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Authentic flavours of Asian heritage food
WHAT IS Nasi Liwet? Or pempek? Ju hu char? Mallung or Wambatu Moju?
They are passwords to rich Asian food cultures - not something to be found in a self-touting heritage restaurant but on the tables of private homes blessed with a family member who cooks with heart, history and “argaration”. The latter being defined as a severe mistrust of measuring tools in favour of “a pinch of this and 20 cents worth of that”.
Once the privilege of just immediate family members and selected friends, a younger generation of home cooks (and professional private chefs) schooled in such traditions are letting others in on the joys of honestto-goodness heritage food. Some dishes are familiar, some are not, but these cooks’ emphasis on small-batch cooking means attention to detail, authenticity and most important, a loving tribute to their own cultural traditions.
A BIBIK’S TALE
There are Indonesian families in Singapore who might get their favourite snack Pempek imported in frozen form, but private chef Joseph Yeo has been eating fresh ones all his life, made by his now 80-year-old Indonesian nanny who has been living with his family for the past 40 years.
Pempek is an Indonesian-style chewy, doughy fish cake snack made from fish paste and tapioca flour - both indigenous ingredients in Palembang, Sumatra, where the Javanese-born Bibik worked as a housekeeper for various homes including a prominent Chinese family. She came to Singapore to take care of Chef Yeo when he was a baby, and he credits her with honing his palate and inspiring him to become a professional chef. Now, she helps to take care of his own three children, while teaching him the finer points of traditional Indonesian cuisine in the process.
He is currently trying to master the Pempekdough, a tricky mixture that can be too firm or too wet if the proportions are not right. So it’s still Bibik who turns out the perfectly chewy morsels in different variations - just with flour or with fish paste manually scraped from whole Spanish mackerel. Plain or stuffed with egg, they’re delicious bathed in chuka - a spicy sweet vinaigrette, and she also does killer mini torpedo-shaped versions stuffed with a caramelised dried shrimp and chilli paste that needs a fire alert.
“Bibik is fantastic at sambal and rempahbased dishes,” says Chef Yeo who now offers a limited menu under his home-based Gourmandise Unique Dining Experiences.
There’s rich and aromatic Ayam Opor - a non-spicy curry of chicken braised in coconut, herbs and turmeric; Sambal UdangGoreng with shrimp, tempeh and tofu; Sayur Assam - mixed vegetables braised in a tangy, tamarind-based broth; Bakwan Jagung - a fluffy fritter of corn, shallots and spring onions; and Telur Pindang - hard-boiled eggs braised in soy sauce, herbs, shallots and palm sugar.
“I wanted this menu to show that Asian food is labour-intensive and an art form on its own,” says Chef Yeo. The technique of making rempah is extremely difficult but super important since it’s the heart of the cuisine. I do feel responsible, in a way, to learn and pass down such unique recipes since I’ve had first hand experience thanks to Bibik, and in a way, I wanted to honour her and the many years we’ve spent together.”
Individual sets priced from S$23 and sets for two from S$42 including rice and dessert. Prawns can be excluded in case of allergies. Pempek is priced from S$2.50 upwards a piece. To order, call Chef Yeo at 9663-5541 or DM him on Instagram @josephyeois
SRI LANKAN FINESSE
Roshini Dharmapala’s day job is running her own private chef business 2Gud2Eat, focusing mainly on the classic French cuisine that she mastered at Le Cordon Bleu, where she graduated at the top of her class. But there’s always a space in her heart for the food of Sri Lanka, where she grew up on her grandmother’s cooking and no doubt inherited the matriarch’s meticulous approach to this colourful, spice-infused cornucopia of culinary influences.
For an authentic initiation into the food and culture of Sri Lanka, Chef Dharmapala is a knowledgeable and engaging teacher for small events or lessons hosted at her cooking studio. Alternatively, she can also prepare intricate meals for enjoying at home.
Sri Lankan food is shaped by different historical and cultural factors including South Indian, Portuguese and Dutch, thanks to the spice trade which also lent some Indonesian input as well.
“The beauty of our food lies in its diversity of cooking styles,” says Chef Dharmapala, who cooks Sinhalese-style. “Depending on where you travel to in the country, Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim styles of cooking will differ from one region to the other - for example, the types of oils, spice combinations and vegetables available locally.”
The difference between Sri Lankan and Indian food is in the use of coconut milk, she explains. “This changes the flavour profile making Sri Lankan curries lighter and not too rich. Cooking methods are slightly different with the use of different oils like coconut oil and the combination of spices. In Sri Lanka, curry powders are used for many different preparations and each region/family has its own style of cooking.”
The best way to enjoy Sri Lankan food is to have rice with multiple dishes such as Fish Ambulthiyal or sour fish curry which has a heady, slightly pungent aroma of spices which also turns the fish (fresh tuna) black. Mallung is perky, almost salad-like lightly sautéed shredded leaves, and Wambatu Moju is a sweet sour brinjal pickle that whets the appetite along with beetroot curry, creamy dahl and pol sambol - a relish that’s a must at every meal.
Incidentally, Chef Dharmapala also makes a mean lamprais - a banana leaf-wrapped bundle of rice stuffed with curry, potato cutlets, chutneys, sambal and the like. Even in Sri Lanka, the best cooking is found in homes, and Chef Dharmapala’s cooking amounts to a standing invitation to hers.
To order, contact Chef Dharmapala on Facebook at 2Gud2Eat, email at firstname.lastname@example.org or WhatsApp at 9025-8643
Colourful mounds of turmeric-hued rice crowned with a banana leaf cone and surrounded by a bountiful spread of dishes are what pull you towards the Instagram account of Hunter’s Kitchen, showcasing the cooking prowess of Indonesian-Peranakan Christina Hunter.
“I’ve been cooking for pretty much as long as I can remember,” says the stay-athome mother of two boys who also helps her brother to run the family’s bird’s nest business, Pawan River Bird’s Nest. “Most of my Indonesian recipes come from my grandmother or my Mum.”
She hails from Ketapang in West Borneo, where she grew up and later moved to England before settling in Singapore 10 years ago. While adept at cooking Western food, she started cooking more Indonesian dishes as her sons got older and could appreciate it more. She was also cooking for friends either at her home or theirs, “and they’ve always suggested that I cook to share with others,” she adds. “I never believed until recently that others would enjoy my food so much.”
Her specialty is Nasi Liwet, originating in Java but popular throughout Indonesia, says Ms Hunter. “It’s traditionally served for gatherings of friends and family - almost a kind of Rijsttafel, with several side dishes for a nice diversity of tastes.”
With her penchant for healthy but tasty food, the rice in her Nasi Liwet has no coconut milk, relying on spices for its flavour, including turmeric for colour and crispy anchovies on top. For the side dishes, she braises whole chicken legs in spices and sweet soy sauce for hours before grilling them. “All the spices are freshly ground. I also cook everything in small batches for flavour and freshness.” Corn fritters use kernels shaved from the cob, while her sambal belacan is made from scratch, which required “years of trial and error to get the right balance”. Her orek tempeh is super addictive, comprisingthinly sliced tempeh cooked in spices and sweet soy sauce for a chewy caramelised side dish.
“My Soto Tangkar is also popular - a traditional beef soup which was a great comfort food during Circuit Breaker. I also have a few western specials I learnt from my mother -in-law such as steak and ale pie.” But like most home cooks, she’s not doing it for the money but “it’s really about seeing others enjoy my food and appreciate Indonesian cuisine more”.
Priced from S$15 a head. To order, DM her on Instagram at @hunterskitchensg
A mixed heritage meant that Portuguese-Eurasian (aka Kristang) Gerardine Majella Pinto was exposed to different culinary influences growing up that she would parlay into a formidable repertoire when she had children of her own.
Born in Kuala Lumpur, she learned to cook Kristang dishes - roughly defined as a melting pot of Nonya, Chinese, Malay recipes with some Western touches in the form of baked goods such as sugee cake. She and her father would teach his friends how to cook Kristang specialties and in turn she learned how to cook Chinese and other Malaysian dishes as well. She and her parents also made pie tee shells, achar and cakes for friends and family, while also cooking for extended family gatherings. Moving to Singapore to raise her family - her daughter Maxine Ngooi is a pastry chef - Ms Pinto even ran a creperie restaurant Creperie Ar-men from 2003 to 2007.
While Circuit Breaker cut short her plans to start a small home dining business, she started sending friends some of her home cooked food to cheer them up, “and the response was so great that they asked to order more,” she says.
“My dishes for this project are mainly Eurasian and Peranakan which are mostly cooked at home, not in restaurants. Some are not that widely known in Singapore like Jiu Hu Char, which is a Penang specialty normally cooked for special occasions. The key ingredient is dried cuttlefish, and the rest of the recipe includes shredded bangkwang, carrots, cabbage, shiitake mushroom and pork, cooked in a rich pork and prawn broth.” Almost but not quite like popiah filling, it’s eaten like a starter, wrapped in lettuce with sambal belacan.
Her current menu is small but lovingly cooked for a satisfying homespun meal. There’s chicken curry capitan made with a rich rempah and no curry powder, fragrant with kaffir lime leaves; quintessential Kristang devil curry; and Kristang Brinjal Soy Limang - pan-fried eggplant in a sweet soy vinegar and lime juice dressing. Served with fragrant blue-pea tinted rice and her daughter’s sugee cake, it’s food that happily fits all the cliches about comforting homespun cooking.
Priced from S$10 a set. To order, DM her daughter Maxine on Instagram at@maxywax.
MUM AND DAUGHTER’S KITCHEN
Nurjahan Rahim could well count Malcolm Lee of Michelin-starred restaurant Candlenut as a fan of her home-cooked curries and sambals. It’s also partly because she’s married to his restaurant manager Clarence Lim, but when you taste her Ayam Lemak Chilli Padi, Ayam Assam Pedas or Sambal Udang, you can tell that Chef Lee isn’t just being polite.
The homemaker with three young children aged from six to 12 devotes herself to cooking for the family and in the process, wants more people to enjoy her authentic Malay dishes. “When I was young, I helped my mother to prepare meals for the family because she had to work a double shift. I was nine years old then. As I got older I learned to cook more authentic dishes. When I got married I spent more time in the kitchen because my kids and husband prefer home cooked food.” Having to juggle different palates - her husband doesn’t like spicy food but their oldest son does - she’s developed a repertoire that she hopes other families will enjoy. “I would like to do this to help working mothers so they can still enjoy home cooked food.”
Her Ayam Assam Pedas is a riff on the original Ikan Assam Pedas which uses fish, but is tweaked for chicken to appease her fish-hating son. But it still works well, along with the coconut milk braised chicken and prawns cooked in sambal. Ms Rahim takes no shortcuts and even her vegetable side dish - braised cabbage in a light coconut milk broth that comes with the combo set - is painstakingly done and very tasty. There’s also a fish curry and Badak Berendam - coconut stuffed glutinous rice balls in coconut cream - for dessert.
She named her fledgling home business mum_daughter_kitchen in honour of her mother, who will be joining her soon, which means there’s a wider menu to look forward to.
Priced from S$18 a dish. To order, DM Ms Rahim on Instagram at @mum_daughter_kitchen.
For the Hong Kong-born Karen Yuen, her grandmother was the pillar of her life. Her father was stationed in the UK and her banker mother had to juggle work and motherhood. “Naturally, my grandmother became my custodian,” says the self-confessed ‘feeder’ who started cooking for schoolmates when she went to the US to study. “My dormitory became the canteen for international students for five years.”
Her skills were honed by her “fabulous” cook of a grandmother and one of her signature dishes was carrot cake which she made every year for Chinese New Year. “I still have a vivid memory of the steam, heat and smell in her tiny kitchen, and watching her shred radish, chopping up lap cheong and mushrooms.”
While Ms Yuen was adept at most of her grandma’s recipes, she never tried making the carrot cake until the elderly lady passed away seven years ago. “I missed her so much I wanted to at least get the ‘smell’ I remembered.” She couldn’t find a suitable restaurant version, so she started the long process of trial and error before finally perfecting it. “We use Japanese and Korean radishes and the toppings are a combination of dried scallops, lap cheong, mushrooms and dried shrimps.” Before Covid-19, she would source her ingredients from Hong Kong, but with the travel bans, she’s finally found suitable substitutes in Singapore but at 30 per cent more cost-wise.
Covid-19 also scuppered her plans to start a home dining business but until she restarts it, she’s busy with Munch-Kins, meticulously preparing her carrot cakes with the help of her partner, commercial photographer John Heng.
The duo have been kept super busy with orders, with currently a one month waiting list. Which goes to show that even though she misses her grandmother, she now has more reason than ever to carry on her legacy.
Priced at S$68 per carrot cake. To order, DM Ms Yuen on Instagram at @munchkins.sg