I have a junior college classmate who has invited her whole class down to her house to celebrate the end of the Muslim fasting month three years in a row. And every year I am amazed at the number of visitors that her family has thrown the doors wide open to – extended family from all walks of life, and ex-classmates and future schoolmates among others.
No, this isn’t a reference to the local network of ground-level political volunteers (Singaporeans would know what I mean). Continue reading
Every so often, the Ghim Moh Food and Wholesale Market would be more hectic than what would usually be expected on a weekend. Continue reading
“You see the sign on the wall? It says ‘Willing Hearts Soup Kitchen’. And we serve everything here except soup.” 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.
“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 year, my family decided to stage an old-school Christmas party. My mother dug out the 20-year-old bottles of Coke she’d tucked away in cold storage (yes, the Coke had been in the bottles that long). My sister bought some tiffin carriers – traditionally used to carry and store food for picnics – home from Thailand, laying them next to our old and slightly greyed blue-and-white porcelain rice bowls. We went out buying haw flakes, iced gems, White Rabbit candy, and ice pops (segmented plastic tubes filled with flavoured ice); all popular retro snacks in Singapore, topped off with a small pack of sour dried plums which are a mainstay of so many traditional candy stores.
As we were decorating, it occurred to me that I hadn’t known of many other peoples who cherish the past with as much vigour as Singaporeans. The Christmas party theme was a blast, mainly for the fact that it provided the adults with a much-adored blast from the past. There are even some of the young (myself included) who lament the passing of old sights and tastes from the past half-century, attesting to the breakneck pace of development, which has benefitted our country and also left it with a craving for simpler times past. Everywhere, nostalgia appears to be a prime sticking point in local discourse, even more so than in other developed countries. It explains the main thrust of marketing strategies for food outlet chains and tourist attractions, the proliferation of shops selling 1950s-Singapore-themed merchandise, and the fondness with which locals search out the shops selling their favourite pig’s ear biscuits or tutu kueh before they vanish forever.
Am I clinging on to the past too much sometimes, I wonder. And yet, there is a charm and a beauty to things from the past that can’t seem to be replicated by their modern counterparts. Perhaps it was their origin in an era where we all had more time to stop and smell the roses. But for now I shall continue to search down and honour the fast-vanishing landmarks, traditions and material culture of this island. Even if they don’t appear to be as relevant to our collective urban consciousness today, they can still provide a crystallised window into a remarkably different side of the island.
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.
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?”