Fear is my new friend.
He sat down next to me at a Singaporean cooking demonstration at Spice Market in New York City Friday afternoon and I have not been able to shake him off since.
Watching Singapore food TV host KF Seetoh whip up dishes like harjeong gai, chicken wings slathered in a thick shrimp sauce and then deep-fried, and laksa, a spicy curry noodle soup involving what seemed to be something like 7,000 ingredients, with Spice Market owner Jean-Georges Vongerichten‘s highly skilled battalion of chefs behind him prepping Southeast Asian noodles and frying up chicken, I suddenly began to feel nervous as I thought of the nine months ahead of me.
I had recently decided to spend chunks of the next year eating and cooking my way around my native Singapore. The hope is to learn enough to be able to bring my family together at next year’s Chinese New Year for a meal cooked by me — the Americanized, prodigal daughter who never earned her stripes in the kitchen as many proper Singaporean teenage girls do. I don’t even want to think of the “loss of face” it is to my parents that I’m now more adept at whipping together meat loaf than fried rice. (And no, it does not help that my meat loaf is pretty darn good — if I do say so myself.)
I had thought this quest would be pretty straightforward, perhaps even possibly a piece of cake. But watching Seetoh produce an entire tray of tiny bowls filled with chopped up ingredients just to make char kway teow, a basic but delicious fried noodle dish that I had completely taken for granted up until this point, I started to think, “Holy (something a nice Singaporean girl wouldn’t say)! That looks like a heckuva pain in the (something else a nice Singaporean girl wouldn’t say)!”
It also didn’t help to hear Jean-Georges wax lyrical about the food of my people, noting the complexity of flavors and how it inspired him when he was opening Spice Market. As I nervously scarfed down plate after miniature plate of char kway teow, I realized just how big this learning curve was that I had ahead of me.
But the show, as they say, must go on. The tickets have been booked, the stoves are being revved up. And this wayward girl is now prepared to come home and learn at the woks of her aunties.
Meanwhile, for those who have been not-so-gently nudging, “Where are the recipes on your blog?” here’s the first of many — a recipe for laksa from the cookbook “Singapore Heritage Food” by Sylvia Tan, a former colleague at the Straits Times.
500g (1 lb) medium prawns
2 cups shallots, peeled
20 dried chilis, softened in hot water
1 tbs belacan (shrimp paste)
3 tbs dried shrimp, soaked for a while in water to soften
10 buah keras (candlenuts)
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 tbs roasted coriander powder
2 stalks lemon grass, white stem portion, crushed
4 tbs oil
4 cups coconut milk
2 tbs salt
1 tbs sugar
500g (1 lb) dried thick rice noodles
300g (approx 9 oz) bean sprouts, scalded
200g (7 oz) dried glass noodles, scalded and drained
4 fresh red chilis, pounded
Salt to taste
1 cucumber, peeled, cored and shredded
4 fried fishcakes, sliced
1 bunch daun kesom (laksa leaves), finely shredded
100g (approx 3 oz) see hum (fresh cockles), optional
a pot of water and cook prawns till they turn pink. Remove, shell
prawns when cool and reserve prawns and stock. Process shallots, chilis, belacan, dried shrimp and buah keras in a chopper till fine. Add powdered spices to the paste.
oil in a pot large enough for the gravy. Brown spice paste and add
lemon grass stalks, adding a little water from time to time to prevent
burning, until oil rises to the surface. Add prawn stock, followed by
coconut milk, stirring all the time to prevent curdling till it comes
to the boil. Season with salt, sugar and pepper to taste.
some water in another pot and boil dried noodles till al dente. Drain
and divide noodles among bowls. Top with a little softened glass
noodles and bean sprouts.
Garnish with a prawn, fishcake slices, shredded cucumber and daun kesom. Pour over hot coconut gravy and serve with a dollop of pounded chili mixed with a pinch of salt.