Hokkien mee that's a winner
Fried Hokkien prawn mee is truly a Singapore icon. It is a complex dish and many of my foreign foodie friends, some of whom are top chefs, regard it with respect.
But for locals, it is merely char hae mee, and it should come fast and cheap.
Pity, since it has quite a history. Oral history credits the Hokkiens (quite the noodle experts) as the ones who started selling this dish around the Rochor Road area. But it seems recognition should go to their hired helpers, mostly Teochews, who went on to set up their own stalls after they learnt the craft.
But enough about the history.
In the present, one of the best you will come across is Mr Lee Eng Keat's version. When I visited his Toa Payoh stall, Mr Lee said: "Many hawkers don't have the guts to fry it well... they are scared of burning the noodle."
And he promptly proceeded to show me in detail how an expert puts together a plate of fried mee.
First, there is the art of frying up the eggs with lard and garlic. Then two types of noodles are introduced. The mix is incessantly tossed over high heat. The noodles are not allowed to sit and burn longer on the wok than it should.
I could see the colour transform into a roasty, golden brown goodness with some burnt ends.
Mr Lee stops just as the first signs of smoke appear in the wok, and the first round of stock is introduced. It is quickly absorbed by the noodles. Another round of stock goes into the mixture.
Among fried Hokkien prawn mee masters, many make their stock with secret recipes that go beyond the basic bone, prawn shell, garlic and dried shrimp base. One secret ingredient in Mr Lee's stock, is manila clams.
But the art of the fry demands absolute attention, he explained: "You have to see and smell it all the time and recognise what the sight and aroma mean."
I am one of those extreme fusspots when it comes to char hae mee. I note the type of prawns used (Mr Lee does not use the garden variety Tiger prawns but the pricier ang ka or sua lor versions) and the intensity of the stock.
If he does it consistently the way he does it for his regulars and me, then this is a winner. Each strand of noodle harbours the flavour of the stock and the ingredients are classic: sotong, fatty pork, lard croutons and prawns with his signature additional topping of manila clams ($3 to $5).
I personally prefer his claypot version ($10). It is just more flavourful.