Monday, March 13, 2017

Hidden Hawker Gems - Lim Hokkien Fried Mee at Kembangan

Hokkien fried mee is, in my opinion, the hardest hawker dish to master. The recipe has been out in the wild, barring some minor differences. But the real test and quality of this dish lies in the person frying this dish.

With the same ingredients and base, this plate of seafood infused noodles can turn out very differently.

As such, there are only a few stalls in Singapore that I would wholeheartedly endorse, including the Original Simon Road and Swee Guan.

There was one more, the popular Kim's Hokkien Prawn Mee. The founder, Tan Kian Kim has since left the cooking of this popular hawker dish to his workers at Still Road. Whilst the rest of the Kim chain of stalls is operated by his son, Kim will only occasionally take up the wok for a few selected friends who patronise his Still Road outlet.

For quite some time, I thought his original amazing flavourful version would be lost to us forever. By a chance occurrence, I can tell you that taste is back. In fact, it has always been here, at an inconspicuous coffeeshop near Kembagan MRT.

It is actually his younger brother, Kian Lim who runs Lim Hokkien Fried Mee for the last 33 years. His version is near identical to the classic Kim's rendition and for good reason. After all, it was his elder brother that imparted his skills to him.

Lim cooks every dish himself and uses a few of his own inspired touches to elevate the dish a step higher as well. Especially the use of fried ikan ibilis as a garnish.

Lim Hokkien Prawm Mee

Lim has been cooking this dish most of his adult life. He started learning making it during his National Service days and when he finished his mandatory service, he was already working as a hawker in his early 20s. He even briefly switched to doing coffee for a few years before his elder brother roped him in to take over a couple of stalls in Kembagan in the early 80s.

While his brother would later expand to Ang Mo Kio and became a hawker favourite in the following years, Lim has remained at his Kembagan stall at Hock Choo Eating House for the last three decades. And that's why the difference in fortunes would dictate the direction of this most venerable version of Hokkien fried mee.

As Kim's popularity soared, the expansion meant that different cooks would take over and handle his recipe and sadly, none could match the original Kim's standard of frying. Indeed, the version you get at Kim's today is a commonplace variation that I find just slightly above average. Nothing more, nothing less.

Lim's take is authentic and laborious. And somewhat unorthodox too. He uses dried anchovies, chicken carcass and sweet corn to power the stock and that natural sweetness is clearly reflected in the final dish.

The drawback is there is a lack of wok hei, or the breath of the wok that you will find in Swee Guan and the Simon Road stalls. But it is more than compensated by the immaculate frying technique that coats every strand of yellow noodle and bee hoon completely.

The reduction of the stock is also perfect, not too watery nor too starchy. Lim manages a perfect alchemy of seafood broth, the starch of the noodles and the garlic and lard notes that reaches a satisfying harmony of flavours. It is easily the best tasting Hokkien mee around.

Mr Lim is 65 years old today, and with no successor in mind, this is likely the last standing version of what is a great classic dish. As the bastardisation of this great hawker dish continues unabated around the island, if you want to know how this dish should taste like, this is it.

Lim even adds the fried anchovies as a topping that even his brother did not use. This provides a great textural crunch and subsequently, an even greater gastronomic joy to this most difficult of hawker dishes. 

Hokkien mee has also come a long way from its original Fujian roots. Then, it was more akin to a fried bee hoon as it was drier and cooked without broth. It was here in Singapore with the introduction of noodle factories that hawkers and cooks started to add in the yellow noodles to have a mix of both yellow noodles and thick bee hoon.

And it was also the influence of the Peranakans that broth was added as a fast braising liquid to quickly braise the noodles and ingredients to have that saucy reduction. And the look and taste that we are familiar with now.

The problem with most Hokkien mee today is that most hawkers rush through the cooking process and hence, it is like a watery moat and the noodles are not properly infused. Somewhat similar to the zi char hor fun and white bee hoon dishes you see regularly on your social media. Or conversely, cooked too long that it becomes over starchy and sticky. And unbearably dry.

The proper way is to treat the cooking process with genuine care, respect and patience. That is easier said than done. And coupled with the tedious process of preparing the broth and ingredients, makes this one of the hardest dishes to get right.

And believe you me, Lim has absolutely nailed it here.

Lim Hokkien Fried Mee
Hock Choo Eating House
427 Changi Road

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