The foster children come to Madam Choo Kheng Huay quiet and apprehensive.
But the housewife, who has been taking care of foster children for 14 years, knows how to bond with them. She does it through food and cooking.
The 60-year-old gets them involved in some kitchen action - from making tangyuan (glutinous rice balls) to assembling "sushi sandwiches", bread and seaweed rolled with ingredients such as ham and crabsticks.
She says in Mandarin: "These fun activities allow them to play with food. It puts them at ease and builds their confidence when they complete a task and savour their own efforts."
Madam Choo and her husband, Mr Lim Yook Gweek, 67, a retired taxi driver, have been foster parents to 14 children since 2002 and are currently looking after a five-year-old boy.
One of the boy's favourite teatime snacks is mee sua kueh, or cake-like cubes of mee sua (thin wheat noodles). He helps to prepare the dish by beating the eggs and cutting spring onions with a pair of scissors.
Mee sua kueh, which has a soft and smooth texture similar to yam cake, is made by stir-frying the noodles with pumpkin, carrots and mushrooms, before being steamed and pan-fried with egg.
The dish is one of 13 recipes featured in Room At The Table, a cookbook with recipes from foster parents.
Spearheaded by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, the 131-page book was launched two weeks ago to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Fostering Scheme, which has provided alternative care arrangements for more than 5,000 vulnerable children and youth. The book also includes heart-warming anecdotes from foster parents and introduces the work of the fostering sector.
Hard copies of the book were given to those involved in the Fostering Scheme, including foster parents.
Madam Choo learnt to cook mee sua kueh from a friend who took the dish to a potluck gathering three years ago. She tweaked her friend's recipe, which called for minced pork, and added pumpkin and carrots as a way of getting her foster children and eight grandchildren to eat vegetables.
"This is such a unique recipe. It is rarely found in restaurants and cookbooks," she says. "Every time I take this dish to a gathering, people give me strange looks and ask what type of flour I use. When I tell them it is made with mee sua, they want to know the recipe."
The retired childcare teacher also takes care of her grandchildren, aged one to 13, on weekdays, when her home "transforms into a bustling childcare centre".
She calls herself a "private chef" to the children, as she whips up their favourite dishes. These include fishball noodle soup and macaroni.
The mother of four adult children embarked on her fostering journey after her daughter suggested it, as she and her husband enjoy the company of young children.
"Chatting with them makes me happy as they speak their mind," she says. "Being a foster parent is a way of giving back to society."
She adds that her family has grown closer by taking turns to care for the foster children, who also join them on family holidays and outings, and in enrichment lessons with her grandchildren.
The most satisfying part of being a foster parent? Receiving small gestures of love from her foster children. They check that she puts on socks before sleeping, stroke her head and worry about her when she does not feel well.
Madam Choo says with a smile: "Moments like these make me very happy as it makes the hard work of parenting worthwhile."
Watch Madam Choo Kheng Huay cook mee sua kueh at str.sg/4Q4G
MEE SUA KUEH
300g mee sua
3 dried shiitake mushrooms
4 Tbs vegetable oil
1 shallot, peeled and finely sliced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
100g carrot, skinned and grated
100g pumpkin, skinned and grated
1 Tbs sesame oil
1 tsp ground white pepper
500ml chicken stock
1/2 tsp salt
3 eggs, beaten
1 red chilli, finely sliced
1 spring onion, finely chopped
1 Tbs fried shallots
1. Soak the mee sua in tap water for 10 minutes. Drain and set aside.
2. Soak dried mushrooms in hot water for 10 minutes until they are soft. Cut off and discard the stems, squeeze excess water from the mushroom caps and cut into small cubes. Set aside.
3. In a large pan set over medium heat, add 2 Tbs of vegetable oil, shallots and crushed garlic and stir-fry for one to two minutes until lightly golden and fragrant. Add mushrooms and stir-fry for two to three minutes.
4. Add grated carrot and pumpkin, sesame oil and ground white pepper and stir-fry for another three minutes.
5. Pour in chicken stock and add the mee sua into the pan. Mix and stir-fry the noodles for three minutes until the mixture is soft and paste-like. Ensure that the ingredients are well-mixed with the noodles.
6. Turn off the heat and transfer the cooked noodles to a casserole dish (28cm by 22cm). Use the back of a spoon to flatten the noodles evenly. Place the dish in a steamer and steam for five to seven minutes, until the noodles are firm. Remove the dish from the steamer and let it cool for 10 minutes.
7. Using a small knife, cut the steamed mee sua kueh into 5cm by 5cm squares.
8. Add 1/2 tsp salt to the beaten eggs.
9. Pour the remaining 2 Tbs vegetable oil into a clean pan set over medium heat.
10. Dip the mee sua kueh cubes one at a time in the egg and pan-fry until golden brown on all sides.
11. Place on a serving platter and garnish with red chillies, spring onions and fried shallots. Serve with chilli sauce and sweet dark sauce.
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