I haven’t been out for blogging events for a really long time but I jumped at the chance to go to Clifford Pier’s SG50 food tasting preview. Shermay Lee is the goddess of all Peranakan cooking outside of my father’s kitchen so my stomach grew fingers and RSVPed on my behalf.
I’m a little Nyonya so I had high hopes for the day’s lunch.
In celebration of the nation’s golden jubilee, notable local F&B personality Shermay Lee returns to The Clifford Pier in August to share her passion for Singapore’s culinary history with her ‘Singapore’s Culinary Grande Dames Menu’. Shermay lends her expertise in traditional cuisine for the second time by carefully curating a selection of dishes from three grande dames of Singaporean and Peranakan cooking – Mrs. Lee Chin Koon (mother of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew), Mrs. Leong Yee Soo and Mrs. Ellice Handy. The menu of eight dishes is based on recipes from each of these iconic women whose well-worn cookbooks have served as a guide to conquering the kitchen for many generations of Singaporeans.
Shermay brought along her heirloom cookbooks which looked well loved – complete with tattered edges and writings from as far back as 1981 – for us to take a look. It was a nervous reception; none of us dared to touch those treasured books for fear of damage.
It was an interesting experience to look at what olden day recipes are like though. There were lots of guesstimate proportions like “a pinch of tumeric powder” or “a handful of candlenut”.
We started with Mrs Lee’s Peranakan Popiah.
Its very different from what most Singaporeans are used to. Instead of rice skins, the Baba version uses egg skin instead. These skins are made from obviously eggs and spread out over a heated pan. Only experts are able to achieve a consistent thickness for these handmade skins.
This dish is also served with the “normal” rice skins for those who don’t like the egg ones, slow-cooked turnip, julienned cucmber, lup cheong, hard boiled egg, coriander and prawns.
It’s a full on DIY affair so you can choose your own combination of ingredients. The one above is mine! Shermay was surprised that my popiah didn’t break…. until she found out that I’m Peranakan. She knows all about how Nyonya daughters are expected to help out in the kitchen. Yes, I’ve rolled a couple thousand popiahs in this lifetime already.
Sauces provided are tim cheong (sweet sauce) and Shermay’s signature Cilicuka*.
*Cilicuka means vinegar in my Peranakan language but this one is a feisty chilli sauce.
Next up we had Mrs Handy’s Fish Kedgeree. Fish ked-what!?
This dish has culinary origins tracing back to colonial India. It looks like a simple fried rice but oh boy, this is so much more. Subtly fragrant with exotic spices but when paired with housemade tomato chutney, this packs a powerful punch to the tastebuds. Flaked flesh of fried ikan kurau or thread fin is mixed with rice, hard-boiled kampung eggs and butter.
And then we we served Itek Sio, aka braised duck. I don’t eat duck but for the sake of an honest and comprehensive review, I ate this. And I’m glad I did. I ate the first duck drumstick in at least 25 years and I loved it.
Itek Sio is a painstakingly-prepared classic Nonya dish usually served during special celebrations. The fork-tender duck thigh is cooked for two hours in a thick caramel-like sauce seasoned with cinnamon and brandy. The dish is elevated with a serving of her delicious House-Made Pineapple-Apple Chutney. Slices of pineapple, apple, raisins and ginger are cooked in sugar and vinegar alongside a blend of spices and chili resulting in a fragrant, syrupy and jammy relish.
I scraped up every last bit of the sauce and ate allllllll my rice. They were all telling me that I would regret my full stomach. Nobody knew that I’m actually part cow – I have four stomachs. Eat on!
They look alike but these are two very different dishes. Cantonese Beef Cheek Stew on the left and Babi Chin on the right. Shermay uses beef cheeks for the hearty stew and cooks it in a richly aromatic mix of cinnamon, star anise and peppercorns. I wasn’t crazy about the stew though.
But when we get to the babi chin… I did slightly regret my earlier enthusiastic gobbling of itek sio, this one has a much better sauce! The meat is melt in your mouth tender and reminds me of my father’s cooking. I can give no higher praise than that.
Featuring tender pork shoulder braised in dark soya sauce with thick wedges of bamboo shoots, this was supposedly one of Lee Kuan Yew’s favourite dinners prepared by his mother.
Mrs. Leong’s signature Chicken Almond-Cashew Curry (left) is served with nasi kuning, nyonya achar & two different types of papadum. It features succulent chicken pieces marinated in turmeric and coconut milk then simmered in a finely blended paste of cashew nuts, almonds and candlenuts.
On the right is Fish Curry served with the same papadums – a hearty spicy red curry cooked with tamarind, red and green chillis, coconut milk, grated coconut and tender okra.
The dining experience is rounded off with a collection of Singapore Heritage Desserts: Marie Biscuit Cake, Coconut Fruit & Nut Bar, Kaya Roll and Rose Bandung Macaron. The Marie Biscuit Cake is a buttery and eggy tea cake with a golden crust, while the Coconut Fruit & Nut Bar is a Peranakan favourite of grated coconut, chopped walnuts and toasted almonds. The Rose Bandung Macaron on the other hand, is a petit four re- interpretation of the milky rose syrup drink. All of these go perfect with a teh tarik.
The Fullerton Bay Hotel will be retailing cookbooks written by the three ladies. Shermay Lee’s SG50 Menu is available from 1 to 31 August 2015 for lunch and dinner.