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Bringing the boat noodles of Bangkok canals to Singapore's city centre

By Bras Basah Bugis on Mar 2017

In the old days, merchants who plied their trade along Bangkok’s historic canals could often be seen serving boat noodles. Flavourful to a fault, these noodles cooked in a rich herbal broth were served in curiously large bowls that each contained enough noodles for one to savour just a mouthful or two.

Explaining the historical significance of this Thai cuisine, Chris Ho, owner of Gu Thai Noodle Cafe at PoMo, said: “Due to the waves, the boats would rock, so they used bigger bowls with less soup and noodles so that the food didn’t spill. Customers would order a few bowls at a time.”

As the country modernised, the hawkers moved inland but continued to serve their boat noodles in small servings, just the way the locals had come to enjoy it.

A lover of Thai food, and aware that it was difficult to find authentic boat noodles in Singapore, Ho started his chain of boat noodles with a small hole in the wall cafe located in the basement of Golden Mile Complex four years ago.

 

 

After extensive research tasting the boat noodles of numerous establishments in Thailand, Ho and his Thai-born wife Thom bought over the recipe of a little-known restaurant located in Bangkok and adapted it for their boat noodle venture in Singapore.

From the get-go, authenticity was always the top priority, but the couple also had to work within the stringent food regulations here.

“In Thailand, the recipe uses pig’s blood apart from Thai herbs, and the soup is thicker and darker. In Singapore, you can’t use pig’s blood. So we tweaked it in a way that doesn’t lose much of the colour and taste. It also becomes more healthy and clean.”

All the ingredients like noodles, sauces and spices are brought in from Thailand, except for the meat that is sourced locally. The soup broth is prepared fresh each day, boiled for three to four hours, which explains the explosion of flavours that dance on the tongue at the first bite.

 

And as most gourmets can attest, it’s often the heat and spice of a dish that makes it so uniquely Thai.

Gu Thai Noodle Cafe provides a chili powder concoction born of the owners’ own secret recipe comprising a few different types of Thai chillis. Observing how the chili powder has almost become an institution in itself at his restaurants, Ho said with a chuckle: “I even have people coming here to eat and compete to see who can tahan* the spice!”

 

 

For Singaporeans who are less accustomed to the concept of eating multiple small servings, the cafe also has big bowl versions of the boat noodles. Ho’s customers are a good mix of locals and Thais, drawn to the authenticity of his boat noodles.

“Nowadays, young people travel more frequently. They see more things, they try more things... Singaporeans are very savvy. They know that our food is similar to what you can find in Thailand.”

While it is tradition that marks the appreciation of boat noodles in Thailand, Ho shared that there was a social element for Singaporeans who try out the small bowl servings as well.

“We have pork and beef, braised or normal. For noodles, there is rice noodles, Thai kway teow and mee kia… So, especially youngsters, they like to share and try. [Sharing the noodles] is a good way to bond.”

With a fourth outlet just recently opened at Beauty World, Ho’s brand of boat noodles is thriving, but success did not come easily.

Having owned several nightclubs for a decade, journeying in the F&B industry has been a massive change in lifestyle for the couple. Now in his 40s, Ho shared: “To suddenly stop the nightlife business to dabble in something new, it was a big step, big risk to take.”

But under Thom’s persuasion and encouragement, Ho decided to give it a shot. “It was hard work. Very tiring. It was difficult to hire workers, and often we had to serve customers ourselves.”

The learning process involved constantly taking customers’ feedback and adjusting aspects of the service and dining experience. Today, Ho has a team of 30 staff managing his restaurants and has big dreams of making boat noodles a household name for Thai cuisine in Singapore.

“I still feel that we’re not there yet. I hope one day, we can grow into a bigger corporation. Maybe when we have 10 or 20 outlets in Singapore, then I’ll tell you that we’ve made it.”

Gu Thai Noodle Cafe is located at 1 Selegie Road #01-04 PoMo Mall, Singapore 188306. The restaurant is open from 11am - 5am daily.

*Tahan means tolerate in the Malay language