Friday, March 24, 2017

Hawker Legends - Original Serangoon Fried Hokkien Mee

Unassuming and soft spoken, Ah Hock begins his work day in the middle of the afternoon. Moving with a habitual pace, he sorts out his stall, ready to fry the first plate of Hokkien Mee.

His weary lines betray a trying life behind a sweat inducing environment. Yet, when he spots us anxiously waiting for him to start, he immediately beckons us to fire the first order of the day.

The golden haired one wastes no time in specifying what he wanted. And as the first strands of bee hoon and yellow noodles hit the lard lubricated wok, my mind initiates a flashback and I can almost imagine what this scene would be like in the bustling Sixties.

You see, Ah Hock is the last remaining disciple of Neo, The Crippled Hokkien Mee Legend. Those who have lived through those days would have known of this famous hawker, plying his trade not in a restaurant or a hawker centre.

Rather, he would sell his signature Hokkien Mee along the 5-foot way along Serangoon Road. He would work from 5pm until late. Very late. For his initial clientele consisted of nightclub hostesses who took pity with his condition and patronised his food on a regular basis.

Over time, they realised that his Hokkien Mee was actually a superb concoction of the classic Fujian rendition, mixed with a Nyonya influenced injection of seafood broth, fresh pork belly and seafood to create an appetising dish.

There was no seating provided, thus everything was takeaway. Slowly, and surely, the hostesses would bring their wealthy "sponsors" along and before long, it was not uncommon to see eager fans drive up in their spanking Mercedes to procure Neo's delicious noodles.

And Neo did everything sitting down. Frying, plating and collecting money without any mobility whatsoever. That fact alone is remarkable, except that his Hokkien Mee was really a special one too. And it was down to his frying skills.

As the years rolled on, Neo decided to hand down this precious skill to his son and a friend. Whilst his son tried to start his own place in the east, it has since closed. The other person is a friend and he is Ah Hock. Ah Neo, himself, has passed on.

Ah Hock looks like a decent, down to earth man. Learning the exact recipe and replicating the same version that Neo did over his trusty charcoal stove so many years ago. However, since the early 2000s, Ah Hock has caved in and has reverted to a common gas stove.

As for the current version, it can be quite misleading. Prior to coming here, I have read reports from various bloggers and press that this Original Serangoon Fried Hokkien Mee is too wet, or it lacks oomph, or it's just okay.

The golden haired one and I decided to investigate and today, we got our answer. Remember when I said that Neo only did takeaways? At this new joint at Beatty Road, Ah Hock is working in a conventional kopitiam. Thus, a large portion of customers eat there and the noodles are served on a regular plastic plate.

Packed in Opeh Leaves

And that's where the difference is so significant and so marked. Anyone who has tried this classic dish at home will know. Besides a flavourful stock, it also has to be braised properly to get the proper reduction.

When Ah Hock was learning from the crippled master, he was learning his takeaway recipe. And during the old days, Neo would pack his noodles in Opeh leaves, and this meant that the noodles continued to cook slowly as the heat would be preserved in the leaves and coupled with the aroma of the Opeh leaves, there was a special fragrance imparted into the mixture.

By the time a customer opened the package, the noodles would have reduced down properly without being too watery, and the flavours thoroughly infused. Fast forward to 2017, and you hardly see Hokkien Mee served in Opeh leaves save for a few places. And even then, they are not wrapped, but simply served as a base.

Today, the golden haired one asked Ah Hock to serve us in a plate, but the noodles neatly packed in the Opeh leaves. We even allowed some time before opening, simulating the time that you would typically take to travel home.

After about ten minutes, we unwrapped the package and lo and behold, that intoxicating aroma of a beautifully cooked Hokkien Mee hit our nostrils fast and strong. The noodles were properly reduced and infused, and we immediately dove in.

The first impression is the ideal amount of wok hei permeating each strand. There is a sweet stock, but not on the level of Lim Hokkien Mee's powerful stock. Just enough crustacean sweetness but what struck me was the noodle handling capabilities.

Thoroughly tossed with enough venom to kill a thousand cobras, it looked like the beautiful mess that Neo would have conjured up many years back. Indeed, watching him behind the wok elicited the same impression.

There was a lilting sense of balance in the seasoning and ingredients. Just like a Hitchcock film, every stroke and toss was calculated to reach its maximum impact. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing wasted.

This is down to a case of familiarity, instinct and experience. Ah Hock has been at it for more than two decades, and his reflexes are fully tuned and honed by now.

Is it the best flavour in a Hokkien Mee? Perhaps not, but it is certainly very tasty when the alchemy of pork, seafood, lard, garlic and noodles comes together.

It is also the frying skill that comes closest to Neo that will leave a lingering and satisfying gastronomic memory. Long after you have left this place.

Then again, Ah Hock has no successor. Which means, there is not much time left to taste the legacy of the Crippled Hokkien Mee Legend.

Original Serangoon Fried Hokkien Mee
556 Serangoon Road

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