Tag Archive | Food

Two Bowls of Prawn Mee


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.


Giving and Garrulousness

WhatsApp Image 2018-01-08 at 10.07.27

Floodwaters over a pavement along Jalan Ubi, right next to the Willing Hearts Soup Kitchen

Thankfully, I’d sought shelter long before the flash floods hit eastern Singapore on Monday morning. January had rolled around, and again I found myself at Willing Hearts. Maybe it was the announcement I’d heard over the radio that they had a shortage of volunteers on the weekdays, or the odd calm of being immersed in manual work. The kitchen was emptier than usual – the food preparation area seemed to be quiet, and the packing stations were filled mainly with the same kinds of people you’d expect to see on a January weekday morning. Retirees, university students on break, and younger students waiting for the release of ‘O’ or ‘A’ Level results.

Next to me scooping rice was a middle-aged Indonesian Chinese lady, one of the regular volunteer leaders whom everyone knew by face but not by name. (We just never felt the need to ask.) She had small twinkling eyes and a hearty voice, easily heard in cries of “Brother!” and “Sister!” to the other volunteers even at the busiest of times. My mother, who had come to help out with me a couple of times, always thought she was being too bossy and crass. I’d never talked to her. During a lull in the packing, I felt her lean over towards me.

“Eh girl, now you waiting for prelims results ah?”

“No lah Auntie, I’m in my second year of university already.”

She started, a big grin forming on her wide, round face. “Wah, university already ah!” Suddenly she pulled me in for a hug. “Auntie thought you still so young. You like chili padi! Small, but hot.”

This was nothing new for me – being small and slight for my age, I’ve often been mistaken for a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old. Nevertheless, hearing that I was in university brought to mind her own children, and she placed me in confidence in one of the unlikeliest places to hold a deep conversation. Below is an abridged version of what she told me.

“When I went to Johor in the car, I got lost. Then got one motorcycle pull up next to me, show me the way to the shopping mall. So Auntie said to herself, ‘Thank God!’ He sent me an angel. God is really good, ah. But we need to treat these old people well, because next time when old people must take care of us also. Like you put the veggie separately, then the meat won’t get soggy and become not nice to eat.”

“I have one daughter in NTU, studying Biochemistry. My third son now in NUS Law. My youngest, at first he fail Higher Chinese in secondary school, then he told me: “Mummy I don’t want to go JC anymore, I want to go poly (polytechnics).” I tell him, must still try, because go poly then very hard to go uni. Then later he said, “Mummy I want to go JC again. So he went to Victoria Junior College. Now he’s in army, next year will go university. And I felt very proud. His mummy not good at speaking, but then he can do good enough to go to the good school.”

Now I’m an ah ma (southern Chinese dialect phrase for ‘grandmother’) already! Two grand-daughters, one nine years, the other three months. My three-months-old grand-daughter so cute! Both are from my 33-year-old son. Girl, your family is girl-boy-girl, right? Maybe you pampered at home because you’re the youngest. Mine is boy, girl, boy, boy. But my girl very independent. She plays rugby. Over the holidays she played in Scotland, then she fly to Hong Kong.”

“Auntie recently went for checkup, and the doctor said: ‘Your only problem is you are over-weight.’ That’s because I used to take hormones for birth control. Better to have a larger age gap between the kids. Otherwise you every two years, every three years, you have one, it’s not good.”

The afternoon culminated with her eagerly showing me a photograph of the aforementioned baby grand-daughter. It seemed odd that she should open up to me so quickly, but the conversation we had was a gesture that touched me. Once again, it had, beyond volunteerism’s tangible social benefits and the dressed-up allure of charitableness it could bestow, reminded me of its lively human face.

An Evening with Sar Kong Lion Dance


A group of the ‘older uncles’ listening to a commemorative speech by other members of Lam Fong Fut Hok amid cans of beer and plates of buffet spread.

The men and boys behind many a lion dance performance are not just performers. Years of travelling round the island as a troupe and practicing together has made them a fraternity. And the end of the old year was a good time to cement that status.

Continue reading


On Hari Raya Puasa


My classmates and I at a friend’s house for Hari Raya Puasa.

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.

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The Grassroots Reading Room


No, this isn’t a reference to the local network of ground-level political volunteers (Singaporeans would know what I mean). Continue reading


A Ghim Moh Pasar Pagi


Passers by ordering street food from a Ramly Burger stand.

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




A sketch I made of volunteers chatting over a meal at Willing Hearts’ dining area.

“You see the sign on the wall? It says ‘Willing Hearts Soup Kitchen’. And we serve everything here except soup.” Continue reading


Salted Vegetable and Duck Soup


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


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.





“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.