Serene Centre, it seems, is replete with little restaurants and cafés – little food havens in a city that can otherwise feel busy and unfeeling. A newcomer seems to have stealthily appeared at the far end of the building, overlooking the roads leading through the Bukit Timah area with a placid nonchalance. Continue reading
Whenever I stroll around the Botanic Gardens, my feet will always take me back to one particular location. They bring me around the neat wooden tables, thronging with expatriate families and their dogs, crowding the outside of the Da Paulo bistro next to the train station. They take me past glass-fronted wineries and décor shops, through a tire repair shop with waves of heat roaring off car exhaust pipes. And every single time, they stop at Island Creamery. Continue reading
Today is the seventh day of the Lunar New Year – particularly significant for being Ren Ri (人日), the Day of Humans. Traditionally marked as the day on which the Chinese folk goddess Nüwa created mankind, it will be observed locally through the tossing of special ‘seven-colour yusheng‘ (yusheng is a raw fish and vegetable salad consumed by Southeast Asian Chinese for the New Year) to usher in good luck for the incoming year. My mother will be cooking far less prosaic in her kitchen tonight: salted vegetable and duck soup.
Giam chye ark (咸菜鸭), as I’ve always known it by, is a quintessential New Year staple for the Teochew community. My mother belongs to the Hokkien dialect group. Though the Hokkiens originated from what is now Fujian Province while the Teochews hailed from Chaoshan in eastern Guangdong Province, the dialects they speak sound very similar. The subtle differences are audible in the way the cadences of my father’s voice shift as he goes between the two: the louder, harsher-sounding tones of the Hokkien he uses to speak to my mother changing to the flatter, nasal sounds of Teochew among his relatives. They can also be tasted in their food. My father always told me how the Teochews prided their cooking on elegant minimalism, with flavour being drawn from within the ingredients themselves. It can be found in the mildness of a bowl of Teochew-style rice porridge with fish, every grain still intact and submerged in a clear soup, or the gamey aroma of a plate of braised duck enhanced only with the mildest of chilli sauces.
This soup, however, is more elaborate than is typical of Teochew cuisine. Beyond the prerequisite whole duck and salted mustard greens a potpourri of sour plums, halved tomatoes, and white peppercorns is added to steep in the broth for hours, or even days. Variations on the recipe have made it more convoluted, with the inclusion of pig’s trotters, sea cucumbers and even brandy. And paradoxically, this is where I find myself appreciating the value of simplicity. With those five original ingredients alone, my mother can manage to produce an intense broth with a piquant pepperiness, balanced out with an alluring, smooth sourness. After marrying into my father’s family, my mother’s giam chye ark had become the crown jewel of the family reunion table.
“Last time Lao Gou’s giam chye ark used to be very popular,” she had told me, referring to my father’s grand-aunt who would welcome us every Chinese New Year with plates of steamed rabbitfish and a huge bowl of chicken curry. “After tasting it and seeing so many people eat it, I decided to make it myself. But lately I see the layer of oil floating on top of her soup; become too scared to eat. Now even Uncle Alvin doesn’t want to eat her soup. She got upset, like, disappointed and asked: ‘Why aren’t you all eating?’ Uncle Alvin and I looked at each other like, don’t know what to say. Actually I wanted to tell her, ‘My soup is not as watery and oily as yours,’ but of course I didn’t say it lah. She keeps her pots all stacked on top of one another, and she mops the floor by using her foot to move the towel around. I guess when you get old, you get less generous with ingredients. It’s like that, lah. Aunt Tracy said that giam chye ark is not healthy, so Aunt Jo stopped making it. She used to make giam chye ark too. The first time I made it, she asked me if I used half a duck. I told her I used one whole duck. This time I used two ducks. Duck is very expensive, one is about $30. The soup will be about $70, and with the huo (fire) and gas and my workmanship it will add up to about $100 already.”
Having come from an era where the worth of a housewife was found to be tasted in her cooking, my mother had developed a series of intricate rules around the kitchen. For one, we were not allowed to talk about food in the pots or the oven while it was still in the process of being made. This was especially so for baked goods, which my mother believed would not rise properly if any remark were to be directed at their person. This was just one offshoot of a series of little traditional superstitions that would come to the forefront and govern our celebrations. Cool and dark colours were not to be worn when visiting relatives because those were ‘the colours of mourning’. Books were not to be brought into the houses of aunts with a penchant for gambling because the word for ‘book’ is a homophone with the word for ‘lose’ in Chinese. Gravestones of dead relatives should not be pointed at or spoken out loud unless you were a ‘safe distance’ away from the cemetery.
Up until recently, all I felt for these superstitions was resentment. All I thought about them was that they were inane and unnecessary, with their only purpose being to impose just more restrictions on us poor kids. Lately, however, I’ve begun to think of the role they could have in the celebration of the New Year in the first place. With every festival, there comes the expectation that its celebrants have of its commemoration: a wish for good luck, intra-family cohesion, and a smooth-sailing time. And perhaps like the giam chye ark that is only prepared at this specific time of year, these superstitions have a subconscious role in the celebrations. Perhaps they are just another gear in the carefully-calibrated cogs of practices and beliefs that work to enhance the meaning of this special time for its observers. And besides that, I’ve come to appreciate them as interesting cultural signifiers: some of them might be inane, but many are also unique to this part of the world.
And I have to admit, they did make the New Year feel just that little bit more important. In the same way that waking up to the intense flavour of a pot of salted vegetable and duck soup reminds me that the New Year is upon us once more.
Every Chinese New Year, my mother will transform the house into a pastry factory. Plastic boxes of deep orange pineapple paste would line the shelves of the fridge, stacked high in preparation to be turned into thousands of pineapple tarts. For afternoons on end, she would sit in the living room over trays of shortcrust dough, meticulously wrapping them over the pineapple paste into little balls to be coated with brushstrokes of egg yolk. One of the things that excites me about Chinese New Year is the array of special foods that only appear at this time of year, and my mother is one of the few that still keep alive the practice of making their own New Year treats from scratch.
Now, it’s easy to find racks of kueh bangkit (crumbly flower-shaped coconut biscuits), kueh bahulu (oblong fluffy golden-brown cakes) and tiny sugee cakes in any local supermarket leading up to the occassion. However, there was a time when these special goodies were mostly produced by individuals and given out to loved ones. My father recounts a time when his family used to make their own ‘love letters’ – thin egg rolls curled into slender tubes – as a family operation, with brothers and cousins involved in specific steps of the process. “When I got old enough, I was upgraded from mould-pressing to rolling,” he’d once proudly told us, referring to the different stages of production when the batter is poured into a hot iron mould to solidify before being rolled into its characteristic shape. The direct precursor to my mother’s own baking tradition, though, would have to be the far more painstaking process my grandmother used to go through to make kok zai every year.
“Ah Ma used to make them to give to people,” she had explained. A New Year snack that is a signature of the Cantonese community, kok zai are puff pastries that vaguely resemble curry puffs but are filled with candied peanuts instead. I have never tried them due to my allergies, but I found them tempting regardless. “Last time me, Aunt Anne, Aunt Eileen and Ah Ma used to make it together. Ah Ma would scold all of us for not folding it properly, because then the dough will come apart when you fry it. The peanuts will float to the surface, and you know when you burn sugar it becomes black, so the kok zai will also end up having black spots.”
“Aunt Anne used to be in charge of rolling the dough. She used to roll it until her arms ache like crazy. At the time we had no roller, so you know what we use? Glass bottle. We didn’t have a food processor back then so we just use all these things lying around the house. We would roll and roll and roll. Then we had to cut the dough out; didn’t have cookie cutters so we used glass cups to make circular shapes. Then we would peel the groundnut and blow the shell off while Ah Ma mixed the dough. No mixer, so she used her hands as the mixer. She’ll add flour, eggs, something-else-I-don’t-know, and mix the dough like she was washing clothes. It’s very thick so she had to pull very hard. Then after that, Ah Ma would fry everything. It’s very tasty, because the peanuts have a nice smell when you fry them, plus the sugar makes it so fragrant.”
Thankfully, the advent of kitchen technology has made the process of baking New Year treats a lot less arduous. Nevertheless, my mother still insists on making her own pineapple paste, and she would sit on the kitchen floor with a massive cleaver to skin fresh pineapples. Occassionally they would result in nasty cuts, but more often in hours of hard work and waves of exhaustion. She would rarely allow me to help her with rolling the dough for the tarts, because every tart has to be exactly the same size and shape. Having vastly expanded her baking repertoire to include cakes, jellies, macarons and even fondant art, her efforts have only multiplied as she applies the same rigour to various other kinds of food. This year, she has made four massive carp out of coconut jelly. Each one of them is coloured with different shades of orange to make it look three-dimensional and strips of coconut flesh set in patterns within its body.
The types of snacks my family bakes have changed with time. My grandmother stopped making her own kok zai after my grandfather’s death four decades ago, and there might be a time when my mother will stop making her own tarts too. But what has, and will continue to remain, a time-honoured tradition will be that of perfection. My mother applies the same merciless precision to the shape of her tarts as my grandmother did to the folds of each of her puff pastries. And it is a mercilessness born for the love of the craft, of tradition, and of the friends and family whose stomachs these treats would go on to warm.
I doubt I will ever be able to bake half as well as my mother or grandmother. My fingers are far too clumsy for the dextrous cuts my mother makes in each lump of pastry that she will turn into lively hedeghog-shaped tarts. Neither are they nimble enough to make the miniscule, neat, regular folds that characterise my grandmother’s kok zai. Yet it is my aim to preserve these practices however I can. Whatever my expression of ‘perfection’ will be, I hope that one day I will be carry on the spirit in which these pastries will painfully and lovingly made.
“This kitchen is open 365 days a year. Chinese New Year, Vesak Day, Christmas. We don’t stop.”
There was no other introduction needed for the Willing Hearts Soup Kitchen. Behind its pastel yellow facade and small strips of grassy lawn dotted with colourful garden gnomes was a storm of heat and movement. A tall man in an apron shoveled away at a wok the width of a bathtub, stirring at a morass of bell peppers, long beans and tomatoes. Volunteers moved from one end of the metallic grey kitchen to the other, supporting large trays of fried mackerel and vegetable stir-fries. And at every table were more volunteers in hair nets and plastic gloves. Scooping rice into styrofoam trays, ladling on vegetables, and topping on fried fish before each box was squeezed with tens of others in tightly-tied red plastic bags. “Another 1000!” came the occassional cry. It was not at all a startling number in these kitchens. The daily order for lunch and dinner each was 5000 boxes of packed food. No one stopped unless the ingredients in front of them had run out. Just as soon as the remnants of food in the previous trays had been scraped out with ladles and new trays were brought piping hot onto the tables, work began again.
Willing Hearts is just one of the many organisations throughout the island dedicated to alleviate the suffering of the city’s poor and hungry. And yet there was never a moment where help was not needed somewhere in the kitchens. Besides the assembly area, the soup kitchen sported an open-air food preparation area, a small herb garden and even carried out daily deliveries of food to communities all across Singapore. There were even less people on the weekdays – retirees, people between jobs, the odd school excursion group. I plunged in.
It can be easy to forget the real significance of what you were doing there when you settle into the rhythmn of work. There are some who volunteer there because the work is relatively straightforward, even enjoyable (as many of the housewives at the preparation area would attest). To an extent, volunteering at a soup kitchen is seen as a standard way to ‘fulfil service hours’ by many school clubs and corporate groups. But the grittiness of standing in an assembly line, shovelling cabbage and lotus root slices onto a bed of rice for three and a half hours on my feet non-stop, touched me. This was how much work went into providing for the less fortunate around us.
A middle-aged woman suddenly stopped two of us from adding some blanched bok choy into the boxes. “I think you cannot use this, it’s not properly cooked,” she explained. “Not good for the old people. I once followed them on distribution; we went to the flats at Clementi to deliver food to families. There were so many people, I think almost 300!” As the vegetables were being replaced, the volunteers in the line stood around, restlessly waiting. “We slowed down,” exclaimed one. No one thought solely of the 1000 boxes we had to prepare at each go. Everyone was thinking of the people this food would be going to – and how they would have to wait if we didn’t fill the boxes in time.
And yet, over the long hours and risk of exhaustion, there were still moments for a little light-heartedness. “Oh, I hate this song,” a lady in glasses exclaimed, rolling her eyes as ‘If I Die Young’ came over the radio. “I’m like those grandmothers who wants everyone to eat more,” explained another with serious meticulousness as she spooned an extra helping of long beans onto the boxes laid out in front of her. The older volunteers smiled and laughed, finding time to clap each other on the back or swap a friendly ribbing as they bustled between the kitchens and the driveway. Not long into the shift, everybody was already talking to everybody else. Though the exact reasons each volunteer had for coming here was different, all of us wanted to be able to help out in any way we could.
Noon struck. “You ladies can start clearing up this table,” a small wiry man called out. Four hours and countless boxes of rice later, we had finally finished the lunch order. Relief rippled through the assembly line. It was only then that I noticed how sore my limbs felt. We had all been swept up in a collective atmosphere of hard work – a labour of love for everyone whose stomachs we might be able to help to fill.
I dragged my weary bones to the dining area. Small metal dishes and utensils had been prepared for the volunteers to enjoy a free lunch using the leftover food from whatever had been prepared that day. Others sat around me: giving thanks, eating in quiet meditation, or talking in low voices over coffee. I smiled and nodded at them – it was a camaraderie borne of service. The food was itself nothing fanciful or extraordinary. And yet I found myself craving it. And I felt the heart and soul that had gone into every grain of rice.
Hastings Road was bubbling with an unusually expectant anticipation. The buffalo cart at the mouth of the road was festooned with coloured streamers. Visitors had come in their finest festive garb to the mini animal farm, bearing special gifts of bananas for the cattle, while a keeper indulged the animals with handfuls of boiled rice and turmeric. I had not just visited on an ordinary Sunday; I had arrived on one of the most important days in the Tamil calendar: Surya Pongal. The second day of the harvest festival Pongal, it was an occassion dedicated to the ritual cooking of the eponymous pongal rice pudding out in the sunlight as a thanks offering to the Hindu solar god Surya. It would also kick off the beginning of the month of Thai in the Tamil calendar in spectacular fashion.
Three sugarcane stems stood tied together at one end, over what appeared to be an innocuous clay brazier. It wasn’t directly under the glare of the sun as it is traditionally meant to be, but their leaves seemed to stretch for the sky beyond the white tent roofing sheltering the road. Sugarcane, as a signature harvest crop, symbolised prosperity and was thus an auspicious sign under which the all-important cooking of milk for the pudding would begin. Milk, as a life-giving substance and a product of the cow which is so sacred to Hinduism, took pride of place. The moment when it was cooked until it overflowed would usher in abundance and be a cause of riotous celebration.
Mr Manoj, a balding middle-aged man in a light blue kurta, set to work. Spreading out a variety of metal plates, he began arranging the ingredients – jaggery, ghee, raisins, cashews and the crucial dish of milk. A handful of turmeric leaves had been tied around the steel vessel that would be used for cooking . Onlookers slowly gathered, drawn by the lively charcoal fire that had been busily, but reverently, kindled. Pieces of hard orange candy were burned in a clay lamp, adding their own connotations of a sweet year to a growing stew of spiritual symbolism. Against the backdrop of a lively hubbub of Tamil commentary by an emcee, the man was quietly joined by more assistants. They anointed the corners of the objects with oil, stirred the fire with sticks and carried forth the banana leaf that would be the centrepiece for the food offerings.
More and more visitors began to gather. A Tamil woman wearing a cross around her neck stood with another wearing a hijab, eyeing the festivities as eagerly as their Hindu counterparts. There were curious Australian backpackers who had arrived next to Chinese onlookers toting cameras. The air was punctuated by waves of applause and shouts of ‘Pongal-o-pongal!’; cries of abundance in Tamil. The offerings were set out on the banana leaf: a pleasing mosiac from the colours of the ripe bananas, hibiscus flowers, and coconut shells that were quickly arranged at its corners.
Explosive festive music burst out from the sound system. The pot was uncovered and brought before the makeshift altar. Guests decked with flower garlands stepped up, to be passed a beaker of milk which they would take turns to add to the pot. A group of elderly men and women were brought toward the altar to do the honours, craning their necks to see what was happening. The crowd had grown so large I had to jostle to view even a slice of the festivities. The tempo of the music grew faster and faster.
Everyone was clapping in time, faster and faster. “We have to motivate the milk to boil over,” someone explained to me. Mr Manoj and an assistant in white crouched on either side of the pot, anxious, waiting.
The moment came in a split second. A huge fountainhead of white froth bubbled over, throwing the cover off its lid. The crowd roared. People cheered and laughed and cried out, “Pongal-o-pongal!” A woman in a red saree took the microphone from the emcee and made a high-pitched screeching call. The milk had overflowed – pongal, abundance, was ushered in for the new year.
Heady aromas of incense and the smoky scent of charcoal clung heavily to my clothes long after I left Hastings Road. All over the island, Tamils would be enjoying the pongal pudding, and its promise of sweetness for the year ahead.
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.
The wholesalers’ market lay at the end of a long expanse of bare road, and even then its wares weren’t visible under long, sloping metal roofs. The entire site seemed to carry itself with a modest air, though it had the distinction of being the oldest of Singapore’s wholesale markets for fruits and vegetables. My father and I plunged into a maze of cardboard boxes and wooden pallets on our hunt for the cheapest produce.
Unlike other open-air markets I had been to, the place seemed swamped with a thick, stoic silence. There were few other visitors, and though it was the middle of the afternoon work there seemed to be carrying on at a slow, but steady pace. We had to pause every so often for small delivery vehicles that would cut out from sharp corners and hurtle down the concrete passageways, or reverse with a detached business. Shirtless men, ranging from middle-aged to the elderly, pushed trolleys laden with crates of oranges or sacks of onions in their wake. Others were busy unloading more produce from the backs of pickup trucks, oblivious to our approach. Work continued at a subtle, yet relentless pace as if the men were the gears in an invisible automaton that kept the market moving.
But as we ventured deeper, there appeared signs of a deeper, richer culture under its busy facade. Lacquered signboards painted with thick gilded Chinese characters would poke out over the dimly-lit corridors. Sometimes they overlooked a crisscross of wooden scaffolds or an abandoned swivel chair. Most times, they overlooked shops. At one block, piles of dried anchovies in three different sizes spilled out from the storefront of a supplier to traditional Chinese pharmacies, filling the air with a woody scent. They sat next to trays of deep brown Luohan fruit and stringy cordyceps, glistening under a pair of fluorescent lightbulbs. A small, wiry woman smiled at us from over a pair of thick glasses. My father spoke to her in Teochew: “I’m just showing my child what we used to eat in the past,” and though I couldn’t understand the rest of the conversation there was a gentle warmth that suddenly seemed to come between them. Altars to Chinese folk gods were omnipresent–whether tucked away at a low alcove in a corner or seated prominently at the back of the store, with the likeness of a smiling deity offering the grace of good business to its employees. An old man had just finished offering incense at a multi-tiered pagoda altar and walked away in quiet reflection.
The market was, in a way, a string of anachronisms. Tradition rubbed shoulders with modernity, and the old with the new. The pride of the many people who were invested with the market and its business had given the site a quiet pulse. Though heavily commercial, the market also bore the stamp of the generations of people who lived and toiled there, imprinting its concrete exterior with markers of their hopes and dreams. And though their mode of business will change over the years, I don’t doubt that their successors will continue to do the same, even in the seemingly humdrum pursuit of thriving business.
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?”
One of my fondest memories of being sick as a child–as odd as it sounds–was being able to have my mother’s seafood porridge on demand. (Growing up, the only porridge I thought conceivable was made with rice. It would be years before I learnt about oatmeal.) She would boil white rice in a deep pan until the grains burst (‘this is the Cantonese way–Teochews eat porridge with the whole grain intact’), and added tiny whitebait and morsels of dried scallops that poked up enticingly from the pearly-white mass like jewels from the depths of a treasure chest. I would drizzle light soy sauce all over my bowl and stir in it vigorously with a porcelain spoon until it turned a deep honey-brown. Once I had scoured the bowl clean and licked the salty residue off my spoon until it shone with a dull film, I would rush to the kitchen for a second helping, and often a third. While a fever could turn eight-year-old me off my childhood delicacies of crabsticks and button mushrooms and even the bright golden sugar loaves from BreadTalk, my mum’s porridge was the one dish I could never bear to turn down.
Years have passed. My mother experimented with various iterations of her standard recipe–garnishing the bowl with slivers of cold fishcake, adding mounds of whole scallop into the pot, and even forgoing the seafood altogether and making porridge with the leftovers of the previous night’s duck or chicken. She was a virtuoso in the kitchen, whipping up not just excellent southern Chinese soups and stir-fries but also Korean, Japanese, Filipino, Thai and even Western main courses with nothing more than a cursory glance at a cookbook (or, in some cases, the TV screen whenever TLC was on). Yet even after savouring the piquant spice of her take on pork-and-kimchi stew, or biting into her fluffy hot baked potatoes and lamb chops liberally garnished with rosemary at Christmas dinner, the simple porridge I had tasted all those years ago remained my favourite home-cooked meal.
One night, I asked her if she could cook it again. The faint aroma of scallops wafting from the kitchen tickled my nostrils and seemed to smile on me from happier, bygone days. I opened the door to the fridge and happened to chance upon a small plastic vial containing numerous thin brown strips–peeled dried scallop. I remembered how she would sit over the living room table amid a heap of dried scallops, painstakingly peeling each of them with a fruit knife until they were reduced to the tiny scraps that could add an almost divine fragrance to a bowl of porridge. And then I remembered how I used to pop open the fridge door and sneakily help myself to the products of her hard work.
I ate that bowl with the same porcelain spoon I had always used–glazed white china with a blue rim, decorated with a stylised blue fish, part of the ‘rooster-and-fish series’ of porcelain utensils we always used to eat rice or noodles with. The red-topped Kikkoman bottle from which I poured the soy sauce hadn’t changed either, though age had left faint scratch marks down its length. As I ran the soy sauce into the pearly-white mass until it turned a deep honey-brown, I decided to ask her how the recipe began.
“I can’t remember when I first learned to cook it. Your Auntie Anne started making it, so I learnt from her. We would add peanuts, the small fish, and minced pork. Minced pork becomes soggy when you put it in and it doesn’t taste very nice, so I took it out later. We didn’t have enough money to buy scallops. Later when we went to those Chinese restaurants, we saw that they would use scallops, so I just use. I used to feed your ché (姐, ‘older sister’ in Hokkien) and ko (哥, ‘older brother’) the peanut porridge when they were young, but because you have a peanut allergy I took them out. With peanuts it’s nicer. You boil, boil boil the peanuts it will expand, expand, expand and all the flavour will come out.
I didn’t cook when I was living with my mother-in-law. Her cooking was so oily. She would make enough soup to take a bath in, and her soup was so tasteless. She would also fry her vegetables in so much oil you can see the oil at the bottom of the plate. But her salted vegetables and pork was very good–it’s called giam chhai cha ti bak (咸菜炸豬肉) in Hokkien. She will add onions and carrots and potato and stir-fry it together and it will be very delicious. She’s Teochew and I’m Hokkien so sometimes we cannot understand each other. Once she asked me look for the diao gui because we were eating chicken rice. I went to look all over for a hanging chicken, and told them I couldn’t find one. Then they all laughed at me, because diao gui in Teochew means ‘cucumber’!
Sometimes I would cook for your da gu (大姑, ‘eldest paternal aunt’) if I had a bit extra porridge, for her to eat at her shop. There’s only Auntie Ah Lan’s fishball noodles next door, and everyday eat already will get boring. I would also sometimes make tom yum. I went for classes when I was working, so I know how to make.
To be a good cook, all you need is the interest to learn how to cook. You never come and watch me in the kitchen, how are you going to learn to make this when you’re older?”