Because I am Singaporean, when talking about Lor Mee, the 1st two images in this post are the ones that comes into my mind. The below is a compilation of sources that I used to trace back the origins of Lor Mee from Singapore. The reason why I felt compelled to compile them is firstly due to personal interest, but secondly because information on Lor Mee is very scattered on the internet and most of them are not translated into English. Whether they are accurate I cannot know, but they are what I have learnt while reading up on Lor Mee.
Table of Contents
What the hell is Lor Mee/Lu Mian
Lor Mee consists of 2 words which describes the main portions of the dish. “Lor” or 鹵, refers to the thick starchy gravy. “Mee” or 麵, refers to the noodles portion of the meal. Ingredients then top the noodles (like seen above), with ingredients depending on the stall, but commonly seen items are Ngo Hiang, fish cakes, fish, dumplings or eggs in various combinations. This dish is commonly found in Hawker Centers all over Singapore. At the front of the stall where you take your utensils, there will usually be Black Vinegar, Soy Sauce, grated or minced Garlic, Sambal Chilli, Spring onions, sliced Red Chillis that you can add to taste.
The dish itself is quite heavy – modern versions often have fried items and the gravy is usually savoury and often sour. As such, Lor Mee is not something you eat frequently.
Take note, the above description only applies to the most common version you can find in Singapore, because Lor Mee/Lu Mian is different not only in China and Malaysia, but also from stall to stall! Perhaps the only similarity is the 2 major components of thick gravy and noodles.
If you want to know how the “Singapore” version is made:
- GuaiShushu‘s recipe (written blog post)
- TheMEATMen‘s recipe (video with word description)
- SpiceN’Pans‘ recipe (video with verbal explanation)
The general steps for making Singapore’s version of Lor Mee starts with braising meat in a flavourful broth, which will then be used to make the gravy by adding other ingredients (meat, seafood, and/or vegetables depending on style) and a thickener. Noodles and toppings are then cooked separately and served with the gravy mixed in.
Lor Mee Origins
The history and origins of Singapore hawker food dishes is not easy to trace. Many dishes are adaptations of dishes from various regions (like Hainanese Chicken Rice, which is an adaptation of Wenchang chicken from Hainan in China). And then there are dishes like the Singaporean version of Lor Mee which have been adapted and changed so much that it is almost an entirely new dish.
Singapore’s version of Lor Mee can be traced back to Fujian, as it is one of the dishes that Fujian emigrants have brought over to Singapore when they were forced to emigrate by the Chinese Civil War. Given this information, it is thus intuitive to look at the Lor Mee in Fujian and compare to Singapore’s.
The Fujian province in China has many cities, and in each of the cities where Lor Mee can be found there are major differences in the dish. As far as I can tell from reading Baidu as well as other random articles, there are 3 major styles of Lor Mee that are somewhat similar to Singapore’s in China; ZhangZhou, Putian and QuanZhou.
Lets start with the version that is the most dissimilar to Singapore’s Lor Mee.
Putian Lor Mee
Just from the picture alone, it already seems like a completely different dish. The Putian or HengHua Lor Mee is more seafood and vegetable based, with ingredients like scallops, clams, prawns, nappa cabbage. Noodles are also thinner and rounder.
Preparation wise, the methods are similar in that a broth is made and then noodles are topped, but the ingredients used are so much different that I believe this is not related to the thick, dark and gooey Singapore’s version of Lor Mee.
You can still find this style of Lor Mee in Singapore, but it is a lot more uncommon and will often be labeled as Putian Lor Mee rather than just Lor Mee. Probably not the roots I am looking for!
QuanZhou Lor Mee
Unlike the Singapore’s version, QuanZhou Lor Mee‘s gravy is not made by braising beforehand. Instead, it is made to order and ingredients like shrimp and clam, a pork based broth, and even noodles, are cooked in a wok together. A noteable ingredient is that traditionally, Shacha sauce, a peanut and chilli sauce related to Satay sauce, is added to their version of Lor Mee, giving a nuttier flavour. The addition of Shacha sauce do make me wonder if this version can be considered a cousin of Shacha Noodle.
In case you’re wondering what is the 8 logo on the top right of the picture, that is a TV Channel Logo. This video, which is a Singaporean TV show on hawker food origins, showed a chef in Quanzhou making their version of Lor Mee. In the cooking process, emphasis was also placed on the the choice of noodles. The change in cooking methods meant that Sheng Mian (生面) is used over Huang Mian (黄面), which is the usual choice in Singapore’s Lor Mee.
In the show, Singapore’s and Zhangzhou’s Lor Mee was also shown.
ZhangZhou Lor Mee
Zhangzhou’s Lor Mee is perhaps the closest to Singapore’s. In Ah Fen Lu Mian, a Lor Mee brand in ZhangZhou, a pre-braised pot of gravy can be clearly seen together with other ingredients. Here, you can basically add anything you like on top of your Lor Mee, including ingredients like Ngoh Hiang, eggs and braised pork which you can find in the Singapore’s version!
The preparation methods are also very similar; the broth is prepared first using ingredients like pork, squid, scallops, mushrooms. On order, noodles are then cooked and then the gravy and other cooked ingredients are added as toppings. The darker colour is achieved from adding braising liquid from braised meat, and the pale yellow strands in the gravy are eggs. At this point, it seems safe to say that the similarities meant that Singapore’s version is at the very least heavily influenced by Zhangzhou’s Lor Mee.
Another small trivia: In Zhangzhou, Lor Mee is pretty much eaten all the time and even during festive dates like Weddings and Duanwu Festival. Lor Mee is a very huge part of their culture.
Other Styles Worth Mentioning
Fuzhou Lor Mee
There is also Fuzhou’s Lor Mee, which is very similar to Zhangzhou’s. But I have not yet found a source that clearly shows what is the difference between Fuzhou’s and Zhangzhou’s Lor Mee.
Malaysia, Ulu Yam Lor Mee
As Malaysia is Singapore’s neighbour, it would not be surprising if we can find clues about Singapore’s Lor Mee from analysing Malaysia’s version.
In terms of preparation, the Ulu Yam Lor Mee is closer to the Quanzhou’s Lor Mee. The ingredients, including the broth, meat and noodles are cooked in the wok like in a one pot pasta dish.
Here you would think that from preparation methods alone, you can conclude that the Malaysian version is a derivative of Quanzhou’s Lor Mee, but that does not seem to be true.
The Malaysian version is said to be originated from Hock Choon Kee in Ulu Yam, Selangor, which eventually spread to all over Malaysia. From an interview with Hock Choon Kee, it seems that the founder went to Singapore and ate Mian Hu, which he then came back to Malaysia to try to recreate. Despite looking similar in terms of gravy and noodles, Malaysia’s Lor Mee is probably quite different from Singapore’s. You can say it is almost an original dish.
Malaysia, Sitiawan’s Lor Mee
In Malaysia, Sitiawan, Fuzhou Lor Mee is sold as a dish. The Lor Mee itself isn’t too different from the Zhangzhou style written above, but the locals here do have a unique way of eating Lor Mee; by adding Laksa gravy into the dark, gooey gravy. This is also called 卤辣面 (Lu La Mian). This would be like a sub-set of Fuzhou Lor Mee, but not exactly a regional style by itself. Typically, Assam laksa (tamarind or gelugur based) is used.
This Filipino-Chinese dish is also quite similar in both looks, preparation and name to Lor Mee. There are various variations within the Philippines, including Pancit Lomi and Batangas Lomi. The preparation seems to be largely similar, starting with a braising broth which is then used to create a gravy. Key difference seems to be the addition of more local ingredients, like Calamansi and pork liver.
So I guess we’re ready to pack it up and say that Singapore’s Lor Mee is basically a modified version of Zhangzhou’s Lor Mee right? That would normally be the case, but if you ask hawkers the answers seem to be a bit different. In a Lor Mee review post by Singaporean blogger, ieatishootipost, he typed “Most of the hawkers agree that this is a dish that was brought over by our Hokkien forefathers from Xiamen. I have found some evidence (1) that in Xiamen, they have a version of Lor Mee that is eaten together with Ngor Hiang (Chinese pork rolls).”
Hold on, Xiamen?? That isn’t a place we encountered when looking at the versions of Lor Mee available.
The cities where Lor Mee can be found as a significant dish are in in the Southern region of Fujian; Zhangzhou, Quanzhou, Putian and Fuzhou (from what I gather by reading the Chinese Wiki on Lor Mee). Hey look, they are all next to each other on the Fujian map, with the exception of Xiamen being sandwiched in between.
With the geographical proximity of Xiamen, it is usually expected that Lor Mee can be found in some form. Yet, online searches yield little mentions of Lor Mee as a significant dish in Xiamen, or at least significant enough to have its own style. However, there are dishes similar to Lor Mee that are sold in Xiamen now. The first one is Shacha mian (沙茶面), which uses a Shacha sauce, peanut based sauce that was brought over from South East Asia because of trade. If you thought Shacha sounded familiar, it is because as I mentioned earlier, Shacha sauce is also used traditionally in Quanzhou’s Lor Mee. In my opinion, Shacha Mian is probably more similar to Satay Bee Hoon than Lor Mee.
The second one would be Mian Xian Hu, which is probably the Mian Hu mentioned before that influenced Malaysia’s Lor Mee. The 1st picture below looks pretty similar to the Putian’s Lor Mee, but other versions look more watery and have a much thinner noodle.
Although hawkers are terrific at creating their dishes, when it comes to the history of the dishes they create, the information they give may be subject to a lot of human error. Additionally, as hawkers are not historians nor food researchers, they might not pay as much close attention to the origins of the dish, but only the origins of their version of the dish.
My reasoning is that Xiamen, as a port city, is where the Fujian conducted trade, and thus where culinary ideas or ingredients were exchanged. The dishes that were brought to Singapore may not necessarily be a Xiamen dish. Even if the dishes were brought over directly from Xiamen, it is possible that Lor Mee was brought over from other regions first before going to Xiamen, then to Singapore.
It is also an amazing fact to learn that Malaysia’s Ulu Yam Lor Mee is not brought in directly from China, but is a reinterpretation of another dish that the Fujian peoeple brought to Singapore. Just based on looks alone, it looks extremely similar, and it fits the literal meaning of Lor Mee, “Lor (gravy)” and the “Mee (noodle)”. Yet, if you look at it’s roots, you can argue to say that it is not actually a “Lor Mee”, but more of a derivative of “Mian Xian Hu”.
Strictly looking at modern methods of preparing Lor Mee, I believe that Singapore’s Lor Mee is most closely related to Zhangzhou’s. However, the Lor Mee that we find in Singapore today is a culmination of the changes in taste, ingredients available, and individual hawker preferences or cultural influences.
- For the moment, I have found enough answers to satisfy my personal curiosity, but if there are any misinformation above or if there are inadequacies, I would very much like for this article to be updated.
- Originally, I wanted to pair this article together with a review, but it got too long for my liking. Because of that, I shamelessly decided to steal the featured image from MissTamChiak.
- None of the pictures above are mine. I am merely compiling and translating information I have gathered.