Growing up in Singapore and sticking out like a sore thumb in every way made me want to leave the country every chance I got. I’ve ran away to Perth for a month when I was 16, hid out in Boston for the summer when I was 19 and most recently, extended my trip in Italy and stayed on a farm, 2 hours away from any big city, for 6 weeks! During these prolonged periods away from home, I waited for that sinking feeling of homesickness to come over me and spoil my holiday-making but it never did. I never once craved for hawker food nor missed anything about Singapore. In fact, it was always a challenge getting me to come home.
Being on the farm in Italy and seeing how much family meant to them did tug at the heartstrings a little bit and it also made me curious about finding my own culinary heritage. I’ll be honest and say I still don’t feel like I absolutely fit in on this young, tiny island where everyone lives in ‘little boxes made of ticky tacky and they all look just the same’ (theme song of Weeds). But in the meantime, while I’m on this adventure of self-discovery, I’m going to seize every opportunity to learn about the traditional food that probably made Singapore into such a quintessential gastronomic destination. I’m not talking about the flashy Michelin star restaurants or hawker style fare you can find at Lau Par Sat but the home style food your mother or grandmother painstaking makes for a family dinner and prepares days ahead.
Here is one of those recipes. My grandmother who is Cantonese learnt many Peranakan recipes from my Penang borne grandaunt, who has since passed. Like the Italians, I know everyone is proud of their own Laksa recipe and I respect that so please don’t shoot me if my grandmother didn’t do things in the exact same way yours did.
2-3 Small Fish (Ikan Kekek is best for it’s sweet meat but I used Ikan Kembong because the former was not readily available)
1-2 stalks of Laksa Leaves
A root of Galangal, skin and roughly slice
Half a block of Tamarind pulp (Assam)
3-4 pieces of Dried Assam peel
Fresh Chilli paste (add according to taste)
3-4 Stalks of Lemongrass
4-5 tablespoons of fresh chilli and shallot blend (simply blend half a lb of fresh, big chillis with equal amounts of peeled shallots in a food processor and refrigerate to add to curries and pastes as a base. Staunch Peranakans don’t kill me for using the *F word!!!)
Salt and sugar to season
Thick rice vermicelli (about 100g per person)
Half a pineapple, skinned
One laksa flower
A saucer of Shrimp paste (Hei Gou)
Mint leaves to garnish
Clean fish thoroughly and steam for 8-10 mins until cooked through. Cool, debone and flake the meat.
Bash the stems of lemongrass with a pestal and then cut into thirds.
Soak assam/tamarind seeds in a small bowl of water and squeeze the water from the seeds to extract the assam liquid.
Toast a small square of belachan until you smell that pungent scent.
Add the bones of fish,lemongrass, laksa leaves, sliced galangal, assam liquid and assam peel to a boiling pot of water.
Crumble the toasted belachan into the soup to ensure that it dissolves.
Add fresh chilli and shallot blend and fresh chilli paste to the stock.
Season with salt and sugar.
Boil for about an hour or until the soup loses the raw taste of the herbs. Tweak the taste by adding more assam liquid if it needs more sourness, more chilli paste for spice, sugar for sweetness or belachan for a richer shrimp flavour.
While the soup is boiling prepare the condiments.
Skin the cucumber and cut vertical chunks avoiding the core. Do this on all four sides so you end up with the meat of the cucumber only. Cut the chunks into thirds, thinly slice them and then cut again into fine thin strips.
Slice the pineapple into thin strips.
Slice thin strips off the tip of the laksa flower.
Arrange condiments in a tray along with the shrimp paste, mint leaves and the flakes of deboned fish.
When the soup is ready, strain the liquid.
Blanch the thick laksa noodles in a pot of boiling and then quickly transfer to a bowl of cold water to stop the cooking process.
Portion noodles in separate bowls and cover with boiling soup.
Add desired amounts of the condiments to the bowl of laksa and slurp away.
*Note: Apologies for the lack of a finished picture of the laksa. I obviously made a rookie food blogger mistake and was too eager to tuck in!
Reminiscing the days spent on the organic farm in Southern Italy can be very depressing when one has to return to the hustle and bustle of city life. Playing catch up with the pace in Singapore is pretty challenging after spending the whole summer in a country where slowfood (which pretty much reflects the lifestyle) originated. In spite of the luxuries of shopping malls, a convenient transport system or watching the latest movies as they’re launched, I know that I’m happiest in the countryside. Which is why I’m spending this one free afternoon being nostalgic about my time at San Cassiano, where time seemed to come to a standstill and each day was blissfully surreal.
The farm, situated in a small town called San Potito Sannitico, about 2 hours inland from the coast of Naples, is owned by Rosanna di Muccio. Together with her husband,they ran the farm for 15 years until he passed away 7 years ago. Being the strong, willful and savvy Italian mother she was, Rosanna kept the farm running on her own with the help of her sons, Vittorio, Andrea and Giorgio. It must have been the fresh mountain water or organically grown vegetables but anyhow, all of three boys turned out to be brilliant, talented artists. Vittorio was a painter and restorer of historic murals and art pieces, Andrea worked as a chef in Spain and other restaurants in Europe and Giorgio still runs a graphic design business in London till today. Their successful careers did take them away from the countryside and each of them left the farm at various periods to pursue their passion, leaving Rosanna to upkeep the farm. For cityfolk who have no clue, running a farm is a massive undertaking. The vegetable plots need to be weeded, the horses and pigs have to be fed, the garden needs watering, the barley has to be harvested, not forgetting the guest house and trattoria that they operate on the side. Rosanna kept it all going on her own through sheer obstinance and tenacity until her sons returned to the farm two years ago to help revive, modernize and market San Cassiano as an agri-tourism destination.
Rosanna is the epitome of an Italian mama. She is a warm, nurturing, smart and loving woman who is a force to be reckoned with. Endorsing the stereotype, she is also very stubborn, passive aggressive and micro-manages every single task. While working on the farm, there were countless times when Rosanna just threw her hands up in the air and proceeded to do the cleaning or sweeping herself because our standards weren’t up to scratch. One of the Italian words she used the most was ‘aspettare’, which means wait. ‘WAIT!’ (for me to show you how to tie the bamboo to the tomato vines perfectly). ‘WAIT!’ (for me to show you how I want the jars washed out). ‘WAIT!’ (…even though you’ve boiled the pasta exactly the way I wanted you to). Another time, I found myself in the middle of a heated argument over the thickness of the focaccia. I’d brought back some focaccia from a well-known bakery in Matera, an hour South of Bari, and it was round, relatively flat and had tomato sauce on it, which is how they enjoy focaccia in that region. Rosanna vehemently disagreed while using the famous italian hand gesture of pursing her fingers together and flicking her wrist, that what we were eating (which was delicious anyhow), was ‘pizza!no focaccia!’. I soon found out focaccia there was usually very thick and light and only has toppings of fresh herbs and olive oil. It was both frustrating and hilarious but I laughed it off with my fellow farm volunteers because at the core, Rosanna was the most generous, caring and hardworking individual who loved and fed us like we were family.
Mealtimes at San Cassiano were most memorable. Without batting an eyelid, Rosanna could cook up a pasta dish in minutes, after sizing up the day’s pickings of fresh vegetables from the garden and she would dish out perfectly cooked portions to everyone and leave the tiniest bit for herself. I learnt the phrase, ‘sono piena’, meaning I am full, very quickly because she would always ask us to ‘mangia mangia!’, finish up the food. Like any typical Italian family, theirs was a huge one and every other day, an extra plate, or five, would have to be added to the table as their relatives dropped by for a meal without prior notice. True to the traditional Italian culture, they all live in close proximity to the farm or in the neighboring town, Piedimonte Matese, are closely knit and all look to Rosanna with respect for all the things she’s accomplished.
In October, the San Cassiano family will expand to accomodate a baby girl, grandchild to Rosanna, who will be smothered with unconditional love by her Nonna. This lucky little girl will grow up in an amazing natural environment and be immersed in the culture of ‘La Familia’ so that she in time will also become a woman of substance and will no doubt possess all the exasperating yet endearing traits of an Italian mama.
The word zucchini is the popular Italian name for summer squash. Zucchini can be dark or light green, and have a shape similar to a cucumber; although round varieties are also available. The rinds and seeds of zucchini are tender and edible because the squashes are harvested when they are immature. Practically every part of the zucchini plant is edible. Sicilians make soup out of the leaves and vines, the flowers can be stuffed with meat or cheese and fried or baked, and the zucchini themselves are used in countless dishes. Although zucchini can grow almost 3 feet long, look for small ones between 6 and 8 inches in length which will prove to be more sweet and tender.
Grilled Zucchini Antipasti
5-6 Baby zucchinis
Extra virgin olive oil for marinate
Balsamic vinegar or white wine vinegar for marinate
A handful of fresh mint leaves
Salt to taste
Slice small zucchinis into thin strips and grill on stove top until they brown.
Layer in a casserole dish and flavor with salt, balsamic vinegar, olive oil and mint ensuring that the slices are submerged in the marinate.
Serve as antipasti with olives and cheese, add to salads or use as a filling for a sandwich.
Slice zucchini vertically leaving the core and half it into strips. Dice the strips.
Fry the zucchini in a big pan with olive oil and onions.
Store in the fridge for cooking with pastas or frittatas.
5-6 big zucchinis, sliced into thin circles
500g sliced onions
300g Parmigiano, grated
Pan fry the zucchini slices and onions in a big pan until soft and the onions become translucent.
Whip the eggs into a big bowl until frothy and add the grated parmigiano.
Line a big tray with baking paper and pour the egg batter into the pan.
Bake in the oven for 30-40mins at 180 degrees celsius until the top turns golden brown.
Cut into squares and serve when cooled.
Note: You can also cook the frittata in a pan over the stove.
Anybody knows that cheese or Formaggio is a staple ingredient in any Italian kitchen. These are the varieties of Campania and were served at the dinner table everyday. I almost couldn’t contain my excitement when they plopped the whole, round blob (about the size of a baby’s head) of Caciocavallo in the center of the table and everybody simply used a butter knife to cut slices of the mound. I’ll take rustic and wholesome over chic and refined any day!
Caciocavallo is produced throughout the year in Southern Italy, especially in the mountain ranges, using cow’s milk. The best Caciocavallo are those made in the spring because the cattle are able to graze. The cheese is matured for three months.
The Italian name of the cheese Caciocavallo means “Cheese on horseback” and it is thought that the name derives from the fact that two cheese forms are always bound together with rope and then left to mature by placing them ‘a cavallo’, i.e. straddling, upon a horizontal stick or branch.
The cheese has a pale yellow tint and very few holes. The flavor is mellow, sweet and delicate, with a smooth and thin rind.
Uses: For melting on pizza, in lasagne or can be eaten on its own with bread.
Scamorza is a plastic or stretched curd cheese usually made from cow’s milk but some provinces in Southern italy do use buffalo or sheep. Artisanal cheese makers form the cheese into a ball then tie a string around the top one-third of it and hang it to dry. This is sometimes referred to as “strangling” the cheese. Fresh Scamorza is ivory white unless it is smoked, which gives it a dark yellow hue. It has a shiny, thin crust and a slippery, smooth texture. Aged Scamorza has a stronger, fuller taste and becomes harder and more dense as it dries out.
Uses: Scamorza can be substituted for mozzarella in most dishes and it is reputed to melt better in the oven.
Cacioricotta can be made from processing the milk of goats, sheep or cow and it originates from Southern Italy in areas like Puglia, Basilicata, Campania and Calabria. The cheese is usually cylindrical and weighs between 1 and 2 kilos. The slightly off-white Cacioricotta bears the texture of paste, does not have any holes and has a grooved crust. Its smell is intense with hints of grass. It has a tangy, slightly spicy taste and may be seasoned with herbs or salt.
Uses: Can be eaten fresh as a spread on bread or used as a filling for crepes or rustic pies. After a fortnight, it can be grated to dress pasta dishes.
Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOC was granted Denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) status in 1993, which is the controlled designation of origin label to ensure quality for food products in Italy. Any buffalo mozzarella made in Campania bears the trademark. To produce 1 kg of cheese, a cheese maker requires only 5 kilos of buffalo milk instead of the regular 8 kilos of cows milk because it is so rich in fat. The porcelain white cheese has a stringy texture with an extremely thin rind. Pure buffalo mozzarella has a delicate taste and is not to be mistaken for cow’s-milk mozzarella which might look similar but is not as flavorful. The balls of fresh cheese are always swimming in brine to keep them from drying out.When cut, it produces a white watery fluid with the aroma of milk enzymes. Apart from its typical round shape, it is also produced in small bite-sized shapes and plaits.
Uses: Generally, buffalo mozzarella is enjoyed with pasta, calzone, vegetable, salad, on pizza, grilled bread or simply on its own.
Keeping true to the essence of this blog, this is a post about one of the many great women I came across in Southern Italy. Marika works at the kitchen of San Cassiano and has been whipping out trays upon trays of lasagna, crostatas and frittatas for the hundreds of guests who have been passing through the homey restaurant for 10 years. Her motherly demeanor welcomes anybody keen to learn traditional, rustic cooking from recipes passed down by her Nona (grandmother). Marika, like most brilliant cooks in Italy, is self-taught but she possesses the skills of a professional chef. She manages to accomplish a variety of dishes to serve large groups of people in a short span of time while maintaining a sparkling clean kitchen counter and stove. Never having learnt english in school, Marika picked up most of it from watching soaps on television. With a combination of halting english and expressive italian, she generously offered up her treasured recipes, many of which are portrayed in this blog.
Boil potatoes until they are soft and pierce it with a skewer to check if it is ready.
Process them in a potato ricer while they are hot. A potato masher or a fork will also do the job.
Add eggs and flour to the potatoes and knead till all the ingredients are incorporated. The consistency of the dough should be springy.
Cut the dough into smaller portions, about 8-10 pieces. Sprinkle flour to keep it dry and easy to handle.
Roll the pieces into long strips about the thickness of an index finger and cut every 3/4 of an inch. Flour pieces to keep them separated and spread them out on a big tray.
Shake excess flour off and place in boiling salted water to cook the gnocchi.
If storing for later use, freeze the uncooked gnocchi in the tray, then repack into ziplock bags.
Dice zucchinis and place in a pan with olive oil, garlic and onions. Fry the zucchini till the pieces are soft then add the cooked gnocchi to the pan along with a little of the pasta water. Season according to taste.
In the 26 years that I’ve been on this earth, I’ve taken my family’s heritage and traditions for granted. A terribly silly thing to do considering my grandmother is an awesome cook and has many inherited recipes to share. I intend to right that wrong when I return to Singapore.
It took a flight to a continent 13 hours away, returning to nature and living with a family so tight knit they eat together every single night, to deliver that inspiration to dig deep and find my own roots. This Italian family, owners of San Cassiano Agriturismo Farm, welcomes anyone to the dinner table and serves up the most honest, simple and delicious fare. The ingredients are the fruits of their labour from the fields and the Orto (Vegetable Garden). The recipes and experiences collected during the month on this farm, in the little town of San Potito Sannitico, is in recognition of all the Mamas of Italy.