客家板麺 Malaysian Hakka Pan Mee
Comfort food is often what one truely yearns for when one gets home after a long day, It could be after laborious ploughing through streams of data and figures, in an almost hypnotic trance-like fashion in front of the computer hours at ends, and dinners made frugal. Or it can be after endless evenings of socialising, over martinis and cocktails amidst cosmetic conversations and superficial banter, and real food made little. When one finally gets home, and all that pomp and makeup shed off like a second skin, one can finally be oneself. That is when the cravings set in. It can be as simple as a classic Croque Monsieur with freshly toasted bread over old cheese and good ham, or a bowl of cereal with creamy full fat milk and crunchy homemade granola. Satisfying the insatiable, as one becomes overwhelmed by routine and the mundane, comfort food despite its simplicity, transcends and becomes a luxury.
For me, nothing can be more comforting than a bowl of freshly cooked noodles. Those who know my blog well would know that I feature noodle recipes to a great extent and often to great detail as well. From 炸酱面 to Mentaiko Pasta, from Spaghetti alla Bolognese quite long ago to Spaghetti alla Laksa Pesto most recently… in short, I’m a sucker for noodles in all forms, and quite literally so. For me, the sheer act of slurping strands of noodles, be it ramen, pasta, beehoon or kway teow is profoundly therapeutic. Slurping unleashes an avalanche of flavours into the mouth, setting forth a plenitude of palate profiles and aromas that stimulate one’s senses all at once. Slurping is considered part of good table etiquette in the Asian context, and most rightfully so. Surely it is one of the most resounding ways, and the least one can do as a display of appreciation for a good noodle experience.
板麺 Ban Mian made from handmade noodles is comfort food which I’d enjoyed since my teenage days. I remember fondly eating it at the now-defunct open air coffee shop just next to the now-renamed Allson Hotel along Victoria Street almost 20 years back, after our weekly rehearsals at the Young Musicians’ Society along Waterloo Street. Being poor students back then, we were always given generous servings of fried ikan bilis and shallots as toppings by the stall helper. She was a middle-aged lady from Mainland China who spoke with a thick southern dialectal accent. Now in retrospect, I wonder if she is Hakka. Ban Mian is a noodle dish of Hakka origin afterall.
In Malaysia, 板麺 takes on a slightly different form and is known by its Hakka name “Pan Mee“. Instead of having all the ingredients cooked into the soup for a one-pot meal as it is done in Singapore, the minced pork and mushrooms are sauteed and braised separately in Pan Mee before being added as a topping, with the others like deep fried shallots and ikan bilis. The latter two can also be found in the Singapore version of the dish. Nonetheless, the two versions are quite distinguishable in many ways, from the preparation of the broth, to the choice of vegetables, down to the accompanying chilli dip.
In Klang, there is a very popular “dry chilli version” of Pan Mee where the noodles and ingredients are tossed in sambal, with soup served separately. This method of eating reminds me of some noodle dishes from Western parts of China, particularly Szechuan.
Nonetheless, in both Malaysian and Singapore versions, 板麺 begins with the preparation of homemade noodles. Many have taken to making the noodles with the aid of the pasta machine using regular flour, eggs, water and salt, not unlike the way to make Italian pasta. But the traditional ways using a rolling pin and knife to cut the noodles still remains very much relevant.
While searching for a workable recipe for Pan Mee, I came across one by Billy Law from Table for 2. Prima facie, it echoed my sentiments of the noodles being essentially Italian pasta-like. But as I got down to it, I’d realised that the recipe is not entirely workable in many respects. The dough recipe for the noodles is wrong to begin with, too little liquids for too much flour. Following his recipe would yield a dry crumbly mess which can hardly come together as a dough. I’d to add another egg and a bit more water to work through that 2 cups of flour before I’d realised that the amended proportions are indeed that of standard Italian pasta recipe after all, just not what Billy had described.
2 cups of flour nicely yielded 4 palm size servings of noodles, which have to be generously dusted with more flour to prevent them from sticking together. Also, the noodles are then covered with a very slightly dampened cloth to prevent them from drying out too much and hardening.
I’d started with the soup base first actually, as it requires some time to cook. The standard recipe for Pan Mee‘s broth uses a mixture of ikan bilis (dried anchovies) as well as soya beans, likening the base ingredients for the soup of another popular Hakka dish, Yong Tau Foo. The Singapore version of 板麺 is an “improved” one which includes pork bones to enrich the soup. But this seems to deviate slightly from the basic virtues of living simply and frugally perpetuated in many Hakka communities.
For processing soya beans, I have to take it one step further by removing the skins off the beans. This is done by soaking the beans in warm water for around 20 min, after which the skin membranes can come off easily through rubbing the beans between one’s palms or fingers. Soya beans, despite being highly rich in protein is also a source of purines, particularly in the skin membranes. Increased intake of purine-enriched foods can trigger a gout attack and I am not taking chances.
In Malaysia Pan Mee, minced pork is first sauteed and braised in a dark sauce concoction. Chinese mushrooms and black wood ear fungus are added for textural contrast in addition to the standard garlic and shallots.
The mushroom soaking liquids are used in the braising of the minced pork so nothing is is wasted, again in-line with the Hakka spirit to scrimp and save. The mixture is left to braise until the mushrooms soften considerably and become wonderfully flavoured upon soaking in the juices.
Pan mee are usually cooked according to individual portions to be better control the cooking time and prevent the strands from sticking together. An egg is added before turning off the flame, using the residual heat to cook the egg whites slightly while the yolk remains runny.
客家板麺 Hakka Pan Mee Recipe (serves 4)
50g ikan bilis, anchovies (江鱼仔)
150g soya beans (黄豆）
10 cups of water
1 tsp salt (adjust to taste）
2 cups of all-purpose (plain) flour （面粉）
1 generous pinch of salt
5-7 tbsp water (adjust according to dough texture)
1 tbsp of cooking oil (sesame, peanut or any vegetable oil)
flour for dusting
for minced meat sauce
300g minced pork （绞肉）, preferably ground from pork with a good amount of fat e.g. pork belly (can be replaced with minced chicken)
4 chinese mushrooms （香菇）, soaked until soft, cut into strips (soaked together with wood ear fungus)
2 black wood ear fungus (黑木耳）, soaked until soft, cut into strips (retain soaking water for mushrooms for later use)
5 shallots, peeled and chopped finely
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped finely
2 tbsp oil
2 tbsp dark soya sauce
1/2 tbsp oyster sauce (according to taste)
1/2 tbsp sugar (according to taste)
1/2 tsp pepper
1 tsp cornstarch or flour (to be mixed with mushroom soaking water)
a bunch of pucuk manis (马尼菜）or sayur kledek （番薯叶） or your favorite green leafy vegetables like choy sum (菜心), siu bak choy (小白菜）, shanghainese greens (青江菜) etc, enough for 4 servings
deep fried ikan bilis
deep fried shallots
a stalk of spring onion, cut into small rings
Start by preparing the soup.
Rinse ikan bilis and soya beans briefly and add with water into a large soup pot. Bring to a boil and lower flame to simmer with lid on for 15 min. Season with salt, turn off flame and leave to steep.
Next prepare the noodle dough.
In a large mixing bowl, combine flour and salt. Form a “well” in the middle and crack eggs into it. Add cooking oil and begin to combine everything together, adding water slowly by individual tablespoons until a non-sticky dough is obtained. Repeatedly knead until dough becomes smooth and uniform in colour. Cover with cloth and set aside to rest for 30-40 min to relax the gluten. Meanwhile, prepare the meat sauce.
To prepare the meat sauce, heat 2 tbsp of cooking oil in a saucepan. Add chopped garlic and shallots and stir-fry until shallot turns translucent and aromatic. Add minced pork followed by all the seasoning and stir-fry until meat is cooked and uniform in colour. Add Chinese mushrooms, black woodear fungus strips and some mushroom soaking water. Stir to mix well and cover with lid. Leave to simmer over medium-low flame for 10 min. After 10 min, add some corn starch mixed with some mushroom soaking water to thicken the sauce. Dish and set aside.
Go back to the dough by first dividing into 4 portions. Using a pasta machine, process individual dough portions by repeatedly laminating and thinning the dough into elongated flat sheets before cutting into tagliatelle-like strands. If pasta machine is not available, simply roll dough with rolling pin, on a flat surface dusted with flour, into elongated sheets before folded the dusted sheets slightly and cutting into long strips. Toss noodle strands in a sieve or colander to remove excess dusting flour.
To cook pan mee, first ladle 2 cups of soup base into a heavy saucepan or pot and bring to a boil. Add a serving of vegetables followed by a portion of noodles. The actual cooking time depends on the type of vegetables used as well as whether vegetable stalks are included. So do adjust accordingly. When the noodles are cooked, crack an egg into the middle of the pot and leave it with lid on briefly for about 15 to 20 s for the egg whites to cook slightly. Ladle everything into a serving bowl taking care not to break the yolk. Garnish generously with one portion of meat sauce, deep fried anchovies, shallots, chopped spring onions and a dash of pepper. Serve with sambal.
If the dry chilli version is desired, simply blanch noodles in a pot of water and poach the egg over the noodles near the end of the cooking time. Serve with the same condiments and a generous soup spoon of sambal. Serve soup separately by firsting blanching sayur kledek or pucuk manis, the standard vegetables used in Pan Mee in it. Toss the sambal with the noodles well and enjoy!