Wednesday 24 April 2013

The help

Life in Singapore comes with benefits. Help. Cheap, all day, domestic help. The comfortable-off Singaporean housewife does not have to get distracted by laundry, mopping floors or getting groceries. She has time for the more important things in life. Like having coffee, with friends.

Whilst the kids relieve the small wooden shop in the corner of the living room of its wares, drive around the baby pram, or push over stacks of Duplo bricks, I pour another round of ice tea for their mothers. One of my friends wipes the sweat of her forehead. It is hot today. I hand around my homemade Dutch ‘ontbijtkoek,’ and my Australian, British and Indian friends taste and approve. We talk about baking. Cooking. And, before long, the help.

My Australian friend is looking for a new one. Her third. Why is she so unlucky? Either they cannot clean, don’t listen, or can’t control the kids. My other, Indian, friend, tells about her new helper, who worked for another Indian family for six years and promised to know all the ins and outs of complex Indian food. When my friend asked her to roll chapatti’s, the Philippina girl rolled her eyes. Where was the electric chapatti maker? The girl had no idea how to cook the vegetarian dishes my friend favoured, and she was considering a cooking course.
Cooking courses for helpers abound in Singapore, to teach Chinese, Western, Korean or Japanese food, to any employer’s fancy.

My British friend sighs. There won’t be a course in the world to help my helper, she says with a shake of her head, she managed to burn boiled eggs. We all nod, ready to carry on, share more stories, but my friend cries, no, really, literally. The girl let the eggs boil for hours, until the water was gone and the pot black with soot. 

But, my friend shrugs, she is great with the kids.

Complaining about the help. I have heard worse, far worse. These conversations can make me feel uncomfortable, but are also just so human, showing clearly the old, colonial inequalities in this otherwise so modern city. The girls, usually from poor and remote villages in the Philippines or Indonesia, don’t always have much in common with their Chinese, Indian and Western employers.

I try not to, not to complain. But I am only human too, the weather is hot and the ice tea cool. My complaint? My Indah is too good a cook. And she enjoys it too. I had resolved to do this myself, really I had. But the tropical heat makes lazy and tired. The afternoons are full of football, ballet and swimming lessons, and cooking time for dinner inconveniently coincides with bath and bedtime. So when Indah asks, with hope in her keen eyes, what she can cook tonight I let her, save in the knowledge that it will be good and tasty and requires no effort on my side. Not even the dishes after.

Every recipe I give her she will copy, faultlessly, better than I, who can stick to no command, ever could. Even my ‘why not something with aubergine and ginger’ gets tasty results.

We are best when we work and learn together, combining her Asian experience and excellent chopping skills with my western and technical food knowledge. She chops, she suggests, I google and I mix, all the flavours of the globe. Together we create real fusion food. We are a good team, my Indonesian helper and me. 

Indah's fish in kechap

2 large white, soft fish fillets (we use Pangasius)
5 cm ginger
2 cloves garlic
1 large onion
red chilli to taste
sweet Kechap Manis (indonesian soy sauce)

Slice the onion in thin rings and chop the ginger and garlic fine. For heat you can use either the larger, milder red chilli's, which add both flavour and colour, but if you like a bit more of a punch you can also add some of the smaller, but hotter, thai chilli's. 

Heat some oil in a wok, and fry the onion, garlic, ginger and chili for a minute or so.  Then add the fish, and fry briefly. Add the soy sauce generously, around 3 to 4 table spoons should do it. Fry until the fish is tender, and add a few tablespoons of water if the dish threatens to get too dry.  


  1. Sounds like an amazing thing to complain about! ;) This recipe looks delish. It must be a day for fish for me asI just found another fish recipe on another blog--I am NOT a fish lover but everyone else in my family is so I need to build up a good recipe collection. I shall prinnt this one off!!

    1. I know, we are very lucky ;)
      And what can I say, fish is healthy, so go for it!

  2. hahaha... luckily we didn't have much time to get started on this topic. My stories are enough to write a book! You are very blessed to have one that is capable. My luck ain't that good and I believe many of us out there are so. These days, the quality of helper has dropped tremendously. Gone out the day they are here for a living. Most of them come with intention of experimentating only. Unfortunately our law don't really protect us much.

    So treasure yours.

    1. Treasure I will!
      I know it is a fine line between just chatting and sharing experiences to gossiping and getting nasty. Still interested to hear more though, as the subject interests me. Not sure on the other hand if we are the ones that need protection from the law or rather these girls do... (well apart from the stealing case you mentioned, off course)