You’d be forgiven for feeling a bit done with the whole street food thing. After the trend exploded in the UK around four years ago, the promise of “street food” has become less like the enticing night markets of Bangkok or Vietnam, or Britain’s once vibrant market trader communities, and more of a homogeneous mass of bearded men selling overpriced brioche bun burgers.
Which is why, on a blisteringly windy day, queues of hungry punters snake around a square in Central London, each hoping to try something from a place with an enviable street food tradition: Singapore. The city is famous for its “hawker” culture, which sees ridiculously tasty food sold from makeshift street stalls, often for less than £5. In 2016, one such hawker stall became the first street food venture to win a Michelin star. Hawker Chan's singularly perfect dish of soy sauce chicken and rice sells for the equivalent of £1.08.
This year, another Singaporean hawker stall, A Noodle Story, has arrived in London for three days, selling 300 plates a day of Singaporean-style ramen. While the street food stall hasn’t won a Michelin star (yet), it was awarded the Bib Gourmand in 2016 for its only menu item: Singaporean-style ramen. The dish, inspired by co-founder Gwern Khoo’s experience of working with Japanese chefs and eating out in Hong Kong, consists of crunchy wontons, flat noodles in a dark sauce, 36-hour cooked char sui pork, and a perfectly soft stained egg. For street food, it is quite a feat, and tempting enough to have prompted customers to start queuing at 7.30 AM.
“I always wanted to start my own business, but I didn't know in what,” Khoo tells me, after the second day of service at KERB market in King’s Cross. “I was very curious to learn [how to cook] because I love to eat, and I always wanted to know how to make what I love to eat so I didn’t need to go and buy it.”
“Eventually, I enrolled full time into a culinary school,” he continues, “and it was there that I met my partner [Ben Tham],”
The two went to work in different restaurants for a while, slowly collecting inspiration for their own prospective stall. After working in a Japanese restaurant, Khoo had the idea to combine the Singaporean love of dry noodles with Japanese food, monopolising on the recent Japanese food trend in Singapore. In 2013, Khoo launched A Noodle Story with partner Ben Tham, merging different Asian elements in their Singaporean dry ramen.
“Usually, ramen from Japan is served in soup, but Singaporeans love their noodles dry, so I created them dry,” explains Khoo. “Ten years ago in Hong Kong, I had these amazing noodles with wontons, so I took some elements from there, as well as [from Japanese cooking]. That's how you make the Singapore-style ramen.”
I am lucky enough to taste one of the 300 portions sold by A Noodle Story that day, and the attention to detail is clear. The textures of the dish are incredible—from the crunchy, crispy wontons, to the meaty prawns or the soft, almost silky char siu pork. Served without their traditional broth, the noodles retain a firm texture, meaning they’re perfect for carrying the rich, savoury sauce as you scoop them up with a plastic fork. I can feel my tolerance for the mediocre, overpriced, street food cheese toasties of my past diminish with every bite.
Many who queued weren’t quite as lucky, with the dish selling out before they reached the front. So, why does Khoo think the dish is so popular?
“We have a philosophy when we set up a food business: it must be value for money, it must be delicious, and the service must be great,” he explains. “I think with all these three, people will come back. If any one of these pillars isn't right, the stool or the table can't stand on its own. It will be shakey.”
Oh, and there’s one other thing: “It's also good if it's more Instagram-friendly,” Khoo laughs.
The Singaporean-style ramen may look simple (and pretty)—meat, noodles, wontons, and egg—but Khoo has spent time pouring over each element. I ask which ingredient is the most important, giving him the opportunity to launch into an entertaining five-minute monologue on every single one.
“Every part is important,” he begins. “The char siu pork is cooked for 36 hours at 65 degrees, and we use the pork belly so you have the right ratio of fats. For the wontons, we use freshly minced pork with shrimps, and season it with a very important ingredient—salt fish powder.”
Stage left: A coffee is delivered to the table. Khoo is unfazed.
“The [wonton] skin must be thin enough to hold the filling but not too thick so when you eat it it’s not slippery,” he adds. “And the crunch—any element of crunch is OK, but it's best if it tastes good and looks good.”
I think we’re done. We’re not: “The seasoning is very important,” he continues, and I nod enthusiastically. “For the noodles, we season it with oyster sauce, shallot oil, dark soya sauce, and sesame oil, but what we do differently is to add some umami [in the form of] some dried kelp. It's very flavourful.”
That’s an understatement. Street food vendors take note: the palates of British diners have tasted some high-tier shit, for a mere £6.
Your move, “Randy Jack’s Burger Shack.”