Sound - Painstaking preparations

Sound - Painstaking preparations

By
Chui Lee Luk
Contains
5 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742702407
Photographer
Chris Chen

I was always a keen helper in my parents’ kitchen, but, like any other child with a developing mind, I lacked patience when the preparations became repetitious and took more time than my attention span could tolerate. The ritual involved in the preparation of everyday ingredients or the making of more elaborate culinary treats did, and still does, fascinate me. So while, as a child, I might have given up on finishing the small tasks given to me, I still lingered to watch and ask questions.

A favourite great aunt who lived in Singapore occasionally came to stay. She had an aura of glamour created by the fact that she was ‘not from here’. She liked to inveigle her way into the kitchen, much to my mother’s trepidation (perhaps it felt something like an invasion of territory). On one occasion my great aunt wanted to show my mother her method for making corn soup; I presume they’d found fresh corn at the market during a morning excursion. I was fascinated by the elaborate set-up of newspapers spread over the dining table and the array of large vessels for holding what seemed a somewhat small amount of corn kernels. The reason, explained my great aunt, was that a great amount of care was required to get the kernels off the cob. She demonstrated with a fork, which she drew along the cob away from herself. The fork raked roughly over the corn with a rasping, scratching noise and she said that if you pulled the fork towards yourself, it was likely that a kernel would get stuck in your ear. Then, as now, I was incredulous. But my fear and wonderment were reinforced one hundredfold because, although I insisted (and probably with a certain degree of whining) that I should have a go, she steadfastly stated that it was much too dangerous an activity for a child.

My mother has always insisted on what I used to consider an unmitigated amount of fastidiousness in the preparation of her favourite vegetables. It was only later that I understood the need for attention to detail: sometimes the detail is there only for one’s own satisfaction.

I wondered why I should be asked to be neat and orderly about picking vegetables. Why would my mother insist on methodically separating out leaf and stem into two different piles? According to my parents’ wisdom, the best species of matrimony vine is that which grows in Sabah. It has the most succulent of stems, so much so that the leaf is often ignored. One of my mother’s favourite dishes is a soup of pork slices and the leaf from the sweetleaf. In preparing the bunches bought at market, she would separate the leaves from the asparagus-thick stems with a whisper-soft ‘tock tock’ sound, laying leaves in one pile and stems in another. I recall later at dinner, slurping the liquid of the soup, that my progress would be impeded by the slightly bitter leaves sticking to my spoon. And I also recall crunching on the stir-fry of the stems, thinking all the while that this should be as tough as the privet stems I liked to cut up and mangle in the garden.

We often had kang kong (water spinach or swamp cabbage) at home. The words of my mother still ring in my ear: ‘No one really takes the effort to pick kang kong properly; there shouldn’t be any hint of stringiness when you eat it.’ It was a matter of pride that only the youngest of the stems and leaves should be picked for cooking. I recall again the ‘tock tock’, a little more insistently loud though. And, sometimes, I’d hear a ‘shuck shuck’ noise, when my mother found it necessary to bruise and crush the hollow lower stem of the kang kong to make up a reasonable bulk of vegetable. No matter how the kang kong was served in our household — stir-fried with a variety of seasonings from blachan and chilli to fermented tofu, or cooked simply with garlic — there was never any hint of stringiness about the just wilted vegetable.

Something I really disliked having anything to do with was the bean sprout. It was a most excruciating activity to pick the hair-like roots from these sprouts, and there was no time lag before I lost patience with those wet hair-like threads sticking to my hands and creating such an inextricable mess. At that stage, I wondered at the necessity for all the fuss and most of the time it was unfortunately left to my mother to complete the task. She would gently snap the upper part of the root to leave a pristine example with only sprout adhering to the white stem. ‘Patient preparation preparatory to a tortuous process of cooking,’ as my mother would probably have observed to me.

However, the bean sprouts were a main ingredient of one of my favourite dishes: mee siam. Once prepared, they were blanched in the meticulously handground sauce of salted soy bean, chilli and blachan, in combination with carefully shelled prawns and meehoon or rice vermicelli, which seemed to stick together unpleasantly at a moment’s notice if the cook wasn’t careful. The cooking process for this dish wasn’t a spectacle to watch, but a quiet contemplative mixing and adjusting of flavours while adding more and more ingredients. And, after a few hours of preparation, we would all sit down to enjoy it. There really is a conspicuous disparity in the longer time taken to prepare dishes and the much shorter time taken to consume them, isn’t there?

Stir-fried kang kong with blachan

A couple of bunches of kang kong, once the tenderest parts are picked, will be enough for a dish in a multiple plate meal. The blachan paste should be prepared prior to contemplating the stir-frying of the vegetable: pound 3 bird’s eye chillies, a couple of garlic cloves, 1 chopped red Asian shallot, 1 tablespoon of roasted blachan and 1 tablespoon of sugar to a fine paste. Heat a couple of tablespoons of peanut oil in a wok over medium heat and cook the paste. Remove and set aside in a bowl. Now, with a cleaned hot wok and another tablespoon of peanut oil, fry the kang kong until just wilted, then add the paste and toss together well. Serve immediately.

Corn and egg flower soup

This soup requires a good base, namely a flavoursome rich chicken stock. This is simply made by simmering chicken bones and carcasses with ginger and spring onions (scallions) for about 3 hours. Place 1 litre of the chicken stock in a pot and have it at a simmer. Meanwhile, set a wok at high heat, swirl 1 tablespoon of peanut oil into the wok, add a teacup and a half of fresh corn kernels and half a teacup of fresh crab meat. Stir briskly to combine and then add 1 tablespoon of light soy sauce, ½ teaspoon of salt and 1 tablespoon or so of water, at which point the wok will explode with noise. Toss the contents around and then turn them over into the pot of stock. In a soup bowl, beat an egg with a few drops of sesame oil. Pour the egg into the just simmering soup in a slow stream, while stirring the pot with a chopstick so the egg forms threads. Season with more salt and some freshly ground white pepper. Place in a central serving vessel so everyone can help themselves.

Recipes in this Chapter

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