"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…
The setup at Kok Kee is fairly straightforward — you place your order and they assemble the dish on the spot.
Because the dish is so basic, you pretty much get your noodles within minutes. (A platter of fried wantons will take a few minutes more as they're fried fresh.)
Now, when I went to Kok Kee, this was for my very first hawker lunch back in Singapore after many months away. When I'm in New York, there are many Singaporean dishes that I salivate over in my dreams. And inexplicably, this incredibly simple and easy-to-slap-together dish is always tops on the list. So I was more than primed for the Kok Kee experience.
… Which turned out to be just OK.
The roast pork (or char siew as it is better known as in these parts) was a little bland, as was the wanton filling. The sauce, which is supposed to have a slightly sweet taste from the addition of a little sugar, was fine but lacked zing. The fried wontons, on the other hand, were a delight — the loveliness of the hot and crispy shell seemed to make up for the filling within.
It wasn't until I got to the noodles themselves that I realized what my problem was. They were perfectly al dente — what you generally want your wanton noodle noodles to be. Except in my case, I found myself yearning for noodles that were a little soggy — still firm but just slightly soft to the bite.
The wanton noodles I had grown up eating were the ones that my mother used to tapau (or pack up) from the hawker center at the airport, where she sometimes worked the early morning shift, you see. By the time the noodles had wended their way from the airport to our breakfast table, the noodles were always just slightly soggy, as were the wantons and roast pork, having been steeped for all that time in the salty dark gravy that sloshed about the styrofoam box of noodles during my mother's bus ride home.
Perhaps I was being unreasonably hard on Kok Kee. The dish, overall, was nicely executed. But it's always hard to win a fight against a memory.
The next time I try Kok Kee, however, I may tapau it — and then take a long bus ride home.
Kok Kee Wanton Noodle, 195 Lavender Street, #01-06, Singapore