Singapore’s National Day was August 9. To commemorate the island’s 52nd birthday McDonald’s released some special, limited time only menu items.
Top of the list was the Nasi Lemak burger: coconut flavored chicken covered with a fried egg, fresh cucumbers, grilled onions and spicy sweet sambal sauce. For drinks, there was Bandung McFizz and for dessert Kueh Salat cake, Chendol McFlurry ice cream and fried Coconut pie.
Local TV personality Genevieve Loh gave her impressions on the McD treats. It’s a riveting film clip. Not only because of her eye catching lashes (I watched with full expectation of them falling into her food 😉 ) but because of her reveal that Singaporeans like their fries dipped in ice cream! I challenged my friend Lisa on the claim. Lisa was quick to clarify that only some Singaporeans do this. Only the old timers from her & my generation. The new timer kids eat fries with ketchup and chili sauce. Ahem. That’d be the Singaporean chili sauce … a hot & tangy tomato ketchup … not the American style chili with ground beef and beans.
But back to the Nasi Lemak burger. The pictures looked good and the McDescriptions tantalizing. I had to try and because it was McDonald’s, I up-sized to a $10 set where I had 510,000,000 calories worth of burger, fries, bandung drink & coconut pie.
So how did it taste?
Well, first things first: Appearance. The official pictures looked like the image above.
My burger looked like this.
It’s a saucy, sloppy mess of a burger. The sauce, onions and cucumbers slip around and it was challenging to get a good grip and solid bite. Hunger, conviction and a whole lot of napkins saw me through. The chicken was good. It was real chicken not a pre-fab patty. The first bite of crunchy chicken had a strong hit of coconut flavor followed by a surprising taste of … fish?
At the second bite the fishy taste was even stronger. Everything was freshly made so where did this fishy taste come from? I dialed back to an image of traditional Nasi Lemak and remembered that aside from fried chicken, sambal & coconut rice there was always heaping pile of dry fried anchovies, ikan bilis.
Ha! Now I knew why my burgers tasted of fish. I also remembered why Nasi Lemak was one of my least favorite Singapore dishes.
Verdict: Not bad. Tasty but probably not worth the expense of calories and clogged arteries.
How about the Bandung McFizz? What’s bandung anyways?
Bandung is a local drink made with rose flavored syrup, evaporated milk and crushed ice. It looks a bit like strawberry flavored milk. It’s a favorite of Malaysians and Singaporeans, smooth and soothing after a spicy curry laksa. The McFizz version had all of the sweet syrup and none of the milk. It was super concentrated sugar water. Kind of like a fizzy lemonade with no lemons.
The fried coconut pie reminded me of a Taro pie I had in McDonald’s Beijing. Warm and creamy filing with a strong taste of coconut. The Beijing version had soft cubes purple yam. The Singaporean version had cubes of hot nato de coco. The Beijing version was delicious on a cold and wintry day. The Singaporean version …lets just say that Genevieve’s idea to mix it with ice cream might be a good idea.
Verdict: Has potential but we’ll need to wait until Singapore cools down to a chilly 10C to truly enjoy it.
I mentioned Terry Wong aka The Food Canon in an earlier post on Yong Tau Fu. I met Terry in the recent launch of his cookbook “Mum’s Classics Revived.” The book is a compilation of his mother’s recipes, as artfully described on his website.
“Any Hakka recipes?” I asked.
“Not so many,” Terry said. “but I have the famous zhar yoke.”
My blank expression must have shown a lack of recognition.
“Zhar yoke,” he said. “Hakka fried pork. It’s very popular in Malaysia.”
I purchased the book and eagerly flipped to the Zhar Yoke page. It described a recipe for pork belly marinated in nam yee and five spice powder, then deep fat fried and served dry.
It didn’t look like something I’d eaten before. Except one of the ingredients – an egg in the marinade – tweaked a memory of something my grandmother used to make. I decided to try out the recipe. I’m glad I did.
The pork was tasty but more importantly, I recognized the flavor of my grandmother’s fried chicken.
When I was little, my granny used to prepare cooked lunches and send them home in stacked tiffin pans. My favorite lunch was fried chicken but unlike KFC or Popeye’s crispy fried chicken, her’s was always tender, full of unique flavor, with an unusual moist coating.
I now realised that the mystery flavor was nam yee and the not-crispy coating was the light breading made from flour and egg. As Terry says in his book, “the purpose of flour is to create a thin layer of batter to hold the seasoning” in the meat. “The result after deep frying should not be a layer of crispy batter.”
Terry’s recipe recalled a taste from my childhood that I’ve long forgotten. If you’d like a taste (with far better pictures than mine) here’s his online recipe for The Food Canon’s Hakka Zhar Yoke
Here’s a dish that’s described as classic Hakka: Salt baked Chicken.
After reading about it so many times, I had my first taste in Singapore. Salt baked Chicken is a specialty of Lam’s Kitchen, a food stall located in the Food Opera court at ION Orchard.
Lam’s version is said to rival the famous Ipoh (Malaysia) version called Ayam Garam (Malay) or Yim Kuk Kai (Hakka). Having never been to Ipoh, I can’t compare but the dish in Singapore is divine.
The meat is fall off the bone tender, luscious and rich with a delicate aroma of herbs. Served with rice, soup, cucumber garnish and chilli dipping sauce it looks like Singapore’s (Hainanese style) Chicken rice. The cooking technique and flavor profile is quite different. Whereas the Hainanese style is poached in broth, Yim Kuk Kai is wrapped in parchment and baked in salt.
In this video, celebrity cook Sherson Lian prepares the chicken by massaging it with salt and then stuffing the cavity with ginger, green onions and a packet of herbal soup ingredients. Based on another recipe from The Viandd blogspot, the herbs are Yok Chok (Solomon’s Seal Rhizome), Kei Chi (Wolfberry) and Dong Quai (Angelica sinensis).
Notice how Sherson’s chicken comes intact with feet. This is how I have to buy chicken in Asia. Whole and equipped with feet, toes, head and eyes! I think the local shoppers use the head as an indicator of freshness and cook the feet for added flavor.
Personally I can do without.
Whenever I can, I ask the butcher to cut them off. The first time, when I saw him tucking the severed pieces back in the package, I also learned to say “Discard! I don’t want!”
I was walking through a market in Myanmar (modern day Burma) when I noticed a familiar sight.
It looked like ham choy.
I went closer and sniffed.
It smelled like ham choy.
Could it be ham choy?
We were in the Shan State of Myanmar, high in the mountains of the Nyuangshwe Township, around Burma’s famous Inle Lake. Myanmar is bordered by India, China, Laos and Thailand. In the faces of its people (*) you can see its mixed ethnic heritage and in the food, the flavors of India and China are heavily apparent.
Myanmar’s population is 3% Chinese with Han roots from Fujian, Guangdong and Yunnan. Hokkien, Cantonese and Hakka histories are all present here. It’s no surprise to find familiar foods in regional specialties.
Mohnnyin tjin (မုန်ညင်းချဉ်) is one of those specialties. The name translates to ‘sour mustard greens’ and the recipe involves cold pickling vegetables with salt, sugar, rice, vinegar and spices. While mustard greens are typical, white radish leaves and almost any other vegetable are also used.
Unfortunately I never had a chance to taste the dish in Myanmar. However Eating Asia‘s blog post on the recipe and process reads almost identical to making ham choy and pork. If I ever go back I’ll have to seek the dish out and tell you what it tastes like.
(*) For a look at the faces of Burmese people, see Myanmar Portraits in my sister blog TheSandyChronicles.com
One of the hazards of reading information written in another language is relying too heavily on Google Translate. I use this app all the time to translate menus, signage and web pages. Sometimes it works very well. Sometime, not so much. When I came across a FB page with a Surinamese version of stuffed bitter melon (niong fu gua) I eagerly translated the ingredients written in Dutch. When ‘sardines’ came back, I put it down as a dodgy translation. After all who would stuff fu gua with sardines? How could that even work?
In response to one of my Hakka Heritage posts, Simone Tai clarified the mystery to me. She said:
Great post! And love your thoughts at the end….does it really matter? I know whenever I meet someone who knows about Stuffed Fu Ga that they are Hakka and likely Chinese-Jamaican! … My mom’s recipe calls for tangerine peel and salted fish (she used canned sardines as a substitute). I never did like Stuffed Fu Gah…too bitter. But have come to enjoy it, first for nostalgia but also a new version: omit both tangerine peel and sardines…I like it much better!
Sardines were a substitute for salt fish! Aaah. Huh? There’s salt fish in stuffed fu gua? I didn’t know that.
When I mentioned Simone’s reply to my Dad his reaction was immediate.
“Yes, my mother used to make it with salt fish too!”
He’d never liked it because of the smell. He recalled that his mother would corn fresh fish with salt, wrap it with newspaper and then hang it out to dry. It sounded like something I’d seen in old Chinese shops: paper wrapped fish, hung by their tails and strung up for sale.
Dried fish is a common delicacy in Asian cooking. In Seoul’s Gwangjang market, dried pollack is especially prized and schools of petrified fish are tied up with yellow ribbons and hung like banners from suspended poles.
In Singapore’s Chinatown, entire sections of the market are devoted to dried goods and dried fish, shrimp, anchovies, cuttlefish and scallops are laid out in pristine displays.
Cambodian markets are a bit more rustic and their uniquely styled fish is splayed into concentric circles and offered for sale with dried sausages and cured meats.
In Laos, roadside stalls sell fish hung from the rafters along with wrapped and unwrapped selections laid out on tables. In these open displays, where the fish is naturally dried and closer to its source, the smell can be overpoweringly strong. Swarms of flies hover over the display, settling and moving as fans of air or hands wave them away. With this context, it’s easy to sympathize with my father’s dislike of dried fish.
My Dad says that some people (not him) love the taste of fu gua stuffed with pork and salt fish, claiming that the additional aroma of fish makes it truly authentic.
My mother and her mother have always made the filling with ground pork and fresh shrimp. I grew up thinking this was traditional. Apparently not. In a quick poll, I discovered that 1) most people don’t make stuffed fu gua anymore, 2) those that do, make it wholly with pork and 3) never ever with shrimp.
So where did my mother’s recipe come from? Did her mother come from a different village in China? or did my father’s abhorrence of salt fish force a substitute which then became a new tradition? I’ll never know.
This experience though, has had me poking at what’s truly authentic heritage food. Is it defined by recipe or taste? Is it specified by ingredient or by flavor? Within each family, do traditions evolve according to preference and a what time does preference get molded by tradition ?
Growing up I’ve never eaten Chinese salt fish. I admit to being curious. Last week I tried a Cantonese style fried rice cooked with egg and shreds of dried salt fish. It wasn’t bad. Maybe I’ll add it to my next batch of niong fu gua. My Dad is in another country, thirteen time zones away. He won’t mind.
Niong dou fu or yong tau fu is universally recognized as a traditional Hakka dish. In Singapore yong tau fu food stalls are a favorite in food courts and hawkers market, where it is typically served buffet style.
At the stalls, stuffed tofu is displayed with serving size portions of vegetables, noodles and a variety of stuffed peppers, bitter melon, egg plant, chilies and lady fingers.
To order, you fill up bowls with your selection, order it cooked with broth or laksa and specify whether you want it ‘wet’ or ‘dry’. ‘Wet’ means you prefer everything mixed in with the soup, ‘dry’ means you’d like your noodles dry with the soup served separately. As the cook prepares your order, you prepare your tray with chop sticks, soup spoon and dipping sauces. All food stalls are equipped with gallon containers of chili paste and vinegary chili sauce. Yong tau fu stalls come with additional tubs filled with a spicy sweet, hoisin-like bean paste.
Although all yong tau fu is hand-made, not all stalls make them in house. Many are mass produced and distributed by wholesalers across the island. For truly good yong tau fu, you have to search for it. After my first couple tries, I was not overly impressed with food court yong tau fu. Although nicely presented, they suffered from a uniformity of taste and texture. Besides, having grown up with an entirely different style of cooking stuffed to fu, I found the soup based version bland and unexciting. Therefore it was with slight optimism that I ventured forth with my friend Lisa to Bai Nian Yong Tau Fu, identified as one of Singapore’s best.
Located in Albert Centre’s food center Bai Nian Yong Tau Fu was an unassuming stall. Operated by a couple who made everything themselves, they offered a limited selection of dishes and no buffet of fixings. Your choice was limited to the type of noodles, bee hoon (rice vermicelli), yellow (egg) noodles, kway teow (flat wide rice noodles) or rice.
The menu board listed eight different dishes, the most prominent being Yuan Yuan Yong Tau Fu and plain Yong Tau Fu with soup. The difference was not immediately obvious but careful inspection showed that Yuan Yuan contained more stuffed vegetables in addition to the stuffed tau fu pieces. For variety we ordered both (dry), along with a satay version for variety.
It was delicious! Tender and chewy, the filling was light with the taste of fresh fish unmarred by doughy fillers. The satay version was tasty too, but ultimately I had to agree with Lisa that the yong tau fu’s delicate flavor was overwhelmed by the heavy sauce. I am now a convert to Singapore style yong tau fu and will be heading back to Albert’s Food Center for my next fix.
How is Singaporean yong tau fu different from the Hakka niong dou fu I know? To answer that we have to look at how it is made.
One of the best descriptions of Singaporean yong tau fu is described in The Food Canon’s three part article on Auntie Ruby’s Hakka Yong Tau Foo. The author, Terry Wong does a wonderful tribute to his late mother’s cooking and captures not only the recipe but the sense of camaraderie that goes with cooking yong tau fu.
Making yong tau fu is a long fiddly process. It begins with scraping the flesh of fresh mackerel and blending it into a smooth paste with minced pork, salt fish and seasonings. The paste is then stuffed into a variety of vegetables and different types of bean curd. Most people are familiar with stuffing blocks of tau fu cut into squares or triangles. The Food Canon adds another variation by using bean curd sheets (foo chook) and inverted tau fu puffs (fried tau fu poks). Many hands make light of this type of work and I love his idea of having yong tau fu parties to prepare, eat and enjoy the dish.
So that’s how Singaporeans make authentic Hakka yong tau fu. Except … is it authentic? After all, the Hakka were originally from land locked Meizhou and many recipes call for fillings made totally with pork.
Linda Anusasananan author of The Hakka Cookbook, says that one way to distinguish Hakka and Cantonese yong tau fu, is the presence of pork versus fish. Cantonese style is made wholly with fish. Hakka style is made with pork.
Remember though that the Hakkas were itinerant people constantly migrating, adapting and adopting local customs. As they migrated away from inland Meizhou and closer to the coast, they surely adopted the Cantonese way of cooking and incorporated fresh seafood into their dishes.
My family line must have branched off before the descent into the coastal lands. We did not use fish in our stuffed tau fu. Instead we used … but that’s another story 🙂
Stay tuned for the next installment of the Hakka Heritage Food trail.
Without context this is an unusual bread name to remember. It is a regional US specialty with a tender soft crumb and subtle molasses flavor. The context behind the name? It’s a story of course …
Once upon time, a long time ago when men were Men and Women worked in the Kitchen, John and Ana were a newly married couple in New England. Ana was a lovely woman, beautiful and smart. She was gifted in many things but had absolutely no talent in the kitchen. In today’s world she’d probably be a fast tracker in corporate HQ or an apprentice to a $10B (or not) bigoted CEO. Anyways, Ana could cook only one thing, cornmeal mush. She cooked it every day, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. After eating mush for 15 days straight, John decided he could do better. He threw together Ana’s cornmeal mush with some yeast and flour, kneaded it himself, all the while muttering “Ana, damn her!”
This is a good dough to make with a KitchenAid mixer. It is fairly wet initially but with 4 minutes of mixing will pull together around the dough hook and away from the mixing bowl walls. Use a rubber spatula to scrape dough on to a lightly floured surface. The outside of the dough will be dryer than the inside, but after a couple minutes of kneading will have a smooth tackiness throughout.
I like to add raisins and/or walnuts, to add a bit of sweetness and texture to the bread. If using, add to the dough when rolling into the loaf’s form, just before the second rise.
Recipe derived from Better Homes and Gardens’ New Baking Book.
1 cup cornmeal
2 cup water
½ cup molasses
1/3 cup butter
2 tsp salt
4 ½ to 5 cups flour (all purpose is fine)
4 ½ tsp active dry yeast (2 packages)
¾ cup raisins or walnuts (optional)
2 8x4x2 loaf pans, greased and floured
Mix cornmeal and water in large bowl. Microwave on high for 2 minutes. Stir cornmeal and water and microwave again until you have a cornmeal mush. Cube butter and mix in to cornmeal mixture until melted. Add molasses and sugar. Cool liquid mixture until it is just warm (115 to 120 F).
Stir eggs into the cornmeal mixture and add to flour & yeast. Beat with mixer on low speed for 30 seconds and then on high speed for 3 minutes.
Turn dough on to lightly floured surface, and knead until smooth and elastic. Place in lightly oiled bowl and let rise for 1 hour, or until doubled.
After an hour, remove the dough and cut into 2. Press out into rectangle and add raisins & walnuts, if using. Tightly roll into a loaf shape and place into loaf pans to raise again for 1 hour, or until nearly doubled.
Bake in preheated 375 oven for 20 minutes. Remove & cover with foil to prevent burning. Bake for another 20 minutes.
Remove from oven. Rest for 5 minutes before removing from pans to cool on a wire rack.
In Singapore one of my favorite activities is wandering around local markets. I’ll have little conversations with the vendors, even though I’m constrained by language. I don’t speak three of the four official languages and some Singaporeans have difficulty understanding my accent.
It is a bit of a treasure hunt. There’s always the ordinary (stuff I know), the strange (stuff I don’t know) and the mysterious (stuff which I recognize but don’t know for sure).
On one trip I spied a large plastic lined bin filled with pickled leafy vegetables. It looked just like my mother’s ham choy. My mum used to make it at home and we’d always have a supply in the fridge, ready for our favorite week day supper dish, Pork & Ham Choy.
The stall vendor saw me looking at the bin.
“What is this called?” I asked in slow, carefully enunciated English.
“Ham choy,” she said in slow, carefully enunciated Hokkien.
Actually, what she said was ‘kiam chye’ which sounds like ‘ham choy’ in Hakka and ‘hum choy’ in Cantonese.
Ham Choy is made by salting the leafy stems of Chinese mustard greens (gai choy) and then pickling them in a sweet and sour brine. It is the Chinese equivalent to German sauerkraut. Highly unreliable historical sources say that the Great Wall was built by laborers rationed on rice and ham choy. Highly imaginative kids like my younger self, used to fantasize about patrolling the wall, guarding against invading Mongols and eating bowls of steaming rice topped with luscious chunks of Pork & Ham Choy.
Truth be told, those dishes probably didn’t taste like my home style favorite. Certainly, in Singapore kiam chye is used differently, in a variety of Hokkien and Teochew dishes. The most famous dishes being Kiam Chye Ark soup and Kiam Chai Boey. Kiam Chye Ark soup plays off the savory tang of kiam chye against the fatty richness of duck. Kiam Chai Boey is a stew made with roast meats, fresh and pickled mustard greens. It is the day-after dish made with leftovers from family reunion dinners at Chinese New Year.
Reaching back into my memory, I vaguely recall a Chinese Jamaican recipe using roast pork (siu yuk) mixed in with Pork and Ham Choy. I remember thinking that it was an awful waste of siu yuk‘s crispy crackling skin. Maybe though, it was a variation of Kiam Chai Boey. After all, the Hoklo, Hakka and Cantonese all emigrated from the Fujian and Guandong provinces; it seems inevitable that cooking styles and ingredients crossed ethnic lines.
The recipe for kiam chye is relatively easy to find. Uncle Phil, a Singaporean in Australia gives wonderfully clear instructions in How to make Kiam Chye. He hangs the fresh vegetable in the sun to wilt and dry before curing them in a brine made of rice water and salt.
Initially, I was puzzled at the use of water left over from washing rice. It was strange and (wait for it …) unlike what my mother did. She used a mixture of vinegar and sugar to make ham choy.
On reflection though, it’s not so strange. Rice water left at room temperature will ferment into vinegar and fermentation is key to making this kind of cold pressed pickle. In all likelihood, this was the only option for workers on the Great Wall so many years ago. My mother’s way was just a modern day convenience to speed up the process.