Dreams and Pragmatism: A Conversation Between Generations

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!”

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SGX : Sambal Goreng Exchange with Aida Muda

Sambal tumis telor.

Sambal tumis telor.

Aida texts me a few hours before I’m due to meet her at her sister’s flat. She has already cooked the sambal for the exchange with Rose, because it is also for her lunch with her sisters and their mother.

I arrive at 4 p.m. to find a household full of young and older women. There is Aida, two of her older sisters, their mother, her niece and her niece’s toddler, and her young nephew — the only opposite gender who can be home on a weekday afternoon.

The sambal tumis for Rose is already packed in a plastic container. I ask to take pictures of it, so Aida scoops another portion into a pretty glass dish found in many Malay kitchens. There are pots of leftovers on the stove, including a fermented durian (tempoyak) curry. There is also a box full of cempedak that they plan to fry for dinner.

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SGX : Sambal Goreng Exchange with Rose B. Rusdi

Sambal Mak Kasek

Sambal Mak Kasek

Rose takes a while to open the metal gate. When she appears from behind a wooden screen, which blocks the view of her flat from the corridor, she’s in tudong and home clothes. The mismatched outfit suggests she has gone to cover herself after I knocked on the door. The moment we’re in the dining area, she takes off her tudong. I remind her that I’ll be taking pictures, so she puts it back on, along with a nice set of baju kurung.

While she’s changing in her room I notice the ingredients on the dining table. A shallot is frozen in a half cut state, while a tablet continues blasting euphoric American-accented commentaries.

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It is Not Just Love that Puts Food on the Table

Because I like to see how food transform from one thing to another, and because I have a bank account that hasn’t seen big deposits for a while, I have been cooking at least six days a week in the past two years. Half of the time I live with my boyfriend and I cook for us. Friends interpret our meals, after seeing their pictures on Instagram, as the “labour of love.”

Yes, love drives me to cook twice a day—lunch and dinner, but love is just a motive. It was my knowledge, values, diligence, prudence, and power that shaped and constructed those meals. To attribute love, and only love, for the transformation of beef to steak is to turn a blind eye to the other capabilities demanded of a home-cook to put food on the table, day after day.

Duck breast, beet salad and potatoes cooked duck fat. #idontlikeitsimple

A photo posted by Sheere Ng (@sheerefrankng) on

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Records and Recordings: Mother’s Wanton Voice Memo

I asked my mother for her wanton recipe via Whatsapp voice memo. Her instructions came in bits and pieces, sometimes hours later, if not, only when I asked about something else and she happened to recall a few more items. I thought these, if documented properly, will make wonderful oral histories about my family. As with any mother’s or grandmother’s recipes, there was no measurement or specific instruction. But the audio clips contain clues about our relationship and about cultural influences. Although she spoke mainly in Mandarin, she peppered her instructions with words like “corn flour” and “kilo,” and the Malay term “agak.” She also said “Q,” which means chewy or springy—a term popularised by the Taiwanese; my mother watches (too much) Taiwanese TV.

I asked my mother what else besides black fungus, water chestnut, and ground meat she put in her wanton.

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How the Exclusion Period drove Chinese American Men into Domestic Kitchens

At the Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS) Annual Meeting & Conference this month, I presented a paper on the feminization of the early 20th century Chinese men in America, and how it led them to accept the traditionally feminine task of domestic cooking. The following is an adaptation of my five minutes speech. I have added more information for a more complete picture of my research.

I have always wondered why in my family, it is my father and my grandfather who cook. Now, we are not Americans, we are Singaporean Chinese, but like the story of many Chinese in the United States, my grandfather and his kinsmen from South China sought jobs in a foreign land. Women didn’t tag along, so the men cooked for themselves.

I wondered if this was the case for the American Chinese. Indeed, this was what sociologist Rose Hum Lee observed in her 1956 study on the marital relations of Chinese families in San Francisco. She noted that the husbands brought home groceries and taught their wives cooking. This was unthinkable in a patriarchal Chinese society.

Well, the men in America were no typical Chinese. They came to the United States in their youth and reached adulthood without too much womanly concern for their welfare, until the US government loosened its grip on Chinese immigration in 1947. Prior to that, the Chinese were the most hated community in the United States, because of reasons illustrated in the following picture. They were perceived as economic enemies who monopolized the industries, leaving the white men jobless. The results were institutionalized discriminations that I argue attributed to the egalitarian division of labor in Chinese’s marital homes as observed by Lee.

A grotesque octopus monster (left) working tirelessly in every industry, leaving the white men (right) jobless. (The Wasp, March 3, 1882 illustration from Yellow Peril!)

A grotesque octopus monster (left) working tirelessly in every industry, leaving the white men (right) jobless. (The Wasp, March 3, 1882 illustration from Yellow Peril!)

In 1882, United States enacted the Exclusion Act to restrict Chinese immigration to the United States. Prior to that, the Chinese community was already a predominantly male society because Chinese female immigrants were thought to be prostitutes, and therefore denied entry. Married Chinese men had little chance to reunite with their wives, while the bachelors could not start a family. Because these men could not demonstrate heterosexual norms, there were doubts on their sexuality. The early Chinese immigrants in the United States sustained the image of lesser men.

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Grandma’s Ngoh Hiong

Tuck shop ngoh hiong

In Cantonese opera, men and women spar over love, money, and politics. A similar drama unfolded in my grandparents’ home, but the topic that triggered it was cooking. My grandfather liked to brag about his mastery in cooking. While sitting cross-legged on a single-seat sofa, with a cigarette between his fingers, he cried, “Your grandmother doesn’t know a thing!” Then he let out a chuckle.

My grandmother uttered a feeble “humph,” but she was no docile sheep of a woman as many in her generation were expected to be. One day, when I asked her to teach me how to make ngoh hiong, a Hokkien meat roll that was the mainstay of our dwindling family dinners, she took the opportunity to show her husband of 60 years who called the shots in the family. To demonstrate how she would marinate the ground pork, she got my 86-year-old grandfather walking up and down the kitchen to fetch her ingredients. When he looked uncertainty, she belittled him mercilessly. “Of course you have to wash the bean curd! Where is the oil? What are you looking for? The bean curd skin is right here!”

My grandfather spewed a couple of Hokkien vulgarities—he could cook himself and was the master of vegetable stew and pig’s stomach pepper soup. But he was accommodating, so my grandmother marinated the meat, texturized it with chopped water chestnuts and shallots, and rolled it in bean curd skin. Seven minutes later, the meat roll emerged from the steamer in one piece. Was this a metaphor for their marriage?

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Poached Chicken

poached chicken, hainanese chicken rice, chicken rice

Delish, even when it’s cold

When I told my godma that I wanted to learn how to make poached chicken, she bought the ingredients right away and showed me that very night. Cooking is that easy to her. No need for planning or practising. My godma, also my mother’s sister, is one of the most casual cook I’ve seen. She stirs and scoops with one hand on her waist and often leaves the stove to mingle with her guests. But somehow the food always turns out perfect.

To make poached chicken, she first filled a pot ¾ full with tap water and heat it up over the stove. She then put some garlic and ginger into a plastic bag and placed it on the table. “Just smash them with a cup. Don’t need special equipment,” she said casually, but I could sense her mockery of the people who purchase fancy equipments for every step of their cooking. She took a mug from the shelf and hammered the plastic bag until the garlic and ginger ripped opened. “That’s all!” she exclaimed.

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Teochew Braised Duck

In occasions like the Chinese New Year and the recent Hungry Ghost Festival, my grandmother would prepare braised duck to offer the ancestors, the deities and the wandering spirits. A few months ago she taught me how to cook this dish.

Ingredients (for one duck)

4 tbsp of white sugar
3 tbsp dark soy sauce
10 cloves of garlic
4 slices of galangal (南姜)
4 Ligusticum Wallichi (川芎)
5 cloves
2 pieces of Angelica Sinensis (当归)
1 cinnamon stick (桂皮)
2 star anise (八角)
1 tbsp five spices powder(五香粉)
1 tbsp salt
3 tbsp light soy sauce
200 ml water

Methods

1. Stir fry sugar until it melts.

2. Add all other ingredients except duck. Mix well.

3. Put the duck into the wok. Add more water until the duck is half submerged.

4. Bring the sauce to boil over high heat.

5. Cover the wok and let it simmer for 45 minutes.

6. Turn the duck over and cook for another 45 minutes.

7. Taste the sauce and add light soy sauce or sugar as you like.

8. Poke the duck with a fork to check doneness.

9. Chop it into pieces and serve with sauce.

Sesame Oil Chicken (麻油鸡)

sesame oil chicken, sesame chicken, ma you ji, chinese confinement food, confinement food

Soupy sesame oil chicken makes a one-dish meal if you throw in some mee suah (Chinese wheat noodle)

One of my favourite homecooked food is Ma You Ji or Sesame Oil Chicken. Many Chinese mums would be familiar with this dish as it is one of the must-eats during their confinement period. This dish requires lots of ginger, which has a “heating” effect important to help mommies recover from childbirth. My dad made it soupier than how it traditionally is because we like to drink the gravy and douse it over our rice. It packs the sweetness of the chicken, the smoky flavour of the mushrooms, the fragrance of the sesame oil. Sometimes when we have too much of the gravy, I would add a little bit of water and mee suah (Chinese wheat noodle) to make a bowl of noodle soup.

Every household has their own version of Sesame Oil Chicken. I know of people who use rice wine instead of shaoxing wine. Rice wine has a milder taste than the spicy, salty shaoxing wine, so it’s up to personal preferences. While most people use only basic seasonings, my dad likes to borrow the saltiness from the fermented bean paste and cuts down on the amount of light sauce. He also adds 当归 (dang gui) or angelica roots to give the dish an extra flavour. People who don’t like Chinese herbs may find it bitter, but I kinda like its earthy taste.

Ingredients

8 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 chicken
2 tbsp fermented bean paste
6-8 pieces angelica roots
1 palm-sized old ginger
100 ml sesame oil
500 ml shaoxing wine
½ tbsp dark soy sauce (Optional. For colouring only.)
3 tbsp light soy sauce
300 ml water
Salt to taste

Methods

1. Soak mushrooms overnight. Slice the mushrooms and keep the water for later use.

2. Chop chicken into small pieces, about 3 cm X 3 cm.

3. Wash the ginger, leave the skin on and julienne it.

4. Add sesame oil into the wok over medium heat. Add ginger and stir-fry until they turned brown. At least 5 mins.

5. Add mushrooms and stir-fry for another 5 mins.

6. Add fermented bean paste and chicken into the mixture. Stir well.

7. Add dark soy sauce and light soy sauce.

8. Turn up the fire and stir-fry. Once the chicken is cooked, transfer everything into a pot and turn on the fire to high heat.

9. Add the mushroom water, water and dang gui into the pot. *Note: I like my sesame oil chicken a little soupy. You can halve the water if you prefer it dry.

10. Once the liquid boils, turn down the fire to small heat and let it simmer for half an hour, but add shaoxing wine into the simmering sauce 5 minutes before serving.