Thank you to Selina Siak Chin Yoke, author and food lover, for sharing how food impacts her memories and became a central character in her writing. It even includes a recipe for Mee Siam, a spicy Siamese noodle dish!
Do you eat to live, or live to eat? Being of Malaysian-Chinese origin, I definitely veer toward the latter.
My earliest memories are of family and food: eating under a star-filled sky, the aromatic smells of garlic and lemongrass, and freshly plucked exotic fruit whose juices dribbled down my fingers. We talked a lot about food too, especially around the dining table, where we would muse about what to have for a late-night supper while still munching through dinner. And Malaysian cuisine, in reflecting the diversity of a country with three major races – Malay, Chinese and Indian – meant endless variety in food choices.
At the time the kitchen was the domain of women, who were expected to be able to cook. My mother turned out a great cook, but her grandmother was apparently even better – superb, by all accounts. This maternal great grandmother was so formidable that she inspired my debut novel, The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds. Like Great Grandmother, the protagonist is a Nyonya: a female descendant of the Chinese traders who had married Malay women centuries before and whose ancestors spent hundreds of years experimenting with cultural fusion.
This is how she describes it:
“A Nyonya, I told myself, is a woman who breathes two worlds – not just one or the other, not more one than the other, but both equally. My two worlds were alive: Chinese and Malay rolled into one, blended by the centuries that had passed.”
The community that resulted had a distinctive style of dress, lingo and especially, cuisine. Nyonya food became famous throughout Malaya. Parents even sought out Nyonya wives for their sons, in the hope that their offspring would be well-fed!
Gradually, in the changing melting pot that was British Malaya, Nyonya culture declined. By the time I was born, little was left of it. I never saw a Nyonya woman when I was growing up; I only heard about the Chinese women who had once dressed in Malay attire and were very fierce. Or perhaps that epithet was reserved for my great grandmother, whose reprimands were said to be as ‘eye-watering’ as her food. Seventy years after her passing, she was still spoken about with awe by those who had met her.
I was fascinated by this, and by the wonder that was Nyonya cuisine. The Nyonyas were no more, but their cooking lived on. “Nyonya” became a word I associated with ferocious women, delicious food, and special events. Whenever someone celebrated a baby’s first month, orange-red sweet cakes called angkoo, filled with crushed mung beans, would be delivered in tiffin-carriers. When my school held fun fairs, my mother would spend hours making extra-spicy chicken curry accompanied by turmeric rice to raise money. Occasionally, she would make a noodle dish known as “Mee Siam.”
These are all Nyonya dishes, though the last may have come from Siam, now Thailand, and was subsequently adopted by the Nyonyas. My great grandmother herself came to Malaya from Siam – traversing virgin jungle on the back of an elephant, which was the mode of transport then. Mee Siam was a special treat in our house; whenever my mother made it, she would tell me more about Great Grandmother. Little did she know how I was lapping up the tales and would use them one day to weave a fictional character.
Indeed, the food which the protagonist in my novel makes plays such a central role that food itself becomes another character. This is why I thought of sharing one of my mother’s Nyonya recipes with readers. Mee Siam is essentially shrimp with rice noodles, stir-fried in a spicy chilli paste and garnished with hard-boiled eggs. Being a family recipe, the amounts are approximate, so feel free to experiment. My mother would make the chilli paste herself, and then our kitchen would come alive with the smells of chillies and shallots being pounded and later on, of garlic being fried. I would hover, unable to tear myself away from the cocktail of aromas that awakened something in my spirit. My hope is that as you make this dish in your own kitchen, you will feel a sense of kinship with the women who invented this delight!
How to Make Mee Siam
1 packet of rice vermicelli (1 lb), soaked for 30 minutes in warm water or until soft and drained
2 + 2 tbsp. cooking oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2 tbsp. of fermented yellow bean paste
1 lb of shrimps, shelled and deveined
½ lb of bean sprouts, washed and drained
1 bundle of chives, cut into half
For the Chilli Paste:
4 – 5 red chillies, de-seeded
5 shallots, peeled
5 cloves of garlic, peeled
2 tablespoons of fermented yellow bean paste
(Optional) 2 tablespoons of dried shrimp, soaked and drained
Pound the chilli paste ingredients in a pestle and mortar or blend in a processor
4 eggs, hard boiled, peeled and quartered
1 red chilli, de-seeded and finely sliced
4 pieces of fried bean curd, cut into the desired length and thickness
Heat wok, add 2 tablespoons of cooking oil and garlic and fry until brown. Add the yellow bean paste and shrimps and stir evenly. Bring the ingredients to one side of the wok and add another 2 tablespoons of cooking oil into the middle of the wok.
Slowly, on low heat, add the chilli paste and stir evenly until aromatic and the oil separates, making sure not to burn the paste. Add the bean sprouts and chives. Mix well; if necessary, add a little more oil.
Finally, add the soaked vermicelli and stir fry until the ingredients are cooked and well blended. If desired, add soy sauce. Garnish with the eggs, red chilli and fried bean curd.
Thank you so much, Selina, I want to make this today! I'm glad I'm not the only one thinking about their next meal while still eating the current one!
Of Malaysian-Chinese heritage, Selina Siak Chin Yoke grew up listening to family stories and ancient legends. She always knew that one day, she would write. After an eclectic life as a physicist, banker and trader in London, the heavens intervened. In 2009 Chin Yoke was diagnosed with cancer. While recovering, she decided not to delay her dream of writing any longer. Her first novel, “The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds” (The Malayan Series, #1), was published in 2016 and made an immediate emotional connection with readers. It debuted as an Amazon bestseller in historical fiction, was named by Goodreads as one of the six best books in the month of its release and has been favorably compared to the work of Pearl S. Buck and Amy Tan. “When the Future Comes Too Soon” is her latest novel.
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