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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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. 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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What the Chinese Newspapers said about 星洲米粉

Nanyang Siang Pau 24 January 1966, print screened from NewspaperSG

Nanyang Siang Pau 24 January 1966, print screened from NewspaperSG

The first mention of 星洲米粉 as a dish in local Chinese newspapers was in 1966. (Previously, the term referred to uncooked rice vermicelli manufactured in Singapore.) It was a feature article on the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The writer described the park, named after Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, as the perfect place for dating or to find a date, and for parents looking to spend a day with their children. There was a food court in the park that sold Ipoh hor fun, Penang laksa, and 星洲米粉. Although the writer did not describe the dishes, so we don’t know if it was flavoured with ketchup, we at least know that by 1966, a dish known as 星洲米粉 was already available in Malaysia.

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Singapore Noodles: Once a Reference to Made-in-Singapore Rice Vermicelli

Image taken from Cliff Richard official website.

Image taken from Cliff Richard official website.

When British pop star Cliff Richard announced he was going to cut a new album in Chinese in 1989, he made a point to inform the journalists that he loved everything Chinese, including his favourite food, Singapore Noodles.

The Straits Times 15 January 1989 report. Print screened from NewspaperSG.

The Straits Times 15 January 1989 report. Print screened from NewspaperSG.

Imagine the underwhelming reaction from Singaporeans at that time. If the pop star had listed bak kut teh or Hainanese chicken rice, many Singaporeans would certainly glow with pride. But the mentioning of Singapore Noodles would only yield responses that I imagined went something like this:”He loves Singapore Noodles? Eh… Yeah! But what is that huh?”

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Singapore Noodles, A Work in Progress

Curried Singapore Noodles from Great NY Noodletown in Manhattan.

Curried Singapore Noodles from Great NY Noodletown in Manhattan.

The first time I had Singapore Noodles was in 2007. I was a news intern in Kathmandu, Nepal, and the Chinese restaurant near my hostel, called the Golden Dragon, was my go-to place for quick and cheap meals. Despite calling itself a Chinese restaurant, it offered none of the Chinese foods that I had known. Singapore Noodles, it turned out, was a plate of yellow noodles stir-fried with a mixture of different vegetables and maybe some big chunks of meat. And oil. Lots of it. I learnt later in 2013, after moving to the US, that what Golden Dragon had on its menu were more accurately American or Western Chinese food.

Singapore Noodles is a staple in Manhattan’s Chinese restaurants. On the menus, it will appear with Chow Mein and Lo Mein. It comprises rice vermicelli (although chow fun/hor fun may also be used), bean sprouts, char siew, shrimp, onions, bell peppers and/or other vegetables. Its iconic turmeric-yellow comes from a generous scoop of curry powder. I find it fascinating that something not known in Singapore is named Singapore Noodles, and the thousands who love and cook it are anyone but Singaporeans, so I begin my investigations about this dish.

It is important to know that most of these restaurants belong to immigrants from Guangdong, most of them Taishanese, but there are also Cantonese from other parts of the province, as well as from Hong Kong. Taishanese were the first Chinese to arrive in the US during the 1800s, and the first to set up Chinese restaurants in Manhattan. However, the surviving Taishanese-owned restaurants do not serve Taishanese but Cantonese food. According a Taishanese immigrant who had lived in Manhattan Chinatown for decades, Taishan was a poor village where people ate peasant food like yam with rice. No way the Americans would patronise a restaurant that sold such food, he said. I assume Singapore Noodles is one of the many adaptations from their Cantonese counterparts.

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