My Granny the Nonya

“It is my grandmother who taught me that to eat well is to live well. Thus, knowing how to feed oneself and the people one cares about in a fine fashion is what gives real meaning to life itself. To nourish the body is to nourish the soul. This is the motto by which she comports herself; such is her devotion to her family and to cooking for them. This is the food of love and surely a secret to happiness well worth telling on…”
– an excerpt from Nostalgia is the most Powerful Seasoning by Joycelyn Shu

If you have not already heard of pastry queen Joycelyn Shu, head over to her acclaimed blog KUIDAORE
where she showcases her intricate sugarcraft, fondant techniques as well as wondrous baked goods that always look too good to eat. I first stumbled upon Kuidaore when I was hunting for pastry classes in Singapore, a quick browse of Shermay’s Cooking School website brought me over her blog. What captivated me was how dedicated she was to creating each and every item, no matter how painstaking it might take, her craft is an art and her technique – flawless.

Her debut food narrative Nostalgia is the most Powerful Seasoning (as above) resonates well with me, the grand-daughter of a Peranakan matriarch. In fact, many Peranakan daughters and grand-daughters would be able to identify with Joycelyn’s roots in a family where food is culture and soul and one can never have too much good food. Her book reminds me of how sorely I miss my own granny.

My Grandmother passed on early this year, a few months after my wedding. At the ripe old age of 83, she had an aura and a spritely personality that was unmistakably, Peranakan. When Ah-ma (as we affectionately called her) walked me to school or brought me out to the markets, I would proudly stride beside her as I held her hand, as if showcasing my pretty granny in the Nonya Kebaya. Even when she stopped donning her kebayas in her later years, the nonya in her always spoke for itself in her many delicious kitchen concoctions. She filled my home with the smell of home-made sambal belachan every month, taught me how to wrap glutinous rice dumplings (which I foolishly thought were as easy as origami till all my dumplings fell apart in the pot), and showed me how to create the clipped patterns on my favourite kueh bangkit cookies.  I also remember her toiling over the cast-iron, charcoal stoved “love letters” imprinting tool whenever Chinese New Year was round the corner, she would make the fluffiest batter for these nonya egg rolls and the aroma, akin to caramelized kaya would have me reaching endlessly for the light and crispy “kueh neng kou”. I have to say, that I unknowingly caught the cooking bug from ah-ma, and  regretfully only started picking up her countless cooking secrets during the last few years of her life.

Food was her way of showing love for her family; she lived vicariously through her cooking and looked forward to reunion meals where preparations for the spread went as far back as 2 weeks before the actual affair. Ah-ma piqued my interest in nonya food and I could only hope to channel at least an inkling of that feisty Peranakan in her. I decided to tread carefully when on unfamiliar ground – as nonya as my blood is, my nonya cooking skills are merely sub-par and untrained! Indeed, Joycelyn Shu’s book made me wish all over again that ah ma was still around to give me cooking tips. But of course, ambitious me had to pick 2 perennial peranakan favourites – Nonya Ayam Pongteh (which A gave a thumbs up to for a weeknight dinner) and Nonya Mee Siam (which I cooked, to much success for my entire family on Mum’s birthday this year. The effort was worth it as even my fussy eater mummy said it was yummy and Dad polished off the entire pot of gravy. Yay!)

Nonya Ayam Pongteh Recipe (Chicken and Potato Stew)
Adapted from House of Annie

Ingredients:
2 shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
5 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1/4 cup oil
1/4 cup taucheo (fermented bean sauce)
1 Tbsp dark soy sauce
1 Tbsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp palm sugar, chopped
4 to 5 chicken thighs (bones removed and cut into coarse pieces)
4 small boiling potatoes and/or 1 carrot (Yukons or Reds will hold better than Russets), peeled and cut into large pieces
3 cups of water
Salt to taste

Directions:

  •  Pound shallots and garlic into a coarse paste. Set aside.
  • Heat oil over medium heat, add shallots and garlic paste and fry for about 2 minutes, making sure not to burn the paste.
  • Add tauheo, dark soy sauce, and palm sugar. Stir till palm sugar has dissolved and liquid has thickened, about 30 seconds.
  • Add chicken, potatoes and the 3 cups of water. Bring to a boil.
  • When the water boils, reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 1 hour or until the chicken is tender.
  • Season with salt and soy sauce to taste. Serve hot with steamed rice.

And for the mee siam, nothing rivals ex-first lady, Mrs Wee Kim Wee’s recipe. Yes it is a very tedious dish to cook, and hardly what I imagined a mee siam  recipe to look like, but rest assured your hard work will be rewarded, especially when your guests starts slurping their gravy coated vermicelli. I reckon what makes this recipe a winner is the frying of the coconut milk to extract the curds which are so flavourful. Try this on a day when you have all morning to spare, you have been warned! =P

SOK HIONG’S MEE SIAM 
Adapted from Cooking for the President, by Wee Eng Hwa (Recipe for 12 full sized portions)


Ingredients:
Bee hoon
1 kg coarse dried bee hoon (Chinese rice vermicelli)
6 large pieces firm beancurd (960 g)
vegetable oil for deep-frying
540 ml fresh undiluted coconut milk (2¼ cups) or 1 kg grated coconut, squeeze for 480 ml for ‘1st milk’, plus cream of 480 ml ‘2nd milk’
40 g dried chillies (soaked in warm water till soft, about 30 minutes; squeeze dry)
375 g shallots (peeled, washed, and pound with dried chillies till fine)
8 g belachan (toast till dry and pound till fine to yield 2 tsp powder)
90 g light brown taucheo (fermented soya bean paste)
130 ml tomato ketchup
salt to taste

  • To prepare bee hoon, cook in boiling water till soft but still springy. Do not overcook. Refresh in cold water to stop the cooking. Set aside to drain.
  • Halve each piece of beancurd and cut crosswise 5 mm thick. Deep-fry in hot oil over medium-high heat for 5 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low. Continue frying till lightly golden (mine were a bit too brown). Remove and divide into 2 equal portions.
  • Fry coconut milk over low heat till oil separates and curds form. Increase heat to medium. Fry till curds are medium brown. Drain to separate curds and oil. You should now have about 100 ml coconut oil, 100 g curds. Set oil aside, grind curds till fine.
  • With coconut oil made, stir-fry dried chillies and shallots over medium to low heat till reddish brown and aromatic. If paste sticks to wok, drizzle with some water, scrape to loosen sticky bits, then continue frying. Add 2 tsp belachan powder and stir through. Push mixture aside.
  •  Fry 90g of taucheo in 1 tbs of oil. Fry till aromatic, adding some water and scraping if it sticks. Stir taucheo and chilli paste together. Turn off heat. Leave till cool. Add tomato ketchup, coconut curds and salt. Mix thoroughly. Add bee hoon and half of fried beancurd. Using (clean) hands, toss till thoroughly mixed. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Cover and set aside. Allow to come to room temperature before serving.

Sauce
40 g dried chillies (
soaked in warm water till soft, about 30 minutes; squeeze dry)
375 shallots (peel, wash and pound with dried chillies till fine)
12 g belachan (toast till dry and pound till fine to yield 1 tbsp powder)
120 g light brown taucheo (fermented soya bean paste)
30 prawns weighing about 700 g prawns
60 g assam jawa (tamarind paste)
80 g sugar
2 tsp salt

  • To make the sauce, stir-fry dried chillies and shallots in 100 ml vegetable oil over medium to low heat till reddish brown and aromatic. If paste sticks to wok, drizzle with 1 tbsp water, scrape to loosen sticky bits, then continue frying. Add 1 tbsp belachan powder and stir through. Push mixture to one side.
  • Put 1 tbsp vegetable oil in the middle of the wok. Add 120 g taucheo. Fry till intensely aromatic, adding 1 tbsp water and scraping if it sticks. Stir taucheo and chilli paste together. Set aside.
  • Shell and devein prawns, leaving tails on. Dry-fry shells and heads till red and fragrant. Add enough water to cover, along with assam gelugoh, assam paste, sugar and salt. Bring to a boil and simmer gently, covered, for 15 minutes.
  • Remove and discard shells, leaving only stock. Poach prawns in the stock till just cooked. Remove to cool down. Measure stock and top up with water to 1.4 litres. Add fried chilli paste. Stir through. Bring back to a boil. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Turn off heat.

Before serving, top it off with:
350 g Chinese chives, wash, trim and cut 2 cm long

5 hard-boiled eggs, peel and slice crosswise
6 calamansi limes, halve crosswise and discard seeds
Tofu puffs (cut into strips and dunked into the gravy)

  • To serve, heat up sauce if necessary. Place bee hoon in a plate. Add sauce sparingly, about ½ cup for each full size portion, enough to coat. Top with eggs, poached prawns, chives and half a lime.
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