On the Trail of the Phoenix – Grandma’s Ngoh Hiang
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.
Ngoh Hiang is a family staple for many households of my generation, be it the Peranakans or the Chinese. Having roots in southern Chinese cuisine, different dialect groups each have their own version. Even amongst relatives and close friends whom I have discussed this dish with, there are variations and nuances to the ingredients used, to the method of preparation. And this is true about many other dishes of course, each family’s recipe differing from the next. Amongst the Peranakans, Ngoh Hiang is favoured by the babas and nyonyas in Singapore, more so than those slightly north in Malacca. The peranakan community in Penang however has their own version called Lok Bak where strips of pork are used instead of minced pork in the southern ngoh hiang. To each’s own I guess, both having their own merits and fans.
Just like I’d said earlier, there are a million and one ways of preparing ngoh hiang, each family’s recipe differing from the next. Sometimes even within the same family, the daughters would do it slightly differently as well, despite all learning the dish from the same mother. I’d seen and tasted some folks’ ngoh hiang who added carrots, mushrooms, and even yambean (bangkwang/sengkwang) in their ngoh hiang but Grandma’s version kept it very simple but no less delicious. With ten bibiks, there would probably be fifteen variations for the same dish, all tasting different, but most tasting great! As the saying goes, “rambot sama itam, ati lain lain“, and tasting great is what it should be all and only about.
Whichever recipe one uses, the freshness of the ingredients is important. Don’t try to add more five spice powder or pepper in attempt to mask or guise the unpleasant taste and odours from using pork or prawns that was not up to her standards, as the nose and the tongue of the old bibik can tell. We all didn’t dare to fool her. And Grandma was never “kiam siap” with her ingredients. I was often the one who watched and later on helped her gulong ngoh hiang and along the way as she gaoh the inti, she would rattle on and on gleefully how generous she was on how many kilos of prawns she used for that day’s batch, or how she had to ask her favorite butcher stall in the local pasar to “simpan” a good piece of pork with the right fat to meat ratio for her, to be ground into minced meat on the spot right before her eyes, but not before she had properly inspected the piece specially set aside, and given her verbal stamp of approval with her typical “baik lah” or “boleh lah” would the butcher dare to put it into the grinder. That said, she would also reminisce on how she had to use a chinese cleaver to mince the pork herself in her younger days, under the watchful eye of her own mother to make sure that the meat was of the right consistency.
Apart from the pork and prawns, the next most important ingredient to Grandma was the five-spice powder. Though she did not grind her own serbok ngoh hiang, she would insist on opening a fresh packet of a particular brand of five spice powder which came in little paper sachets each time she prepared a new batch of these yummy meat rolls to ensure that the filling would be as aromatic as it is tasty.
After all the ingredients like water chestnuts, onions, prawns, spring onion were cut and chopped into morsels of the right size, all that is left is to give everything a good mix! In the past, we’d use our hands to get everything properly amalgamated but in retrospect, a spoon would probably perform the task just as well .
Next comes the photo tutorial for wrapping the ngoh hiang. Now traditionally ngoh hiang are made into long rolls. I’d seen some aunts who made them like half a foot long which was pretty much the standard but Grandma made them dainty, no more than 6 cm long and almost hors d’oeuvre-like, greater ease of eating and no need for cutting. One reason she did so was actually because my cousins and I simply love eating the two ends of each meat roll with that little remnant skin which had been fried to become uber crisp. Shorter pieces meant more crispy ends for everyone. No need to squabble amongst us children on who gets to eat those ends anymore! The beancurd skin are first cut into the right width but the length was kept long, to be trimmed after each roll is wrapped.
After the beancurd skin is cut to the right width, the surface is wiped very quickly with a piece of slightly damp cloth to remove any excess salt or debris that might be sticking on it. After that, a generous dollop of filling is spread across the width of the beancurd skin leaving a small 1 cm perimeter near the edges.
A little egg wash used for the later pan frying is dabbled and rubbed gently around the perimeter which acts as a sealant for the sides. Sometimes, I would use the remnant egg and starch mixture from inside the filling for the same purpose.
Lift the width of the beancurd skin closest to you to partially cover the filling and at the same time, press firmly down on the two sides to seal part of the excess skin on the sides…
The ngoh hiang is carefully rolled one time round, pressing the filling gently yet firmly against the beancurd skin as one does so to push out any trapped air within because air bubbles would expand during the frying process and burst the skin…
The ngoh hiang is then rolled over one more time and the excess beancurd skin trimmed off. The ends are also smeared with some egg wash to seal the opening. Do not attempt to roll over too many times as one would end up eating a lot of skin which can be rather salty.
The sides are given one final press to secure the edges. This is important to prevent the filling from leaking during the frying process…
The whole process is repeated until all the beancurd skin or meat filling is used up whichever runs out faster that is. Any excess filling can either be frozen for the next batch, or a bit more flour could be added and the filling could be deep fried as they are as meat balls instead. The five-spice meat rolls are now ready for frying. Unlike some other versions, Grandma did not steam her ngoh hiang prior to frying them. thought interestingly some of my aunties actually do that. Grandma found it “pointless” as she said that folks only do that if they have no confidence to keep the ngoh hiang intact or in shape during the frying process, or only when they want to keep the ngoh hiang for frying at a later date would they steam it first and then freeze the cooked rolls. She said that if the wrapping is done properly, there is simply no need for steaming, and since each batch of ngoh hiang we wrapped and fried that day are usually all wiped out by the household that very evening, there is nothing to keep and refrigerate anyway. So to steam or not, it is entirely up to the individual.
Oil temperature control is important in the frying process. The oil should be sufficiently hot to prevent the meat rolls from absorbing too much oil, something that would happen if the oil wasn’t hot enough when the ngoh hiang are introduced into it. Yet, it cannot be too hot which would cause the skin to darken and brown too quickly before the filling is cooked through. It takes a bit of practice to get there.
Flip the meat rolls carefully to prevent the skin from tearing during the frying process. Once both sides are beautifully light golden brown, the fire is turned up slightly for just that few seconds to “purge” out any excess oil from within the ngoh hiang, a trick which Grandma taught when I learnt the dish from her. And according to her, take the meat rolls out of the frying oil when the beancurd skin is still a shade lighter than the desired colour as the rolls would continue to cook with the residual heat from within and darken further even as they are being drained in a wire rack or sieve. If we had cooked the ngoh hiang to “colour perfection” while the meat rolls were still in the wok, they would become too dark when we put them on the dining table later on, she would repeatedly remind us.
When the fried ngoh hiang has cooled down sufficiently, they are in fact good for eating already. But to make them even more special, sometimes she would slice the longer ones into thick pieces and pan fry them with an egg dip. I especially love the textures of the crispy egg wash against the moist and succulent filling as we sank our teeth into each morsel!
So this is another way of enjoying ngoh hiang, individually egg-coated and pan-fried slices. It goes particularly well with chili sauce and also dark sweet sauce otherwise known as kicap manis…
So here’s my grandma’s ngoh hiang recipe. Most families guard their handed down recipes and made their daughter-in-laws swear in secrecy not to share these recipes with even their own side of the families, let alone other relatives or friends. Yes these are some of the stories I’d heard before, but this was not my Grandma’s style. She would generously share her ways of cooking to whomever was interested to learn as she’d always believed that it was not what was written in the recipe that makes a dish work, but if one has the necessary skills, and passion or love to work it.
Kalo orang tak ada ati mo blajair, gua ajair manyak pun tak kuasa. Tapi kalo dia ada ati mo blajair, gua chakap manyak pun tak apa.
Grandma’s Ngoh Hiang Five Spice Meat Roll Recipe (makes about 20-25 pieces of 6-8 cm rolls)
600g minced pork (preferably with a fair bit of fat)
300g shrimp, meat only, cut into small chunks (save shells for other dishes like laksa lemak)
200g bombay onions, peeled and diced (about 2-3 large onions)
200g water chestnut, peeled and diced (about 10 pieces)
40g spring onion, chopped (a few sprigs)
3-4 tbsp plain flour
1 1/2 tbsp five spice powder
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp white granulated sugar
1 tsp pepper
1 piece of ngoh hiang beancurd skin, cut into 10-12 cm wide strips
Cooking oil for frying
Mix all the filling ingredients in a large bowl until thoroughly mixed.
Wipe the surface of the beancurd skin with a very slightly damp kitchen towel
Wrap the ngoh hiang as shown in the photo tutorial above.
Repeat until all the meat filling is used up.
In a heated wok, pour oil and maintain at medium high heat.
Carefully slide each roll of ngoh hiang into the wok of oil and fry one side until they are lightly brown.
Turn the meat rolls gently onto the other side and fry until they are lightly brown.
Turn them over once again and bring up the heat slightly and fry until they darken slightly to light golden brown.
Remove from wok, drain off excess oil in a wire sieve or rack and place them on a plate lined with kitchen towel to absorb any remnant oil.
To pan fry them with egg wash, simply slice the ngoh hiang when they have cooled down slightly into thick slices.
Dip each piece generously with egg wash before pan frying them on both sides until the egg wash crisps up.
Remove from oil, drain and plate.
Serve warm with chili sauce and dark sweet sauce.