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Eat & Drink

6 places to eat Singaporean-Malay Chinese food in the GTA

Posted by Darren "DKLo" Susilo / March 5, 2012

Singaporean food TorontoOne of the more exciting activities in my otherwise dull and predictable life is to try out different types of Asian cuisines. A particular favourite of mine is the Singaporean-Malay style of Chinese food. Growing up in that corner of tropical Southeast Asia where sweating is a national pastime and ice is something only found in refrigerators, my taste buds have become spoiled (or rather, according to my friends, irreparably damaged) by the bold and flavourful taste epitomized by this cuisine.

As such, I have a personal fondness for this type of Chinese food and am quite happy at seeing the recent growth of Singaporean-Malay restaurants in the GTA. The rather large number of restaurants serving this type of cuisine is a major improvement compared to its almost-nonexistent status when I first arrived in this tropical wonderland thirteen years ago.

The interesting thing about Singaporean-Malay Chinese food (SMC) is that it often doesn't taste like conventional Chinese food at all. For starters, many of the dishes contain a shrimp paste-based chili sauce, while others have generous amounts of coconut milk mixed in its noodle soups.

There are a lot of Indian and Southeast Asian influences that intertwine and end up blurring the ethnic origins over these food items. The best advise I can give is to forget the distinction between the various influences and just enjoy the way the flavours play off each other and dance in your mouth. Less thinking, more savouring.

Here are six places to eat Singaporean-Malay Chinese food in Toronto:

Restoran Malaysia (815 Major Mackenzie Dr E, Richmond Hill)
Arguably the most well-known SMC restaurant in the GTA, this restaurant offers a wide variety of favourites such as Hainanese chicken rice and nasi lemak (a coconut-milk fragrant rice mixed with meats and vegetables). It draws crowds from as far as Hamilton, despite being located near the Buttonville Airport. The ambiance and service are both very good, and the place has a slightly fancier feel to it, but I find that the overall taste of the food to be somewhat lacking in complexity. The spicy foods are just spicy, and the salty foods are just salty. It definitely feels the kitchen has toned things down for a Western palate. Worth ordering, though, is the nasi lemak which is one of the best in town.

Gourmet Malaysia (4466 Sheppard Ave E, Toronto-Scarborough)
This restaurant is run by a Chinese Indonesian and Malaysian couple and has been a long-time crowd favourite from the time it operated as a food court stall in an old Chinese mall close by. They recently decided to expand and open a full-service restaurant, and judging from the large crowds on Friday and Saturday nights, the decision was a wise one. The menu lineup is so formidable you'd expect to be quizzed on it afterward, but any fears of the restaurant overextending their offering are quickly put to rest once you take your first bite of their wonderful, wonderful noodles. Fresh, flavourful, and rich, the Malaysian fried yellow noodle is a personal favourite of mine. The laksa (a rich spicy broth mixed with rice noodles) is also one of the best that I've tasted in Toronto, and (bonus!) the prices are extremely reasonable. Don't forget to ask for a side of sambal with your dish, a spicy chili condiment containing shrimp paste, garlic, and other herbs. Dee-licious.

Coconut Island (8362 Kennedy Road, Markham)
A local favourite, but unfortunately not one well-known enough to pull out-of-towners the way Restoran Malaysia does. This little restaurant offers a wide variety of SMC dishes that are more geared towards the Malay palate, which means generous amounts of peanut sauce and coconut milk. Run by a lovely Malay-Chinese lady from Ipoh, this restaurant always gets busy during weekday lunchtimes. Recommended dishes include the unbelievably crispy and flavourful butter shrimp (it's as good as it sounds) and the Penang flat fried rice noodles (called kway teow by locals). The only downside is that service can be a tad on the slow side.

Villa Malaysia (140 York Blvd, Richmond Hill)
The ugly duckling of this list, Villa Malaysia offers the most peaceful ambiance making it perfect for a quiet date. However, that's probably because locals know the food here is distinctly mediocre. The place is owned by the same people as Restoran Malaysia and unfortunately the weaknesses present there are magnified here. Most of the items are genuinely spicy (which is a plus) but are otherwise flavourless (which is not). The sambal beef and assam chicken are both very liberal in the spicy department but lack any richness or complexity. In fact, during my last visit I had to add salt to my food which is something close to blasphemy when it comes to this type of cuisine.

Phoenix Restaurant (7155 Woodbine Ave, Markham)
This can be considered a little bit cheating because Phoenix is actually a Hong Kong style restaurant, but I included it on this list because it offers what is perhaps the best Hainanese chicken rice outside of Singapore. And this one dish, believe me, is arguably the national dish of that country. Thus I cannot have a discussion on SMC food without including Phoenix restaurant, as strange as that may seem. So to keep it short, you have to order their Hainanese chicken rice. The chicken is moist, the dipping sauce is flavourful, and the rice is fragrant. Pretty much close to being perfect, and that's from someone who spent an awful lot of time during a 5 month stay in Singapore trying out different chicken rice stalls.

Lion City Restaurant (1177 Central Pkwy W, Unit 70, Mississauga)
Lion City Restaurant has a number of diehard fans who proclaim it as the most authentic SMC restaurant around. The interior ambiance feels a little like Coconut Island in that it's simple, slightly underwhelming, and reminiscent of a small eating place in Asia. The Hainanese chicken rice is excellent, rivaling that of Phoenix restaurant, and the bak kut teh (pork rib in herbal tea - yes I'm serious) is quite close to the ones I've had in Singapore. Living in Markham as I do, I don't think it's worth the drive all the way to Mississauga when I have closer options that are almost as good, but the restaurant is a definite must-try for all those who live nearby or don't mind the drive. Try the fried kway teow too.

MAP

Top photo by Sandra Chow

Discussion

26 Comments

Vince Chan / March 5, 2012 at 10:49 am
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there are also a few others I know of not on the list.

1. South Asian Malaysian - around McNicoll and Midlan area in Scarborough. I personally don't recommend but others seem to swear by it... so fair is fair, check it out and form your own opinions.

2. A recent find of mine is One 2 Snacks located in an obscure Chinese strip mall behind the CIBC at Sheppard/Glen Watford in Scarborough as well. The place feels like a small travel agency when you step in, but I like affordable generous portions, especially their Lor Mee. Virtually no seating except for a few bar stools, but steady streams of folks who come for take out. Particularly on the weekends, they make Nasi Lemak and Peranenkan dessert snacks which are popular items.

Finally, the more people knowing this the better: there's NO such dish as Singapore Noodles in Singapore! That dish is as Singaporean as Chicken Balls is to Chinese - a totally made up dish outside of the region. Singapore have way too many delicious noodle dishes to bother with something like that - mee goreng, char kway teow, hokkien mee just to name a few.
Hip / March 5, 2012 at 12:10 pm
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Wow... didn't think LION CITY would be on this list but it NEEDS TO BE.

My mother is from Malaysia and I have been to Malaysia and Singapore and this is most definitely the most authentic Malaysian in the GTA. They have a lot of stuff of their menu but I tend to stick to the things I know are good such as LAKSA, CHAR KWAY TEOW, and CHICKEN RICE.

Those three dishes are basically the same as you would find in Malaysia/Singapore (btw, Malaysia has the best food in the world) and are as close to the real thing you would find.

I must agree, not everything is good at Lion City (their satay isn't that good so i never order it) but those three authentic dishes are the real deal.

As for Restoran Malaysia, I heard the hype and tried it and it's not really authentic, its quite fusion actually. Their Laksa and Char Kway Teow are nothing like the real thing and it's overpriced and too busy.

Lion City is many people's "home kitchen" and is never busy but it is the real deal.
John / March 5, 2012 at 12:41 pm
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Are there any Indonesian restaurants left anywhere?
stanthemanchan / March 5, 2012 at 12:54 pm
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I was born in Singapore and spent my childhood in Sarawak. I have to say that the Singapore Laksa at Gourmet Malaysia is probably the best available in Toronto. However there's nowhere in the city that does Sarawak Laksa which is an entirely different beast. If you don't know what I'm talking about, watch the Borneo episode of Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations". http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&;v=b4uyBwYqECA#t=273s
Cynthia replying to a comment from stanthemanchan / March 5, 2012 at 01:23 pm
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Ben Thanh in Burlington (they also have a few other locations) has Malaysian Laksa on their menu. Tastes okay but it's no where near the real thing. Nothing beats sitting in an open air hawker center, sweating over a nice spicy bowl of Sarawakian laksa.
jabron / March 5, 2012 at 02:41 pm
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there is also Matahari Grill on Baldwin Street downtown
quirkygeekgirl / March 5, 2012 at 05:02 pm
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For someone who doesn't drive and lives downtown this list makes me very sad. Any downtown spots would be appreciated
StevenM / March 5, 2012 at 07:58 pm
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Is there anywhere to get good Roti Prata/Canai?
DKLo replying to a comment from StevenM / March 5, 2012 at 11:15 pm
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A very good roti canai place is Green Lemon Grass at Richlane Mall in Richmond Hill. The reason the place didn't make the list is because SMC is not its specialty, it bleeds over to Thai, Viet, etc. Good food though. Second best roti would be the Gourmet Malaysia restaurant.
DKLo replying to a comment from John / March 5, 2012 at 11:15 pm
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The closest thing is the Gourmet Malaysia restaurant because the owner (or at least one half of the owner couple) is from Indonesia. There's lodeh, opor, etc if I'm not mistaken.
Slowt / March 6, 2012 at 02:35 am
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You should really check out one two snacks, pretty decent gourmet Malaysia/ gourmet garden has long been my favorite. however I strongly feel the best hainanese chicken is Upstairs in pacific mall, forgot the name but its Singaporean and relatively new .

Oh yeah there is a Malaysian stall in first Markham place that is very decent they have Thai stuff on the menu too, make sure you go for the authentic Malaysian stuff
Slowt / March 6, 2012 at 02:41 am
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Wow, typing on the phone is messed up...sorry for the weird punctuation above. I meant one two snacks is pretty decent, however gourment garden has been my long time favourite.

I had to get on the computer because it was bugging me what the pacific mall place was called...it's called Bagahon, they also sell bak kwa (jerky).
Slowt / March 6, 2012 at 03:45 am
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I like the nasi lemak better at one two snacks, as well as their... You guessed it, snacks. like their
Slowt / March 6, 2012 at 03:46 am
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Kuei...i am useless
L Chong / March 7, 2012 at 01:26 am
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It is Malaysian cuisine. Not Malay.

These restaurants don't even classify themselves as serving "Singaporean-Malay Chinese" cuisine. SMC does not exist - You've concocted your own shoddy term to complicate and inaccurately describe the food.

It is just - Singaporean and Malaysian cuisine.
DKLo replying to a comment from L Chong / March 7, 2012 at 11:49 am
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Actually, in Chinese, many restaurants (most notably Gourmet Malaysia) actually calls themselves Sing-Ma-Thai cuisine, which translates roughly as Singaporean-Malaysian-Thai cuisine. That's even more confusing, in my opinion.
As such, contracted acronyms for terms are not unheard of when describing cuisines :) Thank you for the comment though.
click here / July 26, 2012 at 02:32 pm
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It's a shame you don't have a donate button! I'd definitely donate to this brilliant blog! I suppose for now i'll settle for book-marking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account.

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Talk soon!
Adam / September 5, 2012 at 03:54 am
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You have a lot of great thoughts on this subject and it’s clear that you know your material. I appreciate a good article with original ideas.
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Liz A / January 9, 2013 at 08:38 pm
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L Chong said it all. What an insult to all Malaysians, whether of Malay or Chinese ethnicity. Did you know Singapore was once part of Malaysia? And that Singaporeans make a beeline to eat in Malaysia? This is a MALAYSIAN cafe run by Malaysians of Chinese ethnicity. How did you come with a brain-dead ludricrous misleading term like "Singapore-Malay Chinese" cuisine?
Phil Tan replying to a comment from StevenM / June 26, 2013 at 04:02 pm
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replying to SteveM: Where to get good Roti Prata in Toronto?

I buy "Curry Leaf" label whole wheat Praratha (5) pieces frozen in each packet from "NO FRILLS" supermarket and grill them individually in a frying pan for a couple of minutes (as per direction on the plastic bag). Super and authentic just like the Indian man sells in Singapore. Just dip into curries of your choice and ENJOY!!!
MB replying to a comment from Phil Tan / August 28, 2013 at 08:20 am
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replying to Phil Tan

Yes, that will work. But nothing compare to the real actual roti that is being made fresh by flipping, pan fried, squeezed by both hands when done; then served with either Mamak or Malay style curry. :)
Curry craze / October 17, 2013 at 08:04 pm
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I wonder any one has tried lucky Curry House located at 3636 Steeles Ave East, Markham ? Heard many good reviews. Want to know if any Malaysian / Singaporian may comment on the authencity of the food this little food court stall offers?
Geeta / November 17, 2013 at 01:26 pm
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I am Indian from India, and just love Malaysian food. I have a friend from Singapore and we constantly look out for Malay/Singapore restaurants. We have been to Gourmet Malaysia a couple of times, and I feel it's hit or miss, I had the nasi lemak yesterday (as take-out) and it was the worst I have ever had!! However, their Singapore laksa was very good!

Anyone know of a good Nasi Lemak (without soggy, 90% filled with onions ikan bills)?
Moaz Ahmad / January 18, 2014 at 04:39 pm
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I lived in Malaysia for 5 years and my wife is Malaysian -Chinese (or Chinese - Malaysian, depending on which side of the argument you are on) from Malacca, so she knows Malaysian and Nyonya food. We live near Lion City and have only been there once (when we arrived from Malaysia) ... my wife tried the Char Koey Teow and was not impressed (it was just noodles with yellow sauce) so we have not gone back. We've been to Restoran Malaysia twice because the atmosphere is nice and they have good Nasi lemak, but their roti canai, murtabak* and roti Telur are overpriced.

If you're downtown Matahari (the Malay word for sun, literally 'eye+day'...i love the Malay language for its literal and descriptive nature) on Baldwin St. is a good approximation of Malaysian food. Otherwise I've noticed a couple from Ipoh who run a Murtabak stall at summer festivals around Toronto ... saw them at Harbourfront and the Pacific Mall food fest this summer...that's about as close as you will get to a true Malaysian food stall experience.
Tony / April 18, 2014 at 08:07 pm
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These 'Singaporean-Malaysian Chinese' restaurants are mostly Malaysian Chinese restaurants (whose menus include Malaysian versions of some Singaporean-named dishes). The article and majority of comments here are Malaysian/Indonesian/HK views. GTA has relatively few Singaporeans to give an authentic Singaporean perspective.

So here's a 'minority view' from a Singaporean Canadian who was born in Singapore and lived there for 30 years. I've also opened large 5-star luxury hotels in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Shanghai.

In my opinion, Mississauga's Lion City restaurant probably makes the best Singaporean cuisine in North America (I've eaten 'Singaporean cuisine' in all major Canadian and American cities over the past 25 years). Lion City is probably right to claim that it "is the only restaurant in the Greater Toronto Area that is Singaporean owned and operated that offers authentic Singaporean cuisine" (there is an unrelated Singaporean-owned stall in the Pacific Mall food court). Singaporean chef Lilian Ow (who is Peranakan and Teochew) preparations of chicken rice, char kway teow, laksa lemak, wat tan hor fun, fried carrot cake, chwee kway, oh luak, tahu goreng, rojak, popiah, spicy eggplant, hokkien mee, etc. is closest to the Singapore cuisine described in CNN's "40 Singapore foods we can't live without", Forbes "The World's Top 10 Cities for Street Food", Dr. Leslie Tay's "Top Ten Things to Eat in Singapore: The Hawker Edition (see his ieatishootipost blog), KF Seetoh's makansutra, etc. Avoid peak hours because food quality can be inconsistent when busy, like most restaurants.

Lion City's chicken rice remains the best Singapore-style chicken rice in Canada. I've eaten at all the best chicken rice restaurants in Singapore (including the original Swee Kee restaurant in Middle Road -- it was this Hainanese restaurant that, in the 1940s, was responsible for changing the original Hainan chicken rice into the now famous Singapore-style Hainanese chicken rice).

Phoenix is certainly NOT "the best Hainanese chicken rice outside of Singapore" (even GTA has several HK-style restaurants with tastier steamed chicken). Phoenix Restaurant's mediocre Hainan chicken, rice, soup and condiments disappointed my Singaporean wife, friends and myself. To be fair, it's more appropriate to compare Phoenix's Hainan chicken rice with the chicken rice on Hainan island, not Singapore's more flavourful variation.

Lion City's Laksa (which tastes more like the Katong Laksa or Nyonya Laksa that Singapore is known for) is the best Singapore Laksa in Canada. Gourmet Malaysia's so-called Singapore Laksa is NOT in any way typical of Singapore Laksa (it's more a Malaysian-style version of curry laksa, with a heavier curry taste).

Google the Ramen Rater's "Top Ten Instant Noodles Of All Time 2013". No surprise the top two are Singapore products.

We dislike Curry Leaf paratha (which is made in Mississauga). We prefer made-in-Singapore brands (e.g., Spring Home paratha) from BTrust chinese supermarket in Mississauga) or made-in-Malaysia brands from Metro supermarket.

L. Chong is right: "Singaporean-Malay Chinese food" is a wrong term that has no literal sense ('Malay' and 'Malaysian' have different meanings). Gourmet Malaysia's website says "Malaysian, Singaporean and Indonesian cuisine" and its signboard says Malaysian & Asian cuisine (not "Singaporean-Malaysian-Thai cuisine" as DKLo claims). Even "Singaporean-Malaysian Chinese cuisine" is inaccurate since (a) some dishes are not "chinese cuisine" at all and (b) Singaporean cuisine and Malaysian cuisine have distinct regional differences even in dishes with the same name. Google "Food fight! Malaysia wants its 'unique' dishes back Tourism minister wants to reclaim 'made-in-Malaysia' recipes -- she'll have to pry them from our cold, dead crab crackers"

Singaporean tastebuds tend to differ from Malaysian tastebuds -- that's perfectly normal since taste is acquired. Thus my Singaporean wife, friends and myself don't think it's worth the drive or the price to eat at Malaysian-style restaurants such as Gourmet Malaysia and Restoran Malaysia, Villa Malaysia, etc. because their foods do not satisfy our tastebuds. To DKLo, Gourmet Malaysia and Restoran Malaysia probably satisfy his Malaysian (?) tastebuds more than Lion City does. And that's perfectly okay as well.

Singapore may once have been part of Malaysia from 1819 to 1965, but it was always a distinct entity given it was the capital of the British empire and centre of British trade and prosperity in the region. Liz A seems to forget that Malaysia was once part of the British Empire and, before that, part of Indonesia's Majapahit empire.
Caroline / June 8, 2014 at 04:27 pm
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We just back from Singapore after living there for 6 months. We miss the mee goreng noodles from the hawker center at West Cost market. Anything like this in the GTA?

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