Singapore Noodles: For Cantonese Folks in 1940s Singapore

Pearl's Market in 1964, from Zaobao.sg

Pearl’s Market in 1964, from Zaobao.sg

Singapore Noodles or 星洲炒米 isn’t as prevalent as hor fun or economic bee hoon in Singapore today, so I’ve been wondering if this dish even has a local history. Turns out that it does.

Singapore Noodles was a common sight in Singapore’s Chinatown during the 1940s, according to Hooi Kok Wai, an 81-year-old Cantonese chef and one of the four “Heavenly Kings” of the local Chinese culinary scene in the 1960s and 1970s. He revealed this when I interviewed him about the role of tomato ketchup in Cantonese cuisine, which I took an interest in because the Singapore Noodles in Kuala Lumpur is flavoured with the sauce, and the earliest tai chow that offered this dish were mostly Cantonese-owned. I will elaborate on my ketchup findings in the next post. I also focused on the Cantonese community because a curried version of Singapore Noodles is widely available in Hong Kong, a Cantonese-majority city. The connection between the noodles and this dialect group was apparent, and Hooi just confirmed it.

The hawkers who sold Singapore Noodles in colonial Singapore were Cantonese, he said. They congregated at the now defunct Pearl’s Market, where today’s People’s Park Complex is. The market was tucked within the Cantonese enclave, and was operated and visited by people of that dialect. Back in those days, the Chinese lived, ate and worked with people of their own dialect group. While the Cantonese hung out around Temple Street, the Teochew, for example, set up home at Clarke Quay. The latter ate char kway teow at the Ellenborough Market (at today’s Clarke Quay Central), whereas the Cantonese swore by the “dai pai dong” at Pearl’s Market, where they devoured hor fun and Singapore Noodles. Continue reading

What I Think About When I Grocery Shop

The colours I typically eat.

The colours I typically eat.

What I think about when I shop for groceries? It’s usually not what I want to eat but how I can pack more proteins, vegetables and colours into a few meals. I decide what to do with my purchases only later. The problem with planning a menu is planning. There isn’t always time for that, yet not spending time to condense the shopping list only creates wastage.

That is why I only think about how many meals I’m buying for, and then I pick different items from different food categories until I have enough. I usually buy for two days, and each time I put a rainbow into my basket, say a carrot, burdock and cabbage, or a capsicum, eggplant and bak choy. I try not to repeat these within the next two market visits, because the best diet includes everything.

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The Double Deaths of Toddy and Bluder Cake

Bluder cake in NerdBaker.

Bluder cake as shown in NerdBaker.

More than 50 years ago, a local Eurasian kitchen would get busy and greasy with the making of cakes and jellies for Christmas, days before the family would have a feast. One of these desserts was blueder, a rich, golden brown ring cake that was dense like a bread from the use of no less than 30 egg yolks. The cake originates from the Netherlands, and is enjoyed by people with Dutch colonial links, such as the Sri Lankan Burghers and the Malaccan Eurasians. They refer to their localised interpretations as breudher and kueh bluder respectively.

A bundt pan likely inspired their names. Both cakes are moulded into distinctive ring shapes with either straight or swirling ridges. “Breudher” and “bluder” sound like anglicised “brood-tulband”, which is how the Dutch refers to all ring cakes. “Brood-tulband” literally means bread-turban, because they associate the swirls on bundt cakes with the winding headwear.

Bundt cake. By Betsy Weber via Flickr.

Bundt cake. By Betsy Weber via Flickr.

Turban. By mukerjichinmoy via Flickr.

Turban. By mukerjichinmoy via Flickr.

In Malacca, kueh bluder (pronounced blue-der) belonged to the Dutch-Eurasians but was enjoyed by many others. The Portuguese-Eurasians baked and ate the cake too, while the Peranakans learned from their Eurasian neighbours and passed it down along with their own recipes. After these communities moved south to Singapore in the late 1800s, blueder became one of the many mixed-heritage flavours in the multi-racial colony. But Singapore’s relentless development soon caught up with the cake, even before coronary heart disease could. The absence of a key ingredient, after the authorities decided its people didn’t need, forever changed bluder in Singapore.

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Malaysia’s Singapore Noodles

Sang Kee restaurant

Sang Kee restaurant

There are three types of Singapore Noodles—Singapore-style, Malaysia-style and Hong Kong-style. Finding Singapore Noodles is easier in Malaysia and Hong Kong than in Singapore. This includes Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital. There, one will find many Chinese restaurants at the street level of buildings, and they are selling a wide variety of dishes meant for communal eating, in unembellished but sprawling set-ups. They are known as tai chow, similar to zi char restaurants in Singapore, and where the Malaysia-style Singapore Noodles is usually sold.

Through the recommendation of a Kuala Lumpur food researcher and author Lim Kim Cherng, I came to know of two of the oldest tai chow in the city. Between 2015 and 2017, I visited Sang Kee (1955) and Sek Yuan (1948) to speak with their respective owners Lee Kah Loon and Pang Kien Cheong. There are many overlaps between their noodles and stories, bringing me closer to understanding the significance of Singapore Noodles to the Malaysians.

Singapore Noodles is just one of the many noodle dishes available at any tai chow. What makes it Singapore Noodles, and not something else, is its unique combination of ingredients. A Singapore Noodles must have diced char siew, scrambled egg, julienned onions and shelled baby prawns, says Pang. Everything else are vegetables, either including all of, or revolving around napa cabbage, bean sprouts and spring onions. Among the ingredients, char siew has the most to tell about the historical link between Singapore Noodles and tai chow in Kuala Lumpur.

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Vermicelli in Singapore: A Staple, or Just an Option?

Singapore's and imported vermicelli at a local supermarket.

Singapore’s and imported vermicelli at a local supermarket.

Who buys raw vermicelli?

Mostly hawkers, said Goh Soon Poh, of Par Corporation, which supplies broken rice to vermicelli manufacturers in Singapore. This has been the case since the industrialisation of the local vermicelli industry in the 1970s. At home, people tend to cook rice, while vermicelli is saved for special occasions such as house parties and Taoists prayers. (Temples are also one of the frequent buyers of  vermicelli, says Goh.) No wonder Singapore Noodles is usually bought, not cooked at home.

The hawkers, especially those selling noodle dishes, usually offer vermicelli as an alternative to the traditional choices of noodles. Think kway teow soup, prawn mee, curry noodle and lor mee. These dishes are originally made with either yellow wheat noodles or flat rice noodles (kway teow), but may be switched for or mixed with vermicelli. I like my prawn mee mixed with vermicelli, because the thick wheat noodles are too heavy to eat a full portion of. Continue reading

Recipes for the Ideal Singaporean Female

A sewing class in progress at one of the convent schools, c.1950s.

A sewing class in progress at one of the convent schools, c.1950s.

Someone once asked me, “What did you learn to cook at home economics classes?”

In reply I proudly rattled off: fried rice with hotdog cubes, minced chicken on egg tofu, and spaghetti with sauce made with tomato ketchup. Imagine my embarrassment when a fellow (and older) food writer said that she had learned to make meat pies, mee siam and all sorts of kueh-kueh.

How did a 13-year-old get to make all these complex adult dishes at school while I was entrusted to cook with only processed and ready-to-eat ingredients? One crucial factor set us apart: time, or rather different periods of time.

I studied home economics in 1999, while she took the course back in the 1970s when it was known as domestic science, a name that was eventually replaced because it suggested a narrow focus on nutrition and sanitation.

Between the 1930s and 1997, home economics was taught in Singapore schools to train girls to be good homemakers. Depending on the era and the nation’s immediate needs, a “good homemaker” could mean different things – as defined by the prevailing syllabus set by the education authorities.

In the 1970s, for instance, being a good homemaker meant having the skills to just cook and clean. In the 1980s, it expanded to include being a good mother and raising a child. Then, in the 1990s, as more women joined the workforce, good homemakers became prudent consumers of outsourced and commercialised housework.

In “studying” home economics a second time around as research for this essay – reviewing textbooks, minister speeches, newspaper reports and oral histories – what became apparent was not just changes in cookery styles and ingredients over the years, but also official definitions of the “ideal” Singaporean woman.

Read the full article in Biblioasia (Vol 12 Issue 4)
Read PDF here

Singapore Vermicelli Not an Inspiration for Singapore Noodles

Drying beehoon under the sun in 1956, print screened from National Archive Singapore.

Drying beehoon under the sun in 1956, print screened from National Archive Singapore.

Before “星洲米粉” (xing zhou mi fen) referred to a dish in Singapore’s Chinese press,  it was a term for Singapore manufactured rice vermicelli. I wondered if Singapore Noodles was named 星洲米粉 because Singapore’s vermicelli was key to the making of Singapore Noodles in the earlier days. To find whether the made-in-Singapore vermicelli was any special, I spoke to Goh Soon Poh, general manager at Par  Corporation, a trading house that since the 1970s has been supplying broken rice to  local vermicelli manufacturers, and also consulted the Singapore Noodle Manufacturers’ Association 20th Anniversary Celebration Souvenir Magazine published in 1990.

Singapore began to produce vermicelli around the 1920s, and the industry was pioneered by immigrants from Fujian in Southern China. While the Northern Chinese commonly consume wheat noodles, the Southern Chinese, favour rice noodles such as vermicelli. Within Fujian, rice vermicelli dishes from Fuzhou and Putien stood out, says Goh.

Vermicelli productions took place in kampungs, mostly in Changi, according to the noodle association’s magazine. The producers worked with archaic tools such as stone mills and charcoal fire, to grind rice and steam vermicelli respectively, before taking it out to dry in the sun. Based on my earlier findings, there was competition from China as early as the 1940s, and local vermicelli producers never became powerful enough to edge out the imports. By the 1970s, during Singapore’s massive physical development, less than 10 surviving producers relocated their businesses to industrial estates such as Defu Lane. These businesses eventually automated their processes and exported their higher outputs.

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Japanese TV: The Salarymen’s Food Escapes

There is little room for pleasure in the life of a salaryman, a term coined by the Japanese for overworked and duty-burdened office workers. Their daily routine is governed by company rules, dictating how much they work and what’s left for everyday life. This lack of control over one’s activities and desire for freedom explains the popularity of three Japanese TV shows, where a breadwinner savouring his meal during office hours is not a contradiction.

Afforded too little time of their own, salarymen/women may forgo breakfast or eat on the go. The length of their lunch break determines where they eat, what they eat and with whom. If working hours exceed dinner time, the boundaries within which they exercise individual preferences further constricts. These conditions affect salaried workers everywhere, all but one character in “Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman”.

Amentani Kantaro, a sales representative of a publishing house, rushes his sales trips to pay visits to nearby dessert gems, which he writes about in his blog. He tells no one about his sweet escapades, and pulls it off because he is efficient at his job. But the constraints on a salaryman remains, so he skips places with long lines and limits his orders to what he can eat within the short time he stole from work. Confined to corporate conditions, Kantaro violates a few rules to make room for a personal interest, but is largely obedient so that he keeps his job.

There will be no need to rush if one has controls over one’s own time like businessman Goro Inogashira in “The Solitary Gourmet”. Inogashira’s business brings him to clients all over Japan and he always finds good (and real) places to take lunch. Without strict office hours to follow, he reads the menu back and forth, orders to feed more than a normal appetite, and admires the food’s glow and shine before dissecting tastes and textures. If you watch him over lunch, you’ll be done before he is. Inogashira is never short for time to savour, although the clients’ locations predetermine his food options somewhat.

When none of these work arrangements are available, a salaryman may only countdown patiently to retirement. Takeshi Kasumi in “Samurai Gourmet” is a recent retiree who has a lot of time on his hands and spends it on food adventures. While he sometimes walks into new places, he often revisits nostalgic eateries and memories that he, as well as many others, put aside for a hectic corporate life. Kasumi has an alter ego, a boorish samurai who teaches him to break the shackles of conformity for spontaneity, such as skipping the last train home for a late night snack outside the city. As Kasumi only needs to pace his life against his homemaker wife’s, he goes wherever he wants for food and takes his time to do just that.

Now, if only all bosses are like these men, appreciative of food and the joy they bring, then we can perhaps be afforded to eat proper meals of delicious foods, appropriate to our body and mood, even on days when we are supposedly subject to corporate needs and profits .

“Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman” and “Samurai Gourmet” are available on Netflix. “The Solitary Gourmet” can be watched on popular streaming sites.

Eating Together II: Consider the Wok

We created a smaller iteration of Eating Together for the Asian Civilisation Museum earlier this year. It’s called the Museum of Eating, which included a new section about the material culture of hawker tools. Here’s the writeup, and Jovian Lim‘s beautiful photos.

MUSEUM OF EATING
Eating is a universal act. The ways we eat, however, are cultural and personal. Where we consume our meals, who we chat with over lunch, and what we use to put food in our mouths all affect how we think about our food. In the Museum of Eating, we go beyond the typical foodie conversations about chefs, ingredients, and tastes to look at the designs and techniques used to cook, contain, and carry food in Singapore.

Consider the Wok
Kitchen utensils are common across the world, but look closer and you’ll find variations born out of cultural differences. Singapore hawkers have fed many generations with their good, quick meals. These dishes and the tools to prepare them have persisted despite the onset of modern industrial cooking. But to feed a larger and an increasingly time-starved population, hawkers have had to devise better ways to use or even re-design these age-old tools. Whether it is a wok or a scoop, these kitchen utensils have not just enabled faster and better cooking, they also record the craft and considerations these hawkers have put into perfecting their dishes.

PERFORATED SCOOP

Popiah is a spring roll filled with stewed turnip that is delicious when moist but not soggy. Glory Catering is well-known for such mouth-watering popiah, and they can consistently produce them thanks to a perforated scoop designed by the owners, the Chin family. A typical scoop tends to pick up too much turnip juice, and that aluminum tool falls apart when the cook presses down on it to drain out the liquid. The stew cannot be drained beforehand either, because it’s what keeps the turnip juicy and tasty. Glory’s inventive tool comes with more than 400 perforations to drain more quickly, and its trough shape lets the staff scoop the exact portion of filling, in a shape that is easy to fold into a roll. Truly a handy way to capture Glory’s craft in making popiah.

GLORY-5810_WEB2000PX

The back of the scoop fits nicely into the trough – both made of hardy stainless steel – to squeeze out excess juice.

The back of the scoop fits nicely into the trough – both made of hardy stainless steel – to squeeze out excess juice.

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Mid 1980s Print Advertisements

I got hold of three Female magazine cookbooks published in Singapore between 1985 and 1988, and what turned out to be more intriguing than the recipes are the print ads of food products, which we don’t see so often these days. Back in the 80s long copy ads were still popular and they dominated these cookbooks. These ads may be grouped into a few categories to help explain why more words used to be better.

To explain new products or special features.

Kenwood advertisement

Here, the oven’s “unique double quartz elements” need explanation.

harlen coconut cream

It seems that packet coconut cream was still a novelty in the mid-1980s, which is why Harlen compares itself not with similar products but with freshly squeezed coconut milk.

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