What I Know About Gon Chau Ngau Hor
I go back to work tomorrow, so I’m trying to sleep early. It’s always been hard, especially hard the past week, still especially hard in the coming days. I think about that Monday when we were so swamped with prep I only ever stopped at 430pm to change my pad lol, and then went straight back to open for dinner. The Brother came in slightly later, at 510, he was looking for his shit, I’d already laid out his stuff by his wok station. He watched me for a brief moment, then he said, “Gurl how are you so…powerful?”
“I’m not, I’m terrified and anxious but I try to hide it”
“Some days I want to give up, Meimei, it’s hard. Even grown men want to give up.”
“I can’t give up. I can’t give up because I’m responsible to you, to my minions, to the poor steamer boy across the room. He hasn’t had a break since morning, either. He hasn’t given up.”
Yesterday I was at this bourgeois wine-pairing dinner with the dad and associates/old friends. Some foodies would ask the usual questions about food prep and gush about Old Master Shifus of Some Dying Generation. These topics always interest me, I am always happy to discuss them. But it stopped being amusing when a respected connoisseur and food writer thought to test me on my sweet and sour pork knowledge.
“What is the proper technique for making authentic sweet and sour pork?”
“Wet starch and egg yolk, then a layer of dry potato starch, sufficiently high oil temperature, gentle and minimal tossing with sauce to preserve crispiness of pork.”
“What is authentic sweet and sour sauce composed of?”
“Rock sugar slabs, white rice vinegar, salted sour plums, hawthorn flakes, ketchup, LP worcestershire, OK sauce, in some versions lemon, in some versions salt, in all versions, a lot of red colouring.”
He laughs and says to my dad, “Her basics are right. But actually, authentic sweet and sour sauce never includes ketchup.”
He is an authoritative writer for a local newspaper on specific Chinese cuisines, and I loved his writing. He’s met all the right superstars, has all the access to exclusive/limited edition/secret menus of almost every reputed Chinese restaurant in town. In turn, he found me to be this interesting, young, intrepid little thing.
“Also, siu ze, your Cantonese is terrible”
But there are things he should have asked me. There are some important questions I know how to answer.
“How do you get sweet and sour sauce composed and simmering in less than half an hour, from nothing?”
“How do you recall the exact formula for sweet and sour sauce in a severely sleep-deprived state?”
“How do you get the color exactly the same as its preceding batch?”
There was no need to be so surprised that I “got the basics right”. Suffering is a good teacher, and every seasoned minion has a repertoire of Universal Formulas drilled into their bones. He cannot possibly understand this, but it is almost an insult to ask if we “know” these things. How do we not know? We routinely execute these things, to exacting standards, in an environment of fear, often under time pressure.
I sipped my Cos D'estournel.
“Are you able to make a proper stir-fried beef hor fun?”
The table turned to look at me, as if holding their breath.
“I can’t do a good job. It’s difficult to execute well.”
“That is true.” He explained to his white companion The Magic of Wok Hei; the women surrounding him listened with wide-eyed wonder.
What do I know about Gon Chao Ngau Hor (since we want to be so technical about Cantonese terminology)?
I was still a minion at Golden Palace, and they were trying to teach me wok basics, tutoring me every day after lunch service. My very first hor fun tutorial was with my then-sous.
“Let’s go. Wash and heat the wok. Oil in. Not that much. Oil out. Beef in. This is quality beef so we’re going to gently sear the slices. Done. Beef out, wash and heat the wok. Oil in, oil out. Taugay and onion in. Hor fun. Go on, show me how you stir fry. Hmm. Stop.”
Then he grasped my left hand with his, over the wok handle.
“You must learn to toss in a manner that helps you survive 8 hours of stir frying. Use momentum and technique, not force. Can you feel the way I am moving the wok?” He kept at the motion for a good 2 minutes.
“Let’s continue. Season your hor fun. No there is no oyster sauce in mine. MSG, chicken powder, a bit of salt, soy sauce. Dark soy sauce only at the end. Add your beef now. Now your yellow chives. Okay we’re done. It could be better, but let’s eat. You should eat. If you don’t eat enough you won’t become strong enough for wok work.”
He was sullen most of the time, and the only thing more beautiful than him was the way he worked. It was everything I wanted to be - decisive, strong, and exceptionally fast. He was never nervous, always cocky and sullen, and always in control. When he cracked the occasional smile it was the cutest thing, but for the most part his glare was piercing, and his words even more so.
We went out for drinks one night with my fellow minion, we were just shooting the shit over beer at Newton. They’d ordered some stir fried mollusks (I feel bad for not being able to differentiate my mollusks but I really don’t like them) and a lot of Heineken. We went for a second round at Clarke Quay, I ordered a tower of hoppy ale, they hated it. Even though my fellow minion lived closer to me than the sous, it was the sous who got into the cab with me and sent me home. He kissed me in the lift. We were both off the next day, so he texted me. We watched some shitty erotic-horror movie in a Balestier cinema, about a woman who turned all her lovers into human char siew. The movie was my idea. I told him after the movie that I was so sorry and embarrassed, that I’d picked the movie because of its title, that I had no idea about its contents. He said it was a good mistake. We got a room, one of those $10 an hour rooms in the neighbourhood. The air-conditioning didn’t work. We were both shy. It was a little bit awkward. After, he just laid there covered in sweat, and finally spoke.
“The other day your Laoda was horsing around, you probably didn’t understand a word. He said that I’ve been alone in Singapore for so long that I’ve forgotten how to fuck.”
We did regular, civilian things like buy bananas and instant noodles from the nearest NTUC. He knew I liked strawberry yogurt and chocolate ice cream. We always bought a couple cans of beer, and a litre of apple aloe vera juice. His booty calls were usually mid-afternoon texts - “Brought clothes?” When we got off work we’d go back to his place, this little room in a condo complex, his monthly rent paid for by the company. We’d take turns to shower, sometimes he wanted to help me dry my hair.
Once, he pulled out these Japanese plastic foot covers - just wear them like socks for half an hour, take them off, wash your feet, and dead skin peels off the next few days. He got those because he knew my feet were very badly calloused. They didn’t work, but they meant the world to me.
One night we were eating at a late night Chinese joint near his place. Between pig’s ear and my third bottle of Tsingdao I asked him “Hey what does it actually feel like to be inside a vagina?”
“What a weird question. I don’t know how to explain to a person who doesn’t own a dick”
“You know those wet socks I got you the other time?”
At work he was temperamental and exacting, and I was a good little minion. If things weren’t done the way he wanted, he would quietly redo it all by himself to make a point. He wanted a little strainer on the left side of his wok, and a rubbish bowl in front of his wok to collect food debris and personal trash. This is because he dumps water out to the left, straight into the strainer, lifting the wok and turning his left wrist counter-clockwise - as opposed to the usual just-dump-upwards-and-out motion employed by other wok people. When the strainer is full, he just taps the debris out into his rubbish bowl. This way, debris never jams the drain in the wok line. Every evening I would swap his strainer and trash bowl for a new one. And whenever I stepped up to the line to make lunch for our managers, I prepped the same for myself - a strainer to the left, a trash bowl for debris. Even now, I still fold my grip-cloth (this standard white rag we fold into a compact bundle to grip the ear of the wok) the exact same way he taught me.
It ended in a manner that was as sudden and mundane, as it began. Imagine if a person ghosted you while being just six feet away, 12 hours a day, and all he had to say about it at the very end was, “You were a whore to me, and I’m seeing someone else.”
Here is another important question I know how to answer: How do you keep practising a hor fun every afternoon beside the person who broke your heart?
I left. I applied for my current job; I was told I had to make a few basic items for the Laoda and HR person.
“Can you make a gon chau ngau hor?” She asked over the phone.
I got the job, which requires me to know nothing about gon chau ngau hor, but to answer the question - How do you not just give up when it becomes impossibly difficult and you are crying in a lift because everything hurts ?