It is perhaps one of the greatest ironies in life: mee hoon kueh (a type of handmade noodle) typically comes from a factory these days.
In fact, factory-made mee hoon kueh — those thin and perfectly rectangular slivers, may soon be the only kind of mee hoon kueh that future generations of Singaporeans recognise.
Authentically handmade mee hoon kueh is lumpy, chewy, and wonderfully deformed — just like the one I'm having at Jiak Song Mee Hoon Kway.
Opened earlier this year by photographer, diver, and Masterchef Singapore contestant Aaron Wong, Jiak Song Mee Hoon Kway occupies a small hawker stall at Telok Blangah Crescent Block 11 Market and Food Centre.
And it offers just one dish.
It's a pretty well-made bowl of mee hoon kueh. Aside from the marvellously chewy (and slightly sweet) kueh, the bowl is filled with well-marinated pork slices and meatballs dotted with ti poh (fried solefish).
The soup, made from an ikan bilis and soya bean base, has a tinge of smokiness, reminiscent of wok hei.
Wong's mee hoon kueh is inexpensive too. It ranges from S$3.50 to S$5 depending on what ingredients you want to zhng your handmade noodles with.
Sells 200 bowls daily
Wong's mee hoon kueh has many fans.
"If you had come during lunch time, the queue usually comes out from here (points at his stall) and goes past the nasi lemak stall, and then it comes back again," says Wong, gesturing at the opposite stall.
Sometimes there would be a queue even before the stall opens at 9am.
From the time he opens the stall, it is non-stop work for Wong and his assistant till 1pm or 2pm or so, which is when they usually run out of kueh.
Wong limits himself to selling around 200 bowls of mee hoon kueh each day because making everything by hand is quite time-consuming.
Wong's kueh comprises flour, water, a touch of salt, and a secret ingredient, and he prepares the next day's share after the shop closes.
Once an order comes in, the dough is rolled out by a machine (like a motorised pasta machine, Wong quips) before it gets stretched and torn by hand.
No rectangular slivers here.
While that's great for us customers, Wong sees it as a contributing factor to his first major problem: Scaling up. While he wishes to sell more than 200 bowls of mee hoon kueh, it's just not possible to make everything by hand with the current manpower.
"We'll need to have bigger quantity lah. So, it's just all about getting the machinery and the manpower to do it."
Why open a mee hoon kueh store during a pandemic?
It may seem pretty unintuitive to start a business during a pandemic.
Yes, restaurants are suffering because people don't want to splurge. Even if people want to splurge, restaurants can't let in the same number of customers as before because of safe-distancing measures, Wong says.
But people still have to eat, he reasons. They may not splurge, but they still have to spend on food — basic food which doesn't cost much, at least
This is why he decided to sell the humble mee hoon kueh at affordable prices. And nope, Wong has absolutely no intention of raising his prices.
"If you stay humble, it's doable."
If you, dear reader, have ambitions of being a chef in a restaurant because you are passionate about feeding people, Wong has this advice for you: You're making a mistake, you need to go the other way.
You will actually feed more people as a hawker than as a restaurant chef, he says.
"But 200 (bowls) is still not a lot compared to this guy here (points to the carrot cake stall). He's going to hantam (hit) 300 plates a day, I think... There's a fishball stall in front — I think they do about 400 to 500 bowls a day."
There's also a decent profit to be made. Wong also lets on that his cost is way below 30 per cent of his revenue. Taking 200 bowls a day at $3.50 each (not counting additional ingredients) — you can do the math.
Not bad at all for what is essentially half-day work.
Wong stresses repeatedly that it takes humility to be a hawker: "If you stay humble, it's doable."
Updating the way hawkers work
How do we preserve hawker culture?
From the outside, Wong's stall doesn't look much different from the others. However, the interior is a different story.
There are no open flames in the stall because Wong uses induction stoves. The boiler that Wong uses for his stock is insulated, and the exterior feels lukewarm (or cool, even) to the touch even with soup boiling away inside.
Wong also uses three industrial fans in his stall to keep it cool.
"You perspire not from the heat of the kitchen, but by doing things."
Everything — from the ingredients to the equipment — is well-organised and, in some cases, labelled.
All these to challenge the perception of hawker work as hot, stuffy, dirty, and messy.
"Actually these (equipment) aren't new. These are used in restaurant kitchens, they are very common. But it just hasn't been used as much as it should in the hawker centres. And that's what I want to change. So I want to show the young people that it can be a very nice working environment."
He also holds his stall to the standards expected in a restaurant kitchen, for instance in the way they handle food.
"You see a lot of these hawkers when they thaw their meat, they throw on the floor. There's food everywhere on the floor, the floor is wet and oily. There's food waste in the trap....we do not allow this in our professional kitchens, so I will not allow it here."
In other words, Wong sees his stall as a mini version of a restaurant kitchen. It's a "proof-of-concept" that hawker work doesn't have to be dirty or stuffy.
Wong is also actively looking to pass on his skills.
He has documented all the processes, measurements, and recipes so that it will be foolproof and easy for anyone who wants to start learning how to sell mee hoon kueh.
"You can come and join us, we will teach you," he says.
"And if you prove to be good and you stick around with us long enough, when you open the next stall, you don't have to do that at the risk of doing your own recipe."
Next step: wanton mee
It's important for Wong to show people that his vision of a hawker stall works because he is currently looking for a young person whom he can train to take over his place.
This is so that he can go and search for a new location to open the next stall under the Jiak Song banner — to sell wanton mee.
"That one is dear to my heart. I really like wanton mee," he says.
"And you'll get the wanton mee. No nonsense, no frills. Soup, dry, full stop. There is no 鸡脚面 (chicken feet noodles), no 油鸡面 (soya sauce chicken noodles), no nothing. Just wanton mee.
This depends, however, on the location that he will get. If there are already multiple wanton mee stalls there, this would probably not be his next dish, Wong says.
But whatever the dish that Wong will be offering next, it's probably going to be as good as his humble bowl of mee hoon kueh.
Jiak Song Mee Hoon Kway
Jiak Song Mee Hoon Kway is located at Telok Blangah Crescent Block 11 Market and Food Centre, #01-108 (map).
It is open Tuesdays to Sundays from 9am until they're out of mee hoon kueh.
You can keep up to date via Jiak Song's Facebook page.
Stories of Us is a series about ordinary people in Singapore and the unique ways they’re living their lives. Be it breaking away from conventions, pursuing an atypical passion, or the struggles they are facing, these stories remind us both of our individual uniqueness and our collective humanity.
Top images courtesy of Aaron Wong.