Musings on Food

By SeeFoon Chan-Koppen

“Rare is the occasion to see a cookbook written by a retired industrialist whose majors were in accountancy and economics” wrote Huang Jiao Ling, Director General, Office of Overseas Chinese Affairs, Xiamen City Government, China, in the Foreword of the book A Trip Down Memory Lane: Signature Dishes from the Tan Family.

50 Recipes of Family Favourites

The look and feel of the book is retro, harking back to a time when people spent time in the kitchen cooking every meal with meticulous care and attention. The Chinese characters describe the essence of the book even more succinctly: ‘Lao Wei Dao’ or Old Tastes.

And the recipes in David Tan’s book reflect this: 50 recipes of dishes of his family favourites, some accompanied by anecdotes of the dish’s origins or memories of the dish from David’s childhood, watching his grandmother and mother cooking. His culinary skills were only developed when he was studying in the UK and yearning for the dishes from his childhood, he began experimenting. Over the years, he became passionate about cooking and today David is a fine chef, excelling in producing dishes, some from his Hokkien origins, whose recipes are mostly forgotten.

Many Credits

The book which is bilingual (English and Chinese), is dedicated to David’s grandfather the late Tan Lark Sye, a well-known Hokkien industrialist and philanthropist who founded Nanyang University in Singapore in 1952. David, who was born in Singapore, grew up in Ipoh. He credits his maternal grandmother Mdm Cha Siew Khim for exposing him to the delights of gastronomy and his mother Datin Chon Moi who spurred his passion and honed his culinary skills. The recently published cookbook he credits to his ‘Sifu’ the late Mdm Chong Su Yin who ran the cooking school Chopsticks and who had 21 cookbooks published. He refers to her as his ‘guardian angel’ and her teaching methods in the art of cooking ‘beyond description’. She once told him, “Use your heart to cook, feel the ingredients and foresee your final results.”

Legendary Specialties

And David has taken her admonition to heart. David’s specialties are legendary and those who have had the privilege to taste some of them, including myself, have left his house yearning to be invited again and again. I have personally had the pleasure of sampling his Katong Laksa, a hawker specialty that every Singaporean raves over and every Laksa stall there claims to be the ‘original’ one. I can safely vouch for David’s Katong Laksa as being even better than the original as I too, grew up in Singapore and this used to be one of my favourite treats. Today I no longer have to scour the streets looking for the ‘best’ one. I have found it in Ipoh and better yet, with David’s cookbook, I can even attempt to make it myself.

Not that I am a wizard in the kitchen, but with David’s detailed recipes, instructions and footnotes, even those who cannot boil an egg will manage to achieve a facsimile of the real thing.

Case of the Bouncing Fish Ball

Take for example the case of the Bouncing Fish Ball. As every foodie worth his or her salt knows, a really succulent bouncy fish ball that has no additives, but simply fish meat, salt and water is firstly, a rare find, and secondly a nightmare to make at home. However, David has written his bouncing fish balls recipe as a formula straight out of a science lab. (See recipe featured on this page.) And as with all tried and tested science formulae, if you follow David’s recipe to the letter, he guarantees you’ll have super bouncy fish balls. And I can vouch for it. I’ve tested it in my kitchen and the result was superb.

The book is 160 pages long with recipes sectioned off into categories. The first one is Tan Family’s Signature Recipes which starts off with the Homemade Chilli Paste, a delectable and easy to make paste which I immediately produced and have now stored in small portions in my freezer to use for an assortment of stir fries or to eat as accompaniment with noodles. Friends to whom I have given the paste are now clamouring for more. Other recipes in this category include Ah Ma’s Assam Fish Curry; Family Traditional Acar (super easy and super tasty and keeps for weeks in the fridge); Ah Ma’s Famous Kueh Talam (I tasted some made by David at his home and they are scrumptious).

The next category is Traditional Hokkien Flavours which include Hokkien Heh Zor or Deep-fried Prawn Rolls; Traditional Dried Oyster Porridge and Traditional Hokkien Yam and Radish Cakes. This is followed by a category David calls Unique Tastes of Nanyang which includes recipes for Singapore Original Curry Fish Head (yes the real McCoy!); Singapore Punggol Mee Siam (unbeatable) and Famous Petaling Street Hokkien Mee.

Finally, there is a category for Traditional Hokkien Flavours of Xiamen where the Tan family originate. Here you’ll find recipes for Hokkien Jimei Ngoh Hiang (Loh Bak), Oh Chian (Oyster Omelette) and the Original Hokkien Jimei Loh Mee.

All in all, these 160 pages of A Trip Down Memory Lane is chock full of the most detailed recipes for dishes that are rapidly being degraded in most eateries. David does not cut corners. Every recipe is made with the original ingredients and he does not stint on his instructions or as some chefs have been known to do...leave out the one or two ‘secret’ ingredient or trick that turns a dish from a mediocre into a superlative one. David wants you to succeed with his recipes and I am certainly one who can attest to that. Even my Filipino maid, who has no clue as to the taste of these dishes, has succeeded.

To your success Chef David and please may we have more cookbooks.