It’s a cool and rainy Friday afternoon but inside Serene Tan’s home, the mood is warm. Vanilla-scented candles flicker, and Michael Buble croons over the speakers, as Serene, dressed in an elegant strapless Alfred Sung outfit, welcomes guests to afternoon tea.
Relationships with family and friends are paramount to Serene, who designed her modern home with loved ones in mind. “I wanted a place where we could entertain because my family is in Indonesia. When they come to visit, we want to host them,” says Serene, who moved into the luxurious three-storey house in December 2016, with her husband of eight years, aviation professional Benjamin Kim. “We also enjoy time spent with friends. We laugh and hang out till midnight. I like to make sure people are taken care of.”
Today, Serene, who is Hewlett-Packard’s deal intake leader for the Asean region, has gathered a group of equally accomplished women. They include doctor Iroshini Chua; Stephanie Lee, executive director of investment holding company TS Lee & Sons; lawyers Susan Peh and Tan Min Li; and Lynn Yeow-de Vito, who runs communications agency Loop.
Joining them as a special guest is respected chef and restaurateur Violet Oon. “When you entertain at home, you’re opening your heart, not just your home,” says Violet, who is also providing the catering for today’s event. “We have prepared a canape-style, semi-high tea menu for the ladies. They are all Singapore dishes, or Singapore- inspired,” she adds.
Sambal Kim Chiam Udang; Tauhu Goreng
Crostini with Otak, Chilli Crab and Buah Keluak
Coronation Chicken on Crispy Wonton; Beef Rendang on Nasi Kuning
Kueh Bengka; Kueh Dadar; Bubur Cha Cha Panna Cotta
Her team has expertly transformed the island counter in the middle of Serene’s sleek open kitchen into a tropical garden. Boat orchids, hanging bird of paradise flowers, pandan leaves, golden shower orchids and monstera fern leaves surround beautifully displayed bite-sized food on wooden boards.
Among the dishes is sambal kim chiam udang. “It’s dried lily bud with prawns and starfruit, so it has a zest to it,” shares Violet, who uses coconut milk, lime and sugar for the “piquant and sweet” sambal kim chiam. The stunning display also includes tauhu goreng and buah keluak on crostini. “To the French, truffles are black diamonds. To Singaporeans, buah keluak is the black diamond,” says Violet. “It has a similar smokey flavour as truffles. We fry it with a mixture of spices, coconut milk and puree of prawns, so it looks like tapenade.”
One of her signature dishes is beef rendang on nasi kuning. “In Malay culture, the yellow coconut rice signifies royalty,” she says. “The flavour matches because the rice is creamy, and the rendang has a creamy, ‘coconutty’, spicy sauce.” Meanwhile, the coronation chicken is based a British recipe that dates back to 1953, when it was invented for the banquet for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. “A nod to our colonial heritage,” says Violet.
The standout favourite, however, is the signature dry laksa. “I had two portions of that,” says Stephanie. Lynn enjoyed three servings. “The dry laksa is always my favourite of Violet’s,” Lynn says. “Usually laksa is soupy but, because this is dry, it has intensity of flavours in one small portion.”
Violet says: “It’s laksa without the gravy. We finely chop the laksa leaf and do a pesto, so it’s laksa served in a very different way.” The canape-style dishes are designed specially so guests can eat as much or as little as they like. Violet adds: “When you have a tea party with friends, people do expect food and not just conversation. You don’t want your guests leaving and having to go to a hawker centre!”
But there’s more to it than ensuring Serene’s friends are satiated – for many of them, food is one of the bonds of their friendship. “I can’t hang out with anybody who doesn’t eat well,” says Lynn. “It doesn’t have to be expensive, and it’s not about eating healthily, it’s about eating well. Serene and I, we both enjoy food.” A gracious hostess, Serene ensures not only that everyone eats well, but that their glasses of Moet et Chandon are regularly refreshed, too.
“Usually when I host, I get really busy. I’m very hands on because I want to make sure people are taken care of,” says Serene. It’s one of the reasons she prefers to host smaller parties rather than invite a cast of thousands. “I don’t like to have a huge group because by the end of it, people gather in little groups. It’s not that it isn’t good, it’s just a different synergy.”
A party of seven, it seems, is the perfect number for a group of women that is getting to know one another more intimately. Says Susan: “All friendships need to be built. It’s so lovely, especially among women, to develop a bond like sisters. It need not be elaborate; simplicity can also be lovely.”
The conversation and laughter continue during dessert. The dessert items span kueh bengka (“It’s fresh tapioca, coconut, sugar and a bit of butter, and it’s gluten-free,” says Violet); kueh dadar (“The green comes from the pandan leaf. We grind the leaf and squeeze out the juice”); and one of Violet’s special creations, bubur cha
cha panna cotta (“Instead of coconut soup, we make it into a panna cotta”).
Over fresh fruit, the ladies sing the praises of their hostess.
“Serene is very elegant; she’s understated, which I appreciate,” says Stephanie. “This is the first time I’ve been to her house, so I’m quite appreciative that she has extended an invite to me.”
Susan adds: “Some friends are new here but (the mood) was really chatty and we felt like old friends.
“It shows that memories made at the table, and with food, really bond people and create friendships.”
SERENE’S PRE-PARTY TIPS
What to do before your guests arrive.
CONSIDER THE GUEST LIST
“It’s not random, there’s a lot of thought behind it. I go on Facebook and see who usually hangs out with whom. I make sure everybody loves the company of the other guests.”
“I would love to send a card but it would be awkward nowadays to say, ‘Hey, can you give me your address?’ So I prepare an e-card with the details and e-mail it to guests.”
DRAW UP A SEATING PLAN
“I make sure that couples sit together. We have a guy across from a guy, and a girl across from a girl, so the couples get to talk. Later they split into girls and boys anyway, so that’s fine.”
USE PLACE CARDS
“I put a lot of thought into who sits with whom. And you want to make sure guests sit in the correct seat because I also give thank you gifts with a personalised written note.”
PHOTOGRAPHY VERNON WONG ART DIRECTION DENISE REI LOW