This week's recipe has a most intriguing name - tai yee ma ka loi. That Cantonese phrase translates to "eldest auntie marries off her daughter".
Curiouser and curiouser. The dish seems too everyday to be served at a wedding, so that cannot be the reason for its name. Was it tai yee ma's signature dish? Or the daughter's one last taste of mama's cooking before she left home?
What is not the least bit puzzling, however, is the staying power of this simple, homespun hairy gourd dish.
Many economy rice stalls serve it, my mother makes it and so do my friends' mothers. Now, hip deep in auntie-dom, I cook it too.
No version of the dish can be as good as the one at Zai Shun Curry Fish Head in Jurong East. It is one of my favourite places for breakfast on Sundays, even though I have to forgo the once-a-week sleep-in and drive halfway across the island.
Along with the coffee-shop stall's stellar steamed fish, I always have hairy gourd.
I suspect my love for it comes from the lard used to cook the dish, but I'm afraid to ask, in case my courage falters and I stop ordering it. The gourd is especially silky and I have been severely bummed out a couple of times when it was sold out before 9am.
To make sure I have a steady supply of it any time I want, I started cooking the dish a few months ago.
Hairy gourd or marrow green is sold in wet market stalls and supermarkets and it is cheap: a buck and change for a 600g one at FairPrice.
The other ingredients are readily available too. There is nothing exotic about the dish, but all these simple ingredients come together to make something comforting and nutritious.
Now, I have snowy white lard in a squeeze tube. I found it one late night in a Tokyo supermarket and am often tempted to cook the dish with it. One day I will, maybe when I marry off my non-existent daughter. But lard seems like a special-occasion sort of ingredient and I will stick to my go-to cooking oil, grapeseed, for now.
For many iterations of the dish, I go fancy and cut out the spongy core of the gourd. No auntie worth her salt would ever do this since it is wasteful. The dish tastes just fine with the seeds and core. And the matchsticks I get are so much more even too.
One thing I will not do, however, is scrape the hairs off the gourd with a knife. Please. I peel off the skin with a vegetable peeler. I don't need to maim myself.
Many recipes for the dish call for dried shrimps. Zai Shun uses it and the concentrated wallop of umami is powerful indeed.
However, I like the idea of using fresh prawns because I can use up every bit of them. With the dried shrimps, I use chicken stock for braising the vegetables because, like a demented auntie, I do not like the idea of using the water I have used to soak the dried shrimps.
Doesn't make sense? Yes, I know. Insert embarrassed shrug here.
So I get fresh prawns and the shells get boiled down with water to make a stock that enriches the dish. Umami in spades.
You might be tempted to get a tray of already shelled prawns from the supermarket and use store-bought chicken stock (the horror) instead of making that easy-peasy prawn stock.
Know that aunties everywhere are judging you.
BRAISED HAIRY GOURD
- 250 to 300g head-on, shell-on prawns
- 500ml water
- 25g tanghoon (glass noodles)
- 1 small carrot, 100 to 120g
- 1 hairy gourd (above), 500 to 600g
- 4 to 5 large cloves garlic
- 2 tsp cooking oil
- Salt and white pepper to taste
1. Rinse the prawns under running water. Shell them and place the shells in a medium pot. Add the water to it and bring to a boil. Turn heat down to medium-low and simmer for 15 minutes. Strain and discard the shells. You should have about 300ml of prawn stock. If you do not, top up with water.
2. Place the tanghoon in a heat-proof bowl and pour boiling water over to cover. Leave to soak while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
3. Devein the prawns and set them aside.
4. Peel the carrot, slice diagonally and cut into matchstick pieces. Peel the skin off the hairy gourd with a vegetable peeler, slice into 0.5cm rounds, stack them up and cut into matchstick pieces. Finely chop the garlic.
5. Drain the tanghoon in a fine mesh strainer and set aside.
6. Heat the oil in a wok or large frying pan over medium heat. Add the carrots and stir-fry for two minutes. Add the garlic and stir-fry for 30 seconds or until fragrant. Add the hairy gourd and stir-fry for two minutes.
7. Turn the heat up to high. Add the prawn stock and bring the mixture to a boil. Then turn the heat down to medium-low and cook for 15 minutes. Add the tanghoon and turn the heat up to high again, mixing the noodles in with the vegetables. Cook for another five minutes. Add salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste. Add the prawns. When they are no longer pink, the dish is ready. Scoop out onto a serving dish and serve immediately.
Serves four as part of a meal with rice and other dishes
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.