Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
When I was a ninth-grader in Singapore, one thing sustained me during the waning hour of many a school day: beef ball noodles.
The beef ball noodles at the food court of Scotts Shopping Centre, to be specific.
When school let out at lunchtime, my girlfriends and I would eagerly pile into a bus, alight at the downtown shopping area, and make a beeline for the Scotts Picnic Food Court, a place that was famous in its own right—it was the first air-conditioned food court in Singapore.
There, a bowl of thick vermicelli waited. It came topped with springy beef balls and bean sprouts and drowned in a glop of brown gravy that was beefy and sweet, laced with tinges of spices like cinnamon and star anise. We would dump in some fiery red chili sauce, toss everything together in the bowl with chopsticks, and stop our teenage chatter for several long moments as we devoted our energy to shoveling mouthfuls of slippery, gravy-coated noodles into our mouths instead.
At age 14, I thought these noodles were sheer bliss in a bowl.
It was a feeling that would last for many years. Long after I graduated from high school and moved to the U.S., I would occasionally return to Scotts to seek them out, until one day when I visited Singapore in 2007 only to discover that a big hole existed where Scotts had once stood. I knew it had been too good to last—the ceaseless march of modernization and redevelopment had finally claimed the beloved food court of my teenage years.
Where had the noodle proprietor gone? No one knew.
To fill the void, I went on a quest.
I ventured near Singapore's East Coast Beach to sample beef noodles at Kim Moh Beef Noodle & Authentic Asian Cuisine, a little Hainanese restaurant. These, however, came with slivers of meat instead of beef balls and with a wide, flat rice noodle instead of tubular vermicelli. The gravy was a smidge too gummy and the noodles were so far from al dente that some were disturbingly sticky.
Next, I went to Original Popular Hock Lam Street Beef Kway Teow, run by a family that's been selling the noodles for almost 90 years. (Which probably makes them deserving of their rather long and immodest name.) The noodles here were delightful—and came with a sprinkling of chopped salted vegetables, which added a lovely, briny zing that helped cut the hefty meatiness of the gravy.
But still, I longed for the Scotts beef ball noodles of my youth.
Then, on a recent trip back to Singapore for book research, a friend casually uttered the words I'd been waiting for. "Hey, did you hear that the Scotts beef ball noodle place reopened?"
As soon as I could gather my two best girlfriends from high school, I found myself lining up at Scotts Beef Noodles, hungry with anticipation.
There were some changes, of course—the noodles were no longer Singapore $3.50 (U.S. $2.50) a bowl but instead cost Singapore $5.00 (U.S. $3.60), which would have been a little exorbitant on my teenage allowance. And the stall, located in the food court of Ion, Singapore's glitziest new mall, was gleaming and spiffed up, sporting a fetching sign that gave a thumbnail of the hawker's history, noting that the establishment had been selling beef noodles since the 1940s.
But as the Beef Ball Auntie slid my noodles across the counter, everything looked pretty much the same.
As my friends and I slurped up our noodles—which we'd ordered with both tender beef slivers and beef balls—we chewed thoughtfully. The balls were as springy as I remembered them, although they seemed a little smaller. And the sauce was fine. (I found myself wishing it came with some of those chopped salted vegetables that Hock Lam offered.)
"It's OK," my friend Jeanette finally said.
It's true—it was OK. Perfectly satisfying. But just OK.
As a small swelling of disappointment began, however, I caught myself. Here we were, three women who had been the best of friends for 21 years and counting. With two of us (Regina and myself) now living in the U.S., it had been years since we'd gathered together for any meal, much less the very one that had helped seal our friendships all those years ago. The noodles, whether good now or better then, had served their purpose.
Our curiosity sated, we emptied our bowls and ventured out. Somewhere outside, coffee awaited.