Wanton About Wonton

What is happening around us? I asked myself. Are we not aware how shoddy standards have become? “In what?” Wilson asked as he eyed his bowl of wonton noodles through fogged glasses. In everything! I almost screamed. It really is an assault on our senses, unprovoked, I may add. Well, let me start with your breakfast, Wilson. Just look at it, that’s not the wonton we used to have, notwithstanding the confirmation by the usually-sharp Aloysius that they are indeed current-day wontons. For decades, I would salivate at the thought of returning to Penang and re-acquaint myself with the world’s best street-foods only found in my birth place. We had fast foods well before fast food from Maccas and KFC were fads. Would I be wrong to claim that the genesis of the plethora of fast foods was the island paradise of Penang? When I was a kid, a bowl of wonton mee cost a mere 10 cents and a few short minutes’ wait despite the long queue at the school canteen. If the rotund canteen lady was in a good mood, she would even throw an extra wonton in my bowl. A big spoonful of pickled green chillies was a necessary extra at no additional cost. In those days, most of us were skinny if not scraggly. The canteen lady had to be near good food all her life to be become busty and well endowed especially around her waistline. Her wontons tasted great despite them being more skin than meat. The intoxicating smell of her soup as the rich egg noodles were bathed in it was simply divine. Her mere act of scooping soup onto the bowl often awakened my juices, so impatient was I to indulge in the imminent lust of devouring my meal. Food outside of school were of a higher standard, the higher prices dictated that. In every hawker stall we frequented, we did not have to queue for long. Somehow, those street vendors managed to churn out their delicacies without fuss or frustration. I think it is because they were truly skilled in their job, stoic and cheery with amazing goodwill despite the harsh working conditions in a hot and humid tropical environment. True professionals but alas, they were not recognised as such. No Michelin Stars were ever awarded to them. It is no surprise therefore, that they held the reins only for themselves – only a few of their next generation dared to take over their trade. What we see today is a permanent loss of those trade secrets and we end up with hawkers wantonly serving such lousy wontons. Wonton mee, aka Toktok mee in Penang on account that olden day vendors used to make Toktok sounds whilst traversing the streets to sell their nooodles, should be chewy and firm, or al dente – the yellow egg noodles cooked perfectly with a rich pork-based broth, garnished with leafy green choy-sum (Chai xin, which means vegetable heart, and therefore must be good for us) and meaty yet succulent wontons. The photo below is a terrible illustration of what I have just described. For Aloysius to confirm that those were indeed present-day wonton mee shocked me. That was a direct assault on my equilibrium that morning. How did we get to this nadir without a hint that we realise it? I feel we are all as guilty of this slide to mediocrity by condoning it, by accepting that this really is good enough. It is cheap. It is therefore ok. A good friend we call “Typhoon” pretty much summed it that way. “Penang food is good when the price is stable and the locals will sing their praises.” So, it all boils down to price. It does not matter if the noodles reeked of lye water, not even if they were starchy and soggy. It would not matter if the black sauce was a tad sweet or the green pickled chillies too sour or not crunchy. To them, the tasteless wonton was still ok as long as it represented more than a tiny morsel of meat. Wonton mee is a simple dish to cook, but in the hands of a novice, it can become a disaster very quickly. I mean, look at fried rice. It is such an easy dish to cook, right? You could pretty much throw anything into your overnight leftover rice, and cook up a storm. A bit of green peas, shrimps – raw ones or dried, it does not matter – and eggs. You love sweet corn? Sure, add some in. You crave for salted fish? Even better, just throw in a few slivers. We can’t go wrong cooking fried rice! Until I saw a couple of Youtube videos by Nigel Ng aka Uncle Roger. Was Uncle Roger too harsh on the British celebrity chefs? Nope! Haiya, the comedian tore shreds at Jamie Oliver’s fried rice. If these people dare to wantonly desecrate a simple dish such as Chinese Egg Fried Rice using a frying pan, then they deserve to be openly criticised! Where is the wok? Fried rice needs wok-hei! Chinese know all about the “breath of a wok” for stir-frying – it is in our genes for thousands of years. We know all about that energy, that extra heat to produce the slightly charred, smoky flavour that whets our appetite. The Michelin Guide tells us it is “difficult to achieve without a commercial cooking range”, but what do they know? Every Chinese home can produce “wok-hei” – like I said, it is in our genes. Jamie Oliver horrified us by using olive oil and chilly jam to fry his rice! He sizzled his spring onions “straight away” instead of using them as garnish?! We serve tofu whole, in big pieces but what did the British chef do? He destroyed his tofu as he mixed them into the rice. For us, frying rice is too easy. Many of us learned it as kids. Cooking rice is even easier. We don’t even need the “finger test” to know how much water to add to our rice. We use our eyes to measure the water level in the pot. So, why would people who don’t even know how to cook rice try and teach others how to fry rice? One of the celebrities was filmed rinsing her boiled rice in cold running water just prior to frying it. It is wantonly malicious!

This ain’t wonton mee!
A short video on a Penang Toktok mee street vendor by Penang AA Cook

When I was a young boy, I loved Nonya kueh. I did not realise how lucky I was to be born in Penang and to grow up in that culture where so many races from faraway places mingled and inter-married. Nonya kueh is uniquely a product of the intertwined Malay-Chinese culture. To me, it is a wonderful symbol of good when different cultures are able to come together and become one. These snacks or desserts are usually sweet but some are savoury. Main ingredients include glutinous rice flour, tapioca flour or mung bean flour. I prefer any kueh with pandan, coconut (grated or milk or both), and gula melaka. I left Penang in 1977 at age 18. I was clueless about the Nonya. None of my friends stepped up to say they were Nonya. Hakka? Nonya? Ya, just Chinese folk with different dialects, I thought. Yes, Yes. I was that dumb. I was not inquisitive about races. It did not matter what we were – Malays and Indians, Chinese or mixed. We all looked the same, sounded the same. We were the same, and I was sure we all loved Nonya kueh! My mum’s youngest sister, Suleh Ahyi knew I loved Nonya kueh. I think after 1977, I have had Nonya kueh in Penang twice only and on both occasions, it was Suleh Ahyi who walked to the Tanjung Bungah market to buy them for me. That is an aunty’s love, see? Ahyi has beautiful deep-set eyes. Sparkling eyes, actually. She has unusually high cheek bones and a pointy nose. Her hair was especially jet black. Without a word of a lie, I dare say Ahyi was as beautiful as Audrey Hepburn. She used to walk real fast. In 1996, I was 38. Yet, I could hardly keep up with her as she weaved in and out of the market crowd with her rattan basket clutched safely in her V-shaped arm. Thank you, Ahyi. You were really sweet to remember I love those kueh. There is a church-goer here in the eastern suburbs who makes good Seri Muka and Kueh Talam. I do not know her, so the rare morsels of kueh I get here are from Little Sis. They are friends, which reminds me I should really befriend that church-goer. I need to secure a more reliable (constant) supply of kueh. Little Sis makes very good Seri Muka and Kueh Talam too, but she is not very reliable. Besides, her supply of fresh pandan leaves has dried up. We had a harsh winter, maybe she forgot to bring her portable greenhouse inside one night. See, at least she uses fresh pandan, which is almost impossible to get here. Any serious cook will use real ingredients. Fresh ingredients. It still irks me so much that the stalls in Petaling Jaya and Singapore that I bought my last few Nonya kuehs from dared to use fake pandan essence, and not the real juice from real leaves. It is simply outrageous that they tamper with real food. Quite wanton, I say.

Little Sis‘ Bubur Cha-Cha, a Nonya coconut milk dessert

Since I am on the topic of wanton vandalism, how can I not mention the wanton attack on America’s democracy this week? The bastion of democracy itself was under threat. Suppressed people in other nations used to look to America as their saviour of their democratic rights. That is a farce, America is not the hero for democracy anymore. The U.S. Capitol, the house where their Congress meets, was stormed by Trump supporters who were eager to overturn the peoples’ votes. It was another display of the dangers of what a strong belief system can unintentionally deliver. The journey of how democracy can lead to autocracy through the unyielding pursuit of democratic rights to personal freedoms. It is this great roar of the masses who violently demand their right to choose their leader that may in the end topple a democracy. Those rednecks believe their leader’s claims that they were robbed from a rigged election, despite the 50-plus lawsuits being thrown out by the courts due to absence of evidence and in some cases, due to the admissions by Trump’s own legal teams that there were no legal and factual basis to support their claims. They blindly placed their faith on an unworthy and contemptible bloke who only cares about himself. Blind faith has dire consequences when placed on the wrong person or deity. The FBI has posted rewards for the arrest and successful prosecution of the rioters and thugs. So far, the leader of the mob has avoided arrest. I am bemused that the FBI has not recognised Trump was the culprit who incited the mob. “Be there, will be wild!” he said two weeks ago. He told them they cannot take back their country with weakness. His personal lawyer addressed the rioters and told them to “have trial by combat.” One observation that won’t go away is why was the Capitol protected by so few cops? Everyone knew there would be a mass protest that day. White supremacists from all over the country in their tens of thousands at a street protest that their leader had urged them to be wild will not be there holding candles, right? The stark contrast vetted out by police against peaceful (Black) protesters during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations show how the rules of law and order apply differently if you were not white. Awful, a wanton suppression of their own people. A wanton attempt to steal the election by him, not from him. Under threat of being brought to justice for his major role in inciting the mob, Trump has finally agreed to a smooth, orderly and seamless transition of power. Many think he has conceded. But, his faithful mob thinks otherwise. They read between the lines and breathe a sigh of universal relief that their messiah has not conceded he lost. He has only agreed to a smooth transition of power (maybe, he meant in his second term). After all, didn’t he promise them “our incredible journey is only just beginning”? They want to believe him so badly they wantonly disregard the truth. Urghhlings. Yeah, Biden won. Hopefully, America too.

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