What defines Singaporean food to me is how it utilizes humble and cheap ingredients that would commonly be discarded, and transforms them through the alchemy of time and skill. This includes things like animal fat, bone, shells and offal. Lard and caul fat, the beautiful lace-like membrane that lines pig organs, were commonly used in many Chinese traditional dishes to add richness and fragrance. Fish, poultry, meaty bones or/and crustacean shells are boiled for hours to produce robust stocks and broths for noodle soups, steamboat bases or braised noodles. And when it comes to traditional local food, no part of the animal is too lowly – the whole animal is celebrated in dishes such as sup tulang, kway chap and feng. Another characteristic of Singaporean food is how our ancestors took influence from the diversity of racial groups living in Singapore – they were true masters of fusion.
A dish that I feel best represents Singapore and Singaporean-ness is a dish that has fallen out of fashion in recent years, and one that I have only recently cooked in my own kitchen – satay beehoon. I was speaking with a friend who has fond memories of this dish and he vehemently protested when I suggested watering down regular satay sauce to make my satay beehoon sauce. He insisted that there was a shrimpy, oceanic flavor to it and that it had a sediment, much like the slightest gritty mouthfeel you get when slurping laksa broth. The recipes that I saw online all involved cooking the kind of sauce that you would regularly pair with satay, then adding additional water. But when I dug deeper and read interviews of old hawkers who sold this dish, I discovered, to my surprise, some unconventional ingredients in their sauces: five spice powder, haebee (dried shrimp) and tee poh. I was surprised because these were ingredients that were screamingly Chinese… I couldn’t imagine them in a rempah-rich, Malay-style satay sauce. I cooked the dish at home and the flavor left me gobsmacked – I wanted to slather it on everything.
The haebee produced a shrimp flavor without having to make a prawn stock and gave the sauce that laksa-mouthfeel that my friend was speaking about and the ti poh packed a real punch. Ti poh is actually the bones of solefish – instead of throwing it away, the Chinese community dry, salt and smoke the bones. Home cooks (or factories) then fry these bones in animal fat (I’m not sure if they do this in factories) at home to release the aroma, and when ground, you get an extremely umami-rich, flavourful, smoky powder that normally goes into fish balls. To think that this came from a waste-product is truly mind-blowing.
Satay beehoon represents Singaporean cuisine because there are no expensive, luxury ingredients. No fancy imported wagyu that deserves to be treated with restraint because it’s so good just as it is. It involves grinding cheap ingredients – onions, garlic, chillies and other aromatics – into a paste (a rempah) and frying it low and slow. Over time, the paste begins to stick to the base of the pan (what the French would call ‘fond’) and as you scrape it off and incorporate it into the rest of the paste, it deepens in both colour and flavor. Wok-roasted skin-on peanuts are ground and added to the pan and the frying continues. When it is done, it starts to ooze oil. The Western world would call this “split” or a mistake, but that’s what makes Singaporean sauces and curries so different from its Western counterparts – that layer of oil floating on the top, which I personally find beautiful. In goes the spices, a small amount of haebee floss and tee poh powder, and gula melaka. This then gets ladled over plain beehoon (the other Chinese influence), with a few simple boiled ingredients. Nothing expensive and luxurious but mélange of flavours and textures you get is outstanding – that’s what makes me proud of our cuisine and Singaporean cooks, our resourcefulness and adeptness at fusing different cultures together.
For the satay beehoon sauce:
300g skin-on peanuts
100g peeled onions, cut coarsely
45g peeled garlic
15g white part of lemongrass, sliced thinly
7g skinless galangal, sliced thinly
45g dried chillies, cut in half, soaked in hot water then squeezed
8 tablespoons oil
40g haebee, soaked for 5 minutes, drained and ground until fine
¼ teaspoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon coriander powder
2 tablespoons tee poh powder, preferably homemade
½ teaspoon five spice powder
75g gula melaka
For the satay beehoon:
400g squid or calamari tubes
300g dried rice vermicelli (beehoon)
200g kang kong or tang oh
100g taupok, sliced
In a dry wok, set over low heat, toast the peanuts for 15-20 minutes until the skins appear charred and the peanuts smell fragrant. Turn off the heat and set aside until cool enough to handle. Rub the peanuts between your hands to remove the skins from the nuts. Place in a colander and shake to get rid of the papery skins. Grind the peanuts into peanut butter in a blender or food processor if you are a fan of creamy satay beehoon sauce. Go a little chunkier if you prefer more texture. Set aside.
Blend the onions, garlic, lemongrass, galangal and dried chillies to a fine paste. In a wok, add half the oil and the paste. Fry for 10 minutes over low heat or until thick and fragrant. Add the remaining oil and the haebee and fry for another 5 minutes over low heat. Add the ground peanuts and 900g water. Stir until well combined before adding the assam, cumin powder, coriander powder, tee poh powder, salt, gula melaka and five spice powder. Cook, stirring constantly, until the colour turns into a deep, dark brown and oil begins to separate. The mixture should look split at this point. Remember to cook the sauce to a dark colour as the colour would lighten when you add the water. Add the remaining 600g water and simmer until the consistency of the satay sauce resembles mee rebus-sauce – it should be flowy but should not be soupy. The satay sauce will continue to thicken as it cools and sits, so adjust the consistency again right before serving.
Prepare a pot of well-salted water. When it comes to the boil, add the squid tubes and allow to cook for a few minutes or until cooked and opaque. Remove from the pot and slice into rings. Add the beehoon to the pot and cook for a few minutes until just cooked, before adding the rest of the ingredients. Turn off the heat and pass through a colander immediately to drain. Divide onto serving plates and pour hot satay sauce over.