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Food & Travel

Street food in Singapore offers spicy, pungent seafood

Customers wait at  tables 30 minutes before JJB Ah Meng Kitchen opens.
Customers wait at tables 30 minutes before JJB Ah Meng Kitchen opens. Sheere Ng for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

SINGAPORE — Fish, meats, and even fruits are drenched in a riot of flavors wherever you eat in Singapore. Spicy, sour, and pungent tastes, like sisters, may fight with one another, but they can also be so perfect together.

This island city-state of more than 5 million people, with an economy driven mainly by financial services, has a tiny aquaculture industry but a great variety of affordable crustaceans imported from Indonesia, Thailand, even Norway. Serving raw or simply boiled-and-chilled seafood, as many restaurants in the United States do, demands pricier catches and particularly stringent handling practices. So food hawkers in Singapore serve their oysters and clams cooked, with tedi-ously concocted sauces that produce uplifting results.

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“Hawker” is a misnomer. The once itinerant food sellers have moved into state-regulated premises called hawker centers. Every neighborhood has at least one of these semi-enclosed buildings. Each typically consists of more than 50 stalls and enough seats for a village. Other hawkers reside in traditional coffee shops, usually on the street level of a housing complex. The coffee shops offer little in the way of options and space, but plenty in the hospitality department.

Many hawkers sell only one dish, and there are dozens of others across the island offering the same one. Use this guide to find the best versions of chile clams, prawn (shrimp) noodles, white-pepper crabs, and oyster omelet, four of Singapore’s most popular dishes.

Buy your napkins from the drink stall. You’ll need them.

Instead of slurping raw cherrystones and littlenecks, Singaporeans like their clams, known colloquially as lala, swimming in hot sauce. The flavors in chile clams come from sambal, a chile paste that the ethnic Chinese hawkers picked up from the indigenous Malays. Each hawker has a secret recipe, but the sauce typically contains chiles, garlic, and shallots. Hua Kee’s sambal is watered down with clam juice and sugar, possible to slurp on its own, as the locals like to do with shells as spoons. The dish comes in three
sizes.

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Hua Kee Stall 10, Pasir Panjang Food Centre, 121 Pasir Panjang Road

Give shrimp cocktail to a Fujianese grandma in Singapore and she just might throw the shrimp into a soup and mix the cocktail sauce with noodles. That would be a close rendition of prawn noodles, also known as hae mee, originally from the coastal cities of Fujian Province in China. What became of it after the Fujianese immigrants brought it to Singapore is a stock made of prawn heads, dried shrimps, and aromatics, with egg or rice noodles to make a meal. Hawker food is typically very inexpensive, but Wah Kee Big Prawn Noodle offers a luxury version with wild-caught jumbo tiger shrimp. The wait in line is typically an hour, often in punishing 90-degree heat. That’s a testimony to the dish’s popularity.

Wah Kee Big Prawn Noodle’s jumbo tiger shrimp.
Wah Kee Big Prawn Noodle’s jumbo tiger shrimp.Sheere Ng for The Boston Globe

Wah Kee Big Prawn Noodle 01-15 Pek Kio Market and Food Centre, 41A Cambridge Road

The firm and meaty Sri Lankan species of crab is the star of the dining table in the tropics. The crustaceans come shell-on, but cracked, so that the sauce — either chile, peppercorn, or butter — enlivens the flesh as it cooks in a wok. It is not only acceptable, but a gesture of appreciation, to lick the juices off your fingers. JB Ah Meng Kitchen, a nondescript eatery, makes one of the best white-pepper crab dishes in town. You get a plate of broken-up crabs that resembles a miniature war-movie battle scene. But the taste more than makes up for the presentation. It is sweet, peppery, and redolent of wok hei, a smokiness imparted from flames engulfing the wok. Ferran Adrià was once a customer, and some say he was so impressed that he asked to take a picture with the owner, Wong Foong. The shopkeeper apparently did not care to ask who the friendly Spaniard was.

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JB Ah Meng’s white pepper crab.
JB Ah Meng’s white pepper crab. Sheere Ng for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

JB Ah Meng Kitchen 2 Lorong 23 Geylang

Oyster omelet is a modest but splendid egg dish that is chewy inside and crispy on the edges. This dish of textural contrasts originated in South China, but the accompanying vinegary sauce is a local flourish that takes the edge off the fishiness and cuts the grease. Made with sweet-potato starch, the dish is crispy, chewy, and juicy all at once. Ah Chuan Fried Oyster Omelette customers tend to dine in and still order additional takeout, just in case the memory of lunch triggers another round of hunger pangs.

Ah Chuan Fried Oyster Omelette 01-25 Kim Keat Palm Market and Food Centre, 22 Toa Payoh Lorong 7


Sheere Ng can be reached at sheere.ng@gmail.com.