I might only have one match…

Have you ever had to think about what to do with the last RM5 in your wallet? Do you eat? Or do you put petrol in the tank so you can get to work? Which do you choose?

I chose to get myself to work. It was quite a while ago, but I remember the feeling. The anger, the bitterness that I am unable to take care of my family as I feel they should be taken care of and the hopelessness that sets in when I decide to put petrol because if I don’t get to work, I don’t earn money.

That feeling that I hugged close to me, that bitterness I felt when I looked around at my former schoolmates, my extended relatives, my colleagues, that feeling of being hard done by, that anger at the injustice of it all, drove me to succeed in my chosen fields. That anger, it took me a long time to get over it. Or so I thought.

Did anyone know how I really felt? I doubt it. I had pride. There was no way in hell that I was going to let anyone know my real situation.

I used to make jokes about being part of the urban poor. Nobody knew I was telling the truth. Nobody knew how much pride and anger drove me then.

I have not blogged, or written up a recipe in months. Friends thought I had been distracted by my “new” causes – kickstarting the Guerrilla Gardeners of KL (GGKL), joining Feeding the Needy (FTN), starting up #projecttikar… so distracted that I had lost focus on my little enterprise, the Straits Heritage Foods company.

The truth was, I had – and I hadn’t. I realised that the setting up of the company was a cumulation of everything that I had experienced over the last few decades. That what I wanted to do was not just take care of my family, but to give a chance to everyone I came across who felt the way I had, that that innate sense of justice I had somehow developed (I find it amazing that I have not become some sort of psychopath), would not let me rest.

Starting up GGKL, joining FTN, starting #projecttikar, all that, I realised, dovetailed into what I wanted for SHF, to take care of the disadvantaged, the poor, the hungry and the lonely.

There is something about being driven by anger and pride, you never let your guard down, you never let anyone close enough to you to drop those masks, you never let anyone in. One becomes very lonely that way. I remember not so very long ago, when I felt like I could no longer feel (that’s an oxymoron if ever there was one). That I was numb. I began to put my affairs in order – EPF beneficiaries, check, house mortgages, to be covered by insurance, check, life insurance, check – and ensured that my parents and my brother would be financially taken care of. I had done my duty by them. The plan was to make it look like an accident. That’s the thing about the successful suicides – nobody ever guesses. Nobody will know until it’s too late.

Then an old friend showed up in my life. Perceptive person that he was, I tried to avoid meeting him but couldn’t dodge him. He sat across from me in the conference room and asked me one question: So how are you planning to do it? I denied it, of course I did, but he had seen to the heart of the matter. The result of that meeting caused me to reexamine myself and my life. But that’s another story.

The not-so-end result caused me to decide to leave the PR industry and eventually set up SHF, but I was not done. Setting up a small artisanal business was hard work. Banging on bank doors, asking for loans to grow a fledgling company (half a dozen banks at last count, almost all of which was met by “we need a track record of 18 months to two years before we can lend you money and my increasingly angry response of “If I HAD the money to survive and grow my business for two years, I wouldn’t be coming to see you, would I?”), was nothing if not disheartening.

Juggling freelance consulting work while trying to grow the business was draining. Insomnia, which I already had, became worse. I had started volunteering with FTN while running GGKL. But the solitary nocturnal wanderings in the city started again. I became increasingly aware of the “invisibles” of this city of Kuala Lumpur, the people I now call the citizens of Kolumpo Below. And that led me to start up #projecttikar.

And now… now, I have begun another chapter. A chapter where all my projects come together, where if this succeeds, I have an answer and a solution to the problems I have seen and identified. A scary new chapter, filled with even more uncertainties, even more pit falls, even more challenges. But it is something that I am willing to risk everything for, which is why I have even put up my apartment, my home, for sale, because it needs seed money, because no bloodsucking banker would back me, because it has never been done before.

A friend asked me recently: ” You’re having problems even taking care of yourself and you’re struggling to pay your own bills. Why aren’t you taking care of yourself first instead of distracting yourself by doing all this homeless, urban poor stuff. Where are you going to live if you do this?”

My answer to that now is clear. It’s not where I will live, it’s HOW I will live. And that’s how I am taking care of myself. If it means taking care of other people – if it means giving them a fighting chance to earn a living, to succeed, to achieve something – it will do.

And how will I do it? By doing what I do best – feeding people, something I find joy in doing. It’s not just about filling a person’s stomach. It’s also about feeding their souls. And sometimes, all it takes to feed the soul is a little care and consideration – eye contact and an acknowledgement that they exist, that they’re still a part of humanity.

Because I am once again on a budget, I have begun developing recipes that can feed many yet is relatively inexpensive. The following is a recipe that can feed six to nine people cheaply.

The ingredients for my version of Mee Siam 

  • One packet of mee hoon or vermicelli (RM2.50 – RM4.50, depending on brand)
  • Three to four cloves of garlic, chopped
  • Three to four shallots, chopped
  • A couple pieces of asam keping
  • Cooking oil, about half a cup
  • Two to three eggs (budget one egg for two people, for an entire pack of vermicelli that can feed up to nine people, four eggs will do, cost RM2)
  • Two pieces of white tofu (the hard type, not the soft type, cost RM0,50 apiece)
  • A stick of fish cake, or two (Optional, depending on budget – anywhere from RM1 to RM3.50 for a pack of three fish cakes)
  • Shrimp (optional)
  • Half a bottle of Straits Heritage Foods Sambal Belacan (RM11 a bottle)
  • Two to three stalks of spring onion
  • One or two tomatoes, quartered and cut into eighths (this is optional, depending on whether you have it in your fridge)
  • Salt and pepper to season
Soak vermicelli in cold water with a little salt and a couple pieces of asam keping (tamarind slices)

Step One (prep – about 15-20 minutes): 

  • Soak vermicelli in cold water with a little salt and a couple pieces of asam keping for about 20 minutes
  • Finely chop garlic and shallot
  • Slice tofu into cubes
  • Slice fish cakes
  • Cut the tomatoes
  • Cut the spring onion into about 2cm lengths
  • Crack and beat the eggs
Brown tofu cubes

Step Two (Cooking – about 15-30 minutes, depending on how good you are at multitasking) 

  • Make sure you have a big enough wok or divide up the cooking into two rounds
  • Heat oil in pan, toss in tofu cubes to brown
  • In another pan, start making thin egg crepes. Slice the omelettes thinly into strips after they have cooled down
  • After the tofu cubes are browned, toss in chopped garlic and shallots and saute until translucent
  • Toss in half bottle of SHF sambal belacan
  • Saute until fragrant (it should be about five to eight minutes)
  • Toss in browned tofu cubes
  • Toss in shrimp
  • Toss in tomatoes
  • Saute for about two minutes
  • Toss in the vermicelli
  • Add about half a cup of water
  • Start stirring and tossing, from the bottom of the pan up, to make sure as little as possible of the vermicelli sticks to the pan
  • It will seem a little wet at first but as the vermicelli soaks up the sauteed sambal mix, it will start to turn a light salmon colour.
  • Stir and toss until it is almost dry
  • Add the sliced spring onion
  • Add the egg strips
  • Saute until dry (it should be for another 10 minutes or less)
A simple and easy to prepare meal for six to nine people

It might sound time consuming and there might seem to be a lot of ingredients but most of the ingredients are optional, depending on budget. With the basic ingredients (not including shrimp, one portion should cost anywhere from RM1.50 to RM2.50. Garnish with a sprinkling of SHF’s sambal udang kering.

Just because I’m on a budget doesn’t mean I can’t feed my friends. Besides, it makes me happy to see them enjoying my food. And that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?


Chicken Congee for a Hurting Heart

Too many people of note have passed away in the last month.

Terry Pratchett finally met DEATH and, hopefully, Binky.

Lee Kuan Yew is finally, hopefully, reunited with his wife, Kwa Geok Choo.

Pak Mie is, hopefully, by the Rainbow Bridge, being greeted by the furry friends that he saved and looked after while they were here.

Closer to home, my uncle boarded the bus as well, leaving a wife, three children, assorted grandchildren and four siblings, one of whom was my mother.

While Pratchett, Harry Lee and Pak Mie made an impact on me, it was the passing of my uncle that brought home the grief the living feel, when I saw my mother crumble and weep when I had to break the news to her. I thought she would recover over the next few days but I was wrong. She took his death badly and did not eat or talk for days after his funeral.

Dad and I bought food – mum did all the cooking at home – but still, she did not eat. In my worry, I took to cooking for her, hoping to tempt her with food so that she would at least have some sustenance. Or at least, if nothing else, try what I had cooked up.

Finally, little by little, she began eating. But stomachs shrink and gastritis sets in when one doesn’t eat for days. So I made her chicken congee, hoping that this would tempt her to eat. Not just any chicken congee, but with one enough flavour that, I hoped, would awaken an appetite and soothe a hurting heart.

(Most of us would call this porridge, because to us, porridge is made from rice, but if I call it porridge, bananas and other non-Asians might think its oats or some other grains, hence my use of the word Congee. But congee or porridge, it is comfort food, and that was what I felt mum needed.)

The ingredients for Chicken Congee for a convalescent 

The ingredients: garlic, shallots, ginger, minced chicken (seasoned and marinated) and spring onions for garnishing
  • Two to three shallots
  • Two cloves of garlic a thumb-length of old ginger
  • A cup and a half of rice
  • About 150gms of minced chicken
  • A couple of sprigs of spring onion or chives, depending on what’s at hand
  • Cooking oil
  • A teaspoonful of sesame seed oil
  • Light soy sauce
  • Salt
  • Pepper

Step One: Prep (About 15 minutes) 

  • Marinate the minced chicken in a teaspoonful of sesame seed oil, light soy sauce, a few pinches of pepper and a pinch of salt for about 15 minutes
  • While the chicken is marinating, wash the rice
  • Peel and finely chop the shallots and garlic
  • Peel, slice and julienne the ginger (tip: it’s easier to scrape off the skin with a spoon. Wash the skin off occasionally in running water and peel until ginger is relatively clean)
  • Cut of the ends and tips of the spring onion and cut into about 5mm lengths
Finely chop the garlic and shallots, wash the rice
Peel and julienne the ginger, which will be used as part of the saute trio as well as garnishing

Step Two: Cooking (about half an hour to 45 minutes)

  • Heat about two to three tablespoons of oil in a pot
  • Once oil is heated, toss in the chopped garlic, shallots and half the julienned ginger
  • Toss in half the minced chicken and saute with the shallots, garlic and ginger
  • Saute until fragrant and the garlic and shallots are translucent
  • Stir in the rice until it is coated in the oil
  • Add four and a half cups of water – it should be about three parts water to one part rice
  • Add the rest of the minced chicken in little balls or pinches
  • Let it boil and then let it simmer for about half an hour; but check to see that the rice is not drying up
  • Once cooked, serve in a pretty bowl and garnish with the ginger strips and spring onion
Stir in the rice when the saute ingredients are translucent
The finished product – flavourful chicken congee garnished with ginger and spring onion

Mum had a small bowl. She liked the garnish of ginger – said it added spice. Of course, she had to make a comment on the unevenness of my julienning. But then again, I was just glad that she finally began eating something.


My mother, my anchor

Mum’s not been well lately. For a while she was recovering, but with the recent passing of her youngest brother, her health got worse and she slipped into a depression that I’ve never seen before. They were close, but it was probably harder on her because not only are there now four out of 10 siblings left, but they – my mother and my uncle – were close. They spoke every other day, even though they didn’t see each other that often.

I couldn’t understand it at first; people pass on, unexpected or not, the living grieve for a while and then get on with their lives.

But seeing my mother take to her bed, not eat, not talk, not move unless necessary got me first worried then anxious and then panicky. I began focusing all my energy and attention on getting her well, tossing most other activities by the wayside. Seeing her decline made me realise that I was not ready to lose her. I wasn’t mentally and emotionally equipped for it.

Mother and I didn’t start out having a good relationship. Growing up, we were almost always at odds with each other. I was an angry teenager, she was an almost typical controlling, domineering mother, brought up in the nyonya tradition of what a woman should be – quiet, well-mannered, well-trained in the kitchen, a woman who should be a compliment to a husband and a matriarch to her new family. I can’t even begin to enumerate the battles we used to have; some loud and angry, but mostly quiet and cold.

Our relationship only started improving after I moved out in my late 20s, something that is Just, Not. Done. by any female in a good Peranakan family. A woman does not move out of the family house unless it is to her husband’s house. Even then, she would try to get me married off, mentioning “that nice boy” that some wattle-chinned flappy-armed old matchmaker scraped up from only the gods knew where, and trying to persuade me to “meet only”, “no harm getting to know new people”.

Thinking back, much of my rebellion began in the kitchen, where a good nyonya girl was expected to learn not just the family recipes but also other kitchen skills, including knowledge of spices and good knife skills. I remember being in the kitchen with her and my maternal grandmother where she would castigate me for sloppy knife work.

Slicing and julienning vegetables were an endurance test, with her looking over my shoulder, chastising me for being so “cho lor*”, commenting on how kasar** and chunky my vegetables were.

The most painful dish for me to help prepare was always, hands down, jiu hu char, stir fried shredded cuttlefish with vegetables, a quintessential Penang dish. While the main ingredient of the dish is actually the lowly turnip, not having dried shredded cuttlefish in the dish is just unacceptable.

Ironically, it was only after I moved out and started cooking for myself and my housemates that my knife skills started improving, Even now, however, I slip up. I don’t practice enough. But, unbeknownst to mother, I have been practising the jiu hu char recipe.

The Ingredients for jiu hu char

The prepped ingredients
The star of the show – dried cuttlefish
  • Two medium sized turnips also known in Hokkien as bangkuang, about 500gm – 600gms
  • Two medium carrots
  • About 250gms of long beans
  • Four to five mid-sized shallots
  • Half a bulb of garlic
  • About 150gms of pork belly
  • About 70gms of small prawns
  • Five to six dried shiitake mushrooms
  • Five to six pieces of small dried cuttlefish
  • Handful of chopped coriander for garnishing
  • A few sprigs of spring onions, to be diced for garnishing
  • Light soy sauce
  • Dark soy sauce
  • Pepper
  • Sugar
  • Salt
  • Oil

Step One: Prep

  • Soak the dried mushrooms in water. Reserve the stock for later. Mushroom stock is a great flavour agent, giving your food a more umami mouthfeel. Once the mushrooms are soft, slice them thinly.
  • Soak the dried cuttlefish for a few minutes, then julienne or shred them.
  • Slice and julienne all the vegetables. Of course, with all the latest technology, we can use the food processor now, but the old school methods are still the best for this. i find that using a food processor makes the vegetables a bit soggier, while julienning by hand ensures better crispness.
  • Boil the pork belly with a couple of crushed garlic cloves; it helps to get rid of any residual “porky” smell. Also makes it easier to slice the pork thinly, once its cooked. But if you forget that step or have no issues with smell, just slice the pork belly thinly.
  • Chop the shallots and remaining garlic cloves finely.
  • Depending on how many pairs of hands there are in the kitchen and whether you’re using a food processor or julienning, prep can take anywhere from 20 to 90 minutes.

Step Two: Cooking 

  • Heat oil in in wok. About one third of a cup should do, but you can add more if you want. I prefer the vegetables less oily and slightly dry as it holds its shape better.
  • Add chopped garlic and shallots and fry until translucent.
  • Add the shredded cuttlefish. Fry on low fire until aromatic.
  • Add the pork, fry for a minute or two more.
  • Add the julienned turnip, carrots and green beans.
  • Stir fry until the vegetables are slightly soft.
  • Add the mushrooms, together with half the mushroom stock. Stir it around some more.
  • Taste.
  • Keep stirring until the liquid has dried somewhat.
  • Add about a teaspoonful of light soy sauce, a sprinkle of salt and pepper (about half a teaspoon should do) and the rest of the mushroom stock and stir the vegetables thoroughly.
  • Cover the wok with a lid for about five minutes.
  • By the time you get back to it, the vegetables should be fairly soft.
  • Taste.
  • Add the prawns and a little of the pork stock, if you boiled the pork, to moisten the vegetables. Sprinkle about a teaspoon of sugar. Stir. Some people leave off the prawns but I find that they add natural sweetness to the dish and give it better mouthfeel than plain sugar.
  • Mix a teaspoon of dark soy sauce, equal amount of light soy sauce, if you think the dish needs more salt, and about a quarter of a cup of water.
  • Add to vegetables.
  • Stir fry until prawns are cooked. By this time, the vegetables should be thoroughly cooked and soft yet retain a slight crunchiness. There should also be very little liquid left. The shredded vegetables should not clump together; you should be able to see individual strands of turnip and carrot.
  • Taste. Season with salt and pepper accordingly.

Congratulations, you have just cooked jiu hu char, a dish synonymous with the Penang Peranakans. Eat either with hot white rice or as the filling in a sambal belacan smeared lettuce leaf.

I hope mum gets well enough soon for me to cook this for her. It will be a role reversal.

Jiu hu char.


* Cho lor – Hokkien. Translates to rough, but usually used in relation to people. It usually means the person is clumsy or unrefined, not something one wants to hear in the description of someone. 

** Kasar – Malay. Translates to rough, or coarse. If used to describe a person, it usually means the person is coarse, unrefined, not really bad mannered but not quiet clued in on social niceties.