Monday, January 31, 2011

Hokkien pastry at Tan Hock Seng 陈福成

On my prowl to see what's happening in the Greater Chinatown (I like this name mentioned in the website), I passed by this very popular Hokkien pastry shop - Tan Hock Seng - along Telok Ayer St. This street is almost deserted during weekends but very crowded during weekdays.

It was this past Saturday morning when I passed by with wife and daughter in tow. There was no crowd but there was a steady stream of shoppers, many of them stopping their cars to hop out, asked for what they wanted, bought them, and hopped back into the car again. Inevitably, conversation between the shoppers and the shopkeepers was in Hokkien. Imagine one asking for Fa Gao 发糕, when it would be more easy (at least to me) to ask for Huat Kueh. (^^) I should have taken pictures of all the pastry there that came with the names in traditional Chinese. And asked the shopkeeper to help me pronounce the names in Hokkien. (^^)

I know the few of my favourites like Beh Teh Saw 马蹄酥 and Pon Pia 碰饼. When young, and when hungry (if we were lucky, we could put one or two Beh Teh Saw and dip into a small bowl of kopi-o (black coffee). The Beh-Lei-Go (sticky sweet inside the Beh Teh Saw) was a delight to eat with the pastry and the black coffee.

For the Chinese New Year, the favourites would be the Huat Kueh and Kueh Nern Go 鸡蛋糕 (steamed egg cake like the famous Japanese Kyushu Castilla (kasutera カステラ). I remember when I was young, I would help my Mum to beat the eggs in a big clay pot (like those glazed flower pot) with the big egg beater until almost a foam was being formed. It was a tiring exercise. No, no electric gadgets during those days. When the egg mix was considered good enough, we would put a "glass paper" onto a bamboo tray and pour the egg mix into it till almost the brim. If I remember correctly, then with a bamboo chopstick, a cross is made on the surface, probably to allow the cake to break up and expand when it is being cooked. Into a waiting wok of steaming hot water and some bamboo frames, the bamboo tray was placed. And a huge cover was being put over the wok, with wet towels laced around the cover when it sat on the wok. This was to reduce steam leakage. In those days, a cake would be the size with a diameter of easily 1.5 feet. When it was done, using a chopstick, that was split into four, we would dip into the ang-huay-bi (red colouring lotion) and then stamp onto the cake giving marks of four tiny red squares.

Huat Kueh was a little more challenging because yeast is needed. And the pantang bibiks (superstitious aunties) would ensure that we nosy and inquisitive kids kept our mouth shut and not ask any questions, or worst still, make comments. They were worried that the Huat Kueh (literally meaning the cake that grows) will not grow. (^^)

Tnee Kueh (meaning sweet cake), known to the Cantonese as Nin Kohl (Nian Gao 年糕), would be even more challenging to make. And so, it has gone the way of mass manufacture. In the past, after a couple of weeks, the Tnee Kueh would be hard as a rock (from which we could wash and put in the sun if there were any fungi, and then, slice them to steam and eat with shredded coconut, or deep fry with egg/flour batter), but these days they remain soft! What alien ingredient did they put in?

These days, save the endangered few, everyone would flock to shops like Tan Hock Seng (or many confectionery in any shopping centres of the housing estate) to get the mandatory Huat Kueh for offerings to the Gods. Alas, many of the mass produced ones are hardly edible. I sympathise with the Gods.

ack: Tan Hock Seng

The friend shopkeeper, who saw me trying to take pictures of his old shop, offered me another wall where the picture was more visible. Wah, that picture was taken in 1950! It was in the old shophouse along China St, just where the Hokkien called it the "Kiao-Keng-Kow", meaning "outside the gambler's den.

ack: Tan Hock Keng

Friday, January 28, 2011

Chicken & Duck for Chinese New Year!

The elders will always tell us, Chinese New Year time is the happiest for the kids. They have new clothes, angpows (red packets) and plenty to eat. True, especially in those days, when it happened once a year! I mean when we as kids to got have new clothes, angpows (even if it was 40 cents) and more to eat.

Looking forward to the Chinese New Year, somehow, to me, it was all fun. Including more work assisting Mum with all the chores than came with the Chinese New Year. A week or two before the Chinese New Year, preparation began. I would follow Mum to the nearby wet market at Narcis St. We were living at Craig Rd in this house which had some four or five families, each squeezed into one room each. Sometimes, Mum would go to the Gu Chia Chwee (Gnau Chair Shui) wet market along the streets of Smith St and Trengganu St.

I never asked Mum how or where she got the money to buy. We kids were oblivious to their financial situations, and parents didn't share. All I knew was it was time for a chicken and a duck. We probably only ate chicken something like three or four times a year - Chinese New Year, Hungry Ghost Festival, and the time when we had to give offerings to our ancestors.

This was some 50 years ago, and fridge was a rarity, and so, we ate most things fresh. For the chickens and ducks, we could buy them alive and bring them back. Mum would go to the stall in the market, eyed a few healthy looking chicken, grab one by one and felt the body beneath the feather, despite the products from the squawking chicken. How did one handle the chicken? Grab them by holding the beginning of their two wings. The ducks were more noisy and they would bite.

The stallholders would tie the legs of the chicken and hanged them to their Chinese scale and weigh. Mum looked closely to make sure that the guy did not cheat on the balance of the scale.  But of course, because of years of business he was less likely to cheat. But one never knows and well, the ladies love a hard bargain.

Carrying the duck and chicken home was a challenge. They were not light for a small build that I was then. And this was amongst the many things being bought. Chinese New Year Reunion had to be the biggest feast in our lives each new year, not that it was big, compared to what is available nowadays.

Imagine all the neighbours within the same house buying one chicken and one duck each. All the noises in our constantly wet common kitchen add to the commotion of activities as each family got ready preparing for the Chinese New Year. From the time we brought the fowl home and the Chinese New Year eve, we tried our best to fatten them up. We believed that cockroaches would do the trick. And so, it was the tasks of us youngsters to catch the cockroaches to feed them.

[WARNING: Gory details here, not meant for the faint hearted]
Come eve of the Chinese New Year, there was no time for sleep. Up early, I was to help Mum to kill the chicken and duck. Under the supervision of Mum, I either held the chicken by the head and body to make it still while Mum used a sharp knife to slit the throat, or the other way round. Once the blood started flowing out, I was to make sure that the blood flowed to a bowl. Yes, it was edible and nothing was to be left to waste, save the feathers.

Trying to take out the feather (defeather?) was a task. Hot boiling water was to put into a basin and the dead bird put into the hot water and then, to the cold water. It was to help plucking out the feathers. Taking out the big feathers was easy. Taking out the fine ones was a chore. And so, that was left to me to do. With a "plucker" (akin to the tweezer), I sat on a tiny stool and worked on my assignment. Taking out the fine feathers from the duck was more challenging than the chicken. And I had to do a good job or we might have feathers when we ate.

Came midday, Mum had started cooking and were getting the dishes ready. No, it was not yet for eating. They were meant as offering to the Gods in the house (we had a Tua Pek Kong then) and then the Ancestors. The chicken and duck were either steamed or boiled and placed complete (no chopping off) as offering. Chinese tradition dictates the offering of three components of offering - fowl (chicken and/or duck), animal (pork in this case, and mainly we would have a slice of the roast pork bought from the market) and fish (hence a deep fried fish like a garupa). One traditional dish seemed to be rice with blood made into cubes (you can still see this in Taiwan). The spare-parts (innards of the chicken and duck) were cooked with a can of peas. Together with the usual Chinese New Year cakes like Huat-Kueh (Fa Gao) or Guey Nern Go (Steamed egg cake, like the Japanese Castila) and Ang Ku Kueh (Red Tortoise cake filled with green bean paste or crushed peanuts), these were offered. We kids were waiting for the praying to end. And so, we offered to throw the divining blocks (in those days, we used two 50 cent coins or 20 cent coins) to ask if the Gods or the Ancestors were done with their eating. A head and a tail  of the coins showing up after the throw would be affirmative.

When we got the answer, it was another fun time for us kids. We would bring the joss papers to the road side to burn them. Using the tea and wine from the offering, we would throw them around the burning joss papers to indicate that the joss papers were proprietary, only for the intended ones.

Back upstairs, where we lived, Mum had started the second phase of her job. The steamed chicken was to be chopped to be eaten like the "Hainanese Chicken Rice" that is very popular these days. For the duck, she would chop it to make soup, our favourite Kiam Chye Tng (salted vegetable - pickled mustard green) or Tim Itek as known to the Peranakans. Teochews and Hokkiens are known for their Kiam Chye Tng or Ark (duck). The deep fried fish would have the sweet and sour gravy poured onto it.

We were ready for the Reunion Dinner which was eaten earlier than usual. Mum still had more things to do to welcome the new year. While it was the belief that we should try not to sleep over the New Year Eve (so as to achieve longevity?), for us kids, it was a challenge. But at the same time, it was a luxury to stay past midnight. Our matriarch bibik landlady would normally switch off the lights by 11pm. For the new year eve, it would be an exception. It is believed that the house should be kept lit throughout the night.

Fire crackers would have been exploding all over, more as the 11th hour approached. Hmm, to the Chinese, the 11th hour (11pm) is the beginning of the new day. And despite the din, with a full stomach with all the delicious and good food, we felt to sleep, knowing that we were going to get some angpows the next day, even to the very strict looking and sharp-tongued Bibik.

These days, it would be almost impossible to have the opportunity to kill a chicken. not that anyone ones. (^^)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Preparing to receive the Gods

24th of the 12 Lunar Month is the day to send off the Kitchen God 灶君 (known to the Cantonese as Zhou Guan and Zhao Kun Kong to the Hokkien). Ah, sweet and sticky things, in the form of Nian Gao 年糕 (Dnee Kueh 甜糕 in Hokkien and Nin Kol in Cantonese), will be offered to him to enjoy the sweet and sticky things. Objective is to say things sweet and well, talk less. (^^)

And they have Nian Gao in the form of the gold ingots!

It is also the time, especially for the Cantonese, to change new altars, particular for the Tian Guan 天官 (known to the Hokkien mostly as Ti Kong 天公 rather than Ti Guan).

And so, we went shopping for a new one. Exposed to the natural elements of wind, dust, rain and sun, these small altars often hung on to the wall by a nail, get worn out by the end of the year. And so, on an auspicious date, we will change the altar.

There are many kinds of altars to choose from. From the simple to the elaborate. Some of these are made from recycled material. Ah, in the poor days, they made sense. (^^)

To receive the Jade Emperor or Tian Gong, special larger joss sticks are considered. Perhaps, better ones such as those made of Sandalwood 坛香 or Agarwood 沉香.

And where should we look for the altar? Wife knows exactly the place where she has been shopping for decades. And so, we went to this small shop next to the coffee shop off Spring Rd in Chinatown. From the old shop signage, this shop must have been there or thereabout for decades. Still very much in its own form - a great place to discover many things - old and new. I discovered ready packs that the modern people need not worry about what to buy to constitute a complete set of offering joss-papers for the Gods or even the ancestors. It seems that it is a general one, more for anyone of any dialect. In traditional terms, joss papers offered for the Gods and the Ancestors differ (to quite an extent) from dialect group to dialect group.

While the shopkeepers could communicate in Cantonese, they seemed somewhat more comfortable speaking in Mandarin. And then, I found that they seemed more natural in Hokkien! I heard that there was once a similar Teochew run shop in Chinatown.

As in the old days, we could leave out things to come back to collect later. But these days, well, the domestic help will go to pick them up. (^^)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Chinatown prepares for the Year of the Rabbit

The Tiger is on his way out. The fun rabbits are waiting to hop in. Tonight, Singapore Chinatown, better known as Niu Che Shui 牛车水 or Ngau Chair Sui (Cantonese) or Gu Chia Chwee (Hokkien) or Kreta Ayer (Malay), and probably more names to it, was lighted up, preparing for the welcome of yet another Lunar New Year.

With my wife, we decided to do an 'inspection' of Chinatown this afternoon to see what's new in preparing for the new year. We probably have been pounding the streets of Chinatown - particularly Smith Street, Temple Street and Trengganu St - for more than 50 years. Each year before the Spring Festival (met an old guy at the Heritage Exhibition who advised me that in China, we should say Chun Jie 春节 and not Xin Nian 新年), we would eagerly join in the jostle to see what's new. In the old days, we were probably hoping to get our new clothes. These days, it is not so much about clothes but about what to buy for the family and to add more colours to the house.

Upon entering Temple Street, despite the touristy atmosphere (imagine the Olde Cuban in Chinatown!), we could sense more colours of red. Many usual stalls seemed to have made way for the once-a-year stalls selling goodies for the Chinese New Year.

"Come and try it, it's free," yelled the guys across the street. "Just arrived from Taiwan, " they added. There was quite a selections of sweets from jelly like (Konyaku?) to mochi. And there were also the melon seeds, disguised in many forms such as green tea melon sweets. And there were the black groundnuts!! It would be quite a challenge to look for the traditional black and red melon seeds and the boiled groundnuts. But of course, they are there, displayed in better forms.

Despite all the free ang-pows (red packets) from the banks, retail stores and even petrol kiosks, we were attracted to the beautifully designed ones. Offers were at S$1 to S$2 for a pack of 6 to 10. There were also cute paper bags for one to put two mandarin oranges when one goes visiting or paying the Chinese New Year respects to the elders. And stickers of all kinds for one to paste on the walls in the house, including nice ones of Shen Cai (the God of Wealth). Electronic fire crackers that would 'explode' upon being touched was a delight amongst some, scaring the wits out of the unsuspecting shoppers.

To the more serious Chinese New Year shoppers, the "lap-ark" (waxed duck), "lap-cheong" (Chinese sausages) and other delicious ones like the famous Yunnan Ham, were their targets. It's the time when I longed to have just hot steamed rice with the steamed lap-ark.

Walking through the lane to Sago St, there were already the flowers of the Chinese New Year being offered. There were also some pots of bare branches .. the plum flowers that bloom in winter. The pomelos were also in abundance, and Pakistani mandarin oranges were being offered at S$1 for four. Across the street, our Austrian friend was kept busy with orders for his Bratwurst and other wursts.

At the Chinatown Square, the usual draughts (dum) players were oblivious to the noises around them. This lady busker was singing karaoke with participation from the old men. Apparently, she was familiar to many of them, and they she. She encouraged the onlookers to take the seats (the chairs were arranged for performance in the evening) telling them that they sit facing her in the day and could stay on to turn to face the main stage in the night. With a great voice, she certainly did attract a number of guys to go and sing duets with her, be it Mandarin or Hokkien songs.

At one corner, a little exhibition was being set up. It was a small mobile display on the Chinese New Year - the stories about the Rabbit and also the Reunion Dinner. Wife noticed a bottle of Champagne in the picture. Wow, these people had seen better lives in the days when we weren't that fortunate.

The mobile exhibition from the National Heritage Board and that of the paper cuttings depicting Singapore scenes were certainly great opportunities for strangers to chat. One old guy thought that I was a reporter, but I told him these days, it doesn't matter as we could report in our blog. (^^). He was saying that the exhibition was a good idea to share with the tourists. I added in that it was too for some of our kids and even ourselves. Another was showing his young daughter or niece the pictures and was sharing with me that these kids did not know about the scenes of the 50s. I heartily agreed with him. The young lady must have heard more from him after my encouragement. (^^)

Cai Shen must be one of the attractions of the Lunar New Year. And so, there must be an icon of him. I found him facing the confluence of the Maxwell and South Bridge Rd with Neil Rd. Yes, I think we are ready for Chinese New Year, or the Spring Festival.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Chinese New Year is in the horizon

It's a Monday, the first working day of the new year for most. For students, and those on 5-day week, it's tomorrow. I went to the barber's thinking that it would be a quiet day. It was noon when I reached one of my regular barbershop. Oh, there was a queue. Not too bad, just half an hour's wait.

As I sat and read my book, with the occasional check on the movement within the barbershop, and being distracted by activities around me, I could not help thinking. Hmm the old days, barbershop was for the men and boys. Hairdressers were for the ladies and girls. It was relatively cheap to have a haircut compared to a lady's cut, wash or perm. Ah, the Hokkien ladies would say, I want to go and "dian tao mern" (electrify the hair, meaning making permanent waves on their hair).

It seemed to be the custom that for the guys, they must go and have a hair cut before the Chinese New Year!  For many busy guys, they would be trying their luck at the last minute, desperate for a haircut before the reunion dinner. Probably so for the ladies too. For them, a new perm would probably be the norm. These days, there's so much choices.

The men's haircut probably hovers at S$10 with some shops offering as low as S$6 in Chinatown (competition?) on weekdays. And it is unisex these days with many ladies going for the haircut. I saw one lady bringing her elderly mother to the barbershop for her haircut. Nothing fanciful, but functional. Haircut in Singapore has also joined in the "fast delivery" chain. 10 minutes and it is done.

So, have you gone for your haircut yet? Before the price increase starts. Or would they? Perhaps, the traditional ones.