Flour Power: How Covid-19 baking helped me bounce back from adversity

Besides baking desserts, Juliana Ramli has ventured into savouries, debuting chicken-filled Thai dumplings last year.
Besides baking desserts, Juliana Ramli has ventured into savouries, debuting chicken-filled Thai dumplings last year.ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - Carbohydrates have been the breakout food group of Covid-19.

Baking became existential, with the kneading of bread alleviating collective anxiety over the coronavirus, as social media lit up with sourdough show-off-ery.

But carbs can be comforting in other ways.

For every newbie baker beaming over his burnt cheese cake in his Instagram Story, there was a home chef sweating it out in her kitchen-office, wondering if she was cooking enough to make a living.

Cooking and baking may be a pandemic hobby for some. For many others running home-based food businesses, it was a lifeline.

Promonade.sg, an online marketplace featuring home-based businesses and small businesses, has been holding a virtual Chinese New Year fair to showcase their homespun food and other items.

Mr Vincent Ong, who is in charge of marketing and sponsorship at Promonade.sg, says that many of these vendors were adversely affected by Covid-19.

"Most of the owners of our home-based businesses are in their middle age. Most of them were affected by Covid. Some lost their jobs and started their businesses to help them cover their expenses," he says.

The four home-based business owners interviewed by The Sunday Times describe baking and cooking as a means of keeping afloat, either financially or emotionally.

One of them, Ms Juliana Ramli, 45, says the pandemic-fuelled proliferation of baking hobbyists online keeps her on her toes. "There was a lot of competition. I had to try new ideas," she says.

Besides baking desserts, she has ventured into savouries, debuting chicken-filled Thai dumplings last year.

Here are their flour-sprinkled bounce-back stories.

Selling butter cake and curry to care for her grandchildren

When her daughter-in-law walked out on the family about two years ago, Ms Linda New Suat Kien, 54, became the de facto caregiver for her younger son's two children.

Her 32-year-old son is in jail for drug offences and his Thai wife has returned to her home country, says Ms New. Her other son, a 36-year-old bicycle mechanic, is at a halfway house for former drug offenders.

Ms New, who dropped out of school after Secondary 1, used to do odd jobs and work as a cook at an economy rice stall and childcare centre.

But when she took up the responsibility of caring for her grandkids, aged nine and five, she decided to start a home-based business, Linda Cooking, in April last year to better accommodate their needs and schedules.

She had applied for cleaner positions, but prospective employers rejected her request for flexible work hours, in case of emergencies. "I was upfront and told them I was the main caregiver. If my grandson, who is five and has asthma, is sick, I would have to care for him; no one can help me," she says in Mandarin.

Ms Linda New Suat Kien used to do odd jobs and work as a cook at an economy rice stall and childcare centre. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Now, her office is the kitchen. Her grandchildren know not to disturb her when she is working on chicken curry and butter cake orders. Linda Cooking can be found on the Promonade.sg website, which lists home-based businesses.

In the run-up to Chinese New Year, she often slept just four hours , crashing into bed at 2am and waking at 6am.

Conscientious about quality control, she uses Golden Churn butter, which is slightly more expensive, for her cakes and buys her chicken fresh from the market. She cooks her curry one order at a time, to avoid crushing the pieces of potato.

Ms New, the eldest of four children born to a taxi driver and factory worker, is no stranger to self-reliance amid adversity, having raised her sons on her own as well.

When she was 22, her husband died from kidney failure at age 27.

She was devastated but pulled herself together to start a new life as a young widow.

Ms Linda New Suat Kien sells curry chicken and butter cakes. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Ms Linda New Suat Kien sells curry chicken and butter cakes. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

"The first three months were so difficult, but I told myself, I cannot bring him back. I need to be strong to face the future," she recalls.

She has never imposed on relatives or others, as she reasons they have their own families to care for.

"I've walked this road for more than 30 years. As long as people are hardworking, there will surely be a path for them," she says.

From supplementing the family income to becoming the sole breadwinner

Soon after Ms Rita Ng started her baking business around Christmas, her deliveryman husband died from a heart attack on Jan 6.

Mr Low Nyong Tiong, a former taxi driver, collapsed while delivering food on his bicycle. He was 61, the same age as his wife.

Ms Ng had been a housewife all her married life, caring for their elder daughter, Irine Low, who has Down syndrome.

Now 22, Irine works at a centre for adults with special needs. Their younger daughter, Joey Low, 21, is a first-year student at Nanyang Technological University.

Despite not having been in the workforce for decades, Ms Ng, who used to work as a bank teller, started baking to supplement her husband's earnings during the pandemic.

Her speciality cake, kueh lapis in original and prune flavours, makes use of ingredients such as cloves and mace from her Indonesian heritage.

Mdm Rita Ng (right) with her daughter Joey Low. ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

She grew up in the city of Jambi in Sumatra and learnt the recipe from her mother.

She started out baking for friends and orders grew after her daughter Joey set up a Mama Lapis Instagram account for her.

Ms Joey Low also helps to manage orders that come in through the Promonade.sg website, a platform for home-based businesses.

Over the Chinese New Year period, Ms Ng, now a Singapore citizen, worked 10 hours a day fulfilling orders.

She says in Mandarin: "It has been very tiring, but I must go on working."

A woman of few words, she is determined to succeed in bringing home the bacon.

"Even if I eventually have to take a part-time job, I can do anything, although I don't want to wash toilets," she says.

Ms Low adds: "We have a little dream to open a shop so that my sister can work there, as well as others with disabilities."

She receives a bursary from her university but has been worrying about the family's finances, pondering whether she should drop out of school to work.

She says they did not have luxuries when she was a child - eating KFC or buying new clothes were a rare treat - but her father's sudden death has forced her to grow up even more quickly.

"I was shielded from all of the stress, which had always been handled by my dad and mum. Even though I'm of age, I feel that I'm adulting early," she says.

"Now I share the burden of caring for the family with my mum."

Ms Rita Ng's speciality cake, kueh lapis in original and prune flavours, makes use of ingredients such as cloves and mace from her Indonesian heritage. ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

Ms Rita Ng had been a housewife all her married life. ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

Baking for mental health

Baking is more than a hobby for administrative clerk Carman See, it is therapy.

Her interest in baking, which started when she was 16, culminated in the launch of her home-based business, Therapeutic Bake, in October last year.

On Instagram and Promonade.sg, a portal for home-based businesses, the 22-year-old sells items such as Swiss rolls customised with hand-drawn artwork, including cartoons like Pikachu and characters from the Among Us online game.

In March 2014 - the year she sat her N-level examinations - she began experiencing abdominal pain, which caused her to miss a lot of school.

For months, repeated visits to various clinics and hospitals failed to shed light on her malady, which doctors pinned on gastric issues.

Eventually, it was discovered that she had an ovarian cyst and torsion, a potential medical emergency where the ovary becomes twisted. She was wheeled into surgery almost immediately.

After her operation in July that year, the 16-year-old was instructed to take things easy and not engage in vigorous activity.

"I couldn't move around a lot, or laugh, cough and sneeze in case of a tear. I stayed at home and baked," she recounts.

After her surgery, she found she enjoyed watching competitive baking shows and experimenting with macarons, tiramisu and chocolate lava cake.

"Baking was quite therapeutic. When I bake, I don't think about anything else. I focus on the process, the next step, and whether the macarons will turn out well or not," she says.

Little did she know that baking would once again ease her sorrows six years later, when she became a mother for the first time.

Ms Carman See sees her home-based business as a means of spreading the word about the benefits of baking. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Ms See, who is married to a 26-year-old IT professional, gave birth in March last year.

Her son, Dyan Chia, was born with severe jaundice and had to be admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit. She herself had to use a catheter for a week after the birth.

She was saddened that she could not bring her newborn home quickly. Her family suggested that she turn to baking again, especially since she could not go out much during the pandemic.

She sees her home-based business as a means of spreading the word about the benefits of baking.

"Instead of thinking about why I am sad, I just focus on baking. It's a good way to help other people."

Baking through a child's cancer and Covid-19

Having a home-based business selling cookies, cakes and dumplings has helped Ms Juliana Ramli cope with her child's cancer, as well as Covid-19.

The 45-year-old, then a freelance enrichment teacher, started her baking business in 2014 to supplement her household income. She is married to a 48-year-old assistant engineer in the civil service and they have three sons, aged two, nine and 15.

In 2018, three months after she gave birth to her third child, her second child, Faiz Ihsan Mohamad Sofian, was diagnosed with Wilms' tumour, a rare type of kidney cancer, when he was in Primary 1.

Ihsan, then seven years old, had been having fever frequently and was losing weight. His general practitioner felt a lump on his stomach during a consultation, prompting a referral to the hospital.

Ms Juliana put her online business, Crumbs N Batter, on hold for several months as Ihsan underwent chemotherapy and surgery.

"It was wrenching that I could not go through it for him," she says.

When she resumed her baking business, it gave her the flexibility of caring for Ihsan. She could take him to the hospital and help him manage his studies. He took private classes and returned to school the following year, in Primary 2.

Working from home also helped her be more present for her teen, she says.

Bakes by Juliana Ramli. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

Bakes by Juliana Ramli. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

When her eldest son Firas Isaac was in Secondary 1, he started to resent the attention she paid to Ihsan, as he ailed. Being around for Isaac smoothed tensions and he ended up taking better care of his younger brothers too.

At one point, Ihsan was so affected by his experience with cancer that he vomited reflexively every time he was reminded of it. Even hearing the words "chemo" or "needles" would set him off.

Isaac would prepare a bucket for Ihsan to throw up in, and also helped with his baby brother's diaper changes and milk feeds.

During the pandemic, Ms Juliana's income stream was affected when home-based businesses were not allowed to operate for about two weeks, which raised concerns among home bakers preparing to ramp up production ahead of Hari Raya Puasa in May last year.

Chicken-filled Thai dumplings by Juliana Ramli. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

When home-based businesses were allowed to resume, she had barely two weeks to fulfil the Hari Raya orders she had received, instead of the usual month.

She baked 12 hours a day till the wee hours of the morning, often starting at 2pm and stopping past 2am. Sometimes, she pushed on till the family had their pre-dawn meal during the fasting month, before staggering to bed.

Whenever the boys had no school the next day, they stayed up past their bedtime to accompany her.

Having a home business has made her entire family more resilient, she says.

"It was difficult for Ihsan to go through his treatments and they have seen me working hard at home. We can see the roles that we all play and that has made us more appreciative of one another."