Deep-fried sacs of fish roe. That is one of Life editor Tan Hsueh Yun’s earliest food memories.
“I remember crunching them, the little eggs bursting in my mouth. And how beautiful that was. I remember my mum would have salted them perfectly.”
The 49-year-old’s other anecdote conjures an instant visual image of simple childhood pleasures: “I remember running around the house holding a deep-fried chicken drumstick. That was one of my favourite things to eat.”
Fans of Ms Tan’s Posh Nosh column will recognise her distinctive way of talking about food. It is a tactile, emotive style, vivid with the passionate joy of eating, which has won her legions of fans over the years.
Besides Posh Nosh, which ran in this paper from October 2004 to June 2015, she also helms an ongoing fortnightly recipe column called Hunger Management. Recipes from the column, which started in 2008, have been compiled in a book.
Hunger Management had a soft launch at the recent Singapore Coffee Festival and is now available at all bookshops.
WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?
For breakfast, I will have chwee kueh from Jian Bo in Tiong Bahru, chai tow kway from Potong Pasir King Specialist Carrot Cake in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10, a bowl of Xiu Ji’s ikan bilis yong tau foo in Smith Street and a stack of Mr & Mrs Mohgan’s Super Crispy Prata in Joo Chiat, but with better curry.
Then it’s off to Da Dong Prawn Noodles nearby for a bowl of dry beehoon with regular-sized prawns and pork ribs, a separate order of liver and a big bowl of the prawn broth.
For lunch, I would like to have a meal at Lynnette Seah’s private dining. I must have her crab beehoon and her babi pongteh.
For dinner, I’ll go to Damian D’Silva’s new restaurant, Folklore, at Destination Singapore Beach Road. The buah keluak fried rice is a must, and so are singgang, seh bak, all those wonderful things.
At some point, I’m going to have soft-boiled eggs and kaya toast.
I also want lunch at Sushi Sawada in Tokyo, one of the best sushiya in the world. If I can’t get a table there because there are only six seats, then I would have sushi at Mekumi in Nonoichi. The awabi (abalone) is to die for.
Since I’m in Tokyo, I’m going to Madai Ramen Mengyo. This place makes ramen stock using sea bream. It’s the most elegant, light ramen soup and on top of the noodles is a pile of shaved smoked pork.
And on the flight back, I will chow down on steak sandwiches from Shima Steakhouse. They are works of art.
When I’m back in Singapore, there are many things I want to eat. From Jade Palace at Forum The Shopping Mall, I would like a plate of Shun Tak Yu Wat Lou Meen, raw fish slices with springy egg noodles, tossed with shallot oil and soya sauce. It’s fabulous. I would also like an entire malai gou (steamed cake). It’s super light.
Pomfret soup from Fragrant Garden, a Teochew restaurant in Upper Serangoon Road. From The Naked Finn in Gillman Barracks, the pan-fried baby squid guts. It tastes like orh chien, but there are no oysters in it.
I would also like the Spam fries with kaffir lime mayo that chef Willin Low makes. Violet Oon’s tripe satay.
I hope my friend Michel will reverse-sear a big Rubia Gallega ribeye steak. It’s from a breed of Spanish cow. A lot of cattle for steak get slaughtered when they’re young, but they let the Rubia Gallega graze for eight and more years before slaughtering. So it develops flavour. Then they dry-age it so the beef is tender. It smells of blue cheese and toast, funky in a supremely wonderful, glorious way. I would like a steak like that with all the trimmings, which is to say a really good baked potato, creamed spinach and creamed corn.
To wash it all down, I want a bunch of cocktails.
The coconut cocktail from The Naked Finn I always love, but with a lot more rum. I’m going to die, so please give me more rum.
Any cocktail Kazuhiro Chii from Waku Ghin bar would like to make for me. A Gibson from Gibson in Bukit Pasoh made by Aki Eguchi. I would also like the Forbidden Kiss from Cut, together with the bacon popcorn.
If I’m still standing, I want kueh kosui and kueh salat from Chalk Farm. The kaffir lime butter cake, ang ku kueh, kueh dadar and kueh putugal from Peranakan Khek.
I still need to squeeze in har cheong gai, but it has to have a lot of character. If there’s not enough prawn paste in it, I don’t want to waste my time. No wings – only thighs and drumsticks.
My mum’s cooking is non-negotiable: mee siam; wok-cooked satay; and loh kai yik, a very old-fashioned dish which is very hard to find, of braised chicken wings and pig offal in fermented bean curd.
And the very last thing before I die, the creamiest, most bitter durians that money can buy.
From almost 200 recipes over the years, 63 have been selected by Ms Tan. The collection is divided into four sections: Feeling Peckish features appetisers and soups; Just Ravenous has recipes for substantial main courses such as clam pasta and Shepherd’s pie; Still Hungry has side dishes such as couscous salad and simmered lotus root; and Sweet Cravings covers desserts.
Fans who have tested her recipes – this writer included – can testify to the fact that they are foolproof and easy enough for even novice cooks to follow.
Ms Susan Long, general manager of ST Press and a big fan of Ms Tan’s recipes, says: “They are fuss-free. They are quick. They respect good produce. They can be prepared using a small essential larder of goods, usually involving no more than one visit to one supermarket.”
The simplicity and clarity of the recipes are distilled from Ms Tan’s hard work. For example, she went through more than 100 eggs for a recipe for ajitsuke tamago, or soya sauce-marinated eggs with oozy yolks that are served with ramen.
Of the process, she says: “I ate a lot of egg salad. I foisted them on my parents and on anyone who would eat eggs.”
But the payoff is the surety that her recipe works. “60g eggs, 5 minutes 45 seconds and a small pot, six eggs at a time. Medium high heat.”
Considering the success of her columns, it is surprising that she did not start out writing about food.
Her first job after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in English literature, was as a public relations officer at the then-Singapore Bus Service.
She says with a laugh: “That lasted all of two months. Then I got an offer from The Straits Times and I jumped.”
She was a general news reporter with the Newsdesk before focusing on the housing beat and worked her way around the newsroom, joining the Political desk – “for 15 minutes” – and then The Sunday Times team.
The elder of two daughters of a housewife and a shipping company executive began writing about food at the request of then-Life editor, now ST executive editor, Sumiko Tan.
Her passion for food, from an obsession with different Glico Pocky and Pretz flavours to an appreciation of everything from street food to fine dining, resonated with readers in the early noughties, who were then also discovering gourmand pleasures.
Ms Tan Hsueh Yun, who had fostered her love of cooking and eating as an undergraduate in California, with its fresh produce and vibrant Californian cuisine culture, was well placed to become a trusted guide to the burgeoning foodie culture here.
She marvels at the sea change that has occurred in the Singapore food scene since then.
“Back then, you couldn’t get really good pasta. A lamb shank would cost $11 when you could buy it for a fraction of the price in the US. These days, things are so different. You can get uni (sea urchin) in seawater direct from Hokkaido.”
It could be argued that Ms Tan, who became Life food editor in 2012, had a hand in promoting foodie awareness with her columns.
How seriously she takes her food can be seen when the standard question for this column is asked: What would your last meal be?
She whips out her mobile phone to refer to her notes because she wants to make sure she remembers to mention everything. And, perfectly seriously, she says: “My last meal is going to last a week.”
How did you get started cooking?
I was my mum’s helper when she was making rempah. She would make rempah for mee siam, one of her signature dishes. So I would be put to work peeling 2kg of shallots.
I wasn’t really allowed to cook. I think the first thing I cooked was instant noodles when I was seven.
Do you come from a family of foodies?
My parents ate everything and expected my sister and I to do the same. They were not going to pander to our whims and fancies.
How did your interest in cooking develop?
Because I helped mum out, I got interested in cooking. I remember my aunt gave me a Marguerite Patten cookbook. She’s one of the pioneer cookbook authors.
I also remember listening to a radio show and the host, Dorothy Tan, used to feature recipes for bao and all sorts of things. I would write in to the station and get cyclostyled copies of recipes featured on the show. I would stick them in a notebook, which became my de facto cookbook.
Meet the author sessions
Where: Forecourt, Plaza Singapura, 68 Orchard Road
When: Saturday, 2.40 to 3.10pm
Where: Books Kinokuniya, Tower B, Level 4 Ngee Ann City, 391 Orchard Road
When: Sept 9, 3.30 to 4.30pm
Where: Popular Bookstore, B1-41 Jurong Point, 1 Jurong West Central 2
When: Sept 17, 4 to 4.45pm
What is your favourite dish to cook now?
Steamed fish. I like to steam it with umeboshi plums. It is simple. I don’t even add salt because the plums are salty. I usually use barramundi fillets.
What is the most difficult recipe you have ever had to cook? Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon or ramen from scratch?
I think ramen is easier.
I went to three supermarkets for the boeuf bourguignon. It took me two days. I almost lost my mind.
While browning the beef, oil splattered all over the place. I remember getting down on my hands and knees and scrubbing the kitchen floor. It was a dark time.
How do you keep healthy when food is part of your life and work?
As I grow older and my metabolism slows down, I have to be really careful. Just remember it’s a food tasting, not food gobbling. You just eat whatever you need and, honestly, one bite is all you need. Maybe two or, if the food is really good or, you’re really indulgent, three.
I’m not healthy. My recipes are not healthy, not all of them anyway. I mean, I have a recipe in the book for chanpuru burger. And it is not just stir-fried bittergourd and egg. There’s a slab of Spam in that burger.
•Hunger Management (ST Press, $26.75 with GST) is available at bookstores.
Some recipes from the book
Kiam Png. ST FILE PHOTO
8 large dried shiitake mushrooms
30g dried shrimp
4-5 cloves garlic
1 Tbs sesame oil
1 Tbs oyster sauce
1 Tbs shaoxing wine
1 Tbs light soya sauce
½ tsp white pepper, or to taste
1 Tbs oil
150g roast pork, sliced
450-500ml warm unsalted chicken stock or water
Chopped fresh coriander for garnish
1. Rinse mushrooms and soak in warm water for at least 20 minutes. Wash the rice under running water and leave to drain. Rinse dried shrimp, then drain.
2. Core cabbage and cut into 2cm-wide ribbons. Slice shallots thinly and finely chop garlic. Mix sesame oil, oyster sauce, wine, soya sauce and pepper in a small bowl. Set aside.
3. Squeeze water out of mushrooms gently, cut and discard tough stems and slice mushrooms thickly. Set aside.
4. Heat the oil in a large frying pan or wok over medium-high heat. When hot, add dried shrimp and fry till fragrant. Add shallots, fry till soft, add mushrooms and garlic, stir-fry for one minute or so.
5. Add cabbage and stir well to mix. When it has wilted, add the sesame oil mixture.
6. Add rice and stir to coat the grains with the seasonings. Add roast pork and mix it in well.
7. Scoop rice mixture into a rice cooker, pat down gently, add enough chicken stock or water to barely cover and cook.
8. Leave to stand for about 10 minutes after it is cooked, then scoop onto plates. Top with chopped coriander and serve.
Serves four to five
Lemon and passionfruit curd. ST FILE PHOTO
LEMON & PASSIONFRUIT CURD
250g cold unsalted butter, cut into 1cm cubes
450g caster sugar (add 50g more for a sweeter curd)
250ml passionfruit pulp, from 6 passionfruit
8 large eggs
1. Zest the lemons using a fine grater and set aside. Juice the lemons. You should get just over 250ml of juice.
2. Fill a pot about 25cm in diameter with water up to the one-third mark. Bring the water to a simmer.
3. Turn heat down to low. Sit a glass, heatproof bowl about 30cm in diameter on the pot, making sure the bottom of the bowl never touches the water. Add lemon zest, lemon juice, butter and sugar into the bowl.
4. Stir the mixture with a wooden spoon until the sugar and butter melt.
5. Add the passionfruit pulp and stir to mix well. Taste and add more sugar if needed.
6. Crack the eggs into a medium bowl, beat with a fork to break up the yolks, then strain the eggs through a metal or plastic strainer into the curd mixture.
7. Continue stirring. Adjust the heat so that the water in the pot does not come to a boil. It should remain at a gentle simmer.
8. After 20 minutes or so, the curd should start to thicken. Watch it carefully, keep stirring and when the mixture coats the back of the wooden spoon, the curd is ready.
9. Take the bowl off the pot and spoon the curd into clean glass jars. Cool completely, screw on the lids and refrigerate. It will last about two weeks in the fridge.
Celery with XO chilli sauce. ST FILE PHOTO
CELERY WITH XO SAUCE
1 bunch celery, about 700g
180-200g XO sauce
Juice of half a lemon
1. Chop the top 2cm and bottom 2cm off the bunch of celery. Separate the stalks, wash under running water and pat dry with paper towels. Chop the stalks crosswise into two or three pieces. Using a knife, peel off the stringy fibres on the surface of the vegetable. Slice each piece into long strips, then cut crosswise into small cubes.
2. Drain as much oil off the XO sauce as possible. Add to a large frying pan set over medium-high heat until the residual oil in the pan starts bubbling.
3. Turn heat to high. Add the celery into the pan and stir to mix vegetable and sauce. Continue stirring for three minutes. Turn off the heat, add lemon juice to the pan and stir to mix.
4. Serve with rice.
Serves four to six with rice and other dishes
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