1. One Kind House: Homestyle cooking
In a semi-detached home on a peaceful residential street in Singapore’s east is a community space inspired by a traditional kampung (village). The property’s gate is usually unlatched, the main door left wide open and the green urban farm unfenced. Visitors are encouraged to touch, smell and taste. It feels like I am visiting a friend.
One Kind House is the brainchild of Calvin Soh, a creative director turned entrepreneur. Soh’s mother, Helen (above) is the instructor. Affectionately known as Mummy Soh, she teaches us how to cook the homestyle favourites she grew up eating. First, we make blue rice, which is coloured by butterfly pea flowers from the garden. To complement the rice, we make a vegetable curry, and kedondong (a tropical fruit) pesto using freshly plucked fruit and leaves.
Mummy Soh is easygoing and I take her cue: I wander around the herb garden, then try my hand at pounding the pesto using a mortar and pestle. As we go, I ask about quantities and ingredients, taking notes and photographs for reference. Although my session today is private, classes here require a minimum of six people.
During the two-hour lesson, Mummy Soh does more cooking than I do. But I feel I have learnt effectively, as the session was dictated by my needs. Of course, the test is always in the eating. Mummy Soh’s cooking reminds me of my grandmother’s cuisine – simple food made with lots of love.
2. Grandmothers’ Recipes: Peranakan
At another semi-detached house, Aunty Rosaline – as Rosaline Soon (below) is known – puts on her apron. Together with four others, I gather around a long worktop in her large, air-conditioned kitchen.
Warm and friendly, Aunty Rosaline specialises in Peranakan (Straits Chinese) cooking and today, we are making pineapple tarts – a popular treat during Chinese New Year. We will learn how to make golf-ball-size ones, which are enclosed in pastry, and the more common open-faced version (below).
Classes held by Grandmothers’ Recipes are part demonstration, part hands-on cooking. Aunty Rosaline begins by showing us how to grate and drain the pineapples; we drink the refreshing juice. She says the jam takes “at least four hours” to cook – in a saucepan over low heat, with consistent stirring – before it is ready.
Our lesson is only three hours, so Aunty Rosaline takes out some jam and a batch of dough she has prepared in advance. Then, she sets the group to work shaping and glazing the delicacies. We bake about four dozen tarts in total. Whatever isn’t eaten as it comes out of the oven is packed into flowery little bags for us to take home. Aunty Rosaline also signs her book sets, which are available for purchase and contain family recipes for sweet and savoury Peranakan and Chinese dishes.
3. Cookery Magic: Malay
An engineer by training, Ruqxana Vasanwala has been nurturing her personal collection of recipes since the age of five. She now runs cooking classes from her home in a quiet neighbourhood in Singapore’s east, taking groups to local markets to shop for ingredients. On occasion, by request, she also holds lessons in a 100-year-old Malay kampung on Pulau Ubin – a 10-minute bumboat ride from Changi Point Ferry Terminal.
Classes are hands-on in Vasanwala’s outdoor kitchen, and incorporate all of the senses. During the three-hour lesson in Malay cuisine, all eight students work in pairs. We knead ondeh ondeh (glutinous rice ball) dough, chop and dice vegetables for a wing-bean salad and pound spices into rempah (spice mix) for a chicken curry (below).
Along the way, we taste-test four versions of gula melaka (palm sugar) and take whiffs of crushed lemongrass and basil. We learn to use our eyes and taste buds to agak agak (Malay for estimate) the amount of seasoning needed in each dish. Experimentation is encouraged as “everyone’s palate is different”. Her recipes are delicious, and my curry is perhaps the best I have ever made. But don’t take it from me – my grandmother-in-law, a great cook, gives it two thumbs up.
4. Basilico, Regent Singapore: Modern Italian
If you’re not a chef, this is probably as close to cooking in a professional kitchen as you can get. Italian cuisine is the name of the game here, and participants are taught the ropes by the restaurant’s chef, Luca Beccalli. Basilico’s elegant private room, where most of the class is held, is all warm wood, dark surfaces and reflective mirrors. Each student is welcomed with a champagne cocktail, an apron and a faux leather-bound booklet filled with the recipes of the day. Ingredients have been meticulously prepared and portioned in advance. Students still get their hands dirty though, as they are expected to cut, dice, shape and knead during the two-hour class.
Beccalli says the seafood risotto we are making uses olive oil. Butter is more commonly used by northern Italians as they have a heavier palate. “But my mama always made it for me with lots of butter and that’s the way I like it,” he shares. After the risotto is prepared – “a tad wet but not bad for a maiden attempt”, says Beccalli – I begin shaping pizza (above). I slide the pie into the restaurant’s industrial-sized oven. Five minutes later, it is done, and we savour the fruit of our labour while Beccalli presents each of us with a certificate of completion.
– TEXT BY ESTHER AU YONG
PHOTOS: COOKERY MAGIC
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.