There is always that one dish that brings you back to a special place in your life – a fond memory of a loved one, the taste of home or good times with family and friends.
Three cooks share the one dish that transports them to this magical place, and each has a different story to tell.
A celebratory dish
The one dish that Lily Tan never fails to make every Chinese New Year is Chap Choi, which takes a prominent spot at the dinner table.
“We only prepare vegetarian food on the first day of Chinese New Year, and this is the easiest dish to prepare. You can have it with just rice and it will fill you up,” says Tan.
“To me, chap choi represents the good times shared with family and friends over a good meal, on an auspicious day.”
Chap choi, which translates to mixed vegetables in English, is a common Chinese dish with many variations to it.
Some cooks add meat to the mix, although more often, it is served as a vegetarian dish during auspicious occasions. Some folks even add black moss (fatt choi) to the chap choi, as “fatt choi” in Cantonese signifies prosperity.
The Cantonese, Hokkien and Peranakan all have their own take on the simple dish, but Tan says that she learned the recipe from her mother-in-law decades ago, and has been preparing the dish the same way until today.
“It really is a fuss-free dish, and takes very little preparation and cooking time,” she says.
There is also a belief that chap choi requires 10 main ingredients (“chap” can also mean the number 10 in Hokkien), but Tan says that one can use a variety of vegetables and mushrooms.
“It is called mixed vegetables for a reason,” she says. “But don’t forget the fermented red beancurd – it is crucial in adding flavour to this dish.”
4 tbsp cooking oil
2 cubes fermented red beancurd (nam yue), mashed
100g beancurd skin (fu chuk), soaked
100g wood ear fungus (mok yee), soaked
100g dried shitake mushrooms (dong ku), soaked
100g dried lily buds (kam cham), soaked
100g glass noodles (tong fun), soaked
1 block firm beancurd, cut into cubes and deep-fried
100g fried beancurd puffs (tau pok)
100g carrot, sliced
100g Chinese cabbage, sliced
100g cabbage, sliced
100g baby corn, cut
100g snow peas, topped and tailed
salt, sugar and pepper to taste
Heat the oil in a wok over high heat. Add the fermented red beancurd and fry briefly. Add water and stir well to dissolve the red beancurd. Reduce heat to medium and add the soaked ingredients. Cook for 3 minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients, mix well, and season to taste with salt, sugar and pepper. Cook for another 5 minutes and turn off the heat. Best served while still warm.
Mum’s special dish
For Jacob David, the chicken vindaloo is not just a recipe to remember his mother by but also a reminder of her love towards his father.
“She was from a staunch Brahmin family, and was strictly raised as a vegetarian. But when my mother married my father, a meat-loving non-Brahmin, she learned how to cook meat dishes and one of them is the chicken vindaloo,” says David.
Vindaloo is a hot and spicy meat dish originally brought to the Goa region of India by the Portuguese. Its name is derived from the Portuguese dish carne de vinha d’alhos, a dish of meat marinated in wine and garlic.
The dish is also popular in many parts of India, including Kerala where David’s family originated.
David loves to cook food that reminds him of the place where his parents grew up.
“There is just something special about the spicy, rich and creamy Kerala food, and my mother had many wonderful things to say about her people and the food there,” he says.
David’s late mother left him with a trove of recipes, which he loves to recreate in the kitchen. From ginger prawns to fish vindaloo, to vegetable stew and onion curry, David says that he tries them all to bring him closer to the memory of his mother.
“But I love making her chicken vindaloo, which is her original recipe. Because she has never tried vindaloo until she met my father, she had to concoct a recipe of her own.
“She eventually found one that my father liked best and that is the same recipe that I use until today,” he says.
4 tbsp cooking oil
Wet spice paste (blended)
6 large onions
10 green chillies
6 garlic cloves
1 tbsp mustard seeds
1 tbsp fenugreek seeds
5 tbsp white vinegar
5 tbsp chilli powder
salt, to taste
2 tbsp crushed black peppercorns
Heat oil in a wok on medium heat. Add the wet spice paste and fry until the oil resurfaces and spices are very fragrant, about 10 minutes. Add vinegar, chilli powder and salt. Cook for 5 minutes. Add chicken and stir until meat is cooked. Turn off the heat. Sprinkle with crushed pepper and stir. Serve with rice or tosai.
A taste of hometown
Forty years ago, Latiffah Leh picked up the recipe to make kek lapis and the only thing that has changed since then is the baking method. “I remember making kek lapis using a huge wok. We filled it up with sand, created a well in the middle, put in the wrapped pan with batter. Then we covered the wok with a piece of zinc and topped it with hot coals to bake the cake. It took more than five hours just to make one cake that way,” says Latiffah.
Now, she uses the oven and even though the baking process is slightly faster, the taste of the kek lapis, she says, remains the same.
“My mother learned the recipe from a cooking class conducted in the village. She taught me and my siblings the recipe, and now I’m passing it on to my own daughter,” says the Kuching, Sarawak native.
Latiffah, who moved to Selangor 29 years ago, first made kek lapis because she missed the taste of her hometown. “It was so precious back then because of all the hard work that went into making one cake. We savoured every bite and never wasted any bits,” she says.
Kek lapis, or layered cake, is synonymous with Sarawak. What started as a traditional cake served during special occasions has turned into a source of income for many women there. The entire Kampung Boyan in Kuching is dedicated to this thriving cottage industry.
“Some ladies spend hours creating intricate designs for kek lapis. They also meticulously create the thinnest layers for the cakes,” says Latiffah. The thinner the layers of the cake, the more revered the baker.
“It really takes a lot of patience to create the thin layers. My recipe allows for a 16-layer kek lapis,” she says. “But at the end of the day, it is the taste that matters.”
KEK LAPIS SARAWAK
Egg white mixture
6 egg whites
100g caster sugar
450g butter, softened
5 tbsp sweetened condensed milk
2 tbsp golden syrup
150g caster sugar
20 egg yolks
1 tsp vanilla extract
Flour mix (combined)
200g flour, sieved
2½ tsp mixed spices, sieved
20g milk powder
For the meringue
In a clean bowl, whisk egg whites till fluffy. Add the sugar gradually. Set aside.
For the batter
In another bowl, beat the butter, condensed milk, golden syrup and sugar. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, as you keep beating. Add the vanilla extract.
Using a spatula, fold in the flour mix gradually. Then gently fold the egg white mixture (meringue) into the batter in three batches.
To make kek lapis
Preheat the oven to 175°C. Grease a 20cm (8-inch) square pan and set aside. For the first layer, use the top and bottom oven heat setting.
Spoon 4 tablespoons of the batter into the greased pan. Bake for 5 minutes.
Remove the pan and flatten the layer with a trowel. Change the oven setting to top grill.
Spoon another 4 tablespoons of mixture on top of the first layer, and bake for 5 minutes.
Repeat the layering and baking until the batter is finished.
Once the cake is done, remove from the oven and set aside to cool. Cut the cake into small rectangular pieces to serve.