Nasi Ulam, or pronounced as “nasik ulam” in Baba Malay is a classic Peranakan dish which has its roots in Southeast Asian cooking. Comprising of essentially a variety of chiffonaded herbs tossed in steamed fragrant rice, it is painstaking to prepare and thus usually served on “ari besair” during weddings, birthdays or other celebratory events.
The “summer heat” in Singapore on most days these few weeks have reached the point of being unbearable. Save for the last few rainy nights which lent to breezy mornings and cloudy days, the rest of the time is basically hot hot hot! This kinda weather calls for something spicy and provocative to work up one’s appetite. Chanced upon some beautiful pucuk paku pakis on my most recent trip to the wet market and it is time to whip up a quick kerabu which is perfect for a homecooked meal!
We love to have desserts whenever we are in Hong Kong. The Cantonese folks are very much dessert lovers like us, and they are extremely well-known for their assortment of 糖水 “tong shueis” which are both delicious and therapeutic at the same time. The desserts are available all year around, with a menu that changes with the seasons. Summer welcomes the ice blends and chilled items, most notably being 楊枝甘露 Mango Pomelo Sago which is immensely popular especially with the young to combat the heat. For those who are looking for more traditional desserts, there is 南北杏木瓜炖雪耳 Double-boiled White Jelly Fungus with Papaya which is not only sweet, but boast to have a hoard of beneficial properties like soothing the throat and clearing phlegm. As the weather turns cold, the hot desserts become immensely popular, be it the “paste-based” desserts like 芝麻糊 sesame paste, 花生糊 peanut paste, 核桃糊 walnut paste, 杏仁糊 almond paste or even a simple bowl of 番薯姜汤 ginger soup and sweet potatoes with 汤圆 glutinous rice dumplings to warm the tummy.
As such, dessert parlours and tong shuei stalls are found literally everywhere in Hong Kong. Strange it may sound however, one of the places to enjoy these sweet numbers is not at dessert joints like 許留山 Hui Lau San and 大良八記 Dai Leung Pak Kee, but at 牛奶公司 “dairy companies”. And to further bewilder the already perplexed, these “dairy companies” do not produce milk but are actually tea shops or cafes affectionately known to the locals as 茶餐厅 “cha tzan teng“. Now are you confused already?
In the past when my maternal grandma was still around, there were some dishes that made rather frequent appearances on the dinner table during family gatherings and Chinese New Year meals. Ngoh Hiang (Chinese five-spice pork and prawn rolls) is an absolute must, and preparation usually started days before, given the number of dishes she has to whip up on the event itself. My grandma modified the conventional style of making ngoh hiang and made them rather petite, each about 2 inches in length, almost bitesize to be gobbled up in quick sucessions. I remember how my cousins and I would sneak into the kitchen as the unmistakable aroma of ngoh hiang frying permeated the house, to grab a piece or two when they were freshly out of the oil wok, even if it meant to risk scalding our tongue and palate, and a probable spanking and tongue lashing from our mothers who were helping out with the feast, for being “ill-mannered” as our misbehaviour were referenced with beggars’!
Then there was always a gigantic pot of kari ayam, quintessential to all meals at my grandma’s. It was very very lemak, just the way I love it, and full of kentang which were two of my cousins’ favorites! Together with it was a large rice-cooker which was never empty, an assuring sign that there is always food in the house no matter what time whomever visited. Finally of course, there is an equally large pot of chap chye, cooked the day before to allow the flavours to fully develop overnight. There would be other dishes on the table of course, like Udang Masak Kicap, Tau Yew Bak (braised pork belly in rich soya sauce), or Hee Peow Tng (fish maw soup) on the stove but the trinity of Ngoh Hiang, Kari Ayam and Chap Chye was always there with their unfailing presence. Though the spread was simple, it was the very essence of traditional home-style cooking which kept everyone well fueled and watered, which in turn kept my grandma happy, knowing that her dishes are thoroughly enjoyed by her children and grandchildren!
When we were young, my family lived in a “two-room” rented flat at Jalan Tentaram just off the PIE along Jalan Toa Payoh. It was a very small apartment, and ironic it might sound, there was only one bedroom and that meant my sister and I had to sleep on a very thin foam mattress on the living room floor every night. My parents were blue-collared workers and despite being poor, we were happy. My mother doted on us and although she wasn’t earning much, she regularly bought toys for us, even if it meant cutting back on her own expenses. One thing I particularly looked forward to when we were young, was to visit Toa Payoh Central to borrow books at the community library and a dinner out, usually at the now defunct hawker centre located in between the cinema and HDB office, where I would invariably request for the same thing from the same stall on every visit, char kway teow. On our way back home, we would stop by a confectionery for some bread for supper later into the night or breakfast next morning. As an occasional treat, my mother would indulge in kuih muih, as she had a weakness for anything made with “santan” and pandan. Lapis sagu was clearly one of her favorites.