Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Gastronaut has landed!

An old man's obsession with food makes it to the national papers!

Friday, 25 November 2011

Fried Glutinous Rice – Worth the Tears

In Singapore of the 60s, hawker licensing laws weren’t that stringently enforced. As a result many households were able to set up makeshift ‘pirate’ food stalls to earn extra cash. Without any sort of culinary training to speak of, these hawkers would simply cook and sell what they knew best: food they ate at home, or well-known dishes and snacks from their dialect groups. I remember them well, these 1st- or 2nd-generation immigrants to Singapore, the blood of their motherland still coursing thick in their veins.

I remember too, the type of food they cooked: robust, unadulterated, and redolent of their origins -- you ate, so to speak, the real McCoy.

I knew one such hawker family. At 4 in the morning the mother would wake up and start whipping up a storm in the kitchen for the morning’s business. Her husband, or sometimes children, would then set up stall – a couple of charcoal stoves, a table and stools -- at the foot of their flat. They sold fried noodles, peanut porridge, and a favorite of mine: fried glutinous rice.

To make fried glutinous rice, in the truly traditional way, is bicep-building work. You stand at the wok, slow frying the rice. The grains get stickier -- and increasingly harder to stir -- as the rice slowly cooks. It’s torture on the arms, but worth it. Properly done, each grain of rice acquires a light crust and is filled with flavor from the preserved sausages and other ingredients.

Understandably, the woman would produce only a small tub’s worth each day, whereupon a queue would form just for it, and the glutinous rice would sell out before the clock hits 7 every morning. It was cheap too. You get two mouthfuls for 20 cents – a fair deal by the living costs of those days, considering the effort to make it.

For a kid, it was a total treat! I’d savor each bite, and make sure the breakfast lasted.

The rest of the food would usually sell out by 9. The hardworking mother would clean the hawking space, and return to her domestic duties.

I’ve listed two cooking methods. The first is an easier method that anyone could prepare; it would be similar in taste to the other, and much less work. However, for the purists and traditionalists among you, the second method is yours! It would give you a true sense of how strenuous the preparation is…but the end result is worth every drop of sweat; trust me!

Fried Glutinous Rice
Glutinous rice             300 g
Water                          3 cups
Dried shrimps             20 g, soaked in warm water
Dried mushroom        15 g, soaked in warm water
Salt                              1½ tsp
Chinese sausage         30 g
Chinese liver sausage 30 g
Chicken broth             3 tbsp
Light soy sauce           1 tbsp
Dark soy sauce           ½ tbsp
Fried shallots
Fried garlic
Spring onion
White pepper

  1. Soak dried shrimp and mushroom in warm water for 30 minutes. Drain them well but keep the water.
  2. Soak glutinous rice with 3 cups of water plus the water from soaking the dried shrimps and mushrooms. Drain the rice thoroughly after 3 hours. Add salt in the rice and mix well.
  3. Steam rice, dried shrimp and diced mushroom for 30 minutes. Sprinkle 2 tbsp of chicken broth and place the sausages on top of the rice and continue to steam for another 10 minutes.
  4. Remove the sausages and dice them.
  5. Pour 3 tbsp of oil in a hot wok. Fry the sausages till slightly golden brown. Add minced garlic and rice and continue to fry until there is a light crust on the rice.  In between, sprinkle light and dark soy sauce into the rice. These sauces add flavor and also make the frying of the rice easier. There should be a light crust in every grain.
  6. Sprinkle fried shallots, garlic, spring onion and pepper before serving.

Note: Make sure the rice is hot before frying or it will stick together.

Traditional Method:
  1. Heat 1 tsp of oil in a wok. Fry mushroom until the water in the mushroom has evaporated. Add minced garlic, shrimp, diced sausages, and fry until it is fragrant. Remove and set aside.
  2. Heat 2 tbsp of oil on medium flame. Add rice and fry for 15 minutes. In between, sprinkle chicken broth and salt.
  3. Return the fried sausage mixture into the rice and continue to fry for another 10 minutes. Sprinkle soy sauces in between.
  4. Once the rice is cooked, sprinkle fried shallots, garlic, spring onion and pepper before serving.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Wow! Wo Pau

To those who know me well, I’ve always been something of a scatterbrain. Especially when it comes to remembering names and faces.

Food is a different matter. I almost never forget a smell or flavor, a sauce, a seasoning, herb or spice.

A case in point is the ‘wo pau’. I ate this pau (meat bun) when I was 5. It was a first, and only, encounter, yet I remember it like it was yesterday. And I’m in my early 50s.

It was the 1960s; and the place was the Nam Tin (Southern Sky) Restaurant, located at Nam Tin Hotel and Nightclub in Chinatown, Singapore; more familiar today as the Yue Hwa Department Store at the junction of Eu Yen Sang Road and Upper Cross Street. You’d never guess looking at this building today, that it was one of the tallest – and most glamorous -- of its time.

Built around the turn of the 20th century and designed by Swan and Maclaren, this 6-storey building was the first Chinese hotel in Singapore to have a lift! It catered largely to Chinese travelers, and its nightclub on the rooftop attracted the wealthy and the socialites of the Chinese community in Singapore. I remember, as a kid, watching the grownups frown and shake their heads at the dancing girls and hostesses of the nightclub.

Reunited with an old friend after 40 years.
A Hong Kong version found at Lin Heung Kui, Sheung Wan
I remember too the building’s classical façade, which appeared looming and gigantic to me as a kid. It was ash gray with strong horizontal lines, angular arches, and simple cornices. It had balconies with steel-frame windows and European-style grills and railings. Looking at those windows and balconies sometimes made me sad, for they seemed to tell the story of the hotel’s ups and downs. In good times, the windows would blaze with light and sounds from the grand dinners and balls that went on behind them. In the last declining years of the hotel, the same windows and balconies would be hung with the washings of occupants who were no longer the elite of the land, but shoestring travelers.

Ran into another version in Meldrum Walk,
 Johor Bahru, recently.
During the 60s, the Nam Tin Restaurant filled the left portion of the hotel on its two bottom storeys. A delightful old lift with collapsible iron grilles linked the two floors. I loved the restaurant’s lower floor because I could watch the waiters carry dim sum out of the kitchen. In those days, dim sum wasn’t pushed around on trolleys or steamed-upon-order; instead the waiters would make their rounds carrying the steaming little baskets on a huge bamboo tray.

Although I ate regularly at the restaurant, I only saw the wo pau once -- shaped like a puffy white bowl with the meat stuffing exposed. A raw egg was placed on top of the meat to act as a lid and keep it moist. It took lots of skill, for sure, to shape the dough-bowl without collapsing it – something I tried but couldn’t do when I made my own wo pau. So I decided that the end justifies the means, and cheated by placing a bowl underneath to shape the dough.

When the hotel and restaurant finally closed, I went on a quest for the wo pau. Most dim sum chefs I described it to would wave their hands at me and accuse me of making up stories! More than 40 years passed before I finally saw something resembling it at Lin Heung Lo, a restaurant in Hong Kong.

Since then, I’ve come across a couple of versions of the still-very-rare wo pau. I saw one in Johor Baru made from glutinous rice, and another at Alexandra Village in Singapore made from two types of dough.

Wo Pau 窝包

Basic Yeast Dough  (makes 6)

Ingredients ‘A’ :
Pau flour                      250g, sifted
Salt                              ¼  tsp
Instant yeast               ¼  tbsp
Sugar                          40 g
Water                          120 ml
Shortening                  1½ tbsp

Ingredient ‘B’ :
Baking powder            ½ tbsp

Meat Filling:
Pork                             150 g
Chicken                       150 g
Chinese sausage        1, cut into 6 pieces
Dried mushroom         20 g, soaked in warm water and drained
Oyster sauce              1 tbsp
Chinese wine              ½ tbsp.
Corn flour                    2 tsp
Sesame oil                  1 tsp
Hard-boiled egg          1, cut into 6 slices

Method :
  1. Mix all of ingredients ‘A’ together and knead into a smooth and elastic dough.
  2. Cover with a piece of wet cloth and leave to prove until it has doubled its bulk.
  3. Sift baking powder on top of the dough and knead well to distribute the baking powder until the dough is smooth again.
  4. Cover and rest for 15 minutes before shaping.
  5. Shape the dough into a log and divide the log into 6 pieces equally.
  6. Take one portion, using a rolling pin, shape into a circular shape. Place it onto a bowl and press it against the side of the bowl.
  7. Fill the bowl with the meat filling.
  8. Steam the pau for 20 minutes.

Meat filling:
  1. Mix all ingredients well, except the egg, and marinate it for at least 30 minutes.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

The Islamic, a Singapore Original

Nasi Bryani comes with an option of meat: chicken, mutton or fish.

Growing up in 60s and 70s Singapore, the Islamic Restaurant was, to me, an Aladdin’s Cave redolent with the mystery and exoticism of Old Arabia; filled not with loot and precious gems, but with a sumptuous treasure no less…of the culinary kind!

Not many restaurants in Singapore (I reckon a dozen or so?) can lay claim to being a culinary institution. In my book, Islamic Restaurant is in this elite.

“The Islamic ” -- as it’s more usually referred to – was founded in 1914, making it nearly 100 years old. The man who founded it was M. Abdul Rahman, an Indian masterchef who cut his teeth working for a wealthy Arab family, the Alsagoffs. The Alsagoffs were early owners of the Raffles Hotel and famous in Singapore history for their philanthropy.

According to the story, the masterchef’s deft fusions of the Indian and Arab cuisines so tantalized his employers that he decided to strike out on his own. Thus was born the Islamic. Although it has relocated a couple of times over its history, the restaurant has always been famously housed in one of the 2-storey prewar shophouses that line North Bridge Road, across from the Sultan Mosque.

In its heyday in the 50s to 70s, the Islamic was a place to be seen. British colonials and wealthy locals dined there, and its guest list was graced with Presidents of Singapore, top judges and government officials, and regional royal families. I remember attending the lavish wedding dinners of some friends at the restaurant in the 1960s. To me, its décor and ambience counted almost as much as the food.

Tomato in Sweet Syrup
I loved the sconce lights, pewter ware, damask drapery, and framed Quranic inscriptions on the walls. It was cozy and dim; the rich fabrics and jewel-like colors became weatherworn over the years, I remember; but it only seemed to add to the atmosphere. While eating, you would sometimes hear the muezzin’s musical call at prayer times from the nearby mosque. This made dining at the Islamic magical.

But let’s talk about the food. Of this, Nasi Beryani remains the Islamic’s most famed. From the Persian word for “roasted/fried before cooking”, Beryani is a rice-based dish made with spices, rice, and meat and vegetables. And of the many types of Beryani in existence, the Islamic’s is unique, combining both Indian and Arab methods of cooking in a well-guarded secret recipe, created by the founder, M. Abdul Rahman, himself.

Mutton Samma
My personal favorites, however, include the hard-to-find Tomato in Sweet Syrup, a wonderful starter as well as a great dip for the Roti Mariam. Another must for me, since the 1960s, has been the Mutton Samma, mutton slow-cooked in thick gravy and spicy-peppery in flavor. Also superb are the Chicken Mysore (a favorite with the Sultan of Brunei, I’m told) and the Mutton Mysore. In fact, the best way to sample the Islamic’s 200-item menu is to have plain rice with two or three accompanying dishes of meat, fish or vegetables – as I often do.

Roti Mariam
Now to the Roti Mariam. A woman at Kampong Glam created this unique ‘roti’ (bread) and sold it on a pushcart. The Islamic later employed her, and included her roti on the menu. Roti Mariam is named after her, and is available at the Islamic and nowhere else. It tastes like a cross between naan and prata, and is eaten with plain sugar, milk, or curry.

Today the Islamic is into its third-generation of owners, and no longer the habitué of just the mighty and well heeled, but everybody. And, may I add, long may it live and prosper!

Islamic Restaurant

745 North Bridge Road

Singapore 198713

Tel: 65-6298 7563

Friday, 11 November 2011

Curry Chicken – No Explanation Needed

If you asked me, there’s one dish that deserves to be honored as a national dish, but never is. Curry Chicken.

Every ethnicity has its own variant, or often variants. It’s the darling of potluck parties and food caterers; and mainstay of  “economical rice” stalls and hotel coffee houses and everything in between. It graces the festive table at home, and once was a common repast for hungry attendees at all-night wakes. And, it’s been around like forever.

Curry chicken was always accompanied by fried bee hoon and fish balls at parties. They made a terrific trio. When I was young, I had a schoolmate whose grandmother hailed from Ipoh, Malaysia. This old lady made a to-die-for curry, and it was one of the first dishes she taught me. She made it literally from scratch – a commonplace in those days.

There was no recipe, no weighing scale. The spices would be mixed to an estimated ratio. She would pound the shallots, garlic, spices and everything, in a mortar and pestle; and fry the thick rich paste for more than an hour in a wok. The sounds and, most memorably, the smell, of her labors would fill the entire house. Under such tutelage, my Curry Chicken education was off to a good start!

For those lacking the confidence, or fortitude, for such backbreaking effort, there’s always the Indian stall at the wet market. Simply name your intention -- curry chicken, or beef rending, or curry vegetable – and the stallholder will put together, from a pre-ground array of spices, the perfect mix for you. Easy as that!

Personally, I prefer the long road; but to make it worth my while for the trouble of pounding the ‘rempah’ (pre-cooked curry paste), I usually make a huge quantity. That way, I could stockpile the rempah -- split into smaller containers and stored in the freezer – for future use. Here’s one of my favourite recipes for Curry Chicken.

A gift from a friend, this electric stone grinder
makes preparing spices much easier.
Curry Chicken
Chicken                       1, cleaned and cut into chunks
Ginger                         50 g, grated
Potato                         500 g, skinned and cubed
Water                          3 cups
Coconut                      500 g, grated
Oil                               1 cup
Lemon grass               5, bashed
Salt                              ¾ tbsp
Sugar                           1 tsp

Curry Rempah:
Coriander seeds          5 tbsp, fry in a dry pan until fragrant
Candlenut                   20 g
Dried chillies               100 g, soaked in warm water, drained
Fresh turmeric            70 g, bashed
Red chillies                 10
Shallots                       300 g
Curry powder             300 g
Chilli paste                  3 tbsp
Garlic                           100 g

1.             Grate ginger and squeeze juice to marinate the chicken for 30 minutes.
2.             Cut potato and soak in water to remove the starch. Dry and deep-fry the potato until the skin is slightly brown. Drain and set aside.
3.             Fry rempah (without the garlic) and bashed lemongrass with oil under medium heat for 20 minutes. Add a tsp of water if necessary to prevent the rempah from being burnt.
4.             Add garlic and continue to fry for another 5 minutes, or until oil oozes out from the rempah.
5.             Increase the heat to the maximum, add chicken and fry until the skin of the meat is lightly golden. Add potato and 2 cups of water; simmer for 20 minutes.
6.             Meanwhile, squeeze ¼ cup of coconut cream from the grated coconut. Set aside. Add 1 cup of water to the grated coconut and from it squeeze another cup of coconut milk. Set aside.
7.             Add 1 cup of coconut milk to the curry mixture and simmer for another 10 minutes. Ensure the mixture does not boil or the coconut milk will curdle.
8.             Add salt and sugar to taste.
9.             Just before serving, add the coconut cream and heat for 5 minutes.

I normally make curry paste in huge quantities and
store them in smaller containers in the freezer for future use.
Curry Rempah:
1.             Pound coriander seeds, candlenut, dried chillies, turmeric, and shallots, in sequence, finely. Ensure each ingredient is finely pounded before adding the next ingredient.
2.             Add curry powder and chilli paste and mix well. Set aside.
3.             Pound garlic until fine and set aside.
4.             If you are using an electric blender, add all fresh ingredients with a little bit of water and blend it thoroughly. Mix the curry powder and chilli paste well before cooking.