By: Jenny Linford
LIVING in Singapore as a small child is probably one of the reasons that I'm now a food-writer. My mother's family are Portuguese Eurasians, a tiny community among Singapore's predominantly Chinese population. As a Eurasian household (free from religious strictures such as avoiding pork as the Malays and Muslim Indians did) we could eat widely. And, my goodness, we certainly did: Hainanese Chicken Rice as a Sunday lunchtime treat, fish-head curry eaten off banana leaves at the Banana Leaf Apollo on Racecourse Road, satay by the Harbour, complete with little coconut palm leaf-wrapped packets of compressed rice to dip into the nutty sauce . . .
As a child in Singapore my favourite outing was to Orchard Road at night-time. There in an empty car-park hawkers (street-vendors) would set up their wooden stalls, each specialising in different dishes, and we would stroll around slowly trying to decide which we wanted. Watching the hawkers skilfully prepare their foods was part of the entertainment: rice noodles deftly tossed and fried for Char Kway Teow, the satay man fanning the charcoal briskly to increase it heat or tall sugarcane stalks chopped with a ferocious-looking knife and passed through a press which squeezed out the grassy-sweet pale green juice.
My mother would always buy me my favourite nibble - babi pangang, thin sheets of pressed pork, coated in a sweet glaze and grilled over charcoal until blackened. My cousins and I would share it as we walked around, enjoying its chewy salty-sweetness. Dessert was invariably pisang goreng, a deep-fried battered banana freshly cooked before my eyes, wrapped in a little square of greaseproof paper then passed over while it was still almost too hot to hold.
Today Singapore's hawkers have been herded into hawker centres where they offer a more sedate and sanitised version of my childhood memories. Eating and shopping, however, are the two great pastimes in Singapore's consumerist society and even the grandest hotel, such as Raffles, offers traditional hawker or coffee-house dishes on its menus. Although Singapore has changed so rapidly in the last two to three decades (where there was jungle at the back of my Uncle Kim's garden there is now a massive motorway) its people have held onto their traditional foods.
The recipe below is based on one given to me by my Singaporean Uncle Kim Bong on my last visit there a few years ago. It is for a Nonya dish called Laksa Lemak made from thick white noodles served in a spiced coconut gravy and topped with prawns. Nonya cuisine is specific to that part of the world as the term refers to an interbred Malay-Chinese community noted for their cooking which blended Chinese and Malay techniques and ingredients. My uncle cooked the Laksa on a grand scale to feed around 12 people, garnishing it with long thin daun kesom leaves freshly picked from the garden, an aromatic herb traditionally used to garnish laksa lemak which I haven't come across in England.
Uncle Kim just used coconut milk which makes a very rich gravy, so I have added my own touch of a prawn-head stock. You could, however, just use more coconut milk or add fish stock or water to thin it as raw tiger prawns are an elusive and expensive item. Chinese fishcakes, with their distinctive bouncy texture, are a classic laksa element which could be used instead of prawns. I have used the traditional thick white noodles but you could substitute Chinese egg noodles or rice vermicelli.
The spicy soup calls for some ingredients found at Chinese or Thai supermarkets: aromatic galingal (a knobbly white-skinned rhizome), lemon grass, blachan (the pungent dark brown dried shrimp paste which provides an essential base-note in S.E. Asian cooking), dried shrimps, waxy candlenuts (buah keras) and tinned coconut milk. Chinese and Thai supermarkets are also an excellent source of frozen seafood, including tiger prawns with their heads on.
75g dried shrimps, soaked for 10 minutes
6 cloves garlic
5 cm piece of galingal
4 stalks of lemon grass
4-6 dried chillies, soaked for 10 minutes
6 candlenuts, soaked for 10 minutes
1 tsp blachan (dried shrimp paste)
1 tsp ground turmeric
2 tsp ground coriander
16 raw tiger prawns with heads on, thawed if frozen
6 tbsp oil
400ml tin coconut milk (Chaokoh is a good brand)
2 tsp sugar
425g packet fresh ‘Shanghai' noodles
250g fresh bean sprouts
¼ cucumber, cut into short fine strips
Finely grind the soaked dried shrimps. Peel and chop the shallots, garlic and galingal. Peel the outer covering from the lemon grass stalks. Finely slice the white bulbous part of the stalks. Blend together the shallot, garlic, galingal, lemon grass, soaked dried chillies, candlenuts, blachan, turmeric and coriander into a paste.
Peel the tiger prawns and remove the heads, reserving the shells and heads. De-vein the tiger prawns and store in the fridge until required. Heat 1 tbsp oil in a large saucepan. Fry the prawn heads and shells until they turn pink. Add in 600ml of water and season with salt. Bring to the boil, reduce heat, skim, cover and cook over a medium heat for 15 mins. Strain the stock, discarding the prawns shells and heads.
Heat 5 tbsp of oil in a large saucepan. Mix in the shallot paste. Fry the shallot paste for a good ten minutes until it takes on a thick porridgey consistency and oil oozes out. Mix in the tinned coconut milk and prawn stock. Stir in the ground dried shrimps and sugar. Season with salt to taste. Bring to the boil. Reduce heat, cover partly and simmer for 10 minutes. Add in the peeled raw prawns and simmer until they turn opaque, a matter of a few minutes.
Meanwhile, scald the Shanghai noodles in boiling water for 1 minute, then drain and rinse with cold water immediately. Divide the Shanghai noodles among four deep soup bowl. Top the noodles with beansprouts and cucumber strips. Divide the laksa soup among the bowls, sharing out the tiger prawns, and serve at once.
© recipe copyright 1999 Jenny Linford
Author: Jenny Linford Email: