Here's a pretty startling proposition for food lovers in two cities that pride themselves on their culinary delights: Singapore has better street food than Hong Kong.
That's according to Mr K.C. Koo, one of Hong Kong's most prolific food bloggers and a critic, writer and food lover.
"While Hong Kong's street food tradition has all but disappeared, Singapore has done a better job of preserving its hawker food," he argues.
The 45-year-old, a regular newspaper columnist whose Facebook page has nearly 22,000 fans, drew that conclusion after writing a guide to Singapore's hawker food aimed at Hong Kong readers.
The Singapore Tourism Board (STB) flew him to Singapore, where over three trips totalling 10 days, he ate his way through 85 stalls across the island - including wrestling with 10 pepper crabs at five different places.
In the end, 58 stalls made it into his book, written in Chinese and launched last Tuesday.
It showcases an eclectic collection that goes beyond big names to include places like Chye Kee Chwee Kueh in MacPherson, Satay Sejati at Haig Road and Fu Ming carrot cake in Redhill.
STB hopes it will entice younger Hong Kongers, especially professionals, to visit Singapore and go off the beaten track for culinary discoveries.
Singapore has traditionally been more attractive to Hong Kong families. Last year, it received 470,000 Hong Kong visitors, the 10th largest group.
Said STB's regional director (Greater China), Mr Edward Chew: "Food is a big motivator for Hong Kongers to travel - they spend 50 per cent more of their budget on food compared with other travellers."
Mr Koo, a former finance professional who began reviewing food 11 years ago, said he tailored his guide to suit Hong Kongers' taste buds.
For instance, while Singaporeans place a premium on the sambal in nasi lemak or the chilli sauce accompanying chicken rice, these condiments matter less to Hong Kongers, he said. So his listings for nasi lemak include more Chinese stalls offering a wider array of side dishes.
He said that since his first visit to Singapore in 1999, he has found that the quality of hawker food has been consistent.
Take a bowl of prawn noodles, for example. "When you return to the stall, the ingredients, the way they are put together, are the same," he said.
He even thinks the seafood in Singapore tastes fresher than that in Hong Kong, where a well done steamed fish is prized in Cantonese cuisine.
"Whether it's crabs or curry fish head or fish slices, the seafood in Singapore is fresher - it's obvious from the taste and texture," he said.
He thinks it may be because Singapore gets its seafood from nearby waters whereas Hong Kong imports from around the world.
Asked what was his favourite from everything he sampled, he said it was the pepper crab at JB Ah Meng in Geylang. "It's gorgeous," he said.
But is he saying all these nice things about Singapore food because he was sponsored by Singapore's tourism board?
He said: "I'm a food critic. It is important to preserve the integrity of our name."
He did note some areas where Singapore has slipped. He detected the use of frozen meat in chicken rice, and felt that took away some of the flavour. It is a problem in Hong Kong too, he said.
While Singaporeans visit Hong Kong for its famed Cantonese cuisine, roast meats, wonton noodles and dim sum, many do not realise there used to be a rich tradition of street food.
"We are seeing the disappearance of our street food such as curry fish balls, stinky tofu, deep-fried red sausages and bell peppers with minced fish paste," lamented Mr Koo.
Meanwhile, the jury is out on whether Hong Kongers agree with Mr Koo that Singapore has better street food.
Fashion merchandise planner Elizabeth Yu, 26, and her boyfriend, Mr Philip Chu, 32, who works in garment manufacturing, think Hong Kong has it all.
"Laksa, spicy crabs, even pandan cake - we can find them here now," said Mr Chu, who visited Singapore last year.
But sales executive Sam Ng, 29, believes Mr Koo may be right. "In Singapore, we can try all the Malay and Indian food besides Chinese - all in one place," he said.
These are among celebrity blogger K.C. Koo's selections in his 64-page food guide.
Chye Kee Chwee Kueh
#01-129 Circuit Road
Block 89, MacPherson
"The rice cakes, which are freshly milled by hand, are chewy yet moist."
Heng Heng Prawn Mee Soup
#02-12 Dunman Food Centre, Onan Road
"The soup is sweet and fragrant, especially with the pork lard."
Yeo Keng Nam Chicken Rice
8 Braddell Road, Serangoon
"The rice is the best feature, fluffy and fragrant. The chicken is smooth and flavourful. The seafood dishes are also worth a try."
Outram Park Fried Kway Teow Mee
#02-17 Hong Lim Market and Food Centre, Block 531A, Upper Cross Street
"It features more eggs, the kuay teow is moist, while the cockles are large and crunchy. At $4.50 to $6, it's more expensive than other stalls but is worth it."
#01-23 Haig Road Food Centre, Block 14 Haig Road
"Besides beef, it offers the more unusual tripe and beef liver satay. They are succulent."
JB Ah Meng
2 Geylang Lorong 23
"The white pepper crabs are a must-try. The sauce coats the crab well, and the control of the fire is impeccable. The crabs are a bit small but there is enough meat."
This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 3, 2013
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