Text and images by KF Seetoh @ Makansutra.
Mee goreng, that wondrous platter of stir-fried noodles was created by the ingenious Indian migrants turned street food hawkers decades ago in Malaysia and Singapore.
It comes featuring Chinese wok clanging audio when they fry, a Malay-style sambal (sans typical masala ingredients like fennel, cumin, cinnamon etc..), Indian gumption at work and food toppings the old Chinese cooks would not commonly introduce to fried noodles here – mutton and peas. It looks orangey and red (from the sambal and some use vegetable colouring as they do in roasted cha siew), very well fried like the work of a cze cha wok master, and promises a spicy and savoury sensation.
It is unique to Singapore and Malaysia. Or so I thought.
In India last month, while traversing Mumbai’s streets with my fellow foodie advocate, Ms Rushina Ghildiyal, I was naturally curious to see what flies off their street food stands. There were the usual bhel puris and chats, parotas (like our pratas) and even the vadapao, a vegetarian Mumbai burger (the Mumbai palate is very curious and adapts to whatever that works) and then lo and behold, I stumbled upon mee goreng and nasi goreng.
That’s the kind of ignorance I harbour when I don’t get out there to the land of the Moghuls and Shah Rukh Khan often enough (the last time I was in India was in the 80s). The dishes were made by the Chaupati beachside hawkers – which reminded me of the old seaside hawkers at Changi yonks ago.
The street hawker cooked in a little pushcart stall, clanged on the wok as mentioned above, doused the spaghetti-like noodles with a light orangey sambal, added more seasoning and clanged away for a finishing touch – all roasty, hot, spicy, salty and fragrant. One bite in, and I knew the difference.
“This is a Nepalese-style spicy Chinese fried noodle,” said Rushina. The sambal had a distinct tangy accent and was judiciously complemented with salt and fired up by dried chilli. Nepal, which borders China, has a food culture with ardent influences from China and India, hence the vinegar in the sambal chilli (tastes like a blend of garlic, onions, dried chilli and vinegar), is a fairly common chilli sauce dip offered in Northern Indian Chinese (Chindian) restaurants there.
I now understand why my foreign Indian friends always say that our Singapore makan is bland, as I now realise just how big a role salt still plays in their food.
The nasi goreng which that same stall offers (in fact, many stalls there offer too) is similarly Chindian with Szechuan influences. It is fried with the same piquant chilli sauce, and expertly so with pillau (a drier, long grained rice often used in nasi biryani). They lay a scoop of spicy “meat ball” (made from fried dough balls) and sauce over and it lends a strangely comforting dimension to the meal – like how we would have curry chicken over fried rice.
So the bottom line is that there are no rules to street food. So as long as an ingenious (or desperate and creative) cook churns out something that includes and respects the essence of the soul flavours and food culture of that land, whether it’s a mix or a match, it can work.
I can imagine that was how our Indian forefathers came up with the idea of mee goreng in the first place.