Tag Archive | Family

Two Bowls of Prawn Mee

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A bowl of prawn noodles at Beach Road: prawns, beansprouts, fried onions, thick vermicelli noodles and blanched water spinach.

“The reason why I like this so much is because it’s the same taste I used to have when I was a child,” my dad told me. “When I was a small boy and this man’s father was selling prawn mee in my neighbourhood.”

My parents and I were hunched over a pale wooden table, small wisps of steam rising into our faces from the two lime-green bowls of prawn noodles sitting in front of us. Unusually enough, we weren’t at a hawker centre. Right at the back of a nondescript shop lot sandwiched between a swathe of tarmac and a collection of bakeries and cafes sat a pair of food stalls, separated from the entrance by an expanse of identical tables and stools. It was testament to the amount of prestige Blanco Court Prawn Noodles had earned among Singapore’s makan kakis (‘foodies’ in popular slang) over the decades. Originating along Merchant Street, the stall became one of many in the eponymous shopping complex along North Bridge Road (several of its neighbours went on to become legendary food stalls in their own right), and its owner managed to earn enough to rent a small block along Beach Road which is only shared with a drinks stall and one selling ngoh hiang (Chinese five-spice meat rolls).

Prawn noodles are a common sight in Singaporean hawker centres. Many foodies attest that it’s the broth which makes or breaks them. The broth from Blanco Court Prawn Noodles appeared thin, but every mouthful seethed with a strong prawn flavour – the way it should be, my father asserted, from hours of cooking prawn shells down until every bit of flavour was unlocked. Some would say the prawns looked insipid, being unlike the full, bouncy variants some serve in other hawker stalls. Yet others could argue that the prawns were not the point of the dish. The other components were only subsidiary: the beansprouts that snapped between your teeth, the tender strings of wilted water spinach, the splash of fried onions on top for a burst of fragrance. It was just the broth that mattered.

My gold standard for prawn noodles was different.

It was often bundled in a plastic takeout bag, or in turquoise plastic bowls. The white vermicelli noodles are much thinner, and instead of simmering in a bowl of broth they were mixed in with blobs of spicy shrimp paste and dried bird’s eye chillis. The noodles wouldn’t come with the heads on (a pity, because I always enjoy sucking the juice out from them!) but made up for it with a few nuggets of pork lard, crispy and utterly toothsome. I would never eat the vegetables that came with it, but spend my Saturday mornings sitting amid the bustle at Ghim Moh Food Centre, or else slurping up my noodles on a lazy day at home in front of the television.

“Even the one at Ghim Moh is an innovation,” my father has remarked. “Then when they try to innovate it doesn’t taste the same. Blanco Court still has the real stuff.” But what if what you’d known as the ‘real stuff’, the stuff you’d grown up with, was what another person had regarded as a perversion of the flavours he’d known? And that’s something I’ll have to feel for with my tastebuds, in every spoonful of prawn broth.

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Through the Lens of Ice Cream

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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

Salted Vegetable and Duck Soup

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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.

 

 

Two Generations of Perfection

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A jar of kok zai.

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.

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The Tiger Claw Pendant

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During peaceful family moments around the dinner table facing the TV, my father will occassionally disclose some moments from the past. Some of those involved his small, understated collection of heirlooms. One of those was, surprisingly, an item he had been given at birth – a tiger claw pendant, which he had safeguarded until today. The claw itself had darkened with age into a deep, bark-like brown. I could cradle it squarely in the center of my palm, and felt only the cool solidity of the metal it had been set in. It had been set in gold by a Johorean craftsman, my father explained, “which is why the quality is not so good.” It was a simple job, with four-petaled flowers being embossed around the ribbed base and the claw tapering down into a rounded point. Perhaps, I imagined, it was there to conceal the lethality of the curved hook of a tiger claw – which only served to make it look more regal and powerful.

The tiger claw pendant had been a gift from my father’s grandfather. He had given it to my maternal grandmother when my father was born, being the firstborn son of my great-grandfather’s eldest daughter. “He had five older sons,” my father explained, “but my mother was always his favourite.” Male children have a particular significance in Chinese culture, which seemed both fitting and ironic in this context: my great-grandfather lavishing his daughter more than his sons, and at the same time forking out a sum of cash to give his grandson an especially lavish gift. (My eldest aunt, born before my father, never received something as extravagant as this.) It must also have carried with it no small measure of my great-grandfather’s hopes: tigers are symbols of power, virility and masculinity in Chinese culture. By wearing a tiger claw, it was hoped that the strength and courage of the animal it came from would imbue my father with similar attributes as he was growing up.

When he grew older, my father received another gift. It was his father’s old Rolex watch that had specially been bequeathed to him upon his death. It was nothing particularly expensive: in fact, one of my aunts had scorned it as a cheap watch. But the most valuable thing about it was that it had belonged to my father’s father. Again, the gift had been out of his significance as the firstborn son in the household. My father should pass it on to his own firstborn son, my aunt had said. And so, these items will hopefully continue to be passed on, accumulating memories and the weight of history with time.

Will I receive any of these heirlooms from my own father? Only time will tell. Tigers are now endangered species, and some might perhaps frown upon the wearing of such pendants as blatant encouragement of the wildlife parts trade. I don’t condone the slaughter of endangered animals just to use their body parts for jewellry, either. But to me, this old pendant is not just any animal part merchandise. It was my father’s own tiger claw pendant, forged out of love and hope by his own mother’s father. I don’t think I will ever bear to see it thrown away. I want to keep it where it can continue to remind someone of all that it represents – the power of a tiger, and the power of a grandfather’s love.

For Chinese New Year

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It was that time of year again–for pineapple tarts and bak kwa, red packets and pussy willows, revelry and family. The Year of the Goat had breezed into town, and nowhere was the pulse of a new spring more deeply felt than in Chinatown.

In the middle of the day, a steady tide of visitors was already coursing up and down the length of Temple Street–a sign that the annual Chinese New Year bazaar was gearing up to full swing. For a while we retreated into the shelter between the wooden walls of Mei Heong Yuen Dessert’s flagship store, spooning up milk pudding and black sesame paste as we watched faces roll by, with some stopping for brief moments to exchange the fleetest of smiles, the storefront of a man selling preserved persimmons. When we stepped into the crowd, we found ourselves being swept along, and occassionally engulfed as the stream of human bodies–made up of as many middle-aged men as young ladies, tourists as there were locals, and grandchildren as there were grandparents–closed around us.

All sorts of vendors had decided to seize the oppurtunity to make a quick buck. Stands of cherry blossoms and rows of potted orchids gave way to stacked jars of almond cookies and bags of Taiwanese fruit jellies and dried kelp. Across from a man selling oranges attached to leafy branches was another surrounded by pendulous glowing red lanterns. Old women sitting amidst pairs of beaded slippers and wooden clogs would be replaced by stores selling Chinese-surname-themed brushes and zodiac plush dolls around the corner. The crackle of coffee-roasting chestnuts wafted alongside rows of deep green Buddha’s fingers and hourglass-shaped gourds. In the opposite street bristled all manner of New Year decorations in festive shades of red and gold, as sacks filled to the brim with peanuts and melon seeds beckoned to passers-by. No matter what they were selling, each stall-holder went about their job with an almost fevered determination, spurred by competition with their neighbours and the frenzy of activity around them. The mishmash of colour from their juxtaposed wares and the hollers that’d periodically pierce the air above us seemed to be harbingers of the beginning of yet another festive season.

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On our way, we encountered a shabbily-dressed old lady wheeling a metal trolley purposefully past the stalls, the only one in the crowd who didn’t seem to be caught up in the heady bazaar atmosphere. As we watched, she approached the nearest bin and lifted the lid, looking in for discarded cardboard boxes which she could hope to sell for a meager sum of cash. As she returned to her trolley, my mother pressed a ten-dollar note into her hands. With a sudden warmth she began speaking profusely in Cantonese, “Thank you, miss! Happy New Year! Best of health!” Looking to me, she added, “Is this little lady your daughter? May you have progress in work!” before we again went our separate ways.

In their own ways, our encounter with the old lady and the presence of the street market appear to befit the Lunar New Year. The latter is a celebration of the pragmatism and entrepreneurship that had characterised the Chinese for many a generation, while the other serves as a reminder of the need on such a family-oriented time of year to really bring festive cheer and fortune to the people and places it’s most needed.

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