Singapore Cooks

Secret to braised fish head recipe is to immerse fish in sauce

Madam Diana Quek serves this dish during the festive season

Whether it is 20 or 200 people, no gathering is too large for housewife Diana Quek to cook for. The soft-spoken 73-year-old always cooks up a storm for family gettogethers such as birthdays and festivals.

She has prepared and cooked more than 30kg of ingredients such as turnips, tau kwa (firm beancurd) and Chinese sausages to be used as popiah filling, and 10kg of pork ribs for brewing prawn noodle stock. Her lavish spread of nasi lemak comes with more than 10 side dishes, including sambal prawns and stir-fried squid.

She recounts the dishes and ingredients in a calm and measured voice, as if she does this daily.

Not surprisingly, Chinese New Year is one of the busiest cooking periods for Madam Quek. She prepares a 10-dish reunion feast for up to 20 family members and relatives.

The menu includes pig's stomach soup, fish maw soup, deep-fried prawns and braised pork leg with sea cucumber and beancurd puffs, and assam fishhead.

  • DO IT YOURSELF:BRAISED FISHHEAD (HONG SIEW YU TAO)

  • INGREDIENTS

    • 900g fishhead (from grouper or red snapper), cut into six to eight pieces, washed and patted dry

    • 100g tapioca flour

    • 1 Tbs white pepper

    • 250ml vegetable oil

    • 50ml rice bran oil

    • 6 cloves garlic, sliced

    • 100g tau pok (small dried beancurd puffs), halved diagonally

    • 400g firm beancurd, cut into 5cm by 3cm squares

    • 50g ginger, sliced

    • 150g carrot, sliced thinly

    • 150g shiitake mushrooms

    • 100g shimeji mushrooms, sliced thinly

    • 100g sugar snap peas, fibre peeled from the edges

    • 200g napa cabbage, sliced into 3cm by 7cm pieces

    • 200g roasted pork belly, store-bought and sliced

  • FOR THE SAUCE

    • 550ml chicken stock from a can

    • 2 tsp sesame oil

    • 1  1/2 tsp sugar

    • 2 Tbs oyster sauce

    • 1 Tbs light soya sauce

    • 1 tsp dark soya sauce

    • 1/2 tsp white pepper

    • 2 Tbs corn flour

    • 3 Tbs water

  • TO GARNISH

    • 2 sprigs spring onions, julienned

    • 4 sprigs coriander, sliced into 5cm-long pieces

    • 2 large chillies, julienned

    • Fried store-bought shallots to taste

  • METHOD

    1. Coat fishhead slices lightly with tapioca flour and white pepper.

    2. In a wok on medium heat, pour vegetable oil and deep-fry the fishhead slices till they turn golden brown. Use tongs to turn over the slices to ensure they are evenly fried.

    3. Place the fried fishhead slices on a strainer to drain the oil and set aside to cool.

    4. In another wok on medium heat, add rice bran oil and fry garlic slices till they turn golden brown. Remove the fried slices from the wok and retain the oil in the wok.

    5. Add dried beancurd puffs and fry till crisp. Strain the oil by using a spoon to press it over a strainer.

    6. Add beancurd slices and fry till skin is golden brown. Remove and set aside.

    7. In a clean wok on low heat, add slices of ginger, carrot, mushrooms, sugar snap peas and cabbage.

    8. Into a mixing bowl, add ingredients needed for the sauce except for the corn flour and water, stir well and set aside.

    9. Pour the sauce made earlier into the wok and let it simmer for five minutes. Add corn flour and water to thicken the sauce.

    10. Add fried fishhead slices back into the wok and ladle the sauce over the slices for one to two minutes.

    11. Add fried beancurd puffs, beancurd and roast pork belly slices into the wok and cook for about a minute.

    12. Pour the wok's contents onto a plate. Garnish and serve. Serves eight people

She cooks them in huge portions so leftovers can be eaten over the next few days, and even whips up extra dishes when relatives and friends visit her home in groups of 20 and at staggered timings throughout the day.

The grandmother of a 14-year-old girl says: "It is my way of showing affection to my family. I enjoy cooking on a large scale as I like seeing people mingle and chat over good food."

One of her festive dishes is a Cantonese-style braised deep-fried fishhead, or hong siew yu tao. She shares the recipe for the dish here.

She copied the recipe from a magazine in the 1980s, as her 73-year-old husband George Seah, a retired catering director, likes fishhead dishes.

She wrote the recipe on a blank page in her trusty 40-year-old cookbook, My Favourite Recipes, by former Methodist Girls' School principal Ellice Handy.

Over the years, Madam Quek has enriched the hearty dish by adding mushrooms, sugar snap peas and pork belly.

"It is an all-in-one dish with a rich variety of ingredients, though it takes some time to prepare and cook the dish."

When Mr Seah sees the bowls of ingredients that fill up the dining table for the photo shoot, he says: "I have been eating this dish for decades, but this is the first time I realised so many ingredients are needed."

Instead of pouring the vegetableladen sauce over the fishhead slices, she immerses them in the wok so they can better absorb the umami sauce.

Born in Penang, Madam Quek, who used to be a travel booking agent, moved here in 1966 when she married her Singaporean husband. They have a 49-year-old daughter Elizabeth, a home tutor, and a 45-year-old son George Junior, a civil servant.

As her mother-in-law loved to host huge house parties, Madam Quek had to pick up cooking. She likes cooking her hometown specialities.

Her Penang laksa lemak features a coconut milk-based gravy instead of tamarind juice, but retains a sour kick with kaffir lime leaves and fried rempah.

Her Penang curry noodles have clams, squid, cuttlefish, prawns in a curry gravy perfumed with mint leaves and blue pea flowers, instead of the usual steamed chicken and potatoes.

She also cooks loh kai yik, a Cantonese dish of pork belly, cuttlefish, chicken gizzards and wings, and pig's skin and tau pok (beancurd puffs) cooked with tau cheo (fermented bean paste).

She hopes to pass her treasure trove of handwritten recipes in cookbooks - filled with tweaks from her "cooking experiments" - to her daughter. Ms Seah has been her mother's "sous chef" since young, but says she has mastered only about 30 per cent of the recipes.

Madam Quek says: "I want to pass my recipes and books to my daughter as it will be a waste if no one gets to learn these old-school dishes."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 24, 2016, with the headline 'All-in-one fishhead dish'. Print Edition | Subscribe