Mention Hakka cuisine and one may think of yong tau foo and thunder tea rice. Hakka noodles on the other hand are rarer and only available in a handful of places in Singapore. We find out more about this humble yet flavourful concoction of noodles and minced pork

Different dialect groups have their own variations of slurp-worthy noodles, whether it’s the ubiquitous Hokkien noodles, robust Heng Hwa noodles (lor mee) or Teochew bak chor mee laced with punchy black vinegar. Hakka noodles are lesser known. This savoury dish is simple, and usually topped with minced pork and a scattering of diced lard. You may be able to order a bowl at some authentic Hakka yong tau foo food stalls, but it’s a rare find.

Hakka fare in general is considered more uncommon than its counterparts. “The preparation takes a lot of effort,” says chef Pang Kok Keong, who owns Pang’s Hakka Noodles, at Sprouthub and ARC380. Although he has years of experience in the intricate world of French pastry, Pang recently returned to his roots and rolled out a range of Hakka specialities, including these rustic noodles. Anderson Ho, another fellow chef who’s also a true-blue Hakka, agrees that it is highly tedious to prepare the dishes. The experienced French-trained chef, who was former executive sous chef at SATS Catering and mentor for the Singapore Culinary National Team, recently created a private dining menu focusing on his updated rendition of Hakka food as a tribute to his heritage, too. These dinners are held at Jambu Studio on an ad hoc basis.

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To understand how this cuisine came about, we transport ourselves to China’s landlocked Hakka region. There, fresh catch from the sea was not readily available. Protein-wise, pork anchored the meal, and lard was king. Pig’s caul was used to wrap ingredients, and innards to fortify soups. Hakkas, also known as guest people, originated from northern provinces, particularly Henan and Hubei. Due to war and chaos, they fled from their northern homeland, and migrated to the south where they had to toil as farmers. Work on the land was arduous, requiring lots of energy, hence their belly-filling meals were typically fatty and salty.

Quintessential flavourings consisted of preserved vegetables and dried seafood. “Dried cuttlefish, dried oyster, dried shrimps and salted fish are often used to flavour the dishes,” says Ho, adding that dried flat fish is sometimes ground till powdery and mixed with minced pork. “For seasoning , we use a lot of Chinese fish sauce, soya sauce and rice wine,” he continues. Pang reiterates that the flavour of Hakka cuisine is very rustic and heavily seasoned. “It’s not something that can be easily replicated, because you need to have tasted it before to understand what the flavours are about,” he adds.

Nostalgic Table

In Singapore, there are only a couple of traditional Hakka eateries left. Most of them have shuttered over the years, and Plum Village is the oldest restaurant that’s still being run by owner Lai Fak Nian. Located at 16 Jalan Leban since 1984, nothing much has changed, including its old school interiors. The restaurant was originally founded in Toa Payoh in 1969 by Lai’s father who partnered with a Hong Kong Hakka chef.

According to Lai, nobody wants to serve traditional Hakka food any more, because customers aren’t keen to pay a lot for this humble fare, versus the more refined Cantonese cuisine laden with seafood. It’s not deemed practical to operate a Hakka restaurant, too, as the food preparation is so laborious.

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However, at this unassuming restaurant, you can still find the authentic rendition of Hakka noodles similar to what’s eaten in China. Ribbons of yellowish alkaline or lye noodles are stir-fried with minced pork, beansprouts, mushrooms, chives and lard. According to Lai, this type of noodles can be found in the county of Xingning (formerly known as Qichang), located in the northeastern part of Guangdong province where, he notes, the Hakka folks still consume these noodles for breakfast.

“There’s a variety of noodles available in the seven Hakka districts in China, but this version with minced pork is the most common,” he says.

Plum Village also serves another type of old school alkaline noodles (kansui mian) accompanied by pork and chives, and laced with sweet sauce, but it’s become less popular over the years. Lai however continues to offer authentic dishes including abacus seeds (suan pan zhi), yong tau foo, salt baked chicken, pork belly with preserved vegetables (mei chai kou rou), the more unusual radish balls, and other homespun dishes.

Considered the “last man standing” in Singapore’s Hakka restaurant world, Lai will continue to safeguard his beloved restaurant for a few more years before he retires.

Reviving Tradition

Meanwhile, chef Pang has decided to delve deeper into his Hakka heritage. He was the founder of Antoinette, a French bakery which shuttered in June after nine years. Over the past few years, however, he has been researching extensively on the cuisine of his dialect group and is now an active advocate of Hakka food.

He has experimented with a variety of specialities, from abacus seeds to steamed leek kueh. The chef also frequents Plum Village to garner more culinary knowledge from Lai.

His aim is to make his noodles more accessible to the masses. In 2020 during the Circuit Breaker period, he introduced a Hakka noodle frozen kit which customers can buy to prepare the fare at home. Subsequently, he set up Pang’s Hakka Noodles.

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According to him, Hakka noodles found in China are usually very plain and perked up with, yes, lard. The noodles are also thinner. “In China, the noodles are usually served with soup teaming with three different pork cuts—sliced pork, intestine and liver, as well as goji berry leaves (gao gei chye),” he recalls. The history of this dish dates back to the days of the Qing dynasty. Hakka mothers would cook this porcine-heavy dish for their sons before the imperial examinations, in hopes that they would score among the top three places.

For his version, Pang wanted to offer thicker and chewier noodles. He got a supplier to produce them based on his own recipe. To add more flavour to the dish, he blanches the noodles, and tosses them with lard, garlic oil and fish sauce. He then tops them with a thick minced pork sauce seasoned with fish sauce and spring onion. To cater to our local palates, the dish is further heightened with chilli sauce made with chilli padi and dried shrimps. To complete the satisfying meal, diners can pair the noodles with a bowl of traditional Hakka yong tau foo soup infused with yellow beans and ikan billis.

Thanks to Pang’s passion, Hakka food in Singapore will hopefully benefit from some continuity. And his guests will get to enjoy this traditional cuisine for many more years to come.

Artisanal Materials

Those who are keen to create their own bowls of belly warming noodles can buy raw Hakka noodles from artisanal online
store Handpicked. Its founder, Karen Nah, is also the second-generation descendant of the founder of noodle manufacturer Hiap Giap Food, which produces the noodles for chef Pang’s Hakka outlets.

She shares, “Generally, Hakka noodles’ thickness is in between the thickness of ‘mee kia’ and ‘mee pok’. And the texture is supposed to be firm and slightly springy. The characteristics of noodles differ slightly based on the noodle seller’s preference.” Just like most lye noodles, the ingredients consist of flour, water, egg, salt and lye. “Although the ingredients are similar to ‘mee pok’, the recipe is different. For example, for Hakka noodles, the lye will be lesser,” says Nah. Lye water or alkaline salt, also called kansui in Chinese (or even in Japanese language), is essential for the wheat noodles’ texture. It lends the noodles a yellow tint as well as helps it stand up to the heat of hot water or sizzling oil.

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