The Indians and Nepalese behind Singapore Noodles in Tallinn, Estonia

It wasn’t the Chinese restaurants bringing Singapore Noodles to the locals in Tallinn, the capitol of Estonia, as is the case in many western countries. When in the city to visit a friend earlier this year, I didn’t see any Chinese restaurant, but there was no difficulty finding the dish.

Singapore Noodles made its way to Estonia through the “Asian” restaurants operated by the Indian and Nepali immigrants. These restaurants sell a mixture of Indian, Chinese and Thai dishes — some classics, while others unrecognisable to the members of the respective community. Plenty of dishes are named after a certain city — Shanghai Lamb, Hong Kong Chicken, Sichuan Beef — usually inventions to pique the curiosity of unsuspecting customers.

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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.

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Singapore Noodles: The Curried Version in Hong Kong

Mido’s Singapore Noodles

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:

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Chilli Crab: A Case Study for Singapore Noodles

(Left to right) Singapore Noodles in ketchup, Worcestershire and curry.

(Left to right) Singapore Noodles in ketchup, Worcestershire and curry powder.

Singapore Noodles is replete with ironies. It is elusive in the city that it is named after, but a common staple in Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong. In any of these places, the dish is prepared by the local Cantonese communities, using sauces that are essentially British inventions – either ketchup, Worcestershire sauce or curry powder. I wonder if a common past among these former British colonies helped shaped Singapore Noodles into the three varieties there are. This story attempts to answer this by tracing the temporal and spatial journeys of tomato ketchup, from 18th century England to 20th century British Malaya, where the ketchup-flavoured Singapore Noodles found popularity and is still so today.

I begin by investigating how the Western condiment became a key ingredient for Chinese cuisines in Singapore and Malaysia during the colonial times. This is followed by a case study of chilli crab, a national dish of post-independence Singapore. Like the Kuala Lumpur-style Singapore Noodles, chilli crab comprises the unexpected ketchup and begs the question of how a foreign condiment came to be an essential component of a local invention. But unlike the uncertainties surrounding the noodles, at least one of the pioneers of chilli crab has been identified and is available for interview. Since the two dishes were created in similar space and time, a case study of chilli crab may be extrapolated to understand how ketchup Singapore Noodles came about.

This investigation about ketchup’s journey, from bangers to noodles, illuminates the mobility of foodways to traverse between the global and the local. Ketchup remained “English” for only as long as it took to commercialise and export it worldwide. The product then became divorced from its roots and turned into a crucial element in the Cantonese cuisine of Hong Kong. Singapore Noodles, similarly produced against the backdrop of global migrations and free trade, appears to have emerged from the dialogue of foodways that are crossing in and out of national and cultural boundaries.

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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

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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Singapore Noodles: 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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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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*Updated* 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:

Update 1/7/2019: I went through another 117 posts dated between 18 and 28 June 2019 to find out if any of these observations (done in August 2015) has changed. I will be presenting my research on Singapore Noodles at the National Museum of Singapore in the coming August so an update is necessary. 

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.

Update 1/7/2019: Of the 117 posts, 45 are by Instagrammers who provide an image of themselves in their profile. Most of these 45 people are presumably Caucasians, based on their self-introduction, skin colour, and last name. 9 of them are Asians, mostly Indians, and a couple of Chinese and one Korean. At least half of these Asians reside in the UK or US when they posted the image.  It seems that Singapore Noodles is still popular among the Caucasians, although Asians living in cities that are predominantly white are increasingly eating this dish too. There are a handful of Africans and Hispanic people behind these pictures too.

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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