New cookbook is an ode to baking with yeast and unique ‘indie’ creative impulses


Kare pan is a Japanese deep-fried curry-filled bun that often uses unnecessary additives and oil. Tan’s version is baked from scratch. — Photos: NERDBAKER2: TALES FROM THE YEAST INDIES

We all have an Achilles heel, that slice of kryptonite so seemingly insurmountable, we are forced to concede defeat. For Christopher Tan, this once took the form of sourdough bread.

Tan is an award-winning Singaporean cooking instructor, photographer and writer who has written extensively on food culture and heritage for over 25 years. He has authored or co-authored over 14 cookbooks including the lauded The Way of Kueh, which chronicles Singapore’s rich repository of kueh.

And yet, despite this wealth of experience, Tan had his ‘mere mortal’ moment with sourdough bread, the mastery of which continued to elude him for years... that is until the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic forced him to try his hand at it again. And so years after attempting the impossible, Tan finally nailed making sourdough bread.

Behold, Tan’s long-awaited perfect sourdough, the bread that inspired the book.Behold, Tan’s long-awaited perfect sourdough, the bread that inspired the book.

The trial-and-error and endless practice rounds yielded the kernel of an idea for a new cookbook, one based around baked goods made with ferments of some sort. And that is how his latest cookbook NerdBaker 2: Tales from the Yeast Indies came into being. The book serves as a sequel to his hugely popular 2015 cookbook NerdBaker.

“My previous book The Way of Kueh was published at the end of 2019. I was planning to spend 2020 travelling and recharging: however, after travelling up to Penang to launch the book there in February 2020, when I got back to Singapore we abruptly went into pandemic lockdown a few weeks later. So what could I do but stay at home and cook and bake, just like – it seemed – the rest of the world was doing?

“Baking was my first love – I started baking in earnest when I was 14 – and so I used the downtime to return to it. Notably, lockdown gave me the time to properly tackle growing a sourdough starter to bake sourdough bread with. In my first NerdBaker cookbook (which came out in 2015), I wrote a whole chapter on how I had tried to make sourdough for years but only met with failure – but in 2020 I finally met with success: the silver lining in the pandemic cloud.

Nerdbaker 2: Tales from the Yeast Indies was inspired by the time Tan spent baking during the Covid-19 pandemic and offers a range of recipes that all incorporate ferments.Nerdbaker 2: Tales from the Yeast Indies was inspired by the time Tan spent baking during the Covid-19 pandemic and offers a range of recipes that all incorporate ferments.

“And as I was baking, and virtually communicating with my readers and other bakers on social media, I noticed how everyone was sharing stories and recipes and encouragement, in a we’ll-all-get-through-this-together, gotong royong kind of spirit. It was very nourishing and energising, and this is what moved me to write Tales From The Yeast Indies. I thought that it was perfectly fitting for it to be a sequel to NerdBaker.

“‘Yeast Indies’ is a term I coined to express how the best bakers (and fermenters) have strong ‘indie’ creative impulses and unique ways of looking at food and the world, and while they are independent and individual artists they are also deeply connected to the communities that they live/work/eat in. These are character traits I aspire to forge in myself, too,” says Tan.

Putting together the book

In putting together the cookbook, Tan looked at assembling recipes that fulfilled a few checklists: they had seldom been featured in English-language publications; they explored familiar ingredients in novel ways; and finally, showcased his own predilections and obsessions – both past and current.

Tan is a phenomenal writer who has peppered his cookbook with his own sense of humour and personality as well as a clear descriptive style and very, very precise methodology and instructions.Tan is a phenomenal writer who has peppered his cookbook with his own sense of humour and personality as well as a clear descriptive style and very, very precise methodology and instructions.

Tan also wanted to highlight the idea of making fantastic breads, cakes and kuih without the need for additives or emulsifiers.

With all this in mind, he set about developing a tenuous blueprint for the book, although with his level of experience, this wasn’t as much of an uphill task as one might imagine.

“Creating and refining recipes is pretty second nature by now. The ongoing and perpetual goal is to direct my energies in fruitful directions.

“I do start with a potential recipe longlist, but with the tacit understanding that it will evolve and morph during the writing process. Everything has to harmonise together. You also have to leave room for serendipity.

“For example, the pandan kaya butterkuchen was a relatively late addition to the final line-up, as I decided I needed one more item that was relatively simple to make but delivered maximum flavour bang for the buck. The idea itself had been percolating in my head for quite a while: I love traditional German butterkuchen, and it occurred to me that I could make it taste like kaya toast if I added little pockets of kaya,” he says.

Tan believes in being as clear as possible in his cookbook, which is why many of his recipes are accompanied by step-by-step pictorial guides to ensure readers don’t lose their way during the baking process.Tan believes in being as clear as possible in his cookbook, which is why many of his recipes are accompanied by step-by-step pictorial guides to ensure readers don’t lose their way during the baking process.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of collating the book was the fact that Tan wrote the recipes and text, cooked all the baked goods and did the food styling AND the photography for every single meal he made. This involved a whole lot of juggling to ensure he met his own high standards as well as the requisite deadlines.

“The overarching challenges of wearing so many hats are always time management and file management! And hence also sleep management...” he says.

About the book

Tales from the Yeast Indies is probably one of the most comprehensive, well-written cookbooks in the market. It is clear that Tan’s writing style is personal – his sense of humour is evident on every page in the book and so is his penchant for wordplay. “It is the number one memory foam pillow,’’ he writes about a kopitiam loaf.

Tan’s descriptive style meanwhile is unparalleled and it is almost as though you are right there watching him make each recipe. “This is it. This is my loaf, the star to which I have hitched my oven, my core raison d’aigrir which I will bake for the rest of my life,” he writes about the sourdough bread he finally perfected.

The book details a range of recipes for both familiar and unfamiliar bakes as well as those that are a little experimental. Pictured here is Tan’s kopitiam loaf.The book details a range of recipes for both familiar and unfamiliar bakes as well as those that are a little experimental. Pictured here is Tan’s kopitiam loaf.

“All cookbook authors do their best to infuse themselves into their works – I believe that if you are passionate about the topics you write about and committed to exploring them with rigour, honesty and humour, your words will inevitably reflect your personality. Say it like you see it,” he says.

Tan is also fastidious about listing down methods and instructions and has taken great pains to photograph step-by-step processes to ensure readers don’t flail or fail. He even prescribes implements and ambient temperature that bakers should pay attention to when making their baked goods – something you almost never find in cookbooks anywhere.

For example, Tan goes into elaborate detail about the utensils and tools he himself uses, like an Indian blender, stand mixer, stainless steel mixing bowls and so on. By letting readers into his own kitchen and the ways and means he goes about gaining results, he basically demystifies processes involved in finalising each product. It’s a refreshing addition that makes so much difference.

“As someone who has spent many years collecting, reading, using, writing and editing cookbooks, few things frustrate me more than vague or ambiguous recipe details. (I have many vintage cookbooks with recipes that end in “Masak sampai matang” or similar...).

Tan's level of detail is evident in the pages that painstakingly detail the flours and starches that he uses to create his baked goods. Tan's level of detail is evident in the pages that painstakingly detail the flours and starches that he uses to create his baked goods.

“As a cooking instructor, I value the importance of clearly explaining things. Especially in baking, even small changes in parameters like room temperature and humidity and flour protein content can give rise to big differences in results. Being as clear and informative as possible, whether via lengthy descriptions, step-by-step pictorial guides, suggestions for ingredient substitutions and so on, encourages and empowers readers to start cooking.

“I also specifically wanted to address issues that bakers in the tropics have to deal with, such as persistently high room temperatures (especially these days!), and how to manage them in order to successfully bake sourdough and other breads. Baking books written by authors living in temperate climates almost never address these matters,” he explains.

The book documents a range of recipes that have one common binding factor: they all incorporate yeast in some form. In the book, Tan writes in detail about the ways that yeast forms – from the wild yeast species that populate sourdough bread to lactic acid bacteria which help determine the funkiness of kimchi and tempoyak and acidify Chinese bun dough starters.

Tan also writes at length about wet yeasts, like tapai and fermented palm sap as well as dry yeasts like instant yeast, nutritional yeast and red yeast rice.

In his book, while the vast majority of the recipes call for instant yeast, there are recipes where other ferments are required, like tapai ubi (fermented cassava), sake kasu, milk kefir and sourdough starters – just to add some variety to the mix.

To create the recipe for this Parsi sugee cake, Tan turned to a recipe published in 1935.To create the recipe for this Parsi sugee cake, Tan turned to a recipe published in 1935.

So what kind of recipes can you expect to discover via Tan’s fertile baking brain? A whole lot of exciting stuff, that’s for sure.

Examples of recipes in the book include kopitiam loaf, sweet potato brioche, kue mangkok pandan, serabi telur, pineapple buns, fried Mangalore buns, kefir rava paniyaram, kompia, Parsi-style sugee cake and Tan’s hard-fought sourdough bread.

Historical nuggets

Another interesting element to the book is the historical richness that Tan serves up by employing his impressive investigative skills to unearthing regional stories of yore associated with baking.

For example, did you know that prior to the arrival of dried yeast, toddy was used almost exclusively as a leavening agent in local bakeries? In fact, Tan managed to dig up a Straits Times report from 1870 that estimated a need for 400 to 500 bottles of toddy by each of Penang’s large bakeries!

In addition, the book also sheds light on the Hainanese influence on baked goods in Malaysia and Singapore and the fact that European bakeries were a feature in then-Malaya from the late 19th century and churned out fancy breads, croissants, brioches, rolls and biscuits.

Serabi telur comes from the family of pancake-shaped kuih.Serabi telur comes from the family of pancake-shaped kuih.

“I spend a lot of time in physical and virtual libraries. Readers who have my previous books will know that food heritage and history play a big part in my work. I always invest time in research, not just to unearth facts relevant to the recipes or topics I address in my books, but also to inform and deepen my perspective on foodways and culture, and to spark inspiration when I’m creating and refining new recipes. As Chef Pang Kok Keong said to me once – which I quote in my book The Way of Kueh – “Where are you going to go if you don’t know where you come from?”

“Hence I think that it benefits all of us to remember that port cities like Melaka and Singapore have histories that stretch far and deep, and that cuisines from other parts of the world have had a continuous presence in such cities for over a century (I mean, the fact that we even eat sliced sandwich bread at all...).

“I remember reading an advert in an issue of the Pinang Gazette from 1883 for a shop selling Western ice creams, puddings, pastries and wedding cakes! So when contemporary trends for French patisserie and the like reach our shores, they are only the latest manifestation of a longstanding familiarity, whether or not we’re aware of it.

Most of the recipes in the book, like the one for this sweet potato brioche, simply require the use of instant yeast.Most of the recipes in the book, like the one for this sweet potato brioche, simply require the use of instant yeast.

“And before production and supply chain tech was good enough for fresh or dried baker’s yeast to reliably survive packaging and transportation to Asia, fresh palm toddy was widely used as a leavening agent for bread in our region.

“As I understand it, toddy shops in Malaysia are much fewer in number today than there were decades ago, and Singapore has not had a physical toddy shop since 1979, so it’s not very surprising that modern generations aren’t aware of its former importance.

“Our mothers and grandmothers would have been aware of toddy’s role in making traditional kuih-muih such as apam kampung and bika ambon,” he says.

NerdBaker 2: Tales from the Yeast Indies is available at Kinokuniya KLCC, Tsutaya and MPH Bookstores.

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