Mee siam

Singapore Infopedia

by Tan, Bonny


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

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 (fermented soya bean paste), is poured over the bee hoon and the dish topped with sliced hard-boiled egg, tau pok (fried beancurd puffs), bean sprouts and Chinese chives.A dollop of sambal tumis (a type of chilli paste) rounds off the dish.

The term mee siam is Malay for “Thai noodles”, and Siam refers to pre-World War II Thailand.5 The earliest mention of mee siam in local papers was in 1950; it was sold by hawkers at the Esplanade to the hungry crowds out for a stroll.6

Views differ over whether it is a local adaptation of a dish from Thailand, or if the name arose out of a Malayan innovation that drew inspiration from Thai flavours.7 The Bangkok rice noodle dish (sen mee krungthep) has been mentioned as the Thai inspiration for mee siam, and Thai dishes like coconut rice noodle dish (kanom jeen numprick) and coconut rice noodles (mee kati) have similar ingredients to mee siam.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 an innovation of the Straits Chinese nyonyas (Peranakan).10 On the other hand, Mrs Lee Chin Koon, a well-known nyonya, identifies its origin as Thailand.11 Chef 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 Food historian Khir Johari writes that although mee siam takes its name from the dried vermicelli from Thailand, the dish is not Thai.13

Some attest that the Thai influence on Penang nyonya food is what differentiates it from nyonya food found in Singapore or Malacca.14 Food writer 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.15

In Singapore, there are Chinese, Malay and Indian variants of the dish, as well as the Peranakan variety.16 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.17 An Indian Muslim version is mee siam mamak, which has a gravy made flavourful with coconut milk.18 In true fusion fashion, the 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.19

According to Khir Johari, three types of mee siam were popular in urban Javanese homes in Kampong Gelam in the 1960s: mee siam berkuah (mee siam with gravy), mee siam kering (dry mee siam, with thicker strands of noodles) and mee siam Mak Jarah (an almost extinct dish of fried thinner noodle strands in clotted coconut cream).20 The common ingredients of all three types are dried shrimps, fermented soybeans, and Chinese chives – the last two were part of Javanese cuisine centuries ago.21

In Malaysia, the varieties of mee siam include the dry fried version (Johor) and the wet version (Malacca). A dish similar to mee siam is mee kerabu or kerabu bee hoon in Penang. It 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.22 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.23

Bonny Tan

1. World Food. Malaysia & Singapore (Footscray, Victoria: Lonely Planet Publications, 2002), 47. (Call no. RSING 641.9595 WFMS)
2. Tan Chee-beng, “Food and Ethnicity with Reference to the Chinese in Malaysia,” in Changing Chinese Foodways in Asia, ed. David Y. H. Wu and Tan Chee-beng (Hong Kong: The Chinese United Nation Press, 2001), 157 (Call no. RSING 641.300951 CHA); Chua Beng Huat and Ananda Rajah, “Hybridity, Ethnicity and Food in Singapore,” in Changing Chinese Foodways in Asia
, ed. David Y. H. Wu and Tan Chee-beng (Hong Kong: The Chinese United Nation Press, 2001), 179. (Call no. RSING 641.300951 CHA)
3. Bason Ghillie, The Food and Cooking of Malaysia & Singapore (London: Aquamarine, 2006), 23, 63. (Call no. RSING 641.59595 BAS)
4. Tan, “Food and Ethnicity with Reference to the Chinese in Malaysia,” 137; Ong Jin Teong, Penang Heritage Food (Singapore: Landmark Books, 2010), 171–73 (Call no. RSEA 641.59591 ONG); Chua and Rajah, “Hybridity, Ethnicity and Food in Singapore,” 179.
5. Ong, Penang Heritage Food, 171–73.
6. “Hawkers Do Roaring Business at the Esplanade,” Singapore Free Press, 9 August 1950, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Sylvia Tan, Singapore Heritage Food (Singapore: Landmark Books, 2014), 111. (Call no. RSING 641.595957 TAN)
8. Nongkran Daks and Alexandra Greeley, Nong’s Thai Kitchen: 84 Classic Recipes That Are Quick, Healthy and Delicious (Tokyo: Turtle Publishing, 2015), 116–17 (Call no. RSEA 641.59593 NON); Hugh T. W. Tan, Herbs & Spices of Thailand(Singapore: Times Editions-Marshall Cavendish, 2005), 21 (Call no. RSING 641.357 TAN); Ong, Penang Heritage Food, 171–73 (Call no. RSEA 641.59591 ONG); “This is 'Mee Siam,” Singapore Standard, 12 May 1958, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Ong, Penang Heritage Food, 171–73.
10. Tan, “Food and Ethnicity with reference to the Chinese in Malaysia,” 137, 157.
11. Lee Chin Koon, Mrs Lee’s Cookbook: Nyonya Recipes and Other Favourite Recipes (Singapore: Eurasia Press, 1974), 4. (Call no. SING 641.595957 LEE)
12. Chua and Rajah, “Hybridity, Ethnicity and Food in Singapore,” 179.
13. Khir Johari, The Food of Singapore Malays: Gastronomic Travels through the Archipelago (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2021), 489-90. (Call no. 394.120899928 KHI)
14. Ong, Penang Heritage Food, 171–73.
15. Rosaline Soon, Grandmother’s Recipes: Tales from Two Peranakan Kitchens (Singapore: Rosaline Soon, 2006), 77, 79. (Call no. RSING 641.595957 SOO)
16. Terry Tan, Her World Cookbook of Singapore Recipes (Singapore: Times Periodicals, 1982), 199 (Call no. RSING 641.595957 TAN); Lee Geok Boi, Asian Noodles (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Cuisine, 2015), 57, 82, 84. (Call no. RSING 641.822 LEE)
17. Lee, Asian Noodles, 57, 82, 84; Temasek Polytechnic, Singapore Hawker Classics Unveiled: Decoding 25 Favourite Dishes (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Cuisine, 2015), 55–59 (Call no. RSING 641.595957 SIN); Devagi Sanmugam and Shanmugam Kasinathan, Indian Heritage Cooking (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Cuisine, 2011), 46. (Call no. RSING 641.595957 DEV)
18. Hedy Khoo, “Hed Chef: Mee Siam,” New Paper, 13 April 2017.
19. Sanmugam and Kasinathan, Indian Heritage Cooking, 14.
20. Khir Johari, The Food of Singapore Malays: Gastronomic Travels through the Archipelago, 77-8.
21. Khir Johari, The Food of Singapore Malays: Gastronomic Travels through the Archipelago, 83.
22. Ong, Penang Heritage Food, 183–85; Soon, Grandmother’s Recipes, 79; Famous Street Food of Penang: A Guide and Cook Book (Malaysia: Star Publications, 2006), 108–10 (Call no. RSEA 641.595951 FAM); K. F. Seetoh, “Look for the Exotic in Penang,” New Paper, 4 February 2007, 30; K. F. Seetoh, “Only Penang Flavours Reign Supreme Here,” New Paper, 8 July 2007, 33. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Ong, Penang Heritage Food, 189–91.

The information in this article is valid as of October 2023 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.

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