Singapore Noodles is widely available in Hong Kong. It is also the only Asian city where the noodles is flavoured with curry powder. This means it could be where the curried Singapore Noodles in the UK, US and other western countries originated. I visited Hong Kong in May this year and spoke to few people to learn about the city’s Singapore Noodles. They were Veronica Mak, an adjunct assistant professor at the anthropology department of the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Vivien Chan, visiting Scholar at Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences; Mr Kwan, third generation owner of Mido Cafe; and Lan Chun Chung, owner of Lan Fong Yuen (he does not sell Singapore noodles, but has some knowledge of the dish). I summarised the key points about Singapore Noodles there:
Used to be Expensive
Singapore Noodles was available in Hong Kong by the 1940s, when it cost around $1 until at least the 1960s. Wanton mee, a quintessential Hong Kong dish, was only 30 cents during the same period.
Sold in Restaurant or Cafés
It wasn’t a street food like Malaysia or Singapore, but was sold at brick and mortar restaurants and western-influenced cafes that later became known as “cha chaan tng”. When Mido Cafe opened in 1950, it offered an international menu that included French toasts and Singapore Noodles. The latter was priced at $1. Three of the four interviewees, including Kwan, pointed out the Singapore Noodles was often sold alongside beef chow fun (干炒牛河), whether it was in the restaurants or Mido Cafe. This connection could be worth investigating.
While some dai pai dong today produce Singapore Noodles, it came about only in the recent decades. These street stalls go back to the post-war years when it was set up by people struggling to make ends meet. The British government subsequently licensed them according to food categories: congee and cheong fun, sandwich and tea, noodles, tong shui, and one-dish meals. Each dai pai dong could only sell food from one of the categories. While there were noodle stalls, the early hawkers could not have produced Singapore Noodles as the dai pai dong in those days were very short of space and simple in set-up. Roasting char siew would be impossible. Besides, made-to-order dishes, which is what Singapore Noodles is, were uncommon among dai pai dong until the 1970s. That is to say that Singapore Noodles in Hong Kong has a longer history with cha chaan tng than dai pai dong.
Singapore Noodles in Hong Kong are almost identical with the ones in Southeast Asia. Like KL’s, Hong Kong’s Singapore Noodles comprises real char siew, along with egg, prawns, bean sprouts, red chillies, spring onions, chives and onions. A cha chaan tng that doesn’t stock char siew would use ham instead. Kwan from Mido heard that eggs were added because the Cantonese cooks believed it would prevent the rice vermicelli from clumping together.
The key ingredient in Hong Kong’s Singapore Noodles. While many cha chaan tng buy pre-mixed curry powder from their supplier, Mido makes theirs from scratch, starting from whole spices. The cafe grinds them while aromatics like onions and shallots, and then fries the paste until fragrant — much like how we cook our rempah in this part of the world. Mido does not add coconut milk because it spoils quickly, but uses broth. Their Singapore Noodles reminded me of Tsui Wah’s curry brisket. Both curries are distinctive and unlike any (Malay, Indian or Chinese-style) curries that I’ve tasted. It also reminded me of five spice powder, and I’m guessing they used a lot of cinnamon powder. Kwan said Hong Kong’s curries tend be sweeter, but was reluctant to elaborate. The scholars I interviewed haven’t done any research on Hong Kong’s curries, but Veronica noted that there were already Indians selling curries in Central by the 1960s. I’m interested to find out if they or the immigrants from Nanyang played any role in popularising curry in Hong Kong.
Nanyang immigrants in Hong Kong
After the communist party ruled China in 1949, it called on the overseas Chinese to return home. According to Veronica, many in Nanyang responded accordingly but later regretted their decision. By the 1950s, some of these immigrants moved again but this time to Hong Kong, to which they introduced Nanyang dishes via their eateries and restaurants. I need to speak with these people to find out if they have anything to do with Singapore Noodles.
Also widely available in cha chaa tng, this dish is exactly the same as Singapore Noodles except that it contains a sweet and sour sauce instead of curry powder. Cha chaan tng named several dishes after cities around the world to emphasise a cosmopolitan menu, so the dish may not have anything to do with Xiamen after all. Mido Cafe has this dish since 1950 so I guess it may have an intertwining history with Singapore Noodles.
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.