Singapore Noodles, the Merlion Statue of Singapore Cuisine – Food Origins

I don’t know the Singaporean consensus, but while the Merlion and Singapore Noodles are both associated with Singapore, I cannot identify either of them as involved in a Singaporean’s daily life. Like the Merlion, Singapore Noodles is something created by foreigners and then became a Singaporean icon by no choice of the common Singaporean folks.

I’m certainly no Mayor of Singapore, Just a Fat Boi who writes articles, so I can’t exactly go around cutting ties with Spaghetti Bolognese like the Mayor of Bologna. However, I can tell you that Singapore Noodles can’t be found in Singapore in 2019. It’s fake news. But I’m not here to argue about Singaporean identity or anything like that.

Here, I summarize and theorize why nobody knows where it originates, and why this dish vanished in Singapore. The origins of Singapore Noodles are hard to trace. In fact, tuck-shop.co spent a few years investigating, and have yet to find their roots. Their investigation journal/blog is THE most comprehensive source I have found so far on the topic of Singapore Noodle, so if you are interested to read about the specifics definitely do check them out.

What IS Singapore Noodles?

Omnivorescookbook

There are actually 3 versions of Singapore Noodles, with the key difference being the added seasoning.

As for the other common ingredients, Singapore noodles is, loosely speaking, a dish of stir-fried vermicelli shaped rice noodles with prawns/shrimps, char siu, eggs and some vegetables.

If you are in the Western Hemisphere, you probably know this dish with curry powder being the main flavoring ingredient, found in Cantonese restaurants. This is also the Hong Kong version of the dish, most common in the West and found in Cantonese eateries.

In Hong Kong, this version appears in all kinds of eateries, like Dai Pai Dong, Cha Chaan Teng, fast food, and restaurants. Called 星洲炒米 ( Xing Zhou Chao Mi, Pronounced like Sing Joe Chow Mee) or 星洲米粉 (Xing Zhou Mi Fen) in mandarin – A literal translation will be “Star Region Stir-Fry Rice”. Chao Mi (炒米), or Stir-fried rice, is a short form for Chao Mi Fen 炒米粉, where Chao 炒 means “stir fry” and Mi Fen 米粉 means “rice noodles”.

Replace the curry powder with Worcestershire or Ketchup and you’ll get the Malaysian version. Take out any of those, and you’ll have the Singapore version, which cannot or is almost impossible to find in Singapore now. In Malaysia you can find the dish in Tai Chow; and in Singapore Tze Char. Like Hong Kong Cha Chaan Tengs, all these stalls that sell a large variety of common and affordable dishes meant to sell to common folks.  

Origins

Almost all popular English language sources will say that its’ origins lie in Hong Kong as a Cantonese cuisine. More than likely, Singapore Noodles is a Cantonese dish that jumped between Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore where British colonization introduced curry powder, worcestershire sauce and ketchup, which were then used in their cooking. A reasonable estimation of when the dish was named would be early-mid 20th century, since it is said Singapore noodles could be found in Singapore in the 1940s.

Image result for cha chaan teng
Cha Chaan Teng / Wikipedia

I don’t eat a lot of Tze Char, but I don’t think I have ever seen a Tze Char stall with “Singapore Noodles” or “Xin Zhou Mi Fen” on the menu. So Xin Zhou Mi Fen must have been a menu item that is quite old and rather unpopular, or is ordered off menu (which is possible as you’ll see later).

And in case you’re wondering, the Merlion was designed by a British. Talk about influence!

The Problematic Name

“Singapore Noodles” is a translation made for the West, because not everyone spoke English back in early to mid 20th century. This makes it complicated as we don’t really know where the dish starts from, despite the name attribution to Singapore. Why was this named after Singapore? Is it because people thought we have an abundance of prawns and like to make char siu (made up facts), or is it because people thought we like rice noodles or curry powder? Was there a random cooking competition with a Singapore representative coming up with this dish, which then spreaded the dish?

Xing Zhou 星洲, or “Star Region”. Xing Zhou or Xing Guo 星国 “Star Country” was what Singapore used to be called before we gained independence in 1965. As Singapore is now officially known as 新加坡, Xin Jia Po, (which the first word Xin sounds similar to Xing, but has a different meaning of ‘new’), most younger people don’t even know that Xing Zhou is supposed to be referring to Singapore.

The Meaning of Star

Back in those days, Xing Zhou/Star Region/Singapore was a relatively prosperous city (despite the Zombie Apocalypse like scenarios). The Malaysian version of the origin story: “Near the end of the Japanese occupation, a well known organization head, driving in a car, stopped in front of a stall front, requesting the owner to satiate his hunger. Despite in the midst of closing up, the owner saw this as an opportunity for business and preventing getting in the head’s bad rep. So he threw a bunch of Rice Noodles, Char Siu, Bean sprouts, Dried shrimps, eggs and chili, to serve the organization head. When asked about the dish name, saying it’s a random stir fry probably isn’t very polite, so he came up with the name Xing Zhou Chao Mi. It then became the stall’s signature dish and the dish spread.“

The attribution to Singapore was intended to make the dish look luxurious – as you can probably tell from the ingredients used even in today’s version. But Tai Chows and Tze Chars are supposed to be affordable places, so that could be a reason why the dish fell off menus.

Some Recipes (Western/Hong Kong version):

Malaysian and Singapore version recipes are hard to find. Singapore version is probably practically non-existent.

Are the 3 versions all Singapore Noodles?

Depending on what you think about food names, the 3 different types of Singapore Noodles can be considered separate dishes. People weren’t very creative in coming up with names in the past (except in this case where people got too creative resulting in this mess). Fancy names like Cog au Vin literally just means “rooster/cock with wine” in French, adobo means “marinade” in Spanish, Spaghetti aglio e olio means “Spaghetti with garlic and oil” in Italian. It wouldn’t quite make sense to translate “Chicken Adobo” to “Marinated Chicken”, since it can be marinated in anything. But if you keep the original language, Chicken Adobo makes a lot more sense since it implies that it is belonging to that language’s place, and thus uses ingredients or methods from there.

Spaghetti Bolognese, which doesn’t exist in Bologna, might share a similar story with Singapore Noodles. The original dish had a name in its native language, which then was passed to other countries through migration. In that new country, new methods of cooking or ingredients were used to suit local palates, and a translation of the name was given so people actually knew what they were ordering. Ragù Alla Bolognese (Ragu in the style of Bologna) became Spaghetti Bolognese, like how Singapore Noodles came to be from whatever dialect it possibly came from.

So depending on your perspective, “Singapore Noodles” and “Xing Zhou Chao Mi” might be considered different dishes. But in my research, I am assuming that they are the same dish until proven otherwise.

Why Singapore Doesn’t Have Singapore Noodles

Regarding Curry Powder

Seasonings in recipes often vary A LOT in the use of soy sauce, oyster sauce, white pepper, ShaoXing wine… etc, but the signature flavoring of the noodles probably come from Curry Powder/Ketchup/Worcestershire.

From the perspective of a Singaporean home cook, “Curry Powder” in recipes is confusing because there are many kinds of curry. Going to the supermarket, you see packets labeled “Curry powder – Chicken”, “Curry Powder – Fish”, “Curry Powder – Vegetarian” in the Singaporeanized Indian curry aisle. Moving to the Chinese section there might be some Chinese style or Nyonya style curry paste. Did I mention there’s also Malay curries? Curry Powder is a Western invention, but the generic western curry powder is not quite popular here – “Western” Curry Powder goes for about S$4, while the more local curry powder packet goes for about S$1.50. So now, you might understand why the curried version doesn’t exist here – a generic curry powder doesn’t exist.

Side note: If you have heard that “curries don’t exist to Indians”, and got confused, you’re probably not very wrong. I like to think that Singaporean Indians were just tired of the Chinese’ shit, calling everything orangey curry, and decided to call it curry as a compromise. Indian restaurants do offer “Fish Head Curry”, that people will tell you is a delightful invention with mixed Chinese and Indian origins, created to appeal to the multicultural Singapore clientele.

The Dialect Dilemma

Even though I’m using Mandarin, there are many Chinese dialect groups in Singapore, each likely having their names or translation for the dish. Unlike Mandarin which has Hanyu Pinyin, dialects don’t have a standard romanization system, so for Singapore Noodles you might get spellings like “Sin Chew” or “Sing Chow Mai Fun”, or some random variations that sound similar.

Back in those days, language education meant that Singaporean Chinese were either Chinese-educated or English-educated, and would not understand the other language. This meant that an English-educated Chinese is unlikely to be proficient at Chinese. This explains the lack of the translation of “Singapore Noodles” from the dialect languages, and also the lack of association of “Singapore Noodles” with “Xing Zhou Chao Mi”.

Turning to the names of the stalls/establishments selling Xing Zhou Chao Mi; Cha Chaan Teng of Hong Kong and Tai Chow of Malaysia, are Cantonese language names. On the other hand, the Singapore Tze Char is Hokkien. Hokkien served as a common language back then, so Tze Chars might not be exclusively Hokkien. Nowadays, regardless of whether the Tze Char is operated by Hainanese, Teochew, or Cantonese, we still call the stall a Tze Char.  

Singapore Noodles might not have a name

Before the 1980s, Tai Chows and Tze Chars (not sure about Cha Chaan Teng) didn’t have menus, as many people were illiterate. Hell, one Tze Char stall still didn’t have a menu until 2014. Customers would order by “<ingredient> + <method of cooking or seasoning>”. An order exchange between customer and server involves the customer asking for an ingredient, and the server suggesting or mentioning the method of cooking or other ingredients/seasoning to go with it. Like: “give me kangkong”, “also some soup” “what soup?” “fish is good today” “ok, fish soup”.

So in the case of Singapore Noodles, it might go like “rice noodles”, “how you want it cooked?”, “stir-fried”, “Add what?”, “uh… prawns.”, “actually, I’m feeling luxurious today. Add char siu and also all the good vegetables you have”. While it seems like a hassle for new customers, these places often have regulars who can order very quickly, especially since people of the same dialects tended to eat together. My main point here is that the unique combination of ingredients Westerners now know as Singapore Noodles is something that people might order by chance in the past. How do we identify with a dish that doesn’t have a name?

To further prove this point, here are two recipes that literally is just the name “Stir Fried Rice Noodles” or Chao Mi Fen 炒米粉. Like fried rice, stir fried noodles are an excellent way to use leftovers.

When you compare Stir Fried Bee Hoon in China and Singapore homes, there isn’t too much of a difference. To say that the two recipes taste similar to Singapore Noodle would be stretching it, since there is the lack of Curry/Ketchup/Worcestershire. But Stir fried rice noodle dishes have probably existed for as long as rice noodles are a thing, and can be found at home easily. Just because someone suddenly decides to add curry powder or ketchup to it, doesn’t make it a much different dish. Everybody’s Stir Fried Bee Hoon is different, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to use a new ingredient you see in the supermarket (or the 20th century version of a supermarket) and randomly add to your home cooking for experimentation. I sometimes randomly add Worcestershire to my fried rice, or use ketchup for my fried rice, but I certainly wouldn’t start calling it Singapore Fried Rice.

Hong Kong Marketing?

Turns out that Hong Kong cuisine has quite a few of cases like Singapore Noodles – dishes that don’t come from where the name claims to be, like Swiss Wings and possibly Yangzhou Fried Rice.

Let’s talk a little bit about marketing. For many food companies, let’s say they are selling beef. They like to place “Wagyu” in front, or “Japanese” to make it attractive to customers, even if the product they have is an inferior version. It is also possible that some cooks or restaurant owners did this to make dishes look more exotic, and then add in curry powder for that exotic zing. I suspect the same has happened for Singapore Noodles.

SeriousEat’s referred to a dish called Ha Moon Chow Mei Fun (Cantonese) or in mandarin 厦门炒米粉 (Xia Men Chao Mi Fen), which is for some reason yet another Cantonese dish invented to suit Western palates. The problem? Ha Moon Chow Mei Fun is so unknown that it doesn’t even have a Chinese wiki page. It’s almost as if we are just walking in circles! But note that Ha Moon Chow Mei Fun uses ketchup, which is similar to the Malaysian version.

Similar Dishes in Singapore

These are dishes that on the very off chance, might be mistaken by a foreigner for Singapore Noodles.

Char Kway Teow

Literally translates to “Stir Fried Flat Rice Noodles”, there are different versions for the Malaysian version and the Singaporean version. The main difference between the two being the Singaporean one is darker and sweeter, but for the sake of comparing to Singapore Noodles they are quite similar. Main common points being rice noodles, prawns, and stir fried. Though arguable that Singapore Noodles could have been adapted from this, it’s really not too much similar.

Economic Bee Hoon

Think about Stir fried Rice Noodles, and this is the first that comes to mind, since this is the Bee Hoon that is most common and most popular now. Except, it is nothing like Singapore Noodles! In Singapore, Economic Bee Hoon is a popular breakfast item, and very cheap. You queue up to the hawker stall and are presented with an array of dishes to choose from, usually luncheon meat (Asian spam), braised cabbages, eggs, fish cakes, fried chicken, ngoh hiang or whatever the stall feels like adding. In fact, you can even choose not to get Rice Noodles and get rice instead.

Sources to understand what Economic Bee Hoon looks like:

White Bee Hoon

This one is quite different, since it uses a stock to cook the noodles in. The only thing similar is the use of Rice Noodles, and prawns.

Mee Siam

A Malay/Peranakan rice noodle dish inspired by Thai. Other than the noodles being spicy (comparison to curry powder, but here they use actual chilies, there’s almost nothing close to Singapore Noodles.

I will be keeping a look out for more information as well as tuck-shop’s progress, but in the meanwhile, I’ll be satisfied in knowing that Singapore Noodles is in fact not Singaporean, and a very very high chance that it is Hong Kong Cantonese.

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