The power of nostalgia through kaya toast
I grew up hating kaya toast—I never understood how my mum or so many other people could sit in a dingy coffee shop savouring a meal of rubbery, grey, eggy paste slapped between two bland bread slices. I loved my Cheerios dunked in chocolate milk, Twiggies, and pancakes. This was a far cry from these picture-perfect breakfast meals. As a kid, I was given everything I wanted and never had to pay for my meals—besides I knew nothing about culture, tradition, or time.
15 years on, I miss the charm of these long-gone rustic eateries, the waft of handmade toasts, and the comfort of being dragged by my parents to eateries for a fully paid meal. I hate budgeting every month for my meals, my responsibilities, and not being able to eat sweet cereals without worrying about my sugar intake.
I now understand the magic of SG’s quintessential breakfast is that it is the perfect time capsule. It is cheap and tastes like childhood and the memory of our disappearing spaces.
Perhaps this is why older people cherish kaya toast so much. It is that one dish that seems to have been frozen in time.
For me, the perfect toast is one that marries both tradition and taste. It is affordable, creamy, and accompanied by perfectly cooked eggs served out of a rustic kitchen. Oh, and the coffee has to come out of a sock filter. Here are my top three spots that serve all of these nostalgias in a single yummy bite.
Ya Kun: My first love for kaya
I remember my first breakfast meal from Ya Kun. I’d usually skip breakfast with my family because who the hell wants to eat toast on a Sunday right? Avocado toast or shakshouka with a bougie cup of iced cold brew sounds way more Insta-worthy so I could get my 24 hours of online validation. But it was on the way so I just ordered a standard set. Because I was so traumatised from overly eggy kaya, I was hesitant to take a bite. But I was shocked, the thick slabs of butter paired with creamy kaya, wedged between crispy toasts were just…perfect?
My gut feeling about food is usually spot-on, so I was struggling to admit how good it was. I’ve been missing out all these years just because of a bad childhood experience with bad kaya, damn. Their eggs were a little overcooked for me but Ya Kun breakfast has become a staple breakfast when I’m rushing to work!
It is also one of those places that sell peak quality local comfort food at accessible prices. Somehow, being able to enjoy good old-school kaya in the middle of a metropolitan mall feels like stepping into a slowed-down bubble where I can just breathe and revel.
YY Kafei Dan: The kaya toast that stopped a breakup
Some of my best food finds have always been accidental. Bugis is a nostalgic place for me because of all the memories I shared with my ex uncovering food gems, such as Myeongdong District, there. I’m a foodie at heart and it’s always been my way of expressing love. It’s quite magical to find hidden local eateries amongst the concrete maze of our more ‘modern’ districts. And even more magical to share those moments with someone you love.
I stumbled across YY Kafei Dan while contemplating what to eat for my lunch at beach road. I’m a very picky eater. So after an hour of walking between alleys undecided, I got into an argument with my ex and grumpily decided to walk into this kopitiam located in a corner shophouse. I mean kopitiam is almost always safe, right?
At that point, I had no idea that this was a go-to spot for many eaters and just settled on ordering a simple kaya toast set with the full works. It was hot, we were both pretty moody, and a thick blend of iced Nanyang coffee was all I could think of at that moment. I had zero expectations for the food; I have a secret list of places that I am continuously curating and this was not on it.
The kaya toast and the eggs probably saved my relationship that day — we were both so hot-headed from arguing over what to have for lunch, bad food was the last thing we needed on our plate. We bit into the pillow-soft kaya bun and just looked at each other with wide eyes (the kind of look we always gave each other when the food is just bloody good). The butter and kaya core of the bun was so luscious and the half-boiled eggs were perfectly cooked, served out of rustic plastic cups.
After that day, YY Kafei Dan became a go-to spot for us to have a quick meal, every time we couldn’t decide on food. The scenic view of shophouses is also pretty romantic making it a perfect place for a chill date.
Tong Ah Eatery: The kaya toast that made me understand its magic
Do you ever get that ‘old soul’ feeling when you’re in a specific location or landmark?
When you’re looking through the glass of a preserved shophouse and they become windows to history you never experienced yet you feel in your bones?
Tong Ah is that place for me. I landmark my memories with food and this one is etched in my mind because some of my best coming-of-age moments happened in Bukit Pasoh. I penned down a map of all its iconic food spots and I can’t wait to unravel that with you soon.
Tong Ah Eatery’s kaya toasts come in three different variations: crispy thin, soft toast, and French toast. Each of these is toasted over a grill by the Cantonese owner as Hindu worship music plays in the background. The toasts have wok hey, depth, and that clumsy rustic touch that’s inimitable. Tong Ah is Singapore’s first Kopitiam. Each slice is a part of history passed down over the years through family recipes and I believed its magic when I took my first bite.
As I sat there, I was acutely conscious of how Pearl Tower, just streets away was being demolished while People’s Park was on the verge of being phased out. Yet, this spot was intact because it was protected by law under the Bukit Pasoh Conservation area.
I certainly haven’t lived long enough to understand what it’s like to experience true loss. But this was one spot I used to frequent with friends, ex-lovers, and family because I’d convince them that they “have to try the best kaya toast”. I’ve lost a lot of them through my adult years but their memories are preserved in this quaint coffeeshop.
Uncles and aunties come as early as 7am to have their breakfast here every day. As nearby shophouses get increasingly gentrified and occupied by expensive vendors, this simple breakfast place has withstood time and become a respite for those looking for a link to their childhood. Like me, it’s their time capsule where a simple breakfast set lets them relive long-gone memories with a smile.
Kaya toast does not discriminate
The magic of kaya toast is its harsh simplicity. It is something that reminds us of our roots and humbles us. Through my hate-to-love relationship with kaya toast, I’ve grown to understand that food is not just what we see or eat. Food is a way of life and a link to lost memories. Our relationship with food constantly matures as we grow.
The unsuspecting slice of kaya toast quickly served up to our tables has become such a familiar staple that we rarely take the time to appreciate the story and layers that form every perfect set. Next time you order yours, put your phone aside and savour the moment.