Sunday, March 20, 2011

Review of "Cooking for the President"

"Cooking for the President" is a new cookbook that was 20 odd years in the making. It is an epic project comprising 544 pages. The book, a labor of love by the daughter of our former President Wee Kim Wee is a must-have. I finally got to see this definitive guide which was launched at the end of 2010. It is the Nonya cook's Larousse Gastronomique/Escoffier all rolled into one. The glossary and measurements appendix would look like the papers for the Cambridge A Levels Chemistry exams. So thorough is it that the glossary has photos of the various types of fish normally chosen by Nonyas for their dishes, plus the butcher cuts for the different meats. More interestingly, the cookbook covers a wide range of little known home dishes - those that as a child, I would see on the dinner table from time to time but now have no inkling how to cook them because they were never recorded. They were the simple whip-up's that a Nonya housewife of old invariably knew how to concoct almost instinctively.

The food photos were all shot by the author - the President's daughter and they are the better ones out there. Kudos to her persistence because creating this mammoth cookbook is no mean feat. As an aspiring cookbook writer myself, I only wish I had her discipline and faith in God and I console myself with the fact that she is much older and more experienced than me. (See blog entry "Why and How I Wrote 'Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen'").

President Wee was a most beloved figure and was the pride of our Peranakan community. He was the first ethnically Chinese president in Singapore and a Baba, underscoring once again the influence that Babas had in the political establishments in Southeast Asia. (Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee, Tan Cheng Lock and our current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to name a few.) Mrs. Wee was well known for her Nonya food which she served at open houses in the embassies that President Wee helmed during his years as a diplomat.

It is a sweet tribute to a much-loved and esteemed couple, made all the more special that at 94, Mrs. Wee's dreams of putting her recipes to print for future generations were realized. The cookbook is indeed a curatorial piece of culinary history.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Nixon's Chinese Banquet















I have often said that my last meal on earth should be a ten-course Chinese banquet. I love banquets. I associate it with my favorite dishes, weddings, birthday parties, Chinese towkays, company parties, China, fine restaurants, makeshift party tents, yum seng cheers - in short, happiness and joy.

Our friend's father, Michael Tong, owns Shun Lee Palace - the famous Chinese restaurant in New York. In 1972, President Nixon made the historic trip to China. During this visit, he was entertained at a banquet hosted by Premier Zhou Enlai at the Great Hall of the People. This being an age before the Internet and cable news, Mr. Tong relied on a telex of the menu sent over during the course of the actual banquet. With New York time lagging behind by 12 hours, Mr. Tong and his team of chefs had an entire morning and afternoon to source and replicate the banquet, in time to serve it to his clientele that very night. This brilliant marketing idea served him well, it established his restaurant's reputation.

This year, Mr. Tong once again presented the menu in conjunction with the Met Opera's debut of 'Nixon in China'. The banquet was available for only 2 tables a week with a minimum of 10 persons per table. We recruited our foodie friends to join us for this banquet. The menu was as follows:

1. Cold Dishes of
i. Smoked Carp,
ii. Mock Ham,
iii. Cantonese Roast Pork,
iv. Cucumber Slices,
v. Drunken Chicken,
vi. Two Flavor Sausage,
vii. Vegetarian Duck,
viii. Three Colored Eggs (Thousand Year Old Eggs, Salted Duck Eggs and Boiled Chicken Eggs combined and steamed together and presented in thin rectangular slices).

2. Shark's Fin Soup

Hot Dishes of
3. Pearl Baby Shrimp
4. Fish Filet in Zao (a rice wine)
5. Steamed Chicken served with coconut gravy in a banana leaf wrapper, accompanied by seafood spring roll
6. Peking Duck
7. Wok fried and stewed prawns, accompanied by plum blossom dumplings
8. Lion's Head with Vegetables
9.
i. Black Mushrooms with Mustard Greens
ii. Dan Dan Noodles
iii. Peking Fried Rice
10. Desserts of
i. Almond Cream
ii. Red Bean Crepe
iii. Glutinous rice
iv. Sweet Pea Pudding

The dinner was technically presented as 10 courses. But I deliberately added the Roman numerals to convey to readers that we felt as if we were fed 23 dishes.

We started dinner with an explanation of the Nixon visit, then brought up the recent New York Times article. In it, reporters who were present at the actual banquet in Beijing recollected that the maotai wine was very strong and the table manners were bad. Lots of cigarette smoking, use of the same chopstick ends from mouth to table dish. We joked that we would do the same.

The presentation for each dish was reminiscent of those Chinese food-porn cookbooks I lauded in another blog entry - the beautiful and often colorful layout of food on a platter. This evoked the Chinese banquet of the 70s, not in a bad way. My husband and I have often lamented the time warp in which Chinese restaurants in America exists - circa the time the chef left Asia. And we have enviously stood by watching all the innovative creations cropping up in the chic Chinese restaurants back in Singapore and Hong Kong. But the Shun Lee banquet reminded us of what was noble, elegant and good about the cuisine when it could be as refined as what we consumed on Friday.

The fish filet in rice wine was velvety in texture, the smooth rice wine flavor coming through crystal clear on the palate. It made for a very memorable dish. My husband and I reminded our friend that the original banquet did include shark's fin soup, which her father left out when he replicated the dinner for the American clientele. We bamboozled her into a corner, stressing that the table of foodies were suckers for the soup which we had on average once in seven years. True enough, her gracious father incorporated it back into the menu for us. The manager elaborated that with stricter controls on the endangered list of food items, shark's fin cost $1,500 for 2 Kg these days. As we sipped (or rather swallowed the soup in chunks and whole), we felt utterly guilty. For a start, the soup bowl was deep and contained enough 'fin' to make one feel one had just chewed off a dorsal fin. It was the heartiest shark's fin soup we ever had and would probably satisfy our craving for another decade.

During the course of the dinner, we had a lively conversation that ranged from skiing, Nescafe bottles in China, Tiananmen, private school benefit auctions, fallout drama at a Thai restaurant, color blindness and John Galliano. In between, we kept going to the bathroom, almost as if we were Romans digesting by barfing. The banquet lasted three hours and when in good company, we did not realize that time passed so quickly. We were so full though, and wanted time out now and then. We imagined that at the actual banquet, the guests would have intervals, first with speeches, then Chinese dancers, some singing, followed by the American side playing jazz, perhaps a ping pong table to the side to expend some energy. A good time was had by one and all. Imagine if that had been the atmosphere back in Beijing in 1972, it said a lot for the subsequent thaw in diplomatic relations. Banquets can do wonders.

Personally, I have had dinner at the Great Hall of the People twice - a privilege that in this mommy self-absorption phase, I forget easily. The first was a Christian mission trip whereby someone had finnagled a welcome dinner by State party officials. The specifications were as follows - no mention of God, no Christian songs, no singing or praising to Jesus. Yet, the officials overlooked the piano rendition of 'Amazing Grace', humming the tune and tapping their feet to the melody instead. The second occasion was to celebrate the opening of the chocolate factory that my company had built in the short spate of nine months - a proud achievement considering the red tape involved. It all seems so long ago - the 1990s. My last link to the China of my two year stay there is my white cat, Meow Meow. As long as he is alive, I still feel a 'tangible' connection...only Meow Meow and I share something about China that the rest in the household do not.

When dinner ended,, I came home, collapsed in bed, tummy full. I felt contented and thought to myself, "It's okay if I don't live to see tomorrow. That was indeed the kind of Chinese banquet that could well be my last meal."

Indonesia in Amsterdam

For years, my daughter had wanted to visit Amsterdam. We were cautioned by friends that parts of the city - particularly Dam Square - m...