Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Best and Cheapest Snack of Singapore

What is the Best and Cheapest Snack of Singapore? The answer is none other than the
Maxwell Food Centre's Hum Jim Pang!
Introduction:

After the 3rd trip to Maxwell Food Centre, (the 2nd trip with my Dear), Singapore Short Stories feels so inspired by the hum jin pangs he has partaken at the stall that he blogs what is believed to be the longest blog post till far in his Singapore Short Stories blog !

Singapore Short Stories dedicates this blog post to the old maestro of Maxwell Food Centre Hum Jin Pang stall, my Dear who is a fanatic of Hum Jin Pang (only from Maxwell Food Centre Hum Jin Pang stall !) as well as all lovers of Hum Jin Pang!

Enjoy reading, folks! Wishing you a Happy New Year!

Maxwell Food Centre Hum Jin Pang

Day after day, night after night, year after year, the relentless firm kneads of perfectly elastic and flawless dough, the adroit pulling and twisting of the dough into fine balls of a thousand shapes and sizes, the smooth rolling of these with an ancient roller, the sprinkling of rich tau sar into each dough ball, the deft re-kneading of these dough balls and finally the dishing of each dough piece with a modicum of white sesame seeds………..all this and more greet the patrons of a little humble stall selling Hum Jin Pang in Maxwell Food Centre, named aptly and simply as such: ‘Hum Jin Pang’. This is a stall, which has withstood the test and annals of time. This is a stall, which has also withstood the rising costs of inflation, with the sales of hum jin pang at an incredible 6 for $1 ONLY! (for both salted and sweet tau sar flavor). Customers can also request for sugar-coating of these hum jin pang at no additional price too!

The stall is ‘fronted’ by a timeless old man, characterized by his severely hunched spine; the contortion inevidently caused by years of incessant bending of his back, plying his trade. The old man and his famous stall has become an enduring feature as well as fixture for Maxwell food centre and its patrons. On this public holiday (Christmas 2008), my Dear and I visited the stall to satiate our craving for these special hum jin pang. Initially, we were doubtful as to whether the stall would open on a public holiday, when the world revel in merry-making; nevertheless we were not disappointed, the stall opened, for us and for Singaporeans who love ageless, timeless, tasty, handmade hum jin pang!

My dear and I found ourselves queuing behind a long snaky queue of equally fervently awaiting customers. The old stall owner was flanked and assisted by a lady seeming in her forties (presumably his daughter) helping out with the simple logistics of the stall. We watched in awe and were spellbound at the quick, nimble manipulations of a simple dough by the old maestro, transformed into a myriad yummies of a thousand shapes and sizes all within seconds (despites the advanced age of the old man)! His reflexes were swift while he trained his eyes, which are already reduced to a weathered pair of narrow slits over the years, on each and every dough piece. His sharp focus is admirable at his age. The father-daughter pair worked diligently, humbly, oblivious to the chorus of the customers and the passage of time around them. The chemistry between both father and daughter was fantastic; it was an exemplar of teamwork!

If customers to the stall deem watching the father and daughter at work as a great traditional and historical performance; a bonus, or a prelude to the ultimate rewarding meal later, they would be glad that would also share in this historical stage with the pair as customers in dishing out the hum jin pangs they would so delightfully gulp down later! For while the father and daughter prepare the dough to be fried, the customers will be in the thick of the action- yes frying the hum jin pangs in a wok of boiling hot oil, at their own pace, at a stall which is permeated by the rich aroma: uniquely and distinctly characteristic of frying hum jin pang!
The ‘modus operandi’ for the customer at this stall is simple: when it comes to your turn to order, give your request to the stall assistant and after the customer(s) ahead of you is done with his purchases, you will be greeted with the sight of the hot wok in front of you, two pairs of giant chopsticks, of white floury hum jin pang dough pieces being tossed into the wok, sliding down the smooth surface of the wok, entering into the hot, boiling cooking oil with a uniquely ‘hum jin pangy’ sizzling sound and of rich, creamy, crispy, aromatic, heavenly, fried hum jin pang floating on the surface of the oil, a sign which marks the end of a metamorphosis of the floury hum jin pangs into golden yummies.
There are no instructions given for you on what to do next, at this time and at this point; you are expected to simply, ‘automatically’ come into the ‘play’. ‘Don’t know what to do?’ then you deserve a beating for you should have observed what the preceding customers have done: just help to fry the floury hum jin pangs in the hot boiling oil la!

The old maestro must have garnered a reputation and a loyal following throughout the years of his trade as a hum jin pang seller for I saw old customers buying from his stall who seem more like his friends than customers. Who knows, some of these customers might have been eating his Hum Jin Pang for twenty years or more? It is not surprising if they did so as Singaporeans are reputed to be food lovers and to be precise, loyal food followers, who would resort to anything to hunt down their favorite food stall after it is relocated.

The old hum jin pang master threaded each and every piece of dough in his hands into a piece of fine art. Unlike machines, no two hum jin pang are identical. I wonder what the old man was thinking as he threaded and weaved each and every floury hum jin pang? Was he thinking about the rich and colourful past of his yesteryears? Was he thinking about his wife and family? (I am not too sure about the details of his family). Was he thinking about life, income or the future? The pieces of dough he has threaded and woven are of thousands forms of shapes and sizes, each was a product of his labor, wisdom, experiences and thoughts at the moment.

Some hum jin pang look like rabbits, some look like clouds and one which my Dear and I ate was in the form of a heart shape! What each and every piece of hum jin pang means and resembles to the consumer is shaped by his own interpretations and thoughts at the moment. Amidst the thousands of forms and shapes, there is only one undeniable fact, which transpires as the hum jin pang melts in one’s mouth. Next time before you savor a hum jin pang from this stall, remember to look at each and every shape of the hum jin pang, you will be surprised what it resembles and your dining experience will be doubly intensified!

The simple preparation procedure of preparing the dough and frying them belie the untold labor of the trade. Do the work of the hum jin pang sellers once or twice, it is a cinch but to do it day after day, demands not only physical and mental strength, but also your passion… it is a perennial daily ritual! This job is just not suitable for youths of our times, who lead ‘air-conditioned lives’, embrace, live and breath new-fangled technologies, in terms of work environment, effort and pay. The old maestro earns a (what seems to many) paltry revenue of $1 for every 6 hum jin pang he sells and this is not even his profit! Yet we witness everyday some spoilt kids squandering their parents’ hard-earned money on entertainment like there is no tomorrow!

So much so for my thoughts about the hum jin pang trade at Maxwell food centre …. I jolted back to reality after tasting 4 hum zi pangs at one go. This is the real thing!


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The hum jin pang were so fantastic that as through in a trance, mesmerized by the sights of these creamy treats, engulfed by the unrivalled taste, I queued up again to buy some more of these hum jin pang!

This time around, the old maestro and his daughter halted for a minute in their operations, but not for a rest. They were merely changing the cooking oil in the wok and my heart went out for the old man as he physically dismounted the old wok and mounted the new one, the veins in his arms strained from such an exertion at his age and easily discernable from far. The old man is as fit as an ox! His strength will put many men half or even a third of his age to shame.

My Dear and I bade farewell to this stall we love after making my second purchase. We know that it would not be long before we and other Singaporeans would come back to the stall once more to savor its hum jin pang.

Each hand-woven hum jin pang of a different shape and size is a product of the old maestro’s labor, passion and love. Each such hum jin pang has a story to tell, a story of the old maestro’s life, his trials, tribulations and blessing. These, coupled with the intrinsic amazing taste are not something machine-made hums jin pang can offer to the consumer. Hand made hum jin pang is a fast vanishing trade as there are no clear successors to take over this physically drenching, non-lucrative and tough job in this modern day.

Once the sun rises again tomorrow morning, the stall would open again, without much fanfare for yet another busy day. The seamless ritual would commence once more, the flames beneath the wok would be reignited and sustained till night … and the deft fingers of the old maestro moulding the hum jin pang into different forms and shapes around the clock would continue…weaving a soon forgotten part of the Singaporean way of life.
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I observed the father-daughter pair, hard at work, churning out floury hum jin pang by the dozens in a highly efficient, orderly, systematic and almost robotic manner. The weather was cool on the day we visited the stall or else the little fan blasting a small wind at the two could not alleviate them from the sweltering Singapore heat ... at least that is what we thought. But we must have underestimated them, for the old man and his helpers have been plying this trade for so many years and they must have already ‘acclimatized’ themselves to the hard labor of this trade and the elements of the weather. The old man is made of steel, his steely resolve and determination exemplified in his every little move throughout my observation of him. With his palms and hands toughened (no doubt by the myriad number of counts of kneading), I surmised that he might be plying this trade since he was twenty: he must have been a rickshaw cart or mobile hawker before, plying his trade in the now historical zones, then moving on to the hawker centres (by the way a hawker centre is a misnomer for a hawker is supposed to be mobile!) and being relocated to food centres by the authorities... all these years without any inch of let up in his passion throughout the years, plying his trade, no matter how hard the circumstances was and where he was, perfecting his skills to a pitch and this is evident in the hum jin pang which we savored.

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