Tag Archives: acar

RIP Grandma Khoo 1918 – 2012

Grandma Khoo’s chilli paste in action in a beef rendang

It seems like ages since I posted anything. I was excited a few weeks ago to share some of the fab eats I managed to squeeze in while in New York for work, and then en route home to Singapore I found out the sad news that my grandmother had passed away on the first day of Chinese New Year.  Highs and lows like I’ve never experienced before.

I do understand that she was just part of a generation that I just think was made of tougher stuff than mine, but I am still in awe of who she was – growing up in the small island of Penang in Malaysia, uneducated and not that well-off, she managed to raise eight children, one of whom she “lost” in the war, and three who passed away before their time. She taught herself English enough to get by when she came to stay with us in Sydney, and looked after my sister and I with both my parents working at the time.

And of course, she cooked.

My grandmother was Nonya, so the food she cooked – Peranakan – had influences from Chinese and Malay cuisines. I have some of her recipes which she shared with me years ago, but trying to replicate when she gave measures like “a few eggshells of water” or “enough liquid to cover your first finger knuckle” (no matter how much rice was being cooked) truly tested my ability to taste but allows for true personalisation.

I’dlike to share a few recipes with you that remind me of her. Because she cooked them with love, for my family and I.

Chilli paste used to make chicken curry

Grandma Khoo’s famous sambal chilli paste blend

This is one of those chilli pastes that forms the basis of sooo many Peranakan dishes and can strangely take on different flavours if you add stock or coconut cream, additional spices, and even the type of protein you use. Make sure you have plenty of good ventilation before frying this paste up or you’re house will smell of curry for days after – it’s potent stuff. I’m going to try to give you some measurements as close as I could come by.

Ingredients

  1. 2 large handfuls dried red chillies, soaked in warm water for at least an hour
  2. 1 cup shallots, peeled
  3. 2 thumb sized pieces of galangal
  4. 6 stalks lemongrass
  5. 1 head of garlic, peeled
  6. good pinch of salt
  7. good pinch of sugar
  8. thumb-sized piece of belacan – dried shrimp paste *optional – this is pungent stuff and may put many people off but it actually adds a mellow umami undertone, similar to anchovies, that makes all the difference

Method

Pull the stalks off the chillies and remove as many seeds as possible. Pop all the ingredients in a blender (grandma used to blend all of these painstakingly with a mortar and pestle before she discovered food processors) and store in an airtight container. It should keep in the fridge for up to 10 days and in the freezer for 3 months. You can use this as a base for dishes like chicken curry with coconut cream, or assam fish curry, with tamarind stock. Experiment and let me know how you go !

Acar (pronounced a-char)

This is a nonya pickle that is great accompaniment to balance out the richness in a lot of nonya dishes.

Ingredients

  1. 1 large carrot, 2 radishes, 1 medium cucumber (skinned and deseeded) – juliened to similar sized sticks
  2. 1 red and 1 green chilli, sliced on the diagonal
  3. 2 tbl white sesame seeds
  4. 1 thumb sized piece of tumeric root – cut into think sticks (use ginger if you don’t have access to this and add 1/2-1 tbl tumeric powder)
  5. sugar and salt to taste
  6. enough white vinegar to cover the vegetables in whatever you decide to store them in
  7. you can also add in cauliflower florets and pineapple to the dish

Method

  1. Blanche the carrot, radish and cauliflower with boiling water. They need to stay crunchy, so I would almost cover them with boiling water, let them sit for 30 seconds then strain
  2. Fry the tumeric root in some oil until fragrant. Remove and discard
  3. Add the vinegar to the pan and bring to the boil
  4. Add the vegetables, stirring regularly for 4-5 minutes
  5. Store in a glass container (not plastic or metal) in the fridge for a few hours before serving to allow the flavours to develop

Penang buffet at Copthorne Kings Hotel

Nasi lemak – coconut rice with chilli anchovies and peanuts

Whenever my parents visit me in Singapore, there’s always a line-up of peranakan food.  My grandmother was nonya, and my mother craves the food she grew up with in Penang.  There are a handful of Malaysian restaurants in Sydney, but there isn’t the demand for Sydney to import a few of the spices and herbs that you need to make it authentically Penang cuisine.

Today I took them to the Kings Hotel where there is a Penang buffet – so not just Malaysian, which encompasses Malay, nonya, maybe even Indian – this is pure nonya food.  And what a spread it is.  It’s not the most glamourous places to eat – the hotel looks a bit dated from the newer hotels, but the food is so good, I visibly watched my mum eat herself into a stupor.

The variety on offer is huge and the buffet-style means you can sample a little of everything.

chee cheong fan

I started with chee cheong fan, steamed rice rolls, topped with a simple drizzle of sesame oil, hoisin sauce and a sprinkle of sesame seeds.  The rice rolls were thin and slipped easily down your throat.  Deliciously simple. Simply delicious.

Penang otak – steamed golden snapper in coconut custard

This was followed by nonya otak.  Otak is fish with herbs in a curried coconut broth that is steamed in a banana leaf.  It’s been so long since I’ve had otak this way – in Singapore it’s barbequed and the end result is a lot more fishcake-like rather than custard in texture.  When it’s steamed, it turns out as a delicate piece of heaven.

Penang asam laksa

There was also Penang laksa available.  Again, this differs from the more popular laksa that is made with curry and coconut cream, with the stock made from mackerel and tamarind, so it is clear(ish) and has a distinguishing sour taste.  The fish is first poached and then flaked and the stock includes lemongrass, galangal, chilli, pineapple, mint, thinly sliced onion, sweet prawn paste and the pink bud of the ginger flower.  It’s one dish that the very mention of which can make my sister salivate on demand and very rare to find.  Needless to say that was a favourite on our table.

Selection of nonya kueh

Too many other dishes followed, including Penang Hokkien mee soup, which was topped off with fried bits of pork lard (sounds awful, tastes wonderful), acar, a salad of cucumber, carrots and cabbage pickled in aromatic spices and vinegar and then tossed in crushed peanuts and of course nonya kueh, traditional nonya dessert cakes, made authentically and made with the perfect balance of sweet and savoury.  A perfect way to end a perfect afternoon of nonya delights.

All in all, highly recommended for hard-core Peranakan devotees.

Copthorne King’s Hotel Singapore
Princess Terrace Cafe
403 Havelock Road
Singapore
Tel: 65 6733 0011