PETALING JAYA: Mr Lee Wan Hiong dipped a wire sieve into a boiling pot of water and fished a bundle of egg noodles out.
The noodles were dripping hot water, but not for long.
With a casual flick of the forearm and wrist, born of a decade of practice, Mr Lee easily tossed the bundle of noodles high into the air and deftly caught it in his sieve.
He then transferred the noodles to a bowl, ladled a good helping of lard and shallot oil as well as dark sauce over the springy strands, and gave them a good mix. The plating was complete with a decent serving of char siew and blanched choy sum, with a separate bowl of wonton dumplings in soup.
The stall’s name, Flying Wan Tan Mee, says it all for Mr Lee, 45, who has been plying his trade for the past 13 years. He first operated a street stall, before shifting to his present location at Paramount Kopitiam in Seapark, Petaling Jaya in late January this year.
“The higher you toss, the more hot water gets dispersed. So when you mix the noodles into the gravy, they absorb better, the overall taste doesn’t feel watered down,” he explained to CNA.
INSPIRED BY WASHING MACHINE
When he first started selling wonton mee, Mr Lee operated from a parking lot at night, setting up a few folding tables and plastic chairs for customers to have a quick roadside dinner.
The moniker of “flying noodles” came about as he wanted to drain the water from the egg noodles faster. He did not foresee it becoming his trademark that would help him gain a loyal following.
Mr Lee said he got his inspiration from washing machines, which spin in high speed to remove excess water from the laundry.
He showed off his “battle scar”, a large white callus on his wrist, formed where the wooden handle of the sieve keeps rubbing against his wrist thanks to countless plates of noodles he has prepared.
The odd mishap still occurs sometimes, where he fails to catch the noodles in time.
“It’s very rare, but I’m only human. Usually it’s because my attention is divided, when I’m cooking and have to attend to the customers, or I have to manage my workers at the same time,” Mr Lee laughed.
THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT
Wonton mee, a common Chinese hawker food, is available all over Malaysia.
The coffee shop Mr Lee moved into already has a wonton mee stall, and they have made arrangements so that the latter operates in the morning, while he takes the evening shift.
“It’s the little details, maybe that final 10 per cent of the process, that make all the difference,” he shared.
Ninety per cent of the work is the same for every other wantan mee seller, like the composition of the dish, the flow of cooking and putting it together.
The “little details” he meant include slowly cooking pieces of lard in a large wok of oil, until the oil has absorbed the pork flavour. Likewise, another wok is filled with chopped shallots, slowly cooking until they become crisp.
“I have to make sure the fire is small to moderate. It takes longer to cook, but it also gives the lard and the shallots more time to infuse the oil,” Mr Lee explained.
A lot of the condiments are made daily. So is the char siew, which Mr Lee roasts in two large metal ovens over charcoal fire.
A foodie himself, Mr Lee has expanded into selling chicken rice as well, using the same charcoal ovens to roast his chickens.
SIDE HUSTLE TURNED DAY JOB
When Mr Lee first started his stall – originally a side hustle for him to indulge his hobby of cooking and eating – he sold 60 plates a night. And then business just kept growing.
“I found myself spending more and more time on it, and I gave up my landscaping job,” he explained.
Before moving to his current location, his roadside stall was doing over 300 plates a night.
Now, work starts from 9am each morning, well before his stall opens from 3pm till 11pm. A small portion of his wonton mee costs RM7.50 (US$1.76).
“Returning customers have given this new place the thumbs-up because it’s in a coffee shop, it’s well-lit, and you aren’t at the mercy of the weather.
“And because you’re not seated by the roadside, it’s safer,” Mr Lee smiled.
As for how long he sees his business continuing, Mr Lee gave himself another 10 years or so.
“I think after that, I’d like to go back to landscape and horticulture, or maybe open my own shop where I can still cook, but at a much more relaxed pace,” Mr Lee said.