You know you’re walking into a hardcore kitchen when the first thing you see is stacks upon stacks of boxes filled with gorgeous home-made mooncakes.
The women on my Dad’s side of the family in Singapore – they’re fearless cooks.
Pineapple tarts, bak-zhang (glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves), black vinegar-braised pig’s trotters? They could whip those together with their eyes closed.
Recently, however, the task at hand was Chinese mooncakes, eaten to mark the Mid-Autumn Festival, which falls this Saturday.
Now, there are a few old stories that explain the reason for eating these little cakes, which usually are filled with sweet lotus-seed paste and come either with a thin, baked crust or a soft, pliant dough skin that’s scented with pandan, a vanilla-like flavoring used in many Southeast Asian desserts. My favorite is the one of Ming revolutionaries planning to overthrow the Mongolian rulers of China during the Yuan dynasty and spreading word via letters baked into mooncakes. (Julia Child would’ve been so proud!)
During my Singaporean girlhood, I’d known the stories, I’d eaten the cakes. As for making them? That seemed so laughably difficult it never once crossed my mind.
It turns out, however, they’re incredibly easy to make — you just need the right teachers.
Yes, I realize with great sadness that summer is no longer with us.
But having grown up in Singapore, where it’s generally about 90 degrees all year round, I’ve always chosen to regard this little “four seasons” concept as more of a state of mind.
And my state of mind all year round tends to veer toward clear blue skies, suncreen and sand-between-my-toes kind of weather.
Which is how I found myself thinking about tropical lime-coconut cake all morning.
And, just when I thought I was being silly and a little too wistful about bygone pie-filled, scorching-hot days these sage words popped up courtesy of Gwen, a chef who blogs at Pen & Fork: “Ignore the calendar. Proceed full speed ahead with ‘put the lime in the coconut’ cake and eat it all up.”
I’m getting tired of being asked a certain question: Where did you buy that dress?
Recently, I’ve been asked that a fair bit. And recently, my answer has tended to be the same: Pluck, a little boutique along Singapore’s tiny Haji Lane that sells both new and vintage dresses and accessories.
It’s an answer I hate to give because most of the people asking have been my American friends. And with Pluck, well, it isn’t exactly close enough for them to pop in for a quick browse. (As an immediate gratification kind of person, this kind of thing just will not do for me.)
I recently discovered a bit of good news, however — Pluck just started selling online and yes, it delivers overseas as well. So I’m writing about this here so that a) people can stop asking me where I buy my dresses and b) well … a) pretty much covered it.
How does this relate to food? Not as tangentially as you’d think.
Pluck also sells ice-cream and dessert. While I heartily recommend the pear riesling and lychee martini ice-creams, it’s been the little crunchy and sweet nibbly bits that co-owner Aisah sends out with tea and coffee that have piqued my interest.
When I bit into one recently, I immediately thought of the little cookies that mums would set out as snacks for visitors or after-school treats when I was a child.
The Chinese in Singapore are big believers in the healing properties of soups — specifically, “heaty” and “cooling” soups, which either add fire to your body or cool it down, getting just the right balance of Yin and Yang.
I know it’s sacrilege to say this — and I can already hear the clucking of my Mum and aunts who might actually read this — but I don’t give two hoots about heaty or cooling.
The most important question for me always is, “Does it taste good?”
And with green bean soup, the answer is: Yes, oh yes.
Despite my love for this sweet soup, I’ve never known how to make it. So, when my Let’s Lunch friends, a group of intrepid cooks spread across two continents who’ve been staging virtual lunchdates, suggested that we make a chilled soup for our next meal, I jumped at the excuse to learn my mother’s recipe.
Among the many foods I obsessed over while growing up in Singapore, kueh tutu ranked high on the list.
This two-bite-sized spongy pastry featuring a steamed rice-flour shell filled with either sweet, shredded coconut or minced peanuts was already rapidly disappearing from the hawker scene when I was a child. (“Kueh” means cake or cookie in Malay; “tutu” is derived from the sound of the steamers that hawkers used decades ago to make them.)
Because kueh tutu is best eaten warm and freshly made (they tend to become hard and gummy if made even 20 minutes in advance), hawkers have to create them in small batches on demand. This makes them a rather expensive dessert to sell, given Singaporeans aren’t generally willing to pay more than 30 to 50 cents for one. (That would be about 20 to 35 U.S. cents.)
Even though some kueh tutu stalls have popped up in foodcourts recently, the pastry is still not exactly sold on every street corner these days. So whenever I spot a cart selling them, I drop everything I’m doing to get in line and buy some.
I can easily eat five or 10 of the sweet nubbins at a sitting — I wish I were joking.
On Day One of my current trip to Singapore for book research, while hunting down some roast duck for my grandmother’s dinner in the Ghim Moh neighborhood, the kueh tutu gods were clearly on my side.
Here’s something you don’t see every day on an American menu: Kueh Lapis, an eggy, Malay/Indonesian layer cake that’s so time-consuming to make that it’s hard to find in the U.S.
Think of it as the red-velvet cake equivalent of Southeast Asia –
it’s a signature dessert and it’s a pity you don’t see it
more often in American restaurants and bakeries.
Tonight, the Hubbs and I lucked out at a
pre-theater dinner, however — the moment we saw kueh lapis on
the menu at Bali Nusa Indah in Midtown Manhattan, we knew we had to order it. (Note: Other items on the menu were a little disappointing — the nasi goreng
(fried rice), for example, was so bland it brought to mind the less-than-successful
first stabs at fried rice my class-mates made in high school home
economics classes way back when.)
The kueh lapis, however, was perfectly decent — even if it was dressed up for Americans with a scoop of ice-cream and a layer of palm sugar sauce (better known as gula melaka in Malaysia/Singapore).
In Asia, the cake is thinly sliced, sometimes toasted lightly, and eaten on its own. After all, when you consider how tedious the process is, why let other trimmings get in the way of the star of the show? The baking process involves
spreading a thin layer of batter — made with condensed milk, golden syrup and a medley of spices such as cloves, cinnamon and cardamom — in the pan, baking it for 10 minutes,
taking it out of the oven, spreading another layer of batter and …
you get the picture.
That could explain why you don’t see kueh lapis in restaurants in the U.S. more often. But hey, considering the fact that some kueh lapis recipes call for 25 egg yolks, that may not be an entirely bad thing.