Why is Singapore's street-selling culture dying

Where to Eat Traditional Breakfast in Singapore - Travel 2021

My first breakfast in Singapore when I moved there many years ago was sticky chartreuse jam poured onto thin toasted brown bread chips, served with barely boiled eggs and a small cup of coffee with sugar and sweetened condensed milk. Moving slowly in the equatorial humidity of the morning, I approached this iconic cuisine, which was new to me, anxious. It wasn't exactly love at first sight and yet a passion was born.

The basis of a classic Singaporean breakfast is kaya, a custard made from coconut milk, eggs and sugar, flavored with pandan leaf, which gives the jam the scent of freshly cut grass. In the Malay language, Kaya means "rich". But wealth doesn't end with jam. It is served with barely boiled eggs, cracked into a shallow bowl, and seasoned with soy sauce and white pepper. Coffee made from beans sautéed in margarine and sugar is sweetened to the maximum. You can order a frozen milo, a chocolate malt drink, for extra hydration. The whole meal - order it as “kaya toast” - is a staple for Kopitiams (Kopi is Malay for “coffee”; Tiam means “shop” in Hokkien) and makes you about $ 3.

It's tempting to say that eggs are eggs - breakfast in the world is an unremarkable meal, not worthy of any emotional response (much less criticism) - but I found that kaya toast was the perfect way to get my stranger To explore the surrounding area. While the ubiquitous food is served in almost every street vendor center, I had a personally meaningful view that the experience of eating it has as much to do with communities and food cultures as it does with the food itself Singapore.)

Singaporeans pride themselves on local success stories, so the Ya Kun Kaya toast chain was an obvious place to start. Named after a hardworking Hainan who landed here in 1926, worked in a coffee shop, and eventually started his own, it's now an institution known for toasted bread, fragrant jams, and a warm connection to its heritage.

Old Kopitiams in Singapore are running out; The sense of community they nurture is even rarer. The Tong Ah Eating House is in the middle of a row of shops on what was once a red light district. The space feels like a bingo parlor with stackable plastic chairs and ceiling fans. Eggs romp around in a lukewarm bath next to the entrance. But the offering here is a revelation: extra thin and crispy slices, double-roasted, scraped to remove char, with homemade kaya jam that's less sweet - and plenty of butter - than any other café. You can even order french toast kaya if you're not into healthy living. Regulars think it's damn shiok, lah (an extreme pleasure to eat).

Kaya Toast began to influence my travels. One weekend I visited George Town, a UNESCO World Heritage City on the Malaysian island of Penang. Chinese temples, Peranakan mansions, colonial buildings and trompe l'oeil street scenes attract most visitors. I came for the Kaya and it didn't disappoint. My friend Antoinette Chia Yen Yen, who comes from Sarawak but is always good for adventure, accompanied me on the visit and led me into the labyrinths of the old town to the Toh Soon Cafe, an open-air kaya kitchen in an alley. shaded by tarpaulins hanging over them. That was the real business: men crouched to toast bread in steel barrels over a charcoal fire. A dozen plastic tables lined the alley, and the scent of Kaya floated like a ghost over the busy scene. Here the toast was cut into dark strips and the flowing eggs served in cups. The jam was so fresh that I ate three servings and ordered another tapow (take away).

After more than three years of obsession with breakfast, I reached the apotheosis of my kaya quest. The search for the oldest Kopitiam in Singapore led me to Heap Seng Leong, a look back at a world of "uncles" in pajamas, milk can ashtrays, and old men lingering over newspapers as the day turns from mild to highly dangerous. Decades of fads have gone unnoticed at this Kopitiam, which specializes in Kopi Gu You - coffee with an oil slick of butter on top. The taste is exactly what you'd expect: black coffee plus butter. There's a reason you aren't doing this at home. The most amazing thing I saw here was the old owner hand slicing a bread the size of a cocker spaniel. It wasn't the best kaya toast, but the unlikely fact that this mid-century holdover is in business at all is amazing.

When friends came to visit me, the first thing I would do was take them to Tong Ah. I told myself I would show you a Singaporean secret. But I also gave out a little bit about myself, and that's the point of obsession.

My passion for kaya - a food my father found so unfathomable that he put it on ice when I brought it home to Toledo, Ohio - has nothing to do with jam and it all has to do with my love for Singapore and the Region to do. With Kaya as my guide, I explored the nooks and crannies of food cultures and discovered how to disappear in a place far away and gain a rich (sometimes too rich) experience.

Best traditional breakfast spot in Singapore

Tong Ah Eating House Local Kaya fans love the extra crispy toast served in this legendary Kopitiam on a street with old shops. Breakfast isn't the only specialty. Dinner includes homemade dishes.

Heap Seng Leong Entering this Kopitiam is “like entering a time portal,” writes Leslie Tay, the Singaporean behind a local food blog. "We need places like this so that our children know where we come from and how it was in the past."

Keng Wah Sung For a deliciously messy breakfast on weathered tables, try this old-school kopitiam in the food-centric Geylang neighborhood, which specializes in toasted buns with Hainan pudding kaya jam.

National Geographic Traveler magazine editor-in-chief George Stone called Singapore for three years. Follow his travels on Twitter @travelerstoneand Instagram @georgewstone.
This article has been updated from the original version for the sake of clarity.