Neighbour: Mr Cheng
Text by Caitlin de Laure
Photography by Jovian Lim
With a knowing look and a playful smile, Mr. Cheng makes small talk and dishes out the occasional compliment to his customers, while he whips up his famous big prawn noodles. He even tailors his dishes to suit their tastes. For instance, when Caucasians patronise his store, he makes the dishes milder for them because they’re rarely able to take the spice. But when he has, say, Indonesian customers, he makes the dishes even spicier because they like it that way. Mr. Cheng says with modest reassurance, “Because I’ve done this for so long, I know what my customers like and don’t like”.
Fresh out of the army, Mr. Cheng was given the chance to take over his father’s laksa stall at Adam Road. Back then, the only cooking experience he had was what he’d learnt while helping his father. Still, he decided to try his hand at the trade, having nothing to do and no money either. Prawn noodles eventually became his specialty because he reasoned that there were plenty of stalls selling laksa, fishball noodles and chicken rice already. He figured that selling big prawn noodles would give customers a seafood option at the hawker centre. In fact, he used to sell crayfish and lobsters too.
Despite not knowing how to cook the dish initially, he met an uncle who was well known for his prawn noodles in the past. This sparked Mr. Cheng’s interest and he decided to try it out on his own. He candidly admits that his dishes did not start out tasty at all; it took him about two to three years of experimenting before he was satisfied with the soup.
Since he began cooking, Mr. Cheng has been located at Bukit Timah and finds it hard to leave simply because he has grown up and lived there for over 20 years. When asked what he likes about the area, he sheepishly replies, “It’s just that it’s easy to travel to Orchard from here; I used to chiong there all the time when I was younger.”
As he wanted to cook and prepare everything by himself when he started out, he would wake up at 2-3am every morning to buy prawns from wholesalers, then work till as late as 11pm- 1am. Back then, the business wasn’t doing too well because he didn’t really know how to cook. It was a stressful time and Mr. Cheng found it hard to sleep; he was anxious about not being able to secure good prawns or wake up early enough to buy them—this would mean that he couldn’t sell anything that day.
Try Mr Cheng’s big prawns and pork ribs with steaming, aromatic soup and noodles at Noo Cheng Adam Road Big Prawn Mee, #01-27 Adam Road Food Centre, 2 Adam Road.
Read more in The U Press N˚12 (Singapore edition).