Photography by Annette Tan
As much as I care about honouring traditions, I don’t own a pestle and mortar for grinding rempahs. Neither do I wash and sun-dry coriander seeds before toasting them in my pan to release their fragrance. While heritage dishes are often tedious and labour-intensive, it is important for me that a recipe is not insurmountably difficult or so meticulous that it puts someone off giving it a go in their homes.
Enter Annette Tan, a food writer and founder of FatFuku, whose innovative spins on local dishes have been making waves in Singapore. Her legendary sugee cake populated my Instagram feed at one time and resulted in a flurry of trials of my own here in Melbourne. Reading her responses to my questions on her cooking style, I found her philosophy of simplifying and using technology to keep heritage food going a complete breath of fresh air. Read on to find out about Annette’s favourite dishes in her repertoire, why she loves going to the wet market and her best tip for sugee cake.
The Eurasians and Peranakans share numerous similarities in their cuisine because… the Eurasians lived and worked in the same areas as the Peranakans in Singapore’s early days. I would say that Eurasian dishes have distinct Portuguese, Dutch and British influences, particularly in the use of vinegar, onions, garlic, and spices like cinnamon, cloves and star anise. This is evident in dishes like curry debal, pork vindaloo and curry captain. As far as I know, Eurasian have their own versions of babi assam, itek dim, udang masak nanas, etc. And their rempah bases are also similar, but they are just called by different names. What I know as sambal titek (the most basic of Peranakan rempah), my Eurasian friends simply call “five-ingredient rempah”.
Cooking good vegetarian or vegan Peranakan dishes is… possible, but personally, I find it extremely difficult to recreate the umami flavours of belacan and dried prawns that are inherent to just about every Peranakan dish, even the vegetable ones. I say that I’m sure it’s possible because there was a time when we would have scoffed if someone claimed to be able to make a meatless burger that tastes 95 percent like the real thing. Yet here we are!
For those of us hoping to eat more vegetables, a good place to start would be… easy stir-fries like kangkong belacan or stir-fried bayam (arrowhead spinach). A little more complex, but definitely worth the effort are dishes like sayur lemak (dark greens like sweet potato leaves cooked in a spicy coconut gravy) or salads like kerabu bok jee (cloud ear fungus salad) or sambal kim chiam (a spicy salad of dried lily buds with cucumbers and belimbing, when it’s available).
Peranakan food has been enjoying a resurgence of late because… there has been a distinct push to identify the cuisine as one of Singapore’s unique selling points. Peranakan culture is rich, colourful and multi-faceted, so people are naturally drawn to what it has to offer. Many Singaporeans can identify with Peranakan cuisine and culture because it is essentially an amalgamation of various races i.e. the Chinese and Malays can identify with the elements from their own cultures. Because of this inherent melting pot that exists in Peranakan cuisine, the flavours are bold and easy to appreciate.
I really wanted to master sugee cake as… I grew up with close family friends who are Eurasians and important occasions were and are punctuated by sugee cake, usually iced with apricot jam, marzipan and fondant. One of the most important tips I’ve gleaned over the years is that you need to let the cake “age” for a day or two. The cake will be moister for it.
The way I cook is… a direct reflection of my life experiences. Most of my dishes are anchored by traditional recipes I learnt from my mother, aunties and uncles (be they relatives or close family friends). I’ve built on those recipes by putting contemporary spins on them, usually influenced by my travels or the restaurants that I am fortunate enough to dine at thanks to my work as a food writer. I tend to use more western methods of cooking, like braising meats in the oven rather than over the stove.
My favourite dish in my own repertoire is… crispy mee siam, though I like to say that I’m so tired of making it because I just can’t get away from it. I love junk food, fried foods, crispy foods… so when I thought about how to put a spin on my mother’s mee siam recipe, which is the mee siam I love the most, I thought, the only way I could make this better is to make it crispy. And that’s how it was born.
A sleeper hit at my dinners is… always the roasted ayam tempra, because the last thing people expect is to fall for the chicken dish. I’ve often said that tempra is my comfort food. It’s the dish that reminds me of home and my mother. I’ve changed nothing of the base recipe; the only difference is that I brine and roast the chicken before adding it to the sauce. And what a difference that makes to the flavour and texture of the resulting dish.
My pork belly buah keluak biryani was created to… make buah keluak original and appealing to people who don’t necessarily like to eat buah keluak cooked the traditional way (I am one of those people). A plump, cooked-to-melting slab of pork belly is something most Singaporeans are drawn to, so I decided to use that instead of the traditional pork collar or ribs, and serve it with something rib-sticking… hence, a biryani-style rice cooked with the buah keluak rempah, flavoured with shallots and cashews tossed in ghee.
I have no qualms about… using a blender or Thermomix to do the hard work of breaking down and stirring a rempah. I simply don’t have the time and patience to pound rempah and stand over a stove. The rhythms of our lives are completely different from our parents and ancestors. Few of us have the time to slave over a mortar and pestle, cook over charcoal, or make four dishes for a weekday dinner as Peranakan matriarchs of old were wont to do. We must simplify, adapt and innovate in order to keep our culinary traditions alive. If I had to do all those things, I wouldn’t cook. My crazy work schedule wouldn’t allow it.
If we are told that we must colour within specific lines when we cook, then how can we adapt the cooking so that it is realistic for us to do? And if we don’t cook, then how can a cuisine continue? Food and cuisine must be relevant to each generation whose lifestyles, tastes and needs are different from the last. If we are lucky, that is how great cuisines and dishes are born. Peranakan food was forged in precisely that manner — it is an adaptation of Malay, Chinese, Indonesian and colonial cuisines that gave rise to something so deliciously unique. Why shouldn’t that spirit continue?
I shop at the wet market because… for starters, everything is fresher and cheaper. You waste less when you buy at the wet market because you can buy as little as a single stalk of celery or just one egg, if that’s what you need. The vendors at the wet market are treasure troves of knowledge about the produce they sell. I love discovering new herbs, vegetables and fish that might appear seasonally and the stall owners are always able to tell me what they are, what they are used for and perhaps how to use them. Even if they can’t, the other shoppers will usually chime in. These are priceless, teachable moments that you’d never experience in the supermarket.
Things like kacang botol (wing beans), meat fish (bak he, a really silky-fleshed fish that’s lovely for steaming), banana flowers, grated tapioca are just a few things that people think are hard to find but are readily available at wet markets. Nuts like hazelnuts, cashews, peanuts, macadamias are all easily available at the dry grocers for a fraction of the price at supermarkets.
I also love the sense of community and the relationships that you build with the stall owners when you shop often at a wet market. Once they get to know you, you get the inside scoop on what’s good and what’s not that day. For example, the lady at the egg stall will tell me which eggs are freshest so that they are easy to separate — something that’s important to me because I separate too many eggs each week in the name of sugee cake.