Published On: Tue, Nov 28th, 2023

This Singaporean meatball soup is soothing to the soul

This Singaporean meatball soup is soothing to the soul
This Singaporean meatball soup is soothing to the soul

What calms you when you’re anxious? A blanket warm from the dryer? An intriguing book? How about a cozy bowl of soup?

I recently had a big decision to make and felt my anxiety level rising, so I decided to gather all three to take my mind off things. I chose the dish after skimming recipes in Sharon Wee’s rereleased cookbook “Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen.”

When I came across her pork meatball and tofu soup, I quickly made a steaming pot, then curled up with my blanket and kept on reading.

The 470-page book, originally published in 2012, was updated and revised, then rereleased in 2023. It tells the fascinating history of the Peranakan Chinese people through Wee’s own family’s story of prosperity and struggle.

Get the recipe: Pork Meatball and Tofu Soup

I caught up with Wee last week while she was on a trip from Manhattan, where she now lives, to the city-state of Singapore, where she was born and grew up, and was visiting family.

When I told her I — and others I’ve introduced the soup to — have been making it again and again, she immediately knew why: “It is soothing. It’s something that is very common and popular in Singapore. So my mom would have cooked it. It’s something we all grew up with.

“It’s a very Chinese soup,” Wee said, as she began describing how her culture, its food and its people came to be.

“The extraordinary Chinese Peranakan food culture comes from the convergence of Malay-Chinese food heritage,” she said. Peranakans trace their ancestry from the first wave of Chinese immigrants to arrive centuries ago in Southeast Asia, particularly in Malacca in Malaysia. (In 1965, Singapore separated from Malaysia.)

As the Chinese moved into the area, they began to marry locals, and a prosperous community evolved with an emphasis on business development, architecture, jewelry, clothing and, of course, food, she said.

The book’s title comes from the honorifics associated with the women: Men were called babas and women nonyas, she said. Even the word nonya, derived from the Portuguese dona, itself illustrates the intermingling of cultures. The Portuguese also occupied Malacca, she said.

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Wee has been on a mission for over a decade to not only document, but also preserve and teach people to appreciate the swirl of cultures that have influenced Peranakan Chinese food, including Malay spices and marinades, Chinese sauces and condiments, as well as dashes of Arab and Indian cooking.

The cookbook grew out of something many of us have dreamed of undertaking: compiling our mother’s most popular recipes for the next generation.

As Wee dug into her own background and heritage, the project grew until “Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen” became both a memoir and a cookbook.

Wee was in Singapore in November preparing to make a laksa, a spicy noodle dish, for her sister’s 75th birthday. (“It’s something my mom would have cooked on Sunday to bring the family together.”)

As a fifth-generation nonya on both sides of her family, Wee feels compelled to ensure that fellow Peranakans and others around the world understand the culture’s rich history: “There’s an opportunity for this book to memorialize this community. I wanted [it] to do that.”

That’s why it was important for her to make the book the best it could be, and to protect her work.

In fall 2021, her original cookbook got some attention after Wee shared on social media that another author had “copied or paraphrased” from it. That offending cookbook was pulled from circulation.

Later that fall, Wee was asked to contribute a Ngo Hiang (Five-Spice Pork and Shrimp Rolls) recipe to a Washington Post story for Lunar New Year, and as she worked to edit, retest and explain that recipe for editors, she found herself drawn back into her life’s work.

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“The devil is in the details,” she said, explaining how reviewing that recipe made her look at another, and then another.

“My original book was assuming people knew how to cook certain things,” she said. “If I want this book to be applicable to someone outside of Singapore and not feel daunting, I knew I had to add more detail.

“I went back to the drawing board — the drawing board being my mom’s original recipes. So I reworked the recipes to make sure I didn’t leave out any details.”

For four months, she retested recipes, pulling in family and friends to help, adding step-by-step cooking instructions — and often photos — with more detailed technique explanations and guidance for those unfamiliar with ingredients.

She noted dietary restrictions and worked to cut the sugar in the “notoriously sweet” traditional desserts, noting that high cholesterol and diabetes are common health problems in Singapore. She created timetables and menus to help people plan meals and celebrations around the dishes.

She enriched the backdrop that the book provides, by commissioning essays from experts on topics such as genetics, women’s roles, fashion and language. And, for those who want to go deeper, she recommends books as well as what she calls “heritage restaurants” to visit.

The 10th anniversary edition of the cookbook was published in March.

“In 10 years, so much has changed,” she said, adding that the internet has made so many spices and foods more accessible and that the explosion of global cuisine has opened more people’s eyes to foods around the world. While she hopes people find the history compelling, she also wants them to discover the exceptional flavors of Peranakan Chinese food.

“Every grandmother’s recipe is better than the rest,” Wee said, laughing. “I think that’s true in every culture.”

Get the recipe: Pork Meatball and Tofu Soup

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