Judging from Cooking for the President, Mrs Wee Kim Wee has been an outstanding sifu to her daughter. What about Mrs Wee herself? Who was her sifu? No, it wasn't her mother. Instead, it was her maternal grandmother, Saw Hai Choo. Mrs Wee, who was the matriarch's eldest granddaughter and favourite, recalls:
'Granny had an extremely sharp nose and very discerning taste buds. One morning, while I was cooking ikan masak assam – my first attempt at cooking that dish – Granny came home from the market and exclaimed loudly from afar, 'Telampon assam, kurang garam,' meaning in Baba Malay, too sour and not enough salt. She had not even entered the house, but from the aroma wafting out of the kitchen, she could "taste" the food I was cooking!'
In fact, Mama Choo's eyes were as sharp as her taste buds and nose. Did you know she handpicked and matchmade Wee Kim Wee to her granddaughter?
Two of Mr and Mrs Wee's seven children were born before Mama Choo passed away in 1940. The eldest, Wee Hock Kee, recalls:
'Cho-cho would reject any ingredient that was not cut in the correct way. She would not accept sloppy preparation of food. She would follow up by asking for a spoonful of the food to taste. It had to be just perfect. I remember Cho-cho had a strong loud voice. Often, she would complain, "Macham ayer longkang!" meaning, like ditch water in Baba Malay, if a soup or gravy dish was not up to par.'
What would Mama Choo have said about Shermay Lee's bamboo shoot water? Without a doubt, 'Worse than ayer longkang!'
After reading about the legendary cook who didn't mince her words, I was eager to try one of her recipes. I picked Babi Masak Assam because it seemed like the kind of thing I'd like, and I wasn't disappointed. The big pot of spicy, sour and salty meat and vegetables had strong, bold flavours that were right up my alley. I particularly liked the mix of three types of mustard greens: salted, sour and fresh. That was fun 'cause all the veggies looked the same after they were braised, so I had no idea what I was eating until I started chewing. Did anyone mention longkang? Nope, not at all, thanks to Mama Choo who passed her cooking skills to her granddaughter, who passed to her daughter, who passed to me and the whole world by writing an excellent cookbook. Had Mama Choo seen Cooking for the President, I'm sure she'd have been very proud of it.
|BABI MASAK ASSAM (PORK & MUSTARD GREENS IN SPICY TAMARIND GRAVY)|
Source: Cooking for the President – Reflections & Recipes of Mrs Wee Kim Wee
(Recipe for 8 persons)
200 g kiam chye (咸菜/salted mustard greens)
cut lengthwise 4 cm wide, then crosswise 7 mm wide200 g sng chye (酸菜/sour mustard greens)
cut leaves crosswise 2.5 cm wide, and stems 1 cm wide15 g dried red chillies (15 pieces)
cut 5 cm long and soak in warm water till soft, about 30 minutes; squeeze dry and discard water20 g candlenuts (6 pieces)
300 g shallots, peel, wash and cut into small pieces
180 ml vegetable oil (I used 120 ml)
25 g belachan
toast till fragrant and dry; pound/grind finely to yield 2 tbsp30 g light brown taucheo (fermented soya bean) paste
700 g pork belly
cut along the grain 3 cm wide, then across the grain 1.5 cm thick15 g sugar (1 tbsp)
120 g assam paste
knead in 1.5 litres water and strain; discard seeds and pulp2 pieces assam gelugoh (tamarind skin), rinse thoroughly
500 g kwak chye (芥菜; Chinese mustard greens), wash and cut 5 cm long
100 g green chillies (10 pieces), rinse and trim stems, leaving 3-4 mm
salt to taste (I didn't add any)
Mama Choo's recipe specifies small mustard greens (小芥菜) but I think the big ones (大芥菜/大菜) are ok too. Anyways, I couldn't find any skinny ones.
Soak kiam chye and sng chye in water for 15 minutes. Drain, squeeze dry, and set aside.
Pound or blend candlenuts, dried chillies and shallots till very fine. Fry in hot oil over medium-low to low heat until light brown and aromatic. Add belachan powder and stir through. Push aside. Stir-fry taucheo over low heat until intensely aromatic, about 5 minutes. Add pork and sugar. Fry over low heat for 5 minutes. Add assam water, assam gelugoh, kiam chye and sng chye. Simmer till pork is half-tender, about 45 minutes. Add fresh mustard greens and green chillies. Simmer till all ingredients are tender but pork retains some bite, about 15 minutes. Sauce should cling lightly to pork and vegetables. Add water or boil rapidly to reduce as appropriate. Taste and add salt to taste. Serve hot. Sambal belachan with a squeeze of calamansi lime juice would make a nice dip.