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.
- 2 large handfuls dried red chillies, soaked in warm water for at least an hour
- 1 cup shallots, peeled
- 2 thumb sized pieces of galangal
- 6 stalks lemongrass
- 1 head of garlic, peeled
- good pinch of salt
- good pinch of sugar
- 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
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.
- 1 large carrot, 2 radishes, 1 medium cucumber (skinned and deseeded) – juliened to similar sized sticks
- 1 red and 1 green chilli, sliced on the diagonal
- 2 tbl white sesame seeds
- 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)
- sugar and salt to taste
- enough white vinegar to cover the vegetables in whatever you decide to store them in
- you can also add in cauliflower florets and pineapple to the dish
- 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
- Fry the tumeric root in some oil until fragrant. Remove and discard
- Add the vinegar to the pan and bring to the boil
- Add the vegetables, stirring regularly for 4-5 minutes
- Store in a glass container (not plastic or metal) in the fridge for a few hours before serving to allow the flavours to develop