Ng Ai Lian is proof that even if we can’t always do great things in life, we can certainly do small things with great love.
When Ng Ai Lian took over a min chiang kueh (Chinese pancake) stall at a coffeeshop at Block 293 in Yishun two years ago, little did she expect the days ahead to be so tough.
The conditions she had to work under then were trying, says the 61-year-old, who has a stall at the Yishun Park Hawker Centre as well.
First off, it was unbearably hot. Her stove was fired up all the time, as was that of the nearby coffee stall for boiling water for coffee and tea.
The heat was overwhelming, yet not as crushing as the pressure of making decent min chiang kueh. What Ai Lian wanted was min chiang kueh with the right thickness and chewiness, with golden caramelisation and crispy edges. That proved much harder to achieve than she had imagined. Even lifting the cooked pancake from the pan to the counter, so that it wouldn’t end up as a sloppy mess, called for technique.
While the previous stallholder had taught Ai Lian some basics, they were simply not enough for a complete novice like her. “Nothing came out perfect even after countless tries,” she says. “I would stand over the stove feeling frustrated, and tears would come streaming down.”
Enter a friend in need, her pancake mix supplier. Ai Lian would bombard him with questions on the phone and when he made deliveries. At some point, it struck him that Ai Lian, enthusiastic and willing to learn, was the one to inherit his pancake-making skills and batter recipe since he was winding down his flour distribution business.
He shared with her his tips and tricks for making perfect pancakes. “When he gave me his batter formula, he told me not to reveal it to anyone else,” Ai Lian recalls with a laugh.
One year after she took over the stall at the coffeeshop, Ai Lian finally hit her stride. Since then, her customers have kept coming back for more. At last count, she sells up to 200 pieces each weekday and up to 400 pieces a day at the weekend.
“When customers tell me that they enjoy eating my min chiang kueh, I tell them it is because I make them with aixin (‘love and heart’),” she says.
Now, Ai Lian has brought her tiny packages of aixin to the Yishun Park Hawker Centre. At her stall, Munchi (#01-43), the min chiang kueh crusts come in not one but three flavours: original, matcha and charcoal. These can be mixed and matched with a dizzying array of fillings ranging from traditional ground peanuts, red bean paste and shredded coconut, to nontraditional ones like gula melaka, oreo cheese and chocolate with fresh banana slices, to name just a few.
“The traditional flavours are must-haves as middle-aged and older folks prefer them,” Ai Lian says. “My son Calvyn thought up the new ones because I had told him that I wanted to appeal to young people.”
Ai Lian has always had an interest in food, influenced by her older brother who was a chef. “His food was absolutely delicious, and that got me into cooking,” she says.
At various points in her life, Ai Lian ran stalls selling economic bee hoon, chicken rice and yong tau foo. She was a counsellor at a student care centre, where she also oversaw the food preparation, and a caregiver for disabled and terminally ill elderly, helping them with daily needs like bathing and feeding.
Now that Ai Lian has returned to making food and sharing it, she plans to “do this for a long time” – not only for her customers, but also her family and friends.
“Calvyn and his friends have invested in Munchi as they are keen to develop a business,” she says. “So I want to support them with my skills.”
She has also marshalled friends and in-laws to help out at the stall. “It’s a good place to keep retirees like us active and mentally occupied,” she says.
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