Kawan kawan, the three cooking mamas are back in full force, this time with a new addition, GWF, otherwise known as Zen Mama. We cooked a very simple dish from Singapore, chosen by yours truly. This dish is called Gambling Rice and is adapted from a recipe by fellow Singaporean, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan of “Tiger in the Kitchen” fame. The story goes that Tan’s grandmother who used to run a gambling den in her very own home invented this dish to keep her patrons gambling.
Gambling , a very Chinese past-time, is indeed very rife in post-colonial Singapore and Malaysia. Gambling dens, although illegal, were found in almost every nook and corner of 1950s Singapore. These dens were mostly run by matriarchs, eager to make some money on the side while their husbands toiled away as coolies, carrying sacks of rice and other goods on their bare sunburnt backs to and from the platform to the godowns found along the Singapore river.
Today, this river is a site for another sort of trade – restaurants and nightclubs. The godowns which used to store goods have been converted into trendy restaurants and nightclubs and have become a tourist hotspot.
Two years ago while on holiday in Singapore, I had the opportunity to stay in one of the 2 casino hotels that was recently opened in the city-state. The Marina Bay Sands boasts of a SkyPark, 57 stories high where you can swim in a swimming pool the whole length of the hotel against the skyline of Singapore. The observation deck boasts of views of the Singapore River, Sentosa Island and some other very famous sights of the city. The view was indeed spectacular, kawan kawan, and the swim in the pool was fantastic.
With the opening of the Marina Bay Sands and the Resort World Sentosa (both since 2010), we see the official opening of Singapore’s first casinos, recognised and endorsed by the government of Singapore. The history of legalizing gambling in Singapore has been a fraudulent one. In 1823, it was briefly legalized in the then British colonised Singapore but this led to gambling addiction and the rate of criminality soared which led to gambling being made illegal once more within the next three years. It is not without much debate and rancour that arose amongst the citizens of Singapore regarding the building of casinos before these casino hotels were opened. Many groups in the city-state like the muslims and christians stood up against the legalizing of gambling in this form. As a result, the government has levied a tax/fee on any Singaporean entering the casinos in an attempt to deter some people from this vice. If you were a Singaporean citizen the fee to enter any of the two casinos is S$ 100 per entry and you would not be allowed to take out any credit facilities otherwise extended to non-Singpoareans.
Like Tan’s grandmother who understood that gamblers cannot bet on empty stomachs, these casino hotels have 24 hour restaurants or snack bars serving their die-hard patrons who are willing to fork out huge sums of money in the hope of making more.
Everyone has a vice, I suppose. For some people, it is gambling, others, smoking and still some others, it may be shopping. Whatever the case, all vices somehow involve an exchange of money, in my opinion.
Tan’s grandmother fed her gamblers rice in order to facilitate and make it easier for her patrons to part with their money so that her own pockets could be lined. I say, “What a way to make money, Madame!” This dish is also so easy to prepare.
Follow this link to her recipe:
Whilst preparing the ingredients, I could see the many variations this dish could take. Instead of pork, chicken can be added. Why not try duck too? The dried shrimps could be substituted with fresh prawns. Cabbage is a great vegetable for this dish so I wouldn’t substitute this at all. And, if you are like me, without a rice cooker big enough for the proportions required for this recipe, you can use a cast iron pot or a clay pot.
Here’s my own version of this dish: I used already cooked belly pork , siew yok, instead. I removed the crackling and diced up the meat into 1 cm cubes. The heibi (har mai in Cantonese) or dried shrimps is a a typical condiment in SE Asian cooking. It is used to make stock for soups or added into bland vegetables, like cabbage to enhance its flavour. Instead of these dried shrimps which has a very distinct aroma of its own, one can also use dried scallops.
The dried ingredients like the chinese mushrooms and fungus and dried shrimps had to be soaked in warm water first. The mushrooms needed to be re-hydrated before being sliced into thin strips and the shrimps had to be softened before being roughly chopped into smaller pieces.
The bowl at the far end is the siew yok that I had cubed. I discarded some of the crackling but kept about a handful for flavouring.
These ingredients then had to be fried separately starting with the shallots. This flavours the oil for the next batch of ingredients like the pork and heibi. But kawan kawan, I imagined myself the matriarch of an illicit gambling den, having to feed my gamblers asap with whatever I had in my pantry so that they would stay on gambling into the wee hours of the morning. Did I have time to fry the shallots, remove them with a slotted spoon, put aside but leave as much oil as possible in the frying pan before frying the pork, browning it only to remove the meat to do the next batch of something? Of course not, kawan kawan! My hungry gamblers had to be fed. The girls and the Italian had the honour of playing the parts of my hungry gamblers. So a matriarch with hungry gamblers has to do what a matriarch with hungry gamblers has to do – fry all the ingredients at once.
RN came into the kitchen scrounging up her nose for the smell of the dried shrimps. You’ve been warned kawan kawan, they smell to high heaven if you’re not used to aromas from a SE Asian kitchen.
But when fried altogether, the smell of these tiny prawns disappear and become mixed into the general aromas of cooking.
The cabbage was added last. The recipe called for soaking the shredded cabbage leaves in water before frying. I just washed mine in a colander and allowed to stand before adding the moist leaves into the wok.
These greens were then stir fried for a couple of minutes until a little wilted. Don’t over-cook the cabbage as the last part of the recipe says that the ingredients will have to be added into the rice cooker/claypot/le creuset cast iron pot with the uncooked rice and then cooked some more until the rice is done.
I used my le creuset cast iron pot because my rice cooker was pathetically too small for the recipe amount. I would have liked to use a claypot but induction stoves don’t make for good claypot using. So there, I had my answer and the le creuset which doubled up as automatic rice cooker and claypot. If you were to use a claypot, a crust of burnt rice will form at the base of your claypot which is very normal. When serving from a claypot, you just have to be careful not to scrap the bottom too much. WIth the le creuset, I had my crust of burnt rice too. This actually reminded me so much of home because when The Mother cooks her version of this type of rice dish she calls claypot rice, we actually loved scraping the bottom to get pieces of burnt rice out – it’s crunchy texture and slightly bitter aftertaste added another depth to our family dining experience.
This dish is really a very Teochew one. Tan’s grandmother, like my mine and my mother all come from the same province in China. The ingredients for this dish are so typical in a Teochew household. They are also ingredients that have long shelf lives so can be kept in the pantry for a rainy day. Cabbage keeps for a quite a good time in the fridge. I have a feeling that this dish was “invented” by Tan’s grandma out of necessity. I have great admiration for such women. Tan tells the story of her grandmother in her book ” A Tiger in the Kitchen”. You can follow her and read about her adventures in her blog. Scroll down and find her on my blogroll. She is a fellow migrant soul and a wonderfully kind person. I know that because she is friends with my baby sister which links Cheryl and I together in an uncanny way. I am truly proud of this fellow Singaporean who followed her heart and wrote a book about growing up in Singapore, sharing stories and anecdotes (some very private ones) of her extended family.
Serve the rice immediately with any type of Asian Chilli sauce. I served mine with papa’s “secret” chilli sauce. Just so you know, the kids loved it and the Italian even had a second helping. Well, that’s always a good sign when an Italian digs into a Teochew risotto! Marco Polo, grazie!