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

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

My Historical Account of Hawker Centers

East Coast Lagoon Food Center - the 'country club' of hawker centers.
Oluak on the left, duck rice on the right. Kopi Tiam runs several hawker centers these days.   

In my book, I reminisced about the satay man who cycled around Yarrow Gardens every afternoon.  One day, while he was grilling our satay, a van from the Ministry of Environment (or was it Health) sneaked up.  The officers tapped him on the shoulder and transported him back in to the van.....lock, stock and smoking barrel.  He was never to be seen again.
These were the vanishing sights of 70s Singapore, an era that heralded the hawker globally associated and synonymous with Singapore.  

Of course, my sisters wax sentimentally about the old Satay Club by the Esplanade.  It was probably the forerunner of the hawker center as we know it.  When street vendors and their shanty carts, or mobile vehicles like the bicycle (key features of my favorite P Ramlee movies) were deemed dirty reservoirs for food poisoning, the government decided to relocate them to more sanitary structures.  These centers were well ventilated and comprised of little concrete stalls, one for each hawker.

Truth is, I never felt comfortable with the old open air centers.  They felt wet and slippery, humid and drenched in sweat. The ubiquitous Good Morning towels were used to wipe tables and the perspiration off the brows and armpits of these toiling hawkers. Hopefully, they weren't one and the same towel.

So many hawker centers sprung up.  They were often located in multi storey complexes that included car park lots or apartments above. There is even one named after my great great grandfather - the Hong Lim market, famous for its Hokkien prawn noodle soup. 

 A typical hawker stall with its tight space. 
The hawker center that I frequent these days when I come back is close to my home.  It is often described as the 'country club' of hawker centers by virtue of its location facing the beach.  Landscaped with palm trees, pebbles and wooden huts, it actually gives out a resort vibe  Sadly, the hawkers who made the place famous have all but disappeared.  The satay bee hoon, char kway teow, fried Hokkien mee are all gone, save for the oluak (oyster egg omelette) man who remains standing in his tight hair perm, surrounded by several loyal buddies who help him and update him on the turf racing results. (See My Favorite Hawker Has Retired!).

The hawker centers have evolved over the years.   The first indoor 'picnic court' first surfaced at the old Ascott shopping center, a concept that introduced air conditioning and brighter lights.  Nowadays, two monopolies dominate the food scene, they are Republic and Kopi Tiam.  Like LVMH, these companies play host to well known hawker brands and house them together in one of several identical food courts across Singapore.   

An indoor food court at Marina Bay Sands. 
The downside is that while you get your standard fare, you also get a manufactured taste.  It's no longer the unique hawker's trademark recipe that made one gravitate to him in the first place, hunting him down in a faraway location and late into the night. (Which my ex boyfriend did in the hunt for fried chicken in Serangoon.) You can go to Republic and find your chicken rice and chances are, it's the same flavor, texture and taste as elsewhere.  And for that matter, the satay sauce that came in a standard-issue pack.  These probably came from the same industrial kitchen.

Newton Circus is probably most well- known among tourists and notorious for charging exorbitant prices to naive consumers.  But when my friends visit Singapore for the first time, I prefer to impress them the posh way - at the Straits Kitchen on the ground floor of the Grand Hyatt Hotel.  

Straits Kitchen at the Grand Hyatt. 
Undoubtedly, you will still find the original hawkers with their unique blend of flavors.  Older, they have saved enough to educate their children who tend not to enter the business, leaving these retiring hawkers to close for good, or sell their recipes never to be replicated as well as when they prepared them.  Hawker fare is also relatively expensive these days and for someone like me who has to order almost everything that catches my eye, you come away forgetting what you went for in the first place.  My appetite is enticed by the array out there and thus, I walk away sated but confused by all the variety I pounced on.  So buyer beware, be more discerning with your food order!

Designed to evoke nostalgia, Tangs now has hawkers selling old- time favorites
complete with retro servingware and ads. 
A good reference book to source the most authentic hawkers is by Dr. Leslie Tay titled, "The End of Char Kway Teow and other Hawker Mysteries".  He also writes a blog called

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Kitchen Shopaholic

The cookbook on display at Tangs.
The newly refurbished kitchen department at Tangs.
While waiting for my mother once, I purchased my very first bible at the store. 
Robinsons has moved once again to a new site.
 Its original location at Raffles Place had a big fire which my mother often mentioned.  
My mother passed on a key trait to my sisters and me.  It's the obsession with kitchen tools and appliances.  This past week, I kept thinking about the multi-tasking Kenwood cake mixer that triples as a food processor and a liquidizer.  The mixer was on promotion at 60% of its usual price at Tangs department store.  I had noticed the newspaper ad and checked it out later in the day.  Over the next few days, I kept thinking about the appliance.  One would have thought that I had had a crush like a teenager.  I even flirted with Robinsons, another department store that was offering the same thing for a slightly lower price provided I had bought S$50 of other items. A concept called 'Purchase with purchase'.  After several days of mulling, I went back to Tangs to get my machine.  I had to get this thing out of my system. Needless to say, the appliance lies waiting in the cupboard for me to use.  And chances are, I would probably work with it only once during my remaining three week stay.

At the same time, my other sisters were distracted with a new appliance called the Airfryer.  With it, you could  deep fry your favorite foods without using oil. My sisters compared and contrasted the appliance model and price, one sister went back and forth to the shop and eventually bought two.

The thing is - my mother spent many afternoons shopping at the kitchen departments of Tangs, Robinsons, John Littles, Mohan's....These retailers could all count on her support, especially during a sale and particularly close to Chinese New Year.  She could stand around the demo booths to listen to the instructors, taste the food samples, nod in agreement and cart home her fifth cake mixer.

Robinsons and Tangs recently refurbished their kitchen shops.  Yet, in its modern setting, they still look and feel so familiar to me, largely because they were truly my playground while growing up.  The pots and pans, demo stations, gadgets, measuring cups and rice cookers plus a whole lot of appliances, remind me that some places don't quite change after all this time.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Mee Siam

It is customary to eat noodles on your birthday.  It symbolizes long life.  Naturally, I made myself Mee Siam for my special day.  Alas, the noodles did not look long and luscious like what Mee Siam rice vermicelli is supposed to.  Instead, the noodles were 'cut up' into short bits.  I wasn't sure if it was because I had used a spatula to toss and stir the vermicelli and had thus broken the lengths of the noodles.  Later on, my sisters suggested that I should soak the dried vermicelli in tepid water before cooking, not in hot water.  The latter would make the noodles too brittle.

I doubled the recipe to accommodate so many in my household.  In doing so, you have to apply the agak agak method.  You don't double straightaway.  You tweak by subtracting too much salt, or adding a bit more taucheo according to your preference.
We fed 9 adults and could have fed even more.  It is important, particular in a hot climate, to refrigerate leftovers soon enough to prevent rancidity.  This is a Nonya recipe that contains coconut milk, NOT the type of Mee Siam that you would find in a school tuckshop - sourish and Bukit Merah red - and for that matter,  garnished with dry taupok.   Eeew.  Sacrilege.

The shrimp was my downfall and the cause of my complaint that the ingredients totalled S$70.  Well, S$22 went to the Indian vendor at the wet market for the dried chilis, belachan, dried shrimp, tau cheo and Chili brand beehoon.  S$10 went to the other wet market vendors for the bean curd, chives, limes and fresh chili.  And a good $40 went to NTUC for eggs, shrimp, beansprouts and coconut milk.


Mee Siam 
Spicy Fried Vermicelli with Shrimp and Egg Garnish

Family friends often called my mother, urging her to teach them her lovely version of Mee Siam.  These same friends remembered the vermicelli to be slightly “crunchy”.    Mee Siam was a family favorite and appeared regularly at children’s birthday parties as tea-time fare for the adults.  It was also an annual special request from my sister Molly, to celebrate her birthday.  

8 servings

170 g or 6 ounces dried shrimp, soaked in warm water for ten minutes and pat dry
60 g or 2 ounces dried chili, stems and seeds removed, soaked in warm water
60 g or 2 ounces belachan, cut into small cubes
230 g or 8 ounces shallots, peeled and diced
¾ cup oil for frying
700 g or 1 ½ pounds dry vermicelli
900 g or 2 pounds bean sprouts (taugeh), roots discarded
2 cups water
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoon sugar
150 g or 5 ¼ ounces salted soya bean paste (taucheo), finely pounded
100 g or 3 ounces tamarind (assam), soaked in 2 ½ cups or 20 fluid ounces of water
4 cups thin coconut milk*
2 big red onions, sliced
2 to 6 tablespoon sugar, or more if gravy is salty

*(preferably squeezed from ½ to 1 lb. grated coconut, with water added) (or 4 cups [32 oz.] milk diluted from one 13.5 oz.  tin of coconut milk)

Garnish (can be prepared ahead of time)
4 large pieces yellow firm bean curd (taukwa), fried lightly and cut into 1 cm or  ½  inch small cubes
450 g or 1 pound medium shrimp, boiled, shelled and sliced into halves
12 small green lime, cut into halves
10 eggs, boiled and sliced or quartered
1 bunch chives ( khoo chye), chopped finely


[Tip: This spice paste can be prepared ahead of time and frozen.  Thaw before cooking.]

Having soaked the dried shrimp in warm water for at least ten minutes, drain and pat dry.  Also drain the chopped pieces of dried chili.

Pound or blend the dried shrimp, followed by the dried chilies, shrimp paste and shallots in order.

[On the day of cooking.]

Soak the dry vermicelli in water for at least an hour to soften the noodles.  Then drain the vermicelli.

Line a baking sheet with grease-proof paper.  This will be used to hold the noodles later.  

Place the frying pan or wok on high heat and when it is sufficiently warm, add the oil.  When there is a slight smolder, lower heat and pour in the spice paste.  Stir and fry until fragrant and ‘red’ oil bubbles through.  Scoop out some oil and approximately half a cup of the spice paste to reserve for the gravy.  

With the remaining spice paste in the wok, add in water, salt, sugar and let it boil.  Then add in bean sprouts and stir for one minute. Set aside the bean sprouts.  

Next, add in the rice vermicelli to the wok.  Stir with tongs and let the vermicelli soak well with the spice paste. Reintroduce the bean sprouts back to the wok. 

Lower the flame, fry on medium flame and stir continuously, be careful not to let the vermicelli stick to the bottom of the wok. Cook until vermicelli is soft and slightly remains moist.  Transfer to a tray lined with grease-proof paper. Let it cool before serving.

Meanwhile, in a pot, add in the half cup of spice paste and oil, along with the pounded salted soy bean paste.  Strain the tamarind juice.  Pour the tamarind juice and the coconut milk slowly into the pot and let boil.   Then add in the sliced red onion.  Turn down heat to simmer.  Finally add in sugar for taste.  [If gravy is salty, add more water and sugar and stir.]

To serve, dish out vermicelli, sprinkle bean curd cubes, sliced shrimp and spoon gravy over the dish. 

Squeeze lime over the dish, arrange sliced eggs on top and sprinkle with chopped chive.   Add a dab of shrimp sambal to kick up the spiciness.

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