It’s hardly a challenge eating your weight (and more) in local food but perhaps the one that screams Singaporean is zi char. Although intrinsically Chinese in origin and cooking methods, this style of cooking is appreciated by members of all races with the Muslim community even having their own halal version of it. What’s not to like? The food’s deliciously comforting, perfect for a communal meal and a meal at your local zi char joint rarely takes a toll on your wallet. Zi Char translates to “cook and fry” and is a term used to describe a smorgasbord of dishes influenced by Chinese home cooking.
Got your mind set on hearty dishes like moonlight hor fun, sweet and sour crispy pork, black pepper crab, claypot liver and Cantonese-style steamed fish? Sure, those are drool-worthy but honey, you're only at the tip of the iceberg. Zi char restaurants are a dime in a dozen here in Singapore—a testament to our way of life—and nine out of ten times the average zi char stall will impress. But if you’re looking to indulge in the real deal, here is our list of 10 legendary zi char that locals would rather you didn’t know about.
Renowned not just by locals but by esteemed chefs who helm some of Singapore’s top restaurants, J.B Ah Meng Restaurant over at Geylang is a crowd-favourite for their wide variety of Malaysian-inspired zi char dishes—namely their famous White Pepper Crab and their signature crispy JB San Lou Mee Hoon, otherwise referred to as “chao da bee hoon”. The latter is quite unlike any noodle dish you’ve had before. It’s flattened and crisped from edge to edge like a literal pancake resulting in a crispy crust that exudes a smoky and mildly burnt flavour.
When it comes to wholesome dishes done right, look no further than Keng Eng Kee. This three-generation old eatery hasn’t missed a beat since it first started back in the 70s and now even boasts a repertoire of contemporary dishes to boot. The hallmark of this widely acclaimed zi char restaurant is undoubtedly their Moonlight Hor Fun as well as their Coffee Pork Ribs. Another dish that’s worth trying is their Claypot Pork Liver, which arrives sizzling in a claypot dressed in a savoury, fragrant dark-coloured sauce topped with copious amounts of ginger and scallions. Experts recommend ordering a bowl of rice and adding that into the mix to soak up all of that glorious sauce.
Nestled in the heart of Keong Saik enclave, Kok Sen is one that has been wowing locals and expatriates long before Michelin took notice. With more than half a century of experience under their belt and hosts of regulars spanning generations old and new, Kok Sen Restaurant isn’t just a top-notch restaurant, it’s a zi char icon. It’s Cantonese cooking at its very finest. Signatures include their Claypot Yong Tau Foo, Big Prawn Hor Fun, Sweet and Sour Pork as well as their Big Prawn Bee Hoon Soup. They open at 5 PM on most days but arrive on the dot and chances are you might already be tenth in line so take our advice and don’t take the risk. Go earlier.
These folks first started off selling economical rice back in the 80s before transforming into a full-on zi char eatery some years later. They’re known for a great variety of things—namely their crispy Har Cheong Gai (prawn paste chicken), their La La Soup and Fried Baby Squid—but we’re going to cut to the chase and tell you straight up: it’s their crab dishes that keep people coming back. Their chilli crab, though not the best in Singapore, is impressive enough to warrant a return visit and their black pepper crab will leave you licking your fingers clean.
Operating out of a single hawker store on the second floor of Hong Lim Market & Food Centre, you’ll never guess that Woh Hup Cantonese Zi Char is able to churn out a menu spanning more than 80 items. These folks have operated for more than 50 years now and what’s astonishing is how affordable their food still is. Their shutters open when most of their neighbouring stalls have shuttered which makes getting a table less of a hassle—which is always a good thing. Dishes we love include their Deep-Fried Baby Squid (an alternative being the steamed version with egg which is just as good), Bitter Gourd Pork Ribs and Hong Kong-style Steamed Song Fish Head.
Two Chefs Eating Place is located within the old enclosed neighbourhood of Commonwealth, a zi char gem opened by two brothers from Ipoh, Malaysia. There are plenty of standout dishes to mention but perhaps the few that we often see people order are their Butter Pork Ribs, a sweet-savoury ensemble of crispy butter-fried pork ribs that come dusted in sweetened milk powder—trust us it’s good—as well as their Garlic and Chilli Cockles, Three Eggs Spinach and their Golden Mushroom Beancurd.
Previously known as “Sik Wai Sin” before the reins were handed down to the founder’s son, Desmond, Sik Bao Sin (Desmond’s Creation) is a restaurant specialising in authentic Cantonese zi char. Dishes you have to try, include their piquant steamed fish head bathed in a luxurious, silky sauce made using fermented soybean and crispy lard, herbal black chicken soup, steamed pork with salted fish and kai lan wok-fried with tender beef. All of the above are best enjoyed with a steaming hot bowl of rice.
Opening Hours: 11.45AM - 2.30PM, 5.45PM - 9.30PM (Tue to Sun), Closed on Mondays
It’s pretty safe to say that Mellben Signature is where you go to satisfy your appetite for crab. The restaurant prides itself on bringing top-quality Sri Lankan crabs which can be prepared in many ways. The newer air-conditioned outlet in Tanjong Pagar is run by a second-generation owner, whose father founded the original eatery in Ang Mo Kio. We love their black pepper crab and crab bee hoon but truly, it’s their butter crab that steals the show every time. It’s coated in a thick, creamy butter-based sauce that’s a mix of sweet and savoury. Your doctor will probably advise against it but we suggest ordering a serving (or three) of crispy fried mantou to mop the buttery sauce up with.
Traditional zi char takes a modern spin over at New Ubin Seafood. Sure, they have a wide menu covering the classics such as sweet and sour pork, squid paste you tiao, cereal prawns and crabs prepared in numerous ways to novel Western dishes such as their Black Angus Ribeye steak, St. Louis Grilled Pork Ribs and Claypot Carbonara.
As far as Crab Bee Hoon goes, there’s a smorgasbord of places to choose from but what makes these folks stand out from the crowd is the fact that they’re able to conjure theirs—heady aroma, savouriness, wok-hei and all—without the use of MSG which let’s be honest is the main reason why most zi char dishes (and fast food) tastes so good. Think, a robust, viscous gravy brimming with the heady aromas of fresh crab head butter and a medley of aromatic sauces, thin strands of bee hoon that not only serves as the main bulk but also as a vessel for you to slurp up that tasty sauce and of course, a deliciously tender crab.
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