Monday, March 29, 2010

Vintage cookbooks

Steamed garoupa
Kimpit Pedas
Sayur Godek Curry Chicken with potatoes

As I was still in a nostalgic mood, I decided to head down to my favourite haunt during my schoolgirl days - Bras Basah Complex. Back in those days, it was filled with school girls and boys and it was a respectable oogling place for geeky school kids. For me, I went there strictly for the books...ahem ! This place has changed quite a bit over the years. Popular Book store used to be only one of the many Chinese book shops here till it got really popular as its name says and mushroomed all over Singapore. Now its shop space takes up a large proportion of the complex. Most of the other Chinese book stores are gone but the Indian owned ones that deal with second hand books are still thriving. If you are looking for rare books, books that have long ceased publication or even British literature guide books, this is the place.

I actually had an agenda on that day. I was looking for old cookbooks specifically Singapore cookbooks. Don't recall any cookbooks written by Singaporeans on my mother's book shelves back in those days. Most of the ones she had originated from Britain. It had no pictures just words. No wonder my mum wasn't inspired to cook. In fact, looking back, my mum never cooked. She just had them on her book shelves for display. It was my "black and white" nanny who did all the cooking while I was there playing with my masak masak (cooking playset). My mum was a teacher who hardly ever stepped into the kitchen.

Singapore in the 60's and early 70's had lots of authentic good food from hawkers and chefs but hardly any one got around to write a cookbook then. Singapore had just gained independence and survival was more important. We also had a lower level of English literacy at that time and what's more, good chefs were very protective of their receipes. It was only in 1974 that Mrs Lee Chin Koon, the mother of Minister Mentor wrote Mrs Lee's Cookbook at the age of 67. Her book is now widely accepted as one of the authorities on Nonya cuisine in Singapore. The second lady was Mrs Lee's younger sister Madam Leong Yee Soo whose first cookbook The Best of Singapore Cooking was published in 1988. Today, Madam Leong's cookbooks are still best sellers as it carries an extensive range of Singapore food including hawker favourites. These ladies were visionary enough to share their receipes and leave a print on the Singapore culinary scene. Subsequently in the 80's and 90's, more and more cookbooks came about, written mainly by food editors of the Straits Times such as Sylvia Tan, Violet Oon and Terry Tan.

Back to Bras Basah Complex...yes, I spent such a lovely afternoon there browsing. Bought a number of old cookbooks such as Singapore Home Cooking (1980) and The Singapore Cookbook (first print 1976, last print 1990). The first states very briefly at the back that recipes came from Nancy Chua and Angelita Lanuza, with very charming black and white mugshots. Not in the least glamorous. In today's world, a successful cookbook centres around the chef, his or her family and lifestyle. The more flamboyant a chef is , the better. And if he or she has a TV show, ka-ching ! Life was simpler back then. These 2 books have a very extensive collection of Singapore receipes but there are some which I have not heard of such as Picked kunyit fish (featured on the cover of Singapore Home Cooking), Sayur Godek, a dish made of unripe jackfruits and Daun Paku (fernshoots) with salted fish . What's even more charming is the crockery used in the styling of the food. Pyrex ware in shades of blues and yellow and I can still remember the yellowish brown flower prints which were very popular way back. And long before we were on the metric system which made everything simpler, we were using the British imperial measurement system. Thus the use of kati and ounces in parts of the books.
Another treasure I found on the shelves was a cook book in pristine condition and surprisingly it was published in 1963. The book Practical Cookery was written by Helen Burke, a cooking correspondent of the Evening Standard and the Tatler in England.There are no pictures inside just like the ones on Mum's book shelves but the receipes seem to be written in a very precise, no nonsense way. One day, I would like to try her receipe for Duchess potatoes and fairy pudding. Sounds very colonial.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


A bottlecap hat !

Peranakan cake and candy stands

I love flea marketing and the local ones that specialise in things from yesteryear are really lovely.
Was hit by a wave of nostalgia while I was at China Square last Sunday. Some of the things I saw were really a blast from my growing up days in the 70's and 80's. A glossy plastic container reminded me of the butter dish my mum used to have in her fridge and how I had it chipped after dropping it . Also, the beaded purses that jewellery shops used to give after mum made her gold purchase and of course the beautiful Peranakan candy and cake stands my grandma displayed during Chinese New Year.
The guy who sold the cake stands to me was at a stage of life when he 's trying to get rid of memories while there I was trying to buy back some of these memories. Isn't life strange ? Talking about strange, I just had to get a bottle in the shape of a nun. She was a picture of serenity with her hands clasped....except for that strange blue bottlecap on her head. What a quirky little touch ! If they had one done for a lady in 60's fashion, the bottlecap will look perfect as a pillbox hat, the kind that Jackie Kennedy loved wearing. That's functionality and design combined !

The Doctor's Bag

A local flea market find - a doctor's bag

The blue and polka dotted boxy handbags - flea market finds in New York

I love boxy shaped handbags and was probably inspired by my mum's handbag collection years ago. It was also common to see them featured in my dad's old stacks of LIFE magazines where Jackie Kennedy and Grace Kelly were frequently featured holding these bags. Hong Kong stars of yesteryear loved carrying them too as they were the " it " bag of those times. These bags are lovely as there were dainty enough to hold in your hands and roomy enough to fill it with essentials. And of course, the bag sits prettily without slouching over.

While at a local flea markets the other day, I chanced upon a boxy doctor's bag that was a real beauty. The doctor's bag must have been the inspiration for those boxy handbag designs all those years ago.

Well, just as I couldn't resist buying boxy shaped handbags at flea markets in New York, seeing a doctor's bag in mint condition at a local flea market shop was just too irresistable.


It's good to have some "me" time this weekend. All work and no play does make a person very dull.

And just as I was about to take the Bishan MRT to go downtown, I was pleasantly surprised to see a young girl painting on the SingPost letter box. She was one of the 40 chosen from over 600 entries to turn Singapore's letter boxes all around the island into canvas for sports theme street art. STAMP as the project is called is a celebration of art, sports and Singapore's hosting of the first Youth Olympic Games in August 2010.

When I got back to the same spot about 3 hours later, the painting on the letter box was all ready. What inspired me today ? The talent and the energy of the young. Will definitely look around for more designs on the letter boxes.

Saturday, March 27, 2010


I love to collect cookbooks. Not necessarily to follow the receipes but more to be inspired by the freshness of the ingredients and to see how different cultures like to combine their spices and condiments.

Recently, I took a liking to Delicious, a monthly Australian food magazine published by the ABC network. Being an agriculturally rich country, Australia has no shortage of the freshest meat, seafood and vegetables and with immigrants from around the world settling down under, it has become a hotpot of cultures and colours.

Not only are the receipes and feature stories interesting, the food styling makes a statement in the most chic way. I hardly subscribe to magazines but I might make Delicious a regular monthly indulgence.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Curry and Sardine Puffs

Sardine Puffs before they are fried to a golden brown

A favourite snack among Singaporeans is the curry puff, a short crust pastry traditionally filled with potato and chicken curry. These had their humble beginnings when Malay housewives started selling them in their neighbourhood to supplement their household income. Then in the 70's, restaurants around Rex theatre such as Old Chung Kee and Selera started selling them with a quarter of a hard boiled egg added and it became an even bigger hit ! Old Chung Kee took it a step furthur and started mass producing them in their factories. The ubiquitous curry puff is now popular all over Singapore and over the years, the range of fillings have increased, from sardines and onions to even black pepper chicken and chilli crab.

Making them at home is fun and the whole family chips in. We actually started out using supermarket puff pastry which makes it crispy and flaky but recently, we attempted using my aunt's short crust pastry receipe. Two cans of sardines is sufficient to make over 60 little sardine puffs. Best of all, they can be stored in the freezer and fried when the hunger pangs strike.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Home Cooked Meal

A prelude to a wonderful dinner !

One of life's simplest pleasures is to be surrounded by family and friends for a good home cooked meal. I love to host as well as be invited to a friend's place for lunch or dinner. A home cooked meal conveys sincerity and friendship more so than a meal at a restaurant. If one hasn't be able to keep in touch regularly due to work commitments, taking the time to plan a meal gathering at least once or twice a year over special occasions is important.

I was invited to a friend's place for dinner and was impressed all the way, from his table setting to his three course meals. Khir was really passionate about food and would go to great lengths to get the freshest ingredients. When he had dinner at my place a few months back, I had such a casual, laid back "serve everything at once" style that it was a fun and funny constrast ! My daughters said I even brought out the frying pan from the kitchen to place the food on the plate. Oh dear ! Mustn't do that again :)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Roti Jala

Today, my aunt showed me how to make Roti Jala, a lacy crepe/pancake that can be eaten with both chicken or beef curry. Making this requires a special mould which looks like the milk teats of a dairy cow and this can be found in shops that specialise in selling cake ingredients and equipment. A good place to find it would be in Geylang or Tanjong Katong. Once a ladleful of batter is placed in the mould, move over a non stick frying pan in a circular motion to create a random lacy pattern. Unlike Western pancakes, there is no need to turn it over once the top is done.

Put 2 lacy pancakes together and fold them into quarters. Here is the receipe for the batter

2 eggs
3/4 tin evaporated milk ( this helps to create pancakes that are soft and fluffy )
2 cups of flour
2 teaspoons of salt

Blend all with some water and pour batter out into a bowl

Then add some more water to blender together with 2 more cups of flour, blend and pour out into the bowl

Stir the mixture in bowl with a spatula and add some yellow colouring

Roti Jala goes well too with a sauce consisting of a blend of peanut, dry chillies and tomato sauce. This sauce can be spread over the top of hard boiled eggs and served together with the curry. Unlike prata, Roti Jala is not commonly found in eating places. Perhaps making this is too time consuming. Think they are best enjoyed as a dish for special occasions when one requires a change from eating rice or noodles. Yummy !

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A little art corner in Arab Street

There is a growing artistic vibe in Arab street. Sandwiched among the shops selling woven baskets, carpets and silk are exhibition and art galleries as well as advertising agencies. Came across a quaint little staircase with a beautiful wrought iron design and this led me up to a photography exhibition called Chennai Chutney. I love the mixture of modern and old in Singapore.

Turkish corner

Singapore is ever changing. Familiar streets which I have visited frequently in the past have changed due to the popularity of certain businesses or the congregation of new immigrants who have set up their own unique enclaves.

The lorongs of Geylangs have now turned into a real Chinatown with Chinese from China setting up their own little eateries. Unlike Singaporean Chinese food which originated mainly from southern China, these new places feature food from the provinces of Northern China. Meanwhile, the little streets around Beach Road have sprouted a number of Lebanese and Turkish food joints. I haven't had the time to check out these restaurants but I do love the decor and new vibe that they give to the area. Took some pictures of the unusual wall paintings and lovely deco tiles surrounding these restaurants.