July 23, 2024


World's finest Food

Untangling the Mystery of Singapore Noodles

On any given list of the world’s best food capitals, Singapore is undeniably one of the top gastronomic powerhouses. The city-state boasts an incredible food scene that reflects its unique cultural fabric. It’s also home to one of the cheapest Michelin-starred meals in the world—a S$6 (US$4.50) bowl of bak chor mee from hawker stall Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle.

The famous street food dish is typically served dry with noodles lovingly tossed in vinegar and cooked with pork mince, mushrooms and morsels of decadent deep-fried lard. Along with other popular noodle dishes such as the spicy laksa (curried noodle soup with coconut milk) and the smoky char kway teow (stir-fried flat noodles), bak chor mee is easily available around the island.

However, one particular noodle dish that is all but unknown in the Lion City is the one that is eponymously named “Singapore noodles.” It’s a stir-fried rice vermicelli tossed in heaps of curry powder, the ingredient responsible for the dish’s violent yellow hue.

Abroad, the dish seems to have become a permanent fixture on the menus of Chinese takeaways and restaurants in the U.S., UK, Australia and Hong Kong. Having lived in London for almost a decade now, it feels like there is no escaping this curried rice vermicelli—it’s even readily available in supermarkets, and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has his own take on it.

I first tasted Singapore noodles when homesickness kicked in a month after moving to London from the Motherland. Scanning the menu of a Chinese takeaway with an inviting sign that said “Malaysian and Singaporean cuisine,” I landed upon the Singapore noodles. Out of curiosity (and homesickness), I ordered it.

Unfortunately, it did not taste like home. Instead, it tasted like a bad combination of instant noodle seasonings—an absolute sacrilege. Disappointed, I fed it to the bin and never revisited it again.

Despite what it says on the tin, its origins aren’t found in Singapore or anywhere else in Southeast Asia. Instead, its roots can be traced to a different island state: Hong Kong. It’s been said that the recipe was born after World War II when the then British colony was becoming a booming trading hub. With spices and curries from the previously British-ruled India being added to the southern Chinese pantry, cooks were looking for different ways to utilize the ingredients.

Cue Singapore noodles. Despite having as many different variations as the many different cooks who prepare it, the two main ingredients across the board are rice vermicelli and curry powder. Due to the simplicity of the dish, it soon became popular among laborers who needed cheap, carb-heavy meals for sustenance. It also accompanied the Chinese diaspora to the Western world, making its debut in Chinese takeaways and restaurants.

So why credit the dish to somewhere else entirely? Why not stick with “Hong Kong noodles” or “Cantonese noodles”? Some pointed out that Singapore noodles were named as such to add panache to the dish, while others considered it a nod to the cosmopolitan nature of both city-states. However, the true origins of the dish’s name are unknown.

There is no doubt that calling it “Singapore noodles” is very misleading. To the uninitiated, one would assume that the dish is truly from Singapore when it’s actually from more than 2,000 kilometers away. Furthermore, the reductive name overshadows the various noodle dishes that are actually Singaporean staples and beloved by locals.

As a Singaporean, it aggravates me to see restaurants claiming to serve “authentic Singapore noodles.” Whilst I understand it to mean the authentic Cantonese stir-fried noodle dish, most non-Asians would probably think the dish does, in fact, come from Singapore. It just feels like bad advertising and erases the cultural context these noodles were born into.

There are a handful of similar rice vermicelli dishes that Singaporeans would recognise as “authentic”: mee goreng mamak (seasoned with tomato ketchup, chili sauce, soy sauce and a dash of curry powder) and fried bee hoon (simply seasoned with sweet soy sauce). These are common Singaporean dishes that locals love.

Whilst it is fair game to say that Singapore noodles are an acquired taste, eschewing the dish entirely because of its deceitful name is, well, unfair. Thanks to diaspora, cosmopolitan metropolises such as Singapore and Hong Kong are becoming known for their melting pot of cultures, and so food histories are becoming even more tangled. In some ways, there is a degree of a fallacy to say that any one dish derives solely from one place.

In Singapore, we have soupy noodles called mee siam, mee bandung and mee hongkong—none of which actually come from Thailand, Indonesia or Hong Kong. Even Hainanese chicken rice, the city-state’s pride and joy, has roots in Hainan, China.

If Singaporeans can class these so-called inauthentic dishes as iconic favorites, then so can Hongkongers, Brits, Aussies and Americans when it comes to Singapore noodles, even if there is not one Singaporean who can relate to or feel passionate about the dish.

Decades ago, “authenticity” was the buzzword on the street to get people to seek out the “real deal,” but as we transition into the 21st century, we have come to realize that “authenticity” is largely a myth. Today, the word takes on different meanings for different people in different parts of the world.

However, this doesn’t mean that it should be brushed off. Food, like everything, is political, and understanding a dish’s roots provides us with cultural context and can teach us valuable history lessons that often go unmentioned in textbooks.