KEEPING CULINARY TRADITIONS ALIVE
From selling Hokkien noodles from a pushcart stall in the 1970s, Thye Hong Hokkien Mee has since grown to include six outlets island-wide
Once upon a time, Glutton’s Square was one of the most popular dining street venues in Singapore. During the 1970s, it boasted over 80 hawker stalls selling everything from oyster omelette to Hokkien noodles and carrot cake.
Unfortunately, the bustling open-air food area, located at a carpark near Centrepoint Shopping Mall in Orchard Road, was closed down in 1978 due to environmental and hygiene reasons. Following its closure, most of the hawkers relocated to various food centres around the island. Among them is Thye Hong Hokkien Mee, a family-run business that is now in its third generation.
“My wife’s (Rina) grandfather first started selling Hokkien noodles and oyster omelette from a pushcart stall in Glutton’s Square during the 1970s. After the food centre closed in 1982, he relocated to Newton Circus, where his sons Thye Hong and Thye Chua took over the business,” Ben Tan, co-owner of Thye Hong Hokkien Mee shares.
“We later joined the family’s business in 2004 when the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) organised a Glutton’s Square revival for the Singapore Food Festival and approached us to be a part of it. Rina and I were both initially in the travel trade, but our industry at that point in time was badly affected by the SARS outbreak in 2003. Hence when the STB opportunity came up, we saw it as a chance to continue the family business,” he explains. The STB initiative turned out to be a huge success and Thye Hong Hokkien Mee was offered a shop space at Food Republic’s flagship store when they opened in 2005.
“Food Republic wanted to deliver familiar tastes by preserving heritage street foods. We thought their concept was aligned with ours, which was to keep culinary traditions alive. Furthermore, we strongly believed that expanding the business through a food court route would be the way to go. Today, we have a total of six outlets island-wide, including four with Food Republic,” Tan adds.
Despite the rapid expansion, Tan remains committed to preserving tradition, choosing to prepare their noodles exactly the same way Rina’s grandfather used to do at Glutton’s Square. For instance, Hokkien noodles in the 60s to early 80s were usually served in Opeh leaves, as it imparts a fragrant woody aroma to the noodles. Till today, Tan and his team insist on serving their noodles on these leaves.
“Opeh leaves are extremely difficult to procure, and we often face challenges trying to get a consistent supply of them. The cost for sourcing and transporting the leaves from Indonesia and Malaysia can be quite high, especially when supply is low during severe weather season,” says Tan. “Prepping the leaves is quite a tedious task and takes up a lot of our time, but we know the effort is worthwhile as our customers have shared with us that the noodles are more fragrant and tasty because we serve them on Opeh leaves.”
In Singapore, there are two types of Hokkien noodles: the dry and wet version. Thye Hong whips up the wet variant, which according to Tan, should comprise noodles that are generously coated in an umami-laden gravy.
“The noodles should absorb the flavours of the broth, but still retain their bite and not become too mushy. The final dish should be fragrant and feature a generous amount of prawns and squid. The chilli, on the other hand, should offer the right amount of heat to complement the dish, but not overwhelm the palate,” Tan explains.
While Thye Hong’s great tasting Hokkien noodles is the main reason for the snaking queues regularly seen at their outlets, Tan attributes a large part of the brand’s rapid growth to Food Republic, a food court chain run by the BreadTalk Group based in Singapore.
“Food Republic has played an integral role in our expansion plans. We get greater visibility and lots of footfall, thanks to the food court chain’s integrated open-dining food atrium. It unites the best of local and regional cuisine, all under one holistic dining space.”
Moving forward, Tan plans to continue expanding the business by opening one to two new outlets every two years. While expansion is on the cards, the key focus, according to Tan, is maintain the quality of both their service and food.