Kitchen Help from the Sun

soy sauce pots
Soy sauce pots. Image from Flickr, courtesy of Steven Barringer.

Singapore’s blazing sun dehydrates anything in its path – not so pleasant for the people but wonderful for keeping food good and crisp.

Before people in Singapore moved into high rise flats, and even before they owned ovens and refrigerators, food was sun-dried outside homes to extend their shelf-lives in this country’s tropical weather. Dehydration is a food preservation process that removes moisture which bacteria and moulds require to grow and cause food spoilage. Due to its geographical location, Singapore is sunny all year round, and except for the heavier rainfall between December and April, there is no distinct wet or dry season (Local Climatology). This means that the sun is a resource constantly available to the cooks in this country.

A heritage food that could not have been made without the tropical sun was agar agar laut, which translates to “agar agar from the sea”. This jelly got its name because it was made from Gracilaria seaweed, which used to be washed up onto the seashores of Siglap and Tanah Merah (Seaweed Jelly 10). During the early 1900s, the Malays, Eurasians and Peranakans collected this seaweed, which looks like loose bunches of “tentacles” in colours like green and brown, to make agar agar laut for Hari Raya, Christmas and Chinese New Year respectively (Agar Agar Jelly 10, De Conceicao, R. Tan).

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Sambal Belacan: To pound or blend?

My fingers are burning as I’m typing this story. Chilli seeds are a pain (gloves Sheere, gloves!), but I found in my experiment that they are crucial to making a well-balanced and moist sambal belacan ­­­— if using the right method.

Many cooks talk about a mortar and pestle producing better spice pastes than a blender, although few can say why. Kenji Lopez of Serious Eats has by far the best explanation. Pounding crushes the cells of the vegetables, he says, whereas a blender cuts them. Since crushing ruptures the cells to release more aromatic compounds, a mortar and pestle produces more flavourful results.

I wanted to know how well this theory applies to sambal belacan, a chilli paste consisting only of chillies and belacan, a sun-dried, fermented shrimp paste. Unlike other aromatics like garlic and shallots, there are two parts to a chilli, the fruit and the seeds. The latter are spicier than the former, that’s why people sometimes remove the seeds to tone down the heat of what they are cooking.

Chillies are spicy because they contain capsaicin. According to Harold McGhee, chillies produce capsaicin from its placenta, the pale, spongey tissue in the middle of the fruit that holds the seed. From the placenta, capsaicin spreads to the seeds and then the fruit, where it becomes less concentrated.

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Don’t eat for joy

Melon seeds

I love a good meal. Then, I become too dependent on it for happiness. Mind you, I’m enjoying life, but I like little bursts of joy to brighten up a sluggish day. So, I fulfill my food desires even if it means making an elaborate Vietnamese summer roll in a weekday afternoon. No, taking the bus for a carrot cake better than the one selling downstairs is no trouble at all.

But whenever my sunny side up sticks to the pan, or a packet of chicken rice is missing its chilli sauce, I become upset and frustrated. My husband, who can usually live with small mishaps like these, also dread them in anticipation of my disappointment. I knew then that I must look for more reasonable emotional returns from a meal.

Considering the other reasons we eat may be a good start. Some of my most vivid food memories, I realised, were about negotiating relationships. I have pleased and appeased or, soothed anxieties through eating. Joy was the last thing in my mind in those instances.

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The Indians and Nepalese behind Singapore Noodles in Tallinn, Estonia

It wasn’t the Chinese restaurants bringing Singapore Noodles to the locals in Tallinn, the capitol of Estonia, as is the case in many western countries. When in the city to visit a friend earlier this year, I didn’t see any Chinese restaurant, but there was no difficulty finding the dish.

Singapore Noodles made its way to Estonia through the “Asian” restaurants operated by the Indian and Nepali immigrants. These restaurants sell a mixture of Indian, Chinese and Thai dishes — some classics, while others unrecognisable to the members of the respective community. Plenty of dishes are named after a certain city — Shanghai Lamb, Hong Kong Chicken, Sichuan Beef — usually inventions to pique the curiosity of unsuspecting customers.

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Book Summary: Discriminating Taste

My favourite reading this year: Margot Finn’s Discriminating Taste. The author observed a shift in America’s mainstream food culture during periods of widening income gap, and attribute the greater attention that people today pay to food to what she calls “class anxieties”. When the middle class is doing well and the upper class isn’t claiming much of the nation’s wealth, she explains, the former could scale the social hierarchy through hard work and the money they are paid. But when the super-elites emerge and even professional incomes are not enough for “class-climbing”, the middle class rely more on cultural forms of distinction, such as the gourmet or organic food they eat. While some “foodies” may be genuinely concern about nutrition or sustainable agriculture, they are also looking to differentiate themselves from the masses.

These two arguments left a deep impression on me:

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Singapore Noodles: An Awkward Public-speaking Attempt at the National Museum

I made a promise to myself that in 2019 I would not say no to any project even if it takes me out of my comfort zone, so in August I gave a talk at the National Museum of Singapore about my research on Singapore Noodles. It turned out to be a good exercise that got me to revisit and summarise my findings so far. After five years working intermittenly on this research, I was already somewhat lost in the plot. Because I’m a nervous public speaker, I prepared a speech that I could simply read from (apologies to those of you who were there!). But it reads nicely as a blog post so here it is:

Thank you for joining me this weekend afternoon. I’ll be talking about my research on Singapore Noodles, which I started in 2015. This particular dish interest me because it bears the name of Singapore yet most of us here will not consider it Singaporean. I started paying attention to it when I was living in New York. I thought it was bizarre to have something I didn’t recognise representing me and my country.

But instead of brushing it off as fake news, I wonder about the meanings it holds for the people who do enjoy it. Singapore Noodles may be foreign to Singaporeans, it is local to others elsewhere. I think this irony deserves an investigation.

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Singapore Noodles: The Curried Version in Hong Kong

Mido’s Singapore Noodles

Singapore Noodles is widely available in Hong Kong. It is also the only Asian city where the noodles is flavoured with curry powder. This means it could be where the curried Singapore Noodles in the UK, US and other western countries originated. I visited Hong Kong in May this year and spoke to few people to learn about the city’s Singapore Noodles. They were Veronica Mak, an adjunct assistant professor at the anthropology department of the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Vivien Chan, visiting Scholar at Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences; Mr Kwan, third generation owner of Mido Cafe; and Lan Chun Chung, owner of Lan Fong Yuen (he does not sell Singapore noodles, but has some knowledge of the dish). I summarised the key points about Singapore Noodles there:

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Leaves in Our Kitchen

Banana leaves

Leaves in the tropics are big. Bigger than the ones up in Greenland and down in New Zealand. This is because larger leaves tend to frost during cold nights and overheat in desert-like climates, but they cope very well in hot and wet tropical areas such as Southeast Asia (Klein).

Leaves of banana, bamboo, coconut, water lotus and betel nut palm in particular are put to good use in the Singaporean kitchen. These leaves are flexible and can be folded to wrap around food of different shapes. They also have strong water-proofing quality to withstand hot water and steam, as well as the gravies so common in Singapore’s food cultures. Some of them even impart a fragrance to the wonderful treat they carry (Ng). Continue reading

A Crush for Mortar and Pestle

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The mortar and pestle has a permanent place in local kitchens because it is required to combine the aromatic spices used widely in Singapore’s cuisines.

Sambal, a chilli sauce integral to Malay and Peranakan cuisines, is created in a mortar, usually made of granite. After its ingredients like chillies, garlic and shallots are pounded into one, sambal is either served as a condiment or stir-fried with meats, seafood or vegetables to make a sambal goreng dish. Another common item created with the mortar and pestle is rempah, a spice paste of varying ingredients like candlenuts and galangal that forms the aromatic base for braised meats (e.g. babi pongteh) and grilled fish (e.g. otak otak). So common were these preparation methods that families in the past also kept a batu giling, a large granite slab and roller, to grind more spices for bigger spreads (Sass).

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Wok: When Breath Becomes Culinaire

wok frying

Useful kitchen tools stand the test of time and new technologies. The wok is one of them.

The concaved and round-bottom utensil was designed for fast cooking as China was always short of fuel (Wilson 83). Its metal body conducts heat quickly, while its sloping sides provide a large cooking surface, producing maximum tastes with minimum fuel. The wok also sits securely atop the traditional Chinese stove, a brick- or clay-made open cylinder, but it is not always left to its own devices (Tan 8). A skillful cook likes to give it a jerk in circular motion to cook the food even faster and more evenly. Chinese dishes are by no coincidence pre-cut into fast-to-cook morsels but are designed so for the fuel-poor but food-loving Chinese (Wilson 54-55). Continue reading