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The Guru of Good Grub. Singapore’s street food maven.
Whatever name they call him, there’s no disputing the fact that KF Seetoh is the island nation’s resident expert in street food.
CNN caught up with the founder of Singapore’s biennial World Street Food Congress and asked him where he likes to eat in a city stuffed with great urban tucker.
The longest queue for noodles: Bak chor mee
This is a deviously addicting vinegar and spicy sambal pork noodle dish, bedeviled with lard. Loaded with calories? Yes, but no one cares.
A good bak chor mee demands that the tang and spiciness, combined with soy sauce, be exacting and perfectly balanced with soft slices of pork, meat balls, liver, dumplings, and crispy sun dried smokey chips of “pi her”, or dried flat fish bones.
Hill Street Tai Wah Pork Noodles’ version rules, and no one in the queue minds the 45-minute wait each day.
Hill Street Tai Wah Pork Noodles, Blk 466 Crawford Lane, 01-12, Singapore; +65 6292 7477; Open daily 9:30 a.m.-9 p.m., closed every first and third Monday of the month
Best signature seafood dish: Chili crabs
This national seafood dish was created in the 1950s and, guess what, the restaurant that invented it is still around.
So is the chef – Mr. Hooi, now in his 80s. Mr. Hooi’s version of chili crabs marries a rich and spicy sambal with meat stock and lime. Then a whole cut and cracked meaty Sri Lanka crab is lowered in. Just before it’s plated, eggs are dropped in to smooth the equation.
Thoughtfully, mantou breads are provided for mopping up the sauce.
Dragon Phoenix Restaurant, 177A River Valley Road, Level 6, Singapore; +65 6339 3368; Open Monday- Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 6-11 p.m., Sunday and holidays 10 a.m.-4 p.m., 6-11 p.m.
The best-kept secret: White pepper crabs
America-based chef and TV host Rick Bayless calls this “da best dish I’ve ever had.” He’s not kidding.
Mattar Road Seafood puts wine, white pepper powder and corns, shots of sesame oil, oyster sauce and fish sauce together with some spring onions, to rock white pepper crabs into one of the best versions you’ll ever get of this Singapore-born culinary wonder.
The technique of high wok heat searing does extra wonders to the flavors too.
Mattar Road Seafood. Blk 51, Old Airport Road (Food Centre), stall 01-63, Singapore; +65 6447 2798; Open daily, 3-11 p.m. (except Tuesday and Wednesday)
Most creative street dish: Cze cha duck rolls
Those cook-and-fry-anything Chinese street cuisine stalls are everywhere – true no-frills family eateries.
When they do it right, they come up with the most stunning dishes.
Hoy Yong Seafood Restaurant is one that does it right. In the fog of bewildering offerings, the shrimp tempura with a pumpkin curry cream stands out.
As does the duck fillet roll filled with prawns, salted egg yolk, minced pork, coriander and mushrooms, deep fried to golden perfection in an impossible-looking fluffy, flaky crispy and crumbly batter. All that’s needed is a mayonnaise or sambal dip to complete the masterpiece.
Hoy Yong also offers up the usual crowd pleasers like crispy noodles, fried hor fun, eight treasure vegetables and hot plate tofu, as accomplices.
Hoy Yong Seafood Restaurant, Blk 352, Clementi Ave 2, 01-153, Singapore; +65 6778 2223; Open daily 5:30-10:30 p.m., closed last Thursday of every month
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The best twist: Bali nasi lemak
This Malaysian-style spicy coconut rice meal is given a spin at Bali Nasi Lemak.
Touches of Bali (or Indonesia for that matter) are added in the form of the country’s black kecap manis (sweet savoury soy sauce), tossed with supremely crispy chicken drumsticks or wings. This is the eatery’s signature topping.
It sits over a soft fluffy lightly coconut-ty rice, that can be paired with sayur lodeh – spicy coconut milk stewed vegetables, crispy anchovies, grilled otah (spicy fish paste) and a regular plain Jane fried egg to go with the sweetish and spicy sambal chili.
This place is situated in the heart of the red light Geylang area, but no one’s distracted when that black shiny crispy chicken drumstick beckons.
Bali Nasi Lemak, 2 Geylang Lorong 15, Singapore; +65 6742 1980; Open daily 5:30 p.m.-4 a.m.
Most desperately delicious: Sup tulang
What’s a street food seller to do when they run out of Indian style mutton broth – a favorite of their regular customers, the late shift taxi cabbies?
But never mind, their customers say, just serve the “bottom of the pot” – the chunks of bone and marrow that was used to boil the soup. Add some spices and tomato paste and serve it up with slices of baguette. That’s how the mean-looking platter of red sauced shank bones, otherwise known as Sup Tulang, was born.
This dish defies table manners.
Diners are expected to knock, shake, rattle and roll out the marrow or – seriously –use a straw to sip it up while gnawing on the little bits of meat and tendons.
MA Deen Biasa, 95, Jalan Sultan, Singapore; +65 6392 2712; Open daily 2 p.m.-5 a.m.
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Most mysterious: Sungei Road Laksa
There are laksa and laksams and then there’s Sungei Road Laksa. This Nyonya-style curry noodles was, in legend, created by an angel.
Almost 40 years ago, the aging owners here struggled with their street food cart business, till a customer told them about this recipe. Then he never showed up again.
They tried it, modified a little and the rest is divine history.
Their beehon or rice noodles is bathed in a spicy Nyonya laksa curry that’s redolent with galangal, shallots, chilies, dried shrimp paste (belacan), lemongrass and cooked in a seafood stock, thickened with fresh coconut milk.
Fish cakes, more sambal, duan kesom (a Vietnamese coriander) and blood cockles complete this addicting equation.
Sungei Road Laksa, Blk 27, Jalan Berseh, Singapore; Open daily 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (closed first and third Wednesday of the month)
Most visually appealing: Mee kuah opeh
Served in a leak proof boat-shaped opeh (betel nut palm) leaf, this unique local noodle creation doesn’t just look good.
The kuah, or sauce, is too complex to detail here so it’s best to think of it as some fastidious kuah guru out to mesmerize with his potion of tangy meat and seafood sauce in his kitchen.
It comes topped with shrimps, vegetables and even lamb chunks. The yellow noodles used, when cooked, serves also to thicken the sauce. Slurpy good.
Mamu’s Kitchen Mee Kuah Opeh, 1 Bedok Road (Food Centre), stall 25, Singapore; Open daily 1:30-9 p.m.
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Most ironic: Fried Hokkien prawn noodles
This is what happens when you entrust a delicate and unctuous recipe to friendly forces from “the other side.”
Some Hokkien folks in the last century shared this seafood noodle dish with their Teochew buddies, who promptly took it to the market en masse. Now, this Hokkien dish is associated with the Teochews, whose cuisine makes up a beautiful part of Singapore’s culinary chaos.
Two types of noodles, yellow egg and rice noodles are braised and fried in a rich seafood stock, soy sauce, topped with shrimps, squid and belly pork slices.
The hook that brings all those flavors together, is seared and fragrant chopped garlic, introduced at the end of the fry.
Nam Sing Fried Hokkien Mee, 51 Old Airport Road (food centre), stall 32, Singapore; Open daily 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
The fussiest: Nyonya cuisine
Chef Ben Teo was raised in a Nyonya or Peranakan (descendants of long-ago Chinese immigrants)environment, and grew up eating soulful Peranakan fare cooked by his late grandmother, peppered with love.
He’s also trained in the finer art of Cantonese and western cuisine, and now, he’s back in a Nyonya kitchen.
“This is the best way to remember and honor my grandmother,” says Ben Teo.
Some of his seemingly unpronounceable signature fare, like ayam buah keluak (black nut chicken), is pictured on the wall.
But what you must come for, is his bakwan kepiting (crab meat ball soup). The magic is in the soup. He blends flower crab and prawn shells and melds it into chicken stock (can you imagine) and some spices. The crabmeat ball is death by seafood — mince prawn, crab meats, turnips, carrot and some mince pork, all spun into a ball of heaven which is really worth dying a few times for.
Peranakan Flavours Restaurant, 11 Jalan Klapa (inside the Ardennes Hotel), Singapore; +65 6789 1001; Open 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m., closed on Tuesdays and public holidays
KF Seetoh is a celebrated Singapore street food expert. The founder of Makansutra, Seetoh is also the creator and curator of the city’s biennial World Street Food Congress, a festival that draws top hawkers from around the world.