A City Guide to Hawker Food
July 1, 2013
skewered and grilled meat
The charm of a hawker centre is, really, that there is no charm. Stark seating, menus taped to the wall, and ambivalent service mean you're there for the food, so it had better be good. Satay, a dish originating in Java, is the perfect embodiment of this simple ethos. Marinated pieces of mutton, beef, pork, or chicken grilled over charcoal at Prata-Man Singapore Cuisine in Richmond speak for themselves. Order a dozen for less than $12, dip in the chunky homemade peanut sauce, and indulge your carnivorous side with reckless abandon.
9020 Capstan Way, Richmond, 604-278-1348
spicy noodle soup
Strong fish stock made from mackerel and sardines gives pungent, fiery asam laksa a flavour more reminiscent of French bouillabaisse than anything served along the Malacca Strait. Asam refers to the use of tangy tamarind pulp, and with garnishes of mint, red onion, and a whole sardine, Penang Delight's offering of this classic is the real deal. Then there's curry laksa, asam's more popular cousin. Rich, spicy broth infused with coconut cream, garnished with hard-boiled egg, tofu puff, fish cake, bean sprouts, and two types of noodles make this a seriously hearty meal-Bo Laksa King's is the undisputed champ. Perfectly cooked noodles, rich broth, and the addition of satay-marinated chicken make this a strong candidate for best noodle soup in the city.
Penang Delight: 3885 Rupert St., 604-566-9898
Bo Laksa King: 2546 E. Hastings St., 604-568-4593
spicy, deep-fried chicken
Stories abound about the origin of Chicken 65, but all you need to know is that this dish from Chennai in southern India is the most miraculous fried chicken you've probably never had. It's marinated in red chili powder, ginger, and other spices, then deep-fried (no batter here) to crispy perfection. Chutney Villa's presentation on a sizzling platter, accompanied by their four distinct chutneys (apple, peach and banana, coconut, and tomato), is hard to beat. Wash it down with ice-cold Cobra beers.
147 E. Broadway, 604-872-2228
Char Kway Teow
stir-fried rice cake strips
This dish shows the Chinese influence in Malaysia's cuisine, and almost all Malaysian restaurants in the city attempt a version: you want Hawker's Delight. Noodles are stir-fried one portion at a time to ensure maximum caramelization, then studded with prawns, fish cake, and green onions. Order at the counter, shuffle to the right to collect tea and utensils, then grab a seat and listen to the cacophony of the wok.
4127 Main St., 604-709-8188
The name varies depending where you are (roti prata in Singapore, canai in Malaysia, paratha in its native India) but all are variations on a theme. Yeast-free dough is stretched impossibly thin, nearly see through, then folded over and cooked on a hot griddle in puddles of clarified butter until perfectly brown and crisp. It's typically served scalding hot with a bowl of chicken curry gravy for dipping. Best bet is again is the rotat bubble tea shop turned foodie pilgrimage, Bo Laksa King.
2546 E. Hastings St., 604-568-4593
fermented rice batter crepe
Watch as a two-foot dosa is set down: the phones will come out and even the most jaded foodie will soon be snapping, filtering, and hash-tagging. A specialty of southern India, this enormous crispy crepe filled with curry is as much about the spectacle as it is about the eating. Served with a side of lentil sambar and two kinds of chutney, it's a dish you tear, pinch, and scoop your way through using only your hands. We're partial to the quirky House of Dosas, whose vast array of fillings appeals to carnivores and vegetarians alike; Madras Dosa House is good, too.
House of Dosas: 1391 Kingsway, 604-875-1283
Madras Dosa House: 5656 Fraser St., 604-327-1233
fragrant rice cooked in coconut milk
Here's a dish most Malaysians can't live without. It's ubiquitous throughout the country, with slight variations between regions and vendors, but typically includes rice cooked in coconut cream (nasi lemak means "fatty rice") and garnishes of sambal belacan (chili paste), skin-on peanuts, ikan bilis (small fried anchovies), and a hard-boiled egg. Penang Delight on Rupert Street ups the ante with a choice of beef, chicken, or lamb rendang, while Kaya Malay and Tamarind Hill offer theirs with chicken curry (lunch only).
Penang Delight: 3885 Rupert St., 604-566-9898
Kaya Malay Bistro: 1063 W. Broadway, 604-730-9963
Tamarind Hill: 1440 Lonsdale Ave., North Vancouver, 604-990-0111; 103-628 6th Ave., New West, 604-526-3000
Hainanese Chicken Rice
poached chicken with ginger
You might think you know what this dish is going to taste like, but one bite and it's clear sums are always greater than parts. For our money, the Hainanese chicken at Specialty Chicken & Wonton House exemplifies Singapore's national dish. Local, free-range chickens (proudly displayed with heads intact) are poached in a ginger-spiked stock and served with "oily" rice (cooked in the poaching liquid) and a side of ginger sauce.
80-8100 Ackroyd Rd., Richmond, 604-278-8239
Stuffed roti bread
Agreeing on the origin of murtabak (Yemen? Kerala?), let alone the spelling (mutabbaq is Arabic for "folded"), can be a struggle, so don't bother. Instead, take comfort in one of the best travelled dishes of the East, a stuffed and pan-fried bread with incredible flavour and texture. Light, flaky roti dough is stuffed with spiced meat, folded over, and griddled on a flat top until crisp. You'll see it on many menus across town, but Balilicious's crisp, light version is the most refined.
3488 Cambie St., 604-709-8150
Rich and complex coconut stew
Snooping is a must in Richmond's Yaohan Centre food court, but deciding where to eat is simple: join the long lineup at the always-bustling Curry House. Chicken curry is classically prepared here, and it's thick and rich with the unmistakable warmth of cinnamon and clove. Hot, flaky roti prata makes for the perfect edible spoon.
3700 No. 3 Rd., Richmond, 604-231-9887