The Best Kind of Cooking Class
Singapore’s doyenne of Peranakan cuisine and all-round food ambassador Violet Oon educates this writer on the finer things in life – like how to impress the mother-in-law at the dinner table.
It’s difficult to not feel excited about the cooking class Violet Oon has kindly invited me to. Violet Oon – doyenne of Peranakan cuisine, no less knowledgeable about Asian food, revered cookbook author and food consultant – is hosting a session at Singapore’s Mayer outlet in the heart of my island-city’s shopping belt.
I’ve been to a few cooking classes, and I generally find them formal, organised, almost clinical. Gleaming cooking ware, helpers in pressed aprons, the chef separated from his audience by a shining prep table. And the class participants are quietly seated. (No photography allowed till it’s allowed, please.)
But when I arrive at Violet Oon’s class, there’s a note of delightful disarray. The helpers are in mad, harried preparation. The guests are milling about with DSLRs, snapping photos of food. Violet Oon is busy chatting with Mayer staff. She sees me and points to a step. “Don’t trip ah,” she warns me. I am in the middle of organised chaos – the way dinner at my grandmother’s used to be. I feel wonderful already.
The demonstration table is piled high with ingredients – star anise, shallots, rice vermicelli, a plethora of vegetables. And oh, a bare naked duck, waiting to have its cavity stuffed, its rear sewn, and its entire body fried – and then steamed.
One poor duck
While we wait to witness the poor duck’s passage of torture, Violet Oon begins her introduction to the foods required to stuff the poultry. "These shallots are fragrant, yes?” She stir-fries the aromatics with glutinous rice, shiitake muschrooms, chestnuts, lotus seeds and five spice powder.
I'm a little surprised at the menu. Steamed chestnut-stuffed duck? Fried milk with shredded crab? And a cheesecake she shows later that looks like it came out of a patisserie. It’s all a little overwhelming.
She explains the more complex recipes are really the best. “Look, when I first started cooking, I didn’t begin by steaming rice,” she says. “I wanted to start on all the show-off foods. Anything that was difficult was exciting for me, because the results were always worth it.”
It’s a Mother’s Day menu anyway, she goes on to say. “So you want to impress your mother-in-law, and make your sisters-in-law jealous? Hah! This is the way to go.”
Violet Oon is a boundless repository of food knowledge.“These are the sex glands, and they stink. So I snip them off,” she explains, pointing to the cavern that was the duck’s bottom. Want a more luxurious stuffing for duck? Try scallop and abalone.
The best kind of chaos
For two hours, we are immersed in Violet’s wonderful organised chaos of a cooking class. Time is running out, the shopping mall is winding down; Violet deftly juggles the demands of both a no-bake strawberry cheesecake and Southern Chinese-style, savoury fried milk. Ingredients fly, and the prep table piles ever higher with ingredients assembled and cooked, halfway to their finished results. But somehow, it all comes together.
There’s the bejewelled, strawberry-topped no-bake cheesecake. Insert collective withdrawal of breath as Violet presents the finished product. We have thus far gamely stuffed a cavernous duck; but this looks a little beyond our reach. “Yes, you can make this, it’s easy!” she asserts. What was meant to be a demo session becomes hands-on, as heart-shaped cookie cutters become our Figure 4 Strawberry no-bake cheesecake little cheesecake moulds.
I confess – with some shame – that it’s my first time with fried milk, or what Violet also calls silver egg whites (see recipe below). I’m not sure how I could ever have passed up a dish that intriguing in name, but in any case, Violet’s version has me hooked. First, the bed of vermicelli. Fine, dried rice noodles are dipped in hot oil, where they pop and expand into ethereal clouds. Then milk is sautéed with egg whites and topped with shredded crab and pine nuts – a home-kitchen incarnation of a restaurant dish found across Southern China and Hong Kong. It’s light, almost mousse-like. As Violet Oon would say, it’s quintessentially show-off.
The mall has about closed up by the time we’ve had the last of the fried milk, and retrieved our miniature cheesecakes. Violet lingers on to chat with guests – on anything, it seems, from food to work to grandchildren. It’s been a frenzied night of cooking, but with the kind of atmosphere that only Violet can bring to the prep table, it’s hardly felt like a cooking class at all – more like instruction taken in an indulgent aunt’s kitchen.
Which, of course, is the best kind of cooking class.
SILVER EGG WHITES WITH CRAB MEAT AND PINE NUTS
(a traditional Cantonese fried milk recipe from Dai Liang County)
by VIOLET OON
To Deep Fry:
25g pine nuts
1 handful rice vermicelli
5 to 6 cups vegetable oil
Egg White/Fried milk Mixture:
¼ cup fresh milk
¼ cup unsweetened evaporated milk
3 egg whites
1 ½ tsp cornflour
⅛ tsp salt
½ tsp sesame oil
2 tbsp vegetable oil
100g crab meat
2 tsp chopped ham
2 tsp chopped coriander
Few leaves romaine lettuce
1. Heat the 6 cups of oil in a small saucepan and when it is very hot, add the rice vermicelli and it must puff up immediately – remove quickly with a sieve. Drain on paper towels
2. Heat up the oil again and deep fry the pine nuts till golden brown. Remove with a sieve and drain.
3. Make the Egg White/Fried Milk Mixture: In a bowl mix together the fresh milk, evaporated milk, egg whites, cornflour and salt. Whisk well with a wire whisk till the milk mixture is fluffy. Add sesame oil and whisk gently to mix in.
4. Heat a wok until it is very hot; add 2 tablespoons vegetable oil and heat it up. Add the milk mixture and scrape the mixture from the bottom and sides of the pan towards the centre several times until the ingredients are set into a scrambled egg consistency.
5. Add the crab meat and fry till egg is cooked. Remove from the wok, arrange on top of noodles and top with the pine nuts. Garnish and serve.