I barely had enough resources to feed one, but I went ahead and got another pet just because it was cute. Because of my irresponsible actions, Laserz_King93 is perpetually starving. Thankfully, neopets cannot die, and you can feed them for free at the Soup Kitchen in Neopia Central.
At the same time, as far as soup kitchens go, all I know is that they help feed the needy, and that they are not limited to serving soup. I had read online that the food served at soup kitchens usually leave much to be desired in terms of taste, and I was compelled to find out if it was true.
In my curiosity, I reached out to local soup kitchens, Willing Hearts and Free Food For All (FFFA), and asked if I could sample their food in the name of serious investigative journalism, especially since Giving Week was just around the corner.
Also, it was almost the end of the month, and my bank account was nearly empty.
It is helmed by Mr Teh, a retiree who is now the President of Willing Hearts. I meet him at the main kitchen, situated in the Kembangan-Ubi Community Hub, and the first thing I notice is the massive space and the cooks scurrying around with hair nets on their heads.
Next, I instinctively reached for my 11B, instantly reminded of every cookhouse I’ve ever stepped into during my two years in the army. I just prayed that the food served at would taste more like “Western Wednesdays” than “Mystery Meat Mondays”.
Mr Teh tells me that Willing Hearts is supported by two pillars. The first is donations from the public, by which he means food donations. Because they can only cook what is donated to them, they can’t plan the menu until the day before.
The second is the help of volunteers, who arrive at the premises to start preparations at 5 AM every day of the year. Willing Hearts serves 6000 needy people each day, and as it only operates out of one kitchen, preparations have to begin in the wee hours of the morning in order to cope with demand.
From the chopping and washing of vegetables donated by trade unions or suppliers to offering assistance to cooks (the only full-time staff employed by Willing Hearts), the place is always bursting with volunteers.
Although the rice was a little dry and could have used a little bit more water in the cooking, the curry more than made up for it, moistening the rice and adding that bit of a spicy kick.
The vegetables were stir-fried together with the neapolitan of frozen greens: peas, corn and carrots. It is hard to go wrong with a simple stir-fry, and so long as you don’t drown the dish in oil.
The tofu provided the base of the dish, sitting in a pool of mildly spicy gravy, accentuated by the intense umami of the pickled vegetables. The marriage of flavours propelled this simple dish to heights I would never thought possible for a tofu dish. Between this and the curry laden rice, I could have eaten at least three bowls of this flavour explosion.
A common problem he encountered was that of a beneficiary having a surplus of cooking oil at home.
Observing a flaw in the system, Nizar realised that serving cooked meals was the best way to help beneficiaries. Aside from that, he noticed that in spite of the fact that there are several soup kitchens in Singapore, there was not a single one that provided Halal food. Not wanting to stop there, he even believes in empowering the needy, ensuring that help doesn’t stop after the beneficiaries take their last bite.
At FFFA, the pool of beneficiaries is much smaller than that of Willing Hearts, with about 1000 – 2000 individuals fed each month. However, this is because the food that FFFA provides costs more, and with a smaller number of people to feed, there can be more control over quality. Each packet of food costs $2.50, as compared to $0.60 at Willing Hearts.
Nizar also has to work around not having the infrastructure that Willing Hearts has. Without a kitchen, Nizar has had to collaborate with caterers and kitchens to prepare food for his beneficiaries.
Zorah Enterprise, the kitchen that I went to on a Friday morning, was one of those.
Before I knew it, I was embracing the spirit of giving, and began scooping achar out from a huge bowl, putting a spoonful on each packet like a seasoned pro. That day, 151 packets of food were being prepared for the mosque. No prizes for guessing who the last packet went to.
After the chicken drumsticks were placed in the styrofoam boxes, Majid then delivered the food to the mosque in a van provided by FFFA. Like clockwork, this happens every Friday.
Nizar tells me that it is often not the needy who take the food at the mosque, but rather, the makciks with gold bangles up to their elbows who snatch at the food packets, taking as many as they can hold.
“In these few years, I have only received two calls from people at the mosque. The first one was to complain that the food wasn’t good. The second one was a makcik calling to ask if the food was halal,” he shook his head, visibly disheartened.
Nevertheless, he does his best to ensure that the quality of the food is consistently good. And if you trust my word, it is.
I could not have been more wrong.
Apparently, I’ve been eating substandard Biryani all my life, as I learned that if the basmati rice is moist and fluffy enough, you don’t need curry to drench your bed of rice.
The chicken drumstick was also one of the best renditions of ayam masak merah I’ve ever had. There were the right levels of spice, and the ideal amount of sweetness, all immaculately balanced in every bite of chicken.
At the same time, this is just for one meal a day. How many of us would be satisfied with just one meal a day? I cannot even imagine what havoc I would wreak upon my colleagues if I didn’t have my eggs benedict every morning.
Ideally, a combination of the meals from both Willing Hearts and FFFA would be perfect for beneficiaries. However, because of dietary restrictions, it is not practical for these organisations to work hand in hand.
Like Mr Teh mentioned, the two pillars that these soup kitchens stand on are volunteers and donations. If you don’t have the time, you can donate resources. If you do not have the resources, you can always donate your Time, Talent, Treasure and Voice to different charities and causes during Giving Week.
As anyone and everyone can help in the simplest of ways, parents often bring their children to soup kitchens to help out. Even if it is something as menial as washing vegetables, every bit counts. If you don’t want to get your hands dirty, you could even help out with the administrative side of things, such as logistics or even niche areas like marketing and copywriting.
Little acts, when multiplied by millions, can make a world of a difference.
And what better time to explore your charitable side than during Giving Week?