The Art of Nonya Cooking

Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen: Singapore Recipes from My Mother is a cookbook and more. The book by Sharon Wee, a Singaporean who lives in New York now,  is also a memoir, a record of the life, and meals, of a Peranakan family living in Singapore in the last century. The Peranakan Chinese are descendants of Chinese immigrants to Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore in the 15th – 17th centuries. The men are called Babas and the women Nonya. The author and her publisher, Marshall Cavendish, kindly gave permission to reprint a chapter and two delicious recipes from the book.

Chapter Ten Our Daily Fare

We did not always eat elaborate meals. While my mother cooked all these special occasion meals, threw parties and made cookies and Bak Chang to sell; she left the daily meals in the care of the maid. Ah Seng the delivery grocer came daily and recommended his fresh picks from the market. Without fail each morning, my mother would sigh “Ini hari masak apa?” (“What should I cook today?”), somewhat at a loss about how best to feed her brood with a variety of dishes. Yet, she never truly veered far off from a repertoire that we grew up on, recipes she knew by heart but which upon later research, I realized had been adapted from the cookbooks of Ellice Handy, Tham Yui Kai or Huang Su Huei.

She could be adventurous. When KFC first arrived, one of its first outlets was in Siglap. I loved KFC, which I still do today. My mother retrieved some fried chicken recipes from her Malay friends and replicated the entire meal for us, right down to the cole slaw and mashed potatoes, side dishes rather alien to us then.

My father was very much an old-school Baba who believed that daily dinner should consist of a soup, one vegetable, perhaps some pickles and Belachan, and two other dishes consisting of meat or fish. These were served family style, with plain white rice as the staple. It was his habit to scoop soup and drizzle it over his plain rice.

Early on, we all scooped from a large communal soup bowl. Over time, it seemed only healthier to have our individual soup bowls. Besides, we also placed a serving spoon for each dish. We ate with a mish mash of cutlery. Contrary to the impression that all Babas ate with their fingers, we used the fork and spoon, following the Anglo-Indian tradition.

We used to eat a lot more deep-fried food then. The oil used to fry these foods was siphoned off into a metal storage can and recycled for the next frying. MSG vetsin was a staple. Vegetables were not always featured, a habit that was the hardest to break after years of thinking that vegetables were too cheap to serve.

Because my parents lived through and survived the war, they were always very careful to store plenty of rice in the house. On the morning of September 11, 2001, the first thing my father told me when we talked on the phone was “Quick, rush downstairs and stock up on rice and canned food.”

The Babas had their idiosyncratic customs. Watery rice porridge was only served if someone was ill! So even if we craved and cooked porridge, someone might exclaim “Siapa sakit?” (“Who’s sick?”).

I will best remember my father for his fondness for breakfasts. A few of these memorable dishes included tinned corn beef or sardines mashed with fresh cut red chilies and onions;  or bread toast with a topping of fried minced pork. Mornings smelled of a strange concoction of his Brylcreem hair cream and whatever was for breakfast.

My father sometimes came home late in the evenings after a long day at the orchid nursery or a game of mahjong. He used to bring home chicken murtabak from Adam Road; or seafood horfun wrapped in the white opau leaves. He was sometimes full of surprises upon his return. Once, he came back with two kittens for me. Another, he boxed up a live turkey. The turkey messed up the bathroom at the back and my father expected my mother to find a way to slaughter it in time for Christmas.

My father passed on a talent to our sister Beng. Both have a knack for finding nooks and corners in Singapore selling delicious food. Many years ago, Beng held her son’s seventh birthday party at a divey Telok Kurau corner coffee shop. One of the stalls there served chili crab which Beng insisted was “out of this world”. By the end of the night, my father ranted that Beng was “out of her mind” hosting his grandson’s birthday party in what he considered a dingey place. A few years later, a famous French chef, Jean Georges Vongerichten, told The Wall Street Journal that one of his favorite Asian places to eat at was this particular chili crab stall. By the same token, my father used to take me to the back kitchen of a Malay house in Telok Kurau. They sold lontongfor breakfast which only those in the know knew about. The owner of the house actually stood by the door to collect money. Taxi drivers and security guards came by to eat.

Later on, my father got interested in Indian thosai sold in Ceylon Road. When my husband first visited Singapore, he used to run by the beach and then meet up with my father who had his early morning swim with his retiree friends. From there, my father would bike to Ceylon Road while my husband would run alongside him. They would take a break and have their thosai breakfast.

My father also introduced Tracy to murtabak and the two of them swore by Zam Zam along Arab Road. It became a ritual to touch down at Changi Airport and then zoom off to Zam Zam every time we visited Singapore.

Our family had a passion for consuming delicious food, whether they were legally sold or not. In the afternoons, we would wait for the fat pau man who came on a tricycle cart, the front of which was a multi-tier steamer containing siew maihar kow and cha siew pao. Molly also had a standing account with the Magnolia ice cream man who drove by at 3pm daily in his lightweight three-wheel scooter van to deliver Magnolia chocolate milk, and potong ice cream sandwiched with light golden wafers. Most memorable of all was the Malay satay man who came with a grill tucked at the back of his bicycle. One day, he stationed himself outside Aunty Paddy’s house, fanning the beef and chicken satay for us, laughing and joking and surrounded by a crowd of us neighbors, all of us oblivious to the fact that the Ministry of Health inspectors had just closed in. They lifted the man’s bike with all our satay still on the grill, and hopped back into the van. They drove off, never to be seen again.

Weekends, one of us often walked to the old Siglap market to shop for chai tow kway, chwee kway, packet nasi lemak, putu mayam or mee pok. I liked my chai tow kway especially black with the sweet sauce and egg-crispy around the edges. We would never forget to buy tauhway chwee (fresh soy milkin rectangular packets suspended by thin red plastic strings.

Lunch was sometimes a trip to Katong to pick up kon loh meenchicken rice or our family favorite, o pau. Tay Buan Guan was the supermarket we grew up with and it was a treat for me as a child to go there. I could sit in the supermarket trolley, I got my first Easter chocolate bunny from there and had my first whiff of strawberries which we rarely bought because they were pricey. I always longed for those plump and fragrant strawberries and from young, associated them with what was best and fresh about living overseas.

My mother personally trained each new maid the rudiments of her cooking and then supervised them over a repertoire of our regular meals. They also assisted whenever she personally prepared the Sunday meals and party buffets. to their native countries that they would in turn, open their own restaurants. After my mother passed away, my sister in fact re-employed a former housekeeper simply because she knew how we ate and could replicate the dishes that my father was accustomed to.

As my parents got older, they spent their leisurely afternoons being served tea or Milo, along with some pastries. I guess you could strip the old British colonial surroundings away from them, but never the traditions instilled from young.

Recipe for Making Tauk Yu Bak (Pork Cubes Simmered in Dark Soya Sauce Gravy)

In a typical Baba household, a sick person would typically be fed bubor (rice porridge) and tauk yu bak. This is a signature comfort dish. The fatty pork, crunchy taupok and hard-boiled eggs combine to give different textures; and the sauce adds flavour for the accompanying rice or porridge.

Ch10 Tauyew Bak

makes 6 to 8 servings

680 g or 1 pound belly pork, cut into 1-inch or 2.5-cm cubes with skin intact
2 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons oil
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 cups water
4 hard-boiled eggs
4 pieces deep fried bean curd (taupok), quartered

1. Rinse and pat dry the pork cubes. Season with the sugar and 2 tablespoons of the dark soy sauce. Leave to marinate for at least half an hour.

2. Heat a saucepan and add the oil. Fry the minced garlic, being careful not to burn. Add in the seasoned pork. Use tongs to turn the pork over several times to ensure an even glaze all around each piece of pork.

3. Add the water and remaining soy sauce. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and cover. Simmer covered, for at least an hour until the pork is tender, skimming the scum and excess oil off the gravy every once in a while.

4. Remove shells off the boiled eggs. Add the eggs and quartered bean curd puffs to the dish. Serve warm with rice or rice porridge.

Recipe for Making Roti Babi (Bread Toast topped with Minced Pork and Prawn (Shrimp))

My all-time favourite sinful sandwich is roti babi, especially delicious when the bread is crispy yet drenched in oil, top heavy with a tasty pork and prawn (shrimp) stuffing. We sometimes had it at tea-time and I still can recall the warm fried aromas in the middle of a hot afternoon.

Roti babi

makes 6 to 8 servings

12 square slices white bread
450 g or 1 pound minced pork
230 g or 8 ounces prawns (shrimps), minced finely
2 eggs
1 yellow onion, diced finely
1 red or green chilli, deseeded and diced finely
1 bunch coriander leaves (cilantro), stems removed, chopped finely
1 teaspoons cornflour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce
4 cups vegetable oil

1. Toast the bread slightly to stiffen the bread. Then spread some butter on each side.

2. Meanwhile, combine the minced pork, minced prawns, egg, onion, chillies, coriander leaves, cornflour, salt, light soy sauce, and Lea & Perrins sauce. Knead into a fine mixture.

3. Scoop a tablespoon of the pork topping on each slice of bread and spread the topping with the back of the spoon.

4. Heat a sauté pan over medium heat and add the oil until it reaches about 4 cm or 1 inch deep. When the oil is hot, use a slotted spatula to transfer three to four slices of bread to the pan. Do not overfill the pan with too many slices of bread. Use the spatula to gently press down the topping on the bread to ensure that the meat is fully fried in oil. When the bread turns light brown, turn it over. Flip back to the top again and transfer to a plate lined with absorbent paper. Best served when warm. For children, a simpler topping would include just minced pork, cornflour, salt and light soy sauce.

Chapter and recipes are reprinted with permission from Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen: Singapore Recipes from My Mother, Marshall Cavendish International (Asia) Pte Ltd.

Sharon Wee explains why and how she wrote her book on her blog. It is interesting to learn, for instance, that the peacock embroidery on the chapter pages comes from the kebaya that Wee’s mother wore at her daughter’s wedding.

About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

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