In the last of our three-part series on Lockdown Cooking, Lim Monica Devi, a Singaporean in Belgium seeks out the Singaporean community around the world to share a common love – food! This month, as we celebrate National Day, many countries are still practising some form of quarantine. With safe distancing in mind, Monica takes a virtual peek into their larders (which often has a second refrigerator) and gardens to uncover how Singaporeans living overseas dish out a plateful of home while away from the island.
30 July 2020 / By Monica Devi Lim
“There have been many times when I craved for certain things and have no other choice than to make it myself. I was recently inspired to make ondeh-ondeh pandan cake after seeing a picture posted by a friend on Facebook. The power of suggestion!”
I was exchanging views with other Singaporeans living overseas on how we learned to cook, and whether we had adapted our cooking styles due to the current crisis. Lines I had heard more than 20 years ago came to mind: “Learn to cook. It’s not about being a housewife. It’s about being able to replicate the flavours you like.”
These words had come from my mum but I did not take her seriously then. Had there been the added clause of “wherever you go” at the end of those lines, I might perhaps have paid more attention to her advice. But I was a bookish young girl who, arguably like many Singaporeans my age, was not interested in cooking. Especially when there was the convenience of walking out and simply buying a meal – from a different cuisine every day if I so chose.
Dora Yip who now lives in Dunedin (New Zealand) echoes my sentiment. “In Singapore, we have the luxury of buying a beautiful hot, affordable cooked lunch every day, but in Dunedin, that’s not the case. During the lockdown, we had to cook everything on our own. For a Singaporean who grew up with da bao culture, you can imagine what a giant shock to the system that was! But the 6 years I’ve had to acclimatise to living in Dunedin has really helped me. I grow my own vegetables now, and I’m used to making most of my food from scratch. I’ve learnt the art of making do, and substituting certain ingredients for others.”
“Having been overseas for so long, I’m used to not being able to eat Singaporean hawker food anymore! No real cooking skills I would say, but I have always enjoyed cooking and did it a lot even before this COVID-19 crisis.”
Substitution seems to be key to producing tastes of home when away. Spaghetti replaces yellow Hokkien mee, macadamia nuts take the place of candlenuts, and in a pinch, sherry from the alcohol cabinet will gladly stand in for Chinese cooking wine. And while we play culinary roulette with our ingredients, increasing our “agak-agak can lah” skills, our tolerance for spicy dishes silently slips slowly.
“Go to the kitchen, get it done. It’s passed down from parents – you just know. Growing up I was taught to use my taste as a gauge, not spoon measurements.”
Many Singaporeans who live overseas insist on growing their own herbs, battling the weather and learning to pickle to ensure that their prized ingredients last longer. Jean Yeow was happy to share a recipe that is her family’s favourite: chicken rice. Her version calls for pandan leaves to be used, and when asked what could be a possible substitute for pandan leaves, her honest reply was “I don’t know. I grow my own pandan leaves. I never use subsitutes, I always insist on the original.”
There are many factors that influence how near (or far) one can get to the original dish: the type of raw ingredients available, the weather, the amount of patience one has to prepare dishes from scratch. Often, Singaporeans will head to other Asian restaurants like Indonesian ones in Holland, or Korean ones in Thailand. But many Singaporeans are also looking forward to when the crisis is over to that they can throw a feast, big or small.
“My husband has less work now and my daughter is home a lot so they do the majority of the cooking. They also enjoy cooking whereas I cook because we have to have something to eat.”
When quizzed what was the first dish she intended to prepare once gatherings were allowed again, Dervla Nelissen-Lim revealed a droolworthy menu. “We had invited friends over for a Singaporean meal, but had to cancel at the start of the lockdown, so when we get to have our dinner party again, I’ll probably cook the same menu as planned: chicken curry, chicken soup made with the bones, steamed fish Hong Kong-style, stir-fried pak choi in oyster sauce, and rice of course!”
This month, Singaporeans living overseas share their “comfort food” recipes from home, the Little Red Dot.
“This is a comforting dish from my childhood as it was my mum’s favourite dish when she was alive.”
· 2 small limes (squeezed to produce juice)
· ¼ cup anchovies
· Small handful of bay leaves
· 1 small onion (diced)
· 2 small tomatoes (chopped)
· ½ tsp fenugreek seeds
· ½ tsp cumin seeds
· 1-2 tsp turmeric powder
· 2-3 cloves garlic
· 2 small tins coconut milk
· Salt to taste
- Heat up some oil on the pan and fry onion, garlic, and spices (cumin, fenugreek, bay leaves, turmeric powder) until fragrant.
- Lower the heat and add the coconut milk. Then add the anchovies and tomatoes. Stir well and leave to simmer for about 10 minutes.
- Add salt to taste. Turn off the heat and add the lime juice.
- Serve warm with cooked rice.
Jean’s Chicken Rice
“It reminds me of my parents – Dad used to buy us this after church on Sundays.”
· 1 whole chicken
· Pandan leaves
· Spring onion
· Sesame oil
· Light soy sauce
· Deep fried shallots
· Fresh coriander
· Fresh Chinese cabbage
· Fresh pak choy
· 1-2 small limes
· Uncooked rice (washed and drained properly)
· Sugar to taste
· Salt to taste
· Ice cubes
· Fresh cucumber (sliced)
- Clean the whole chicken well, trimming away the fats. Keep the fats to cook the rice in later. Rub the inside and skin of the chicken with salt. Stuff the chicken with ginger, garlic, pandan leaves and spring onions. Rub the skin of the chicken with sesame oil.
- Bring a pot of water to boil and put the whole chicken into the pot of water. Ensure that there is enough water to fully submerge the chicken. Turn the heat down and cover the pot. Leave the chicken to simmer for 50-60 minutes. Save the water (stock) to use later.
- Prepare an ice bath with the ice cubes and water. Take the chicken out of the hot water and submerge in the ice bath to stop the cooking process. Drain the water from the ice bath after about 20 minutes.
- Leave the chicken aside until it is time to serve. Debone the chicken and cut into pieces before serving.
- Prepare a sauce to pour over the chicken before serving. To some of the stock, add light soy sauce, sesame oil, deep fried shallots and coriander stems. Taste that the sauce is not too bland or too salty.
- To serve, line your dish with fresh cucumber slices, then arrange the chicken pieces on top. Pour the sauce over the chicken, then garnish with fresh coriander leaves.
Rice (4 cups of rice feeds about 6 people)
- Heat a non-stick wok/pan and fry up some of the chicken fats you had left aside – you will see oil from the fats starting to form.
- Fry about 8-10 slices of ginger and 6-8 smashed garlic cloves in this oil.
- Add ½ tsp sesame oil.
- Once the garlic and ginger becomes fragrant, add in the uncooked rice and fry, coating evenly with the garlic-ginger-oil mixture, then turn the fire off.
- Transfer the entire contents of the wok into a rice cooker with 2-3 pandan leaves tied up in a bundle.
- Add 4 cups of the stock that the chicken was cooked in.
- Add a touch of salt and leave the rice to cook.
Chilli & ginger sauces
- Chilli sauce: Blend 5 dried chillies, 2 deseeded fresh chillies and 2 shallots. Take 1-2 tsp of this blended chilli paste and add the chicken stock, pounded ginger, pounded garlic, 1-2 limes, sesame oil and sugar. Mix well and adjust the taste to your desired flavour by adding more of these ingredients as you wish. Add a little at a time!
- Ginger sauce: Pound a lot of ginger, add a touch of sesame oil and some stock.
Soup & side vegetables
- Put fresh Chinese cabbage into the remainder of the stock. Add a dash of light soy sauce, salt and fried shallots – adjust to taste. Bring to a boil.
- Prepare a plate of pak choy to serve on the side. Blanch the vegetables and top it with the same sauce that was poured on the chicken before serving. Add some fried shallots to garnish.
Dora’s Nasi Lemak Sambal
“The aroma reminds me of growing up in the Singapore heartlands.”
- ½ red onion (thinly sliced)
- 1 bulb garlic
- 4 shallots
- 10 dried chillies (blanched and deseeded)
- 1 tsp belachan (fermented shrimp paste)
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 tbsp gula melaka
- 1 cup tamarind juice (tamarind pulp in water)
- 1 cup ikan bilis (dried anchovies) – optional
- Soak the tamarind pulp in water for 15 minutes. Squeeze the pulp several times to extract the tamarind flavour into the water. Drain the pulp and save the tamarind juice.
- If using ikan bilis, rinse and drain the water. Fry the ikan bilis until they turn light brown and set aside.
- Pound or grind the belachan together with the shallots, garlic, and deseeded dried chillies. This becomes the spice paste.
- Heat some oil in a pan and fry the spice paste until fragrant. Add in the thinly sliced onions. If you are using ikan bilis, add them in now and stir well.
- Add the tamarind juice, salt and gula melaka to the spice paste. Simmer on low heat until the sambal thickens.
- Serve and enjoy the condiment with your favourite dishes.
Karen’s Shepherd’s Pie
“It’s my favourite comfort food”
· 2 big onions
· 3 garlic cloves
· 500g minced lamb or beef
· 2 large potatoes
· A lamb or beef stock cube
· Mix of peas, carrots, corn (cubed)
· 250ml milk
· Grated cheese
· Black pepper
- Set the oven to heat up to 250C.
- In a pan of hot oil, sauté the onions and garlic until soft and fragrant.
- Add in the minced meat with a stock cube and sauté until the meat is almost well-cooked. Add in the frozen peas, carrots and corn, then cook the mixture until well-cooked. Add salt to taste.
- Once the meat is cooked and the taste is satisfactory, place the meat at the bottom of a baking dish.
- Next, make the mashed potato. Boil the potatoes until soft and drain the water away.
- Add butter, salt and black pepper to the potatoes, then mash the potatoes.
- Add the milk to the potatoes then mix all the ingredients together to your preferred consistency.
- Layer the mashed potato on top of the cooked minced meat. Be sure to spread the mashed potato evenly to cover the meat layer.
- Add the grated cheese on top.
- Bake the entire dish in the oven at 250C for about 25 minutes. Serve piping hot.
About Monica Devi Lim
Ever since she was young, Monica has been after stories. Whether imagining one, listening to one or inspiring one, in her free time she finds stories and shapes them. If you’re just as fascinated by the merging of worlds and cultures, from fusion cooking to going glocal and phygital experiences, Monica can be reached at email@example.com