Most people queue to buy food, but Ng Chiam Hui and Malcolm Lee waited for hours to find out how the hawkers prepared their favourite dishes.
Chiam Hui is born in 1949 in Fujian, China, while Malcolm is born a Singaporean Peranakan almost 40 years later. These men belong to two different generations but they have the same patience for a good recipe.
In the late 1960s, Chiam Hui ate duck rice for a week so that he could spy on the adjacent stall, the famous Lao Zhong Zhong outside the old Thong Chai Medical Institution. In a triumphant voice like a prankish kid, the 67-year-old exclaims in Mandarin, “I know every single thing he put in the sauce! No big deal lah! He was mixing there, and I was eating my duck rice and watching him!”
Malcolm stalked a prawn mee hawker whose sambal he loved. By then street food sellers across the island had been moved into sheltered, open-air centres. The 31-year-old chef and owner of Peranakan restaurant Candlenut hung out at one of these centres in Whampoa until the stall closed to prepare their ingredients for the next day.
“People think we are crazy, but that’s what we are interested in. Some people just want to sit down and watch the world go by. That’s our world lor,” Malcom chirps, although he was not as lucky as Chiam Hui as the stall was too enclosed.
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Their lives overlap in more ways. Both men cook at home, even though preparing food is traditionally a women’s role in patriarchal Chinese and Peranakan cultures. New circumstances permitted their offbeat behaviour.
Chiam Hui started cooking at nine years old when his mother was hospitalised, but he wasn’t the first man in his family to become a domestic cook. His father came to Singapore as a “zhu zhai”, a coolie, and had prepared meals for his co-workers and his boss’s family since he was 11. Chiam Hui had seen his father cooking at home, so dicing and stir-frying was not an awkward chore for him at all.
Malcolm was messing up his Peranakan mother’s kitchen when he was about the same age. As it was the 21st century, it was “cool” for a baba or any man to show greater interest in pounding chilli padi than in crashing toy aeroplanes. By 15 he was learning proper cooking techniques from his mother, who made no compromise to the Nonya kitchen ethics even if it was just dinner for her children. “If the shallot is not good, [we] have to buy new ones. The chickens have to be of a certain size, chopped a certain way,” says Malcolm. “Everyone is stress because we see her rushing in the kitchen as if it’s a restaurant.”
But only one between the two men became a professional cook. As for many immigrants at that time, Chiam Hui was entrusted with too many responsibilities too soon. He concluded early in life that cooking for a living was too tough.
* * *
His first job was at a departmental store in Tanglin. “An uneducated kid” like him could only move or sort out goods, a job needing no interaction with the British managers and customers. Soon after he tried to pedal a trishaw, but was terrible at balancing, so he peddled bananas instead.
At 21 he settled on wholesaling bitter gourds and chillies, a backbreaking but lucrative business that supported his then jobless parents and two baby brothers—14 and 16 years his junior. He stayed in the same job for 40 years and sent all three of his children to college.
I was one of them.
My father likes to begin his stories with a dreadful “Aiyah…” His hard work may have privileged his family to live in their own terms but every time he revisits the past, he pities his youthful self. My old man’s excessive use of profanity and hard-hearted words are not to be misunderstood as strength. Like tears, they are a release for his anger over the lack of choices he had in life.
And yet he is against dreaming in general and chefing in particular. He thinks it is an impractical pursuit. Not only is it hard work, it doesn’t pay the bills—it belongs in the bygone generations.
“I saw how your godma prepared economic rice at Peace Centre… In that tiny kitchen, there were three to four stoves ‘hong hong hong’. There is nothing enjoyable about cooping yourself in that kitchen,” he yells. “Aiyah… Didn’t you also see that? Your godma’s clothes looked as if they had been soaked in the rain. A human could shrivel in there!”
* * *
Malcolm knows how it feels to be shrivelled like a prune. He was able to choose a future for himself, and he chose to be a chef. When I bring my father’s sambal and anecdotes to him for an exchange, he concedes that his is a job that no mother, including his own, would agree to without putting up a fight.
But he is happy, and the glee in his voice is apparent when he describes the kitchen. “It’s like a cave what. We are like caveman inside who will get excited over the smallest thing. ‘Wah the dish comes out so crispy ah!’ You should see. It’s very funny. You have the whole world revolving and then here we are exclaiming something so small.”
Rather than saying Malcolm became a chef because he wanted to, he was happy becoming one. He recalls his first experience as a prep cook in Washington D.C.: “It was messy and I was new. It was stressful and all that, but it was fun. It was the first time I had so much fun doing something. You can almost say that I feel alive doing it.”
* * *
Unfortunately for him, my not so happy father was so not wrong about livelihood.
Despite the financial and personal freedom that afforded Malcolm to pursue what he likes, the demands of a family man in capitalist Singapore have caught up with him. Already, he is talking responsibilities like my old man: “In the ideal world, you are on your own, then you don’t care what. I make a thousand dollars? Fine. I can survive. But when you have a family, you have kids, then that will change how you approach things.”
Stressing him even more is the dilemma between making the best sambal, as any self-respecting chef would, and churning out maximum profit, like a businessman should. The restaurant is still surviving on the success of his catering arm. Malcolm gave himself 10 years to turn his business around. He has five more to go.
My father’s relationship with food remains simple. Since cooking is a hobby, his purpose can be about the people he cooks for and nothing else. The expensive belacan from Penang and the lavish amount of aromatics in his sambal attest to that.
Malcom’s taste buds agreed too. He did however tweak my father’s sambal before cooking with it.
* * *
Whether it is domestic or professional cooking, both men wish to be seen excelling in what they like. Modifying someone else’s food gives them legitimacy over the dishes with which they create. It is a matter of taste and also of pride.
When Malcolm first saw my father’s sambal, he said in a tone just slightly more forgiving than a critical bibik, “It’s very smooth ah. So use blender and blend one.” After tasting it, he determined it was “nice for stir-fry” and asked one of his kitchen cooks to “brighten the flavour” with lime leaves, tamarind and limejuice.
My father established superiority over Malcolm’s cooking more explicitly. He added sugar to his sambal even before tasting it. “His sambal has a very strong kaffir lime leaf aroma. We are not Thai. Some people don’t like it,” he explained. What about you? I asked. Ironically, he said, “I’m okay with that.”
He spread the sweetened sambal on a grouper he had fried for lunch, and was surprised at how salty it tasted. “Is it his sambal or my fish?” he asked. After verifying that it was the former the detective in him began investigating. At first he blamed the salt. Half an hour later he proposed a new theory. “It’s the type of belacan he uses!” Confident that he solved the puzzle, he exclaimed, “Very easy one lah! Dried chillies that he processed himself, shallots, lime leaves, lots of belacan…” He flashed a winning smile and retreated into his room for an afternoon nap.
In the end, it was Malcolm who seemed mature and practical. He was happy with his interpretation of my dad’s sambal, so while we were savouring it with grilled prawns, he said, “If your father give me his recipe I will use, I will do this dish.”
**SGX (Sambal Goreng Exchange) facilitates an exchange of sambal and related memories between two strangers. Our participants live in different times, different social, political and personal circumstances; their experiences with sambal are diverse. Together, their stories form a patchwork of memories across communities — a Singapore story of another kind. A food exchange creates spaces for personal memories to unfold beyond one’s own mind and private life. Because cooking or eating another’s sambal builds new memories upon the old, the food can become enduring testimonies to their lives.