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A Singaporean-Vietnamese Couple Refreshes Hakka Offal Soup With Trứng Cuộn

When my mother, a native of Singapore’s oft-visited Chinatown, described a pork offal soup stall with meatballs that “tasted suspiciously like that vermicelli dish we had in Huế back in 2013,” I knew I had to trek out to Chinatown Complex Food Centre to find it.

You may not have heard of the location by its full name, but you’ll know it when Singaporean locals mention the larger-than-life Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. Meanwhile, travel photographers know it for the community square where they go to capture photos of elderly Singaporean men playing checkers and Chinese chess. 

Once home to a Michelin-starred soy sauce chicken rice joint and still home to Danish craft beer brewery Mikkeller’s Singapore taproom, Chinatown Complex Food Centre is a foodies' labyrinth for both traditionalists and hipsters that requires a map, Google search, recommendations from locals and diehard patience to queue for food.

Singaporean–Vietnamese couple Chuk & Kim, owners of Monan Pork soup are far from shy and when I paid them a visit, they gave me a quick lowdown on what their soup is all about and how it came to be.

One could consider typical Singapore pig offal soup old-fashioned. The austere dish normally consists of intestines, liver, stomach, and some non-organ cuts cooked with a touch of pepper and crunchy Chinese sauerkraut, and topped with a handful of coriander. But Monan strives to reinvent beyond Singaporean conventions with a number of distinct innovations beginning with its unique daikon-based broth inspired by hủ tiếu gõ.

Egg sausage, known as trứng cuộn in Vietnamese, is the most unexpected addition to Monan’s pork offal soup. Interestingly, Kim claims it was inspired by her time swiping on social media apps. “Actually, it’s not common in Vietnam at all!” She said, before explaining the need to carefully blanched pieces of the delicacy for a warm, al dente finish. The tasty, Instagram-friendly, faintly yellow disks of egg sausage add immediate recognizability to social media pictures.

Egg sausage, known as trứng cuộn in Vietnamese, is the most unexpected addition to Monan’s pork offal soup

I cannot be entirely certain, but the first and only place in Vietnam that serves similar pork that comes to my mind is the popular Hủ Tiếu Mỹ Tho Dì 9 located in alley 538 of District 4’s Đoàn Văn Bơ street, an ultra-dense and gridlocked residential area with hordes of street food and market vendors.

According to a Singapore food blogger who visited the stall a year ago, the dish probably hails from Hakka Chinese culinary traditions, nothing that similar egg sausages are also found in Thailand and Cambodia as celebratory dishes for religious processions.

The duo spent months perfecting the technique through trial and error, aided by conventional sausage-making tools. The egg is painstakingly piped by hand as imperfections in the sausage casing can cause the egg to leak out. The soup’s meatballs are filled with umami oomph that balances the fat and protein nicely and seems to me to be a reinterpretation of Vietnamese-style chả ranging from mọc, chả lụa to chả cua.

Meanwhile, the dish’s pork leg is simply served sliced or unsliced, just like what one would find in a Saigon bún bò Huế joint. It is probably the only al dente pork leg I’ve encountered in Singapore that’s not Thai-inspired or stewed with soy sauce. It pairs well with a slightly acidic chili sauce inspired by Chuk’s love of Japan’s gyu kushi beef skewers. “The first time I tried dipping beef skewers into lemon juice in Japan, I didn’t get it. But it must be how it spikes your taste buds; I just kept on dipping it,” he noted while explaining why he believes an acidic component is vital for a well-rounded pork experience.

“We want you to taste our soup,” Chuk said, explaining why no sweet sauces are offered at Monan. But creating a soup that works on its own, with rice, and even with wheat and rice noodles was not a simple task. Consistency wasn’t just a goal, it was essential.

Fresh out of the corporate world in late 2018, Chuk and Kim decided to participate in a hawker Incubation Stall Programme (ISP) helmed by Singapore’s National Environmental Agency (NEA). The initiative subsidized 15 months of rent for aspiring hawkers that had a sound business plan. “Making tasty food at home builds your hawker dreams, but scaling up and cooking commercially anything from 20 to 50 liters of soup a day is a different ball game,” Chuk explained, adding that his previous experience at a food and beverage company involved in franchising large Singaporean baking brands kept him cautiously prepared.

While initial responses to their soup were positive, numerous veterans of NEA’s hawker advisory panel warned them that they would face challenges. Unlike familiar Singaporean dishes like Hainanese chicken rice, bak kut teh or laksa, most Singaporeans would consider their rendition of organ soup as foreign at first sight. Although the duo were warned that it was located in a mature residential estate filled with elderly inhabitants and visited by discerning international tourists, when a vacant Chinatown hawker spot was offered, they jumped at the opportunity.

But just three months after Monan opened on Christmas Eve, 2019, the global pandemic hit. The five-meter square stall was instantly put to the test as a steep decline in tourists meant they would need a steady flow of local return customers to survive. “If it’s no good, no repeats, I’ll close it,” Chuk initially promised himself.

Thankfully, they succeeded in capturing the attention and appreciation of locals who made repeated returns to their minimalist menu, inspired by Chuk's favorite Japanese ramen joints that also offer few options. One can stick to Monan’s standard combination of egg sausages with organs and lean pork or order a pork shabu-shabu soup complete with a handful of kway tiao, a close cousin of northern Vietnamese-style phở in terms of rice noodle texture.

Though the Chinese characters on the stall’s logo read Mạc Nam (莫南), the name Monan was way closer to heart than I could have possibly imagined. It has nothing to do with ancient Vietnamese warlords. “Món ăn lah!” Chuk chuckled.

Monan is at 335 Smith Street, #02-137, Singapore 050335. It's open daily from 10:30am to 8:30pm.

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