After Hours

Food & recipes with Faizal Kamsan

Reading time: 13 minutes

After Hours is an insight into the people of the hospitality industry. It’s putting a face and name to the creators of the food that you're Instagramming, the drinks you're sipping, and to those who waited at your table.

Chinese New Year’s Special

When I think of Chinese New Year in Singapore, I'd think of a bustling Chinatown, firecrackers, the lion dance, the mandarin oranges, the long line for the bakkwa. Also known as rougan, bakkwa is a Chinese salty-sweet, dried meat product similar to jerky, and is made with a meat preservation and preparation technique originating from China. And I wouldn’t forget the hongbao – which, in East and Southeast Asian cultures, is a red envelope, red packet or red pocket (in simplified Chinese: 红包; traditional Chinese: 紅; pinyin: hóngbāo; and Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Âng-pau). The hongbao is a monetary gift given during holidays like New Year or for special occasions such as a wedding, graduation, or the birth of a baby. Although the red envelope was popularised by Chinese traditions, other cultures also share similar traditional customs.

Food & recipes with Faizal Kamsan

Reading time: 13 minutes

After Hours is an insight into the people of the hospitality industry. It’s putting a face and name to the creators of the food that you’re Instagramming, the drinks you’re sipping, and to those who waited at your table.

Chinese New Year’s Special

When I think of Chinese New Year in Singapore, I’d think of a bustling Chinatown, firecrackers, the lion dance, the mandarin oranges, the long line for the bakkwa. Also known as rougan, bakkwa is a Chinese salty-sweet, dried meat product similar to jerky, and is made with a meat preservation and preparation technique originating from China. And I wouldn’t forget the hongbao – which, in East and Southeast Asian cultures, is a red envelope, red packet or red pocket (in simplified Chinese: 红包; traditional Chinese: 紅; pinyin: hóngbāo; and Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Âng-pau). The hongbao is a monetary gift given during holidays like New Year or for special occasions such as a wedding, graduation, or the birth of a baby. Although the red envelope was popularised by Chinese traditions, other cultures also share similar traditional customs.

Growing up in Singapore, I was exposed to four different cultural holidays such as Hari Raya, Diwali, Christmas, and definitely the main one, Chinese New Year. My neighbours would have their front yard decked out with red lanterns and red scrolls displaying Chinese calligraphy characters. Around 75% of Singapore’s population are of Chinese ethnicity that migrated many years ago from a few different parts of China, bringing with them their style of cuisines, culture, as well as dialect – the most prevalent being Hokkien which is widely used by the older generations in Singapore.

Living in a foreign country, I’d like to know more of how the migrant Chinese community celebrate the most important day in their lunar calendar.

Out on the hunt for my next story, I took my pushbike and headed towards one of my favourite bakeries in Fitzroy to have my coffee and croissants and meet with After Hours guest, Karen Teo. Born and raised in a traditional Chinese family in Singapore, she moved to New Zealand some 12 years ago. A former chef in the early to late ‘90s, Karen was trained and graduated from the prestigious culinary institute of Le Cordon Bleu in London. She did some stints in the UK as well as in some reputable hotels in Singapore, one of the most popular being The Grill at Raffles Hotel. She shared plenty of interesting stories with me about being in the kitchen as a ‘petite lady’, which I’ll save for another chapter of After Hours.

I got to know Karen as she was a regular guest of mine in the restaurant that I worked in. Being a migrant myself, I’m curious about how she made her way adapting and integrating into New Zealand life. Landing her first job as a social worker in Taupō in 2009 she moved to Taranaki in 2011 and has been in the region since.

One of the reasons she was lured to New Zealand was the fact of it being an English speaking and developed country – and also because of The Lord of the Rings movie. A breath of fresh air compared to the concrete jungle of Singapore.

Similar to my memories of Chinese New Year, hers would be of family gatherings and enjoying traditional recipes of hot pots and sweet treats; poker games, red packets and visiting relatives. Just imagine Christmas, but with an Asian flair.

“Travel early and travel often. Live abroad, if you can. Understand cultures other than your own. As your understanding of other cultures increases, your understanding of yourself and your own culture will increase exponentially.” – Tom Freston

The first few years in New Zealand were challenging for Karen in terms of social integration, missing the family and the lack of familiar ingredients that she remembered as festive food – such as canned abalone (prohibited to be shipped into New Zealand). Asian produce can be pricey here in New Zealand, too, maybe due to the climate or importation taxes.

In comparison to major cities in other parts of the world such as Europe, surprisingly, New Zealand doesn’t have a strong Chinatown presence, which makes it harder to find ingredients or have a true Chinese cultural experience without ever leaving the country. Karen and I reminisce on how the streets in Singapore would be free from traffic at New Year’s and all the malls and supermarkets would be closed for two days or sometimes longer.

An avid foodie armed with cooking knowledge and with her trusted companion Rusty the corgi at her side, Karen makes do with what’s available in the Asian supermarket to replicate the memories of her childhood years. From baking to slow-simmer cooking, it sounds all so festive.

I can tell how great those memories are for her and how they keep her spirits up as she describes how her mum would prepare special food and have it ready for the new year. That’s the beauty and power of food: it recreates memories long lost in time as we get older.

Before Covid hit our planet and put it to a standstill, Karen would try to fly back yearly to Singapore to spend time and celebrate with the family. Steering away from the norm of just another migrant with the mindset of work to provide security back home, she made New Zealand home in 2015 by renouncing her Singapore citizenship to be a fully pledged New Zealander.

As we chatted further, I began to slowly understand what it’s like to build a home away from home by taking in the perspective of others. Never the easiest, leaving the comfort and security of one’s home country to set out on a path of uncertainty – especially on your own. Your character will change as will your mentality as you adapt to your new life. You will begin to fully understand your true potential and the purpose of your journey.

Life might be difficult for a while, but I would tough it out because living in a foreign country is one of those things that everyone should try at least once. My understanding was that it completed a person, sanding down the rough provincial edges and transforming you into a citizen of the world.” – David Sedaris

Kung Hei Fat Choi (gōng xǐ fā cái) is a traditional Chinese New Year greeting meaning: Congratulations and best wishes for a prosperous New Year! Happy New Year!

 

Pandan Butter Cake with Palm Sugar Swiss Meringue Buttercream


RECIPE

 

The cake

INGREDIENTS

250g butter (room temperature)

75g brown sugar

5 egg yolks (large size-60g, room temperature)

30g full cream milk

30g pandan paste (concentrated pandan juice)

230g plain flour

1 tsp baking powder or double action baking powder

¼ tsp salt

5 egg whites (large size-60g, room temperature)

65g caster sugar

½ tsp lemon juice or white vinegar or ¼ tsp cream of tartar

 

METHOD

  • Allow butter to come to room temperature before use (approximately 30-45 minutes)
  • Preheat the oven to 170C
  • Grease a non-stick mold
  • Sift flour and baking powder in a bowl
  • Add salt and keep aside
  • Mix full cream milk and pandan juice together in a jar and set aside
  • Separate egg whites from the yolks
  • Whisk cream butter and sugar till light and fluffy
  • Add egg yolks one at a time and beat until well combined
  • Add half of the flour mixture, beat to combine
  • Then add in 60g pandan and milk mixture and mix till incorporated
  • Add balance of the flour mixture and mix with a spatula until well combined
  • Whisk egg whites until frothy before adding cream and continue to beat until foamy
  • Gradually add sugar and whisk until it just reaches stiff peaks. The meringue is almost ready when it turns glossy, and you see lines.
  • Gently fold the meringue into butter batter with a spatula in 3 batches, until well incorporated
  • Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan
  • Skim the top gently with a spatula while pouring to break the air bubbles
  • Knock the cake pan on the counter to release any air bubbles
  • Bake in a preheated oven at 170C for 50-55 minutes or until an inserted skewer comes out clean
  • Remove cake from oven and let cool for 10 minutes before removing cake from the pan.

 

The buttercream

Gula Melaka Syrup

50g gula melaka, crushed or chopped

2 pandan leaves, tied into a knot

1/8 cup (25g or ml) of water

 

Swiss Meringue Buttercream

3 large egg whites

80g caster sugar

150g butter, room temperature

1/4 tsp vanilla extract

1/8 tsp salt

 

To prepare Gula Melaka Syrup

  • Combine gula melaka, pandan leaves and water in a saucepan
  • Boil over low-medium heat until all the sugar has melted and reduce slightly
  • Remove from heat, discard the pandan leaves and strain
  • The syrup will thicken as it cools
  • Keep aside to cool completely before using.

 

To prepare Gula Melaka Swiss Meringue Buttercream

  • Cut the butter into cubes
  • Set aside to bring to room temperature
  • Combine egg white and sugar in a heat-proof bowl over a pot of simmering water. Make sure the base of the bowl is not touching the water
  • Whisk with hand whisk until the sugar is dissolved. Rub between your fingers to check if there is any undissolved sugar
  • Transfer the egg white mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer
  • With whisk attachment, beat over high speed until stiff peaks form
  • Let cool to room temperature before adding butter – this will prevent the butter from melting. To speed up the process, you may leave the meringue in the refrigerator for 10 minutes.
  • Add half of the butter, turn on to low speed and add in the balance of butter cube gradually; then turn to high speed. Beat until the mixture comes together
  • Change to paddle attachment. At one stage, it will look curdled, but keep on beating until it combines into a smooth buttercream
  • Add salt and vanilla extract and beat until well incorporated
  • Add Gula Melaka Syrup a little at a time. You do not have to use all the Gula Melaka Syrup. I only used 3 tablespoons in total.
  • Scrape the bowl with a spatula and beat until all is well combined. The buttercream is ready. If the buttercream is too soft, put it in the fridge for a few minutes to firm up before piping.

Lastly, decorate to your liking.

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