These poems about food and eating were originally posted on the AsianVoices Website (1997-2004), a site I created that featured poetry and fiction by young Asian writers.
Eating in the Street
Fish, turn into balls
become fishballs, are sold
for five dollars for five
cooked, they are GIANTS
people like GIANTS
people drool, hawker’s bag? Full.
Squid, with eight legs
only have four when sold
for five dollars for four
legs. Mind you, eat
the legs first or
sauce splatters your face
people drool, hawker’s bag? Full.
Waffles, too many squares
with peanut butter when sold
for five dollars for half
With the power to cook your tongue
people drool, Hawker’s bag? Full.
Siu Mai, a dim sum
pigs become fish when sold
for five dollars for five
or six, wearing fine yellow jackets
with soya sauce and too hot.
people drool, hawker’s bag? Full.
Students, teachers, workers,
policemen, housewives, firemen
bowing together, 90 degrees
specks on uniform
people like eating in the street
stomach full, doctor’s bag? Full
~ Clara Cheuk (Hong Kong)
A Cup if Coffee, Please
floated the cinnamon.
bathing Mocha looked up
into the cloudy sky.
I’ve no choice where to live,
Just picked up by the strange
without even a hello,
the house poured me
into it’s dining room.
~ Nora Chung (Hong Kong)
Fresh hot snacks on sale,
the smell of roasted chestnuts
has summoned my heart
~ Lee Sze-nga (Hong Kong)
Black balls in clusters,
hear His call in the jungle
tips of harvest due
~ Kucinta Setia (Singapore)
Ode to Gold Kiwifruit
New kiwis cannot fly
Are tendrils that climb on high
One step at a time
Moving on is nature’s right
God’s tears flow up to the roots
Nourish bodes to make way, hoot
One step at a time
Babes that are guiltless
As cherry blossoms tide.
Open is prepared shyly for the travel route
Up another step at a time
Once it fruits, it lives
Oh! The ingenious families
Find, gather, experiment
Qing Yuan, Huang Yan, Long Quan, Jia varieties
Break through the tests of gold
By divinity, the goodness of gold kiwi.
Those desired rare yuanbao of Chine
Are shaped onto bodes of new kiwis
So they are made to be
The heroic tears of God’s promise
Envision carefully as they are made to be
Kiwifruits do express feelings.
Welcome bygone days for little kids
I peel the new kiwifruit for office tea
Treasures shine from within;
Seeds congregate with a flame
Surrounding the core is
To begin from humility
As the gold kiwi shows it is.
~Kucinta Setia (Singapore)
Ode to The Ginger
Ginger, the crossroads rhizome
Of China and India
The great traveller
Singapore bids you here
Where the sun is always abundant
Where the rain kisses the durian
Bright as a potato
Hot as a pitanga
Impulsive like a woman
But Mama sets you aside
In steamed fish, a decoration
In mutton soup, a spice of Heaven.
Ginger, the rhizome of secrets
Other than gingerbread
Housewife you inspire
Like a househusband
Used as crushed ingredient
The yellow snow’s aroma
On the steel plate to adhere
Swirl round and round, further
And fill up wonders within
The wealth for lost years.
Days when I am weaker
Ginger, you are a partner
No more meaty flesh
No more a spice to preacher
You are a condiment
The aromatic genius
Breaks down nerves of influenza
Unites me with the world
To weep for each other
For success the formula
Generations to think
The ways to use you, ginger
To stop violence and alleviate
To alleviate and recover
~ Kucinta Setia (Singapore). Note: Ginger, with a history of more than 2,500 years, is rarely consulted for its aromatic purpose in Singapore kueh-making. Harvested in China, India, South East Asia and Australia, ginger is priced for its volatile oil and resin which fights against coughs, insomnia and unstoppable temper. Pitanga, another word for Surinam cherry.
Ode to Aicao
Singapore Hokkien, born from an aicao
The herb that never disrupts
Our aim towards health
Our way for wealth
When everyday is study-hell
You fall on the ocean round
Boomerangs that cut off Hell
The world is well
The rare Hokkien demonstration
Aicao, little did I know
Your pale secret of healing
Your colour and chlorophyll
Spreads fast and beautify
The sticky bun of Ang Mo Kio
Changes into a tortoise’s shell
Changes into a forest’s crown
And nothing will not change
Rare gem among Chinese herbs
Once occupied the Old World
Now returns to announce arrival
The Saviour of the world
Who wants to rejuvenate
The fools of the world.
~ Kucinta Setia (Singapore). Note: Aicao, a lost crop of the Chinese food medicine, has suddenly emerged in Singapore these two years and is an enemy of influenza and rheumatism. Its origin is virtually unknown but it is regarded by some Chinese Singaporeans as a rare, native herb as its Singapore Chinese word is not found in all Chinese and Chinese medicine dictionaries. Aicao has small, pale and boomerang-shaped leaves.
Ode to Aicao Kueh
Lovely aicao kueh
A kueh is not definitely a cake
A kueh of homage
Welcome seasons’ faith
The first kueh laid
The scent of the kueh
Stronger than coriander
During the mid-day
The kueh croaking
A minute is one day
Two milleniums in one day.
The lost is the best
The best retains the best
The fast may overlook the great
The great will bow their heads
The head needs to think
The thought needs to please
The time to be slow to meet
The time to seek faith
Once abandoned but saved
Aicao kueh for Mama’s name.
The Lord’s flavour
Rises from Mama’s aicao kueh
To the last, pepper, seasame embrace
Her untold skills the praise
Grandma’s herb had paved
The way to defeat ang ku kueh
One of the worst paid
Of the jobless face
Ang Mo Kio shakes.
The new tortoise’s weight
The clean aicao kueh for
That is not defaced:
The lost recipe unique
Stick to your fame
Against the vagrant wind
Your essence shines throughout May
The gingerbread of the East
Inner wave brought in
~ Kucinta Setia (Singapore). Note: Aicao kueh is a lost family recipe unique to Singapore. Ingredients comprise of rare herb aicao, pounded or crushed ginger shreds, pepper, seasame seeds, salt, glutinous rice flour and white sugar. In brief, sufficient water is splashed or added to mix the aicao with the flour, salt, pepper and sugar. Ginger shreds act as paste within aicao kueh. The whole production process is similar to that of ang ku kueh. At the end, a square-shaped banana leaf is used to support each aicao kueh for morning consumption on any day. Reborn in February 2001 at an Ang Mo Kio home, the production process of aicao kueh is first pioneered by the Goh-clan women in eastern Singapore as early as the nineteenth century AD.
Cats and dogs love your vicinity
Animosity replaced with amiability
Near your time to start a day so easy
The speed of shredding, washing, cooking
Eggs crushed to pieces on the saucer
easy serving nori is sushi with nectar
Near the cock crows, canteen opens for meeting.
~ Kucinta Setia (Singapore)
On the patio where rose and honeysuckle scents
Float from the trellis to the gingham tablecloth,
A man in beige slacks sits and watches summer sprouts
Arc dazzingly above the pale banoffee pie,
Whose crust was corrugated no less with skill than love,
Like a votive offering, between the tetra-pak spouts
Of orange juice and milk, before the grapes of sloth
That drape the sharon fruit. Nearby, the cookbook lies
Upon the other placemat, its restless feathers stirring,
The winter of its contents pages whitely blurring,
Dissolving in an infant Pauillac, whose aroma
Promises sweetness, then ushers in the quiet trauma
Of a sour attack, a siege of tannins, and a tense,
Lithe body, flawed in wanting grace, not excellence.
~ Toh Hsien-min (Singapore)
Under the quick knife
The living hen is bleeding
on the chopping block
~ Mak Ho-yin (Hong Kong)
The Popular Pudding
It was a bright Sunday afternoon when this story began. The Tulliver household was in apple-pie order. The whole house was given a Dutch cleaning from top to bottom; the floors scrubbed, the silver polished, the windows cleaned, the carpets vacuumed. Its lady owner, a Mrs. Margaret Tulliver, was apparently producing a menu fit for the picky taste of kings. For days, pots and pans banged and clattered from behind the half-closed kitchen door; accompanied by a symphony of whistling kettles, whipping egg beaters, and the feverish chopping of knives.
To those who had the fortune to taste her cuisine, Margaret Tulliver was born a chef. She was so full of executive ability in the kitchen that she could have just hopped out of a cookery book. Her outstanding skills permitted her to stand up against her harsh and patronizing sister-in-law, a Mrs. Maria Conner, who was, (in Margaret’s description) a ‘petty, spiteful little fat woman’.
Margaret’s daughter, however, was the complete opposite of her mother – she simply wasn’t cut from the same dough. She possessed no extraordinary knack for cooking, even after endless attempts of education on this domestic duty by her mother. When Maria Conner found no soft spot on Margaret’s armour, she would lash out venomously, ‘Of course, dearie. I understand. But it would be so much better if you could pass down some of your extraordinary abilities to your daughter!’
But now no harsh word in the world could rouse Margaret Tulliver from her work. A week earlier she had received a reply from a well-known chef, an ancient Mrs. Elizabeth Smith, accepting Margaret’s invitation to sample her cuisine, in the form of an afternoon tea. Margaret knew that Maria secretly and spitefully resented the visit, and chuckled over it.
However, I must confess, that errors do occur, even among the best of chefs. Much to Margaret Tulliver’s horror, she forgot all about the tea-cake. The distressed woman looked at the clock and concluded miserably that she had no time. Her supreme judge would be arriving at the airport in half an hour and she had to be there to greet her. Her anguished eye fell on her daughter and a mad hope rose within her.
‘Melissa, my dear,’ she began haltingly. ‘Do you suppose that you could possibly make a tea-cake in time for Mrs. Smith? It uses a very simple recipe so you probably will be able to manage it.’ The distressed woman could imagine the odious laughter of Maria Conner – but she had no choice; time was her enemy. And she would not, in a thousand years, ask Maria Conner to make that cake.
‘I suppose, I could try,’ replied the girl bravely after a long pause. Relieved, Margaret kissed her girl and disappeared out of the front door.
But Readers, Margaret’s oblivious little crime could be forgiven at one look at the tea table that afternoon. Spread over a starched tablecloth were offerings of various miniature pies, scones, madeleines, tiny sandwiches, light cookies, bite-sized tarts, and a basket of bread rolls, which gave off a odour – fresh, sweet and alluring. There were ruby preserves of cherry, a slab of fresh creamy butter, small pots of clotted cream. And of course, there was the reputable tea-cake, secretly concocted and baked by faithful little Melissa, standing plain, golden, and sweet-smelling.
Although there was unequalled perfection in this art of presentation, poor Margaret had yet to experience another fright. The box of tea refused to reveal itself from its normal position on the kitchen shelf! After a frantic search, she located it on the front porch steps, and discovered in dismay that over half of its contents were missing.
The tea was good, good enough satisfy a cranky, critical, and ancient chef. Margaret was thrilled when she heard the compliments, but the greatest triumph was a compliment addressed to the tea-cake.
‘Oh, I must not take any praise for that,’ replied Margaret throwing a maliciously triumph smile at Maria. ‘My little daughter, Melissa made it.’ Maria Conner’s mouth fell wide open, giving Margaret all the sweet revenge she desired.
‘What did you do with the cake?’ asked Mrs. Smith.
‘Well, nothing, I just made it,’ said Melissa, somewhat confused. The old lady chuckled, sipped her tea, and replied, ‘It’s alright, just keep your secret – but you should be thankful I don’t work for the victual paparazzi!’
When the energetic old lady was finally satisfied to retire to rest, Margaret permitted herself to take a long breath before confronting her sister-in-law.
‘What do you have to say now, Maria Conner? My daughter has proven herself every bit a chef and is probably better than you!’
The said Maria Conner felt very uneasy and unpleasant. She replied with what weak sarcasm she had: ‘Better ask your darling daughter what she put in the cake and probably you could run a business on it!’ Speaking thus, she quickly disappeared up the stairs, leaving Margaret to gloat over her triumph. The proud mother thus turned to her daughter and asked gaily, ‘Come, tell me, my darling, what did you put into that cake that is responsible for this sensation?’
‘I just did what you asked me mother,’ replied Melissa in brow-knitting confusion. ‘I made a tea-cake just as you asked. I made it with your Earl Grey tea.’
~ Vivian Wong (Hong Kong)
AsianVoices Archives: These poems were originally posted on the now-defunct AsianVoices website (1997-2004), which featured poetry and fiction by young Asian writers. Copyright belongs to the original authors. If you are the writer and would like to remove, add or edit this work, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will promptly carry out your request.
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