Monday, 4 May 2015

CultureHackSG 1.0 | Jemput Masak! What Can We Learn through Food and Cooking!

by Devisanthi Tunas

When our friends, the dynamic duo Mizah and Jan of Participate In Design (PiD), invited us to participate in a workshop called Jemput Masak! (Come and Cook) that they were organising together with Post Museum and NUS Baba House as a part of CultureHackSG1.0, it didn’t take long for me and my twin sister to say yes. Being foodies, avid cooks and history buffs of sorts too, we found the idea of trying a recipe from a 1930s cookbook written for Europeans in Malaya very intriguing. To top it off, the idea that we would be preparing, presenting and sharing a dish in the beautifully restored NUS Baba House was something that we could not miss. 

NUS Baba House kitchen. Whilst we didn't prepare the dish in the actual kitchen, Jemput Masak presented us with an opportunity that is as close as you can get to such experience
(Image credit: Devisanthi Tunas)
The participants of the Jemput Masak workshop consisted of several people. These people were then divided into groups of two though some decided to take on the challenge on their own. Each group received a mystery tool kit that was presented in a nicely designed box. In the box, we found a recipe of a dish that we were to adapt and reinvent. With the recipe, some tools and ingredients were placed together with some stipend. There were altogether six mystery toolkits with each containing different recipes. Later, we found out that the six recipes to be tackled included two appetisers: duck soup with fresh lotus seeds or sin lin ap tong and otak-otak ; two main dish: fish moulee and Straits Chinese chicken satay; and two type of desserts: kueh bangkit and cream of Malaya pudding.

To our delight our mystery box contained the recipe of Straits Chinese chicken satay and a bundle of bamboo satay sticks. This dish is rather familiar to us and something that we have made before; in fact we had been known to sell some chicken satay to earn extra pocket money in our salad days as students in Europe. Some participants though had to try something that was completely new and foreign to them. Two lovely ladies had to each tackle cream of Malaya pudding and fish moulee. One seasoned baker in the group had to tackle kueh bangkit which she exclaimed as complicated.

Our mystery box with chicken satay recipe and a bundle of satay sticks
(Image credit: PiD)
We were given a week from the day we received the mystery box until the day of the presentation to study the recipe and do everything necessary to prepare the dish which was to be shared with a number of guests and fellow participants. Reading through our chicken satay recipe, we quickly learned that the recipe would yield a different kind of satay from what we commonly find today in Singapore. A heavily spiced satay it would not be; although the recipe calls for coriander powder and cumin (listed as jinten puteh), it is missing other significant ingredients such as tumeric, galangal and ginger that would normally be used to create Singapore style satay.

Interestingly, we found two peculiar ingredients in the recipe, namely Chinese sauce vinegar and boiled chicken. We tried to figure out some sort of reasoning behind such inclusions. For the boiled chicken, we reckoned that as refrigerator would have been a rare luxury in the 30s, a more accessible way to preserve meat was to pre-cook it thus the recipe calls for a boiled chicken instead of raw ones. As for Chinese sauce vinegar, could it be that the recipe writer confused it with sweet soya sauce which is commonly used in satay recipe and whose dark color is not unlike Chinese vinegar? Or maybe it was deliberately included to suit European taste buds that generally dislike sweet cloying tastes in their savoury food?

Putting aside the fact that it calls for boiled chicken and the possible confusion about soya sauce, we think the recipe actually could yield satay that is somehow similar to Indonesian style satay particularly the Javanese kind. Furthermore, cumin and coriander powder are also commonly added in Javanese satay recipes. Born in Bandung and growing up in Jakarta, we grew up with this kind of satay which Singaporeans would dismiss as bland but probably tastes closer to the Straits Chinese satay. It is interesting that we learnt now from the recipe book that in the 30s, the Chinese in the Straits settlements were probably familiar with a less spicy kind of satay different from what people often refer to as the Malay style satay that we know today in Singapore and Malaysia.

After some consideration, eventually we decided to reinvent the recipe. Boiled chicken was replaced with raw chicken as we both agreed that it would give better flavour and texture to the satay. Chicken thigh fillet was chosen as it has a good portion of fat that would make our satay juicy. We also replaced Chinese sauce vinegar with sweet soya sauce as we wanted our satay to taste sweetish not sour.  As for the flavoring, we added the cumin and coriander powder as listed in the old recipe. We were happy with the end result and it appeared that the satay was rather well received during the tasting session at the NUS Baba House. The big winner of the night though was the delicious duck soup made by a mother-daughter team which was prepared by following the old recipe strictly.

Guests and participants having a taste of our chicken satay
(Image credit: NUS Baba House)
We enjoyed the whole experience with Jemput Masak thoroughly. It was a fantastic opportunity to meet new people whom we got to know better over our fire making and satay grilling session at the back alley of NUS Baba House. As we were chatting about our dishes we exchanged some tips and stories too about our cooking habits. We learnt about what other participants would do to our recipe if they were in our shoes and vice versa.  What people eat and how they prepare their food evolves through time along with changing societal concerns and technology advances. Cultural backgrounds and personal preferences would bring a different twist to certain dishs, creating unique hybridity.  Sometimes we can learn so much about a society through their ways of eating and cooking. And that is sometimes the most fascinating way of doing it. 

Devisanthi Tunas is a Singapore-based designer and architect. She runs   It is an informative website that seeks to raise awareness on sustainable practices in building & urban design and lifestyle in general. She has called Singapore home for the last 14 years.

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