Antoinette’s chef-owner Pang Kok Keong has been delving deeper into his Hakka heritage of late. One of the foods that he has experimented with making is a steamed Hakka kueh filled with leek, tau kwa, garlic and dried shrimps. “My mother used to make the kueh when I was very young, and I tried to re-create the taste.” He adds: “To me, the flavour of Hakka cuisine is very rustic and heavily seasoned. It’s not something that can be replicated easily because you need to have tasted it before to understand what the flavours are about. When I made this kueh, everything was from memory. I asked my mum to show me the method, although she hadn’t made the kueh for years. Based on trial and error, I kept making it until it was satisfactory.” And the result? His mother gave him a thumbs up for his effort.
Pang has also been working on the Hakka version of the pink-coloured png kueh (rice kueh). “This is the most time-consuming to prepare as the rice for the filling has to be soaked and steamed over a long period of time. You have to wrap the filling in dough and steam again,”
shares Pang. Another time-consuming dish that he’s been trying to perfect is the Hakka speciality of “abacus seeds” (suan pan zi) that’s usually made with yam. Pang tried making the “abacus” using purple and yellow sweet potato, which lend a vibrant colour to the dish, though it took him some time to get the texture right. “Personally, I like the dough to have a more bouncy/chewy texture,” he adds.
A WHOLE NEW WORLD
Having trained in French pastry techniques, Pang discovered various interesting elements when making Chinese kueh. “It works so differently from Western pastry. There seems to be many variables when making (Chinese) kueh. For example, for the png kueh, I made it many times using exactly the same recipe. But one time, when I was shaping it, the dough was sticky and difficult to work with. When I tried making it again, it turned out differently – it was bouncier and firmer. I used the same method, but the only difference was the smaller quantity.”
He adds: “Cake and bread flours are used in French pastry. Glutinous rice flour and tapioca starch are mostly used in kueh making. When I started to make kueh, I found these starches and flours very intriguing. It’s a whole new world, and that’s why it’s so interesting. For example, why do you need to pour boiling water into the flour to form the dough, and steam it? A lot of these recipes require you to pour in boiling water to semi-cook the flour – so that you can get a nice bouncy texture to the dough.”
So why is he embarking on this journey to discover his heritage? “During the last few years, I started to ask myself why I’m cooking other people’s heritage food instead of my own.
It might have something to do with my age, and my maturity. If I want to leave a legacy, I would rather leave a legacy of my own heritage than somebody else’s. I would like my kids and the younger generation to know more about local kueh. You can find a lot of reading material and information on other cuisines – but information on Hakka food seems to be very rare. That’s why I wanted to start documenting them.”
Recently, Pang launched a new menu at Antoinette. He fused Hakka and Singapore flavours with Western ingredients, “so the taste is rustic, but the presentation is refi ned”. His interpretations of classic dishes include chilli crab arancini, Hainanese chicken rice and Hakka gnocchi.
“For the chicken rice, we cook the chicken breast sous vide, and, instead of rice, we cook barley in chicken stock (a la risotto). We make our own chilli gel and serve the chicken with scallion ginger dressing. We make chilli crab arancini by cooking risotto with crabmeat and lobster bisque, and fill the centre of the risotto ball with chilli crab sauce,” he says. And for the classic abacus seeds dish? The chef has created a Hakka “gnocchi” – bouncy abacus seeds made of yam, sweet potato and beetroot, tossed in a sauce made of morel mushrooms, foie gras and cured pork. “I intend to go in this new direction and do something a little more unique.” He reiterates that Singaporeans are always looking for something new to try, but it’s important to embrace our roots.
PHOTOGRAPHY Vernon Wong
ART DIRECTION Denise Rei Low