Quek Sio Tee has been selling carrot cake for as long as he can remember. In the 1950s, he and his brother peddled around the kampong, selling the dish for just $0.10. “It was easier back then,” recalls the 68-year-old.
“There wasn’t a need to pay rent, we just went around in our trishaw. Now, you have to sell till the evening to make up for stall rentals.” The second-generation hawker left the trade briefly, and the passing of his brother spurred him to return. But time has weakened his knees, and he finds it hard to stand for long.
Fortunately, Sio Tee has a protégé.
His daughter, Elenda Quek, decided to leave her job as a teacher to continue the family business. “I wanted to make my parents proud,” she says. “This was something that brought us up when we were kids, so it’s important that I continue it.” Together with her mother and cousins, the family now runs six different hawker stalls – all selling the same fried carrot cake ($4) that the elder Quek used to prepare.
You can usually find her at the Old Airport Road branch, manning the wok by herself. “Finding help and someone who will work in this trade is not easy,” shares the 32-year-old. “The heat, and the long hours – it takes a toll on those who are not used to it.”
Teaching, surprisingly, helped prepare her for the role. She’s no stranger to long hours and standing constantly. She’s also helped out at the stall since young, which acclimatised her to the heat of hawker centres.
Still, it took over four years of learning before Elenda was deemed ready by her father. “He is a perfectionist,” she says. Till now, he insists on frying their own batch of chilli every week – a condiment that, according to Elenda, sets the family’s carrot cake apart from others.
But there’s something else that keeps people coming back. Elenda explains: “Sometimes when I am in a bad mood and fry a plate of carrot cake, it’s not going to taste as nice as when I am in a good mood.”
“What makes a good plate of carrot cake is that you really put your heart into it.”
3 questions with Sio Tee and Elenda
1. Which do you prefer – black or white carrot cake?
Elenda: I prefer the white carrot cake, something more fragrant and savoury. But my dad’s signature is his black carrot cake.
2. What are the essential elements when frying carrot cake?
Sio Tee: You must be generous with the ingredients. Don’t skimp on the garlic and preserved radish. And you need enough heat to bring out the taste.
3. What would you like to see change in our hawker culture?
Elenda: That more youngsters can join the trade, and ensure that the original quality of the food is kept without altering the taste.