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.


Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Other Ancestor - Gan Eng Seng

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 7, 2013

(Not) my grandfather's road

I once had grandiose visions of me posing for a photo standing in the middle of Cheang Jim Chuan Street - which is now relegated to being a slip road leading to a carpark complex in 'town'.   Town meaning the 'Shenton Way' financial area in Singapore.  Cheang Jim Chuan is my mother's paternal grandfather.

Recently, there was a lot of news about the protest rally in Singapore against a government white paper on population.  The venue was at the Speakers' Corner in Hong Lim Park.  When I told my husband, he chuckled momentarily.  Perhaps he too was having grandiose ideas that a political Spring might be born in a park named after his wife's ancestor.  Imagine Tahrir Square......

Hong Lim Park is named after my great-great grandfather Cheang Hong Lim.  As a child, my mother would narrate stories about her family and even helped me trace out our genealogy.  It was amazing that all the names, their years of birth and death, remained so vivid in her memory.  So by the age of eleven, I would visit the public library to read up more about Cheang Hong Lim.  Imagine, research without wiki or google in those days.  I guess local students in Singapore do not study these 'pioneers'.  However, a friend came up to me recently and told me that she had learnt about 'Zhang Fang Lin' when she attended a school run by the Hokkien Huay Kuan, possibly Chung Cheng High.

This is the very first excerpt I came across about my ancestor, in its entirety, written by Tan Ban Huat.....

Cheang Hong Lim, the Big Property Owner and Philanthropist

Philanthropist Cheang Hong Lim (also known as Wan Seng) of 19th century Singapore is well-remembered today by a park, two streets, Cheang Hong Lim Street and Cheang Wan Seng Place, and until recently a constituency named after him.

Born in Singapore, he was the eldest son of Cheang Sam Teo, who had migrated here from China.  
Sam Teo, and his partner, Tay Han Long, ran a monopoly business in opium and sirih (the betel vine) for some time, trading under Chop Teang Wat at Telok Ayer Street. After Sam Teo's death, Hong Lim took over the business and operated under the name of Cheang Hong Lim and Co., which later became Chop Wan Seng. Hong Lim and his partners, Tan Seng Poh and Tan Yeok Nee, also monopolized the opium and spirit farm. He later ventured into shipping and the property business. 

He built a lot of houses along Havelock Road from Chin Swee Road to the upper reaches of the Singapore river, as well as within the town itself.  He became so great a property-owner that there was a saying, "You can be as rich as Hong Lim, but never have as many houses as Hong Lim."

In 1876, Hong Lim donated $3,000 (a large sum in those days) to convert an open space in front of the Police Office at South Bridge Road into a public garden.  His offer was accepted and iron railings were put up around the park, which was then known as Hong Lim Green and later, Dunman's Green. It is now popularly known as Hong Lim Park.

Like many community leaders in 19th century Singapore, Hong Lim contributed much to education by donating funds for building schools and setting up schools for the poor.  He donated $3,000 each to Penang Free School (1876) and Convent School (1890).  In 1875, he set up a school at Cheang Wan Seng Place to teach English.  Poor children attended his classes free.  Later, he set up Cheang Jim Hean Free School at Havelock Road. Headed by his son, Jim Hean, the school had an annual intake of 100 students. 

Another event worthy of mention was his effort in persuading the mother of Lim Boon Keng to let her brilliant son continue his study at Raffles Institution.  Boon Keng had been asked to stop his studies soon after his father's death.  Mr. Hullet, then Principal for R.I., approached Hong Lim for help as the two families were friends.  Boon Keng continued his studies and later became the first Chinese to win the Queen's Scholarship to pursue his medical studies at Edinburgh University.  

In 1863, Hong Lim erected at his own cost, a Chinese temple known as "Geok Hong Tian" at Havelock Road.  He also contributed much to the erection and repair of many temples put up by other clans though he belonged to the Teang Thai clan.  To serve the needs of many residents who stayed in Kim Seng Road and the Havelock area, he built a market at River Valley/Kim Seng Road in 1882.  The market was maintained for several years.  The site is well known as Hong Lim market. 

Another contribution by Hong Lim was the setting up of a fire brigade under his name, Wan Seng Brigade.  The 37-man fully-uniformed Brigade received much praise from the people.  In 1886, a fire broke out at Drummond Hodges and Co.  The Fire Brigade was then unable to put out the fire because of engine trouble.  Wan Seng Brigade was summoned and eventually put out the fire.  

Hong Lim actively identified himself with the public life of the Straits Settlements.  He was for many years on the Committee of the Po Leong Kuk (a body looking after the welfare of women and girls) and several other public bodies.  In 1889, he received thanks from the Governor for being the largest contributor ($2,500) towards the fund for providing Maxim guns for the Singapore Volunteer Artillery.

For all his services to the Chinese community and the public at large, he was made a Justice of the Peace in 1873.  In 1891, he was recognized by the Straits Settlement as the Hokkien community leader.  A procession led by St. Joseph band was held at Havelock Road to celebrate the occasion which was well-attended by his Hokkien group.  Three weeks later, he held a tea-party for his well-wishers.  The Governor, Sir Cecil Clementi Smith, was also present.  

He fell sick the following year and died a year later at the age of 52. 


Monday, January 14, 2013


There was a week in December when the word 'kaya' popped up at least three times.  On one occasion,    I had attended an evening soiree - a book talk by a young writer.  She extolled the wonders of a dish by Susan Fenniger.  It was a stylized version of a Ya Kun breakfast - a poached egg atop kaya toast, drizzled with soy sauce and sprinkled with ground pepper.  Then, I met an old Singaporean friend twice at the doctor's office.  She asked if I could make some kaya because she loved and missed it.

Kaya is this wonderful custardy jam made of eggs, sugar, coconut cream and infused with pandan essence.  It is a ritual to have it for breakfast, spread on toast or smeared on buns, often dipped in a saucer of swimmy half boiled eggs doused with soy sauce and a dash of white pepper.

Recently, our friend sent us a carton of fresh organic eggs.  About three years ago, he had moved upstate and become a gentleman farmer with a ranch full of cattle and chickens.  His eggs looked so shockingly wild! There was no doubt that they were never tainted by chemicals.   I decided to make kaya out of them.  It was just as well.  Last week, my father was hospitalized for a spinal injury and underwent surgery.  Eggs, proteins and muscle-building came to mind.  What better than sweet kaya to perk him up as he goes through rehab.  So I made my egg jam and packed a bottle for my husband to courier back to Singapore.  Alas, it was confiscated at the departure gate for security reasons.

Kaya also means 'rich' and once, while my mother was making it, we talked about what we would do when we became 'kaya'.  We would immediately hire our gardener Muthu to become our chauffeur.  Kaya - the stuff of sweet dreams.  

10 eggs, room temperature (allows for sugar to dissolve more quickly)
3 cups sugar
¾ cups thick coconut cream
4 pandan leaves, rinsed and tied into a knot

In a metal bowl, whisk eggs together.  Add sugar a bit at a time and continue to whisk to dissolve sugar.  
Stir in the thick coconut cream well. 

Bring a small pot of water to a boil.  Lower the heat so that the water in the pot is just below boiling point.  Rest the metal bowl of egg mixture on the rim, over the pot and whisk continuously until the mixture thickens.  
[This is an adapted method to cook the mixture and dissolve the sugar without curdling the eggs.]

Strain the mixture with a sieve into a heatproof bowl, preferably with side handles.  
Add the knotted pandan leaves to the mixture.  Crush the leaves gently with a spoon to release the flavors.

Place a metal stand in a large or Dutch oven pot.   Fill the pot with cold water, almost up to the height 
of the stand.  Bring to a gentle boil.  Wrap the lid with a kitchen towel to absorb water condensation 
droplets which may fall on the kaya jam and impact the texture.  Place the heatproof bowl on the metal stand.  

Whisk or stir mixture frequently for the next quarter to half an hour to break up any clumps. 
[At this point, skim the top of the mixture with a slotted spoon to remove lumps.]

When the mixture begins to thicken, cover and simmer for another half an hour to an hour.    

Replenish more hot water to the pot if necessary.

Turn off the heat when the jam mixture becomes firmer.  Leave the jam to cool completely before storing in air-tight containers. Discard the knotted pandan leaves.  Refrigerate the jam if you wish to keep it for a few 

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 ...