- Alan Lim/The Straits Times
American celebrity chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain loved Singapore food – so much, in fact, he once tried to start a hawker centre-inspired food market in New York.
He previously called local hawker centres “a wonderland” of cuisines, and featured Singapore cuisine in the an episode of his show, Parts Unknown.
Following his death, longtime friend and Makansutra founder KF Seetoh compiled a list of Bourdain’s five favourite dishes at local hawker stalls.
Four of the stalls are on Michelin’s Bib Gourmand list.
Bourdain himself has mentioned some of these stalls in a piece he wrote for the New York Times, in which he described local condiments as Singapore’s “singular danger”.
“It is easy to get sucked in, to get used to the little things on your daily table — the tiny dishes of sambal or chopped red chili peppers, the soy sauce, even the moist towelettes. You begin quickly to expect them, to take them for granted,” he said.
“There is no going back. Western food becomes eerily bland and flat. You find your soul kidnapped by the memory of condiments.”
We revisit the TV show host’s five favourite local dishes, according to Seetoh:
#1: Chicken rice from Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice
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According to Seetoh, the chef could only muster an “Oh wow!” when he first ate the chicken rice from this stall at Maxwell Food Centre.
Calling the dish a “deceptively simple looking… platter of plain-looking boiled chicken atop a heap of white rice”, Bourdain described the meal as “a light and beautiful thing”, “comfort food”, and a “darned good lunch”.
#2: Claypot pig trotters from KEK Seafood
Seetoh described this dish as “a beautiful and softly tangy cross” between vinegar ginger trotters and braised trotters, which the owners cooked for Bourdain when he visited their home.
It is also available in the popular zichar restaurant at S$15 for a medium-sized bowl and S$20 for a large.
KEK Seafood was most recently featured in Netflix’s Street Food series, featuring notable hawkers in Asia.
#3: Crab bee hoon from Sin Huat Eating House
According to Seetoh, this pricey, umami-rich bee hoon paired with giant Sri Lankan crabs was among the dishes they ate during the pair’s first meal together.
“Bourdain took a bite, lit up, and did his signature monologue about lives and loves, gushing how he would not mind if the world ended right after that meal,” Seetoh said.
#4: Hill Street Char Kway Teow
Though considered a cholesterol bomb, this dish “seduced” Bourdain despite its appearance as an “unlovely-looking brown heap… unceremoniously dumped onto plates”. The chef waxed lyrical about its “complex combination of distinct flavors and textures: sweet and savory, spicy and rich, gluey and crunchy.”
Bourdain’s noodles were cooked by the stall’s late owner, Ng Chang Siang, Seetoh said, adding that after his first mouth, the chef asked: “How can something this ugly be so good?”
#5: Steamed Shark’s Head from Tian Jin Hai Seafood (Closed)
Seetoh wanted to “shock” Bourdain with this unusual dish, but the food show host ended up loving it so much, he even featured it on his show, No Reservations.
The dish was invented by the eatery’s chef after being unable to find reef shark heads at a fish market, which are often discarded. The heads are then steamed with ginger, red pepper and garlic, then topped with soy sauce and spring onions.
Bourdain described the dish as “a divine mosaic of tender, subtly flavored fat, skin and cartilage”, adding that since being introduced, had resulted in shark heads being seen as a rare treat.