For the A TO Z CHALLENGE, I’m blogging for 26 days in April (except Sundays) based on the alphabet, and my theme is #foodiefiction, inspired mostly by the foods of Singapore. You can find my previous posts here.
Z is for zi char
It was 430 in the morning. Far too early for food. But her stomach was on Singapore time and it rumbled.
It was dinner time now in Singapore. Her parents would be sitting down for a meal together. Maybe her mum had cooked. Or maybe they both had gone out to pick up some of their favourite dishes from the nearby zi char stall. She thought of them sitting there together, grey-haired, thin. Seeing them again in person after yet another year away, she thought they looked smaller. Had they shrunk? Were they eating less? Or was she so used to the larger sizes of Americans that people in Southeast Asia seemed diminutive?
Her parents did seem to be eating less. When she had ordered food from the zichar place, for her last night at home, there were so many leftovers. She felt she had ordered for six instead of three.
Her mother had picked at her favourite sambal kangkong, the spicy water spinach that she always ordered. Her father had eaten less than his usual helping of beef hor fun. Or maybe they seemed to have smaller appetites because now hers was larger, used as it was to the proportions in America.
She couldn’t help but recall her embarrassment when trying on clothes at a local store. She realized that she couldn’t squeeze into the size S skirt, the size she usually tried on when shopping in the US, and had to peek out and ask the saleswoman for an M.
“I think you are more of an L. I get large size for you ok?” the sales auntie had said a little too loudly.
The sales auntie was right. The L size did fit her just right. She hated to see the L there on the tag and cut it off as soon as she brought it home. Now she was back in America, a land where she was a size S and not a size L.
But oh, what she wouldn’t do for a piece of har cheong gai right now. Or some beef hor fun. The zi char stall near her parents’ place always had the right amount of ginger and didn’t use too much corn starch in their hor fun like some other places did. She missed the easy access to a variety of foods in Singapore – even at 430 in the morning, there was still food to be had somewhere in Singapore, whether at a 24-hour kopitiam or a prata shop. Here in middle-sized town America, the Safeway was still open and she could pick up some frozen food there. But the thought of zapping a plastic tray in the microwave and eating that for a not-breakfast was too much. Besides, she didn’t want to get in the car and drive. It was too cold for that.
It had taken her a day or so to get over her jetlag when she first arrived in Singapore two weeks ago, but it had taken her several more days to get used to the heat and humidity. She had to relearn the need to pack an umbrella (for the occasional showers and the hot hot sunshine), tissue papers (to wipe the sweat) and a cardigan (for the ridiculous cold air-conditioning in malls, restaurants, stores) when she went out. There was always something new to see in Singapore after a year away. New buildings, new roads, things being torn down, other things being built in its place. But on the upside, the new MRT line meant her parents’ place was now connected to many places on the island and she could hop on the train instead of having to wait for the bus.
She missed good public transportation. She really did.
It always felt strange returning to her apartment in the US. It was home but it also wasn’t really Home. She was comfortable there. She knew the best places to get all her Asian groceries, where to get a good cup of coffee, where the good hairdresser was. She loved the changing seasons – the colours of fall, the cold of winter, that first hint of spring coming, then the relentless heat of summer, without Singapore’s humidity. She liked being where she didn’t know very many people, where no one had any expectations of her, where she could start over. It had required her to be more independent, more open to meeting people. It forced her to emerge from her introvert shell and start conversations. She liked the wide open spaces, the hiking places, the road trips she longed to take (she was still psyching herself up to brave driving long distances by herself).
It was hardest when she returned from life in bustling Singapore, where her parents gathered their family friends, all the many aunts and uncles and cousins, nieces, nephews, grand-nieces, grand-nephews, second cousins, and of course her sole remaining grandparent, her sweet grandmother, who always told her wistfully in Mandarin, “haven’t seen you for so long”. She had missed out on weddings, first month celebrations, birthdays, engagements, and funerals. And all the little children just got bigger and bigger, and she was just a stranger to them. It was hard to smile and nod when older relatives said, once again, “not married yet ah”? But it was harder still to return to her apartment across the world, cold and empty, her voice the only one echoing inside it.
Her neighbour was kind enough to pick up her mail and keep an eye on her apartment. Her friend Michael, the only Singaporean she knew here, was happy to pick her up from the airport, especially as she brought some Bengawan Solo kuehs in return. She had a few good friends, and several times a year, a cousin who worked in Singapore for an American firm would fly in, meet her for lunch and pass her little goodies and gossip from Singapore.
But she missed her parents.
They were getting old. She was their only child. And she couldn’t help but worry about them. They were still healthy, active, mobile, and still together after all these years. And she supposed that’s what mattered. They had each other. They had their big circle of family friends, many brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, all looking out for each other.
It was 5am in the Bay Area, 8pm in Singapore. She turned on her phone and sent her father a Whatsapp message.
- Hey Dad, what are you guys doing?
- Eating fruits. We bought some seafood hor fun and kangkong for dinner from the usual zi char place. You know mum, always needs her kangkong. The owner asked where you were. I said you went back already.
- She said, orh you must miss her. And I said, yes we do.
- I miss you too Dad. And Mum too.
- Very early there right? Better go back to sleep. Talk to you tomorrow.
- Ok Dad. Good night! I’ll Skype you guys tomorrow then.
- Don’t worry about us ok? I know you do, but we’re fine. I just had my hor fun and a beer, now got mangoes to eat, and then later we will watch a movie at home. We’re ok. Just take care of yourself. We are proud of you.
She never felt more thankful for these messaging apps that didn’t feel like she was halfway across the world from her parents. Thankful that it allowed her father to express feelings he couldn’t say to her but was happy to type out on his phone and send to her.
She wished her parents good night and lay back in bed, the light from her phone casting a faint glow in her small bedroom. She didn’t have access to a zi char place but she would go to the Asian supermarket and pick up some rice noodles, beef and caixin and make her own beef hor fun for lunch later. The thought of the savoury gravy made her salivate, made her frustratingly hungry. So she got out of bed, wrapped a warm robe around her, found her furry slippers, then plodded into her tiny kitchen to eat up the rest of the kueh she had bought at Changi Airport. It wasn’t zi char but it would do for now.
Zi Char or 煮炒 zhuchao in Mandarin is a kind of home-style cooking found at a Chinese stall in a coffeeshop or at a small eatery in Singapore. They tend to open mostly for dinner. There is a big variety in what is considered zi char. Some places offer quite a few seafood dishes, like deep-fried cereal prawns, chilli crab. Many sell noodle dishes like hor fun (a rice noodle dish in a thick eggy sauce with meat and vegetables which you can see in the middle of the photo) and Ee mee. Soup, vegetables, tofu dishes are also available. Many zi char places these days try to distinguish themselves by offering more unique dishes like salted egg crabs, coffee pork ribs (although of course once a thing is a craze in Singapore, it is everywhere). Zi char is a place to eat with a large group as the portions are family-style.