Friday, 20 September 2013

Show Some Skin

When I was a kid, I would know Mid-Autumn Festival was around the corner because my relatives would send huge paper lanterns to our home. These lanterns were about 1.5 metres tall, wrapped with painted cellophane paper and decorated with tassels. Inside the lantern, and driven by hot air from the candle, a ring of painted scenic and calligraphic images would rotate. It was gorgeous! Such lanterns are sadly extinct from Singapore; but the moon cake, fortunately, is still around.

I’ve never been greatly enamored of moon cakes; I find their fillings too sweet to like. But there is a fruit I always associate with Mid-Autumn Festival -- the pomelo. I love it and could literally eat it non-stop, until one day I discovered that excessive quantities of it upset my digestion. 

However, the fruit was useful in other ways. My cousins and I would make our own lanterns with pomelo skins. Using a pointed knife, we would cut holes through the skin so the light would cast graphic shadows on the wall. The grown-ups of the family, who prized the discarded skins as an ingredient for certain dishes, would try to hide them from the kids.

When treated as described in the recipe below, the pomelo skin behaves like a sponge; so specially prepared stocks are often used to braise it. In fact, I used superior stock that is good enough for abalone and other delicacies. The texture of skin that I got out of it can be compared to a savory bread pudding.

Braised Pomelo with Prawn Roe

Pomelo skin                           ½ fruit, quartered
Lard                                         5 tbsp
Young ginger                         4 slices
Roast pork                              200 g
Superior stock                        4 cups
Superior abalone sauce         2 tbsp
Prawn roe                               3 tbsp
Dark soy sauce                       1 tbsp
Brown sugar                           ½ tbsp
Salt                                          2 tsp
Sesame oil                              ½ tsp

1.         Grill the pomelo skin (the green outer side only) over fire till it is charred all over.
2.         Soak the charred pomelo skin under water. Peel off the charred surface until the skin is totally clean of burnt surfaces.
3.         Rinse skin thoroughly, and soak in clean water for 2 days. During this period, change water periodically.
4.         Squeeze pomelo skin dry and boil it for 5 minutes.
5.         Remove and submerge in cold water.
6.         Squeeze out all liquid and repeat Step 5 twice.
7.         Pan fry pomelo skin in a dry pan until all liquid evaporates. Remove and set aside.
8.         Saute ginger and roast pork with lard. Sprinkle Chinese wine. Add stock and reduce the sauce slightly.
9.         Season it with prawn roe (2 tbsp), dark soy sauce, brown sugar and salt.
10.      Add pomelo skin and braise for 10 minutes. The sauce should thicken by now.
11.      Serve pomelo skin on a serving plate. Pour gravy over the skin.
12.      Add a dash of sesame oil and sprinkle the remaining prawn roe over the dish.
13.      Serve hot.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Scholarly Moon Cakes

In the past, Hokkien moon cakes came in a box of 63 pieces; and they were called zhuang yuan bing or Scholarly Cakes for an interesting reason. During dynastic times in China, scholars sat for the Imperial Examination to fill administrative positions in the imperial court ranging from the most senior to the most minor. Likewise, the moon cakes in the box were arranged in groups of descending weight and size that corresponded to the actual number of positions in each imperial grade. The largest moon cake could weigh as much as 750 grams.

While anyone would baulk at the thought of wolfing down ¾ of a kilogram of sugared paste and pastry at one go, Hokkien moon cakes were actually made of savory minced meat and candied winter melon. But these moon cakes began to lose popularity after WW II, and their traditional savory fillings gave way to a sweet Teochew-influenced filling of red bean paste cooked in lard. Their appearance – that of a white moon -- remained.

The Tan Hock Seng Cake Shop on Telok Ayer Street was established some 63 years ago. Its current owner, Tan Boon Chai, continues to preserve and perpetuate the traditions of Hokkien-style pastry making, like his father and grandfather before him. The production of the moon cake involves painstaking labor. The dough is thoroughly mixed and kneaded until it turns pure white. The filling is a mix of candied winter melon, candied tangerine peel, melon seeds, sugar and lard. And before baking, additional sesame seeds are sprinkled at the base of the cake to give it a distinctive fragrance.

It is easy to distinguish the Hokkien moon cake: it is the one shaped in a white disc with a red “fu” stamped on it.

86 Telok Ayer Street
Singapore 048469
Telephone: 65331798

Friday, 13 September 2013

Moments and memories in Shunde

What makes a journey memorable? To me, a sense of connection and discovery is most important; and that was what I found on a recent visit to Shunde, a district in China’s Guangdong province. Because it brought me back to my childhood: to the roots of the cuisine I love and to the strange, enigmatic breed of women who figured so vividly in my growing up years – the amah.

The landscape on the hour-long drive from Guangzhou’s airport to Shunde was almost Arcadian: a quilted patchwork of ponds and green fields and a family-run restaurant every kilometer or so, it seems. For thousands of years, fertile soil brought prosperity to this part of China. Silk was a major produce, and Shunde became one of the nation’s largest silk production centers. The men of Shunde grew the mulberry leaves that fed the worms while the women wove silk at home.

During the Depression era of the 1930s, silk’s demand fell and many people left Shunde. Some of its women left China altogether, and made their way to Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. They found work mainly as domestic help, and were easily recognizable by the black-and-white samfus they wore and their tied-back hair buns. These women were fiercely loyalty to their employers and earned the affectionate nickname ‘amah’, or mother in Cantonese, for their devotion. As a child I met and befriended many amahs in Singapore, and through them came to know of Shunde and its food.

My first stop was Jun’an, a rural town in Shunde. A spot of trivia: Bruce Lee’s father was born in Jun’an and Bruce lived here briefly as a child. The town, quick to capitalize on its fame, had built a theme park in Bruce’s honour, but was otherwise a laid back agricultural community that produced fine freshwater carp. On a visit to the Lee ancestral hall I met a 105-year-old female inhabitant of Jun’an. She was amazingly quick-witted for her years, and reminded me so much of the wizened yet resilient amahs I knew.

Amahs remained unmarried for life, with many taking a formal vow of spinsterhood that was out of step with the traditions of the time. They formed strong bonds with their fellow ‘sisters’, and because they never returned to China it was common for a group of amahs to share a small rented house after retirement, where they would live together for the rest of their lives.

At Jun’an I tasted its vaunted pork for the first time in my life. The whole pig -- de-boned and marinated with five-spice powder, salt, and sugar – was placed spread-eagled on a pole inside a large wooden drum and steamed for an hour over charcoal. The tender pork that was produced was sliced thinly and served with a sprinkling of sesame seed. The spices intensified the porcine flavors yet were so subtle as to be virtually untraceable; this made the quality of the meat paramount.

There is a saying to epitomize Shunde cooking – 粗料精做,妙在家常 -- meaning to be able to cook refined home meals out of cheap ingredients. And in fact, evidence points to Shunde as being a major progenitor of Cantonese cuisine as a whole.

The freshwater carp that Jun’an breeds in abundance is a key ingredient of Shunde cooking. An architectural fixture of the region is the pond in front of the house, stocked with fish. For a meal, Shunde women would gather vegetables from the farm and catch a fish from the pond; from these they would conjure a feast without wasting a morsel. Shunde frugality and skill with humble ingredients in the kitchen was renowned, and when these women became amahs in Singapore, these same qualities became hallmarks of their cooking style.

The Shunde Raw Fish is a showpiece dish and a must-try. The live freshwater carp is slaughtered and its most tender flesh – lying between the belly and tail end -- is sliced thinly and placed on ice to keep it fresh. A mix of pickles, lime leaves, peanut and soy sauce is then tossed in with the sliced raw fish and eaten. The story goes that Masterchef Hooi Kok Wai of the Four Heavenly Kings fame took his cue from this dish and made of it one of Singapore’s national dishes, the Chinese New Year’s Prosperous Yusheng.

Other parts of the fish are used for steamboat; sliced or beaten into fish paste. Another dish is steamed carp’s head, where the very tip of the head is cooked with black bean paste. On the tongue, the softness of the brain and the savory sweetness of the fluids in the fish head were amazing. Nothing goes to waste. Even the bones were boiled and made into porridge.

It is usual for an amah to work her entire life with a single employer, becoming a trusted family member, and in some cases, a surrogate ‘mum’ and even de facto matriarch. They would send the bulk of their salary back home to their families in China, most particularly during the difficult period of the Cultural Revolution. With what money that remained, they would indulge in cookouts with their ‘sisters’ on off days. During the once-a-year Hungry Ghosts Festival, when Cantonese opera troupes from Hong Kong would often arrive in Singapore to perform, a surprising side of the amah emerges. They would dedicate huge celebratory placards to their favorite opera artistes, adorned with borders of folded ‘flowers’ made from hundreds of their hard-earned dollar bills. 

Forty-five minutes from Jun’an is another small town called Leliu and its award-winning roast goose. At the street stall, the cook explained the details to me: each bird is carefully selected and bred to its ideal weight of about 2.5 kilograms where it is slaughtered. The marinade used is specific to each chef and is jealously guarded, but the basic ingredients appear to be Sichuan pepper, five-spice powder, aged tangerine peel, galangal and soy sauce.

The Leliu roast goose is not crispy skinned like its counterpart in Singapore. Its skin is loose and wrinkled like a Shar-pei’s, and that apparently accounts for its fuller flavor. After the goose is removed from the oven, it is usual to ‘rest’ it in the open; but in Leliu the resting is done in an enclosed space away from the wind. This triggers a sort of ‘braising’ process that causes the skin to wrinkle, while drawing the juices from the flesh. And when chewed, the skin releases the intense flavors it has absorbed as well as those of the marinade.

Another must-eat while in Shunde is the famed rice noodle unique to the town of Chencun. It is said a man named Huang Dan developed the technique of making the noodle some 80 years ago. First, newly harvested rice is stored for six months, then rubbed under water for at least 20 minutes to remove excess starch before being ground with a stone grinder. The resulting flour is then used to make an extra-thin, extra-smooth flat noodle derived from the traditional sha hor fun. In Hong Kong, where the noodle quickly gained popularity, it is called Chencun Fen after its place of origin. Chencun Fen is eaten in a variety of ways: steamed with meats or used like bread to soak up the gravy at the end of the meal, or even as a dessert with red bean paste and coconut cream.

The Shunde dishes that served the amahs so well in their employers’ kitchens also saw them through retirement. I remember seeing, in the 1960s, ex-amahs selling Shunde fare such as dried sole porridge, fried noodles, and steamed glutinous rice. In the morning, they would prepare the food and set up their makeshift ‘stalls’ of stacked wooden crates along the five-foot way. The meager takings probably helped stretch whatever savings these old women managed to accumulate from earlier times of service.

My final stop, the sub-district of Daliang, was a manufacturing boomtown, home to the production facilities of major Chinese brands like Kelon and Midea. The skyline was typically mainland urban: with gleaming high-rise towers and hulking shopping malls gradually elbowing out the traditional buildings – and foods – of the streets and side lanes.

Happily, some traditional foods still abounded -- meat porridge, chee cheong fun and deep-fried rice dumpling. The Shunde district produces some of the finest rice in southern China, so the variety of rice-based dishes on its streets should come as no surprise. Rice is used in subtle, complex ways here. There are rice of various strains – pearl, jasmine, glutinous – and different ‘ages’, such as ‘new’ or recently harvested rice, or ‘old’ rice that has been stored for a period of time. It’s known that a ‘simple’ bowl of porridge uses three to four types of rice to achieve balances of texture, consistency, and fragrance. Learning to distinguish and appreciate the gradations and differences in flavor present in plain rice was an education in itself.

The sight of the deep-fried rice dumpling was a different matter for me: it was like bumping into an old friend again after 40 years. I remembered buying deep-fried rice dumpling from a retired amah in Chinatown, Singapore. Amahs were most commonly seen in Chinatown in the 1960s. It was where they lived in retirement, sharing tiny shophouse cubicles. It was where they congregated on their rest days; and it was where they died: in the so-called ‘death houses’ along Sago Lane, where the terminally ill were housed and cared for until the last.

Eating that dumpling on the street in Shunde, I recalled watching the amahs in Chinatown sitting at the professional letter-writers, having their mail read to them or written. I recalled watching them chat and gossip among themselves, and cooking and sharing food from their homeland of Shunde; and I think -- isn’t it wonderful how homesickness can be assuaged, and memories ignited, with a bite?

All photos by Mark Ong