Friday, December 30, 2011

Hidden Gem of Singapore - Bukit Brown Cemetery

Hidden Peacock by Taking5
Hidden Peacock, a photo by Taking5 on Flickr.
In my last post, I told the story of a nameless ancestor who may or may not be buried in Bukit Brown cemetery and promised an update on my visit to BB cemetery itself.

Anyway, Bukit Brown cemetery is a Chinese cemetery in Singapore, which was in active use from 1922 to 1973. "Bukit" means "hill" in Malay, and "Brown" is after an earlier owner of the land, George Henry Brown, a ship-owner who arrived in Singapore in the 1840s. A name reflecting indeed the melting pot of cultures, peoples, that Singapore was then.

The cemetery is the burial place for many pioneers of the Singapore Chinese community. Others have written about the cemetery (see this nice post by oceanskies), and of the controversy surrounding it - this quiet peaceful place has to make way for an expressway in the near future. So, I will not go into it here but instead reflect on my own visit.

It was indeed a place of contrasts. Some graves were well kept, some even with fresh paint ensuring that the names and words on the gravestones remained legible. Others were overgrown - the gravestones falling over and the grass growing halfway up the stones.
Some graves were decorated with beautiful peranakan tiles, reflecting the culture and tradition of the times, or with charming little scenes carved on the stones. One was guarded by a pair of Sikh guards, assisted by their own little guard dogs.  Others were simple solitary stones.

Some plots were large (although we were unable to find the huge plot which was apparently 10 3-room HDB flats in size, surely a difficult grave to overlook?). One near the entrance, for example, had a large area demarcated in front for mourners to gather, with two stone benches on each side for the weary to rest a while. In one corner, we saw what must have been the paupers' graves - a series of small gravestones clustered tightly together.

We did not go out of our way to look for "famous" graves. But there were little direction signs indicating where these graves are and when we came across them, we did take the opportunity to look at them. So we saw the grave of Tan Seah Imm (Seah Imm Street fame), Tan Ean Kiam (Ean Kiam Place, in Katong!), the grave of Lee Kuan Yew's grandfather, the grave of a descendent of Confucius,and so on.  But there are many other graves, of less famous people, but each one a part of the Singapore story.   This useful and educational site captures their stories.

Needless to say, I was unable to find the grave of my ancestor during my visit to BB. I had asked my aunts and father if they had any clues which would help me find the grave. But, "we walked a long way in" and "there was this big round circle" are not useful tips (see adjoining photo; many graves are demarcated by "big round circles").  They did tell me that the descendents' names were written in English on the graves, so we would have been able to identify the correct grave once we found it (if we found it, that is). 

 I did have a prime suspect as to the name of my ancestor. We managed to locate the relevant sector but alas, the sector itself was somewhat large and overgrown. It was not feasible to search it for a single grave. Instead, we spent our time just absorbing the peace and tranquility of the cemetery.  It was a morning well spent. 

How do I feel about the prospect of a road going through the cemetery, destroying my great-great-grandfather's grave?  Well, I did not know of the grave in the first place so it is hard for me to feel very much about it.  I do feel sorry that this serene place has to make way for further development, but hope that some part of it can be conserved in some way.  Also, whilst the cemetery is not in active use (as in welcoming new inhabitants, that is), it is quite clear that many still come here to pay their respects to their ancestors.

If you are planning a visit to Bukit Brown cemetery, the API website provides interesting links, including a useful map (which for some reason I discovered only after my visit). 

For more photos, do check out my Flickr set.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

My Mysterious Ancestor

It all started when I mentioned casually at dinner one evening, that I wanted to go visit Bukit Brown (BB) cemetery.  My father remarked, that in his childhood he remembered visiting the grave of his grandfather's father, every year at Cheng Beng (the day the Chinese visit the graves of their ancestors to remember them), in a "cemetery off Lornie Road".  Since BB is off Lornie Road, he thought this could be the same cemetery. 

I thought that the first person to come down from China was my father's grandfather!  Where did this mysterious ancestor come from?!!!  And could I be sure that my father's recollections were correct?  What was the name of this gentleman anyway?  My father only recalled the surname, which of course is not a big feat of memory since it is our family name anyway.  And so the investigations began.  My father checked with his sisters, all of whom remembered visiting the said cemetery but none of whom could remember the full name of the said ancestor.  They checked with their aunt (my grandaunt), who being one generation before them might actually know a little more detail.  Unfortunately, they drew a blank - he had died before she was born, she said.  But, after thinking about it, she vaguely recalled that one of his names was "Huat" - or something like it. 

So there I had two clues - the name "Huat" (or something like it), and a possible date of death, likely somewhere in the 1920s since that was when BB was opened and that was around when grandaunt was born.(Of course, that was before I found out that there were graves in other parts of Singapore which were exhumed and the bodies re-located to BB.)  Anyway, I found the BB Burial Register on-line, courtesy of the National Archives, and trawled through the first two documents before scrolling down and finding the index of names further down.  Ah, well, at least it still saved me quite a lot of work. Fortunately, my family surname is relatively uncommon, so the number of entries was not overly daunting.  And it was quite easy to knock out the females and those who died too young.  However, I could not find a "Huat", but found something which looked like "Huan" (the careful cursive script of the day was not always easy to read).  Alas, the full name still did not ring any bells with my grandaunt.

She did, however, reveal more about our family history.  My father's grandfather (my great-grandfather), came down to Penang at the age of 15 years old, to seek his fortune.  I have written elsewhere about how he met and married his second wife, my greatgrandmother - who just happened to be his boss' daughter.  So obviously, he had done reasonably well, well enough to bring down his family members - his first wife, father and brother, here to Singapore.  My grandaunt says that this was the time of the Boxer Rebellion, so considering my grandfather died in 1969 at the age of around 80+ years, it seems that he himself came down just before or during the Boxer Rebellion (around 1900-01) and brought the rest of his family over soon after.  His first wife together with her family, and his brother, settled in Johore where they ran a rubber estate and of course my relatives are still living there. 

So, sadly, I am not any nearer finding the name of my mysterious ancestor.  But at least now I know a little more about my family than I did one month ago.

Watch out for my next post on BB Cemetery!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Traditional Christmas Goodies

I've not put anything up for some time ... it really has been a busy time for me and I do wish I had more time to maintain this blog.

Anyway, the last week has been a veritable whirlwind of baking my Christmas goodies - my "staples" of pineapple tarts and shortbread, and my first batch ever of mince pies!  Three "traditional" Christmas delicacies, one from England, one for the Eurasian community, and one distinctly my family's own.

I really don't know why people express surprise when I tell them I make pineapple tarts for Christmas.  I tell them that this is a Eurasian tradition.  I also tell them (and am met with some polite scepticism) that there is reasonably strong grounds to suspect that the Eurasians came up with the golden treat in the first place, as mentioned in my earlier post

Since then, a kind reader gave  me some useful information - that the pineapple plant we all know and love came from the same place that the rubber tree did - South America.  The popular story appears to be that Columbus discovered it in 1493 and brought it back with him to Europe.  From there, it is likely that the European explorers /colonisers/missionaries brought it with them to South East Asia.  (One suspects the Portuguese, but my informant figured the French).  Whoever it was, the fruit came via Europe, the cooking techniques are more western than oriental, the very traditional Eurasian practice of eating this at Christmas together with the sugee cake...  ... whatever it is, I have enough jam left over to make a fresh batch for Chinese New Year, thus satisfying both traditions :-)

The shortbread, however, is no Eurasian tradition but my family's own favourite recipe.  I wrote about it in a previous post too, so I won't go into it any further here.

So that leaves me with my mince pies.  Now, these are indeed traditional English Christmas treats.  And, as a child I also recall my mother buying mincemeat to make these gorgeous apple pies - apple lining the bottom of the pastry base, with the mince layering the top, followed by strips of criss-crossing pastry on top.  Ah, those were indeed absolutely delicious childhood memories.

This time round, however, I decided to go with Nigella Lawson's Frangipane Mince Pies which come with a little layer of mince at the bottom of the tart and then covered with the eggy/buttery/almond-y topping and baked till beautiful and golden on top.  Ah, the divine Ms Lawson indeed deserves her Domestic Goddess status as these beautiful little pies really were quite delectable.  Alas, could only sample one piece (baker's privilege) as the rest are destined for my extended family's Christmas Eve dinner tonight, where I hope they will disappear like the hot cakes they are. 

But I still have half a bottle of mincemeat left, so maybe there is a mincemeat and apple pie in my not too distant future...

Rising international awareness of Peranakan Food!

It's a big thing to get your little restaurant featured in the Wall Street Journal (or more accurately one of the WSJ blogs).  It's a really big thing when yours is just a small little restaurant in a little red dot of an island, featuring a cuisine that is associated with only a minority of the people on said little red dot. So here's the blog link.

Candlenut Kitchen can be found at 25 Neil Road, in the Duxton area.  I've been there before - the food is indeed tasty and flavourful.  Don't think I tried the sous-vide beef buah keluak though (even the name of this dish is truly a fusion of three languages!).  Reason enough for another visit?  :-)

Monday, August 08, 2011

My Grandmother's Convent School Days

I'll be going for my Sec 4 class reunion on Saturday.  It's been years since we saw each other - in those pre-email/internet days, it has been a little more difficult to keep in touch.   But this post is inspired by a far more senior group of Sec 4 girls - in fact from my grandmother's Sec 4 class from the 1930s.  In fact, besides my grandmother, my grandaunt and one of my teachers were all in this same class. 

The photo has not stood well the test of time.  But it shows a happy and cohesive little group of schoolgirls, presumably in the grounds of the Victoria Street Convent (see my earlier post about my grandfather's convent boyhood; little would this young convent boy know that his future wife would pass through the same gates, many years later).

You can see from the photo that the convent uniform used to be a little different - definitely those large collars had mercifully left the scene by the time it was my turn to don the uniform (but my convent is in Katong).
For many of these girls, their education  would end after completing secondary school.  But already, this was a privilege - for theirs was an era where many girls remained uneducated.  They would proceed to become wives and mothers; some would take up jobs.  Their lives would not be easy - within a few years they would be facing the trials of the Japanese occupation, followed by the trials of the pre-Independence years.  But the friendships and ties nurtured in these years would endure.  This year, the survivors of this class turn 90.  Those who can, still meet up regularly as they have been doing all these years.

So my wish for my classmates is that we too remain happy and healthy, well into our golden years. 

P.S.  Happy Birthday, grandma.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Different Sky, A Different Era

I have just finished reading Meira Chand's "A Different Sky".  A tale of Singapore in the tumultuous years prior to Independence, the story starts in the mid 1920s, takes us through the Japanese Occupation to the early years of self-government.  Told through the stories of three main protagonists - a Chinese girl of good family, a Eurasian boy and a young Indian businessman - we read how each person is shaped by the events they live through even as each, in their way contributes to the Singapore story.

In the same way, the book tells the story not only of Singapore during these critical years, but of the larger events in the world beyond.  Indeed, what I like best about this book was the way it portrayed how the nationalistic movement of the pre-Colonial period, and the growing threat of communism, influenced politics and society here in Singapore.

Of the three protagonists, I found Raj, the pragmatic but warm hearted Indian capitalist, rather endearing.  His self-serving actions (including collaborating with the Japanese during the war) contrast with his many acts of kindness to those around him.  The other two were less interesting and I felt that they were created to fit a certain "mould" -   Howard, the Eurasian civil servant, who grew up with a chip on his shoulder; Mei Lan, the war heroine who became a lawyer fighting and protecting abused women.  But a number of the minor characters, I felt, played an important role in livening up the tale.  Rose, Howard's mother, a widow making a living for herself and two young children.  Mei Lan's second grandmother, tyranising her slave girls, smoking her opium and dabbing on her Schiaparelli perfume.  Raj's brother-in-law Krishna, freedom fighter and rabble rouser.  Their stories, too, formed part of the rich tapestry of "A Different Sky".

But overall, the story was indeed that of Pre-Independence Singapore.  A tale of life under the British, and then under the Japanese.  A tale of political awakening, of a nation beginning to arise.  A tale of individuals and families passing through tragedy and terror, to live again and love again. 

In the broad sweep of history, 50 years ago is not a long time at all.  Yet for many of us, it is indeed a totally different era - a time and place totally outside our experience of life in Singapore today.  This book gives us an insight into these days gone by, and leave us the wiser for it.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

My Favourite Kasut Manek Photos

Kasut Manek - Peacock 02Stepping out in styleNyonya Beaded ShoeBeading Shoes | The Peranakan Way | SingaporeBeaded ShoesKasut Manek
Antique peranakan beaded slipper(kasut manek manek)Peranakan beaded shoeNonya Beaded ShoeMy Grandmother's Shoesbeaded001Peranankan Beaded shoes
Kasut Manek (i) (Phoenixes)'Kasut Manek'Beaded slippers

Kasut Manek, a gallery on Flickr.
Well, I did promise that I had a few new posts in the pipeline. And so I do, except of course that this particular one may not be particularly exciting to anyone as it is really an excuse to update on the status of my Kasut Manek project, of which nothing has been heard for months.

But first, let me share a number of lovely kasut manek photos which I've found on Flickr. These are a mixture of old shoes, new shoes, and shoes in progress.  More information can be found in the gallery itself (and more updated photos, as and when I find them).

Now back to my own personal kasut manek.  Indeed, it has been slow going. I am now at the widest part of the shoe, so the rows progress slowly. But there has indeed been some discernable movement (after all these months there had better be!) as the little pink beads move further down the canvas, light pink shading down to medium and then to dark metallic pink.

For those who have requested for my pattern, I ask you for your patience. I don't really have a scanner and will need to photograph the existing pattern, clean it up etc etc. Am rather busy (as the slow progress on my shoes also indicates) and will need to find time to do this as well.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Growing up in Katong

I was surfing on the Perankan Association website and was immensely pleased to find a rather charming article by Cynthia Wee-Hoefer on Katong in the 1950s and 60s!

Just my kind of thing, and a very nice article to link to from this blog. 

But there is also a link from this article to this blog.  Cynthia mentions that she used to live in an obscure little lane off East Coast Road ‘after the Joo Chiat traffic lights, the small lane on the right, opposite the Shell station.’ Well, am pleased to say that  I have in fact written an earlier short post about the very same street!  She describes it also much better than I did, with her description of
"...neat rows of raised terrace houses with curlicue frescoed fronts, patterned mosaic steps and a narrow veranda. The houses were pretty and deep to accommodate three bedrooms, a living room, a dining room, and a kitchen covered by a zinc roof. There was a toilet (originally of the bucket system but modernised years later), a bathroom, and an airy basement that worked as an additional storage space, sleeping quarter and hide-and-seek playground."
For more on Cynthia's story, do read her article on Growing up in Katong.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Good home cooking - Little Nonya Express

I've been awfully lazy about updating this blog, but worry not!  A few entries are in the offing.  What inspires me to write this post, however, is a rather tasty lunch last Sunday.  Little Nonya Express is a new eatery on Jalan Kembangan, at the end of a small little strip of shops in the midst of residential housing. 

Helmed by veteran chef Baba Jolly Wee, it is a new little restaurant specialising of course in nonya cuisine.  Baba Jolly used to lend his expertise to Spices Cafe in Concorde Hotel (the former Meridian Hotel on Orchard Road).  But he has now moved far closer to Katong.  Besides supervising the kitchen, we saw from the posters on the front wall that Chef Jolly also gives cooking lessons. 

The food is truly nonya comfort food.  The tender, juicy beef rendang came with a fragrant rendang gravy.  The chap chye too was cooked in a flavourful stock (with haebee lending a dash of umami to the dish).  The sambal sotong was less tasty than the other two but the sotong itself was cooked just right.

We finished off the meal with durian chendol.  Here, a slightly jarring note was struck.  The ice shavings were a little large.  One had to crunch the ice a little between ones teeth.  But all in all, a good meal and friendly service.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Pie tee and love letter makers, and assorted cooking equipment

What a fun time we had shopping in Malacca!  Our first stop (as always) was at the antique jewellery shop where we bought a couple of pieces.  But I'm saving the pictures for a future post so I'm not putting them here.

I also managed to get myself a pair of dancing shoes, custom made, at Ah Lan's on Heeren Street.  We visited Ah Lan's last year and then it was just a simple shop which sold shoes.  Now it has expanded its range to include some clothes as well.  This time, I decided to get a pair of dancing shoes made.  I am not exactly a ballroom dancer but I do need a nice pair of evening shoes and these fit the bill nicely.  Ordered on Friday, picked them up on Sunday.  Of course, we trawled the kasut manek shops to see what was current.  But since we make our own (or in my case, in the process of doing so) we did not buy any.

But the find of this trip had to be the cooking equipment shops in Kampong Jawa.  Now, the thing about nonya cooking is that it can require some special equipment.  For example, to make chendol you need a tray perforated  with holes so that you can push the gel through to form the jelly "worms".  Pie tee, on the other hand, requires a pie tee mould which is dipped into the batter and then into the hot oil.  Some of the kueh-kueh also have their own moulds (bangkit, bangkus etc).  Not all of this is easily found in Singapore and so  we thought we would take the opportunity to get this equipment in Malacca.

First stop: the concierge desk at our hotel.  That's when we found out that we were probably not the only ones looking for such things. They directed us quickly to Kampong Jawa and got us a taxi to take us there.  We wandered around and found a few shops with all the stuff we were looking for - and more!  Chendol trays, pie tee moulds, also love letter makers and jelly and apom moulds (featured in the photo on the left).

I must say that this was the first time I've ever seen some of these unusual pieces of cooking equipment, such as the love letter maker (see photo on the left) which are essentially tongs with a pair of disks at the end which have the pattern engraved on them.  I can't believe the amount of effort it takes - to pour the batter over the disks, holding them shut above a charcoal fire, opening up the disk and removing and rolling the love letters up into a roll.  It would not have been the job of just one person, but of a number of people dividing the work between them.  I can't see myself doing it, except that I once said that about pineapple tarts and now I turn up the nose at anything not home made!

Anyway, for the record, I didn't buy all these pieces. My friend did as she felt that some of these may not be available in future and it would be better to get them when she can.  I just got the pie tee maker and the chendol tray.  So maybe, there will be a future post on how I made use of them....

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Malacca Food

Singaporeans like going to Malacca, for two reasons: Eating and shopping! I have to admit I am no exception. Yes, it is a charming, historical town.  And yes, I should probably make more of an effort to visit a few of its many museums. But, as I always say, always leave something for next time.

When I was last in Malacca one year ago, I must admit that I did not come back raving about the food.  Maybe we didn't go to the right places (although highly recommended, I thought they were over-rated).  This time round, I thought that the food was much better. 

We went off for lunch directly after we finished checking in to our hotel, at the Calanthe Art Cafe.  I did visit this place last year but only tried their coffee. The place has charm and it is a pleasant place to be in the heat of the afternoon.  Its walls are covered with murals and creative art displays.  Two old televisions bring us back to yesterday.  One has been converted into an aquarium!  The cafe proudly proclaims that it sells 13 States Coffee, the blends based on the specialty of each Malaysian state.  It also sells laksa, which of course we had to sample given that it was advertised as one of Malaysia's best 50 laksas!  I've realised that the Malaccans don't use the thick bee hoon noodles, just yellow noodles or bee hoon.  Nonetheless, I enjoyed the lemak gravy and the different toppings of egg, cucumber, fishcake and others.  

We went for dinner subsequently at Capitol Satay in Bukit Cina. I enjoyed the food, and the fun of cooking the items in the thick peanut sauce. Especially memorable was the huge shrimp we ate, which we had to ask specially for.  For the record, it was pretty good, even though ratherdifficult to shell and thereafter to eat given the size.  It was a memorable meal, but I think one visit to Capitol is enough, the queue is just too much.

The other truly enjoyable meal was our dinner at the Equatorial Hotel nonya restaurant, Seri Nyonya. Now people recommend other restaurants in Malacca, but thus far Seri Nyonya is myfavourite.  The cooking is more refined and less oily, and there is a better variety of dishes to choose from.  We had the butterfly fish for starters (thin, crisply deep-fried fish slices with a dressing of lime, shallots, chilli) followed by ayam buah keluak, sweet potato leaves fried with sambal belacan, and yummy sambal prawns with assam sauce.

So these are my three food recommendations for those aiming to take a trip to Malacca.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Food Bites Old and New

It's been a while since I featured any Katong eateries on this blog.  Partly because I lost my old Sony Ericsson K500i with its really excellent camera phone (nothing has been the same since) and partly because the food scene in Katong tends to shift so fast; all very well when new restaurants come in but then the old ones depart and my blog becomes out-of-date :-(  Anyway, thought I'd restart this again, with one old favourite and one newcomer on the scene. 

The time-tested favourite is Glory Catering, on East Coast Road (near the junction with Joo Chiat Road).  It's a small shop, distinguished by all the kueh kueh in front, and the jars of pineapple tarts and other goodies in the crowded entranceway.   Glory prides itself on its pineapple tarts, which are indeed pretty good (for bought rather than homemade tarts that is), and there are a number of newspaper reviews on the walls of the restaurant which serve as an endorsement of their prowess.

The cooking is pretty good - the tasty, lemak chicken curries (chicken rendang,  masak merah are my favourites), sambal squid and sambal goreng. It's amazing how fast the turnover is - food is served quickly (but don't expect beautiful presentation) and people eat and leave in a jiffy.  I also enjoy their soft drinks -- they serve Bundaberg ginger ale, root beer and others.

The new kid on the block is Makan Peranakan, also on East Coast Road (Telok Kurau Road junction).  Situated in "Food R Us", the corner coffee shop of the Peranakan Hotel, it is a little stall which sells selected peranakan dishes - old favourites like mee siam, laksa, and kueh pie tee and more unusual dishes like nasi kunyit, nasi ulam.  My favourites are the mee siam (savoury, with decent sized prawns) and the pie tee (tasty filling in a nice crisp pie tee shell).  It's a pretty new outlet and if you fancy the mee siam, go early because it runs out fast. The nasi kunyit (glutinous rice, coloured with golden tumeric) is served with a really tasty chicken curry, prawns and some omelette.  The most unusual dish here - the nasi ulam, full of herbs and (strangely) little bits of fish, is pretty tasty but tends to get a little dry. 

In general, however, the zhi cha at Food R Us is  pretty solid.  Good, tasty fare and friendly staff (who remember our preferences) make it the place we go to again and again (that and being right on our doorstep).  So if you happen to be around the East Coast Road area and looking for a bite to eat in the evening, give this a try.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Auspicious Chinese New Year wear

I was wandering around Chinatown at the end of last year together with a friend of mine.  There are a few small little stalls in the Chinatown Complex on Smith street, selling sarong kebaya.  One was so crowded that it made browsing the shelves a little difficult (we are talking about something the size of a hawker stall here) but another a little further down with a smaller selection, was easier to see and access.  To my great delight, they had a series of nice kebaya tops in dark pink rubbia cotton for very reasonable prices.  Whilst I don't think that the quality of the embroidery work was as good as that on my existing kebaya, it was still pretty decent.  So I ended up getting my outfit for Chinese New Year in this little Chinatown stall.  What was a little sad was that the complex was quite quiet, with all the tourists milling around the streets just outside. 

One thing led to another.  I obviously am no where near completion on my first beaded slipper and I didn't think my existing pair went that well with my new kebaya top.  So I made my way to Katong Shopping Centre and there in another basement shop I found a pair of rather nice (and surprisingly comfortable) shoes and in another shop a few doors down picked up the kerosang.  Again, I must admit that even my pathetic amateur work is probably going to result in much finer beadwork (smaller beads)than that on this pair of kasut manek but I figured no one is going to be looking at my feet that closely.

So please note - there's no need to go all the way to Malacca to get one's nonya outfits - we have locally quite a few shops able to supply all our needs.  And that easily, I was able to venture forth on the first day of  CNY in full nonya regalia :-)  And of course in the most auspicious of colours to boot.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Glam up the Gammon

Christmas ham is a traditional Eurasian staple.  My grandmother would buy hers from a little shop at the corner of Tembeling and East Coast Road.  My mother remembers the ham coming in a sack, all packed in saw dust.  It would be boiled for hours to cook it and to remove some of the salt used to preserve the meat.  The first pieces would be eaten Christmas Eve, after midnight mass, together with achar,  mulligatawny soup and a crisp French loaf.

Today, we just go to Cold Storage and after removing the plastic wrapper, the ham is good to carve and eat.  But of course the challenge of eating all this ham remains.

So, the resourceful Eurasian housewife came up with a way to present it afresh to family members tired of eating the same thing day in day out.  And that's how gammon curry came about.  It's not my family tradition but I found this yummy recipe in Wendy Hutton's Eurasian food cookbook,  "Food of Love".  The whole cookbook can be downloaded so I feel quite comfortable reproducing the recipe here (for the record I bought the hard copy of the book).

I have to highlight that this is not the lemak coconut based curry but a sour, spicy curry cooked with cumin, fenugreek and mustard seeds and sweetened by the addition of prunes. Must admit that I didn't actually have *that* much leftover ham so I had to buy some cured pork belly to supplement the pieces of ham.  But the whole thing tasted great, especially eaten with rice and a cool green pea and mint salad.  The last is definitely not traditional but it goes very well. 

1 tablespoon toasted cumin seeds, pounded till fine
7-8 dried chillies (soaked to soften, pounded finely) - note that the original recipe calls for 8-10 chillis but I think that's a little hot
2 tablespoons oliveoil
approx 100ml red wine vinegar
500g gammon ham or cured pork belly
1/4tsp fenugreek seeds
1/2 tsp brown mustard seeds
16 fresh curry leaves (more if it is frozen or dried)
1/2 cup pitted prunes
green olives
sugar totaste

1.  Combine the pounded cumin and chilli to form smooth paste and fry in oil till fragrant. Transfer to a bowl, add the vinegar and use the mixture to marinate the meat for about 2 hours.
2. Heat oil and fry the fenugreek, mustard seeds and curry leaves quickly for about 1 minute.  Add the meat (reserve marinade) and stir-fry till brown.  Add the marinade and water to just cover meat.  Bring to the boil, then cover and simmer for about 30-40 minutes.
3.  Add the prunes and olives and simmer for another 10 minutes.  Add sugar to taste.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

The NUS Baba House

Front Door
Originally uploaded by Taking5
First post of 2011!

I visited the Neil Road, NUS Baba House last month, together with my Dad's three sisters (aka Tua Kor, Ji Kor and Sar Kor - as you can see we use the typical family naming conventions).

The NUS Baba House came about through a donation by the youngest daughter of Baba Tun Tan Cheng Lock, who wanted to preserve a little Baba/Nonya culture in modern Singapore.  The house has been carefully restored to what a typical Peranakan house would be like in the 1920s. This photo featured is of the "pintu pagar", the front entrance door. This particular door is so beautiful - the carvings are so detailed and the gold and silver paint only serve to bring out their beauty. 

Sadly, no photos are allowed inside, so there are not many more photos to feature.    And, in addition to my earlier post on Peranakan houses, I've found this very detailed description online of the typical Peranakan house, so I'm not going to go into that either. I will just give a quick account of the visit and how we experienced the Baba House. 

The four of us were part of a small group touring the House together with a guide.  The group included a small family group of three people - one Baba and two Nonyas (one obviously the little old matriarch of the family) currently residing in Australia but originally from Malaysia.  They were on holiday in Singapore and wanted to take a look at the Baba House.  The rest of the group were "ang mohs".  The guide said that one of the nice things about taking groups around, is that the Peranakans in the group often chime in with their own stories and experiences. (Of course, I can imagine the downsides too). 

We started off in the reception room in the front of the house, where we heard a little on the restoration work done on the house.  Our guide explained that the colour of the house (a bright blue) was similar to the original colour, detected when layers of paint were stripped off.  Whilst the colour might appear a little bright, it would fade over time to a more muted colour. 

Walking into the next room, we looked at the photographs of the former residents of the house.  We were told that the founder of the family first came to Singapore some time in the late 1800s.  The house however was purchased by one of his son's wives.  So it was only the third generation of the family which stayed in the house.  Upstairs, we visited the main bedroom where the old lady would have stayed.  Her marriage bed was against one wall, a smaller day bed against another.  There were a number of cupboards, where I assume she would have kept her sarongs and kebaya, plus a special cabinet for her handkerchiefs.

Whilst we walked through the house, my aunts reminesced about our family home, which was in the city centre (Choon Guan Street, just behind International Plaza) and as such sadly has been torn down and (I think) a tall condo block has taken its place.  We looked at the carvings on the screen dividing the entrance reception room from the rest of the house and they started talking about how, as little children, they had to clean the carvings using a tissue on the end of a chopstick.  We walked through the courtyard, and they talked about the well which used to be in the centre of their courtyard.  They looked at the bedroom, and started talking about their grandmother's (my greatgrandmother's) bed which is of course now in the Peranakan museum.

They were not alone.  We looked at photos of a Peranakan wedding, including the heavily decked out bride.  The litttle old Nonya in our group chipped in to say that the 10 layers of clothing were so heavy, that most nonyas of her generation had stopped wearing most of them.

In some ways, we are indeed in a transition period when many older nonyas and babas are still around and can still relate stories of how they lived, and how their parents lived, so many years ago.  But this generation will not be around forever, so we have only this short time to listen to and record their stories.

The Baba House is only open by appointment, so do check the website for further details if you are interested.


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