Foodie Confidential

Preserving Singapore flavours

For 12 years, chef Shermay Lee advocated cooking from scratch in her now-defunct cooking school, which meant hand-crafting kueh pie tee shells and squeezing pandan leaves for juice to use in ondeh ondeh.

But now, she is championing the short-cut.

She launched a line of heritage sauces and marinades called Shermay's Singapore Fine Food in December 2014.

In a recent interview with Life, she goes through fuss-free recipes that feature the Singapore Meat Marinade, one of the six products in the range.

At rapid speed, she shares how baked chicken wings can be done in a fuss-free fashion: Marinate the chicken wings in a ziplock bag for at least 30 minutes before popping them in the oven at 180 deg C for 25 minutes.

  • What would your last meal be?

    Roti prata with chicken or vegetable curry, chicken rice and my grandmother's hae mee soup (Hokkien mee soup).

To make char siew quickly, slather the marinade on strips of pork collar and cling-wrap the meat for at least an hour before roasting it at 150 deg C for 20 to 25 minutes.

The sixth-generation Peranakan says: "The reality is, some home cooks do not have the time or equipment."

She closed Shermay's Cooking School in Chip Bee Gardens in June last year to focus on food consultancy work and expand her food manufacturing business.

The sauces and marinades are sold online (www.shermay.com) and at gourmet grocers such as Tangs Orchard and Huber's Butchery in Dempsey Road. Prices start from $9.95 for a jar of Cilicuka Original, a chilli and vinegar dip.

The second of four children, Ms Lee, a former investment banker, came on the food scene in 2003 when she published The New Mrs Lee's Cookbook, an update of her grandmother's 1974 classic Mrs Lee's Cookbook.

Her late grandmother is Peranakan cooking doyenne Mrs Lee Chin Koon, who is the mother of Singapore's founding prime minister, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

Ms Lee is also moving towards a new style of cooking that she calls "new Singapore classics", which showcases familiar Singapore dishes presented in new and innovative ways.

For example, her ikan bakar smeared with sambal hijau and baked in banana leaves is inspired by sambal stingray.

Ms Lee, who is unmarried and declines to reveal her age, says: "Singapore food is constantly evolving. By coming up with home-styled but innovative dishes, I can preserve and enrich local flavours."

How does your family celebrate Chinese New Year?

For reunion dinner, we usually have it in a hotel restaurant as my extended family is large.

My family home is open for visits from family and friends on the first two days of Chinese New Year.

There will always be dishes such as ayam sioh, chap chye, achar and wonton noodle soup with Cilicuka.

These dishes are cooked by my family's helper, whom we have trained to cook to suit our nuanced Nonya palate.

What festive goodies do you look forward to?

My 85-year-old aunt, Monica, bakes up a storm for Chinese New Year.

Her once-a-year treats include pineapple tarts, lidah kucing (or cat's tongue cookie, a Dutch flat cookie), spritz cookies (pressed butter cookies) and sugee cakes.

How did you get interested in food?

Up till I was five, my grandmother babysat me many times a week. I followed her into the kitchen and she gave me dough to play with while she was cooking.

However, I started cooking only when I was studying in the United States because I longed for South-east Asian food.

Growing up, what are your fondest memories of food?

I remember having Nonya popiah at family gatherings. It consists of turnips, bamboo shoots and fried beancurd in a prawn and pork-based stock wrapped in egg skin, and is served with 11 condiments.

What are your favourite Singapore dishes and where would you go to eat them?

Chicken rice from Loy Kee Chicken Rice in Balestier Road. I like to order both roast and steamed chicken with kai lan and oyster sauce, and chilli and ginger sauces. I go there as the quality of the meat is consistent.

I also like the fishball noodles from 85 Redhill Teochew Fishball Noodle stall in Tangs Orchard. The fishballs are springy and filled with fish meat. I carry around a ziplock bag containing Cilicuka and I add that to the dish.

What is the best food you have tasted and why was it so good?

My grandmother's gado gado.

I made it for a gathering of 20 friends last week and my friends had an average of three servings each.

The peanuts are dried-toasted in a pan on low fire to bring out the nut oil. They are then fried with rempah and tamarind juice to give a thick, chunky texture.

Mixing them with lettuce, hard-boiled eggs, lontong, potatoes, tempeh, cabbage, beansprouts and tau kwa makes a grand salad.

What is the most challenging dish to cook?

I have not mastered making a Nonya bak zhang (meat dumpling). It is difficult to wrap it in a conical shape and also difficult to get the correct proportion of rice and filling.

The meat should be sweet with a strong coriander flavour and speckled with dye from blue pea flowers.

It is an elusive skill as it is not taught in culinary schools, so you need to learn it from someone who has done it.

What was the most memorable meal you have had overseas?

A sashimi dinner at Michelin- starred restaurant Sushisho Masa in Minato, Tokyo.

I had Sakura trout, eel and unagi, which showed off the skills of the chefs and expressed the natural terroir of the ingredients.

It was hard to get a booking as there are only eight seats by the counter where the fish is prepared.

What's your favourite overseas food destination?

I love shopping at the stalls in Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo.

Besides having a bite at the restaurants, I have bought kitchen knives, gold flakes for garnishing dishes, matcha, roast coffee beans and vegetable cutters in the shapes of maple and ginkgo leaves.

I go to London once a year. I like visiting La Fromagerie in Marylebone; it sells all sorts of European cheeses in a farmhouse setting.

I also go to the food stalls in Chelsea Farmers Market and Maltby Street Market for cannoli, duck and orange marmalade sandwich and Turkish delight.

There is also great produce such as hand-churned unpasteurised English butter, cheap oysters, Cornish sea salt and mushrooms.

Do you cook at home?

Yes, when I am testing out recipes using my sauces, and I get my family to taste them.

Some recent dishes include an ikan bakar with sambal hijau and wrapped in banana leaves.

I also cook for friends.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 17, 2016, with the headline 'Foodie Confidential Preserving Singapore flavours'. Print Edition | Subscribe