Click to listen/ download podcast of this encore episode of our Nation’s top eats (Part 1).
Hello Makan Kakis!
In the lead-up to National Day, we’re revisiting a special feature on top local eats! The clear favourite (as voted by our Gold 905 listeners), coming in head, shoulders and tail feathers above the rest, was chicken rice – a complete, affordable meal that truly reflects our country’s culinary history and development.
When Gold 905 listeners were asked where they like to go for their favourite chicken rice fix, a few popular players emerged, of course – famous names like Tian Tian, Boon Tong Kee and Wee Nam Kee, as well as stalwarts like Yet Con and Chin Chin. Honestly though, discussions about where to find the best of this beloved national dish won’t reach any satisfactory conclusions. It’s impossible to find the “best”, simply because every self-respecting Singaporean has their own preference when it comes to the fragrance, flavours and textures of chicken rice. That said, here’s one that’s surely a worthy contender!
Started by Mr Cheong Weng Wah in 1988, Tiong Bahru Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice is a must-try for those visiting Tiong Bahru Market. In particular, his poached chicken was outstandingly moist, tender and very clean-tasting. Staying true to its name (lazy eaters rejoice!), a whole drumstick was deboned, then beautifully sliced and served on rice but still with all the best bits intact – dark meat, silky skin and crunchy cartilaginous ends.
Mr Cheong first learnt how to make his signature dish from a friend who was a cook at The Mandarin Hotel, famous for its Chatterbox chicken rice. In the three decades since, Mr Cheong has slowly experimented and improved on the recipe to great success and many accolades, including a Bib Gourmand mention in the Michellin Guide Singapore.
The condiments are also worth mentioning, from the deceptively pale chilli sauce that packed a really spicy, well-seasoned punch, to the surprisingly mild and mellow ground ginger sauce (I’m guessing he uses young ginger). Sliced cucumbers and sweet pickled vegetables were included on the plate, for freshness and crunch, along with a bowl of simple chicken broth on the side. The rice was also on point – firm-to-the-bite and tastily infused with onion, garlic, ginger, pandan leaves and spring onion.
But ultimately, it was the chicken that really stood out for its pristine texture and flavour. Mr Cheong really let the meat speak for itself, gently enhanced by the merest whisper of light soya sauce and sesame oil. Tiong Bahru Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice is a value-for-money all-rounder and undoubtedly one of Singapore’s finest.
Delivery: Tiong Bahru Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice
Address: 30 Seng Poh Road, #02-82, Singapore 168898
Opening hours: 10am – 8pm (closed Mondays)
Tel: +65 97509846
Following close behind chicken rice was chilli crab – an obvious choice, perhaps, but this is one dish we can proudly say was created in Singapore and as island-dwellers, our tables never go too long without the succulent, spicy seafood treat of mud crabs wok-fried in a piquant, savoury-sweet gravy, served with bread or buns on the side for maximum sauce-absorbing purposes. Here, we revisit to the birthplace of Chilli Crab. Or as our photographer put it, “The OG Chiili Crab”.
Roland Restaurant began life in the mid-fifties by the Kallang River as a humble seafood stall, with just few wooden tables, stools and kerosene lamps. Run by husband-and-wife team Cher Yam Tian and Lim Choon Ngee, business began booming with Madam Cher’s signature creation of crabs stir-fried in a combination of tomato and chilli sauces. The stall evolved to a restaurant initially called Palm Beach along Upper Changi Road and in 1985, their son Roland took over the family business. The eponymously named restaurant has made Marine Parade home ever since.
The chill crab served at Roland Restaurant is still made according to inventor Madam Cher’s recipe, so if you’re hankering after taste of those good old Bedok Beach days, you know where to find it. Long-time customers still return to ask for this off-menu item. According to Roland, his mother’s original recipe was sweeter, with more of a tomato ketchup flavour and always served with a side of crusty local-style French loaf.
However, their signature on-menu chilli crab has gone through some minor tweaks. These days, the sweet tomato ketchup has been dialled down, the chilli paste ramped up for kick and egg has been added for extra texture. The French loaf is also gone, having made way for the now requisite mantou (Chinese wheat flour buns).
At Roland, you can order the buns either steamed or deep-fried. But chilli crab is already such an indulgent feast, you might as well go all the way with the deep-fried variety, for added taste and textural dimensions. Those buns ($2.40 for four) were dainty and pale, but quite the opposite flavour-wise. The thin, fried crust of the bun was like a crispy candy shell that shattered on contact with teeth, melting away to reveal a soft, fluffy centre. Dipped into chilli crab sauce, the sweet buns drank up the savoury, spicy elixir and released a lovely milkiness that made a wonderfully balanced combination.
The sauce is all about a better balance of flavours. It wasn’t excessively ketchupy or sugary and its fiery chilli heat tickled the back of my throat in the most stimulating way. Brininess, spiciness, a touch of tang and a hint of sweetness all worked harmoniously in the gravy, expertly thickened by threads of egg white. As for the crab, full marks on freshness, flavour and size. Roland Restaurant usually serves a mix of Sri Lankan crabs and mud crabs, depending on the season – mine were Sri Lankan and perfectly cooked. The naturally sweet crustaceans had a kissed-by-the-wok smokiness, with juicy yet firm pincers, all lovingly bathed in the excellent sauce.
There’s always something quite ceremonial and special about sharing a meal of chilli crabs, especially at a stalwart like Roland Restaurant, which calls to mind classic Chinese banqueting halls and childhood family feasts. Eating chilli crabs is such a sensuous experience – you have to be prepared to get hands-on messy, cracking through shells, sucking out hidden morsels from nooks and crannies, sopping up pools of gravy. It can be such an investment of time and effort, but Roland Restaurant’s chilli crabs are definitely worth getting your hands (and everything else) deliciously dirty for.
Address: Block 89, Marine Parade Central, # 06-750 Singapore 440089.
Open daily: 11.30am – 2.30pm for lunch and 6 – 10.30pm for dinner.
Tel: +65 6440 8205
Of all the dishes in the world that can be classified as “ugly delicious”, rojak comes pretty close to the top of the list. Rojak, in all its various forms, may not be the most visually appealing of dishes, but looks aren’t everything when taste and texture more than make up for it. Perhaps more importantly, rojak has also gone beyond the menu to mean something greater.
Symbolically, rojak reflects the Singaporean culture and identity – a little bit of everything thrown together with a pleasing result. In colloquial Malay, rojak also means “mixed”. No wonder then, that Gold 905 listeners voted the dish as one of the top five local eats that best represents Singapore.
Of all the recommendations we received, here’s one serving Chinese-style rojak in Clementi that is extremely popular. The duo behind the relentlessly busy Brothers Rojak stall really are brothers, and the balancing act driving a family business that has spanned more than six decades, three of which at its current location. Tan Boon Hwa and Tan Boon Heng are possibly the two most jovial hawkers I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting, with the younger Tan sibling (on rojak-making duty at the time of my visit) calling out to each customer with a smile and a “Hello Lao Ban” (boss in Mandarin).
The very antithesis of subtle, rojak is a love it or hate it dish. In my mind, it tends to launch a punchy assault on the senses, a full-on mix of sweet fruit clashing with the savoury funk of pungent prawn paste, spicy notes combating with smoke from a charcoal grill. But at Brothers Rojak, they have managed to mellow that battle into a well-rounded, beautifully balanced dish, with all of the familiar flavours, but none of the jagged edges. Nothing really jarred or competed for attention on the palate.
For a standard plate of rojak (prices range from $3.50 to $9.50, I ordered a $5.50 portion), I got a heaped serving of thinly-sliced bang kuang (jicama), pineapple, cucumber, scissor-snipped torch ginger flower and you tiao (fried dough crueller), all tossed in a sticky concoction of hei ko (prawn paste), chilli sauce, assam (tamarind) and sugar. The oozy mound was then sprinkled liberally with crushed peanuts.
The joy of eating Brothers Rojak came from the harmonious mingling of flavours and textures. As expected of a fruit salad, there was the refreshing burst of crunchy cucumber, sweet and tart pineapple and the earthy jicama. That juicy freshness was chased by the toasty peanuts, charred you tiao with crispy edges and the briny caramelized flavour of prawn paste. The sour zing of tamarind and gentle hint of chilli rounded the dish off beautifully. The glorious marriage of flavour profiles, that didn’t fight or overwhelm, played most agreeably on the palate.
Good as is, I highly recommend the menu extras to really enhance your standard rojak experience. I added pressed sheets of cuttlefish, taupok pau (fried beancurd stuffed with cucumber and bean sprouts), more you tiao, as well as century egg with pickled ginger on the side. These came on a separate plate, tossed in the same moreish rojak sauce and garnished with more crushed peanuts. I especially appreciated how the grilled cuttlefish echoed the savoury-sweet flavour of the prawn paste, its salty taste of the sea developing more and more as I chewed.
However, it was the century egg that really elevated the rojak. Its super-charged green-grey yolk added a luxurious creaminess and unique earthy-ammonia whiff to the dish. Meanwhile, its gelatinous soy-brown albumen teased wth its jiggly coolness. Eaten with the pickled ginger, each mouthful of rojak had a bonus sweet, spicy and floral bite, which made up for what I felt was a smidge lacking in the torch ginger flower. I had seen it being added into the mixing bowl, but the fragrance and flavour seemed to have dissipated into the milieu.
Interestingly (though not unwelcome), their prawn paste was more understated than others I have encountered, with just a modest waft of pungency. It didn’t reek of fermented shrimp, but had an almost yeasty, Bovril-esque quality, which was by no means unpleasant.
Perhaps therein lies its popularity. Brothers Rojak isn’t overpowering or olfactorily offensive. Mild, with a good balance of fresh, chewy, crispy and juicy textures, as well as sweet, salty, sour and spicy flavours, it definitely had mass appeal. Just as appealing was the uplifting, happy vibe the brothers exuded, which made this rojak experience all the more gratifying.
Brothers Rojak (Chinese Rojak)
Address: 449 Clementi Ave 3, #01-211, Singapore 120449.
Open: 10am to 9.30pm, Mondays to Saturdays (closed on Sundays).
Tel: +65 9710 2700.