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Teach a man to fish, and he'll make you delicious fishballs!

Daycare elder Mr Tay Siew Khiang taught himself to make his signature handmade fishballs         

Mr Tay’s 30 years of experience as a fisherman is evident as he deftly handles the yellowtail fish in our daycare pantry. Despite dementia, he skillfully fillets, pounds and mixes the meat in preparation for making fishballs, just like he used to, albeit at a more relaxed pace. According to him, the yellowtail is the best fish to make fishballs. “The batang is good for making keropok. But for fishballs – ‘hang zi herr’ is the best”, chimed Mr Tay.

Life as a Fisherman

Mr Tay became a fisherman at the tender age of 19. He used to sail out to the South China Sea and waters near Indonesia with eight other fishermen, each voyage lasting 10 to 20 days. He shared that after casting their nets out into the waters, they placed a mini explosive device (back when it was allowed) into the water, causing the fishes to jump captive into the nets when the device detonated. “There was about 200 kilograms of fish in each net, and the most we hauled on a trip was 40 nets worth of fish!” Mr Tay proudly shared. Once back on land, Mr Tay and his team would sell their haul to a wholesale fish retailer in Jurong.

It is tough work being out at sea, especially being subject to the ever-changing weather conditions. Despite these challenges, what did Mr Tay enjoy most about being a fisherman? “The freedom of being at sea,” he answers without hesitation. Conversely, he disliked the pain on his scalp after being sunburnt from hours under the sun. When asked if he would encourage the younger generation to pursue fishing as a career, Mr Tay shook his head and lamented that the job is not for the faint-hearted. “Life is easier now, no need to suffer so much.”

Life at AHL’s Daycare

These days, Mr Tay no longer worries about torrential weather conditions as he attends the dementia daycare at AHL five days a week, and is meaningful engaged in activities of his choice. His favourites include the daily exercises, art and craft activities and the occasional cooking sessions. On this particular day, Mr Tay was excited to get his hands fishy as he comfortably handled the fish, pounding them into a paste and moulding them into fishballs. When the staff asked how much seasoning should go into the paste, Mr Tay utters, “Just agak,” as all great chefs do.  After the fishballs have been cooked and tasted by fellow daycare elders and staff, everyone is pleasantly surprised at how bouncy and chewy the fishballs turned out. When heaped with praise of his skills, Mr Tay humbly nodded and offered more fishballs to those around him. 

Mr Tay’s specialty dish is his handmade fishballs, though he admitted that he rarely makes them at home now. “I’m old already. I leave the cooking at home to my wife,” he mentioned. “Other than fishballs, my favourite dish to cook was yellowtail fish with beans, some vegetables and fried noodles.” Instead of cooking, Mr Tay now plays host to his children and grandchildren when they visit for their weekly family dinners. He fondly recites all their names and most importantly, enjoys being in the company of the ones dearest to him.

Did he pass on the skill and legacy of making handmade fishballs to his children? Mr Tay shyly replied that one of his sons has picked up the skill, though he reiterated that his children are great cooks in their own right. Does he worry that no one will make handmade fishballs anymore, especially since the younger generation are less keen to become hawkers? “What to do? It’s very hard work. They can still use machines to make fishballs, but the texture won’t be the same anymore.” For now, Mr Tay is content that he still has the skills and strength to make his favourite fishballs. Who makes the best fishballs, then? Mr Tay pondered for a second, before revealing a grin, “Mine are still the best.”

We are raising funds to enhance the food experience for persons with dementia while supporting the local hawker culture to thrive! For details and to donate to our fundraising campaign, visit: https://giving.sg/apex-harmony-lodge/hawker.

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