Peranakan culture is often described as a colourful culture. From the juxtaposition of vibrant hues and motifs that adorn the ravishingly beautiful kebayas and kasot manek, to the amalgamation of flavours and aromas from various ethnicities present in the plenitude of dishes both savory and sweet which defines what we know of today as Peranakan cuisine, the Baba-Nyonya heritage has often astound and impress upon many as one which is lavishly extravagant and vivaciously decorated. And speaking of being decorated, one cannot help but be in awe of the exemplary levels of intricacy and craftsmanship found in Peranakan jewellery, especially amongst old antique pieces. From the sanggols (hair pins) to the gelang kakis (anklets), Peranakan ladies in the past, be it the young nyonyas to more matured bibiks were often found “embellished” from head to toe quite literally. Yet so little of it has been documented in printed literature. As such, Nyonya Lilian Tong’s “Straits Chinese Gold Jewellery” is timely, in quenching a thirst long endured since the last publication written on this important aspect of Peranakan material culture. And for those who are unfamiliar with the genre of Straits Chinese jewellery be it in style or form , this book must surely be an eye-opener as well!
About a month back, I had the pleasure of visiting The Intan, a privately owned Peranakan themed museum located in the heart of Joo Chiat, one of the enclaves of Nyonya-Baba culture and heritage in Singapore. It was my second visit to the Intan, the first being a collectors’ sale organised more than 2 years back. The visit was held in conjunction with the release of this year’s Lunar New Year angbaos by the National Heritage Board (NHB). What made the visit special was the fact that it was held at night. Not your regular run-in-the-mill visits to a museum I’m sure. But the dim light conditions did pose a “challenge” to photography. After all the hustling and bustling in the kitchen during the Chinese New Year period with all the cooking and baking to be done, I finally had time to sit down and sort out the photos and write a bit about the visit. So here’s a small collation of some shots I took. Enjoy!
At the end of last year we booked for ourselves a staycation at Capri by Fraser located in the heart of Changi Business Park next to Simei MRT. It is a relatively new hotel and for me, the main attraction was the mini kitchen the room was equipped with. Since there was an online promotion going on, we got ourselves the deal for a one night stay, as well as a chance to test out their in-room kitchen!
Chinese New Year is around the corner and for many of us, the baking and making of Chinese New Year cookies and other delectable goodies has started. It is barely a month from all that Christmas cooking and feasting, and just when we thought that we could rest our ovens and stomachs for a while longer, it is time to get busy again! But this is no surprise as once Tang Chek is past, traditional households look forward to the coming of “Chun” (spring) and of course Chinese New Year celebrations. Time to take out all those kueh moulds which had been kept away over the last year and for some, even longer. Wooden moulds to tekan kueh koya and cutters and crimplers for kueh bangket (kuih bangkit), aluminium or steel clam-shell moulds for kueh belanda (kuih kapit) and of course the heavy brass ones for kueh baulu (kueh bolu or kuih bahulu). Let’s not forget the tortoise-shaped wooden moulds for making kueh koo (angku kueh) for sembayang tikong on the birthday of the Jade Emperor which falls on the 9th day of the Lunar New Year as well! Many peranakan households still have old moulds which have been handed down over the generations, used by the bibiks of the past to whip up all those popular snacks which are enjoyed over the festivities. My personal favorites are the kueh baulu moulds incidentally, so its a good time to take them out for a good scrub amidst all that spring cleaning to be done!
Odd it may seem, my favorite dish to order whenever I walk into a traditional chinese noodle shop in Hong Kong is not a bowl of 云吞麵 wan tan meen or 水饺麵 shuei gau meen. For years, it has always been 柱侯牛腩麵 ngau nam meen aka braised beef brisket noodes for me. Not sure why but I’d always preferred this over the popular pork or shrimp dumplings for its robust flavours and the melt-in-your-mouth bites of beef brisket as well as succulent chunks of beef tendon which had been braised to the right texture and consistency. It was until more five years ago when I first visited 劉森記 in Sham Shui Po where I found another love. Their 南乳焖猪手 Braised Pig Trotters with Nam Yu Fermented Beancurd was cooked to perfection I thought. Delightfully aromatic and with flavours which are strangely familiar and yet alien to me at the same time, it was love at first sight… or taste rather. Since then I’d been going around trying out various noodle joints not only for their 柱侯牛腩麵 but also their 猪手麵 whenever possible. We braise pig trotters at home all the time, from 卤猪脚，the traditional dark soya sauce version which is prevalent in local Hokkien and Teochew cooking, to 猪脚醋, the richly vinegared version for the occasional indulgence of sweetness and tang. It didn’t take long for me to try and cook 南乳焖猪手 at home for myself, to satisfy my own cravings for this dish whenever I could, whenever I want.
January and it is strawberry season. Specifically Korean and Japanese strawberries that is. This is practically the only time of the year that I eat strawberries. Apart from the erratic French gariguettes that come a couple of months later. IF they ever come that is. Fraises des bois and Mara des bois…I can only dream. Yes we do get strawberries on the supermarket shelves almost all year round. Call me picky but I don’t buy straws from Australia, New Zealand or the Americas, be it North or South. They just don’t dig as well as the Korean, Japanese or French fellas. Neither do I eat Driscoll’s
crappy strawberries. No offence guys but they just make you think that you are eating strawberries. So in reality and as snobbish I may sound, the “real” strawberry season is actually very short. For me at least. As seasonal as how these fruits had been in the past and should rightfully be so. Apart from buying and savoring them as it is, we often crack our heads to find ways to extend our days to enjoy them before the season closes. And what better way to lock in these flavours through making jams out of them, an age old method to “immortalise” the delicate sweetness the current season bequeaths upon us which alas, come so swiftly yet ends all too shortly.
每次到香港，我们必定得走深水埗一趟。深水埗在旺角以北，较少外国和内地游客的喧嚣，多了份香港在地人的味道。二三十年前的深水埗是造就香港成为当时世界成衣王国的一大功臣。想当年，拥有一件 “Made in Hong Kong”的T-桖是极为普遍的事。但随着劳工成本的提高，许多当地商人已经移资到大陆内地去设厂发展。那些之前以成衣公司为主的大夏已经被其他企业所进驻，而以往车衣声此起彼伏的工厂也随着人去楼空沉寂下来。走在长沙湾和荔枝角的街道上瞭望年久失修，残壁斑驳的高楼，这座成衣工业大城昔日的繁华和如今的沧桑形成了强烈的对比。当然，我们来深水埗追寻老香港的足迹，不仅仅是为了这些大楼。更重要的是在深水埗的许多街道上和店铺里尘封了旧时香港的味道。当然，我们说的是美食。像是“合益泰小食”的肠粉和艇仔粥，或是“劉森記”的蝦子竹昇麵，每每吸引着我们造访的应该是隐藏在食物中的那种上一代，再上一代和现在新的一代一起过日子的味道。简单而鲜美，朴实而率真。平民美食，老铺传统继承了华丽外衣下的香港，里头包裹着那一层层的老味道。
Christmas is here again and for many, it is a time for celebration and jubilation. But for me, Christmas also tells me that the year is coming to an end and the contemplative and reflective mood sets in. I generally steer away from crowds so no count down parties for me. But what I do like is a bit of festive indulgence, something in sync with the mood for the holidays. No turkey for me, not the traditional way at least. Had never been a fan and I probably never will. On the contrary, I’m all for the numerous sweet treats which the Christmas season offers. Eggnogs, gingerbread men, assorted cookies… are just some of the things I love! But what I’d always craved for every year around this time, is a good Christmas fruit cake. Rich and moist, it is packed with nutty and fruity indulgence amidst all the rummy alcoholic decadence. But truth be told, despite how much I liked it, I couldn’t go beyond two slices. With the traditional Christmas fruit cakes, it was sheer heaven as the flavours and aroma just hit me instantly as I sink my teeth into it for the first bite. But soon, the richness turns into heft and before long, the sickening sweetness creeps in. That is the reason why I’d not made a proper Christmas fruit cake in years as I knew my family would never be able to finish it proper. All this was until a good friend Chris shared a fruit cake with me last year and I was immediately blown away. It was all of that is of a fruit cake that I’d always thought of and hoped for but it doesn’t taste as heavy as the traditional ones would. Another friend Lynette too shared her fruit cake recipe with me and upon comparison, I found striking similarities between these two recipes used by these two ladies. So the best thing I did was to combine what I thought to be the strengths and wonderful attributes of both recipes and it turned out wonderful! So this is the recipe to create the Christmas Loaf Cake which I’d always wanted and here I am to share it with you all!
Today is Winter Solstice Festival and the Chinese diaspora around the world celebrates it as 冬至 Dong Zhi or Tang Chek which literally means “the arrival of winter”. Apart from the family reunion, ancestral and deity worship and eating glutinous rice dumplings called 汤圆 tang yuan or kueh ee, to the traditional Chinese, Winter Solstice is also a day to nourish oneself, build up and balance one’s constitution to brace the changes in season for the upcoming year. The concept of “補” （补） in traditional Chinese medicine practice is one which believes that one should take precautionary measures to maintain internal harmony within ourselves, boost our energy levels and immunity and balance the “yin and yang“. Prevention is always better than cure. So do you have the habit of 补 during 冬至 as well? Or do you know why we should do it? Read on to find out.
For the Chinese in the past, the Winter Solstice marks the arrival of winter proper, falling on either 21st or 22nd of December every year. It is an important day in the lunar calendar and for some, even more so than Chinese New Year itself. Despite being in the tropical Malay Archipelago which knows no seasons, Peranakans from the region stretching from Thailand, to Malaysia, Singapore and all the way down to Indonesia celebrate this important day as “Tang Chek” (“冬至” in Hokkien) with worship and good food. Tang Chek also marks the beginning of a two-month long process of preparatory work which leads up to Chinese New Year （Taon Baru Cina) itself, ending the festivities on Chap Goh Meh (“十五眠” in Hokkien） which mean literally the 15th day of the 1st lunar month.
Like many other Asian cities, Taiwan is known for their street food. Everywhere you go, there would be food stalls, tucked within the small alleys and lanes which would offer something to go. The fast pace lifestyles folks in Taipei lead often meant that they have their meals on the go, from takeaway buns, soya bean milk and sandwiches at numerous 早餐店 like 永和豆浆 or 美而美 to takeaway paper bento boxes containing 排骨便当 or 鸡腿便当。 Come nightfall, one of the favorite pastimes of Taiwanese is to visit the local night markets (夜市) which offer a wide range of local delights like 蚵仔煎 ((oyster omelette), 鱿鱼羹 （cuttlefish soup)， 生煎包 （shanghainese pan-fried steamed buns) and the bewilderingly named 大肠包小肠 and 大饼包小饼! One of the iconic dishes in Taiwanese street food is their mee sua, rice vermicelli cooked in a thick starchy broth and of all the outlets around, the most visited is probably 阿宗麵線 Ah Chung Mee Sua at Ximending, Taipei.
Strangely of all our trips to Taiwan all these years, we’d never been to 鼎泰豐 Ding Tai Fung（DTF）. This is very odd I know, given how iconic DTF is in Taiwan’s culinary scene, being featured in perpetually every single guidebook we’d read in the past. Somehow, we’d never really felt compelled to visit, often brushing it off as a tourist gimmick and most rightfully so. This is often the first place we would pass by whenever we visit 永康街 Yong Kang Street in 大安区 Da’An district. The front door is always packed with tourists from Japan, Korea and of course Mainland China, sent here by the busloads. It often got so bad that the crowd started to spill over to the shop windows of the bookstore next door. We were often put off by this sight and would briskly walk away, shaking our heads and rolling our eyes.
But we’d tried DTF back home in Singapore many times and I must say that we thoroughly enjoyed the food there. While the loud and chattery crowd outside the main shop in Taipei irked us to no ends, we often wondered if the food there is better than what we are getting in Singapore. DTF originated from Taiwan after all. Finally, curiosity got the better of us and we made our first proper visit to DTF after all these years.
Bearing strong contrast to many countries within the Arabian Peninsula which are characterised by inhabitable desserts, Iran is surprisingly quite well known for their vegetable and fruit produce. The first impressions of Iranian produce for me has to be their emerald green pistachios and saffron but more recently we saw other fruits like oranges imported from there as well. The local climate is particularly conducive for fruit and vegetable cultivation it seems. As such, fruits and greens form a large part of an Iranian diet and this can be seen through the variety of salads enjoyed by them. Amongst what I’d read on Persian cuisine, Salad-e Shirazi must surely be the easiest to prepare.
Right from the heart of the ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of modern civilisations, many Middle Eastern dishes today hold the secrets to culinary traditions which have existed for more than two millenia. Yet, they count perhaps as one of the least travelled cuisines around the world in their original forms, discounting Turkish kebabs and ice-cream that is whose success stemmed from these foods being entertaining to watch as they are delicious to eat. However, probably unknown to many, Middle Eastern ways of cooking have helped albeit unwittingly to shape many cuisines which are now so ever popular. One classic example is Pilaf, a rice dish cooked in broth which evolved from Old World Iran during the times of Alexander the Great or perhaps even older. Power shifts throughout the ages of conquer and conquest brought its influence far into Europe to shape world renowned dishes like the Spanish Paella and Italian Risotto, while the Silk Road and other ancient trade routes brought it eastwards into India and subsequently Southeast Asia to become our local Biryani and Pulao. So for me, many dishes from Middle Eastern cuisine are exotic and yet strangely familiar at the same time.
Our recent trips to Hong Kong have been more exciting than ever! The local pastry scene has picked up considerably over the last couple of years and it has never been short of new joints to try or places which we’d enjoyed to revisit. Passion by Gerard Dubois is one of the latest addition to the growing number of new places to go for fine pastry in Hong Kong. Being a patisserie, boulangerie and confiserie all at once, it opened in 2012 in Wanchai, the heart of the CBD district in Hong Kong. So for our latest trip in 2013, it only seemed right to pay them a visit.
Apart from being defined by discernible differences in taste and textures, many cuisines are also distinguishable by looking into the ingredients and condiments used in their recipes. Miso is uniquely Japanese just as one would associate oyster sauce with Chinese cooking. Mention fish sauce and one immediately relates it to Thai and Indochinese cuisines. Middle Eastern cuisines, be it Arabian, Jewish, Turkish or Persian also have their own special range of ingredients. Turkish apricots and figs, Iranian pistachios, rose water, sumac etc… are just some of the things that reminds me of this group of cuisines which have influenced the structuring and development of one another for centuries. And just as with the sauces and pastes I’d mentioned earlier, Middle Eastern cuisines too have their own unique concoctions adopted to boost the rich and piquant flavours many dishes from this region are well-known for. Pomegranate molasses must surely be one of them.
No trip to Hong Kong is complete without trying their street food. No doubt, there’s a lot of good food in Hong Kong, be it dim sum from the tea houses or roast goose and char siew at the Cantonese restaurants but for many of us, what characterises the cuisine of a place is its street food. It is eating what the locals eat that makes travelling to these places a truly remarkable experience. And Hong Kong is not short of good street food. Everywhere we went, it is always easy to pick up some local delights, be it 碗仔翅 “faux shark’s fin soup” or 臭豆腐 smelly beancurd. For those with sweet tooth, there is 雞蛋仔 crispy egg waffles or 砵仔糕 red bean rice cakes. And if one doesn’t have the time to even stand by the roadside to savour these delicacies, one can always grab a skewer of 咖哩鱼蛋 curry fish balls or 鱼浆燒賣 fish paste siew mai to go! We’d been to 勝香園 Sing Heung Yuen before during our earlier trips, and we came back again during our most recent trip to reprise the roadside dining experience at a 大排檔, something truly Hong Kong!
One of my earliest experience with Thai food is probably Pad Thai, together with the other quintessential “must-orders” for anyone venturing into Thai cuisine, like Tom Yum Goong and Pineapple Fried Rice. Every street hawker does Pad Thai a bit differently from the other. Slight nuances in the ingredients used, the proportion of condiments, even down to the sequence of adding the ingredients, e.g. when to crack the egg etc. could alter the taste and texture of the dish completely. But they are all quite delicious. Well, most of them are at least. To date, this popular street food which brings together three important ingredients commonly used in Thai cooking, i.e. palm sugar, tamarind pulp and fish sauce, remains one of my favorites, being sweet, sour and savory all at the same time.
This dish is actually not intended, not this version at least. I’d wanted to cook ผัดกระเพรา Phad Kra-Prao Thai Holy Basil and Pork Stir Fry actually but I’d gotten the wrong basil! The real McCoy calls for holy basil, which is known as Bai Kra-Prao in Thai, and hence the name of the dish Phad Kra-Prao, with “Phad” to mean “stir fry” in Thai. And to add to the confusion, the latter is sometimes anglicised as “Pad” or even “Pat” or “Phat“. But I’d used Thai purple basil (sweet basil) instead! It is known as ใบโหระพา Bai Horapha in Thai and thus the “bastardised” version “Phad Horapha“. A quick search over the internet and I found that not the only one who’d made this “mistake”. Not sure if the creations by the others are accidental or intentional but whichever the case, it actually tastes really good with thai sweet basil as well! So it seems like ผัดโหระพา Phad Horapha is here to stay afterall!
I was at Golden Mile Complex along Beach Road last week and believe it or not, it was my first trip to this place. Often dubbed as “LittleThailand”, it is the place to go for Thai groceries and produce. 10-15 years back when Singapore’s construction industry heavily depended on Thai and Burmese workers, this place was packed over weekends by those in seek of solace for something that reminds them a bit of home, be it food or just to be in the company of fellow kinsman. The lower floors are now occupied by travel agents who mainly offer coach packages to Malaysia and southern Thailand as well as hair salons and eateries offering authentic Thai cuisine while the higher levels are dotted with Thai bars, nightclubs and massage palours, not unlike wha one would find in Patpong, Bangkok. But it is the supermarket on the second floor that I am here for. It boasts to have the most comprehensive spread of Thai groceries and sundries and with a mega floor space that occupies almost the half of the entire level, I’m quite convinced that this would be a one-stop Thai shopping experience for me. The fresh food section was quite an eye-opener with an assortment of Thai vegetables and fruits on display, some of which I’d totally not seen before. There are at least five different types of basil available, all smelling and looking different. Some of them have only their Thai names labelled making them incomprehensive and alien. Altogether very intriguing indeed! One name struck jackpot as it was ชะอม Cha Om, a vegetable Wendy had told me about before. Curious that we should be able to find it here in Singapore. Had to grab a bunch or two for ไข่เจียวชะอม Khai Jeow Cha Om, a Thai Acacia Omelette!
Thai cuisine is up next for Asian Food Fest #2 and the contrast between Thai and Japanese food couldn’t be greater. Yet I love them both! For me, Thai food is all about the explosion of flavours albeit with little mouthfuls that go a long way. The prototypical impression many of us have on Thai food is its stong notes on heat and sourish palate profile. Thai cuisine liberally incorporates chili in many of its dishes so one is almost immediately hit by the impact from these little morsels of red firecrackers bursting in one’s mouth. Acridity and astringency introduced take form through the use of Thai green limes and/or tamarind pulp and together, they produce a wave of refreshing sensation against the heat, helping to subdue the latter slightly. Some say that it is really a competition of these two flavours but I choose to think that the amalgamation makes it multi-dimensional. Speaking of multi-dimensional, Thai cuisine is also heavy on the use of fish sauce, much loved for its savory hues and profound sense of umami flavours it transpires. In fact fish sauce, despite being commonly employed in Indochinese cuisines like Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian food as well, is synonymously linked with Thai food. And everything is balanced with a bit of sweetness from Thai palm sugar, a milder, and incidentally paler version compared to its southern cousin coconut sugar (gula melaka/gula jawa) used extensively in Straits and Indonesian cuisine. As such, Thai cuisine is really a big melting pot of flavours as well as aromatics. For me, one dish which epitomises the very essence of Thai cuisine has to be ส้มตำ Som Tam, its ever popular Green Papaya Salad.
Quite a number of new hotel establishments opened in Singapore this year and just when we think that the local hospitality industry has already reached its saturation point, these new hotels strive to find their footing amidst the already crowded skyline. Some of them are totally new buildings made from scratch while quite a number of them are major overhaul projects to old blocks, revamped to breathe new life into them. BIG Hotel located at the junction of Bencoolen Street and Middle Road is one of these “new kids on the block” and we had a chance to find out just exactly what it is BIG on!
After more than one month of cooking and blogging, our very first Asian Food Fest for Japan has finally come to an end! My apologies for not putting up the round up earlier. In fact, I haven’t updated this blog for more than 2 weeks, no thanks to an annual mundane event called “ICT” otherwise better known as “reservist”. That aside, it has been a really eventful month with a whooping 150 qualifying entries! Thank you all for the resounding response!