This past Friday, I tasted Singaporean Hawker-style cuisine for the first time. What does “Hawker” exactly represent? In Singapore, as well as throughout Asian countries including China, India, the Philippines, and Thailand, there are Hawker food centers that comprising of dozens of stalls where locals make and sell their food. Chomp Chomp, located near my alma mater on edge of the West Village on Cornelia Street, is an intimate, friendly Singaporean restaurant that serves authentic, full-flavored hawker food.
Singaporeans who visit and reside in New York City cannot resisting dining at Chomp Chomp to feast on its unique and traditional food items that are so reminiscent of home. Chef and owner, Simpson Wong, graciously sat down with me as I took a tasting tour through the menu from favorite “snacks” such as the Cereal Prawns to exotic plates such as Sarawak Laksa.
Chomp Chomp first opened its doors in 2015. “I am originally from Malaysia. In Malaysia, there are many Hawker centers. If you know how to cook, you will go to a hawker center, use a wok, cook and sell your food there. There is no need for a license or permit. More in Malaysia then Singapore. In Singapore, you will find Chinatown and Little India where they have hawker centers. For sanitation purposes now, the government builds centers for hawker food. Sometimes, they are owned by a private sector.”
“Vendors rent a small space, have a stove, table, and showcase their food. The government will provide hand washing centers, and bathrooms. In southeast Asia, it is very hot and the food is very cheap, everything is out in the open.” Communal tables are common and some people are their food for travel.
For the hawker centers, there are setups for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. “It is a great opportunity to sample different food items because portions are smaller and the price is cheap,” adds Wong. “People will share tables, and sometimes there are long lines, you want to get there early. The centers are almost like a food court: busy all the time, breakfast thru dinner.”
To drink, I chose Lychee Limeade ($5). Other similar beverage options include ginger beer, and a selection of teas. I rarely pass up anything “lychee.” This drink was so refreshing, very lightly sweetened and tangy. Lychee nuts have a smooth exterior, and are tender and juicy.
First, were the Cereal Prawns: crispy cereal and curry leaves crusted head on prawns ($9). Wong makes his own chili sauce, seasoned with salt and pepper. With the prawns, you should eat the head of the prawn. I didn’t feel skeptical even though I had never been “bold,” but each bite was very tasty. The sauce was just a tad spicy, but it was a perfect compliment to the crispy bold. Next, were the Hah Zheung Gai: shrimp paste chicken wings, Chinese celery, crispy garlic, and chilies ($10.50). The wings were seasoned with ginger and a mix of spices. The chicken was moist, tender and gently spiced. I loved in particular that the wings were not served at a steaming hot temperature.
My third dish to arrive was Murtabak: roti filled vegetables (or minced beef) served with a vegetarian curry dip ($9). “You eat roti with your hands,” explains Wong.” “[This dish is great] for breakfast or a late night snack. You can eat the same thing for dinner as well as breakfast, we don’t discriminate that way.”
The restaurant is well-known for its Stingray dish. I didn’t choose to try it, but it does sound intriguing. On the menu is a BBQ Stingray: grilled skate wrapped in banana leaves, calamansi sambal ($15). When ordering, consider choosing three to four different dishes then sharing them among two to three people as hawker food is meant to be shared.
My favorite dish was the Sarawak Laksa (header photo): prawns, chicken, tofu puffs, egg and noodles in a spicy coconut broth ($14). There are many different variations of Laksa. I saw served the seafood Laksa with squid, prawns, and mussels. The portion was so hearty and filling and there was a generous serving of noodles nestled at the bottom of the bowl. This dish gave my tummy a great big hug. I am running back for this dish the next time I visit the West Village.
Proceeding the Laksa, I had Char Kway Teow: wok fried rice noodles with clams and shrimp ($14); immediately followed by Nasi Lemak: coconut rice, curry chicken, lamb rendang, anchovies, peanuts, egg, samba ($14). Both dishes were very memorable and great for sharing. There is a lot of energy budding for each dish on the menu, you can’t go wrong with any choice you make and I recommend to be as creative as possible!
Hainanese Chicken Rice: chicken flavor rice, cucumber, soy, chili ($14), the last dish I tasted, is national dish roasted chicken at room temperature, chicken flavored rice. The other version is poached and also made with cucumber, cilantro, chilies, ginger, and sesame seeds. For the rice, it is cooked with chicken fat and stock, ginger, and garlic. “You cook chicken until it’s cooked, then dunk it in ice water, which is the reason why it is room temperature,” says Wong.
For dessert, I tasted the Goreng Pisang: banana fritters, vanilla ice cream, chili flakes, and sea salt ($7). “On the street, people sell banana fritters everywhere,” says Wong. “They are fried, [sprinkled with] a little salt, chili, and are eaten as a snack and or dessert.” These were delicious, not too heavy, and was a very fun unique dessert. I loved that touch of spice that paired well with the cool vanilla ice cream.
The second dessert option is Bo Bo Cha Cha: sweet potatoes, taro root and tapioca pearls cooked in coconut milk ($6). It is best like a soup and has a very distinctive flavor. Wong also currently has a flan on the menu for dessert.
Chomp Chomp’s decor, designed by Thomas Dang Vu, is pure old-school Southeast Asian chic. The dining room boasts antique wooden Chinese doors, similar to ones that functioned as doorways into Singapore’s pre-war Peranakan (Straits Chinese) homes, with rustic open-brick walls. A handsome dark-wood bar and sepia-toned lighting complete the relaxed vibe.
Specials rotate every Friday; there are always at least three specials. Chomp Chomp opens at 5:30pm nightly. Brunch and lunch will be coming soon!
http://chompchompnyctest.squarespace.com // 212-929-2888