Tag Archive | Soup

Giving and Garrulousness

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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.

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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.

 

 

Packing.

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“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.

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