For the A TO Z CHALLENGE, I blogged for 26 days in April (except Sundays) based on the alphabet, and my theme was #foodiefiction, inspired mostly by the foods of Singapore.
I never thought I could do it.
I thought, hey, let’s just sign up and see how many I can do!
It was hard! A lot harder than I expected. And there were many nights as I sat at my laptop, a black space on Word, a cursor blinking away, that I wanted to just throw in the towel. Many days were spent thinking what am I going to write for this letter? Surprisingly though, inspiration for the the last few letters were easier to come by than some of the others. I cheated a little by using Chinese words. But hey, there was never a rule that said, use English only. Or maybe there was. I just never noticed it.
But on this last night, a few hours before my post for the letter Z is to go up, I feel a little bit sad that it’s over. I felt like it really opened my mind up, to start thinking about so many different things. Not just about the foods of Singapore, which was my theme for the challenge. But also about my relationship with Singapore, where I was born, where I grew up, but where I am not living at the moment.
Most of the pieces I wrote were fictional but some of them, especially the letter Z, had a few pieces of me within.
So here’s the thing. I used to be a writer. I used to write for newspapers. But I wasn’t much of a reporter. I didn’t know how to get out there and sniff out news and ask the right questions. For a long time after that I didn’t want to write. I still constantly doubt my writing ability. I still question if anyone out there would want to read what I am writing. That’s probably why it took me so long to sign up for this challenge and put up some non-book-related posts on this blog. (Yes I confess, I hide behind my book blog).
I have struggled for a long time with who I am. I know everyone does, so it feels silly to write this. But the past few years as a full-time mother I have felt so lost. What was I other than a wife and a mother? Who was I as a person?
It’s not as if participating in this challenge has solved all these questions, but the routine of sitting down at my desk every night after the kids go to bed, and typing out my silly little stories, it opened up something in me that I hadn’t felt for a while, a love for words, the idea that writing something, that reading something can make you long for something, make you hungry, make you feel something.
And so I don’t want to stop. I hope to sit down every night and write something. I haven’t the faintest idea where to begin, but maybe I will begin back at the letter A, and rewrite those stories that I wasn’t happy with, that I had rushed because I hadn’t had time to think of what my story for the next day would be.
I want to thank all of you for your likes and comments, for your kind words and encouragement, and also for sharing your own stories. I may not have been able to visit many other challenge participants, but I think I have made a new blog friend or two via the challenge.
I definitely will be taking part in the A to Z Challenge next year. Will you?
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.
He always knew when the Mid-Autumn Festival was approaching when the thwock-thwock-thwock, bang-bang-bang began.
His wife always insisted on making mooncakes for the family. A box of baked lotus paste mooncakes for his parents. A box of snowskin red bean paste mooncakes for his sister and her family. And one box each of baked mooncakes and snowskin lotus paste mooncakes for themselves.
He always offered to help. He didn’t mind helping out, he insisted, in fact he liked being able to roll up his sleeves and flour up his hands and help roll out the mooncake skin, or maybe just help with the mooncake moulds and all that knocking and banging? It was hard work, after all.
But no, she refused any help. This was something she had to do by herself. For herself. She insisted. She always told him. I make them. You eat them. And that he did. She refused to eat the mooncakes, except for a tiny taste here and there during the making of the mooncakes, just to make sure everything was tasting the way it should. Sweet, but not too sweet. A faint taste of pandan for the snowskin mooncakes. A soft but firm exterior for the baked mooncakes. And the baked mooncakes had to have that soft sheen from the egg wash.
Commercially made mooncakes often went the way of the unusual these days, from avocado to cheese to peanut butter to green tea mooncakes. He had sampled some of these flavours when colleagues brought them into the office. They all knew that his wife made mooncakes, and always made sure he tried any new mooncakes they had come across. They especially wanted him to try all the lotus paste mooncakes that clients had gifted them with, from the neighbourhood bakery to the six-star hotel. And they always asked, so how? Better than your wife’s or not? He preferred to just grin and keep eating. Mooncake season always meant that he had to add an extra kilometre to his run.
The truth was, he was no mooncake lover. The truth was, he was no connoisseur of food at all. To him, mooncakes were all similar. Oh sure, this bacon one tasted different from that durian one but they were all mooncakes. Whether they were made by his loving and dedicated wife’s tired hands, or by an unknown stranger in a bakery, or by machine in a factory, they tasted all the same to him.
He figured that if mooncakes were available all year round, he would be far better off as no one would be so crazy about them during mid-autumn.
He tried to hint to his wife that she didn’t need to make mooncakes. It was too much work. They could simply pick up a box for his parents and sister at a bakery or a hotel. But she was still at it, for the 19th year running.
It was tradition, she said. It was part of their cultural heritage, she said. It was something for the kids, she said.
At first he thought she meant his sister’s kids, who were still in primary school and who devoured all the mooncakes that his wife made. Then he realized that she must have included Jacob, their son, their boy, who would now be 18 years old. They hadn’t seen him for nearly two years, when he ran away from home. He had loved mooncakes as a little boy, long before he had fallen in with some not-so-good sorts, started skipping school, disappearing for days even. They called his classmates, they called his friends, they searched for him at his usual hangouts, reported it to the police. But Jacob was gone. No one knew where or what had happened.
He had wondered if he had worked too much and wasn’t around enough. He knew his wife blamed herself for not keeping a closer eye on Jacob, for giving him too much freedom, for being preoccupied with her own work. She often sat on Jacob’s bed, looking over his things, which she had refused to pack away. His way of dealing with all this was to run more. It kept him out of the house, it kept him from feeling too angry and too sad.
But one Saturday morning, he heard the thwock thwock sound, and knew that it was mooncake season again. He went into the kitchen where his wife was knocking her old school wooden mooncake moulds on the top, trying to dislodge the mooncake. He placed his hand on hers, took the wooden mould from her, then proceeded to gently but firmly knock the mooncake out of the mould. She started to say something, then stopped. Instead she started rolling out more dough. He continued working with the mooncake mould. Together they made lotus paste snowskin mooncakes, Jacob’s favourite.
My mum used to make mooncakes (she still does sometimes) and I used to help her roll the skin over the lotus paste balls, pop them into the mooncake moulds and do all the banging and thwock-thwocking until they popped out. So I kind of know what I’m talking about here. But I don’t really know much about the fancy new mooncake flavours that are all the rage these days. In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, there are a lot of East Asians and Southeast Asians, as in, there are a lot of ethnic Chinese, so mooncakes can be found in Chinese bakeries, Asian supermarkets etc. Even durian mooncakes made in Singapore. But these mooncakes are quite standard, lotus paste, red bean, at the most green tea. I sometimes wonder what a chocolate mooncake or a maple syrup one tastes like. And how I miss snowskin mooncakes! They are hard to find here, and those that I’ve tried are just not right.
In case you haven’t a clue what I’m talking about, snowskin mooncakes aren’t baked. The flour is already cooked or fried beforehand, so it’s kind of like eating an edible play dough (it’s essentially cooked glutinuous rice flour, shortening, icing sugar, water and colouring). But you know, something that is actually worth eating – soft, sweet, very delicious. They are meant to be stored in the fridge and served slightly cold, unlike the baked mooncakes which are stored at room temperature and served as is.
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.
X is for xiaolongbao
His girlfriend loved xiaolongbao. So for their first anniversary, he took her on vacation to the home of xiaolongbao – Taipei. They took in the sights, did some shopping, and enjoyed the sinful snacks at the night market. Then on their second night, he finally took her to the xiaolongbao restaurant. He had made special arrangements as someone he knew knew someone who knew someone who knew the family who owned the restaurant, and so they were seated at a table in a quiet corner (or as quiet as a Chinese restaurant could be), and had their orders taken by a smiling waitress. They feasted on a bamboo salad, pork xiaolongbao, steamed chicken soup and vegetables. She raved about the xiaolongbao – exquisite and delicate. She counted the folds on each one she ate – 18 on all of them, she gasped. She gently picked up a xiaolongbao with her chopsticks, placed it on her spoon, then nibbled the side of the xiaolongbao and sipped at the rich broth within. She added some ginger strands and a bit of vinegar to the dumpling and ate it in one bite. Then she sat back as she savoured the meaty xiaolongbao, her eyes closed, her mouth masticating. A swallow, a smile, a reach for another xiaolongbao.
After all that, they still had room for dessert, and she ordered a basket of taro xiaolongbao. Those tiny bite-size dumplings filled with a faint purple mashed sweet taro. Soft, chewy, sweet. They ate to their stomach’s content. Who knew that one could eat so many xiaolongbao at one go?
Then a final steamer basket arrived and the waitress gently placed it in the middle of their table.
“What’s this?” his girlfriend asked, “I don’t remember ordering anything other than the taro xiaolongbao. This must be someone else’s.”
He told her to open the lid and check what was inside.
She gently lifted the lid to have a peek. And gasped. She quickly pushed the lid back on the basket.
Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes wide open.
“Is that what I think it is?” she asked quietly.
His heart was beating wildly. This was it! He was going to do it! He eased his chair back, picked up the steamer basket, and held it towards her. Please please please please please say yes, he repeated in his head over and over. His hands trembled and the basket shook a little. But he steadied himself. I must be brave. I can do this.
He was on one knee. His heart hammered away at his chest, threatening to burst though.
Although they were in a quiet corner, people had started noticing. And the din from the chatter died down as he knelt there in front of her, holding up a big steamer basket.
Her hands were covering her mouth. And she was shaking.
From fear? From laughter? He couldn’t quite tell.
He was just going to do it anyway, he had already come this far and everyone was looking.
He leaned forward.
“Will you marry me?” he managed to blurt out.
She said yes and the restaurant burst into applause.
Then it went back to business as customers returned to their xiaolongbao and tea, and waitstaff took orders and ferried baskets of xiaolongbao around.
Three months later, she returned to Taiwan alone. She had told him ‘yes’ but in reality, she wasn’t ready. She didn’t want him to be left kneeling in a public place like that, she didn’t want him to feel embarrassed by her inability to accept his proposal. She had felt the pressure of everyone looking at them. She had noted the absolute silence in the room, everyone waiting with bated breath for her answer. How could she say no? She said that he had put her in the spotlight, he had forced her to say yes. And after they returned to Singapore, the beautiful diamond ring on her finger felt like a burden, a lie that she no longer wanted to tell. She loved him, she loved being with him, but she said they were too young for marriage. She told him that she would rather return the ring, call off the engagement, than wait it out and see if she felt any different a few months later. He felt like he had to pick up all the tiny pieces of his broken heart off her living room floor. Had he been too hasty? Had he been so in love with her he had read all the signs wrong?
She went to Taiwan for work, stayed on and they never saw each other again. He occasionally looked at her photos of Taiwan on Facebook but noticed that she never posted any pictures of the restaurant where he had proposed. And he felt strangely comforted by that.
Xiaolongbao isn’t a traditional Singapore dish. I didn’t eat it as a kid. But these days, xiaolongbao is everywhere, thanks largely to the many branches of Taiwan’s famous Din Tai Fung, located across Singapore (19 at this point of writing! 19! On an island only 277 square miles or 719 square kilometres! That pretty much signifies Singaporeans’ love for xiaolongbao).
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.
W is for wanton mee
Once there was a young man who set out on a mission to create the best wanton mee in the land. He was a scientist and as a toddler looked up to Dr Honeydew from the Muppet Show (and secretly wished he had his own Beaker as a lab assistant). When he became a young adult, and an actual scientist with a lab, PhD and all, he loved nothing more than to experiment, observe, study and investigate. But when it came to his free time, he couldn’t quite do the same out in the world. His parents, while they always encouraged his love for science, could never cope with his proclivity towards experimentation. Until one day, when they were out eating his favourite wanton mee, his dad wondered out loud, what is in this sauce? It always tastes so good, no other wanton mee tastes like this.
This got the young scientist’s mind churning and whirling and chugging away.
And as sauces and chilis and other condiments were easier to procure and more affordable than hazardous chemicals, his parents were more than happy to assist. His mother gladly handed over her kitchen, on the condition that he clear up any mess. His father drove him down to the wet market – he was too distracted a driver and a menace on the road – to check out all the different chilis, meats, wanton wrappers and noodles on offer.
He spent nights working on his noodles. Then more nights on his char siew. And even more on the wantons.
Finally one night, the clattering in the kitchen stopped and there was an awkward “woohoo!” muttered. His long-suffering parents looked up from their Chinese soap opera and at their son, who emerged from the kitchen with a small plate and two pairs of chopsticks.
After nights of smelling his cooking, trying to peek into the kitchen-lab, being yelled at and shooed away, they were finally presented with a plate of their son’s homemade wanton mee. They marveled at how professional it looked. They waited for his nod before they picked up the chopsticks and had a bite.
His parents chewed and savoured the noodles and the char siew. His mother started to speak but he shushed her into silence. Then it was on to the wantons. They chewed in silence, not daring to look their son in the eye.
He stared at his parents eating his picture perfect wanton mee. He had dedicated so many hours to it, not just in the kitchen, at the supermarket and wet market, but also hours just thinking of, puzzling out, wanton mee. His numbers all added up, so did his formulas. He had done his sums, he had worked it all out in his head, on paper, and worked on his experiments. So he had to manipulate and tweak things a little bit in the lab. But finally, he had a finished product, a plate of wanton mee to be proud of. But was it right? Was it there? Was it perfect? He felt that he was now too involved in it to be impartial. It was too late to call anyone else now so his pathetic parents would have to judge. Had he done it?
“It is very good,” his mother enthused. She glanced at her husband, then raised her eyebrows at him. His father drank some water, then set his glass down and told his son, “it is very good, boy. Very good.”
He wasn’t sure whether to be insulted by the “very good” or the “boy”. He reached out to take the plate from his parents. His father held the plate out to him, looked him in the eyes and said gently, as if talking to a very young child, a child who once loved the Muppet Show, “boy, this is good, but this is not wanton mee. You have used numbers and science, things I do not understand, to create this dish. It tastes good, it tastes like wanton mee, but it does not have heart, it does not have soul. And that is what makes an excellent wanton mee.”
Wanton mee is popular not just in Singapore and Malaysia but also in Hong Kong. However there are significant differences in these wanton mees. In Hong Kong, the dumplings are large, about the size of ping pong balls, and often come in a soup form. In Malaysia, the wanton mee tends to be dark and salty. In Singapore, ketchup is sometimes used for a sweeter version than the Malaysian one. The wanton in Singapore and Malaysia-style wanton mee are also a lot smaller, bite-sized. And some stalls offer fried wantons as well. Vegetables and sliced char siew are also part of wanton mee.
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.
V is for Vegetables
“I don’t like vegetables much.”
That was the first weird thing he told me.
And the second weird thing was the next sentence out of his mouth.
“I’m a vegetarian.”
I was intrigued.
Mutual friends had set us up. “He’s an interesting guy,” Miriam told me about her new boyfriend’s good friend. I was in a dating rut, so I shrugged and said ok.
There we were, at a vegetarian Chinese restaurant by the Singapore River – his choice of course. It was a Friday evening and it was relatively packed with locals and tourists. I had heard of this place but vegetarian food wasn’t something I was drawn to. I felt more comfortable at those Brazilian churrascaria places where the waiters came by with skewers of meat of every imaginable type – heart, rump, hump, ribs, lamb, beef, chicken, pork. I ate them all. Then called for seconds
I had asked him to place the order, as I wasn’t familiar with Chinese vegetarian food.
And he ordered sweet and sour vegetarian fish, pumpkin with vegetarian prawns, mock salmon sashimi, and Kung Pao mock chicken.
I gaped as the waitress repeated his order. He nodded and smiled.
Is this what Miriam meant by interesting? His inability to eat meat yet his obvious desire to do so? I wasn’t quite sure how to delicately ask about it, so I decided I might as well go head on.
“Why are you a vegetarian then?”
I waited for that usual spew about cruelty to animals and loving the environment.
“I’ve been vegetarian my whole life. My parents were vegetarian and they brought me up that way. I’ve never had meat. At least not to my knowledge.”
He was a meat virgin. I had never met one before. And I couldn’t help but imagine all the naughty things that I could do to him. Like bake some bacon into a cupcake. Or cook rice in chicken stock. Or dab some bakkwa onto my wrists like perfume.
We chatted about random first-datey things, like how we knew Miriam and her boyfriend, where we worked, what we did on the weekend.
He was a nice guy, sweet, polite, funny enough, cute enough. It otherwise would have been an average date, easily forgotten. But I was so intrigued by this vegetable-hating vegetarian, and I was attracted to the way he savoured his mock meats and fish. There seemed to be a carnivore inside of him just dying to claw its way out and sink its teeth into actual flesh. I imagined placing a rare ribeye steak in front of him, slowly slicing the hunk of meat, watching the bloody juices ooze out, then feeding him the tiniest of slivers with my fingers.
Instead I watched him place some mock chicken on my plate. Then I bravely picked it up with my chopsticks and shoved it into my mouth. It had the chewy springiness of chicken but with a strange not-quite-there feeling. What was I eating? It tasted more like tofu, and it probably was, but under all those sauces and spices used, it was, to be honest, not entirely easy to figure out this unnatural beast that is pretend-chicken. The vegetarian prawns were crusted in panko and deep-fried and I decided that I could pretend that this was a real prawn. But the ‘raw salmon’ blew my mind. It looked like salmon. It had that slightly jellied texture of salmon sashimi. And it had the right orange-pink hue. How was this vegetarian?
Focus, I thought, focus. I will not be tricked by these vegetables masquerading as meat. That is not meat. That is not me. I looked up at my date and he was holding out the last piece of salmon sashimi. That delicate, smooth, orange-pink slice dangled seductively from his chopsticks as he reached over the table to me. This felt so wrong – wasn’t I supposed to be the one to turn him? Why did it feel like he was gaining the upper hand and turning this meatlover into a mock meat-eater? And yet, that salmon was calling out to me, it whispered ‘eat me’. And so I did.
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V is a hard letter! I tried out a couple of other V words but nothing seemed to stick so vegetables it is. I hope this doesn’t give you the wrong impression of Chinese vegetarian restaurants, not all of them focus on mock meats! In fact, I was completely taken by surprise when I had lunch at a vegetarian restaurant in Singapore last year, the meal was refreshing and delightful and so unique in their use of different vegetables and mushrooms. And yes, they even had ‘salmon sashimi’ (see the photo above).
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 the rest of my A to Z posts here.
U is for Uncle
They call me Uncle. And it makes me feel old. I’m only 41 leh. These customers of mine, office workers usually, are probably only a few years younger than me. But because I work in the hawker centre, I am ‘uncle’ to them. More specifically, char kway teow uncle. They see me in my t-shirt and shorts and think I am doing this because I have no choice. After all, who would want to sweat in this hot stuffy stall all day? And to cook for a living? And all that preparation every morning. Washing, chopping, cutting, stirring. No kidding, it is hard work. And man, all that standing up! It is laborious. They call it a labour of love and that is exactly it. My work is a labour of love.
But my work is also a big part of my family’s history. My grandfather made a living selling char kway teow. He didn’t make much but did well enough to put my father and his sister through school, to university. And my father, the university graduate, didn’t want to have anything to do with this dirty work. Yes that’s what he called it – still calls it – ‘dirty work’. He went to work at a bank, rising up through the hierarchy, doing well. He went on to buy a big house in the right district, his cars growing from small puttering Japanese models to stylish German speedsters.
I never saw him eat char kway teow.
He loved his hawker food. But didn’t want to step into a hawker centre. So I became his hawker centre gofer, as soon as I knew how to count money and ensure I had the right change. My father would park his car, give me his order and any special requests like more chili or extra fishballs, and I would scurry off into the hawker centre for his food and mine. I usually just ate what he ordered – chicken rice, fishball noodles, sometimes wanton mee. But one day I ran past the char kway teow stall which always had a long line of customers. There was no one waiting. So I quickly put in an order. When I returned to my father’s car, he sniffed the air and snorted, “char kway teow? That one not very good. Don’t know why always got such a long queue.” Later at home, he watched me eat it. He was right. It was a little too sweet, as if they had added some sugar to the sauce.
I went to university in England, where I soon figured out that cooking my own Singapore-style food was often better than the ‘Singapore/Malaysian’ restaurants there. Returning to Singapore a little fuller in the face and rounder in the stomach but more worldly wise and with a graduate degree under my belt, I somehow ended up in the banking industry, just like my father, whose legacy followed me wherever I went. I was known as ‘Mr Eng’s son’. Do you know how ridiculous that sounds?
As you can guess, I grew tired of it all, of the long hours, the backaches from sitting too long at my desk, the eyestrain from staring too long at the computer screen, the throat strain from talking on the phone and at meetings. And so I gave it up for backaches from standing all day, pain in my elbows from stirring and chopping all day, and pimples on my forehead from all that oil I use when cooking. Some of my friends think I’m crazy. But you know what, it’s a good kind of crazy. I’d rather be out here doing something I feel passionate about. I am feeding people. I am making them happy with a good, albeit sinful, plate of char kway teow. Somehow that combination of rice noodles, lup cheong, fish cake, cockles, beansprouts, eggs, sambal chili, soy sauce, lard and more makes people’s eyes light up and their mouths twitch. It doesn’t make headlines or move world financial markets or anything momentous like that. But it causes cravings, and makes people form long lines and wait patiently (or not). It fills stomachs, makes lips smack. So being called ‘char kway teow uncle’ is a lot better than being known as ‘Mr Eng’s son’.
‘Uncle’ is used to politely address men of a certain age in Singapore. For women, ‘auntie’ is used. That doesn’t mean that everyone in Singapore is related. There’s no hard and fast rule on the use of ‘auntie’ and ‘uncle’, but for instance, if I were to hop in a taxi, I’d probably say something like “Uncle, Bukit Timah please.” Or like in my story, telling a hawker centre ‘uncle’ or ‘auntie’ your order, “Auntie, two plates of chicken rice”.