Learning > Recipes

Learning to cook by observing

Madam Ng Pick York, 81, who served in Chinese restaurants from age 13, says she studied chefs as they cooked, and experimented with their dishes at home

Kenneth Goh on 16 Apr 2017

The Straits Times


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It is a slim book, with no more than 35 pages. There are just 15 recipes for Cantonese dishes, simply written and described.


But humble and unassuming as it looks, A Lifetime's Legacy Of Home Cooked Favourites is a treasure trove of more than 40 years of Madam Ng Pick York's culinary wisdom.


The 81-year-old, who attends daycare services at HCA Hospice Care in Jalan Tan Tock Seng, is no celebrity chef. She had toiled behind the scenes in Chinese restaurants since the age of 13 as a server. Through the years, she absorbed skills and recipes from professional chefs, modifying them at home to create her own takes on classic Cantonese dishes.


Her recipes have been compiled in the book published by HCA Hospice Care in a 3,000-copy run. It is one of its legacy projects to fulfil the last wishes of patients with lifelimiting diseases. Madam Ng has terminal-stage pancreatic cancer.


In her life, she has worked in four restaurants and through the heyday of the 1950s and 1960s, when lavish banquets for all manner of celebrations - birthdays, weddings and anniversaries - were the rage.


She has served in some of the most iconic restaurants of the time, including Empress Restaurant in Empress Hotel in Bugis and Tai Tong Restaurant in Chinatown, all closed now. She retired in 2013 as a restaurant supervisor.


She has vivid memories of those days. She says in Cantonese: "We had to fold serviettes in all sorts of shapes, from crowns to swans, and would be especially busy during wedding dinners as we had to serve food as people played mahjong, as well as clear the spittoons."


Her daughter, who is in her 40s and left her job as a clerk in 2014 to take care of Madam Ng full-time, helped with the translation during the interview. She was also the one who translated the recipes into English and cooked the dishes for the photos in the cookbook.


Madam Ng was an adopted child in a poor family. To earn her keep, she folded incense paper offerings before the waitressing job came along.


On the job, she "secretly observed" chefs while they cooked, mentally taking note of the ingredients and cooking steps, and experimented with those recipes at home.


Some recipes that she picked up include traditional mooncakes loaded with salted egg yolk, candied wintermelon and dried tangerine; and crab rolls stuffed with gizzard and water chestnuts.


"I was greedy. I yearned to eat the food that diners could enjoy at the restaurants," she says with a chuckle. "Since women were not allowed to work as chefs, the best alternative was to cook at home."


Her discreet way of learning recipes sparked an experimental cooking streak, which is apparent in her cookbook.


Initially, she handwrote 45 recipes from memory, which had to be whittled down to 15. Some of her creations include Yin Yang fish, a partially steamed and fried fish dish; pineapple prawns; and steamed egg pudding, for which she shares the recipe here.


She made the dish at home more than 30 years ago as a cheaper alternative to the then rarely seen Hong Kong-style dessert that her children like from a hawker stall in People's Park Centre.


Without a measuring cup at home, she improvised by using egg shells to measure the amount of milk and ginger juice "precisely". As a rough gauge, for every mediumsized egg used, she would add 11/2 egg shells of milk and ginger juice.


In 2008, she was diagnosed with colon cancer, but went into remission. In 2013, the illness returned in the form of a large tumour in the pancreas and she was given four months to live.


But she has remained strong and considers her time now as "God's gift".


Five years ago, she sank into depression. Her daughter, who declined to be named, said Madam Ng "cried every day while facing the four walls at home" before she attended the daycare services at HCA Hospice Care. There, her spirits lifted after socialising and participating in the hospice's activities, from exercising to doing craftwork.


"It was stressful as my mother is very particular about cooking," her daughter says of her role in producing the cookbook. "I am proud that she still wants to contribute to society through this cookbook despite being at the final stage of her life."


• A Lifetime's Legacy Of Home Cooked Favourites is available at Books Kinokuniya stores at $18.80. All proceeds go to the beneficiaries of HCA Hospice Care.


Steamed Egg Pudding



  • 120ml fresh milk
  • 2 Tbs sugar
  • 2 Tbs juice from grated old ginger
  • 2 medium-sized eggs, beaten
  • Wolfberries and mint leaves to garnish




1. In a microwave, warm a bowl of fresh milk for about 20 seconds.


2. Stir sugar into the milk.


3. Add grated ginger juice and beaten eggs into the milk mixture. Mix well and strain the mixture.


4. Cover the bowl in plastic wrap.


5. Fill a third of a medium-sized pot with water and place the bowl of milk and egg mixture on a pot stand. Ensure the base of the bowl does not touch the water.


6. Bring the water to a boil before turning the heat down to medium.


7. Steam the milk and egg mixture for about 12 minutes. Lift the lid every four to five minutes to release steam.


8. Remove the bowl of steamed egg pudding carefully. To check if it is ready, shake the bowl slightly. The wobbly pudding should jiggle.


9. Garnish with wolfberries and mint leaves. Serve.


Serves one


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.


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