Foodie Confidential

Comedian-host Mark Lee's vibrant kampung memories of food

Despite coming from a poor family, comedian-host Mark Lee has vibrant memories of food from his carefree childhood days.

Until he was nine years old, he lived in a bustling Choa Chu Kang kampung, which had kopitiam, provision shops and an "underground casino". The area was always buzzing with night markets and hawkers who peddled food such as soon kueh and char kway teow wrapped in fragrant banana and opeh leaves.

Lee, 48, says his food preferences were shaped from an early age. Bak chor mee is one of his favourites, as he enjoyed free bowls of the noodles from a hawker who set up stall near his home.

His late father, who was a barber, supplied water to the hawker from a pipe in their home for a fee.

Lee also developed a love for coffee at age five, when he hung out at the nearby kopitiam with his late grandmother and drank kopi O.

  • What would you last meal be?

    A simple dish of bak chor mee.

During Chinese New Year, he and his two elder siblings, with a group of friends, would collect piles of discarded chipped bowls and plates, filling them with sand for their "masak masak" (play-cooking) sessions. They also broke into a nearby farm to steal sweet potatoes. "We wrapped them in newspaper, cooked them on a pile of burning wood and peeled the skin before eating. We still survived."

He adds wistfully: "Those were the times before technology overwhelmed our lives and our parents let us do what we wanted instead of worrying about us."

These memories come alive in Long Long Time Ago, a Jack Neo movie that Lee stars in. It premieres on Thursday and chronicles the struggles of a kampung family who moves into a Housing Board flat, and spans from 1965, the year Singapore became independent, to the early 1970s.

The movie is a case of reel life imitating real life.

His family moved into a public flat in Boon Lay when he was nine. For the next seven years, he helped out at his mother's chee cheong fun stall in the now-defunct Taman Jurong Bus Interchange.

He has acted in about 20 films in a career spanning close to three decades.

Lee, the youngest of three children, is also known for his entrepreneurial spirit. He owns the local franchise of Malaysian chain, Old Town White Coffee, which has seven outlets here, and the Monsoon Group of hair salons. He is also co-founder of Galaxy Entertainment, a production and artist management firm.

His wife, Catherine, 43, manages his businesses. They have three children: Calista, eight, Maksonn, five, and Calynn, three.

How do you celebrate Chinese New Year?

For reunion dinner, my family still uses a charcoal-fuelled steamboat pot that is more than 20 years old. It is filled with prawns, fish slices, vegetables and canned abalone. For the past decade, I have invited about 200 family and friends to my home on the first day of Chinese New Year. The party starts at 1.30pm and lasts till 2.30am. My mother and maid cook dishes with 30 kampung chickens, making soup, porridge and fried noodles. It is a good way to catch up with people at one go.

What Chinese New Year goodies do you look forward to most?

Mini peanut puffs (kok zai in Cantonese). When I was young, I liked eating chopped peanuts and sugar in mini tin boxes. I also like home- made love letters and beehive cookies (kueh rose).

What are your favourite Singapore foods and where would you go to eat them?

I like popiah and go to Good Chance Popiah in Silat Avenue, as you get to wrap your popiah with freshly made popiah skin and a warm pot of filling. I also go to My Cosy Corner in Coronation Shopping Plaza for it.

I like bak chor mee from Adam Fishball Noodle stall in Adam Road Food Centre as the noodles are springy. The sauce and ingredients have an old-school taste.

What are your favourite restaurants?

I like Tunglok XiHe Peking Duck Restaurant in Orchard Central for its tender Peking duck. What's unique is they serve it with popping candy, which crackles in the mouth. I also like Dancing Crab restaurant, which serves seafood boils on the table. It is a fun way of dining. I also go to Peperoni Pizzeria in Zion Road, as my kids like spaghetti and they like taking photographs with their tongues - black from the squid ink pasta - sticking out.

What's the best thing you have eaten and why was it good?

My late grandmother's thick rice noodles fried with garlic. It was soft, flavourful and not too sticky and powdery. She was from Putian in China and used to cook an enormous pot of it for special occasions. I have not been able to find another version that tastes better than hers.

What is the most memorable meal you have had overseas?

Fried chicken, known as Lin Ching- hsia chicken, from an economy rice stall in Ipoh, Malaysia. It is named after the Taiwanese movie star, as the owner allegedly looked like her when she was younger. The fried chicken breast is tender, with the lovely fragrance of salt. There are only 50 pieces available a day. Once, I ate four big pieces at one go as they were so tasty.

What is one of your favourite foodie destinations?

Ipoh. I would drive 51/2 hours from Singapore to have yong tau foo curry noodles from a street hawker stall there that opens from 7pm to 4am. The curry, which is cooked over a charcoal fire, is not too heavy with coconut milk and is flavourful. I also like Ipoh hor fun as it has a jelly-like, smooth texture.

Do you cook at home?

I cook only on special occasions such as Mother's Day. I like cooking dishes such as fried rice with X.O. sauce and steamed chicken wings with ginger and salted egg yolk.

If you could choose anyone in the world to have a meal with, who would that be?

Hong Kong film actor Chow Yun Fat, as I admire the ups and downs of his career. He is also a family guy and isn't afraid to stand up for what he thinks is right.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 31, 2016, with the headline 'Vibrant kampung memories of food'. Print Edition | Subscribe