Hed Chef

Making mee siam demands patience and love

Mee siam topped with tau kwa.
Mee siam topped with tau kwa.PHOTO: HEDY KHOO

SINGAPORE (THE NEW PAPER) - Given the variations of mee siam, it is little wonder that even its origin is disputed. Is it Thai, Malay or Peranakan?

There is no definitive answer. There is also an Indian Muslim version called mee siam mamak. It has a gravy made robust with coconut milk.

I made my version of mee siam with gravy for one simple reason - it is my maternal grandmother's favourite dish.

For a seemingly simple dish, there are many steps involved if you choose to make it from scratch. The two key ingredients are patience and love.

Like my grandmother, I like my gravy thick and flavourful.

But if you prefer a thinner gravy, you can cut back on the spice mixture used in the gravy or add more water to the stock.

I used tau kwa as a topping, but a more convenient alternative is tau pok (dried beancurd puffs). Simply toast the tau pok and snip them into dainty squares.

You can buy ready-made sambal tumis (fried chilli paste), but I prefer to make my own.

I do find it tedious, so I usually make more than needed and store the remainder in an air-tight jar in the fridge. It can keep for up to a month.  

It is useful as a condiment or for frying other spicy dishes.

Despite the labour involved, the most satisfying part of cooking mee siam is watching my grandmother relish every mouthful.

MEE SIAM

INGREDIENTS

2.5 litres water
500g large sea prawns, shells and heads intact
80g tamarind pulp & 150ml water
2 tsp sugar
2 flat tsp of salt
1 Tbsp coconut oil
300g beehoon, soaked to soften
1 piece (200g) tau kwa (firm beancurd), cut into 1.5cm cubes
150ml oil for deep-frying tau kwa
15g koo chye (garlic chives), cut to 1cm lengths
80g beansprouts, blanched
4 hardboiled eggs, sliced
4 limes, halved

For sambal tumis (fried chilli paste)

80g dried prawns, soaked to soften
3 candlenuts
100g dried chilli, boiled to soften
100g shallots
1 tbsp belacan powder
2 tbsp coconut oil or water
100g tamarind pulp & 150ml water
100ml coconut oil
½ cinnamon stick
3 cloves
1 star anise
1 flat Tbsp salt
2 flat Tbsp brown sugar
2 flat Tbsp white sugar

For spice paste

2 lemongrass stalks, 5cm of white root part
20g dried shrimps, soaked to soften
30g galangal
30g ginger
15g turmeric root
50g dried chilli, boiled to soften
100g shallots
3 garlic cloves
1 Tbsp belacan powder
50ml coconut oil
3 tbsp tau cheo (fermented bean paste)

METHOD

Part I: Preparing prawn stock

1. In a large pot, bring the 2.5 litres of water to a boil.

2. Cook sea prawns for 2 to 3 minutes until they turn orange.

3. Shell the prawns, leaving the tails intact. Devein and keep refrigerated until ready to use.

4. Reserve prawn heads and shells. Place these back into the same pot of water and boil for 30 minutes on medium heat. Cover pot and leave shells to steep.

Part II: Preparing the sambal tumis

1. Grind dried prawns, candlenuts, dried chilli and shallots. Add belacan powder.

2. Add 2 tablespoons of coconut oil or water to help mixture blend better.

3. Soak 100g tamarind pulp in 150ml of water for 2 minutes. Strain and reserve juice. Discard the pulp.

4. Heat 100ml of coconut oil in wok or frying pan.

5. Once tiny bubbles are visible, turn off heat and add ground chilli paste.

6. Stir and turn on heat. Over low heat, fry chilli paste for 10 minutes, stirring constantly.

7. Add cinnamon stick, cloves and star anise. Stir-fry for another 5 minutes.

8. Add tamarind juice. Stir, then add salt and sugar.

9. Stir-fry mixture for another 5 minutes. Transfer chilli paste to a bowl or deep dish and allow to cool completely. Store in an airtight jar and it should keep for up to a month refrigerated. This recipe makes about 200g of sambal. 

Part III: Preparing the spice paste


PHOTOS: HEDY KHOO

1. Grind lemongrass, dried shrimps, galangal, ginger, turmeric root, dried chilli, shallots and garlic. Add belacan powder.

2. Heat 50ml of coconut oil until there are tiny bubbles. Turn off heat and add spice paste.

3. Stir through and turn on heat.

4. On low heat, fry mixture for five minutes then add fermented bean paste. Fry for another 10 to 15 minutes until fragrant and the oil rises to the surface (Photo above).

5. Turn off heat and transfer paste into a bowl. Set aside.

Part IV: Preparing the gravy


PHOTO: HEDY KHOO

1. Soak 80g tamarind pulp in 150ml of water. Strain and reserve juice. Discard the pulp. 

2. Strain prawn stock and bring to a boil.

3. Stir in ¾ of the spice paste, then add 2 to 3 tablespoons of chilli paste.

4. Bring to a boil and add tamarind juice. Simmer for 5 minutes (Photo above).

5. Add sugar and salt for taste. Turn off heat and leave it covered.

Part V: Preparing the beehoon and toppings


PHOTO: HEDY KHOO

1. In a clean wok, heat 1 tablespoon of coconut oil.

2. Add the rest of the spice paste and 3 tablespoons of chilli paste.

3. Mix well and add beehoon.

4. Fry until beehoon is evenly coated with the spice mixture, then remove from heat (Photo above).

5. Deep-fry tau kwa cubes in 150ml of oil until golden, then drain.

6. When ready to serve, bring gravy to a simmering boil.

7. Take a portion of the beehoon and place in a soup plate. Add a portion of the sliced garlic chives, beansprouts and two prawns.

8. Ladle on enough gravy to cover the beehoon and prawns.

9. Arrange two or three slices of hardboiled eggs, some of the fried tau kwa cubes and half a lime on top. Serve immediately.

Yields eight servings.