Tag Archives: nonya

Blue Ginger

Assam fish head curry

My family’s roots are Peranakan, and I am always in search of good nonya food – Straits-Chinese food heavily influenced by Malay cuisine and their wonderful spices.

Blue Ginger has been around in Singapore for many years – I vaguely recall eating there years ago when I was in my mid-20s but in those days, drinking was far more important to me than food. It’s not that alcohol has become less important, it’s just that these days food is of equal (dare I say if not more) importance.

We went recently with my visiting mum, who is ever-wanting yet one of the fiercest critics of Peranakan restaurants, and it passed with flying colours on all counts.

They have a simple menu with classic Nonya dishes, like fish-head curry (in either a rich coconut or more sour tamarind base), Ngo Heong – homemade rolls of minced pork and prawns seasoned with five-spices, wrapped and deep-fried and beef rendang – braised beef in rich coconut milk spiced with ginger, lemongrass and lime leaves till tender

Deep fried eggplant with a fresh chilli paste and sweet soya sauce

There were two standout dishes we had – assam (tamarind) fish head curry and the sambal terong goreng – deep-fried eggplant.

The fish head curry came in a complex broth that was a perfect balance of sweet and sour, with the red snapper steamed to perfect tenderness. Give me just that and a large bowl of rice, and I would be a happy girl.

But a girl’s also got to eat her vegetables, and although not the healthiest dish, the eggplant slices were flash fried so almost crispy on the outside but still juicy and moist inside, and smothered in a luminous fresh chilli paste and sweet soya sauce.

Spicy ? Hell, yeah ! But that’s what it’s all about.

It’s a small restaurant, and not surprisingly, very popular, so if you want to go, either for lunch or dinner, I’d strongly recommend booking ahead.

Blue Ginger
97 Tanjong Pagar Road
Singapore
Tel: +65 6222 3928

Open 7 days
Lunch : 12.00pm to 2.30pm
Dinner : 6.30pm to 10.30pm


My Mum’s Penang Loh Bak

My mum’s Penang loh-bak – Chinese five spice pork rolls

It’s actually my granddad’s recipe, which my grandmother used to cook with my mother, but this was the first time I had ever made these delicious strips of pork, marinated in Chinese five-spices, rolled in beancurd skin and then deep fried. Served with sliced fresh cucumber and chilli sauce these tasty, crispy morsels are totally more-ish.

Loh bak is a very traditional Penang Nonya dish and as with most of these types of dishes, the actual cooking is minimal – it’s all in the preparation.

As with a lot of traditional Nonya recipes, my mum cooks like my grandmother – everything is to taste, and I was so enjoying spending time with her in the kitchen that we both forgot to even try to guesstimate the quantity of the ingredients. Ah well, it just gives me more reason to do this again with her in the future and make sure this recipe is recorded for posterity.



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 Road Cafe

Char kway teow 

My mum’s back  in Singapore, and even though she is stopping over to visit en route to Penang, she still nodded enthusiastically when I told her that I had read a review of Penang Road Cafe and would like check it out with her.  It seems that the fate of every person from Penang is the endless pursuit of authentic Penang fare, no matter where they are.

As you enter the cafe, you are enveloped by the smell of spices and wok hei. Wok hei, literally translated is “wok air” and it is the flavour, tastes and “essence” that you get from frying your food in a very hot wok.  It’s a term that is often used to describe dishes like fried flat rice noodles (char kway teow) and fried noodle enthusiasts often rank the dishes according to this, as it reflects on the expertise of the chef and also the authenticity of the food.

There is a very limited menu, which makes deciding very easy, and to me, makes me think that they specialise in a few dishes, and (hopefully) do them well. And they sure do, here.

Penang hokkien mee

As a starter we ordered loh bak – strips of pork, marinated in chinese five spices, mixed with onion and water chestnuts and then rolled in tofu skin and deep fried. I can only think of why I have no photo of this is because it was so delicious that I was too busy eating it ! Melt in your mouth crispy on the outside, juicy and sweet inside, all it was missing was the thick dipping sauce that I am used to it being served with. At Penang Road Cafe, they serve it with a simple chilli and ginger sauce, which adds a nice heat to the dish.

The char kway teow – a classic Penang dish of wok-fried thick flat rice noodles with bean sprouts, prawns, chives, egg and chinese sausage and cockles – came next. Definitely where the wok hei aroma came from, with the noodles charred and crispy edged and the overall dish permeated with a delicious smoky flavour.  We ordered the special, which came with more prawns and cockles and also crab meat.  Not sure if the addition of crab meat worked here – if it ain’t broke…This dish is one of the standards of which many people rate entire restaurants/cafes just because anyone can fry noodles, but only a few can do them like this, and do them well.

The third dish that we ordered was the Penang Hokkien mee – rice vermicelli and yellow noodles served in a rich pork and prawn broth. Again, this is one of those dishes that is very popular and quite difficult to find where the stock is not “boosted” with sugar and MSG, leaving you thirsty for hours after eating it.  The hokkien mee at Penang Road Cafe was great – you get a mouthful of broth that is both savoury and sweet from hours of slow cooking the pork bones and prawns.

We would be so happy to go back there again to work through the menu – only so that we can run out of dishes and start at the beginning again !

Penang Road Cafe
275 Thomson Road
#01-08, Novena Ville
Tel: 62563218, 97862079

11.30am to 2.30pm
5.45pm to 9.15pm
Closed Mondays


Chinese New Year goodies

Kueh bangkit

The lunar new year is around the corner, which means lots of celebrations (which go for 15 days), primarily through eating and drinking with family and friends.

Leading up to lunar new year, treats are often shared, and this post is dedicated to my favourite Hokkien festive treats of cakes and cookies.

I have three favourites, although there are many more – kueh kapit, pineapple tarts and kueh bangkit.

Kueh kapit

Kueh kapit are delicate wafers that are made from a very thin batter made of coconut milk, rice and tapioca flour, sugar and eggs, that is poured onto cast-iron moulds – etched with graphic and symbolic representations of flowers, birds or animals – and then baked over charcoal.

I used to make them with my family when I was very young.  My grandmother, the expert who would patiently sit over the charcoal with the cast-iron moulds, would pour the batter to make sure the entire mould was evenly coated and check again and again to get just the right amount of colour on the kueh – too light meant the batter was not cooked properly, too dark meant the biscuit would be bitter. Once the batter was cooked she would quickly remove them from the still-hot moulds (she had chef fingers and didn’t seem to ever burn her fingers on the hot iron) and place them on a plate and then get back to battering the mould to make the next biscuit.  Then it was my sister’s and my turn to work quickly while the crepe was still pliable, folding the round crepe into a triangular fan shape.  (We also got to eat the “mistakes” heehee).  It was time consuming and labour intensive, and I have very fond memories of the family bonding while we made these.

Kueh kapit are also called Love Letters, and the history of these is that they were a way for lovers to communicate in olden times – the edible quality of the messages ensured the absence of proof and consumption of the heartfelt message was also seen as a sign that the lover’s words had been taken to heart.

Pineapple tarts

The origins of pineapple tarts is not as poetic as kueh kapit – pineapple in hokkien is ong lai, which literally translated is “prosperity has come”, and serving and eating pineapple tarts is thought to bring good luck and prosperity to the house. Fresh pineapple is grated and slowly cooked over a low heat until it all the sugars have caramelised.  This mixture is then traditionally placed on top of a medallion of butter pastry. Variations have come about where the pineapple is completely encased in pastry – this is the favourite in our house because I think the pastry seems to melt on your tongue before you get to the almost chewy pineapple.

Kueh bangkit

Kueh bangkit – tapioca cookies – are traditional nonya cookies and their history is hard to find.  From what I can gather, they were originally used for alter offerings for the ancestors and/or for the departed to spend in their next life, and hence were made in the shape of the currency of ancient China. Today they are made in various animal or floral shapes with their own symbolic meaning such as goldfish (prosperity), butterflies (afterlife), peonies (faith) and chrysanthemums (fortune). Each cookie traditionally was marked with a red dot, which I would love to know the meaning of, so please, if you know, post the answer in the comments section.

Made from tapioca flour, eggs and coconut milk they are sweet bite-sized morsels that bursts into dry powdery bits when bitten and then immediately melt in your mouth. The perfect kuih bangkit has to be dry and crispy and light as a feather and almost ‘hollow’ sounding when you tap it. Apparently horrendously difficult to perfect, I am quite happy to buy ones that someone has slaved over to make.

Actually, all three of these, as well as most Chinese New Year treats, are all time consuming and very fiddly to make.  I suppose from my experience from long ago with the kueh kapit, the idea is that it is not just about the eating of the treats, but it’s time spent as a family making them and promoting family unity for the lunar new year.  More to come on other food around the new year. Gong xi fa cai !


Peramakan

Udang goreng assam – tamarind prawns

After a week of eating local food with my visiting family, serving food that makes the entire table go “yum” is no small feat, something that Peramakan managed to do last night.

We’ve been there before and made the mistake of ordering dishes with the same curry sauce but with different ingredients – eg eggplant, ladies fingers, chicken, prawns etc.  But with a little planning (and a check with the wait staff) you can have a table full of completely different curries.  My dad commented that it seemed hard to believe that curry with the same base ingredients of onions, garlic and chilli, can taste so different from dish to dish.

Beef rendang

We ordered the beef rendang – beef that has been slowly cooked in coconut milk and spices for hours until tender and most of the liquid has evaporated, which allows the meat to absorb the spicy condiments.  It’s a classic nonya dish and Peramakan does it very well.

We also ordered ikan panggang – half a baby red snapper marinaded in spices and grilled, served on a banana leaf.  Think chilli stingray but with fish – delicious.  The peranakan fried rice was also great – a simple dish of rice fried with dry prawns, eggs, squids, prawns and sambal belachan, garnished with sliced red chillies, fried shallots and coriander/spring onions.

The udang goreng assam or tamarind prawns were also a hit – fried whole prawns still in the shell and then covered in a sticky sweet tamarind sauce.

If you’re looking for delicious and authentic Peranakan food, this is the place to head to.

Peramakan
Level 3, Keppel Club
10 Bukit Chermin Road
Singapore 109918
(5 minutes drive from Vivo City/HarbourFront)

Tel: 65 63772829

Open everyday, including Sundays and public holidays for lunch and dinner.
Lunch: 11:30 am to 3:00 pm (last order: 2:30 pm)
Dinner: 6:00 pm to 10:00 pm (last order: 9:30 pm


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