His annual publication, the “Makansutra” – “makan” is Malay for “food and eating,” and “sutra” is Sanskrit for “guide” – has become the bible for food-lovers looking for the gems of Singapore’s hawker stalls and other lowbrow venues.
For Mr. Seetoh, perhaps no cuisine hits closer to his heart than cze char (Hokkien for “cook, fry”) restaurants. The dishes served in these joints – which are to Singapore what the neighborhood deli is to New York – are famous for what Mr. Seetoh calls the “third taste.”
“It’s not yours, it’s not mine, it’s a combination. Get it?” Mr. Seetoh explains. “Think about Indian cooks that fry noodles in woks like the Chinese; Hainanese cooks that make up a bloody good curry. These tastes are not tied to a specific culture or ethnicity. They originated from sheer ingenuity and desperation.”
Given only enough room in your stomach to sample a few cze char specialties, Mr. Seetoh reveals his five favorite places to eat them in Singapore.
JB Ah Meng (Geylang, Lorong 3. Tel: 65-6741-2418): “Even Ferran Adria [chef of El Bulli] fell head over heels for the crispy tempura prawns. They are coated with salted duck-egg yolk and batter-fried sweet-corn kernels,” says Mr. Seetoh.
Sin Huat Seafood (Geylang, Lorong 35. Tel: 65-6744-9755): When Mr. Seetoh brought Anthony Bourdain here for an episode of “No Reservations,” a food show on the Discover Travel & Living Channel, the celebrity chef had to wait close to one hour just like everybody else. “The owner saves his best dish for last: a Crab Bee Hoon (crab stir-fried with rice vermicelli) because it trumps everything else,” he says.
Siang Hee (89 Zion Rd. Tel: 65-9736-4067): It’s not just the deep-fried pork knuckle – which is first steamed, then air-dried, and finally deep-fried to achieve extra crispiness – that’s delicious. It’s the addictive dipping sauce, made from chili, lime, and apricot jam. “When you put it in your mouth – fireworks,” says Mr. Seetoh.
Joo Hing (360 Joo Chiat Rd. Tel: 65-6345-1503): In traditional Chinese cooking, steamed fish head – usually from cod – is seasoned with a simple douse of soy sauce and ginger strips. But the folks in this cze char eatery layer on a paste of Chinese miso (fermented beans), ginger, lime, chili and soy sauce. The end product is buried in crispy lard cracklings.
Lai Huat Seafood (72 Horne Rd. Tel: +65-6299-3024): Mr. Seetoh’s choice for the ultimate beer food, the deep-fried pomfret has been a signature of this eatery for over half a century. The fish’s flaky, sweet flesh is perfectly balanced with a layer of sambal (a chili-based sauce), which is smeared over the entire fish. Be wary of the spice level. “You’ll be breathing out of your mouth,” says Mr. Seetoh.