By Kevin Low, Yale-NUS ’17 – See bio
I am writing about one of my very good friends. He was this thin, wiry Indian man with the traditional moustache and a smile so warm you could have baked bread with it. And in fact, that was what he did. He owned a small local bakery near the void deck at the foot of my HDB flat (governmental housing). No one knew his real name, but all his customers (including me) called him Jack.
“Hey Jack! How you doing? Two buns, please!”
“Wah, you got some nice cakes today, Jack!”
“Ah Jack ah! This one can toast or not?”
Because my family usually enjoyed a nice slice for breakfast every morning, my mother sent me down once a week to purchase a freshly-made loaf. One could say, if one was inclined towards bad puns, that I was the breadwinner of the family. Over time, I talked to Jack a bit, while waiting for my pastries or my change. He didn’t speak much English, but he had picked up a few words and phrases here and there. I found out a lot more about him from these conversations.
Jack was born and raised in India, and came to Singapore when he was sixteen. He had started out making the typical loaves, but over time his entrepreneurial flair got the better of him, and he started putting out bread from all around the world. He made baguettes and bagels, croissants and crumpets, sourdoughs and scones. His hot cross buns were soft, fluffy, and moist; and his doughnuts were exceptionally round and filled with the most delicious cream. His pretzels were twisted into fantastic, reality-defying knots, and his pumpernickel was worth way more than a mere five cents. You could have landed a plane on his flatbreads.
While his other breads were good, his Indian breads would take the cake. He made chapatis you would die for, and papadum which crunched with the same satisfying sound as a thin layer of batter which is fried to a delicious, spiced crisp.
But his best creations, by far, were his naan. They were baked to perfection. They tasted like heaven on earth. If there was ever a food which would adorn the buffet table of the gods, this would have been one of them. They came in any variety you could care to imagine: garlic naan, butter naan, garlic butter naan; chocolate naan, strawberry naan, vanilla naan. He had naan which tasted like cheesecake on a rainy day; like the first footstep on uncharted ground; like a hug from a best friend. He even had a durian naan variety once. My nose distinctly remembered that one.
Jack passed away a few years ago. I was devastated when I found out. His funeral was attended by all his customers. He had no family.
I learned a lot from Jack. From the story of his life and his entire journey from India to Singapore, I learned the value of perseverance and hard work. From his entrepreneurial spirit and his wide variety of edible creations, I learned the importance of diversification and creativity. From his humble manner and perspective, I learned the worth of humility.
But my most valuable takeaway from Jack’s life was, ironically, engraved as his epitaph. It is a powerful statement, and one which I live my life by.
It was how he had come to be known.
“A Jack of All Breads, but a Master of Naan.”