Violet Oon is the brand ambassador of Singaporean Food. She’s a culinary legend and is regarded as the ‘darling’ of Singaporean food industry. I tasted her cooking. I learnt her recipes. Specially, the Singaporean Chilli Crab. I sat with her as she ate her lunch and we talked only on food. And the above picture belongs exclusively to me!
We are Singaporean Chilli Crab addicts! We had visited Singapore in August 2011 and our tastebuds went ballistic. We ate everywhere – in Chinatown, from the food hawkers at Newton Food Centre to the polished restaurants at the elite Clark Quay. Not to mention the various food stalls thronging the random alleys in the city. Posts documenting our gastronomical exhilaration – Eating Out Is A National Pastime – Singapore and Singapore at Night. Then our search for Singaporean Pepper Crab and Singaporean Chilli Crab in Dubai landed us in Chimes restaurant in Al Barsha and we spent a week feasting on leftovers from home delivery. Sorry, we haven’t ventured beyond their Singaporean Chilli Crab and Singaporean Pepper Crab!
Naturally, I was all excited to hear that the Singapore Food Festival was coming to Dubai. My emotions were frozen when I met up with the grand dame of Singaporean food, the official brand ambassador of Singaporean Food – Chef Violet Oon. Chef Oon’s Singapore Food Festival repertoire included the famous Chilli Crab. The other dishes were: Singapore Satay – spiced meat skewers served with a velvety peanut-based sauce; Laksa – smooth rice noodles in a spicy coconut broth; and Singaporean Fried Rice (above left and below) with succulent bites of chicken served on fragrant rice. By the way, her recipe of the Singaporean Chili Crab is lurking in my palms, waiting to be given away to my blog readers!
A very beautiful lady even at the age of 63 years, friendly and approachable, talking to Violet Oon was a culinary journey on it’s own. We chatted for a long one hour while she finished her lunch over Butter Chicken and Basmati rice, sitting in one of the Queen’s Chamber (oh yes!) at the Peppermill Restaurant. You’ve guessed it right – a trip back to the restaurant followed soon and my post on it is yet to be written.
We all hail from regional places. How difficult or how easy is it to bring forward a regional cuisine to the world? What I find interesting in these kind of food festivals or promotions is that although we talk about regions and countries, at the end of it the food has to be yummy. When people taste our food they don’t even care which country it comes from. The response from the people is ‘Oh wow! It’s delicious! Where do I buy it?’ They want to buy the ingredients and they want to know how they can cook the food. Our food translates overseas as being very delicious. There has been so many influences in Singaporean food. For example, the Indian food that comes from Southern India – from Tamil Nadu and Kerala, gets influenced by Chinese and the Malay food in Singapore. So it’s slightly different in Singapore. Again, the Chinese food that comes from southern parts of China – Guangzhou province, Guangdong, the island of Hainan, is originally mild but gets tempered with the fiery nature of Indian food. The native Malay food cooked with Coconut Milk with spices of Galangal (a type of Ginger that is popularly used in many Asian cooking), Turmeric, Ginger, has been blended with different regional cooking and cultural influences over centuries, thus resulting in tastes (Singaporean taste) that can be very international.
Dubai is aware of many different kind of cuisines. But what about the rest of the world? You are the Brand Ambassador of Singaporean food and when you are presenting in other parts of the world, do you present Nonyan cooking? (Born in 1949, Violet is a Singapore Nonya, belonging to a rich culture which is known as Peranakan. This culture, also known as Baba and Straits Chinese, is a blend of the native Malay of Singapore and the Chinese immigrants who came down south to the Nanyang or the South Seas to make their fortunes in the 19th century. Nonya cuisine is the first and most innovative fusion cuisine of Singapore, representing a marriage of the East and East.) No, I present Singaporean cooking. It is different from traditional Nonyan cooking. Nanyang is one part of Singapore. I try to present different types of Singaporean food. For example here, I will be demonstrating Chilli Crab, which is a part of our seafood tradition. Satays are Malay tradition. The Chicken Rice that I’ll be cooking is a part of Hainanese tradition. Unlike other countries which have huge population abroad, Singapore doesn’t have that. I was told that there are only 800 Singaporeans in Dubai. We Singaporeans are so proud of our passports that we don’t want to settle abroad. There is no Singaporean diaspora. That’s why you’ll not find too many Singaporean restaurants abroad as you would find Indian Restaurants or Chinese Restaurants. Then how do we bring forward Singaporean food? Over the years, many top Chefs from all over the world have come to Singapore and have fallen in love with our street food and sea food. Singapore has a very rich tradition of sea food and the Singaporean sea food restaurants are elegant, chic and naturally expensive (The Palm Beach and Jumbo).
You were featured in The Simpsons. That probably says a lot about Singaporean food! Oh yes, we were featured in The Simpsons. The celebrated Chef and TV host Anthony Bourdain appears as himself on The Simpsons, where he goes to taste some street food in Singapore street market. There he’s joined by other top Chefs of the world (In the episode ‘The Food Wife’, Marge, Lisa and Bart start their own food blog called ‘The Three Mouthketeers’, which earns them a reservation at Springfield’s “premiere modern Restaurant.” Marge ends up having a very bizarre dream, which is where Anthony Bourdain, Gordon Ramsay and Mario Batali come in). One reporter asked me whether this was insulting. But for me to be featured in a food programme is no big deal. But to be featured in The Simpsons for me, is to have arrived in the culinary world. A food channel needs content for it 24 hours, so it will feature anything on food. But The Simpsons doesn’t have anything to do with food. And Singaporean food in Marge’s dreams encompasses the position that Singaporean food has in the culinary world. Interestingly, it hasn’t been discovered by the general population as such but it has definitely been discovered by the top Chefs of the world.
Do you change the way you cook as you travel the world? I don’t change my way of cooking. I may not offer certain dishes. Either because they are not fashionable or I feel will not suit the palate. For example, Soup Kambing - it has oil floating on top. Made with mutton bones, shanks or ribs which are slow simmered with aromatic herbs and spices, it is a hearty meal but high in cholesterol. I will never present this in America. There is so much in Singaporean Food to select from.
Does it help being a lady? Does everyone consider you the Mama and listens to what you have to say? I started my career as a journalist and a music critic. I am not sure whether being a woman has helped. As a woman, (As she talks her food comes in. She had ordered a Butter Chicken and a Saffron Rose Lassi and I tell her that I must take a picture of her eating Indian food) My father was in Kashmir for four hours in the World War ll. So there is a lot of sentimental attachment to Indian cuisine. Indian cuisine is not new to us and has formed a part of the Singaporean food. For example, Roti Prata. This originated from the Indian Parathas. (she points to the Parathas in the bread basket just in front of her. Leticia, from IE Singapore who has been accompanying Violet oon, tells me that there are various versions of Pratas – Banana, Cheese and many more). Even in places and cultures where they have been very rigid, Singaporean food is palatable. Everybody can resonate it. There are many vegetable dishes as well. So I think in that way, Singaporean food is very healthy.
And then there was a lot of reverse questioning… how do I like living in Dubai? How long have I been staying here? How old are my girls? I also tell her that it’s important for me to meet up with women achievers as I want my own daughters, the Z-Sisters to feel that there shouldn’t be any difference in the aspiration for boys and girls. Well, I am not a Chef in that way. I’ve studied Sociology. So I see Food from a different perspective, I try to understand and study food from the perspective of different people and culture.
Although Indian cooking is well known, I come from a region, the cusine of which is not so popular. Food can be tasty. But everytime I’ve to narrate the entire history to exlain my regional cuisine. Hence, to bring out one’s regional dishes to the limelight is not a very easy task. I’m really curious as to how the cuisine of such a small island has traversed far and wide? Or how individuals like you have put the Singaporean food on the world map? It is not me individually who have done this. Singapore government has a very big role to play in this. Organisations like International Enterprise (IE) Singapore, the country’s external trade promotion agency, has contributed a lot too. Singapore Tourism Board is also very aggressive in promoting Singaporean food outside Singapore and they have been doing this for the last 12 to 13 days. IE Singapore
You are always cooking from fresh ingredients. How do you reconcile to the fact that one can cut open a packet of ready-made ingredients and cook up an authentic Singaporean food? I know that these products that have been brought by IE Singapore for this festival, are very very authentic. The manufacturers are so obsessive about the taste and the authenticity, that I have complete trust in them. There are so many procedures to check and test these products within Singapore. So once they have passed these checklists internally, they are bound to pass the tests in other countries. The taste is absolutely authentic and not at all plastic. When you open the packet, the oil and the other ingredients are all there – just like you would make at home. Ofcourse, when I cook, I cook from scratch. And they are elaborate and time consuming for sure. Leticia was typing the other day, as I was telling her the process of cooking each dish and she kept on asking me ‘Are you sure, the procedure is so long?’
Why do you think that Singaporean Chilli Crab has caught on people’s fancy? Which other Singaporean dish, according to you, deserves more attention? I think Sea food always has a Wow factor. And Chilli Crab is really appealing – it looks so robust, so attractive. And the taste is also unique – it’s sweet and sour, at the same time so spicy. Satay has also caught on. Along with Singaporean Fried Rice. What is your favourite Singaporean dish? Maybe, I have 10 favourite dishes. They would be Chilli Crab, Satay, Laksa, . Do you cook at home? Yes, I do. I like it very simple with lots of vegetables. I love eating lots of Salads – plain veggies and fruits. I can happily drink Bittergourd juices and carrot juices (Ahhh… that probably accounts for her amazing skin). I don’t think everybody should be feasting every day. Actually, most professional Chefs cook very simple meals at home.
Oriental Cuisine has a lot of Carbohydrates in it’s noodles and rice dishes and are high in Cholesterol. So do you think that Singaporean food is healthy? Not necessarily. In a good Chinese meal, you are never served a Carb. You serve the rice in the end, in-case if you haven’t had enough to eat. None of the dishes that are served are supposed to be had with rice. Oh, so we have it in the wrong way? No, you eat it in the Family style. You have the Banquet style. In a traditional Chinese wedding Banquet, you’ll be served a cold platter, then a soup, then the different courses – chicken, seafood, vegetables. Only the second last dish, that is just before the dessert, there will be a fried noodles or rice. And the only reason it is served is in case you haven’t eaten enough. But by the time you reach the Carb, you are already stuffed. So the carb is for daily food. It is not a special food. In Malay food, the rice is there and all the sauces are eaten with the rice. Nowadays, people are eating less and less carb and are eating more protein, which I feel is the wrong way round. That’s why in my restaurant, everything has a Salad. I must have veggies with all my dishes and I serve it the same way in my restaurant. Actually, Singaporean home cooking is very healthy. In Nonyan cooking, every day food consists of rice and something else – maybe a soup or vegetables etc. Nowadays everyone has started to eat feast food as every day food. When I was small, we didn’t eat Chicken everyday. People were poorer. Actually, when people are poorer they have a healthier diet!
What is your stance on Organic food, local produce (a topic that is one of my favourite subjects of discussion)? Organic doesn’t necessarily taste better as opposed to popular belief. An organic chicken is not supposed to be tasting better. It is just raised in a different way. My grandson is wheat intolerant. We hadn’t heard of these things when we were small. The greatest gift that you can give to your family is the gift of health. So you have to invest in all these better food varieties. Singapore is very strong on organic products.
While on the subject of organic, you were a journalist. How did this transition to cooking happen? Organically? Yes, absolutely in an organic and unplanned way. My mother didn’t know how to cook. She was a career woman and in the 1950s, a career woman wasn’t supposed to be a Super woman unlike today’s generation of career women. When we went to London, she got herself enrolled into a culinary school and transformed herself into a great cook. But she couldn’t cook her own Nonyan cooking. I had to wait for my Aunts and others to cook and I started learning the Nonyan way of cooking from them. By the time I was 16, I already knew how to cook all these. The reason for my learning was however, for a very selfish reason. I was thinking how will I ever taste these kind of food once my Aunts dropped dead! (she bursts out laughing) There were no restaurants in those days. So I entered the kitchen and watched them how to cook. It’s very different when you see someone cook. In home cooking, one doesn’t even realise the techniques one is using to cook. There are so many different techniques of cooking even within Singaporean cooking. So I tell everyone, every family has a cookbook. Preserve them for the future generations.
An advice that needs to be treasured for sure!
Singaporean Chilli Crab
Category – Main dish; Cuisine type – Singaporean
This is one of Singapore’s greatest culinary export to the world. Singaporean Pepper Crab and Singaporean Chilli Crab, the two celebrity Singaporean dishes have crossed the Singaporean boundaries, and have spread across the globe. They have also remained etched in our taste-buds. As I’ve mentioned in many of my earlier posts, a peculiar Crab-itch develops in our family sometimes and we practically run down the streets, hunting for Crabs cooked either in the Malayalee or the Singaporean style. Here, I am sharing Violet Oon’s recipe of Singaporean Chilli Crab that she said is as authentic as it can get, following the easiest route. In her own words, ‘what makes this dish so special is its sensuous, sweet yet savoury sauce, created with a base of chilli and tomato sauces. For extra oomph, enjoy the dish with Mantou (toasted buns) on the side to scoop up the thick gravy.’
For the printable recipe →
Serves 2 persons
Preparation time – 40 minutes maximum
• For the Sauce
Tomato Ketchup – 5 tbsp
Water – 1 cup
Sugar – 1 1/2 – 3 tbsp, or according to taste
Cornflower – 1 1/2 tsp
Soya Beans or Dark Miso (optional) – 1 tsp pounded brown preserved Soya Beans
• For the Crab
Crab – 1 large, prepared for cooking (My tip here, go in for a large Mud Crab)
Garlic – 6 cloves
Egg – 1
Spring Onions or Scallions – 2, cut into finger lengths
Lime or Lemon Juice – 1tsp, freshly squeezedCoriander leaves or Cilantro – 1 small fresh bunch, cut into 2 cm long pieces
Method of Preparation
– Whisk all the ingredients for the sauce together and set aside
– Pound or grind Garlic and Chillies to a rough paste
– Heat Oil in a wok over high heat
– Add Garlic and Chilli paste and fry till fragrant
– Add Crab and stir fry until the shells turn slightly red
– Add Sauce. Stir well, cover the wok and simmer till the shells turn bright red, indicating that the Crab is cooked
– Break the Egg into the Sauce and mix well. Simmer for another 10 seconds
– Turn off the heat and stir in spring onions and lime or lemon juice
– Garnish with freshly chopped Coriander leaves and serve hot
Not for the faint-hearted…
A bit of a rewind on our Singaporean Chilli Crab journey in Chinatown, Singapore! Chinese restaurants – small and big, throng the entire Chinatown. And specially interesting are the dishes they serve – the authenticity of the Chinese dishes diluted and fused by multi-cultural influence! Most of the seafood sections have an array of live crabs which one can select and then order. They are kept tied up in plastic ribbons (left). The sizes of the crabs are enormous. We chose a crab that weighed around 800gms (just to clarify, S did!) and the crab that went into the preparation of the Chilli Crab that we had ordered is shown here! That was our first encounter with Singaporean Chilli Crab, the celebrity dish (down below).
Was I happy with the Singapore Food festival? Well my answer would be a small No and a big Yes. The No is because I had expected the festival to be held at a much grander scale, not just showcase a few Singaporean food labels in the manner of special food promotion kiosks at the Lulu hypermarkets. I would have loved to see more of Violet Oon’s proper cooking, not just watch her cooking up a few quick Singaporean recipes with ready made ingredients. But then, that was my personal expectation. The objective of the festival however, was to promote these Singaporean brands and show most people how to cook Singaporean food at home the easy way. From that perspective, the objective must have been met. This was after-all, a promotional festival held in LuLu’s supermarkets throughout the UAE, as a joint initiative of IE, the country’s external trade promotion agency. Many food brands from Singapore were introduced, and there were cooking demonstrations, tastings, and other events – all surrounding Singaporean Food. Food holds such a centre stage in Singaporean culture, that the Singapore Tourism Board organizes the Singapore Food Festival every July to celebrate Singapore’s cuisine and promote it alongside Singapore’s shopping experience. I am sure their future endeavors in Dubai would be held at a much larger scale. And that’s where I would cast my Yes votes for!
The most important gain for me was to getting a chance to spend a lot of time with Violet Oon, a lady who has spent more than half of her lifetime in promoting her country’s food. Listening to her speak on Singaporean food and her long journey in the food industry, while she relaxed (hopefully!) having her Indian meal of Butter Chicken and Rice made me experience a journey of my own – I’ve been trying to present Bengali Cuisine to the world at every chance I get (Bengali food in Ahlan! Gourmet; my post on traditional Bengali Cuisine that borders on the verge of being an encyclopaedia; making Rasgullas, the most famous Bengali Sweets in a Ramadan special episode aired in Dubai One; also making the traditional Bengali drink called Aam Pana for My Dubai My City - all these while residing on the Dubai shores!). My next restaurant wishlist is to visit Violete Oon’s Kitchen in Singapore. I am signing off with the curiosity tickling me – do you crave for Singaporean Chilli Crab, like our family does, once in a while?
Unblogging it all… Ishita
Disclaimer: I hope you enjoy reading the posts with lot of visuals but please do not use any material from this post. You can see more pictures of my travel and food journey here.
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