The Saturday Kitchen – Old School Coconut Candy

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I have been off blogging for a bit lately, being busy with my second book. Sorry if I have not popped in to read your blogs for a while now. (I will resume my visits, I promise!) However, most of the book is now done; almost ready to go to the printers except for some tweaking. Today, I finally have a bit of a breather, and I’m finally posting this, which I had been putting off since New Year’s Eve. My all-time favourite confection, coconut candy.

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Whenever the word ‘retro’ pops up, these coconut candies spring to mind. This, to me, is the taste of the ’70s. They are moist, flaky, milky and sweet, rich with coconut milk and crumbly with one bite.

The look and taste of it brings me back to my primary school days when coconut candies were invariably sold at school funfairs or other fund-raising events. Sometimes, my mother bought them for us when we went grocery shopping at the old Tay Buan Guan supermarket in Joo Chiat Road. It was a great supermarket — very modern and progressive for its time, which sold all sorts of British-made confections like dolly mixtures and liquorice in boxes, chocolate bars and honey-bake ham (which in 1970s Singapore were high end gourmet items). The supermarket ran a bakery as well, and it was there that she would buy these wonderful coconut candies. Commercially made ones like theirs tended to be drier and harder, but homemade coconut candy — like those we bought at school funfairs — were more moist and always delightful.

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They must surely originate from this part of the world. They are essentially compressed blocks of freshly grated coconut cooked with evaporated milk and butter, and fried and tossed in a pan until they were almost dry. (Desiccated coconut will not do — though perhaps they could be reconstituted. I have yet to try.) They had be coloured pink, or green — any other colours would not make them ‘coconut candy’.

I realised just recently that I have been making these candies on New Year’s Eve for the last two or three years. Quite unplanned, but it just reflects,  perhaps, an unconscious longing for a time past, a fun-filled childhood encapsulated in a coconut-filled mouthful. It’s always a hit among friends, and I have yet to meet a child who didn’t like them. They make great food gifts, too.
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1970s Old School Coconut Candy

  • Servings: 18-20 pieces
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

400g fresh grated coconut

200g sugar

1/2 cup evaporated milk

1 tsp vanilla essence

A pinch of salt

Green or red food colouring

Method

  • Combine coconut, sugar and milk in a generously sized pot and heat it up over a gentle-to-moderate flame to melt the sugar and bring the mixture to a simmer.
  • Stir often to avoid burning, especially as the mixture starts to dry out. Stir in vanilla essence and salt.
  • Continue to heat until the coconut mixture comes away in dry clumps (they should be just damp enough to hold together in a ball, but not soggy) and leaves the bottom of the pot clean. This could take around 20 minutes.
  • When it’s ready, remove from the heat and stir in food colouring.
  • Spread it out on a pan, and pack it down tightly and evenly at about 3-4cm in height.
  • Using a spatula, make deep grooves into the warm candy without cutting through, to create a squares of candy. Mould the edges to neaten.
  • Set it aside to cool, then pop it into the fridge to set further overnight.
  • Cut out the candy according to the grooves you made earlier and serve chilled or at room temperature.

The Cat of Hanoi

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The streets of Hanoi are crazy, chaotic, vibrant and exciting. Every pedestrian walkway and space in front of the shops is either filled with tables and chairs for a street-side food stall, or with scooters squashed together handlebar to handlebar. There’s really no place for a cat to find a foothold. But while on a night time food tour in Hanoi just a couple days ago, I came across this magnificent creature, all fuzzy, fat and pristine in its white coat and elegant black accents. Never mind that the horns of scooters were blaring incessantly, and people were trudging past barely a whisker away from its face. Here it sat, most serene; a picture of tranquility and dignity in a messy, crazy world. After a crazy, mind-blowing surprise like today, perhaps there’s something we can all learn from the Cat of Hanoi.

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The Saturday Kitchen – Piquant Asian Tomato & Cucumber Salad

I am trying to eat healthier these days to keep the excess weight away. My metabolic rate is slowing down and now that I am writing my second children’s book, I am spending more time seated. (Not good for the waist and the hips.) So I’ve taken to being mindful and eating only what I need. But I do like my food, and am unwilling to compromise too much on taste for health. Chia seeds, juiced kale and dry grainy things are not on my list of edibles, sorry. Picking through the refrigerator yesterday, I bunged up a quick salad that turned out refreshing and pretty strong on flavours.

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My trick to making salads is to add a few strong, accent flavours against a canvas of vegetables to make a tasty dish. In the Asian larder, there are many of these ingredients to use; the most commonly available would be coriander, crisp fried shallots and sesame oil. They will do the same work as bacon or chorizo does in western dishes.

• Coriander has a strong, minty, peppery and fresh flavour which lifts the dish.
• Crisp fried shallots adds texture (it’s crispy — like croutons), and the frying process heightens the shallots natural sweetness, while giving it a deep low flavour at the same time. Adds depth to the dish.
• Sesame oil is also a deep, rich flavour with natural sweet-umami flavours that provides a lovely, rich note to things otherwise bland. But remember, a little goes a long way. It is possible to overdose on sesame oil!

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Against chilled cucumbers and tomatoes, these aromatics add a stronger taste, acts as high points of flavour and adds contrast to the mix of tastes that pop in your mouth as you eat. And they are generally healthy — except perhaps for the fried shallots, but it is added in small portions, and you have to live a little, right? That is the salad’s answer to quality of life against health considerations.

This Asian style salad which I share here can be eaten as is like I did yesterday at my desk, or popped into hamburgers and sandwiches, or served as a side with meat or grilled fish. If you want it more substantial, add in steamed prawns, leftover chicken or assorted leftover meat items from the fridge.

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It’s like a basic dish for you to add and enhance with your favourite bits and pieces. Enjoy.

 

Asian Style Cucumber and Tomato Salad


Refreshing and piquant, this recipe makes use of the natural juices of the vegetables to moisten the salad. So don’t worry if the dressing looks a little meagre at first.

1 tomato, sliced
1/2 Japanese cucumber, sliced
2 shallots, sliced
3 stalks spring onions, sliced
1 tbsp chopped coriander
1 tsp crisp fried shallots*

Dressing
2 tsp lime juice
1 tsp sesame oil or to taste
Salt and sugar to taste

Method
• Make the dressing.
• Combine all the vegetables except the crisp fried shallots. Toss with dressing.
• Sprinkle with crisp fried shallots just before serving.

*Note: To make crisp fried shallots, slice about 10-12 shallots and fry in at least 1/2 cup of oil until brown and crisp. Remove shallots onto kitchen towel to drain off excess oil and store in an air tight container. Use in place of croutons for salads and soups, or noodle dishes. Store the shallot flavoured oil in another clean container, and use for salad dressings or to finish dishes.

The Saturday Kitchen – Salted Egg Long Beans with Pork

Ever since my father passed away six years ago, I head out with my mother for lunch a few times a week to keep her company. She lives alone with the helper, and thankfully a hop skip and jump from my brother’s house and mine. Working from home and having a flexible schedule allows me to do that, and I’m thankful for the time I spend with her, and even more thankful for her good health which allows her to eat anything she fancies and go anywhere she pleases without hindrance. She is 83 this year.

So last week, in one of our usual lunch time escapades, we decided to try out a new Thai restaurant in Bedok, a housing estate not far from home. I had passed that restaurant many times and had become quite curious about it, seeing it was constantly busy. A very casual eaterie with rather friendly staff, Nakhorn Thai served a long list of authentic Thai dishes. Many of the staff seemed to be Thai as well, which was another good sign of authenticity.

We had Pad Thai, the classic rice noodle dish sprinkled with chopped peanuts and chilli flakes (it pairs surprisingly well with the flourescent green Fanta), and a dish of salted egg long beans with pork. I had never seen salted egg cooked with long beans before, and it turned out pretty delectable. As it is a homey dish, I thought I’d try to make it myself as part of a midweek meal.

My version turned out quite successfully I must say and it is incredibly easy to do. Best served with white rice, and other dishes of course. As for Nakhorn Thai, it turned out to be a good discovery, with good food and very decent princes. So for the long bean dish, here’s my recipe.

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Salted Egg Long Beans & Pork Stir Fry

  • Servings: 3-4 as part of a larger meal
  • Difficulty: easy
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1 clove garlic, sliced
1 shallot, sliced
4 slices ginger
2 tbsp oil
2-3 Tbsp salted egg powder (or 2 salted egg yolks)
2 Tbsp water
12 long beans, sliced into 2cm lengths
200g lean pork, sliced (marinated in 1-2 tsp soy sauce, and 1/2 tsp cornflour)
1 chilli, sliced
2 tsp fish sauce
1 tsp oyster sauce
1/4 tsp sugar
Pepper to taste

Method
• Boil long beans in a pan of water with 1/2 tsp salt for about 5 minutes until cooked. Remove beans from the pan, rinse in cold water to stop the cooking, drain and set aside.
• Heat cooking oil in a pan/wok and saute the garlic, shallot and ginger for 2 minutes until fragrant. Add in salted egg powder and saute. If it absorbs all the oil too quickly, add in 1-2 Tbsp of water and mix it into a paste.
• Add in the pork slices and chillies. Stir fry until the pork has changed colour. Add in the fish sauce, oyster sauce and sugar, and toss to coat.
• When the pork has fully cooked, add in the long beans and toss to coat and heat through. Scoop it onto a plate and serve with white rice.

 

The Saturday Kitchen – Traditional Cantonese Fried Glutinous Rice

The Chinese don’t often use glutinous rice in their cooking, but when they do, one of the most delectable dishes is fried glutinous rice. The moist nuo mai fan wrapped in lotus leaves, steamed with lup cheong (Chinese sausage), black mushrooms and chicken and served at dim sum is much more common the world over. But this fried version is a not-so-distant cousin, with its roots also in Cantonese cuisine. In Singapore, it is a very common breakfast dish which you’ll find at the hawker centres, though hardly seen in proper restaurants. Perhaps it is considered too humble.

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My mother told me her family’s maidservant Ah Seem used to cook it when my mother was a child back in the 1930s. Ah Seem tended to cook mainly dishes from her home village back in Kaiping. While I know this is indeed a traditional dish, a nugget of information like this just brings alive that sense of continuous heritage and history with the food we eat.

Lately I have been experimenting with this fried glutinous rice dish. I like it very much but I always thought it was tricky to make. Once I got hands-on, it is surprisingly quite simple. It is cooked in a way similar to making risotto but the end result is springy dry-ish rice with a short bite, tender and moist inside. It is nicely complemented with a plethora of textures and flavours from the savoury depth of the lup cheong, the softness and fragrance of the Chinese mushrooms and the crunch of fried peanuts. The final sprinkling of spring onions is important too. Apart from making the dish look prettier, its subtle minty flavour lifts the dish with its high notes.

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The trick to making this  dish is to cook it over low flame, adding a little water at a time to get the rice cooking, but not to get it too soggy. Patience is paramount because the end point is rice which is moist inside, but largely dry on the outside. Having said that, it is not an arduous dish to make. Have a go at it.

Traditional Cantonese Fried Glutinous Rice

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Print

1 cup glutinous rice, soaked for 2-3 hours at least
4 slices ginger
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 Tbsp oil
6 black Chinese mushrooms, soaked in 1/4 cup water and sliced
2 Tbsp dried prawns, soaked in 4 Tbsp water
1 lup cheong (Chinese sausage), sliced
1 Tbsp fish sauce
1 Tbsp oyster sauce
2-3 Tbsp Chinese cooking wine
Salt and white pepper to taste
2/3 cup stock (or water mixed with 1/2 tsp chicken stock powder)

3 Tbsp peanuts, skin on, toasted in a pan
2 Tbsp sliced deep fried shallots
1 Tbsp Chopped spring onions

Method
• Heat oil in a wok and sauté garlic and ginger for a few minutes until fragrant.
• Drain the dried prawns and mushrooms, but set aside their soaking liquid for use later. Add prawns, mushrooms and lup cheong into the wok to saute. Add cooking wine and fry until fragrant – about 2 minutes.
• Drain the rice and add to the wok. Toss to coat, and fry for about 2 minutes,  then add 1/4 cup of the stock as well as the prawn and mushroom soaking liquid, oyster sauce and fish sauce. Stir fry and let the rice soak up the liquid. Add salt and pepper.
• When the rice has soaked up the liquid, add another 1/4 cup and fry until it has soaked up the liquid again.
• By now it should be al dente, so proceed slowly. Keep adding 2 Tbsp of the stock and fry until the rice has soaked up the liquid, then check if it is cooked through. If it isn’t, add another 2 Tbsp stock at a time until it is done. Do so over a fairly low flame, and keep the rice quite dry.
• When the rice is fully cooked but still with a touch of al dente, turn off the flame, check on the seasoning. To serve, top with some peanuts, deep fried shallots and chopped spring onions.

Note: For added crunch, you can also sprinkle some deep fried silver bait to the dish which also gives you your day’s worth of calcium. 🙂 If you want to add a spot of ‘gourmet’ to this humble dish, add some dried scallops (soaked in water for 20 minutes, and drained) and replace oyster sauce with XO Sauce.  

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Journey Back to the Ancestral Village

I headed back to my ancestral village in June. That’s the thing about being an ‘overseas Chinese’. We all have ‘ancestral villages’, where our ancestors lived and made that journey out of the poverty of China at the turn of the century.  In this case, the village I sought out and visited was my maternal grandfather’s childhood home. It is in the district of Kaiping, in Guangdong province, China. This is the Pearl River Delta area where the Sze Yup people come from.

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His village is Tao Yuan Chun (which means Peach Garden Village). He left it in 1919, when he was in his late teens, on a wing and a prayer to hopefully find a better life. Having lost his parents when very young and with no siblings, he was relatively lucky to be a carpenter’s apprentice. But riddled with abject poverty and hunger, things were desperate. So one night as I have often been told, he left the village with nothing but the shirt on his back — like countless young men before and after him —  and made the journey to the coast. From there, he got on a junk and sailed to Singapore. Fortunately for him, he did not get caught in human trafficking rings (which were also rife then) and eventually made a success of himself.

While my grandfather never saw his homeland again, it had always been very much in his mind obviously, as his childhood memories had passed into the collective memory of the family. (I had never met my grandfather. He died a year before I was born, but he had been spoken of so much, his identity is very much a part of my consciousness.)

When we realized we would be in Hong Kong for a bit in June, we decided to pop over for a day trip to see the ancestral village. But it wasn’t so easy to get the details down. A little bit of asking around within the family yielded me the name of the village, and surprisingly even the address of the house where his home had once stood over a century ago. With that information and my grandfather’s name, I contacted a private tour guide in Guangdong – Jennifer Choi – to help me locate this place and bring me there. She was a gem. She wrote to the Kaiping Municipal Government who has a department, I believe, that helps overseas Chinese track down their roots. Apparently, they verified the information (which was a great help) and gave her the GPS co-ordinates of the village. You see, these villages can be as small as hamlets in rural China, and you may not be able to locate them so easily. Getting clarification from the local government gave us some assurance that we weren’t off on a wild goose chase, for the information we had was rather sketchy.

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We based ourselves in Macau the day before our trip to Kaiping. Early the next morning, we headed across the northern land border to Zhuhai, a modern city a far cry from the village, and met Jennifer and Mr Leong, the driver. In his air conditioned MPV, we travelled two and a half hours on 21st century highways to Kaiping. After which it was another half hour on the main roads before we turned off onto a little country lane and bumped our way three and half kilometres past rice fields, dragon fruit plantations, plywood workshops, ponds and little villages. Round a corner, past another rice field, we saw a medium-sized, algae-green pond and beyond it, an even smaller village. Finally we had arrived at Tao Yuan Chun. If I were being dramatic, I’d say my journey that day was 97 years in the making, which started under terribly desperate circumstances.

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Many old houses still stand there, but there are as many new builds that have squeezed their way up in between. The generous car park at the front of the village, while relatively empty, holds a few BMWs and other vehicles. In the late morning, it looks like most people were away at work. Hardly anyone was around to cast a curious glance at this small group of strangers. Being generous, I’d say there are no more than 60 houses here. They are arranged in a grid form, separated by narrow alleys just wide enough for two people to squeeze past.

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We easily found the address we were looking for. It was a small, grey brick house with peeling couplets and pictures of door gods on it. Looks like the remnants of a wedding left behind. A villager who walked past said the house was now empty. The occupants had built a modern one to the back of the village and recently moved there. No matter. They weren’t anyone we would know, anyway.

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It was just amazing to see and stand on the ground where my grandfather, then a  thin, hungry, desperate teenager, started the journey of his life to find a better one. For me, making this trek back was already quite arduous – by plane, ferry (from HKG to Macau), on foot for a little bit, and by a very comfortable car. How did he make that journey all the way to the coast without any of these modern vehicles? It must have been with a lot of resilience, determination and guts to fling your future to the unknown and hope for the best, with nothing more than the knowledge that you would be willing to work to make it — whatever ‘it’ may be. I was  pretty awed, and have an even greater respect for what he did and where I came from. The people then must have very stoic and resilient and resourceful, but one could imagine how miserable life must have been to drive them out on such a long journey of migration. (The terrible migration issue taking place today on the other side of the world has not been lost on me. Some things don’t change, sadly.)

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At the same time, ironically, there was no chorus of angels singing and a feeling that I had come ‘home’. Yes I had connected with my roots by coming full circle physically, and realising a few truths. But this village was in no way ‘home’ to me, and I didn’t feel any massive connection apart from the fact that my grandfather came from there. Which I respect, don’t get me wrong. My distant roots may have started off here, but home is Singapore, where my connection and my living roots are firmly entrenched, and where he, in fact, lived his life.

Every overseas Chinese family would have a similar story to tell, but each family’s story is in turn unique. And I am part of that huge diaspora that flowed out from the Pearl River Delta so long ago.

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By the way, if you are looking for a private guide into these parts, I found Jennifer Choi very helpful and reliable. You can contact her at http://www.synotrip.com/jennychoiman

The Saturday Kitchen — Stir Fried Cabbage and Green Beans with Galangal

It’s been quite a few weeks since I last wrote. I had been caught up with some exciting collaborations with our public libraries regarding my children’s book (I’ll write about that in another post), and made a trip to Kaiping in Guangzhou to see the UNESCO World Heritage diaolou. Incidentally that area is also where my grandfather came from 97 years ago. More of that too, in another post. 🙂

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But staying true to the Saturday Kitchen, for which I have to do lots of catch up, I’m posting an Indonesian vegetable recipe which I cooked a while ago. While it sounds bland, it really isn’t due to the strong aromatics that go into the recipe.  I think it goes nicely with coconut rice, and a curry chicken. The added plus is that these are very inexpensive ingredients here in Asia. So here goes:

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Stir Fried Cabbage and Green Beans with Galangal

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

8 shallots, sliced
4 garlic, sliced
4 large chillies, seeded and sliced
5 thick slices ginger
5 thick slices galangal
1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 head of cabbage, sliced
200g green beans, slice into 2-3cm lengths
Salt and pepper to taste

Method
Pound the shallots, garlic, chilli, ginger and galangal in a mortar & pestle, or blitz it in a blender.
Heat about 1 Tbsp oil in a wok and saute the pounded ingredients for about 2-3 minutes until it has softened.
Add the cabbage and green beans, salt and pepper to taste and stir fry until it is softened and cooked through. You may want to sprinkle 1/2 tsp of water into the vegetables to prevent it from burning or getting too dry. But this is really just to dampen the vegetables, not to add any significant amount of water.
When the vegetables are cooked through, dish it out and garnish with sliced red chillies.

 

Spicy Green beans and cabbage