Burt Wolf's Menu: Chinese Community of Singapore - #112

Singapore... almost 75 percent of the people here descend from Chinese settlers, and their community has preserved much of their ancient culture. Food and fashion, old and new.   It’s the place to take a look at the 5,000 year history of herbal recipes for good health, and find out how they work. Plus some dishes that just taste great.  So join me in the Chinese community of Singapore for BURT WOLF’S MENU.

Thousands of years ago Chinese traders started sailing down through the South China Sea, turning west at Singapore and heading for the Bay of Bengal to do a little business in India.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  During those centuries a few Chinese traders settled in Singapore, but the numbers were very small.  When Singapore became a member of the British Empire, Chinese immigration increased considerably.  And by the middle of the 1800’s sixty percent of the people in Singapore were Chinese.

Most of the Chinese immigrants had come here as indentured workers.  Their plan was to earn as much money in Singapore as they could and then head back to their hometowns in China.  When Singapore became a Crown Colony under the direct control of England, it began to play a key role in Britain’s world trade.  Commercial sailing vessels were on their way out and steamships were taking over.  When England opened the Suez Canal in 1869, Singapore became the place to refuel when steaming between Asia and Europe.  Much of the work associated with the port fell on the backs of the Chinese laborers.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The Chinese that settled in Singapore are known as the Straits Chinese.  The word Straits is a reference to the waters around Singapore.  Their history around here goes back for hundreds of years.  Originally their families lived in the southeastern part of China. Over the centuries they came wandering down along the coasts through Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia, ending up in Singapore. The Straits Chinese are as Chinese as any other Chinese.

The Straits Chinese of Singapore keep the same lunar calendar as traditional Chinese all over the world. They share the same cultural influences of great thinkers like Confucius and Lao Tzu, they write with the same pictorial language, and sign their important documents with the same type of chop.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  As more and more Chinese showed up in Singapore during the 1800’s, Singapore became primarily a Chinese town.  By and large, the laborers stopped showing up, and the new immigrants were traders, shopkeepers, and businessmen. At one point, the government encouraged a policy where all of the Chinese were to learn to speak Mandarin, the mother tongue of China, and in that way, all of the regional groups could communicate with each other.  And since almost everybody in Singapore speaks English, they can communicate with me.

Madame Ng Siong Mui comes from a long line of food professionals.  She writes for magazines in both Europe and Asia, and authors a series of very successful cookbooks.  Today she’s taking me on a tour of her local Chinese market.

NG SIONG MUI:  Burt, this is the best time to see Singapore because all our local people are getting ready for the Chinese New Year.  So we have dried goodies... look at all these decorations!  This is the time, you see, all these waxed ducks.  The duck are killed during the autumn period, and because of the oil covering, laminating the duck, that’s why it’s called Waxed Duck.

BURT WOLF:   Waxed duck.

NG SIONG MUI:  And waxed sausages. 

BURT WOLF:   And all New Year.

NG SIONG MUI:  All ready for the New Year goodies.  Guess what is this?  Persimmon!

BURT WOLF:   Persimmon!

NG SIONG MUI:  Yes, and it’s pressed flat.

BURT WOLF:   I want to taste this.  Sweet?

NG SIONG MUI:  Yes, very sweet.  Try it.

BURT WOLF:   Mmmmm.  That’s very nice.

NG SIONG MUI:  Nice?  And we can eat it as a snack.  It’s very good for children, because this will help them to have a good diet.  Very good digestion.  So to the Chinese, this is our snack, like potato chips. 

BURT WOLF:   Much better.

NG SIONG MUI:  Thank you.  Oh -- these are... these are not cannonballs.  These are fruit from the Hubbard tree [?] and we call it “Buddha’s Fruit.”

BURT WOLF:   Buddha’s Fruit.

NG SIONG MUI:  Buddha’s Fruit, because they always come in a bunch of eighteen.

BURT WOLF:   Is that a special number for Buddha?

NG SIONG MUI:  Buddha has eighteen gospels, the very close followers [note - we think she means “disciples” rather than “gospels”].  So because of that, we call it Buddha’s Fruit.  ... Oh, this is the Chinese sea moss.  It is actually a vegetable, but because it’s so minute, and its black color is like our hair, that’s why we call it fat choy.  Fat choy in Cantonese we mean the “hair vegetable.”

BURT WOLF:   Hair vegetable.

NG SIONG MUI:  Yeah.  We use it for stew.  And because the is punched with good luck --

BURT WOLF:   Right...

NG SIONG MUI:  -- and good prosperity.  So it is a must during our Chinese New Year.  Oh, this is our birthday fruit.  You have people having their birthday, we usually have not one pair, but nine.

BURT WOLF:   Nine peaches.

NG SIONG MUI:  Yeah, nine peaches.  We have a story behind it.  We believe that the peach tree will need three thousand years to flourish, three thousand years for flowering, and three thousand years before the fruit is ripe.  So it’s nine thousand years.  And we wish the recipients longevity.

BURT WOLF:   So you get nine peaches to represent nine thousand years of life.

NG SIONG MUI:  (over)  -- nine thousand years, yes. ... These are not coffee beans.  This is pebbles mixed with sugar, and after that we put the chestnuts in --

BURT WOLF:   Very nice!

NG SIONG MUI:  -- the chestnut is all even, and the sugar content will penetrate during the cooking so the nut will be very sweet like sugar.  You see the roasting?  Now we can go back and do some cooking!

Just up the street from the market is Madame Ng’s cooking studio where she conducts classes, and where she keeps part of her collection of Chinese cooking equipment.  And now let’s cook!  Madame Ng’s first dish is for strips of pork, stir-fried with slices of soy bean cake.

NG SIONG MUI:  It’s a very healthy dish.  Here we see mushrooms...

BURT WOLF:   Right...

NG SIONG MUI:  ...and this is dried bean curd, shredded bean curd, and we have the chive buds.  Chive flowers, but they are left to bloom with the buds here.  If you have in your place you can use chives, just chives will do it...

BURT WOLF:   (over)  Just plain chives.

NG SIONG MUI:  Yes.  And we have our bean sprouts.  And here we have a little bit of shredded pork; you can use chicken or beef or mutton, your choice.  Or even if you use seafood, it will do.  So we’re going to have a very colorful dish.  Shall we start?

BURT WOLF:   (over)  Okay.  Yep.

Stir-fry recipes move along at just under the speed of light so it’s a good idea to have all of your ingredients ready.  A tablespoon of salt goes onto a half pound of pork loin that has been cut into thin slices.  The salt is followed by a tablespoon of sugar, a tablespoon of cornstarch and a tablespoon of oil.  Those ingredients are mixed into the pork to form a marinade, in which the pork rests for about ten minutes.   Then the stir-frying starts.  A little oil goes into a wok.  To which is added a few slices of fresh ginger, some shallots and some garlic.  A moment of stir-frying. Then in go the chives and bean sprouts, along with some sugar, a pinch of salt and a tablespoon of soy sauce.  A few more moments of stir-frying and everything comes out of the wok.  Then into the wok goes a little more sliced ginger, the mushrooms and bean curd cake, a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of sugar.  A little more stir-frying. The chives and bean sprouts return for a moment.  Then everything gets turned out of the wok again. 

NG SIONG MUI:  Burt, at this stage, if you are vegetarian, this dish is ready.  If you want to add meat for more flavor, you can have chicken, you have meat and beef.  And today we are using a little bit of shredded pork.

Into the clean wok, two tablespoons of oil, followed by a few slices of garlic, and a few slices of fresh ginger. The pork comes in.  Some stir-frying.  A splash of Chinese wine or sherry or a touch of brandy.  Then the vegetables return and as soon as everything is hot, it’s ready to serve.  Madame Ng’s second recipe is for beef and apples, and I’m the cook!

NG SIONG MUI:  This is beef; we’re going to add some marinade to it.  We’re adding salt, sugar, a little bit of soy sauce -- okay, that’s not too much, that’s right.  And add a bit of cornflour [cornstarch].  Yes.  Add in a little bit of oil to seal up the juice.  That’s right, and give it a good stir, and we leave the marinade on for about two or three minutes.  And we add Chinese wine later, before the cooking.  And now we are ready, you have the spatula --

BURT WOLF:  Spatula -- suture -- scalpel --


BURT WOLF:  -- clamps --

NG SIONG MUI:  Okay, first of all we have the oil first.  That’s right.  A little bit more.  That’s right.  We’re going to add in the three important ingredients:  ginger, garlic and shallots to fragrance the oil.

BURT WOLF:  Don’t add oil.

NG SIONG MUI:  Yeah, half of that.  Good. 

BURT WOLF:  Okay...

NG SIONG MUI:  Yeah, give a good stir-fry.  All right.  Ready?

BURT WOLF:  Mm-hmm.

NG SIONG MUI:  We’re gonna add in all this -- Choose as many colors as you like to make the dish colorful.  And the soy sauce... now we’re gonna add the apples.  Soak the apples in a bit of salt solution to keep the color.  And we’re ready, we’re gonna dish out this dish again... lift it up here.  Look at the beautiful color.  Thank you.  Now, this time, same as usual -- put them all in.  Now -- and just before cooking, we add the Chinese rice wine.  If you don’t have Chinese rice wine, you can add in sherry or brandy.  Give it a good stir, but you must be done quick.  You see?  Once they reach the correct temperature, when the beef is eighty percent cooked -- at this stage, medium rare -- we’re gonna add in the vegetables.  Give it a good stir; combine them together, and then we add a dash of sesame oil.  And the dish is ready.  Look at the beautiful color. 

BURT WOLF:  That’s enough for our first serving.

NG SIONG MUI:  Very well done.  And now, to top it, we’re gonna have the cashew nuts.

BURT WOLF:  Looks great.  Let’s eat.

NG SIONG MUI:  Shall we?

Clyde Min is a citizen of the United States, who grew up in Hawaii. In 1991 he moved to Singapore to become the general manager of the Marina Mandarin Singapore Hotel.  Soon after his arrival he became interested in the complex issues confronting a community with an extraordinary heritage that needs to be preserved, and at the same time is under pressure to expand and develop.  He joined the Singapore Heritage Society and works to find appropriate solutions to these issues.  Today he’s taking me through Singapore’s Chinatown.

BURT WOLF:   I understand that part of this area was scheduled to be knocked down at one time.

CLYDE MIN:  Well, luckily I think, someone in government saw that they were actually destroying a lot of the charm and a lot of the history of Singapore, and they decided to save the buildings.  And by acquiring them from the private owners, they were able to restore them -- and then, of course, Singaporeans being great business people also, sold them back to the private individuals.  And of course now they’re worth a lot more than when they were first sold to the government.  ... Well, the fresh green coconuts are extremely nutritious; they actually have a water content in here, and a lot of people actually have found this to have been life savers.  And if you’re on a deserted island or on long journeys, the water that’s in here has sufficient food value to keep you alive.  Of course, the meat is used to make the milk. ... This is probably egg which has been marinated in a herbal sauce, probably a tea base; is this a tea base?


CLYDE MIN:  This is interesting...

BURT WOLF:   What is it?

CLYDE MIN:  It’s to open the watermelon seeds! 


CLYDE MIN:  My goodness!

BURT WOLF:   I never -- there’s a piece of cooking equipment I never saw, a Watermelon Seed Opener.

CLYDE MIN:  Very clever. 

BURT WOLF:   You put a watermelon seed...

CLYDE MIN:  ...inside, on the other side...

BURT WOLF:   On the other side...  I’m gonna buy some of those.

CLYDE MIN:  These are dried meats.  You know, during Chinese New Year, it’s not looked on favorably if the housewife has to keep cooking or doing anything like that, so they eat a lot of dried goods...

BURT WOLF:   (over)  Ahh, interesting...

CLYDE MIN:  ...which have already been cooked and prepared. 

BURT WOLF:   So everything is preserved so they don’t have to do any cooking.

CLYDE MIN:  (over)  Exactly, of course it’s the winter months, so things are left out to dry in the dry winter months.  We’ve got duck, pork sausages done different ways, oysters --

BURT WOLF:   Oh, dried oysters!

CLYDE MIN:  Right. 

BURT WOLF:   So again, we’re seeing all these dried foods so that people don’t have to cook during the New Year.

CLYDE MIN:  (over)  Exactly; dried scallops...

BURT WOLF:   I always enjoy shopping on an off-day, you know, when the stores are empty and you can just wander down the street like that, and... no problem getting service and no lines...

CLYDE MIN:   (Laughing under)

Many of the emperors of China encouraged the art of Chinese herbal medicine.  The Shen Nong period, which dates back some 5,000 years, was a time when many of the important concepts in Chinese herbal medicine were first formulated.  It was a time when philosophers were particularly interested in the opposing forces of nature.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  ... Forces that were eventually codified into the theory of yin and yang.  Yang is the male force -- dry, hot, active.  Yin is the female force -- moist, quiet, cool.  Everything in the Universe has been divided into neutral or one of these two forces. The trick, of course, is to keep the forces in balance. 

Food has always been the primary method for controlling this balance, and the individual’s good health.  If your system has too much yang, which is to say your engine is running too hot, then you need more yin foods to cool you down.  If the doctors feel you have too much yin, then yang foods are prescribed to heat you up.  In traditional Chinese medicine, only when food had failed to do the job were drugs prescribed.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Today in the Western world, we are constantly faced with the increasing costs of our high-tech, quick-fix medicine, costs that it appears we can no longer afford.  Maybe it would be in our best interests to take a closer look at a system that has helped prevent illness for over 5,000 years by using the individual diet.  There may be things here that we can learn and incorporate into our own Western technology.

One of the easiest ways to see the historic relationship between Chinese food and Chinese medicine is to stop into a restaurant that specializes in herbal recipes.  The Imperial Herbal Restaurant in Singapore is directed by Mrs. Wang-Lee.

MRS. WANG-LI:  The aim of this restaurant is actually to promote healthy eating, the Chinese way, using Chinese herbs.

BURT WOLF:   What are the most common medical reasons for people to come to the restaurant?

MRS. WANG-LI:  Well, we have a Chinese, a resident in-house Chinese physician from China, and a lot of people come here to, just to check their balances, the yin and yang, whether they are in balance and healthy, and we see what he can recommend but -- mainly because the taste of the food attracts the people here, not as -- it’s not a cure, you know, this kind of food is just for prevention.  And to the Chinese, tonics are very important because it helps to maintain health and also to prevent illnesses.  This is what we offer in the restaurant; it’s just like any other Chinese restaurants.  You have soup, you have dessert, and all that.  But the only thing is that every dish is designed for your good health, and there are certain herbs added to each dish; all this has been blended by our herbalist, Mr. Li.  We have this eggwhite with scallop, which is served in a nest made of potato.  It’s pretty to look at, but it’s also very tasty.  And this is good for the production of body fluid and also very good for complexion, so it’s a very popular dish with the ladies.  And then you have the shrimp with walnuts.  And of course, walnuts go very well with shrimp, as both are supposed to be good for, um, virility.  And of course, the walnuts also resemble like a brain, so it’s supposed to be a brain food.  (Laughs)

BURT WOLF:   So from that one dish I’m going to get smarter and more virile.

MRS. WANG-LI:  (Laughing)  Yeah.

BURT WOLF:   Can I get an extra portion of that?

MRS. WANG-LI:  No problem, yeah.  And then we have the eggplant with pine nuts, okay?  Eggplant, it’s a cool energy food.  This is deep-fried to balance it so it does not become too cool an energy.  For some people, Chinese people do avoid eating eggplants because they felt it was too cool for their body.  And pine nuts are supposed to be good because they lubricate the system and also retard aging. 

BURT WOLF:   I’ll take an extra portion of that one, too. 

MRS. WANG-LI:  (Laughing)  Okay.

BURT WOLF:   I guess it’s time for the doctor to come over and see if I’m well-balanced.

MRS. WANG-LI:  Yes, I’ll get Mr. Li to come over and check your pulse. ... Take off your watch.

BURT WOLF:   Okay...

MRS. WANG-LI:  The other side.  (Laughs)

BURT WOLF:   Okay...

MRS. WANG-LI:  Have you ever been checked by a herbalist, a Chinese physician?

BURT WOLF:   No, this is the first time for me.

MRS. WANG-LI:   (over)  First time.

BURT WOLF:   Feels good, though.  (Laughter)

MRS. WANG-LI:  Stick out your tongue.  Okay.

BURT WOLF:   So how am I doing?

DR. LI:  [speaks Chinese]

MRS. WANG-LI:  Oh, he says you are very balanced...

DR. LI:  [speaks Chinese]

MRS. WANG-LI:  Ah.  He would recommend an American ginseng soup for you, a double-boiled soup, because that will help to boost a little bit of your energy, and also it’s good for reducing a little bit of heat in your body.

BURT WOLF:   Can I also have a portion of the virility and longevity dish, too?   I’m ready to eat!

MRS. WANG-LI:  Superman!

BURT WOLF:   Superman?  Not quite...  (Laughter)

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Does it all work?  Well, eventually we’ll find out.  When Chinese chefs work with Chinese doctors, however, the real issue is always taste.  No matter how good a food is for you, if it doesn’t taste good you’re not going to eat it very often.  In terms of the meal I just ate, if it was good for me from a medicinal point of view, fabulous.  I would prescribe it once a week just based on flavor.

As I left the Imperial Herbal restaurant, Mrs. Wang-Lee gave me a copy of the recipe for shrimp and walnuts so the next time my yang was greater than my yin I could bring things back into balance.  As a general rule I try to test a new recipe as soon as possible after I have tasted the original dish. I want to try and recreate the flavors while they are still fresh in my mind.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  So I came back to the kitchens at the Marina Mandarin to work with my friend George Fistrovich, to test the recipe.  Mrs. Wang-Lee said that next time I take a long flight and unbalance my yin and yang I should use this dish to help reduce jet lag.  So I’ll give you the recipe; you do the cooking.

A half pound of shelled and cleaned shrimp go into a bowl with an egg white and a tablespoon of cornstarch that has been dissolved in a little water.  The shrimp sit in that mixture for about thirty minutes.  At the end of that time a wok is heated over a high flame and three tablespoons of oil are poured in.  As soon as the oil is hot in goes a quarter cup of green bell pepper cut into small cubes.  The a quarter cup of celery also cut into small cubes.  A little stir-frying.  A pinch of salt.  Then a half cup of chicken stock is added.  The shrimp are drained from the egg white mixture and go into the wok.  A minute of stir-frying and the final set of ingredients go in.  A little sherry, some soy sauce.  Sesame oil.  Mushrooms. And at long, last the walnuts. 

BURT WOLF:   I feel my yin and yang balancing out as I watch it.

As soon as all the ingredients are warm, the dish is ready to serve.

Many of the Chinese who immigrated to Singapore came from a district in Southeastern China known as Hainan.  They had a strong influence on the development of Singapore, especially in the area of food.  One example is a dish called Hainanese Chicken Rice.  It is one of the most popular dishes in the country.  So popular that it is always available as a special order on Singapore Airlines. Chef Lim Ah Chye demonstrates the techniques that he uses to prepare the dish.  A two-and-a-half-pound chicken has been cooked in boiling water for twenty minutes and then plunged into cold water to stop the cooking and make it easier to handle.  Then it’s cut into pieces. If you prepared the chicken meat from boneless skinless chicken breasts instead of the whole chicken, that’ll work fine too.  A few tablespoons of oyster sauce are poured over the chicken, plus some chopped cilantro leaves.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Oyster sauce is a condiment, comes in a bottle, and you can buy it in the Asian food section of your supermarket.

Next a flavored oil is made by cooking a quarter cup of oil together with some slices of red onion, fresh ginger and garlic.  All that sautés together for two minutes.  Then the solid ingredients are strained from the oil.  The result is a flavored oil which is used on the rice, which is cooked next.  Two cups of white rice go into a rice cooker or a large sauce pan, along with two and a half cups of chicken stock. The stock can be canned or you can use the water that the chicken was cooked in.  Then the top goes on and the rice cooks for twenty-five minutes.  When the rice is ready, the flavored oil gets mixed in and the rice sits, covered, for five minutes more.  Then the rice goes into a serving dish to join the chicken.  The final element is a dipping sauce.  A blender is used to puree some red chilies, fresh ginger slices and garlic.  To that puree the chef adds a little salt, sugar, red wine vinegar and lime juice.  Slices of cucumber and tomato come along to the table.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Well... my yin feels in pretty good balance with my yang so I guess it’s time to conclude our report from the Chinese community in Singapore.  When I first took a look at the relationship of Chinese herbal recipes to good health, I was a little bit skeptical.  But now that I’ve had a closer look at the information, I’m kind of impressed -- especially when everything tastes so good.  Well, I hope you’ll join us next time as we travel around the world looking for good things to eat and the reasons why people eat them.  I’m Burt Wolf.