Hawker Heritage at The Line, Shangri-la Hotel Singapore

When you mention Singapore to a traveling foodie, I can probably bet a million dollars that the word hawker will surely come up. Not quite convinced? Okay then, think about your favourite Singaporean dish. Ready? Well, whatever it is, I can confidently say that you can get all of them from a hawker center.

You see, hawkers and hawker centers play a very important part in Singapore's heritage. I can still remember my first hawker meal was back in the late 90s, I was about 8 years old then and my parents brought me to Newton Circus for dinner. Back then, there weren't a lot of hawker centers, I can still remember visiting the ones in Newton as well as People's Park in Chinatown. Sanitation was still a big problem then as we would watch in horror whenever the "uncle" would just "wipe" our table with a piece of chopsticks, pushing all morsels of food down to the floor. The tables would be sticky, sometimes oily, the floor extremely dirty. I have a number of dirty hawker stories back then but it's pretty much not applicable anymore at present. Big thanks to the strict guidelines that the government as implemented to guard against unacceptable sanitation and cleanliness practices. After all, this is food we're talking about.

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A month or so ago, Paul and I were invited by the nice folks of Shangri-la Hotel to partake in their special Hawker Heritage promotion. This ran for only two Saturdays wherein a total of six hawkers presented their signature dishes as part of The Line's buffet line-up. We love dining at The Line as they have a really good selection of cuisines most especially around Asia.

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In order to fully appreciate the dishes of the 6 hawkers featured that evening, I skipped my usual buffet choices and simply went straight to the special additions of the night. We began our meal with Habib's Rojak. Habib is a 25 year old man who's a second generation hawker. It was his dad who began selling Indian Rojak at the Ayer Rajah Food Centre and he has inherited and chose to continue this at present.

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It has been a while since Paul and I had Indian Rojak and we both enjoyed a good mix of coconut fritters, fried bean curd, cuttlefish, potato, cucumber and a lot more. It came separately with their special rojak sauce which was a bit spicy, sour and nutty. Really interesting dish to start our meal with.

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Right beside Habib's Rojak was Kway Guan Huat Joo Chiat. They sell Popiah and Kueh Pai Ti, two of my favorite local snacks. What first caught our attention was the owner doing the Popiah skin on the spot. Over a very very hot flat surface, he would put the batter using his bare hands until a thin crepe-like wrapper is formed. Really amazing!

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Popiah is very similar to the Chinese Fresh Lumpia. The only difference is that it has a stronger peanut taste and it's served in cut-up bite-sized portions. I guess it really does make a difference when you eat freshly made popiah rather than those with store-bought wrappers. It didn't have any powdery texture and the popiah itself was literally bursting with filling that consists of chopped turnip, carrots, minced garlic, lettuce and their homemade sweet sauce.

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As much as I liked the Popiah, my heart is on the Kueh Pai Ti. After having this back in Manila years back, I've fallen madly in love with the crunchy deep-fried shell that is filled with exactly the same filling found in the Popiah and topped with a piece of juicy shrimp. The way to eat this is to put the entire thing in your mouth and savor the perfect mix of flavors. The experience is pretty magical, I assure you.

Now, here's one local specialty that brings back a lot of yummy childhood memories for me -- the Bah Kut Teh. We used to spend a lot of summer vacations here in Singapore and Mommy would make it a point to take us to a good Bah Kut Teh shop every single time we're here. Furthermore, we would also have it in the morning as this used to be a popular breakfast dish. Nowadays though, people would have their Bah Kut Teh for lunch or dinner as it comes with rice and/or fried dough fritters (bicho bicho / yeo tiao) thus it's best eaten during the mid-day as we normally would prefer to have something light and healthy for breakfast.

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Rong Cheng Bak Kut Teh is owned and operated by Lionel Lim, also a second generation hawker. After spending 10 years in the corporate world, he made the decision to follow his father's footsteps and to manage their family Bak Kut Teh business. Definitely a good move, in my opinion. I love how refreshing and clear the Bah Kut Teh tasted. They don't use soy sauce thus the flavor comes directly from the tea, pork and spices. We also enjoy biting into the tender pork rib too.

Moving on, we also checked out Ru Ji Kitchen. They specialized in Fishball Noodles Soup. For those visiting Singapore, aside from our very popular Hainanese Chicken Rice and Cereal Prawns, please make sure to also try a bowl of Fishball Noodle Soup. Singapore fish balls are really delicious as these are mostly handmade thus making it moist, springy and really delicious. On days when I'm feeling under the weather, I would get myself a bowl of fishball soup as it basically has a similar effect as what one would get from a chicken soup (you know...the one that's for the soul).

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If you only got time for one Fishball Noodle Soup, then I recommend you visit Ru Ji Kitchen at the Old Airport Road Food Centre. I was actually filling a bit full by this point but I really enjoyed this very much. This is being operated by couple Joanne and Daniel who are once again second generation hawkers as Ru Ji was created by Joanne's father who continues to help man the stall to this day.

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Taking a stroll outside The Line to help ease our digestion, we chanced upon Toast Hut. Unlike other Kaya Toast stores that grills their bread using electric grillers, Toast Hut uses a charcoal griller thus giving the bread a strong smokey flavour. Paul couldn't resist having a plate of Kaya Toast after standing there for about....2 minutes. So much for self-control. Heehee...

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We carried our plate of kaya toast back to the table and Paul even paired this with a glass of his favorite Milo Dinosaur. Not thinking much about this kaya toast as we've probably had more than a dozen versions outside already, we each took our first bite and immediately looked at each other. Acting like B1 and B2 of Bananas in Pajamas, we had a "Are you thinking what I'm thinking B1" moment. This was a really good kaya toast version. Okay, not only really good but it was the BEST. We love how thinly-sliced the bread was and they made use of Nonya kaya jam which is green and was a tad sweeter than the Hainanese kaya jam (brown) that most Kaya stores have. The butter gives a slightly salty kick which we all love.

Just to share how much everyone in our side of the table loved Toast Hut's Kaya Toast, we all had an average of 2 full plates each of kaya toast despite feasting on all the other hawker dishes that evening. Yum yum yum! I have yet to make a trip to the Old Airport Road Food Centre to visit Toast Hut and have more delicious kaya toasts.

Our last stop was at Xiao Di Fried Prawn Noodle's corner. I've tried one of the best Fried Prawn Noodles during one of our Saturday Hawker Challenge so it's pretty hard to top that. Xiao Di's version was less oily though and they were pretty generous with the seafood toppings which I was happy about.

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Oh what a filling meal! Despite how full we were, how can we just let our dinner end like that right? Dessert for me was my new-found favorite Bo Bo Cha Cha which is a coconut-milk based dessert with sweet potatoes and taro. Wish they'd add in some sago, saba banana and rice balls (bilo bilo) similar to a Guinataan.

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Paul was just happy with his glass of Milo Dinosaur which is like an Iced Chocolate drink with powdered Milo on top. This is perfect for all chocolate lovers out there.

What a fun dinner! It really makes us realize that Singapore truly deserves to be called Asia's food haven and by just seeing the wide-array available in any hawker food centers will instantly make every meal a gastronomic experience.

Here's where you can find the 6 hawker stalls that I've mentioned above:
Habib's Rojak : Block 503 West Coast Drive, Ayer Rajah Food Centre, Stall 68
Kway Guan Huat Joo Chiat : 95 Joo Chiat Road
Rong Cheng Bak Kut Teh : 26 Sin Ming Lane, #01-114/117 Midview City
Ru Ji Kitchen : Block 51 #01-37 Old Airport Road Food Centre
Toast Hut : Block 51 #01-52 Old Airport Road Food Centre
Xiao Di Fried Prawn Noodle : Block 153 Serangoon North Avenue 1, Guan Hock Tiong Eating House

*photo credit: Paul Ang

The Line is in Shangri-la Hotel, Orange Grove Road, Singapore. For reservations, call them at +65 6213-4275.

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