“Singapore’s other primal passion is eating, and it really is fairly difficult to find any food in Singapore about which to complain. About the closest you could come would be the observation that it’s all very traditional fare of one kind or another, but that hardly seems fair…. The food in Singapore, particularly the endless variety of street snacks in the hawker centers, is something to write home about. If you hit the right three stalls in a row, you might decide these places are a wonder of the modern world. And all of it quite safe to eat, thanks to the thorough, not to say nitpickingly Singaporean auspices of the local hygiene inspectors, and who could fault that?”
– William Gibson, author
Buenos Aires – Ten years shy of its bicentennial, I just couldn’t resist celebrating the founding of Singapore by Sir Thomas Raffles, yes he of the same name as the famed hotel there. Now, I don’t, in particular know Singaporean cuisine, other than that it’s a mix of Malaysian, Chinese, Indonesian, and Indian, plus a bit of this and that thrown in. So, I turned to the family authority, my youngest brother, who has spent time both living and working there, and, at the time I contacted him, was enroute – so it made the question simple… “When you hit the ground, what foods are you going out for first?” He gave me a list of his favorites, I started from there, and then… well, pretty much ignored it. Nothing against him, I actually planned the menu around his list and then started making changes as I heard from guests as to one allergy or dislike or another, availability of some ingredients, and, realizing that he was headed out for mostly a lot of fried food.
I started with his idea of a fried radish cake, one of his favorites – the recipes I found sounded, well, a bit more complicated than I wanted to jump into without a bit of practice – steamed vegetable cakes are not something I’ve worked with much – he asserts that I’m wrong and should have gone for it – but, I wanted something that was a cold dish to start, a fresh sort of salady and seafoody kind of thing. That lead me to a pasembor, a warm salad of deep fried tofu, shrimp cakes and squid along with various vegetables, all in a sweet potato and peanut sauce. Too heavy for what I wanted. So, in the end a reinterpreted version – the sauce a puree of roasted sweet potatoes, peanuts, shallots, garlic, chilies, sesame seeds and vegetable oil, all cooked slowly together until the flavors came together. Squid rings sauteed in chili flakes, shrimp sauteed in turmeric, a little frying – deep fried tofu squares, all kept just warm, and then served on the side of a thin julienne of potato (blanched), cucumber and daikon, and topped with bean sprouts. Tasty, a bit complicated to put together, but worth it.
He hadn’t had any particular soup suggestions, and I vacillated between several until settling on my own version of a ban mian, a dish of Chinese origin. The broth is very simple – water with a bit of ground pork and dried fish simmered together for an hour or so, then seasoned with a puree of soy sauce, garlic and chili-bean paste. Into that I put sauteed ground pork and reconstituted dry shiitake mushrooms, (different texture from using fresh) and fresh spinach leaves, cooked that a little bit to blend the flavors, and then added malfatti (misshappen noodles) made from a simple dough of 2 cups of flour, 1 egg, pinch of salt, and enough water to come together – the tradition is to sort of pinch off the noodles by hand from a ball, but I rolled them out instead and cut them with a knife in random more or less rectangular shapes. I served the soup with a little bit more of the dried fish on top which I’d first sauteed in oil until they were crispy.
Okay – I kinda sorta paid attention on this one. One of his favorites is apparently a murtabak of sardines. A murtabak is basically a roti type dough that’s coiled and flattened and coiled and flattened two or three times to form what will end up being a flaky pastry – sort of like a quick version of a puff pastry in style – and then it encases the filling, or the filling is placed atop – in the case of this particular version – it is topped with beaten egg and canned sardines. Now, I started there, though I wasn’t going to use canned sardines – fresh fillets, sauteed in olive oil with lime zest and salt – and while I started out planning to go with the pastry as is traditional, while I was shopping I saw a bunch of plantains… and I’d really loved (and heard from many of the guests that they did too) the plantain empanadas I made for the Nicaraguan dinner a couple of weeks ago – so I thought I’d encase the sardines in the same plantain dough, just making it more… sardine shaped than empanada shaped. I also flavored the plantain dough with coconut flakes, cumin, and salt. Problem was, the plantains weren’t quite as ripe as the ones I’d had two weeks earlier and the dough was a bit more crumbly – I definitely wasn’t as happy with this – and my original idea had been to fry them and then slice them on a bias to make a pretty presentation – but since they were barely holding together, I left them whole. The beaten egg filling got turned into a tamago-no-moto, or Japanese egg yolk and miso sauce, that I’ve made before, and then, just for color and a little zip, a quick chopped salsa of fresh mango, chilis and cilantro. This dish will make a comeback with riper plantains!
I’ve shared my recipe for beef rendang before, so I won’t again, suffice it to say that it’s still pretty much my favorite type of curry dish, so I like making it.
I realized after the dinner, and after we’d finished it all, that I hadn’t snapped a photo of the dessert, but then, it wasn’t that visually interesting – two scoops of toasted white sesame ice cream and a couple of molasses gingersnaps – the inspiration coming from the Raffles Creamery – an ice cream shop attached to the hotel that serves up exotic flavors with fun mix-ins. The ice cream – ¾ cup of white sesame seeds dry toasted to a golden color then pureed into 2 cups of milk, 1½ cups of heavy cream and a cup of sugar – all heated together to just shy of boiling temperature. I tempered in 3 whole stiff whipped eggs, then cooked it all together until it coated the back of a spoon, then straight into an ice water bath to chill it down, into the refrigerator, and then frozen in the ice cream maker. The cookies – ¾ cup corn oil, 1 cup brown sugar, ¼ cup molasses, 1 egg, 2 teaspoons baking soda, 2 cups flour, ½ teaspoon cloves, 1 teaspoon each powdered ginger and cinnamon, ½ teaspoon salt – rolled into balls and then rolled in sugar and baked – pretty much a recipe that I found on the internet with just a touch more ginger and the salt. Apparently they were pretty good – I made five dozen, we served up two dozen of those at the dinner, but somehow by mid-day the next day, the remaining three dozen were gone – I only had four or five cookies… (the online recipe says it makes two dozen cookies – they’ve got to be huge).