Malaysia’s Singapore Noodles

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.

The Cantonese immigrants were the main players of the tai chow business. The name “tai chow” itself is Cantonese for “big fry”, which describes the business’s primary method of quick stir-frying over big flames. But the Cantonese are also experts in roast meats, and most tai chow in the past produced their own roast duck, crispy roast pork (siu yok) and glazed barbecue pork, which is char siew. Leftover char siew were chopped up and reimagined in other dishes—like Singapore Noodles. Because of a shortage of skilful roast masters and the high salary to engage one, Sang Kee, Sek Yuen and most other tai chow have stopped roasting meats and are instead buying char siew from elsewhere.

This concept of putting leftovers into good use is consistent with Lim’s Singapore Noodles article published in 2006. Like many food of murky origins, Singapore Noodles was said to be a concoction of scraps put together hurriedly. One day in the 1940s, a tai chow received a customer when it was about to close. For fear of offending a customer, the cook gathered scraps like char siew, bean sprouts, onions, chillies, egg and dried shrimp and stir-fried them with vermicelli. The customer liked it. When asked for the name of the dish, the cook made up xing zhou mi fen (星洲米粉), because back in those days, Lim wrote, xing zhou, or Singapore, was a more prosperous city than Kuala Lumpur. The cook branded it as such to create an image of legitimacy, class, basically everything but scraps.

It is hard to verify this story since Lim learned about this from an article whose writer has passed. He also doesn’t know who that cook is. While I seek to find more people old enough to remember when and why tai chow started selling Singapore Noodles, I try to put the dish into context, by examining its contents.

Sang Kee’s Worcestershire Singapore Noodles

Besides char siew, the other ingredients also paint a picture of the people cooking Singapore Noodles. I briefly considered onions to be a Western influence after the noodles became available in cities like New York and London (an overseas Singaporean interviewed by the newspaper thought so too),  but according to Pang and Lee, onion is a regular feature in Cantonese cuisine. I should have known, because it has always been there in sweet and sour pork, my favourite Cantonese classic.

Sek Yuen uses baby prawns, but Sang Kee doesn’t, although it used to add dried shrimps (like the “inventor” in Lim’s story) until they became “too expensive for an economical dish like Singapore Noodles”, says Lee. It’s too early to tell if prawn is critical to the Singapore Noodle story, but I know something else is.

A differentiating element in the Malaysia-style Singapore Noodles is ketchup. But I learn, after speaking to Lim (the researcher) and Lee (of Sang Kee), that the original flavouring may have been Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce. 68-year-old Lee says his father, an immigrant from Heshan, Guangdong, had been adding Worcestershire to Singapore Noodles since the restaurant’s early days in the 1950s. He attributes it to British influence during the colonial period, and recalls the other tai chow using the condiment too. While Sang Kee keeps this tradition, he says, many others have switched to ketchup because it is cheaper and sweeter.

Sek Yuen, and the New Sek Yuen which Pang opened in 2016 after parting ways with his uncle, are examples of restaurants adding ketchup to Singapore Noodles. Born in 1976 and the third generation of the Sek Yuen family, Pang is too young to tell me if his grandfather and granduncles ever used Worcestershire, but he believes the restaurant was already using ketchup by the time he was born. Then, he brings up an important point: although the tomato sauce is often associated with American food, tai chow isn’t a stranger to the condiment since it has been used in several other dishes. Items like ketchup prawns with ee-fu noodles (ketchup 虾球炒伊面), he says, were trendy in the 1970s and 80s, and his new restaurant still gets requests for these dishes from the old timers.

I was expecting New Sek Yuen’s noodles to be red like mee hoon goreng where ketchup is also added, but it was comparatively pale in colour. Turns out that much lesser ketchup is required for Singapore Noodles. Everyone else’s ketchup Singapore Noodles, says Pang, looks just like his. Sang Kee’s noodles, on the other hand, is red like it has ketchup in it, but Lee says only Worcestershire is added. It also tastes a little bit tangy. Despite their differences, both condiments hint at early western influences in the Malayan kitchen, which I shall investigate in the future.

New Sek Yuen’s ketchup Singapore Noodles.

It is also important to discuss what Singapore Noodles means to the people of Kuala Lumpur, in order to track how this changes as the dish travels to different cities. Lee mentioned two ingredients—dried shrimp and Worcestershire—that have been eliminated from the original repertoire to cut ingredient costs. Singapore Noodles needs to be kept affordable because tai chow serves mainly the regular folks. While there are well-to-do customers, the restaurants have been accessible to the working class since their humble beginning as roadside stalls. Singapore Noodles, comprising a morsel of meat and cheap vegetables, costing between RM8-12 today, is no different.

Yet it is not a staple. “When people don’t want to eat rice, they will order noodles for a change,” Pang explains. Like any good carbohydrate, vermicelli satiates the stomach so that everybody leaves the restaurant satisfied—regardless of their budget, or the lack thereof, for the more expensive meats and seafood. Precisely because Singapore Noodles is economical, says Pang, it is never served at wedding or birthday banquets where the food usually speaks wealth and fortune. More sumptuous options like seafood ee-fu noodle are eaten instead.

In Kuala Lumpur, Singapore Noodles presents a plate of vermicelli containing char siew, baby prawns, eggs and onions— distinctively flavoured with either Worcestershire or ketchup. It is food for everybody (in the Chinese community), for any regular day, when rice is not desired. However, over the years, this noodles is losing its appeal even as an everyday meal. Lee and Pang observed its demand in decline, which Pang says is the result of frequent menu updates at tai chow restaurants to attract novelty-seeking customers. With more varieties than the appetite for noodles, classics like Singapore Noodles are becoming neglected.

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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