Singapore Cooks

Cookbook for domestic helpers

To help Filipino domestic helpers ease into foreign food culture, freelance writer Rowena Michaels has launched a bilingual cookbook

From scrambled egg with baking powder to burnt or over-cooked meat dishes, freelance writer Rowena Michaels has had to stomach kitchen mishaps by her domestic helpers over the years.

One former helper served scrambled eggs with baking soda instead of bacon.

The 38-year-old recalls with a laugh: "It was a classic lost in translation moment. I ate the eggs and knew something wasn't right, but we had a good laugh about it."

However, the difficulty of cooking with recipes written in a foreign language struck her only three years ago, when she attempted to whip up oeufs en cocotte (baked eggs) from a French cookbook while on a three-week holiday in Brittany, France.

Despite being fluent in French, she found it arduous to plough through the cooking instructions and ruined the dish by misjudging the cooking time.

She says: "That was a light bulb moment that made me realise the difficulties that my two Filipino helpers face when reading cookbooks written in English. If you mess up specific cooking terms, such as blanch or braise, you'd end up with a very different dish."

To alleviate stressful kitchen situations, she has self-published a bilingual cookbook, A Helping Hand, which has recipes written in English and Tagalog.

The 314-page book, which was launched last month, features more than 80 recipes.

Some of them are traditional English ones such as the Coronation Chicken, a dish of cold chicken, almonds and raisins in curried mayonnaise, created for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953; and the cottage pie that the Scot grew up with.

There are also recipes from her husband's late Peranakan grandmother, Mrs Molly Ong.

One such heirloom recipe is mee goreng, which has been in the family for three generations and is written down in a 70-year-old cookbook that is a treasure trove of more than 100 recipes.

The Malay fried noodle dish was one of the first Asian dishes that Michaels learnt to cook when she first visited her then-boyfriend and now-husband's family at the age of 20.

"I love the slight spicy undertone of the green chillies and chilli powder that cuts through this comfort food," she says.

"Learning to cook the noodles from her brought the experience of cooking with a wok alive and made me confident of using it."

Cooking mee goreng requires deft control of heat, she says while frying the noodles with ease in the air-conditioned kitchen of her colonial semi-detached home in Holland Road.

She says: "The cooking time depends on the thickness of the wok, so you must not be afraid to turn off the heat intermittently to let the noodles cool down before turning it on again, so that they do not burn."

Besides nifty cooking tips that accompany each recipe, the book also comes with comprehensive instructions for preparing ingredients and serving the dishes.

Michaels enlisted the help of a Manila-based translator to write the recipes in Tagalog.

She then asked the domestic helpers who work for 20 of her friends to test the recipes and received feedback from them.

She says: "I want to make the recipes bomb-proof and water-tight, leaving no room for misinterpretation and confusion when the domestic helpers are using these recipes."

The book also has other handy sections such as guides to kitchen tools, herbs, fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy products and common cooking condiments and products.

She says: "It takes time for them to adjust to each household's quirks, from shopping to eating preferences, so having photos and Tagalog descriptions of the products cuts down explanation time."

To ease her domestic helpers into the local culture, Michaels, who has been living here for seven years, has taught them some Singapore dishes, such as kueh pie tee.

She also accompanies them to Ghim Moh Market, where the self-proclaimed "chang moh" (an amalgamation of Chinese and ang moh, the colloquial term for Caucasians) tells vendors not to charge her "ang moh prices".

Her husband, Mr Simon Michaels, 37, is a partner in a law firm and they have two children - Florence, eight, and Joseph, four.

"I don't want to re-create a Little England here. I want to immerse in Singapore life, from having loved durian 20 years ago to writing down Hokkien phrases to using tissue packets to chope (reserve) seats in hawker centres."

•A Helping Hand: Delicious Recipes In English And Tagalog ($39.90) is available in major bookstores


MAKE IT YOURSELF: MEE GORENG

INGREDIENTS

2 Tbs sunflower oil

3 onions, diced

4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped

200g shallots, peeled and finely chopped

1 1/4 tsp light soya sauce

3/4 tsp dark soya sauce

1 tsp chilli powder

700g yellow egg noodles

100ml cold water

250g beansprouts

5 eggs

40g coriander with stalks left on, chopped

To garnish (for each serving)

10g coriander leaves

1 calamansi lime, halved

2 green chillies, chopped

METHOD

1. In a wok on medium heat, heat up sunflower oil. Add diced onions and fry them for about three minutes until they turn soft.

2. Add chopped garlic and shallots and fry them for one minute.

3. In a bowl, stir in 1 tsp light soya sauce and 1/2 tsp dark soya sauce and add it to the wok.

4. Add chilli powder to the wok and let the mixture cook for one minute.

5. Separate the noodles carefully with your hands if they come out from the packet in a block and put them in the wok.

6. Mix noodles gently with contents in the wok before adding 100ml of cold water to cook them. Mix the contents for about five minutes until the noodles are cooked.

7. Add beansprouts to the wok and let cook for two minutes.

8. Crack the eggs into another bowl and add the remaining 1/4 tsp of light soya sauce and the remaining 1/4 tsp of dark soya sauce. Whisk the mixture with a fork.

9. In the wok, push the noodles to one side and add the egg mixture into the space that has been created.

10. Stir the egg mixture with a spatula and when it is semi-cooked but still runny, mix the noodles with the eggs and switch to low heat.

11. Stir-fry the noodles a few more times over the next 10 to 20 seconds to ensure that the egg is thoroughly mixed in. Scatter chopped coriander on the noodles.

12. Garnish mee goreng with coriander leaves, halved calamansi and chopped green chillies and serve.

Serves six people

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 26, 2016, with the headline 'Wok the talk'. Print Edition | Subscribe