Sunday, 23 October 2011

A Soldier’s Tale -- Sichuan Vegetable Soup

I’ll make no bones about it: National Service was kick-ass tough. Oftentimes you prayed you were somewhere else…or dead. But today, with 30 years’ hindsight, and perverse as it may seem, I think I enjoyed my stint.

For those unfamiliar with the term, National Service – or ‘NS’ as it’s known – is mandatory conscription in the armed forces -- usually the Army – that every young Singaporean man is subject to. Many other countries have similar laws, like Israel and Taiwan; Singaporeans undergo a 2 or 2½-year stint, depending on one’s academic qualifications.

The first 3 months, in which you were rudely transitioned from civilian to military life, and whipped from raw recruit to passable soldier, were, as you could imagine, hell on earth. In the strange new environment of the army camp, each one of us was pushed to our physical and psychological limits. Discipline, regimentation, and arduous physical training were used to demolish egos and enforce conformity. We wore the same uniform, ate the same food, slept in the same barracks. Very quickly, we learned to think not as an individual, but as a group, a military unit. A unit in which every member relied on, and trusted, one another.

On the battlefield, your life was in the hands of the man beside you, and his in yours. That was one of the lessons the army taught me, which has stayed with me for life.

I also took away some good friends, who I still keep in touch with today; and this has made my time in NS seem that much more rewarding. However, the story I most want to share with you today is about the army food – which used to send chills through me, and my army mates.

In those days, camp food was prepared by young soldiers serving NS just like the rest of us. These ‘cooks’ were equipped by the army with some rudimentary cooking skills, but not much else in the way of running a kitchen. And it showed, through over-done vegetables, over-steamed fish, and half-cooked rice. My mates would usually push the limp, discolored veggies aside, or on to my plate. And being the glutton I was, I lapped it up – over-cooked or not!

I especially looked forward to Saturday lunch, when the cookhouse served a particular dish every one hated, except me -- instant noodles cooked in anchovy stock. Invariably, the noodles would have been left sitting in the pot for quite a while, and be sodden. As Saturday afternoon was also the start of the weekend furlough, my mates would be more intent on leaving the camp than staying for the bloated noodles. Not I. I’d dutifully troop to the cookhouse, scoop out as much as I could finish, and savor every bite. My mates would always shake their heads in disbelief that anyone could possibly enjoy such #%@!  But I honestly did; I still think of these noodles sometimes, and miss them.

Another dish I got to know and love during NS was a soup -- preserved Sichuan vegetable soup with pork. It was spicy, slightly sour, and oh-so appetizing, and always brought back memories of my days in the army.

Preserved Sichuan Vegetable and Pork Soup

Preserved Sichuan Vegetable  :   80 g, soaked with water, drained and sliced thinly
Pork                                          :   220 g, sliced thinly
Soy sauce                                 :   1 tsp
Pepper                                      :   ¼ tsp
Corn flour                                 :   1 tsp
Ginger                                       :   1 cm, bashed
Stock                                         :   1 litre
Salt                                            :   ¼ tsp
Pepper                                      :   a dash

  1. Wash preserved Sichuan vegetable thoroughly, and soak in water for 30 minutes. Drain and slice thinly.
  2. Marinate pork with soy sauce, pepper and corn flour. Set aside.
  3. Boil stock and preserved Sichuan vegetable for 10 minutes.
  4. Add pork and simmer for another 5 minutes.
  5. Season with salt and pepper. Serve hot.