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.

Based on media reports, and the confirmation by Professor Casey Lum, who has done extensive research on cha chaan teng and dim sum cultures, Singapore Noodles appears in almost all sorts of Chinese eateries in Hong Kong. The style is consistent with those in the US and in other Western countries like Canada, UK, and Australia—curried rice vermicelli with char siew, shrimp, and bean sprouts. Since Singapore Noodles is most prolific in Hong Kong among countries outside the West, I theorise that Hong Kongers are one of the first producers and connoisseurs of Singapore Noodles, and the dish travelled with them as they migrated to the West.

Curiously, Malaysians also remembered having Singapore Noodles, although a different kind. I asked Rasa Malaysia’s Bee Yinn Low and she said she ate this dish at the hawker centres in Penang when she was young. She remembered that the noodles didn’t come with char siew but lap cheong, and it was flavoured with ketchup and a little bit of chilli instead of curry. When writing a blog post about Singapore Noodles, she also told the story of another Malaysian-born food blogger who balked at the curried version when she first arrived in the United States.

Why do these two not-Singapore countries offer Singapore Noodles, and why are their styles so different? Why is the Hong Kong version more common in the West? Based on the Malaysian bloggers’ account, and my conversations with a few Hong Kong immigrants in Manhattan, both sides did not seem to know the existence of the other.

Most Singaporeans have not heard of the Hong Kong- or Malaysian-style Singapore Noodles unless they have been to those or to the Western countries. In one of my chit chat with Singapore-born but London-based Jason Ng, the blogger behind Feast to the World, he told me, while looking visibly annoyed, that Singapore Noodles was the only food many Londoners would associate with Singapore. “But you can’t find it in Singapore!” he said.

But I’ve had 星洲米粉 back in Singapore. It translates to “Singapore Noodles,” although it was never known as that. More than 15 years ago, when I ordered 星洲米粉 at my neighbourhood zi char stall, I would get a plate of stir fried bee hoon (rice vermicelli in Hokkien) with mock char siew, tiny prawns, and bean sprouts. There was no curry or ketchup, just an alluring smoky flavour of wok hei. Based on what Singaporeans are saying on the internet, 星洲米粉 is still a common menu item in Singapore’s zi char stalls today.

Singapore's 星洲米粉. Picture taken from The Traveling Hungryboy.

Singapore’s 星洲米粉. Picture taken from The Traveling Hungryboy.

So what we have is a curried Singapore Noodles popular in Hong Kong and in the West, a ketchup version known only to the Malaysians, and a 星洲米粉 available in Singapore but never considered as one of the nation’s iconic dishes. Ethnic foods such as Danish pastry and Korean kimchi, which exist in various forms under different names in their countries of origin, often become essentialised when taken to another country. Drawing upon that, I hypothesise that Singapore Noodles are the results of a Singaporean dish being stripped of its diversity and homogenised into one image and one taste that is acceptable to the people where this dish is reimagined. And like the American-made kimchi that still is somewhat spicy and sour, I speculate that the Singapore Noodles retained what the Hong Kongers, Malaysians, and Westerners perceived as the essential characters, allowing them to legitimise the Singapore reference. The key ingredients of the Hong Kong-style and Malaysian-style Singapore Noodles, therefore, must contain clues of what these outsiders perceived as Singaporean. To prove this hypothesis, I must find out the Singaporean dish or dishes that inspired the Hong Kong-style and Malaysian-style Singapore Noodles. Could it be 星洲米粉? If not, what else? I will also investigate what Singapore Noodles mean to those who enjoy it, and to the many overseas Singaporeans who unexpectedly find their national identity being lumped together with this strange dish.

This is a long term project that involves archival research, interviews with menu collectors, with restaurant owners and cooks from at least five cities, and with people around the world who eat and love Singapore Noodles. Instead of publishing a paper only at the very end, I thought, why not share the work in progress? Some of my early assumptions will certainly turn out to be wrong, but debunking my own theories to formulate more convincing arguments has always been an exciting process for me; I wish to document and reflect upon them. Besides, writing gives me clarity.

In the following blog posts on this topic, you will find what old Singapore newspapers used to say about 星洲米粉, my interviews with menu collectors and restaurant owners in Manhattan, and my analysis of who’s eating Singapore Noodles based on what’s hashtagged “SingaporeNoodles” on Instagram.

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.

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