Ah, zi char. Also spelt tze char, sometimes cze char, or just zhu chao (煮炒 in Mandarin), it is essentially Singapore’s Chinese fast food. Literally meaning “cook fry”, this style of food is available at almost any coffee shop. The menus are extensive enough at regular coffee shops, but superstar zi char places often dish up additional specialties with more exotic ingredients, require longer prep times and have correspondingly higher prices. Of course, they’re well worth the additional moolah.
The Versatility of Zi Char
One of the best things about zi char is the availability and versatility. If you only want to spend $5 for a quick lunch or dinner, you can easily get a satisfying plate of rice or noodles for that much. If you want to go all out, have a celebratory gathering and eat until you think you’re going to burst, you can get crazy with menu picks too. Carbs, meat, seafood and veggies are all available on the menu, ensuring you’ll be spoilt for choice. What’s more, there are lots of zi char places that open until the hours before dawn, so any late night supper cravings can easily be satisfied.
Zi char is popular for lunch, dinner and supper. It wouldn’t be our first recommendation for breakfast. Firstly, you’ll have a pretty hard time finding a stall that’s open for breakfast. Not impossible, but there are plenty of other breakfast foods such as chwee kueh (steamed rice cakes topped with delicious preserved radish), chee cheong fun (steamed rice rolls with choice of filling drizzled with soya sauce and sesame oil, or plain with sweet sauce) or variations of Chinese fried crullers like you tiao are more easily available. Secondly, zi char is just a tad too heavy for breakfast.
How to Read the Zi Char Menu
But what to order? The menu can be overwhelming since it’s usually just rows and rows of tiny text with hardly any description, but don’t worry, we’ll help you make sense of it.
First, take a look at the bolded sections and take your pick from there. Usually, there’s rice, noodles, meat, vegetables and seafood. The rice and noodles sections make up full meals on their own – this is where you’ll find your full meals for about $5. Various types of fried rice and noodles will make up this section, and are heavy on the carbs but come with veggies, meat and a maybe some squid and/or prawns.
If you go for the meat, vegetables and seafood, note that these come in portions meant for sharing, and usually people order a serving of white rice to go with the dishes. Depending on the number of people you have with you, you can always get small, medium or large portions.
Here’s a tip though – zi char has a secret menu, of sorts. You can generally customise whatever you order to your preference. Add a sunny side up egg? Sure, no problem. More veggies, less rice, no squid? This absolutely can be done. Just let the staff taking down the orders know.
The Elusive Wok Hei
But what makes for good zi char? Two words: wok hei. Meaning “the breath of the wok”, wok hei is a slightly smoky, unique flavour imparted to the food while cooking over very high heat. It is different compared to the smokiness imparted by barbequeing or char grilling, and is nigh impossible to achieve at home. Unless, of course, you happen to have an industrial size stove that can crank up the flames and a massive wok at home.
Every Singaporean will have their own favourite zi char place, usually dependent on accessibility and proximity to home, but here are some of the more popular spots:
Keng Eng Kee Seafood
Blk 124 Bukit Merah Lane 1 #01-136, Singapore 150124
Also known as KEK, Keng Eng Kee Seafood is a multi-award-winning zi char place famous for their salted egg yolk dishes. Don’t miss the salted egg yolk crabs, salted egg yolk bitter gourd and prawn rolls with salted egg bits!
New Ubin Seafood Restaurant
27 Sin Ming Road #01-174, Sector A Sin Ming Industrial Estate, Singapore 575680
New Ubin Seafood was set up by one of the new generation of hawkers – those who quit their white-collar jobs to make a career switch to F&B, purely for the passion of good food. In New Ubin’s case, the owner wanted to eat good steak with zi char and so he set about making that combination available to everyone.
Two Chefs Eating Place
Blk 116 Commonwealth Crescent #01-129, Singapore 140116
Their signature Butter Pork Ribs made them famous, but their other dishes are well worth a try too. And no – the pork ribs don’t come swimming in melted butter. Instead, they’re dusted with a pale gold powder made from flour, butter, milk and other ingredients.
Kok Sen Restaurant
30 Keong Saik Road, Singapore 089137
This stalwart of the zi char scene has been around for three generations, and the food is still nothing short of stellar. One of the standouts from their menu is the prawn hor fun – wide, flat rice noodles in a thick brown gravy – as they are just about the only place that uses generous, big prawns instead of little shrimp.