Banmian (板麵) soup can be an art form and is made, at its best, by carefully boiling the ingredients until they yield a velvety, luscious liquid gold. The name banmian (board/block noodle) came from the Hakka method of cutting the noodle into straight strands using a wooden block as a ruler. In Hakka, some might call it Man-Foon-Char-Guo (麵粉茶粿) or Dao-Ma-Chet (刀嬤切). Banmian is a culinary dish that is highly venerated in China, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan. It consists of egg noodles served in a flavourful soup, often with meat or fish, vegetables and various spices. Restaurants, street vendors and food stalls in the region dish out this moreish soup daily to eager patrons who slurp every single satisfying drop down.
There are numerous variations in ingredients, stocks and noodle shapes. In many instances, the completed soup is topped with an egg that is cooked in the hot liquid above the noodles. Most versions of banmian use egg noodles that are simply a blend of egg, flour, water and salt that is kneaded and then formed into noodles. However, the modern day banmian is mainly made by using a pasta maker which cuts noodles in all sizes. Ban Mian has long been a mainstay in Singapore’s hawker scene and a perennial favourite among many. When heritage meets innovation, we see a new and refreshing rendition of this traditional fare, capable of exciting even the most jaded gastronome.
One hot, sweltering afternoon, we pay Yue Lai Xian Delights a visit. Tucked away in a nondescript location at Sin Ming Drive, one might be quick to miss the place. A great shame however, because one would be missing an entire treasure trove of subtle surprises that await the unsuspecting palate. With tissue papers in toll to mop up our sweat, we approach the affable lady boss, Joy Yeo. Greeting us with a bright and effulgent smile, she quickly welcomes us and starts to introduce her dishes with great enthusiasm. A riot of colours, is the most appropriate description for her noodles.
“Just like how you add colours to your life, you can add colours to your food too!” For Joy, it was the process that she found most particularly engaging. To her, the greatest excitement was in the exploration and experimentation that yielded her prodigious creation.
Why the decision to start a Ban Mian store? Being a huge fan of Bian Mian herself, it was the obvious choice. For her, Ban Mian is the quintessential comfort food that one can consume from morning to night. Breakfast, lunch or dinner, there are no rules when it comes to these noodles. After much contemplation, she decided to add colours to the noodles.
“I feel that it does not need to be boring. Ban Mian might be traditional but it can be exciting too.”
After an arduous process of trial and error, she narrowed her choices down to four flavours. The pumpkin, spinach, bluepea and the beetroot. An experiment gone joyfully right. Eventually, Joy hopes to have her noodles available in all colours of the rainbow.
The initial journey was a tough one. Joy left her lucrative marketing job to start this business. She faced disapproval from her mother chastising her vehemently “not to be crazy” and her mother was certain she would give up soon enough. However, Joy is proud to say that her hard work and perseverance has paid off. Today, she is finally doing what she enjoys most and is in a job that she finds meaningful. This is not to say that success did not come with a price. There were the days she recalled, where she would be crying and questioning her decision while washing the mountains of bowls. A tough job for sure, but what keeps her going is ultimately the customers. She needs only to know that her customers enjoy her noodles, for her to feel that she made the right choice to pursue her dreams.
One would be forgiven for wondering if the incredible aesthetics of the noodles is compensatory for any culinary defects. It is not. The soup is fragrant and the texture of the noodles silky smooth, turning all of us at the table into immediate converts. The noodles are firm, they retain a bit of chewiness and a satisfying sweetness that plays perfect foil to the hearty broth. There’s something thrilling about having unadulterated access to ingredients that would otherwise be veiled in liquid, like huge, juicy prawns, a wobbly egg, huge chunks of meat and piled next to neat stacks of sweet vegetables on a tangle of perfectly chewy, glossy-blue, hand-massaged noodles.
For naysayers who are of the opinion that the rainbow coloured noodles are simply a novelty are wrong. These noodles not only taste as good as they look but come with a range of health benefits as well. The bluepea noodles are perfect for diabetics. For people who suffer from sleeping disorders, the bluepea helps with relaxation too. The jade green spinach noodles are great for regulating bowel movement and digestive disorders. Beetroot is an excellent antioxidant and is packed with vitamins.
“I want people to come to my store and feel that my noodles are homecooked. I want them to have the feeling you get at home when you eat a bowl of noodles,” says Joy.
Her soups are completely free from preservatives. For a long time, her neighbours were surprised at her decision to not to use msg. The secret to her tasty soups? Making sure that she is generous with the ingredients, which give the soup depth and a rich flavour. Her inspiration comes from her beloved grandmother. As her late grandmother used to tell her; if one is generous with the ingredients, the soup will always taste great. Her passion for cooking was sparked as she watched her grandmother in the kitchen. As a young girl, she was fascinated with the sight of her grandmother frying fish and she would spend hours in the kitchen watching her grandmother whip up dish after dish, as though she were in a hypnotic trance. After her grandmother passed away, she missed her delicious homecooked food. That was when she started to take up the wok and frying pan. Her journey into the world of cooking thus started.
“It was a shame I did not learn more about cooking from my grandmother”, quips Joy.
Never too late we say. Joy would make her grandmother a proud woman today.