BY VICTORIA WANG ’20
There is no better place to look for a good Singaporean breakfast than a hawker center, according to Karisa Poedjirahardjo ’20. Hawker centers are open-air complexes where street food vendors congregate. They are commonly seen in fast-paced, urbanized Asian cities like Singapore.
Pinhole-sized stalls for the hawkers and shared seating for customers create the iconic centers that are home to some of the most authentic Singaporean street-style flavors. “You have the Laksa stall, curry stall, pork bun stall,” said Poedjirahardjo. Although Poedjirahardjo believes it is difficult to regard anything at a hawker center as “traditional” Singaporean food, she thinks it is reasonable to say that all food there is uniquely Singaporean.
Since its founding as a country of immigrants with large Chinese, British and Japanese populations, Singapore has been home to a food culture that mixes cuisines from all over the world.
“Take Laksa for example,” said Poedjirahardjo, referencing a soup often eaten in Singapore. “It is from Thailand, but the Thai Laksa has sweeter and milder broth, and it is made with seafood.” As the food made its way to Singapore, Laksa took on certain Kokkian elements from its residents with South Chinese roots. “[Singaporean] broth is much spicier, and there would be fishballs in the soup instead of fish.”
While the variety of food stalls depends entirely on the neighborhood nearby, nearly every Hawker center has to have a “breakfast stall,” said Poedjirahardjo. Back in high school, she would eat her breakfast at the hawker center along her 20-minute walk from the metro station to campus.
Poedjirahardjo’s favorite Singaporean breakfast is a cup of coffee, two half-boiled eggs and Kaya toast with butter, which Poedjirahardjo says is to Singaporeans what buttered croissants with jam are to the French. The freshly toasted bread is made unique by the Kaya paste; a mixture of coconut, eggs and caramel infused with pandan leaf. Ever since it made its way to Singapore from the Malaysia Islands, the sweet, rich jam has become a staple for Singaporeans.
Even ordering coffee in Singapore is a complex task, as all the menus at the breakfast stall offer a blend of coffee-making styles from around the world. The menus can include Hokkien and Malay-inspired toppings and ingredients, Thai and Australian coffee and the simple, old-school American and Italian espresso. The choices are so eclectic that Singaporeans have developed a coded language to describe their orders concisely. Kopi means “coffee with condensed milk,” Gau means “strong,” Kosong means “no sugar, no milk” and C means “evaporated milk instead of condensed milk.” Poedjirahardjo’s go-to order is Kopi C: strong coffee with evaporated milk, but for some it’s not so easy to pick. “It is so complicated that charts were made to guide people to ordering coffee in Singapore,” she said.
Half-boiled eggs are a standard breakfast food in Japan and Europe. The Japanese eat them with soy sauce and the Europeans with pepper. In Singapore, diners combine the two, with the egg-whites half-solid and the yolks still runny. Poedjirahardjo cracks them into a bowl with drops of soy sauce and some black pepper, then scrambles them a bit.
Hawker centers are a popular meeting place for high school students because “it is a one-stop destination with every food you’d want at affordable prices.” According to Poedjirahardjo, she and her friends would all buy their favorite breakfasts there before school. Poedjirahardjo’s breakfast would cost her five Singaporean dollars. “Everything there was cheaper [than in the U.S.] and tasty, hands down,” she said.
For Singaporeans, hawker centers represent the country’s own original flavors — every type of food from even a tiny breakfast stall embodies the diverse and international nature of the city-state. “I cannot think of any other place where people eat breakfast like this,” Poedjirahardjo said. “You mention Kopi C and Kaya bread with butter, then you’re talking about breakfast the Singaporean way.”
Recipe for Kaya Toast
4 or 5 eggs
7 oz sugar
1/2 cup coconut cream and 3/4 cup coconut milk
3 pandan leaves tied into a knot
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch + 1 1/2 tablespoons water
Caramel: 1.5 oz to 2.5 oz sugar
Method: Crack the eggs into a big bowl or container, followed by the coconut cream, coconut milk and sugar. Whisk well. Transfer the egg mixture into a saucepan (non-stick preferred). Add the pandan leaves into the egg mixture and turn on the heat to medium-low. Using a wooden spatula or a pair of wooden chopsticks, keep stirring the mixture until it is cooked (about 20 minutes). To thicken the Kaya, add the cornstarch mixture, stir to combine well with the Kaya. Please note that lumps will form in the jam. In the meantime, heat up the sugar in a saucepan until it melts into caramel. When the color becomes golden brown, add the caramel into the Kaya and stir to combine well. The color of the Kaya should be golden brown. Turn off the heat. Blend until it reaches a silky smooth consistency without lumps. Transfer the Kaya to a jam bottle. You can keep it in the fridge for about a week.