Hawker culture food in Singapore doesn't have to be completely old or downmarket to be authentic. In Marina Bay, Singapore, Makansutra's K.F. Seetoh set up Makansutra Gluttons Bay to serve as a home for both old hawker names and novel up-and-comers - and incidentally creating a culinary hotspot and nightlife destination in Singapore's swankest district.
Makansutra Gluttons Bay patrons sit with Marina Bay as a picturesque backdrop -- across the bay, they'll see the Marina Bay Sands towering over the district. About 12 hawker stalls flank an assortment of plastic-covered stone tables topped with large umbrellas (the only concession to the weather); the area has enough seating for over 500 guests, who come every night to take in the view and the authentic hawker fare.
Singapore's Best-Known Names in Hawker Food
"Marina Bay is a very iconic part of Singapore - Gluttons Bay is about delivering a street food experience in the slickest part of Marina Bay," says Makansutra founder K.F. Seetoh (pictured here, at the left). "I said we should bring back the old style, open-air street food stall that we used to have in the 60s and 70s. And we keep prices as cheap as possible."
To deliver on this retro food experience, Seetoh and his colleagues shortlisted some of Singapore's best-known names in hawker food, along with a few new names to cater to the city-state's evolving tastes.
How to get there: Makansutra Gluttons Bay is located in the Marina Bay district, right next to the Esplanade opera house. Ride the Singapore MRT and disembark at Esplanade MRT station (Circle Line; CC3) - take Exit D to emerge at the Esplanade Park.
Traditional Chicken Wings with a Kick
These barbecued chicken wings from Huat Huat BBQ Chicken Wing and Carrot Cake are served with chili sauce on the side: a somewhat sweet chicken dish given added kick by the artisanal dip. Plenty of work goes into producing the chicken - the chicken cuts undergo ten hours of marination before hitting the grill.
This chicken dish has a long history in Singapore - "Barbecued chicken wing has been very popular in Singapore since the 60s," Seetoh says. "People would take half of an oil drum, then they put a grill on there and they grill it on the street side."
Seetoh says this particular preparation owes its sweetish flavor to a special ingredient: "The secret is in the marinade - one of the key ingredients is Mei Kuei Lu Chiew, Chinese rose dew wine," Seetoh says. "It's got a nice, sweet fragrance to it."
Classic Chicken Rice that Meets Singapore's High Standards
Any stall serving Singapore’s favorite chicken must pass a high bar to earn locals’ approval – and Matahari Chicken Rice passes muster with flying colors.
Danny, Matahari’s proprietor, is an ethnic Malay Singaporean who learned the trade by stages – from his own mother in their home kitchen, graduating to halal Chinese restaurant kitchens under the watchful eye of master chefs, and finally to his own hawker stall at Makansutra.
The five-star training comes through in the cooking technique – the chicken is first blanched in maltose-infused stock, air-dried, then basted in hot oil. This restaurant-style procedure results in chicken with crisp skin that gives way to super-moist meat within.
Spicy Barbecued Stingray - An Exotic Marine Delicacy
Barbecued stingray comes to us from Malaysia, and BBKia Stingray serves it the way the Malays like it - with plenty of chili punch. "Stingray was something nobody used to eat except in Malaysia - it was a poor, discarded fish," Seetoh tells us. "The Malays would cook it in sour curry and dip it in sambal (chili sauce)."
The Chinese community, never blind to a good culinary idea, adopted it and started selling it on the street. "Today, it's so popular - they grill a wing of the stingray over banana leaf, and they smear it with sambal as they grill - so the flavor of the banana leaf and the sambal goes into the meat," Seetoh says.
"And as if it's not spicy enough, they put cincalok, which is fermented shrimp and onion, and squeeze calamansi over it." (Cincalok is a Malay shrimp paste; calamansi is a sweetly-sour citrus fruit native to Southeast Asia.)
Beyond its namesake dish, BBKia Stingray has turned its "BBKia Crab" into an in-demand signature dish: grilled crab drizzled with pepper sauce.
Do Rae Mee's Char Kway Teow, Singapore's "Ugly Delicious" Dish
The late Anthony Bourdain once said of char kway teow, “How can something so ugly be so good?” Indeed, any Singapore hawker center worth its salt should have its own take on that greasy, flavorful favorite noodle dish – and at Makansutra Gluttons Bay, it's Do Rae Mee serving this Malay/Chinese noodle stir-fry with aplomb.
Every order is cooked fresh, with flat rice noodles stir-fried on the spot with soy sauce, cockles, beansprouts, prawns, fish cake, and Chinese sausage.
Do Rae Mee’s char kway teow is authentic in every detail – meaning that the whole shebang is stir-fried in copious amounts of lard – so weight watchers should steer clear. (That's more for the rest of us.)
Cha Siew Grilled Ribs bring East and West Together
Emboldened by the recent Michelin star awarded to his local restaurant Burnt Ends, chef Dave Pynt opened a hawker stall at Makansutra to serve his unique take on grilled meats.
Meatsmith Western BBQ cooks its meats on a wood-fired brick grill, ensuring sublimely prepared barbecues made at the hands of masters. The smoked cha siew ribs combine East and West with a Chinese-style cha siew marinade and a tender grill technique that locks in the ribs’ juices.
Partnered with with garlic rice and pickled cucumber, the cha siew ribs make an excellently filling – yet surprisingly affordable – main course.
Malaysian-Style Satay By Way of Singapore's Beach Road
Singapore old-timers remember getting the best Malay satay from a stall near the old Alhambra Cinema along Beach Road. The cinema may be long gone, but the memory perseveres – Sam Hussin, the original Alhambra Padang Satay owner, trained the owner of Syifa’ Satay to make meat skewers every bit as good as the original.
The satay at Makansutra Gluttons Bay is thicker and meatier than satay you'll find elsewhere: the skewered meat is hand-cut, and the peanut sauce - for dunking the satay in - is chunky and moderately sweet.
The store serves a range of meats, not just beef – mutton and chicken are available. (Pork is off the menu - the owners are devout Muslims.) The satay itself is succulently moist, a rarity when run-of-the-mill satay tends to be cooked dry.
"This is a Malaysian style, Kajang-style satay, sweeter than normal," Seetoh tells us as the order comes in. "A lot of spices, unlike the Indonesian ones [which are] plainer."
Nasi Goreng - Fried Rice With an Indian Twist
You wouldn't think that a Malay/Indian stall could pull off nasi goreng (fried rice) well, but Makansutra Gluttons Bay's Old Satay Club Mee Goreng manages the trick rather handily. "This is an Indian translation of a Chinese dish, fried rice," Seetoh says. "They cook it with sambal (chili sauce), white pepper, then they put a lot of crispy anchovies."
The dish is hearty, flavorful, and deliciously multi-cultural - "They have chopped greens, peas, carrots, in a style that the Chinese don't normally do - this is very unique to the Indians and Indian Muslims here," Seetoh marvels. "When you see this, this is totally Indian."
The stall's signature dish, mee goreng (fried noodles) can be ordered in either Malay or Indian style: the Malay mee goreng is drier and fried with the Malay shrimp paste sambal belacan; the Indian version is moister, and cooked with a special chili blend.
Kaya Completes this Sweet Banana Dessert
Dessert comes to us by way of The Sweet Spot: their kaya-based sugary dishes bring meals at Makansutra Gluttons Bay to an excellent conclusion.
The kaya banana tempura (pictured above) takes goreng pisang (fried bananas) and drizzles the lot in a kaya syrup. (Kaya is a Malay coconut-based fruit curd.) Equal measures starchy, crisp and sticky-sweet, the kaya banana tempura combines a variety of textures into a toothsome whole - the perfect Asian dessert to complement a spread of cheap eats from all across the region.