Thursday, 14 June 2012

Nonya Fried Noodle – Straight from Bibik’s Mouth!

When it comes to matters of food and cooking, everyone knows how the Peranakan matriarch -- or “Bibik” as she’s called -- can be as touchy and ultra-territorial as a bull in mating season. Her recipe, she imperiously declares to all and sundry, is “the most authentic” (and everyone else’s is not worth a SH*T!)

It’s funny that every Peranakan household I’ve eaten at (and I’ve eaten at quite a few in my time) always makes that claim. Therefore if every family’s “version” of a particular dish is the “correct, authentic, and ONLY one”….  You get the picture?

Whatever the case may be, there’s no denying that most older Peranakans – female and male – are superb, passionate cooks. And for any food lover, the Peranakan kitchen is true paradise; just don’t EVER step on the culinary toes of a Bibik!

My own exposure to Peranankan cuisine came late in life; but it was near-instant love. With its heady mix of Malay, Chinese -- particularly Hokkien -- and even Western influence, how could an adventurous, liberal glutton like myself resist that food? In fact, every dish I tasted reminded me of something I ate from another cuisine in Singapore.

And I realized a few other things: that every home’s “version” of a dish varied from other homes, in style, ingredient and taste. And that there were a few standard or “must-have” dishes for formal Peranakan meals. Over the years, I’ve managed to “steal” recipes and cooking tips from some of the Peranakans I’ve known -- matriarchs, chefs, and so-called “authorities” on the culture. And this pilfered information has served me well in the kitchen.

This particular Nonya dish, for instance, is very similar to Fried Hokkien Prawn Noodles, except that it uses an additional key ingredient in the paste -- taucheo. The garnishing is also far more elaborate.

Nonya Fried Noodle

Prawns                        200 g, boiled, then peeled and set aside the prawn heads and shells
Water                          2 cups
Pork belly                   200 g
Squid                           150 g
Chinese sausage         1, steamed for 10 mins and cut into strips
Oil/lard                        3 tbsp
Yellow flat noodle      400 g, washed and drained
Garlic                           1 tsp, minced
Bean sprouts               100 g
Salt                              1½  tsp
Sugar                           1 tsp
Light soy sauce           1 tsp
Dark soy sauce           ½ tbsp

Preserved beans          1 tbsp, mashed
Garlic                           1 clove, minced

Cucumber                   1, cut into thin strips
Egg                              1, fried into omelette and cut into thin strips
Red chillies                  2, large and cut into thin strips
Fried shallots               1 tbsp
Fried garlic                  1 tbsp
Fried lard crisps           1 tbsp
Pepper                         to taste

  1. Saute preserved bean paste, garlic and prawn shells for 3 minutes. Add water, pork belly and simmer for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, add squid and cook until it turns pink. Remove and set aside.
  2. Remove pork belly and set aside till it cools. Cut squid and pork belly into thin strips.
  3. Drain the prawn broth and set aside for later.
  4. Boil the prawn broth and season with salt and sugar.
  5. In a clean wok, fry noodle and minced garlic for 3 minutes under high flame. Add stock and simmer for 2 minutes.
  6. Add prawns, pork belly, squid and Chinese sausage and continue to simmer for another 1 minute.
  7. Add bean sprouts and season with both light and dark soy sauce.
  8. Serve it on a plate and top with all the garnishing.

Monday, 4 June 2012

An Itch to Teach

I was eight when I started cooking, teetering on a stool to reach the kerosene stove in front of me. The iron wok felt as heavy as an elephant in my hands; but it didn’t stop me from cooking my first dish -- a sunny side-up.

Like many a foodie, I have since gone through ‘phases’ in the kitchen -- times when I’ve been intrigued and enraptured by Chinese, French, Italian, Japanese, and so-called ‘fusion’.  Each dish I ate, each recipe I cooked, each chef I met; each experience, each memory…stays vivid in the mind. Other people may thumb through a photo album. I reminisce through smells and tastes of food.

Learning to cook wasn’t easy. It took me a very long time to grasp the principles. Only when you truly understand, can you master something. The road ahead is still long for me; but I’m lucky. I have great teachers and friends. They feed my mind with their knowledge and experience, and fill my soul with their life and passions.

The last five years when I lived in Hong Kong and China had been a ‘crash course’: I learned more about traditional Chinese (particularly Cantonese) cooking than I did in my entire life. The people I cooked for, the friends I dined with, were among the cleverest and most discerning gourmands I’ve ever met.

More importantly, I became friends with a coterie of foodies and authors who were dead serious about documenting or otherwise keeping alive Chinese food history. They have inspired me to do likewise, to seek out and record old Chinese recipes and traditions that people -- even chefs -- have forgotten and neglected.

Thanks, Shermay, for the opportunity; for reminding me of the importance of sharing these recipes and techniques. Here I am, putting on a new hat come July, when I begin my teaching classes at Shermay’s Cooking School…

Shermay’s Cooking School
#01-76 Chip Bee Gardens (Holland Village)
Blk 43 Jalan Merah Saga
Tel: +65 6479 8442/6479 8414

Friday, 1 June 2012

Kaya – My Orange Memories

Half-boiled eggs, kaya toast and coffee has long been, and still is, a favorite breakfast with us Singaporeans.  It’s a polyglot breakfast if ever there was one; but that’s understandable given that we live in a polyglot nation fed by a dozen other food streams from our colonial past and neighboring countries. Breakfast -- like all our meals -- has become a heady culinary free-for-all… But hey, who’s complaining?

The story goes that Ya Kun, one of our earliest purveyors of bread toast with kaya, started with a single stall in the financial district decades ago. With the energy and ambition of the young, Ya Kun’s second generation of owners brought the juggernaut that is modern marketing into the game; and made half-boiled eggs and kaya toast stylish and with-it – whatever the time of day. Inevitably a slew of other brands and businesses jumped on the bandwagon: even the Singapore Tourism Board, which elevated this breakfast combo to one of the ‘must eats’ for visitors. And there, kaya stands today.

Kaya is made from a few basic ingredients: sugar, eggs, coconut milk and pandan leaves. It is believed that kaya originated from the Peranakans. Pandan is a tropical plant that grows in abundance in South-east Asia. Its long blade-like leaves cannot be eaten, but emit a wonderful fragrance when bruised or used in cooking. Blend the leaves and the resulting juice also makes a pretty green natural coloring for food.

I remember vividly my first sight, and taste, of kaya. It was a coffee shop. The kaya sat, in its bright reddish orange splendor, in a round tin can. The coffee shop assistant would spread a thick layer of margarine on the slice of bread, and then slather on the kaya. The flavor to a ten-year-old was heavenly, drawn as we instinctively were, to sugar and carbo.

Since then, my vision of kaya has always been orange – the color imprinted indelibly on me by those childhood encounters – even though the green ‘version’ is the more commonplace these days. The green in this, more recent, kaya is the result of the pandan juice added during cooking.

There is another green, custard-like version, known as Serikaya, that is eaten on its own, with bread, or as a component of Malay and Peranakan dessert cakes. The Hakkas too, have a kaya version of their own; this particular kaya has orange sugar or palm sugar (Gula Melaka) in it, giving it a taste that’s richer and mellower.

So now, the tastes and orange memories come flooding back as I cook the following recipe…


Eggs                             15, about 50 g each
Orange sugar              400 g
Fresh coconut milk     500 g
Pandan leaves             10, tied into a knot

  1. Mix all ingredients in a heavy-base pot, and simmer.
  2. Stir continually until the mixture thickens. Keep the temperature low and don’t overcook it or the egg will curdle. If it does curdle, simply blend the mixture with an electric mixer. Remove pandan leaves.
  3. Cool and store in a bottle.

Note:   There is another, easier way to cook kaya. Pour all ingredients into a slow pot and turn it to HIGH. Stir the mixture occasionally until the mixture thickens. If you prefer Pandan Kaya, substitute the orange sugar with castor sugar. Then blend pandan leaves and extract 50 g of juice and add it into the batter. The version I’ve given is less sweet than usual, if you prefer it sweeter, simply increase the sugar to your taste.