Things are certainly looking up for Char Kway Teow! When I published my first book in 2010, it was titled "The End of Char Kway Teow" because at the time, I observed that all the best Char Kway Teow stalls in Singapore were manned by wok masters who qualify for the Pioneer Generation Package. I am glad to see that since then, there are not just one, but a few young Char Kway Teow hawkers who have decided to take on this very popular Singaporean dish.
In our recent polls Char Kway Teow was voted the 3rd most popular hawker dish by almost 9.5K of our readers! Yet, the current state of our Char Kway Teow does not reflect its popularity. It is a dish that you can find in almost every food court but only a few stalls really do it justice. Unlike Chicken Rice where the ingredients can be prepared in a central kitchen, the ingredients in Char Kway Teow are all very basic. The magic happens in the wok and that is something that requires the skill hands of a trained wok-meister.
Dennis, 33, first generation CKT hawker
The most important ingredient in this very artisanal dish is passion and determination on the part of the hawker to fry a good plate of Char Kway Teow. You don't need to have inherited the recipe from your grandfather. With just a few key points and lots of practice, anyone can fry a good plate of Char Kway Teow.
That was how Dennis, 33, did it. He gave up his job in a logistics firm to fry Char Kway Teow because he really loves the dish. The basic skills were learnt from a retired Char Kway Teow master and he went off and got all the equipment and practiced till he was proficient at it. Even though I had made the point earlier that the ingredients in Char Kway Teow are very basic, it still requires attention to details that make the difference. Dennis makes it a point to fry his own chilli and render the lard fresh. The two principal sauces, viz the fish sauce and the sweet dark sauce are not simply used straight out of the bottle, but have undergone some tweaking in order to make them more yummy! I have spoken to many Char Kway Teow hawkers and some of them actually pre-cook the dark sauce with pandan leaves and gula melaka!
Even though Dennis has only been frying for only a few months, his Char Kway Teow has already reached the level where I would finish the whole plate. (I usually only take a few mouthfuls if the Char Kway Teow were mediocre - I Never Waste My Calories on Yucky Food!) Right now, he is only frying a few plates at a time and so he really gives the Kway Teow a really good smokey stir fry. The real challenge is to see if he can maintain the standard when he has to fry a larger quantity! 4.25/5
It is good to see a young man behind the wok who is frying up a Char Kway Teow that can easily challenge some of the more established stalls. There is hope for Char Kway Teow after all!
Zheng Ling Char Kway Teow Mee
ABC Brickworks Food Centre
6 Jalan Bukit Merah, #01-18
11.30am to 8.30pm
The results for Singapore's Top Ten Cze Char Dishes are in! A total of 8486 fans have voted and it is clear that Singapore's most popular Cze Char Dish is Har Cheong Gai!
Here is the list of the top ten:
1. Har Cheong Gai 1002
2. Sambal Kangkong 821
3 Hot Plate Tofu 758
4 Sweet and Sour Pork 685
5 Cereal Prawns 572
6 Pai Gu Wang 550
7 Hor Fun 538
8 Curry Fish Head 506
9 Salted Egg Prawns 491
10 Hae Zhor 451
This is the first time I have conducted this poll and as far as I know, this is the first time anyone has tried to list the 10 most popular Cze Char dishes in Singapore! I was a little surprised that Har Cheong Gai emerged as the firm favourite. What was even more surprising is that Sambal Kangkong came in 2nd place! Perhaps it is the one vegetable dish which everyone would order when they have to include a vegetable dish to the meal. The rest of the dishes were quite predictable. Now that I have the list of 10 most popular Cze Char dishes, I can now go find where the best ones are!
Many thanks to everyone who participated in the polls!
Teochew Steam Pomfret $75
You probably have heard of Ah Orh before. This seafood place has been around since the 50's and serves out classic Teochew dishes like steamed pomfret and cold crabs. There are two Ah Orh's around. One is situated at Bukit Merah and the other one is located at Blk 22 Sin Ming Road which is the one being featured today. The man behind the wok is 66 year old Mr Goh who started helping out at his father's (Ah Orh) restaurant when he was still a little boy of 4. (Not sure how he was helping then but that was what he told me)
Ah Orh has a reputation for being expensive and it is expensive if you are comparing it with other coffeeshop Cze Char. But as the old adage goes, you pay for what you get and what you get at Ah Orh is really fresh and good quality seafood which is expertly prepared.
The Teochew steamed pomfret here is the best version of the dish that I have had for as long as I can remember. Mind you, I don't eat this dish every other week, so you will have to take my first statement in that context. But I was really impressed with the steamed pomfret which was so nicely done that the texture of the flesh was just perfect and the sauce had just the right balance of sour, savoury and sweet. If you have never been enamored by Teochew style steamed pomfret, this might just change your mind. $75 is a lot to pay for one fish, but the Dao Chior (Chinese Silver Pomfret - pampus chinensis) was very big and its quality is excellent. I have seen this fish selling at my local market for $50, so it is not cheap even if you prepare this at home. 4.6/5
Cold Crabs $28 each
Teochew cold crabs are easy to make. You basically boil the crab, let it cool and put into the fridge. Anyone can do it. The difficult part is getting your hands on the crabs which are full of "Gor" and that is the reason why you eat this at a restaurant. The "Gor" is often mistakenly referred to as crab "roe". It is actually not "roe" (ie eggs) since both male and female crabs have it. Neither is it "milt" (ie sperm). It is in fact, the liver of the crab which gets really fat (like foie gras) as the crab has been eating and storing up energy to get ready to shed its old shell. That is why these crabs are also known as "double shell" crabs as you can see the new soft shell developing underneath the old shell.
Restaurants like Ah Orh have been buying these double shell crabs from their supplier for years and that long term relationship means that they can get hold of crabs that we ordinary consumers can't. The crabs are very good. They are solid, meaty and chock full of yellow gold which should please most people. My crab expert who was dining with me tells me however, that he is able to get hold of crabs that are even better than these in terms of its flavor. So, as I said, these crabs should please most except the ultra discerning crab connoisseurs. 4.25/5
Oyster Omelette $20
The oyster omelette here is excellent. They use Koren oysters which are fresh and flavourful. The egg omelette is crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside. This really is as good as it gets! 4.5/5
I also like the clams which had a nice smokiness that can only come from a wok master. They were however, slightly overcooked that day such that the meat is just slightly dry. 4/5
Stir Fried nai pai (奶白) $15
The nai pai (奶白) was superb. The quality of the vegetables is top notch and fried just right so that it was crisp and sweet without being fibrous. I didn't think much of this much touted vegetable before and have often gone away wondering what the fuss was all about. Now I know! 4.5/5
Prawns with Gu Chai $45
Being a typical Teochew, Mr Goh tells me that he only uses the freshest wild caught seafood at his restaurant. You can taste the freshness of the jumbo Ang Kah prawns in this dish where the prawns are fried with chives. Unfortunately it looked better than it tastes. The chives didn't have the sweetness that I was expecting and the flavour of the prawn and chives did not quite meld to reach a crescendo. 4/5
Fish Roe $20
Can't say I am a big fan of fish roe but I am sure that there are a lot of people reading this who are. Fried fish roe is not something that is readily available, but I think that they are getting more attention in recent years due to the popularity of Japanese cuisine. Fish eggs, like any other eggs, eg tobiko (flying fish roe), caviar (sturgeon eggs), ikura (salmon eggs) and even chicken eggs are tasty because they are packed with all the nutrition that a animal needs. So naturally, we are drawn instinctively to such food sources. But this fish roe just did not resonate with me as I found it a little dry, grainy and not all that tasty. Then again I don't like pig liver either, so I think this might be a personal thing. 3.5/5
Prawn Roll $20
Judging from that hundreds of prawn rolls on display at the storefront, I would say that the prawn rolls here are a very popular item. I haven't yet come across a prawn roll I didn't like but neither can I tell you where to find the best one in Singapore. I still can't. 4/5
If you are looking for really fresh and good Teochew steamed fish as well as other Teochew cuisine, then this is the place to find it. Just remember the old adage. Cheap no good, good no cheap. Yes, it may be more expensive than other Cze Char places, but this is not your usual Cze Char place!
Ah Orh Seafood
Blk 22 Sin Ming Road
Open for lunch and dinner
5.30pm - 9.30pm
When I was a kid, 京都排骨 (jing du pai gu - lit Kyoto pork ribs) or 排骨王 (pai gu wang - lit pork rib king) was my all time favourite dish. I used to always look forward to eating it whenever our family went out for dinner at the Chinese restaurant.
According to Chef Chris Hooi of Dragon Phoenix restaurant, this dish was created by his father, Chef Hooi Kok Wai in 1962 as part of the menu for his new restaurant. It was introduced to Singaporeans when Dragon Phoenix restaurant was opened in 1963. At the time, it was called 日本排骨 ri ben pai gu or Japanese Pork Ribs as it was inspired by the Japanese Tonkatsu. However, the name was later changed to Kyoto pork ribs when one of Chef Hooi's customers suggested that when translated to English, Kyoto pork ribs would sound better than Japanese Pork Ribs. And so the name was changed to Kyoto pork ribs. It is also commonly known as 排骨王 (pork rib king).
Ad in 1963 announcing the opening of Dragon Phoenix restaurant
For the sake of clarification, there is also a dish called Kyoto pork ribs which originated in China. It is made from prime ribs in a traditional "烧汁" sauce. Chef Hooi's version is different in that he uses pork loin instead of prime ribs. There is also the sprinkling of sesame seeds which is also associated with Tonkatsu. The sauce is also different as it uses HP or A1 sauce reflecting the British colonial influence in Singapore at the time.
As with most dishes in Singapore, our short history means that most of the dishes created here are really modifications of dishes from Chinese, Malay, Indian and British origins. There really is nothing new under the sun. Even the Japanese Tonkatsu was derived from the Portugese. But when you talk about Tonkatsu, no one will doubt that it is a Japanese dish. It's the same for our beloved 排骨王 which is one of our favourite Cze Char dishes.
1. The cut of meat used is the pork chop which includes the loin (the round lean bit) which is still attached to the rib and back bone. This is the reason why it is called 排骨王 (pork rib king), so you really should not use any other cuts for this dish. If you wish, you may buy boneless pork loin to make the dish.
2. The meat should be tender and bouncy. This is achieved by pounding the meat first with a meat tenderizer and then marinating it with bicarbonate of soda. This is the traditional way of doing it. When using bicarb, just make sure you don't use too much and you don't marinade for too long or else it will become tasteless and lose the meaty texture. Around half and hour to an hour is ideal.
3. If you are using frozen meat, make sure you defrost it in the fridge slowly, preferably overnight. If you try to thaw it in water or in a microwave, the muscle cells will be damaged and you will end up with dry meat. This is particularly important with the loin as it is very lean with little marbling. You may not be able to find pork chops cut in this manner at the wet markets as they tend to remove the loin from the prime ribs. You can find this type of cut at the frozen section of the supermarket as pork chops is more popular in Western cuisines. They are usually sliced with a machine at 1 cm thick which is the right thickness for this dish.
4. One extra step you might want to take to make the meat more juicy is to brine the meat after it has thawed. Make the brine using 300ml of water and 15g salt. Cover the pork and leave in the fridge for 8 hours and you will have nice and juicy meat when its cooked. You will need to omit the salt in the final marinade.
5. Custard Powder is used in the traditional recipe to add extra flavour and colour to the fried pork. It is a common ingredient used by the four heavenly chefs in deep frying. You may replace it with corn flour.
6. Sugar is an important ingredient in this dish as it is essentially a sweet dish. The tang is almost undetectable and serves to brighten the dish with a bit of zest. So make sure you use a good quality brown sugar. Traditionally, they like to use sheet sugar which is brown sugar that has been cut into rectangular blocks. You can find these at the supermarket. Sugar is always nicer when it is a little caramelized. So when cooking the sauce, make sure you really let it bubble and swirl in the wok to caramelize the sugars.
7. I have always remembered Jing Du Pai Gu to have a wonderful floral aroma when it was served. To do this I came up with a final step in the cooking process. Once the pork and the sauce has been incorporated and almost ready to serve. Turn up the heat in the wok and add 2 Tbsp of good quality Rose Wine, tilt the wok to allow the alcohol to catch fire. It adds that nice floral aroma to the dish as well as caramelizing some of the sugars on the surface of the meat.
Here's the Recipe:
Pork Chops 400g
Sesame Oil 1/2 Tbsp
Salt 2 tsp
Ginger juice 1 Tbsp
White pepper 1/2 tsp
MSG 1 tsp
Bicarbonate of Soda 1/4 tsp
Chinese Wine 1 Tbsp
Custard Powder 1 Tbsp
Potato Starch 1 Tbsp
Brown sugar or sheet sugar 3 Tbsp
White sugar 3 Tbsp
Rice vinegar 1 1/2 Tbsp
Plum sauce 1 Tbsp
OK Sauce 1 Tbsp (can omit or replace with HP or A1 sauce)
Tomato Ketchup 2 Tbsp
Worchestershire sauce 1 tsp
Vegetable or Chicken stock powder 1 tsp
Dark soy sauce 1 tsp
Red Colouring (optional) 1 pinch
Corn flour 1 Tbsp mixed in 2 Tbsp water
Rose wine 2 Tbsp
Pound the pork chops with meat tenderizer and cut into 5cm by 3cm pieces. Add all the ingredients in A1 and massage into pork. Then add the ingredients in A2 and mix well. Leave for half to 1 hour but not more than 2 hours. (If you leave out the bicarb of soda you can marinade overnight)
Heat 1 inch oil in a pan or flat bottom wok. When the oil is very hot (180°C) add the pork and fry till it is golden brown (approx 2 min). Make sure you fry in small batches. Set aside on rack or dry with paper towel.
Mix all the ingredients for the sauce in a bowl.
Pour off the oil from wok. Add the sauce and cook until it is thickened and some of the sugars have caramelized. Add the pork and toss to coat evenly.
Once it is well coated, add 2 Tbsp Rose Wine and tilt the wok so that the sauce catches fire from the flame. Allow the alcohol to burn off. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve.
Bittergourd pork ribs $14
Fans of Mitzi's would be very pleased to know that the old man, popularly known as "Har Zai" 虾子 (little shrimp) is back behind the wok after a short break. His restaurant had closed its doors at Tras Street 2 years ago due to rental and manpower issues (This is getting quite repetitive). They are now back in a hawker stall setting, serving some of the classic Cantonese dishes which they have been known for, but at hawker prices.
Crab with mustard green $14
This may be considered a "Cze Char" but if you come here and order your usual Cze Char dishes, then you are going to miss out on some classic dishes like the bittergourd and black bean pork ribs. 4/5 as well as an excellent mustard green with crabmeat and egg white. 4.5/5 I felt that the pork ribs could have had a little more oommph, but the rest of the kakis tell me that this is the classic taste that they like. The mustard greens were fresh and had a nice crunchy bite. For $14, they sure were generous with the crab meat!
Crispy noodles $16
I have had crispy noodles at many Cze Char places before, but this was the first time I have seen it presented this way. My more seasoned (read older) kakis tell me that this was the way it had been served in the past. Instead of deep frying the egg noodles, they were pan fried such that some bits where crispy while other bits were still chewy. The thin egg omelette on top of the noodles were expertly done and they use fresh, locally caught Western King Prawns 沙马 here. It would have been a must try dish if the sauce had a little more punch. 4/5
Prawn Roll $18
My kakis were not so impressed with the prawn rolls as I was. I liked it because unlike a lot of other places, these prawn rolls were full of chunky prawn which had that nice crustacean flavour which hits you at the back of the palate. The skin was also crunchy, unlike the usual thin bean curd skin which other places use. To me, these prawn rolls really captured the natural flavour of the prawns very well without the other ingredients getting in the way. 4.25/5
Steamed fish head $13
Smith Street food centre is the steamed Song Fish head (freshwater carp) capital of Singapore (perhaps of the world?). Everywhere you turn, there is someone serving this particular dish. If you head down the stairs to the wet market early in the morning, you will be able to catch the fishmongers slaughtering the live fish which are farmed in Malaysia. So, you would expect the quality of the fish to be very fresh as is the case at Mitzi's. I felt the bean sauce was a little on the sweet side but at $13 for one half of a fish head there really is little to complain about. 4/5
Yam ring $16
The problems I always have with yam ring is that most places don't give you enough sauce! When you divide up the yam into bite sized pieces, it would be nice to have a bit of sauce to moisten the otherwise dry yam paste. It's the same here at Mitzi! It's ok if you really need to have Yam Ring, but I think it would be wiser to save your calories for some of their other more unique Cantonese dishes! 3.5/5
Mr Chan Pak Hoi "Har Zai" 虾子
The food here is old school, cheap and good and you will be able to find some of those dishes which you had eaten in the past which are not commonly served at Cze Char places. I was a little disappointed with the lack of Wok Hei in both my fishhead bee hoon and hor fun which I ordered on the two separate occasions. I can't figure out why. Seeing Mr Chan behind the wok with intermittent bursts of naked flame and with 64 years of wokking experience (he started at 12) one would expect the hor fun to be bursting with that elusive wok hei fragrance!
Blk 335, Smith Street Food Centre
(Closed on Mondays)