Wednesday, May 21, 2008

When in Singapore...

I had the pleasure of being invited to N's place for a casual lunch on Monday to celebrate a close family friend's birthday. I was told to expect some local Singaporean fare, specifically Hokkien Prawn Mee and Otah. What set this meal apart was that N was inviting her mum's Filipino domestic helper of almost 20 years, D, to prepare the abovementioned dishes. I was intrigued. A Filipino preparing local Singaporean favourites? This I had to eat.

Arriving at N's place slightly before the rest of the guests had arrived, I decided to meet the infamous D and possibly suss out a few recipes from her. D was a lovely person - unassuming, sincere and incredibly passionate once we started talking about food. She revealed that she had always loved cooking and was taught all the tricks of the trade by N's mum who is an amazing self taught cook, specialising in Peranakan dishes stemming from her Straits heritage. N's dad also enjoys hosting dinner parties and as a result, has given D plenty of opportunities to hone her skills and experiment over the years. Such is the popularity of her curries and home made pastes that D has a freezer full of them stored for ready use when the occassion calls.

D's 48 hour otah (named by yours truly because of the length of time it takes to prepare) was steamed rather than barbecued. I was rather sceptical of this at first but a bite into the moist, spicy and extremely moreish mackerel fish cake proved me wrong immediately. The well seasoned otah with a concotion of numerous spices had absorbed the fragrance of the banana leaves perfectly. I also found the steamed version less heavy than your traditional barbecued ones which just means I could probably eat more of this in one sitting!

Just as I was scoffing down my third otah, D brought out her pièce de résistance, the Hokkien Prawn Mee. I knew i was in for a treat when the distinct aroma of the broth wafted into the dining room. A slurp of this rich, complex soup made of chillis (dried, fresh and padi), dried shrimp, candlenuts, belachan, shallots, pork bones and of course, prawn heads confirmed that D knew what she was doing. The accompaniments of rice noodles, egg noodles, beansprouts, kangkong, prawns and melt in your mouth pork ribs added depth to the already addictive stock. Definitely the best Hokkien Prawn Mee I have ever tasted... all this from someone who isn't Hokkien... Sacré bleu!

I was pleasantly surprised at how good the food was... which in turn made me realise that we often undermine the ability for people of a different background and culture to fully embrace another. That somehow your ancestry determines the people you associate with, the religion you choose, the values you uphold and at a more primal level - the food that you enjoy and cook. Humans like to simplify, consolidate, categorise... it helps us understand this confusing world we live in... and as a result, we are all guilty of bigotry in some form or another, albeit to varying degrees. Not convinced? How many of us have walked into a Japanese restaurant and immediately assumed that just because the chef over the sushi counter is not of Japanese descent that the food is going to be less than perfect. On the flipside, a Japanese chef does not necessarily guarantee a great Japanese meal. It is our conditioning that leads us to believe this... and foolishly, we create a self fulfilling prophecy. It seems to me that in this day and age where ignorance, intolerance and exclusivity are so prevalent, we all need a bit of D's Hokkien Prawn Mee as a reminder that we're all not that different and the world can be a better place... one slurp at a time.


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