As much as I think this is silly (and enjoy mocking it), this urge does strike me — but only when it comes to food lines. So when I spotted a long line snaking out from a Singapore hawker stall this morning, that was it. I stopped walking, turned around — and immediately joined the queue.
This simple dish of nicely al dente yellow noodles tossed in a slightly spicy gravy usually comprising some combination of light soy sauce, sweet dark soy sauce, sesame oil, pepper and more, then topped with thinly sliced roast pork and served with a side of wantons (or wontons, to the rest of the world) — now, this is my true Singaporean comfort food.
I may wax lyrical about my country’s Southeast Asian fried chicken and Hokkien prawn mee, but when it comes down to it, wanton mee is the dish I turn to the most. It’s quick, satisfying and ubiquitous — and in my decades of putting away plates of this stuff all over the country, I’ve found that it’s impossible to find a bad version. Sure, some are better than others, but wanton mee, I’d say, is pretty hard to screw up.
My dear friend Willin knows my obsession with wanton mee — and, I trust his food opinions greatly. (The man cooks for a living, after all.) So when he told me the other day of a little dusty coffeeshop in Singapore‘s old-school Joo Chiat neighborhood where he’d recently stumbled upon a good plate, I knew I had to head over …
Eating in front of the telly is something that happens with some regularity in these parts.
When your partner is a super busy television critic, that tends to happen. And I’m certainly not averse to sitting down to lunch, dinner or brunch in front of the box. (A side of Downton Abbey with any meal? No problem at all.)
So when the Let’s Lunch crew decided on sharing perfect snacks for TV watching in our February posts, I knew I had to jump back in the fray.
What do we eat while watching something? Everything, really: Stews, noodles, omelettes, sandwiches. But I’ve learned that the ideal item is something compact — bite-sized and easy to pop in your mouth for a quick chew.
Which is what makes dumplings pretty much the perfect TV food …
"It is impossible," my Singaporean chef friend Willin said to me one day, "to please everyone when you make wanton mee."
This Cantonese-style noodle dish, which is ubiquitous in Singapore, is usually served dry, with the broth in a small bowl on a side. The thin yellow noodles come swimming in a salty sauce that's usually some combination of soy sauce, a sweet and dark thick soy sauce, sesame oil and, perhaps, oyster sauce. Slivers of Chinese roast pork, vegetables and wantons (which is how wontons are spelled in Singapore) are scattered on top and a smear of chili sauce is scooped onto the side for added fire.
There is one fundamental problem with wanton mee, according to Willin. It's fairly easy for hawkers to make and there are so many variations on the dish out there — each hawker center in Singapore usually has at least one, if not two or three, stalls selling just wanton mee. The noodles could be more al dente at one place; the gravy could be thicker and saltier at another. The wantons could be soft, boiled versions or crispy and deep-fried.
"Everyone ends up loving the exact kind of wanton mee they grew up with," Willin says. "So unless you're making that exact kind, they're not going to love it."
It's an interesting perspective, but I still wasn't sold — until I trekked to a spacious hawker center in Singapore's Lavender neighborhood to sample the dish at Kok Kee Wanton Noodle, a little stall that had come highly recommended by some of the most discerning palates in Singapore…
If the place is known by or bears the name of a locale that’s nowhere near its actual location, that’s often a sign that you should just drop everything, get in line and order something. Once a hawker stall has made its name somewhere, after all, its faithful will want to follow, wherever it ends up.
The much-beloved Hill Street Char Kway Teow, for example, is currently parked in Singapore’s Bedok area, nowhere near Hill Street. And one of the best places in my parents’ neighborhood for ta meepok, a dish of spicy tagliatelle-like noodles tossed with fishballs and pork, is named Jalan Tua Kong even though, frankly, I have absolutely no idea where Jalan Tua Kong is.
So when I started hearing about the “Old National Library” wonton mee shop — now situated near Singapore’s financial district, far from the former central library — I knew it was a must.