All in the Family: Ah Seng Duck Rice
The Ngs have built the lives of two generations around a single braised duck recipe – one that was cobbled together through trial and error.
Words and images by Clara Lock
In 1965, Mr Ng Kim Seng, then in his twenties and the youngest of three brothers, came up with a braised duck recipe based on the Teochew flavours they were so familiar with at home. Cooking was in their blood – his father and eldest brother sold porridge and his second brother, laksa.
When his recipe was ready, he joined them at Lim Tua Tow market, located along Upper Serangoon Road, where he operated his stall throughout his twenties and thirties.
It was here that his two children learnt the ropes of his braised duck business. When they were teenagers, Wendy Ng and younger brother Ng Teck Siah would help out every day after school to take orders and serve. When the market was demolished in 1994 and the stall moved to Serangoon Garden Market, the whole family relocated with it.
Still, neither of them knew at that time that they would one day take over the helm. Wendy took up secretarial jobs after completing her ‘O’ Levels and continued helping out part time, while Teck Siah started a satay stall with his wife, also located at Serangoon Garden Market.
But when the elder Mr Ng suffered a mild stroke about 15 years ago, Teck Siah, 39, gave up flipping satay and spent two years learning how to braise duck according to his father’s exacting standards.
Mr Ng has now retired from the kitchen, but ask him about the recipe’s spices and he reels them off, like a shotgun, from memory – ba jiao (star anise), ding xiang (cloves), cao guo (tsaoko fruit), nan jiang (galangal) – all of which Teck Siah learnt from spending hours watching his father at the stove.
“He now cooks it better than I can,” laughed Mr Ng, adding: “The younger generation is always more capable than us.”
If not for the renovation of Serangoon Garden market in 2002, the whole family would have stayed put. But their temporary stall, in a coffee shop near Serangoon Central, did so well that when it was time to move out, his daughter, the 41-year-old Wendy decided that it was her turn to take over – just like her younger brother Teck Siah had done.
With both of his children overseeing one stall each, Mr Ng finally hung up his wok 10 years ago. He now shuttles between the two stalls, supervising the cooking and dropping by now and then to taste test the food.
While Mr Ng is happy that his children are carrying on the family tradition, it was a choice he let them make on their own. Having spent the bulk of his life labouring over hot stoves, he understands the difficulties of a hawker’s life better than most.
“It’s backbreaking work, dirty and greasy, and the hours are long,” he said.
Long hours and hard work are familiar bedfellows for Wendy, who typically works 16-hour days.
Chores begin before dawn – marketing or collecting ingredients from her supplier first thing in the morning. Ducks must be cleaned of dirt and stripped of excess fat before being boiled in a vat of braising sauce. The duck is prepared Teochew style, which means the sauce is watery rather than thick.
Each month, the mother of two – her son and daughter are 13 and 10 respectively – takes only two days off. She would like more rest, but as rent is steep, she cannot afford it. Wendy pays “about $8,000” a month, including utilities and conservancy charges – a far cry from the “few hundred” it took to lease the stall back at its first location.
“Of course there are sacrifices. I have no time for my children, my family. I also don’t have personal time. How to? I stay here the whole day,” said Wendy, whose husband is a delivery assistant.
If Wendy had time, she would go to the spa, get massages and facials, and shop for clothes.
It is a side of her few realise exists – belied by the sensible black shoes she wears double-laced, white socks pulled up to mid calf, and the dish towel that hangs from the left pocket of her black bermudas. Her oversized grey t-shirt and short, cropped hair hide hints of a feminine spirit.
“When I was 20, I joined the tv show Jing Tong Yu Nu,” she revealed. “I wanted to meet new people, so I thought, why not?” The Channel Eight dating show was a popular fixture in its time, and Wendy would sometimes be recognised at the stall by keen-eyed viewers.
But at work, her playful nature is well-hidden and Wendy is all brisk efficiency, counting change, packing food for takeaways, and still taking orders 20 years on – sometimes for customers she has known since her youth.
“They literally watched me grow up,” she said.
Ah Seng Braised Duck Rice is well known in the northeast, having been featured on local food guide Makansutra and tv shows like When The Queue Starts. Their customer base, many of whom are regulars, have followed the family through multiple relocations.
HDB director Mok Loi Wong is one of them – he and his wife used to patronise the outlet in Serangoon Gardens when they stayed nearby, and now live opposite the Serangoon Central branch. They have had duck rice at least twice a week for as long as the couple can remember – “About one third of my life,” said the 60-year-old.
Their 22-year-old son, who is currently in the army, likes the duck because it is not gamey. “Every weekend when he books out, we’ll buy it for him,” said his mum Cindy Mok.
But it remains to be seen if their son can grow old on the same braised duck the way the Moks did. Both Wendy and Teck Siah intend to leave it to their children to decide if they will carry on with the family tradition.
“Of course I want to share our recipe with people for as long as possible,” Wendy said. “But it’s their life, so I’ll let them choose. It’s what my father did for me as well.”
Originally posted on irememberSG here