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

Wine & Dine - - CONTENTS - WORDS MICHELLE YEE

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.

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