The ketchup wonton mee common in the 1960s here seems to be disappearing. LifeStyle goes on a hunt.
WHEN a person goes missing, you file a police report. But what do you do when the ketchup wonton mee you grew up with slowly disappears?
Last month, a reader, Mr Lim Hock Chuan, wrote in to Life! lamenting the scarcity of his favourite childhood dish, last seen dressed in a saucy tomato gravy.
The plates of dumpling noodles sitting in dark sauce, which are commonly served in food courts, coffee shops and hawker centres today, he bemoans, are not the real McCoy.
He adds that stallholders are flabbergasted when he asks for tomato ketchup with his wonton noodles.
His letter, published on Oct 27, touched the sympathetic hearts and stomachs of fellow foodies. At least three others wrote in to recommend stalls selling wonton mee with ketchup.
Another letter by reader Low Ser Hui, published on Nov 3, concurred that few food stalls sell the dry version of wonton mee in ketchup these days, which was how it used to be prepared when hawkers sold their food in pushcarts.
But he said there are stalls in Hougang that still sell them with ketchup.
So, has the ketchup wonton mee really gone missing? And is it the authentic version?
A check with 15 stalls from Hougang to Depot Heights and Geylang to Queenstown showed that all, except one, entertain requests for tomato ketchup wonton mee.
And at two of these stalls, ketchup is an essential ingredient in the gravy.
But Mr Cho Kum Kong, 52, owner of Cho Kee Noodle in Old Airport Road food centre, refuses to offer ketchup with his light sauce wonton mee, which he maintains is served the traditional way.
He says: 'Wonton mee with ketchup just isn't wonton mee. It's rojak wonton mee.'
But the others are less stringent.
Echoing a common sentiment among wonton mee sellers, Mr Siew Kwong Fatt, 53, owner of Huat Kee Noodle House in Amoy Street Food Centre, which sells the dark sauce version, says he adds ketchup as a flavour substitute when customers order the dish without chilli.
Mr Toh Hock Huat, 44, owner of Shun Li Wonton Mee in Hougang Avenue 7, who sells the noodles in a light sauce, adds in Mandarin: 'I find my noodles are tasty enough without ketchup. But I need to satisfy my customers' preferences, so if they like ketchup and ask for it, I'll add it.'
Yet those interviewed say they see on average fewer than 10 requests for the ketchup version daily.
Engineer Soh Cheng Su, 38, who favours the dark sauce version, says he dislikes ketchup in his wonton mee as the condiment makes the sauce too sweet.
Madam Lee Sian Hong (above right), 60, owner of Hong Fa Xing Cooked Food in Hougang Street 21, however, says her patrons have never complained about her ketchup wonton mee, which she has been selling for some 36 years.
Regular customer, retiree Mabel Tan, 59, says she likes the sweet and sour flavour that the ketchup lends the noodles and the way it moderates the spiciness of the chilli sauce.
Food consultant K.F. Seetoh, 44, says wonton mee is a traditional Cantonese dish and the authentic version comes in a gravy that is made of good stock, some sesame oil and pork lard oil, sans ketchup.
'Ketchup wonton mee is unique to Singapore and you can't find it in Hong Kong or Malaysia.'
Chef Sam Leong, 41, director of kitchens for the Tung Lok group of restaurants, who grew up in Malaysia, agrees.
He says: 'The dry wonton mee in Kuala Lumpur is served in a dark sauce, so I couldn't accept the ketchup version when I first had it here in 1980.'
Mr Seetoh does not know when ketchup wonton mee came about, although he remembers 'growing up on it in the early 1970s'.
He says ketchup might have been introduced to the dish as a concession for children who do not take well to the chilli sauce that accompanies the noodles.
Another theory he suggests is that ketchup was offered as a 'modern replacement' to the pickled green chillies that are added to the dish, since both have a sweet and sour flavour.
Mr Voo Kai Seng, 40, owner of Hua Kee Hougang Famous Wonton Mee in Old Airport Road, offers another take.
He says: 'My father used to sell wonton mee in Hougang in the 1960s where there were a lot of Teochews. Back then, the Teochews were already adding ketchup to their fishball noodles and they asked for the same in their wonton mee.
'We did as requested and customers kept coming back, so we made ketchup a part of our recipe.'
While the origin of ketchup wonton mee remains an unsolved mystery, its presence here has at least been traced. So for foodies who have been missing their gastronomic old friend, go on and ketch-up.
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