For some, only fishballs and fishcake made from scratch will do. For others, the chilli and requisite pieces of lard are of the utmost importance.
Fishball noodles in Singapore are served dry or in soup, and with a variety of noodles from mee pok to kway teow.
Here are some picks in Singapore:
Eng Huat’s supple and sweet fishcake and soft yet bouncy fishballs are made with fresh sai toh fish, or wolf herring, by hand from scratch every morning.
Each fishcake is then deep-fried until golden brown.
As for the fishballs, there are no two that look exactly alike. They are neither completely spherical nor overly bouncy. Lightly salted, they are perfect to me in every way, from texture to flavour.
The fishcake and fishballs are the highlight here. The fishcake here is top-notch.
The stall opens in the day and at night. There is a morning and early lunch shift run by an older couple and a night shift run by another family member.
A bowl of noodles starts at $3. Have it dry or in soup.
The noodles come with crispy bits of lard, an important flavour component. You can add ketchup and extra vinegar if you like.
The clear, satisfying soup gets a boost of flavour from charred bits of garlic.
Havelock Road Cooked Food Centre, 22B Havelock Road, Stall 26
All the chest-beating and hair-tearing over the erosion of hawker culture here may seem over the top, except that it is not. The food people of a certain age enjoyed decades ago have either disappeared or been diluted.
Fortunately, some young people have taken up the challenge to uphold tradition. One of them is Douglas Ng, 25, who opened a stall two years ago to sell fishball noodles made using his grandmother’s recipe.
The fishballs, and the chilli-scallion-studded slices of fish cake, do not have the white factory sheen of most fishballs. They are a little grey and rough hewn, and are delightfully bouncy. What’s even better is that they taste of fish, not flour.
The generic noodles that the stall uses are a bit of a letdown, but the seasonings are robust, the cubes of crispy lard a joy to eat. Prices start at $4.50 a bowl, and I usually ask for an extra serving of fishballs and fish cake.
Timbre+, 73A Ayer Rajah Crescent
At Kovan Market and Food Centre, there are five stalls that sell a variety of fishball noodles and bak chor mee (minced pork noodles), but it is Yam Mee’s traditional Teochew fishball noodles that wins me over.
For $3, you get a bowl of mee pok with two fishballs, one meatball and one vegetable ball, topped with minced meat and sliced stewed mushrooms.
The fishballs have a nice bite to them and do not have a fishy taste.
The noodles are tossed in lard, but the chilli could be a tad more spicy.
Yam Mee’s other noodle dishes – laksa and curry chicken noodles – also cost $3 each and are generously portioned.
The laksa comes with fishcake slices, beansprouts, fresh cockles and tau pok (fried beancurd puff), while the curry chicken noodles had thick cuts of tender chicken.
For the curry chicken noodles, the yellow noodles are packed separately from the curry.
To complete the yummy meal, order their stewed herbal chicken feet ($3) to go with the noodles. You get six well-seasoned big claws with lots of skin and tendon.
Be prepared to queue if you are there during busy lunch or dinner periods.
But the food is worth the wait and lives up to its name.
Kovan Market and Food Centre, Block 209 Hougang Street
The elderly couple have been at it for more than 50 years. For about 40 of those years, they were at Selegie Road; then they moved to the Jalan Besar area, where they plied their trade for another 14 years before moving to their current location four years ago.
Everything hinges on balance – the heat of chillies with the tartness of black vinegar – and it is perfect here.
A spoonful of crispy lard bits and another of fried garlic complete the dish.
Wiseng Food Place, Block 462 Crawford Lane
The secret to a good bowl of dry mee pok lies in the perfect combination of each component of the dish – from the chilli and the fishballs and fishcake, to the amount of lard and the texture of the noodles.
Of course, different stalls excel in different areas. And at 132 Mee Pok Kway Teow, it’s the chilli.
The tingly chilli, when tossed with springy mee pok, adds zing to the humble dish. Each bowl comes with slices of lean pork, minced pork, prawns and fishballs.
Be warned that the chilli here is on the spicier end of the spectrum and is not for the novice chilli eater.
MP 59 Food House, Block 59 Marine Terrace
Chilli heads will not like this mee pok because there is no spicy kick. However, it is a well-rounded bowl. The palate is not assaulted by heat, so it can appreciate the tang of vinegar and the umami from the stewed mushrooms.
Ming Fa’s mee pok is narrower and thinner than the other two stalls at Simpang Bedok, and the noodles are not stodgy.
Little touches distinguish it from the other bowls. The pork slices are not just blanched in hot water. These ones taste like they have been marinated with sesame oil and are juicy and tender. The scent of aromatic dried sole fish permeates the pork.
Although the liver is sliced almost paper thin, it is not in rigor mortis after a dunking in boiling water. Instead, the slices are tender. Quite a feat, really.
The noodles come with a scattering of crisp pork lard, which adds to the allure.
328 Bedok Road
On the second floor of the Market Street Food Centre in Raffles Place, colloquially known to office workers as Golden Shoe hawker centre after the building’s carpark of the same name, is a stall called Market Street Teochew Kway Teow Mee. It doesn’t have a fancy name or a fancy signboard. In fact, it doesn’t stand out from the myriad other stalls there.
But the stall, which opens at 6am on weekdays, has a steady stream of regulars who stop by for breakfast every morning. It serves a comforting version of Teochew-style fishball noodles.
The recommended noodle to order is the mee tai mak but there are others too. Other types of noodles available include kway teow, mee kia (thin egg noodles), mee pok (flat egg noodles) and bee hoon (rice vermicelli).
The noodles are tossed in a heady combination of mildly spicy chilli with sliced garlic, lard and vinegar.
The clear soup, which comes with two fishballs, slices of fish cake, minced pork and a few pieces of liver and sliced pork, is robust yet light.
It has that signature graceful Teochew flair, but also enough heft in its flavour to keep you wanting to drink the entire bowl.
50 Market Street (Golden Shoe Car Park)
The irregularly shaped handmade fishballs are a little saltier than most but they are smooth, bouncy and just firm enough.
The stall offers various types of noodles and soup and dry options are available (from $3 a serving).
But those who like their noodles dry should note that the springy noodles here are slightly sweeter than usual, due to the combination of chilli sambal and tomato ketchup it is tossed in.
Block 16 Bedok South Road
From the same source, a few different streams may flow. And from the same family recipe, a few distinctive versions of a dish may follow.
In the case of the Thye Hong fishball noodle family, different family members running different stalls across Singapore still get yellowtail fish from the same supplier.
“We learnt the same method, we use the same fish, but what we cook tastes different,” says former hawker Ng Hock Chye, 61.
He is the youngest of five brothers, three of whom have noodle stalls. The eldest brother is no longer selling noodles. The second brother has a Thye Hong fishball noodle stall that is an institution in Ghim Moh Road, where the third brother also has a lor mee stall. The fourth brother sells fishball noodles at Ru Ji Kitchen in Holland Drive.
Thye Hong was started by his two eldest brothers, says Mr Ng. The name was taken from the Thye Hong biscuit factory in Alexandra Road, where the fishball noodle business began about 40 years ago as a street stand before moving to the Ghim Moh food centre in 1977.
Mr Ng learnt the ropes in Ghim Moh before setting up a Thye Hong stall in Bukit Batok East Avenue 4 in 1989. He ran the stall till 2010, when a neck injury put him out of action.
It was around then that his son, Ching Song, now 29, began to take an interest in the business. Under his father’s tutelage, Ching Song, who is the youngest of three children, set up shop in Bukit Batok East Avenue 5 in 2012.
Broadly speaking, the Thye Hong method includes making the fishballs by hand, preparing the chilli and mixing the noodles with lard and chilli thoroughly before serving them.
The flavouring is heavier in Ghim Moh. The chilli is more fiery in Holland Drive. The version in Bukit Batok is milder – old-fashioned, even.
Ching Song says he has learnt to make the dish (from $3) the old way by following his father’s instructions.
He does not take short cuts such as adding MSG to the soup.
The stall has made a new concession, though. It uses less lard and the dish has a cleaner finish.
Ching Song, who is married with a daughter, is straightforward when he is asked why he is following in his father’s footsteps.
“My father raised the three of us by selling fishball noodles and now I have a child to raise.”
Block 233 Bukit Batok East Avenue 5
Mr Wee Pong Sai, 66, has been running his hand-made fishball noodle stall in Ghim Moh market since 1977. His younger brothers run shops at Bukit Batok and Holland Drive.
The Holland Drive outlet, called Ru Ji, is another one of my favourites. Here, its fragrant chilli and lard paste, as well as its fried fishcakes, are the highlight.
At Thye Hong in Ghim Moh, the fishballs are round but not perfectly so, while the fishcake is also unevenly shaped.
The beauty of the fishballs and fishcake lies in their suppleness.
Flavour wise, they are just salty enough and have a subtle sweetness.
Mr Wee starts making the fishballs at about 5am. Fresh fish is minced and then mixed with some flour in a large electric mixer, before being hand-moulded into round balls.
A bowl of noodles starts at $3.
Block 20 Ghim Moh Road
Text: Rebecca Lynne Tan, Tan Hsueh Yun, Eunice Quek and Foong Woei Wan/ Straits Times
Photos: Shot by the various journalists of Straits Times