Saturday, 30 March 2013

The Jumping Table – The Quintessential Malay Feast

It was only after I had lived a few years away from Singapore, that I truly appreciated having grown up in its famously multi-racial milieu. For one, Singapore has bred in me an ethnic tolerance and appreciation that I’ve come to take for granted; for another, it’s given me an omnivorous palate, and taught me the pleasures of indulging in as wide a range of cuisines as possible.

Whenever I get invited to a traditional celebration by a Malay or Indian friend, I see it as a special treat – especially when it involves food.

For me, nothing evokes the Malay love for family, friends and food, and a good time, like the ‘kenduri’. The Malay wedding features the quintessential -- and one of the most common – forms of kenduri. Who hasn’t encountered one in an HDB void deck; seen the ‘ma-chiks’ huddled together and busy with the food preparation; or smelled the delicious aromas wafting up to the upper floors, and heard the music and merrymaking?

Kenduri (pronounced ken-doo-ree) is Malay for ‘feast’. A kenduri is joyous, age-old, and versatile. Kenduris are organized to celebrate everything from weddings, circumcisions and birthdays, to anniversaries, ‘graduations’ from religious or silat (martial art) studies, festivals like Hari Raya, and even first-time pregnancies and the first haircut of a 40-day-old infant. Seems anything is fair excuse for a kenduri. And why not?

Kenduris bring people together in a riot of communal good spirits. Everybody chips in: grandmas to five-year-olds help in cooking, decorating, serving, and running errands, all in the spirit of ‘gotong royong’ (or cooperation). And everyone – guests and all – always has a fun time.

Missing the flavors of the kenduri spread that I grew up eating and loving, I approached one of my favorite chefs recently.

Bubbly and big-spirited Chef Arni used to run a well-known eatery with her husband -- Arni & Yusof -- at Far East Plaza on Scotts Road. The Arni & Yusof kitchen was originally helmed by Arni’s mother, from whom she learned the ropes and succeeded several years ago. I’ve been a patron of the stall for more than 12 years until they closed for good a few months ago. The feast that Arni prepared for my friends and I was replete with the traditional dishes and desserts of the kenduri, including mutton, nasi brani, chicken, pacheri, and in particular, kek kukus, a rarely seen caramelized cake.

A Wedding Kenduri
23 March 2013

Nasi Brani Dum

Kambing Masak Rempah Brani
Mutton in Brani Paste

Rendang Lembu
Beef Rendang

Ayam Masak Merah
Chicken in Chili and Tomato Paste

Sotong Masak Hitam
Squid in Black Ink
What got me hooked on Arni & Yusof in the first place -- sotong masak hitam for more than 12 years.
Udang Sambal
Sambal Prawn

Dalcha  / Pacheri  / Achar
Mixed Vegetable Curry with Lentils/Spicy Cooked Pineapple/Cucumber Pickle

Kek Kukus / Bubur Kacang / Pisang
Steamed Caramelized Cake/Green Bean Dessert Porridge/Banana

All photos by Mark Ong

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Seared Golden Oyster – Quick-to-cook Delicacy

I love dried oyster. In fact I grew up eating dried oysters in many forms and dishes. Most commonly seen at home would be the classic Cantonese dried oyster porridge with dried sole fish, or the must-have Chinese New Year reunion dish: dried mushroom, oyster and black moss stew.

When I moved to Hong Kong in 2007, I saw semi-dried, huge oysters stringed on bamboo sticks. Later, I found out that it was a delicacy, in which fresh oysters were sunned for a few days before hitting the market. The taste is more robust than the fresh ones, but less “smoky” than dried oysters.

Cooking these oysters is easy. Marinate them with Chinese wine, salt and sugar, then steam them for a couple of minutes and finish them by searing with honey. I made a slight twist at the final stage, for I love the taste of Balsamic vinegar reduction with oyster.

So, here is my version. Enjoy!

Seared Golden Oyster

Semi-dried oysters                            12
Peanut oil                                             2 tbsp
Balsamic vinegar                                1 tbsp
Sugar                                                      ½ tsp

Chinese yellow wine                        2 tbsp
Ginger juice                                         1 tbsp
Premium soy sauce                          1 tbsp
Sugar                                                     1 tsp
Salt                                                         ¼ tsp
White pepper                                     ¼ tsp

  1. Remove oyster from the bamboo stick carefully.
  2. Brush the side of oyster with a brush under running water.
  3. Marinate oyster for 10 minutes.
  4. Steam oyster for 20 minutes.
  5. Remove oyster and drain thoroughly. Keep the juice aside.
  6. Slightly brown oyster with peanut oil on both sides. Remove and set aside.
  7. Using the same pan, reduce oyster juice, balsamic vinegar and sugar until they thicken. Adjust taste accordingly.
  8. Toss oyster in the reduction until well mixed.
  9. Serve immediately.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Pickled Crab – A Small Forgotten Delight

How often, and easily, a dish disappears from our memory…

A short conversation with a friend brought me back to a dark bottle of preserved crabs, often displayed in old provision shops back in the late 60s.

Even though it was a common side dish with the Teochew, I recall eating these pickled crabs only once -- when I was very young. Back then in the 60s, the majority of people earned meager salaries, and these little crabs would often be the only dish in a meal, eaten with a bowl of plain porridge. They are called Wa Kee.
Photo by Mark Ong

Wa Kee are tree-climbing crabs that inhabit the mangrove swamps. They are parasitic and burrow in the mud, and feed on the propagules, or buds, of the mangrove plant. The crabs emerge at dusk and are known to climb as high as 6 metres up a tree to forage for food. To harvest them, a net is held at the base of the tree, and a long stick used to scare or dislodge the crabs, which then drop into the net.

The Teochew pickle them in vinegar or soy sauce, while the Thai like the crabs salted or deep-fried. Sadly, these crabs have become hard to find in Singapore.

Pickled Crab

Wa Kee                                         300 g, live
Fresh coriander                         2 tbsp, minced

Sichuan pepper                         ¼ tsp
Coriander seeds                        ¼ tsp
Soy sauce                                     2 cups
Garlic                                             4 cloves
Chili padi                                      2, sliced thinly
Sugar                                            2 tsp

  1. Soak live crabs in clean water for 2 days, changing water every 6 hours. Pat dry.
  2. Pan-fry Sichuan pepper and coriander seeds in a dry pan until fragrant. Pour soy sauce and garlic. Simmer for 3 minutes and remove from heat. Add chili padi and sugar; stir thoroughly until the sugar dissolves. Let it rest to room temperature.
  3. Add crabs and submerge them.
  4. Keep it in a fridge for at least 24 hours.
  5. Add fresh coriander before serving.