April 26, 2009
Housewife Tan Cheh Keow's steamed pumpkin cake is a hit with her family and friends
By Huang Lijie
Steamed pumpkin cake is hardly a lavish delicacy, yet whenever Madam Tan Cheh Keow, 67, makes it, her children will clamour for a slice.
A housewife with four grown children and a five-year-old grandson, she says in Mandarin: 'I don't think there is anything special about my pumpkin cake but I think my family and friends who have tried it like it because it suits their taste.'
A Teochew, she learnt the recipe for the popular Hokkien dish - in the late 1960s from a Hokkien neighbour living in a kampung in Geylang Lorong 29.
She says: 'I tried the pumpkin cake my neighbour made and liked its taste, so I asked to watch her cook it the next time. That was how I learnt the recipe and committed it to memory.'
However, she did not get to try her hand at it immediately because she was busy taking care of her two sons and two daughters. She was also living with her mother-in-law then, who cooked most of the family's meals, so she had few opportunities to step into the kitchen.
It was after her electrician husband moved the family into their own flat in Aljunied in the 1970s that she found herself putting the recipe to the test.
She says: 'I tried to recall the recipe and just agak-agak (Malay for estimate) how much ingredients to use. My first attempt turned out well enough, if a little peppery.'
Her success with the recipe was no fluke though.
The second of three daughters born to a building contractor and housewife, she had a keen interest in cooking and needlework from a young age.
She says: 'Of the three sisters, I had the most interest in housework. By the time I was in my early teens, I was cooking the family's meals, which were simple, homestyle dishes such as stir-fried vegetables, steamed fish and porridge.'
Madam Tan, who had four years of primary education, adds that her culinary skills came naturally by watching her mother at work in the kitchen.
Indeed, it is through observation that she picked up Peranakan recipes from her mother- in-law, who is of mixed Nonya and Hokkien heritage.
Some dishes she learnt include babi pongteh, a Peranakan dark soya sauce pork stew, and sambal timun, a spicy salad of pineapple, cucumber and onions.
She would also trade recipes with friends and neighbours at gatherings. One such recipe she learnt was that for qin baey kueh, or 'cold porridge cake' in Hokkien.
To make the dish, tapioca flour is mixed with non-watery rice porridge to form a paste, and shaped to form round patties that are slipped into boiling water.
When the patties are cooked and float to the water's surface, they are drained and left to cool before being sliced.
The slivers of rice cake are then stir-fried with a chilli-onion paste, dried prawns, beansprouts and chye sim (a green leafy vegetable).
Although the dish is a humble concoction that offers a creative use of leftover porridge, it is a hit with her family.
She says: 'There was a time when my elder daughter hopped into a taxi after work to rush to my place to eat qin baey kueh after she heard that I'd made it that day.
'But when she arrived and found that there was nothing left because I'd given it all away to a neighbour, she was very disappointed.'
She adds: 'You can't buy qin baey kueh outside and few people know how to make it these days. So that's why my family likes it very much.'
And she is still curious about cooking - picking up recipes for new dishes from newspapers and cooking shows on TV.
She even asked her younger daughter's Indonesian maid for the recipe of a traditional Indonesian dessert of tapioca, sago, banana, coconut milk and gula melaka (palm sugar), which she enjoyed after tasting a portion the maid cooked.
That said, while she continues to collect recipes which she commits to memory, she sticks to mostly basic dishes such as stir-frys and steamed foods when she cooks at home these days.
Madam Tan, who lives with her elder son in their Aljunied flat of more than 30 years, says: 'I often end up cooking meals for only myself, so I don't have a reason to make dishes such as pumpkin cake and qin baey kueh often, unless my children request it.
'And when they do, they appreciate the effort that goes into cooking the food, which makes it worthwhile.'
MAKE IT YOURSELF: STEAMED PUMPKIN CAKE
300g pork belly
1.25 litre water
600g rice flour
2 Tbs corn flour
15 shallots, thinly sliced
50g dried prawns
15 dried mushrooms, soaked till soft and thinly sliced
1 Tbs soya sauce
600g pumpkin, skin removed and thinly sliced
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1 spring onion, coarsely chopped
1 fresh red chilli, coarsely chopped
3 tsp roasted white sesame seeds
1. Scald the pork belly in a pot of boiling water for 10 minutes and drain. When cool, slice into thin strips and set aside.
2. To a mixing bowl, add rice flour, corn flour and 750ml of water. Stir well until a smooth mixture forms. Set aside.
3. To a heated wok, add oil and fry the shallots over medium fire until it turns lightly golden. Drain and set aside the shallots. Keep the shallot oil.
4. Using half of the shallot oil, stir-fry the dried prawns for one minute before adding the mushrooms, pork belly and 1/2 Tbs of soya sauce. Fry the mixture for five minutes before setting it aside (photo A).
5. Use the remaining shallot oil to stir-fry the pumpkin for five minutes before adding 1/2 Tbs of soya sauce, salt and pepper.
6. Cover the wok and continue cooking the pumpkin over medium heat for 20 minutes. Add 500ml of water gradually to the pumpkin as it cooks (photo B). Stir occasionally and as the pumpkin softens, use a spatula to break it up into smaller pieces.
7. Mash the cooked pumpkin with a spatula until a semi-smooth consistency forms. If you prefer a coarser or smoother texture, adjust accordingly.
8. Add the flour mixture to the mashed pumpkin. Mix well (photo C).
9. Stir in most of the dried prawns, mushroom and pork belly. Mix well.
10. Pour the mixture into a container (18cm diameter, 6cm deep) and sprinkle the remaining dried prawns, mushroom and pork belly over the surface, taking care to gently press the toppings down onto the cake mixture (photo D).
11. Steam the cake for one hour until it is firm and cooked through.
12. Garnish the cake with spring onion, chilli, fried shallots and sesame seeds. Makes three cakes.