Sunday, December 15, 2013

Baked Ham (with recipe)

My parents used to bring me along to Uncle and Aunty Brown's home for their Christmas buffet lunch. There was the quintessential Eurasian spread that included Curry Devil.  But the highlights for me were the poached salmon and the honey baked ham from Cold Storage.

Last year, I had my niece's boyfriend courier back to Singapore eight pounds of expensive beef tenderloin and a chunk of ham that by comparison, cost less than US$20. The latter was the bigger hit and my sisters absolutely relished it.  They were in disbelief that the ham was reasonably priced because they usually bought one from the Cricket Club that cost a lot more.

Well, I stumbled on this brand called '"Cook's" more than a decade ago.  The ham was offered in shank or butt portion, already smoked and then shrink wrapped and tossed in the refrigerated area of The Food Emporium meat section.  Nothing fancy.  Since then, I've never been interested in the other types of spiral ham that come with a sachet of maple glaze.  These days though, I find it increasingly hard to find the "Cook's" label.  I once resorted to Smithfield's, assuming that Smithfield was the equivalent for ham as Bresse is for chicken in France - high grade provenance.....until of course, my husband explained that Smithfield was a big brand pretty much like Tyson's for chicken.  And recently, I discovered that Cook's is now part of Smithfield.  Oh well.  Virginia, needless to say, comes to mind when I think of ham.  I remember checking out the smoke house in George Washington's Mount Vernon, where he smoked the meat.

I used the recipe I came across in the New York Times - a simple one from the Shakers. A few years later, my friend's parents who lived in Kolkata, gave me the winning tip.  That I should soak the ham overnight in beer, like the British soldiers did when they lived in the military barracks in India.  Eversince, the ham has been a popular and almost-permanent fixture come Christmas and Easter.

Hopefully, wherever you may be, you will find a hunk of a ham for this recipe.


9 pounds partially cooked ham shank (preferred brand – Cook’s)
6 bottles beer
3 cups water, or more
½ cup honey
½ cup cornmeal
½ cup cloves  


The night before, unwrap the ham, rinse and pat dry.  Trim excess fat.  Place the ham in a large pot.  Pour beer into the pot and add enough water to cover the ham completely. Leave to soak overnight.

On the day of cooking, bring the pot to a boil, then simmer (15 minutes a pound).  Drain liquid and let the ham cool completely on a baking tray. 

Cover the ham with honey, powder with cornmeal and pierce with cloves, about 1 inch apart. 

Preheat oven to 370 degrees F and bake the ham for 30 minutes.

Serve at room temperature. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Meow Meow - An Extraordinary Journey We've Had

My sisters and I sometimes called my mother "Killjoy".  She pulled out our garden plants as if they were weeds, cleared out my father's large fish tanks, rejected freshly slaughtered chickens because they were too skinny, bundled my stuffed animals into large plastic bags and hid them high up the cupboards never to be touched again.  She was not a fan of keeping pets.  Her excuse was "Minatang ada kuman, nanti kena asthma" (Animals have dustmites, fleas and ticks and you may get asthma too). I once kidnapped a not-so-bright Pekingnese dog who had lost his way and named him Harry.  My mother soon called up my famous Kohpoh Beng Neo who swiftly hauled a cab and re-kidnapped my dog.  She came all decked out in her sarong kebaya.  She renamed the dog Brownie because 'Harry' sounded too much like Lee Kuan Yew.  Then the dog died many years later and Kohpoh cried like mad. Eventually, my mother revealed the reason for her steel-hearted attitude towards pets.  It hurts too much when they die.  She had confided in my sister Molly that she once had a fluffy cat and it saddened her when her pet died.

I've since understood this aspect of my mother, experiencing the same piercing sense of loss and devastation when an old companion departs.  It was a warmer day this past Wednesday.  I cleared my schedule of all my mundane routines - my cat deserved a special day and I wanted to spend it alone with him.  We went to Central Park, a place I always wanted to bring him after coming all the way to NY to join me.  Luckily, we had made it twice before but I knew that today would be his last.  We sat on a huge rock watching the ducks and the tourists and listening to the busker in the background.  "Why didn't I do this more often with you, Meow?", I thought to myself.  The kids are in school now and we could have done this more often.  Reluctantly, I packed up and walked an aimless wander through Fifth Avenue, revisiting the old building which had been our first home.  Lou the doorman comforted me.  (Coincidentally, we now live in a building that replaced the petshop we visited to stock up on his bowl and food when he first arrived.)  As we turned around the corner towards the vet, Meow Meow groaned.  He knew.  Tears streamed down my face and I was a blur of confusion for the rest of the day.

Our special day in Central Park

While working in China, I purchased Meow Meow for US$40 from a Beijing pet shop when he was a two-month-old kitten.   In August 1997, he flew to New York alone to join me. The next evening, I met my husband Tracy for a second time and his opening line was “You have a cat, I have one too!”  Thus began a friendship that ultimately led to a happy marriage and two wonderful kids.  That was Meow Meow’s best legacy.

As with any pet, MM had his unique antics.  He loved baths and would signal that he wanted one by knocking the bottles into the tub, chewed on roses (an excuse Tracy gave for seldom sending me flowers), learnt to roll on the floor and could somersault when we held him – much like his Chinese Olympic compatriots.  Our guests remember him for sneaking off with leftovers in the kitchen.  Yet, Tracy and I called him Howard Hughes for often being the recluse, hiding in the bedroom during our parties. 

A cat that loved Christmas trees and would notify us of the water level, he died two hours before the Rockefeller tree was lit up for the first time this holiday season. 

Meow Meow paced back and forth on the first night when we brought Lizzie home, not knowing what to do with a fellow little creature.  Lizzie turns ten this month and over the years, Meow Meow became her faithful companion.  We will always miss him.  Irreplaceable, memorable – my very best friend.  

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Steamboat and Shabu Shabu

The honest truth to my infrequent blog entries is my addiction to 'Homeland'.  Almost each night, my husband and I would huddle in the dark TV room, along with our cat who is a big fan of Carrie Mathison, and catch up on 'Homeland'.  We only began watching the show in September.  Now that I am a big admirer of the actor Damian Lewis, I have also introduced my husband and children to 'Band of Brothers' - a special Saturday night TV treat for us, especially to satisfy my son's interest in World War Two.

Actually, the wintry months are a good time to do such indoor TV viewing.  Along with having shabu shabu for dinner.  Yesterday was a b-r-r-r cold night and could not be a more perfect evening for that rolling boil that warmed us all.  My children absolutely love shabu shabu.  We used to frequent a nearby Japanese restaurant for Sunday dinner, until one day when I impulse-purchased a Tiger electric hotpot/teppanyaki grill.  I then improvised my meal, adapting from the Japanese cookbook classics like Hiroko Shimbo's.  Nowadays, I stock up on frozen thinly-sliced beef and Kurobuta pork from the Katagiri Japanese supermarket, and add shirataki noodles, bean curd, enoki mushrooms and napa cabbage to the mix.  I season our soup stock with a few tablespoons of miso, dip our meat with Mizkan sauces and cook Japanese rice as a filler.

Shabu shabu is a homey, yet quick and convenient meal for us - a somewhat far cry from the steamboat sessions of my youth.  My mother often experimented with steamboat for our Chinese New Year reunion dinners, much to the frustration of my father.  She would try the mini gas cylinders, the electric pot or the traditional majestic-looking steamboat. There were vivid moments when the charcoal had to be stoked, long pregnant pauses before the fishballs would cook, or the mix of steam and sweat in the humid heat; and a grumpy father who would almost slam the table in agony.  No greater fury than the ill-matched marriage of a large hungry family and a slow-cooking pot.

I'd like to think I've got our shabu shabu nights down to a science and perhaps, if I could do this every night, I probably would.  It's almost like throwing some meat on a grill each summer night.


Sunday, November 10, 2013

Aunty Paddy (1927 - 2013)

When my mother passed away in November 2001, a family friend (and retired Katong Convent teacher), Mrs. Koh, tried to console me with these words.  “God has summoned your mother.  He must have said, ‘Polly, you need to come to heaven to make pineapple tarts for Christmas.’”  I thought that this friend Mrs. Koh was being facetious.  Perhaps not.  This past week, God has indeed called another baker to his realm – the other person I wrote about in my cookbook chapter ‘The Housewives Baking Club’. 

Aunty Paddy lived across the street from us at Yarrow Gardens, so began my chapter about the passion that my mother and her had for baking and selling cookies in the weeks leading up to Christmas and Chinese New Year.  Indeed, this would have been around the time that they would have geared up for their annual cottage enterprise. "About ten weeks before Chinese New Year",  she said.  Aunty Paddy had in fact called my sister back in September to find out how she could repair her oven.  I last saw her in early August when I called on her one afternoon. 

Aunty Paddy was a tremendous help with the infamous ‘cookbook project’.  She guided me on the principles of baking, tweaked my recipes if they seemed off, provided the other perspectives of my mother’s life (the cooking classes, the cookie business, her personality as a wife and mother).  She was so generous that she even opened up her kitchen for our photoshoot and let me pull out all her tools as props.  In a relationship that first began with me as a child bunking over when my parents went away, to a more recent one where I made customary calls unaccompanied by any of my ‘big’ sisters, I had come to know her for her maternal demeanor, her mature outlook about life and her pride as a mother and doting great-grandmother. She was a vessel who conveyed the traditions, customs and values of a Nonya, who carried over the things I did not get a chance to learn from my mother while I lived abroad.

She was unabashed about berating me for the long delay of the cookbook.  I took it seriously because indeed, there were too many figures in the book who were getting old and might not be around to see its fruition.  When the book finally came out, I drove over with a pile to show her that finally, we had done it.  She beamed so proudly – one of those priceless images that told me that it had all been worthwhile.  I had captured her generation of ‘mothers/housewives/cooks/tailors/bakers” and had preserved one bit of legacy for them all.  

Ironically, Aunty Paddy had a stroke while I was enroute to Singapore last week.  During my sixty hours in Singapore, I had been told that she was in intensive care and that I would probably not been admitted in to see her.  Besides, I did not want to intrude on a private moment for her immediate family.  Yet, I wonder if she would have chuckled to know that yes, I had come back once again.  “Gila! Macam duduk bus”, (‘Crazy, like hopping on a bus between New York and Singapore’) was her favorite refrain everytime I appeared at her front gate.  If only I could have proven once again, that I was there to see her one more time. 

Aunty Paddy once asked my mother if she could move in when her loved ones were no longer around her.  Of course, my mother did not fulfill that promise.  Sometimes, I would leave Aunty Paddy and see her wave me off at her gate, a lone figure straddled between being a survivor who had outlived most of her family and friends, and pained by a somewhat quiet existence save for her children and descendants.  I’d like to think that finally, she’s moving in with my mom and all those she loved once before. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Fruit Cake

Christmas is around the corner and this is about the time to start baking fruit cake and have it 'mature' in brandy, in time for December 25.  I cherish fruit cake for being a traditional reminder of my mother's home-baking and all things Christmas.  Hence, I can never quite understand the connotations that come with it these days, i.e. passing a box of fruit cake around households as an unwanted gift, just like champagne.  Anyone who bakes fruit cake will tell you that it can be quite laborious to chop up the dried fruit and nuts and to weigh out the proportions nicely.  Yet, the end result pays off sweetly, both literally and figuratively.

Oftentimes when I am in Singapore, I might drop by Ah Teng's Bakery at the Raffles Hotel to buy a few slices of fruit cake.  The cake was probably the best feature of my wedding dinner at the hotel back in 2000.  My friends still chuckle when they recall the scene of my father haranguing the Chinese banquet chef in the hallway for not meeting his exact standards.  The cake, trimmed with a delicate layer of royal icing, made up for the less than stellar meal.  The cake was quintessential Raffles Hotel offering, a subtle reminder of a colonial past.

Hopefully, if you are attending the Singapore Writers' Festival this week, at the nearby SMU location, you will find an opportunity to pick up a few slices of Ah Teng's fruit cake.  Alternatively, you could try to bake one yourself using my mother's recipe on page 117 of "Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen". 

Monday, September 30, 2013

That best Chinese roast duck in the world

Walk along Queensway in London and you will not miss a sliver of a restaurant with a big group of hungry tourists waiting outside.  It's a jostle to get in just to put one's name down and even more frightfully embarrassing as I might run into a familiar face from my country of birth.  "Alamak!  How come you in London also?"  
"Of course to eat the roast duck lah," would probably have been my answer.

Yes, the myth makers claim that some Singaporeans detour to London just for roast duck at Four Seasons, not the hotel but the restaurant that bears no relation to the luxury chain.  (I wonder if anyone has visited that hotel by Hyde Park and demanded for the famous roast duck, or for that matter chosen to stay there for that reason.) I am indeed not shy to say that that was part of the appeal of going to London this past weekend.

With patience and fortitude like good old British bulldogs, my daughter and I waited inconspicuously at the tiny front section of the narrow room for a full hour.  Later, we started with the creamy corn and chicken soup and then savored the boneless duck complemented with white rice. 

What is so special about the duck?  My Singaporean friends discuss this topic during almost each of my dinner parties back in New York.  We speculate and hypothesize with almost scientific reasoning.  For me, the duck has moist, succulent and most characteristically, flavorful flesh that's basted once more with a thin dark sauce before it is served.  The skin does not go all soggy as most roast ducks tend to and it comes with an even trim layer of fat that keeps the meat moist in the first place.  I once tried, on the way to the loo past the kitchen, to peek at the packaging that the ducks came in.  Who's the supplier?

Third time's a charm and this treat - once again - was indeed well worth waiting for. 

Four Seasons
84 Queensway
(There are two other locations located in London's Chinatown.  But hard core aficionados say they're not as good.)

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Old Seafood Stretch along East Coast Road

A neighboring family at Yarrow Gardens was credited with introducing chili crab in Singapore.  The patriarch had been a police inspector and the recipe was apparently his wife's.  Eventually, their little business grew and became synonymous with Singapore's famous seafood scene.  Late each night, their only son would drive speedily past the corner where we lived, followed closely by a Cisco security car behind him.  The son came home with loads of cash from their restaurant, this during the 1970s when credit cards hardly existed.

Perhaps because of where we lived, out east, venturing to the nearby seafood restaurants was a regular family outing come birthdays and weekends.  Before the advent of the sterile East Coast seafood center fronting the reclaimed beach, the old seafood establishments lined Upper East Coast Road.  These included Kheng Luck (a majestic white bungalow on concrete stilts), Palm Beach (zinc-roof shack, open air), Long Beach (cozily tucked away at Bedok Corner).  These were relocated and the land sold to private developers who built condominiums and towering houses.  In the case of Long Beach, it became part of a country club.  Only one restaurant still remains along that old stretch, Hua Yu Wee.  On my last visit there almost a decade ago, the managing family continued to live in the main house.  The dinner tables set behind the house faced a military practice area where tall casuarina trees grew peacefully.  That scene alone captured a different era, back when that old stretch actually faced the real sea before reclamation set in and produced the East Coast Parkway expressway.   

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

My Nasi Padang Escapade

Last week, I made an overnight trip to Jakarta.  It had been thirteen years since my last visit there and much had changed on both ends - mine and the city's.  Jakarta was not recognizable to me.  There were tall, modern buildings and gleaming malls lined with the best of European brands.  I, on the other end, came with a husband and was no longer addressed by chauffeurs as 'Nonya' ('Miss') but 'Ibu' ('Madame'). Yes, I must have seemed middle-aged and matronly and all I needed was the back-combed pouf hairdo.

As we landed, I described to my travel companions my Nasi Padang experience in 1990.  Back then, my sister's friends and I were taken to an old coffee shop where we sat down at a long table.  A pile of small dishes was set at the table, featuring meat, fish, vegetable, assortment.  Some were deep-fried or grilled, others in gravy which was called gulai.  We were expected to partake of whatever we fancied and not to worry about waste.  The leftover food was returned and poured back into the relevant serving pots.   The store only charged us for what we ate.

I gathered that after two decades that had witnessed the bird flu and SARS, those practices were no longer accepted.  I soon yearned for my Nasi Padang once again and found my way to nearby Plaza Indonesia, one of those glitzy malls.  The food basement beckoned and there stood Sari Ratu Restaurant, which the hotel concierge gave a thumbs up approval for.  Definitely more modern and sanitary, I sat down to a table for one - me.  A bit concerned that I was too lonely to consume a wide repertoire of dishes, I was nonetheless assured that I could order whatever interested me.  Yes, the same concept continues.  I could not tell if the leftovers were thrown back in, I did not try to look.  Three gigantic grilled shrimp came on a platter and the waiter mentioned that I would only be charged for what I ate.  At a cost of one king prawn for $6.50, I couldn't control myself and ate two.  How smart of the restaurant to tempt me when I only asked for one.  I was a buffet table all unto my own and I felt like I had sent my appetite to a pampering Indonesian spa, spoilt for choice and indulged with a wide selection.  The waiter charged me for the dishes I tried and never questioned why I rejected the rest.

The lunch was the most relaxing and enjoyable part of my day, and reminded me of why I loved my Nasi Padang since all those years back.

Friday, August 9, 2013

A salute to a Singaporean shop

Today is National Day in Singapore.  I am thinking of one beloved institution in our Katong community.  The bicycle shop 'Song Seng Chan' in Joo Chiat closed its doors at the end of June, after 81 years of selling bicycles to several generations.  It had witnessed the Japanese Occupation, the riots in the 1950s and 1960s, the new Independence in 1965, and finally today, Singapore in all its modern, high-tech glory.

My father was my son's age when the shop first opened.  His father was a customer.  I'm only relieved that my daughter and I had recently purchased our Raleigh bikes from there, when we last visited Singapore in March.

I had promised my children that I would purchase them bikes if they learnt to ride.  With the help of Uncle Donald, they learnt to pedal on two wheels within 10 minutes.

If only shops like Song Seng Chan stood around for many more years.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Hari Raya (Eid)

As a child, I used to tag along with my mother on the first day of Hari Raya.  We would have at least three lontong lunches at the various homes of her Muslim friends.  Because they all lived close to one another in Telok Kurau, we travelled from one house to another on a bek chia (trishaw). 

page 208, 'Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen'

Sultan Mosque 
Every year, my sisters and I would fancy eating lontong on Hari Raya. We would hope to be invited to an open house for a meal, and would surely show up with the whole old Jim band.  Recently, I got to know Ros, a compassionate taxi driver who owns one of the few London cabs here in Singapore.  She's become an integral person in my life because she ferries my wheelchair-bound father.  He need only slide in and out of her vehicle.  I would sit in the front of the cab and chat with her.

A contemporary way of cooking lontong rice
Yesterday, she described her busy schedule and how her family will be celebrating Hari Raya which takes place tomorrow.  It signifies the end of the month-long period when all Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset.

During this Ramadan fasting period, Bussorah Street in Singapore becomes abuzz with hawker stalls which sell food and drinks to break the fast, as we ll as baked goods to offer visitors to the home.  Here are the snapshots.


Selling baked goods and kueh

Special meals for the underprivileged.  Breaking fast at the mosque.

Nasi Briyani


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Nuns and Priests

I had breakfast with an old secondary school friend this morning.  She told me that the last of our school nuns had died last week.  Sister Aloysius (who preferred to be called A-lui-shus)  taught me sewing in Secondary 2 (or 7th grade).  As she lectured us on stitching or unpicking, I often stared out the window to gaze at the next door compound which had a romantic swimming pool and a pavilion.  One day, she smacked me on the head with an exercise book to shock me out of my stupor.

Nuns are what make a convent education special.  They convey Christ's love and teachings by example and instill a love for learning and kindness towards others.  My mother enrolled in Katong Convent in the 1930s.  It was a new satellite school established out of the bungalow where the 'Town Convent' nuns holidayed on the East Coast.  Katong had become a popular residential area for Peranakan and Eurasian girls and parents preferred to keep them closer to home than to send them to school in town.  Years later, my sisters followed suit and attended the same school, taught by Irish nuns in stern habits with names such as Sister Finnbar.  I went there many years later at a time when the nuns on faculty whittled down to just three, including Sister Aloysius.  There was another nun, Sister Josephine, who expounded on humility and cautioned us to be wary of becoming an 'intellectual snob'. The term was not easily understood then but over time, I have come to see what she meant.  Oftentimes, it is pseudo-intellect at best.

I decided to send my daughter to a convent school to gain the same kind of moral values I appreciated from my education.  Recently, a well-loved nun in her eighties stepped down from the school to spend her twilight years in a retirement home for their religious order.  She exuded love and spoke with a genuine care for each one of her little students. My daughter was privileged to have been in the last class she taught.

Priests do the same at the Catholic boys' schools.  I've often been somewhat scared of a priest's black cassock.  Perhaps I've watched too many snippets of scary exorcist movies.  Nonetheless, as a non-Catholic, I was rather dazzled by the fashion style set by Pope Benedict, particularly the red Gucci shoes and the lace tops.  I've since befriended a Jesuit priest who was too thrilled that the new Pope is the first from his order.   This priest I know is cosmopolitan, fun-loving, gentle and best of all, a fabulous Cordon Bleu -trained chef.  Earlier this spring, he whipped up a fancy meal for my husband and me.  Oh I wish I knew more priests like him!

He scripted the menu as such:

Champagne and Gougeres

Pan-fried Lump Crab Cake with Aioli
Wild Arugula & Cherry Tomato Salad
Classic Shallot Vinaigrette

Grilled Porterhouse Steak
Porcini Mushroom Glace de Viande
Oven-Roasted Baby Dutch Potatoes & Zucchini
Grilled Asparagus with Prosciutto

Chocolate Roulade with Raspberry Preserves
Creme Grand Marnier 

Monday, August 5, 2013

Supermarkets in Singapore

I've been stocking up my fridge in Singapore, not so much out of need but more out of a compulsion to fill an empty space.  So I have popped into more supermarkets than Charles and Keith shoe stores or Zara, loading my basket with 'stuff'....stuff that I most likely won't use up and will panic about consuming before I leave.  Ever since my husband can remember of his leisure trips to Singapore, it has always been about me making my daily excursions to NTUC or Parkway Parade (to shop at Giant and Cold Storage).  He would shake his head in wonder.  Supermarkets have always fascinated me and this 'activity' intensified when I began my first job at M&M/Mars.  I spent the first few years making 'market visits' to twenty-odd outlets each day, be it in Hong Kong, Sydney or Shanghai, literally pounding the pavements to inspect who was buying our chocolates and food products.

Now as before, the quintessential housewife like my sister would actually prefer to buy her fresh ingredients from a wet market.  I was once told that the shoppers who could splurge made it a point to be there the earliest in the morning to get first dibs on the fish, meat and vegetables. Then it would trickle down to the rest of us who either woke up too late or settled for the cheaper cuts and discounts.  The supermarket was often a stopping point later on to pick up dry goods.  

My first recollections of a supermarket was Tay Buan Guan.  It was situated behind the Red House Bakery in Katong and accessible by car through the narrow lanes of Joo Chiat, or by walking through a dark alleyway that cut through to the main East Coast Road.   As I'd written in my cookbook, I would associate Easter bunny chocolates and fresh strawberries bought there with what was 'best and fresh about living overseas'.  (Apologies for sounding pompous.)

There was also a Fitzpatrick's supermarket along Orchard Road, possibly where Paragon is now situated.  It was a sizable one-storey building and as I recall, a popular expat destination.  Supermarkets  like Fitzpatrick's and later, Jason's, were the places to purchase important Christmas staples such as honey baked ham.  At least, that is what I remember as a child.  Paragon now houses 'Marketplace' which offers up an international selection.  Perhaps, to obtain Waitrose sauces, Duchy Originals biscuits or Hediard tea.

These days, we find the ubiquitous Cold Storage or NTUC proliferating every few miles.  In a way, thank goodness for that.  I'm rather relieved that I can finally walk to a nice, new Cold Storage without having to take a bus or cab to Parkway Parade once again.  And pity about the demise of Carrefour which expat friends lament about missing their cheese and wine selection.  Carrefour brought much joy to my parents who would 'destination-shop' there for hours.  

And so, I end with a peek into my fridge at midnight, wondering what to stock up next when I pass by Cold Storage tomorrow.


Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Other Ancestor - Gan Eng Seng

My sister just sent me another newspaper clip about Cheang Hong Lim.  Much had been written about him in my cookbook because my mother was a direct descendant of his.  Perhaps, I should have elaborated on my other illustrious ancestor, Gan Eng Seng.

As a young bride from a wealthy family with their own cook, my mother had little experience in the kitchen.  She was soon required to prepare meals for her in-laws and was therefore subjected to a punishing regimen under my father's blind grandmother.  This lady was a wife of Gan Tiang Tock, the eldest son of Gan Eng Seng.  

A researcher had recently asked me if there had been a deliberate decision to join these two families, as was common among the high-born Peranakans of those days.  His assertion was that this was often done to preserve the dowry and fortunes of the bride.  My mother had never mentioned anything.

Gan Eng Seng was born in Malacca in 1844.  At least, this is one connection I have to that fabled city.  He came from a poor family and migrated to Singapore at the age of 17 where he began work as an apprentice in the Guthrie Trading Company.  With his diligence, he impressed one of the partners, Thomas Scott.  Eventually, Gan Eng Seng rose to become the chief compradore, a position he retained for 25 years at Guthrie until his death at the age of 55. At the same time, he operated fifteen other businesses of his own, including the supply of labor and transport for the Tanjong Pagar docks.  The latter allowed Gan Eng Seng to amass a fortune, enough for him to become a pioneer in education and a notable philanthropist.

Perhaps his major accomplishment was the founding of the Anglo-Chinese Free School at Telok Ayer Street.  This all-boys' school was later renamed the Gan Eng Seng School and it still exists today.  It was the first and only school in Singapore set up by an individual who provided the land, building and endowment to operate the school, distinct from the many others which had been founded by ethnic clans or Christian/Catholic missionaries.  I sometimes ponder at the irony - the anxiety that went with placing my son in one of New York's boys' schools and the fact that an ancestor founded a reputable boys' school more than 125 years ago.

In addition, Gan Eng Seng was instrumental in the setting up of Tan Tock Seng Hospital by donating the land for its original building along Rochor Road.  Interestingly, he was a founder of one of the most exclusive clubs in Singapore, nicknamed the Millionaires' Club and officially called the Ee Hoe Hean Club.

I went to visit his family gravesite at Bukit Brown earlier this year and was struck by one anecdote.  This clearly represented the kind-heartedness and generosity of a man whose qualities, I hope, will continue down the family line, at least with mine.  Among all the family members buried at that plot, his butler's grave stands beside his.  

Friday, July 26, 2013

Camp Sharon Year 2

My mother did not know how to bring me to museums.  The only one that probably existed in her time was the National Museum and it featured more taxidermy and animal skeletons than anything else.  But inadvertently, by taking 9 year-old me on her shopping escapades to Arab Street jewelers (up creaky wooden flights of stairs), riding in the bek chia trishaw to buy swaths of fabric in Katong, or visiting her relatives in dilapidated seaside bungalows - she instilled in me, for the rest of my life, visual images of a bygone era.

My kids are more fortunate.  We now live in a smaller world aided by jets and international friends.
Summer camps in NY cost anywhere from $800 to $1500 per week per child.  I did the math and felt that as a stay-at-home mom, the cost was not justified, especially for the camps that require a four to six week commitment.  Besides, I wanted a piece of the action.  So we devised 'Camp Sharon' where the kids and I explored new museums and new locations.  This year, we went global.   I've culled the highlights of our excursions this summer:

Stockholm: Vasa Museet
An enormous royal warship named 'Vasa' sank in 1628 on its maiden voyage, just as it was exiting the Stockholm harbor.  It was the Titanic of its time.  The ship was salvaged in the 1960s and is now housed in a museum built around this gigantic wreck.  The kids loved the interactive screens that enable them to theorize on why the ship sank - too narrow hull?  too much stuff?

Copenhagen: Rosenborg Castle
Up close and personal with the Danish Crown Jewels and a tour of the compact but ornate palace above grounds. Surrounded by a pretty park for a perfect picnic under the trees.

Denmark: Kronborg Castle
After several mentions of the longstanding war between Sweden and Denmark, everything comes together when you experience this massive, cold and lonely fort across the straits from Sweden, home of the reluctant prince of Denmark - Hamlet.

Salzburg: Tour of 'The Sound of Music'

I debated whether to do a personalized and private tour.  But the sing-a-long on the group tour bus (to several favorites from the movie) brought back a flashback of my mother standing at the house gate, waiting to take me to the movie right after school.  We discovered that several venues made up the scenes and one of the most interesting was the gated cemetery at St. Peter's which inspired the Hollywood set for the movie's climactic scene as the family hid in the convent.

Salzburg: Monchsberg 
The fortress on top of the hill is a city unto itself and brings knights, monks and forts to real life.

Vienna:  Hofburg Palace Children's Museum 
The children found an opportunity where a museum spoke to their level of understanding.  They chanced upon a real princess' bedroom and managed to set up a royal banquet table for mom.

Vienna: Imperial War Museum 
My son dragged me there and every so often, following a child through his or her lenses opens up a new family this case, World War Two.  It's not much fun for a mother to take photos of her son posing beside tanks and enemy planes, or for that matter, come across some haunting Nazi uniforms.  But the experience opens up many questions to be answered about what led to these great wars and the events that played out in the end.

New York: Museum of Mathematics 
I have no high-level intellectual understanding of the hands-on monitors but I am sure there is some logic.  Everything is meant to be intuitive for the children of whom there are many to this new and popular site.

New York: Tenement Museum 
This has always been a favorite of mine, especially after a visit to Ellis Island as a carry-over of what immigrant life was like after landing in New York.

New Jersey: Liberty Science Museum
Great exhibitions, particularly the one on gross body issues that involve gas, snot and nose hair.  I won't have to explain anything to my children any longer.  The displays were clear, even I understood them.
My daughter had a chance to 'Be a Surgeon' and operated on a banana with a staple in her gut. And one would have thought that a banana would solve that problem on its own.

Friday, July 19, 2013

A Midsummer Night's Dream

My daughter taking a dip at 10pm. 

Last June, our Swedish friends invited us to join the New York Swedish community at Battery Park to celebrate Midsummer.  My kids and I meandered our way there a little too late because it began to pour heavily just as we arrived.  I stood in the shade, staring at the Statue of Liberty amidst the grey sky and rough waves, determined to have a 'do-over' the next year.  That was assuming my Swedish friends were going to stay on.  They returned back to Sweden in the early part of this year and the 'do-over' became a bit more complex.

So this June, we trekked all the way to Stockholm to visit little Erik's family.  We timed it for June 21 so that we could have the full experience of what is perhaps their most important holiday after Christmas.  Among the Scandinavians, the Swedes are the most observant and enthusiastically celebrate this holiday, a leftover from ancient times to commemorate the summer equinox.  The city wound down on Thursday June 20 as everyone went away to spend time with family and friends, mostly out in the country.  My friends hired a vintage boat to take us through a canal that then led out to the Swedish archipelago, eventually to an island called Grinda.  They were very concerned that it would rain, as tradition dictated year after year.  We packed newly purchased rain gear, only to be rewarded with glorious sunshine throughout our entire time in Sweden.

Sweden is north enough to experience long dark winters and probably feels cheated by short sprints of summer.  Yet, the summer days are long and I wanted to get that sense of the 10pm sunlight, having grown up in Singapore where the sun predictably set at 6.38pm every single evening.  Our Swedish companions enlightened us to the delirious joy of soaking in the sun at its best - with rounds and rounds of schnapps and wine,  interjected with top quality coffee to stay up all night.  We feasted on different types of pickled or marinated herring, fresh and creamy boiled baby potatoes and cubes of Vasterbotten cheese. The children had delicate pancakes and Swedish meatballs, but of course.

It was a delightful time to see pure happiness amidst some of the most beautiful people I've ever met - inward and outward beauty.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Bread and Butter

It's been one of the most action-packed summers for my family.  We literally took planes, trains and automobiles (and sailboats) to travel far and wide.  Fun and insightful, I will begin a series of our adventures these past weeks.

Yesterday, I indulged in my annual "one-day-away" time to myself.  Last year, I had spent a good part of a hot and humid afternoon biking around Manhattan.  This year, I decided to try the new Citibike rental program while incorporating a day of all things Danish.  Perhaps I wanted to relive the good time we had in Copenhagen recently.  I went for lunch at Aamanns in Tribeca; followed by a compelling Danish movie "The Hunt" starring the magnificent Mads Mikkelsen.

Aamanns serves smorrebrod - lavish rye bread open sandwiches elegantly displaying main features such as roast beef, roast pork loin, fried fishcake or pork pate;  garnished with parsley, cubed pickles or dill;  spread with remoulade or tartar sauce for example.  Various combinations.  There are a few famous smorrebrod restaurants in Copenhagen.  These include Ida Davidsen (mentioned in "1000 Places to See Before You Die') and Schonnemann, both within walking distance of the fabulous Rosenborg Castle.  We did not try these two but were wowed by what we ate at 'Told and Snaps' close to Nyhavn ('Told and Snaps' in the Danish language is apparently something about protesting about paying high close to my husband's heart.)  What caught us unawares was the fact that these smorrebrod restaurants are not the ubiquitous sandwich delis we are accustomed to in New York.  These delectable open sandwiches are serious meals unto themselves and diners make reservations to get into these establishments.

Weeks later, while we were staying in an old Austrian castle, our hostess served us sandwiches for dinner.  It was light and surprisingly refreshing for a summer evening.  We concocted our own combinations with sliced cucumber, tomatoes, bologna, prosciutto, butter, with an offering of various types of bread - kaiser rolls, rye, white.  Having sandwiches for dinner was indeed a revelation for me. Growing up in an Asian family, it would have had to be white rice, white rice, white rice......

My best memories of sandwiches are of those which my mother packed for my annual primary school excursions.  White bread, Plumrose ham, sliced cucumber, Buttercup butter. These sandwiches became 'softer' as I carried them in a Tupperware container through the sweltering heat before we settled down for our picnic.  I also thought about my first time ordering a sandwich at a NY deli.  I asked for "ham and bread".  "That's it?", asked the puzzled counter server.  Indeed, I got ham and bread with nothing else.  Different cultures, different styles.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Why and How I Wrote "Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen"

Last week, I was invited to talk about my book at the Singapore Permanent Mission to the United Nations. I cherished that Tuesday afternoon.  Over the next few days, I mulled over what I should have added to my Q&A to make my answers more coherent.  So here goes....

1. What inspired me to write the cookbook and how did it end up becoming a memoir?
In early 2001, having lived overseas for quite a while, I took a leave of absence from my job to focus on my MBA.  My friend suggested that I spend my spare time with my parents.  Earlier on, a brother-in-law of mine had given me a pearl of wisdom....."If you miss food from home, learn how to cook it."
With all this advice combined, I asked my mother to share her recipes with me, in the hope of compiling them into an informal family heirloom cookbook.

Her death later that year changed my initial plan.  I decided that I could perhaps expand the idea to be a published commercial cookbook.  My family had their reservations as it meant that I would share our kitchen secrets with others.  Being full-blooded Peranakans, we knew fully well that every family prided on their family recipes being 'the best' and were keen critics of everything else.

I wanted a different angle.  I did not want to compete against the several authoritative Nonya cookbooks that had dominated the shelves for decades.  I needed to differentiate.  I had always found these memoirs such as "Memories of a Nonya", "The Babas" and"The Patriarch" to be nostalgic and engaging and wanted my book to be in the same vein.  I realized that my mother's life represented a fading generation of "professional housewives" during such a transformative era in Singapore history.  The two concepts could be melded.

I based my cookbook around a time frame that others could relate to, especially for those who remembered the country as they left it.

2. How did my experience overseas help with the creative writing of this book?
Visiting museums is a big part of the New York experience.  Over the years, I'd visited the Tenement Museum, Ellis Island and of course, the Metropolitan Museum.  Along the way, a visitor develops an appreciation for antiques, life stories, history and culture. All this exposure created a heightened awareness of my heritage and a quest to find out more.

Besides, I had lived in China and often felt misplaced by the fact that Chinese Singaporeans were not considered 'brethren' like the Taiwanese and the Hong Kong Chinese.  Especially as a fifth generation Nonya who grew up struggling to cope with Mandarin, I felt the need to understand my Peranakan identity.

3. Where did I obtain additional information and inspiration?
I took my rudimentary exploratory skills back to Singapore.  My first stop was the Peranakan Museum to get an overview of the various aspects of the Peranakan culture.  This was a 'refresher' of sorts as I had first done research back in NUS for an anthropology project.

At the Peranakan Museum (which I went umpteen times with my children), I studied the layout of the tok panjang and connected it with my recollection of our Chinese New Year lunch table.  The museum display clarified for me the purpose and position for each dish and the accompanying use of various dinnerware pieces.

I explored my own backyard - Katong.  I walked through the five-foot ways of Joo Chiat to retrace the steps to my grandfather's house. I walked to 73 Lorong K in Telok Kurau to gain a sense of the old atmosphere of my parents' first home, as well as other parts of Telok Kurau which featured in the cookbook.  

The TV series "Little Nyonya" was also helpful.  Because the domestic skills were heavily featured, I took an interest and eventually decided to learn how to sew the kasok manek shoes.  I also sought to learn how to wrap kueh chang and kueh bongkong.

Most useful was my membership of the Peranakan Association.  The regular magazines became a source of valuable anecdotes and facts that helped me learn more about my culture.  I read every issue from cover to cover.

Towards the end of my cookbook project, I began to scour old Straits Times archives to learn more about my family history.  Someone had written about online research in one of the Peranakan Association magazines.  I found a treasure trove of information on the web and suddenly, my ancestors became real for me.  One of the ancestors' photos in my book appeared as a result of an online article about the Bukit Brown redevelopment.

I collected as many books on the Peranakan culture - be it about jewelry, embroidery, porcelain, architecture or cooking.

I went in search of all the sources for my mother's cooking utensils and ingredients.    I hunted down Gim Hin Lee for baking goods, and the kitchen supply and popiah skin stores in Joo Chiat.  I spoke to the shopkeepers, including a few who knew my mother and could provide anecdotes for me.

Finally, I interviewed the female relatives who bonded with my mother over cooking.  Copious notes were taken over several glasses of Ayer Bijik Selaseh.  I was fortunate enough to be tutored by Kopoh Beng Neo when it came to pounding rempah.

4. How did living in NY impact the production of this book?
It became more and more apparent over time that producing the book in NY was not so feasible when it came to the food photo shoots.  Running school errands with two children meant a constant disruption to the flow of the day and it was not ideal for preparing several dishes to shoot.  It was better to do so back in Singapore where I could recruit the help of sisters and the publishing team.

I did manage to test my recipes.  In the course of ten years, I also witnessed more and more of our Asian ingredients becoming readily available.  Lemongrass, jicama, even turmeric and chili could be  found in neighborhood supermarkets.

I participated in several workshops and cooking classes.  I attended classes on "How to Publish a Cookbook", "How to Write Recipes", "How to Develop New Recipes" as well as completed courses on the techniques of French and Asian cooking.  There were Western instructors who were very well-versed in Asian cooking and had written comprehensive books on Southeast Asia cuisine.  One of them even enlightened me on the origins of the long, red Holland chili as well as the distinctions of belachan and gula Melaka from different sources.

I made sure to write the recipes in a format that was 'cook-friendly', i.e. with proper measurements and as detailed descriptions of the ingredients.  The most challenging aspect was that many of these vintage recipes came in old measurements, or none at all!  For example, 20 cents chili or, 1 coconut.  So I had to find a way to quantify several 'agak agak' estimations through trial and error and research.   At the end of the day, one should cook and adjust according to preferred taste.

5. What special touches did I add to the book?
I was adamant that the illustrations had to reflect the mood and nostalgia associated with the narrative.  I personally sat through the photo shoot sessions to give input on how we presented our food, which dishes we used (most of the props are from my mother's collection) and what our table settings would have been like.

We incorporated the kebaya embroidery of a peacock on the chapter pages.  My mother used this kebaya at my wedding.  The brown tiles in the chapter about kitchen utensils, is based on the actual tiles in my neighbor's house in Yarrow Gardens. 

6. How can a reader best use this book in the US or outside of Singapore?  
Start off with the simpler recipes such as almond jelly, chicken drumsticks, meatball and tofu soup.  Meanwhile, explore your local Chinatown to get a sense of the available ingredients.  Then get more ambitious from there.
Even if you don't cook from the book, I hope that reading the recipe headers and the memoirs will evoke happy memories of your Singapore experience too.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

"Can't get you off my back!"

Last month, my niece came to visit me during a break from her studies at Oxford.  Whip-smart and bookish, she had received a scholarship from a Hong Kong trading house.  This company's origins were linked to the opium trade and its fortunes intertwined with the history of Hong Kong itself.  In our family, we chuckle at what is deemed as 'coming full circle", given that our forefathers traded in opium as well.

Back in March, I made the poignant and curious excursion to Bukit Brown cemetery.  I did not want to go alone and therefore invited my friend, May, to join me on the private tour.  She was keen to do so herself because her ancestor, Tan Kheam Hock, had been instrumental in persuading the colonial government to provide the land for this particular cemetery.  She mentioned that she was also descended from Tan Kim Ching. The name rang a bell and sure enough, I recalled reading an article about a lawsuit between Tan Kim Ching and Cheang Hong Lim (my great-great-grandfather) over "pump and dump" tactics in the sale of opium.  My ancestor had apparently manipulated the opium market and destabilized the fortunes of his competitors who included Tan Kim Ching. As Carl Trocki had written in his book, "Singapore: Wealth, Power and the Culture of Control": 

"During the tenure of Chiu Sin Yong's Revenue Farming syndicate in Singapore, backed by Khoo Thean Poh, Tan Kim Ching testified against Cheang Hong Lim and his group who had mobilized all of their allies and affiliates and organized a conspiracy to scuttle Chiu's farming syndicate. Tan Kim Cheng's testimony was a godsend for Chiu and Khoo. Tan Kim Ching and his father Tan Tock Seng, representing most of the Malacca-born Hockien, led the Haizhang group while their arch rivals Cheang Sam Teo and his son, Cheang Hong Lim led the Zhang Hai group, the division between Hockien migrants from Quanzhou and Zhangzhou."

May and I had a good laugh.....and an even bigger surprise to learn that the two rivals were buried near each other.  Tan Kim Ching's grave is located behind Cheang Hong Lim's.

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...