From Kimchi to Char Kway Teow: A Love Story

Not too long ago, or actually, four years ago, I sniffed at the crimson-streaked fermented cabbage. I tentatively and slowly examined those unnaturally rounded metal spoons characteristic of only Korean restaurants. I marveled with the fresh realization that little dishes of appetizers at Korean restaurants are free-flow and so, so delicious.

I must’ve hung onto the greasy bars of the 1 train hundreds of times through college, as it creaked down to 34th Street–Penn Station. We were a city school, obnoxiously proud of that fact and appending “of the city of New York” to the formal name of the school. I found that there wasn’t an abundance of time for carefree city exploration as the pamphlets promised. But whenever I made plans to escape those iron gates, I’d suggest Koreatown.

In particular, I’d head to the Tofu House. It’s not some scrappy homey restaurant that I discovered. It’s a chain run with militant efficiency and, as I learned after a year of frequenting it, thirteen branches across both coasts. (On Friday nights, on which I once made the mistake of visiting, the line snakes down the block, and three staff members monitor it with loudspeakers and superhuman patience.)

Inside, tables clutter two floors, with high ceilings, and the mostly Korean staff bustle around, hefting saucers of those appetizers, sizzling pots of bright red viscous tofu soup, in those black clay pots taken right from the stove, handles at each side like ears. Their menu was expansive, but the regulars knew the one thing to order: kimchi tofu soup, $13.99 or $11.99 for lunch, with pork or beef or seafood or vegetables or dumplings or some combination of the above, in ‘Mild’, ‘Medium’, ‘Spicy’ or ‘Danger’.

We start with little saucers of appetizers. Several long strands of kimchi piled on top of each other, spicy cabbage juice leaking and dripping off the chutes of their stems. Little one-inch squares of braised fishcake, glistening with oil. Chunks of baby octopus, slathered in thick spicy sauce. A single small fish, around the size of my hand, fried in light yellow batter, every bite a mouthful of prickly bones.

The main course is more tofu than soup, really. I stir, sifting through the quivering teardrop-shaped slab of tofu. I fumble to crack an egg and watch the perfect circle of yolk tremble on the surface, before my spoon impales right through its center, scattering its sticky strings everywhere. The best tofu soup, like this one, has rich flavors, a thin film of oil stretching across the top, the melding of meat, tofu, and spice. And I eat, spooning squidgy oblong pieces of tofu into my mouth, occasionally coating the rice in its sauce. Steaming, soft. It melts in my mouth, like baby food.

After one of my first friends as a freshman dragged me there, calling it the best restaurant in New York (before I realized her love for hyperbole), and after I had my first meal and promptly agreed with her assessment, I was back.

I dragged my roommate, on her virgin trip to Koreatown. I brought my spice-averse boyfriend when he flew to New York to visit me, and was thrilled when he later brought his college friends. I coerced my scavenger hunt team from a school club and introduced many Americans to this spicy delicious mess of food. (I learnt then that it is possible to have not eaten dim sum or real Chinese food before in your life.) I cajoled friends from Singapore who protested the entire way, craving some Singaporean fare instead. I schedule sufficient time for a meal there every time I pass through Penn Station. When I received the call that offered me my absolute dream job, a few hours after the interview, I was between mouthfuls of that tofu soup.

Having a regular haunt also made this feel more real, as if I was a New Yorker with my own corner coffee shop and favorite takeout places and regular bodega, as if I was here in this glorious city for the long haul.

At midnight while ploughing through an assignment, my college friends would grab mac and cheese from a box, or greasy chewy cold pizza, or fried chicken or other things fried to a tasteless crisp. Basically things with a lot of calories. Maybe it was the heady rush from consuming something so patently bad for you…But me? I’d traipse to the communal kitchen and return cradling a steaming bowl of kimchi tofu soup and ramen, that round yolk quivering above.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota recently found that when subjects were served either their choice of food or a granola bar after watching horrifying video footage, the effect was the same: they felt better within a few minutes.

But there are so many entwined mysteries hidden under the impenetrable ridges of our skulls, invisible frenetic movement, zooming neurons and ropey nerves and zigzagging structures. I don’t presume to understand. The one thing I know is that when loneliness settles into my bones, when choking stress envelopes me like a cloud, when fresh raw grief spills over, I do not reach for a salad.

I’m not Korean, by the way, neither do I look it. I don’t speak Korean. I’m one of the minority of Singaporeans that do not enjoy Korean pop music or dramas. I also had never tried Korean food before I arrived in New York.

After I order at a Korean restaurant, there’s a flicker of recognition and eye contact when the waiter realizes I speak Korean – or, that I just am extremely good at pronouncing the names of and eating Korean food.

That’s because there’s more than enough food in Singapore for me. Singaporeans can unashamedly say that the thing they miss most about the country is the food – and their parents and family and beloved friends will not take offense. When I fly home every winter break, my mama constantly asks me, What food do you want to eat? What food do you miss in the US? Better make sure you eat this dish before you fly to New York after break! As if I endured that twenty-four hour flight back to Singapore to eat.

When people ask, always delicately and thoughtfully phrased, about my origin, or an explanation for the slight roughness and taint of colloquial Singaporean English (Singlish) in my words, their eyes light up when they hear I grew up in Singapore, “Ooh, all that good food in Singapore!”

I usually concur, “Yah and super cheap too! You should visit.” But I reconsider, and always feel the need to add with a dismissive flick of a hand, “But you only need to visit for a weekend, there’s not much else to see there…especially compared to other countries in Southeast Asia like Thailand…”

I’m probably not a great representative of my country.

We do not quite have a very distinct culture, or language, because we are a mishmash of many. We do not have a single glorious historical event. Or maybe, we do not make any historical event glorious, because we were shoved into independence only through the abject failure of a doomed political union, and this independence was streaked with paralyzing uncertainty, washed by the salt of the prime minister’s fearful televised tears.

But we have food. Cheap, good, varied, everywhere.

There’s carrot cake, my favorite. No, I am not referring to that concoction of dense cake and frosted cream cheese, which is also good, but never as good. Singaporean carrot cake is a concoction of moist soft tubular radish cakes with generous amounts of egg stirred in, salty and smoky and sweet and soft and crunchy all at once.

There’s chicken rice, steamed tender stringy chicken drizzled with soy sauce on a warm bed of garlicky, gingery chicken rice, stewed in broth and pandan leaves and fats and chopped shallots and garlic and all things good. This man claimed he would fly fifteen hours to eat it (http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20151105-the-singapore-dish-worth-a-15-hour-flight). There’s an ongoing $16M lawsuit concerning the chicken rice fortune. There’s a romantic comedy about two feuding chicken rice store owners, inspired by Romeo and Juliet.

There’s char kway teow, thick strips of rice noodles lovingly stir-fried over a carefully cultivated flame with prawns, clams, bean sprouts, thin slices of pork, usually helmed by a balding taciturn middle-aged man in those threadbare white singlets splotched with sweat. He expertly wedges the flat plane of the wok spatula between square blocks of noodles, and slides them neatly onto a plate, still steaming, gravy bubbling.

And so many more, united not by any distinctive flavor but a hodgepodge of many. Onomatopoeic names, dishes generous with fats and rice and meat and none of them gluten-free or vegan, humble dishes that inspire devotees to spar and write comparative treatises over where to find the best rendition of the dish in the country.

So it’s not just a little odd, or strange, to crave Korean food. It’s an aberration. It’s a heinous betrayal.

“So what do you say when people ask what your hobbies are?” my roommate Y asked, leaning against the kitchen island, sipping orange juice from a plastic cup.

C, the other roommate, paused, brow furrowed. “Just a bunch of stuff, like traveling…”

“Reading…” I chimed in.

“Watching television?” Y suggested.

“Eating!” C crowed.

“That’s a great one. And visiting restaurants, dining out…those are my hobbies.” Y added, clearly satisfied at the conclusion of our introspection.

I used to always think liking to eat was unremarkable. It’s not something worth saying. Isn’t saying you like food akin to saying you like happiness and you like dogs? One doesn’t not like food. Isn’t it normal to plan your entire day and hedge all your emotions around your meals?

But some of my friends ate quinoa and boiled vegetables every day. And my boyfriend was very vocally reluctant to make the hour-and-a-half winding commute to Queens, even though the Korean barbeque there was purportedly truly ‘worth it’. And some people are genuinely not upset with eating cold sandwiches; they do not bemoan and regret that one subpar meal for the rest of the day.

I’m not even one of those fanatic foodies. I can’t list all the newly opened restaurants in Philadelphia as my roommates can. I’m not willing to spend fifty bucks on any regular meal. And I couldn’t care less about the ambience or décor of restaurants. I just care about the food.

I just want some of that kimchi tofu soup of my college days.

I want to be strolling down the uneven tiles intersecting the heart of the campus, seeing the glittery lights of the massive library on the right, feeling that tense breathlessness tight in my chest, that I am on the brink of something, of possibility and open-endedness, an open canvas, whatever I want it to be, as I conjured my future out of clay, just me, my life dangling ahead of me, unencumbered and unrestricted by home and family and friends and practicality, as I inhale the rarefied air of this ravenous, throbbing city.

The first sign: one of those Thursday nights in my first few months of work. I stumbled through the doors of my apartment, pulling along my weekly luggage containing my life, balancing a Styrofoam container of takeout Korean stew.

The kimchi tofu soup in Philadelphia is average. I should have considered this before moving here.

I stirred and minced the slab of mediocre tofu in mediocre kimchi soup. The soup was limp, thin. The yolk had hardened in the soup on its journey here, no longer molten. When my plastic spoon scraped the last dregs of stew off the bottom of the container, I racked my brain to recall why I had anticipated this moment as I worked through that flight, what exactly was so good about kimchi tofu soup of my college days, what exactly it was of my college days that made that soup so good. Was it the anxiety, the self-imposed desire to perform the best I could? Was it the irrepressible longing after getting off phone calls with family and friends, them starting their days as I settled into bed, a cruel reminder of our distinct, diverging trajectories? Was it the twinge when everyone talked about hanging out in their squad? Was it New York, that beautiful, striving, but so tragically broken, city?

The second sign: Thanksgiving weekend, 2016. Two months since I started working, six months since I graduated from college, three months since I left Singapore again but this time without knowing when I’ll next return. I have no family in the US to give thanks to, so I’m back in New York.

After a night of foiled plans and a midnight scramble to find a place to sleep, I dragged my weekly luggage to meet my college roommate. Over spicy kimchi tofu soup at that Tofu House, paired with crispy, chewy, doughy pancakes studded with fresh seafood, with the usual kimchi and fishcake and fish and steamed spinach and bean sprouts as the preamble, we made a valiant attempt to update each other on the last year of our lives. We continued at one of my favorite cafes just down the road, until I boarded my train, hazy with fatigue.

An hour into the train journey, I began sweating. A dull but sharpening ache bloomed from my stomach and fanned outwards.

The man next to me was speaking softly on the phone with a family member, I couldn’t quite detect if it was his wife or daughter. I asked him, smile stretched too wide as my stomach churned, to watch my bag.

As the Northeast Regional trundled past New Brunswick and Newark and Trenton and the dark slanting light of dusk bathed the open streets and boxy low buildings and strip malls in an eerie gentle glow, I balanced gingerly on the toilet seat and clutched my stomach and squirmed and sweated and shivered.

Maybe I wouldn’t make it off the train. Maybe I’d just be stuck here, going round and round around the Northeast, on the freaking Amtrak.

The pain eased, after a bit. Shuddering, I slid back into my seat and prayed the train would accelerate into the Philadelphia 30th Street Station.

But it happened again though, a gleeful pilgrimage to the Tofu House culminating in shivers of pain shooting through my body.

Maybe it’s hard to indulge in that wistful romanticism of college, that blithe sweetness, that truncated simplicity.

The third sign: Christmas week, 2016. I slid into my seat at Penang in Chinatown, which I had somehow always assumed was a Singaporean restaurant though it is named after a city in Malaysia. We are here because I thought the boyfriend would appreciate some good Singaporean food.

I’ve sat down at self-professed Singaporean restaurants, my hopes elevated by the Singlish of the owners and waiters. I don’t order my favorites; I order dishes like fried noodles, dishes harder to ruin, that would at worst just taste like Thai food or lo mien. I fight and tamp down the rising anticipation in my chest. Because those feeble imitations, those that try so hard and come so close to the real thing but ultimately fail, are always too much for my aching heart to bear. I leave with a stomach heavy with carbs and oil, and a heavy heart.

I ordered the char kway teow – low expectations and all. I also ordered the roti prata and the sambal kang kong entrée and informed the boyfriend I’d eat some of his prawn noodles. I’m still Singaporean, after all.

I almost choked on the first bite, unable to believe my taste buds. Char kway teow may sound just like any other Thai or Chinese-inspired fried noodle dish, noodles with random veggies dumped in and all mixed with some sort of sauce, that anyone can effortlessly replicate at home for a weeknight meal. But this…I could taste the wok hei – the one thing that distinguishes truly exceptional Singaporean street food – the breath, the searing, scorching kiss of the wok, coating and glazing every strand of noodle, the crunchy bean sprouts, the measly teeny shrimps.

It tasted like the car rides with my mama and my sister every day on the way to and back from school, me chattering far too much about every miniscule detail of my day. It tasted like the muggy afternoons idling in the canteen in school, analyzing the latest relationship challenge with the girlfriends. It tasted like evenings in, snuggling with my dog as we all sat in still silence watching movies. It tasted like dinners at home, takeout with brown paper packets of fried noodles and rice laid out, my mama and papa squabbling amiably over who took too much of the precious chili.

And my heart sings, a Singlish song.

Jiaying Lim is currently based in Philadelphia, and was born and raised in Singapore. She has also been published in River Teeth, Full Grown People, and Quarterly Literary Review Singapore.

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