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.

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 ...