Yet another quick post! I just came back from a hearty discussion with two friends at Starbucks over homemade kueh sarlat and their matcha frappucino on heritage cuisine and some exciting projects that will be happening soon on this blog. All that talk of food made me very very hungry naturally. Just wanna eat some comfort food, something which would bring me back to the days of my childhood, something easy and fast yet full of flavour. There is only one dish I can think of, my mum’s 高丽菜饭 Kor Leh Chye Png Chinese Cabbage Rice.
This is one of my favorite dishes to cook. The sauce is so flavourful, one would probably find it too salty to be eaten on its own. But I can down two plates of rice just with it and nothing else. It is usually cooked with regular tamarind, but when the belimbing trees are fruiting wildly in my estate, we turn to these sourish morsels instead for the job, for a salivating-worthy plate of Babi Asam Belimbing.
Mention Singapore hawker fare and many familiar dishes come to mind. Char Kway Teow, Chye Tow Kueh, Laksa, Bak Chor Mee are just some of the familiar favorites which any true blue Singaporean would be more than glad to indulge in whenever the opportunity avails. A dish which I truly love and enjoy immensely is Char Hae Mee, which is also known as Fried Hokkien Prawn Noodles. And here is my humble attempt to recreate this much-loved noodle dish at home.
Chap Chye is a quintessential dish for anyone who takes an interest in Peranakan food to learn to cook . It has its roots in Chinese cuisine of course but has since become deeply ingrained and naturalised into the Straits Chinese way of cooking. For us, Chap Chye is a dish which never fail to make its appearance on the dining table whenever we celebrate a major festival at my Grandma’s. Like I’d mentioned before, this dish together with kari ayam and ngoh hiang are hailed as the “holy trinity” which reminds me much of my grandma’s cooking even until today. It is her speciality, which she faithfully prepared the day before, in full knowing that the dish takes a good overnight rest for the flavours to develop and mature. Traditionally, chap chye is a must whenever there is ancestral prayers, alongside other dishes like pongteh but as the generations evolved, the rule for chap chye as a laok semayang has relaxed over time as it is now commonly enjoyed even over simple family dinners.
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.
2015 has really been a trying year for us. My dad had undergone a major surgery just last weekend and is now recuperating in hospital. Thankfully, everything went on smoothly as for now, and he is recovering slowly, but surely. The sheer ordeal of going through the last couple of months of chemo and radiotherapy with him was really challenging to say the least. My family had just “bukak tua har” as well, coming out of the three year mourning period since the demise of my beloved mother 4 years back and we are trying to cope with our lives without her, revisiting the usual traditional practices, like “golek kueh ee” during tang chek at the end of last year, and semayang tee kong during the Chinese New Year period, albeit keeping things simpler and less elaborated. It is afterall the thought that counts… I
think hope. Tomorrow is 端午节 duanwu festival aka dragon boat festival or what is known as “bulan lima lima ari” to the Peranakans. I had planned to “ikat kueh chang” nearer the date for more than a month, something which I had not done for quite a few years already, since there is a patang against doing so when one is mourning. Alas my dad’s operation came right before the preparation period and that basically threw everything off course. But as my dad’s condition stabilised and is getting better, I pushed on ahead with my plans to ikat kueh chang nonetheless, grabbing ingredients and materials on a very last minute basis and slogged the night before preparing the ingredients and frying the filling, to be used the next day for making the dumplings. So here is a quick photo log of the making of my kueh chang babi this year. Having not done it for quite a few years now, my skills are really rusty. They look kinda out of shape yes, the wrapping job looks shoddy and the tying shitty yes, and the shade of bunga telang blue isn’t even close to what I had intended. But I’m glad I’d gone through and am now done with it. For me, to be able to celebrate these traditional festivals stretches far more than just being ritualistic or observing old customs plainly and passively. It rekindles memories of wonderful moments I’d enjoyed when I was young, with my loved ones who are no longer with me now, and more importantly, it likens to be able to embrace and celebrate life itself!
I remember enjoying my first bowl of 四神汤 Si Shen Soup about 10 years back during my initial trips to Taiwan. It was the period before Chinese New Year and my friends brought us to 寧夏夜市 before visiting 迪化街 for the Chinese New Year bazaar. Just gotten off the plane, we hadn’t eaten dinner so my Taiwanese friends suggested going to 阿桐阿寶四神湯 located near the night market first. Being largely a “herbal soup”, it tasted rather plain and smooth, with a lingering sweetness in the mouth. Void of pungent odours and bitter aftertaste, the flavours of Si Shen Soup defies what I had expected Chinese herbal soups are traditionally like. The soup was a relief, not only against the fattiness of the bak chang and large steamed pork buns we had, it also helped to warm our constitution amidst the cold and rainy weather.
Babi Ayam Pongteh is very old-school cooking from the Peranakan home. It usually manifests as the pork, or the chicken version and never quite the both of them together. But then, their flavours compliment each other very well. If pork bones and an old hen are the quintessential ingredients to good stock making in Chinese cuisine, I don’t see why it cannot be extended to this dish as well!