SGX : Sambal Goreng Exchange with Aida Muda

Sambal tumis telor.

Sambal tumis telor.

Aida texts me a few hours before I’m due to meet her at her sister’s flat. She has already cooked the sambal for the exchange with Rose, because it is also for her lunch with her sisters and their mother.

I arrive at 4 p.m. to find a household full of young and older women. There is Aida, two of her older sisters, their mother, her niece and her niece’s toddler, and her young nephew — the only opposite gender who can be home on a weekday afternoon.

The sambal tumis for Rose is already packed in a plastic container. I ask to take pictures of it, so Aida scoops another portion into a pretty glass dish found in many Malay kitchens. There are pots of leftovers on the stove, including a fermented durian (tempoyak) curry. There is also a box full of cempedak that they plan to fry for dinner.

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SGX : Sambal Goreng Exchange with Rose B. Rusdi

Sambal Mak Kasek

Sambal Mak Kasek

Rose takes a while to open the metal gate. When she appears from behind a wooden screen, which blocks the view of her flat from the corridor, she’s in tudong and home clothes. The mismatched outfit suggests she has gone to cover herself after I knocked on the door. The moment we’re in the dining area, she takes off her tudong. I remind her that I’ll be taking pictures, so she puts it back on, along with a nice set of baju kurung.

While she’s changing in her room I notice the ingredients on the dining table. A shallot is frozen in a half cut state, while a tablet continues blasting euphoric American-accented commentaries.

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Singapore Noodles is “a cross-cultural mutated freak of nature”

Singapore Noodles is popular, but whether it is Asian, fusion, or a cross-cultural mutated freak of nature, no one knows for sure. With little information to offer, the media place their bets on this mystery. They get away with such shoddy journalism, partly because the noodles needs little introduction. Anyone who has lived in Hong Kong, or has depended on take-outs in the UK, the US, and Australia, is no stranger to the bright yellow, curry-laden noodles.

But when studied all together, the print, television (online), and blogs paints a telling picture of the dish. I analyse key phrases in the first 80 Singapore Noodles recipes that Google generates based on the keywords “Singapore noodles recipe,” and here is what I found:

Popular in the West, Except Hong Kong

The media say it’s “famous” and “popular,” but is careful to set the scope within which this statement holds water. Hong Kong stands out as the only Asian city where Singapore Noodles is said to be prevalent. Whether it is Hong Kong or Australia, such specifications suggest that the writers, and possibly the men in the street of each city, are unaware of their common love for the noodles.

The media also tend to specify the food categories — Chinese take-out or Chinese American restaurants— under which this dish is a favourite, hinting at a different assessment should it be taken out of its usual contexts.

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Out with the Old, In with the New-Old

rebel-with-a-course

Rebel With A Course reads like an ah chek regaling with colourful tales of the good old days prior to the hawker centres and HDBs. Except, Queen’s English rolls off the author’s, Damian D’Silva’s tongue, and the slightest details that usually escape one’s mind embellish his stories — “The wet market had two rows of food stalls at the front, selling a host of dishes from the different Chinese dialect groups. There was you char kway, lor mee, yong tau foo, chwee kueh, and our favourite, mee pok tah.”  I am captivated and almost convinced that the past was better than the present. Perhaps, heritage dishes, like he says, should be preserved the way it was.

But I’m afraid D’Silva and the many else of his generation are the only ones who truly appreciate heritage dishes. They have had their fair share from the street peddlers, or have been forced to help cooking some at home. Pleasant or not, these experiences in their formative years shaped their preferences. Today, where the flavours of the past are no more, they yearn for the old and lambast the new.

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Caucasians, Mostly Women, Love Singapore Noodles

Instagram, the public platform for sharing pictorial details of one’s life, and a place to show off financial and social clout through food pictures, is a perfect source for sussing out who are the people and why they are eating Singapore Noodles. To date, there are over 5000 images hash-tagged “Singaporenoodles.” Even though the application is not an accurate representation of the larger real world, the sample size is sufficient to reveal patterns of consumption. Here are my observations:

Mostly Caucasians

An estimated 80 percent of those who hash-tagged “Singaporenoodles” are Caucasians. Race is important here because it gives us an idea of where this dish has travelled to and to whom it appeals. It looks like the majority of those who enjoy this noodles are not the Asian immigrants but the locals in the Western countries. Another way to explain this is that the Caucasians are more likely to find the noodles Instagram-worthy, because eating Asian, a cuisine outside their comfort zone, suggests that they are adventurous and sophisticated.

singapore-noodles-oriental

Only this user knows how carrots and peas could be oriental. Her choice of words suggests that she is exploring an Otherness through her food.

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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, Hong Kong’s curried-style. 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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