This is my contribution to #LetsLunch, a virtual online potluck on Twitter. This month, we’re celebrating the release of the fiction anthology edited by Cheryl Tan, Singapore Noir, which also includes a story by this month’s host, Monica Bhide.
Singapore, the tiny yet powerful city-state in Southeast Asia, has something of a split personality. Notorious for its nearly totalitarian social code which allows for liberal caning (beating with a bamboo stick) for infractions of the law and includes fines for jaywalking and failing to flush public toilets, it also has a seedier side. It has a nickname of “Sin City” and indeed, its airport code is “SIN.” I know both sides of Singapore’s personality well. In college, I spent most of my junior year abroad as a foreign student at the National University of Singapore. That was a very controlled environment with faculty “Masters” ensuring order in all the hostels (dormitories).
But I also lived for a few months with my cousin, who lived in an old-style colonial shophouse above her optical business. She worked hard all day selling eyeglasses, and would roll down the metal shutters in front of the shop windows when it was time to close. After a while, I noticed there was noise continuing late into the night from the closed shop. I was also asked not to go down there at night. Turns out, her shop turned into a mahjong parlor at night, and I believe they played for cash, sometimes a lot of it. Gambling. My cousin never spent time there with the rotating cast of men who’d come to try their luck, but her raison d’être for immigrating to Singapore from her native Taiwan was, in fact, related also to debt. It was never made clear to me if the source of that debt was mahjong related or otherwise, but years before my arrival, and when I was too young to be included in such adult discussions, my cousin was sent away from Taiwan, away from her beloved fiancé, for her own protection. It was arranged that she would marry an older man who agreed to protect her. Had she not done so, her family feared that she would be physically harmed.
Those gambling nights in steamy Singapore were not only mysterious, but multi-sensory: the click-clack-swish of mahjong tiles, the loud sounds of the Hokkien dialect, the acrid odor of cigarette smoke. But also mingled with this were some wonderful aromas of food brought over from the hawker center across the street. There might be char kway teow (fried rice noodles with beef and cockles) or nasi goreng (fried rice). Something spicy, greasy and carb-based seemed to be the appropriate accompaniment to a long night of gambling.
In remembrance of the nocturnal mysteries in the shop below my cousin’s apartment, I present my favorite spicy, greasy, carb-based meal: kimchi fried rice. While this is not something you find in a Singaprean hawker center, it would fit right in. I make mine with brown rice, which I think absorbs the kimichi flavors even better than white rice, though it might take some of the sin out of Singapore.
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Kimchi Fried Rice
The addition of chopped kimchi, or the traditional Korean accompaniment of Napa cabbage leaves pickled and fermented in bright red cayenne and garlic, transforms humble fried rice into something truly sublime. Put a runny-yolked fried egg on top, and it’s a complete meal.
My “recipe” varies each time I make it. I’ve made it vegetarian some nights, and other nights I’ve added leftover chicken, turkey, ham and sometimes even bacon. I’ve outlined a recipe to serve 4 people below, but the general recipe is flexible. The ratio is 1 part kimchi to 2 parts rice, with the optional addition of a small amount of meat. This is an adaptation of Molly Wizenberg’s recipe on Orangette, which includes the brilliant addition of butter, which really rounds out the flavor (and adds back some of the sin). There’s also a last minute drizzle of sesame oil, and toppings of sunnyside up eggs, chopped scallions, and a sprinkle of the seaweed-sesame Japanese topping known as furikake.
1/2 to 1 cup diced cooked ham (may be omitted for vegetarian option)
2 cups Napa cabbage kimchi, diced
4 cups cooked brown rice, cooled
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter, plus more for frying eggs
2 tsp. sesame oil
Sesame seeds or furikake, for garnish
Sliced scallions or sweet spring onions, for garnish
Eggs, for frying, 1-2 per person
1. Warm some oil in a large skillet or wok, then add ham. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about a minute. Add the kimchi, and cook for several minutes, until the kimchi is hot and starting to caramelize.
2. Raise the heat to high, and add the rice, stirring well. Cook, stirring occasionally, for several minutes, until the rice is hot.
3. In another skillet, melt some butter and fry as many eggs as you’d like, seasoning with salt to taste.
4. When the rice is ready, stir in the butter and sesame oil, and season with salt to taste. Divide between 2-4 bowls, and top each with a fried egg or two. Garnish with sesame seeds or furikake and scallions.
Yield: 2 -4 servings
Please also visit this interesting set of contributions from #LetsLunch:
Anne Marie‘s Grifters’ Grinder at Sandwich Surprise!
Betty Ann‘s Devil’s Vegetable Vinegar Stew at Asian In America
Cheryl’s Dark Soy Sauce Pork Noodles
Linda‘s Black and White Ice-Cream at Free Range Cookies
Lisa‘s Pinot Noir Mulled Wine at Monday Morning Cooking Club
Margaret‘s Black Fried Rice at Tea and Scones
And if you’re interested in another true story from Singapore (and recipe for kaya toast), read here.
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