The Fallacy of Authenticity & The Indian who Cooks Fish Ball Noodles

Right before launching Singapore Noodles, I buzzed a friend for her opinion about me writing about food and recipes from other races that are not part of my Chinese heritage. She replied saying, “It’s a bit of a sensitive issue, but as long as the person who contributes the knowledge is a person of the particular race, I think that’s acceptable.”

It made sense – after all, if you wanted to learn how to make thosai, you’d, more often than not, be looking up a recipe from an Indian person. Them being raised on authentic thosais at home would have given them an understanding of how a good thosai should taste. They might even have stood at their grandmother’s elbows, gathering tips and pointers along the way. Speak of a Chinese or Malay cooking a good thosai and you would be met with distrust.

Enter Jeevan Ananthan, a young Indian Singaporean who gave up a comfortable career in finance to set up a hawker stall with his fiancé May Leena Krishnan. The dish he cooks on a daily basis for a living? Fish ball noodles and bak chor mee.

Jeevan and May at their stall in Toa Payoh (Photo: Li Na Fish Ball Noodle)

According to Jeevan, his first taste of fish ball noodles at Primary 1 hooked him and he has been so obsessive about the dish that he and May hired a master to teach them for a month. He has been working on perfecting their recipe and skills, and says that it is a never-ending work in progress – something you would only hear from someone who truly cares about their food.

My chat with Jeevan made me rethink the notion that food from a particular cuisine can only be cooked, taught or sold by someone who has earned a right to… that someone has to be born eating fish balls or grow up cooking bowls of fish ball soup under the tutelage of his mother in order for his dish to tick all the qualification boxes of authentic fish ball noodles.

While reading up on Jeevan and May, I came across radio presenter Rosalyn Lee’s Instagram where she says, “I’ve always said that true racial harmony in Singapore happens in our hawker centres and kopitiams, where we unwittingly embrace each other’s cultures through food, where we buy based on taste, not race.”

Read on for what Jeevan has to say about the struggles of being an Indian hawker serving a Chinese dish.

Jeevan frying lard at the stall (Photo: Li Na Fish Ball Noodle)

We decided to be fishball noodle hawkers because of… our shared passion for the dish. My love for fishball noodles started on my first day of Primary 1 when my mother bought me my first bowl of fish ball noodles. We chose to be hawkers because, in our opinion, the best food in Singapore is sold by hawkers. There are no fancy elements that you might find at cafes or restaurants – hawkers let their food do the talking. 

Focusing the business of dishes closer to my Indian heritage… never crossed my mind. I am blessed to live with my grandparents and my grandmother is the matriarch and head chef of the family – she cooks all our meals daily. Once in a while, May and I do try our hand at some Indian dishes such as sambal chicken or masala. But perhaps since ‘authentic’ and infinitely better-tasting Indian food is readily available at home, we do not cook Indian food on our own very often.

As an Indian cooking a Chinese dish… I definitely had to work harder to prove myself. Gaining the trust of our first few customers was a struggle. At the beginning, most passers-by shot us looks of deep skepticism. Some even would go as far as to shake their head in disgust or fear. Sometimes, some would place their order with us, not having seen who was behind the stoves. Upon seeing my face, they would pretend they actually wanted something else and walk off.

Handmade her kiao (Photo: Li Na Fish Ball Noodle)

We encounter racism… quite regularly at the stall. Following a recommendation from his boss, an older Chinese man once ordered from us in Hokkien. He could definitely converse in English, but we got the sense that he was trying to prove a point. Upon serving him, he told me, “My boss ask me to come and try. If I know you’re Indian, I won’t order.” I asked him politely to try first. He replied, “No lah, tak boleh tahan.” However, he finished his bowl.

A Chinese mother once shouted in disbelief, “Am I seeing correctly or not?! Do you even know what you’re doing?!”, and walked off. Another Chinese man ordered bak chor mee, pointed at the bak chor and asked, “You know what is this or not?” Yet another ‘jokingly’ said, “Oh, you’re an Indian man selling Chinese food. I should paint your face white.” Comments such as these continue till today.

We managed to overcome this racial barrier… by speaking in Mandarin. May would stand in front of our stall every day shouting ‘lai yao chi bak chor mee ma?’ (anyone wants to eat bak chor mee?). However, there are only so many customers you can win over by speaking in Mandarin. Thankfully, we eventually managed to use my race and social media to our advantage. And now we have a growing pool of Indian customers – our regulars notice and comment that they see more Indians buying our noodles now than ever before!

Jeevan serving up a bowl of fish ball noodles (Video: Li Na Fish Ball Noodle)

One thing I observe as a hawker is that… many people behave and order very differently from a hawker than they would at a restaurant. You see people’s true colours from the way they treat hawkers, cleaners – those perceived to be in the lower ranks of society. At hawker centres, many Singaporeans demand their food rather than place their order – it’s all in their tone and we believe that the way you speak to someone reveals your level of respect for them. I’m sure many of these same people would not use the same tone at restaurants or cafes where a certain level of decorum is expected.

For example, there are those whose faces and tone turn sour when we tell them our food is ‘self-service’ – they go so far as to tell us, much like a child who hasn’t gotten his way, that they will stop eating if it’s self-service. We’ve also personally witnessed a customer use foul language on the Indian Muslim owner because his biryani was not ready yet. Thankfully the Indian Muslim owner is a gracious man and laughed it off. 

We sell our fishball noodles for… $3. I don’t think is a very exorbitant price, especially given that we work around the clock to offer handmade quality items to our customers. Yet, there are still customers who tell us that our bowls are too expensive.

The key to working together as a couple is about… finding joy and fun in the little everyday things. Both of us grew to love cooking together, especially as a couple. When we used to work in corporate jobs, we always looked forward to cooking our dinners together after work. At the stall, we’ve got Gold 90FM on everyday and we’re always sneaking in some grooves when a good disco song comes on. May gets a kick out of my dance moves.

Li Na Fishball Noodle

116 Lor 2 Toa Payoh #01-140

Singapore 310116

Avatar

Author:

Pamelia Chia is a Singaporean chef and the author of the bestselling cookbook ‘Wet Market to Table’. After graduating with an Honor’s degree in Food Science and Technology from the National University of Singapore in 2014, she decided to trade a food scientist’s lab coat in for chef whites. She has since been working in restaurants in Singapore and Melbourne, including Candlenut and Carlton Wine Room. Her deepest interest being the preservation and celebration of Singaporean food heritage and culture, she started Singapore Noodles in 2020 as a platform to share about Singaporean food to a global audience. Find her on Instagram @pameliachia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *