Joyce Siow is a warm, lovely hostess whose wide smile is enough to encourage everyone at the table to keep eating more of her delicious Chinese food (distended belly notwithstanding).
“Did you have enough of this?” she asks, as she steers a plate of stewed pork knuckles in my direction.
Even though I’ve eaten A LOT already, I end up taking more – the pork is infectiously good, and so is Siow’s enthusiasm. Evidence of this can be seen in a corner of the dining table where Siow’s husband is spooning food onto his plate. He isn’t feeling well, but such is the allure of his wife’s food that he eats it, illness and all.
Ironically, Siow wasn’t always such a good cook. Growing up in Seremban, Siow’s mother was a busy businesswoman who didn’t have time to teach her how to cook so Siow’s cooking skills were close to nil until she got married and was forced to learn.
“I got married in my early 20s. At the time, I didn’t know much about cooking. I could fry eggs and fish, but I didn’t know how to do much else. My cooking was very boring, so my husband didn’t eat much. So no choice – I had to learn cooking from my mother-in-law, and get some recipes from her to make him happy!” she says, laughing mischievously at the recollection.
Years of practice have turned Siow into a wonderfully good home cook. As most of her children have settled in Australia, she makes frequent visits there and cooks all their favourite dishes on demand, or as she puts it, “Mondays to Fridays – I’m off on Saturdays and Sundays!”
Even her grandchildren have become huge fans of her delectable Chinese fare and Siow says they are always begging for more. “When I go to Perth, I always cook for them. They always say, ‘I don’t miss Poh-Poh (grandmother), I miss Poh-Poh’s food!” she says.
Some of the things that Siow frequently whips up for her family include her famed black vinegar pork knuckle, which was adapted from her mother-in-law’s recipe.
“My mother-in-law used to cook it with dried chillies and hers was a drier version. But I improvised it, so it’s more soupy and I put more ginger, as I like that pungent gingery taste,” she says.
Siow’s version is composed of tender pork knuckles drenched in a vinegary bath that also has hints of sweetness from the sweetened vinegar in it. Siow says the dextrous juggling of black vinegar and sweetened vinegar is key to achieving the perfect flavour balance in the dish.
“You need the balance of the sweetness, otherwise there will only be a sour taste,” she says. As the dish has so much ginger in it, Siow says it is also a good confinement dish, one which she has made for her daughters after they gave birth.
Another dish that Siow has also made numerous times during the confinement of two of her daughters is her delightful turmeric chicken, which is just brimming with flavour. Siow learnt how to make it from an aunt in Ipoh, but has modified the original recipe by adding lemongrass and pandan leaves, both of which have anti-inflammatory properties and are said to aid in post-natal healing.
Siow says the paste that forms the cornerstone of this dish can be made in advance, which will in turn speed up the cooking process.
“Last year, I went to Perth for three months during my daughter’s confinement and I made two bottles of this paste. I cooked for her and my other children and also invited friends over, as eating out is expensive in Australia. Because I made the paste in advance, I only had to buy the chicken and cook it,” she says.
As she enjoys cooking so much, Siow has picked up lots of recipes from other people, including the Cantonese dish of bottle gourd and glass noodles, which she learnt from a friend’s mother.
“I found it really delicious, so I learnt how to make it. Also, this is different because I’m Hakka and Hakkas like to eat pork, they seldom eat veggies, you know? Like my husband is from a small village in Jelebu, Negri Sembilan, which is 99% Hakka. During CNY, two neighbours often share a pig – that’s how much pork they can eat!” she says, giggling.
Even though Siow can now just rest on her laurels and cook the regular assortment of Chinese dishes that she has become skilled at, she continues to make efforts to widen her culinary repertoire by researching cookbooks.
“Usually, I will buy cookbooks for reference so I can create my own dishes, instead of just following recipes strictly,” she says.
Ultimately though, Siow’s love of cooking stems from something inherently stronger than just a need to feed her family. It is obvious that for this devoted wife, mother and grandmother, cooking for her family is inexorably linked to her potent love for them.
“When I cook and I see my family enjoying my food, I feel so happy. And then I feel like I must keep the quality of cooking high and try to learn more new recipes for them,” she says.
BLACK VINEGAR PORK KNUCKLE
Serves 6 to 8
1.5kg to 2kg pork knuckle (ask your butcher to chop into medium-sized pieces)
8 hard-boiled eggs, shells removed
For boiling together
600ml black vinegar
200ml sweetened vinegar
200g Bentong ginger, cut into thick slices and lightly smashed
4 to 5 rock sugar cubes
1 piece gula Melaka
Blanch the pork knuckles in boiling water for 10 minutes. Drain the water and set the knuckles aside.
In a small pot, boil eggs until hard-boiled. Remove shells and set aside.
In a large pot, boil the rest of the ingredients together for 20 minutes until fragrant. Put the knuckles and half boiled eggs into the mixtures and boil the pork knuckles for about 35 to 40 minutes (it varies depending on the size of the knuckles), until it is cooked and soft.
Serves 4 to 6
For pounding/blending together
200g fresh turmeric
2 stalks lemongrass
1 tbsp white peppercorn
1 cili padi (optional)
For marinating the chicken
1 whole chicken, chopped into pieces
1 tbsp soya sauce
1 tbsp salt
3 tbsp cooking oil
3 to 4 pandan leaves, each cut into 4 pieces
½ cup water
In a pestle and mortar or blender, blend all the ingredients for blending/pounding together until it forms a paste.
Marinate the chicken with soya sauce and salt.
In a large wok, heat up the oil and stir-fry the blended paste until it smells aromatic. Add the marinated chicken and pandan leaves and stir well. Add water, cover with a lid and cook on low heat until the chicken is cooked. You can add more water if you want the dish to have more gravy.
SWEET AND SOUR FISH
Serves 4 to 6
For frying the fish
1 whole grouper fish
1 tsp cornflour
oil, for frying
For the sweet and sour sauce
1 fresh tomato, cubed
1 onion, cut into rings
1 slice pineapple, cubed
4 tbsp tomato sauce
2 tbsp chilli sauce
1 tbsp rice vinegar
2 tbsp sugar
¾ cup water
1 tsp salt
Coat the fish with cornflour on both sides. In a pan, heat up oil and pan-fry fish until crispy outside. Set aside on a clean plate.
In a large pan, cook the rest of the ingredients to form a sauce. Add more water if it’s too dry. Pour the sweet and sour sauce onto the fish and serve hot.
BOTTLE GOURD WITH GLASS NOODLES
Serves 4 to 6
100g glass noodles
3 tbsp oil
¼ cup chopped garlic
3 tbsp chopped dried shrimp
1 medium bottle gourd, cut into thin strips
¼ cup water
1 tbsp soya sauce
1 tsp thick soya sauce (optional)
½ tsp salt
Soak the glass noodles in water for 5 minutes.
Heat up the oil, fry the chopped garlic and dried shrimps. Add the bottle gourd and stir-fry until cooked. Add water a little bit at a time and then put the glass noodles in and stir. Add soya sauce, thick soya sauce and salt, stir until combined. Serve hot with rice.