Makansutra: Culinary school grads take on prawn mee
Duo behind Prawn & Mee add mirepoix to soup base, giving it a delicious soft edge
If you chat with the duo behind Prawn & Mee, you will hear how they enhance the natural sweetness of their prawn mee stock using mirepoix, a French technique of making a flavour base from diced vegetables.
These 28-year-olds sweating it out at a hawker stall are graduates from the Culinary Institute of America (Tampines campus).
If the school's head honcho Eve Felder had not told me about how some of its graduates take on these jobs to continue the local culinary legacy, I would have just given the stall no more than a passing glance.
Most hawkers just use shallots and rock sugar and will not even know how to spell that French word.
The most decadent version on the menu (from $4 to $8) is the $8 rendition with pork ribs and "Pacific prawns" (not the usual tiger or grey prawns), in both dry and soup versions.
I stood in line to observe every move they make, trying to decipher if culinary graduates do it differently.
Mr Gladwin Yap is in charge of cooking the noodles. He portions out the noodles and lets them simmer for about 40 seconds, spoons the chilli sauce combo onto the bowl, then carefully tosses the noodles and chilli or soup, before his fellow graduate partner Raphael Sim tops it with pork ribs and prawns.
Like all seasoned hawkers, they are a smooth tag team in action, except that they have been hawkers for only 11/2 years.
They started with Plum & Rice but switched to this menu about five months ago.
Their previous offerings - Japanese-inspired pink plum rice with braised meats and fish - were not exactly warming the cockles of the heartland customer's heart.
But back to their prawn mee.
The initial visuals are quite Insta-worthy. Mr Sim carefully placed three handsome-looking prawns (tail and head intact) nicely beside a row of carefully chopped pork rib chunks.
You can see trained knife work in action, and those ribs were fall-off-the-bone soft and moist.
The prawns were firm, sweet and crunchy as they were carefully pre-blanched for texture and doneness.
Next, the all-important stock.
Mirepoix gave it a soft edge. Also, the shells and heads have been roasted, blended and simmered, so the stock was brown and dense-looking.
The older style simply roasts and boils the shells and head with other ingredients and it comes clearer.
Both, if done well, are equally delicious, and these boys hit the mark.
I like it a touch sweeter and not as boldly umami as theirs, but I slurped it all up anyway.
The dry version had a chilli paste mix that was comfortably spicy. That bowl was cleaned up too at the end of the meal.
The key difference in their operations is the service, which new hawkers should emulate.
They ask for your order earnestly, double check for clarity and collect and return your change - with both hands, a smile and a "thank you" to boot.
The Prawn & Mee pair's principles?
"Don't think too much. Just cook and serve it well. We like to see the joy in our customers' faces when they eat it."
This is pride, and it is what we all need in what we do, even as hawkers are moving towards a Unesco recognition for their food culture.
Prawn & Mee
#01-45, Block 216 Bedok North Street 1
Opens 8.30am to 2pm daily, closed on Mondays