Prawn Mee (serves 4-6)
- 1kg large or medium prawns
- 1 medium white onion
- 4-5 large shallots
- 2 cloves garlic
- 100 g shrimp sambal
- 500g pork ribs
- 8 cups water
- cooking oil
- brown sugar
- To serve:
- Yellow mee
- Blanched yu choy
- Bean sprouts
- Poached shrimp
- Simmered pork loin
- Fried shallots
- Peel and devein shrimp, keeping the heads and shells
- Sauté onions, shallots, and garlic until lightly colored. Add sambal and cook for 2 minutes before adding shrimp heads and shells. Fry for another 5 minutes.
- Add water and pork. Bring to boil and then reduce heat to gentle simmer.
- Check after 1-1.5 hours and adjust seasoning with salt and sugar to taste, adding more sambal if necessary.
- Let simmer for an additional 2-3 hours.
- Strain broth and serve over noodles topped with yu choy, bean sprouts, shrimp, and sliced pork loin, and shallots. (Other optional toppings include rice vermicelli, hard-boiled egg, and fishcake).
When I set out to recreate prawn mee, a noodle soup dish from Singapore and Malaysia, I was hoping to find a recipe like this one is what in one of the many cookbooks on Malaysian or Singaporean cuisine. But after looking in Singapore Cooking, Southeast Asian Flavors, and Malaysian Cooking: A Master Cook Reveals her Best Recipes, to name a few, I realized that my direct line of inquiry was proving to be fruitless. Although I didn’t stop to think about why this puzzled me as much as it did, in retrospect it seemed quite at odds with what I was expecting given the apparent popularity of the dish. At Nyonya, a Malaysian restaurant on Grand St. where I first had this dish, it’s listed at the top of the noodle soup section with little description besides that it’s a “favorite”. This being the case, why were there no formal recordings of how to make it? Was I looking in the wrong place altogether?
I turned to food blogs to fill in the gaps and thankfully I was able to find a handful of recipes pertaining to this dish, but the lack of consensus across sources as to ingredients and procedure complicated the process of figuring out what I was going to do. How much shrimp would I need? How much pork, and what cut? Homemade chili paste or store-bought sambal? Start by frying the ingredients or start with water? Cook for a half hour? Three hours? How much sugar? The series of choices that resulted in the above recipe were based on factors like convenience, price, availability, and in the end taste. This recipe is one of my own creation: what I was hoping to find rather than what I did find using external sources.
Judging by ingredients alone it seems clear that the soup makes use of leftovers and scraps from cooking other things. I peeled shrimp for this recipe, but it makes a lot more sense to use shells produced from peeling shrimp for another purpose due to the volume necessary for a concentrated flavor. It also suggests economical concerns. I already knew that my boyfriend, born in Singapore, doesn’t know a lot about the makings of the foods he enjoys like prawn mee or laksa despite being a competent cook of “Western” dishes. Nonetheless, I queried him about prawn mee and learned it’s exclusively bought from hawker centers; open air food courts located in residential neighborhoods that sell convenient and inexpensive meals (a bowl of prawn mee would under 5USD). It’s not something that most people know how to cook, or even what ingredients are involved, and yet it’s very popular to eat.
The phenomenon of hawker centers emerged in the 50’s and 60’s as part of governmental regulation of the commerce of food and goods that was happening on the streets. The government was attempting to impose a Western ideal of cleanliness and order through issuing licenses and monitoring sanitation. This perspective ran counter to the favored modes of production and consumption since a mobile operation required fewer overheads than a permanent establishment for hawkers. However, with increasing urbanization the government was able to encourage the construction of permanent hawker centers in residential areas, which eventually won out over their mobile counter parts and were perceived as more hygienic and acceptable to the middle class[i]. Previously street food was poor man’s food, and ironically the transition of location – not the food itself – changed this perception.
In coming back to the question of cookbooks, I realized that I was more likely to find what I was looking for in those that focus on the hawker food than the ones I’d been looking through initially. But why is this the case? One answer came from Eating Her Curries and Kway: A Cultural History of Food in Singapore, which argues in the chapter “The Pizza of Love” that cookbooks in Singapore (i.e. the ones I’d been looking at) represent an ideal, unified cuisine that doesn’t actually exist in home kitchens. As a way of mitigating complicated racial and ethnic tensions which manifest themselves in food, a certain narrative of cuisine has been crafted that elevates a subset of dishes into a cohesive cuisine[ii].
Both the history of hawker centers and the cultivation of a selective national cuisine are interlaced with the colonial history of British Malaya, which consisted principally of the peninsular part of current day Malaysia and Singapore. Becoming independent between 1957 and 1963, this former colony was one of the most profitable in the Empire because of its production of tin and rubber. The demand for labor in this region from the 19th and early 20th century brought workers from China, as well as India to a lesser extent[iii]. The influences of several cooking styles is evident in a single bowl of prawn mee, with the sambal in the broth being a Malaysian influence, the use of wheat noodles Chinese. The end product is unique to the region, even if diners there class it as Chinese[iv].
It became clear that the people interested in taking the time to create a recipe for prawn mee and post it online, or alternately the people looking online and in cookbooks for a recipe, where largely those who had lived in Singapore or Malaysia for some time and then moved away. Of the two primary recipes I used as guidelines for my own, one is from a blogger of Malaysian food based in California[v], the other Malaysia-born and based in London and Hong Kong[vi]. Indeed, it was another expat, my boyfriend, searching for the taste of these cuisines in New York that exposed me to it in the first place. I couldn’t help but wonder about the role of expatriates, both in the consumption and production of this dish, and specifically expats circulating around the former British colonial empire. Coincidentally I’ve experienced several years abroad as an American expat in the UK as well.
It would seem that I stumbled upon a counter-archive maintained by an expat community; an archival source beyond the officially sanctioned ones which holds information that competes with or contradicts more mainstream knowledge but that is nonetheless supported and shared by a number of people. It’s also a fairly secluded corner of knowledge: not inaccessible to those who look for it, but the kind of knowledge you can only find if you know what you’re looking for in the first place.
In trying to situate myself and my relationship to prawn mee, it would be nice to say that my relationship with the food changed my relationship with my boyfriend, or conversely that my relationship with my boyfriend strongly influenced my taste for prawn mee. Unfortunately, besides the introduction to this dish and the fact that he is often present when I consume it, his role in the picture is pretty boring. Instead I would frame the personal significance of this dish with regards to my changing sense of home and adjusting to being a student in New York.
College has been a time for me to eat the foods that I like without being confined to my family’s preferences, or anyone else’s for that matter. I’m the only one in my immediate family who likes spicy food and the protein du jour is rarely anything other than chicken, pork, or beef. In that sense prawn mee satisfies tastes that I already enjoyed but in which I was rarely able to partake. There’s also something comforting and homey about a hot bowl of noodles in soup, variations of which are served in my household as a light meal in cold weather or a cure for the common cold. The flavor of caramelized onions, which underscores prawn mee broth, is one of a few flavors from my mom’s home cooking that I really love.
Another important factor is my experience of eating it at Nyonya: it’s fairly inexpensive for New York standards, meaning that a generous bowl comes in under $10. I prepare most of my own meals and, although I do eat out a few times a week, my options are heavily limited by economic concerns. Nyonya is one of the few sit-down establishments that I can afford to frequent, even if it’s a little out of the way of my usual haunts. Although there are lots of affordable places in Chinatown, Nyonya is the only place that I make a point of going to even if I’m not already in the area.
Cooking this dish at home was an entirely new experience for me, having never attempted any of the dishes from this cuisine from scratch before. Certain hurdles were to be expected, like trying to clean shrimp for the first time or figuring out how to fry shallots to the desired crispness. By far the most time consuming step was finding all of the ingredients. None of the grocery stores near where I live sell whole shrimp including the heads, and it’s even fairly difficult to find shrimp with shells outside of specialty stores. This isn’t particularly surprising because they cater to a clientele for whom the shrimp components outside of the meat will only be refuse and who furthermore are uninterested in the hassle of cleaning their own shrimp (I also learned while trying to research buying shrimp that after the shrimp dies, the heads release powerful enzymes which change the texture of the meat; so unless the shrimp is extremely fresh and the heads are necessary for the cooking process it makes more sense to purchase shrimp with the heads removed[vii]. I had to make a trip to Chinatown for that, which was just as well because I also had to go to Chinese and Malaysian grocery stores to find the noodles, sambal, and vegetables as well.
During the cooking process itself I wasn’t necessarily anticipating the competing attraction and disgust that the smells would evoke. The process of getting to the broth I envisaged was fraught with scents to which my roommate, my neighbors, and I took varying degrees of offense. Much as with making a chicken broth from scratch, the smell of boiling down shrimp heads and shells to make the broth did not smell as succulent as the resultant product was going to taste. Furthermore, the time involved to extract the full depth of flavor from the ingredients (3-4 hours on the stove) meant that the aromas had a chance to permeate every inch of my apartment, as well as the hall outside, and even as far as the room directly above mine (I received complaints from my upstairs-neighbors accordingly). Although it didn’t linger outside the confines of my own apartment for more than a day, poor ventilation meant that my roommate and I were faced with the consequences of my culinary experiment for a full week. Thankfully my roommate seemed less bothered than I was; to me it really smelled fishy and ammonia-esque like a fishmonger, which I’ve always found unappealing. I inadvertently learned that many people in my building are of the same opinion.
It’s interesting the extent that our labels of acceptable and unacceptable are dictated by social sensibilities. One of my favorite dishes from my semester in Paris, quenelles de brochet à la lyonnaise, popped into my thoughts after my cooking experiment. This classic from Lyon consists of dumplings made from pike that are poached and served in sauce nantua, a creamy seafood sauce whose flavor derives largely from shrimp shells. I found this dish at a restaurant two blocks away from my apartment that was recommended to me by my eccentric landlord as the only place nearby worth dining in. The flavor profile of sauce nantua is quite different from the broth of prawn mee; dairy based and mild rather than pungent and spicy. Nonetheless, the fishy taste and smell in this French dish was much more palatable to my American friends than the comparable fishiness of prawn mee was to the residents of my building in New York.
Judging from the warning, “It’s very spicy and fishy” that I’ve received from waiters at Nyonya upon requesting this dish in particular I can only assume that some customers have ordered prawn mee without knowing what to expect only to be surprised and turned off. I would argue that the taste of shrimp is well liked in parts of the U.S. where seafood is a common part of the diet. However, as was once captured by a New Englander I overheard after having been caught off-guard by a bite of salt cod, seafood ought to be “served fresh. You catch and you eat it; there’s no sense in trying to save it”. Reflecting on the occasions of my childhood in which I was served seafood, this was certainly the attitude that my own family would hold as well. There were no dried, preserved, and fermented seafood products of any kind in my household, and overall I would still say that I have a general aversion to these flavors. The spiciness is a potentially more self-explanatory reason why this dish might be unpalatable to some. While it may be biologically mysterious why humans enjoy the sensation of chilies at all, it is conditioning in addition to physiological differences which influence an individual’s relationship to hot foods[viii].
Despite the aversion I had during the cooking process, I was exceedingly pleased with the broth I produced. Prawn mee is a complex balance of umami from the dried shrimp and caramelized onion flavors, along with spiciness from the chilies, and delicate proportions of sugar and salt. Although it’s savory, there are undertones of sweetness which really round out the overall flavor. Before cooking it for myself I was hard-pressed to isolate each of the individual flavor components, but the process of experimentation forced me to analyze how each change to the recipe brought me closer to or further from the flavor I was trying to recreate from memory. My end product had the characteristic murky brown broth and red layer of oil on top that beads in the bowl and skews the eater’s ability to judge the temperature of the liquid underneath.
After having made this dish that I’ve eaten at a restaurant countless times, I would say that I would be hesitant to try cooking it again simply because it’s labor intensive. That having been said, there are simplifications that I hadn’t thought of the first time around which would make me more inclined to try again. Firstly, I would commission extra hands to help me with cleaning the shrimp as a trade off for a bowl of noodles at the end. It was my first time breaking down whole shrimp and I was relieved to find that it isn’t strictly difficult or requiring a lot of skill, but it did take me a long time since I was clumsy and inexperienced. Secondly, I would probably commission a friend’s crockpot for the long cooking process since the stove I have in my own apartment doesn’t have a particularly fine temperature gradient and I had trouble keeping my broth at a gentle simmer rather than a rolling boil. Overall I was surprised by how so few ingredients could come together to make such a deep flavor. At the very least, it was better than the instant prawn mee broth I kept on hand so that I would have something to serve to my classmates and professor if my experiment went horribly wrong.
[i] Anthony, James M.. 1987. “Urban Development Planning and Development Control: Hawkers in Kuala Lumpur (1940s-60s)”. Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 2 (1). Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS): 112–24. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41056720.
[ii] Tarulevicz, Nicole. 2013. “The Pizza of Love”. In Eating Her Curries and Kway: A Cultural History of Food in Singapore, 92–115. University of Illinois Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/j.ctt3fh59p.10.
[iii] “DEVELOPMENT POLICIES AND PATTERNS OF AGRARIAN DOMINANCE IN THE MALAYSIAN RUBBER EXPORT ECONOMY”. 1994. “DEVELOPMENT POLICIES AND PATTERNS OF AGRARIAN DOMINANCE IN THE MALAYSIAN RUBBER EXPORT ECONOMY”. In Malaysian Development, 175–98. McGill-Queen’s University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.cttq4874.13.
[iv] Chee-Beng, Tan. 1988. “NATION-BUILDING AND BEING CHINESE IN A SOUTHEAST ASIAN STATE: MALAYSIA”. In Changing Identities of the Southeast Asian Chinese Since World War II, edited by Jennifer W. Cushman and Wang Gungwu, 139–64. Hong Kong University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2jc3fv.16.
[viii] McQuaid, John. 2015. “Quest for Fire”. In Tasty, 161-88. Scribner.