SINGAPORE, Jan 22 — Food plays an important role in our memories, culture and family. That is why Singapore-based clergyman Terry Wong started his food blog, The Food Canon (www.foodcanon.com) — a way to document his own food memories connected to his late mother, Ruby Ung Goay Inn.
Auntie Ruby, as she was fondly known, was an exemplary cook which saw her running a canteen at the Guinness Anchor Berhad brewery in Sungai Way and her own restaurant in Taman Paramount, Petaling Jaya. The cheerful, bubbly woman’s generosity also stretched to sharing her recipes and cooking secrets. She died in 2007.
Started in March 2011, the blog began with Terry’s mother’s iconic wok-cooked Char Siew. It was just a space for him to write and post recipes for his friends but it quickly captured the attention of people who wanted authentic recipes to recreate the same tastes they remembered from their own family dinners. As he shared his mother’s recipes, it also became a way for him to relive those old memories cooking with Auntie Ruby.
Last November, Terry launched the 251-page cookbook, Mum’s Classics Revived, that contains around 70 plus recipes from Auntie Ruby. The idea for a cookbook was always at the back of Terry’s mind in the early days when his mother was still alive but unfortunately she became ill too quickly before it happened.
The actual journey of translating his mother’s cherished recipes into a book only started back in 2013 when Goh Eck Kheng, the publisher of Landmark Books, approached him. They had both clicked as they shared many common values and as Terry adds, “He has a passion for local cooking and tradition.” Terry also knew a cookbook was a good next step to the food blog that has garnered a good following. “A cookbook, as a single unit, can also tell my Mum’s story and convey her legacy better.”
Initially it wasn’t a smooth journey for Terry. As he states in the cookbook, when he started his blog, all he had was a file of about 30 of his mother’s recipes while the rest were just palate memories.
For those dishes, he reconnected with Fok Chaw Heng or Har Jie, a close friend of his mother’s. As she was Auntie Ruby’s cooking companion, she was familiar with some of the recipes that were not documented.
In the cookbook, she helps to re-create the yam cake and the tim cheong or sweet sauce that pairs with the Hakka yong tau foo and chee cheong fun. Har Jie also contributed her chai kuih recipe that Terry recalls as being the best he ever ate.
Nevertheless, there were still some tricks of his mother’s that he has yet to master like her deep frying technique for the Hakka Fried Pork or char yoke and Chilli Fish or ikan sumbat. He adds that, “These two dishes use the deep frying technique and here is where I wish my Mum is alive and I am standing by her side to observe. She has a certain way of frying it and this is hard to replicate just from a written recipe.
“While the outcome is still good, it still does not look and taste exactly like how she would do it. I am still trying!” Knowing how Terry is always working on perfecting his recipes, just like Auntie Ruby who was also a perfectionist, we reckon it’ll be a matter of time before he discovers that deep frying method that has eluded him.
Initially, he started by organising his mother’s recipes around the basis of various cooking techniques, like steaming and deep-frying. As he tried to categorise them, he realised it was an impossible task. “Our local recipes often employ more than one technique hence I hit some roadblocks,” he said.
He also realised that he was trying to cram too many things in the cookbook, like his fascination for modern kitchen science such as sous vide cooking. Eventually he realised that it was just easier to focus on his mother’s classic recipes organised by food type — poultry, meat, seafood and etc.
What sets Mum’s Classics Revived apart from other cookbooks is the story behind each dish. Like his mother, Terry is also generous with his cooking tips picked up from working in his mother’s kitchen, sharing each step of the way since he has been cooking the dish numerous times for his own family dinners, parties and church events.
For instance, the Penang Hokkien Mee is made so often that he can distinguish its taste based on the type of prawns used (crystal or the small sea prawns) or even the quantity of prawns utilised.
Home cooks can appreciate this as Terry guides them all the way; a novice cook will feel inspired to cook the dishes in the cookbook. He includes a primer on how to use the recipes effectively. Also on hand is The Food Canon blog that serves as a further in-depth discussion of the dishes.
Since its launch, the response has been good and according to Terry, it is listed as a bestseller in Kinokuniya’s bookstores in Malaysia and Singapore. This is contrary to what Terry expected.
“As I already have a blog and as accessing the recipes there is free, I thought that not many will buy my cookbook. I was wrong. Somehow, many still prefer to cook off paper and print.” He also understands that people would buy 10 copies or more for gifts.
His greatest wish is that it is useful to cooks. “That is what a good cookbook should be -- well used, and not just admired as just a good piece of writing or creativity and eventually shelved.
“I have many cookbooks myself but I have found only a handful useful. I am hoping that this cookbook will belong in the ‘well-used’ category and by the signs of it, it is headed that way. I want to inspire home-cooks to cook. This is what a cookbook is for. “
It’s also not the end of Auntie Ruby’s legacy and Terry’s work. He plans to continue writing his blog. “I see it as a companion to the book, allowing me to document my cooking notes as I improve or vary the recipes.”
Later there are plans to publish a second cookbook that includes more of Auntie Ruby’s recipes he has worked on and other recipes he has cooked with his friends. “I hope to do my bit to keep local recipes alive and influencing the younger generation. Telling their story and ensuring sufficient detailing in the steps and techniques will be helpful.”
These techniques include low and slow cooking. Even modern kitchen techniques like sous vide will be incorporated for local recipes. He adds, “It will help younger home cooks to know that there are other ways to cook good local dishes.”
One wonders what would have been Auntie Ruby’s reaction to the cookbook. “I think she will be beaming from ear to ear. She will be very proud. The well-taken photos would have amazed her. She would never have imagined that her dishes will receive this much attention,” said Terry.
Rightfully so, as every dish from her legacy was created with so much love and dedication that one can imagine, she is next to you cooking away and giving those useful tips in the kitchen.
Celebrating Chinese New Year with The Food Canon
Like all Chinese families, Terry Wong or The Food Canon will be joining his relatives to usher in the Lunar New Year. This year, he returns to his childhood home in Taman Lian Seng, Petaling Jaya.
The table will be laden with dishes like Har Lok, Lo Hon Chai and Choi Keok that his late mother used to make for every reunion dinner. Follow in his footsteps and recreate the Har Lok and Choi Keok dishes from Mum’s Classics Revived. For more tips on how to cook up these dishes, Terry has also included pointers in his blog.
HAR LOK (Fried River Prawns in Soy Bean Sauce)
The best prawns I have ever eaten are the fresh river prawns caught wild from the rivers of Malaysia. They are always eaten whole, with the shells and head on. The flesh is succulent and sweet, with a muscular texture which lends a crunchy bite.
The head is usually full of the goodness of the roe. One favourite recipe for prawns is Har Lok which uses dried and preserved soy beans, ginger and garlic. The whole prawns are first coated lightly in flour and deep fried. Then the sauce is prepared and the prawns are coated with it.
It is a must-have dish on my Chinese New Year reunion dinner table. I can still recall once when my brother in Ipoh managed to lay his hands on some large, fresh, wild-caught prawns.
They were swimming in the tank when he bought them. Mum cooked them the Har Lok way and sliced each into half, lengthwise. With a small teaspoon in hand, we dug into the head first. It was an exquisite experience and remain an important memory of my Mum’s cooking and her love she showed to us through it.
It is harder these days to find wild-caught prawns and we have to be content with farmed ones. This recipe is delicious too with large sea prawns.
1 kg river prawns
Oil for deep frying
2 tbsps cornflour
240 ml water
2 tbsps finely diced young ginger
1 tbsp chopped garlic
1 tbsp caster sugar
1 tbsp dark soy bean paste (tau see)
2 tbsps light soy bean paste (tau cheong)
1 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tsp dark soy sauce
3 red chilies, diced
3 stalks spring onions, cut into 2½-cm strips
2 tbsps Chinese Shao Xing rice wine
Clean up the prawns by first giving them a hair cut. Use scissors to snip off the all the hairy stuff that is sticking out, the pointy horn at the head and pedicure the frilly legs. You may have to dig out with a toothpick the lump of sand or debris in the heads at the spot where you have snipped off the horn.
Coat the prawns lightly with the cornflour.
Deep fry the prawns in hot oil for 3-4 minutes. The prawns will turn into a beautiful golden color when cooked. Remove the prawns and set aside.
Heat up 3 tablespoons of the leftover oil in the wok over a small fire. Put in the chopped ginger first and, after a minute, add garlic, sugar, the dark and light soy bean sauces and chillies. Stir fry briefly until fragrant but do not burn the sauce.
Sprinkle some water in if the sauce is sticking to the wok or burning up.
Add the prawns and stir fry for about 2 minutes to mix with the sauce.
Mix a tablespoon of cornflour in a cup of water. Then add it to the prawns and stir fry. Immediately, add the spring onions and wine. Stir fry for half a minute and the dish is ready to be served.
Garnish with coriander leaves. Best eaten with rice.
CHOI KEOK (Chinese Mustard Green Stew)
If there is a festive dish which captures the Chinese New Year season for the Wong family, it has to be this hot and sour Hakka soup. My Mum made it in a large pot on the second day of the New Year.
The base of the stock is meaty and to that, tamarind sauce, dried chillies, and mustard greens are added. The recipe is a variation of the Nonya classic soup, Itik Tim or Kiam Chye Ark (Duck and Salted Mustard Greens Soup).
Leftover meats and bones — plentiful by the second day of feasting — are used. Roast duck bones and roast pork is great for the stock. To that, you add some fresh pork bones and chicken feet.
The Cantonese name of this dish, Choi Keok (literally, vegetables and feet to mean leftovers) describes this dish well. There are two types of mustard greens, the round-stem version, and the leafy variety.
As the latter’s leafy texture makes for good eating, it is more popular. Mustard greens are almost tasteless on their own. However, it absorbs flavours very well, sponging up anything you cook with it, resulting in a luscious texture.
So, it is the perfect vegetable for this dish. If you can’t find fresh mustard greens, you can use hum choy, either the round-stemmed or leafy, brined version. Soak it in water for half and hour or more. You may need to soak it in two or more batches of fresh water to remove the saltiness.
Dried chillies are important to this dish to make it slightly spicy. For the sourness, add assam keping. A good meat stock needs at least two hours of simmering. If you have a pressure cooker, you can cut down the time by a third.
Don’t let Chinese New Year end without cooking this at least once. After all, you need to do something with your leftovers. The wonderful thing about Choi Keok is that the “second rate” meat becomes very good.
As I reflect on this, I think of the verse from the Bible in Ecclesiastes 3:10a which says “He has made everything beautiful in its time.” Yes, God specialises in turning nothing into something. This leftover stew reminds me of this. If you think your life’s usefulness has been exhausted, think again. In His hands, the best is yet to be.
As we are using leftovers, it is not helpful to quantify the ingredients but I will give you quantities just as a guide.
5 litres water
1 roast duck or leftover meats
10 dried chillies
4 slices dried assam keping
200g tamarind pulp (assam), rendered in 240ml water, seeds removed
4 stalks round-stemmed mustard greens
2 stalks leafy mustard greens
Salt and rock sugar to taste
In a pot of boiling water, blanch the meat and bones for 10 minutes. It is important to do this to reduce the fat. Do not use roast duck heads or necks as they have strong flavours and your soup will taste awful by the second day.
Heat up the water in a pot. Add the blanched meat and bones. Simmer for 30 minutes.
Add the chopped mustard greens and simmer for another hour or so. The texture of the vegetables needs to be soft and yet have a nice bite to it. Towards the end, adjust the taste to your liking with the rock sugar, tamarind liquid and salt.
This is best eaten the day after it is cooked as the flavours will continue to develop. We will normally leave it overnight on the stove. Just boil it and leave it undisturbed. This pot can be ‘rolled over’ for a few days, with more meat or veg added.
While you can add other vegetables into the pot, I advise that you stick to just mustard greens. I will not add any leftover Chinese sausages or fish bones. These will spoil the taste. Yes, use your leftovers but not any leftover.
Recipes are extracted from Mum’s Classics Revived by Terry Wong The Food Canon published by Landmark Books Pte Ltd. You can purchase a copy of the cookbook at Books Kinokuniya Malaysia, Level 4, Suria KLCC, Kuala Lumpur City Centre.