As Third Sister is the acknowledged cook in the family she is in charge of the cooking. But on our last visit home, she and Daddy were visiting holidaying with Fourth Sister in Europe. Thus Mummy took over the dinner arrangements, especially for when Second Sister comes over with her brood on Thursday and Sunday. A good thing, as we saw on the table some long ago favourites like crispy prawn fritters. For a while her prawn fritters were not totally successful and turned out soggy rather than crispy, or worse, overcrunchy. This time she seemed to have found her way back, and the secret she said, was to use plenty of rice flour. How much of it, I did plan to check, but I somehow forgot.
The intending to do but somehow not seeing the job through- this seemed to be the pattern for the dishes that I enjoyed over the last trip, hence the lack of actual recipes. I should try to do better next time.
Example: Husband wanted to learn again how to make Sambal Ikan Bilis. We learnt it early on in our marriage but have forgotten how, mummy couldn't quite remember as her maid who was an expert at this dish had returned to Indonesia. The ingredients, she remembered, are dried chillies, onions, more onions, ikan bilis and gula melaka. The last item in the list surprised us, but the slightly smoky caramelisation of the coconut sugar rounds up the flavours better than ordinary white sugar.
First the chillis are blended with the onions. The proportions were wrong in this case, the sambal was searingly hot only husband could tolerate it. The paste is then fried in oil till it is fragrant before tossing with fried ikan bilis, onion rings and scatters of gula melaka. But the quantities and exact method is not clear, because I was having a nap during the cooking process, if I was on site I would have documented more since this kind of recipe is usually based on guestimation, a handful of this, a pinch of that, 20 cents of so and so...
Anyway, the final result looked like this, the stuff that we grew up on. The sambal spicy-hot, the ikan bilis crunchy but permeated with the sambal while the still-crunchy onion rings provide sweet relief. Together with some fried chicken, roasted peanuts, cucumbers and perhaps a wedge of boiled egg, the coconut rice needs no other accompaniments. This is the dish that prompted husband to say that our family's Nasi Lemak is better than Madam Kwan's.
There was also another dish, a dry chicken curry made with a rempah paste that has four types of ginger of which I can remember only three- old ginger, blue ginger and turmeric. The ginger gives the body warmth and drives out "wind". We ate so much of this curry when we were young, Chan-Che and my mom would even have rempah making days when they would grind, fry, cool and pack the pastes so that we could have curry anytime we wanted, even when we were away studying in London. It happened that Chan-Che is staying with us for a few months, so she made up a batch of rempah to satisfy mum's cravings. Unfortunately I missed the making of it as I was out working. Fortunately though, she made a big batch, enough for mom to take some of it to make a pot of curry so that when I returned to Singapore I could still savour a taste of home.
The days passed quickly, and other than eating at our usual haunt which is the two coffeeshops in
Jalan Balau Jalan Batai/Beringin, we didn't venture out much. There was a trip to Segambut where mum's Chinese herbs wholesaler is, it was also where I made everyone stop at the Ipoh Road Yong Tau Foo place. The yong tau foo was lovely, so was the story my mum told me of the place: the building was once a rich man's house, and he built the row of terraced houses behind it for his daughters. How nice is that, no?
After lunch I made husband take a detour to Kedai Kopi Mee Bon for old-fashioned dim sum. We've been eating their dim sums for more than 30 years and for us, there is no better place for this style of dim sum. Our favourites are their cha siew baos (Fifth Brother's record was 18 in one seating) and lo mai kai. Just look at that unctuous rice, all permeated with savory meat juices and delectable brown sauce until sauce and rice becomes indistinguishable from one another, soft yet not soggy, with an occasional springy bite. Every mouthful makes me close my eyes in deep appreciation of its utter deliciousness. Man, I am missing the taste of it even as I write this.