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 These dishes are originally made with either yellow wheat noodles or flat rice noodles (kway teow), but may be switched for or mixed with vermicelli.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.
Even in zi char restaurants, where the Singapore-style (non-curried or ketchuped) Singapore Noodles is usually found, vermicelli is a possibility rather than a rightful staple of any particular dish. Hor Fun is a plate of eponymous flat rice noodle, known as “hor fun” in Cantonese, stir-fried with beef, pork or seafood. However, the noodle can be replaced with vermicelli or e-fu noodles. It is expected at zi char restaurants that one can mix and match ingredients and noodles and cooking methods. Singapore-style Singapore Noodles could be just one of the many permutations. This is why Goh insisted that Singapore Noodles is not a dish, not anymore so than prawn bee hoon or lor bee hoon. But it is still mystery why Singapore Noodles’s ensemble–of char siew and baby prawns–isn’t replicated with other noodles.
The only hawker food, it seems to me, that can’t do without vermicelli is economic bee hoon, just as its name suggests. This item has been one of the cheapest hawker food, which is why it is “economic”, said Goh. “When I was a kid in the 60s, economic bee hoon was the cheapest to buy. With simple ingredients like sweet soy sauce, tau kee (beancurd skin) and hae bee (dried shrimp), a plate cost only between 30 and 50 cents,” he reminisced. This is still true today. A plate of economic bee hoon with two side dishes may cost just $2, but a fishball noodle or chicken rice usually starts from $3.
If vermicelli is a mere substitute for other noodles in dishes like prawn mee, while economic bee hoon must be stripped to the bare bones to qualify as economic, then Singapore Noodles couldn’t have come from the same stalls. A likelier food business to have created Singapore Noodles would be a zi char restaurant, which is really defined by the wide variety of noodles it offers, and its flexibility in the mixing of the noodles with different proteins and vegetables to make a one-dish meal. Zi char prices have also been one notch above the other hawker foods, affording a proprietor to add multiple ingredients to one plate of noodles, as in the case of Singapore Noodles. Of course, the more expensive Chinese restaurants with similar variety of ingredients in their pantry would be another food business category to consider.
I already know that a tai chow, a Malaysian equivalent of zi char, is where one will find Singapore Noodles in Kuala Lumpur. I’ve also learned from a Hong Kong-born professor that Singapore Noodles is sold in Hong Kong’s cha chaan teng, a similar establishment that sells a wide variety of meat, vegetable, rice and noodle dishes to the common folks. A pattern in the kind of food businesses that sell Singapore Noodles in these three cities is showing and needs to be investigated in due time.
Meanwhile, as I’ve been to Kuala Lumpur twice in the past year, I had the opportunity to explore their Singapore Noodles. In my next post, I’ll be talking with two tai chows to find out what Singapore Noodles means to the Malaysians and how ketchup became a part of it.
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.