Fiery tempered

Laksa was last year's hot dish, but there's much more where that came from. And during this month's Singapore food festival, says Michael Bateman, we get the opportunity to try it for ourselves
Click to follow
LAKSA WAS THE sensational new dish on the block last year. This fiery oriental soup of noodles with prawns and chilli, smoothed with coconut cream, was popping up on restaurant menus all over the place. Then Sainsbury's cottoned on and won Supermarket Product of the Year with it.

Many people assume that laksa is a Malaysian speciality but it is in fact a Nonya dish. Nonya is the indigenous cooking style of Singapore, one of the smallest countries in the world (if country is a just description of an island just 27 miles across, the size of the Isle of Wight).

In spite of its size, the economy of this republic is famously successful. When Singapore was discovered by the British at the turn of the 19th century, Chinese, Malaysians, Arabs and Tamils from southern India were among those who migrated to the island to take advantage of the prospect of free trade and employment opportunities.

Today, its bustling population of 3.5 million probably eats better than any on earth: restaurants are so plentiful that you can can dine in a different one every day of the year and the cornucopia of eating places reflects the diverse cultures which have bonded here.

This month provides the perfect opportunity to sample the gastronomic riches of this country for yourselves, as British restaurants will be offering special menus and discounted meals for the whole of July as part of the Singapore Food Festival.

Singapore's very own cuisine, Nonya, will, of course, be represented. This cooking style emerged in the 19th century when immigrant Chinese male workers came to work in the Straits settlements. Because Chinese women were not allowed in, the immigrants (who became known as Babas) took Malaysian wives (known as Nonyas).

The latter became famous for their exquisite cooking and, although intermarriage and modern lifestyles have put an end to the great Nonya traditions and feasts, their recipes and methods of cooking have been kept alive by their descendants, who are known as Perenakan.

Nonya cooking combines Chinese techniques with Malaysian ingredients appropriate to Singapore's equatorial climate: coconut cream and palm sugar, certain kinds of nut such as candlenut (similar to the macadamia nut), lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and perfumed pandanus leaves (mysteriously like vanilla). Nonya cooking is notoriously hot and the use of dried fish flavours is another distinguishing feature.

Malaysians are mostly Muslim and therefore forbidden to eat pork, but this has gradually been incorporated into the Nonya diet. The essential difference from Chinese cooking is the powerful spicing; the combination of the very hot, the very sweet and the intensely savoury (they use soy sauce by the bottle).

The most savoury note of all is provided by blachan (pronounced blatch- an). This is a dried paste made from processed dried krill, one of the tiniest living sea creatures. It is sold in tightly-wrapped blocks and fine pieces are shaved off and tempered by heating in a pan. The smell can be too overpowering for Western tastes if not used in moderation. A similar effect can be achieved by the modest use of the bottled clear fish sauce Nam Pla.

Many savoury Singaporean dishes (for example, laksa) are started with a paste called rempeh. This is made by pounding together in a mortar candlenuts, green chillies, turmeric and blachan (or powdered dried prawns, dry roast in a pan), finishing with shallots (see right). The nuts act as a thickening agent.

One of the leading Singapore authorities on Nonya cuisine is the Perenakan cookery book writer Violet Oon. I spent a morning with her in Singapore, shopping in the market and watching her cook at her new cookery school, Violent Oon's Kitchen (tel 00 65 323 7379; fax 00 65 323 5009).

Using a wok (the windows open to release the clouds of chilli fumes), she illustrated two typical dishes in which chicken and pork are interchangeable. They are unexpectedly stunning and far more interesting than the bald print of the recipe can convey.

For details of the Food Festival call the Singapore Tourist Board on freephone 08080 656 565. Participating restaurants in London, Manchester and Nottingham


Serves 4

800g/1lb 8oz streaky pork, cut into pieces.

12can/250ml approximately coconut cream or reconstituted coconut milk powder

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 teaspoon salt

4 teaspoons sugar

1 stalk lemongrass, crushed

3 kaffir lime leaves (or grated lime peel)

For the rempeh paste

5 candlenuts or 100g/312oz peanuts, skinned

3 fresh green chillies, chopped

5 dried chillies (bird peppers), crumbled

150g/5oz skinned shallots or white of spring onions

1 teaspoon dry shrimp paste (blachan)

1 tablespoon ground coriander

Make the rempeh paste, combining the above ingredients in food processor, adding the shallots last.

Heat the paste in a wok, or large saucepan, together with the other ingredients and simmer, stirring, until meat is cooked and the sauce reduced (if it reduces too quickly, it may be necessary to add a little water).

Remove lemongrass and lime leaves and serve, ideally with plain rice.