In this digital age, where print moves inexorably towards extinction, cookbooks are beating the odds to retain their allure. What’s more, where home cooks once looked to tomes produced by fancy restaurant chefs that taught then-exotic dishes like beouf bourguignon and pigeon pastilla, today’s readers – a generation of Singaporeans better acquainted with sourdough starters than fermenting kueh batter – are turning towards cookbooks that steer them back to their roots.
Yes, heritage cooking is making a bit of a comeback. Add to that globalisation, which has made exquisite French cuisine far more available than excellent Peranakan fare in restaurants here, and our edible adventures have finally circled home.
Indeed, there is a certain magic in being able to recapture a taste of Mama’s babi pongteh or to bake, from scratch, a kueh bingka (tapioca cake) so creamy and corpulent that it threatens to spill out of its golden crust. It’s no wonder then that the latest trio of local cookbooks, produced and informed by their authors’ own histories of journeying through wet markets, home kitchens and familial tables, has struck such a chord with Singaporeans who have developed a deep hunger for the dishes that define our culinary identity.
THE WAY OF KUEH
THE BOOK This is more movement than book. Its creator’s passion for traditional kueh is embodied in the 98 meticulously researched and written recipes designed to compel even the most inexperienced cooks to pick up their wooden spoons and have a go at their favourite kueh. Beyond providing mere guidance on the art of kueh making, the book delves deep into the science and culture of kueh and pays homage to the personal experiences of respected kueh masters across the country.
THE AUTHOR Christopher Tan is a well-known food writer, food historian, and culinary instructor. He began research for the book in 2015 before applying for the Heritage Project Grant from the National Heritage Board in 2017. Where most authors draw the line at writing, researching and testing recipes for their cookbooks, Tan also styled and photographed every image on its pages – an all-consuming effort that explains the number of years it took to complete this epic endeavour.
TRY THIS Sure, kueh can be arduous to make, but it can also be surprisingly simple. We suggest you begin with kueh bingka (baked tapioca kueh), which calls for little more than stirring together a mixture of grated tapioca, coconut milk and several other ingredients. Tan’s recipe calls for grating your tapioca, which is admittedly laborious, but the result is a deliciously creamy, sticky, toasty and golden-crusted kueh, kissed with the deep scent of banana leaves. It is the kueh that will push you towards making yet other kueh in your home kitchen, which is precisely the point of this seminal book.
... of research, writing, interviewing and recipe-testing over.
...to refine Tan’s Pak Tong Koh (white sugar kueh) recipe.
WET MARKET TO TABLE
THE BOOK This timely release celebrates the rich and unique produce Singapore’s time-honoured wet markets offer. The book is themed around 25 ingredients, including taro, celtuce and jackfruit, parsed into wonderfully modern and creative recipes that go far beyond traditional curries and stir-fries. They draw from varied cultures, running the gamut of Vietnamese bahn xeo and young jackfruit biryani to pani puri with cassava, and rojak ice cream. Collectively, they are designed to “nudge Singaporeans to give wet markets and their ingredients a chance,” explained author Pamelia Chia.
THE AUTHOR A food science and technology graduate-turned-chef, Chia wrote the book over a year and while working at local Michelinstarred restaurant Candlenut. “I set out to write this book from a cook’s perspective,” she offered. “All (the) strange and wonderful produce (at the wet market) enthralled me. In a country that is so manicured... wet markets offer a certain sense of groundedness and soulfulness that one would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere in Singapore. “With this book, I believe I have provided Singaporeans with an unintimidating starting point to seek out the markets,” shares Chia, who specifically spotlighted easily-found ingredients that are still uncommonly used with the goal of inspiring Singaporeans to be “as creative with our regional ingredients as we can be with Western produce”.
TRY THIS We love the originality of the Jambu Galette, in which the ubiquitous rose apple is thinly sliced and arranged in gorgeous spirals across a tart crust. The Laksa Leaf Pesto Croissant Loaf is another recipe we flagged for a long weekend, requiring as it does the intrepid home cook to make a butter-laden dough from scratch at least three days before baking.
THE CASE FOR WET MARKETS
“To me, the wet market is Singapore’s version of the farmers’ market I’d read about in cookbooks. What I did not expect was for the ‘humanity’ of the wet market to grow on me. I visited them thrice a week over a year for the book, and felt a sense of kampung spirit I had never experienced before. While the people can be impatient, gruff or rude, wet markets on the whole provide one with a a sense of rootedness you don’t really experience in this digital era.”
THE NEW MRS LEE’S COOKBOOK: VOLUMES 1 AND 2
THE BOOK For home cooks of the Pioneer Generation, Mrs Lee’s Cookbook, published in 1974, was the bible of authentic Peranakan cooking. Between its bright orange paperback covers, Mrs Lee Chin Koon, the mother of Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew, provided easy-to-follow recipes for classics like nasi lemak, babi assam, and ayam siyow. In 2003, her granddaughter Shermay Lee reworked the book, bringing its allure into the modern day, illustrating recipes with beautiful photographs and updating information about the dishes’ origins. Recipes have also been updated for a modern audience – modifications include removing the use of MSG, and providing workarounds for tedious techniques of yore. Just in time for the recent surge in interest for cookbooks, the books were recently reprinted for the third time.
THE AUTHOR Shermay Lee is the founder and owner of Shermay’s Singapore Fine Food, which provides food consultancy to companies like Singapore Airlines and retails bottled sauces like her popular Chilicuka (a vinegar-laced chilli sauce).
TRY THIS A self-declared “traditionalist”, Lee has retained several time-forgotten recipes. One such example is the divisive Hati Babi Bungkus – balls of minced pork and offal encased in caul fat and deepfried. Lee also encourages the busy modern-day cook to use equipment like food processors rather than a mortar and pestle to make rempah – “pulse, instead of continuous blending to control the final texture”.
TRY THAT To see how the recipes might turn out, Lee has collaborated with Shangri-La Hotel, Singapore, where 15 dishes based on her recipes are being served at The Line buffet restaurant until April this year. Post-meal, diners can purchase the cookbooks at Shophouse by Shangri-La.