I had been given plenty of advice about celebrated dishes and even drinks to try when I visited Singapore. Laksa and Gin Slings were high on every list, but nobody mentioned toast.
It doesn’t sound very exotic. Not something one would spend 12 hours travel time to try. Toast is toast is toast, isn’t it? Well, yes that’s probably true. The bread might differ in style and even thickness, but the spreads are pretty much the same worldwide: jam, peanut butter, marmalade and even chocolate and nut spread which I have never quite managed to appreciate. But visit Singapore and you will be introduced to Kaya Toast, and it’s everywhere.
Kaya Toast is a popular snack amongst Singaporeans, and consists of kaya, a spread made of duck or chicken eggs, sugar and coconut milk and flavoured with pandan, and toasted bread. It’s served with a smear of butter, and that takes the edge off the sweetness.
Kaya, also called Srikaya (from the Malay word meaning “rich” due to the golden colour of the home-made version), is also called coconut egg jam. Commercial Kaya is more often pale green in colour from the pandan extract.
The invention of this delicacy is often credited to the Hainanese Chinese. Many Hainanese worked on British ships as kitchen hands. They settled in Malaysia and started selling Kaya and other snacks they had prepared for the British, along with coffee, tea and French toast.
In Singapore Kaya Toast is enjoyed with a cup of tea or coffee, not only for breakfast but throughout the day. It’s available in many coffee shops but Ya Kun Kaya Toast is perhaps the most celebrated of those, with its many outlets across the city and even at the airport. Ya Kun Kaya Toast sells kaya toast and very soft boiled eggs with coffee for a traditional start to the day that you won’t get anywhere else in the world.
In 1926 15-year-old Loi Ah Koon scrambled aboard a Chinese junk and set sail from China to Singapore. Ah Koon eventually landed on Singapore soil and found work with the local Hainanese community as an assistant in a Hainanese coffee shop.
Loi Ah Koon worked hard and learned his trade and eventually aspired to have his own business. He and two fellow Chinese workers started their own coffeestall at Telok Ayer Basin but the partners moved on, leaving Ah Koon to run the business himself serving hot coffee and charcoal-grilled toast.
Ah Koon returned to China to find a wife and in 1936 she joined him in Singapore. This lady was responsible for adding homemade kaya to the coffeeshop’s repertoire. Ah Koon began roasting his own coffee to improve the quality of beverages on offer.
After more than 15 years at Telok Ayer Basin, Ah Koon relocated his business across the street to Lau Pa Sat. The stall was then simply called Ya Kun Coffeestall, the name ‘Ya Kun’ being the hanyu pinyin equivalent of ‘Ah Koon’. The business stayed there for another 15 years during which time it was awarded ‘The Most Courteous Stall in Lau Pa Sat’. In 1984, it moved back to Telok Ayer Transit Food Market to make way for the refurbished Lau Pa Sat that we can see today. In 1998, Ya Kun Kaya Toast Coffeestall found its present site at Far East Square and is now run by his children.
A visit to Ya Kun Kaya Toast Coffeestall is a must when in Singapore. There is also peanut butter toast on offer but it’s a shame to come all this way and not try the local speciality. Go for breakfast and order the set combination of kaya toast with those aforementioned runny eggs and coffee. I am not usually a coffee drinker but I rather enjoyed the smoothness of the coffee here. It looks strong but it lacks that over-roast bitterness that I dislike.
The eggs are SOFT but don’t be put off. The creamy yolk with just a drizzle of soy sauce makes a delightful breakfast. The kaya toast is a foil for the savoury soy, and the coffee is hot and mellow and perfect for tropical mornings – it’s true that hot tea or coffee can be pleasantly cooling. Failing that you can always fan yourself with a copy of the Straits Times and wish you had booked a longer stay in friendly and fascinating Singapore.
Ya Kun Kaya Toast Coffeestall
Far East Square
18 China Street #01-01 Singapore 049560
Phone: 6438 3638
Monday to Friday: 7.30am to 7.00pm
Saturday and Sunday: 8.00am to 5.30pm
Public Holiday: Closed
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018