The heartbeat of Singaporean cooking, in my opinion, is rempah. Rempah is a fine paste of onions, garlic, lemongrass, turmeric, galangal, candlenuts and often a blend of finely ground spices. One of my biggest takeaways from Candlenut was understanding how to coax flavour out of rempah and to taste the difference between a ‘raw’ spice paste and one that is sufficiently fried.
The more I cook my own country’s cuisine, the more I marvel at how rempah features in more than just curries. It coats vinegar-blanched vegetables, to be fermented and aged into achar. It can be sauteed with dried shrimp floss and candied winter melon and wrapped in banana leaves with glutinous rice for rempah udang. In its basic form, it can be seasoned with gula melaka and tamarind – the resulting sambal tumis, a fiery, complex condiment that is the workhorse of any Singaporean kitchen.
Mee soto is yet another dish that showcases the versatility of rempah. The paste is fried briefly before being simmered with chicken, whole spices and water. The result is a full-bodied broth that’s slightly thicker than chicken stock, owing to the ground candlenuts that function like a thickener, and clings to every strand of noodle.
Making begedils for mee soto might seem fussy but you can spread the work across two days or make all the components for the complete dish way in advance. Besides, begedil is one of those things that are so easy to make that you require no recipe, but you’d be so happy that you made.
150g red onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
20g peeled garlic
10g peeled ginger, coarsely chopped
White parts of 2 lemongrass stalks, thinly sliced
30g skinless galangal, coarsely chopped
30g skinless turmeric, coarsely chopped
30g candlenuts or cashew nuts
4 tablespoons oil
2 dried bay leaves
2 star anise
White parts of 2 lemongrass stalks, bruised
4 cardamoms or 1 black cardamom
1 cinnamon stick
1 chicken, cut into 2 pieces
1 tablespoon coriander powder
1 teaspoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon white pepper
2-3 tablespoons salt (start with the lesser amount)
Big pinch of sugar
600g potatoes, halve the especially big ones
2 dried bay leaves
2 spring onions, sliced thinly
3 coriander sprigs or Chinese celery, roughly chopped
80g fried shallots
Salt and white pepper to taste
1-2 beaten eggs for coating
400g yellow noodles
Shredded chicken meat
Kecap manis dip:
Thinly sliced chilli or chilli padi
Blend the rempah ingredients together, placing the onions and garlic at the bottom of the blender, until a smooth paste forms. In a big pot, heat up the oil, cloves, bay leaves, star anise, lemongrass, cardamom and cinnamon stick. When the oil begins to sizzle, add the rempah and cook for 1-2 minutes over high heat. Add the chicken and water, adding more water to cover the chicken if necessary. Bring to a boil. Add the spices, salt and sugar – taste and adjust the seasoning. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook for 3 hours or until the chicken becomes incredibly tender, to the point of falling apart. Taste again and adjust seasoning if necessary. Strain to separate the chicken from the stock, and pick the chicken meat off the bones when it is cool enough to handle. The soup and chicken can be cooked several days in advance – I recommend picking the chicken meat off while still warm, and store separately from the broth.
To prepare the begedil, place the potatoes in a large pot and fill with water to cover. Add the bay leaves, cover the pot and bring to a boil. When boiling, turn the heat down to a simmer and cook until tender. Depending on the size of your potatoes, this can take anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour. Test with a knife – when it goes through the potatoes with no resistance, it is ready. Drain the potatoes through a colander and allow to sit until the potatoes cool enough to handle (they still have to be warm – don’t completely cool them down). Peel off the skins of the potatoes with a butter or paring knife. Mash with your hands into a large bowl and add all the other ingredients, except the eggs. Mix well and adjust seasoning to your taste. Form little patties – they can be as little or as large as you like. Heat a pot or wok with oil. When bubbles stream from a wooden chopstick inserted into the oil, it is hot enough. Dip the potato patties with the beaten egg and lower into the oil gently. Remove and allow to drain on paper towels when they are a handsome golden brown.
To serve, bring the soup back up to a boil. Add the beehoon and Hokkien noodles (if your Hokkien noodles have an especially strong alkaline flavor, I recommend blanching them in a separate pot). Once the beehoon has completely rehydrated, divide into serving bowls. Top with the shredded chicken, soup, shallots, coriander and begedils. Serve the mee soto with kecap manis dip on the side.