Singapore

Singapore

By
Charmaine Solomon
Contains
34 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742701448
Photographer
Alan Benson

Singapore

Singapore is a gourmet’s dream come true. Any kind of food you wish to eat, Eastern or Western, is available at its best in this cosmopolitan city. I have eaten some of the best Chinese meals of my life in Singapore, at exclusive restaurants and at street stalls, not to mention Malay, Indian and Japanese food that made me look forward with eagerness to future visits.

But the most interesting food, because it is peculiar to the regions where the Chinese settled and intermarried with the locals, is the Nonya (or Nyonya) style of food – a mixture of Chinese ingredients and Malay spices, cooked in a way that is a perfect mingling of the two cultures. ‘Peranakan’ is the term given to Chinese people born in the British-run Straits Settlements of Singapore, Malacca and Penang; the women known as ‘Nonyas’, the men ‘Babas’.

There is conjecture as to when the Nonya or Peranakan culture began. Some say as early as 1459, when a Chinese princess was given to the ruling Sultan of Malacca as a means of strengthening ties between the nations following a visit to that trading port by Chinese Admiral Cheng Ho. Her entourage followed her example and married locals. In the nineteenth century, enterprising Peranakan traders from Malacca were lured by the newer ports of Penang and Singapore, followed by an influx of Chinese labour, swelling the Nonya population and establishing a strong presence of Nonya traditions in those areas. The result was a singular and quite distinctive style of cooking that is preserved today not only in Singapore, but also Malacca, Penang and to a lesser extent Java; a cuisine that the Peranakan are proud of and cannot live without.

In 1979, I had the chance to meet and speak with the late Mrs Lee Chin Koon, author of Nonya Cuisine, the most comprehensive volume available on Nonya cooking at that time and a keen practical cook with 50 years' experience. Her aim in teaching, cooking and writing her recipes was to ensure that Nonya cooking was kept alive — as the younger generation became less interested in the domestic arts and became more career conscious. Their entertaining was done in restaurants and with the increased tempo of life and the new freedom Eastern women enjoyed, young wives no longer spent hours in the kitchen with the older women of the household, watching, helping and learning. Apart from her accomplishments in the culinary field, the alert and energetic seventy year old was the mother of Singapore’s popular and powerful prime minister at that time, Lee Kuan Yew, and was affectionately referred to as ‘Mama Lee’.

‘To us, our Nonya food is very special and we prefer to eat it to any other type of food. It is totally different from Chinese food, though we do use some Chinese ingredients, like pork, which the Malays, who are Muslims, are forbidden to touch or eat,’ writes Mrs Lee. 'Ingredients found in Malay, Indonesian and Chinese kitchens can be found in our kitchens, however not all of our ingredients can be found in other typical Chinese kitchens.’

Nonya recipes are often hot and spicy. As well as using Chinese ingredients in some dishes, they add herbs and spices that are never used in traditional Chinese food. Many recipes are based on a rempah, a paste of various spices including hot chillies, spring onions, lemongrass, candlenuts, lengkuas (galangal), turmeric and blacan pounded to just the right degree with a stone mortar and pestle. The pounding itself is an art that must be mastered — too little and the paste will not be smooth enough, too much and it will become too liquid.

I understood perfectly what Mama Lee meant when she said the recipes in her book are six generations old but that the book itself represents seven years of work, merely to translate the agak, or estimated measures, into cups and spoons, precise weights and measures. ln writing down Asian recipes I have had this problem myself.

Even with recipes that have been in the family for years, one finds they are done by instinct and learned almost by a process of osmosis. Young cooks learn from their mothers, grandmothers, aunts and after marriage from the all-powerful mother-in-law. There are no written recipes or precise measures. Experienced cooks know just how much of this or that ingredient to use and the amount can vary depending on how strong or fresh the ginger or garlic is, how hot the chillies, how large or how small the spring onions or stems of lemongrass. When it comes to passing on the recipes, especially to cooks who may be making a dish for the first time and do not know how hot or sour or salty it should be, it requires the utmost discipline to do every recipe over again, measuring by standard cups and spoons, trying to even out all the variables and write down the method in painstaking detail.

Mrs Lee’s attitude towards sharing recipes was a refreshing change from the unwillingness that characterises many Asian women who have built themselves a reputation as good cooks and who guard their secrets jealously. A request to divulge a recipe may be met with a firm refusal; or a vital ingredient or step in preparation may be left out so that attempts to duplicate a dish will not be successful. Mrs Lee decried this attitude and wished only that good Nonya cooking should survive. ‘A good recipe is meant to be shared’, she stated firmly, and I could not agree more.

I cannot remember every meal I have eaten in the garden city of Singapore, but some are outstanding and cannot be forgotten. There was the Kashmir style food at the Omar Khayyam, owned and run by Mr Wadhu Sakhrani, a gracious and most knowledgeable host. The exquisite decor, the original paintings done by an Indian artist (which are enlargements of very old miniatures) and the small alcoves in the walls, each one holding a simple oil lamp, set the mood for the meal to come. And when it came it was perfect in every detail. I have never eaten better Indian food, in or out of India. Typical of Kashmiri food, there were no mind-blowing hot tastes. Instead, there were exquisite fragrances and delicate spicing.

As Mr Sakhrani’s guest I was invited to sample a much larger variety of dishes than could normally be consumed at a single meal. Tandoori chicken rubbed with a spice marinade and cooked in a fiercely hot clay oven buried in the earth becomes tender, golden brown and crisp, with a flavour that defies description; Kashmiri prawn curry, richly red but not hot; kofta of finely minced tender lamb, spiced and sauced; chicken livers cooked in spices, onions, herbs and ginger; chicken simmered in butter with herbs and tomatoes. Then a raita that was smooth, rich and creamy, given a special, extravagant touch with pistachios; Persian pilau cooked with saffron, orange zest and almonds; biriani nentara, a vegetable and rice preparation; Khayyam naan, one of the large flatbreads so popular in lndia. And, to finish the feast, koulfi— the ice cream of Kashmir that bears no resemblance to the fluffy, gelatin-boosted ice creams of the West; and ras malai, queen of Indian desserts, featuring homemade cream cheese, rose and cardamom flavorings and rich clotted cream.

Another meal to remember was a superb Sichuan-style banquet at the Golden Phoenix restaurant in the Hotel Equatorial, which was reputedly the best place to eat Sichuan food. Cold hors d’oeuvre, including marinated duck and strips of jellyfish, deep-fried prawns and chillies, stir-fried chicken and vegetables and Sichuan soup — sour, slightly hot, laden with shredded pork, prawns, bean curd and shiitake mushrooms so that a small bowl of it was rich and filling. The Sichuan pancake served for dessert was a totally new experience — a very thin crepe filled with sweet bean paste and folded over to enclose it, then fried until golden and crisp on the outside. Toasted sesame seeds clung to the batter and even when folded it filled a large Chinese dish, so I could not help but wonder at how large the pancake must have been at first. It was brought to the table neatly cut into bite-sized strips but left in the original shape.

While these meals were superbly presented and cooked by experts, there was an element of fun and informality added when we dined at the Orchard Road Car Park, which is sadly no more. By day it was a car park, but at night it turned into one of those outdoor eateries for which Singapore was famous. No snowy white cloths or elegant decor here. Instead, you could wander around watching each chef cooking his speciality and decide which to order. You could partake of a dozen different noodle dishes; curries and roti in Indian or Malay style; fried rice, chilli crabs, satay and sauces, poh pia — in fact just about any Chinese, Indian, Indonesian or Malay food you care to name.

And you’d top it off with one of the local sweets or with a glass of freshly pressed juice. Orange and sugar cane vie for top place and it was sugar cane juice, frothy and pale green and just pressed, that I chose. It is one of the most refreshing drinks – not too sweet and very clean tasting. While it lacks the tang of lime or orange it has a delicacy of flavour I have not met in any other drink. Tinned sugar cane juice is a poor substitute. It has none of the fresh flavour or refreshing quality, and if not for the label on the tin it would be hard to identify with the fresh product, so wait until you can taste the real thing or pass it up.

Serving and eating a Nonya meal

While Singapore is predominantly Chinese, I am representing Nonya cooking in this chapter, for this originated here and is synonymous with Singapore. lt is, as with most Asian meals, all served at one time. Rice or noodles, curries, sambal, soup and vegetable dishes are placed on the table and each person makes their own choice.

Dinner plates are used for eating. While the traditional way is to mix and eat the spicy food with the fingers, modern manners favour the use of spoon and fork. This type of food is called lauk pering, or food served on a plate. When soup dishes such as laksa or meehoon are on the menu they are served in Chinese-style bowls. To finish the meal, sweets made of glutinous rice and coconut milk are popular. Wine is not served with this kind of food, and instead of Chinese tea most Nonyas prefer to drink Malay coffee.

Utensils

The traditional kitchen with its wood fire is almost a thing of the past. In modern high-rise housing developments that have taken the place of the kampung (clusters of little shacks huddled together in a common garden) modern gas stoves are used. Even where kampung persist, the tin or thatched roof shacks have been replaced with neat wooden houses and the kitchens too have been modernised.

For curry cooking the traditional vessel is the clay chatty so popular in Southeast Asia. Discerning cooks treasure their special clay pots as much as a French cook holds sacred an omelette pan.

For Chinese or Nonya-style cooking a wok or kuali is best; you’ll also need a sharp Chinese chopper and heavy wooden chopping board. A heavy mortar and pestle is invaluable for pounding spices and most cooks cherish their grinding stones, but a powerful electric blender can replace these two essentials in a Western kitchen. A coconut grater is also essential in an Asian kitchen, but nowadays cooks buy fresh grated coconut at the market. Again, a food processor or blender can be used for making coconut milk

Good-quality saucepans, a deep frying pan, wooden spoons and the usual frying spoons found in any reasonably well-equipped kitchen will cope with the recipes in this chapter. For deep-frying, a slotted spoon and a wire or mesh skimmer will be invaluable.

Your Singapore shelf

This is a list of spices, sauces, sambals and other flavourings which are often used in Nonya cooking and good to have on hand to make the recipes in this chapter.

—black pepper, freshly ground

—candlenuts or Brazil nuts

—chilli powder

—chilli sauce

—chillies, dried red

—Chinese barbecue sauce

—Chinese wine or dry sherry

—cinnamon, ground

—coconut milk and cream

—coconut, desiccated

—coriander, ground

—cornflour

—cumin, ground

—dried shrimp paste

—egg noodles

—fennel, ground

—five-spice powder

—galangal, in brine and fresh

—hoisin sauce

—laos powder

—oyster sauce

—peanut oil

—peanuts, unsalted

—rice vermicelli

—salted black beans, tinned

—salted soy bean paste

—sesame oil

—sesame seeds

—shiitake mushrooms, dried

—soy sauce, light and dark

—tamarind pulp

—turmeric, ground

—wood fungus, dried

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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