What can you expect for breakfast? Noodles, both stir fried and in broth, are common options. As are rice dishes like porridge and chwee kue, steamed rice cakes topped with preserved salted radish. But the real national breakfast is a plate of pandan-scented kaya toast with some runny-yolked soft-cooked eggs topped with white pepper and dark soy sauce.
The national breakfast of Singapore is served at every kopitiam. Kaya is a custard jam made from egg, coconut, and the vanilla-like herb pandan. The best kaya is homemade, and depending on the cook, can be veer towards very eggy, coconutty, or herbal. It's usually pretty sweet, but my favorite kaya compounds that sweetness with the smoky, butterscotch complexity of the excellent raw sugar of the region. The kaya is spread on toasted or charcoal-grilled bread, usually a spongy brown or white loaf, and topped with a square of salty butter or margarine.
The companion dish to kaya toast, and just as important to the national breakfast culture. When I say soft-cooked, I mean it: the whites are opaque but still soft and creamy, and the yolks are runny. Dispensers of dark soy sauce and white pepper are on most koptiam tables; after topping your eggs with them, you may find it hard to eat them any other way. And of course, you're encouraged to drag bits of kaya toast through the yolks.
A Malaysian/Indonesian breakfast staple, nasi lemak is basically a big pile of rice with assorted relishes and condiments. Expect to find a mix of spicy, fishy sambal, dried anchovies, peanuts, cucumbers, hard-cooked eggs, and peanuts to accompany the rice, which is often flavored with coconut and/or pandan.
The Southern Chinese broth for this soup is laced with soy sauce and enough cornstarch to form a mucilaginous coating on the noodles. Singaporeans excel at taking dead-simple flavors, like plain broths and sauces, and pumping them so full of flavor you're left wondering what the hell just happened. This is one of those dishes: gentle and texturally soft in every way, but not boring in the least.Continue to 5 of 10 below.
An egg-and-starch dish of steamed daikon radish cake (the kind you get at dim sum) broken up into chunks and fried on the griddle with an egg or two. It's a salty, creamier version of hash when you think about it. "Light" carrot cake is just the radish cake and egg; the "dark" version adds a heavy squirt of dark, sweet soy sauce, which caramelizes and turns slightly smoky on the griddle.
Fish Ball Mee
Fish balls are an anytime food in Singapore, and common enough at breakfast. These noodles usually come in a light, flavorful broth that's topped with fish balls and some chili paste. The fish broth here isn't the heavy, meaty stuff Westerners associate with most soups; it's very delicate, lubricating the noodles while adding subtle flavors that feel surprisingly appropriate for breakfast. The fish balls themselves are bouncy and slightly sweet—an acquired taste perhaps, but it won't take long to acquire it.
These steamed rice flour cakes are subtle, delicate chewy foils for the salty radish pickle and slightly spicy chili sauce on top. They're the perfect easy way to start a day of much spicier, saltier, and generally intense noodle slurping and crab claw-cracking. The cakes are only lightly salted, so they really allow the sweet flavor of rice to shine through.
One of the Indonesian influences on breakfast, mee goreng, or "stir-fried noodles with stuff," can include potato, tofu, and small bits of greens, dressed in a sweet sauce with curry spices and, often enough, ketchup (or some other tomato product). It's a mild dish that's all about crisp noodle edges, soft starch, and a restrained sweetness that's intensified by the heat of the wok. Note: this is also a killer late-night snack.Continue to 9 of 10 below.
Smoother and more intensely flavored than the congee we get in the States, The best bowls are creamy, not gluey, and can be studded with bits of meat. Call it Asian oatmeal.
Some of the Indian food in Singapore has been modified to fit more Asian tastes. Take roti prata, which is an offshoot of flaky, buttery Indian paratha (which is a lot like a spiced scallion pancake) that's served more like Malaysian roti canai. The roti is thinner and less chewy than a paratha, with more of a crisp-tender contrast—though it's not as thin or delicate as roti canai. It's served with a small bowl of coconut milk-thickened chicken curry for dipping.