Eating Together II: Consider the Wok

We created a smaller iteration of Eating Together for the Asian Civilisation Museum earlier this year. It’s called the Museum of Eating, which included a new section about the material culture of hawker tools. Here’s the writeup, and Jovian Lim‘s beautiful photos.

MUSEUM OF EATING
Eating is a universal act. The ways we eat, however, are cultural and personal. Where we consume our meals, who we chat with over lunch, and what we use to put food in our mouths all affect how we think about our food. In the Museum of Eating, we go beyond the typical foodie conversations about chefs, ingredients, and tastes to look at the designs and techniques used to cook, contain, and carry food in Singapore.

Consider the Wok
Kitchen utensils are common across the world, but look closer and you’ll find variations born out of cultural differences. Singapore hawkers have fed many generations with their good, quick meals. These dishes and the tools to prepare them have persisted despite the onset of modern industrial cooking. But to feed a larger and an increasingly time-starved population, hawkers have had to devise better ways to use or even re-design these age-old tools. Whether it is a wok or a scoop, these kitchen utensils have not just enabled faster and better cooking, they also record the craft and considerations these hawkers have put into perfecting their dishes.

PERFORATED SCOOP

Popiah is a spring roll filled with stewed turnip that is delicious when moist but not soggy. Glory Catering is well-known for such mouth-watering popiah, and they can consistently produce them thanks to a perforated scoop designed by the owners, the Chin family. A typical scoop tends to pick up too much turnip juice, and that aluminum tool falls apart when the cook presses down on it to drain out the liquid. The stew cannot be drained beforehand either, because it’s what keeps the turnip juicy and tasty. Glory’s inventive tool comes with more than 400 perforations to drain more quickly, and its trough shape lets the staff scoop the exact portion of filling, in a shape that is easy to fold into a roll. Truly a handy way to capture Glory’s craft in making popiah.

GLORY-5810_WEB2000PX

The back of the scoop fits nicely into the trough – both made of hardy stainless steel – to squeeze out excess juice.

The back of the scoop fits nicely into the trough – both made of hardy stainless steel – to squeeze out excess juice.

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Knowing Zi Char through Their Menus

A customer-server exchange at any zi char restaurant before the 1980s typically went like this:

Customer: “One kangkong.”

Server: “With minced garlic or fu yu (fermented bean curd)?”

Customer: “Fu yu.”

Server: “How about soup?”

Customer: “Okay.”

Server: “Fish head, bitter gourd or salted vegetable and tofu? Take fish head. The fish is really fresh today.”

Customer: “Okay, fish head then.”

There was no printed menu. Customers usually had an idea of the types of food—meat, seafood, vegetables, soups or noodles—they wanted, and servers would then suggest the possible flavours and styles of cooking, a conversation that led to a dish.

It was not uncommon for servers to rattle off names of dishes because a zi char restaurant then seldom had more than 20 dishes to offer. It helped that many customers were regulars who could easily order off the top of their head. At some places, cut out, rectangular pieces of vanguard sheets with names of dishes were pasted across the wall as a kind of public menu, but that did not work for every patron. “Many people in those days were illiterate. They couldn’t read. We had to tell them,” said Lam Yau Hoe, whose father founded the zi char restaurant at Toa Payoh, Hong Sheng, in 1968.

Kok Sen, which has the entire coffeeshop at Keong Saik to itself, keeps the practice of displaying menu items on the wall.

Kok Sen, which has the entire coffeeshop at Keong Saik to itself, keeps the practice of displaying menu items on the wall. Others that rent only a stall at a coffeeshop don’t have this kind of space to do so.

Lao Ban Niang at Joo Jiat Road showcases some its staples on acrylic sheets.

Lao Ban Niang at Joo Jiat Road showcases some its staples on acrylic boards.

JB Ah Meng at Geylang shows off his menu on styrofoam boards.

JB Ah Meng at Geylang lists its menu on styrofoam boards.

This is unlike today when almost all Singaporeans can read—not only in their mother tongue but also in English. But a bigger reason behind the now widespread use of printed menus in no-frills zi char restaurants is the rapid expansion of their repertoire.

From just 20 dishes before 1990, Hong Sheng now offers 87 items to its customers. Same goes for long time zi char spaces such as Keng Eng Kee at Bukit Merah, and Kok Sen in Chinatown, which have both seen their offerings more than doubled between the 1970s to 1990s. While such restaurants may have once started specialising in just one type of Chinese cuisine, by the 1980s, they were expanding their menus in response to a more demanding clientele, explains Keng Eng Kee’s owner Kok Liang Hong. More Singaporeans were eating out, and with that came an expectation of greater choices from a single restaurant. Fuelling this consumption was the growth in women entering into Singapore’s labour force. Eating out became a convenient alternative to cooking at home and something more could afford as household incomes rose.

As zi char restaurants tried to outdo one another, cuisines from different regions were mixed and matched. In the 1990s, Cantonese establishments like Hong Sheng added Hokkien specialities, like ngoh hiang to their repertoire, while its pai kwat wong also began appearing in the menus of other restaurants. Restaurants also cooked up new-fangled creations in order to stand out from the rest. More often than not, popular dishes were soon copied by others and added onto their menus to ensure they could satisfy all kinds of tastes. For instance, the then recent creation har cheong kai made its way into Hong Sheng’s offerings even though its main ingredient, fermented prawn paste, was considered too “pungent” for its customers just a decade ago. Even the Southeast Asian ingredient, sambal, eventually became a staple in Hong Sheng, which by the 1990s had a printed A4-size menu as the number of dishes it offered became too many to be remembered by heart.

Besides competition, the cooks in zi char restaurants were also being replaced by a new generation from neighbouring Malaysia as Singaporeans turned their backs to being food producers, preferring office jobs instead. Many of these cooks were Cantonese from Ipoh who had also worked in cities like Kuala Lumpur and Johor Bahru at the equivalent of zi char, known as tai chow.

Wong Foong is one such cook who arrived in Singapore in 1984. He recalled reproducing his employer’s signatures, but also started introducing dishes he prepared back home. Over the years, he has kept in touch with friends and fellow cooks across the border, whom let him in on new dishes to import to Singapore. Cereal prawns and san lou mi fan are just some of today’s zi char staples that are believed to have come from Malaysia. When I phoned Wong for this interview, he was in Johor catching up with friends chefing there, learning new dishes he could bring in to now his own zi char business, JB Ah Meng, at Geylang.

The printed menu of zi char restaurants is a product of changing times and an answer to changing eating behaviours. Spanning from a single A3 sheet to a A4 file, these menus can accommodate—better than a human memory—the insatiable appetite of consumers. They make any zi char restaurant accessible to everyone, especially first-time customers, whom restaurants are welcoming in bigger proportions than before. Thanks to the constant buzz about the latest and the “tastiest” in traditional and social media, consumers in Singapore are constantly on the move to somewhere new.

A sentimental attachment to the familiar and an empathy for those who toil for our food are hardly the qualities of today’s zi char customers. In place of the absent food memories and relationships developed from these sentiments, are the fuss-free menus more palatable to the consumers of the digital age.

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Street food in Singapore offers spicy, pungent seafood

Jb Ah Meng

Customers wait at tables 30 minutes before JB Ah Meng Kitchen opens.

SINGAPORE — Fish, meats, and even fruits are drenched in a riot of flavors wherever you eat in Singapore. Spicy, sour, and pungent tastes, like sisters, may fight with one another, but they can also be so perfect together.

This island city-state of more than 5 million people, with an economy driven mainly by financial services, has a tiny aquaculture industry but a great variety of affordable crustaceans imported from Indonesia, Thailand, even Norway. Serving raw or simply boiled-and-chilled seafood, as many restaurants in the United States do, demands pricier catches and particularly stringent handling practices. So food hawkers…

Continue reading my Boston Globe story here…

Out with the Old, In with the New-Old

rebel-with-a-course

Rebel With A Course reads like an ah chek regaling with colourful tales of the good old days prior to the hawker centres and HDBs. Except, Queen’s English rolls off the author’s, Damian D’Silva’s tongue, and the slightest details that usually escape one’s mind embellish his stories — “The wet market had two rows of food stalls at the front, selling a host of dishes from the different Chinese dialect groups. There was you char kway, lor mee, yong tau foo, chwee kueh, and our favourite, mee pok tah.”  I am captivated and almost convinced that the past was better than the present. Perhaps, heritage dishes, like he says, should be preserved the way it was.

But I’m afraid D’Silva and the many else of his generation are the only ones who truly appreciate heritage dishes. They have had their fair share from the street peddlers, or have been forced to help cooking some at home. Pleasant or not, these experiences in their formative years shaped their preferences. Today, where the flavours of the past are no more, they yearn for the old and lambast the new.

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Finding Mee Pok Tah and the Singapore Identity in New York City

Cambodian Noodles from Bo Ky Restaurant in Manhattan Chinatown, and its pretty legit Teochew braised duck.

Cambodian Noodles from Bo Ky Restaurant in Manhattan Chinatown, and its pretty legit Teochew braised duck.

A middle-aged server with harsh facial features turned his gaze upon me. I held up the menu to signal him to back off, while I scanned it the fourth time for a sign of familiarity in the unfamiliar “Cambodian rice noodle or egg noodle soup.”

Fellow Singaporeans on Yelp, an online review site, told about a taste of home that could be coaxed out of this seemingly foreign dish. The noodles of a Sino-Cambodian restaurant in New York City’s Chinatown, said Natalie L., was “secretly mee pok.” One need only ask for the linguine-like egg noodles, and the soup to be served separately, not forgetting to add the chilli sauce provided on every table, to create the elusive (in New York City and some say United States) mee pok tah.

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Hawker Food Poster: We are the Colours We Eat

Wearethecolorsweeat_WEBNEW

“Singaporeans” are more befittingly the colours of what they eat, rather than the colours of their skins. This is because food colours express what skin colours do not: shared history, intercultural exchanges, common understanding of tastes, and love for the same food. In this poster, which expresses the intimacy between people in Singapore using the colours of their foods, the introduction reads:

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Makan Till Shiok : The Problems with Defining Singapore Food

Winner of the Design-A-Tee contest (picture from Channel News Asia)

Winner of the Design-A-Tee contest (picture from Channel News Asia)

An illustration of 71 dishes and drinks depicting Singapore’s iconic food culture wins MediaCorp’s “Design-A-Tee” contest. The comments following the Facebook announcement—as with many users comments on various online platforms—are brutal but insightful. While some Singaporeans give the thumbs up for the design, there are complaints that generally fall into three categories:

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One doesn’t need to be Singaporean to cook Singaporean

photo by Kristina D.C. Hoeppner via Flickr

photo by Kristina D.C. Hoeppner via Flickr

As more Singaporeans receive higher education and prefer comfortable working conditions, foreign labors play significant role in producing material objects such as buildings. Things get complicated, however, when they also become an important source of labor for the production of cultural objects, such as food.

Because foreign laborers have not participated in Singapore’s social life, they do not possess the same taste for food as Singaporeans. Common complaints about cooks from China are that their versions of local delicacies such as char kway teow and chap chye peng are too salty. This is common in commercial kitchens helmed by immigrants. Think about Japanese and Korean cuisine prepared by Latinos in the United States.

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Go Bananas

banana tree

Patrick looking for bananas to harvest

Patrick Tse had been told that the goreng pisang stall was famous in Johor, so he popped by to get a few. He then dumped them at the back of his car and drove back to Singapore, but he got caught in a traffic jam and only made it home two hours later. When he finally took one out and sunk his teeth into it, the banana was, to his surprise, still crispy.

Goreng Pisang, or Pisang Goreng as it is known in Malaysia and Indonesia, is a deep-fried battered banana eaten as a snack. Before the 80s, it was mainly sold at the Malay hawker stalls. The original recipe simply constituted of rice flour, salt, water, and “kapo” – a type of white powder used to oxidise the batter. The final crust is crunchy like a cracker but turns soggy almost immediately in a humid weather.

Over the years, more Chinese hawkers joined the rank of goreng pisang sellers, the most famous being Lim Kim Yong, who used to have a stall at Orchard Road’s Gluttons Square. He and the other newcomers offered lighter, crispier goreng pisangs that shatter like glass when you bite into them. The improvised version became very popular, but short-lived. Today, customers demand for higher standards. “A good goreng pisang must meet three requirements. It must be crispy, it must not be oily, and most importantly, it must be crispy even after it turns cold,” said Patrick.

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Thanks to Malaysia, Singaporeans have a place where they can relive the past

tanjong pagar railway

In the final days of Tanjong Pagar Railway

“Bhai makes one of the best teas.” Salem S.O. took a sip of his tea and put his cup back onto the table. The rest of the men around the table nodded in unison and picked up their drinks too. It was a humid Tuesday afternoon and the lunch hour crowd had just left. From 11a.m. on, all of the 50 or so tables at M.Hasan Railway Station Canteen were filled with workers from the nearby port and offices. As the lunch hour ended, the crowd had dispersed, leaving behind their plates of leftover curries and noodle soup and customers like Salem and his uncles.They are the people who neither live nor work nearby, but will travel here as often as once a week, ordering multiple rounds of teas and lingering to admire their surroundings. In the evenings and during weekends, they even come with their families — all three generations in tow — as part of their weekly or monthly gatherings.

All the food in this canteen is Halal: no pork, and all other animals except fish are slaughtered according to Islamic law, which explains why most of the customers are Muslims. But the food is only part of the reason why Salem and the others alike keep coming back here. Except for the one or two outstanding dishes, the Malay and Indian cuisines served here, according to them, are common and ordinary in taste. What keeps them attracted to this canteen is that it looks, smells and sounds like the past. The aged stonewalls and exposed water pipes; the train engines’ deafening boom; and the pungent smell of belacan that wafts freely in the air and then clings to people’s clothes — all of them attract the connoisseurs of the old and the forgotten.

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