(BUSINESS TIMES) - Wild Rocket chef Willin Low remembers vividly how, as a boy, his favourite memory was of sharing a bowl of wonton mee with his mother. Sure, he's tasted better since, but there's no replacement for that particular bowl, more out of sentimentality than quality.
Most Singaporeans would share that emotional connection with the humble noodle, the most eaten Asian staple after rice. Being a cosmopolitan society, noodles here come in a bewildering range of choices, from kway teow and mee pok to Japanese ramen and Italian pasta.
Law Wee Pheng runs one of the oldest noodle-making plants in Singapore, Lau Boon Heng Kwei Teow & Noodle Manufactory. He recalls that in the past, producing noodles was a very specialised undertaking, with each dialect group focused on its traditional noodle type.
Mr Law is a 55-year-old Teochew; his family started making and selling kway teow two generations before he was born. It was only in 1977 that wheat and other rice noodles were added to their selection. And while the Teochews produced kway teow, the Hokkiens were known for yellow mee and the Cantonese for egg noodles - known colloquially as wonton mee. Nowadays, there is little distinction between the dialect groups as Hokkiens dominate the noodle industry, and wonton mee is the perennial bestseller.
WHERE TO EAT
Chilli King Wanton Mee
Guan Guan Kopi Tiam
Blk 1015 Geylang East Avenue 3
Da Jie Famous Wanton Noodle
209 Jalan Besar
Eng's Noodles House
287 Tanjong Katong Road
Fatty Ox Hong Kong Kitchen
335 Smith Street #02-84 Chinatown Complex Market & Food Centre
Master Tang Wanton Mee
Kopitown Coffeeshop, 10E Sixth Avenue
The original wonton mee was from Guangzhou, dating back to the Qing dynasty and popularised in Hong Kong during World War II by an exodus of Chinese escaping the Japanese invasion. Since then, wonton mee has become synonymous with Hong Kong's cuisine.
Xu Jingye, a new-generation private chef from Foshan, Guangzhou, says there are subtle differences in the noodles made in different cities. In his native Guangzhou, the noodles are thinner and taste more eggy and less alkaline.
Karen Nah, founder of Handpicked - an online noodle shop - notes that the Hong Kong version is thin, hard and "crispy", the result of using high gluten flour with a higher content of alkali and egg white. The pronounced alkaline taste led to the now-vanished tradition of wonton restaurants offering pickled radish to counter it.
The wonton vendors of Singapore prefer softer, springy noodles made from low gluten flour with salt and egg. According to Mr Law, most Singapore noodle factories use imported flour from Malaysia and China with a protein content of 13 per cent to 14 per cent. Hong Kong factories buy their flour from the United States and Canada.
Mr Law also remembers that during his apprenticeship, he learnt to use pure duck eggs in the mix as that gave the noodles a strong flavour and springy texture. This practice ended when duck eggs were no longer available. He recalled another tradition during the Mooncake Festival, when egg whites were left over after the yolks had been used to make mooncakes. The egg white would be added during kneading to yield a taste rich with umami. A word of caution: If salted duck egg white is used, extra care needs to be taken as it turns bad easily in our humid weather.
Noodle-making aside, what is the best way to eat them?
Singaporeans prefer their wonton mee tossed or "dry" with chilli, soy sauce and slices of char siew, with the soup merely a side dish.
Others like theirs in a soup. Hence, a lot of attention is given to preparing the stock. In the past, traditional wonton noodle had two types of soup base in Guangzhou: Thick broth made of pork bones and dried oysters for a more robust flavour; and the other using pork bones, dried sole and dried baby shrimps. The second broth was lighter, like consomme, with a slight seafood flavour. The preference today in Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Singapore is for the lighter version.
Great emphasis is also placed on the wonton filling. The Chinese in Guangzhou eat theirs with a filling of hand-minced pork, river prawns, toasted dried sole powder and crushed sesame seeds. The wonton skin is also thinner for a smooth texture. The Hong Kong version uses more prawn than pork, hence it is crunchier and lighter in flavour. The wonton skin is thicker, too. The Singapore version uses more pork, with stronger seasoning. It also has a stronger alkaline flavour.
In the past decade or so, chefs began dabbling with vegetable juices added to the dough during kneading for added flavours. Spinach, carrot and beetroot are commonly used. Chef Low, who recently revamped his menu, also adds har ji or dried prawn roe to his pasta as a culinary takeaway from his frequent visits to Hong Kong.
When it comes to the cooking or "scalding" process, Mr Lau advises that, on average, the cooking time should not exceed 20 seconds in rapidly boiling water. A quick rinse in cold water in between cooking is strongly recommended as it removes extra starch from the mee and gives it extra crunch. For those who do not fancy the alkaline taste, he recommends giving the mee a quick toss, then keeping it in the fridge for a day or two. This allows the alkaline flavour to dissipate.
Local film producer and director Eric Khoo, whose favourite wonton mee vendor is at Tanglin Halt Hawker Centre, says: "My favourite stall may not be the best in Singapore, but the taste of its sauces and the smell of the dish immediately remind me of my childhood. My friends would recommend other stalls, but my loyalty lies here."