In her beautiful home, Michelle Nunis is hard at work, putting the finishing touches to her traditional Christmas dishes.
Standing close by is Nunis’ bubbly little seven-year-old daughter Megan Robless who darts around her mother, trying to help wherever she can. In the distance, Nunis’ energetic four-year-old son David Robless is playing with his toys while one-year-old baby Jerome Robless coos and gurgles delightfully in the arms of his pretty 18-year-old older sister Caitlin Gomes. Nunis’ oldest son, 20-year-old Conrad Gomes is also at home, as are two of his cousins.
At every instance, you can’t help but get the feeling that this is a happy home, bubbling with the sort of constant activity and vibrance that only a houseful of exuberant children can bring.
For Nunis, there is another upside to having five kids: she is constantly cooking up a storm in the kitchen, which means her culinary prowess is undisputed.
“I have five children, so I have to cook every day. And the meals change daily – I often make mutton varuval, chicken curry and chicken rice, Once a week, I cook Western food because the kids like food such as lasagna and pasta,” says Nunis.
But come Christmastime, Nunis returns to the food of her heritage, cooking a smorgasbord of traditional Kristang (Portuguese-Eurasian) favourites that she learnt to make from her late mother.
“My mum actually picked up most of the Kristang dishes from my paternal grandmother, because when she got married, she stayed in my grandmother’s house. Funnily, my grandmother’s name was Mary Nunis and my mother’s name was also Mary, so after she married my dad, my mum became Mary Nunis too!” she says, laughing.
Growing up, Nunis and her brother and sister often helped their mother whip up the family’s treasured Kristang dishes, especially during Christmas when they had their annual open house.
Now that she is married with her own family, Nunis’ Christmas tradition has altered slightly – her family typically has lunch with her siblings and their families and then come dinnertime, they head to her husband Timothy Robless’ parents’ home. Some years, the entire family packs up and goes to Penang (where Timothy’s family originates).
But even with the passage of time and changes in her life, Nunis’ heirloom Kristang recipes have never fallen by the wayside. She continues to make heritage Kristang favourites like devil curry (so termed because it is inherently fiery), which is a must-have for Christmas.
“It’s a must in our family to have devil curry for Christmas. Those days, we only had it on Christmas, we never had it on other days. But after awhile, the tradition diluted so now if I feel like eating devil curry, I just cook it – I don’t wait for Christmas,” says Nunis, giggling.
Then there is seybak, a yummy salad composed of slow-cooked pork (older recipes call for pork offal but Nunis uses pork belly instead) with ingredients like cucumber and taufu pok tossed in a delicious homemade chilli sauce.
“We don’t use French dressing or balsamic dressing or anything like that, we use our own homemade chilli sauce and it’s just lovely,” says Nunis.
Nunis also never fails to make the curiously-named rose chicken, a dark, intensely-flavoured poultry offering that is fried instead of roasted, and is based on a family recipe that Nunis says she hasn’t seen in other Kristang homes.
“It’s my grandmother’s recipe and we always serve it for Christmas as it’s an easy dish for the kids to eat. The chicken is very dark, so it’s not the usual roast chicken that you pop in the oven – this is marinated first, then fried in a wok. It is unique to my family.
I have not seen it anywhere else, not even at Eurasian restaurants,” says Nunis.
The family’s Christmas meal is rounded off by the wholesome Christmas pie, which features pastry encasing a rich filling loaded with ingredients like chicken, sausages, green peas and quail’s eggs.
“We eat it on Christmas day but some Eurasian families eat the pie for supper on Christmas Eve. It’s really Christmassy because we decorate the pastry with Christmas trees and mistletoe (motifs),” she says.
Nunis’ children often help her with the preparations for Christmas, whether it’s the older kids babysitting their younger siblings or everyone helping with lighter tasks, like tossing the seybak or decorating the pastry.
Because Nunis is so passionate about the heritage Kristang recipes she inherited, she is determined to teach her children how to make these meals too.
“If I don’t pass them down to my children, the tradition and family recipes are going to die. So that’s why we cook these dishes – because we like them and we want the tradition to go on,” she says.
For the spice paste
15-25 dried chillies, seeds removed and boiled for 15 minutes
8 shallots, coarsely chopped
5 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
4 stalks lemongrass, white part only, thinly sliced
3cm galangal, minced
5cm fresh turmeric
1 tsp mustard seeds
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup cooking oil
1 chicken (about 1.4kg), cut into pieces
4 to 5 potatoes, peeled and cut into 4 pieces
1 cup water
salt and sugar to taste
2 tbsp distilled white vinegar
1 fresh red chilli, cut into 3
Add all the ingredients for the spice paste into a food processor and puree until smooth. Set the paste aside.
Heat oil in a wok, add the spice paste and fry for 10 to 15 minutes. Add the chicken, coating it well with the spice paste. Let cook for 8 to 10 minutes, and then add the potatoes. Stir to combine well. Pour in enough water to just cover the chicken and potatoes. Stir in salt and sugar to taste and bring to the boil.
Lower the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for 20 minutes until potatoes are soft. Stir in the vinegar until evenly distributed. Add fresh chillies, stir to coat evenly and remove from the heat. Serve hot with rice.
For the chilli sauce
2 tbsp chopped garlic
4 tbsp ground fresh red chilli, seeds removed
3-4 tbsp sugar
5-6 tbsp vinegar
For the roast pork
1kg pork belly
2 tbsp black soy sauce
1 tsp light soy sauce
salt and sugar to taste
2 to 3 dashes white pepper
1 tbsp oil
2.5cm galangal, pounded
1 big onion, pounded
1 stick cinnamon1 to 2 cups water
For the salad
1 medium size lettuce, open into single pieces
7 taufu pok pieces, cut into 4
1 cucumber, cut into half and sliced thinly
To make the chilli sauce
Blend all ingredients in a blender till smooth. Pour sauce into a pot and heat to boiling point. Reduce heat and leave to simmer for 5 minutes uncovered. Remove from the heat and leave to cool.
To make the pork belly
Marinate the pork belly with black soy sauce, light sauce, salt, sugar and white pepper and set aside.
Heat oil in a pan and add the galangal, onion and cinnamon stick. Fry till golden brown, then add marinated pork. Stir for a few seconds, then add enough water to cover the pork and let simmer for 30 to 45 minutes or until pork is cooked. Keep turning the pork in between and tasting, adding salt if necessary. Once pork is cooked, leave to cool and slice into small pieces.
To assemble seybak
Put pork, salad ingredients and half of the chilli sauce in a salad bowl. Toss together, and add the remaining chilli sauce if you prefer it spicier.
For marinating the chicken
4 whole chicken legs, cut into 3 pieces
1/2 tsp cinnamon powder
1/2 tsp black pepper powder
1 tbsp yellow mustard
3 tbsp black soy sauce
salt and sugar to taste
For cooking the chicken
2 tbsp oil
1 big onion, sliced into rings
1/2 cup water
2 calamansi limes, juiced
1/2 cup green peas
Marinate chicken and set aside.
Heat oil in a pan and add onions. Fry for 1 minute. Add marinated chicken and fry for 3 minutes, then add water. Let cook for 10 minutes, then add lime juice. Once incorporated, toss in green peas and stir. Remove from the heat and serve hot.
For the pastry
400g all-purpose flour
200g cold butter, cut into chunks
a pinch of salt
120ml very cold water
For the pie filling
2 tbsp oil
1 big onion, cut into 6 wedges
1 star anise
2 cinnamon sticks
2 potatoes, cut into 6 pieces
1 carrot, cut into small pieces
1/2 cup water
2 deboned whole chicken legs, cut in 10 pieces
10-15 cocktail sausages
1 can button mushrooms, quartered
salt and black pepper to taste
1/4 cup green peas
10 quail’s eggs, boiled
a few sprigs coriander leaves, for garnishing
To make the pastry
In a large bowl, add flour and butter and rub together with your fingertips until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in salt, then add 2-3 tablespoons of water and mix to a soft but firm dough. Add more water only if the dough is not firm enough. Knead the dough briefly and gently on a floured surface.
Wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge while preparing the filling.
To make the pie filling
Pre-heat oven to 170°C.
In a wok, add oil and fry the onion and spices until aromatic. Add potatoes, carrot and water. When the vegetables are half cooked, add chicken and stir-fry for 5 minutes, then add sausages, button mushrooms and salt and pepper to taste. Finally add green peas and quail’s eggs and stir for awhile.
Remove from the heat and put filling into a small Pyrex dish. Garnish with coriander leaves. Roll the pastry dough flat and cover the Pyrex dish with the dough. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes or until pastry is golden brown. Serve hot.