Hakka dishes are full of auspicious meaning, but housewife Soh Lee Chin, who is Hakka, never used to be able to enjoy them because her childhood was tough and austere.
The sixth of seven children, she dropped out of school after three weeks of attending Primary 1 lessons because family finances were tight.
She and her siblings were brought up by her seamstress mother, who had to escape from an abusive husband. So, from the age of eight, she chipped in to make ends meet by baby-sitting. The family's frugal meals comprised bread dipped in coffee, porridge with vegetables and fish that had fallen from delivery trucks in wet markets.
The sprightly 70-year-old mother of five says in Mandarin: "I had to learn to cook for survival, so that the family wouldn't starve. My life story is so dramatic that it makes for a good drama serial."
Things improved when her older siblings started working and supplementing the household income. She was 14 when her mother taught her to cook Hakka dishes and it sparked her interest in cooking.
One of the dishes her mother taught her is Hakka fried yam balls. The bite-sized parcels, of yam strips and minced pork, are a family favourite for special occasions, such as Chinese New Year and birthday celebrations. The grandmother of five, a grassroots leader in Bukit Gombak estate, also cooks them for community events.
The recipe has been in the family for four generations and she says: "I love the contrast between the crispiness on the outside and the chewy insides."
Like many Hakka dishes, this dish features yam, as the Mandarin word for yam, yu tou, sounds similar to parts of Hakka phrases for good luck and having a windfall.
Over the years, she has also accumulated countless Hakka recipes, including yam abacus seeds, meats cooked in home-fermented red glutinous rice wine, and kueh.
One of them is the rarely seen Hakka mugwort ricecake, which is made with the mugwort leaves commonly used in Hakka dishes and is known for improving blood circulation. Adding her twist to the ricecakes, she fills them with mung bean paste for a "tasty sweet-and-salty combination", inspired from eating tau sa piah (mung bean pastry).
Madam Soh and her youngest daughter, chef Then Chui Foong, 43, will demonstrate how to make the Hakka mugwort ricecake, as part of Kueh Appreciation Day on July 24.
Held in conjunction with the Singapore Food Festival, the one-day event is organised by Slow Food (Singapore), a non-profit organisation that promotes heritage food, and will also feature demonstrations of other time-honoured delicacies such as Hainanese Larp (a rice dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaves) and lempur udang (spicy prawn dumpling). Each cooking demonstration, at the ToTT Store in Dunearn Road, costs $20 a person and is limited to 60 participants.
Proud of her Hakka heritage, Madam Soh served dialect delicacies such as yong tau foo and braised pig's trotters at her hawker stall at the now-defunct Hillview Hawker Centre for 25 years.
The strong-willed woman proudly says that she managed to raise herchildren through selling breakfast items such as fried bee hoon and economy rice. Her husband, who was in the lard rendering business, died 11 years ago from kidney failure.
These days, she is heartened that chef Then, who is a chef instructor at Republic Polytechnic and a chocolatier, has mastered "about 60 per cent" of her Hakka dishes.
Chef Then, who picked up cooking from working at her mother's stall from the age of seven, can whip up some of her mother's signature dishes, such as braised pig's trotters and Hakka mee stir-fried with minced meat and mushrooms.
She says: "I feel blessed to have a master beside me, as it is a priceless opportunity to learn these family dishes, and I have started to record her recipes."
Madam Soh replies with a hearty laugh: "By sharing my cooking knowledge, more people from other generations can know about these traditional dishes. This can be my cooking legacy."
• Kueh Appreciation Day is on July 24, 10am to 6pm, at ToTT Store in 896 Dunearn Road. For more information on the cooking demonstrations, go to www.slowfood.sg/kueh-appreciation- day-2016
MAKE IT YOURSELF: HAKKA FRIED YAM BALLS
200g minced pork
1/2 tsp salt
A pinch of pepper
A pinch of sugar
10ml oyster sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
10g sakura ebi
10g dried cuttlefish, cut into 2cm-long strips
200g tapioca flour
200g yam, peeled and cut into 2.5cm-long strips
500ml vegetable oil
80g yellow frisee lettuce
100g local lettuce
50g beetroot, shredded into 10cm-long strips
1. Pour the water into a mixing bowl, add minced pork and mix well with a spoon.
2. Add salt, pepper, sugar, oyster sauce, sesame oil, sakura ebi and dried cuttlefish into the mixing bowl. Mix well.
3. Add tapioca flour gradually in three stages. Mix the contents using clean hands to ensure that the flour is fully incorporated into the meat mixture after each addition of flour.
4. Add yam strips and mix well.
5. Pour the vegetable oil into a pot set over medium heat. To test if the oil is hot enough, drop a pinch of batter into the oil. If it sizzles, the oil is hot enough for frying.
6. Drop spoonfuls of the yam and meat mixture into the oil and fry for three to five minutes, until golden brown.
7. Use a pair of chopsticks to turn the yam balls over, so that they are evenly fried and do not get burnt. Once the yam balls start floating to the surface, scoop them up with a strainer.
8. Place on a plate lined with paper towels to drain the excess oil. Garnish with yellow frisee lettuce, local lettuce and shredded beetroot and serve.
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