From braising a herb-stuffed eight-treasure duck for five hours to making bubur cha cha from scratch, housewife Tang Bee Leng has no qualms toiling in the kitchen to conjure up culinary magic.
So it is surprising to learn that she once thought of cooking as a chore.
Being the eldest daughter of seven children, Madam Tang was made the family's de-facto "cooking apprentice" - slaving away in the kitchen with her mother to prepare elaborate 10-course meals for up to 30 of her mother's friends who often visited their home.
Now 66, the bubbly grandmother of five recalls: "I was frustrated as there was an endless list of chopping and washing tasks. I didn't get a chance to enjoy them."
She kept a close eye on her mother as the older woman whipped up Cantonese classics such as paperwrapped chicken, Hong Kong fried noodles with char siew and shrimp, as well as brewed black chicken and lotus root soups. These experiences equipped her with the skills to master Chinese cooking.
From Cantonese-style steamed seabass drenched in hot oil and soya sauce to claypot rice, Madam Tang fires up a cornucopia of Chinese dishes with ease. She shares one of her favourite dishes, Chinese-style sticky pork ribs, here.
She started cooking the dish about two decades ago when a former colleague shared a braised pork ribs recipe with her.
To make the meat more visually appealing, she slathers maltose on the ribs before roasting them. After caramelising in the oven, the luscious maltose glaze lends a subtle sweetness and a shiny sheen.
Instead of rubbing the spices on the ribs, she braises everything in a wok for about an hour. "This makes the meat more moist and tender and gives it a melt-in-your-mouth texture," she says.
The most tricky part of cooking this dish lies in the last 15 minutes of the 75-minute-long braise.
This is when the gravy reduces to a thick and sticky sauce, and the ribs stick to the bottom of the wok, burning easily. Thus, it is crucial to keep a close eye on the meat, with some water on standby.
The Chinese-style sticky pork ribs is a hit with her grandchildren, who devour them heartily during thrice-weekly family meals. She says: "It is so satisfying to see them lick the bones clean."
Her husband, 66, is retired and used to work in the tourism and hospitality industry. They have three daughters, aged 30 to 40.
Madam Tang's pork ribs are also well-received by her friends. Once, she braised about 30kg of pork ribs and lugged them to a friend's wedding party, where she barbecued them over a charcoal grill.
"Everyone started queuing for my pork ribs. It was the first dish to be wiped out," she recalls with pride.
She is also generous with imparting her cooking knowledge through her recipe blog, The Burning Kitchen (theburningkitchen.com).
The year-old blog is a repository of more than 100 recipes, including popular dishes such as sticky coffee pork ribs, steamed egg custard and steamed rice cake (bai tang gao). She also shares recipes for Thai dishes such as wok-smoked lemongrass mullet and pineapple rice, which she learnt to cook when living in Thailand for the few years her husband was there on a job posting.
Once computer-illiterate, Madam Tang now blogs one or two recipes a week, with help from her second daughter Melissa Hong, 34, and answersquestions from readers on her blog's Facebook account.
Ms Hong started the blog to document her mother's wealth of cooking experience.
Madam Tang hopes that the blog will keep her culinary legacy alive and preserve her memories through food. "Whenever I blog, I can smell the aroma of the dish as I am typing out the recipe and that makes me want to cook again."
CHINESE-STYLE STICKY BBQ PORK RIBS
- 700g pork ribs (one rack of eight ribs, uncut)
- 2.4 litres water
- 11/2 Tbs oyster sauce
- 3/4 Tbs dark soya sauce
- 2 tsp light soya sauce
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 2 Tbs chopped garlic
- 6 to 7 tsp sugar
- 1/4 tsp white pepper
- 2 Tbs maltose (can be bought from Phoon Huat stores)
- 2 tsp white sesame seeds
- 1 sprig coriander
- 1 bird's eye chilli, chopped
1. Under a running tap, wash the rack of pork ribs.
2. In a wok set over high heat, add 1.2 litres of water and bring it to a boil. Immerse the rack of pork ribs in the boiling water and blanch it for five to seven minutes to remove the scum and blood. Remove the meat from the wok carefully with a pair of tongs. Set aside.
3. Set a clean wok over high heat, add 1.2 litres of water, oyster sauce, dark and light soya sauces, salt, garlic, sugar and pepper. Stir mixture well and bring it to a boil.
4. Gently place the ribs into the wok. Ensure that the meat is immersed in the liquid. Cover the wok and cook the meat for 20 minutes.
5. Switch to medium heat and cook the meat for 40 minutes. Use tongs to flip the rack of ribs every 20 minutes to ensure that it does not stick to the pan and the meat is evenly cooked.
6. Switch to low heat and cook for 15 minutes. The gravy should have reduced to a thick and sticky sauce. Watch the meat closely to ensure that it does not get burnt. To check if it is tender, insert a chopstick between the ribs. The chopstick should poke through easily. If the meat is tough, add 200ml water and cook for about 10 to 15 minutes.
7. Once the meat is cooked, turn off the heat. Using a pair of tongs, carefully transfer the ribs onto a plate.
8. Drizzle 1 Tbs maltose over the ribs and brush the maltose evenly on the meat (left). Turn the rack of ribs over and repeat.
9. Preheat the oven at 220 deg C. Line a baking tray with parchment paper and transfer the ribs onto the tray.
10. Roast the ribs for five to 10 minutes (with only the top heating element turned on) until they are slightly charred.
11. With a pair of tongs, transfer the ribs onto a chopping board.
12. With a knife, slice the rack into individual ribs. Arrange them on a plate and garnish with sesame seeds, coriander and chopped bird's eye chilli. Serve with rice and the reduced sauce.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.