Mee Siam

Friday, 24 June 2011

Prostitute, as in to put one's abilities to base or unworthy use. There was a man who refused to prostitute himself: Ong Teng Cheong, President of Singapore, 1993-1999.

As the Head of State, Ong Teng Cheong was entrusted with the task of protecting Singapore's past financial reserves. He had the power to veto any withdrawal – in theory.

In reality, President Ong didn't even know how much reserves there were until 1996. He got the information only because he asked, and kept asking for three whole years. Then in 1998, the state-owned Post Office Savings Bank and the national reserves it was holding was divested without even his knowledge, never mind consent. He had to remind the cabinet that the divestment without his permission was against the Constitution of Singapore. And there were no procedures for the protection of past reserves. So he went about setting up the procedures, and that took him his entire six-year presidential term.

The upshot of Ong Teng Cheong's efforts was that when he died in 2002, the by then ex-President of Singapore didn't get a state funeral.

The task of standing guard over state reserves started with Ong Teng Cheong's immediate predecessor, Wee Kim Wee. This was what Ong Teng Cheong said when Asiaweek interviewed him in 2000:
'Wee Kim Wee, although he was not elected, was supposed to play that role [of guarding reserves] during the last two years of his term. But he did not actively check.'
In fact, Wee Kim Wee's daughter did not even mention safeguarding the reserves when she wrote her cookbook, Cooking for the President. Neither did she talk about safeguarding the integrity of the public service, which was/is the president's other primary duty. This was the only time she touched on 'constitutional duties', on page 47:
'Apart from his constitutional duties, Daddy together with Mummy performed official duties and participated in many official and public events.'
The Head of State's constitutional duties were simply brushed aside by Wee Eng Hwa, a lawyer by profession. She preferred to talk about the presidential motorcade, the split second timing of state occasions, and her father's attendance of this and that event, such as the National Day Parade. In case readers don't know how grandly Daddy was greeted by adoring commoners and soldiers at the annual bash to celebrate the Federation of Malaya kicking Singapore's butt in 1965, she inserted a two-page photo of said moment in her cookbook. And she also inserted an old photo of herself grinning from ear to ear whilst holding The Straits Times. The front page headline on 28 August 1985 was, 'Wee Kim Wee to be President'. And the caption for the photo read, 'Eng Hwa's most joyful moment, knowing that her father has finally arrived at the top'.

What did Wee Kim Wee himself think of his position 'at the top'? He said:
'In my time as President, if I can make just 50 people happy, I would have done my part.'
50 people???!!! Wow . . . very . . . ambitious, wasn't he? He wanted to make a whopping 0.0017% of the population happy! A lesser man might have gone for, um, five or 0.00017%? I don't know if he achieved his 'aggressive' target but he got a state funeral when he died in 2005, unlike Ong Teng Cheong. Which other president or ex-president has passed away without a state funeral? The one who didn't die in Singapore – Devan Nair.



After bashing the man, I'd so love to bash the recipes in Cooking for the President. Trouble is, I can't find any that's bad! All of the 200-plus recipes look good, and a few have been flagged by the author as particularly outstanding, such as Sok Hiong's Mee Siam. Sok who? That's Koh Sok Hiong, the woman who married Wee Kim Wee.

Mrs Wee regularly brought happiness to not just 50 but 500 people, and more. In Singapore, and Malaysia and Japan where her husband was the ambassador, she invited 500 guests at a time, and laid out an entire spread of Nyonya delicacies for them. In fact, her cooking 'took Tokyo by storm', as it did Kuala Lumpur. Mee siam was one the guests' firm favourites, along with sambal udang and chicken satay.

The magic in Sok Hiong's Mee Siam is the bee hoon made with a killer ingredient: coconut milk. Thick, fresh milk is fried till all the water has evaporated, leaving the curds which are nicely browned, and the oil which smells like . . . like . . . ? Ah yes, it smells like the MRT trains but, I must emphasize, in an absolutely GOOD way.

The coconut oil is then used to fry dried chillies, shallots, belachan and taucheo. This aromatic, spicy paste is mixed with the coconut curds, plus another not-found-in-other-recipes ingredient: tomato ketchup. Finally, it's tossed with coarse bee hoon. This dry mee siam is, I tell ya, nothing short of presidential. It's so good it can be totally eaten on its own, but it's even better with mee siam sauce that's made with assam gelugoh to give it the right type of sourness. Yup, all those recipes that have only assam jawa or worse, don't have assam anything at all (like LKY's mother's), chuck 'em in the bin. As for the people who use Prima's mee siam paste, I'm praying for them . . . . Just kidding!

If you're not on Mrs or Ms Wee's rarefied guest list, never mind. You now have the recipe for Sok Hiong's Mee Siam (and her Sambal Udang). It's by far the best mee siam recipe I've seen, way better than those of Mrs Leong Yee Soo and LKY's mother, and any I've seen online. Wee Eng Hwa said her mother's mee siam was famous in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo. I believe her – just on this.

SOK HIONG'S MEE SIAM (NYONYA SPICY RICE VERMICELLI)
Source: Cooking for the President, by Wee Eng Hwa
(Recipe for 12 full size portions, or 20-25 small portions)
Bee hoon
1 kg coarse dried bee hoon (Chinese rice vermicelli)
6 large pieces firm beancurd (960 g)
vegetable oil for deep-frying
540 ml fresh undiluted coconut milk (2¼ cups)
or 1 kg grated coconut, squeeze for 480 ml '1st milk', plus cream of 480 ml '2nd milk'
40 g dried chillies
soak in warm water till soft, about 30 minutes; squeeze dry
375 g shallots
peel, wash, and pound with dried chillies till fine
8 g belachan
toast till dry and pound till fine to yield 2 tsp powder
90 g light brown taucheo (fermented soya beans) paste
130 ml tomato ketchup
salt to taste, about 1 tbsp
Sauce
40 g dried chillies
soak in warm water till soft, about 30 minutes; squeeze dry
375 g shallots
peel, wash and pound with dried chillies till fine
12 g belachan
toast till dry and pound till fine to yield 1 tbsp powder
120 g light brown taucheo (fermented soya beans) paste
50 prawns weighing about 1 kg prawns
2 pieces assam gelugoh (tamarind skin), adjust to taste (I used 8 pieces)
60 g assam jawa (tamarind paste)
80 g sugar
2 tsp salt
Finishing touch
350 g Chinese chives, wash, trim and cut 2 cm long
5 hard-boiled eggs, peel and slice crosswise
10 calamansi limes, halve crosswise and discard seeds
This recipe is a hell of a lot of work! I'd suggest setting aside a good 2 hours or so for the first attempt. The good news is, it's quite idiot-proof, and you can make it one day ahead. Have fun!

Mee siam goes well with sambal udang. Follow Mrs Wee's recipe here but use 1 kg small prawns – about 50 pieces, shelled for easy eating – instead of medium ones on the shell.

To prepare bee hoon, cook according to package instructions till soft but still very springy. Do not overcook. Refresh in cold water to stop the cooking. Set aside to drain.

Halve each piece of beancurd and cut crosswise 5 mm thick. Deep-fry in hot oil over medium-high heat for 5 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low. Continue frying till lightly golden (mine were a bit too brown). Remove and divide into 2 equal portions.

Fry coconut milk over low heat till oil separates and curds form. Increase heat to medium. Fry till curds are medium brown. Drain to separate curds and oil. You should now have about 100 ml coconut oil, 100 g curds, and a dirty wok (unless yours is non-stick or really well seasoned). Set oil aside, grind curds till fine, and wash wok, in any order you like.

With coconut oil made, stir-fry dried chillies and shallots over medium to low heat till reddish brown and aromatic. If paste sticks to wok, drizzle with 1 tbsp water, scrape to loosen sticky bits, then continue frying. Add 2 tsp belachan powder and stir through. Push mixture to one side.

Put 2 tsp vegetable oil in the middle of the wok. Add 90 g taucheo. Fry till intensely aromatic, adding 1 tbsp water and scraping if it sticks. Stir taucheo and chilli paste together. Turn off heat. Leave till cool. Add tomato ketchup, coconut curds and salt. Mix thoroughly. Add bee hoon and half of fried beancurd. Using (clean) hands, toss till thoroughly mixed. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Cover and set aside. Refrigerate if necessary. Allow to come to room temperature before serving.

To make sauce, stir-fry dried chillies and shallots in 100 ml vegetable oil over medium to low heat till reddish brown and aromatic. If paste sticks to wok, drizzle with 1 tbsp water, scrape to loosen sticky bits, then continue frying. Add 1 tbsp belachan powder and stir through. Push mixture to one side.

Put 1 tbsp vegetable oil in the middle of the wok. Add 120 g taucheo. Fry till intensely aromatic, adding 1 tbsp water and scraping if it sticks. Stir taucheo and chilli paste together. Set aside.

Shell prawns, leaving tails on. Devein and wash. Dry-fry shells and heads (together with those from Sambal Udang if making) till red and fragrant. Add enough water to cover, along with assam gelugoh, assam paste, sugar and salt. Bring to a boil and simmer gently, covered, for 15 minutes. If assam paste is not yet disintegrated, mash with spoon and stir through. With a slotted spoon/spatula, remove and discard shells, etc, leaving only stock. Poach prawns in the stock till just cooked. Remove to cool down. Measure stock and top up with water to 1.4 litres. Add fried chilli paste. Stir through. Bring back to a boil. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Turn off heat.
'The sourness, saltiness and sweetness of the sauce are so balanced that none of them dominate. The sauce is more savoury than sweet. The assam (tamarind) flavour in the sauce is assertive, but not sharp. Towchew (preserved brown soya bean paste) and prawn flavour are essential, but not obtrusively dominant.'
Cooking for the President, by Wee Eng Hwa

To serve
, heat up sauce if necessary. Place bee hoon in a plate. Add sauce sparingly, about ½ cup for each full size portion. (Presidential mee siam doesn't swim in lots of sauce, unlike those from hawker centres!) Top with eggs, poached prawns, sambal udang if available, beancurd, and chives. Squeeze lime over mee siam and dig in.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think my whole life I have made more than 50 people happy....so can I get as much pay as mr president?? If making people can justify for such pay then clowns are definitely seriously underpaid!! Clown then should be the highest paying occupation in the world!


Pat

KT said...

It's probably not just any 50 people. I think it must be the top 50 in the PAP. Have you made the MM and PM happy? If not, sorry.

Anonymous said...

*likes*

Anonymous said...

Hi, i saw your Zhenjiang Pork Ribs recipe and it looks really yummy. Which brand of Zhenjiang vinegar do you use?
thks alot for your advice,
May :)

KT said...

Hi May

I use Gold Plum. It's available at the usual places – supermarts, minimarts and markets. Not all of them would have it but it's not that hard to find. On the bottle, it says 'Chinkiang' rather than 'Zhenjiang'.


Hi Anon

Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Lol. A post that's witty with a bite! Love the former first lady's recipes. Thanks for putting them up.
To be fair, Wee Kim Wee knew he was a figurehead at best. Nobody in their right mind would think of ruffling LKY's hair after what happened to Devan Nair. Wee's most significant contributions to Singapore were before he became President. I guess he was chosen because of his mild temperament and pro-gahmen stance.
You should really be jabbing your fork at the current president elect who's being paid a staggeringly obscene amount to pose for the cameras.Egads!

Lynetteme said...

Amazing coconut curd Mee Siam recipe. First time ever hearing about this method. Thanks!!

AussieSheila said...

Quite a charged article you have there and thank you for sharing your thoughts and opinions. It's always interesting to hear what other people think on the other side of the fence. Cute combo of politics and recipes. Great to read your review on the Mee Siam - it's a big favourite of mine.


As a side note; I'm not all that sure if a family cookbook is supposed to address dry information like a government's financial reserves, though. I can imagine there are probably better places or forums than a book like that to comment on such things, don't you reckon?


I also think you may take the '50 people' line out of context or use it a mite too literally. I think it's trying to express more an ideal; that trying your utmost to make a difference in the lives of others is important, even if it affects only the few or the common man. Too many people today think to themselves "Nah, what's the point in trying? I'm just one person, I can't change anything in the world" when helping even one person can make the whole world of difference.

WKW was a very humble man - rest his soul - and had modest philosophies on life, family and one's place in the world. I'll admit it was a little painful to hear some of the sharper comments in the article but this is all about the gift and the liberalisation of free speech and I do not begrudge you at all for expressing your honest opinion and what's in your heart. WKW was a writer himself and I don't think he'd want it any other way.

KT said...

"I'm not all that sure if a family cookbook is supposed to address dry information like a government's financial reserves."

Agree, except the daughter went on and on about how great her daddy was as President of Singapore, which made me think: WTH did Wee Kim Wee do for the country? Answer: nothing. But that was because he wasn't supposed to do anything. My harsh comments weren't because of his lack of concrete achievements as president. I was cringing because his daughter was crowing about what was essentially an honourary, vacuous title.

"I also think you may take the '50 people' line out of context or use it a
mite too literally. I think it's trying to express more an ideal; that
trying your utmost to make a difference in the lives of others is
important, even if it affects only the few or the common man."

Yes, except WKW wasn't Ordinary Joe but the president. Shouldn't the president's ideal be to make a difference to the country rather than just 1, 10 or 50 people?

singapore shiok said...

The internet is littered with 'free style' mee siam recipes (some of them insist that the correct sambal for mee siam is sambal belacan and don't include tau cheo in the rempah) but this one is very good though tedious - tahi minyak is my mum's secret weapon for mee siam. Thanks for sharing the recipe and saving me the cost of the cook book. I'll reserve any comments regarding the ruling party as I have very little to say about them that is positive.

a nonny mouse said...

"smells like the mrt trains" -was that necessary?

Sy said...

KT, in the recipe, for sauce, you meant 375 GRAMS of shallots and not 375 count of shallots, ya? Just double checking...

kt said...

Yes, Sy, it's 375 g. Sorry for the error.

TK said...

540 ml fresh undiluted coconut milk (2¼ cups)or 1 kg grated coconut, squeeze for 480 ml '1st milk', plus cream of 480 ml '2nd milk'

How much water is need to the press out the fresh undiluted coconut for 1st and 2nd milk??

Please advice. Thanks

KT said...

1st milk: 0 ml.

2nd milk: 480 ml.


Cheers.

TK said...

Thanks

Also I don't understand. .. Fry coconut milk over low heat till oil separates and curds form. Increase heat to medium. Fry till curds are medium brown. Drain to separate curds and oil. You should now have about 100 ml coconut oil, 100 g curds, and a dirty wok (unless yours is non-stick or really well seasoned). Set oil aside, grind curds till fine, and wash wok, in any order you like.

Do u mean put the 2nd milk and boil it? For how long?

Thanks
TK

KT said...

Which part of "Fry coconut milk" do you translate into "put the 2nd milk and boil it"?

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