As I grow older, I appreciate having dinner at traditional, family-run Chinese restaurants. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot one or two dishes that are difficult to find elsewhere in Singapore. My in-laws enjoy going to Chao Shan Cuisine in Singapore for reliably good and authentic Teochew food. We make a visit almost every trip back to Singapore, and my grandmother-in-law is such a regular there that the dishes she orders are pretty standard. She knows what she wants and it is always the usual Teochew favourites, like the lor ark (braised duck), heizhou (deep-fried prawn balls), pig trotter jelly, oyster omelette and water chestnut pancake with peanut dust for a sweet finish to the meal.
The last time we went, though, there was something special on the table. It looked innocently like prawn fritters, but one bite revealed a smooth, fragrant sweet paste surrounding succulent prawn flesh. Someone at the table said it was orh nee and it did bear a striking similarity to the sweet taro paste – it tasted of fried shallots and lard and was delicately sweet. But the core of its fragrance was something earthier and nuttier than taro – chestnuts.
I took a photo of it with my phone hoping to recreate it again one day. A bag of chestnuts was gifted to us lately by a friend, who had harvested them from her own tree. Having some caul fat and prawns in the freezer, I thought it felt like now or never to attempt a recreation of the dish.
Caul fat might seem like an exotic ingredient, but it used to be a common ingredient in Singapore before health scares dominated the media. A fatty membrane that acts as a skin to wrap ingredients with, caul fat was used for deep-fried and stewed dishes in the past. The fat functions like a protective layer to prevent the loss of moisture and lends a rich aroma to the final product.
When I bit into these chestnut prawns, I experienced one of those moments in life where a taste of something reality fits a particular taste memory. Quite a special feeling and something worth making again.
Teochew Chestnut Prawns
1/2 large red onion or 1 small red onion, thinly sliced
235g shelled chestnuts (the best kind to get are charcoal-roasted chestnuts)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon five spice powder
8 prawns, shelled and deveined (tails left on)
Cornstarch, as required for dredging
Caul fat, as required (it is good to start with a larger quantity, about 200g)
Place the lard and onion in a cold pan and heat over high heat until the onions turn a deep brown. Strain. You will only require 50g of the infused lard for this recipe – save the rest for stir-frying vegetables! Combine 50g of the infused lard, chestnuts, salt and five spice in a blender. Blend until smooth. Divide into 8 portions, before flattening each ball into a flat disc.
Dip the prawns in cornstarch and place each on the centre of each of the chestnut puree discs. Bring the sides of the puree up to completely encase the prawns – leave the tails exposed. Open up the caul fat and dab with a paper towel to remove excess moisture. Place a chestnut-wrapped prawn on the caul fat and trim a rectangle large enough to fully enclose the prawn. Wrap the prawn in the caul fat, making sure that the puree is not exposed. Repeat until all the prawns are wrapped.
To dredge, dip the prawns in cornflour, then egg, then cornflour again. Allow to set for 15 minutes while you preheat oil in a wok to 160C. Add the prawns and deep-fry for about 5 minutes or until light golden and set. Remove the prawns from the wok and increase the heat to 200C. Return the prawns to the hot oil and fry for another 3 minutes or until light golden brown. Drain and serve immediately.