Yum Cha

In Hong Kong, teashops (or cha chan tengs) have been around for ages. They are where people gather for cheap and quick bites, and have spawned an interesting (if quirky) type of cuisine. Cha chan teng food is characterized by processed and convenient ingredients, such as luncheon meat and instant noodles, put together in unusual combinations. If you can get your mind around this, you might find this type of food quite tasty—in the same way chips with sour cream are tasty.
Now a hit in Singapore, with several teashops springing up recently, cha chan tengs look like they are here to stay.
B/2, Takashimaya Food Hall, Ngee Ann City, 391 Orchard Rd., 6732-8196. Open daily 10am-9pm.
Central is much classier than the teashops in Hong Kong. It offers better quality and service, yet sticks to the same down to earth grub. Central’s peanut butter on toast ($3.50) costs a little more than at other cafés and restaurants, and its peanut butter is not as thick as one might desire. The crispy seafood noodles ($8) are like our local yee mian, with liberal portions of seafood and brown gravy. Cheese baked rice with pork chop ($9) is exactly that, and is the kind of thing that appeals to kids. A typical cha chan teng dish, fried Nissin noodles with luncheon meat ($7) also comes with fish and vegetables, and is home cooked comfort food. Durian lovers can look out for Central’s signature dish: Supergrade Durian Fried Rice ($8)! Durian puree is folded into fried rice, and gives the dish a noticeable but not overpowering aroma. Try this if you dare.
Crystal Jade Kitchen
#B2-36 Ngee Ann City, 391 Orchard Rd., 6238-1411. Available daily 2:30-5:30pm; restaurant open daily 11am-10pm.
Crystal Jade Kitchen serves Hong Kong style set meals as well as à la carte. Check out its trademark Bo-Lo Bun with Butter ($1.30) to start. The bun is rich and soft, with a caramelized crust and a thick wedge of butter. One of the mains, macaroni soup with ham ($5.50), comprises a generous portion of pasta topped with three large slices of ham, and is simple but gratifying. Hong Kong faves such as fried eggs with ham or sausage (available with a $6 set meal), and chicken wings with shrimp paste ($5), are also whipped up here, as is the ever popular condensed milk on toast ($1.50).
Crystal Jade Macau Café Restaurant
#B1-29A Bugis Junction, 230 Victoria St., 6338-0198. Open Mon-Fri 11am-10pm; Sat-Sun 10:30am-10pm.
Cha chan teng food has a Macau counterpart. And although Hong Kong and Macau have much affinity, their cha chan teng food is actually quite distinct. Pork is commonly used in Macau’s cha chan teng items, such as the pork chop buns ($5.80) and crispy pork knuckle ($26, whole) that are served at Crystal Jade’s outlet. For a snack, try the Macau version of spring rolls—deep fried mashed potato with salted cod ($6). Hong Kong’s favorite home flu remedy, warm coke with lemon ($2), is also available here. It is an acquired—and addictive—taste. Crystal Jade’s cheese baked rice with seafood and pork chop ($12.80) uses fried instead of steamed rice, and is layered with a creamy sauce. The double boiled egg white with milk ($3.50) is an oddity that must be tried. Consumed either warm or chilled, it tastes, respectively, strong or bland. We wonder who thought up this dish.
Hong Kong Café
378 East Coast Rd., 6440-3808. Open Mon-Sat 6pm-5am; Sun and public holidays noon-5am.
Owner Benny insists that Hong Kong Café is the first genuine, and still the best, cha chan teng in Singapore. We do not doubt this. Extremely vigilant over the authenticity of his food, he goes out of his way to ensure that his cha chan teng dishes are done exactly as they are in Hong Kong. Try his salt and pepper bean curd ($5.50), which is flavored with a seasoning akin to that used on potato chips. Another finger food item, deep fried squid ($7.50) is dusted with flaky floss-like bits. HK Borsch soup ($3.90) has a strong soup base and is simmered with chunky pieces of vegetables. The Golden Fantasy ($5.80) is a fruity challenge: Sour pomelo seeds are buried in nectarous mango puree, with creamy sago on the soft ice cream.
Tong Shui Café
54 Zion Rd., 6737-6946. Open daily noon-5am.
Hong Kong Café’s first mover advantage may be eroded somewhat by the arrival of Tong Shui Café. An explosion of color assaults the eyes when one enters the café—vibrant pinks clash with bright greens—and stylized Chinese decorations fill the interior. The spontaneity in the atmosphere works up one’s appetite and puts one at ease. Owner Raymond Khoo whips out fun and interesting fare. Some of his drinks are must-tries for the uninitiated, such as the potent boiled coke with ginger ($2.88) and iced cappuccino with coke ($3.88). Served in big old fashioned mugs, these drinks may take some getting used to, but actually go rather well with the food. The luncheon meat and egg sandwich ($3.88), presented with a plateful of fries, is a nostalgic throwback to school tuck shop lunches. The toast with peanut butter and condensed milk ($1.88) is incredible: Thick peanut butter is spread on bread four slices thick, then topped with a swirl of condensed milk. A light item is yu char kueh ($2.88), which are dough fritters with a choice of dip—we liked the black pepper. For dessert, the Yin Yang ($3.88) almond and sesame combo is really smooth and luscious. With its late night opening hours, Tong Shui Café looks set to make its presence felt. Let the competition begin.