When we were young, we met up a lot with our other relatives at my grandparents’ place. My parents moved out after they got married but always made it a point to go back and visit whenever we could. It was the same with our uncles and aunts who had moved out. Gatherings were a noisy, but also joyous affair, playing with cousins and also neighbours’ children whom we all grew up with. Apart from the regular weekend visits, what was particularly worth looking forward to were the “important days”. Usually it was the numerous marked Chinese-related festivals and celebrations, from Chinese New Year, and Chap Goh Meh at the beginning of the lunar calendar year, through Cheng Beng and dumpling festival right up to “bulan tujoh“, mooncake festival and finally Tang Chek. Apart from my own grandparents’ birthday celebrations, there were the birthdays of deities and of course the “ari see kee”, i.e. death anniversaries of our ancestors. Most of these “ari besair” were marked with an elaborated prayer session in the late morning or early afternoon and of course a pig out session that followed, enjoying the laok semayang that were prepared to honour the gods or ancestors first before being devoured by us. Many of the dishes were eaten as it is, but some were “transformed” into other delectables, and sambal timun was one of them.
Kueh dadar is one of my favorite kueh, which we enjoyed tremendously as children as I’d mentioned in this post two years back. Known also as kuih ketayap, kuih gulung or kuih lenggang to some Malay communities, it is also a kueh which I revisit very often in my kitchen, sometimes eaten just on its own, or when I’m up for something more elaborated or wish for greater contrariety, a savory kuah santan would be quickly prepared using the leftover coconut milk from the batter to “chelop” the kueh dadar in. If the American kids grew up dunking Oreos in a glass of milk, kueh dadar chelop kuah santan must definitely be part of the wonderful childhood memories Peranakans have collectively.
The Peranakans of the past were known to observe etiquette and decorum notoriously. It began at home where everyone was expected to know how to address one’s relatives correctly, making sure one could differentiate the nuances in one’s relationships with their “pek“, “engku“, “engteoh“, and “chek“, terms which are often reduced to a simple “uncle” nowadays. Out of the family context, it was important to know and observe the social hierarchy put in place then and not only understand, but also be well adapted and assimilated into one’s designated role. In short, one is expected to know what the “pecking order” was like and how to will one’s means to reap and benefit the most out of it. It was important for a baba or nyonya to be seen as being “proper” or in Peranakan terms, “tau adat” which basically translates to “know your customs and practices well”. Only then can one be described as being “alus” (refined) or for the nyonyas “senonoh” (elegant and demure) rather than being “kasair” (uncouth). Social behavior was maintained to the strictest order and it was of pertinence for one to be “well placed” into his or her position in society, with the Peranakan families well connected amongst one another through intermarriages, maintaining a close relationship with the colonial masters whom they collaborated or worked for, as well as the sin kheks whom these baba towkays employed and provided for.
Protocol and formalities once perpetuated every aspect of the ways of life of a Peranakan, even in its cuisine. Some dishes were cooked specifically for certain occasions and having them appear on the dining table otherwise was a big no no. For example, “pongteh” was a dish prepared for semayang abu (ancestral prayers) and not to be confused with “chin“, a very similar dish which was associated with weddings instead. The same was with the “kueh culture” for the Peranakans, colour coded to highest levels of specifications, red and yellow for festivities while green and blue were for funerals. But over the years as the generations evolved, many converted to Catholicism or “masok Christian” and abandoned these practices, while for others the “reins” faded and eventually disappeared as they became more influenced by Western culture, married out of the baba-nyonya community or simply migrated to a part of the world where Asian culture isn’t a mainstream, let alone the Peranakan way of life. As such many aspects of the “adat” and its “rules” became relaxed, with only a handful of puristic Peranakans still stauchly following the very traditional customs to the strictest order and in full regalia. Thus, it is not uncommon, to find dishes which were previously cooked for separate occasions appearing on the same dining table nowadays. The identity of certain dishes also evolved over time, and one of them is Nyonya Mah Mee, which is sometimes just called Mee Nyonya.
Many of us love spicy dishes but find it daunting to prepare the chili mix which breathes life unto these savory delectables which are part and parcel of our culinary repertoire in this region. “Rempah” as it is commonly known in Singapore and Malaysia, otherwise called “bumbu” in Indonesia is the heart and soul of Southeast Asian cuisine in this part of the world. But there are many different types of rempah in existence, “rempah titek“, “rempah gerang asam“, “rempah kuning“, “rempah cili-bawang” are just some examples, which we will explore in the course of this blog over time but is there a rempah which is most commonly used amongst many dishes? Indeed there is. I call this “generic rempah” for ease of remembering, something I’d mentioned and used in many of the dishes I’d introduced earlier like laksa lemak, kangkong masak lemak and rendang ayam. Its versatility extends beyond these dishes of course, some of which I would prepare and blog about in time to come… hopefully. A large batch can be made and it stores pretty well but just to put it into immediate use after its been freshly prepared, I’d used the generic rempah in a simple recipe for Sambal Ikan Bilis, an indispensible condiment in our favorite nasi lemak. (more…)
The heat for the past two weeks have been excruciatingly unbearable, and it most certainly doesn’t help to know that the haze is back!!! I’m down with a sore throat and some of my students are suffering from hacking coughs. Not helpful at all neighbour. Please ask your farmers to stop the burning! Mid-summer blues under the scorching weather makes one all sluggish and lethargic, not wanting to do anything except to stone in an air-con room. To make myself feel better, I’m thinking of some sugary and cooling “tong shuei” to help beat the heat. Well, I could cook a sweet 六味汤 luk mei tong or double boil some 南北杏木瓜炖雪耳 White Jelly Fungus with Papaya, or simply reprise my favorite 楊枝甘露 Mango Pomelo Sago desserts, but I’m thinking of something even simpler for instant relief. Happen to chance upon some melons at our local supermarkets just last weekend and lugged home some since they are so affordable now that they are in season. A good time to revisit one of my childhood favorites which I hadn’t eaten in eons, 蜜瓜西米露 Honeydew Melon Sago.
When we were young, many weekends were spent at my grandma’s where my aunts and cousins would gather as well. I remember particularly looking forward to following my mum go back to her mum’s place for several reasons. Firstly, we got to take a cab! Grandma used to stay a distance from us and visiting her meant long bus journeys, not to mention changing feeder buses at the interchange. It was the pre-Translink card days without travelling rebates so given our family of four, taking a cab seemed the most logical thing to do. Those were the days of the yellow-top black taxis with rickety doors which needed a hard slam to close properly but I enjoyed the rides simply because the taxis had air-con! Secondly, grandma doted on us grandchildren down to the dribbles and drips, often having snacks prepared for us already which we got to eat upon our arrival. She would also secretly stuff our pockets with money behind our parents’ back! Being the eldest grandson, I was often assigned to run errands for her at the sundries shop just next block. I bought an assortment of things for her, from ingredients like eggs or flour which ran out on the last minute while preparing certain dishes, to her cigarettes. I loved it when she asked me to buy things for her because that meant I could keep the spare change! Knowing this, my cousins would sometimes offer to tag along, and this was when we would make a quick detour to the nearby playground to play with the slides, swings or see saw! Finally, I loved visiting Grandma when I was young because she was such a wonderful cook. With the help of my mom and aunts, Grandma’s kitchen came alive every Sunday afternoon as the women chatted vivaciously and exchanged the weekly gossips, usually about other family friends and relatives, or about the latest TV and movie film stars, while dinner preparations went on for the weekly feast. Popular dishes on the dining table which we all enjoyed were Tee Tor Tng, Chap Chye, Kari Ayam, Tau Yew Bak, Ikan Chuan Chuan, Ayam Char but our absolute favorite which everyone loved had to be Grandma’s Ngoh Hiang.
A lot of my time during my university days at NUS was spent on campus, performing experiments in the labs, conducting research in the libraries and doing tutorials with friends at the numerous benches along the corridors. A lot of my meals were also settled in the faculty canteens, most notably the one near LT26 in the Science Fac or the oddly constructed Arts canteen in FASS, as I transit on a daily basis between these two faculties for lectures and tutorials. During meal times, the canteens were perpetually packed to the brim, with the lunch crowd often spilling over to the nearby study benches in takeaway styrofoam boxes. The queues at popular stalls were long beyond belief and by the time it was my turn to place an order, I would have to be rushing for the next tutorial already. As such, my study pals and I often picked the stall with the shortest queue to eat from and at the Science canteen, it had to be the one which sold “Western Food”. The food ain’t that bad really, just not particularly popular as most of my classmates, particularly the “China scholars” would prefer their ritualistic rice with stir-fry dishes from the mixed vegetable rice stall instead, often seen eating with an “interesting” combination of stainless steel spoon and a pair of chopsticks. The selection available at the “Western Food” stall was probably quite alien to them. We avoided the usual pork chops and chicken cutlet which were cooked in situ only upon ordering which meant longer waiting times, and opted from their version of “mixed vegetable rice” which we could “pick for a quick platter” instead. That said, even the dishes available were “unfamiliar”, to say the least. From the selection, one particular dish was “peculiarly” memorable. The elderly lady stall owner told us it is called “Chicken à la King“, which I had not a faintest clue what it was initially. But I remembered it being quite tasty, especially drizzled over rice, or macaroni . It reminded me much of those canned soups, creamy and chunky, which I bought and ate with instant noodles during my stay at KEVII Hall, wholesome and fulfilling suppers for the growing young man I was during those nights mugging in my chilly hostel room perched on the ridge. I replicated the dish several times during my hostel stay, first using Campbells, then from scratch after searching for a recipe online. Those were the “dialup” days when internet was still slow and laggy. Thankfully, finding a recipe for this American comfort food was quite easy. Over the years, I’d revisited the old recipe several times, though lesser often nowadays. But I do cook it now and then, when I just need an easy one-dish meal, or simply to revisit those memories of my school days.