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What’s behind the irresistable allure of Singapore’s zi char dishes

Enjoying these creations amid a boisterous crowd in a small eatery evokes fond nostalgic memories.

Zi char dishes are the ultimate comfort food for many of us. The wok-kissed flavours and arresting aromas always hit the right spot. We dissect the tastes that make these mouthwatering dishes.

Cuttlefish Kangkong

Keng Eng Kee, #01-136, 124 Bukit Merah Lane 1. Tel: 6272-1038

  • Keng Eng Kee
    High heat is needed when firing up the stove, in order to attain wok-kissed flavours and mouth- watering aromas.

Keng Eng Kee, established since 1975, may be best known for its Moonlight Hor Fun, a delicious wok-fried rice noodle dish topped with an egg yolk. But did you know that it also does a mean version of cuttlefish kangkong? Third-generation chef-owner Wayne Liewshares that the dish, which started out as blanched cuttlefish and kangkong smothered in a peanut sauce, was given a new lease of life by his father, Liew Choy, some time in the 1980s. The kangkong is first stir-fried with garlic, and set aside. Then the cuttlefish is meticulously scored with a knife and stir-fried over high heat with homemade sambal and crispy pork lard. The two are combined for a delicious dish that is more-ish and perfect with a bowl of steaming rice.

(RELATED: Singaporean chefs’ favourite zi char eateries.)

US Black Angus Rib Eye with “Heart Attack” Fried Rice

New Ubin Seafood, 63 Hillview Avenue, Level 6 (Canteen). Tel: 6466-9558

  • US Black Angus Rib Eye grilled to medium rare
    Indulge in heart- stopping goodness with this US Black Angus Rib Eye grilled to medium rare, served with “Heart Attack” Fried Rice.

New Ubin Seafood has got to be one of the most exciting zi char places in town. With an extensive menu of over 100 dishes, the spread ranges from classic chilli crab and Old Punggol-style mee goreng to carabinero prawn sashimi and sous vide egg with chargrilled foie gras scented with truffl e salt. But what caught our eye was the US Black Angus Rib Eye with “Heart Attack” Fried Rice, stir-fried with beef fat. Second-generation owner Alexander Pang says that this dish started out as dinner for the family; customers at the next table saw them eating it and asked for the same dish. Eventually this creation made it to the menu. The rice is wok-fried with pieces of beef lard, and flavoured with beef drippings, then served with a robust US Black Angus Rib Eye grilled to medium rare – the ultimate beef-lover’s dish.

Garlic Chilli Lala

JB Ah Meng, 534 Geylang Road. Tel: 6741-2418

  • JB Ah Meng
    JB Ah Meng is run by chef-owner chef Meng who’s most famous for his san lou bee hoon – rice vermicelli pan-fried to a crispy golden brown.

In addition to the san lou bee hoon and white pepper crab at JB Ah Meng, you would not want to miss this exceptional dish of garlic chilli lala. The chef-owner, whom most customers refer to as chef Meng, tells us that the clams he uses are either from Russia, which are larger and plumper, or from the Philippines, which are smaller, but sweeter. Unlike the usual lala (or clams) that are stir-fried with sambal, he stir-fries the plump bivalves with minced garlic, chilli padi and a touch of oyster sauce, which enhances the natural flavours of the clams. A truly addictive dish that makes a great starter.

(RELATED: 3 new food enclaves in Singapore you have to check out.)

Big Prawn Hor Fun

Kok Sen Restaurant, 30 Keong Saik Road. Tel: 6223-2005

  • Big Prawn Hor Fun, Kok Sen
    Kok Sen’s umami- laden hor fun with large prawns is simmered in a rich gravy made with robust prawn stock and spiked with sambal.

Kok Sen Restaurant has been serving zi char in the Keong Saik area for almost 40 years and is best known for its hor fun with big prawns. Think luscious wok-fried broad rice noodles simmered in a rich and intense gravy made with prawn stock and sambal. The dish is studded with chilli, and topped with succulent big prawns. According to third-generation owner Chris Wong, it was derived from another signature dish – thick bee hoon soup with big prawns (which is also on the menu) – and came into being in 2005. It has been a hit with regulars ever since.

  • JASON TAN, CHEF-OWNER, CORNER HOUSE

    “I enjoy the white pepper crab at JB Ah Meng as I like the balance of umami and spiciness (of white pepper). Tip: Order the small crab instead of big ones as small crabs are much sweeter and lend more fl avour to the sauce. The fried frog with ginger at Lao You Ji (245 Outram Road) is another dish I like. It is quite a unique dish, as usually frog is served claypot-style, either spicy or non-spicy, and that can get quite boring. Of course, there is also the delicious big prawn hor fun from Kok Sen Restaurant. That gravy!”

PHOTOGRAPHY ZAPHS ZHANG ART DIRECTION CHELZA POK