordable prices. There was also Chef Kenneth Lin who took his French fare hawker business from Queen Street to Holland Drive, and in a breakout move, into a bistro space on the corner of Prinsep Street late last year. Some might even remember a chef-owner Xavier Le Henaff who shook things up early in the game when the Brittany-native opened The French Stall in a food court on Victoria Steet a decade ago, which progressed to a bigger space on, of all streets, Serangoon Road, just off Little India. Bizarre? Well, maybe a tad. Inspiring and delectably enabling? Most definitely.
#01-53 Old Airport Road Market and Food Centre, Blk 51 Old Airport Road
Chicken chop is a staple in Western food at hawker centres, and the one here (S$6) has a huge loyal following. Chang, who has been working at Western Barbeque since he was 11, thinks there are a few reasons for that. For a start, he uses deboned chicken drumsticks that are marinated for a full day instead of the more commonly used and cheaper chicken breast, so the meat tends to be juicier and more tender. But the secret weapon is hidden in his sweet and slightly tangy garlic sauce, which uses more than 10 ingredients. Chang is the only person who knows the recipe, which has not changed for 20 years.
Happy Chef Western Food
#01-12 Tai Hwa Eating House, 466 Crawford Lane
The highlights here are more Western than Western food at hawker stalls tend to be. While many Hainanese-style Western hawker food feature Asian ingredients such as soy sauce in marinades, Chef Teo — a former chef and owner of an award-winning restaurant in Sydney — opts for herbs like basil and oregano, and his menu reflects a knowledge of Western cooking techniques.
Take the technically difficult Chicken Kiev (S$9), for example. Teo shared how there’s a method to wrapping the chicken breast with ham and cheese to make sure the chicken is cooked uniformly and the cheese doesn’t flow out while you’re deep-frying it. What he manages with consistency is a middle of gloriously oozy cheese, a crispy breadcrumb crust and moist and juicy chicken. The Cajun BBQ Chicken (S$6.50) is another must-try — the addictively tangy BBQ sauce is made from scratch and takes over six hours of cooking over a slow fire.
Apollo Western Food
#02-32 Hainanese Village Centre, Blk 105 Hougang Avenue 1
With rising food and rental costs, it’s admirable when hawkers refuse to scrimp on the quality of ingredients. Foo took over the business from his parents, and continues to use biscuit crumbs for his Fish and Chips (S$4.40) even though it costs twice as much as breadcrumbs. The use of biscuit crumbs is a traditional Hainanese-Western technique that’s hard to find these days, he affirmed. The result is a thin, crispy and surprisingly, non-greasy crust to the succulent John Dory, and an added sweet-savoury flavour from the biscuits.
He also insists on using only chilled (never frozen because that toughens the meat) beef. And only from New Zealand because he feels they’re the most tender and flavoursome. To boot, an Angus beef ribeye steak (200g) here cost just S$12.
Ye Lai Xiang Tasty BBQ
#01-94 Maxwell Food Centre, 1 Kadayanallur Street
This well-loved 43-year-old stall is one of the first western food stalls in a hawker centre, and continues to be a classic example of Hainanese-style western food. The secret to Ye Lai Xiang’s grilled meats is its signature brown sauce — the late chef Leong created it when he was a head chef in the British navy and the recipe has not been changed since. The brown sauce looks more reddish, and carries the sweetness of ketchup and tanginess of Worcestershire sauce. Go for the mixed grill — the chicken and pork chops, lamb rack, Angus beef steak has a nice char and the meat is still moist and well-seasoned.
Stall #1 Serangoon Gardens Food Centre, 49A Serangoon Garden Way
Who would have imagined the day when one of the most expensive ingredients in the world, truffle, would be ubiquitous in Singapore? Here at this stall, you get to munch on truffle fries topped with parsley and parmesan cheese for a ridiculously modest price of S$4. But don’t expect to find the stalwarts of Western hawker food — here, authentic Italian is the name of the game. Go for the signature aglio olio with seafood (S$6.80), which is aromatic (from the delicately scented olive oil and slivers of fresh garlic) and boasts a generous portion of prawns, calamari and clams.
B Salad Kitchen
#01-37 Amoy Food Centre, 7 Maxwell Road
Talk about bringing balance to the force; it was just a matter of time before the healthier option started showing up at hawker centres. B Salad Kitchen is giving bigger salad shops a run for their money by offering salads with quality ingredients such as roasted pumpkin, pickled beets, sun-dried tomatoes and homemade Caesar dressing, for less than S$7. Alternatively, you can have a sandwich that’s made with black olive bread or ciabatta with up to three toppings.
LavaRock Grill House
#01-853, Blk 681 Hougang Avenue 8
The menu here is so extensive, it rivals any full-fledged western restaurant. You don’t just get the usual chicken chop, you have up to 10 variations from Sizzling Hotplate Black Pepper Chicken (S$8.90), to Honey Mustard Chicken (S$6.90). The highlight, however, is in its atypical offerings. There are dishes more regularly found at a fine-dining restaurant, such as Squid Ink Pasta (S$8.90) and Herbed Norwegian Salmon, (S$13.90). Then there are unique items such as the numbingly spicy Pineapple Salsa — a side you can pick with your main course — and the mammoth ribeye and prawn pasta (S$20.90), that combines all the great things about a western hawker stall in one dish — a juicy steak, grilled prawns and spaghetti.
#01-40, 119 Bukit Merah Lane 1
It’s cool that in Singapore, we get to eat gourmet burgers at a kopitiam. And by gourmet, we mean beef patties that are made with high-quality Australian grass-fed striploin or Wagyu chuck sans nasty patty binders or distracting herbs and spices. There are some creations that are just genius, such as the pork-licious Singhjector (S$17.50) that’s made with Australian pork patty, iberico chorizo, crispy bacon, cheese, BBQ sauce and mayonnaise. Then there are some really wacky burgers like the Choco Lamb (lamb patty smeared with Nutella, S$15.50) and the Richmond (beef patty, grilled portobello and peanut butter, S$19.40). Whichever you go for, De Burg is a great indication of how adventurous the average Singaporean eater has grown to be.