Tuesday, 12 May 2015
What's Singapore Style Prawn Noodle Soup got to do with Louis Hartz's Fragments Theory? Johor JK1127
Old Singapore style prawn noodle soup
Tracing the movement and stories of dishes as they migrate across the world is so fascinating!
Generally, when one is looking for the original version of a certain dish, it would normally be in the dish's country of origin. For example, one can expect to find original Nasi Padang in the city of Padang, Indonesia.
Sometimes, a dish bears a country's name but is rarely (if ever) found in the named country. For example, most Chinese restaurants in US, Canada, UK and Australia have a dish known as Singapore fried noodles 新洲炒米. Yet, most Singaporeans have not come across any Singapore restaurant serving "Singapore fried noodles".
Similarly, you will not be able to find Mee Bandung in Bandung, Indonesia. But, you will find many Mee Bandung stalls in Johor, some say in Singapore, but not in Batam.
There is another scenario where the original "authentic" version of a dish is only found overseas as it does not exist in the home country anymore.
This is the story of the unnoticed disappearance of old school Singapore style prawn noodle soup.
When I was in Johor Bahru, my JB friend Bryan brought me to taste a "Singapore prawn mee" stall at Larkin bus station. I wasn't expecting much but I was stunned as I took a first sip of the prawny broth. I have not encountered this particular smell and flavour for over 40 years until Bryan brought me to Ah Kwi's humble little stall. The aroma and taste was exactly the way it was in 1960s Singapore.
It transported me back to my childhood in an instant.
Ah Kwi's Singapore prawn mee reminds me of US political scientist Louis Hartz's "fragments" theory.
Louis Hartz in his seminal tome The Founding of New Societies (1964), proposed the idea that the culture of new nations (like USA and Canada) that developed from European settler colonies are fossilised European "fragments". Meaning, elements of the new nation's culture had remained the same as that prevalent in the old mother country at the time of the new nation's founding. This is because the culture of the new nations like USA, Canada and Australia did not undergo the further evolution experienced in Europe.
For example, we are more likely to hear ancient French dialects spoken in Quebec (Canada) and Louisiana (USA) than in France itself.
What has this esoteric social science concept got to do with Ah Kwi's little Singapore prawn mee stall in JB?
Edited photo for simulation purpose only
I am familiar with the aroma and taste of 1960s Singapore prawn mee because I sometimes ate it twice a day, literally.
Once in a while when we can afford it, my parents would send me down to the Blk 75 food centre in Toa Payoh to buy Singapore prawn noodle soup.
Toa Payoh Blk 75 food centre in 2015
Blk 75 food centre is still there in Toa Payoh but all the old stalls have long been replaced by new ones (of course). Our favourites here during the 1960s were the hor fun stall, char kway teow, wanton mee and of course the prawn mee soup stall. They don't make food like they used to anymore.
Back to the prawn noodle soup; we would eat the noodles for lunch and save the soup.
The soup we will keep until dinner time when we will add scoops of steamed rice into the savoury crustacean broth. That "prawn risotto" will be our dinner.
I love the crustacean aroma and flavour of 1960s Singapore prawn mee soup. However, it gradually disappeared from the Singapore food scene. Not many people, if anyone, noticed that it was gone. I, myself didn't realised what I missed until I tasted Ah Kwi's prawn mee soup.
Our taste buds and noses have elephant's memories.
You see, Singapore prawn mee evolved, "progressed" along with the country. As Singapore prospered and we could afford better over time; into the prawn broth, hawkers added more pork, pork bones and ribs. This added richer body and a stronger porcine flavour to the once delicately balanced broth. Other hawkers, perhaps inspired by the popularity of the Penang style of prawn noodles (known as Hokkien mee over there) added sambal chili or curry powder directly into the broth. With 50 years of "progress", the simpler 1960s Singapore prawn noodle soup disappeared.
Except for Ah Kwi's stall in JB. Ngew Seng Kwi 阿贵 prawn noodles stall, to be exact.
It's purely fortuitous, fated, they say.
Ah Kwi's father was selling Singapore prawn noodle soup in 1960s Singapore, on a wheeled push cart stall. Then one day in 1964, he decided to wheel his push cart stall across the Causeway, from Hong Kong Street in Singapore to Johor Bahru, and settled down along today's Jalan Wong Ah Fook in search of better business.
Then, on that fateful 9th of August day in 1965, Singapore and Malaysia separated. Ah Kwi's father and his Singapore prawn mee stall were in JB at the time and had remained ever since.
Ah Kwi had worked with his father at the Singapore prawn mee stall since he was 10 years old.
This is Ah Kwi at his dad's push cart stall in 1971 along Jalan Wong Ah Fook. Kerosene lamp (hurricane lamp), charcoal stove, no running water, flappy canvas roof.
Things were much easier when Ah Kwi moved to the food centre at Larkin bus station. Electricity, running water, cooking gas, and the wet market just below.
Larkin food centre is like a little kampung where the hawkers look out for each other.
While Ah Kwi was busy at work, the old uncle from his neighbour's stall spends his day watching Ah Kwi's loud TV. It's like the kampung spirit of the old days where children watch the neighbour's TV. By the way, the TV was tuned to Singapore's Channel 8.
Working conditions have improved but for all these years, Ah Kwi had kept the faith with the recipe and techniques of his dad. He has a huge following of regular customers who are with him for decades.
Ah Kwi is a dedicated and fastidious hawker who does everything to exacting standards.
Ah Kwi shells the prawns only when there is an order. This keeps the prawns from losing their moistness and tenderness from prolonged exposure to air.
Ah Kwi even cut his chili just before serving to ensure the freshest spicy taste and fragrance. How's that for dedication?
Ah Kwi uses only Kang Kong 蕹菜 in his prawn noodles, the way his dad had always done. The way it's supposed to be.
Ah Kwi's Singapore prawn noodle soup (in line with tradition, there is no "dry" version).
Singapore prawn noodle soup is light bodied and has a unique balance of crustacean savouriness and slight porcine sweetness. Instantly recognisable to people who grew up with it. No MSG, Ah Kwi stressed.
Every morning, Ah Kwi would do his marketing for the stall. He will go to the seaside at Stulang Laut where Orang Asli fishermen in sampans (small wooden boats) sell their night's catches. The wild caught sea prawns are the best. Succulent and extra sweet.
On those days when the sea catch of the day is poor, Ah Kwi has to settle using the prawns from Larkin wet market beneath his stall. These are fresh pond bred prawns.
The small thin slices of mostly lean fresh pork has a lovely mild porcine flavour and aroma.
If you want to recapture that old Singapore prawn mee soup experience, or if you want to know what is the 1960s Singapore prawn mee, get it at Ngew Seng Kwi stall in Larkin, Johor Bahru.
The food centre at the 3rd level of Larkin market is spacious, airy, cool and clean. It also has many interesting food stalls for us to explore ;-D
View of the Larkin bus station below. From here, passengers take buses to places like Malacca and Kuala Lumpur.
It is easy to come to Larkin by public SBS Transit buses 160 and 170.
Thank you Mr Ngew Seng Kwi for steadfastly upholding a part of Singapore's culinary heritage.
Ah Kwi is single and there is no one to take over the baton for his Singapore prawn noodle stall. Unfortunately, that could mean the end of Singapore style prawn mee soup when Ah Kwi retires.
->> If you are a Singapore old timer and want to reconnect with the old Singapore prawn mee, you got to come here. Crustacean savoury brownish pork bone broth and fresh sea prawns with simple yellow noodles and crunchy bean sprouts.
What other "fragments" of old Singapore food culture do you know have been stranded overseas? What about "fragments" of food culture from foreign countries that remained unchanged in Singapore but have disappeared in their home countries?
Restaurant name: Ngew Seng Kwi 阿贵蝦面 (Singapore prawn mee stall)
Address: 3rd Storey, Larkin Bus Station Food Centre, Johor Bahru
GPS: 1.496223,103.742946 / 1°29'46.4"N 103°44'34.6"E
Hours: 11:30am to 2:30pm
Date visited: 31 Jan 2013, 12 May 2015, 14 May 2015
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