Homecooked lunches are usually kept very simple and fast, often with whatever ingredients there are in the kitchen. For today’s lunch, I’d basically prepared a simple Chinese fried noodles using the leftover ingredients I had from yesterday’s Peking Duck Pizza. It was super fast, all done within 20 min or so, minus the time I had to rush out to get another packet of noodles. Thank goodness I’d discovered that this during the mise en place and not when the ingredients are already in the wok. So here’s a super easy, super fast Chinese fried noodles. Always a lifesaver for a quick meal.
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.
Peranakan cooking is a classic example of an amalgamation of the culinary cultures from many ethnic groups who have lived closely together in this region for hundreds of years. It likens a ”Creole Cuisine“ of the East, blending together influences from Malay, Chinese, Portuguese, Indonesian and Thai cooking all into a unique genre which we know today as “Straits Chinese cuisine”. Out of these influences came a myriad of dishes which have now become signatures of Straits Chinese cooking, whose names run analogous to the cuisine now. Ayam Masak Buah Keluak, Itek Tim, Babi Pongteh and Ikan Gerang Asam are some of the more iconic ones. Like many other Peranakan dishes, he Hee Pio soup has its origins in traditional Chinese cooking, particularly those from the southern provinces of Guangdong and Fujian. For many lovers of the cuisine, Hee Pio Soup is a simply must-have on the dining tables at family dinners, important gatherings, wedding celebrations and other joyous occasions where the “Tok Panjang” was served. While the concept of Tok Panjang has kind of waned and disappeared from the modern lifestyles of most Peranakan households, Hee Pio soup still makes its customary appearance whenever folks get together just to dine together in the company of one another.
I’m always in for different ways to eat oxtail as it is one of my favorite cuts of meat. It is so flavourful and the intermingling of fat, tendon and meat makes it all the more interestingly texturally. Apart from the standard beef stews, I’d also used it as a substitute for beef briskets in more Chinese dishes and oxtail works well for them too. I know that Gulyás or Hungarian Beef Goulash typically uses stew cuts like chuck roast which are chunked to become much smaller actually. But definitely no harm in trying out with oxtail. I’m glad I did because it worked beautifully.
Straits Chinese cuisine is a conglomeration of many other culinary disciplines, bringing together elements from traditional Malay, Chinese, Indian and even Thai cooking to create the eclectic spread of visually stunning and mouth-watering dishes, both sweet and savory, which bear testimony to the glorious cultural heritage and lavishly colourful lifestyles the Babas and Nyonyas of the yesteryears were so well-known for. Many Peranakan dishes are characterised by their rich and robust flavours, be it the tingling sourish hues from asam-based dishes, to the fiery heat from sambal belacan-inspired creations, or the collagen-packed soups. This is usually perpetuated through the liberal use of spices, herbs, condiments and seasoning, all aimed at pushing the limits of one’s palate sensations and experience. Once in a while, we come across a dish seemingly more “subtle” when compared to the others amongst its ranks. A pearl in tranquil elegance amongst the bedazzling glittering of the other gems. Jiu Hu Char must surely be one such dish.
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!