After a good amount of pestering, my mother finally agreed to make old cucumber soup. Each individual variety of soup had its merits–there was the grainy sweetness of lotus root soup, and the surprising meaty undertones of her carrot-corn-potato soup (which she nicknamed ‘ABC soup’ for a reason I never quite understood). Lately, however, I had a craving for a robust bowl of old cucumber soup, and found ourselves back in Ghim Moh for a reliable source of the key ingredients needed for a good pot of soup.
My mother’s Cantonese-style soups held another special place in my heart, next to her near-legendary seafood porridge. Each pot of soup, however, was a complex undertaking. Pork ribs and water were left to simmer in a heavy iron pot with wolfberries, dried scallops, pieces of carrot and thick slices of ‘old’ cucumber for hours to result in a thin brown broth. The ‘old’ cucumber refers to the matured version of the more-familiar zucchini, and bears a larger resemblance to a squash with its larger size and leathery, deep brown skin. Unable to find this at regular supermarkets, we returned to Lim Sim Ann’s vegetable stall at the Ghim Moh wet market, where my mother was always guaranteed a warm reception and an easy pick of the choicest vegetables on offer.
Mr Lim’s stall was tucked deep into the market’s vegetable stalls block, behind rows of stalls displaying fresh fish on glittering crushed-ice beds and fluorescent red butchers’ counters. On any regular morning, a group of discerning housewives could be seen scanning the rows of vegetables arranged in styrofoam boxes at the storefront. After they had placed their purchase in circular plastic baskets provided by the stall, they would pass them to Sim Ann, who would bundle them onto a well-worn weighing scale and mutter aloud weight-to-price calculations in rapid-fire Hokkien. (He always managed to do this accurately without a calculator.) The goods would then be stuffed into identical red plastic bags and the transaction completed, the customer vanishing into the bustling crowd of other shoppers at the wet market. He was the eldest of three brothers, all with curiously feminine names (‘Sim Ann’ is more stereotypically a Chinese girls’ name and again, this trend was something I never comprehended). While the second brother was no longer working at the stall after some personal disagreements, his youngest brother Hua San worked as a bus driver and occassionally helped out. Hua San had been the driver of the school bus I rode when I was in primary school, and as a result of this association Sim Ann and I would exchange friendly quips if I happened to pass him on my way through the market.
“Morning,” he shouted over the crowd to my mother, leaving off packing bittergourds for another lady to serve us first. She smirked at the special treatment, before we turned our attention to the wares before us. Besides many of the common vegetables that could be found at other urban retailers, the wet market offered many lesser-known varieties that were nevertheless indispensable to local cooking. Notable among these is the notorious knobbly-green bittergourd, which is cut into flowery-looking slices and added to fish soups or stir-fried with meat or eggs. My mother deftly picked out broccoli, cauliflower, shiitake mushrooms and kai lan (a dark green leafy vegetable) for future meals, with input from Hua San after she told him of her specific culinary needs. However, it was the dark tips of the old cucumber poking out from our shopping bags that excited me the most, and I spent the walk back anticipating the aromas that would emanate from the kitchen come lunchtime.
Regrettably, I’d forgotten to take pictures of the resulting soup before it vanished down my stomach. The ingredients and preparation that had gone into the soup, I’d realised, were sourced from a greater cultural tradition that was responsible for adding such colour to our culinary landscape. Even if the supermarkets one day were to stock all of the wet market’s unique fruits and vegetables, their distinctive atmosphere, with hand-written styrofoam signs poking out amid a jumble of plastic and a cacophony of friendly banter between customer and stall-owner, would be hard to recreate. The vanishing of traditional wet markets in the future would be a great pity, and Hua San would indirectly be one of the last purveyors of a mundane, but necessary tradition.