SINGAPORE – While I enjoy the dry version of prawn noodle, I think the true test for this hawker dish is in the soup.
It should boast the distinctive sweetness of the shellfish that is rounded out with meat. Some stalls add pork ribs or pork tail to the broth for greater depth of flavour and a more robust taste.
Not many hawkers deliver though. Many use soya sauce or sugar to make up the flavour, but these don’t work for me. These are seasonings to lift the flavours, and should not be the main flavour.
A couple of well-known stalls that I used to like also turned out disappointing in the last couple of visits. The broths tasted weak, not as full-bodied as I remember them.
But there are newer stalls that have filled the gap. Some are relatively unknown and a couple are run by young people. Hopefully, they find enough incentive to stick at it despite the tough work and low margins.
You can’t judge a good prawn noodle soup by appearance either. Some versions that look good, their stocks glistening with orange-coloured prawn oil, could taste bland or overly salty. I encountered both in the past week, and I had to queue for more than half an hour for one of them.
Others may look dull in comparison and be full of umami.
Another thing that irks me about some stalls is that the big prawns are sliced lengthwise with the shell intact. They look good in photographs, but getting the meat out is hell because it tends to stick to the shell. I end up either leaving bits of meat behind or messing up my face struggling to get everything out.
So do me a favour – either peel the prawn or leave it whole.
1. DA DONG PRAWN NOODLES
354 Joo Chiat Road
Open: 7.30am to 2pm (Wednesdays to Mondays), closed on Tuesdays
This is my favourite, but it’s not cheap. Prices start from $5, but there’s just about enough in that bowl to line my stomach. So I usually order the $8 or $10 bowl, with the more expensive one having bigger prawns. A large serving of big prawns is $13.Related Story
Sunday brunch at Raffles Grill, new dishes at Birds of a Feather, Si Chuan Dou Hua, and Da Dong Prawn Noodles
The other thing is that there is very little soup. And don’t even think of asking for more because there’s a sign at the stall explaining that the owners do not want to dilute their stock.
What you get is a robust broth flavoured by prawns and pork. It tasted slightly diluted when the current stallholder took over from his father a couple of years ago, but recent visits showed that standards have bounced back. But even at its weakest, it is better than many other famous stalls.
There is an option with pork ribs and I usually go for that. Just by soaking in the broth, the tender pieces of meat changes the flavour a bit, making it even more full-bodied.
2. RIVER SOUTH (HOE NAM) PRAWN NOODLES
31 Tai Thong Crescent
Open: 6.30am to 3pm (Tuesdays to Sundays), 6pm to 2am (Tuesdays to Saturdays), closed on Mondays
The broth here boasts a good balance of prawns and pork, albeit slightly less full-bodied than Da Dong’s. It tastes natural, with no hint of sugar or flavour enhancements.
Among its appeal is that it offers a lot of topping options such as pork ribs, pig intestines, pig’s tail, abalone clam and baby abalone.
The $6 bowl I order comes with two big prawns and two very meaty ribs. The prawns are shelled in the middle for easy eating, but are also slightly overcooked.
The ribs, on the other hand, are just tender enough to come off the bone with a slight tug and have good meat flavour.
3. PRAWN VILLAGE
Block 20 Ghim Moh Road 01-62
Open: 6am to 1.30pm (Tuesdays to Sundays). Closed on Mondays and public holidays
This relatively newcomer in Ghim Moh Market run by a group of youngsters offers Penang-style prawn noodles with a slightly sweet and spicy broth.
For $4, you get two medium-sized prawns, slices of lean pork, leek fishcake and hard-boiled egg. And I like the attention paid to the toppings.Related Story
The shell is removed from the prawns’ body for easy eating, but the heads and tails are kept on. The pork is tender, not hard and dry like at many places.
And the fishcake reminds me of old-fashioned handmade varieties with its slightly springy texture – instead of the more common bouncy versions today – and it’s unusual to see a bit of leek in it.
The stock can do with more body, but the taste of prawn is evident. A slightly stronger meat flavour would help, I think. Still, it’s good enough to match some of the big-name stalls, and without their high prices.
4. YI HAO COFFEE SHOP
Block 94 Lorong 4 Toa Payoh
Open: 4am to 2pm or when food runs out, no fixed day off
This is not one of those brand-name prawn mee stalls with long queues. In fact, it doesn’t even have a name.
It is just a nondescript tenant in a coffee shop in Toa Payoh and does not offer big prawns like the famous places either, just decent-sized ones that are shelled and halved for easy eating. But they look and taste freshly cooked, as do the slices of pork. A bowl of noodles costs $3.
There is an option to add pork ribs ($4 and $5), and the meat is tender and tasty. There is also a version with just pork tail, but I’ve not tried that as it does not come with prawns.
The broth has a fresh taste of prawns and pork. It tastes just a bit sugary, but as the sugar is not too obtrusive, I can live with it. Compared to the best eateries, the stock is not as full-bodied, but better than some big-name stalls I have kept out of this list.
And for $3, it’s hard to do better.
5. SUMO BIG PRAWN
628 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 4, 01-72
Open: 9am to 11pm daily
The queues have gone, compared with when this stall opened in 2016. Then, I had to stand in line for more than half an hour, but when I went for lunch last weekend, there was only one person ahead of me.Related Story
The food is prepared by a young man and the menu offers noodles with lala ($5), prawns ($6.50), big prawns ($6.50), crayfish ($15) and lobster ($25 to $35). Prices seem to depend on the type of prawns used, as another sign on the side shows that the prawn version is $5 and the big prawn one normally costs $8.
I had tried the lobster version before and found the shellfish overcooked and rather unwieldy to eat. But the broth was delicious, as the lobster was cooked in it only on order.
This time, I have the big prawns version, which also contains lala. The soup, understandably, does not have the bisque-like flavour, but it boasts a distinct sweetness from the prawns and clams. The absence of meat means it lacks that full-bodied flavour other stalls boast of, but it has a clean profile that is appealing in its own way.