#AtoZChallenge – Q is for Qing Tang or Cheng Tng

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. 

 

 

Q is for qing tang or cheng tng (清汤)*

 

He was convinced that qing tang or cheng tng was the answer to most heaty (yang)** ailments.

If he felt a sore throat coming on, cheng tng it was.

If he felt the slightest bit constipated, a big bowl of cheng tng helped flush things along.

If he spotted a single pimple, more cheng tng please!

On the rare occasions that he feasted on fried chicken, finger-licking good fried chicken, dark meat, drumsticks, wings and all, he gulped down an extra large bowl of cheng tng to combat the heatiness of his greasy meal.

He soon became known as the Cheng Tng Man to his colleagues. His younger colleagues snickered at his every mention of cheng tng, those who didn’t snicker sometimes asked him for recommendations of his favourite cheng tng places. They asked him for recipes, but he didn’t know how to make it.

“You should make your own, since you’re so particular about your cheng tng!” said James, his usual lunch kaki and a fellow cheng tng lover.

That was true. He was particular and he could tell if stalls used shortcuts in their cheng tng or added unnecessary ingredients, or worse, if they missed out on key ingredients.

To him, a true cheng tng consisted of pearl barley, white fungus, lotus seeds, dried longan, gingko nuts, red dates, pang da hai (sterculia lychnophora or malva nut), and strips of dried persimmon. The soup needed to have a slight taste of pandan from about two or three knots of pandan leaves, and a slight sweetness from sugar. The right cheng tng was harmonious. A balance of just the right amount of these different ingredients, to orchestrate a cooling, soothing, mellifluous tonic for the soul and a refreshing dessert for the body. He felt that it was best consumed cold but if the ailment was constipation, he believed that the cheng tng was best drunk warm.

So one Saturday, he went to the supermarket and the Chinese medical hall and picked up all the ingredients. He even picked up a new pot for cooking his cheng tng in. And in his new cauldron he brewed up different versions of cheng tng, adding a little bit more dried persimmon to one concoction, a little more pandan to another, extra pang da hai to the third. Until he had found the right balance, the very best version of cheng tng he could ever concoct. He shared some with his friends and family, who clamoured for more. His colleagues asked for his recipe, which he slyly decline to divulge. Everyone wanted more and more and he began to charge for his cheng tng. It was hard work after all, buying the ingredients and cooking his brew to perfection. His customers began to request for specific brews, attuned to their various heaty ailments, and so he developed a cheng tng solution for pimples, another for constipation, and his best seller, the one for sore throats.

Then one of his younger colleagues, yes, one of those who had previously snickered, announced that he no longer was plagued by his rash, not since he had regularly been eating the special ‘anti-rash’ cheng tng. Another raved about the ‘clear skin’ cheng tng. It was a marvel, she said, as her oily t-zone was now pimple-free. The cheng tng craze began to spread to their networks and even to social media. The orders came streaming in. He couldn’t cope with both his regular job and his cheng tng business. As word of mouth spread, he had to formalize his business, adhere to government rules with regards to food safety and hygiene, apply for licences and whatnot. That he expected. But what he did not expect was a visiting Taiwanese songstress getting her hands on one of his concoctions, and announcing at a press conference that it cured her laryngitis, enabling her to continue her series of concerts around Asia.

It was an explosion. It was tremendous. It was overwhelming. He never understood the power that celebrities could wield, until now. He got requests for interviews, he received orders from overseas. He had suppliers offering him discounts for their products if he would just mention that he used their sugar, their longan, their pots and pans. He often wished that he could just go back to his regular desk job, not have to brew another batch of cheng tng again. He wished he could just walk up to a dessert stall and order their cheng tng, he couldn’t do that now as every cheng tng seller recognized his ugly mug. Some refused to sell to him. Others grabbed hold of him, refused to let him leave until they pressed their contact information onto him, telling him they would make great business partners. All this over a sweet clear soup that a singer raved about. All this over a dessert that once gave him such joy to eat. And now just stressed him out.

 

Cheng tng or qing tang (清汤) is a Teochew dessert, and is translated into ‘clear soup’. It originally was known as ‘five fruits soup’ as it had longans, gingko Nuts, barley, lotus seeds, and lily bulbs, and was meant to combat the hot and sweaty summers. When Teochew immigrants brought this soup to Singapore, it became more of a dessert, and more localized ingredients were incorporated and today it has far more than just five ingredients. But essentially it is a sweet clear soup with several different ingredients in it, sometimes including the five above, as well as agar agar strips, white fungus, barley, dried persimmon and more. It can be served either hot or cold.

Here is a recipe 

 

* ok so I may have been pushing it using cheng tng as my “q” food. I mean, I never even knew that it was known as qing tang until I made a guess at the Mandarin translation of this Teochew word.

**yang is opposed to yin which is ‘cooling’

 

 

 

 

#AtoZChallenge – P is for Popiah

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. 

 

P is for Popiah

She was quite certain that this popiah party would not happen.

Why had she even thought about organizing it in the first place? It was so much work! First, she had to source for a reputable popiah skin maker. It had to be thin enough, but not too thin. It had to be of a good size. She had looked online and asked around, then went down to several places just to look at their method of popiah skin-making until she found the perfect one. The skin was just the right size, not too thick, just the right thinness to wrap and roll. So she placed an order for her popiah party.

She was still quite certain that this popiah party would not be perfect.

The filling had to be made. She had to pick up the right amount of jicama or bangkuang and carrots. It would have to be shredded and seasoned and cooked and made sure it wasn’t too wet or too salty or too dry. In other words, the perfect filling.

All the other ingredients would have to be prepared. There would be prawns, lettuce, fried eggs, lupcheong, minced garlic, fresh chillies, roasted peanuts, cucumber, coriander leaves and she was certain that she was still forgetting one or two other ingredients. Should she also include some premium ingredients like fresh crab? How about pork lard? Was that too much?

As she fretted and worried about her popiah party, she nervously twisted the brilliant rock that was sitting on her finger. It was still so shiny and new, it felt awkward on her. Should she take it off when cooking? What if she forgot to put it back on again? Or could she wear it around her neck? That seemed silly. What if she dropped it down the sink or lost it among the shredded jicama and someone rolled it up into a popiah, bit down on her rock and lost a tooth? What if that someone were her future mother-in-law?

Okay okay okay… she was getting paranoid over ridiculous things. She would just quickly run into her room, remove her ring and put it on her dressing table, then when the guests came and she went in to change, she could simply slip it on. And her perfect popiah party could begin.

She rolled up her non-existent sleeves, pushed her shoulders back, took a deep breath, and went into the kitchen to prepare the filling and ingredients. She was ahead of time and she just had to keep at it.

Rinsing. Shredding. Chopping. Mincing. Slicing. Dicing. Frying. Stirring. Scooping.

And plenty of stretching in between.

The doorbell rang. Oh god, was it them already??? She hadn’t showered. She hadn’t changed. And she really needed to pee! She was a horrendous mess. Her kitchen was a disaster. She hadn’t set the table. She hadn’t even cleared all her cookbooks and recipes off the table. And oh oh oh she hadn’t picked up the popiah skins yet. Oh this was a catastrophe. An absolute failure of a popiah party. And it would be her ruin.

The doorbell rang again.

She stood in the kitchen wringing her hands. Then she heard the key turn and the door open. It was Yang and he was standing in her flat, his parents peering out from behind him.

She could only stare at them.

“Wow. When you said come over for dinner I had no idea that you were going to make popiah. I love popiah!” Yang’s father told her.

Yang’s mother whispered something to Yang. Yang stepped forward and gently shooed her into the bedroom.

“You didn’t need to do all this. We could have just bought some food. But it all looks so wonderful, really! Ok now, go clean up, change and all that. We will figure it out ok? Don’t worry, my parents will love you. I think they already kind of do.”

She nodded and quickly stepped into the bathroom, she didn’t want him to see her tears. The shower washed them away and she felt a little bit braver and a little bit better. She put on her new dress and stepped out to meet her future in-laws.

It was only later, after they enjoyed their popiah skin-less popiah party, that she realized she had forgotten to put on her brand new engagement ring, that it had been sitting safely on her dressing table, not lost in the popiah filling, and that no one had accidentally bit into it, and no one had lost any teeth.

 

 

 

 

Popiah is also known as baobing (薄餅). It is essentially a roll, a little like a vietnamese summer roll. But unlike a summer roll, it doesn’t use rice paper. It is a soft thin skin made from wheat flour and the method for making the skin itself is quite fascinating – a ball of dough is held in one hand and then quickly rubbed against the hot griddle to leave a thin skin which is then peeled off after it is cooked. The thin skin means that a damp cloth is used to cover the skin when making popiah. The best way popiah is the ones you make yourself (at least that’s what I think) because you can put whatever ingredients you like, as much sweet sauce and chili as you prefer. It’s actually quite a healthy meal as there is a lot of vegetables, like the cooked jicama filling, the fresh lettuce leaves, beansprouts, cilantro, carrots. If you leave out the lupcheong or Chinese sausage, it’s even healthier as the proteins are boiled shrimp, egg and tofu.

Here is a recipe

 

#AtoZChallenge – O is for Orhnee

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. 

 

O is for Orh Nee 潮式芋泥

Mei always had food on her mind. Even at the most inconvenient of moments like this one, knee-deep in clay-like mud. The gloop sucked at her bare feet, as if trying to draw her down, pull her deep down underground. She almost wished it would, at least it would explain how her wedding ring was somewhere underneath it all. Her hands fished around in the warm grey mud. She knew it was hopeless. But was she talking about her bid to find her ring or her marriage itself?

As she took a break to straighten her aching back and stretch her arms up and back, the dripping grey gloop brought to mind the last time she had her late grandmother’s orhnee or taro paste.

Mei’s cousin had recently gotten married – on an empty windswept beach in Oregon. She had attended the wedding, one of the few relatives to do so. It had been a party of only about 25, most of whom were the bride’s family from Oregon. They had shivered on the beach, the wind strewing petals from the bride’s bouquet, her veil billowing around her dramatically as the sun began to set. It was quite unforgettable and Mei later had had to recount the ceremony for all the many Singapore relatives who had not made it halfway across the world, and several times for her grandmother who adored weddings, who always attended them although she needed help walking and couldn’t sit upright for long anymore.

Grandmother insisted on a celebration for the newlyweds when they visited Singapore, even though they had requested for just the tea ceremony to honour their elders. The family had catered some Teochew food for lunch but Grandmother had made orhnee as well. The purple-grey steamed and mashed taro paste was studded with gingko nuts and topped with bright pumpkin puree. It was a Teochew wedding tradition and she had wanted to make sure her grandson’s new wife tried it. Thankfully the bride had bravely tasted some of this foreign dessert, declared it was the best thing she had eaten so far in Singapore, and finished the whole bowl.

Mei had secretly been jealous of the happy couple. Of their youth and their bright eyes and their big smiles. Of the way they looked at each other, knowing that they had found the right one, their other half.

She had been tired of dating and searching and looking, of speed dating, of blind dating, of Tinder dating, and especially tired of the usual pitying looks from the relatives she saw each Chinese New Year because she was still single. Perhaps that was why she had jumped into her marriage with Mr Not-Right.

Grandmother had been too frail by then to make the orhnee for her wedding and they made do with the not-right hotel version. She wasn’t able to attend the tea ceremony at the hotel so Mei and Mr Not-Right held a tea ceremony just for Grandmother at her home. Mei wondered now if these were all signs she should have heeded.

Mei wished she could be eating Grandmother’s orhnee right now, instead of digging in orhnee-like gloop. What was she doing here? How did it all come to this?

An argument. An argument so bad that it made her storm out of the house, take a taxi to this place and fling her wedding ring in the grey mud. A fight that was months in the making, a slowly steaming mess of a marriage that should never have been made in the first place. She felt as bogged down as the mud she was standing in. She didn’t know what she was doing anymore. First she was flinging her wedding ring away, then she was dragging herself through the mud, in a desperate bid to get the ring back.

Why was being an adult so hard? Why couldn’t she go back to the carefree days of childhood when all that mattered was her toys, her books, her sneaking into the kitchen to snatch a forbidden bite of Grandmother’s orhnee?

She waded back onto dry land, sat down and stared at her mud-caked hands. They felt lighter and freer now, no longer bogged down by the wedding ring she didn’t want.

And what she did want, for now at least, was a bowl of orhnee.

 

Orhnee is one of my very favourite desserts. It is rich and warm and comforting. Unfortunately it isn’t the easiest of Chinese desserts to find and you may have to search for Teochew restaurants in Singapore that serve them. I may have to try making it myself as there is no way to get it here in California. Here is a recipe. 

 

 

#AtoZChallenge – N is for Nasi Lemak

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. 

 

N is for Nasi Lemak

She was in the line for nasi lemak when she heard his voice.

“This is the best nasi lemak because of the sambal. Without sambal, it is not nasi lemak and this one is perfect – a little bit sweet, a little bit salty, a little bit sour, and just the right spiciness. It is sublime sambal.”

That voice, those words, sent a shiver down her spine. She remembered the very day she had used those words, ‘sublime sambal’, the day she had first brought him to her very favourite nasi lemak stall. He had picked her up early and they had driven across the island to get here. He kept grumbling, sure or not, drive so far just for nasi lemak. He had already doubted her then. She should have listened to her inner voice when it told her to listen carefully to his words and not be taken in by his gorgeous smile, his deep voice, his bright eyes that wandered.

And here he was. Just two months after he had broken up with her. On a text message no less: “Sorry. This isn’t working for me.” Here he was claiming her nasi lemak stall as his. Ok so it wasn’t hers exactly, it was the very nice makcik’s who always gave her an extra large helping of her special sambal and clucked in sympathy when she first appeared at the stall without him.

But she was the one who had introduced the place to him, and convinced him that it was the best nasi lemak in Singapore. It had become their Sunday morning ritual. An early morning drive across the island for nasi lemak, teh tarik for her, kopi for him. Then a stroll along the boardwalk to work off the lemak-ness of the coconut rice and the fried ikan bilis. They had discovered the nearby cinema, a little older than the spanking new ones in town, which meant fewer Sunday crowds. And sometimes went bowling just for the heck of doing something different.

His voice brought her out of her reminiscing and back to reality. It was her turn and the makcik already was preparing her usual order with a smile. She reached for her purse and sneaked a look behind her, to see if she could avoid walking past him. The line was long and he was quite a way back but she could tell it was him. He was tapping his foot impatiently. She couldn’t see who he was with but it was definitely female.

Her heart flipflopped but she knew she was being silly. He had refused to answer her messages, emails, voicemails, and phone calls. And while she had been weepy and sad, angry and hurt, eyes red, nose leaking, for weeks until her best friends finally got tired and forced her back into un-tissue papered life again, he had moved onto someone else. Now he was swooping in on her nasi lemak territory.

And that was too much.

No longer could she stroll on the boardwalk without thinking of the way he held her hand, no longer could she go to the cinema without missing his arm around her. So this stake on the nasi lemak stall was hers to claim. She would not, could not, have him here every Sunday, or any other day. She did not want him to be able to savour the luxuriously coconutty rice, the crunchy ikan bilis and peanuts, and she especially did not want him to eat a single bite of any of this with the piquant sambal. It was her sublime sambal. It was not his.

She realized she had muttered the last few words out loud. The makcik looked at her with concern as she handed over the money and asked, “he’s here is it?” She nodded, stunned that the makcik had noticed.

“Don’t worry, I don’t sell to him, ok?”

She walked away with her packet of nasi lemak, trying not to look back. But curiosity got the better of her and she stood a distance away, peering out from behind a pillar.

When it finally got to his turn, the makcik shook her head at him and waved him away. He said something, makcik waved him away again and gestured to the customer behind him. He threw up his hands and turned to look around the hawker centre. She quickly ducked behind the pillar, her heart pounding. She couldn’t believe the makcik had done it.

He never returned to the nasi lemak stall again, the makcik told her a few Sundays later. It seemed that he had relinquished the nasi lemak to her. She was better off without him, she now knew. She had wasted tears on him, she now knew. But she had her nasi lemak and her sublime sambal back, and for now, that was all that mattered.

 

 

 

 

 

Nasi Lemak or ‘oily or fatty rice’ has its roots in Malay culture and cuisine. It is rice cooked with coconut milk and pandan leaves, and usually served with fried anchovies (ikan bilis), roasted peanuts, hard-boiled or fried egg, cucumber slices and sambal. The Singapore Chinese version comes with a variety of sides like fried chicken, sausages and luncheon meat. It makes for an excellent breakfast.

#AtoZChallenge – M is for Mangosteens and more

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. 

M is for Mangosteens and more

Margaret would be turning forty in May and her husband Raj wanted to throw her a surprise ‘M’ birthday party. They would celebrate with all her favourite ‘M’ foods. Murtabak, Mee Siam, Mee Rebus, Meringues and Macarons, and her all-time favourite fruit, Mangosteens.

“I’m turning 40 soon,” Raj had heard her tell their next-door neighbour, “A 40th seems like it should be a nice quiet event.”

But Raj, who would be turning 40 at the end of the year, thought a 40th deserved to be celebrated with a big bash and loved ones. And started planning a party.

At first it was to be forty guests to symbolise the forty years of her life. However, their flat was far too small for that many guests. So Raj started asking around. His colleague volunteered the use of his condo’s function room, which he claimed could hold up to 100 people. This of course meant having to invite that colleague, and the 18 other people who were in his group at the office. Good thing his boss was away, otherwise that would mean inviting him and the other partners too.

“Inviting your colleagues and not hers?” He had roped in Margaret’s best friend Shen to help with the party planning. She had a good point.

Okay, so that meant another… he counted them out on his fingers till he reached ten. He looked at Shen hopefully.

She shook her head and wrote ’23’ on the list.

Well, that function room should hold all these people at least.

Then he realized that he had forgotten to include her cousins. And Margaret had a boatload of cousins.

That was one of the things he adored about her, the way she was so close to her family. His mother had died when he was in university, and about ten years ago his father had remarried, moved to Australia and didn’t seem interested in coming back, even for a visit. Margaret was all the family he had these days. He wanted all those who loved her – and there were so many – to be a part of this celebration of her 40 years of life. He had been married to her for the last three years and often wished he had known her earlier. It was odd how their paths had finally crossed so late in their lives, when they had had so many people and directions in common. They had even attended the same primary school. But it took nearly 30 years and the nagging of some mutual friends who set them up on a blind date for them to finally be together. He wanted to celebrate it all, celebrate it every day, and especially celebrate the big 4-0.

But the big M party was getting out of hand. His colleagues asked if their spouses were included, and he didn’t know if Margaret’s colleagues expected to bring their other halves too. Oh god, they probably would, wouldn’t they? And their kids too? Margaret’s cousins would probably bring their kids. There were always kids around at her family’s many gatherings. This was spiraling into mayhem. This party was starting to sound like a bigger bash than their wedding. And should a birthday party be a bigger event than a wedding? Was this even what Margaret wanted?

May 6 arrived and Margaret woke to the smell of spicy mee rebus that Raj had picked up from the nearest hawker centre.

“So what’s the plan for today?” she demanded as she wolfed down the noodles.

“It might sound silly but I planned an ‘M’ day for you. We’ll start off with some murtabak for lunch, followed by a stroll around the museum, catch an early movie, then some mutton soup for dinner with plenty of mangoes and mangosteens for dessert.”

“You bought me mangosteens!! Where are they?” Margaret jumped up and started poking around the kitchen.

“Or you could just skip straight to the mangosteens and forget the rest,” said Raj.

Later, as Margaret cracked open the dark purple shell of a mangosteen, she said, “I could have sworn you were planning some kind of mad party. But mangosteens are all the madness I can deal with right now.”

 

 Mee rebus is literally ‘boiled noodles’ in English, and is a dish of egg noodles in a thick spicy gravy, served with firm tofu, sliced chilies, bean sprouts and lime. It’s a popular breakfast in Singapore. If you haven’t eaten a mangosteen before, oh, you are missing out. They have a rather woody shell and creamy soft sweet flesh. So good. Apparently they are difficult to cultivate outside of the tropics, which explains the lack of existence in Northern California, although I have seen it in the freezer of some Asian supermarkets. I highly doubt that frozen ones are any good though.

Also, wow I had a hard time coming up with this one. I toyed around with so many different M words, even writing a story told from the perspective of a mangosteen (that was a mistake). I’ve just finished the story, some 1.5 hours before it goes to post, which is the latest so far that I’ve done this! Definitely struggling here and wondering if my theme of food-related stories was too specific. Oh well. Now to figure out what my ‘N’ word is to be. 

 

 

 

#AtoZChallenge – L is for Laksa

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. 

 

Once upon a time there was a man and a woman who loved each other. They had been wanting to have a child for some time, and one day, the woman found herself to be with child. The first few months were difficult and the faintest of smells sent her running to the bathroom. The aroma of rice cooking made her nauseated, the smell of garlic being stir-fried gave her headaches, the simmering of chicken broth to nourish her spent body simply made her throw up. For the first trimester, she subsisted on a diet of plain crackers and water.

Then one morning, she woke feeling strangely hungry. Her stomach, long emptied of the crackers and water she had for dinner last night, gurgled. Her husband was startled. It was a sound he hadn’t heard for a while. For a second he wondered if somehow the baby inside her was trying to speak to him.

He hopped out of bed and rushed to the kitchen, and returned with her usual plain crackers and a glass of water.

She shook her head with a little smile and told him, “I feel like eating something else.”

He was overjoyed. He was tickled pink. He was over the moon!

He quickly pushed away the thought of the many many boxes of crackers sitting in the storeroom, beamed at his wife who was still looking wan and frail, and asked, “what is it that you feel like eating? Tell me! I will go and get it for you.”

She sighed and dramatically flung her arm over her forehead.

“The fair maiden would like some laksa please, good kind sir” she beseeched.

“Eh seriously ah. You go from plain crackers to rich spicy laksa? Maybe you should take it easy and have something like, say… wonton mee? Or how about fish porridge? You love porridge for breakfast. Well, at least you used to.”

His wife’s long lashes fluttered open and her glare flung tiny daggers into his heart.

He backed down, the only logical thing to do in a situation like this. A ravenous pregnant woman was not something he could handle at 6 am in the morning.

It would however be a task to hunt down good laksa at this time of day. Laksa, that spicy coconutty curry-like broth with noodles, tofu, prawns, fishcakes, beansprouts and cockles, wasn’t something he fancied for breakfast. It was far too rich and spicy for his morning meal. But he guessed that somewhere in this crazy-about-food island called Singapore, there must be someone lining up for laksa. He just had to use his mastery of the Internet to assist him in this crucial mission.

So he snuck out of the bedroom and called upon the power of Google.

And there it was, somewhere in the province of Tanglin Halt, a stall selling laksa that was already open. He gave thanks to Page and Brin, then flew down the stairs to his chariot, uh, car and sped off to Tanglin Halt.

Not too long after, he was gently pushing open the door to the bedroom, where his beloved still lay at rest.

“I come bearing you the gift of laksa, my love,” he murmured.

Her eyes opened and she bestowed upon him a beatific smile.

“Oh, you are my hero!”

His heart skipped a beat.

He helped her up from the bed and escorted her to the dining table where her rich spicy breakfast sat waiting.

“It smells divine! Thank you so much for bringing me laksa!”

She sat on her throne and raised the soup spoon to her mouth. She took a deep breath, inhaling the aroma of galangal, lemongrass, shallots, turmeric, chillies, belachan, candlenuts, ginger, garlic and other ingredients that had been ground and blended to make the spice paste that makes the base of laksa.

“Oh this is heavenly!” she whispered, perhaps a little too dramatically.

She took a sip of the rich laksa broth.

And another, a bigger slurp.

A third mouthful, lips smacking.

Then she declared, “that was wonderful!”

Her husband looked at her and then back down at the still-full bowl of laksa that he had raced halfway across the island to buy, for her to have three mere mouthfuls of.

Then he sighed, stalked off to the kitchen and returned with crackers and water.

“Maybe some fish porridge tomorrow?” his beloved asked, her mouth full of crackers.

Laksa is sometimes described as a ‘curry’ or a ‘soup’ but it is so rich and thick that it isn’t exactly soup-like, neither is it really a curry as it is very different from what we know as ‘curry’. It is just laksa and it is one of my favourite things to eat. But due to its rich, spicy, coconut-milk broth, it is a once in a while kind of treat. Luckily for this overseas Singaporean, there are plenty of laksa pastes that can be carted over here. There is a variety of laksa available in Southeast Asia, for instance, Penang laksa tends to be more sour and thin, as it uses assam (tamarind paste). What is more well known in Singapore is nonya laksa, and here is a recipe. 

#AtoZChallenge – K is for Kiam Hu and Kiam Chye

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. 

 

I was the only visitor my grandmother would permit these days. I think it’s because I was the only one who didn’t flinch at her cursing and would bring her cigarettes. Yes, cigarettes. My 90-year-old grandmother had taken up smoking again, something she had given up half a lifetime ago. In the last few months she had asked me to buy her cigarettes. That coincided with her admittance into the nursing home, when my uncle and his wife decided that they could no longer handle her. My Dad had never had a good relationship with his mother and my Mum often admitted she couldn’t stand her, so it was off to the old folks’ home for her. My uncle and aunt said that she would finally have company and could chat with other elders. My Mum snorted and said my grandmother would probably antagonize everyone in sight.

Alas, my Mum was right. My ah-mah had no friends there. The staff barely tolerated her. And I was her only visitor.

I would walk her outside to the garden and help her sit down on the bench and light up two cigarettes. One for her, one for me. I wasn’t a smoker but the first time I had brought the cigarettes, she insisted that I light one too. I just held it between my fingers as far from my face as possible. She didn’t really mind as I noticed that she didn’t smoke hers much either. She would just wave it in the direction of the other inhabitants of the home, ‘inmates’ she called them, pointing out all their idiosyncrasies. Mr Chua over there, she said, smoke wafting in the direction of the tall decrepit man in blue pyjamas, he refuses to wear anything but those ugly pyjamas, that’s what he wears all day and all night. Madam Lee over there, she said loudly, pointing to a squat woman with a flowery hat, never cuts her toenails. They’re so long they’re starting to curl up, she announced to everyone in the garden. Then she cackled until her cigarette nearly burnt her fingers.

I finally asked her about the smoking one Sunday afternoon and she leaned towards me and whispered, “it’s to chase away the ghosts of those I’ve cursed”.

She pulled back, gazed at my shocked expression then burst into wild laughter.

She sometimes acted more like a nine-year-old than a ninety-year-old.

Her laughter turned into a hacking cough and some minutes later, she wheezed, “it’s because this place smells like kiam hu, salted fish, and kiam chye, salted vegetables. Every day we eat kiam hu porridge for breakfast. They cook kiam chye t’ng, salted vegetable soup, for lunch. Dinner sometimes is chicken or pork but they always make us eat tau geh with kiam hu, beansprouts with salted fish. I smell like I have been pickled and salted. I am a kiam ah-mah now. The cigarettes stink like only cigarettes can but I’d rather stink of cigarettes than salted fish.

“And cigarettes remind me of your Ah-Gong.”

That was odd. I remembered my Dad once saying that my Ah-Gong had nagged and nagged at my grandmother until she finally gave up on her daily cigarettes. It didn’t seem a pleasant thing to remember. I cautiously mentioned it to the old woman.

She closed her eyes, took a long drag on her cigarette and explained.

“I’m very old. I haven’t much time left. I haven’t many memories left. So I just have to cling onto those that I can remember, even if they are not good ones. So the cigarettes remind me of my husband nagging at me. But this way I can still remember his face, remember his voice. He’s been gone for twenty over years now. I’m just trying to hold on to what I can. Even if it’s his nagging voice and the smell of cigarettes.

Better than smelling like kiam hu right?”

 

Kiam chye means salted/pickled mustard greens in Teochew or Hokkien, which are both Chinese dialects. Kiam hu means salted fish. “Kiam” essentially means salted. Kiam chye t’ng is a soup made with the preserved mustard greens and it can be made with a variety of proteins like duck, pork ribs, or tofu. My favourite is kiam chye ark or salted vegetable duck soup.

Here is a recipe for kiam chye t’ng or salted mustard greens soup

#AtoZChallenge – J is for Juice

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. 

J is for Juice

Young people these days, they say my juice is not healthy. I say, how can??? My juice is made with fresh fruits. I don’t add sugar or anything. I have so many kinds of fresh fruits. Got red and green apples, oranges, pineapples, watermelon, even got carrots.

But these days that’s not enough, you know.

These young people they ask, got celery? Got kale?

Kale? What’s kale? They tell me it’s a dark leafy vegetable. They want me to juice leaves? Is that what young people drink nowadays? Juice made from leaves?

And beetroots! I only know got canned type. Can juice ah?

Last week someone asked me if my juice is cold-pressed. I said my juice is cold because my fruits are in the fridge. Then can add ice if they want to make it colder. The boy just looked at me like I’m crazy and walked away.

Another time this woman asked if my fruits were organic. I nodded and then she asked if she could see the box that my apples came in and I said I threw those away already and she decided not to buy my apple juice.

One fellow asked if I can do orange, carrot and papaya juice. Luckily I got all those fruits and made him a juice. Of course I charged him more because special order mah. Finally, one satisfied customer.

Then the next day he comes back and asks for lychee, pineapple and papaya juice. I said I only got canned lychee. He said no problem.

I saved some to try, and I say, this guy knows what he is talking about. The lychee, pineapple and papaya juice is damn good. So I wanted to see the next day what he ordered.

He did come back. This time he said he just wanted carrot juice. But I thought that was now too boring. I wanted to try something new. I had even bought some ginger at the market, so I added some ginger and apple to his carrot juice. And when he tried it his face brightened. He told me, uncle, this was exactly what I wanted. The ginger makes a big difference.

The next day he came back again. He said, Uncle, can I have the same as yesterday, the carrot-apple-ginger combination? That was good. It cleared my nose!

So I made him a lemon-carrot-apple juice. With extra ginger.

He took a sip and his eyes began to water. After another sip he began to splutter and cough. He drank some more, his eyes watery and his nose starting to leak. I told him, eh, don’t drink finish if it’s too spicy! But he still kept drinking and he drank it all.

His face was red and he was sweating a bit. He took out some tissue paper, wiped his sweat, blew his nose and cleared his throat.

“Uncle, your drink is too powerful. It’s bitter, it’s sweet, it’s spicy. It is just too shiok. It’s great ‘cause it cleared my nose, but er I think it’s also clearing up my digestive system. Er, can you tell me where’s the nearest toilet?”

He helped me name that juice ‘The Great Detox’, and now it is up on the board along with Morning Madness (orange-lemon-lime juice), Berry Delicious (strawberry-blueberry), Power to the Kale (kale, orange juice, bananas) and some other ones. Yah, got kale. That kid, who’s now dreaming up a chain of our fancy juice stalls in food courts, has made me try kale. I don’t like it, but all those office workers who line up for my juices do. That’s ok by me.

Juice is in no way a uniquely Singaporean thing. But I love that you can easily find juice everywhere in Singapore. Nearly every hawker centre and food court will have a stall selling fruit juices and fresh fruit. It’s a less common thing here in suburban Northern California where I live so we recently bought a juicer.

#AtoZChallenge – I is for Ice-cream Sandwich

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. 

 

I is for ice cream sandwich

Ding-ling-ling! Ding-ling-ling!

That sound was magic. It woke the sleepy boy from his nap. He sat upright, his hair standing up, grabbed his glasses, hopped out of bed and dashed to the balcony. He stood on tiptoe, trying to see over the high wall. Where was it coming from? Was it getting closer?

What a wondrous joyful sound it was!

For that sound meant that the ice-cream uncle was coming!

Oh! There!

He could see the uncle’s cart now. It was just a speck from his 19th-floor balcony but he could recognise the ice-cream uncle from anywhere.

“Ma!!” he yelled into the flat. “Ma!!!”

His mother opened her bedroom door and held out the house key and some coins.

“Ok ok, don’t shout, your mei mei sleeping. Just go get what you want and then come straight back upstairs ok?”

He took the money and nodded.

Wah, he thought, this is the first time I’m going down to get ice-cream on my own. Then he looked down at the coins in his hand and realized that his mother had given him more than usual.

“It’s fine,” she told him with a sleepy smile. “You can get an ice-cream sandwich today if you want.”

He was flabbergasted. While Ma was happy to let him have an occasional treat from the ice-cream uncle, she usually let him choose only the cheaper ice lollies. Sometimes she would agree to one of those small cups of ice-cream, chocolate or vanilla. But an ice-cream sandwich? And on his own? This was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. His seven-year-old body shivered with excitement and eagerness.

“Lock the door behind you,” his mother simply said as she gently closed the bedroom door.

He stood there, a little bit more than stunned. Then raced to get his green slippers on and out the door he went. He pressed the lift button then ran back to his flat to lock the door, then raced back again to the lift and pressed the button again, as if it would make the lift go faster. He danced a happy dance as he waited for the lift to arrive then hopped in and pressed the button several times to make sure it would reach the ground floor faster.

On the way down, he thought about the ice-cream he would order. He had always wanted to try mint chocolate chip. It was his best friend ’s favourite flavour, but the boy had never tried it before.

He dashed out as soon as the lift doors opened. Where was the ice-cream uncle?

Ah! There!

The ice-cream uncle was selling a scoop in a cup to a small boy and his mother.

Come on! Come on! Yay! My turn!

“One ice-cream sandwich please uncle! Mint chocolate chip…no, wait! Sweet corn with rainbow bread!”

“Wah big boy already, come down by yourself ah!”

The ice-cream uncle grinned at his regular customer, grabbed a small plastic sheet, pulled out a slice of rainbow-coloured soft bread, then reached into the freezer section for the block of sweet corn ice-cream, carefully sliced it with a big knif and gently placed the frozen yellow slice into the middle of the rainbow bread.

The boy carefully took his precious treat from the old man, handed over his money, folded the bread in half, then slowly walked back to the lift landing. He held it delicately, hoping the ice-cream wouldn’t melt too quickly. Luckily the lift was still on the ground floor. It whisked him back up to the 19th floor and when the lift doors opened he saw his mother and little sister standing right outside.

Gege!” his sister called. “I woke up already!”

He grinned at his sister and mother.

“I got an ice-cream sandwich from downstairs!! All by myself!! I got sweet corn, meimei, your favourite!!”

 

The original Singapore-style ice-cream sandwich is a rectangular hunk or scoops of ice-cream (choose from various flavours like mint chocolate chip, durian, red bean, mango and sweet corn) then placed within your choice of rainbow-swirled soft bread or thin crisp sweet wafers. They’re still pretty popular today and some peddlers can even be found along the Orchard Road shopping belt.

 

What’s your favourite ice-cream flavour or swelteringly-hot day treat?

(Also, I would like to thank my husband whose memories of buying from ice-cream uncles helped inspire this story)

#AtoZChallenge – H is for Hokkien 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.

H is for Hokkien Mee

She slaved away in the kitchen, starting dinner preparations early with a rich stock made from blanched pork bones, dried fish, clams and her precious stash of prawn shells. She had saved prawn shells from previous dinners, frozen them until she had a sizable stash for this special dinner. Raw prawns and squid were added to the boiling stock for a few minutes until they were cooked, then set aside to cool.

The perfectly pink crustaceans then had to be peeled. The prawn heads and shells dropped back into the pot to enhance the simmering stock. The smell of the rich meaty seafood stock wafted through the hot cramped kitchen and into the rest of the flat. The windows had been flung wide open in the hopes of enticing in the faintest of breezes. Alas it wasn’t a windy day nor was it a rainy one. It was just a typical swelteringly hot and humid Singapore Sunday. At least it’s not a bad hazy day again, she thought, at least today I can actually open my windows. That at least is something.

As the stock simmered on the stove, she set to work plucking the bean sprouts and washing them, all the while thinking about this feast she was cooking, for the men she adored. Her little brother was on holiday from his university studies in Boston. She hadn’t seen him since last year, as he had spent Christmas break wandering around South America. She followed him on Instagram and envied all the wonderful places he explored, all the food he ate.
She saw her Dad more often, since he lived in Singapore, but on weekends he liked to play golf and mahjong with his kakis. He loved his grandchildren but he wasn’t very kid-friendly – he didn’t know what to do with them, and although she would make suggestions of simple games he could play with two kids under five, he preferred to whip out his phone and let them watch Youtube videos.

So she had made sure on this Sunday that her husband could take the kids over to the in-laws’.

Mum was away in New Zealand. Ever since Dad had retired, Mum started travelling more often. In the past year she had been to China, Hong Kong, Thailand and Myanmar. She suspected that Mum just wanted to get away from Dad who was now home too often.

Mum told her via email that she was silly to cook Hokkien mee. “Just go out and buy some food lah, they won’t know the difference”, she wrote.

But Didi only returned to Singapore once a year. She wanted to make his favourite local food since he was back so seldom. Maybe he would know the difference. He was after all always complaining about the Singapore/Malaysian food he had to put up with in Boston.

It was only when she started looking up recipes for Hokkien mee that it dawned on her this humble noodle dish found at plenty of hawker centres and food courts was more complicated than she had thought.

The beansprouts plucked and washed, the stock at the ready as were all the other ingredients, she checked the time and realized that everything was going according to plan.

Her plan that is, not her brother’s nor her father’s, who turned up half an hour and an hour late. She still smiled and offered beers and finally cut their small talk to usher them to the dining table.

With her father and brother finally seated and famished, so they claimed, she proudly served her homemade Hokkien mee and sat down with a small plate of her own. She had tasted as she cooked and thought it tasted pretty good, and now couldn’t wait to hear their comments.

After a couple of minutes, the first to speak was her father.

“Maybe you can cook the noodles longer next time. A bit tough leh.”

“Not bad but I think can do with some more pepper and soya sauce,” was her brother’s comment.

“Needs some sio bak*!” her father declared.

“Oh! I heard about that one! They serve in a claypot and with sio bak on top right. That’s supposed to be really good Dad. Have you been?”

The talk descended into the depths of hell for her. They started raving about the Hokkien mee that they had eaten at across the island. Then the talk turned to chicken rice, roti prata and durians, her Hokkien mee that she had spent hours in the kitchen cooking and worrying about simply shoveled into their mouths. Mum was right, she really should have just ta-powed some Hokkien mee from the nearby kopitiam.

She decided to just tune them out and finish her homemade Hokkien mee. If they didn’t appreciate it, maybe her husband would. Maybe she shouldn’t have declined his offer to stay around and act as her cheerleader. She really felt like she needed a good Hokkien mee cheer right now.

Hokkien mee is a dish of egg noodles and rice in a stock made from prawns and pork or chicken. It’s garnished with fresh prawns, fish cake, squid, bean sprouts and sometimes pork lard. A squeeze of fresh lime juice and some sambal chili gives it extra zing. It’s said that Singapore-style Hokkien mee was created as early as 1880 by a Hokkien (that is, from the Fujian province of China) immigrant.

 

*sio bak is a crispy roast pork