Singapore Fusion

With subtle dishes from China, spicy satays from Malaysia, piquant curries from India, and zesty Thai specialties, Singapore is a crossroads of tantalizing cuisines

"Have you had lunch?" asked Fifi, the assistant dockmaster at Raffles Marina on Singapore’s northwestern coast. I’d read that Singaporeans greet visitors with "Have you eaten?" instead of "How are you?" -- and here it was. Singaporeans love to eat, and we quickly learned why. We were partway through a world cruise aboard Santana, our Beneteau First 405, and we soon discovered we’d arrived at a crossroads of tantalizing cuisines -- subtle dishes from China, spicy satays from Malaysia, piquant curries from India, and zesty specialties from Thailand. After eating our way around the city for a couple of weeks, we began to notice anomalies -- satays made from pork (a meat forbidden to Malaysian Muslims) and Hainanese chicken rice served with rojak, a fruit salad slathered with a fiery-hot black sauce called sambal belacan (pronounced balachan). Then we went to a little restaurant called Mum’s Kitchen, known for "Nonya" food. Nonya??

When male Chinese immigrants first came to the Malaysian peninsula as laborers in the 15th and later the 19th centuries to work the tin mines and rubber plantations, they came alone. Eventually, they took Malay wives. The children of these mixed marriages were called Peranakan or Straits Chinese. After one or two generations, the men (called Babas) began to marry the daughters (called Nonyas) of other Peranakan families. Many Nonyas married men emigrating from China. Today, the Peranakan are virtually pure Chinese racially, but with a culture combining Chinese and Malay elements.

The early immigrants taught the women how to cook the Chinese food they wanted -- particularly pork, the favorite meat of the Chinese. Finding the food too bland, the women began to add the aromatics and seasonings characteristic of Malaysia.

Nonya cooking -- Malay in method and ingredients -- is complicated, taking years to master. From birth, a Nonya was trained to cook, sew, and take care of the household, all duties expected of an obedient Peranakan daughter-in-law living with her husband’s family. The late Lee Chin Koon, in her book, Mrs. Lee’s Cookbook (www.selectbooks.com, $11.37) describes the importance of a paste of wet and dry aromatics and spices called the rempah. Matchmaking was the norm then, and matchmakers usually made their rounds at 10 in the morning when the girls were preparing their rempahs. According to Mrs. Chin, the matchmakers could tell by the sound of the mortar and pestle if there were a good cooks in the house. From the rhythm of the pounding, they could tell which ingredient was being pounded and whether the person pounding was an experienced cook. There were no recipes or measurements then, only estimation. Cooking was learned by observation and practice, and was considered an art and a profession.

The provocative character of Nonya food comes from using pungent roots such as ginger and turmeric; aromatic leaves such as coriander, pandanus, and kaffir lime, and other ingredients found in Indian, Indonesian, Malay, and Thai dishes -- chilies, coconut cream, ginger buds, shallots, shrimp paste, and tamarind. A true Baba family is addicted to a sauce made from chili peppers, thick black shrimp paste, and lime juice called sambal belacan. It’s served with almost every meal. Curries, condiments, and chilies are standard items on the table. Red chili paste is tossed with fried noodles; chopped bird chilies garnish steamed fish, and chili sauce is spooned onto rice.

Thanks to Mrs. Lee and two contemporary authorities on Nonya cuisine, Violet Oon and Wendy Hutton, Nonya recipes have now been recorded and simplified. Here are some easy dishes for the galley.

Babi Lemak (Pork in Coconut Milk)*

12 shallots, chopped finely
8 dried red chilies, soaked in water for 10 minutes
4 candlenuts or macadamias
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon belacan (dried shrimp paste)
2 tablespoons oil
1 pound pork tenderloin
1/2 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
8 ounces thick coconut milk
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons lime or lemon juice

Using a food processor or mortar and pestle, grind shallots, chilies, nuts, turmeric and belacan together until fine. Heat oil in a frying pan and gently stir-fry mixture for three to four minutes. Add pork and saute on all sides until browned and coated with spice mixture. Add water and salt. Simmer until pork is tender, about 30 minutes. Add more water if pan goes dry. Add coconut milk, and simmer uncovered for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring from time to time. Just before serving, add sugar and lime/lemon juice.
*This is a modified recipe based on one in Wendy Hutton's Singapore Food, (Times Books International, 1989).

Mango Pudding

2 cups milk
1 packet Knox unflavored gelatin
1/2 cup sugar
2 large, ripe mangoes
Dash yellow food coloring
Whipped cream

Dissolve gelatin in milk, add sugar, and bring to a simmer over low heat. Turn off heat and set aside. Peel mangoes and cut flesh from seed. Dice one half of the mango and puree the rest in a food processor or with mortar and pestle. Stir pureed mangoes and yellow food coloring into milk mixture. pour into individual dishes and chill. Serve topped with whipped cream and diced mango.

Sambal Belacan

6 fresh red chilies
2 tablespoons belacan (dried shrimp paste)
Juice of 9 small limes
1 additional lime

Wash chilies and pat dry. Slice into small pieces. Cut belacan into thin slices. Toast in a nonstick fry pan for 4 to 6 minutes until fragrant, dry, and flaky. (This eliminates the raw taste of the paste). Mix hot belacan with chilies. Process until thoroughly mixed. Add lime juice and stir. Place in a small bowl on a plate and surround with slices of remaining lime. This will keep for several days in the fridge stored in an airtight container.