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Nonya School Days

May 16, 1996|NINA SIMONDS

SINGAPORE — I am sitting in the second row of the teaching kitchen of the newly opened Raffles Hotel Cooking School, surrounded by gleaming copper, black marble, colorful tiles and state-of-the-art kitchen equipment.

Chef Chong Pek Sai, an older, meticulously organized teacher in spotless whites, is demonstrating pulot hitam (black glutinous rice pudding), a typical Peranakan dish.

First he takes a fragrant pandanus leaf, ties it in a knot and drops it into a pot of water that he sets to boil on one of the flat halogen burners. Chong then dumps some glutinous black rice into the pot.

The chef all business, but his vivacious young Singaporean sidekick, Jenny Tan, bubbles over with amusing anecdotes and relevant cooking information. (Sometimes chefs need such interpreters because they assume their audience knows almost as much as they do.) It is Tan who opens each class with a lively show-and-tell introduction to the cuisine.

Peranakan is but one of the cuisines taught at the school, which also offers classes in Chinese, Malay and Indian cooking; wine appreciation; pastry and desserts; and the hotel's signature dishes. The hotel, built in 1887 and considered an architectural landmark in part for its sweeping turn-of-the-century balconies, is famous for the Singapore Sling, created there in 1915, and for the writers who drank there, including William Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling.

On this day, Tan uses the beautiful still-life food display arranged on a turquoise tile counter to discuss the ingredients of Peranakan cooking. There are 10 students in the class with Westerners and Asians in equal numbers.

While the chef cooks the rice, Tan passes around some of the pandanus leaves, also known as screwpine leaves, and explains that they are used to impart flavor and an emerald color to Asian desserts. I hold the leaf to my nose, then scratch and sniff: It has a fresh, undefinable smell. I ask if there is a suitable substitute and if it is available in the United States. Jenny giggles, the chef smiles and my question remains unanswered. (I assume this means no.)

Once the rice is tender, the chef adds sugar, salt and coconut milk, and the pudding is finished. We taste a little, since it is best eaten hot. We will have more for dessert. It is creamy, a little sticky and sumptuous.

A soft-spoken Asian woman sitting next to me is discreetly clucking her tongue. She and her neighbor, who I discover is Peranakan, whisper furiously and compare notes.

"The gravy is too runny," one says. "We Peranakans make it thicker with more body. It's one of our favorite comfort foods."

They do approve of the flavor, however, which is wonderfully sweet from the palm sugar and rich with coconut milk.

Peranakan food, the cuisine of Singapore, is a fascinating mixture of Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, Thai and Eurasian. For the Peranakan course, the chef prepares a menu of prawn-pork-and-crab-ball soup, chicken in tangy chile sauce, spicy bean curd salad, prawns in tamarind gravy, the black rice pudding and a pineapple pickle.

As the chef prepares the pineapple pickle, my neighbor whispers that the dish was influenced by the British and that it's an adaptation of an Indian pickle. A more typical Peranakan pickle, she says, might be made with cucumber and dried shrimp.

"In my grandmother's day, potential daughters-in-law were assessed for their cooking and sewing skills," she confides. "My mother always complained about any rough cutting. 'Refinement' was the key word. And after five years of cooking, I think I'm finally getting there."

The following recipes are adapted from ones I learned at Raffles Cooking School. For information about the cooking school, contact the Director, Raffles Culinary Academy, Raffles Hotel, 1 Beach Road, Singapore 0718. Phone: 011 (65) 337-1886. Fax: (65) 339-7650.

*

SHRIMP AND PORK BALL SOUP

1 pound lean ground pork

1/2 pound peeled, deveined shrimp

2 tablespoons finely grated carrot

1 green onion, minced

1 tablespoon minced ginger root

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 tablespoon cornstarch plus extra for dusting

2 teaspoons corn oil

2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

8 to 9 cups chicken broth, preferably Chinese Chicken Broth

1/2 pound jicama, thinly sliced (about 2 cups)

3 to 4 tablespoons coarsely chopped cilantro

Place ground pork in mixing bowl. Cut shrimp in half along backs and cut into 1/4-inch dice. Add shrimp to pork along with carrot, green onion, ginger, salt, pepper and egg. Stir in continuous motion to combine. Add cornstarch and mix well.

Shape mixture into meatballs, 1 heaping teaspoon each, and arrange on tray lightly dusted with cornstarch.

Heat oil in soup pot or casserole and stir-fry garlic until golden. Remove garlic with slotted spoon. Add chicken broth and bring to simmer. Add jicama slices and cook 10 minutes.

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