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.
I stumbled upon one Asia Cafe and its owner Prem Karki, from Butwal, Nepal. The small outfit is a short walk from the Balti Jaam Market and the city’s main railway station. Like other Indian and Nepali immigrants in Tallinn, Prem found home in the Baltic state after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, to which Estonia once belonged. He arrived 12 years ago but most of whom he knows personally were there before him.
These immigrants, including Prem, set up restaurants but did not specialise in their own cultural cuisine. The number of spices and ingredients they would have to import from South Asia, Prem explained, would have made their restaurants cost-prohibitive for the locals. To keep their food prices low, the entrepreneurs filled their menu with Chinese dishes, which needed only “water and a few spices”.
What Prem referred to are the Indian Chinese dishes from India. I know little about this cuisine but Prem said it was very common in the bigger cities. He had worked as a cook at a few Indian Chinese restaurants in Delhi, where he lived for 14 years since 1988. It was in India where Prem and the other Nepali immigrants first learned to cook the Chinese dishes that they now sell in Tallinn.
Singapore Noodles, according to Prem, is a classic dish at the Indian Chinese restaurants. It comprises wheat noodles (instead of rice vermicelli), chicken (or lamb and fish), egg, cabbage, carrots, turmeric powder, MSG and dash of orange food colouring. There is no bean sprouts, prawns or onions as in Malaysia or Hong Kong. Such restaurants also tend to sell Indian and Thai dishes too, which explains the selection of cuisines that are being offered by the South Asian immigrants in Tallinn.
In Estonia, Prem replicated what he picked up in India. His Singapore Noodles are turmeric yellow in colour, and there was also no bean sprouts, onions or char siew but cabbage, carrots and chicken. He, however, replaced wheat noodles with flat rice noodles (as in pad thai) because he thinks it makes for a better dish.
The curry flavour of his noodles reminded me of the Singapore Noodles I had in New York, more so than the same dish in Hong Kong. Prem said he used a pre-mixed curry powder no different from what was available in Nepal or India. I assumed he meant that it was similar to what he was familiar with in South Asia. I do not think there is only one curry flavour in the region. Because of our language barrier, I couldn’t get him to elaborate.
Asia Cafe‘s main clientele are Estonians attracted to its low food prices, big portions and wide range of foreign flavours. That little tinge of spice in Singapore Noodles (5 Euros) is a welcomed change from Estonian cuisine. The dish has also been familiar food for tourists from Germany, America, Canada and Australia. Prem likened Chinese/Asian restaurants to McDonald’s — everywhere and a comforting presence to the homesick.
Previously, I understood that Singapore Noodles proliferated in the UK and US through the Chinese immigrants and their restaurants. My encounter in Estonia shows that there is a different group of people — the Indians and Nepalese — propagating their own interpretation of the dish in at least one city where they outnumbered the Chinese. I’m now curious about Indian Chinese cuisine and how Singapore Noodles wound up to be a part of it.