Foodie Confidential

Foodie Confidential: Ming Fa Fishball boss Lim Gek Meng's memories of Mid-Autumn

Mr Lim Gek Meng, director of fishball noodle chain Ming Fa Fishball, recalls the fun times he had growing up in Clarke Quay and Chinatown

Growing up in the 1950s, Mr Lim Gek Meng, director of home-grown fishball noodle chain Ming Fa Fishball, remembers the convivial mood during the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Despite coming from a poor family, the second eldest of 13 children says his parents made it a point to buy paper lanterns for the kids so that they could experience the festive atmosphere in their neighbourhood in Angus Street near Clarke Quay.

Lining the back lane of a row of shophouses were tables overflowing with mooncakes, pomelos, yams and everyday provisions contributed by families in the area.

Speaking in Mandarin, Mr Lim, 66, recalls: "We shared our food and mooncakes with our neighbours. This kind of tight-knit community is hard to come by these days."

Mid-Autumn Festival is just as bustling for Mr Lim these days as he is a member of the Kreta Ayer-Kim Seng Citizens' Consultative Committee, which organises the annual Chinatown Mid-Autumn Festival.

The month-long celebration kicked off yesterday with a light-up ceremony featuring street decorations fashioned after the lantern designs of yesteryear.

  • WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?

  • My wife's Teochew braised pork with mushrooms, fried noodles with lup cheong and fishball noodles.

A first in the event's 16-year history is the Mid-Autumn Family Fest @ Chinatown. The carnival, held today at Kreta Ayer Community Club, includes mooncake-making, calligraphy, tea appreciation and lantern-painting activities.

Other festival highlights are the Mass Lantern Walk around Chinatown on Oct 1, a street bazaar and performances by clan associations and dragon dance troupes.

With these activities, Mr Lim hopes to attract more people to visit Chinatown during the festive period.

"In recent years, we faced competition from mooncake fairs in shopping centres that are mainly commercially driven," he says.

Chinatown holds significant memories for Mr Lim as he has spent more than 20 years there building up his family's fishball noodle business.

As a child, he was roped in to help out at his father's street-side stalls in Clarke Quay and Chinatown.

His duties included transporting stacks of tables and chairs in pushcarts and kneading 20kg of fish paste - made with saito and yellowtail fish - into fishballs.

In 1975, he took over the business and started automating fishball production.

Today, Ming Fa Fishball has grown to 12 outlets in shopping malls and hawker centres. It also started selling its frozen food products online last year.

Last week, it opened its second overseas outlet in Jakarta.

The business is helmed by three of his four children aged 29 to 42. His second daughter is not involved in the family business. His wife, 65, is a housewife.

As a hobby, the grandfather of five visits fishball noodle stalls around the island with his wife to suss out food standards. He says: "I have been making fishballs for so long. Just by taking one look at the stall, I will know if it makes its fishballs by hand."

How do you celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival?

My family usually gathers in the garden at home as my grandchildren enjoy playing with lanterns. We would have mooncakes paired with my pot of favourite pu'er tea.

Where do you get your mooncakes from?

Tai Chong Kok in Sago Street. I have been buying mooncakes there for more than 10 years. I always go for the baked ones with single yolk. I like that its lotus paste is smooth and evenly mixed and has the right amount of oil.

What makes a good bowl of fishball noodles?

Fishballs are important. I have been making fishballs for so long that I know just from touching them if they will taste good. Besides using fresh fish, fishballs should be soaked in water when raw for about four hours to get a good springy texture.

Can you eat fishball noodles every day?

Yes. I like going to fishball noodle stalls that make their fishballs by hand - in Hong Lim Food Centre and Albert Food Centre.

What are your favourite eating places?

I like the stir-fried kway teow with chye poh (preserved radish) from Chin Lee Restaurant in Bedok North as it has good wok hei. Its orh nee (yam paste dessert) is silky smooth and packed with flavour.

For chicken rice, I go to Boon Tong Kee in Balestier Road for its white chicken and steamed fish.

I also like Huat Kee Teochew Restaurant in Orange Grove Road for its abalone dishes.

You have worked in Chinatown for more than 20 years. What are your favourite eats there?

They are all in Chinatown Complex Food Centre, which is a treasure trove of good food. Most of the 200 stalls there started out as street peddlers.

I like Heng Ji Chicken Rice. Although the chicken tends to be smaller, I like that it is tender.

I also like Seng Kee 119 Steamed Fish Head as the fermented soya bean paste complements the lightly cooked fish, which is odourless.

What are some of your favourite childhood dishes?

Char siew rice from a coffee shop that was near my home. I could not afford a 20-cent plate of char siew rice then, so I took in the aroma whenever the hawker roasted the meat by the street.

I also miss rickshaw noodles with chye sim and dried shrimps. It is a cheap dish that fills the stomach.

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

Hong Kong food critic Chua Lam. Although he is not a chef, he is knowledgeable about food. I would like to listen to his experiences and opinion on the future of the food and beverage industry.

• For more information on Chinatown Mid-Autumn Festival 2017, go to www.chinatownfestivals.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 24, 2017, with the headline 'Memories of Mid-Autumn Festival'. Print Edition | Subscribe