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Mostly located at modest coffeeshops, these local zi char eateries serve ultra-satisfying comfort food

Zi char fare usually refers to wallet-friendly local dishes found in old school coffeeshops or hawker stalls. The hearty meal typically comprises cooked-to-order meats, fish, seafood, and vegetables with rice. The menu may include one-dish noodles like vermicelli or hor fun (flat rice noodles).

Many popular zi char places in Singapore have been putting their own creative spin on their specialities. Some even use quality ingredients like Sri Lankan crabs, pork ribs or oysters. As some of these eateries open late into the night, they often attract local chefs who like to head there after work for a satisfying meal.

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1. Zai Shun Curry Fish Head

Damian D’Silva, chef-partner, Rempapa

This zi char place in the west is where you can get various cooked-to-order food, Teochew porridge as well as a selection of fresh fish. The owner brings in a range of farmed and wild-caught fish such as garoupa, barramundi and pomfret. You can take your pick and have the fish steamed in a variety of styles, including Cantonese or Teochew.
 
“One of the main draws is the freedom to look into the styrofoam boxes to pick out the fish, which are always so fresh,” says D’Silva, adding that he would usually get his fish steamed. “What I enjoy is the ‘surprise’ fish that is sometimes available to those in the know. But the boss might ignore your request if you are not familiar with the stall,” he advises.

Zai Shun Curry Fish Head, 253 Jurong East Street, 24, 01-205, +65 6560 8594

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2. Keng Eng Kee Seafood

Edward Chong, executive Chinese chef, Peach Blossoms

“My all-time favourite for zi char is Keng Eng Kee Seafood, affectionately known as ‘Kek’ to many of its regulars. This family-owned zi char eatery has been around since the 1970s, and is still going strong with its current third-generation owners,” says Chong.
 
He counts Kek’s signature Moonlight Horfun as one of his favourites. The popular rice noodle dish is topped with a raw egg, which you can mix together before tucking in. “Kek is generous with the ingredients and you can opt for the traditional seafood or the beef version. The springy rice noodles are stir-fried with just the right amount of black soy sauce for a balanced savoury flavour. The wok hei brings all the different elements together, and is enhanced with the raw egg, which adds extra smoothness and a slight richness to the dish.”
 
Edward also likes their claypot pork liver, which is still sizzling in the claypot when brought to the table. “The homely dish is especially fragrant with lots of ginger and scallion, and the pork liver is always cooked to a perfect doneness,” he adds. “Another dish I like is their coffee pork ribs, the ribs used are especially tender and the coffee adds a robust flavour without being overly sweet.”

Keng Eng Kee Seafood, 124 Bukit Merah Lane 1, 01-136, +65 6272 1038

3. Fu Qing Seafood Gourmet

Chef Pang Kok Keong, founder, Pang’s Hakka Noodles

Chef Pang regularly goes to this place at Jalan Besar for his zi char fix. The dishes he would usually order are fried batang fish and ginger scallion fried chicken, which he enjoys with rice.

“The batang fish is first deep-fried and stir-fried quickly with sweet spicy sauce so it still has some crispy edges, which I find very enjoyable. The chicken is deep-fried and doused with a very fragrant and tasty ginger scallion oil. Actually everything the owner cooks tastes very homely, unlike the usual zi char places,” he shares.  

Fu Qing Seafood Gourmet, 166 Jalan Besar, 01-01 Berseh Food Centre Singapore

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4. Guan Lee Sen Seafood

Addis Tan, executive chef and co-founder, Love Handle

Chef Addis frequents this humble zi char place near his home. The stall has been around since the 1980s (originally located at Lavender Food Square which has since been demolished). The owners also know the chef well and what he likes to order.
 
“They have the best fish head steamboat. And the fish soup is what they’re known for. They use seabass which is always fresh. The flavourful soup always hits the spot too.” The chef adds that the wok hei laden hor fun and fried rice are also his favourite dishes to order, especially after work.

Guan Lee Sen Seafood, 803 King George's Avenue, 01-146 Chang Cheng Mee Wah Coffeeshop

5. Mellben Signature

Fabrice Mergalet, head chef, Bochinche

Mellben Signature is well known for its top quality Sri Lankan crabs, cooked in different styles. This outlet is run by the second-generation owner, whose father founded the original eatery in Ang Mo Kio.
 
Bochinche’s head chef Fabrice Mergalet particularly loves Melben’s stir-fried vermicelli crab and chilli crab. “This is probably the best crab I have eaten in Singapore. The flavours are so intense yet perfectly balanced. The vermicelli soaks up the rich, umami crab broth and pairs well with sweet, fleshy crabs. It is out of this world.”

Mellben Signature, 7 Tanjong Pagar Plaza, 01-105, +65 6220 5512

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