Sunday, May 8, 2016

My mother's kitchen and mine

Today is Mothers' Day.  Recently, a few of my daughters' friends (through their mothers) purchased the cookbook and earmarked what they wanted to cook.  If it had not been for my mother, there might not have been a cookbook.  In particular, if there not been a kitchen such as hers - an atmosphere of love, warmth, busyness, chatter, friendship, family - there would not have been the memories and content for the book.

So here goes….

"The cacophony of chatting, laughter, scolding, temper flares, hollering amidst a range of intonations and volumes is very characteristic of a Nonya's kitchen and dining table.  Many old houses in Singapore had two kitchens.  In our old house, my mother's passions as a cook meant that we divided our kitchen into three parts, not just two.  The kitchen closest to the center of the house, with its cabinets, was where we had our daily meals.  We ate at the dining table lined with clear plastic to catch all the food spills.  To prevent flies and geckos, if any, from attacking our food, we had dome-shaped food covers made of rattan which we placed over plates of food kept at room temperature.  We also had a more formal extendible dining table outside the living room area, which was reserved for grand occasions such as Chinese New Year.  In this particular kitchen, my mother also had a refrigerator where she kept jugs of chilled boiled water, medicine, picnic ham, butter, jam, snacks and fruits.  It was the 'lightweight' fridge.  

In one of the cabinets, my mother stored a variety of canned food such as condensed milk, baked beans, corned beef, luncheon meat, sardines and fruit cocktail.  Her experience during the war years when food was in short supply led her to stock up on food throughout her life.  

The middle kitchen was indoors but it had a continuous open vent, curtained by a wire mesh and plastic sheath, along the length of the back wall to let out the cooking fumes.  The middle kitchen had several wooden plank shelves and drawers to contain her baking trays, Nonya cake moulds, tiffin carriers, and other times which needed more protection from outdoor dust.  A few shelves were set aside for my mother's appliances.  She bought a number in her lifetime as she was always on a quest to find the best blender and mixer.  They were neatly covered in plastic sheets and it was a chore to take the heavy machines out just to use them!  My mother also installed a second refrigerator for meats, vegetables and vacuum-sealed plastic bags of spice pastes.  This refrigerator played an especially important role during Chinese New Year because it could hold all the food we needed to serve over many days.  My mother also had her prep table here on which she chopped and sliced.  It was positioned close to the utility ink, knives, measuring tools and a cabinet full of spices and sauces.  

The third kitchen was outdoors and because this open kitchen could be seen from the road, it was a perennial eyesore for my neighbors even though my mother tried to hide her pots and pans behind rattan chick blinds and tarpaulin.  Such was the extent to which her hobby of collecting kitchen manifested itself.  My mother installed another huge rack to store army-sized pots and pans and heavy items such as the mortar and pestle.  Here, she would set up the portable charcoal stove to boil her kueh chang.  During the season, the 'shed' because steamy and oily with the boilers going at full strength and the dumplings strung along bamboo poles waiting to be cooked.  We had a wash area to do our laundry as well as slaughter the occasional chicken from the nearby kampong village.  The outdoor kitchen also featured a large water dragon pot about three feet tall.  This distinctive jar was carried over from the pre-war days when water had to be drawn from a well.  It was placed here to collect rainwater.  This was once again a result of my mother's experience during the war years, to ensure that we had a constant supply of water if there was ever a shortage."

I myself have been especially busy and distracted with a home renovation.  Some would say, it is a "high class problem" to begin with.  The constant grumbling and conversation topic of fancy moms.  Not least because it is an expensive venture that sets one back by quite a bit, which begs the question, "Why did I even bother?"

I think if my mother had been alive, she would have been quite thrilled at the prospect of designing every little detail of a new kitchen and would have relished the process of investigating and selecting the latest ovens, sinks and refrigerator.   She might not have liked the actual outcome of a galley kitchen with a slanted marble counter, without the outdoor space to air off her aromatic simmering spices, and charcoal stoves holding large pots of gravy.  But she would have been proud that the legacy of a cacophonous kitchen with people coming and going, the fridge doors opening, the fire glowing and the guests lingering around, continues….Happy Mothers' Day.


Saturday, October 31, 2015

Graves of my Forefathers

November 1 is All Saints' Day.  It is a popular time for the French to visit New York.  As a French friend once joked, "We'd rather shop on Fifth Avenue than sweep our ancestors' graves."  Halloween itself has its roots originating from these few days which in religious terms, are meant to be a time of remembrance of the dearly departed.  But in modern history, Halloween has become the ghoulish festival of dress-up.  Innocent toddler costumes, sexy Goth, carved-out pumpkins, bar-hopping, trick-or-treating, and midnight cemetery tours.

Back in Singapore, there continues to be a debate about the fate of the Bukit Brown Cemetery.  This is a cemetery of 100,000 graves, once considered the largest Chinese cemetery outside of Singapore.
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This past Friday, the Peranakan Museum conducted a talk about the history of Bukit Brown.  For my family, the cemetery takes on a lot of significance.  Several members of my father's and mother's families, going five generations back, are buried there.  They are sprawled throughout the large piece of land.  For many prominent Peranakan families, for some reason which I have yet to understand (I missed the talk, for sure.), the cemetery became the place to rest in perpetual peace.  In fact, the Cheang Hong Lim family members were reburied there from their original private graveyard off Alexandra Road.

The government has earmarked part of Bukit Brown for a four-lane highway extension, with longer-term plans to turn it into prime real estate in a few decades. Loyal 'Brownies' - volunteer guides who are passionate about history and heritage, advocate turning this into a protected monument site. Read Tan Chuan-Jin's reflections, written when he was Minister of State for National Development.

Yet, descendants like me aren't more involved for various reasons. We are not proficient in the Chinese language or culture of our ancestors after years of creating our own Peranakan identity.  Many of us have converted to Christianity, hence we no longer observe the traditions of ancestral worship, let alone clean up the graves.  Ironically, we hold on to the superstitions of our ancestors and would rather not have anything to do with claiming exhumed bodies, leaving it to the migrant workers to do so.  So while the ministry involved tries to contact us, many decline responsibility.

Swept up in the controversy, I made a personal visit to a few of these graves back in March, 2013. Anything funereal is not my scene….and the warning of snakes in the lush undergrowth made me think twice.  (I have such a phobia of snakes that I decided not to attend a recent Mexican event commemorating the "Day of the Dead" because there was a snake charmer.)  That misty morning in March, Chew Keng Kiat, my tour guide, proudly declared that he had never encountered a snake during his jaunts.  My sisters did not want to tag along as expected.  Eew. Why visit a cemetery if you can avoid it?  "And you, Sharon, of all people?",  "Aren't you always scared of ghosts and spirits?"  
Well, I guess my interest in family history overrode my lifelong fear of the dark arts.  

I arranged for another friend to join us to make it a merrier, noisier crowd.  Always good to be loudmouths among the sleeping dead.  First stop was Gan Eng Seng who buried himself among his wife and several adopted sons, along with a special plot for his faithful servant.  It was quite a large compound and pretty well kept. Keng Kiat later explained that the students of the Gan Eng Seng School made a trip on every Founder's Day to pay homage.  They probably tidied the place up.  

Gan Eng Seng's tomb

Cheang Hong Lim was tucked all the way back, to the point that his large grave was a literal stone's throw away from a luxurious bungalow off Andrew Road.  Imagine sunning yourself by the pool and knowing that Mr. Cheang is lurking at you from the backyard.  After all, he had several wives.  

Cheang Hong Lim's grave 
Us - the descendants of
two enemies who sued each other.
Right behind his tombstone was the grave of his nemesis - a man who had sued him many times over the opium business.  Funnily enough, the person I had invited to join us was the man's descendant.  So we laughed it off that the two old men ended up together.  

Tombstones tell a lot.  Recently, my family visited Arlington Cemetery in DC and I was anticipating a boring tour.  Lo and behold, my children gleaned many facts from those tombstones - the age of the soldier when he died, his religion, the names of his wife or children buried with him, perhaps an infant baby.  Similarly, the Bukit Brown tombstones detailed the names of sons, the number of wives, the date of birth and death according to the year of the Chinese emperor's reign, his official ranking and titles (if he had any).  The origin of his township in China.  

I was fascinated.  If I had scored a double A for the Chinese language back in school, I would have been recording and translating my family genealogy right there on the spot.  Besides, the cemetery planning was probably filled with references to geomancy, symbolism, and

Illustration of a typical tomb from a history book published before 1910. 

architectural details unknown to the laymen like me but meaningful for learning the Chinese culture.

This all begs the question of the future of such a historically rich gravesite - that memorializes the immigrant story of early Singaporeans.  I hope that one day, UNESCO will recognize it as a World Heritage Site.  If one has visited any of these sites elsewhere in the world, you know that the Botanic Gardens has little to compel when compared with Bukit Brown.  

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Sarong Kebaya

Sarong Kebaya: attire consisting of see-through blouse (kebaya) worn with a sarong skirt.

Right after my mother celebrated her 70th birthday, we made a trip to Penang.  Apart from trying out the "two sisters' char kway teow", my most vivid recollection of that trip was of my father, sister, aunt and I standing in the sweltering equatorial heat for three hours while my mother sat in a cramped seamstress shop with a tailor to discuss kebaya patterns.  That was the highlight of her trip and was her hidden agenda.  Sweating away, I was not very happy to say the least.  I grumbled and quarreled with my mother about her selfish ways.

Made by the Penang tailor. 
Unknown to me until very recently, this tailor was a national artisan and a UNESCO cultural award winner.  My mother, sadly enough, died only a few months after the Penang trip and was dressed in one of those kebayas she had spent much time and money commissioning from this tailor.  "Aiyee!  Sayang!", my female relatives might exclaim if they knew these facts about the tailor.  Then again, in the end, my mother remained the sartorial queen as she arrived in heaven, dressed to the nines.

Lim Swee Kim - the famous kebaya maker in Penang.
The sarong kebaya is the epitome of elegance for a Nonya, if worn with proper decorum.  I am not a fan of the new wave - when the kebaya is worn as a jacket over a flimsy camisole, or paired with jeans.  For that matter, the vibrant colors can be so jarring at times that I often wish the ladies who dress up would co-ordinate their colors so that they collectively look like a fragrant bouquet of flowers.

Not too long ago, there was a comprehensive exhibition at the Peranakan Museum about sarong kebayas.  An accompanying book by the curator, Peter Lee, was launched this year, a heavy tome that I had to leave behind in Singapore due to excess baggage.  I have yet to read it more carefully.  My take is that for the most part of its early history, the kebaya that a Nonya wore was far simpler.  Essentially a white top to pair with the busy pattern of Pekalongan batik.

It was probably with the advent of the Singer sewing machine that the stitched embroidery became more nuanced, with floral motifs, animals, birds, made of varying thread types and colors.  An expert tailor will take a novice through the lessons about the gauge of the thread thickness, how to manipulate the machine and edge those swirls and curls.

I labeled my mother "the original Madonna, she with her pointy bra".  Indeed, my mother had a Triumph corset bra which she would don before she put on her blouse and fastened with her heirloom kerosang brooch.  Preceding any wedding banquet, the bedroom would have full-blast airconditioning while my nimble fingers would be called upon to fix the hooks and eyes of the corset bra.  She would be perspiring and dabbing her make-up with tissue while I squeezed her into her lingerie.  I always marveled at how someone so proper like mother, had no inhibitions parading among hundreds of wedding guests in a see-through blouse and a lacy, pointy bra.

My mother and her obsession with kebayas seemed to be a concoction that caused occasional arguments between her and me.  She took great pains to customize a confectionery pink kebaya to wear to my Singapore wedding.  Her mutterings about the "peacock" befuddled me and I did not realize that she was referring to the pair of peacocks that would anchor the left and right corner edges of her blouse.  I never took a close look or appreciated the details of the kebaya on the night of my wedding banquet and I suspect, it was much to her utter disappointment.  Wistful about my actions after her death, I stashed that particular kebaya and brought it back with me to New York as a tangible remnant of her life.  The peacock's images grace the content pages of my cookbook, memorialized in honor of my mother's excitement for my wedding.  Ironically, for all the passion that she had for kebayas, she left behind fewer than ten blouses.  They were costly to begin with.

If only my mother was still alive to teach us the art of discerning a top notch kebaya from a common one.  We can only critique them according to how 'halus' (refined) the stitching is but then again, what makes for refinement exactly?  Besides, the material is meant to be voile, not cotton as is frequently presented in kebaya tops these days.  Apart from the Penang tailor, my mother was very fond of Benjamin Seck, whom she 'discovered' when he started out sewing in a small shop in Frankel Estate.  I would suggest St. Francis (Benjamin's label) although many customers shop at Rumah Bebe and Kim Choo as well.  One very recent addition is a small pop-up store in Suntec City (opposite Din Tai Fung) where I found some admirable floral patterns.  The lady gets her stock from Malacca.

Recently, a few family members and I attended the Peranakan Ball.  I personally have never worn a sarong kebaya.  While I consider it the attire of my heritage and self-identity, I am possibly scarred by memories of my mother and her see-through blouse and pointy bra.  Instead, I wore my Shanghai Tang qipao for the umpteenth time, pretending to channel Maggie Cheung all the while acknowledging that I pass off more so as a mamasan for my nieces.  What encouraged me was the excitement among my nieces and daughter of putting together their individual sarong kebaya outfits.  And what encouraged them was an affirmation from President Tony Tan who exhorted them to keep the tradition alive by continuing to wear the attire in the future.  

My nieces and daughter with President Tony Tan and Mrs. Mary Tan.
Three good books exist.  My favorite is Datin Endon's book if only to look at the beautiful patterns and quality of each kebaya.

1. The Nonya Kebaya: A Century of Straits Chinese Costume, Datin Seri Endon Mahmood
2. Sarong Kebaya: Peranakan Fashion in an Interconnected World 1500 -1950, by Peter Lee
3. Timeless Peranakan Legacy: The Antique Sarong Kebaya Collection of Peter Wee, by Noelle Tan

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Last of the Big Spenders

The new year is usually a time to make resolutions.  While I don't think I could ever complete one, I make an endeavor to spend less.  Or at least start the year spending less…..

I have just read this autobiography called "No Feast Lasts Forever".  It's obscure and out-of-print.  "Crazy Rich Asians", the voyeuristic, thinly-disguised book that allows people to peer into the lives of the wealthy in Singapore, pales in comparison.  Written by Mrs. Wellington Koo, "No Feast Lasts Forever" is a frank telling of her rich and privileged lifestyle which spanned Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Paris, London and New York.

A few months back, a confluence of coincidences had piqued my interest in this particular writer. 1) I had just attended a close friend's wedding where there were several Chinese-Indonesian relatives (I understood what they were saying and chuckled at the conversation concerning the need to don a corset  to look slim), 2) a newspaper article featured the 109th birthday celebration of a Mrs. Wellington Koo, 3) Park Avenue acquaintances who told me that this same matriarch lived upstairs and played mahjong with equally elegantly-clad Chinese friends, and finally, 4) a PR release by the Met Museum about their upcoming Chinese-themed fashion exhibition which will feature clothes once worn by Mrs. Wellington Koo.

Long story short, who was this Mrs. Wellington Koo?  Well, there were two (and actually, more) and the most famous one was the Mrs. Koo of the 1930s and 1940s whose clothes will indeed be featured at the museum.  The 109 year-old is a later wife.  It was the former Mrs. Koo (nee Oei Hui Lan) who wrote her autobiography and who was the person of interest because the Peranakan Association had once featured her in an article.  The indulged, favored daughter of Indonesian sugar tycoon, Oei Tiong Ham (Oei is pronounced Wee), she was considered the first Nonya to make it to the international scene as the wife of Nationalist China's most famous diplomat and a founder of the United Nations.

"No Feast Lasts Forever" is a cautionary tale of how unimaginable riches dissipated in a lifetime after a series of memorable opportunities to hobnob with the most notable figures of the 20th century. Mrs. Koo wrote this in her twilight years after her husband had moved on to another wife.  She was never to return to Indonesia to reclaim her assets, her father's business was broken up by the anti-Chinese government and he himself, had several children claiming a piece of their trust fund pie.

It made for fascinating reading because Oei Hui Lan was a glamorous, cosmopolitan and sophisticated woman who had an unusually unrestrained lifestyle compared to most of her Nonya peers back in Southeast Asia.  She was a generation before my mother, born in the late 1890s and she witnessed the unfolding of War World Two in Europe and the emergence of Communist China and Nationalist Taiwan.  This book was her firsthand account.  Her mother's separation from her tycoon father enabled her mother, sister and her to move to Europe where they parked themselves in the most exclusive residential enclaves and spent extravagantly.  To have mingled among aristocrats in London and their weekend country houses  in the 1920s illustrated that with money, race was not an issue so long as you had class.  She was, in essence, the Lady Mary Crawley of her crowd.  Her mother only spoke pidgin English, yet made fast friends with the princess of Monaco.  They brought along her mother's Malay maid and a cook who could prepare her mother's favorite spicy dishes wherever they travelled in the world.

Before they had moved, Hui Lan had actually been educated by a British governess in Java.  Of languages, she wrote "Being multilingual is a natural way of life to me.  I slide easily from one language to another when I move from country to country.  I speak English with a British accent or an American, depending on where I am.  My French became polished and authentically Parisian when Mamma bought a house in Paris….The Chinese in Java spoke Fukien which is very difficult.  In family circles, Fukien was the official tongue…. Lower Javanese is spoken when addressing inferiors, middle Javanese is spoken to equals.  All the servants spoke Malay; it was a servants' language."

There were the gilded dinner sets and jewelry…"I had left the house on Curzon Street, sadly saying goodbye to my little Daimler….Mamma was ordering a specially built gray Rolls-Royce with windows so large, people would refer to it as 'The Crystal Palace'.  It was her idea of what was proper for the wife of a minister and would arrive with a chauffeur outfitted by Dunhill, of course.  As a wedding present, she ordered a 36-piece dinner set from Regent Street.  The soup and dinner plates were solid silver, the dessert plates and serving dishes were gold….."

In the first section of the autobiography, Hui Lan described in vivid details the plantation compound she grew up in, in Java.  She was also honest about the subtle racial disparity between the Dutch colonials and the Chinese immigrants despite their newfound entrepreneurial success.

Most interesting for me, she explained her ancestry which helped me understand how Peranakans evolved as a community.  Her paternal grandfather left Amoy, China and moved to Java, Indonesia.  There, he sought refuge in a camp and impressed the camp owner with his intelligence, so much so that the camp owner, a local Chinese, offered him one of his many daughters.  In typical Chinese immigrant fashion, he worked hard and lived frugally, eventually becoming prosperous.  Yet, he maintained his Chinese identity closely because he was not accepted by the Dutch and the Indonesian natives considered him a 'singkeh' (new guest).

I once had to educate my first boss, an Englishman, about who the Peranakans were.  After he read the book I'd lent him, Felix Chia's "The Babas", he quipped, "Ah, now I understand your lot.  Last of the big spenders."

Truly indeed, this other book by Mrs. Koo, would put that description to practice.

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). 

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 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.

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. 

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.   

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.

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.


My mother's kitchen and mine

Today is Mothers' Day.  Recently, a few of my daughters' friends (through their mothers) purchased the cookbook and earmarked what ...