Saturday, September 18, 2010

My Grandfather's Convent Boyhood

My grandfather was sent away to boarding school when he was about 6 or 7 years old.  Yes, all the way from Katong to the Victoria Street Convent (CHIJ Victoria Street).  He did go home on the weekends, transported on an old rickshaw.  I guess that was why he had to be a boarder - it would not be practical for him to go there and back every day. 

My grandfather was not, of course, the only boy to go to the Convent for his early education.  Another (rather more prominent) student was of course, Mr David Marshall, Singapore's first Chief Minister, who went to kindergarten there.  In his oral history interview, he talks about the food, his attempts at learning French, life under the strict nuns and his experience as an altar server.  Of this, he recounts the lasting impression it would make on him:
"...if it was my turn to say mass, some of the other boarders that went with me of course, went into the body of the chapel but I had to go into the vestry at the back of the altar.  Now as soon as I got there, right in the middle or three- quarter way, sat an old nun. She was Madam St Argyl.  I suppose it's a French name and she was also like a man. She was short and rather inclined to be strict.  I believe she must have been there because she must have been in charge of the chapel. I go up to her and say, "Good Morning"....

... The bishop used to come across Victoria street from the bishop's house in Victoria Street there, and then another server would come from outside also...

... The nuns sat right at the back .. and then all the other boarders in the convent, the first-class, the second-class and the section that was known as the "Orphans" were all present at the mass. and the orderly way that they used to go to communion when walking back to the seats and the posture adopted after receiving communion is one that I have carried through even up to today...  ...with my hands together, walking slowly, sedately to my seat."
Unfortunately I do not have a photograph of my grandfather as a schoolboy (he describes himself as having long curly hair when he first went to school, which I would have liked to see!). 

My grandfather stayed in the convent until  he was old enough to start off in St Joseph's Institution.  There, he spent a few more enjoyable years before starting off on his teaching career - which he would spend entirely in the La Salle schools.  His children would all similarly pass through the Convent (Katong Convent for the girls) and SJI as did his grandchildren, for the most part.
Today, both the CHIJ Victoria Street Convent and SJI buildings are being used for other purposes (a commercial retail/food hub and art museum respectively) but the Schools themselves are still going and growing strong, in their newer, larger buildings in other parts of Singapore.  The chapel my grandfather served in is no longer used for worship, but now remains as a national monument.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Cooking Fish Moolie

Fish Moolie
Originally uploaded by Taking5
Fish Moolie is a classic Eurasian dish, one which probably made its way to Singapore via India.  But the recipe for this mild fish curry is not easy to find.  Most recipe books don't have it - but I found it in two - in our ancient copy of Ellice Handy's cookbook, one of the oldest local cookbooks around (probably now out of print) and another in Robin's Eurasian Recipes, a recent publication. Robin is the father of Quentin Pereira, the owner and chef behind Quentin's restaurant, and it is his curry moolie recipe on the menu of Quentin's.

My mother prefers Mrs Handy's recipe as it is the one which her mother used to cook.  And, of course, that's the recipe we've had for the longest time.  Our local daily domestic also learnt how to make the dish and today, I swear her version is the best ever.  She has long retired, and so I have to cook it myself if I want to eat it.  And actually, it is far easier than one would imagine.


Fish - about 500-600g.  Can use ikan kurau (threadfin), red fish.  The photo above features sea bream.
2 stalks lemon grass or serai (white portion only),
1-1.5cm of galangal or lengkuas
4 candlenuts or buah keras
1 teaspoon tumeric powder
2 large onions
1.5cm ginger, cut into strips
250ml coconut milk
Vinegar, sugar, salt to taste; flour for thickening

Pound the lemongrass, galangal, candlenuts together (or blended together), mix in the tumeric powder.
Fry the ginger and onions till soft but not brown, add the pounded ingredients and fry till fragrant.  Add 150ml of the coconut milk, diluted with 500ml water (or so) and pinch of salt.  Gently poach fish in the coconut gravy (gravy should reach at least two-thirds up the fish).  Cover the pan whilst poaching.  When fish is almost cooked, turn it over, and add the remaining thick coconut milk plus vinegar and sugar to taste.  Thicken with flour as required to reach desired consistency.  Top off with deep fried onions/garlic/chillis as desired.  Aside from the topping, this dish has no chilli, so it is not spicy at all.


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