The Elusive Recipe, Mumps & Indigo Tigers

I’ve been following the blog Brilliant Viewpoint for some time now, and always enjoy her writing. Her recent post Authentic Italian Cooking recounts her search for an elusive recipe for a cake she enjoyed years ago, and recently found. It was a lucky, happy coincidence for her. It made me think about my elusive recipe which unfortunately I still have not found. For me, the dish — that memory of a taste so impactful that it has followed me for the last 44 years — is a delectable, comforting, soy-infused bowl of savoury oats. If my memory serves me well, it had some mince meat in it, chopped spring onions, possibly soy sauce or five-spice powder,  and a texture that was chewy and bouncy.  I can taste the memory of it now even as I write, and remember the gentle morning sun that accompanied that early gastronomic moment of mine.

I tasted that dish only once when I was five years old, then never again. The day I encountered it is imprinted firmly in my memory. (Funny, the things one remembers.) I was down with the mumps and could not go to kindergarten that day. My jaw was sore and my cheeks were swollen and painful; I could barely open my mouth let alone smile. My parents had to go to work, my siblings were in school and the only thing to do was to be left for the morning at my grandmother’s house.

I was very close to my Por-Por (maternal grandma) and her maid, whom I called Yee Por. Both were about the same age and they were like two grannies to me. Love them both to bits.

Image result for indigo chinese word tigerMy grandmother was very much subscribed to Chinese medical traditions. When I arrived, I found she had prepared a bowl of deep blue liquid. With her finger, she painted the Chinese word 虎 (meaning tiger) on both my swollen cheeks. Then she let me go play in the garden. (Grandma didn’t play with me, but she was loving, a source of comfort and always there when I needed her.)

My mother told me years later that the blue liquid was indigo, and it was believed to be effective in treating mumps, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine (now somewhat proven by recent research). The word ‘虎’ (tiger) was significant, because it was believed that the symbolic tiger would eat away the affliction that was causing the mumps.

Anyway, back to that morning in 1973. I soon realised that the blue liquid on my cheek, now dried up, had  a very strong and unpleasant smell. Like the good girl I was, I tried to obey Por-Por and keep the indigo on as was her wish. But it soon became most unbearable, and I decided, quite out of character, to disobey. So while my grandmother was in the dining room towards the back of the house, I sneaked into the bathroom in the front just off the living room and washed off the indigo. As a five year old, that was messy business and I found my clothes rather wet as a result of all the splashing. Then I realised I could not seek out Grandma to fix my wet clothes as she would then discover my naughty deed. So I decided to hang around the living room and lurk about the garden for a suitable duration, after which I would figure out what to do next.

That was when Yee Por, the servant, came out with a small bowl of mid-morning snack. Sitting at the coffee table in the living room, I tucked into this little bowl of what looked like (rice) porridge, but it was nothing I had tasted before. It was bouncy, chewy, with grains I had never encountered; darkly soy infused and rich and comforting in flavour. I enjoyed it so much, I ventured into the kitchen — hazarding being discovered by Grandmother — and asked for another bowl. For the risk I took, sadly Yee Por said there was no more, as she didn’t think I would have much appetite anyway with my painful jaw and all.

Yee Por never made that dish ever again. And it has haunted my palate off and on all these years. As an adult, I tried to replicate it a few times, but never succeeded. The recipe remains elusive.

The two old ladies have since gone and I did not have the foresight to ask them — but I was still a child when they bade their final goodbyes. Perhaps I will try to make it again one of these days. Or with a stroke of luck, I may chance upon the recipe some day, too. For sure, it is a traditional Chinese one, which was the only sort of food Yee Por would have made.

As for my vanished indigo tigers, Grandma did see, but thankfully did not make a fuss. She fixed my wet clothes, and simply let me carry on. She didn’t try to put the tigers back on my cheeks.

My new children’s book – The House on Palmer Road

I have been off radar quite a bit lately as I have been quite tied up with the release of our second book, and until yesterday, been involved in two literary festivals back to back. What an amazing journey though – which I would like to share bit by bit over a few posts so I don’t bore you. But I am excited and thrilled to introduce you first to our new book……

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Captures childhood in 1930s Singapore

My business partner and I just released our second book two weeks ago. Called The House on Palmer Road, it’s a children’s chapter book for 7-12-year-old’s. It contains a series of 15 short stories based on the adventures of Sing, a tree-climbing, ‘tom-boyish’ 8-year-old girl together with her 9 brothers and sisters. They are all playful, light-hearted stories set in late 1930’s colonial Singapore, just before WWII and the Japanese Occupation. In its pages, young readers accompany Sing and her siblings on adventures in the vicinity of Palmer Road and nearby Chinatown: from frog hunting in the wasteland, to being chased by guard geese in dark godowns, to evenings in the Great World Amusement Park and getting into scrapes in the Salted Egg Incident.

You get a gentle taste of what life was like in the 1930’s through the people she meets and the slices of grown-up life she encounters: such as the itinerant hawkers, the Patriotic Woman who raises funds to send to China to support its war effort (the Second Sino-Japanese war was taking place then), and overheard conversation among grown-ups talking about war in Europe, and how the Japanese army is marching south. While all worrying, these are half-understood by Sing and the adult characters’ distant conversations shield both protagonists and readers from the worrying ramifications of unfolding world affairs. The focus remains on the playfulness of the stories.

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Frog hunting with Father, Fifth Brother and Sixth Brother in the wasteland

These stories and characters are all real, because they are actually based on my mother’s childhood. The wooden house on Palmer Road — after which the book is titled and where her family of 13 lived — was built by my grandfather, a building contractor. The landscape is vividly detailed, all based on my mother’s amazing memory, which we also verified against old maps and photographs and archival material to ensure accuracy. Landmarks mentioned include the wasteland behind the house, the train tracks along towards Telok Ayer piers, the godowns, the embankment by the sea, Mount Palmer, Mariner’s Club along Anson Road, and lots more which have long been demolished.

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Sing and Sixth Brother get chased by guard geese at the myseterious Black Hole godowns

We released this book two weeks ago, just before Singapore observed the 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore in WWII (15 Feb 1942). This is significant to us because the story ends when Singapore fell. What’s particularly unique about this book is it presents pre-war Singapore through the eyes of a local, and a child to boot. There is very little written of this period from a local’s perspective: most accounts of pre-war Singapore have been written by the British colonials then, and many local people of that time — except for the local elite — were not educated enough to do so. So this presents a rarely seen account of Singapore. Rest assured, though, this book is not pedantic, and the focus remains firmly on telling fun, enjoyable stories for kids.

My 83-year-old mother had written this initially as her own private memoir for herself and the family. She wanted to recapture her childhood as she had such an enjoyable time then, she told me. But she had such a lovely writing style and the stories were so playful, I persuaded her to let me turn it into a children’s book. There was some rewriting to do because we had to change the perspective from an adult’s retrospective to a first-person narrative in a child’s voice.

Meanwhile, we got a really talented artist Lim Anling to provide us lots of black and white illustrations to go along with it. And finally after a year’s work on it, the book is done, printed and released during the recent #buySinglit festival, a nation-wide weekend affair which focused on the growing body of Singapore literature.

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I am awfully proud of my mother, who has become a first-time author at 83! Lots of people who saw the book assumed that I had written it for her or translated it for her, assuming that she could not speak English (which indeed is quite typical of people in her age group). However my mother is an exceptional lady especially for her generation in Singapore. She not only speaks and writes perfect English, she also holds a Master’s degree in Chemistry (she was one of just a handful of girls in the university then). So no, I did not have to translate or write the book for her. I did it with her and it was such an honour to capture a slice of history with her!

It’s available at several bookstores in Singapore including Books Ahoy, Woods in the Books, Books Kinokuniya and online store localbooks.sg 

The Saturday Kitchen – Old School Coconut Candy

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
  • Print

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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