In the hawker centres and coffee shops of Singapore, people can lock chopsticks with all sorts of noodle dishes: Laksa jazzed up with tamarind and coconut milk, supremely comforting wonton noodles and plates of calorific char kway teow, smoky and charry from fire-breathing woks — to name a few.
One dish that people will struggle to find, ironically, are the eponymously named Singapore noodles. Or at least what the rest of the world knows as Singapore noodles: rice vermicelli noodles, stir-fried with meat, vegetables and — the dish's defining feature — curry powder.
Like the Hainanese chicken rices and Mongolian lambs of the world, Singapore noodles weren't invented in the place after which they're named. Instead, the dish was created in Hong Kong sometime after WWII by Cantonese chefs who were keen to find a use for curry powder — a recent addition to the southern Chinese pantry via British colonies. The dish was named 'Singapore noodles' as a nod to the cosmopolitan nature of both city-states.
As cooks from Hong Kong and southern China migrated around the world, they brought Singapore noodles with them — as well as fried rice, dim sum, roast meats and other Cantonese standards that would go on to define "Chinese cuisine" globally.
The dish goes by different names internationally including — but not limited to — 'Singapore-style fried bee hoon', 'Singapore rice noodles' and 'Sing Chow noodles', an anglicisation of Xingzhou, Singapore's Chinese name.
But despite its name, Singapore noodles aren't something you're likely to find in a Singaporean or Malaysian hawker restaurant. Instead, look for them at Cantonese or Hong Kong eateries.
ArChan Chan, an Australian chef who was born in Hong Kong and has clocked time with the Andrew McConnell restaurant group, including time as head chef at Cantonese-inspired Melbourne restaurant Ricky & Pinky, has fond memories of the dish.
"I would say, in general, that most people [in Hong Kong] would know what xing zhou chao mei fun [the dish's Cantonese name] is," says Chan who relocated to Singapore in mid-2018 to cook at LeVel 33, an urban craft brewery overlooking Singapore's Marina Bay.
"It's very classic and like ying chow chao fan [fried rice] or a Caesar salad: you know what's in it. There's vermicelli, a little bit of turmeric, probably some egg. When you say the dish's name, I can already taste it in my mind. It's a classic cha chaan teng [Hong Kong cafe] dish."
"There's vermicelli, a little bit of turmeric, probably some egg. When you say the dish's name, I can already taste it in my mind."
As is commonplace with well-travelled dishes, the recipe for Singapore noodles has been adapted to suit local tastes and available ingredients. In veteran Australian food writer Terry Durack's cookbook Noodle, he admits that he cares little for the crucial curry powder, but won't hold it against you if you want to slip a teaspoon of "good, fresh Malaysian curry powder" into your version.
New York-based Australian food writer Hetty McKinnon discovers that, in a pinch, Middle Eastern shawarma spices make a fine ring-in when curry powder isn't at hand.
Growing up, Merivale executive chef and cooking show Chef's Line star Dan Hong enjoyed a version that his restaurateur mum Angie cooked using the Clive of India brand of spice mix. However, at his Mr Wong restaurant in Sydney, he places his trust in the S&B brand (he likes its downplayed turmeric flavours) and also makes a paste using butter, garlic, curry leaves and curry powder, rather than putting the curry directly into the wok.
"Making the paste adds more body to the noodle and it's also a consistency thing," Hong says. "But other than that, it's pretty much the same ingredients as the classic Hong Kong style, except I use shredded snow peas and black fungi instead of capsicum: I hate that vegetable."
Although ArChan Chan hasn't come across Singapore noodles since she began working in Singapore, she has spied a dish called "Hong Kong noodles" — noodles with prawn and wontons — at hawker centres. And just as your average Singaporean would struggle to pick out Singapore noodles in an extensive line up of noodle dishes, Chan can't recall eating these so-called "Hong Kong noodles" during her travels.
"I think it's the same as Singapore stir-fried vermicelli in that someone has tried to capture the essence of Hong Kong," says Chan.
"Maybe it's revenge for the Singapore noodles? But I haven't tried them. I refuse to recognise the dish. Personally, I like to try things that are a bit more local and authentic rather than something that's 'impressionist'."
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Where to try Singapore noodles around Australia
Singapore & Co
Noodle House Mitchell
Hong Kong Tea House
Superbowl Chinese Restaurant