Hill Street Fried Kway Teow: True Singapore Noodles

As a New Yorker who has written a fair bit about food in my native Singapore, I’m often asked the question: “Where should I eat in Singapore?”

It’s a head-scratcher. Where to begin? You could have six meals a day for an entire month in Singapore and still stumble upon some delicious morsel you’ve not sampled before.

Even so, I have short list — one that runs through the curry shops, nasi padang (Malay rice smorgasbord) and Hainanese eateries that fill my head when I’m far from home.

The one place I rarely include on this list, however, is a tiny hawker stall located in the neighborhood of my youth — Hill Street Fried Kway Teow …

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Chai Poh Scramble: Easter, Singapore-Style

Breakfast in this household includes many of your standard brunchy dishes — eggs and bacon, egg-soaked casseroles, eggs a dozen ways and more.

What’s less typical is when I wake up craving Chinese porridge — and the eggy accoutrements that go with a hot bowl of the stuff that I get at my mother’s kitchen table in Singapore. The eggs she serves with porridge are large bowls of beaten eggs, steamed with minced pork and white pepper. Or, savory scrambles packed with ketchup, shallots and sometimes shrimp.

Of the egg dishes I love in Singapore — one remained untested in my own Brooklyn kitchen: Chai poh omelet, a scramble peppered with deliciously salty chunks of preserved radish.

The reason was simple — I’d simply never bought chai poh before. But when my chef friend Simpson recently gave me an extra packet he had in his larder, I decided to give it a shot. After all, Easter was around the corner and my Let’s Lunch bunch had decided to share egg dishes for April …

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Turmeric-Sambal Chicken: A Singapore-New York Stir-Fry

Anyone who’s attended an A Tiger in the Kitchen event or reading in the last year knows: The big thing I learned from cooking with my aunties in their Singapore kitchens was the importance of “Agak-Agak.”

The Malay phrase, which means “Guess-Guess,” encapsulates their method of cooking. They don’t rely on recipes or cookbooks — ingredients are tossed into a wok by sheer estimation, one that’s based on powerful instinct honed from years of very good cookery.

Since my year of cooking with them, I’ve found myself inspired to do the agak-agak thing more in my kitchen. Where I once was terrified of simply peeking in the fridge and throwing dinner together, with my busy book travels recently, that’s become rather the norm. Out of this new practice, however, has emerged interesting stir-fries, stews and more.

Just this week, as I was trying to recall how I’d made a dish I liked a few months back, I realized with great chagrin that like my aunties, I’ve not written any of these inventions down.

Well, that’s going to be fixed.

Starting with this stir-fry, we’re going to start recording it all. If you love turmeric and sambal, then definitely read on …

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Auntie Jane’s Potato Gratin: A Singaporean Christmas Casserole

Chinese new year may belong to my grandmother, she of the legendary pineapple tarts. And my Koh family aunties, a stalwart group of women who make mooncakes rather than buy them each year, may own the Mooncake Festival. But Christmas — that will always, always be my Auntie Jane’s holiday.

In Singapore, where Christmas is typically celebrated by people of all races and religions — largely as a secular festival, one squarely centered on getting together to eat and exchange gifts — my family, representing a jumble of religions in itself, would do the same. It didn’t matter whether you were Buddhist, Protestant, Catholic or Jewish — we were united on Christmas Day in our quest to eat well, share gifts and sing along to cheeseball Christmas carols.

The venue for these celebrations was usually my Auntie Jane’s — she always had a beautiful tree, a wonderfully decorated home complete with holiday cards she had received fashioned into a 2-D Christmas tree plastered onto a wall and a large buffet table topped with turkey and ham, fried rice and noodles.

The one dish we truly looked forward to, however, was a potato gratin she whipped together just once a year — filled with sliced chipolata, a skinny British sausage that’s packed with seasonings, mushrooms, onions and potatoes, this gratin was a meal in itself. (And it’s usually a hit with even the pickiest of child eaters.)

Despite my fondness for it, this gratin was yet another family dish that I’d taken for granted and never attempted to make. But when my Let’s Lunch group, a monthly Twitter-fueled virtual lunch-date, decided on sharing a holiday dish from your family or culture this month, I decided it was high time I gave my Auntie Jane’s recipe a shot…

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Town House Books & Cafe: A Gem of a Meal

When you are known for your appetite and have spent some months on the road, taking the gospel of Tiger cookery through cities from far west Seattle to down south Atlanta, people invariably want to know: What was the best meal you had?

I have been incredibly well-fed, that is true. There was an unforgettable meal at Thistle, a quaint hyper-locavore place in McMinnville, Oregon, where some of the produce on our table that evening came from a co-owner’s mother’s garden nearby. In Seattle, there was the discovery of a superb rendition of New York-style pizza at food blogger Molly Wizenberg’s Delancey. And then there was the restaurant that made me consider packing up and moving to Houston just so I could eat there every week: El Real Tex Mex, where the ethereal refried beans, crunchy puffy tacos and stacked enchiladas share a sacred secret ingredient: lard, which the kitchen itself renders from heritage pigs.

The meal that stands far above all others, however, didn’t occur in a restaurant of great repute or one of the must-try scenes of any city I’ve visited. Rather, it took place in a darling little bookstore in St. Charles, Ill., a town 40 miles west of Chicago that’s perched by a pretty river. At Town House Books, owners Doug and Dave set out to not just host a reading for “A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family.” No, they were determined to truly bring the book to life.

And so it was that just a few days before my June reading there, I got a call from Doug, asking me how exactly did my Singaporean aunties wrap the bamboo leaves around the bak-zhang (rice dumplings) and did my late grandmother’s pineapple tarts need to be kept in a fridge if they were made far ahead?

Bak-zhang? Pineapple tarts? When Town House had mentioned a dinner pairing for my reading, these ambitious offerings were certainly not what I had in mind.

The pangs for my family’s dishes immediately set in. And suddenly, I just could not wait to get to St. Charles …

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Singapore Takeout (New York): Feeding the Homesick

Calvin Trillin once wrote of Singaporeans: “Culinarily, they are among the most homesick people I have ever met.”

Truer words have rarely been said. Thankfully for us homesick transplants, however, the Singapore Tourism Board has been on a publicity rampage recently, ever determined to spread the gospel of our extraordinary cuisine.

And so it was that I found myself in the heart of New York City’s fashionable Meatpacking District on Friday, soaking in the heady smells of a creamy spicy laksa brewing, trying to quell my palpitations. Before us was a shipping container, a portable kitchen that the tourism board designed to travel the world, hitting nine cities starting with London in June and ending with Sydney in March 2012.

Starring in New York’s “Singapore Takeout” was chef Malcolm Lee, who helms Singapore’s Candlenut Kitchen, a restaurant that serves traditional Peranakan food, a Straits Chinese cuisine that combines flavors from the Straits of Malaya and China.

Chef Lee will be serving up Singaporean food in New York Sept. 17 and 18 from noon to 3 p.m. and I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview before the public gets to have its first bite …

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Rolina Curry Puffs (Singapore): A Bite of History

There’s been some chatter on Twitter about curry puffs recently — talk, even, of taking a stab at home-made versions of these deep-fried pastries filled with curried potatoes and hard-boiled egg.

Making these puffs — which are divine, especially if eaten piping hot and freshly fried — has never once crossed my mind. This is due in large part to the fact that they’re ubiquitous in Singapore, where I grew up. At 50 cents Singapore (roughly U.S.$0.40) — about what they cost when I was growing up in the 1980s — these puffs were so inexpensive and easy to buy that not many people thought of creating their own. (I salute @WokStar‘s attempt for our Let’s Lunch date next month.)

Among all the hawker stalls that sell curry puffs in Singapore, however, a few stand out. During a visit to Singapore earlier this year, I had the great fortune of stumbling upon one of them while cruising a hawker center, searching for lunch …

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Popiah: Singaporean Summer Rolls, Just Like Grandma Made

I’ve been thinking a lot about popiah, a Singaporean-style summer roll, recently — not just because temperatures have been creeping up in New York City and the foods of my tropical native country are starting to beckon once again.

As you may know, I’ve been on a bit of a book publicity blitz with the February publication of “A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family.” And in all the interviews and signings I’ve done, popiah — a roll filled with ingredients such as julienned jicama, shrimp, shallots, tofu — has been a recipe that has come up frequently.

It’s a roll my grandmother used to make when I was growing up in Singapore — and it’s one that I crave in the U.S. as you don’t see it often on restaurant menus. Because it’s light, a little spicy and the filling has a nice crunch to it, it’s the perfect snack food or appetizer for warm weather — in Singapore, people often have popiah parties in which the filling, summer roll skins and various condiments are set out and guests mill about, casually making their own rolls whenever they feel like eating one.

During my research for the book, however, I made sure to learn how my grandmother and chef Simpson (of Cafe Asean in New York) make theirs — so when my Let’s Lunch group of virtual lunch buddies decided on small spring bites for our March date, popiah immediately sprang to mind …

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Susan Feniger’s Street (Los Angeles): Kaya Toast Fail

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I have spent the better part of my life rebelling, pushing the boundaries, and, often, breaking rules.

There are some things I consider sacrosanct, however — and supreme among them is Singaporean food.

When a dear friend told me this weekend of going to Susan Feniger’s Street in Los Angeles for a kaya toast meal — a popular breakfast in Singapore that involves runny soft-boiled eggs doused with dark, sweet soy sauce and white pepper, and slices of toast generously slathered with kaya, a sweet coconut jam — I was thrilled. I always feel such pride seeing the homespun dishes I grew up with making their way onto American menus.

And then I opened the picture of this “kaya toast” meal. The egg, firm and yellow, was certainly not soft-boiled. The vegetables were disturbing — greens have no place in a kaya toast meal. And the toast didn’t look nearly charred enough.

This, alas, is what Americans are discovering as kaya toast.

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Hei Zho (Prawn Rolls) & A Tiger in The Kitchen Book Launch!

In the middle of a cold, gray New York City winter two years ago, I suddenly found myself thinking about my late grandmother.

This was a woman I had barely known as a child in Singapore. A slender, bird-like lady who spoke nothing but Teochew, the Chinese dialect of my ancestors, the woman I called Tanglin Ah-Ma found it hard to have meaningful conversations with this Westernized, English-speaking granddaughter. Still, we found a way to communicate: Each time I went to her home, food would be set out. Delicious braised duck, gently slow-cooked in a heady mixture of dark soy sauce, star anise and cinnamon and filled with plump cubes of tofu and hard-boiled eggs; umami-packed salted vegetable soup and, at Chinese new year, pineapple tarts, a tiny buttery wonder of a cookie that comprises a shortbread base topped with sweet pineapple jam.

I always thought I’d ask Tanglin Ah-Ma to teach me to make these dishes someday — but when I was 11, she passed away.

Decades later in New York, I realized with deep regret that I had no idea how to make any of these dishes I’d grown up loving. And so I went on a journey, traveling from faraway New York to the country of my birth. Over the next year, the women in my family welcomed me into their kitchens — over many sweltering afternoons, my aunties, my maternal grandmother and my mother gently and gracefully guided me through the foods of my youth, of our shared history. It is a year that is priceless to me because of the stories they told as well as the recipes they generously shared.

I would go into it more but, as you may have heard on this blog, I have a little news to share today. “A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family,” which chronicles my year of learning about my family — and myself — by cooking with them, hits bookstores today. Everything I learned and loved about that magical year is in there — and I do hope you enjoy it. (I’ve also invited several friends to share a treasured family recipe on their blogs today — be sure to scroll down to check out their offerings, ranging from author friend Camille’s grandmother’s zucchini souffle and Phyl’s Nanny Faye’s Hungarian goulash to Victor’s mom’s pad thai.)

Just because my year in Singapore is over, however, it doesn’t mean that the quest to collect my family’s recipes has ended. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle, after all. And so during a recent visit to Singapore, when an auntie I only recently got to know mentioned that hei zho, a deep-fried prawn roll that’s Fukienese in origin, is one of her specialties, I found myself instinctively reaching for my notepad. The camera came out; a pen was located.

Auntie Alice beckoned me into the kitchen, and the journey continued …

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