Meet The 85-Year-Old Wanton Mee Chef
This adorable former Crystal Jade head chef and his 'Happy' wife serve pretty decent wanton noodles in a kopitiam. (A version of this story first appeared in Issue 1359, Oct 31, 2016.)
A cute elderly gent works quietly behind the counter, blanching plate after plate of Hongkong-style noodles. Instead of a ratty T-shirt and shorts, he dons a neat collared shirt and black slacks. He’s bright-eyed and sprightly for an 85-year-old. In fact, he looks more like a 75-year-old on his way for a spot of kopi with kakis. This is Master Tang Siu Nam, born in Guangzhou, and formerly head chef in Crystal Jade’s kitchen in Singapore, where he worked for seventeen years training chefs. He also created the restaurant group’s signature wanton mee and XO chilli sauce. Retirement doesn’t suit him, says his chattier, bubbly fifty something Malaysian wife, aptly named Happy, who helps out at the stall. "When he retired [for a year], he immediately fell sick!" she exclaims. So to keep active, the couple, who married in 2007 and have three children (all from Happy’s previous marriage), opened their own hawker stall. Husband and wife have been at this greasy Sixth Avenue kopitiam for over a year now, after moving from their previous Chinatown Food Street location.
Every day at 4am, the couple makes the trek from their home in Woodlands to Sixth Avenue, working till 4pm. Not that Master Tang minds the long hours, since noodles are his passion. As a young man, he moved to Hongkong to learn the art of making noodles by hand at a restaurant there. There, he met the sister-in-law of the late Lee Kuan Yew. She invited him to Singapore to open the now-defunct Guangzhou Noodle and Porridge restaurant at Lucky Plaza, after which he joined the Crystal Jade group. Today, the noodles at Tang’s stall are produced by a supplier made according to his recipe, as his stall is too cramped to make noodles from scratch. In fact, he taught that supplier how to make noodles by hand, and he goes into the factory weekly to make a batch himself for quality control. Happy says the work is hard, but Master Tang would rather be fatigued than lose his skills by idling at home. "I don't plan to retire," he says in Cantonese. "If I do, I will get bored and rot!"
ON THE MENU: Handmade Hongkong-style egg noodles topped with braised meat or dumplings. The noodles are fabulously springy, almost crunchy. The trick, naturally, is a closely guarded secret, but Happy says it’s all in the wrist action.
Stewed Beef Brisket Noodles ($6)
This brisket is braised for five hours with Cantonese chu hou sauce, a soybean paste flavoured with ginger, sesame seeds, garlic and spices. It’s fullbodied and moreish, with a gelatinous texture. Some bits of the beef are too lean, but it’s still good, especially with the springy noodles that soak up all that fragrant gravy. The similarly braised tender Pork Knuckle Noodle dish is also worth a try.
Chicken Feet ($5)
This comes as a side dish or topping on noodles ($4). Easily some of the best chicken feet we’ve had. They’re browned in a braising liquid rich with star anise and chilli till bouncy, wobbly and gently sweet.
Dry Wanton Noodles ($3.50)
Served with little more than a slick of light soy-based sauce, chye sim, and a dollop of Tang’s chilli sauce. The chilli is apparently the most expensive and exhausting thing to make on the menu, with a secret combination of dried seafood and spices. It’s got a wonderful smoky aroma and complex flavour that livens up the somewhat underdressed noodles. The handmade wantons are a tad thick-skinned, and there’s more pork than prawn in the otherwise decent filling. Quite understandable given the low prices here. It’s the soul of simplicity, and tasty, if not mind-blowing.
BOTTOM LINE: Cantonese comfort food skilfully made by a noodle master who could be the poster boy for active ageing. The springy noodles are the star here, though they’re better topped with Tang’s hearty braised meats instead of the so-so wantons. $
Kopitown Sixth Avenue, 10E, Sixth Ave, S276474. Tel: 9113-2888. Open daily except Thurs, 8am-4pm. Last orders at closing.