Neighbour: Soon Soon
Text by Stephanie Peh
Photography by Jovian Lim
Like most kopitiam or hawker stall owners, my father started Soon Soon Teochew Porridge for simple reasons: to support the family and provide jobs for his siblings. As a bona-fide kampong man of earlier generations, he had modest ambitions growing up. The most natural thing for him to do was to carry out his responsibilities as eldest son of the family through his lifelong passion—food.
In the nineties, he dabbled in Chinese seafood, fish soup and fried beehoon with probably as much business sense or knowledge of running a stall as a baby would know how to walk. He fell many times and chalked up debts, but they never deterred him from pursuing the only thing he knew how to do to the best of his abilities, “to cook, as to live is to eat well and full,” he always says.
Thankfully, things took a turn for the better. Perhaps his failed businesses were simply invaluable lessons paid to the school of life. Settling down with Teochew Muay (Teochew Porridge) in 1997, he finally chose the food he grew up eating to be the story of the rest of his life. For an uneducated man like himself, it was never about cookbooks but trial-and-error from memories of old recipes or endless conversations with suppliers and relatives. He picked out personal insights from everywhere and taught himself how to cook through taste.
We vaguely remember delivering food to relatives and friends as a family, seeking their opinions on his version of the pek dou her (steamed fish), bak chor (minced pork), kiam cai (salted vegetable), homemade fish cake and braised duck. All were classic Teochew Muay dishes. He was particular about getting his flavours right and did not let a feedback slide.
I have learnt that Teochew Muay has to be of a certain level of doneness, and served just slightly below boiling temperature. Scooping porridge free hand is an art in itself, as it is important to proportion the soup and rice to the right ratio. The zap (soup) from the porridge in turn creates a comfortable blandness (said to be nutritious and good for health), topped with dishes of maximised flavours. This combination has never failed to warm my heart.
Visit Soon Soon Teochew Porridge at 13 Simon Road, Singapore.
Read more in The U Press N˚1 (Singapore edition).