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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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

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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We are the Curry Puffs and Laksa We Eat

Cooking curry puffs in boston

Every Friday, at a mosque in Roxbury, men and women covered in thawb and hijab patiently stand in line for a taste of Singapore cooked up by Madam Saadiah Hassan. Since moving to Boston three years ago, the Singaporean has been running the mosque’s café to pass her time, turning it into an informal gateway to the country where the fifty-something used to sell the very same delicacies in a food court.

Her standard staple for Singaporeans has become curious flavours for the mosque-goers who once knew little about Singapore. But Saadiah’s culinary prowess prompted them to find out more. “They tell me ‘You know mama I read about Singapore’,” chirped the lady who is popularly addressed as ‘mama’ here. “They say Singapore expensive, Singapore clean, Singapore no chewing gum.”

Saadiah is just one of many overseas Singaporeans who have created their own home outside of home through food. By cooking dishes from their home country for the locals, these Singaporeans seek to find a sense of belonging and be recognised by where they come from.

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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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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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