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.
These da pai dong, or open-air cooked food stalls, are similar to today’s zi char stalls in terms of price point and food varieties. They sold affordable meals to men on the street, and usually operated from evenings to the wee hours of the morning, said Hooi. Most da pai dong offered Singapore Noodles, and based on Hooi’s descriptions, they were very similar to the ones I had in Kuala Lumpur. Firstly, there were char siew, one of the hallmarks of Cantonese roast meats. Char siew was included in the repertoire, Hooi explained, because da pai dong also roasted meats for sale — the same reason why tai chow in Kuala Lumpur added char siew to their Singapore Noodles, although the stalls these days buy ready-made ones instead. Hooi rejected my suggestion that the roast meat in the noodles was a leftover. “It was intended for good taste,” he said in Mandarin.
Besides char siew, the other similarities with the KL-style Singapore Noodles are onions, bean sprouts, cut red chilli, scallions and eggs. But unlike most Singapore Noodles today where the eggs are scrambled directly into, Hooi recalled omelettes or “蛋皮” being prepared separately and then sliced into thin shreds. The shredded omelette went in last, after the noodles were stir-fried with the other ingredients. There was no tomato ketchup or curry powder, he said.
Hooi did, however, recall seeing curried Singapore Noodles here in Singapore in the 1970s, but it was so rare that he believed it was an anomaly. Until I told him about Hong Kong’s Singapore Noodles, he didn’t know that his chance encounter was actually the standard elsewhere. By the 1970s, the curried version was already available in the American Chinese restaurant I interviewed, so I supposed it wasn’t invented in Singapore, or it wouldn’t be so unusual at the time when Hooi discovered it. What he saw could be copied from America or Hong Kong, where curried Singapore Noodles continues to be the norm today.
Pearl’s Market was destroyed by fire in 1966 and most, if not all of its da pai dong have closed for good. Over the years, Singapore Noodles became more elusive in Singapore, even among the Cantonese-owned zi char stalls today. Some Chinese restaurants began to offer the dish as part of their set menus around the 1970s, Hooi said, but that did not help increase its popularity among the wider Singaporean Chinese. I have seen the dish in a 1987 advertisement for a Hungry Ghost Festival dinner menu, but that restaurant in Toa Payoh is no more. Today, Singapore Noodles is a surprise rather than a staple in the local Chinese restaurants.
After establishing this connection between Singapore Noodles and the Cantonese communities in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong, there is more reason to zoom in on Cantonese cuisine and its influence on the dish. We already discussed char siew. I’m excited to move on to the less obvious — the tomato ketchup, a western condiment that somehow became a differentiating ingredient of the Malaysia-style Singapore Noodles. This investigation, which the “Heavenly Kings” also contributed to, will reveal how Singapore Noodles was an accumulation of centuries of culture exchanges, even before the dish found its place in the Chinese restaurants of every continent.
Interview with Hooi Kok Wai and Sin Leong on 17 April 2018
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.