My father returned from the queue with a plate of cuttlefish meat and eggs. My momentary surprise was quickly broken by the arrival of the familiar dishes. Two bowls of thick rice noodles, topped with fried onions and sitting in a thin brown soup, were set on the table next to a large dish of sliced intestines, gelatinous pig’s skin and sliced pork belly steeped in a thick dark gravy. It was an unusual breakfast, but also one of my all-time favourites. The chewy, savoury, saucy toothsome goodness of all manner of pork coupled with the slippery kway (the chap refers to the soup used for the rice noodles) was a flavour that never failed to make me feel at home.
We had set foot at a small un-named coffeeshop on our way to the wholesalers’ at Pasir Panjang. A narrow grey tiled platform poked out indiscreetly from under a row of condominiums, scattered with foldable tables over which bent hungry customers. A stocky bespectacled man in a white singlet and Bermudas had approached our table and asked us if we wanted any drinks–standard procedure for drinks stalls at local coffeeshops. My father asked him in rapid-fire Hokkien for ‘snake-grass water’, and he returned with a cup of ice cubes and a tall grey can that read ‘Sparkling Oldenlandia Water’. (“I don’t drink it for the taste, but because it’s good at clearing heatiness in the body.” It tastes like carbonated water.) An odd quiet permeated the thick, humid afternoon air.
The murmur of chatting customers was punctuated occassionally by the crisp cries of the drinks-stall-man in fluent Mandarin, and the squeals of the young nephew of the vegetarian-food-stall-lady. He trundled around coyly asking customers if they’d like him to help clear their empty plates, and received two pieces of fried beancurd skins from a large tin on the countertop for his effort. The cuttlefish was a dish I’d never tried before, and I was surprised at the tangy sweetness that entered my mouth after I’d slathered each piece in dipping sauce. A fondness shone in my father’s eyes. “This dish actually takes me back to when I was a young boy eating with my father and grandfather,” he began.
“We used to live in a shophouse along Merchant Road. My father used to own one of those traditional Chinese medical halls. We used to go to eat Teochew porridge across the road. We would eat things like the cuttlefish, but now they hardly make it anymore. Last time Teochew porridge used to be a buffet. There will be steamed fish, like the ngoh hu (Indian threadfin) and also the ngeng. I don’t know what you call it, but it’s like the, you know, the mackerel. There will also be steamed crayfish, and steamed crab. It was very expensive in those days. They also had meat section, like kway chap, and vegetables. Not like stir-fry, but those salted vegetables. When my father was alone, he would just order porridge and maybe a fish and another dish. When there were more people, we’d order a lot more. Simple but elegant: that is the flavour of Teochew cuisine.”
“We used to eat from there very regularly. The man who made the Teochew porridge had many, many workers working for him, not like this one with only one or two workers per stall. But now the shop is closed down. It became an underground tunnel connecting the CPE to Chinatown. His son didn’t take over the business. He went to join IBM. Such a pity. It’s because he thinks his dad’s business is low-class. If I were him, I would have stayed on and become a billionaire from the shop. True, you need to be in the kitchen from 4a.m., but he doesn’t really have to cook. He can just have his workers do it for him. I was aware as a child that his father was a prosperous man. But his son didn’t take over.”
“Maybe they should have competitions to motivate people to learn hawker cooking! I had one colleague who studied beer-making in university. It’s very complicated because they have to learn about chemistry and pressure and all these things. They would have to make beer to compete against each other, and he was the reigning champion for many years. But he didn’t start a brewery. He also joined IBM. But after he retired, he began making machinery for microbreweries. He also has a very rich life, full of expression, because of music. He can play the piano very well, like jazz style. Whenever we’re anywhere with a grand piano, he’ll go to it and play. His playing was so good and everyone would be clapping afterwards. He and his wife were in Bosnia during the war and saw the killings on TV. So he went to the border and picked up an orphaned baby from the street and raised her as his daughter. Okay, not really the street, but from the Red Cross. He said, ‘I can’t save all of these babies, but I can at least save one.’ You know, these people lead so fulfilling lives because they’re a lot more sensitive to their surroundings.”
“I think a bad thing about me is that I always cling on to things from the past. Progress can be good, but sometimes you end up losing things in the society. Food is one. Language is another. I heard a saying once, that the quality of life is determined by how many times you have your breath taken away. Amazing isn’t it?”