Lim Jian Hua started learning how to make fish ball noodles as a stall assistant at Soon Heng Fish Ball Noodles at the tender age of 13. Now, at the age of 61, he is passing on the baton to his daughter, Jean, who quit her corporate job in 2018 to help with the business. She is not only learning how to make traditional food from scratch from her father, but also manages the stall’s social media accounts. Jean talks about her transition to the life of a hawker and shares tips for the home cook.
(Disclaimer: The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
What is Teochew-style fish ball noodles? Teochew people love vinegar and can never live without it. Apart from vinegar, fish oil and pork lard is a must in Teochew-style fish ball noodles! Also, Teochew people have very strong taste preferences and everything must be fresh. Their standards are very high, like Michelin Star.
Our stall prepares, from scratch… all our fish balls, meatballs, yong tau fu, veggie rolls, her chiok and her kiao. Even our sauce base, chilli and pork lard too are handmade by my dad.
The difference between fish balls made by hand and factory-made fish balls… is that the former are softer in texture. In order for machines to shape fish balls, more flour needs to be added. This results in a much firmer texture compared to handmade ones. We receive feedback everyday and our customers can tell the difference in our fish balls – they always share how nice they are, compared to those they have tried or bought from supermarket.
The best fish for making fish balls is… yellowtail. It has its own unique fragrance and contains sufficient collagen that makes fish balls more tasty and bouncy.
Our tips for making fish balls at home is… to grind the fish with some ice. Add some seasoning, and you are ready to make fish balls!
The best way to get rid of the fishy smell when making fish soup is to… add ginger and some onion oil.
Veggie rolls and her kiao are… actually variations of the same item. Both are made from yellowtail fish. These originated from the 50s and 60s, and my father learnt it from his father, my ah gong. Now it is passed down to me. My father used to own a factory and I used to follow him to work as a child.
A few aunties used to work for him, one of them being my own aunt (my mother’s elder sister). Of all the aunties there, she made the most beautiful her kiao, each of the exact same size. It impressed me so much that I sat beside her to learn. It took me some time to pass my dad’s standards but now I am confident to say that my her kiao are so much nicer than my dad’s! People say practice makes perfect, and it really does.
I chose to quit my job because… I wanted to help my dad. He used to own 1 factory and 5 stalls island-wide, but everything went downhill and he had to close everything.
A few years ago, he started this humble eating house and, at that point, my dad was stressed to the point of being suicidal. It pained me so much that I decided to create social media accounts for his shop and advertise his noodles. I also helped him to close his sales account daily to show my dad how much the shop expenses are and how much he has sold every day.
My dad became confident that his business would blossom and asked me not to quit my job. However, I realized that my soul was not in the office and instead, my thoughts were always with how the shop is doing. When my dad confided in me about how tired he was, and that the influx of new customers was more than he could handle, I decided to leave my comfort zone for the hawker industry.
In order to learn from my dad, I had to… start from the bottom. I started with clearing and washing plates, brewing kopi or kopi-o, selling economic rice, and managing customers. It took me months before I was familiar with everything and was able to handle the shop front.
When I asked my dad to let me cook the noodles, he rejected me multiple times because he always has this ‘sibei clumsy child’ mindset and is afraid that I will scald myself on the hot stoves. It took me weeks to convince him – I even had to go through practical test! It’s like a junior chef cooking for a master chef. It was very stressful but I passed on my first try to my surprise.
The most difficult part of the job is… dealing with criticism and hurtful feedback from customers. When I first started taking over the cooking of the noodles, some customers told me, “Ah hua not around, I don’t want to eat.” Or “you cook can eat or not?” Feedback like this can really plunge someone’s confidence. I cried once I got home, thinking, “If no one can accept my cooking, what am I going to do if my dad is not around anymore?”
Between being an office lady (OL) and being a hawker, I will choose… being a hawker. Of course, I miss being an OL, where I am always waiting for lunchtime to find a nice place for lunch or go for some photoshoot, shop, or even take a nap! In short, aimless but very carefree. However, being a hawker changed me.
Being in this hawker industry, I actually feel more appreciated and learnt more than I thought I can. Things I never thought I could achieve, I did. I also feel happy listening to stories my dad’s customers shared with me and seeing how smiley and happy my dad is compared to the past. My customers love to see the content of our Instagram page and always provide moral support – the relationship I have with my customers and the laughter I have received are simply priceless.
When we increase the price of our food… some of our customers do make a big fuss, even if it is just a 10 cents increment. It is a big deal to them and we totally understand their perspective – money is indeed really hard to earn.
However, I personally feel we should pay more for hawker food. When I say this, I mean paying at a reasonable price with delicious food in return. When I started doing accounts for the stall daily, I asked my dad why sell at such a low price when everything is handmade from scratch? He sacrifices so much time everyday just to serve a bowl of authentic fish ball noodles for $3!
I subsequently realized that my dad is a generous man with a big heart, because the main reason is that many who live in the neighborhood are elderly folk, who may have difficulties paying for a meal. So now whenever people ask me why we sell our noodles so cheaply compared to other stalls outside, I always reply them, “My dad is the chairman of his own charity organization!”
My dad’s main concerns with me being a new-age hawker are… that I will scald myself, because he always thinks that I am clumsy. He always reminds me, “The knife very sharp hor, the stove very hot hor.” I studied culinary skills in ITE and though I studied Western food which has no relation to fish ball noodles, my basic kitchen skills are there, so I assure him that there is nothing much to worry about when I am in the kitchen.
But he still thinks about whether I made the right choice up till today, because being a hawker is tough. It doesn’t just take up our personal time – it also puts family relationships to the test. He asks me from time to time if I regret quitting my job, to which I answer that I don’t because I see purpose in my life now.
415 Pandan Gardens #01-117