Zi char, directly translated from a Hokkien phrase to mean ‘cook fry’, refers to Chinese hawker stalls that cook-to-order a wide variety of family-friendly and seafood dishes. These are not only a mainstay of local cuisine, but also a delicious yet fuss-free alternative to fancy restaurants. Here are a few top-notch establishments for you to try this unforgettable feast of home-cooked food.
These are not only a mainstay of local cuisine, but also a delicious yet fuss-free alternative to fancy restaurants
For: A Singapore twist on international dishes
63 Hillview Avenue, Level 6
Originating from the island of Pulau Ubin, this zi char outlet first gained fame for its fresh seafood served up in rustic surroundings. Now located on mainland Singapore, New Ubin Seafood has upped its game by offering both classic favourites such as chilli crab, salted egg squid and har cheong kai (prawn paste chicken) as well as international dishes with a Singapore twist such as pork knuckle and kurobuta tonkatsu (Japanese-style pork cutlet). Its inventive variety of delicious fare at affordable prices has also earned it a Michelin Bib Gourmand award.
Must try: US Black Angus ribeye with fried rice. The latter is fried to perfection in delicious steak juice.
For: Johor Bahru-style dishes
JB Ah Meng
534 Geylang Road Lorong 30
For a taste of Malaysian cuisine – which is a little more robust and intensely flavoured compared to local zi char – without having to cross the Causeway, visit JB Ah Meng in Geylang. Helmed by Malaysian chefs, this eatery that opens till late is said to be a favourite among some of Singapore’s top chefs, who head there for a feast after they finish their shifts at their own restaurants. Signature dishes here include the white pepper crab, salted egg prawn ball and fried fish head. Like the chefs, visit after peak hours (6:30pm to 9:30pm) to avoid the crowds and long wait.
Must try: San lou bee hoon, where rice vermicelli, dried shrimp and shredded squid are fried and pressed together like a pancake. It’s crisp and satisfyingly smoky.
For: Crab cooked in every way imaginable
9 Opal Crescent
This one’s for crab lovers looking to savour their favourite crustacean cooked in different ways besides the ubiquitous chilli crab. There’s laksa (curry with coconut milk) crab, salted egg crab and white pepper crab, just to name a few. You’ll also find a range of meat, vegetable, noodle and beancurd dishes, but everyone considers them the appetiser to the wide variety of crab dishes available. In keeping with the traditional style of eating crab, be prepared to use the array of small metal tools provided to crack the shells open and extract all the succulent flesh within.
Must try: Claypot crab bee hoon (rice vermicelli) soup cooked with crab in a rich, milky soup.
For: Tried-and-tested favourites in a central location
Kok Sen Restaurant
30-32 Keong Saik Road
This hugely popular zi char eatery is conveniently located in the central business district and known for its crowd-pleasing favourites. The family-run restaurant, which is also a recipient of the Michelin Bib Gourmand award, features many dishes that are still cooked according to recipes that have been passed down through the generations. Signature dishes include the big prawn hor fun (flat rice noodles), which substitutes the usual beef found in such dishes with more indulgent juicy prawns, and crispy noodles with shrimp omelette.
Must try: Claypot yong tau foo (tofu stuffed with fish paste), which is braised in a thick sauce for a rich flavour. This is unlike many hawker stalls where yong tau foo is served dry or in a soup.
For: Modern zi char
116 Commonwealth Crescent #01-129
Run by two brothers, Two Chefs has a loyal following of fans that enjoy the inventive spin the chefs bring to traditional dishes without compromising on their comforting tastes. For instance, cockles are served ceviche-style and marinated in a piquant sauce – ask for the drunken cockles when ordering. There’s also a focus on using ingredients that are made from scratch in the kitchen, such as the homemade tofu.
Must try: Butter pork ribs with condensed milk powder, which is made from a secret recipe.
To make the most out of your zi char feast, go hungry, pick out a few dishes you’d like to try and perhaps ask your friendly server to recommend dishes to complement what you’ve ordered. Ready, set, eat!