I’ve eaten Cantonese food for much of my life. So, when I was writing this particular post, it suddenly dawned on me how much my judgments and opinions regarding Cantonese cuisine have been influenced by the so-named ‘Four Heavenly Kings of Singapore Cuisine’ – namely Masterchefs Sin Leong, Hooi Kok Wai, Tham Yui Kai, and Lau Yoke Pui.
|Masterchefs Hooi Kok Wai (left) and Sin Leong|
Throughout the 60s and 70s, when I was only eight or nine, I was already eating at least once or twice a week at their restaurants. I would visit each restaurant in turn with one or two specific dishes already in mind: these would be the Cold Dish and the Shark’s Fin Soup at the Lai Wah Restaurant run by Tham Yui Kai and Lau Yoke Pui. At the Dragon Phoenix Restaurant of Hooi Kok Wai, it would usually be the Yam Cake and the Steamed Seafood, and the once-a-year Tossed Yue Sheng.
For the Sin Leong Restaurant at Serangoon Road, my favorites would be the USA Duck, and the Glass Prawns. On top of these meals would be the many wedding dinners, birthday parties, and other celebrations that I also attended down the years; these were usually held at Red Rudy and Red Star -- the two later restaurants co-owned by the four masterchefs.
Hence, I could justifiably, and proudly, proclaim that I literally ‘grew up eating heavenly food!’
Even as a boy, I would sit by the Rediffusion, and occasionally the TV, to learn new dishes from Tham Yui Kai, who frequently appeared hosting cooking shows. Tham Yui Kai was the most publicly ‘visible’ of the four – he was a household name through his media spots and his many cookbooks. I had also attended the cooking classes at the community centres conducted by Tham occasionally. In no small measure, these four men were my inspiration and ‘mentors’; they helped educate and shape my palate when it came to high Cantonese cuisine.
Sadly, many of the dishes I am familiar with are no longer considered ‘in’; they’ve disappeared from menus, and, it seems, from the average culinary consciousness altogether. It’s therefore been a dream of mine to savour once again the ‘good old taste’, and have the chance to reminisce with like-minded friends about the golden era of Chinese cuisine in Singapore.
|The menu, hand-written,|
by Masterchef Sin Leong.
Masterchef Sin Leong, today in his 80s, paused for a moment, pondering my request, then said yes. He told me that he would need to cook the dishes himself, with the help of Masterchef Hooi, as his chefs were not familiar with the recipes.
It would be a very rare, hands-on performance from the two great chefs themselves!
And so the date was set, and I looked forward to the meal on 10 January 2013 with the excitement of a little schoolboy…
The first four appetisers were classics from the pre-70s era, normally served at wedding banquets and formal functions.
The FRIED SHARK’S FIN OMELETTE (桂花翅) served that night was the Singapore version, which was markedly different from the original version from Guangzhou. In China, eggs would make up only 15% of the omelette, the rest being shark’s fin, bean sprout, and Chinese ham. When fried, the Guangzhou-style omelette would look like osmanthus flowers clinging to the shark’s fin, hence its name, 桂花翅 , meaning Osmanthus Shark’s Fin. In Singapore, eggs made up of 75% to 80% of the dish, resulting in the richness of the egg permeating the dish. With each bite, the diner would feel the crunch of the shark’s fin – as I did with this wonderful dish.
COLD SALAD PRAWN (沙律明虾) is a fusion dish much influenced by the British colonial period, where salad cream was widely used in colonial kitchens. The bottled salad cream is usually rewhipped with sugar and a dash of citrus juice. The huge tiger prawns are par-boiled, then soaked in icy water to stop the cooking process, as well as to make the meat crunchy. I loved this simple dish with its oh-so-nostalgic tastes. But sadly, it is so hard to find a good version of it these days.
Those who have dined at the Spring Court restaurant would find FRIED CHICKEN’S LIVER (蚧炒凤肝) familiar. Sin Leong revealed to me that the four of them started as junior chefs at Spring Court during the 50s, before moving on to the Cathay Restaurant. Hence, Sin Leong’s version of this dish is greatly influenced by his apprenticeship at Spring Court – where the minced chicken liver, chicken meat, and pork were marinated, then packed into a ball with a salted egg yolk at its center. The ball was then deep-fried and sliced into 10 portions.
PAN-FRIED CHICKEN ROLL (煎鸡卷) was a ‘new creation’ developed by the four chefs under the guidance of their master. The chicken meat was flattened and rolled, then braised in a special sauce after being pan-fried to 70% doneness.
DOUBLE-BOILED CHICKEN STUFFED WITH BIRD’S NEST (凤吞燕)
In classic Cantonese cooking, double-boiled soups are reserved for fine dining. The double-boil method works well when delicate Chinese herbs and delicacies are used. The hours of double-boiling would yield soup that is light and pure, and that allows the original and unaltered flavours of the meat and herbs or delicacies to come through perfectly. Tonight, Sin Leong had stuffed bird’s nest into a deboned and gutted, but otherwise intact, chicken, that was then double-boiled in a superior broth. It was light and packed with the essence of chicken.
BRAISED PORK TROTTER WITH BUNS (红烧元蹄配荷叶包)
This deceptively simple dish takes at least one full day to prepare. The trotter will be tied, and caramelized before braising in a special sauce for hours. Towards the end, the sauce would have been reduced to thick gravy. The test lies in the first bite; wherein the slight hint of sweetness titillates the taste buds, followed by the richness of the meat and sauce. The hours of braising would also have softened the meat fibres, resulting in pork that literally melts in the mouth.
BRAISED DUCK STUFFED WITH LOTUS SEEDS (八宝鸭)
This is another classic dish of the Cantonese menu. As he cooked, Masterchef Hooi lamented the fact that once, it was standard kitchen procedure to debone a duck and yet retain the shape of the bird. These days, few chefs are left who are able to perform this task well; so most restaurants now offer this dish with the bones intact.
After the bird is stuffed with lotus seeds, diced liver, ham and mushrooms, it will be fried and braised for hours. There is a slight difference from the China version as far as the timing of the braise is concerned. In China, the duck will braise for at least eight hours, while the local version braises for around three hours. Part of the reason is that Mainland Chinese prefer their duck soft as tofu, while we, Singaporeans, prefer a meaty bite. Nevertheless, I love both versions as each offers a different sensation to the taste bud.
STEAMED SOON HOCK ALA TRADITIONAL CANTONESE STYLE (古式蒸顺壳)
To steam a fish to perfection requires skill, as fish tends to overcook in a matter of seconds. The golden rule to gauge this perfection is to examine the inside of the fish when it is served: there should a slight pinkish tone where the meat lies closest to the bone.
Tonight, the fish was done perfectly. A special sauce of superior light soy sauce, pork, and preserved cabbage was poured on the fish once it was cooked. Before the fish was served, it was then further baptized with a scoop of boiling lard.
BRAISED WHOLE ABALONE WITH BROCCOLI (红烧原粒鲍鱼配西兰花)
Masterchef Sin Leong braised the 18-head canned abalones in superior broth for hours before thickening it with starch. Maybe I’ve been spoilt by the high standards set by the Hong Kong chefs, but I was a bit blasé eating this version. My dining companions, however, loved it.
CLAYPOT RICE WITH PRESERVED SAUSAGES AND CHICKEN (腊味砂煲饭)
I enjoyed this version very much. The rice was well cooked, with each grain coated with the preserved sausage “oil”, without tasting like it was an overdose. The taste of each and every ingredient came through with every bite, as Sin Leong had replaced the heavy dark soy sauce with a light superior sauce.
I typically don’t harbour high hopes for Chinese desserts in restaurants here, so I simply opted for the herbal jelly to end my dinner, and it was decent.
This dinner was one of the highlights of my eating life, as both Masterchefs Sin Leong and Hooi Kok Wai successfully recreated the outstanding standards of Chinese cooking that I remembered from the golden 60s. I was also touched to see Masterchef Sin Leong filled with such high spirits and enthusiasm. He wore a perpetual child-like grin the entire night, and was clearly thrilled when we all queued up for his autograph! He was wistful when he said that the dishes he cooked for us that night were no longer appreciated by the young, and therefore, he hardly cooks for the public anymore.
Sin Leong’s words left me with the fervent hope that our younger generation should pay some heed to the classic dishes of the past, for these dishes are the foundation that has shaped and informed the cuisines of today. In our rush to embrace the new, we should not forget the culinary masters who came before us.
As the saying goes: we see farther, because we stand on the shoulders of giants.
Photography by: Mark Ong