In a three-part investigative story, we dive into the enigma that is the 'Singapore Noodle'. What is the Singapore Noodle? Does it exist? Myth or legend, we discuss with food writer and researcher Sheere Ng on the possible origins of the xin zhou mi fen (Singapore-style noodles), homogenising a dish and why the overseas renditions prize curry as a key ingredient.
ESQ: Xin zhou mi fen appears on most, if not all, menus of zi-char (stir-fry) eateries. Is this the closest we have to our variation of Singapore Noodles?
SHEERE NG: There are other iterations—Malaysia-style and Hong Kong-style Singapore Noodles. I believe all are different interpretations of the same dish: stir-fried rice vermicelli with primarily eggs, prawns, char siew. Those ingredients are what make the dish Singapore Noodles and not anything else. Char siew is one of the hallmarks of Cantonese-owned zi char, which used to be called dai pai dong because the stalls also roasted meats for sale back in the day. Early purveyors of Singapore Noodles in Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia were mostly Cantonese. This is important because Singapore Noodles might have gone around these three places as part of a culinary exchange among their Cantonese immigrants.
ESQ: Why do you think the dish is tagged to Singapore by name? Is it a perception of Singapore food in the past and a cooked-up representation of Singapore’s multiracial diversity?
SHEERE NG: I learned from Mr Hooi Kok Wai, regarded as one of the ‘Four Heavenly Kings’ of Singapore’s culinary scene, that there was Singapore Noodles in Chinatown as early as the 1940s. Back in those days, the Chinese lived, ate and worked with people of their own dialect group. Someone might have picked it up from Singapore, brought it to Hong Kong, added curry powder to it and through mass immigration, that version became the most well-known.
ESQ: Why do you think curry powder is a prevalent ingredient in Singapore Noodles?
SHEERE NG: My theory is that the curry powder version was created in Hong Kong and proliferated in the west through migration. Between the 1940s and 1970s, Chinese multitudes fled communist China via Hong Kong and settled in places like the US. Many of them ended up in the restaurant business because you don’t need a lot of money (and neither do you need to speak the language) to sell food.
Like the Worcestershire sauce and tomato ketchup that are found in the Malaysian-style Singapore Noodles, curry powder has British origins. This is not surprising since Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore were British colonies at some point. It really shows how Singapore Noodles was an accumulation of centuries of cultural exchanges, even before the dish found its place in the Chinese restaurants of every continent.
ESQ: You talked about xin zhou mi fen “stripped its diversity and homogenised into one image and one taste that is acceptable to the people where this dish is reimagined”.
SHEERE NG: I wrote that theory before I started my investigation. Was Singapore Noodles invented because foreigners lumped together and essentialised char kway teow, Hokkien mee and economic bee hoon, like what they did with ‘Danish’ pastry? I initially thought Singapore Noodles is like kimchi—only the most basic idea of it (that is, spicy and sour), became popular overseas, even though there are numerous varieties in Korea. But I no longer think Singapore Noodles is a derivative of our wide variety of noodle dishes.
ESQ: What made you want to do an in-depth investigation on Singapore Noodles to begin with?
SHEERE NG: When I was in the US looking for a taste of home, I found that almost every Chinese restaurant offered Singapore Noodles. I thought it was one ironic dish. Its name says ‘Singapore’ but I don’t associate my Singaporean identity with it. I believe most Singaporeans think the same way. Strangely, people in the US, UK, Canada who go to Chinese restaurants frequently formed memories around it.
To date, there are over 5,000 images on Instagram with the ‘Singapore noodles’ hashtag, of which an estimated 80 percent are Caucasians. I wanted to find out how ‘Singapore’ Noodles came to mean so little to Singaporeans but so much to others. People today use cultures, including food cultures, to draw the line between ‘us’ and ‘them’. If we study closely, we’ll find out that different cultures interact all the time. This research is not about finding out who invented or owns Singapore Noodles. It is to show how meaningless that kind of conversation is.
ESQ: Why do you think people involved in the culinary scene here don’t want to claim ownership of this dish or even try to reinvent it?
SHEERE NG: Singapore Noodles is just not popular with Singaporeans. Why bother modernising something that people don’t identify with? Notice mod-Sin cuisines involve things like chilli crab and bak kut teh. These are dishes that have been accepted as part of our identity. Singapore Noodles are mostly found in zi char in Singapore, tai chow in Malaysia and cha chan teng in Hong Kong.
These are all fast-service restaurants, selling affordable food to the masses, and are also everywhere in their respective countries, which means that it’s a highly competitive restaurant category. To be economic and efficient yet attractive to their customers, these eateries have to be extremely creative with a fixed number of ingredients. Singapore Noodles is born of out such conditions. I don’t think it’s an afterthought. I think it’s ingenuity.
ESQ: If Singapore Noodles were to be the official dish for the country, what would your ideal interpretation be?
SHEERE NG: I think to be ‘official’ requires someone, usually government agencies like the tourism board, to come out and say ‘this is Singaporean’. When you categorise what belongs, you are also saying, though implicitly, what does not. This implicates the people who eat or don’t eat these dishes. If I don’t eat chilli crab because it’s an expensive dish, am I not Singaporean enough? If I can’t stand the smell of curry, am I too Chinese? What about the traditional Boyanese or Javanese cuisines? Categorising food based on race, nation or origin is as divisive as it is cohesive.
Sheere Ng has been published in The Straits Times, The Business Times, Yahoo Singapore and The Boston Globe. More on intersections of food, immigration and identity can be found on her site tuck-shop.co.