Singapore: Asian ambrosia

By Sharon Stephenson

Samia Ahad, Singapore's answer to Nigella Lawson, prefers to embrace Asian food in
Samia Ahad, Singapore's answer to Nigella Lawson, prefers to embrace Asian food in

I have a squirming crab in one hand and a meat cleaver in the other.

My mission, it turns out, is to introduce one to the other - no mean feat when you're a coward who despises violence of any sort.

But Samia Ahad, Singapore's answer to Nigella Lawson, is having none of my protestations about being unable to dispatch the frantic crustacean to the hereafter.

"I don't buy into the theory that freezing and then boiling crabs is the best way to kill them," says the owner of the Coriander Leaf, a swanky restaurant on Singapore's Clarke Quay. "A quick whack to the head with a sharp cleaver is much quicker and better."

When she's not looking, I get Nick, her sous chef, to do the deed for me. Ten of us have signed up for the Singaporean Classics cooking class, held in a purpose-built kitchen just off the restaurant's main dining room. We're a mixed bunch - a lawyer from Hong Kong, a British mother and daughter, two Taiwanese housewives, and a couple of American tourists.

What we have in common is a love of good food and a desire to decode the basics of spicy Singaporean cuisine. It's also a welcome opportunity to trade the 32C heat for an air-conditioned haven.

My neighbour, the lawyer, tells me she once paid $2,000 to do a week's cooking course in Tuscany: "I learnt how to make the perfect gnocchi, to do impressive things with truffles and how to master risotto, but I didn't cook any of the food once I got home."

Ahad, however, promises the dishes she's about to demonstrate will become firm favourites and - judging by the smell and sights emerging from the kitchen - I have no reason to doubt her. She starts by demystifying Singaporean cuisine, a melange of food cultures which borrows heavily from Chinese, Indian, Malay, Indonesian and even Western diets, thanks to the Brits who staked their claim in the 1800s.

Toss in the Peranakan or Nonya cuisine, which features regional variations, and you wind up with a fascinating gastronomic choice. Not surprisingly, eating is a national obsession in Singapore and the locals, from those in the hawker markets to those found in the poshest eateries, seem genetically incapable of serving up bad food.

Ahad tells us her preference is to embrace Asian food in its widest geographic sense.

"Asia begins at Turkey, ends in Japan and takes in every food influence along the way," she says, chopping a jaw-dropping two cups of red chillies for the paste that forms the backbone of so many of Singapore's dishes. We're similarly aghast at the copious amount of oil used, but apparently it ensures a lifespan of up to six months.

Ahad makes short work of the mound of Malaysian crab she bought at the fish market earlier that day, dousing it in a mixture of back pepper, rice wine and soy sauce, before chucking it in the wok and creating aromas that have us all salivating.

Over the next few hours, we also learn how to make Singapore's famous black pepper beef, deal to the biggest pile of kai lan (Chinese broccoli) I have ever seen, and turn a humble packet of rice vermicelli into a spicy vegetable bee hoon.

Ahad, who has two Food Network TV shows and a cookbook to her name, also offers handy tips on everything from using two wrappers for the spring rolls (apparently it helps to keep them crisp), to the best way to clean a wok and achieve bright green veges using an ice-water bath.

Singaporeans aren't well known for their desserts, but if you're inclined to choose your holiday destination on the strength of a glutinous sweet, then you can't go wrong with black rice pudding. Ahad transforms two cylinders of gula melaka (palm sugar) into a thick syrup and adds a knot of local pandan leaf to the boiling rice. It might not look like much on paper - and it certainly wouldn't win any prizes in the aesthetics stakes - but partnered with diced mango and vanilla icecream, the dessert tastes what I imagine a kiss from an angel must be like.

Despite having several dishes on the go at once, Pakistani-born Ahad is so laid-back, she proves you don't have to be Gordon Ramsay to run a successful food empire. Surprisingly, she came to food late, having run a successful travel agency in London for 10 years before marriage to an American law student saw her move to New York.

"We were too poor to eat out, so I had to learn to cook and ended up being trained in classical French cooking."

Her husband's job saw them transferred to Singapore, where she has owned the Coriander Leaf for 13 years.

"I teach the food that I grew up with and the food that I love. And with cuisine this good, why wouldn't others love it, too?"

Indeed. Much, much later, after what seems like hours of gluttony, we stagger from the table, bellies full of delicious food and heads crammed with tips on how to recreate the dishes at home.

A month later, and Ahad's recipes have appeared in my dining room several times - just not those that involve doing unspeakable things to a crustacean.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies from Auckland to Singapore 12 times a week, and from Singapore to London three times a day.

* The Coriander Leaf on Clarke Quay.

Sharon Stephenson travelled with the assistance of Singapore Airlines and the Singapore Tourism Bureau.

- NZ Herald

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