Exploring Hainanese Western Food in Singapore's Hawker Stalls

Writer and photographer Faris Mustafa explains why he can’t get enough of Singapore’s Hainanese Western food.
By Faris Mustafa
September 12, 2021

On my first trip to Singapore, I was introduced to Hainanese Western food in one of the country's numerous "hawker centers," or open-air food courts. Being British, I was struck by the familiarity of dishes like "chicken merry land": a hearty portion of fried chicken, fried banana, fried egg, fried bacon, fried potatoes, and baked beans.

This cuisine emerged at the turn of the 20th century, when immigrants from the Chinese island of Hainan arrived in British-occupied Singapore, taking jobs as cooks in military canteens, hotels, and wealthy European households. By the 1930s, many were opening their own restaurants and kopitiams (coffee shops), adopting cooking styles from those Western kitchens. Today, dishes like Hainanese pork chop are considered as Singaporean as chili crab.

Fried mee in gravy at Colbar restaurant in Singapore
Credit: Faris Mustafa

When I moved to the city-state last year, I explored this culinary subculture with camera in tow, documenting the people and places keeping this tradition alive.

Colbar

Photos from Colbar restaurant in Singapore, showing guests dining on the patio, and a crustless cucumber sandwich
Credit: Faris Mustafa

The menu at Colbar is vast. I like to sample Chinese favorites like fried mee in gravy (pictured above) or ho fun noodles and sweet-and-sour pork.

The menu at Colbar also includes standard British dishes (such as these cucumber sandwiches) and fish-and-chips. 9 A Whitchurch Rd. Entrées $3–$23.

British Hainan

Scenes from British Hainan restaurant in Singapore, showing a slot machine and an oxtail stew
Credit: Faris Mustafa

Pop-culture artifacts—including a slot machine and posters of Elvis, Princess Diana, and Xi Jinping—serve as decoration at the restaurant British Hainan, run by Frederick Puah, whose Hainanese father worked as a cook for a British family. I always order the house special, a classic of the Hainanese Western genre: oxtail stew. 75 Carpmael Rd. Entrées $11–$31.

Ye Lai Xiang Tasty Barbecue

Dishes from Ye Lai Xiang Tasty Barbecue and Western Barbeque, in Singapore
Credit: Faris Mustafa

I visited Ye Lai Xiang Tasty Barbecue—a stall founded in 1971 by hawker Joel Leong's late father, a one time cook for the British navy—for an excellent sirloin steak. Maxwell Food Centre, 1 Kadayanallur St. Entrées $6–$16.

Western Barbeque

Two blue plastic bins, one filled with ketchup packets, and one filled with chili sauce packets
Credit: Faris Mustafa

The Western Barbeque hawker stall was founded in the 1970s. Their chicken chop with fries (pictured, above right) makes a satisfying lunch.

In addition to the standard packets of ketchup and chili sauce, an essential accompaniment at Western Barbeque is their famous secret-recipe garlic sauce. Old Airport Road Food Centre, No. 01-53, 51 OldAirport Rd. Entrées $5–$8.

Wow Wow West Genuine

Photos from Wow Wow West restaurant in Singapore, showing the restaurant's logo on the back of a t-shirt, and a fried chicken dish
Credit: Faris Mustafa

Wow Wow West is a popular stall run by Elizabeth Huang and her husband, Jayden Cheong, both second-generation hawkers. Portions are generous: the chicken cutlet comes with sausage, fries, and coleslaw. ABC Brickworks, No. 01-133,6 Jalan Bukit Merah. Entrées $2–$9.

A version of this story first appeared in the September 2021 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline A Full Plate.