The view on the best Char Kway Teow in Singapore is as varied as the best Hainanese Chicken Rice. Consistently on everyone’s list of the best(s) is Zion Road Hawker Centre Char Kway Teow.
For a nation that grew up with acronyms (PIE, CTE, SLE, etc), CKT only means one thing – Char Kway Teow. We are a nation obsessed with food and blessed with a wide variety of specimens of the same species, everyone has a favourite. I grew up with Apollo CKT in Marine Parade Hawker Centre. Their version is very wet and very garlicky. I was quite sad when they fell off the Top 10 charts recently.
No.18 Zion Road CKT, however, has been consistently on the Top 10 lists of every food bloggers out there. For one, even the current PM of Singapore liked their CKT. The owner claimed that LHL has been eating their CKY since young. And to prove it, he even displayed an invitation to LHL swearing-in ceremony to the highest office of real power (not the presidency I am afraid) in Singapore.
Of course, PM Lee was not the only one that graced his humble store. There were celebrity chefs like the late Anthony Bourdain, etc.
There are several variations to the theme of CKT – black, very black, white (which is without black sauce), with or without hum, more hum, with or without chilli, more chilli, with or without towgay (beansprouts), with or without lap cheong (Chinese sausage), with or without fishcake. Cheem right? The “lovely” Filipino lady has been a feature of the store for a long time. She handles all these combinations (on top of $4/5/6/8) without a mistake. You know, from the moment “start”, the store whipped out almost 500 plates of CKT. So that’s a SOP that is hard to replicate.
No wonder her face was a constant black black when 3 chaps in front of me ordered “$4 white mai hum, kay towgay”, “$4 orh orh, kay hum”, “$6 six plates, one without towgay, one no chilli, one no hum, one no hum and chilli”, wahlao eh! For me, I went for the simple “$4, one no chilli”. And the result was a consistently standard product that got whipped out in no time.
The result was filled with wok hei, the mysterious smoky flavour that can only come from cast iron wok, big open flame and constant frying action. The moisture was just right, and it was liberal with cockles (known locally as “hum”, same pronunciation as “harm” and equally harmful). I would prefer the chilli to have a bit more bite, but the highlight of the dish was the bits of crispy pork lard cracklings that were embedded into the dish. Strangly, nobody asked for “no lard”
Besides helpers, the hawker centres these days were also “invaded” by foreign food like Xiaolongbao. I for one welcome such competition to keep the local hawkers honest. Like this store in the same Zion Riverside Hawker Centre, the xiaolongbao can be compared to the more famous (and hell more expensive) Dintaifung. Their fried gyoza was also very good, but the wait was too long.
However, there were also many foreigners trying to attempt our CKT and other local favourites that have adulterated the original tastes that it brought a bad name to them. Luckily for Zion, this place has retained the rustic charm and original tastes for many of our classic childhood dishes. And foreigners that set up stores here did not try to sell what’s popular, but what they were good at.
Recently, there was talks of applying for a UNESCO recognition for our hawker centres. Of course our friendly neighbour was up in arms about that. I would lend support to that application not because I am patriotic, but it’s kudos to generations of foreigners that came to our land and made it their home. The first generations of hawkers (your grandfathers and grandmothers) sold along roadsides and for hygiene and control, they were all moved into hawker centres. These stores gave them a livelihood, raised kids and fed the families. Many of us have a relative that was a hawker. My dad was a Teochew Kway Teow seller in Joo Chiat when he first came from China. He was doing what he knew from his hometown of Swatow.
Fast forward to 21st century, the new wave of hawkers came to our shores and brought their Shanghainese, Szechuan, Turkish, and other food to enhance the already rojak food culture that we had. The recognition was for all those sacrifices for the better of their love ones, for that cultural linkage with their homeland, for trying to blend into our fabric of society, for adapting to our home called Singapore. That deserves the UNESCO recognition.
No. 18 Zion Road Fried Kway Teow
70 Zion Rd, Singapore 247792
Michelin Singapore Plates 2018