In a three-part investigative story, we dive into the enigma that is the ‘Singapore Noodle’. First, we uncovered the origins and renditions the Xin Zhou Mi Fen, a possible representation of the mythological local dish. But why stop at the dish? We go futher and chat with Lim Hock Chai, managing director of Leong Guan Food Manufacturer, on the most popular noodle type, its brief history, and the future of traditional noodle dishes.
ESQ: How did you get into noodle manufacturing?
Lim Hock Chai: Our founder, who was previously working in human resource at Shell, wanted to start his own business in the food trade supplying noodles to the hawker centres, food courts and canteens in Singapore in ’96. Business was booming, and had expanded to quite a large scale by 2005. We then set up our own fully machine-operated noodle factory to manufacture Singaporean staple noodles so that we could have a hand at controlling the quality of the products we sell.
ESQ: Who do you supply noodles to?
Lim Hock Chai: Our clientele consists of a number of familiar names, including Old Chang Kee, Yu Kee Duck Rice, Shangri-La and several others. We sell over 30 types of noodles in three categories. Firstly, pre-cooked, like yellow egg noodles, kway teowand mee tai mak. Raw noodles, usually flour-based, like mee pok, mee kiaand wanton skins. Finally, you have your pre-fried claypot noodles like ee mianand ji dan mian, where you soak in water and stir-fry after.
ESQ: Which is the most prevalent?
Lim Hock Chai: Yellow egg noodles sell the best as it is most commonly used and consumed locally. It is a staple to the majority of our clientele across different cuisines, from fried Hokkien prawn meeto mee rebus, mee sotoand curry noodles.
ESQ: Why is that so?
Lim Hock Chai: Yellow egg noodles originated from China. Unlike Northern China, Southern China uses lye in their noodle production, hence the alkaline taste. When Chinese from the South like Fujian, Nanyang and Guangdong migrated to Southeast Asia, they brought along their noodles, which is why you see yellow noodles incorporated into Southeast Asian cuisine like Thai and Vietnamese. In Singapore, it was easily introduced into the kitchen of local households due to its affordable price. Using it then became almost a force of habit, which I think is unique to Singapore. As for why it extends into Malay cuisine, I’m not too sure myself. It could be the interactions between the communities and the exchange of culture through food, just as how Singapore is a melting pot.
ESQ: What does Singapore Noodles mean to you?
Lim Hock Chai: It’s represented as xin zhou mi fen, but I don’t agree with it. In fact, I think char kway teowis more suitable. Even the fried Hokkien prawn meeis exclusive to Singapore as there are no other countries with a similar recipe. Even Malaysia’s is altered with cabbage, fish cake and pork in black sauce. There are no prawns and the noodles are also different. Our local version features thin rice vermicelli paired with yellow noodles.
ESQ: What do you think of the local noodle scene? Are we recycling the same old dishes?
Lim Hock Chai: The third- and fourth-generation hawkers are much younger, always referencing other cuisine influences and experimenting with foreign ingredients to cook up a fusion. Sumo Prawn Mee at Block 628 Ang Mo Kio uses lobsters instead of prawns. Besides having an innovative recipe, higher quality ingredients could help boost the profit margin as hawkers can charge customers premium prices. You’ll go out of business really quickly if you still try to sell them under SGD3. Sustenance and enjoyment are two different needs and there are markets to satisfy both. Singaporeans, including myself, often actively seek out new places and dishes to try. I don’t like eating the same thing over and over again, especially when I own a noodle factory.
ESQ: Do you think traditional noodles will stay traditional?
Lim Hock Chai: Definitely. In the past, hawkers would try to get the cheapest raw ingredients. Now, our long-time clientele seek a better standard. Many keep the same traditional recipe but improve on it with higher quality ingredients and adding flavourful condiments. To quote a non-Singaporean example, Kuala Lumpur Traditional Chilli Ban Mee at MacPherson stays true to its roots yet allows customers to choose from varying spice levels. Premium ingredients such as scallops and abalone have also been introduced. Perhaps there exists an in-between where we could harmonise heritage with creativity.