Mee siam



Mee siam is a dish of bee hoon (rice vermicelli) with a unique sweet and tart gravy.1 Some believe the name of the dish refers to Siam, the old name for Thailand, and that the dish is influenced by Thai cuisine, while others believe that the dish is Malay or Peranakan in origin.2

Description
The sweet and sour gravy of mee siam is reminiscent of the flavours of Thailand.3 The gravy, made with tamarind, sugar, shrimp, belacan (shrimp paste) and taucheo (soya bean paste), is poured over the bee hoon and the dish topped with sliced hard boiled egg, fried tau pok (bean curd), bean sprouts and Chinese chives.4 A dollop of sambal tumis (a type of chilli paste) rounds off the dish.

History
The word mee siam is Malay for “Thai noodles”, where Siam was the term used for pre-World War II Thailand.5 The Singapore Free Press, in 1950, mentioned that mee siam was one of the foods sold by hawkers at the Esplanade to the hungry crowds out for a stroll.  


There is disagreement, however, over whether it is a local adaptation of an actual dish from Thailand or if the name arose out of a Malayan innovation that drew inspiration from Thai flavours.7 A Thai coconut rice noodle dish (kanom jeen numprick) that uses similar ingredients as mee siam, and the Bangkok rice noodle (sen mee krungthep) have been mentioned as the Thai inspiration for the dish. Mee kati is yet another Thai dish with similar ingredients as mee siam.8 Others indicate that the vermicelli used in the dish was originally manufactured and imported from Siam in the early 20th century, thus lending the name to the dish.9

Local food critic Sylvia Tan suggests that the dish is of Malay origin, while academic and anthropologist Tan Chee Beng thinks that the dish is wholly Peranakan, being an innovation of the Straits Chinese nyonyas.10 On the other hand, Mrs Lee Chin Koon, a well-known nyonya, identified it as originating from Thailand.11 Chef, author and food critic, Terry Tan and Tan Chee Beng argue that locally, its association with Thailand has long faded and those who consume the dish relate it to the Peranakans instead, with primarily the Singapore nyonyas given credit for its current taste. A concurring view is held by local sociologist Chua Beng Huat, who asserts that the dish is an example of hybridity in Singapore hawker food, incorporating flavours from Chinese, Malay, Peranakan and Thai cuisines.12

Some attest that the Thai influence on Penang nyonya food is what differentiates it from nyonya food found in Singapore or Malacca.13 Food writer and editor Wendy Hutton believes the dish originates from Penang, where Thai influences on Peranakan dishes are common. The closest cousin to mee siam in Penang is mee kerabu or kerabu bee hoon.14

Variants
In Singapore, there are Chinese, Malay and Indian variants of the dish, as well as the Peranakan variety.15 The Chinese version features blanched bee hoon fried in the gravy, which is often a chilli paste mixed with ground dried shrimps, and the dish is topped with other ingredients such as chicken and thinly sliced omelette. Malay mee siam often does not have coconut in the gravy while the Indian version does, resulting in a lighter coloured gravy.16 In true fusion fashion, the local Indian version includes not only curry powder but also galangal (blue ginger), an ingredient that is not found in traditional Indian cooking but often used in Peranakan cuisine.17 The different ethnic groups, according to Terry Tan, have adapted the mee siam recipe to come up with the many versions we have today.18


Mee siam is not common in parts of Malaysia although there are known variants in Johor (dry fried version), Malacca (wet version), Kuala Lumpur, Mersing, Kedah and Perlis. Mee kerabu or kerabu bee hoon, found in Penang and similar to mee siam, is essentially a vermicelli salad tossed with a Thai-influenced marinade of kerabu ingredients – shallots, belacan, lime juice and torch ginger – and finished off with toasted grated coconut.19 In Penang mee siam, the rice vermicelli is stir-fried in a chilli paste, served in a tart gravy and topped with a variety of garnishes including sliced boiled egg, prawns and soya bean cake.20



Author

Bonny Tan



References
1. World food. Malaysia & Singapore. (2002). Footscray, Vic., Oakland, CA: Lonely Planet Publications, p. 47. (Call no.: RSING 641.9595 WFMS)
2. Tan, C. B. (2001). Food and ethnicity with reference to the Chinese in Malaysia. In D. Y. H. Wu, & C. B. Tan (Eds.), Changing Chinese foodways in Asia. Hong Kong: The Chinese United Nation Press, pp. 125-160. (Call no.: RSING 641.300951 CHA); Chua, B. C., & Ananada, R. (2001). Hybridity, ethnicity and food in Singapore. In D. Y. H. Wu, & C. B. Tan (Eds.), Changing Chinese foodways in Asia. Hong Kong: The Chinese United Nation Press, pp. 161-197. (Call no.: RSING 641.300951 CHA)
3. Basan, G. (2006). The food and cooking of Malaysia & Singapore. London: Aquamarine, pp. 23, 63. (Call no.: RSING 641.59595 BAS)
4. Tan, C. B. (2001). Food and ethnicity with reference to the Chinese in Malaysia. In D. Y. H. Wu, & C. B. Tan (Eds.), Changing Chinese foodways in Asia. Hong Kong: The Chinese United Nation Press, pp. 125-160. (Call no.: RSING 641.300951 CHA); Ong, J. T. (2010). Penang heritage food. Singapore: Landmark Books, pp. 171–173. (Call no.: RSEA 641.59591 ONG)
5. Ong, J. T. (2010). Penang heritage food. Singapore: Landmark Books, pp. 171–173. (Call no.: RSEA 641.59591 ONG)
6. Hawkers do roaring business at the Esplanade. (1950, August 9). The Singapore Free Press, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Tan, S. (2014) Singapore heritage food. Singapore: Landmark Books, p. 111. (Call no.: RSING 641.595957 TAN)
8. Nongkran, D., & Greeley, A. (2015). Nong’s Thai kitchen: 84 classic recipes that are quick, healthy and delicious. Tokyo: Rutland, Vermont: Turtle Press, pp. 116–117. (Call no.: RSEA 641.59593 NON); Tan, H. T. W. (2005). Herbs & spices of Thailand. Singapore: Times Editions-Marshall Cavendish, p. 21. (Call no.: RSING 641.357 TAN); Ong, J. T. (2010). Penang heritage food. Singapore: Landmark Books, pp. 171–173. (Call no.: RSEA 641.59591 ONG)
9. Ong, J. T. (2010). Penang heritage food. Singapore: Landmark Books, pp. 171–173. (Call no.: RSEA 641.59591 ONG)
10. Tan, C. B. (2001). Food and ethnicity with reference to the Chinese in Malaysia. In D. Y. H. Wu, & C. B. Tan (Eds.), Changing Chinese foodways in Asia. Hong Kong: The Chinese United Nation Press, pp. 125-160. (Call no.: RSING 641.300951 CHA)
11. Lee, C. K. (1974). Mrs Lee’s cookbook: Nyonya recipes and other favourite recipes. Singapore: Eurasia Press, p. 4. (Call no.: SING 641.595957 LEE)
12. Chua, B. C., & Ananada, R. (2001). Hybridity, ethnicity and food in Singapore. In D. Y. H. Wu, & C. B. Tan (Eds.), Changing Chinese foodways in Asia. Hong Kong: The Chinese United Nation Press, pp. 161-197. (Call no.: RSING 641.300951 CHA)
13. Ong, J. T. (2010). Penang heritage food. Singapore: Landmark Books, pp. 171–173. (Call no.: RSEA 641.59591 ONG)
14. Soon, R. (2006). Grandmother’s recipes: Tales from two Peranakan kitchens. Singapore: Rosaline Soon, pp. 77, 79. (Call no.: RSING 641.595957 SOO)
15. Tan, T. (1982). Her world cookbook of Singapore recipes. Singapore: Times Periodicals, p. 199. (Call no.: RSING 641.595957 TAN); Lee, G. B. (2015). Asian noodles. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Cuisine, pp. 57, 82, 84. (Call no.: RSING 641.822 LEE)
16. Lee, G. B. (2015). Asian noodles. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Cuisine, pp. 57, 82, 84. (Call no.: RSING 641.822 LEE); Temasek Polytechnic (2015). Singapore hawker classics unveiled: Decoding 25 favourite dishes. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Cuisine, pp. 55–59. (Call no.: RSING 641.595957 SIN); Devagi, S., & Shanmugam, K. (2011). Indian heritage cooking. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Cuisine, p. 46. (Call no.: RSING 641.595957 DEV)
17. Devagi, S., & Shanmugam, K. (2011). Indian heritage cooking. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Cuisine, p. 14. (Call no.: RSING 641.595957 DEV)
18. Tan, T. (1982). Her world cookbook of Singapore recipes. Singapore: Times Periodicals, p. 199. (Call no.: RSING 641.595957 TAN)
19. Ong, J. T. (2010). Penang heritage food. Singapore: Landmark Books, pp. 183–185. (Call no.: RSEA 641.59591 ONG); Soon, R. (2006). Grandmother’s recipes: Tales from two Peranakan kitchens. Singapore: Rosaline Soon, p. 79. (Call no.: RSING 641.595957 SOO); Famous street food of Penang: A guide and cook book. (2006). Malaysia: Star Publications, pp. 108–110. (Call no.: RSEA 641.595951 FAM); Seetoh, K. F. (2007, February 4). Look for the exotic in Penang. The New Paper, p. 30; Seetoh, K. F. (2007, July 8). Only Penang flavours reign supreme here. The New Paper, p. 33. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Ong, J. T. (2010). Penang heritage food. Singapore: Landmark Books, pp. 189–191. (Call no.: RSEA 641.59591 ONG)



The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Subject
Ethnic foods
Cookery>>International and regional cooking>>Malay
Ethnic Communities>>Food
Cookery, Singaporean