Singapore hawker dishes: Fish-head steamboat

A must try.

What we say: 3.5 stars

There are steamboats — and then there are fish-head steamboats. If you don’t already know, a steamboat is an Asian hotpot of a simmering stock in which one cooks meat and vegetables. While the steamboat scene in Singapore is a hodgepodge of Thai, Sichuan, Japanese and Korean buffet varieties in restaurants, the classic Singapore hawker steamboat for a family dinner out is a fish-head steamboat. If you want to get off the beaten tourist cuisine trail in Singapore, try one!

Authentic steamboat stalls use grey vessels with charcoal fuel, and spend much time and effort getting the flames and temperature just right. - including using a modified vaccuum cleaner if necessary.

Steamboat stalls spend effort getting temperatures just right — using a modified vaccuum cleaner if necessary.

An authentic fish-head steamboat usually comes in a hardy stainless steel, specially designed vessel, dented and scratched with marks from years of use — at a hawker stall you won’t find the fancy tables of steamboat restaurants, with a built-in cooker split into two or more for a variety of broths. The real deal is filled with charcoal and comes with a hole in the centre, which functions like a chimney spout for the fumes to escape. While a regular electric steamboat used in restaurants or homes can do the job, it imparts none of the smoky, fragrant flavour akin to wok breath — only real fires create sufficient heat and smokiness.

A fish-head steamboat is primarily made up of — no prizes for guessing — a fish head plus bits of meat, skin and tendons (all the hard-to-distinguish parts, which are sweeter, more flavourful and more colourful than white flesh to a connoisseur). Fish-head steamboat stalls typically offer a few types of fish to choose from, such as promfret, garoupa, mackerel and snapper, which are all firm and remain in large chunks when cooked. A few other ingredients like Napa cabbage and yams will also be served, to create a thick consistency of broth.

It’s the broth though that steals the show. It’s simmered for hours with pre-fried fish bones and sometimes pork and chicken, plus ginger to remove ‘fishiness’ and sour plum to make it a bit tangy; finally, morsels of dried flatfish are baked and added as a garnish. A variety of vinegar-based chilli dips are provided to go with the fish pieces.

The ingredients are simple: fish-head bits and chunks, vegetables and yams usually accompanied by a chilli dip.

The ingredients are simple; it’s the broth that’s the secret.

While you’ll also usually be served rice and free top-ups of soup, a fish-head steamboat may not be sufficient for a few people. Groups usually order a variety of zi char dishes to complete their meal, so steamboat stalls are typically located near zi char stalls, or they serve up some zi char as well, although just popular classics such as har cheong gai (fried chicken coated with prawn paste) and sambal kangkong (river spinach fried in a spicy sauce with dried shrimp).

Here are some suggested places to try fish-head steamboat in Singapore. Expect to pay S$20-$35 for the steamboat, excluding rice and additional zi char dishes, which are around $8-$20 per dish).

Whampoa Xin Heng Feng Fish-head Steamboat: Whampoa Market, 91 Whampoa Drive. Open Wed-Mon 17:00-21:30.
Tian Wai Tian Fish-head Steamboat: 1382 Serangoon Road. Open daily 17:30-23:00.
Hai Chang Fish-head Steamboat: 137A Tampines Street 11. Open Wed-Mon 17:00-21:45.

You can also find steamboat in the various coffeeshops that line North Bridge Road.

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