Too tough to make fishballs by hand

Co-owner of Song Kee Fishball Noodles Chua Poh Seng used to make 2,000 fishballs and 1,000 fish dumplings a day with his two brothers.
Co-owner of Song Kee Fishball Noodles Chua Poh Seng used to make 2,000 fishballs and 1,000 fish dumplings a day with his two brothers. ST FILE PHOTO

The sudden closure of Song Kee Fishball Noodles at 532 Upper Serangoon Road on July 30 shocked many of its loyal fans, but it is business as usual at its three other branches.

Mr Chua Keok Sip, 70, father of the three Chua brothers who ran the show at Upper Serangoon, operates a stall at Block 139 Simei Street 1.

His 36-year-old daughter runs an outlet at Block 527 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10 and another relative also sells the famous fishball noodles at Block 74 Toa Payoh Lorong 5.

All three branches are under the Song Kee name, although only the Ang Mo Kio and Simei stalls sell its famous her kiao or fish dumplings.

The brand - once crowned one of Singapore's Hawker Masters by Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) - is also known for its fishballs and tau pok stuffed with fish paste, all of which are made from scratch with yellowtail fish.

Mr Chua Poh Seng, 44, the youngest of the three brothers, tells The Straits Times in Mandarin: "My dad was supposed to have retired, but he said he has nothing to do. So, whenever we can, we will still help him at his stall."

He and his brothers will be helping a friend to sell cars.

On closing the Upper Serangoon stall before its lease expires next month, Mr Chua says health problems plague the three brothers and they could run the stall for up to only 20 days a month.

He says: "Our hands are injured and our backs hurt from making the fish dumplings. Sometimes we can't even open for a whole day. So since we can't even open properly for a month, it would be better to close the stall."

They make about 2,000 fishballs, 400 meatballs and 1,000 fish dumplings a day.

Mr Chua also says the popularity of the stall meant that he had to mobilise his family to help out and was concerned this would affect the studies of his five children, aged 14 to 23, all of whom are still in school.

Song Kee opened in Toa Payoh in 1966, before moving to Jurong East in 1989. Twenty years later, it moved to its Serangoon location.

Mr Chua says that another fishball noodles stall - which also uses yellowtail fish - will soon open at the Upper Serangoon premises, but under another name.

The Straits Times food critic Wong Ah Yoke praised the handmade fishballs when Song Kee was named a Hawker Master for fishball noodles in 2013, in SPH's annual search for the best hawkers.

"Song Kee's freshly made fishballs have just the right bounciness and a distinct fish flavour. The mee pok is smooth, doesn't stick together and yet is not too hard either. The soup version is tasty too and I like the crispy bits of fried lard in it," he said.

Chef Willin Low, 43, of Wild Rocket restaurant, who has been eating at Song Kee at least once a week for the past few years, says: "When I found out, on the one hand, I was like 'no, no, no, you cannot close down'. As its customer, I cannot handle it. But on the other hand, from a chef's point of view, I completely understand how tiring it is for them.

"Its noodles are one of the best and it has the best fish dumplings in town. No others come close. And because the staff know me, I always get extra chilli and lard.

"Oh man, I'm missing it already."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 04, 2016, with the headline 'Too tough to make fishballs by hand'. Print Edition | Subscribe