Not LKY's Babi Pongteh

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Cast your mind back, all the way back to when you were 5 years old. Do you remember anything much?

Would you believe a 5-year-old child is capable of learning how to cook, and remembers what she's learnt when she's a 28-year-old adult? Would you believe a 5-year-old can be instilled with a passion for cooking?

This is what Shermay Lee, author of The New Mrs Lee's Cookbook and The New Mrs Lee's Cookbook Vol. 2, says on her cookery school's website:
"Shermay started cooking at the age of 5. She learnt the rudiments of cooking first from her grandmother, Mrs Lee Chin Koon, who was considered the doyen of Peranakan cuisine and was the author of the famous cookbook, Mrs Lee's Cookbook, a kitchen stalwart published three decades ago."
And this is what Shermay says in her first cookbook:
"[My grandmother] instilled in me a passion for cooking from a very young age."
What did 5-year-old Shermay do in her grandma's Peranakan kitchen? Could her little wee hands handle knives, ladles, or a mortar and pestle? Did she stand her little wee legs on a chair to watch her grandmother stir-fry sambal in hot oil? What exactly did little Shermay cook? Would you, dear reader, let your 5-year-old child boil an egg, assuming you could do so without being sued for child negligence?

Why does Shermay Lee say she started cooking at the age of 5, which must sound totally ridiculous to anyone with common sense?

Two reasons: One, her grandmother was Lee Kuan Yew's mother. Two, said grandmother very inconveniently kicked the bucket when Shermay was 5. If little Shermay weren't cooking when she was 5 or younger, then she didn't learn anything from Lee Kuan Yew's mother. In which case, the only selling point for her cookery school and cookbooks wouldn't exist.

Shermay Lee's two cookbooks are an update of her grandmother's Mrs Lee's Cookbook, which was published in 1974. The first updated recipe that makes me scratch my head is Bawan Kepiting, a Chinese style clear soup with crab meatballs. The stock is made with 300 g of bamboo shoot fried for 2 minutes, then simmered 10 minutes in 2.3 litres of water. And that's it, there's nothing else in the stock except sugar and salt. It's so totally bizarre it can't possibly be correct!

What does Grandma's original cookbook say? Aaah, there's indeed an ingredient missing after her granddaughter modified the recipe to suit modern times. Is it an old mother hen? Some expensive dried scallops from Japan? Yunnan ham from China? No, the missing ingredient is – hold on to your chair! – 2 tsp of MSG in the stock, plus another 1 tsp in the meatballs!

Wow, THREE WHOLE TEASPOONFULS OF MSG, which work out to ¼ tsp per rice bowl-sized portion! That's a hell of a lot but at least the soup MSG water would taste of . . . MSG. Bamboo shoot water, on the other hand, would taste of . . . water.

Curious, I check out the Pong Tauhu recipe to see if it's any better. Believe it or not, the soup containing meatballs made with beancurd and pork has almost twice as much MSG as the Bawan Kepiting. Almost ½ tsp per serving! Good grief!

Shock and horror aside, there's something in the Pong Tauhu recipe that makes me laugh: pounding beancurd with a mortar and pestle. That's like LKY totally obliterating his enemies, isn't it? Seriously, why pound beancurd? Just squash it with your hands or, if you want it really fine, push it through a sieve.

The recipe for Heepeow Soup is equally bizarre. The stock is made with 1.2 kg of pork or pork bones, which is nowhere near enough for the 6 litres of water used but at least it's better than a few shreds of tree trunk. Except the meat needs 1½-2 hours of gentle simmering to release its flavour, whilst big pork bones need at least 3-4 hours. The recipe, however, tells you to simmer for only 30 minutes. So it's just another pot of water, with or without MSG depending on whether you follow the grandma or granddaughter.

There are, floating in the water, yellow (!) prawn meatballs deliberately jaundiced with artificial food colouring. Next to the weird looking meatballs float slices of pork maw which stink because piggy tummy can't be cleaned properly by just rubbing it with salt. There're fishballs too, made by beating 600 g of finely minced fish with a dash of pepper, then gradually adding 350 ml of water while stirring continuously, followed by beating the mixture till it's smooth, then adding 1 tbsp of salt. You know what? If this fish paste makes fishballs that are bouncy, I will – to borrow a colourful phrase from the Cantonese – chop off my head and let Shermay Lee sit on it!

Little Shermay "learnt the rudiments of cooking" when she was 5, eh? Judging from her soups, she didn't know the basics even when she released her first cookbook as a 28-year-old adult. Neither did Mrs Lee Chin Koon who was supposed to be "the doyen of Peranakan cuisine". Did you know LKY's mother gave cooking lessons to British and Australian expatriates? I hope they liked MSG and jaundiced meatballs!

Bad recipes are one thing but dangerous ones are another. If you make a raw fish salad with, as Shermay Lee instructs, fresh ikan parang (wolf herring) bought at a wet market, you have a 99.99% chance of being very sick, or dead. Fish and stuff not sitting on ice are quite common at markets, and there's filth and dirt whichever way you turn. Even if there's fish that's sashimi grade, it's bound to be contaminated by something that isn't. Obviously, Princess Shermay has never been to less-than-clean wet markets where grubby commoners with questionable personal hygiene poke and prod everything. Well, why would she? Her cousin, LKY's younger son, has his personal chef fly to Japan just to buy sashimi! I'd guess her lifestyle is similar to his.

The New Mrs Lee's Cookbook, published in 2003, won two awards from Gourmand World: Best Cookbook Award and Special Award of the Jury in the Respect of Tradition. It was a bestseller in Singapore, as was the second volume published in 2004, and both books received strong reviews in a number of publications. Did the judges, reviewers and readers notice the appalling soups, the Satay Ayam Goreng that's boiled even though 'Goreng' means fried, and the Mee Siam made without assam? These, along with deep-fried (!) Peking Duck, were award winning recipes?! For tradition?!

The recipe I'm sharing today is Babi Pongteh from Cooking for the President. I've chosen this over the one Lee Kuan Yew grew up eating because his mother and niece say babi pongteh has coriander powder whereas babi chin doesn't. That is, of course, incorrect. It's babi chin which has coriander power, and babi pongteh which doesn't . . . unless Lee Kuan Yew has decreed otherwise? He might not have but if you're his relation, your cookbooks will win awards and you'll get paid to give lessons even if you can't tell your babi pongteh from babi chin. All you need to know is how to make bamboo shoot water, or add MSG by the bucketload.

Source: Cooking for the President – Reflections & Recipes of Mrs Wee Kim Wee
(Recipe for 8-12 persons)

1.5 kg front pork knuckle with trotter
chop chunky, blanch in boiling water, remove hair if any, rinse thoroughly and marinate with 4 tsp thick dark soya sauce for 30 minutes
160 ml vegetable oil (I used only 30 ml)
50 g shallots
peel, wash and pound semi-finely
80 g garlic
peel, wash and pound semi-finely
60 g light brown taucheo (fermented soya bean) paste
2 tbsp light soya sauce
2 tsp thick dark soya sauce
20 g palm sugar
100 g sugar cane (30 cm long), or 25 g rock sugar
wash and quarter sugar cane lengthwise; chop each quarter into 4 pieces
¼ tsp salt
10 medium size Chinese dried mushrooms (60 g)
rinse and soak in 500 ml water till soft, abut 30 minutes; trim and reserve stems, along with the water
100 g canned bamboo shoots
cut into bite size wedges 6 mm thick; boil a few minutes; drain
200 g reconstituted sea cucumber
cut crosswise 5 cm wide and lengthwise 3 cm thick; soak in water till ready to cook

In a wok, fry shallots in hot vegetable oil over low heat till translucent. Add garlic and stir-fry till everything is lightly golden. Add fermented soya bean paste and fry till semi-dry, intensely aromatic, and colour changes, about 3 minutes. Reduce heat to very low. Add light and dark soya sauce. Fry 10 seconds. Add pork and marinade. Increase heat slightly to low (from very low). Stir-fry till semi-dry and intensely aromatic, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a pot. Deglaze wok with 1 cup water. Add the water to the pork, along with palm sugar, sugar cane, salt and, if using, mushrooms, mushroom stems, mushroom water, and bamboo shoots. Top up with enough water to just cover. Bring to a boil. Cover and simmer gently, adding more water when necessary, till pork is tender but still has some bite. This should take about 2¼ hours.

Add sea cucumber, if using, and bring to a boil. Sauce should be medium brown and with substance, not thin and watery. Increase heat to boil rapidly if necessary. Taste and adjust seasoning (I added 2 tbsp taucheo liquid). Turn off heat.

Serve hot, topped with crushed red bird's eye chillies. Alternatively, sambal belachan with a squeeze of calamansi juice would make a nice dip. Eat with steamed rice, or you can dip toasted French loaf in the Babi Pongteh sauce.


Anonymous said...

Am glad I'm not the only one that thought the recipes in the Ms Lee books slightly strange. I tried to make a rendang out of one and it was a disaster.. Do you have any recommendations of authentic Singaporean/Malaysian cook books?

KT said...

By far the most authentic Sing/Malaysian cookbook I've come across is Cooking for the President. Wee Eng Hwa knows how to cook, and her instructions are clear and precise. Most importantly, the recipes aren't dumbed down for readers who may be too lazy, too busy, too foreign, anti-fats, whatever.

Anonymous said...

Reading your post made me laugh so much I was in tears! Sad that rubbish like this can be bestseller, sad that so many Singaporeans willing to put up with so much rubbish...

Anonymous said...

Yikes! I've just passed this cookbook (bought yearss ago when I wasn't cooking so much) to my mum who wanted a Penang laksa recipe.
I've only tried one recipe in it and it's Babi pongteh which I thought didn't taste at all like those in nonya restaurants.

Thanks for the well written and critical review. I couldn't stop laughing as I was reading it.

Better get my mum a copy of cooking for the president soon!

KT said...

Thanks, Anon (18 and 29 September).

Here's the ultimate crime in the cookbooks: 'Soak [Chinese dried mushrooms] in hot water to soften then squeeze out the excess water before using.' What? Nothing mentioned about how the mushroom water may be used, which means it's thrown away! Oh nooooo . . . ! *dramatically drape back of hand over forehead*

Old School Baba said...

I've actually got a REALLY old copy of the Mrs Lee cookbook, with orange hard cover and all....... I'm giving it to my girls later on as the anti-thesis of Peranakan Cooking !

KT said...

Not just Peranakan but the anti-thesis of cooking in general!

Open Kitchen Concept said...

oh this is hilarious! hahha

Anonymous said...

I have to say my mother has got both the old orange Mrs Lee cookbook plus the New Mrs Lee's cookbook which she hoards (I only get to look at it on special occasions) (My mother isn't a terrific cook).

I stopped using it after babi assam asked for a two tablespoon of taucheo along with more dark soya sauce which I, as an amateur cook, put in and the resulting mess was inedible. My grandmother then taught me how to do it which she just cooked out of her head. Definitely no taucheo involved. I've used that ever since.

Belinda Lee said...

I found your blog whilst googling for an authentic babi assam recipe. I'm transfixed!!! I forgot what I came here for because your talents not only lie in the culinary field but you're dang good with your words. I PMSL whilst reading about Ms Lee who has been fortunate enough to be born on the right side of politics....only in their opinion....I love the fact that you're candid, honest and you don't mince your words! Well done!!! Love it ;p

Anonymous said...

Was googling for a recipe and came across your blog...waah..what a revelation that Mrs Lee's cookbook is not all that was raved about.....enjoyed your critique of a pretender..ha ha..yes, definitely can't remember a thing of my past as a 5-yr old, unless the Lee are so uniquely blessed with grey matter...but we all know that only one has it. Keep up your good work in sharing all that you know...

Anonymous said...

Glad I'm not the only one who thought Matriach Lee's recipes were missing some things. Then again, dem recipes were evolved from WW2 days and she probably had to make do with the lack of produce. MSG was possibly the equivalent of today's ecstasy. Everything tasted right spiked with a spoonful of it. If somebody actually went along with her recipes and had success, please let us know. After all, we shouldn't knock what we haven't tried... nah, I doubt it.

KT said...

Mrs Lee's Cookbook was published in 1974; the war ended in 1945. That's a 30-year gap.

Did Mrs Lee boil her Satay Ayam Goreng because she didn't have oil for frying? No, that's not possible since she deep-fried her Peking Duck.

Anonymous said...

I'll remain anonymous for obvious reasons. When I was a young lad, LKY's Mom used to come around the house hounding my granny for her famous Nyonya recipes - more often than not, they would be petered long and hard enough to relent. But my Mama often had a good (and last) laugh with her mahjong kakis that she had held back important aspects of the recipe and often times even booby-trapped them. Apparently ol' Mrs Lee was so clueless she never knew she had lemons instead of rempahs...and had them published. LKY's long-held belief that nature trumps nurture proves right again, jumping a generation to Shermay. Heh heh!

Anonymous said...

While LKY's Mom (and now his niece, Shermay)obviously had no idea about Peranakan cuisine, I have to say his aunty, Mdm Leong Ee Soo, is the real deal! She used to cook up a storm for my grand aunt who was a neghbour and friend whenever there was a party. I secretly loved her food but would never ever mention it at home less one of the cooks (my granny, aunt or mom)caught wind of it and "punished" me for it. As a professional chef now, I often refer to her recipes when I'm cooking at home and consistently, the results are spot on - very very close to what I remember as a child.

KT said...

Thanks for your interesting comment. I wasn't sure if Mrs Lee was a lousy cook since lots of great cooks/chefs write bad cookbooks (e.g. Sam Leong). Maybe she didn't want to reveal her 'secrets', I thought. Now I know she wasn't hiding anything, unlike your (wicked) granny.

Shermay made very limited changes to Mrs Lee's Cookbook, but they were enough to show that she didn't understand cooking at all. Funny thing is, her cooking school hasn't closed down!

Wendy said...

Hey, I beg to differ. I married a baba 30+ years ago, without any knowledge of nyonya cooking. My sis-in-law, in the hope of not wanting her brother to be deprived of traditional nyonya dishes, gave me a copy of Mrs Lee Cookbook and to this day, it is still my source of reference when I (with a terrible memory) need to know what goes into the different rempahs. Every Chinese new year, my hubby will proudly invite our neighbours for a traditional nyonya meal at our place. My late mum-in-law was a great cook, but sad to say, I did not benefit from her experience due to language barrier. I have to admit that I do not follow Mrs Lee's recipes word for word but modify based on my instinct and taste. I dare say I am a competent cook where nyonya dishes are concerned and all thanks to Mrs Lee's cookbook !

KT said...

Ok, good on ya, Wendy. What are your favourite recipes from the book?

Wendy said...

Buakeluak Ayam, Kuah Ladah and Udang Pedas Nanas, all my husband's favourites. However, I have to agree with you that the 2tsps of msg for the Bawan Kepeting soup stock does sound ridiculous. Anyway, happy cooking and kudos for such an interesting blog !

Anonymous said...

luckily I did not buy the book. I borrowed it from National Library (KL) browsed it, flipped it, but not actually read it. Thank you so much, my hard earned cash is saved.

KT said...

It's actually quite an entertaining read. Lots of 'Are you kidding me?!' moments, which are funny because of who the authors are.

AsiaRuth said...

You are so honest about how you feel and that good . I did personally bought the book and tried the recipe and i must agree with you it has not been touch or look into any of the recipes.

dd said...

I can only say "I love you!!!!!" You almost made me pee in my pants. No one in their right mind would let a five year old near a knife or hot stove. And you're right on the money - babi chin has coriander, NOT babi pongteh. What a fraud!!! Damn that blasted "Lee" name :P This post is pure GOLD!!! Feel like printing this out and framing it...

dd said...

My mum just read your post and she said I MUST print this out and frame it! Thanks again for the priceless chuckles. Bloody good!

KT said...

Thanks, dd, and your mum too.

AC said...

Tell it as it is ! I enjoyed your post so much I have told all my friends to read it. Well done for being so spot on and funny!

Nigel said...

KT- u are hilarious and witty! Keep those posts coming! By the way, I had made orh kueh and Ang ku kueh using your recipes and they turned out tasty! Thks,

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