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Recipes rooted in tradition

It's said that the best way to understand a culture is through its food. Four cookbook authors decided to do just that.
Oct 21, 2016 5:50 AM

Extending a successful concept

The Many Flavours of Malay Cooking
By Rita Zahara
Pages: 200/cased
Price: S$45
Available at major bookstores

TV personality Rita Zahara's first book on her mother's recipes did so well in 2012 that it launched her into the food business, which is now expanding regionally.

But it also got her thinking that there would be more people like her mother who would have great food-related stories to tell. Which is where her strong ties with the Malay community, as the grand-daughter of Che Zahara, founder of the first Malay welfare home of Singapore in 1947, came in.

In her latest book, Ms Zahara assembled a collection of authentic recipes from notable personalities in Singapore and also established restaurants such as Sabar Menanti and Hjh Maimunah Restaurant in Kampong Glam.

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"I took the journalistic approach, as I interviewed them and also coordinated the photo shoots, and tested the recipes they gave me. My main problem wasn't all that, but putting on weight because of the food tastings," says the former journalist with Channel News Asia.

This book has over 70 recipes, with a handful reflecting the various sub-ethnic groups to be found in Singapore, namely Javanese, Bawanese, Minangkabau, Bugis, and also the regional influences such as Kelantanese and royal Malay fare.

It's the first cookbook of its kind, with recipes from various Malay restaurants and personalities compiled into one tome.

"It's nice that we are able to come together and share something of our food and also our heritage," says Ms Zahara, who co-founded Li Da Foods, a group of food technology companies.

The Biryani Rice with Mutton recipe hails from Islamic Restaurant, which has served it for some 90 years; Ayam Bakar (grilled chicken) is a signature dish at Warong Nasi Pariaman.

Also in Kampong Glam, Mamanda, a fine-dining restaurant, shared recipes such as Ikan Bakar Bendahara (grilled fish) and the Laksa inspired by Johor's royal house. Syed Shahin Shah, head chef at The Landmark, also contributed his award-winning Butter Chicken.

Through an engineer's eye for detail

Nonya Heritage Kitchen: Origins, Utensils and Recipes
By Ong Jin Teong
Pages: 275/hardback
Price: S$49.90
Available at major bookstores

THIS is Ong Jin Teong's second book on Peranakan recipes and its most valuable point isn't even the recipes per se, but his research and sharing of the various dishes' names and origins, as well as the traditional tools of the Peranakan kitchen.

Born in Penang and having worked in Singapore for most of his adult life, and with a doctorate in electrical engineering, he shows that he's familiar with northern Peranakan cuisine, is well-versed in Singapore Peranakan cuisine and even has bits of information about Malacca Peranakan - all done through an engineer's eye for detail and process.

This tome of over 40 recipes - ranging from prawn crackers to Nonya dumplings - is organised in a rather unusual way. For example, Dr Ong sorts his recipes according to how the dish is made. The first section focuses on grinding, pounding and slicing methods. Then there are recipes for grated and scraped coconut. This is followed by dishes which use plants as utensils; those using stoves, ovens, pots and pans for cooking; and recipes using metal and wooden moulds.

-He has built up an extensive collection of tools over the years, and even got a few implements customised for the purpose of cooking and for the book, such as the Pulut Tai-Tai box and the cuttlefish mesh grill.

While the first cookbook focused more on the recipes, Nonya Heritage Kitchen gives more context to the old ways of doing things.

It was driven in part by his awareness that there are many young people who don't know much about these tools and measures these days, he says.

Thus, the book is very methodical and a must-have for anyone who wants to have a better understanding of old gadgets - which could be as simple as a ridged bottlecap attached to a stick - and how it yielded foods with their distinct shapes and textures.

Interestingly, he also highlights how the Thermomix can cook certain recipes, such as kaya (coconut egg jam), saving hours of stirring over a slow fire. While he points out the similarities and differences between the Nonya cuisines of Singapore, Malacca and Penang in the book, ultimately, it's a treasure trove of Penang recipes.

Naturally and subtly for posterity's sake

Teochew Heritage Cuisine
By Eric Low
Pages: 144/hardback
Price: S$38
Available at major bookstores

IT was during his training in Napa Valley that Singaporean Eric Low was asked about his heritage cuisine. And he was stumped. "I had been learning to cook other people's food all this time - but not my own. You can cook all over the world but what makes you stand out is being able to cook your own cuisine. I realised that I needed to change my mindset," he says.

The Shatec-trained chef revisited Asian cooking and especially his own Teochew heritage when he returned to Singapore in 2002. He joined the Teochew Association and reconnected with his roots, especially by talking to his Teochew elders and taking notes from them.

He has a good foundation - his maternal grandfather was Lee Sin Chye, one of the pioneer chefs of Teochew food in the 1950s and the 1960s, who worked at Old Hung Kang Teochew Restaurant on North Canal Road. "The older generation - they all would remember my grandfather," says the 44-year-old who's now the chef-owner of Lush Epicurean Culinary Consultancy.

So he started writing down recipes before they got completely lost.

Chef Low published two cookbooks late last year - Teochew Heritage Cuisine which has restaurant and homecooked dishes and The Little Teochew Cookbook which features more street food. Both were published by Marshall Cavendish.

Teochew food's unique characteristics are its emphasis on natural and subtle flavours, as well as being one of the healthier Chinese cuisine styles. "Teochews also have a unique way of putting savoury and sweet flavours together. A lot of desserts incorporate a savoury element like pork lard, spring onion or fermented red bean curd. It's unconventional and the emphasis is on balance," he explains.

Chef Low travelled to the Chaosan region in China as well to find out more about traditional dishes, as reflected in his cookbook which also features his own dishes recreated for the modern palate while maintaining the original Teochew nuances. The sections in the book cover cold dishes, soups and porridge, meat, poultry, seafood, egg and vegetable dishes.

Of note is the dessert section, incorporating sweets besides the usual yam paste. One is the traditional rice wine-glazed black beans but paired with lychee pearls and vanilla ice-cream. The sweet bean dish is traditionally made only when the family has a first-born male child. Another is sugar-cured pork jowl which his grandfather used to make for grand banquets - but can hardly be found in Singapore today. "Older Teochews would remember this dish," Chef Low points out.

Marriage of Portuguese, Indian, Malay

The Eurasian Table
By Theresa Noronha and Cheryl Noronha
Pages: 56/hardback
Price: S$39
Available only at

CHERYL Noronha took three years to complete The Eurasian Table which features her 84-year-old grandmother's recipes. It required her to watch her grandmother, Theresa, cook - and painstakingly measure or eyeball the ingredients she put in and record the process of how each dish is made. She also asked about the background of each dish and where it came from, to get a better sense of the spicy fusion cuisine which is a marriage of Portuguese, Indian and Malay ingredients.

"I had to watch her like a hawk - how she did her measurements, and then quiz her about what it means to use like 50 cents worth of something," she recounts. Some dishes took 10 to 20 observations before Ms Noronha was satisfied that she got it right. "This is just how the older generation did it - it's hard for them to relay their recipes, not that they don't want to, but they're so used to making them a certain way."

It was a challenge but the pay-off for Ms Noronha, 29, was that she also got to spend a lot of time with her grandmother.

All of her grandmother's recipes were in her head, with nothing written down as she never had formal education. "But Nan still has a sharp memory and she knows how everything is supposed to look and taste," she says. Her grandmother has been cooking from the age of 10, growing up in a large family where she had eight siblings.

Although Ms Noronha had meant to record the recipes for her own family's use, friends and family soon urged her to publish a book. The labour resulted in a self-published cookbook featuring 24 recipes. "Even though Nan has like close to 200 recipes," she says, "I wanted to get these published first because it was already taking me so long!"

Besides the recipes, what's invaluable are the insights into Singapore's Eurasian culture. Recipes such as Cabbage Soup might seem too pedestrian at first, but a preamble explains that it was one of the many dishes her grandmother and grandfather had made together on their wedding day, to serve guests. Fried Fish Chuan Chuan is a Chinese-influenced dish they make on Fridays. Beef Ching Chang is a Christmas staple.

Ms Noronha quickly points out that these are mainly her family's recipes, as every Eurasian family has their own variations of similar dishes. There are only some 15,000 Eurasians remaining in Singapore, and less than 1,000 speak Kristang. Her grandmother speaks it fluently, so next up is for Ms Noronha to master speaking the language - especially when she's a rare "pureblood" as both sets of her grandparents are Eurasians.