KitchenTigress: Babi Pongteh

Babi Pongteh

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!
'Princess' Shermay Lee
Wow, THREE WHOLE TEASPOONFULS OF MSG, which work out to ¼ tsp pxer 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 gauhu 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.

Babi pongteh is a peranakan stew with strong flavours. This dish keeps well refrigerated.

babi pongteh
  • 1.5 kg front pork knuckle with trotter – chop chunky, blanch in boiling water, remove hair if any, rinse thoroughly, 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, pound semi-finely
  • 80 g garlic – peel, wash, 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, quarter sugar cane lengthwise, chop each quarter into 4 pieces
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 10 medium size Chinese dried mushrooms (60 g) – rinse; soak in 500 ml water till soft, abut 30 minutes; drain, reserving water; trim, reserving stems
  • 100 g canned bamboo shoots – cut into bite size wedges 6 mm thick, boil in water for a few minutes, drain
  • 200 g rehydrated sea cucumber – cut crosswise 5 cm wide and lengthwise 3 cm thick, soak in water till ready to cook

  1. 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. Stir-fry till semi-dry and intensely aromatic, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a pot.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. Serve babi pongteh 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 sauce.