Tag Archives: Singapore

What is your vice?

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.

Dried Shrimps

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.

Soaking the dried goods

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.

All the ingredients happily mixing together

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.

Now add the greens

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.

My le creuset Rice

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!

Gambling Rice - Pua Kiew Bng


When Spaces become Places

Kawan kawan, today begins the first of a series of 6 sessions of a writing course that I enrolled in.  This course is aptly named “The Migrant Soul”.  “What is a migrant soul?” you ask.  Well, it is someone who, like me, has been uprooted from their cultures, countries and homes, and has to find within a different culture and country their own cultures, make a home in yet another country – a home away from home – and to find a place in a space where they are displaced.

Displacement has been a recurring word in my psyche of late.  Being here in the City of Light brought this sense of un-belonging to the forefront yet again.  I thought that I had found a home, a place I could call home at least, in London after having lived there for a good part of 17 years out of the 20 that I’ve passed in England.  Just when I was beginning to feel comfortable, the Italian took on a job that relocated us to Paris.  It was not entirely his fault, of course as I had been making noise his way of my desire to move out of London.  The only problem was – WHERE?

Singapore had stopped being a place I call home for a long time.  In fact, every year that I return during the summer vacation with my entourage of 3 suitcases and 2 infants (ok, one teenager and one child), I feel less and less at home there. This city state where I grew up is fast becoming another faceless city to me.  A geographical location where I stop off en-route to Europe, a continent I must call home.

Home is where the heart is, many would have heard said.  Home is where I feel a sense of belonging, is what I penned today on a sheet of lined paper during a brainstorming moment in the course.  I once read a quote that goes something like this: there are two kinds of people in this world, those who want to go home and those who don’t.

When I was younger and fancying myself a groupie with no fixed abode, I never wanted to go home! Now that I’ve passed that very important milestone in a woman’s live, I’m beginning to wonder where is my home?

Is home a house, a physical space that one can touch, feel, a place made of brick and mortar?  Is home where the heart is?  Really? During my stint working in the travel industry, home was where I could lay my head, and this was usually in a posh hotel somewhere half way across the world from Singapore.  I lived out of a suitcase for a good part of almost 5 years.  Each new destination brought a new adventure and I was very fastidious about making the hotel room a space of my own.  The first thing I’d do was to lay out all my bottles of creams on the vanity area in the bathroom, then I would put my slippers in place and all the towels in a neat pile, redecorating the room a little so that I could claim it as my space.  This became a ritual, a habit of mine as soon as the door to the hotel room shut behind me.  It didn’t matter how jet-lagged I was, I would go through the motions of setting out the creams, piling up the towels and putting on my slippers before jumping into the shower and straight to bed or dinner or whatever it was that I had to do upon landing in a new city…..

This year back in Singapore,  I wanted to evoke a sense of home.  To do this, I needed an accomplice – someone who knew Singapore well.  I had the privilege of dining with an old friend, George G.  I wanted to go down food memory lane, so he obliged and took me to the East Coast, to his favourite joint for kon low mien. This, kawan kawan is a typically Cantonese dish of boiled egg noodles tossed in a mixture of soya sauce, pork fat and chilli.  Atop the mound of noodles would be slivers of char siu roast pork and blanched choy sum (a type of Chinese green).  A bowl of chicken soup with wan tons would be served on the side.

Wan Ton Noodles

I remember eating this dish as a child on wooden stools next to big monsoon drains where the chef is an old man in a torn cotton singlet behind a mobile cart tossing noodles and shouting out orders to his assistant, usually his wife or elder child, for the noodles to be served.  For appetisers, we would be given a dish of pork crackling so crunchy and oozing with such flavour that it was so hard to stop reaching for another morsel with my chopsticks.  One could also munch on sliced pickled green chillies that have been soaked in brine and sugar to whet one’s appetite.   The grand finalé is of course the dish itself…. happy sounds of slurping would be heard and sighs of content uttered from around our table.  Daddy likes his noodles kiew kiew as we say in Hokkien, or al dente, as they say in Italy. Marco Polo must’ve had a part to play there, methinks!

This dish is no longer served as I remember it.  A spate of campaigns to encourage healthy eating habits in Singapore sparked off an abhorrence of pork crackling.  One can ask for onion oil instead of pork fat these days, I was told.

Kawan kawan, what is it that makes your space a place?  For me, it will always be something food related.

Bring out the Shoga

I just learned a new Japanese word today, kawan kawan – Shoga.  It has such a cute sound, almost mellifluous .  Now if you think of languages as just a series of sounds, the world we live in becomes a musical.  People living their lives, communicating and bonding through songs.  Afterall, Shakespeare did pen that the world is a stage.  Why not consider it a musical stage?

SS recently told me about something that she’d learnt at school to do with a type of communication amongst shepherds in Spain.  In La Gomera, an island in the Spanish Canary isles, a type of whistled language called silbo gomera is still being taught in schools. This musical language consists of at least 4000 words which allows the people of this island, especially the shepherds, to communicate over ravines, narrow valleys and long distances in the island by whistling.   Silbo Gomera has been declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2009, making this one of the many protected languages in the world.

Shoga, my friends, is the Japanese name for ginger.  This medicinal root features predominantly in Asian cuisines.  The Chinese use the ginger root to ward off the fishy smell in seafood and to ease bloatedness.  The Japanese use pickled ginger as an accompaniment for sushi.  Sashimi is never eaten with ginger, by the way. In India, ginger is used to spice up curry sauces and added to tea to help digestion.  I love a sauce made of minced or sliced ginger, scallions and salted oil. This was the delicious topping that sat atop one of my sushi pieces in Akasaka. When Debbie K read of this in my post, she immediately told me that this is really a faux pas in Japanese fine dining.  Only Les Americaines eat sushi with shoga, she said. She would know, being American herself.  Well, in this case, the shoga was mixed with scallions. Double faux pas, I would say!

Well, I do love the stuff as some of you already know.  I came across this ginger/scallion sauce in Hong Kong eons ago when I was a slight young girl on my tour to conquer the world.  Oh, this brings back tons of beautiful eating memories, kawan kawan.  This shoga/scallion/salted oil mixture I encountered in HK sat atop the chicken of the Chicken Rice that I’d ordered.  It was in a crowded in-door hawker centre – the air conditioned type that one can find with ease in every corner of Singapore.  I wanted some chicken rice – this was served with the chicken on top of a bowl of rice and sitting so poised atop the chicken chunks was the shoga sauce.  The Cantonese name for this is Kiong Chong meaning “Ginger Spring Onion”, literally translated.  It was a discovery of pure and utter joy.

Inspired by this memory, I decided to cook some Chicken Rice on Monday night. I thought I’d make some Hainanese Chicken Rice, a favourite dish in ma famille. RN loves the rice and boiled chicken drizzled with a sesame oil/soya sauce mix and SS loves this with the special Dark Soya Sauce that accompanies this Singaporean favourite.

Although Hainanese Chicken Rice is eaten throughout Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, where it is known as Khao Man Kai, in Singapore, this dish really originated amongst the Hainanese immigrants who came to the city state at the turn of the century.  This dish is based on WenChang Chicken, a type of chicken akin to the Bresse chicken in France and the chicken dish cooked with this chicken that is eaten in WenChang, a major city in Hainan.

The Hainanese language is a very good example of a musical language. Hainanese is a Min-nan language (a family of Chinese language spoken in Southern Fujian and Taiwan) spoken as the mother tongue amongst these islanders.

Back to the business of food. I boiled the chicken in a pot of water together with a head of garlic, a whole rhizome of ginger (meaning, the whole knobbly thing) for 30 minutes.  Then I turned off the heat and left the chicken in the broth for an hour to cook in its own heat (lid on pot helps keep the heat in the pot).  I read somewhere that this makes the chicken meat tender and moist.

At the end of the hour, I lifted the chicken out and promptly soaked it in cold water.  This is suppose to separate the fat from the skin, again moistening the chicken meat.  When the chicken was cool enough, I proceeded to debone and chop it up.  In Singapore, the chicken rice vendor would have a block of wood where he chops the chicken with a cleaver. He lifts the hand holding the cleaver and brings it down with precision onto the piece of chicken requiring chopping before you can even say ‘Jack Robinson’! It is really fun to watch the man at work, if you’ve never seen anyone use a cleaver before.  I think that’s where the phrase ‘chop chop’ came from because it is really an onomatopoeic word denoting quick quick. That’s how the chicken rice man cuts up his chicken – very fast with his cleaver.  I couldn’t chop chop my chicken.  That would be an accident waiting to happen, besides, I don’t own a cleaver, never having learnt to use one.  I just sliced it up and tore some pieces up with my hands, as you’ll probably detect from the oddly shaped chunks on the plate.

Whilst the chicken was cooking, I made ze sauce.  It is more salad than sauce, actually.  I shredded a piece of ginger with a mandolin, sliced some scallions and mixed the two in oil before finally adding the right amount of salt to taste. Yummms!  I tasted  it to make sure the combination was perfect before spooning a generous amount on my chicken chunks.  More yummms!  Look:

Look what I'v got on me!

This is really not the traditional Hainanese Chicken Rice recipe. I tweaked it a little with this gingery scallion salad. The real one is served with a ginger sauce on the side that is made of minced ginger and oil that has been slightly salted. Because the boiled chicken is rather bland sans sauce, a sesame oil/soya sauce mixture diluted with chicken broth is poured over the meat.  That’s the brown sauce you’re seeing in the photo.

The rice in the chicken rice is really the piéce de la résistance.  Raw rice is cooked with the chicken broth and a piece of fatty chicken skin.  It is supposedly the oil from the chicken that gives the rice its taste.  But I always vote for the healthier option.  I only used the broth which already has some chicken fat anyway. Here, look:

The Piéce de La Résistance

Of course, the accomplices of flavour are also the ginger, garlic and a couple of pinches of salt.

This is my favourite part of the dish – the rice.  I can eat it on its own with chilli, dark soya sauce and of course, the Kiong Chong.

These are the usual suspects in making the Hainanese Chicken Rice such a flavoursome National dish in Singapore:

The Usual Suspects: Dark Soya Sauce, Kiong Chong and Chilli

A note:  the chilli is daddy’s secret recipe.

Kawan kawan, if you ever come across a restaurant in Paris that serves Hainanese Chicken Rice, I want to know about it.  This will give me something to sing about.

Share your Hainanese Chicken Rice finds around the world.  Tell me where you’ve eaten this dish outside of Singapore.

Oodles and Oodles of Noodles

The tour of Le Monde de l’Arabe that took us by foot around the 5th arrondissement of Paris was about to end.  We were appreciating the beautiful symmetry of the garden courtyard in the Mosque of Paris when a low rumble was emitted.  It had nothing to do with the pneumatic drill going off nearby but my tummy signalling that it’s past the lunch hour for me.

Did you know that the Grande Mosquée de Paris is the largest mosque in France and the third largest in Europe?  It was founded after WW1 as a symbol of France’s gratitude to the 100,000 men who sacrificed their lives defending La France against the Germans.  It served as a secret refuge, providing shelter, a safe passage and even fake Muslim certificates for Jewish children.

The tour which was organised by my kawan, MVO took almost 2 and half hours to complete.  I never miss out on a tour that MVO has organised because they are always interesting historic tours that end with luncheon at a resto picked by MVO herself.  She spends copious amounts of time visiting restaurants in the vicinity of the area toured to finally select an apt resto.  For example, today’s tour would have ended with lunch in an Arabic restaurant.

So what does noodles have to do with the Great Mosque of Paris?  I hear you ask. Well, kawan kawan, in effect – rien!  It had nothing to do with the tour, just with the fact that I was famished and had to have lunch asap before rushing off to collect RN.  I would have loved to sink my teeth into some taboulé, hummus, chicken shwarma and have halva or baklava for afters.  But time did not permit this luxury.

So with Christine B, we headed towards the Boulevard St Germain to a noodle house that I’ve eaten at a couple of times.  It was first recommended to me by my friend Ann Mah of Kitchen Chinese fame and la famille and I have been eating there ever since.

Christine B, social butterfly, devoted mother, talented cook and enthusiastic foodie was very excited to join me for lunch.  Gamed to try any new eateries, she was thrilled to learn of Les Pâtes Vivantes.

We were seated almost immediate although the restaurant was at almost full capacity.  The menu had a variety of noodle choices – fried noodles, noodles served with a pouring sauce full of vegetables and meat or shrimp and noodles soaked in broth. There are noodles that you can eat cold served with a salad of shredded carrots, cucumber, scallions and a spicy meat sauce – Ja zhiang mien . For the rice fiends amongst you, they also serve some rice dishes.  But this restaurant’s speciality is really their noodles, hand pulled by the chef behind a glass counter:

watch my handiwork

These noodles are called lah mien in Chinese and is a very popular economic lunch time dish in North-Western China.  The noodles are hand made or pulled (lah meaning pull in Chinese and mien meaning noodles) from a lump of dough, stretched repeatedly until the dough becomes long strands of noodles.

Christine B and I had made the same choice – noodles with prawns and pickled mustard greens (hum choi) in a bisqe-y broth:

Lah Mien with Shrimp and Mustard Greens

These mustard greens are pickled and is a traditional vegetable featured mainly in soups.  My mother makes a delicious duck and hum choi soup which I dream about in the wintery months.  The fresh variety is known as gai choi, a peppery variety of the cabbage family and these can be stir fried with garlic or your choice of meats.  It usually goes very well with pork or shrimps.  Gai Choi is delicious when slow cooked as it becomes meltingly tender.  When using the pickled variety, remember that it has to be soaked in water for a couple of hours to remove the saline and vinegar used to pickle it before cooking.  You can also stir fry these greens with pork and garlic.  In this case, no salt or soya sauce in required. That, is a recipe for another day, my kawan kawan.

The hum choi gives the soup a sourish aftertaste which I actually like.  However, I drizzled black Chinese vinegar over the noodles to further enhance the sourish taste.  This is pure childhood comfort food, kawan kawan.  This brings back memories of the mee pok man, wheeling his mobile stall selling boiled noodles mixed in a sauce of chilli, soya sauce, oil and black vinegar with a heap of minced pork and pig’s liver, dressed with fried shallots.  This mee pok man, dressed in a pair of shorts and vest would come to my grandparent’s home, honking to announce his presence to the neighbourhood whereby we would gather around his mobile cart with bowls brought from our kitchens to await our Tah Mee Pok. Those were the days when hawkers sold their food in mobile carts.  These days, for sanitary purposes, mee pok can be found in the various hawker centres dotted all over the island state of Singapore.

Fearing that the noodle soup will not be sufficient, we ordered a vegetable tempura to share:

Vegetable Tempura

This comes accompanied by a dipping sauce of sweet Thai chilli.  I thought it made the tempura rather tasty although Christine B would have preferred a tempura sauce.  Well with this being an authentic Chinese restaurant, no tempura sauce could be found.

Kawan kawan, this is a must try Chinese eatery or in Singlish, a die-die-also-must- try Chinese eatery.  You’ve been told, so please whenever you find yourself on the Blvd St Germain, locate number 22 where you’ll find yourself surrounded by oodles and oodles of noodles.

Les Pâtes Vivantes, 22 Boulevard St Germain, 75005 or if you’re in the 9th arrondissement, locate them at 46, rue du Faubourg Montmartre, 75009, tél: 01 45 23 10 21.