Cover KL-style Hokkien mee (Photo: Melanie Lim/Unsplash)

Food anthropologist Lee Han Ying's research on Hokkien mee or orr mee took her all the way to Fujian, China

If you read our previous piece on bak kut teh's backstory, it stands to reason that an interest in food history has brought you here. Part two of our tête-à-tête with researcher Lee Yan Ying covers Hokkien mee's history in a nutshell. Juggling her full-time job with her part-time research, Lee conducted her field work over four long years, and consumed countless more calories in the name of work. "While in Fujian, I was basically stuffed every day," she laughs.

Here are some fun facts about KL Hokkien mee (not to be confused with Penang or Singapore's respective versions):

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An indisputable Hokkien dish

Mere mention of Hokkien mee conjures a different image in Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Singapore, but Lee's research fully revolves around KL Hokkien mee, which is typified by thick strands of noodles swimming in a dark sauce.

Born and bred in Klang, the researcher was able to connect Hokkien mee with quintessential characteristics of Fujian cuisine. "First of all, the usage of noodles alone speaks for Fujian cuisine—they love to eat noodles in Fujian," she says. "And then there's the fact that dark soy sauce, a product of China, is one of the dish's main ingredients. Thirdly, take a look at the cooking method: moist stir-frying is a very Hokkien method. The cook starts with a lot of liquid, which is slowly reduced."

See also: 6 Restaurants Serving Cold Capellini Or Noodles In The Klang Valley

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Same same but different

Unlike Lee’s research on bak kut teh, which unearthed a likely antecedent for the dish, the search for Hokkien mee's 'parentage' proved much more difficult. The dish that comes closest to Hokkien mee is lor mee, which is eaten widely in Fujian. Going back to the aforementioned point about moist stir-frying, some studies suggest that Hokkien mee started out as something very similar to lor mee, but evolved to become drier.

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The 'best' halal Hokkien mee in Selangor

Endorsed by Lee herself, this restaurant in Klang serves standout Hokkien mee—without the pork or lard.

"Han Sing Seafood Restaurant, which has been around for very long, is known for its Hokkien mee among other dishes," reveals Lee. "It is situated in a very interesting part of Klang; the area is considered a Chinese neighbourhood, but borders a few Malay villages. It is not uncommon for Chinese locals to bring their Malay friends here, hence the restaurant owners' decision to omit pork from their dishes for mutual enjoyment."

Lee admits that the exclusion of lard does makes a minor difference in taste, but it doesn't make the noodles any less delicious. "I like that it still has the qualities that a standard plate of Hokkien mee has, such as wok hei. Plus, the texture of the noodles is just nice. You should try it!"

See also: Shiso Dining's Five Concepts Under One Roof

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What Hokkien mee says about Chinese Malaysian identity

Lee's research, which aimed to reconcile her Chinese roots and Malaysian upbringing, allowed her to come to a realisation: "The conclusion of my study is that Chinese Malaysians change our identity depending on the situation—we can be very Chinese, but we can also be very Malaysian. Picture a line between both worlds; we adjust this line according to the situation."

In short, the warp and weft of 'Malaysianness' are flexibility and consideration. "For instance, because Malays don’t eat pork, we make it a point not to consume pork in their presence. However, when in the company of fellow Chinese, commonalities emerge, such as sharing a pork-based meal," explains Lee, who is continuing to explore the food of her ancestors and Chinese Malaysian social history.

Throwback: Who Are The Chettis Of Melaka? And What Is Hindu-Peranakan Cuisine?