There are those who worship at the altar of ramen and pasta but local noodles seldom evoke the same ardent devotion. Nonetheless, devotees of local noodles can still find the odd artisanal producer hand kneading mee kia in Singapore. Some like Karen Nah of Handpicked is of the opinion that: “Local noodles have not lost their shine. In fact, we see a lot of chefs keen to use local noodles. The demand is growing steadily.”
Indeed, we are blessed with a wonderful array of noodle dishes in Singapore. Wanton mee with that perfect “bite” and bak chor mee (minced meat noodles) doused in black vinegar for example, both using noodles which lean towards the Southern Chinese style, where lye is added. There must be thousands of recipes for making noodles, though it all comes down to two main ingredients: flour and water. Supporting actors like eggs are integral for chewiness, while salt strengthens the dough and gives it springiness, and lye strengthens the gluten, giving the final product its toothsome firmness.
In Gary G. Hou’s Asian Noodles: Science, Technology, and Processing, it is written that the application of alkaline salt in noodle-making originated in Southern China. Traditionally, kansui or lye water was extracted by boiling lye stone or plant ash in water, but the most common alkaline salts used today are sodium carbonate or potassium carbonate, or a mixture. The incorporation of alkaline changes the pH of the noodles to somewhere between 9 and 11, depending on the salts. And this gives the noodles the characteristic yellow colour, aroma, flavour, and firmness.
Taiwanese chef Chou Ching-Yuan who wrote The Chinese Wheat Foods Bible by Master Chef Chou, sums up noodle making best with an old saying: “碱是骨, 盐是筋”, which roughly translates to “lye gives the bones, while salt gives the muscle”.
Old School Goodness
Local noodle maker Yeow Kok Meng of Yi Kou Noodles, who learnt the art of making wanton noodles in 1965 from a Guangzhou master, tells us that the old-school masters would only say lye water is needed, without explaining why. That was left to the apprentice to figure out through experience.
Yeow shares that in the olden days wanton noodles were made by using a long bamboo stick and one’s body weight to press onto the dough: “That was during my shifu’s (teacher) time. The bamboo pole is secured to the wall and you had to sit on it and bounce up and down, using your body weight, to press the dough into sheets. By the 1960s, hardly anyone made bamboo-pressed noodles. We did it by hand, and it is more taxing as you cannot ‘borrow strength’ from the bamboo and your body weight.”
Yeow, who is 67 this year, used to sell hand-made wanton noodles in Chinatown and has retired for almost 20 years, before his son Jim Yeow decided to go into the business. Nowadays, you can find the younger Yeow working the dough at his noodle stall Yi Kou Noodle at Geylang Road, but Yeow senior does drop in from time to time to help.
“His skills are as good as mine,” says Yeow senior of his son, “Even better, actually, as he is young and has strength. The technique is important, but if you have no strength, it is very challenging, that’s why nowadays nobody is making their own noodles anymore.” Despite the challenges with manpower issues, the younger Yeow is determined to press on.
The noodles take about two hours to prepare and the result is fine strands with a springy texture (similar to the wanton noodles in Hong Kong), and almost no taste of lye. While Yeow senior is coy about details, he is kind enough to show us how it is done.
The wanton noodles at Yi Kou Noodles start with a well of flour and lots of fresh eggs–no water is added. Yeow senior shares that back then, when resources were scarce, vendors will prepare noodles with just water and flour for the usual customers as that is more affordable; noodles made with eggs were reserved for customers with deeper pockets.
Yeow cracks the eggs into a well of flour and gently hand-beats them. He then gathers the flour bit by bit into a dough by kneading and pulling—Yeow makes it looks effortless, but it is a full-body workout. In the meantime, his wife toasts bits of flatfish over charcoal fire in preparation for the soup stock–the aroma is intoxicating.
It takes a good twenty minutes to get the dough ready for pressing. Yeow feeds the smooth dough into the machine a few times and adjusts its thinness. While most of the noodle dough is dusted with starch (to prevent sticking) and cut into noodles, he reserves a portion of the dough, layers it, and lays it out on the stainless steel work surface. Using a long wooden rolling pin, he presses onto the dough evenly. He unfolds it for us to take a look–the dough is now so thin that it is translucent. He cuts the dough into squares with a knife. “There you go, wanton skin,” he declares with a smile.
Tradition With A Twist
Derrick Kuah opened I Want My Noodle at Shaw Centre in December 2014 to pursue his passion in the F&B business. The art-director-turned-noodle-craftsman honed his noodle making skills in Indonesia, at his mum-in-law’s traditional noodle-making facility where duck eggs are still being used and dough is still bamboo-pressed (mainly for wanton skins).
There, he picked up the know-how to making Chinese egg noodles used in Indonesian bak mee. It took him two years to learn and another year back in Singapore to perfect the noodles recipe and make it his own.
“We use only flour—I use a blend—eggs, salt, and water for our egg noodles, but no lye,” says the cool and calm 40-year-old who spends almost every morning mixing the dough by hand before handing it over to his trusty machines. “The dough has to be first mixed by hand, so that all the ingredients are evenly combined, then goes into a machine to be mixed further. When the dough resembles wet sand, it is ready for pressing.” Kuah works with a rather dry dough, and has to take care to gather every bit of it to the noodle press. However, after some coaxing by the machine, the scraggly bits came together to form sheets of pale yellow. He also opts for a cutter that churns out curly noodles.
”My noodles are thicker than the usual mee kia, and they are curly so they ‘pick up’ more sauce,” he explains. The best way to enjoy the noodles? Try the dry noodles (listed on the menu as My Simple Noodles) tossed with nothing but a simple mix of soy sauce and pork lard—the springy, chewy, toothsome and moreish noodles really shine through.
His latest creation is his version of local Teochew-style bak chor mee, one of his favourite dishes. The eggy, springy noodles are served with stir-fried minced pork, slow-cooked black mushrooms, wobbly egg, golden nuggets of pork lard, spiked with hae bee sambal and black vinegar. This dish is only available on weekdays.
And what more can we expect? Kuah reveals, “I am now experimenting with whole-wheat flour, and also trying to make gluten-free egg noodles. Without gluten, it is harder to bind the dough, so that is the challenge.”
East Meets West
“The fun thing with noodles is that it is a canvas,” says Willin Low. The founder of Wild Rocket and mod-Sin maestro has been brainstorming about and experimenting with new freshly made Asian-styled pastas since early 2017. During the process, the thought of making his own har ji meen (or prawn roe noodles), which is popular in Hong Kong, came to mind. And in no time, the dish of Har Ji Spaghetti with Bottarga, Prawns And Kaffir was born.
“We experimented with many recipes before we found one that worked; it tooks us months to perfect it. We started with pasta recipes and semolina flour. Along the way we learnt things, such as you cannot just add the har ji in there, it had to be processed first,” he recounts.
“The dish is about the flavour of roe: the bottarga (dried mullet roe) shaved on top and the har ji (prawn roe) in the noodles.The har ji spaghetti is softer in nature and has a deep umami flavour. Actually, no one thought of it as a pasta. We had customers who told us that it reminded them of the old school har ji meen. We are probably the only ones doing fresh har ji meen in Singapore. It is not the menu at the moment, but we will be bringing it back.”
And where does it stop being a noodle and becoming a pasta? We wondered. “That’s why Wild Rocket is Wild Rocket. When does it stop being an Asian restaurant and where does it start being a Western restaurant? That’s the beauty of it, and that is what is unique about Singapore. We are as comfortable being in an Asian environment as we are in a Western environment. That is also the personality of Wild Rocket.”
Curated With Care
“Noodles are special to me, says Karen Nah, founder of Handpicked, which offers consumers a digital pantry of Asian kitchen basics. “I would always crave for that humble bowl of noodles, especially when I am away from home for a while or sometimes at wee hours, when I just need some comfort food before I sleep.”
Before Handpicked, Nah started My Singapore Food, a portal to document home-cooked heritage recipes from passionate home cooks. Its aim is to safeguard these precious recipes before it’s forgotten and lost.
“Nowadays I find that people cook less, and when they do take the effort to cook, they are more particular about ingredients. They would travel to get the best ingredients and are willing to pay a bit more for the quality. That inspired me to start Handpicked: to curate and make available ingredients that are not easily accessible in the mass market.”
Nah grew up in a noodle manufacturing family—her family runs Hiap Giap—and had the good fortune of eating the best noodles. Hiap Giap first began manufacturing fresh noodles back in the late 60s and they started with selling wanton noodles. In those days, everything was still done by hand, from the mixing to the rolling, down to using bamboo to press the dough into thin sheets. As business got better, and production volume increased, they turned to machines. With current technology, and special customisations made to their machines (we hear machine rollers can be modified to imitate hand movement of dough-kneading), it is now possible to produce noodles with texture that are similar to those made by hand. They also ensure that quality control measures are in place to ensure consistency.
Nah explains that while raw ingredients may be similar (flour, eggs, water), the proportion of flour, type of flour (gluten level of flour affects the springiness, crunchiness, and chewiness), the way it is pressed, number of times it is pressed, the way it is mixed, will result in noodles that are vastly different.
For wanton noodles, the firm texture and thinness are important, as traditionally the latter is a sign of the chef’s knife skills (no machines back then). Noodles used in bak chor mee are typically made with flour and water (there are some who prefer to add egg to the recipe). The noodle should be springy, not too crunchy, and be able to absorb the sauce.
In the pipeline Handpicked will be launching Hong Kong style wanton noodles (more crispy and crunchy with a more distinct lye taste), Kolo mee, and Ee-fu noodles.
Yi Kou Noodle, 489 Geylang Road, Lorong 27, Singapore 389448. Tel: +65 9779 9844
I Want My Noodle, 1 Scotts Road, #03-14/15 Shaw Centre, Singapore 228208, Tel: +65 9758 3037
Wild Rocket, 10A Upper Wilkie Road, Hangout @ Mt Emily, Singapore 228119. Tel: +65 63399448
A version of this story appeared in SALT’s Oct/Nov 2017 issue.