Monday, May 5, 2014

About Hokkien Peng

When I was told I would be joining a bunch of foodies to sample Hokkien food, my mind immediately harked back to my very first time.

It was during my 6th or 7th Reservist in-camp training. 

I was with an Infantry Battalion then and leading a platoon of 'Hokkien peng' (i.e. dialect-speaking soldiers). We had pitched tents on a part of Pulau Tekong, the aim being to protect an important 'make-believe' installation there. 

Protection of an installation had suddenly become important. It was never the Army's job.  I think in time of unrest or war, the Police were expected to perform that task. But really, the Men in Blue would be better off maintaining law and order than perform what was basically "guard duty".

The 'make-believe' installation we had to 'protect' was an actual installation on Tekong. No one knew what the place was for except that it was military in nature. It was camouflaged and had all manners of antenna sticking out - even tall guylines like those for receiving BBC radio signals. Was it a listening station? Or simply an abandoned repeater station for commercial radio? No one knew. 

In any case, my platoon was just a Support platoon within the battalion and our task was to protect the Bn HQ making sure that our commander (CO) and his crew were safe whilst the rest went about their duties. As such, we were all camped in an encirclement about the HQ on all sides of a hill.

This kind of exercise was considered "low-key", meaning not much running around and sweating involved. No one was expected to even fire any blanks.

But we did have to keep our eyes open should the trainers decide to 'invade' the installation and put us 'protectors' to shame. 

What we didn't expect was the invasion by a big family of wild boars instead, which had become a nuisance population on the island.

Their leader was a very large she-boar, almost three feet high at the shoulder. She came trotting into our encampment without a care, nose ground-sniffing looking for food. I think because of the many soldiers previously camping around the area, these animals had gotten accustomed to food that was waste left behind. They had, over time, become scavengers.

To my surprise, my Hokkien-peng men were terrified. A bunch of them came running  up to me asking what they should do. 

The scene was funny. There they were, grown men with tattoos on their bodies, afraid of a pig?

In reply to my men, I jokingly asked if any of them was a butcher. We could capture the she-boar and have roasted meats that very night. Or a young one for a sucking pig. But my men were too stunned for humour and actually answered me no. I looked at them and smiled; inside, I was laughing very hard.

With wild animals, my maxim was simple: If you don't disturb me, I won't disturb you. 

As the she-boar was just nosing about minding her own business, I told the men to let them be. Just shoo them away, I said.

It worked. The wild boars, finding no food, went on their way. The she-boar gave me a last look as if to say "An juak bo ming kia jiak eh?" ('How come got nothing to eat one?' - perhaps a Singlish pig?)

My men, feeling sheepish for having panicked like little girls, went back to their tents. I think I gained new respect from them that evening. Wah, this ah 'sare' really got "ji" (guts), was what was written all over their faces.

Some officers don't like managing Hokien-peng and rather have a desk job appointment such as TCO (training coordinating officer) or an 'S' staff position. But as Infantry Officers, there was little choice. Where else were you going to get the soldiers to fill the ranks to fight a battle?

When it came to managing Hokkien-peng, the less was better. Utter a few instructions and then leave them be. Somehow, whatever needs to be done will get done. And afterwards, you will find them smoking with their shirts and long sleeves unbuttoned - "Hokkien-peng style".

Live and let live, that's my motto. Don't nitpick, was what I learned.

After the wild boars left, my men resumed their activities. 

As mentioned, we were camped on the slopes of a small hill, which was nice. It's always better to lie on a slope than flat ground. But not when it rained.

In any case, like all such 'camp-out' operations, we took turns to keep watch and conduct admin. Came meal times, we all cooked.

Combat rations by then had improved by leaps and bounds. Instead of hard tack biscuits, we were given Pasta Bolognaise. Instead of shortbread, it was Lor Mai Gai (glutinous rice with chicken). Dessert was "orh bi juk" or black glutinous rice.

Most of the rations came in neat aluminium soft packs that we could simply heat up with boiling water. Easy peasy, don't you think?

At dinner time, usually my runner would heat up something for me. It's not his job but a good runner would know how to take care of his commander. (Hey, I oftentimes help him carry his heavy signal-set to give him a break, probably the only officer to do so. That damn giant walkie-talkie of a backpack was so heavy and hard that it could cause skin blisters and bruises after some distance; its so-called "carrying harness" making the situation worse.) 

But at this particular dinner time, one of my Hokkien-peng soldiers came up bearing a mess tin of something. There was steam arising from it and whatever that was inside looked as if it got herbs. As it turned out, it was Emperor Chicken.

I was astonished. What? Huh? Where did THAT come from?

A chubby fella with unbuttoned shirt and sleeves waved from a distance. "Ah sare, that's Ah Heng's treat," said my runner, pointing to the fella with the rotund belly. I nodded and Ah Heng replied in kind.

Curious, I decided to see what was happening.

Down where Ah Heng was, a group of his buddies had gathered, and they were having a feast. On the menu, besides the Emperor Chicken (which came in a tin drum) were porridge, black bean mackerel, scrabbled egg, stewed peanuts, etc. It looked a proper 'Teochew-moi' meal.

"Ah sare (that's how they address the officers; a slang of the word 'sir'), army eh rations buay sai jiak," excused Ah Heng. (Translation: 'Army rations cannot be eaten.')

I said, Huh, are they spoilt?

"Bo lah, angmoh chan bo hoh jiak!" (T: 'Western meals not nice to eat.')

I said, Okkaay....curious why that was so. This was after all not their first in-camp.

Afterwards, we spoke more and discovered that these men were celebrating what could be for them their last camp-out together.

I had actually brought something for them - cans of pineapple-in-rambutan fruits stoked in syrup. I had learnt from my very first in-camp that fruits were often in short supply and folks appreciated even canned ones. I took the cans out and asked Ah Heng to pass them out. There were cheers all round.

"Enjoy," I said, raising a pineapple can in mock salute. And then, "Rations mai jiak hor terng Sergeant. Mai ran gak." (T: 'Return unused rations to the sergeant. Don't throw them away.')

As my runner and I sat down outside our tent for our meal, we started talking about food. In particular, Hokkien food.

"In a way, this is my first Hokkien meal," I said, more so jokingly.

Ah Tan, my runner, a rather small-sized and skinny chap, laughed nervously. We had been reservist together six years and he was still like that. I had long given up on making him feel at ease in front of me. I guess for some, the 'Officer and Other Ranks breach' was rather impossible to bridge. A good thing perhaps, to keep some distance for the sake of Command & Control. Role playing, I realised, is very important for Reservist. It helps the soldiers to settle in, do their jobs, and then "fuck off" from camp. It usually takes 3-4 in-camps for most Hokkien-peng to realise this and not fight the system. They will lose as the government has the law on their side. And in-camp training (ICT) is not about buggeration but catching up with buddies and to get away from a nagging significant other.

In any case, whenever food was mentioned, Ah Tan would light up. It was his pet subject as well.

What's Hokkien Food like? I asked.

Ah Tan said they were oily and high in salt.


No. That's how my mom cooks it. She's a lousy cook, he confessed.

"It was only until I got married that I really knew what Hokkien food was all about," said Ah Tan, his eyes turning distant as if imagining a time when a soft body was just a cuddle away. His wife was also Hokkien.

"She learned to cook from her mom. Then I realised I had been growing up on crap for a long time." Ah Tan ringed a finger around his skinny wrists for emphasis. I laughed.

"So what is it like, real Hokkien food?"

"It's more understated and fresh," said Ah Tan, again looking dreamy. Perhaps this time imagining great eats in front of him.

'Understated'? Wah, big word. Hokkien-peng, they never cease to surprise, is what I was thinking. I had a Hokkien-peng once who was a GM of a company. Every time during Reservist, he would act like a 'blur fuck' - like someone who did not know what was going on. They didn't know that we officers would go through our personnel files days before in-camp. We would normally book-in earlier than them to make preparations and attend briefings.

Some Reservist guys would act blur just so to skive from work detail or even being a good soldier. It was something I found amusing and hard to reconcile with: it was like meeting Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

"Oh, I didn't know that," I said, returning my thoughts to Hokkien food. "I thought only the Teochew was like that. With their food, I mean."

"Yes, I was confused also," said Ah Tan, who was now poking the ground in front of him with a twig, deep in thought. "I mean the fish seemed the same, the hotpot seemed the same. But somethings are different."

And then he suddenly straightened up. "Ah, my wife says that 'Buddha Jump Over The Wall' is also Hokkien!"

Oh, I replied, and said I had it once in a Cantonese restaurant.

That nugget of information confused us both and we returned to poking the ground in front of us hoping a cookery fairy would rise up to enlighten us. Nothing of that sort happened. Back then, there was no 3G, so no Google to confirm our culinary suspicions.

"So, what's your wife's cooking like?" I said, hoping clues would slip from Ah Tan's pampered tongue. 

"Oh, she likes to braise a lot. Mushrooms with roast pork, bean curd skin, that sort of thing."

Ah Tan continued: "I like her soups. They usually got yong tau hoo and that fishball with meat. She also makes her own ngoh hiang, which is light and nice. Inside also got fish."

"And there's one dish that she would always cook on Chinese New Year's Eve. That 'ang joh kway'."

Ang joh kway?

On hearing that (chicken in red glutinous rice wine), I suddenly remembered my mom learning to make that very same dish from a Hokkien neighbour in Geylang - the place I grew up in as a kid. My mom's version would be less oily and we kids liked it. It was always cooked like that ever since!

I had always looked forward to my mom's ang joh kway or 'hung chao gai' in Cantonese, savouring the red wine each time. Eaten with that other dish, Bittergourd with Scrambled Egg in Black Bean Sauce and rice, it was absolutely delicious! Man, the two dishes go together like Donny and Marie, Sonny and Cher, Lady Gaga and her meat dress.

To me, Hokkien Food up till then was Hokkien Mee (the black one with pork lard) and that ubiquitous Claypot Noodle with the yellow noodles, mussel, snow peas, yam and prawns and raw egg on top. The heat of the dish would usually cook the raw egg.

I seldom seem to encounter this claypot dish anymore. Or even if I did, the ingredients and taste would fall really short.

Story continues with About Hokkien Food 2 

Next NS story: An Instructor's Life
Previous NS story: Trench Fighting

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