Sunday, December 28, 2014

Arthur Avenue

Food, Frank and the Italian flag, what more encapsulates Arthur Avenue. 

One Christmas, we invited a Jewish couple to our dinner.  They were so grateful because, as they said, we had saved them from a back-to-back double movie feature and dinner at a Chinese restaurant afterwards.  Sometimes, we all have that outside-looking-in feeling.  For me, it's the perennial hope that I'll have a Malay makcik invite me over for her Hari Raya lontong lunch (like my lucky friend Mo), or a Jewish nana include me in her Passover seder meal.  Lately, I've also been wishing for the legendary "7 fishes Christmas Eve spread" that Southern Italians prepare before they head off to midnight mass.  I can only imagine the marinated scungilli,  baked clams and grilled whole fish….

Nonetheless, I got a whiff of how Italian-Americans would prepare their Christmas feast when two friends and I went to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.  I've included the article from Saveur magazine to give readers an introduction to the two short streets close to the Bronx Zoo.  That day, we started our morning in a bakery, sitting next to an old man speaking Italian to a younger man.

Soon enough, we witnessed others along the sidewalk conversing in the old language.  I felt transported to a different world, a real immigrant enclave devoid of the gawking tourists (if I discount myself and my iPhone camera), of real shoppers stocking up for their pantry like usual.

Home to fresh mozzarella made on-site. 

Perhaps, these photos tell a better story.  Enjoy the feast.

Freshly made ravioli at Borgatti's Ravioli and Egg Noodles (632 East 187th Street, 718/367-3799). 

Addeo Bakery (2372 Hughes Avenue, 718/367-8316) 
Fresh pizza dough, great to take home for the kids. 

Stocking up on pasta sauce, risotto and olive oil. 

Sausages hanging out to dry.  
Sal Biancardi is the third generation to run this store. 

Coming home to try out the fresh ravioli from Borgatti's.  

Friday, October 31, 2014

Trick or Treat - Baba Superstitions

Today, all across America, people are celebrating Halloween.  It is not something we're enthralled by. Yet each year, the celebrations seem to get more elaborate and widespread, an unsavory influence of Americana that has reached other parts of the world.  My children enjoy the candy and costume aspect of it, not realizing that there are wiccans who may welcome Halloween as their festival of joy.  I may be wrong.  But my upbringing has instilled the belief that witchcraft does indeed exist.  

All her life, my mother was wary of 'kong tau' and 'bomohs'.  'Kong tau' was black magic, the kind of spell inflicted on a naive, unwitting husband by a bewitching woman who wanted to become his mistress.  'Bomohs' were witch doctors, oftentimes tribal men from Indonesian or Malaysian villages, who could cast spells, 'cure' sicknesses and see into the future.

Death was, obviously, a scary thought.  The Met Museum might right now hold an exhibition featuring mourning clothes,  but I doubt my bibik relatives would have felt comfortable being surrounded by all things black and funereal.  It was bad enough that my sisters would ask me to steer clear of the coffin covering exhibited in the Peranakan Museum.  My mother sometimes prepared a bowl of water sprinkled with pomegranate leaves and would leave it by the entrance to our home.  If ever she came back from a funeral wake, she would rinse her face with that water.  I guess her belief was that it would wipe off any haunting images of the dead person.  To this day, some of us forbid into our home anyone whose family member had passed away until after 100 days of the demise.  This is especially true of the first 7 days.  The same family is also not supposed to make any home visits the following Chinese New Year.

One indelible memory for me is the antique wooden bench which a sister had bought to decorate her home. The bench had its own name within the Baba culture and was called a 'kerosi pak yi'.  I became so familiar with its name because the bench was a point of contention for many years within our family.  My old grandaunts used to mutter and refrained from sitting on the bench.  My mother kept urging my sister to discard it.  One day, I stumbled on a similar piece of furniture at the museum, only to discover that it was specifically used by a family to dress a corpse prior to placing it in the coffin.  Yikes!  The bench quickly disappeared from my sister's home.  Because of the unknown qualifications of so many antiques, and the horrifying experiences forever etched in my psyche, I have never felt comfortable owning antiques or living in old houses.  Obviously, it is a warped up situation for me and one which I have to constantly wrestle with by praying.

As for nightmares of any sort, my sisters used to slip a pair of scissors underneath their pillow.  Thankfully, the scissors are now substituted with the Bible, the word of God being our true defense against the dark arts.

Death may have been the extreme end of the spectrum but new births were treated with similar superstitious suspicions. A woman was not allowed into someone's home until a month after the birth of her baby.  She was thought to be unclean.

Cooking was obviously another aspect affected by superstition.  One was not supposed to cross over the batu lesong mortar and pestle while at the same time, one was not supposed to wear down the mortar bowl until it broke.  My father disliked stacking dinner plates while we were dining ("Or you would owe people money.") and my mother would scold anyone who swept under her feet while she was eating ("Sweep away luck.").  As I had written earlier, the rice jar had to be filled to the brim just before Chinese New Year to ensure a new year of plenty.  The broom had to be hidden on the first day and some of my family would go as far as swimming on Chinese New Year Eve to rinse off bad luck before a new year.

The list can go on and cripple anyone who takes all these superstitions seriously.  It is the haunting aspect of growing up Peranakan - a dark, mystifying quality that perhaps, characterizes us as much as the intricate kebayas, elegant homes and furniture or elaborate food.

( Also refer to the latest 'The Peranakan' magazine covering superstitions). 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

No monkey business - these moon cakes

The Moon Cake bazaar at Ngee Ann City 
Unlike traditional Chinese families, I don't think Peranakans celebrate the Mooncake Festival by sitting outdoors, sipping Chinese tea, gazing at the full moon and partaking of delicate moon cakes while little children prance around with their paper lanterns.  Indeed, it's a big festival and I must have slept through it all while I worked in China of all places.  I very vaguely remember how the locals celebrated it.  Nonetheless, when I lived in Hong Kong, it was a big deal.  I would pass by the Wing Wah shop in Wanchai on my way to work.  It would have stacks and stacks of square tins on sale before mid September rolled around.

Wing Wah is an old bakery in Hong Kong best known for its smooth lotus-paste moon cakes. It is old-fashioned indeed, analogous to buying Cadbury against Le Maison du Chocolat when it comes to moon cakes.  I would trek down to New York's Chinatown every year to get one tin of it from the supermarket.  Predictably, Wing Wah would probably be found in every Chinatown in the big international cities by virtue of its heritage.  The blue and yellow, peony tin design has not changed at all and at this point, it is so retro.  I would recycle those tins to stuff my photo negatives, old cards, keepsakes, what not.

The traditional Wing Wah tin (bottom left).  
This last trip to Hong Kong, my kids and I lingered for too long at the airport newsstands before the immigration checkpoint exiting Hong Kong. I had managed to buy a tin of Wing Wah moon cakes at a discount and thought that I had done my job - the only souvenir for my family back in Singapore.  Upon entering the duty free zone, I was mortified to be greeted by a shop dedicated solely to Wing Wah mooncakes.  Furthermore, there were new tin designs I had never seen before.  Once again, it was further testament that living in the US, one stays in a time warp when it comes to Chinatown.  You only see products that you recognize from years back and are completely unaware that actually, much of Asia has changed and modernized, including Wing Wah tins.

Alas, I had five minutes to board our plane and had to bypass the shop.  But once again, my compulsive nature got the better of me.  The very next morning, I googled for 'Wing Wah in Singapore' and then drove down to Ngee Ann City to pursue what I thought were pretty stylish tins.  Sisters and kids in tow with the false pretense of going to Orchard Road 'for lunch'.

I had never encountered a one-stop put it mildly....a better word would be bazaar....for moon cakes.  Rows and counters of hotels, restaurants and bakeries hawking their finest lotus paste, with the few pops of snow skin, low-sugar, durian and ice cream variants.  Sample tastings to boot.

My stylish tin was there and I happily purchased the fashionable custard variety that came in the tin.

Happy moon gazing!

Read New York Times article here.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Roti Babi and the Rituals of Tea

I flew back on SQ last week, along with students returning to the US after weeks of being pampered and well fed at home.  On my end, I think my sisters were only too happy to see me off because we all overate during the entire duration of my stay.

We didn't just have three meals.  There was that all-important fourth - tea.  In our household back in Singapore, there is this nagging worry about what to have for tea time.  On any given day, one sister will call to say that she is bringing "some curry puffs over for Pa."  At the same time, another will send over pineapple cookies she had bought from Taiwan.  A third will buy mini doughnuts from Ngee Ann City.  And I will buy Bengawan Solo kueh, and Bread Talk buns, and Kim Choo kueh chang. All that could all be for one afternoon tea, and the main beneficiary is actually my father who has this standing appointment at 3.30pm for his tea and snack.  All the extra food gets recycled for tea on the days thereafter.  Such is the scenario at home.  I don't know if other families follow the same routine but this has been happening in mine for as long as I can remember, a habit I gather they've picked up from colonial days.  My parents would sit down to their cup of tea and tit bits.  Thankfully, they use the informal mug and not a proper cup and saucer, that would be too much.  Back in NY, it's just me and some Fortnum's Royal Blend on a lazy afternoon, to keep me awake before I crack the homework whip.

One particular snack that reminds me of my family tea ritual is Roti Babi.  Here's an excerpt from my book.  Enjoy.

Roti Babi
Bread Toast Topped with Minced Pork and Shrimp 

My all-time favorite sinful sandwich is Roti Babi, especially delicious when the bread is crispy yet drenched in oil, top heavy with a tasty pork and shrimp stuffing.  We sometimes had it at teatime because I can recall the warm frying sensation in the middle of a hot afternoon.  

6 to 8 servings

12 square slices white bread
450g or 1 pound minced pork
230g or ½ pound shrimp, minced finely
2 eggs
1 yellow onion, diced finely
1 red or green chili, seeds removed, diced finely
¼ bunch Chinese parsley, stems removed, chopped finely
1½ teaspoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
½ teaspoon Lea and Perrins sauce
4 cups vegetable oil

Toast the bread slightly to stiffen the bread.

Meanwhile, combine the minced pork, minced shrimp, egg, onion, chili, Chinese parsley, cornstarch, salt, light soy sauce, and Lea and Perrins sauce.  Knead into a fine mixture.  Scoop one tablespoon of the pork topping on each slice of bread and spread the topping with the back of the spoon.
Heat a saute pan over medium heat and add the oil until it reaches about 4cm or 1½ inch deep.  When the oil is hot, use a slotted spatula to transfer 3 to 4 slices of bread to the pan.  Do not overfill the pan with too many slices of bread.   Use the spatula to gently press down the topping on the bread to ensure that the meat is fully fried in oil.  When the bread turns light brown, turn it over.  Flip back to the top again and transfer to a plate lined with absorbent paper.  Best served when warm.  

[For children, a simpler topping would include the minced pork, cornstarch, salt and light soy sauce.]

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Mee Pok Wars

In Singapore, I live among famous Mee Pok stalls.   To some, it's like the Gold Coast of Mee Pok.  To me, it's like the Bermuda Triangle, lost in time (the long wait).  To those uninitiated, Mee Pok is a noodle dish (like linguine) tossed with a trademark fiery chili paste and garnished with fishballs, shrimp, slices of fishcake and pork, fried cubes of lard (best part) and sprinkled with tiny chops of Chinese chives and Chinese parsley.   Some hawkers throw in ground pork or sliced dried Chinese mushrooms but to me, that borders on creative license.

Actually, almost all these stalls derived from one at the old Siglap Market which was a block away from my childhood home at Yarrow Gardens.  Today, I could probably walk blindfolded from my old house to the very spot at the market, where I used to buy packets of Mee Pok for Saturday lunch for the family.  And to this day, I very often find myself doing the same thing for the family for a weekend lunch. Only this time, I go to a different location since the old market is now a concrete shopping mall called Siglap Center.

A few years back, there were several articles about which stall served the best noodles.  Frankly, the jury is still out because taste is subjective.  As with most Singaporean conversation centering around food, everyone has an opinion and each person's vendor is 'the best'.  So, the Mee Pok saga is representative of a Singaporean discourse on food.

The three stalls that surround me are:

- 321 Mee Pok at the 'Big Drain' beside Siglap Center
One would think that this is the original market stall since it is, distance-wise, closest to old ground zero. Interestingly, it is managed by the sister of the original market hawker's wife.
The landmark Big Drain divides the coffee shop where the current stall is located, from the old market.  To get to the old market, one had to pass through a tiny alley where live chickens were slaughtered.  Messy, squeamish business.
Back to the mee pok, it is the one vendor I have frequented most over the years (the lady recognizes me) and I am therefore familiar with the taste.  So I use it as my standard against which all other mee pok versions are measured.

- 132 Mee Pok at 'MP 59 Food House', Block 59, Marine Terrace, #01-05 (
The website is only indicative that the original owner has theoretically passed his baton (or ladle) to his son.  Modern times.  And this is the original owner from the old market.  My sister swears by this stall.  In truth, a regular packet (i.e. no request for 'extra chili') is already pretty spicy.  There is a kick.  And oh, those lard cubes.
As for the unique taste, the owner once divulged in a newspaper article that his secret ingredient is 'buah keluak'.  That fooled my very Baba father, let alone the rest of us.
The only snag is that it is a 30 to 45 minute wait on average as the old vendor still artfully ladles each order as if time stood still.

- Jalan Tua Kong Mee Pok at 'Soy Eu Tua' coffee shop at the corner of Jalan Tua Kong and Upper East Coast Road. 
I have no patience for waiting for this one.  The hawker comes across as if he enjoys suffering fools.  That said, the one or two times I've tried his noodles, they were impressive enough.  Just not worth that long wait which once took me close to an hour.  The problem with long waits is that everything else you've bought gets cold or soggy.  Besides, with noodles, one should actually eat it on the spot.  

Then of course, there are a couple more hawkers that I have not even chanced upon although I am told of their existence.  Happy sleuthing.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Singapore's Pantheon of Cookbook Legends

Long before I began giving my mother a new cookbook for every Christmas, birthday and Mother's Day, she had acquired a collection of her own.  These are the venerable titles.  The fact that these authors are all no longer alive was not the sole criterion.  Rather, their contents reflect the kind of everyday food cooked and consumed by Singaporeans.  They were also ahead of the time by the mere boldness to print and thus share their recipes.  Thirdly, they are local curators of recipes and and while the books are mainly written for locals, they are edited well enough to cater to the non-Singaporean segment.  Gladly, these copies are protectively guarded in my home, plastic covers and all.

1. Dorothy Ng's "Complete Asian Meals"

I love this author!  I never met her but I rely on her fool- proof recipes.  Mrs. Ng was a cooking instructor, had her own cooking show and contributed to women's magazines.   She taught for over twenty years to the Japanese, Europeans, Americans, British, Indians and Chinese.  One would think that she lived in modern day Singapore but no, this was back in the 70s when there had already been a vibrant international community.
Mrs. Ng, like my mother, lived her early life as the daughter-in-law in a big home and had to prepare meals for her extended family.
The cookbook is divided into Malay/Indonesian, Chinese, Nonya and Indian/Sri Lankan, along with Claypot Specials, Hawker Favourites, Curry Powder, Desserts and Savouries.
Many years ago in New York, my old school mates, based in the city to pursue their medical fellowships, congregated at my place to concoct Fried Hokkien Mee using Mrs. Ng's recipe.  It was a roaring success.  We were perhaps unwitting participants of the PlusSixFive phenomena, i.e. overseas Singaporeans who miss their favorite dishes and try to replicate them abroad.

2. "My Favourite Recipes" by Ellice Handy

See also, Ellice Handy's Cookbook

I have the 4th edition copy from 1974 which makes the book I have, forty years old!  Last year, I had reviewed the latest edition which the publisher had astutely preserved in much of its original text.
Mrs. Handy perhaps wanted this book to be cosmopolitan.  Under 'Contents', there are chapters such as "Different Ways of Preparing Rice" and "Asian Recipes that can be used in UK, USA, Australia and places where Malaysian Curry Ingredients, etc. are not available".
My mother had slipped in bookmarks for the pages covering Gadoh Gadoh (Indonesian salad) and Fried Curry Puffs.  Coincidentally, my sister made the Gado Gado for lunch today and my other sister had bought the Old Chang Kee curry puff for me for breakfast this morning!

3. "Mrs. Lee's Cookbook" by Mrs. Lee Chin Koon

No further introduction is needed beyond describing her as The Mrs. Lee - mother of the first Prime Minister and grandmother of the third.  She was the matriarch and she was urged to compile her recipes by one of her daughters-in-law.  Considered the doyenne of Straits Chinese or Peranakan cooking, Mrs. Lee also gave lessons and I for one, remember spending time in her Stevens Road kitchen while housewives gathered about her as she demonstrated.
The original book was a simple compendium all typed out with minimal hand-drawn illustrations.  There is a chapter called "Singapore Dishes for the Western Kitchen" covering curry tiffin and another  on classic Chinese Singaporean specials such as Pork Chop, Foo Yong Hai and Satay Babi Bakar.
Mrs. Lee's book has since been updated and glamorized by her granddaughter Shermay Lee.

4. "Singaporean Cooking" by Mrs. Leong Yee Soo

Aunty Leong, as my family affectionately called her, was one of my mother's closest friends.  Together, they would ride in Aunty Leong's Volkswagen Beetle down to CK Tang to shop.  All I could remember was steaming at the back of her car, roasting on the sun-baked seat.   I also recall vividly, Aunty Leong opening up her freezer to show us how she stored extra food or ingredients.  There was a frozen pack of char kway teow and about three packets of chicken rice.
There was much excitement within the housewives community that these two ladies were part of, when the book was launched.  Everyone felt that they had contributed ideas and methods, so the book felt like a real part of their network.  Aunty Leong can be applauded for one particular feat - apart from the customary Nonya dishes, she was comprehensive in listing recipes for Western cakes, pies, pastries, standard Singapore fare, Nonya kuehs; Meat, Seafood and Poultry dishes across several cultures.  Kuehs alone are especially challenging and she had the gumption to detail the recipes, no matter how tedious they were.

For that, the book has been reprinted many times over in various versions, formats, sub-sections and volumes. Deservedly so.

5. "Cookery" by Tham Yui Kai

Spans Parts 1, 2 and 3.  One of the most acclaimed Chinese restaurant chefs of his time, Tham Yui Kai was a community center cookery class fixture.  The man must have had a lot of charm because apparently, my mother would take pains to set her hair before his classes.
My copies are from 1969, before I was born.  They include recipes for old time favorites such as almond jelly, beef in oyster sauce and suckling pig!

While I have a thinner reprint back in New York, I am now tempted to sneak out all three original volumes back with me.  Especially after my recent foodie trip to Hong Kong, Chef Tham's repertoire of Chinese food sounds familiar once again.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Hong Kong food - the lowdown from the locals

It had been seven years since my last trip to Hong Kong and twenty two since I first stepped foot there to begin my first job out of college.  This time around, we were blessed to have old friends who lavished us with treats to their favorite food haunts.  It was a contrast to my fledgling days when I was consumed with shopping; and hiking the majestic mist-covered mountains that lace Hong Kong.

The famous roast goose at Yung Kee Restaurant. 
First stop on Friday evening was to revisit Yung Kee Restaurant with my kids.  Famous for its roast goose, I had stumbled on it while strolling with a friend during the very first trip to HK for my job interview.  Not realizing that it was quite an institution, we appreciated the moist goose and standard Cantonese fare.  This time around, the restaurant did not look or feel any different from the first time I fell in love with it.  Time had stood still.  The goose was predictably succulent though not the very best one could possibly have.  Yet, it felt like a warm welcome home to a familiar place.

The next morning, an old friend booked us all a table at the HK Jockey Club, no longer with its Royal prefix.  The ambience resounded with the family gatherings that yumcha sessions are associated with.   We had nine adults and six children of which the youngest lay napping on a chair in the corner.  We were plied with an endless array of dim sum as we lingered and chatted until 3.30pm.

Hustling about in Central, my husband and I finally found the secret hideaway of a dining club come evening time.  As a testament to how unplugged I was during my early days there, I did not even know or hear about the existence of the Shanghai Fraternity Association.  It had been established by the Shanghainese tycoons who had fled communist China and taken along with them their best and favorite chefs.  The location became a meeting point to dine on their old favorite dishes while wheeling and dealing  and re-establishing themselves in their new haven.  That was its history but now, coveted membership attracts many non-Shanghainese like my friends who want exclusive access to authentic food.

My friends ordered Shanghainese dishes that I had never quite seen before, despite my six month sojourn in Shanghai.  The fish cooked in a sweet wine reminded me of a dish served to Nixon when he visited China.  (See Nixon's Chinese Banquet). The club was decorated plainly and reminded me that with old billionaires, less is more.

Fish at the Shanghai Fraternity Association
This stood in contrast to our next stop.  The China Club atop the old Bank of China building is redolent of 1930s Shanghai with its Art Deco fixtures, and objets d'art.  With a singer in the dining room, you could close your eyes and imagine. It would have appealed especially to the Occidental traveller with the fantasy fetish for that glamorous time and place.  Over drinks in the beautiful library wallpapered with Chinoiserie bird motif (perhaps de Gournay) with matching lamp stands and overhead lamp shades, we discussed the merits of Lung King Heen.  Both sets of local friends (lunch and dinner) had all been there.  It is after all, the only 3- Michelin star-rated Chinese restaurant in the world.  But I could tell that their deep knowledge of extraordinary cooking meant that they had dined at even better places.

The interior of The China Club. 
Since we were staying at the hotel where the restaurant is located.   I felt that I needed to experience it to judge it for myself.  I couldn't exactly tell my friends that I had this "die die must try" compulsion.  It had been terribly difficult to secure any table of any size for any meal over the course of our stay.  But on Sunday, on short notice, we unexpectedly had a space for my family of four and we proceeded to order items off Chef Chan's recommendations.   I would have liked to taste some of the more exquisite dim sum creations except that my daughter has nut and shellfish allergies.  Some of the memorable things we sampled included:

- Barbecued Suckling Pig - delicately crispy skin
- Braised Asparagus Stuffed in Bamboo Piths with Assorted Fungus and Tofu - light as air, the tofu melts in your mouth
- Beef Cubes sauteed with Mandarin Peel - moist meat and punches of flavor

By evening time, my friends who had taken us to the Shanghai dining club, invited us to venture on a tram ride down to Sheung Wan to one of their current favorite spots.  They kept forewarning me that it was a 'hole in the wall' with 'no tablecloth'.  When we got to that humble outpost, the wife promptly began dipping the chopsticks in a glass of hot tea and swirling the bowls and cups in an even larger bowl of hot tea to sterilize the utensils.  But the food that came was amazing.  Perhaps the fiery roar from the wok in the kitchen added to the senses.  Infused with the breath of a wok and glazed with such tantalizing flavors to the palate, the spare ribs, ginger chicken and clay pot fish head tasted so delicious.  Every morsel was appreciated.  I only had to trick my son that he was having 'Chinese fish and chips' and he gobbled up half of the small whole fish fritters.

Superb glazed pork ribs at the 'hole in the wall'.  Name withheld for two reasons:
Cannot read complex Chinese characters, and want to keep this gem a secret. 

The breath of a wok
The next day, we squeezed in twenty minutes for wonton noodles and a bowl of congee at the Tasty Restaurant on the 3rd floor of IFC, before hopping on the swift Airport Express.  Tasty was another one on my "die die must try" list because it was featured in the Michelin Guide.  I'm such a tourist.  The congee of pork and egg was sublimely smooth, almost creamy.  Quintessential HK congee.

Tasty Congee
Maybe the kids didn't get to see or do much else in HK, but they were exposed to some of the best Chinese food we've had in a long while, and an appreciation for the finest in the cuisine of their heritage.  All thanks to some of the most discerning connoisseurs we proudly know.  This last visit to Hong Kong made me realize that while much of the atmosphere has changed after 1997, the food there is still great like it's always been, if not better.

Yung Kee Restaurant
32 Wellington Street,

Lung King Heen
Four Seasons Hotel, Hong Kong
8 Finance Street,

Tasty Congee & Noodle Wantun Shop
3016- 3018
International Financial Center
Hong Kong

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