"I'm trying to bring back the art of making chutneys and sauces," shares Shermay Lee as we settle down for lunch at The Clifford Pier. "There's just another layer of flavour that they add to the dining experience," she adds. One of Singapore's most recognisable names in the culinary scene, Lee has been instrumental in the revival of Singapore's rich culinary history — in particular, Peranakan food culture.
As a third-generation Nonya, her roots in the local culinary world run deep: Her grandmother Mrs Lee Chin Koon (mother of the late Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's first prime minister) was an esteemed chef, while her grand-aunt Mrs Leong Yee Soo was a famous cookbook writer. Both women inspired a generation of home cooks to try their hand at notoriously difficult Peranakan recipes, and their legacy lives on through Lee. Another lady who inspires Lee is Mrs Ellice Handy, the former principal of Methodist Girls' School, who was an avid chef and wrote a cookbook to raise funds for her school after World War II.
This year, Lee pays tribute to these three culinary pioneers and their time-tested recipes by presenting a flight of dishes over at The Clifford Pier. "These remarkable women were pioneers in their generation who used cooking as a means of financial independence in a post-World War II era, fund the education of their families, and better their communities," Lee said. "They used local ingredients and elevated them into delicious dishes that collectively reflected the fascinating Malayan, colonial and Peranakan recipes of that era." Indeed, throughout the eight-course tasting, the local flavour of the dishes truly sang and made for a nostalgic trip down memory lane. Here, we pick five standout dishes from Lee's SG50 menu that made an impression for their rich, distinct flavours (and yes, the chutneys are a star dish, too).
Mrs Lee's Peranakan popiah
One of the late Mrs Lee's signature dishes, these delightful rolls are a local favourite that most Singaporeans know for their stewed radish filling and rice flour skin. Shermay Lee gives this dish a twist by offering guests the option of using the lesser-known egg skin to wrap up morsels of lap cheong, slow-cooked turnip, crab meat, prawns, coriander leaves and Shermay's signature cilicuka, a red chilli sauce given a tangy dose of vinegar.
Mrs Handy's itek sio
This dish is by far our favourite from the menu. Despite its relatively simple ingredients, this is a traditional Peranakan dish that is exceedingly difficult to do well. The secret is in the sauce, which has been given a splash of cinnamon and brandy, while the duck has been cooked till superbly tender. But it's the house-made pineapple-apple chutney served alongside the itek sio that impresses with its sweet-spicy balance and complementary flavours.
Mrs Leong's Cantonese beef cheek stew
There is nothing to fault with this umami-rich beef cheek stew. This dish, which has its roots in Cantonese cuisine, features beef cheek simmered to a melt-in-your-mouth consistency. The stew is an aromatic mix of star anise, cinnamon and peppercorns that adds a great boost of flavour when served over a bowl of rice. Or two.
Mrs Leong's chicken almond-cashew curry
Everyone has memories of their favourite chicken curry, and this one brings back happy thoughts. The spicy curry gravy has been tempered with the nutty richness from the addition of almonds and cashews and is simply finger-licking good with the nasi briyani.
Mrs Handy's fish kedgeree
Fluffy fried rice is mixed with butter and flaky fried thread fish, and served with hard-boiled kampung eggs. The utterly refreshing tomato chutney is a piquant contrast to the hearty rice dish, as is the nonya achar, which is too good to be relegated as a side dish.
Shermay Lee's SG50 Menu is available from 1 to 31 August 2015 for lunch and dinner at The Clifford Pier.