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Ebony & Ivory. History of KL & Singapore Hokkien Mee (Rochor Mee)

History_KL_Singapore_Hokkien_Mee_Rocho_ Mee

Singapore Hokkien mee and Kuala Lumpur Hokkien mee have the same name and the same roots, but they are as different as black and white. And, both Hokkien mee cannot be found in Fujian, China. How come?

Image credit: National Archives Singapore
From the 1850s to 1920s, the last days of the Qing dynasty in China were wrecked by rebellion, wars and famine. At the time, the British Empire was at its height. British Malaya was booming with tin, rubber, spices and trade. It had a huge appetite for labour to work its mines, plantations and ports. Multitudes of Hokkien (and Cantonese) coolies came to British Malaya (which include today's Malaysia and Singapore) to slave in the ports, plantations and mines.

Image credit: Wikipedia
Wong Kian Lee (alias Ong Kim Lian) came to Kuala Lumpur in 1905 and first settled in Kampung Bahru.

At first, Wong Kian Lee sold a common pale looking soupy stir fried noodle dish from his Fujian hometown, Anxi 安溪. When more people sold fried noodles and competition got stiffer, Wong developed his own style of noodles.

Seven Best KL Hokkien Mee
He used thick fat noodles, put in lots of dark soy sauce and lard, stewed and fried it with exceptional wok hei. His creation soon caught on and when asked what is the name of his signature noodles, he simply called it "Hokkien mee" as he came from Fujian.

In 1927, he moved to Chinatown (Petaling Street) and founded Kim Lian Kee. 

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Kim Lian Kee Petaling Street
Kim Lian Kee is still there at Petaling Street. Run by the third generation with mostly Myanmar workers at the wok now. But, this is still my favourite place for KL black Hokkien mee. Though dingy and run down, I actually find this historic place charming and prefer to eat here than Kam Lian Kee's more upscale outlets 😄

History_KL_Singapore_Hokkien_Mee_Rocho_ Mee
Sea Park Ah Wah Hokkien Mee
Kim Lian Kee's Hokkien mee is widely emulated and the dish is one of Kuala Lumpur's food icons now. It is thick wheat noodles stir fried in a super heated charcoal fired wok.

History_KL_Singapore_Hokkien_Mee_Rocho_ Mee
KL Hokkien Mee
The thick noodles are stewed and stir fried in a porky stock with dried sole fish and dark soy sauce till it is almost dry and all the flavours are infused into the strands. Lard is liberally used. Pig liver, squid, prawn, pork, cabbage, lots of lard cracklings add flavour to the robustly savoury noodles with caramelised toasty smokey tones from wok hei.

History_KL_Singapore_Hokkien_Mee_Rocho_ Mee
Geylang Lor 29 Swee Guan Hokkien Mee

In Singapore, Hokkien mee have the same roots but evolved differently.

Instead of going black, it went white.

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
The first stall that sold Singapore fried Hokkien mee was at the five foot way of The 7th Storey Hotel (demolished in 2009 to make way for Bugis MRT station) at Rochor Road.

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
The area around Rochor Road and Bugis Street was the original party headquarters of Singapore.

From Leslie Tay's interview with Ng Hock Wah, his father Ng Seng came to Singapore from Xiamen in the 1940s. Ng Seng was a coolie at an iron workshop and at night he would fry noodles as a pastime, throwing in whatever ingredients he could get. Mostly scraps of pork, sometimes squid and prawns. When his concoction became popular, he quit his coolie job and started a hawker stall below The 7th Storey Hotel in the 1950s.

History_KL_Singapore_Hokkien_Mee_Rocho_ Mee
Toa Payoh Come Daily Hokkien Mee
According to Dawn and Jean Yip whose parents ran a shop at Bugis Street in the 1950s, Ng Seng's Hokkien mee stall was very popular. Hokkien mee was a slightly premium hawker dish - it was sold at $1 when wanton mee went for 30 cents i.e. it was three times as expensive. $1 was a princely sum in 1950/60s Singapore 😱 

The stall owner Ng Seng, creator of Singapore fried Hokkien mee was already an old man in the 1950s. It was known then as "Rochor mee". The noodles were stir fried and stewed in rich stock over charcoal fire until it was nearly all dried up and all its flavours infused in the wet noodles. The stock was made with pork bones and prawn shells. There's squid, prawns, pork belly, and lard cracklings in the noodles.

Hokkien mee was served in opeh leaf (betel nut leaf sheath) which imparted additional flavour and aroma to the hot noodles.

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Tiong Bahru ABC Market Hokkien Mee
Rochor mee was then widely emulated throughout Singapore (but somehow never made it across the Causeway). Jean and Dawn Yip said that the ones at Laguna Park and Toa Payoh were the closest to the original Rochor mee but both have already closed. (Source: National Archives of Singapore)

Jean and Dawn Yip's account was corroborated by Vincent Gabriel's description of 1960s Bugis Street. Gabriel said that the hawkers got discarded bits of pork from the Bugis Market and used these to make pork lard and also blanched pork which they used liberally in Rochor mee. Hearing this alone makes me salivate 😋 Like that win already lor 😄

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Somewhere among these street side stalls at Bugis Street was the father of Singapore Hokkien mee. By the 1960s, there were already several Rochor mee stalls and there were long queues for them. (Source: National Archives of Singapore.)

Today, both ebony (KL black Hokkien mee) and ivory (Singapore Hokkien mee) are popular and ubiquitous in Malaysia and Singapore respectively. I love both black and white, and have them whenever I have the opportunity.

Not sure why the name "Rochor mee" disappeared and the dish was renamed "Hokkien mee" instead. Perhaps when stalls selling "Rochor mee" proliferated, the stalls not located in the Rochor area wanted to use a different name for the dish. But, that doesn't explain why it is called "Hokkien mee". Perhaps, it's because the creator Ng Seng and most hawkers selling it were Hokkien folks.

In the 1960s, there was already a dish called Hokkien mee - it referred to what we know today as "prawn mee". Today, when you go to Penang and ask for Hokkien mee, you will be served "prawn mee".

Any insights to share?

Please share with us your memories of KL Hokkien mee and Rochor mee.

Date: 18 May 2020

1 comment:

  1. where to get the ebony black hokkien mee here in singapore please?


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