It was the first week of the New Year when I got this email. Dubai based Mojo PR was inviting me for a food festival that would take place in a leading chain of supermarkets in the month of February, celebrating the cuisine of Singapore. It was being organised by Singapore's external trade promotion agency, International Enterprise (IE) Singapore. The invitation was to create signature Singaporean dishes alongside a celebrity chef followed by lunch for the media. By experience I know that such events are rarely held in Abu Dhabi in comparison to Dubai. However, I was specifically asked in which Emirate would it be easier to attend, which was a first! Soraya replied on the same day that the event would be held in Abu Dhabi at Parti Perfect. A live demonstration of Singapore's finest dishes, Chilli Crab possibly. My Mouth is Full was not going to miss this event.
Reading into the history of Singapore gave me a better understanding of its food culture. Singapore was a trading port in the early 1800's which, over the years, attracted merchants from China, the Malaysian Peninsula, the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East. Each immigrant nation contributed food traditions from their culture which gave birth to Singaporean cuisine. Noodles from the Chinese, flavoured spices from the Indians and herbs from the Malay became the melting pot for experimentation. The union of the Malay settled in Singapore and Chinese immigrants brought about the Nonya culture and their distinct cuisine called Peranakan. Singapore became the forefront of the union of Asian flavours and techniques on one another. Chilli Crab, Fish-head Curry and Laksa may have originated in different lands, but in Singapore, it is their own cuisine.
My invitation said that cooking demonstration would be by celebrity chef Violet Oon. Two minutes into my Google search read, I was chef-star-struck. A food consultant, cookbook author, television appearances on multiple channels including The Food Network and travels as Singapore's Food Ambassador, Chef Violet dons many a hat. Her career started with music and forayed into food where she created a niche for herself. She is considered as one of the leading authorities on Asian cuisine. Chef Violet would be the first celebrity chef to be featured on my blog and I was pleased as punch that it was an accomplished woman as herself.
I woke up with butterflies in my stomach. I I tip-toed to the window and was grateful to see a bright, clear morning with not a cloud in sight. I am most comfortable shooting in natural light and this January had grey, over cast mornings one after the other. Having checked twice that my camera was indeed in my bag, my husband chauffeured me to the venue. Having stopped in front of Parti Perfect, I did not know what to expect.
I nervously stepped in and was warmly greeted by Louise Mezzina from Mojo PR. After a round of introductions with the team of IE, I walked around the space. A beautiful table had been set complimenting the white and green colours of IE and Singapore's national flower, Orchids. A book shelf filled with well-known titles caught my eye. While greeting the people present, I met Assia Othman, a fellow Fooderati member, who is the author and photographer of the beautiful online magazine Beram and Tajine. While we were chatting, another Fooderati member joined us. Najla Koya writes for Foodiecorner and her lovely blog is filled with sweet treats. We weren't kept waiting for long and very soon Violet Oon walked in. After Louise introduced her to us, Violet Oon gave us a rich insight into Singapore's culinary beginnings and told us that she hoped today's session would give everyone present an understanding about Singaporean cuisine, a marriage of the three greatest cuisines in Asia.
We were given our aprons and escorted through the cafe into the kitchen. Working in a commercial kitchen was another first for My Mouth Is Full. A sparkly white kitchen, equipped with professional appliances and stainless steel counters with all of the ingredients mise en place.The orange and green backsplash tiles added fun and colour to what would have been a kitchen at a restaurant. My eyes skimmed over the ingredients and spotted a few familiar to my Indian eye. Shallots, palm sugar, tamarind, cumin and fennel seeds are widely used in South Indian food. Violet explained that the Singaporeans eat not just for enjoyment but how health plays an important role and their diets vary according to the season to aid sound health.
If I had to concisely describe Chef Violet's demonstration skills, it would be cooking with the senses. She patiently described any peculiar looking / sounding ingredient, speaking about its flavour, properties and had them passed around for us to smell. Her warm personality quickly spread around and compelled everyone to interact in the demonstration. The first recipe that was demonstrated from the recipe cards handed out to us was the Singapore Satay. Lamb or chicken meat is marinated in a mixture of spices for 6 hours, strewn on skewers and then thrown on a hot grill. Satay means three pieces and is almost always accompanied by a thick peanut sauce which you either spoon over the kebab or dunk and eat. By experience, this is a dish I almost always stop eating midway because of the clawing sweetness of the peanut sauces. It confuses my palate eating a sweet kebab and I end up eating the chicken by itself.
The preparation for the marinade started by dry roasting seeds till they were fragrant. She explained thats this process 'matures' the seeds and brings out their true flavour. She then gathered the seeds and was seen crushing them with a mortar and pestle , squatting on the floor. This traditional method of pounding grinds the seeds with minimum effort in comparison to doing it on the countertop. Once the spice mixture was ready, Chef Violet cut the chicken fillets into cubes and coated them in the marinade.
The next step was to prepare the peanut sauce. A spice mixture was prepared before hand that had to be fried in hot oil. A couple of minutes into the frying stage and the kitchen air was thick with shrimp paste fumes. The red chillies began sputtering and had me choking. Then Chef Violet said the golden words, "If you are sneezing you've got it right."
The patio door in the far end of the kitchen was opened for ventilation while everyone coughed and sneezed as the spices roasted in the wok. In less than 15 minutes, the peanut sauce was ready and was allowed to thicken once it was taken off the heat.
The grill was hot and prepared to sear the chicken skewers. Chef Violet showed a natural technique to coat the grill with oil. She used the uncut thread-like strands of a lemongrass stalk to baste the grill pan. I was a bit dazed by this trick and unfortunately wasn't trigger ready to shoot her doing it. I made a mental note to tell Umma about this as she's always happy to incorporate her home-grown lemongrass plant in her recipes.
The next recipe was what I was waiting for, the famous Singaporean Chilli Crab.
A large bowl of crab cooked beforehand was placed alongside a jar of fiery looking red chilli paste. Surprisingly, tomato ketchup is a key ingredient of the sauce. Chef Violet explains that since ketchup was imported from England in the yesteryears, it was considered a reputable ingredient for many dishes. Chef Violet asked the crowd for a volunteer to make the sauce. Brave Assia was at the wok all set. As the chilli paste was roasted in oil, another round of cough-inducing fumes made their rounds while Chef Violet reaffirmed that it was going the right way. Once the sauce was prepared and the crab added, we waited for the shells to turn a bright red to indicate the crab had been cooked. Two eggs were broken into the ruby red sauce while Chef Violet used a delicate hand to swirl it in the gravy for a pattern to be drawn out like "gold and silver." The gravy is finished off with chopped scallions and a dash of lime juice. Another portion had to be cooked and Najla volunteered. We fried, coughed, steamed and streaked gold and silver all over again. When she asked for a third volunteer, I stepped forward. Amidst small talk with Chef Violet and her supervision, the final portion of Chilli Crab was ready. Now that I had seen it being cooked twice and cooked it myself, I should be able to make Singapore's most famous dish with an eye closed.
The chilli crab is finished off with a squeeze of fresh lime and chopped scallions. Lime is said to bring out the spicy and sweet flavours in the dish just like salt.
While I was preparing Chilli Crab, Assia prepared and plated a plate of Singapore Satay and the peanut sauce which she graciously allowed me to photograph. Feast for the eyes, isn't it? Thank you Assia!
Finally, the cooking demonstrations were done for the day and it was time to eat. Chef Violet thanked Lana from Parti Perfect and her entire team for all the arrangements and their lovely space. Like a true hostess, she called everyone to the buffet table for lunch and personally served a few dishes .
Chicken rice, Chilli crab and Singapore Satay were accompanied with quiet conversation. I was focused on the Singapore Satay and that peanut sauce was a winner. Of course, I shouldn't have expected anything less but it was a beautiful balance of heat from the shallots and chillies and a hint of sweetness. The pounded candlenuts provided great texture and body to the sauce and the shrimp paste , which I had thought might overpower the other flavours, but in reality could not be tasted at all. The chilli crab was a bit spicy for some but I knew when I recreate it at home, I wouldn't mind a bit more of that red chilli paste. Everyone had settled after eating lunch and dessert was brought out. Sago pudding in coconut milk sweetened with palm sugar was an exotic finish to lunch. It tasted similar to the South-Indian Payasam which Chef Violet pointed out would be less thicker than this dessert.
Lunch wasn't over just yet. The grand finale was the 'Teh Tarik' or 'pulled tea.' Tea is pulled between two large steel cups which naturally froths and cools down the tea. Chef Violet jokingly added that this was the original cappuccino. The challenge was to pour the tea over a metre in height without spilling it. This Ceylon milk tea was strong and frothy. This tea is available in sachets complete with creamer and sugar.
Now that lunch was over, it was time for my one-on-one session with Chef Violet Oon. I looked down at my questions again. The previous night I was at my anxious best hoping my tongue wouldn't become lead while I spoke to her. However, having been in her company for 2 hours and having experienced her vivacious friendly self, I was relaxed and enthusiastic for my interview with a celebrity chef. Yay!
You started your career with music, published your food magazine and then went onto have a successful career in food. How has your journey with Singaporean cuisine been so far?
My first job ever was as a reporter in 1971. As a journalist, the most exciting part about it is the next day, the next story and the next journey. I am 63 years young, everyday is still an adventure to me. I am still learning and I tell people if you don't learn 5 things a day, your soul is dead. My journey with food has been exciting to say the least. I am quite fortunate that it was a hobby that became a job. It wasn't planned at all. Music was something I loved and I learned to sing in University. So when my first official job was as a music critic I couldn't have been more thrilled. I used to cook for my editor and friends. With my background in Sociology, my involvement with food wasn't just about the food itself. I saw food as a way of life, a part of people and their culture. I don't think I became popular because I cook food well. It is how I saw my food as a part of my country and my life. Cooking well is a no-brainer to me. I often think how is it difficult to cook well? However, to cook well, you need to eat well to train your palate. My journey so far hasn't been planned and that's what makes it interesting. I had a liberal upbringing and my father's mantra for life is to be the very best for yourself at what you do and to make the most of the talent God has given you. If you slacken and settle for second place, it is like cheating yourself. I don't compete with anybody but myself. Being self-critical is important. I tell my employees to criticise their own work and one shouldn't be satisfied completely with it. Being satisfied is being content with your work too soon and before you know it, it'll be too late to improve it. Thoroughness is a quality you have to imbibe. Be your very best not for others to recognise and the rest will just follow.
When you read about Singaporean cuisine, you'll know it is influenced by the Chinese, Malaysians and Indians. There is also Peranakan cuisine in which you specialise. How would you define Singaporean cuisine?
To me, Singaporean cuisine is the marriage of the best flavours of the East. Peranakan is a blend of Chinese and Malay with British as well as Indian overtones. Peranakans cook and love their curries. People enjoy Singaporean food because of the sheer variety. It's not a cuisine where 'anything goes.' Rather it has evolved into a classic cuisine with its dishes like Chilli Crab. Singapore is an immigrant society. Two centuries ago, people used to migrate from their countries not because of their talent or prospects of a better career. They left their land because of widespread poverty and hunger. The Indians who came to Singapore had to travel by sea for months together. It must have been a terrible time, leaving your homeland and knowing you might never be able to see it again. When these immigrants start their lives in this foreign land, success is defined as having enough to eat, eat it well and enjoy food. This is why Singaporeans celebrate food. We can talk about breakfast, lunch and dinner the whole day.
Cuisine wise, the natives and tourist are spoilt for choice with hawker centres, luxury dining and everything in between. Where would you dine for the best Singaporean cuisine?
Singapore has a seafood culture and I love seafood. Jumbo, Long beach and Palm beach are the seafood restaurant I like to eat at. It's spectacular sitting along the sea and devouring these dishes and is an experience that should not be missed.
Apart from Singaporean food, what do you enjoy the most?
I occasionally enjoy a nice plain steak. My whole life, I am accustomed to eating food rich in spices and flavours. I love eating fruits and can spend hours at the market scouting for the freshest produce. It's great for the complexion too. I start my morning with some kind of fruit. My philosophy is that you shouldn't be eating fine food all the time. Some gourmets treat food too seriously and sometime fuss over dishes unnecessarily. . There are lots of people starving in the world and to them food is really a matter of life and death. Food is fun and you should enjoy it. I can eat anything and what I eat doesn't matter to me. If you are used to eating the best food all the time, you don't appreciate it enough.
Celebrity or otherwise, who would you love to cook for?
I would love to cook for (late) French chef Augeste Escoffier. He wrote the Bible for French food and methods. Whenever I've cooked from his books, it works. He had brilliant techniques. I love cooking for my grandson (huge smile). He always says Popo, you make the best food.
Hypothetically, if today was the last day on earth what would you like to eat for your last meal?
I would pick fruits again. I'll pose with a knife and a tray filled with fruits for my last meal and gorge on my favourite Malaysian fruit called Duku Langsat. Anything that's natural and delicious.
Being a sweet-toothed person, I'd love to know what your favourite dessert is.
I love Malay desserts from my culture. Any dessert that has a good quality palm sugar or jaggery and coconut milk is a marriage made in heaven. We make these pancakes that are filled with jaggery and coconut and rolled. Ooh, they're too yummy.
I could have easily spent another half an hour chatting with Violet but Najla was waiting for her round of questions. The day spent in her company had taught me much, humility being on the forefront. She tirelessly wants to teach and learn more from life and is more than willing to embrace every story that unfolds in her life with open arms. To Violet, her career in food has only pushed her to outdo herself and celebrate it. I understand her views completely because my blog was started for the same reason, to celebrate my journey with food.
Singapore Food Festival is taking place across Lulu Hypermarkets all over the UAE over two weeks, starting from 20th February to 3rd March. Chef Violet will recreate Singapore's famous dishes in interactive cooking demonstrations. If lady luck is with you, you could win a holiday to Singapore and stay at the fabulous Resorts World Sentosa and can have Chilli Crab in its hometown. If nothing, I'm going to go for the event in Abu Dhabi just to see the vivacious Violet Oon in action again. Take my word, if you already aren't, you will fall in love with food all over again.