Dining Out 4 minutes 28 May 2024

What Makes This Carrot Cake in Singapore So Unforgettable?

When in Singapore, Carrot Cake does not just refer to the sweet treat topped with cream cheese frosting; instead, it alludes to a savoury hawker snack that's quite unique to the Lion City. Today, we chat with Ng Hock Chye of MICHELIN Selected Unforgettable Carrot Cake and ask him why his Carrot Cake is one to remember.

In Singapore, the mention of "Carrot Cake" is less associated with the sweet Western dessert that usually comes with cream cheese frosting. Instead, it refers to a savoury dish that originated from Southern China — and here's the irony: it contains no carrots at all, at least the orange variety that most are familiar with.

So why is it called Carrot Cake, then? White radish (daikon), also known as "white carrot" when literally translated from Chinese, is used as the base of this hawker staple. Steamed with rice flour, the root vegetable is chopped into pieces (either chunky or fine, depending on who's cooking), and fried with garlic, eggs, and preserved turnip or radish.

In Bukit Merah View Market & Hawker Centre, one can find an unassuming Carrot Cake shop right at the corner. Playfully named Unforgettable Carrot Cake in English (literally translated from its original Chinese name 忘不了萝卜糕), this hawker stall has drawn many regulars — from politicians, celebrities, and to residents — flocking from whichever part of Singapore they may be, all for a bite of Mr. Ng Hock Chye's "unforgettable" Carrot Cake.

We sit down for a chat with Mr. Ng, and ask him why his MICHELIN-selected Carrot Cake (chai tow kway) stall is curiously named as such, how Carrot Cake runs in the lifeblood of his family, and why his version actually contains orange carrots.

Regular "Carrot Cakes" in Singapore do not contain orange carrots, but Mr. Ng's version does.
Regular "Carrot Cakes" in Singapore do not contain orange carrots, but Mr. Ng's version does.

Hi Mr. Ng! When and how did your Carrot Cake business start? Why did you choose to specialise in this dish?

In 1983, I first started out working at my parents’ Carrot Cake stall here in the same hawker centre, after I left the army. Shortly after, I left to run my own stall in the West Coast to hone my skills independently, and I came back after over a year. My older brother and I then cooked together and took on different shifts in my parents’ stall. In 2020, I started my own stall in this separate unit, when there was a chance to do so. My older brother still runs my parents’ original stall just a few units down.

Unforgettable Carrot Cake Storefront MICHELIN Guide.jpg

Your business has an interesting and catchy name. Can you tell us the story behind it?

When thinking of my stall name, my friend — the duck rice seller in this hawker centre — gave me suggestions of Chinese names more typical of Singapore hawker stalls. However, I was inspired by the empurau fish, one of the most expensive edible fish in this region that has a memorable taste because of its special diet of only eating fruits. It is known as the "wang bu liao yu" (忘不了鱼) in Mandarin, which translates to "unforgettable" in English. As a double meaning, naming my stall "unforgettable" also refers to how I want to keep my late parents in memory.

What do you think sets your Carrot Cake apart from other stalls in Singapore?

My Carrot Cake is crispy on the outside, and moist and tender on the inside. To achieve this, I need to fry it when ingredients like the radish cake and chye poh (preserved radish) are dry. I also use two pans to fry so as to control the heat. I believe that maintaining the traditional process, using fresh quality ingredients, and my frying technique all help to set my Carrot Cake apart from the rest.

At Unforgettable Carrot Cake, either order the Black, White, or both, separately. Mr. Ng doesn't allow mixing.
At Unforgettable Carrot Cake, either order the Black, White, or both, separately. Mr. Ng doesn't allow mixing.

Up until recently, we still used an old stone mill machine to grind rice and steam the radish cake ourselves. However, due to government regulations, we have to now outsource this step. This old machine is still at my brother’s stall and we hope to be able to make Carrot Cake the traditional way again one day. It is key for me to retain the "gu zao wei" (old school taste), using the same recipe and technique as how my parents did it.

Can you share with us the secret to your Carrot Cake? Why do you use orange carrots, which is not typical of Carrot Cakes in Singapore?

The secret is in the chilli and the dark sweet sauce that I use. Both of them are secret recipes passed down from my parents, so I can’t share them (laughs). While local Carrot Cake doesn’t actually use carrots but radish, I add some orange carrots to give the dish colour, sweetness, and moisture.

Which is your personal favourite version of your Carrot Cake, black or white?

I like my Black Carrot Cake because of the more complex flavour of the sweet sauce. Even when it cools down, it still tastes as good as when it’s hot, while you need to eat the white one immediately when it’s hot.
Ng Hock Chye Unforgettable Carrot Cake.jpg

What does a regular day for you look like?

 Every day I wake up at 4:30 a.m. and leave my home at 5:00 a.m. It’s a short bike ride from my home to the hawker centre. I then prepare the stall and ingredients, and then I start cooking from 6:00 a.m., all the way until 2:00 p.m. After closing, I spend at least two hours washing up, as keeping my stall very clean and orderly is important to me. Then, I do some accounting for the business, and watch news and YouTube before I sleep at 9:00 p.m. My stall is open every day because instead of having a rest day every week, I would rather take the occasional short trips overseas.

What were some challenges you faced in the running of your business throughout the years? How did you overcome them?

The toughest times for me were definitely during SARS and COVID. Bukit Merah View was one of the hawker centres in Singapore to close down in order to contain the COVID cases. I still remember all the ingredients I ordered that had to be thrown away when all the market tenants had to go for our two-week quarantine.

Sometimes, suppliers would also cheat us and give us inferior ingredients. Even though it eats into my bottomline, I will throw them away because I take pride in using quality ingredients for my Carrot Cake.

If you were not selling carrot cake, what do you think you would have done as a career?

I have never thought of this! I may be a driver since I have a class four driver's license. Would I have sold another dish? No because the business of Carrot Cake was passed down by my parents.

What does receiving the MICHELIN recognition mean to you?

It represents the validation from my customers on the quality of my food and the decades of my effort, which I am so touched and honoured by.
Mr. Ng allows advance orders of his Carrot Cake for pick-up. Just inform him an hour in advance. Details at the end of this article.
Mr. Ng allows advance orders of his Carrot Cake for pick-up. Just inform him an hour in advance. Details at the end of this article.

What are your future plans for the business? Do you foresee any of your children taking over one day?

My children both have their own good jobs, and I would rather they not take over the business because it’s a tough life. However, should there be someone who wants to take over one day, I would definitely be open — I will leave it to fate!

Unforgettable Carrot Cake is located at 115 Bukit Merah View Market & Hawker Centre, #01-30, Blk 115 Bukit Merah View, 151115, Singapore. Unforgettable Carrot Cake is open to advance orders — let Mr. Ng know an hour before you plan to pick-up your Carrot Cake by calling +65 9325 2500 or +65 9751 3049.

All images in this article are by Mikka Wee

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