I like Singapore when it wakes up in the morning. In the soft light of dawn, I can sometimes catch a glimpse of the soul of old Singapore - harking back to an era before the city embraced its current modern incarnation, with its gleaming glass-and-steel towers, crowded streets and (shock, horror) fast food chains.
At the crack of dawn, when the streets are still and shophouse windows are dark, the only life one sees is usually centred in and around the local wet markets and the obligatory hawker centres attached to them. And there, at the hawker centres, you see ordinary Singaporeans nursing their "kopi-C" or "teh-o", and lining up for morning sustenance: porridge, noodles, steamed buns & dumplings, crisp-fried dough-sticks, roasted meats with rice even. At the Chinatown Food Centre on Smith Street, there was a popular glutinous rice ("lor mai") stall which sees a long queue each morning and usually sells out by 7am. I'd never tried it myself - don't fancy queuing for food at 6am!
And my favourite breakfast food? The "economy fried bee hoon-mee" - perhaps the simplest, yet most common Singapore breakfast item. A typical "economy fried bee hoon-mee" stall will offer at least two types of noodles: the drier fried "bee hoon" (thin, white rice noodles) and the "mee" (or more accurately, "Hokkien mee": fat yellow Hokkien noodles) fried in dark, sweet soysauce which gave the noodles its rich, caramelly flavour. You find almost similar renditions in other mainly-Chinese cities like Penang or Ipoh in Malaysia, Bangkok's Chinatown, even Hong Kong or Guangzhou, China. But the renditions outside Singapore usually substituted the sweet dark soysauce for the salty thick, dark soysauce - resulting in a totally different flavoured dish. One usually requests for a mix of "bee hoon" and "mee", as the two types of noodles, with their different and contrasting tastes and textures, complement each other perfectly.
"Economy fried bee hoon-mee" is the *only* dish I miss when I'm away from Singapore - nothing else. In Singapore, it also comes with a variety of side-dishes which you can choose to add to the noodles. Traditionally, we go for fried egg (over-easy), "ngoh cham bak" (sliced, pan-fried Chinese luncheon meat), "ngoh hiang" (5-spiced meat roll), fried tofu, and "popiah chee" (deep-fried spring rolls), among others. Many Singaporeans will actually just go for the noodles, topped with a dollop of spicy chilli paste, and nothing else.
For me, the "economy fried bee hoon-mee" is Singapore's original 'soul food'. Its simplicity harks back to the time when Singapore was mainly peopled by hardy indentured coolies who preferred heavy, carbo-rich meals to start their day with, and provide them with the sustenance needed for a day filled with hard, menial labour.
Modern-day Singapore's office workers, when they opt for this traditional breakfast meal each morning, are actually carrying on a culinary legacy which has its roots in "coolie cuisine" - the food which built this island-nation.
Below are some places where I go for my "economy fried bee hoon-mee" breakfast:
A huge food centre right behind the People's Park Centre and the Majestic Theatre building. The fried "bee hoon-mee" here is moist and tasty. The egg was over-fried - I'd have loved it with a molten centre. The fried luncheon meat was good but not hot enough. That's one characteristic of "economy fried bee hoon-mee" - everything's usually pre-cooked, so it's nice if one goes very early in the morning so one can have the food items relatively freshly-cooked and still warm. I also chose a "ngoh hiang" roll, but didn't quite like the rendition here which was mainly chopped vegetables-flour-onion for fortifiers instead of just minced pork.
This food centre at the edge of the vibrant Ang Mo Kio HDB estate is one of the best in Singapore - all local. No tourist would trek this far up north into a HDB heartland, so you can be assured that all the food stalls here serve 100% authentic local Singaporean eats. I had the noodles here with fried egg (cold, sob!), luncheon meat (cold, ok - I was too late coming here at 9.30am. Mea culpa) and crisp-fried chicken wing (nice but cold).
The noodles here looked delicious: dark, caramelly colour. Unfortunately, the fried luncheon meat and fried egg were both very, very cold - I was here at 7.15am, but I suspected these were cooked perhaps the previous night. I quite liked the bits of braised cabbage in there, though.
There's something nice about a food centre located in the busy CBD area in Singapore: the food's usually freshly-cooked and hot, as the food tends to sell out fast as office workers in Singapore's very densely-populated banking district ensure fast turnover, and fresh supplies of hot food are continuously churned out. The noodles here have the traditional flavours, the accompanying side-dishes were relatively warm, though it's again my fault since I got here way past 9am, when the peak breakfast period is long over.
Maxwell Road Food Centre is outrageously busy during lunch-times each day, when its famous Tian Tian Hainanese chicken rice stall and other more popular stalls see long queues of eager customers. Mornings at the food centre is relatively sedate. Sadly, the "economy fried bee hoon-mee" here is the worse I had around - the luncheon meat was of a much inferior Chinese brand and almost inedible. The egg and fried tofu were both cold and rubbery. Ignore the breakfast queue and avoid this place.
108 Eating House is located smack in the centre of Singapore's financial district. Each morning from Monday thru to Saturday, it serves the *best* fried bee hoon (forget their other fried noodles) in the world here - perfectly-flavoured and to-die for texture. I can eat the bee hoon here *forever*.
The fried luncheon meat here is crisp and hot on ther outside, and deliciously moist inside. No. 1 breakfast spot for me anywhere in Singapore!!