Home cook Ellen Wong still makes the Chinese food she learnt in the 1950s


  • Food News
  • Friday, 12 Jul 2019

Steamed minced pork with eggs

The first thing you’ll notice as you enter Ellen Wong’s home is her lush utopian garden. Every square inch is dotted with potted plants, creepers and flower bushes, with arches, little garden tables and even a pond accentuating this fertile beauty.

“Yes, it is a lot of work but I tend to the garden every day,” says the friendly Wong, gazing at the verdant green around her.

In many ways, Wong is used to tending to both plants and people, a nurturing quality that began as a child. The eldest in a family of five, Wong was tasked with looking after her younger siblings and cooking the family meals, as her mother supplemented her father’s income by being a tailor.

“My mum said I started to cook rice when I was four or five years old. That time there was no rice cooker, we had to put the rice on the charcoal stove to cook. So that was how I started to learn how to cook,” she says.

Her mother’s method of “teaching” was typical of old-school modes of passing down knowledge. “My mother would tell me what I was supposed to do and give me the method and I would just do it lah,” says Wong, laughing at the recollection.

Wong started cooking when she was four or five years old.

In the beginning, Wong professes to having no interest in cooking as it was just about finishing her chores in the shortest possible time. “There was no passion, it was just purely about having to do it,” she confirms. But over time, she grew to love cooking, especially after she got married and had her four sons.

“I cooked every day when my sons were growing up – that time, there were more people – my father-in-law and mother-in-law were around, so every day I cooked for everybody by myself. And when my boys were growing up, it was a great joy to see them finish everything on the plate,” she says.

Although Wong is now in her sixties, she continues to make the nostalgic Chinese meals she ate as a child, like her steamed chicken, a wholesome meal made up of tender, flavoursome poultry.

“My mother reared a lot of chickens – I think we always had about 10 chickens running around, so we got to eat chicken all the time. So this is a dish I grew up eating a lot.

Wong says she only began to truly enjoy cooking once she got married to her husband Kong (left) and had her sons. These days, she cooks all the old-fashioned Chinese dishes she grew up with for her husband, children and grandchildren.

“But I didn’t know how to cook it when I was younger. When I got married, my mother-in-law made a version of the dish but it wasn’t quite like my mother’s one. So I asked my mother how to make it and sort of simplified and perfected it,” she says.

Then there is Wong’s stir-fried hairy gourd with glass noodles, which features softly pliant slices of gourd juxtaposed against slithery strands of noodle.

“When we were growing up, my mother didn’t do the marketing every day, so she bought food that could keep for a long time in the fridge, and this gourd is one of them,” explains Wong.

Wong’s light, flavourful silken tofu with minced pork is another dish reminiscent of simpler times. “When I was young, I was lazy, so I found all the easiest things to cook for the family. This dish is one of them, because it is so quick to make,” says Wong.

Hot, nourishing soups are often at the forefront of homecooked Chinese meals and Wong grew up with plenty of them. These days, she makes these healthy, old-fashioned soups for her husband Henry Kong, who had cancer a few years ago and has since developed a hankering for these broths.

“Soups are very common in Chinese families. In a week, we will have it about three times – we will cook different soups for different days, also depending on what we have in the fridge. And my husband’s tastes have changed so I now cook a lot of soups as this is what he likes,” she says.

Although none of her children have any interest in cooking these old-school Chinese dishes, Wong continues to make them when the family gets together (two of her sons live overseas).

“Normally I will cook when all the children are together because the kids grew up on these meals and these dishes are just so easy to cook,” she says, laughing.

HAIRY GOURD WITH GLASS NOODLES

Serves 4

50g glass noodles

1tbsp oil

3 cloves garlic, chopped

20g dried shrimp, soaked in water and chopped (reserve shrimp water)

1 hairy gourd (500-600g), washed, peeled and cut into strips

1 tsp light soy sauce

½ tsp salt

Dash of pepper

Soak glass noodles in cold water until soft. Cut into shorter strands. Heat wok with oil and add garlic and dried shrimp. Fry until fragrant. Add hairy gourd, continue to stir and add water.

Cover wok to cook and soften hairy gourd. Add glass noodles and seasoning. Simmer for awhile and serve immediately.

STEAMED MINCED PORK WITH EGGS

Serves 4

150g minced pork

½ tsp salt

Pepper to taste

Dash of sesame oil

Light soy sauce to taste

3 eggs

Chopped spring onions, for garnish

Season minced pork with salt, pepper, sesame oil and light soy sauce. Beat the eggs with 1 rice bowl of water. Mix the minced meat into the beaten egg. Pour the mixture onto a plate.

In a steamer, wait until steamer reaches boiling point, then place the egg mixture into the steamer and steam for 15 minutes. Remove from the steamer, garnish with some spring onions, a dash of sesame oil and pepper.

OLD CUCUMBER SOUP

Serves 4

10 red dates

1 handful groundnuts

12-15 wolfberries

2 pieces dried scallop

5 pieces dried longan

1 dried cuttlefish

1 old cucumber, about 1 kg, skin removed, de-seeded and cut into wedges

1 carrot, peeled and cut

500g pork/chicken meat with bones, blanched

4 pcs chicken feet, blanched

1.5 litre water

Salt to taste

Wash the red dates, groundnuts, wolfberries, dried scallops and longan and dry thoroughly. Cut the dried cuttlefish into smaller pieces. Put all the ingredients into a large pot and boil for 2 hours. Add salt to taste and serve hot.

POACHED CHICKEN (PAK CHAM KAI)

Serves 4

1 chicken, 2.5kg

5cm ginger, peeled and cut into slices

2 sprigs spring onion, washed and sliced

1 tsp salt

To make chicken

Wash chicken and stuff cavity with sliced ginger and spring onions. Boil a large pot of water – use a pot big enough to fit the whole chicken. Once the water is boiled, put the salt into the hot water and slowly lower the chicken into the boiling water, breast side down.

Cover lid and let the soup and chicken boil; turn off fire once the soup reaches boiling point. Leave the chicken in the soup for a total of 30 minutes, flipping the chicken after 25 minutes. Remove chicken from water (reserve water) and let rest for an hour before chopping into pieces.

Serve with chilli sauce and ginger sauce.

CHILLI SAUCE

3 chillies

6 cloves garlic

5cm ginger

2 small limes, juiced

Sugar to taste

Chicken soup, as required

Blend or pound chillies, garlic and ginger and add lime juice and sugar to taste. Scoop some soup from the chicken soup and mix well into sauce.

GINGER SAUCE

5cm ginger

6 cloves garlic

1 small onion

Light soy sauce to taste

Sesame oil to taste

Garlic oil to taste

Chicken soup, as required

1 stalk spring onion, sliced

Blend ginger, garlic and onion until smooth. Add light soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic oil and chicken soup and adjust seasoning as needed. Top with spring onions.


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