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.

What I will share today is what I’ve found so far. I am not yet done with the research. It turns out be a massive project, involving at least three variations of Singapore Noodles, many cities and immigration stories of different people. I will tell you right away, that I still don’t know who invented the dish, but the investigation has revealed many interesting themes. You’ll see how food cultures are not bounded by national borders, how the foodways of immigrants in different places interact with one another, and how one dish can embody multiple, sometimes contrasting meanings.

I am going to take you on a journey to several places.

  • We will start off in the virtual world, where we’ll get a sense of who’s eating Singapore Noodles, and what it looks like.
  • We then move on to Singapore, to learn how the dish is connected to the Cantonese.
  • In Kuala Lumpur, Singapore Noodles contains ketchup, and we’ll speculate why.
  • Next stop is Hong Kong, where curried Singapore Noodles is typical. We will find out why this version gets to be the popular one in the western world.
  • We will then go to New York. Chinese immigrants there tend to work in restaurants and we’ll learn why these restaurants sell Singapore Noodles, Hong Kong-style.
  • Finally, I’ll end with some words on what Singapore Noodles can tell us.

My sources include:

  • Restaurant owners, chefs, academics whom I’ve interviewed
  • Research papers
  • Newspaper archives
  • Food media and blogs. In 2015, I googled “singapore noodles recipes” and examined the first 80 results that came up.
  • I also studied about 5000 Instagram posts that are hastagged “singaporenoodles”. Last month, I looked at another 120 to get an update.

What is Singapore Noodles?

If you haven’t had Singapore Noodles, this is a general idea: It has noodles, meat, at least a few vegetables, all of these stir-fried together. Most people buy rather than cook it at home. It’s an affordable, one-dish meal.

What Noodles?

Those of you familiar with Singapore Noodles would expect rice vermicelli, but there are also wheat, glass and konjac noodles.

What Meats?

Mostly chicken or beef.

What Vegetables?

Vegetables could be any kind. I’ve seen baby corn, snow peas, broccoli and even a fruit like avocado. Regardless of the ingredients, we can see that all of them are turmeric-yellow in colour.

Must Have Curry!

That is because they all contain curry powder. The media and blogs agree that curry is the key ingredient, although they differ on the style.

Who eats Singapore Noodles? According to Instagram, they are mostly Caucasians. More than half are from the US and UK, followed by Canada and Australia. If there are Asians, they tend to live in these countries too.  

About 80% of those who shared the images are women, even though the proportion of female Instagrammers is only half. This is probably because Singapore Noodles has been co-opted into several popular diets, and more women than men subscribed to them.   

Vegans, Vegetarians and…

A good number of Singapore Noodles pictures are hashtagged vegan, vegetarian and gluten free. Among these, 3 out of 10 are also hashtagged homemade or homecooked. The vegans and vegetarians use only vegetables in their recipe, but get to be creative with the noodles. The gluten free community, however, is attracted to Singapore Noodles for its rice vermicelli, one of the few noodles that agrees with them. If you google “rice vermicelli recipes”, Singapore Noodles will come up in the very first page.

Good for Dieting?

In 2015, Instagram was flooded with pictures of a ready-made Singapore Noodles newly launched by Slimming World, a weight management company based in the UK. This triggered a revival of interest in Singapore Noodles among the English women looking to lose weight. Many shared pictures of their new diet, consisting of chicken, prawns, peas, wheat noodles and curry powder.

So Caucasians, mostly women, love Singapore Noodles, because they believe it is good for health and body shape. Besides the homemade ones, where else can we find the dish?

Who Sells Singapore Noodles?

At the local Chinese restaurants and takeout.

What does that make the noodles? The media is undecided between Asian and fusion.

Others thought it’s a good idea to exoticise the dish. They call it:

Despite their uncertainty about what Singapore Noodles is, there’s one thing the media can agree on, that is the dish did not originate in Singapore:

Do we really not have Singapore Noodles here? To answer that, we have to take a look at its other names.

Other Names

星洲米粉. 星洲was a shorthand for Singapore, while 米粉means rice vermicelli in Mandarin. In Cantonese, it is also called星洲炒米, with an emphasis on the cooking method, 炒, which is stir-fry. 星洲米粉 or 星洲炒米 are not only available in Singapore, but also in Malaysia and Hong Kong. They are similar in terms of ingredients and their connection with the local Cantonese. This suggests that they are varieties of the same dish.

Singapore

Let’s start with Singapore. This is a 星洲米粉 I recently had at Circuit Road hawker centre — quite typical of the Singapore Noodles here. There are mock char siew, prawns, bean sprouts, cabbage, egg and green chillies. You can tell from the colour that there is no curry powder, and neither do the vast majority of Singapore Noodles here.

The Cantonese Connection

Today, we find Singapore Noodles mostly at zi char stalls and some Chinese restaurants. But back in the 1940s, the dish was a specialty of Cantonese cooks, who set up stalls at Chin Choo Pa Sat, where People’s Park Complex is today. That was a time when the Chinese pretty much lived, worked and ate with people of their own dialect. The Teochew hung out at Clarke Quay and ate char kway teow at the Ellenborough Market, whereas the Cantonese preferred the hor fun at Chin Choo Pa Sat.

Mr Hooi Kok Wai, here in the picture, is one of the four “Heavenly Kings” of local Cantonese cuisine. He remembers Singapore Noodles from the open-air food stalls at the market during the 1940s. These stalls, which he called “dai pai dong”, are similar to today’s zi char stalls. They sold a range of dishes to the regular folks, and operated from evenings to past midnight, some until 6 am in the morning.

The Ingredients

Their Singapore Noodles contained real char siew, which the stalls produced separately for sale. There were also prawns, onions, bean sprouts, spring onions, red chilies and 蛋皮, thin omelet cut into strips. Except for a couple of vegetables, the ingredients are almost the same as what I had at Circuit Road. Even the mock char siew hints at the 1940s version. The replacement seems necessary, since zi char stalls today don’t produce roast meats, and nothing else in their menu requires char siew.

Again, Singapore Noodles from the 40s had no curry powder. Between now and then, Mr Hooi hasn’t come across any curried Singapore Noodles, which means that the idea probably didn’t come from Singapore.

Cantonese Restaurants too

Cantonese restaurants also serve Singapore Noodles. They started doing so by the 1970s, according to Mr Hooi. This is a 1987 advertisement for a Hungry Ghost Festival menu. 星洲米粉 came in the 8th course of the most expensive set. Like the stalls at Chin Choo Market, Lucky Restaurant was also Cantonese, selling dim sum and roast meats too. I suppose their Singapore Noodles would come with char siew.

But today, Singapore Noodles are not so commonly found, in restaurants or even zi cha stalls. At our next stop in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore Noodles is much more common, and appreciated by the locals.

KL’s Cantonese Connection

Any Malaysian who enjoys hawker food will have eaten Singapore Noodles. It is a classic one-dish meal at tai chow, a no-frills eatery much like Singapore’s zi char. Tai chow used to be on the streets, offering affordable food to the hard-working folks. The Cantonese were the main players in this business. Tai chow literally means “big fry” in Cantonese, referring to the restaurants’ primary method of cooking — quick stir-fry over big flames. Tai chow subsequently moved into the ground floor of buildings, selling more upmarket dishes to the middle class. But Singapore Noodles remained a perennial presence, so much so that some Malaysians are convinced that it was created in KL.

Once Upon a Time

One of them is Malaysian food researcher Lim Kim Cherng, who published an essay about its origin in 2006. He believes that Singapore Noodles was created in KL towards the end of WWII. The story goes that, one day, a tai chow received a customer near closing time, so it had to put together a meal with scraps. There were bee hoon, char siew, bean sprouts, egg, onion, chilli and dried shrimps. Happy with his food, the customer asked for its name. Apparently, Singapore was a more prosperous city than KL at the time, so the tai chow owner came up with 星洲米粉, to give that plate of leftovers an upgrade.

Unfortunately, this tai chow is no more. But I visited two old establishments in KL that have been serving Singapore Noodles for at least 50 years. They are Sek Yuen and Sang Kee, shown in the earlier slide. One was opened in 1948 and the other in 1955.

Char Siew is Key

Their Singapore Noodles are quite the same, and consistent with the “original” described in the story. They both have char siew, which seems to be a standard ingredient in KL’s Singapore Noodles. According to Sang Kee, tai chow in the past produced their own siu yok and char siew. This is why they could offer the roast meat in their Singapore Noodles. But skillful masters of Cantonese roast have become elusive and expensive to engage. Most tai chow today have stopped selling roast meats. Sang Kee and Sek Yuan now buy their char siew instead.

If you recall, dai pai dong at Chin Choo Pa Sat also produced char siew and put it in their Singapore Noodles. These stalls were selling the dish at about the same time when the KL version is said to be invented. It seems that the dai pai dong in Singapore, and tai chow in KL, were somehow aware of or even influencing one another, and as a result, both cities had the same dish by the same name.

The Ketchup Twist

Although they are similar, there is one differentiating ingredient between the noodles in both cities. The Singapore Noodles in KL contains tomato ketchup. According to Sek Yuan, ketchup is essential to a tai chow kitchen and was particularly popular in the 70s. It can be found in several dishes such as ketchup prawns ee-fu noodles.

But the original seasoning for Singapore Noodles was actually Worcestershire sauce, and Sang Kee still sticks to tradition. The owner, Mr Lee, told me that most tai chow were still using the sauce for Singapore Noodles up till the 1960s, but they later switched to tomato ketchup because it was cheaper. Maybe, also because it was becoming popular.

Is Ketchup in Singapore Noodles a Cantonese Idea?

Before we move on to the next city, I want to make a speculation: that is tomato ketchup and Worcestershire sauce are also a Cantonese influence in Singapore Noodles. While there were British in Malaya during colonial times, and they would have created local demand and access to these condiments, I think two different food cultures like the British and Chinese will have to have an extensive dialogue to converge. At the end of this talk, I will discuss the influence of Hong Kong’s modern Cantonese cuisine around the mid-century. Some of its hybrid dishes could give us a clue. But hold that thought for now. We will first examine the Singapore Noodles in Hong Kong.

Sold in Hong Kong’s Cha Chaan Teng

If you go to a cha chaan tng, you will find Singapore Noodles in their menu. This connection goes back to the 1950s, when cha chaan teng emerged to offer affordable foreign-style cuisine. Western food and Southeast Asian fare were becoming popular with the rising middle class, because they considered them modern and cosmopolitan.

The Foreign-Style Dishes

They consumed French toast, Russian borscht, Xiamen Noodles (left) and Singapore Noodles (right) to display their social status, and differentiate themselves from those who couldn’t afford the same. These food symbols didn’t come cheap. 星洲炒米cost $1 in the 1950s. That was three times more than the price of wanton noodle, a common local street food.

The ingredients in Hong Kong’s Singapore Noodles is almost identical to the ones in KL and Singapore. Some cha chaan tng may replace char siew with ham that they also use in their breakfast service, but that’s only because they want to keep their inventory small. That aside, I think it’s safe to say that Singapore Noodles in the three locations are the same dish.

The Curious Curry

The only distinguishing element in Hong Kong’s rendition is curry powder, which gives the noodles a turmeric yellow hue. This isn’t a surprise because Hong Kong has a love affair with curry. Curry beef brisket, curry fish balls, curry pork chop are just some of the many curry dishes popular in Hong Kong. Singapore Noodles could be part of the same trend that gave rise to these dishes.

Several authors and academics attribute the Singapore Noodles in Hong Kong to the Southeast Asians who migrated there in the 1940s and 50s. Some of these immigrants set up restaurants selling Nanyang cuisine, and that included Singapore Noodles. There’s little information about what the dish was like, and whether it contained ketchup or Worcestershire sauce. But I am certain that the curry version came about only later, in Hong Kong, since it is unheard of in Singapore and KL.

Why does the West only know of HK’s Singapore Noodles?

We already know that Hong Kong’s Singapore Noodles is the only version that became popular in the West. Why and how did that happen?

Immigration was the first thing that come to mind. When I was studying in the US, I learned that many Chinese Americans came from Hong Kong, but the bulk of them were actually born in mainland China. Hong Kong, for some reason, became a stopover for these immigrants. That reason, was communism.

Communist Effect on Singapore Noodles

After the Chinese Civil War and the victory of the communist party in 1949, millions of mainland Chinese escaped to Hong Kong. The subsequent famine continued to drive a steady flow of Chinese to the British colony between the 50s and 60s. Why Hong Kong? Because immigration was restricted by China. Other than Hong Kong, the Chinese in China could only migrate to Socialist countries such as the Soviet Union.

On top of that, few places were open to Chinese immigrants. The US, Canada and Australia had policies specifically to keep Asians out. The UK was relatively welcoming, but only to those born in British territories. In the mid 1960s, things began to change. US, Canada and Australia revised their immigration regulations and removed the entry quota for Chinese. Finally, those who had escaped to Hong Kong could move on the west. These immigrants, with some knowledge of the food in Hong Kong, would introduce Singapore Noodles to their new home.   

In NYC, Singapore Noodles was reproduced…

My research on the journey of Singapore Noodles, from East to West, is largely based on New York City. The dish is as well known to the white Americans as it is to the local Chinese. This means that the noodle was reproduced in professional rather than just domestic kitchens.

The immigrants who left Hong Kong for the Big Apple were likely to work in a restaurant or laundromat. This was a ripple effect of the discriminatory laws against the Chinese that started from the previous century. Basically, there were no employment opportunities for them, except for cooking and washing, the only jobs that the white men didn’t want for themselves, because they thought these were too feminine. Although the economic restrictions on the Chinese had eased by the 1960s, the immigrants who arrived after still turned to the restaurant business.

Why? If you’re beginning a new life in somewhere new, you will probably seek advice from people who were there before you. What else but the restaurant or laundry business could their predecessors teach them? Most importantly, waiting tables didn’t require good English. If they work in the kitchen, they didn’t need to speak at all.

Chinese = Cantonese-Style

When the Chinese set up restaurants in Manhattan they didn’t sell just any food. They served Cantonese-style dishes. This started with the earlier immigrants who took inspiration from the Cantonese cuisine of Guangzhou, and then tweaked it to suit the taste of the white Americans. These immigrants were actually Taishanese, also from the Guangdong province further down here, but their traditional diet was peasant food that would not appeal to any paying customer. So instead, they copied Cantonese food and localised it. This formula became such a success that it was replicated by the immigrants who arrived later. That is why the Chinese American restaurants in Manhattan today are mostly Cantonese-style.

Singapore Noodles in Manhattan

These restaurants would introduce Singapore Noodles to the New Yorkers. One explanation is that the post-1960s immigrants from Hong Kong put it in their menu, and it caught on. This will explain why the Singapore Noodles in Manhattan are curried. The ingredients, however, vary depending on the restaurant’s inventory. I’ve not seen one that comes with char siew. It’s usually bits of stir-fried pork or chicken. Vegetables that white people favour, like broccoli and capsicum, are common here.

While Instagram suggests that Singapore Noodles is only popular with the Caucasians, it had actually been a regular diet of the local Chinese. Chris Cheung, a well-known chef in NYC, told me it was popular with the community in the 80s. He used to have the noodles with dim sum, because it was cheap and filling. Chris also confirmed that his favourite restaurants were owned by immigrants who came to New York by route (root) of Hong Kong.

Chris Cheung on the left with the late Anthony Bourdain.

Even if not from HK

There’s another explanation to the widespread presence of Singapore Noodles in Chinese American restaurants. This is Great NY Noodletown. People on Yelp think that it has the best Singapore Noodles in Manhattan. One of its owners, Stephen, came from Hong Kong in the 70s, but the restaurant was opened earlier, in 1964, by his partner who came directly from China. By the time Stephen joined the business, it was already serving Singapore Noodles, Hong Kong-style. I asked Stephen what made his partner put it in the menu if he had no personal memories of it. Stephen said, and I quote, “When open a Cantonese restaurant, everyone will follow Hong Kong style.”

Rise of HK’s Cantonese Cuisine

I thought Stephen was being boastful, but he was right. After 1950, Hong Kong was the leader of Cantonese culinary artistry, and its take on the cuisine was an inspiration for Cantonese restaurants everywhere. It began in the early 20th century, when political upheaval in China drove renown chefs and restaurant owners from Guangzhou to the British colony. The subsequent famine in the 1950s, cultural revolution between the 60s and 70s, brought culinary in-deavours in the mainland to a halt. While Cantonese cuisine in Guangzhou slipped into decline, Hong Kong took it to new levels.

This could explain why Great NY Noodletown, and other Chinese American restaurants, would take ideas from Hong Kong even if they had no prior relationship with the place. While Singapore Noodles does not fall into the category of modern Cantonese cuisine that Hong Kong was becoming known for, I don’t think the businesses were sticklers for authenticity. Over time, Singapore Noodles, prepared Hong Kong style, became a staple in Chinese American restaurants across New York City.

The massive number of Chinese migrants passing through Hong Kong to a better life, coupled with its culinary influence, helped propelled Singapore Noodles to global fame. But the further it travels and the more it transforms to suit local taste, the more its Cantonese roots became lost on the people who appreciate it today. This is why Singapore Noodles is many things: vegetarian, pescatarian, even fancy with a steak. The fuzzier its origins, the more people could make it their own without being accused of inauthenticity or appropriation.

Is Ketchup in Singapore Noodles a Cantonese Idea?

Before I end, I want to quickly go back to the ketchup and Worcestershire sauce in KL. I said they could be Cantonese-influenced, and that’s because the new Cantonese cuisine developed in Hong Kong consisted of these sauces. After 1900, the Chinese elites in the British colony developed a taste for Western flavours, which had been exclusive to the Europeans in the previous century. In modernising Cantonese cuisine that was fit for the new rich, the chefs in Hong Kong incorporated western ingredients, giving rise to hybrid dishes such as ketchup-flavoured sweet and sour pork and ngao yuk, steamed beef balls topped with Worcestershire.

This was the kind of Cantonese cooking that became a model for Cantonese chefs in Southeast Asia. I know that the two surviving Heavenly Kings of Singapore, Mr Hooi and Sin Leong, regularly use tomato ketchup, Worcestershire and HP sauce in their cooking for dishes such as fried garoupa and chilli crab. They told me that they were introduced to these sauces by their mentor from Hong Kong during the 1950s. I suspect that the tai chow in KL have also been influenced by Hong Kong, and that is why the same sauces are so well integrated into their food repertoire.

Sweet and sour pork (left) and ngao yuk (right)

What can Singapore Noodles tell us

  • We are more connected to the “outsiders” than we think we are. Because food travels with people, and people learn from one another all the time, we share many aspects of our culinary cultures with other ethnicities and nationalities. Because of that, using food to express an identity, that is, drawing the line between “us” and “them”, is often problematic.
  • We saw many variations of Singapore Noodles. The dish is not bounded by ownerships or definitions, and has been adapted by many people. It is, today, as relevant and personal to the vegans in the US as it is to the working class in Hong Kong. Singapore Noodles may seem like a cultural orphan, but it has a place everywhere it goes. We can’t say the same for dishes that are burdened with identities and symbolisms, therefore off limits to interpretations.

My Journey Continues

There’s a lot more that I need to find out:

  • How Worcestershire and ketchup ended up in KL’s Singapore Noodles
  • What type of curry powder was first used in HK’s. It could be Indian, British or Chinese, and each will tell a different story about the people producing or consuming Singapore Noodles at the time. 
  • I recently learned that in Estonia and places around like Latvia there is a group of Indian and Nepali immigrants selling Singapore Noodles at their Asian restaurants. This is Prem Karki, a Nepali who has worked in a restaurant in Delhi and now runs his own business in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. His Singapore Noodles also contains curry, but uses pad thai noodles. Prem told me learned to cook that in India. There seems to be a whole different immigrant story in another part of the world and I hope to investigate that.  

THANK YOU.

This story is a part of my research about Singapore Noodles’s origins and how it has impacted the lives of those who eat it and also those whose identities it has been associated with. Other related stories can be found here.

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