Finding Mee Pok Tah and the Singapore Identity in New York City

Cambodian Noodles from Bo Ky Restaurant in Manhattan Chinatown, and its pretty legit Teochew braised duck.

Cambodian Noodles from Bo Ky Restaurant in Manhattan Chinatown, and its pretty legit Teochew braised duck.

A middle-aged server with harsh facial features turned his gaze upon me. I held up the menu to signal him to back off, while I scanned it the fourth time for a sign of familiarity in the unfamiliar “Cambodian rice noodle or egg noodle soup.”

Fellow Singaporeans on Yelp, an online review site, told about a taste of home that could be coaxed out of this seemingly foreign dish. The noodles of a Sino-Cambodian restaurant in New York City’s Chinatown, said Natalie L., was “secretly mee pok.” One need only ask for the linguine-like egg noodles, and the soup to be served separately, not forgetting to add the chilli sauce provided on every table, to create the elusive (in New York City and some say United States) mee pok tah.

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Communism may have brought Singapore Noodles to the U.S.

Chris Cheung remembered Singapore Noodles from the 1980s when it was popular amongst the Chinese Americans in New York City. Like beef chow fun (broad and flat rice noodles) and chow mein (wheat noodles), Singapore Noodles was an economical dish that people liked to order with dim sum. It was cheap, flavourful, and it came in portions big enough to feed a group. “It was a favourite order when you go to Chinatown,” said Chris, who grew up in the neighbourhood and is now a chef himself. He is familiar enough with the Chinese food scene to have brought Anthony Bourdain and the No Reservations crew to some of his favourite restaurants in the city.

It was typical of a Cantonese restaurant in Manhattan Chinatown to serve Singapore Noodles. Unlike the small eateries that catered traditional foods like pan-fried butter fish and meat patty with salted egg (yuk pang) for the Taishanese working men, Chris explained, the Cantonese establishments tended to also cater for customers from outside the community. These businesses could be distinguished by their dim sum, barbecued meats, and Chinese American creations such as General Tso Chicken and egg rolls. He was careful to add that the Cantonese restaurants were mostly owned by the Chinese immigrants who had travelled to New York by route of Hong Kong.

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Tiong Bahru Market Directory: Q&A with Bravo

Image from tiongbahru.market

Image from tiongbahru.market

Hawker centre is culture, is history,  is charming, is Singaporean, and it is real. “Cool,” however, has never been in the vocabulary until local design studio Bravo creates an animated directory for the Tiong Bahru Market. The online directory shows an illustrated aerial view of the hawker centre—including tables and chairs, patrons, and cigarette smoke wafting in the smoker’s corner. When you roll your mouse over the numbered stalls, their names, opening hours, and illustrations of their foods pop out. The meticulous designers captured the nuances of the colours—the yellow of the fish ball noodles is more fluorescent than the egg tarts’—and whet my appetite with their beautiful renditions of peng kueh and ming jian kueh. They even included the tiffany-blue and marigold plates—the defining characteristics of the hawker food presentation. If you have food selection disorder, like I do when faced with more 80 stalls, the website’s “generator,” essentially a jackpot machine, will help you decide what to have for mains, drinks, and dessert.

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What the Chinese Newspapers said about 星洲米粉

Nanyang Siang Pau 24 January 1966, print screened from NewspaperSG

Nanyang Siang Pau 24 January 1966, print screened from NewspaperSG

The first mention of 星洲米粉 as a dish in local Chinese newspapers was in 1966. (Previously, the term referred to uncooked rice vermicelli manufactured in Singapore.) It was a feature article on the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The writer described the park, named after Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, as the perfect place for dating or to find a date, and for parents looking to spend a day with their children. There was a food court in the park that sold Ipoh hor fun, Penang laksa, and 星洲米粉. Although the writer did not describe the dishes, so we don’t know if it was flavoured with ketchup, we at least know that by 1966, a dish known as 星洲米粉 was already available in Malaysia.

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Singapore Noodles: Once a Reference to Made-in-Singapore Rice Vermicelli

Image taken from Cliff Richard official website.

Image taken from Cliff Richard official website.

When British pop star Cliff Richard announced he was going to cut a new album in Chinese in 1989, he made a point to inform the journalists that he loved everything Chinese, including his favourite food, Singapore Noodles.

The Straits Times 15 January 1989 report. Print screened from NewspaperSG.

The Straits Times 15 January 1989 report. Print screened from NewspaperSG.

Imagine the underwhelming reaction from Singaporeans at that time. If the pop star had listed bak kut teh or Hainanese chicken rice, many Singaporeans would certainly glow with pride. But the mentioning of Singapore Noodles would only yield responses that I imagined went something like this:”He loves Singapore Noodles? Eh… Yeah! But what is that huh?”

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What 100 Years of American Menu Designs Reveal About U.S. History

Neil Tavern, 1945, courtesy of Cool Culinaria

Neil Tavern, 1945, courtesy of Cool Culinaria

If you read them correctly, restaurant menus tell you more than just what’s on offer from the kitchen. Look closely and you’ll spot unwitting details of the era in which they were made. And if you have access to a choice collection of them that spans decades, they’ll actually tell you the story of America’s history (and make you pretty hungry, too). Oftentimes, you don’t even need to look beyond the artful covers to form an idea of the bygone days…

Read the rest of my story for the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) here.

Singapore Noodles, A Work in Progress

Curried Singapore Noodles from Great NY Noodletown in Manhattan.

Curried Singapore Noodles from Great NY Noodletown in Manhattan.

The first time I had Singapore Noodles was in 2007. I was a news intern in Kathmandu, Nepal, and the Chinese restaurant near my hostel, called the Golden Dragon, was my go-to place for quick and cheap meals. Despite calling itself a Chinese restaurant, it offered none of the Chinese foods that I had known. Singapore Noodles, it turned out, was a plate of yellow noodles stir-fried with a mixture of different vegetables and maybe some big chunks of meat. And oil. Lots of it. I learnt later in 2013, after moving to the US, that what Golden Dragon had on its menu were more accurately American or Western Chinese food.

Singapore Noodles is a staple in Manhattan’s Chinese restaurants. On the menus, it will appear with Chow Mein and Lo Mein. It comprises rice vermicelli (although chow fun/hor fun may also be used), bean sprouts, char siew, shrimp, onions, bell peppers and/or other vegetables. Its iconic turmeric-yellow comes from a generous scoop of curry powder. I find it fascinating that something not known in Singapore is named Singapore Noodles, and the thousands who love and cook it are anyone but Singaporeans, so I begin my investigations about this dish.

It is important to know that most of these restaurants belong to immigrants from Guangdong, most of them Taishanese, but there are also Cantonese from other parts of the province, as well as from Hong Kong. Taishanese were the first Chinese to arrive in the US during the 1800s, and the first to set up Chinese restaurants in Manhattan. However, the surviving Taishanese-owned restaurants do not serve Taishanese but Cantonese food. According a Taishanese immigrant who had lived in Manhattan Chinatown for decades, Taishan was a poor village where people ate peasant food like yam with rice. No way the Americans would patronise a restaurant that sold such food, he said. I assume Singapore Noodles is one of the many adaptations from their Cantonese counterparts.

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Hawker Food Poster: We are the Colours We Eat

Wearethecolorsweeat_WEBNEW

“Singaporeans” are more befittingly the colours of what they eat, rather than the colours of their skins. This is because food colours express what skin colours do not: shared history, intercultural exchanges, common understanding of tastes, and love for the same food. In this poster, which expresses the intimacy between people in Singapore using the colours of their foods, the introduction reads:

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The Search for General Tso and the Chinese American Belonging

Image from The Search for General Tso

Image from The Search for General Tso

Why is Chinese food in America so different from what we see in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong? The film, The Search of General Tso, provides an insight to this phenomenon as it traces the history of a dish particularly popular with the Americans — General Tso Chicken. The film brings its audience to Hunan, China where the namesake is from, and to Taiwan to locate the creator of those sweet-spicy deep fried chicken. What at first looks like a superficial quest to ascertain the ownership of a dish turns out to be a bigger story about Chinese American history.

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Milton Glaser’s Chinese Grocery Poster

(image from School of Visual Art's Container List)

(image from School of Visual Art’s Container List)

The items found in New York City’s Chinese groceries today, I can imagine, are baffling to Chinese and non-Chinese alike. What is one to do with a whole packet of duck tongues, black fungus, and dried bean curd sticks? (Answer: braise it, stir-fry it, and stew it, respectively) The very same items in the 1970s, a time when Chinese and all things about them were very much considered exotic, would have been deemed mysterious, or even dangerous, and required a caption to go along for the uninitiated. Perhaps seeing a need there, Milton Glaser, the man behind the overly adapted I love New York logo, created a chart-like poster to guide one through a Chinatown grocery. It explained items like preserved celery cabbage, thousand-year eggs, and even provided instructions for calculating with an abacus.

Commissioned by the International Design Conference, the poster was created in 1972—the same year Nixon went to China after decades of hostility and distrust between the two nations. Then Chinese Prime Minister Zhou En Lai hosted a meal in Nixon’s honour and the live broadcast sparked off an explosion of interest in Chinese food. Prior to that, during the Cold War, communist and Chinese were synonymous to the Americans and so was their hatred towards them. Therefore, only in 1972 and the subsequent years would Glaser’s poster be of use to the mainstream Americans.