Zi Char (also known as Zhi Char/ Cze Char/ Tze Char/ Zhu Chao) refers to comforting Chinese home-style dishes cooked upon order, usually eaten at humble local eateries and coffee shops in Singapore.
Every Zi Char stall has different selections of a la carte dishes, and it is perfect for communal dining. The idea is to order a few dishes (or many), and everyone digs in together.
From butter pork ribs, prawn paste chicken wings to spring onion deer meat, here is our Guide to 21 Popular Zi Char Dishes that you will commonly find in zi char stalls across Singapore.
#1 BUTTER PORK RIBS
Butter Pork Ribs are succulent melt-in-your-mouth pork ribs that have been marinated in spices and cooked with butter powder. It is delightfully rich and has a sweet lingering aftertaste.
#2 CEREAL PRAWNS
Cereal Prawns is one of the bestselling Zi Char dishes. The prawns are deep-fried till golden brown, coated in butter cereal (sometimes spicy) before being seasoned with salt, sugar and pepper. And if you request, some stall owners would be kind enough to deshell the prawns for you before frying.
#3 CHILLI CRAB
The chilli crab is our national dish, and ranks number 35 on World’s 50 most delicious foods compiled by CNN Go in 2011. A mud crab is used in this local delicacy, where the crustacean is stir-fried in chilli and tomato sauce. Best eaten with deep fried mantou buns!
#4 CRAB BEE HOON
Crab Bee Hoon is a claypot dish of springy rice noodles with crabs in a milky and sweet broth. The broth is characterised by its peppery taste and slight smokiness. Depending on the stall, some Crab Bee Hoon is actually served in a dry version.
#5 CURRY FISH HEAD
Curry fish head is a dish that is largely influenced by both Indian and Nyonya cuisine. Typically, a red snapper’s head is used and stewed in a fragrant curry broth together with a myriad of vegetables such as eggplants, tomatoes and ladies’ fingers.
#6 DEEP FRIED CRISPY CHICKEN
As its name suggest, deep-fried crispy chicken is literally what it is. These tender chunks of meat are fried over high heat and sometimes eaten with salt.
#7 FISH HEAD STEAMBOAT
When ordering fish head steamboat, diners can choose from either a fish head or slices of fish meat dunked in semi-sweet soup. The bubbling hotpot lit by charcoal flame usually comes with assorted vegetables and tofu, and is a great dish for communal dining.
#8 FRIED SOTONG
Fried Sotong is a favourite of many and is a ubiquitous dish on many menus. Depending on the hawker, it is basically a dish of fried calamari rings which are usually battered or served with fragrant sauce.
#9 FURONG EGG
Furong Egg aka Egg Foo Young originated from mainland China. This Chinese delicacy is really an omelette with onions and shrimps, thickened with corn starch and served with gravy on the side. Simple but oh so good.
#10 HOTPLATE TOFU
Hotplate tofu is hands down one of the most satisfying Zi Char dishes. Served on a hotplate (hence its name), egg tofu is served atop sizzling egg, minced pork, assorted vegetables and a mixture consisting oyster sauce, light soy sauce and chilli bean paste. Best eaten with fragrant white rice!
#11 MEE GORENG
Mee Goreng inherently exudes both Chinese and Malay culinary styles, though most Zi Char stalls cook theirs the Chinese way. The tangy moist noodles are simultaneously sweet and spicy, hence packing a punch of flavour with every mouthful.
#12 MOONLIGHT HOR FUN
Moonlight Hor Fun (or what we affectionately know as yue guang he fen) is a plate of stir-fried kway teow (flat noodles) with bean sprouts, a selection of seafood and topped with a raw runny egg yolk. The exact ingredients may vary from vendor to vendor.
#13 NGOH HIANG
Ngoh Hiang, otherwise known as Lor Bak, is a Chinese snack served not just in Singapore’s Zi Char eateries but also across many other Asian regions. A meat filling – consisting of various spices and condiments – is wrapped in a beancurd skin, rolled up and fried, and cut into slices. It is usually eaten with a sweet sauce.
#14 PORK RIBS KING
Pork Ribs King is known as ‘jing du pai gu’ or ‘pai gu wang’ in Mandarin. The aromatic pork ribs are crispy on the outside and unbelievably tender inside – an absolute crowd pleaser this sure is, and is one common dish in a typical Zi Char meal. Caramelised sugar is used to sweeten the dish, and it is sometimes finished off with a sprinkle of white sesame seeds.
#15 PRAWN PASTE CHICKEN WINGS
Prawn Paste Chicken Wings are more affectionately known by its Cantonese name ‘Har Cheong Gai’. As its name suggests, the chicken wings are marinated in fragrant shrimp sauce, and together with the batter, the wings are deep fried into a plump and juicy state.
#16 SALTED EGG YOLK PRAWNS
Salted Egg Yolk Prawns are our all-time favourite and something that we religiously order since we were young. Prawns are dipped into salted duck egg yolk, before being stir-fried into a golden hue alongside curry leaves, chilli padi and minced garlic.
#17 SAMBAL KANG KONG
Sambal Kang Kong is such a simple but wonderful veggie dish. Water spinach is stir-fried with spicy sambal chilli paste, and the kickass spiciness is what Singaporeans are so addicted to.
#18 SAMBAL STINGRAY
Sambal Stingray is alternatively known by its Malay name, Ikan Bakar. The Chinese would call it ‘mo gui yu’, which literally translates to ‘monster fish’. The seafood is charcoal-grilled, then topped with generous amounts of sambal chilli paste and served with cincalok (Malaysian fermented shrimp sauce).
#19 SPRING ONION DEER MEAT
Spring Onion Deer Meat is more often than not prepared with ginger and spring onion and served on a piping hotplate. Venison is wonderfully tender and drenched in a seemingly simple but complex sauce created from soy sauce, white wine and oyster sauce.
#20 SWEET AND SOUR PORK
Sweet and Sour Pork is possibly the most well-known Zi Char dish amongst Westerners abroad. These flavourful meat chunks – usually pork – are stir-fried with bell peppers and diced pineapple. Crunchy on the outside and tender on the inside, Sweet and Sour Pork is another of our all-time favourite.
#21 YAM RING
The physique of the scrumptious Yam Ring is shaped like a Buddhist monk’s alms-bowl and is loaded with fresh succulent prawns, chicken chunks, carrot slices, crunchy cashew nuts and mushrooms.
Illustrations for ladyironchef by Chen Xuan.