A few weeks ago, a man seated at a new restaurant from the chef Simpson Wong (Café Asean) recalled a college roommate who, having discovered fermented shrimp paste, would bring a jar of the stuff to the dining hall and slather it, experimentally, on grilled cheese sandwiches. Known in Malay as belacan, that stuff is the key to much of the Singaporean “hawker food” now being served in the space that housed Wong’s eponymous restaurant, which closed last summer for a revamp. Chomp Chomp is named after one of Singapore’s more famous food centers—large, open-air complexes with stalls selling cheap, classic Southeast Asian street fare. The restaurant is less frenetic than its namesake, but the room can get loud, and the impressive food arrives in the same colorful melamine dishware.
Wong’s aim is less to intimidate you with spice than to woo you with depth of flavor. The eclectic assortment of dishes has influences from China, India, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Shrimp—whether whole or pulverized, fresh or fermented—is the great unifying taste. On a recent visit, buttery, cereal-encrusted head-on prawns, fried to a satisfying crisp, were bravely eaten whole. In an appetizer of chicken wings and Chinese celery, a shrimp-paste rub provided a pungent, garlicky funk (the effect is not unlike the ineffable magic that anchovies add to Caesar-salad dressing). Prawn mee, a noodle dish with spare ribs in a spicy shrimp broth, came with a Chinese spoon filled with sambal—a spicy condiment made with, you guessed it, shrimp paste.
There are non-fishy flavors, too. A curry of tender lamb rendang is described as “slow cooked lamb shank in a million spices,” among them lemongrass, coriander, and star anise. Hainanese chicken rice is a simple, classic hawker dish of silky roasted chicken—the rich skin of which is neither too soft nor too stiff, and exudes soy and sesame—with a side of ginger-garlic rice cooked with chicken broth. A lot of hawker food falls under the banner of “tastes much better than it looks,” including oh luak, an omelette with plump oysters loosed from their shells, and chye tao kueh, called “carrot cake” in Singapore, though it is neither carrot nor cake in the traditional sense. Cubes of shredded, compressed daikon radish, fried and tossed with shrimp, Chinese sausage, and a healthy dose of shrimp paste, evoke pork-belly fat, in a good way.
Do not skip the cocktails. Try a margarita made with calamansi, a mandarin-kumquat hybrid, or the piña cha cha, the smoothest colada you’ll ever taste. Hidden in the latter are cubes of grass jelly, a Chinese dessert that tastes slightly bitter and slightly floral, like tea. For dessert, get the banana fritters, eat them hot, and wait for the kiss of spice.