SINGAPORE - When offered the chance to cook a Chinese New Year meal for 60 fellow nursing home residents, former five-star hotel chef Francis Lim and avid cook Tan Lam Huat just could not say “no”.
The two men, residents of the NTUC Health Nursing Home in Jurong West, got to work right away and crafted a special menu comprising their favourite family recipes – stewed chicken and braised pork trotters.
Apart from the two dishes, they joined about 10 other residents in helping to prepare ingredients for steamboat.
Last Thursday, they proudly laid out the festive spread for residents at the home’s annual reunion, which, for the first time, featured reunion dinner dishes prepared by the residents.
Mr Tan, 74, took a jaunt to the local supermarket. He is one of the few residents at the home who can walk about without help. Accompanied by a nurse from the home, he picked up all the ingredients he needed for the festive meal.
Although Mr Tan has tried his hand at cooking dishes such as steamed fish, roti prata and salted vegetables, he opted to whip up something for the reunion meal that held special meaning for him – braised pork trotters.
He said: “I learnt how to make it from my elder brother. Before he died, he made pork trotters with soya sauce, star anise and garlic. It is easy, and now I can make it myself.”
Mr Lim, 53, who used to be a chef at a Hyatt hotel, offered to make stewed chicken, based on an old family recipe.
However, since he now needs to use a wheelchair and is unable to use his left arm and leg after a stroke in 2020, he gave step-by-step instructions to the nurses, who did the cooking.
He said: “Every Chinese New Year, my mother would make Teochew stewed chicken for my brothers and sisters. Getting the chance to cook for people makes me happy.”
Ms Nixi Tay, manager for programme and community partnership at NTUC Health, was part of a team of 20 nurses and administrative staff who organised the reunion dinner.
She said: “Part of NTUC Health’s care philosophy is to enable seniors to be as independent as possible and to exercise choice.
“One of the ways we have done this is by encouraging residents to cook for themselves and fellow residents.”
NTUC Health, which has six nursing homes in Singapore, began a pilot programme in 2022 to encourage residents to cook their favourite meals at mobile cooking stations if they wished to.
The idea behind buying and preparing the ingredients, and cooking their own reunion meal for Chinese New Year, is an expansion of that initiative, said Ms Tay.
She added that Chinese New Year can be a difficult time for some residents, such as those who do not have any family or those whose family members have died.
Others, Ms Tay said, might have strained ties with their family members.
Nurse manager Devadasson Vasugi Ezhilarasi said: “Some of their families may be unable to visit. This reunion dinner will make them happy and help them know that we are here for them.
“Mr Tan used to be depressed, and isolated himself totally. After engaging him in these activities, we have seen him change a lot. Today, he is so happy, I can see the joy in his face.”
Mr Tan spent Chinese New Year at the nursing home, while Mr Lim visited his sister’s family at the weekend.
Mr Lim said: “Nearly everyone here has family problems, that’s why some of them are here. Others, like me, have no one at home to take care of them. When we celebrate here, it feels like everybody gets together like a family.”
Both Mr Tan and Mr Lim said they plan to make their special dishes again in the future.
Said Ms Tay: “Sharing recipes and cooking dishes encourage social engagement within the nursing home. Sharing their recipes is one way of promoting the preservation of memories and helping to keep traditions alive.”