The Indians and Nepalese behind Singapore Noodles in Tallinn, Estonia

It wasn’t the Chinese restaurants bringing Singapore Noodles to the locals in Tallinn, the capitol of Estonia, as is the case in many western countries. When in the city to visit a friend earlier this year, I didn’t see any Chinese restaurant, but there was no difficulty finding the dish.

Singapore Noodles made its way to Estonia through the “Asian” restaurants operated by the Indian and Nepali immigrants. These restaurants sell a mixture of Indian, Chinese and Thai dishes — some classics, while others unrecognisable to the members of the respective community. Plenty of dishes are named after a certain city — Shanghai Lamb, Hong Kong Chicken, Sichuan Beef — usually inventions to pique the curiosity of unsuspecting customers.

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Book Summary: Discriminating Taste

My favourite reading this year: Margot Finn’s Discriminating Taste. The author observed a shift in America’s mainstream food culture during periods of widening income gap, and attribute the greater attention that people today pay to food to what she calls “class anxieties”. When the middle class is doing well and the upper class isn’t claiming much of the nation’s wealth, she explains, the former could scale the social hierarchy through hard work and the money they are paid. But when the super-elites emerge and even professional incomes are not enough for “class-climbing”, the middle class rely more on cultural forms of distinction, such as the gourmet or organic food they eat. While some “foodies” may be genuinely concern about nutrition or sustainable agriculture, they are also looking to differentiate themselves from the masses.

These two arguments left a deep impression on me:

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Singapore Noodles: An Awkward Public-speaking Attempt at the National Museum

I made a promise to myself that in 2019 I would not say no to any project even if it takes me out of my comfort zone, so in August I gave a talk at the National Museum of Singapore about my research on Singapore Noodles. It turned out to be a good exercise that got me to revisit and summarise my findings so far. After five years working intermittenly on this research, I was already somewhat lost in the plot. Because I’m a nervous public speaker, I prepared a speech that I could simply read from (apologies to those of you who were there!). But it reads nicely as a blog post so here it is:

Thank you for joining me this weekend afternoon. I’ll be talking about my research on Singapore Noodles, which I started in 2015. This particular dish interest me because it bears the name of Singapore yet most of us here will not consider it Singaporean. I started paying attention to it when I was living in New York. I thought it was bizarre to have something I didn’t recognise representing me and my country.

But instead of brushing it off as fake news, I wonder about the meanings it holds for the people who do enjoy it. Singapore Noodles may be foreign to Singaporeans, it is local to others elsewhere. I think this irony deserves an investigation.

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Singapore Noodles: The Curried Version in Hong Kong

Mido’s Singapore Noodles

Singapore Noodles is widely available in Hong Kong. It is also the only Asian city where the noodles is flavoured with curry powder. This means it could be where the curried Singapore Noodles in the UK, US and other western countries originated. I visited Hong Kong in May this year and spoke to few people to learn about the city’s Singapore Noodles. They were Veronica Mak, an adjunct assistant professor at the anthropology department of the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Vivien Chan, visiting Scholar at Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences; Mr Kwan, third generation owner of Mido Cafe; and Lan Chun Chung, owner of Lan Fong Yuen (he does not sell Singapore noodles, but has some knowledge of the dish). I summarised the key points about Singapore Noodles there:

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Wok: When Breath Becomes Culinaire

wok frying

Useful kitchen tools stand the test of time and new technologies. The wok is one of them.

The concaved and round-bottom utensil was designed for fast cooking as China was always short of fuel (Wilson 83). Its metal body conducts heat quickly, while its sloping sides provide a large cooking surface, producing maximum tastes with minimum fuel. The wok also sits securely atop the traditional Chinese stove, a brick- or clay-made open cylinder, but it is not always left to its own devices (Tan 8). A skillful cook likes to give it a jerk in circular motion to cook the food even faster and more evenly. Chinese dishes are by no coincidence pre-cut into fast-to-cook morsels but are designed so for the fuel-poor but food-loving Chinese (Wilson 54-55). Continue reading

Chilli Crab: A Case Study for Singapore Noodles

(Left to right) Singapore Noodles in ketchup, Worcestershire and curry.

(Left to right) Singapore Noodles in ketchup, Worcestershire and curry powder.

Singapore Noodles is replete with ironies. It is elusive in the city that it is named after, but a common staple in Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong. In any of these places, the dish is prepared by the local Cantonese communities, using sauces that are essentially British inventions – either ketchup, Worcestershire sauce or curry powder. I wonder if a common past among these former British colonies helped shaped Singapore Noodles into the three varieties there are. This story attempts to answer this by tracing the temporal and spatial journeys of tomato ketchup, from 18th century England to 20th century British Malaya, where the ketchup-flavoured Singapore Noodles found popularity and is still so today.

I begin by investigating how the Western condiment became a key ingredient for Chinese cuisines in Singapore and Malaysia during the colonial times. This is followed by a case study of chilli crab, a national dish of post-independence Singapore. Like the Kuala Lumpur-style Singapore Noodles, chilli crab comprises the unexpected ketchup and begs the question of how a foreign condiment came to be an essential component of a local invention. But unlike the uncertainties surrounding the noodles, at least one of the pioneers of chilli crab has been identified and is available for interview. Since the two dishes were created in similar space and time, a case study of chilli crab may be extrapolated to understand how ketchup Singapore Noodles came about.

This investigation about ketchup’s journey, from bangers to noodles, illuminates the mobility of foodways to traverse between the global and the local. Ketchup remained “English” for only as long as it took to commercialise and export it worldwide. The product then became divorced from its roots and turned into a crucial element in the Cantonese cuisine of Hong Kong. Singapore Noodles, similarly produced against the backdrop of global migrations and free trade, appears to have emerged from the dialogue of foodways that are crossing in and out of national and cultural boundaries.

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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

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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Singapore Noodles: 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