Singapore Cooks

Photographer Mark Ong's shrimp paste secret for san lou beehoon

Photographer Mark Ong uses rojak paste to give his san lou beehoon an umami kick

Unhappy with the quality of a meal? Don't complain. Get cooking instead.

Freelance food photographer Mark Ong lives by this mantra and it has worked out well for him.

An insipid meal fires his desire to replicate the dishes at home. He takes note of the ingredients and researches cooking websites and cookbooks before hitting the kitchen.

The 44-year-old says: "Based on my cooking experience, I think that I can cook these dishes too and am curious to see if I can achieve the taste that I want."

That was how he started cooking san lou beehoon last month. The zi char dish is stir-fried beehoon flattened like a pancake, with crisp, lightly charred edges.

Mr Mark Ong started to cook his own san lou beehoon after being disappointed with the versions offered by eateries. ST PHOTO: DON CHI

Three months ago, he visited Restoran Ah Kaw in Johor Baru, a zi char restaurant started by a chef who is believed to be the creator of san lou beehoon, which translates to "three-storey noodles" in Mandarin. The name refers to the three- storey building in Johor Baru where he created the dish.

Mr Ong said he found the dish at Ah Kaw disappointing. It was nothing like the version he ate there 20 years ago.

"The noodles were too wet and there was no nice charred flavour," he says. "It was so different from the first time I tried the dish. The noodles then had a multi-layered taste and a strong wok hei (wok breath). The edges were crispy and charred, but the centre remained soft."

There are versions of the dish in Singapore too, but he says those served in zi char restaurants such as JB Ah Meng in Geylang are "not charred and flavourful enough".

He stir-fries the beehoon with pork, prawns, squid and a chicken and prawn stock. Other seasonings include soya sauce and shrimp paste or hay koh, which is usually used to dress rojak. Adding hay koh, which can be bought in supermarkets, is his secret to giving the noodles an umami kick.

He discovered this cooking tip by accident when he mistakenly used hay koh instead of belacan when following a mee siam recipe in a cookbook that called for shrimp paste.

To ensure that the noodles are evenly charred, he deftly tosses the wok to flip the bee hoon - a skill that he has honed from years of stir-frying meats and noodles.

Other dishes that he has replicated at home include the beef set (steak and rice fried with beef drippings) from New Ubin Seafood in Hillview Avenue and wonton noodles from Eng's Noodle House in Tanjong Katong Road, complete with homemade pork belly char siew and a fiery chilli sauce.

He is very serious about getting the right noodles. Instead of buying them from supermarkets, he tracks down noodle manufacturing companies that supply to restaurants and popular hawker stalls, buying about 4.5kg of noodles every two months. His favourite way of eating them? Tossing them with homemade condiments such as chilli oil and sambal belacan.

"I am a noodles fella and I can eat it three times a day," he says. "Noodles are more exciting to eat than rice as they take on more flavours from the condiments."

Coming from a family of foodies, he picked up cooking from his mother at age 14 and learnt dishes such as braised pork belly and stir-fried chicken with fermented beancurd.

These days, he "takes charge of the kitchen" and cooks for his family at least three times a week while juggling photo assignments.

His wife, 43, is a property agent and they have a 13-year-old daughter.

Mr Ong, who used to work in the maritime industry and is a self- taught photographer, says: "I enjoy photographing food as I like to make people feel like eating the dish after looking at the photos and it does justice to the hard work that goes into the dish."



For prawn and chicken stock

300g chicken bones

Prawn heads and shells from 10 medium-sized prawns

5 cloves garlic, skin on

Thumb-sized piece of ginger cut into two pieces

1 litre water

1 1/2 tsp sugar

1/4 tsp salt

2 tsp soya sauce

100g lean pork, sliced to 4cm-long strips

1 tsp soya sauce

1/2 tsp sesame oil

1/2 tsp sugar

A pinch of white pepper

1/2 tsp cornstarch

200g beehoon

10 medium-sized prawns, shelled

140g squid, cut into 4cm-long strips

A pinch of salt

1 Tbs shrimp paste (hay koh)

1 Tbs soya sauce

5 Tbs peanut oil

5 garlic cloves, minced

70g kailan, sliced into 5mm-thick pieces


1. In a pot set over high heat, bring stock ingredients to a boil and use a fine sieve to skim off the scum that rises to the surface. Turn the heat down to low and let the stock simmer for three to four hours. Strain the stock into a bowl and set aside. You should have 125ml of stock.

2. In a mixing bowl, marinate the pork with the soya sauce, sesame oil, sugar, white pepper and cornstarch. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least an hour.

3. Soak the beehoon in tap water for at least 30 minutes and drain.

4. In a clean bowl, marinate peeled prawns and sliced squid with a pinch of salt.

5. Mix shrimp paste and soya sauce in a small bowl.

6. Set a wok over high heat and wait for one to two minutes until smoke rises from it. Add 2 Tbs of the peanut oil, two cloves of minced garlic and pork slices, and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add prawns and fry for another 30 seconds, then add squid and stir-fry for 30 seconds until they turn translucent. Scoop contents out and set them aside in a bowl.

7. In the same wok set over high heat, add 2 Tbs of peanut oil, chopped onions and fry for 10 seconds till they turn translucent. Then add the remaining minced garlic and fry until it turns slightly brown and fragrant, about 10 to 15 seconds. Add beehoon and kailan into wok. Stir-fry for 15 seconds.

8. Pour shrimp paste and soya sauce mixture into the wok and mix well with the beehoon. Pour half of the stock into the wok and stir-fry the beehoon for five seconds before switching to medium heat. Stir-fry for three to four minutes. Add the remaining stock and stir-fry the noodles for another three to four minutes.

9. Remove the beehoon from the wok and place it in a bowl. Clean the wok. Set it over high heat until the wok starts to smoke. Add 1 Tbs peanut oil and swirl it to spread the oil evenly.

10. Add the beehoon into the wok and spread it out evenly with a spatula and flatten it. Wrap a cloth towel around the wok handle, hold the wok over the stove and swirl it around a few times to gain momentum before tossing the pan to flip the flattened beehoon.

11. To crisp up the edges, tilt the wok to the side for a few seconds before returning it to the original position on top of the stove and stir-fry contents for 10 to 15 seconds.

12. Repeat steps 10 and 11 three more times to obtain an even crispness around the flattened bee hoon.

13. Transfer the san lou beehoon onto a plate. Serve.

Serves four

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 13, 2016, with the headline 'Shrimp paste secret'. Subscribe