Wednesday, May 13, 2009

STI: Grandma's legacy

May 10, 2009

Grandma's legacy

It took a while but Mrs Trish Lim's ngoh hiang is now just like how her grandmother used to make it

By Huang Lijie 


When Mrs Trish Lim, 32, was introduced to cooking as a child, it was more than just about preparing and serving food to fill the stomach.


The housewife, who spent her childhood living in a one-room HDB flat in Bendemeer Road with her paternal grandmother, says: 'My grandmother would tell me stories about her childhood as she was cooking, such as the things that happened to her during WWII, as well as what my aunts and uncles were like when they were young. So I really enjoyed the process.'


She adds that as a young and restless child living with a septuagenarian who enjoyed cooking, the kitchen naturally became her playground.


'There weren't a lot of things to do around the house and it was in the kitchen that any real action took place, so I gravitated towards helping my grandmother cook.'


By the age of five, she was pounding spices and at 10, she was cutting ingredients and frying food alongside her Teochew grandmother.


Most of their meals were simple, homey fare such as Teochew porridge with chai poh (preserved radish) omelette and salted fish.


Her grandmother, however, would cook her favourite dishes when she was well-behaved and had good grades in school.


One of these treats was her grandmother's version of Hainanese pork chop.


Mrs Lim, who has three children aged between four and 11, with her IT entrepreneur husband, says: 'My grandmother would toast soda crackers lightly before getting me to pound them. The cracker crumbs would be used to coat the pork cutlets. She would also make me tenderise the cutlet with a mallet, which was a lot of fun.'


Because she was a picky eater as a child and did not like eating vegetables, her grandmother would sneak fresh tomatoes and green peas into the sweet tomato sauce that went with the pork chop.


She says: 'My grandmother loved hiding vegetables in the sauces to get me to eat them, so her sauces were always very chunky. The dipping sauce for her deep-fried squid rings, for example, was an oyster sauce-based concoction packed with cilantro and spring onions.'


Her grandmother, who had six children, also showcased her culinary skills at family gatherings during Chinese New Year and birthdays.


Another of her grandmother's specialities was ngoh hiang, for which she shares the recipe below. Unlike the usual recipes for these minced pork-and-prawn rolls, her version does not use five-spice powder, which gives the rolls their name. She says: 'I didn't like the taste and smell of five-spice powder, so my grandmother changed the seasoning. She also added vegetables such as carrot and mushroom into the filling.'


While she was familiar with the taste of the dish, it took her a while to perfect the recipe. She says: 'I never found out from my grandmother the exact proportions of the ingredients. So after she died, I had to ask my relatives for the recipe.


'But like most cooks who go by their instinct, they'd tell me to add a dash of this or buy $4 worth of pork from the butcher, which was frustrating.


'What if I went to a butcher who charged more but I ended up with less pork than needed?'


Her grandmother was in her 80s when she died of old age in 1999.


Mrs Lim was determined to take matters into her hands about five years ago and began jotting down the amount of ingredients she used each time she cooked the dish.


Over time and with experience, she finally managed to cook ngoh hiang the way her grandmother used to make it.


One difference? She serves the fried meat rolls with her own mustard sauce instead of the usual sweet sauce.


She says: 'I prefer a spicy sauce but my children don't like chilli very much, so I experimented and came up with this mustard dipping sauce. My family likes it and they enjoy it with other fried food too.'


Besides replicating her grandmother's dishes - she has since perfected more than 10 of them - she also enjoys experimenting with new recipes from her collection of more than 20 cookbooks of Asian and Western cuisines.


She says: 'Especially for Western cookbooks, some ingredients are unavailable here or too expensive, so I draw on them for inspiration and improvise with what I can find in the supermarkets.'


While cooking is her passion, she has also developed an interest in baking. She says: 'I believe cooking is an art and I sometimes like to go with my gut feeling when cooking. I applied this to baking and realised that my cakes did not turn out looking like art.'


It took a year of failed baked treats, including chocolate fudge cakes that resembled rock-hard brownies, to discipline the self-confessed stubborn cook.


Now, she enjoys baking cookies, cupcakes and muffins with her children.


She hopes that when her children grow up, they will be interested enough to learn how to make their great-grandmother's ngoh hiang.



500g pork, shoulder butt cut, minced

500g prawns, shelled and coarsely chopped

10 water chestnuts, peeled and diced

10 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in water till soft, drained and diced

10 shallots, finely chopped

2 stalks spring onion, finely chopped

100g carrot, finely chopped

1 egg

1-1/2 Tbs soya sauce

1 Tbs sesame seed oil

1/2 Tbs ground white pepper

2 large sheets dried beancurd skin

Egg white from 1 egg

200ml cooking oil




1. Mix the pork, prawns, water chestnuts, mushrooms, shallots, spring onion, carrot, egg, soya sauce, sesame oil and pepper in a large bowl (photo A) and leave to marinate in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes.


2. Wipe the beancurd sheets with a clean, damp cloth. Cut them into 20cm squares.


3. Place 2 Tbs of meat filling in a diagonal on the beancurd-skin square. Shape the filling to form a cylindrical mound with about a 2cm space from the diagonal corners of the wrapper (photo B).


4. Brush two adjoining lengths of the beancurd skin with egg white. Pull a corner of the sheet that is opposite the diagonal of the filling over it and tuck the filling in firmly (photo C). Fold in the diagonal corners of the beancurd skin, seal with a smear of egg white and roll to form a cylinder. Seal the end of the wrapper with egg white.


5. Steam the rolls for about 10 minutes or until the beancurd skin turns from translucent to a pale yellow (photo D). Remove and set aside to cool for 15 minutes.


6. To a wok, add oil. When the oil begins to sizzle, add in the rolls (photo E). Fry till golden brown on both sides. Drain and serve. Makes about 20 rolls


Mustard dipping sauce:

3 tsp mustard

5 Tbs Worcestershire sauce

2 Tbs sugar

1 Tbs soya sauce

1 Tbs lime juice

2 red chillies, thinly sliced




1. Combine all ingredients and mix well.


2. Chill the sauce for about 15 minutes before serving.

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