Perhaps it is all that lamenting about the demise of Singapore hawker food, but the past year has seen some young people not only joining the profession, but doing a great job as well.
Among them is the group running Sumo Big Prawn, which opened in September in Ang Mo Kio. Three young men and a woman - who look to be in their 20s - were running the stall when I dropped in before midday las month, busy serving a long queue of customers.
They offer an original take on prawn noodle soup by adding clams and having options that include crayfish or lobster. Prices start at $5 for the basic prawn noodle soup and go up to $8 for the big prawn version. The crayfish one is $13 and lobster is $18.90.
But when I was there, the $5 version was sold out and the lobsters were premium ones from Colombia, which bumped up the price of the noodles to $24.90.
After queueing more than half an hour, you would say yes to anything to get your food, which is why I forked out the most money I have ever spent at a hawker noodle stall - a decision I soon regretted. The lobster was tough and bland, and it was a struggle getting the meat out of the shell. In the end, I left half of it behind.
But the rest of the dish was excellent. The broth was rich and full of shellfish flavour, which the beehoon soaked up. The prawns were big and, with part of the shell already removed, easy to eat. The clams were cooked just right and were sweet and juicy.
So the next time, I will order the $8 bowl - which has all the good stuff - and skip the lobster.
WHERE: Sumo Big Prawn, 628 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 4, 01-72, tel: 9299-2621
MRT: Yio Chu Kang
OPEN: 9am to 9pm daily, but may close early if stocks run out. Also, check its Facebook page for ad hoc days off
While many of his peers found jobs in restaurants after graduation, At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy alumnus Cai Jiaming, 26, chose the hawker route instead.
Almost every day, he heads to Jurong Fishery Port at 3am to pick the freshest prawns and to a wet market to get his supply of pork ribs.
At about 5am, he gets his master stock going for the day.
Six months on, Mr Cai's Ming's Prawn Noodle stall, at Alexandra Village Food Centre, has drawn a steady following of loyal customers.
The menu is simple - prawn noodles or pork rib noodles, priced at $3.50 each. Or have the best of both worlds with the pork ribs and prawn noodles for $5.
It is a rainy morning when I head to the stall, so I pick the comforting pork rib and prawn noodles in soup without hesitation.
The very polite Mr Cai asks me to pick my noodle of choice - I go for the yellow noodles.
Next question. Would I like my prawns shelled? Now, that is a very thoughtful option for people who do not want to get their hands dirty or are lazy, like me. Shelled please.
He then directs me to the tub of fried lard. I can add my own and, of course, I do.
There is ground chilli powder and sliced red chilli to spice up the soup.
On my tray, he places a (free) wet towel and cheerfully wishes me an enjoyable meal.
While the hot soup does not look as rich as others I have tried, it is still flavourful. It is light and I drink up most of it.
I get three plump prawns, along with three pork ribs. The prawns are bigger than usual and extremely fresh. While the pork ribs are slightly fatty, the meat is tender and juicy. The dish also includes beansprouts and kangkong.
Mr Cai admits that it has been a tough learning experience and that he hopes his decision to take the "more challenging" route is worth it. The chef may not be in a restaurant, but his service and cooking are top-notch. I hope he perseveres.
WHERE: Ming's Prawn Noodle, Alexandra Village Food Centre, 120 Bukit Merah Lane 1, 01-01
OPEN: 7.30am to 4pm (Thursdays to Tuesdays), closed on Wednesdays
Chilli Mee, reads a signboard above a stall in Golden Mile Food Centre. It makes me wonder because the two words don't say much, other than the fact that it sells some variation of noodles with chilli.
The sign, however, also says prawn mee and laksa, two dishes I know well. Still, it is "chilli mee" that piques my interest.
When I am at the food centre on a Friday morning, there is no queue outside the stall, but there is a constant stream of customers, all of whom seem to order the signature chilli mee.
Empty green bowls on tables look as if they have been licked clean.
My lips begin to itch. So I order myself a bowl of chilli mee too. Ah, what a find it is.
At Chung Cheng, the piquant chilli sauce is to the chilli mee what satay sauce is to satay bee hoon - it is the star of the show.
The chilli mee (from $3 and upwards) here is a version of dry prawn noodles. The fragrant chilli sauce, which has the consistency of a thick gravy, is dolloped on top of the noodles like a topping.
The spice and flavour from the chilli sauce hit me like a kick in the shin - a quick burst, followed by a slow and intense release. The well-balanced chilli gravy has been cooked with skill, using ingredients that include garlic, belacan and shallots. I even spot sesame seeds.
Beneath the chilli sauce are slices of tau pok or fried beancurd, fishcake and hard-boiled egg, as well as prawns and sweet chunks of soft-bone pork ribs.
While the juicy meat comes off the bone easily, I find myself chewing and sucking on the bone just to extract its robust flavours.
Each bowl is served with a small bowl of herbal prawn-pork broth.
WHERE: Chung Cheng - Chilli mee, Prawn Mee, Laksa, Golden Mile Food Centre, 505 Beach Road, 01-59
OPEN: 8.30am to 8.30pm, closed on Tuesday
Photo: Rebecca Lynne Tan / ST
A pimped out bowl of prawn noodles is easy to find, if you are willing to pay for it.
There are stalls which throw in monster-sized crustaceans, sections of pig tail, pork ribs and even pig intestines. The prices, of course, swell with the additions.
I cannot lie. There are days when I relish a bowl of prawn noodles with a very rich broth, loaded with extras. But the prices, usually $8 and up, give me pause.
So when I want a good bowl of noodles without the frills, 545 Whampoa Prawn Noodles in Tekka Centre fits the bill perfectly.
The noodles cost $3 or $4 a bowl and fuel me up properly for a shopping expedition in the wet market, where navigating those tight walkways filled with people can be a bit harrowing.
Such is the lure of these noodles that on my most recent visit there, I meet two foodie friends, spiffy in their office togs, who live nowhere close but have stopped by for a bowl before work.
You will be asked when you order if you want chilli and ketchup. Say yes to the chilli, no to the ketchup.
It will overwhelm the perky chilli sauce, which clings beautifully to the strands of beehoon, my choice for prawn mee because I am not fond of yellow noodles.
Compared to those Rococo bowls of prawn mee, these noodles seem almost plain, but all the necessary components are there: a decent number of halved prawns, sliced lean pork and the twin pleasures of crisp lard pieces and deep-fried shallots.
Somehow, the chilli, pork fat and shallots mingle to make magic on the palate. There is crunch, there is spice, there is lard, there is umami. There is nothing more that anyone needs.
The accompanying bowl of soup could have a deeper flavour, to be sure, and as the day goes on, it will concentrate as it simmers in the pot. But it is just rich enough at 7.30am.
I marvel at how a humble dish can be so nuanced. But that is the great triumph of our hawker food. Often, the dishes look like random ingredients chucked on a plate or bowl. One of my teachers in junior college once described char kway teow as a "road accident on a plate".
The class laughed raucously, but as I get older, I appreciate that the skill it takes to turn simple ingredients into food that connects with the soul is immense.
WHERE: 545 Whampoa Prawn Noodles, Tekka Centre, Block 665 Buffalo Road, 01-326
MRT: Little India
OPEN: 6.30am to 2pm (Tuesday, Thursday and Friday), 6.30am to 1pm (Sunday and Monday), closed on Wednesday and Saturday
Photo: Tan Hsueh Yun / ST
Penang Culture's halal Penang food got a tweak recently with new additions to the menu.
Some are good, such as the Premium Lobster & Scallop Noodles ($16.50), which turns the humble Penang Hokkien prawn noodles into a gourmet version topped with scallops, slipper lobster, chicken pieces. fishcake, a hard-boiled egg and kangkong.
What is important is that the broth is as rich as in the original hawker version, with the complex flavours of the prawns, crabs and chicken bones used to brew it.
WHERE: Penang Culture, three outlets at Changi Airport Terminal 2, Departure Hall, Level 3, tel: 6546-7793; Jem, 04-27, tel: 6734-8006; Nex, B1-76, tel: 6634-0667; Century Square Shopping Mall, 04-12, tel: 6789-8180
MRT: Changi Airport, Jurong East, Tampines, Serangoon
OPEN: 10.30am to 10pm daily (Changi Airport), 11am to 10pm (Jem, Next and Century Square)
Photo: Penang Culture
Beo Crescent Market & Food Centre is a five-minute stroll from Tiong Bahru Plaza.
The food centre's hidden gems draw a steady stream of diners right from breakfast time.
I zoom in on Ha Ha Big Prawn Noodle, partly because of its name and, more importantly, the fragrant prawn broth that wafts from a bowl of the noodles destined for a soon-to-be very happy diner.
Prices start at $4 and upwards. The stall also sells wonton noodles, which uses char siew.
The all-important soup has a rich prawn flavour, although it is slightly oily.
If you choose the dry version, have it with the fairly spicy chilli. Chilli powder and chilli padi are also available for those who want extra heat.
For a hearty meal, order the big prawn pork rib noodles. It comes with three whole prawns that have the middle part of the shell removed and cleaned as well as tender pork ribs.
I'm not a fan of pig's tail but those who like it can also opt for it with the prawn noodles.
My vote is for the intoxicating soup version.
WHERE: Ha Ha Big Prawn Noodle, Beo Crescent Market & Food Centre, 38A Beo Crescent, 01-81
MRT: Tiong Bahru
OPEN: 7.30am to 2pm (or until sold out), Tuesdays to Sundays, closed on Mondays (except when Mondays are public holidays)
Photo: Eunice Quek / ST
At The Naked Finn at Gillman Barracks, the hae mee tng ($25), which is Hokkien for prawn mee soup, is available only at lunch time. The dish is available for dinner and supper at Nekkid, the restaurant's bar which is located a stone's throw away.
In this bowl of luxe prawn noodles, the stars are the heady, complex and flavourful broth and the plump prawns.
You have a choice of bee hoon or Japanese somen. Opt for the somen- it absorbs the flavour of the broth beautifully.
The stock is made with three types of prawns - wild-caught blue and red shrimp, Northern prawn and dried sakura ebi, each type adding its own complexity and flavour to the broth.
Instead of pork ribs or slices of lean pork, ramen-style pork belly rounds are served with the noodles.
I always finish the soup, and leave feeling full and satisfied.
WHERE: The Naked Finn, Block 39 Malan Road, Gillman Barracks, tel: 6694-0807; and Nekkid, Block 41 Malan Road, Gillman Barracks, tel: 6694 0940
MRT: Labrador Park
OPEN: The Naked Finn - noon to 2pm (weekdays), noon to 3pm (for brunch on Saturday). The restaurant also opens for dinner from 6 to 10pm (Monday to Saturday). It is closed on Sundays; Nekkid - 5pm to midnight (Tuesday to Thursday), 5pm to 2am (Friday and Saturday), closed on Sundays and Mondays.
INFO: nakedfinn.com and nekkidbar.com
Photo: The Naked Finn
There are prawn noodle stalls here where the crustaceans do not take centre stage. Instead, what satisfies is a rib-sticking pork stock.
In a coffee shop at Block 44 Bendemeer Road is a stall that sells terrific prawn-pork noodles. Do not judge it by its generic name, the very exciting Prawn Noodles.
The noodles (from $3.50) more than pass muster. I order rice vermicelli or beehoon and it comes tossed with punchy chilli and scattered with small prawns, sliced fishcake and pork, and a generous helping of crisp lard cubes.
All is good and then I taste the cloudy, dark brown broth that accompanies the noodles. It has lots of oomph and the ribs are juicy.
It is such a joy biting into soft bone. I go back to my noodles, but keep dipping into that broth. I will need to go back for another fix soon.
WHERE: Prawn Noodles, Block 44 Bendemeer Road
MRT: Boon Keng
OPEN: 7am to 7pm, daily
Photo: Tan Hsueh Yun / ST