When people mention spaghetti in Singaporean contexts I think of shallow bowls filled with tangled pale noodles, the pastel melamine ware fare sold at ‘Western’ stalls in school canteens and hawker centres (‘Western’ as they represent more a derivative style of cooking inherited from Hainanese cooks that worked on British ships, rather than anything remotely West or European). Boiled pasta, a brown heap of bolognese heavy on mince, bottled ragu and default Italian herb mix, sometimes with chunks of canned hot dogs or a cursory powder snow of parmesan. For Italians I imagine spaghetti is hereditary, localised: illuminating good olive oil, fresh pasta, tomato sauce simmered from scratch with produce at the peak of season. Here it’s homely, simultaneously economic and quick, a double solution to affordable ground meat and canned goods in a cupboard; one that can be bulked for hungry children after lessons.
My mum’s spaghetti-adjacent (we called it spaghetti, but I don’t think that would stand a candle in court) version is rather unique, a dark horse in colour and flavour. She tells me it is inspired by char kway teow and its dark salty-sweet slipperiness, but formally it is closer to KL Hokkien mee. I remember bowlfuls of this dark rich caramel coloured sauce over noodles and the rapidity with which my siblings and I would practically inhale every precious drop of thick savoury-sweet gravy, the way it would coat your lips and hug each noodle, like the strangest tomato and dark soy toffee. Bits of caramelised, fragrant onion; rich meat; slightly blistered tomatoes melting into the sauce. Somehow it all came together. Her ‘molasses spaghetti’ was treacly, caramelly, salty, delicious; some of my fondest, precious memories of contentment and a love-filled belly.
I think of the height of noon when the heat would be rising dully, everything hazy and cottonmouthed by atmospheric stickiness; and yet our appetites never wavered, were only further whetted by the prospect of her star dish. My favourite variation was when she paired the sauce with udon noodles, bouncy and elastic strands with that signature fat chew and slight tang.
My mum is always surprised whenever we mention how much we loved her molasses noodles, always replying blankly or with puzzled bemusement, the air of “It’s nothing special, what”. When asking her for the recipe she even tried to send me a food blogger’s char kway teow recipe, with suggested adjustments; there was something uncertain and wavering about it that broke my heart a little. “I want your recipe,” I messaged back, and she finally yielded. “It’s so simple,” she said. And it is simple, but wholly in the affirmative rather than in any remotely critical sense: this kind of attachment to something so emotionally symbolic, something so formative and natal to our understanding of joy, comfort, security, love. There’s nothing wrong about simple.
To replace the ground meat there are endless options: you could rehydrate TVP or soy mince, crumble firm tofu, use brown lentils or crushed beans. Here I’ve used finely chopped brown mushrooms for their meatiness, flavour absorbency and slight woodsy umami fragrance; portobello would also be great, or rehydrated shiitakes. If you were to go after a really authentic substitute for slightly fatty pork mince, I would go with half of something that replicates the slight gelatinous chew (oyster mushroom stalks, white konjac) and then half of something robust (firm tofu, rehydrated TVP/soy mince).
I don’t think anything I could ever make would taste as good as those precious bowls, all those years ago. But this tasted pretty good, and here is the rough recipe if you’d like to try. The serving here is for one.
Brown ground meat replacement in a heavy-bottomed stock pan with olive oil, adding a small splash of vegetarian stock/dried mushroom soaking liquid to deglaze after a while. You’d add this later if you’re using fresh mushrooms, as they release some liquid that takes time to cook off.
Add a small pearl onion, diced; once those are translucent, add 2 to 3 cloves minced garlic, sweat through.
Add 1 tbs tomato paste, about 3 tbs to 1/4 cup tomato sauce/passata, scant 1/2 cup vegetarian stock, dried Italian herbs to taste, 1/2 tbs brown sugar, 1/2 tbs blackstrap molasses, 1 tbs soy sauce, 1 tsp dark soy sauce. Bring to boil and simmer on low heat. I simmered it for as long as possible, about half an hour till it reduced down nicely and all the flavour deepened; you may need to add a bit of stock as necessary.
15 min before serving, stir in a handful of diced fresh cherry tomatoes to wilt. Cook your noodles in boiling water and drain. Before tossing through, season to taste with black pepper and salt if necessary. Coat your noodles in the sauce and enjoy.