Tuesday, 31 March 2015

1960s Chinatown breakfast -- a living portrait in Singapore

Having breakfast in Chinatown in the 1960s was like eating with a large extended family. 

It was a sea of familiar faces: the hawkers were mostly people from the same neighbourhood; some, in fact, were one’s own relatives. But mostly, the hawkers were housewives or retirees seeking to supplement meager incomes peddling food on the streets at a time when legislations like the hawker license were unheard of.

This state of semi-anarchy resulted in the explosive proliferation of our street food as we know it today. A shantytown of makeshift stalls sprang up in Chinatown, in the lanes and 5-foot-ways that cut through the ranks of 3- and 5-storey prewar shophouses and Art Deco-style SIT buildings that packed the area between Kreta Ayer Road and Temple Street.

While the shops and businesses occupied the street level, people, including many hawkers, lived upstairs. Living conditions in the upper storeys of shophouses were horrific – even slum-like -- by today’s standards. Individual and even multiple families occupied tiny, dark, airless cubicles. The few toilets there were, the kitchen, and corridors, were shared by everyone. Women cooked into the wee hours in the cramped, often single, kitchen; and there was not an ounce of privacy. The burdens of living were relieved by simple joys like sewing and gossip and plenty of community spirit.

One of these pleasures was food. Different dialect groups would congregate and live in distinct portions of Chinatown, giving rise to clan and other communal associations specific to each ethnicity. In particular, the arriving immigrants brought the food and culinary traditions of their homelands and planted them in Chinatown.

By the break of dawn around 6 am, hawkers could be seen stacking up crates and boxes along the already crowded streets and under the staircases, often assisted by members of their family. Wooden trays would be perched on top of the crates as serving counters and ‘dining tables’. Other hawkers would peddle their food in 3-wheel carts, trundling them through the alleyways of Chinatown. Food would literally ‘fly off the shelves’, and by 10 o’clock the hawkers would wrap up, clean up and head home to the rest of the day’s chores. The next day it begins anew.

The hawkers of Chinatown embodied the diversity of cultural histories and economic realities to be found within that half-square-mile of seething humanity. In fact the personal story can sometimes be as piquant and fascinating as the flavours on the plate; here are some faces and their foods that I remember.

Yong Jie  (容姐)-- as she was known in the neighbourhood -- came from Shenzhen after WWII. Rumour had it that she fled with bags of money stolen from her husband, then squandered the loot in Singapore and was reduced to earning a living selling fried dumplings. Yong Jie had adopted a girl -- a common practice among single women of the day – in the hope of securing some care for herself in old age. 

Each morning Yong Jie and her daughter would set up a stall at the end of Sago Street, next to Keong Saik Street – the spot no longer exists, having being replaced by Chinatown Complex. She would set a wooden tray, about the size of a school desktop, on a crate. Next to it would be a charcoal stove supporting a wok of boiling oil. She made Fried Dumpling at 10 cents each; in fact, she was the only person I ever knew in Singapore who sold this particular food.

Fried Dumpling was an old Hakka creation that has disappeared even from China. It used to be called “za” dumpling (); since “za” sounded like “fried () in the Hakka dialect. It gradually came to be called “zha” dumpling (), as “zha” was the actual word for “fried” in Hakka.

The version I encountered in mainland China was a dumpling pan-fried until crispy and then eaten dipped in sugar, salt, or a ginger/garlic dip. Yong Jie perhaps took her cue from the Goreng Pisang man, as her dumpling was dipped in batter and fried, and eaten with five-spice salt.
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PENNYWORT DRINK image by Mark Ong
Ku Po (姑婆) was a retired Samsui woman who shared a cramped 20-sq-m room with her daughter’s family of six. Every morning she would head to a nearby ice-factory with two thermos flasks. She would line the bottom of the flasks with newspaper-wrapped dry ice, and fill the rest of the space with ice popsicles. She then roamed the streets selling the popsicles to young children.

Past noon Ku Po would head home; along the way she would stop at the market to pick up some pennyworts and pickled lemons. Her grandchildren would wait eagerly for her at home, hoping for leftover ice popsicles; the family then gathers to pluck, wash and pound the pennywort leaves. Ku Po’s daughter then squeezes the pulp for the juice.

Come evening, Ku Po and one of her grandchildren would carry a container filled with pennywort juice to the cross-junction of Banda Street and Sago Lane. At one of the busiest spots in Chinatown, she sets up a makeshift stall selling iced pennywort and pickled lemon juices.

The customers to her stall would probably be people headed to the funeral parlours at nearby Sago Lane; or they would be kids; or labourers who worked at the construction sites and warehouses.  Pennywort juice was one of the cheapest ways, it was believed, to ‘cool’ the body and purge it of toxins generated by the hot sun.  The pulp of the pennywort, too, had its remedial effects, being commonly applied to cuts, swollen joints, and even acne.

As pennywort juice had a unique intense rawness to its taste, heavy syrup was added to ‘sweeten’ it, and a glass went for 5 cents.

DRIED COD PORRIDGE image by Mark Ong
Mui Ku (梅姑) was a retired ‘ah mah’ from Shunde who lived in a small room with a roommate, a ‘sister’ from the same province in China.  The two old women had accumulated some savings from their days working as ‘ah mahs’; but to help stretch it, they prepared a Shunde recipe to sell -- dried cod and peanut porridge.

Dried cod was a cheap source of umami in southern China, where Mui Ku came from. It was usually grilled so that its flavour would come through completely when the cod was used as base for stock. Sometimes the dried cod would be blended into powder as part of the marinade in wonton and meat loaves.

Mui Ku would wake up at 4 am to set up the charcoal stove. She would grill the dried cod and hammer it with a stone pestle; meanwhile the porridge was set to boil for the next two hours. The pulverized pieces of dried cod, as well as peanuts, would be added to the porridge. She would then fry noodles in batches and store them in aluminium pots.

Mui Ku’s partner would have already set up the stall made up of wooden crates under the staircase of the shophouse where they lived. At 6 am, Mui Ku would man the stall while her partner delivered orders to nearby residents on a round metal tray. They charged 10 cents for a bowl of porridge and delivery was free.

By afternoon, their business day done, the 2 friends would go around Chinatown scavenging for cardboard to sell as scrap.

It was rare for a Eurasian family to live in Chinatown in those days. Auntie Rose, along with her family, was considered ‘rich’ by the neighbourhood because her husband worked at a bank. However, Auntie Rose would bake cakes and kuehs in her spare time to earn some extra pocket money. The neighbours and friends would come to her house next day to collect their orders. Apart from butter cake and Swiss roll, I remember most vividly her Serikaya.

Serikaya is nearly impossible to find today, and most Singaporeans have never heard of it. Even in the early years, it was only well-to-do Eurasian and Peranakan households that prepared Serikaya, and it was usually for their own consumption. Serikaya is a custard of egg, coconut milk and sugar, with pandan leaves for a delicate fragrance – and it has always been laborious to make.

Serikaya was usually eaten with toast or as accompaniment to steamed glutinous rice. Even back then, Auntie Rose hardly made this confection, as Serikaya didn’t have a long shelf life and refrigerators weren’t that common.

Mr Chua did not operate a stall but he supplied ingredients to hawkers in Chinatown. He worked in a kelong and so was often away for days at a time. His family looked forward to his homecomings, as he would bring fresh sea-catch such as groupers, snappers -- and even a tiny crocodile once. After the family has had their pick, the excess would be sold to the neighhourhood hawkers at a discounted price, and one item in particular was much sought after: pickled mangrove crabs.

The family would pickle these mangrove crabs, or ‘wa kee’, in bottles and distribute them to Teochew porridge stalls around Ellenbourgh Market. The wa kee were small crabs that inhabited the mangrove swamps feeding on the propagules, or buds, of the mangrove plant. They emerged from their mud-burrows at dusk and were known to climb as high as 6m up a tree to forage. To harvest the crabs a net was held at the base of the tree and a long stick used to scare or dislodge them, dropping them into the net.

The Chuas would soak the crabs in soy sauce or vinegar, together with garlic, chilli and coriander leaves. The Teochew in particular considered pickled wa kee a delicacy and relished them with porridge.

The Lees were Hakka. Mr Lee held an administrative post at the bank and so the family could afford a whole shophouse storey to itself. Mrs Lee was a good cook and many a time the aroma of her cooking would fill the area around her kitchen.

On festive seasons, Mrs Lee would reserve 'ikan parang' (wolf herring) from the fishmonger and set up a mini-factory in her hallway. She would scrape the flesh from the fish and beat it into paste. Her 3 children would stuff this fish paste into various vegetables, churning out ‘yong tau foo’ which would then be delivered in boxes to families nearby who had preordered them for dinner.

There was a particular dish that only a true-blue Hakka would order from Mrs Lee -- stuffed egg custard in animal intestine. Its preparation was, like many traditional dishes, laborious: the intestines had to be cleaned and flushed with water. Eggs would be whisked with meat stock and poured into the intestines, which then had to be slow-boiled in simmering water to avoid the intestines bursting. Finally, the cooked intestines were cut into 1.5 cm-thick slices and eaten with a dip or cooked in a broth.

Note: This article first appeared in ZbBz on September 2014 as 'The Flavour of a Life'.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Penang – Where the Good Food is!

For Baby Boomers, a visit to Penang is like finding once again the home we left all those years ago. While modernization and gentrification has altered the townscape quite a lot, certain pockets of Penang still transport the visitor back powerfully to Singapore of the 60s and 70s. Sights, smells, sounds, and especially tastes, still evoke what can only be described by the cliché, ‘the good ole days.’

The younger visitor, meanwhile, will find a town on the upswing, thanks to its new status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Hip hostels and cafes line the historic lanes of Georgetown, and specially commissioned street art cling to weathered walls and peep out from unexpected corners. But the most telling impression the youngster will take away is the stupendous street food, which literally carpets Penang.

Penang and Singapore share many similar flavors, not surprising given some of our common origins in Malay, Hokkien, Hainanese and Indian food. However, differences exist, some more obvious than others, because of geographical and historical circumstances. Just look at Singapore’s and Penang’s idea of laksa!

That being said, to anyone who has ever moaned about the food in Singapore going to the dogs, a trip to Penang is an antidote. Dress comfortably for sure; ideally in tees and Bermudas, as it’s hot and the best food is invariably found in non-airconditioned coffee shops, side lanes and outdoor spaces.

Meat Porridge and Fried Kway Teow
It may sound touristy, but to local and visiting foodies alike, the street market at Jalan Kuala Kangsar is not to be missed. The food stalls are mixed in with the usual market vendors along both sides of a thronging and narrow lane. Nearly all of Penang’s signature foods are here; but two stalls in particular stand out: the pork porridge, and Penang fried kway teow, located at the entrance to the market street, next to Campbell Street.

Forget about decorum: make a choice, shout your orders to the stall-owner, and grab a seat nearby. Your porridge will arrive in about 20 minutes, steaming and delicately smooth in texture. What’s unfamiliar – at least to us Singaporeans – was the shredded charsiew on top, which, surprisingly, went very well with the porridge.

The hawkers use itinerant pushcarts, and adjacent to the porridge stall across the lane stood the Penang fried kway teow. Although not on the usual litany of foodie favorites, this stall unfailingly serves up a heaving plate of cockle-filled kway teow perfumed with intense wok hei.

Jalan Kuala Kangsar Street Market
George Town

Penang Assam Laksa
Once located on the roadside next to a Shell petrol station in Farlim district, this laksa pushcart attracted droves. Following complaints, it was forced into a nearby coffeeshop, where it is still named after its original ‘address.’

Unlike most commercial stalls where canned sardine is used as the stock base, this one uses fresh fish and spices for broth. There was a right balance of sweet and sour coming from the blend of assam peel, shallots, garlic, and lemongrass. What stood out from this spicy thick stock was the Penang prawn paste and ikan kembong.  Freshly cooked ikan kembong was deboned and strewn generously on the bowl; and those who wanted more fish could simply request for it.

Another must-try was the fried spring roll. Eat it the local style, dipped into the laksa broth – another novelty for a Singaporean.

Farlim Shell Station Laksa Café
Medan Angsana 4, Bendar Baru Air Itam
11500 Penang
Telephone: +6016 459 7179

Curry Rice
Known only to locals in the Jelutong area, this family-run stall opens every night at 10.30 pm. It is a swift and efficient operation. Early arrivals will find the whole coffee shop looking deserted half an hour before opening. Then suddenly a flurry of activity erupts, and a 6-man team sets up the stall and brings out more 30 trays of freshly cooked food from the back of the shop – all in 30 minutes!

The food was predominantly Teochew, with a variety of spicy curry dishes to choose from. The taste was home cooked and simple; however every curry dish had its own distinct taste, unlike in Singapore, where it sometimes seems like a ‘one-curry-fits-all’ situation exists. The only thing to beware is that one tends to over-order as each and every dish looks equally appetizing.

Tong Sun Coffee Shop
Jalan Perak, Jelutong
Penang 11600

Fried Oyster Omelette
Amusingly, this rundown coffeeshop was listed in Penang food guides for the beef noodle stall it housed. But it is the fried oyster that is driving the crowds here. The stall-owner, Mr Gan, gained popularity when he operated for more than 10 years from an old coffee shop at New World Park. He moved due to high rents some two years ago.

Mr Gan serves two versions of fried oysters: the Thai style which is more dry and crispy, and the more popular starchy and wet style -- which is also the version Singaporeans are more familiar with.  Go for the Thai version, as the crispy edges of the omelette would blow you away when dipped in the special chili sauce.

Gan’s Crispy Fried Oysters
Lam Ah Coffee Shop
194 Lebuh Chulia
George Town

Mr Lous’s Lok Bak
No visit to Penang would be complete without a visit to the Lok Bak stall at this café. Mr Lou Joo Chon has sold lok bak for more than 40 years. He offers quite a selection but the must-try items are the prawn fritters, tou kwa, and fish roll. Also a must is the five-spice meat roll, simply known as lor bak.  Instead of minced pork, Mr Lou seasons strips of pork with a special concocted five-spice powder and wraps it in bean curd skin.

He then fries the rolls in a moderate heat that cooks the meat without burning the bean curd skin. Another of his unique offerings is the dipping sauce similar to our lor mee gravy. This is a derivation of the Hokkien-style dipping sauce, where heavy stock is used as the base and potato starch is added as thickening agent. Incidentally, Penang lor mee shares the same stock with lok bak, except meat bones are added to the lor mee stock.

The popular Mr. Lou makes an appearance at the annual Penang Food Festival held in a Singapore hotel along Scotts Road. But nothing beats eating at his stall, enveloped in the atmosphere of Penang.

Kheng Pin Café
80 Penang Road

Pasar Bukit Mertajam
A visit to Pasar Bukit Mertajam would remind one of eating on a movie set. Located just outside a 120-year-old Chinese temple, the dining space is a courtyard flanked by temples and stalls serving a variety of food from morning till night.

In the day, the dishes to aim for are wontan noodles, Mee Jawa, Hokkien mee and rojak. Look out for a unique dish known as “cup rice”, where rice is steamed individually in an aluminium bowl. Upon order, the rice would be topped with morsels of meat and braising gravy, and then served to be eaten soggy wet with gravy and pickled chili.

At night, the selection from the cze char stall reminds one of unpretentious home cooked food. The ambience is of Singapore streets in the 60s, where tables and chairs were placed randomly in any available space. The food and ‘feel’ of this place has made it one of the more popular spots for friends and visitors to gather.

Jalan Bunga Raya
14000 Bandar Bukit Mertajam

Curry Fish Head
A visit to Sri Siam makes the hassle of crossing to Butterworth worthwhile. Sri Siam is a name synonymous with street-style curry dishes in Penang, ask any Penangite and he would direct you to this place instantly. Be prepared to queue and elbow for a table during lunch though, because Sri Siam’s curry fish head is famous.

Unlike the Singapore version, the curry fish head here is light as it uses coconut milk. However, the taste of onion and mint come through strongly in the gravy. Apart from the curry fish head, the array of dishes available would satisfy even the most seasoned foodie. It is an eclectic mix of Chinese and Malay-influenced dishes, but stick to the spicy items and you won’t go wrong. Sri Siam’s food bears the strong influence of nearby Thailand, so the spices used slant towards sourness, and there is a generous use of fresh herbs.

Sri Siam
32, Medan Kurau 2
Chai Leng Park, 13700 Perai

Photos by Mark Ong

Sunday, 28 September 2014

The Man Behind the Michelin-Starred Hong Zhou Restaurant

It was elite credentials by any standard – to be among the first batch of chefs awarded the country’s highest culinary honor, the National Grade of China; and to be recognized as one of China’s 8 most illustrious chefs. But these were not Chef Wu’s, they were his dad’s.

Chef Wu Rui Kang knew he had a tough act to follow. And so he became the first and only Michelin-starred chef of Hangzhou cuisine in the world.
 Chef Wu’s entry into Michelin fame was dramatic. His restaurant’s non-inclusion in the inaugural Michelin Guide Hong Kong 2008 was greeted with howls of disbelief and derision from local food magazines and netizens. The credentials of the Michelin arbiters were questioned, in particular their knowledge of the Chinese food scene in Hong Kong. The following year came the much-deserved nod from Michelin for the Chef, with a one-star ranking.

In fact Chef Wu’s sterling career was hardly heralded. After graduation from university he held a senior post in the Chinese civil service, from which he left to start a small restaurant in Hangzhou. As business grew, he decided to shift his base to Hong Kong, where his father was working at that time as executive chef for a renowned Hangzhou-style restaurant.  Chef Wu opened the Hong Zhou Restaurant in 2006.

While the Chef is, as we have seen, highly esteemed by food circles in Hong Kong, his is an audience that is ardent, initiated, and “focused”. Hangzhou cuisine, while increasingly revered in China, is still received with ambivalence in Hong Kong where Cantonese and Shanghai food reign supreme. But the Chef is patient and resolute.

Tweaking his flavors to suit the local palate is something he has stood against from the start, while the use of air-flown ingredients all the way from Hangzhou is a practice he has always insisted on. Such rigorous measures -- and not half-efforts and compromises -- are what he believes authenticity and reputations are built upon, and what he believes will ultimately win him a large audience for his beloved cuisine. Now he has the star to prove it.

But what makes a great chef? Chef Wu proposes a combination of assets: kitchen ethics, intelligence, and innate gifts. Kitchen ethics implies respect and humility, especially before teacher or master, he says, and the willingness to give your best in everything from cooking to personal hygiene. In short: attitude.

Intelligence is the drive for technical mastery. Chef Wu lists essential areas such as kitchen skills, cost control, and financial/business acumen. Finally, innate talent and passion is a factor. But, stressed the Chef, it must be coupled with a lot of hard work.
Only then will innate gifts make a difference, and raise the aspiring chef above all the others to greatness.

Hong Zhou Restaurant
1/F Chinachem Johnston Plaza
178-186 Johnston Road, Wanchai, Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2591 1898