Never did I feel more like an American on my trip to Singapore than during breakfast at Tong Ah Eating House, a fourth-generation kopitiam that serves some killer kaya toast and kopi (Singaporean coffee). And not just because I was adrift in a sea of Southern Chinese dialects and an absence of the vague Anglicism that hangs over the country.
It began with Tong Ah's kaya toast, served on thick white bread that's toasted over a grill and topped with a butterscotchy, almost smoky version of kaya, the coconut-egg jam infused with pandan leaves. It's a great introductory kaya for those who may be put off by the typical spread's strong eggy flavor—less eggy-herbal, more complex and jammy. And it's also very receptive to the square of salty butter—or is it margarine?—that sits atop. A couple Singapore dollars rewards you with a hefty stack of little kaya toast sandwiches.
Shortly after we started tucking in, our guide Garry left the table, returning with a bag full of pork jerky. This probably isn't the jerky you have in mind—it's bak kwa: thin, marinated, sometimes smoked squares of pork, beef, or goat that get charred under high heat and sauced with a sweet and savory glaze. Bak kwa is more fresh (and thus less preserved) than other jerky, so it may be easier to think of it as hyper-dense roast pork squarelets with all the sweet, smoky flavor of char siu, but not that troublesome third dimension.
The bak kwa came from next-door Kim Hock Seng, a jerky house that as it happens also makes some hauntingly delicious juices (I still dream about mango + kiwi + yellow watermelon). Dumb, pork sandwich-loving American that I am, I had just assumed these were meant to be eaten together, so why not as a sandwich?
Apparently they aren't, but I don't care, because this is one of the most wonderful bites I had in Singapore. The pork gave the sweet custard the meaty, fatty counterpoint it so deserved: sweet and savory on more sweet and savory, amped up by porcine chew and wisps of char. This is what all breakfasts should be.
Is this the story of how Singaporeans eat? No. It's the story of what a clueless American does when there's too much head-spinningly delicious food around him, and he literally has to stack it all on top of each other to eat it all.
And it's just another reason why Singapore's outdoor eating house culture is just such a good idea. When your open-to-the-street jerky house is no more than five steps from the sidewalk table of your kopitiam, this kind of spontaneity can just happen. And what's that? Spontaneous eating, bizarre amalgamations of cultures and cuisines? Sounds like Singapore to me.
Tong Ah Eating House
36 Keong Saik Road, 089143, Singapore (map) +65-6223-5083
Kim Hock Seng
34 Keong Saik Road, 089141, Singapore (map) +65-6221-4882
More on Singapore
- An Introduction to Singaporean Food »
- Snapshots from Singapore: 25 Singaporean Dishes You Should You Know »
- Snapshots from Singapore: 10 Must-Eat Singaporean Breakfasts »
- Snapshots from Singapore: The To-Go Bag »
- Snapshots from Singapore: A Guide to Singaporean Coffee »
Note: Max's recent trip to Singapore was arranged by the Singapore Tourism Board. Special thanks to our awesome guide, Garry Koh.