Last Sunday, my mother made an Instagram post of three things. 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.
“It’ll be good for you to come along. Then you’ll see the reason why we do all this nonsense.”
A woman in her thirties standing next to me frowned. “No lah, this can’t be called nonsense.”
The man smirked. “Tony always calls this ‘nonsense’, so I just call it ‘nonsense’ too.”
The man who spoke was Mr Tay. He was a tall bespectacled man in his fifties, with a head of frizzy black hair and a general demeanour of whimsical belligerence. In front of us were a pair of white vans and one red Audi, their boots open and waiting. Stacks of styrofoam boxes lounged in big plastic bags on the floor, each labelled hastily in black marker with the names of various housing estates. From packing food the previous day, I had been placed on delivery duty. “Most of the volunteers today are children,” someone else had explained, and by virtue of being the next oldest (but not by a long stretch), I was their next candidate.
What he had called ‘nonsense’ was, in fact, the under-estimated task of making sure that the food the Willing Hearts Soup Kitchen produced went to its recipients – each box contained a combination of rice, stir-fried vegetables and meat that had been cooked the previous day. Two other volunteers and I were assigned to distribute food to four destinations around Singapore: Jalan Kukoh, Chin Swee Road, York Hill and Banda Street. Some of the deliveries were needed urgently: after all, this would be the only way many of the recipients could obtain a meal at all. Armed with a lengthy set of verbal instructions from the seasoned volunteers, Google Maps and sheets of addresses, we set off in the Audi. The car was driven by the woman in her thirties. Her name was Hui Yi, and I noticed from the miniature statue suspended from her front-view mirror that she was a Buddhist. It was heartening that she had no qualms about volunteering with a Christian organisation – though the act of service itself could be said to transcend religious boundaries and unite us all in our human desire to do good.
Jalan Kukoh and Chin Swee were two of Singapore’s oldest housing estates. Unlike other more populated estates with their fresh coats of bright paint and publicised community gatherings, these estates looked largely like they had ten years ago. We toted bags of food boxes past speckled stone columns and grey tiled floors. A pair of old men, faces ruddy and bronzed, leaned back onto stone benches under a pavilion and smiled at us when they realised what we were here to do. When we left the first batch of boxes for the estates’ elderly at a distribution point, I saw them edge forward expectantly. Further ahead, a younger man lurked in an alleyway, shirtless, reeking of cigarette smoke.
After returning to the car for the next batch of boxes, we proceeded to the door-to-door deliveries. The elevators smelled musty, and we shuffled for space behind octogenarians in wheelchairs and a skimpily-dressed woman with her young child. I got out first, and stepped into a dark corridor.
Though it was the middle of the afternoon, the landings were still shrouded in darkness. Dated Chinese New Year decorations, greyed at the edges, clung to the walls. A faded cross would appear on one worn pastel-yellow door, facing the remnants of burned-out incense sticks from tiny Taoist altars on the ground. Dried cat faeces sat at the foot of a flight of stairs and filled the air with a sharp odour. Sofas and chairs sat abandoned under spirals of dust motes caught in the sunlight filtering from windows in the side of each floor.
Many of those who answered the door were old men. Cursory peeks behind them into the front room of their apartment units showed bare beige floors, with often only a small shelf or an electric fan placed against the wall. Some would smile and thank us in low raspy voices, but many received their packages wordlessly. It was an all-too regular occurrence for them; one that they, unhappily, had no choice but to depend on. Sometimes it would be answered by a relative of the beneficiary. One was answered by a middle-aged woman, who smiled at me bracingly before turning to her mother, lying immobile on a mattress next to the door. Many of them had lost their jobs or were mired in debt, falling through the cracks.
One of them struck me more than the others. Another old man walked up to our car at our third destination. He moaned, gestured to his mouth, and shook his hands: no food. He fumbled in his wallet for his registration card, waving it before us imploringly. We pointed to the address sheets, asking him to identify his so that we could bring it to him. Again, he pointed to his card and grunted in some frustration. The employees of a nearby lumber shop watched with a benevolent exasperation, and told us about his situation. He was both deaf and mute, and lived alone.
In a bustling metropolis like Singapore, it can be easy to forget that there are very much still people who need our help. The poor, the destitute, the homeless. Even when we do interact with them – often in somewhat contrived settings, to satisfy ‘service hours’ or fulfil some corporate social responsibility component – it can be easy to ignore the humanity we share instead of viewing them as objects of our benefaction. But at the same time, it can be hard not to pain for those you have felt the suffering of.
We finished our shift beleaguered, but satisfied. On the drive back, we were no longer on a mission. Our shift was done, and the three of us now had other things to deal with and worry about.
If only the people we were serving had the luxury to do the same.
“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.