This article was first published on The New York Times Style Magazine (Singapore) on 7 May 2019.
If women were supposedly meant to take charge of the kitchen, why are there so few female faces in the culinary world?
Across the world, women have long been celebrities in the kitchen, whipping up scrumptious dishes — of soups, rotisserie numbers, pastries and desserts — and fuelling up hungry souls at home (and professional kitchens, too). Yet, in the foray of celebrated male chefs, who front the covers of food magazines or culinary journals, the sparse adulation of female chefs has become increasingly palpable.
Leafing through the pages of history, it is almost as if the culinary world is nothing but a boys’ club. The Time magazine’s “13 Gods of Food” controversy, which featured only four women and none of them were chefs, in 2013 is a testament to the dearth of media coverage on female chefs in the kitchen. While it is gratifying to bear witness to more female chefs voicing out over the years, cultural tastemakers, like food writers and food critics, are often known to diminish or sensationalise the achievements of those few who managed to break the mould.
Diving deep into Singapore’s vibrant hawker culture — where affordable, comfort food is a go-getter, and where heritage and gastronomical wonders coalesce — female figures are as much the trailblazers as their male counterparts. These are women who grew up amid the tight heat of a hawker stall, who gave up their comfortable white-collar jobs to carry on family legacies, and who move the needle to bring sumptuous food to the table.
Speaking to three locally-owned establishments whose kitchens are spearheaded by such female trailblazers, it would not take long for one to be admired by their unabashed furore for preserving their predecessors’ craft.
Ji Ji Wanton Noodles
Of the encyclopaedic selection of food within Singapore’s hawker centres, some of the loveliest dishes are often the simplest. The traditional bowl of wanton noodles is one of such effortless delicacies. A dish of versatility, a bowl of wanton noodles — which comes in both dry and soup variations — often makes a fitting choice for a hearty breakfast, a light lunch bite, or even a nourishing dinner for the weary soul.
Given that there is already an abundance of stalls proffering the Cantonese dish, few can boast to be like Ji Ji Wanton Noodles, who has had half a century worth of history and had even been invited to operate a booth at the prestigious “The Michelin’s Guide’s Street Food Festival”.
“Our stall name translates to ‘Remember Foundation’,” says Kristen Choong, the third-generation owner at Ji Ji Wanton Noodles. “My grandmother termed it. She wants us to remember that no matter what we do, there are foundations and roots that we have to remember.” She whips out an old photograph of her grandparents manning the booth by the streets in the early ’50s.
Choong, who is joined by her younger sister, Jill Choong, and her mother, Madam Lai Yau Kiew, are the three female hawkers behind Ji Ji Wanton Noodle. Together, they own three consecutive outlets at Hong Lim Market Food Centre and another standalone eatery along Kreta Ayer.
Madam Lai, the second-generation owner, began her culinary journey as a helper to her parents, who peddled by the streets. She was in her teenage years then. “There are many wanton noodles stores around Singapore. I wanted something different,” says Madam Lai, who now has over four decades of experience. “I wanted my dish to be special. I wanted people to come back.”
During an epoch when authorities began evicting street peddlers to hawker centres, the two sisters, like her mother, began learning the ins and outs of the trade as teenagers. Reminiscing her earlier years, the younger sister Jill recounts, “As children of a hawker seller, we would head straight down to the stall after we were dismissed from school. We would help to serve the food, keep, clean and wash the plates and bowls.”
The journey as a hawker is far from being a bed of roses: Injuries, in varied forms, are common occurrences. Unfortunately for Madam Lai, she had drawn the short end of the stick. With excruciating hours, standing and jostling about the tight confines of the booth, and little rest in between — the stall operates daily with no off days — the cartilages around her joints had worn out and a major knee operation left the 68-year-old sapped of energy. Once, her varicose vein ruptured while she was working, leaving the hawker floor stained with blood.
As Madam Lai was forced into semi-retirement, the two sisters took over the reins at Ji Ji Wanton Noodles. Despite having worked in the same kitchen together for the last two decades, they, too, encountered some basis of discrimination.
“People would tell us, ‘Why are the women cooking? Or are you the daughters of the previous owner? Can you cook as well as your mother?’,” says Jill, the younger of the two sisters. “There are times when we are stressed and tired, we put on a long face. Some would say, ‘You guys are rude.’ But we cannot help it. Maybe they thought it wasn’t okay for women to not put on a smile and be nurturing everywhere.”
It has been six years since the sisters took over the operation at Hong Lim Market Food Centre. Nonetheless, Madam Lai still returns to offer her assistance, albeit a recently fractured wrist rendered her incapable to conduct strenuous chores. Where food on the table come from or how they have come to be conceived is something few people ponder about. For the women behind Ji Ji Wanton Noodles, the narrative is one that goes beyond just preserving traditions. It is predominantly one about seizing the day and to live in the moment.
Kristen adds, “Every day is memorable here. We’re doing this for our mother. A day more I spend with her is a day lesser she has left to spend with me. I want to be with them. I only have the two of them, so every single second counts.”
Photography by Tung Pham