“The reason why I like this so much is because it’s the same taste I used to have when I was a child,” my dad told me. “When I was a small boy and this man’s father was selling prawn mee in my neighbourhood.”
My parents and I were hunched over a pale wooden table, small wisps of steam rising into our faces from the two lime-green bowls of prawn noodles sitting in front of us. Unusually enough, we weren’t at a hawker centre. Right at the back of a nondescript shop lot sandwiched between a swathe of tarmac and a collection of bakeries and cafes sat a pair of food stalls, separated from the entrance by an expanse of identical tables and stools. It was testament to the amount of prestige Blanco Court Prawn Noodles had earned among Singapore’s makan kakis (‘foodies’ in popular slang) over the decades. Originating along Merchant Street, the stall became one of many in the eponymous shopping complex along North Bridge Road (several of its neighbours went on to become legendary food stalls in their own right), and its owner managed to earn enough to rent a small block along Beach Road which is only shared with a drinks stall and one selling ngoh hiang (Chinese five-spice meat rolls).
Prawn noodles are a common sight in Singaporean hawker centres. Many foodies attest that it’s the broth which makes or breaks them. The broth from Blanco Court Prawn Noodles appeared thin, but every mouthful seethed with a strong prawn flavour – the way it should be, my father asserted, from hours of cooking prawn shells down until every bit of flavour was unlocked. Some would say the prawns looked insipid, being unlike the full, bouncy variants some serve in other hawker stalls. Yet others could argue that the prawns were not the point of the dish. The other components were only subsidiary: the beansprouts that snapped between your teeth, the tender strings of wilted water spinach, the splash of fried onions on top for a burst of fragrance. It was just the broth that mattered.
My gold standard for prawn noodles was different.
It was often bundled in a plastic takeout bag, or in turquoise plastic bowls. The white vermicelli noodles are much thinner, and instead of simmering in a bowl of broth they were mixed in with blobs of spicy shrimp paste and dried bird’s eye chillis. The noodles wouldn’t come with the heads on (a pity, because I always enjoy sucking the juice out from them!) but made up for it with a few nuggets of pork lard, crispy and utterly toothsome. I would never eat the vegetables that came with it, but spend my Saturday mornings sitting amid the bustle at Ghim Moh Food Centre, or else slurping up my noodles on a lazy day at home in front of the television.
“Even the one at Ghim Moh is an innovation,” my father has remarked. “Then when they try to innovate it doesn’t taste the same. Blanco Court still has the real stuff.” But what if what you’d known as the ‘real stuff’, the stuff you’d grown up with, was what another person had regarded as a perversion of the flavours he’d known? And that’s something I’ll have to feel for with my tastebuds, in every spoonful of prawn broth.