Singapore hawkers give ban mian a makeover

(From left) Yobanmian's assistant manager Ivy Tan with her co-workers, Ms Yu Lay Hong and Ms Lim Seok Tin, at the Senoko outlet.
(From left) Yobanmian's assistant manager Ivy Tan with her co-workers, Ms Yu Lay Hong and Ms Lim Seok Tin, at the Senoko outlet.ST PHOTOS: KELLY HUI
Ms Joy Yeo runs Yue Lai Xiang Delights with her mother, Madam Jessie Lee, who helps out at the stall.
Ms Joy Yeo runs Yue Lai Xiang Delights with her mother, Madam Jessie Lee, who helps out at the stall. ST PHOTOS: KELLY HUI
Xuan Miao Vegan's employees with bowls of ban mian at the Paya Lebar Square outlet.
Xuan Miao Vegan's employees with bowls of ban mian at the Paya Lebar Square outlet. ST PHOTOS: KELLY HUI

Some hawkers in Singapore have given the noodle dish a makeover. Hannah Bock reports

1. YOBANMIAN

• 14 Senoko South Road; Open: 7am to 6pm (weekdays), closed on weekends and public holidays

• Singapore Polytechnic Food Court 3, 500 Dover Road; open: 7am to 7.30pm (weekdays), closed on weekends

• 01-02, Block 330 Anchorvale Street; open: 7am to 3pm (weekdays), 7am to 9pm (weekends)

This stall is constantly spicing up its dishes to stay on trend.

Inspired by the viral Fire Noodle Challenge in 2016, it introduced an extra-spicy bowl of dry noodles mixed with pork floss ($3.50) alongside a non-spicy version topped with pieces of chopped bak kwa ($3.50).

Today, Yobanmian's menu looks like a unique display of the culinary fads Singaporeans have taken to over the years.

Its first spin on the handmade noodle was when it opened the stall in 2014 and began adding thin slices of pork belly to the dish.

Instead of soya beans or bones, the original broth is also brewed with pork meat.

Ms Ivy Tan, 50, Yobanmian's assistant manager, said this not only "yields a purer and more refreshing taste", but also suits older folk who suffer from gout or arthritis and may want to avoid consuming soya.

In 2016, the business took inspiration from Japanese cuisine, for example, when it introduced its goma (sesame) sauce noodles ($5), complete with a trio of crispy, golden brown dumplings.

Jumping on the mala bandwagon, its latest addition is a flavourful and numbingly spicy mala you mian ($5).

The noodles are sprinkled with roasted peanuts and served with two slices of pan-fried luncheon meat after being tossed in its housemade mala sauce.

"Singaporeans love the taste of mala hotpot, but it can get expensive to eat, especially if you don't have a large group of people to split the cost with," said Ms Tan. "We want to offer an affordable and quick option for customers to satisfy their mala cravings."

Its inventive ban mian dishes are popular among the students and younger working crowd at its three outlets, but the pork belly ban mian ($4.50 for soup, $5 for dry) remains its bestseller.


2. YUE LAI XIANG DELIGHTS

• 01-224, 22 Sin Ming Road; Open: Mondays to Saturdays: 7.30am to 4.30pm, Sundays: 11am to 2pm; go to www.facebook.com/ylxdelights for updates on opening hours

If you have ever wanted to "eat the rainbow", head to Yue Lai Xiang Delights for a bowl of its colourful handmade noodles.

Stall owner Joy Yeo, 41, blends spinach, beetroot, pumpkin and extracts of blue pea flowers with the handmade dough to produce hues of green, red, yellow and blue respectively.

A bowl of original soup noodles is $3.50 and the dry version is $4.50. Opting for flavoured dough costs an extra $1.

Ms Yeo said while spinach was originally the most popular flavour, the others have caught up over the years.

All four now attract curious customers hoping to add some colour to their diet and regulars who look forward to the nutritional boost.

Ms Yeo said: "A customer once asked specifically for the beetroot noodles because he was an athlete and the vegetable is said to boost one's stamina."

"But I didn't know that beforehand," she added. "I just like my food to be colourful and, besides, it's fun to do something different."

She has also dabbled in flavours such as yam, seaweed, charcoal, green tea and pandan.

The four flavours were eventually picked as they delivered the best fragrance and bite when cooked, while also promising health benefits such as added fibre and antioxidants.

"I didn't stop experimenting until I was happy with what I was chewing," she said.

For customers who like their noodles chewy, she recommends the spinach dough, which is the springiest, whereas the blue pea has the silkiest, smoothest texture.

The beetroot and pumpkin varieties, on the other hand, season the broth with a hint of sweetness.

Ms Yeo's love of cooking was inspired by her late grandmother, who she says could turn any ingredient into a delicious meal.

She was never allowed to help with the cooking - too dangerous, her grandmother insisted - but watched, spellbound, from the doorway as the woman bustled about her kitchen gutting fish and frying vegetables.

Ms Yeo began preparing meals for her mother at 16 after her grandmother died, relying on memory and telephone calls to her aunts for recipes in an attempt to reconjure her favourite childhood dishes.

The broth at Yue Lai Xiang Delights is an adaptation of the family recipe, brewed overnight with sweet corn, pork bones, anchovies and dried sole fish bones.

Each bowl is served with mani cai, the traditional vegetable of choice for handmade noodles.

Initially, Ms Yeo did worry if her soup would be a little bland for her customers' tastes as she does not use additives or flavourings.

Nonetheless, she held on to her grandmother's belief that "as long as you are generous with your ingredients, your broth will taste good".

When she opened the stall in 2015, she also struggled to run it singlehandedly.

She recalls having to knead about 13kg of dough every day and wash her hands four times between collecting payment, preparing and serving each bowl of noodles.

Things are easier now that her mother helps out at the stall and they have invested in a noodle-making machine.

However, the back-breaking work is still a world away from her old job in marketing.

She said it is her passion for cooking that spurs her on.

"I never regret my decision to enter the hawker trade," Ms Yeo added. "Nothing compares to the satisfaction I feel when I see my customers enjoy their food."


3. XUAN MIAO VEGAN

• Jurong Point, 1 Jurong West Central 2; open: 10am to 9.30pm daily

• 04-11 Compass One, 1 Sengkang Square; open: 10am to 9.30pm daily

• B1-51 Paya Lebar Square, 60 Paya Lebar Road; open: 10am to 9.30pm

Before Beyond Burgers or Impossible Meat, there was Xuan Miao Vegan, serving hearty bowls of meat-free noodles to the local vegan community.

The stall grew from a small amount of compensation money stall owner Billy Ng, 50, received after he injured his leg severely during his time as a lorry driver in 2006.

He is a lover of mee hoon kueh, or irregularly shaped, hand-torn dough pieces, and once ate it for almost a year straight, but realised there were hardly any vegetarian options in Singapore.

He says it took him four months of taste tests to cook a mushroom-based broth that tasted good and was nutritious enough to eat every day.

Today, each bowl of ban mian ($6 for soup, $6.50 for dry) is served with a heap of spinach leaves, shiitake mushrooms and cubes of seasoned tofu.

Customers can also try the traditional handmade mee hoon kueh (soup) for $6.50.

A scattering of vegetarian fish maw adds a layer of texture to the chewy dough and tender vegetables, while dollops of housemade chilli give a spicy kick to the dish.

For a stronger flavour and richer aroma, customers can request an extra topping of xiang chun (Chinese toon vegetables) and chilli oil, which is infused with garlic.

"Our portions have always been large, with generous servings of vegetables," said Mr Ng. "Most importantly, food should be filling and healthy."

Although his first stall in Jalan Besar, which opened in 2010, struggled with low footfall traffic and had to be moved three months later, Mr Ng had drawn a group of loyal customers who still make the trip to his Paya Lebar outlet.

One of them is Mr Ivan Lau, 63, owner of a construction company, who was having his dinner when The Straits Times visited the stall.

"I'll go wherever the shop goes," Mr Lau said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2019, with the headline 'Ban mian with a twist'. Print Edition | Subscribe