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Things to do in Singapore: a Peranakan food cooking class at Cookery Magic

Although I don’t feel like doing  Singapore restaurants reviews and  narrating everyone of my hawker centre meals (there are waaaay too many excellent blogs and terrible blogs devoted to that),  lately I am feeling more and more inspired to write about a few selected topics from my stay here in the Lion City – with the idea of highlighting genuine “not under the radar” places experiences for people looking for things to do in Singapore beyond the “must-sees”.

Going for a cooking class at Cookery Magic was definitely one of the best choices I’ve made so far in the “how to spend a Saturday in Singapore” field – so much better than the popular pastime of mall hopping/window shopping/bland “Western food” brunching of which I have been guilty more than once. Singapore, like other “world cities”, it’s tricky that way- you do start your weekend with the best intentions of not being just another annoying expat,/tourist, you want to go see the sights and do cultural things and yet you do end on Orchard Road eating at P.S. Café’ (in a mall of course).

cooking is like love quote

Cookery Magic has been around for over 10 years; it runs classes almost every day and if you’re just visiting Singapore you may be lucky to find a spot last minute, but it is recommended that you book in advance. For me, making a commitment with a friend – my former London colleague Georgi- was a great way to beat that chronic Saturday morning laziness. We chose the Peranakan/Nyonia Food class as we both love local Singaporean food, well at least the part  which is not deep fried and does not include parts of animals so mysterious that they must be called “organ”- which organ, to me, it’s still unclear.

So here we are, in a stormy grey Saturday morning, at Cookery Magic address, in the easternmost part of residential Singapore, a short stroll from the Kembangan station on the MRT EastWest line. Ruqxana’s home, a lovely landed house with a shadowy patio, really looks like a magical cove – full of travel souvenirs, well-loved book, unique touches..and cats. Now, I am not exactly a lover of all things 1.hippy or even remotely so and 2.pets of any kind, however I couldn’t help but feeling charmed by the quaint, colourful (and super clean) place.

Here’s the story of how Cookery Magic came about, in Ruqxana’s own words:

Once upon a time, not so long, long ago, in a land not so far, far away, lived a woman who was a little odd. She lived in a magical house amongst her many cats whom she called her family. They called her the crazy cat lady but her cupboards were always full and friends came from all over the land to partake in her delicious food. People even came from distant land, travelled many miles, to learn the secrets of her cooking. Everyday, the house was filled with wonderful aroma, the clatter of pots and pans, the happy chatter of people from distant land and the meowing of the cool cats. (from the Cookery Magic website)

cookery magic location

Ruqxana exudes energy and warmth and has clearly embraced the stereotype of the crazy cat lady “a little odd woman” – her words- with a sense of humour.  She is passionate about the food but also curious to learn from the “apprentice sorcerers”. The explanation of the Nyonya recipes was clear, and I liked the way she pointed at differences in style between the dishes – like the distinction between curries with a fried paste as a base and those were the spices and herbs mixture is boiled. Having a Malaysian-Singaporean partner we do occasionally cook Peranakan recipes at home together with Malay dishes, and I found many familiar ingredients- from turmeric, to lemongrass, to belachan and palm sugar – but got a much better idea of the reason for using each of them, and ideas for new combinations.

things to do in singapore

Ruqxana also gave us an insight into the typical composition of a home cooked meal. In a typically Asian (and particularly Chinese inspired) fashion, the Nyonya/Peranakan little feast we cooked was composed of well-balanced dishes:

– a rich, fiery, oily dish (Spicy sambal stuffed fish)

– a wonderfully aromatic but light prawn and pineapple curry (Udang Msak Nenas)

– a subtly spiced, mild vegetable dish made of cabbage, mushrooms and dates called Chap Chyye (note: it is vegetatble-basd but not vegetarian, like many Asian staple dishes – my friend and amazing Singaporean food blogger Shu han of Mummyicancook explains why here).

The kitchen at Cookery Magic is spacious and has everything you need, including the “magic tools” of Peranakan cuisine: a heavy stone pestle and mortar (you can prepare most types of rempat- pastes- in a food processor, but the pounding brings out more flavor by squeezing out the essential oils); and a few majestic woks, seasoned by years of use and placed over proper roaring gas flames, not the sad electric hob most Londoners have in their kitchens (ok they don’t roar, but you get the idea).

Peranakan (or Nynya) dishes, like other aspects of the Peranakan culture, emerged from the combination- sometimes a fusion, sometimes just a proximity- of the Chinese elements and the native Malay culture in the Straits region, corresponding roughly to today’s Singapore and Malaysia. I really recommend you include the Peranamkan Museum to your list of things to see in Singapore – it is a small but well curated exhibition with only a touch of propaganda which will leave you enlightened about this fascinating mixed race civilization.

cookery magic teacher

My favourite part of the class was “brewing” the curry – after we turn off the fire, Ruqxana invited us to use all of our senses to decide whether there was still a “missing element” in the balance of sweet, salty, sour and hot which makes a perfectly rounded Nyonia curry. By trial and error, adding small quantities of tamarind paste, chilli, salt or palm sugar, we made the magic happen- our curry was soon lifted from good to mind-blowing (if I may say so myself).

peranakan recipes

The final sit-down lunch in the patio with all the students was the perfect finale. We literally devoured our creations in whilst chatting about our favorite recipes and –guess what- my favourite topic of Italian food. Ruqxana also gave us some good tips to see more of the “old Singapore” – by going shopping for kitchenware at the Golden Mile Mall, buying fresh vegetables and herbs at wet markets and Thai-made mortars in Joo Chiat. There is no denying that Singapore is  changing beyond recognition and by its own initiative, so there is little point being too nostalgic or rejecting the malls and shiny boutiques as “non authentic”; however, I think that as an expat and traveller I am more drawn more to the “difference” side of South East Asia. Looking at the “rojak” mix of our cooking class I was glad to discover that homemade food is still very much an alive tradition, with expat foreigners, tourists visiting Singapore and locals all wanting to learn how to cook Nyonia food.

I have been to many cooking classes, some of them taught by non professional chefs, and I must admit not all of them have been equally enjoyable. There are a lot of things that can go wrong even if the host is the funniest, most entertaining personality – bad timing, too many dishes crammed in too little time, the feeling of being at a cooking show rather than actually cooking…Cookery Magic is quite clearly a time-tested format, because it manages to be so lo-fi and personal and at the same time very smooth and professional. I will certainly come back at Cookery Magic to learn some more magic, spicy spells…

 

Note: I did pay for my cooking lesson. The price for this 3 hour class was SGD 100. Cookery Magic also runs Malay, Chinese, Italian and Western food classes.

 

 

 

 

 

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3 Comments

  1. I am so happy to hear that you enjoyed my class. Yo have made my day with your review of my cooking class on your blog. I am floating today on happiness. :)

    • Thanks Ruqxana! my pleasure to review such a great experience and I hope to come back soon

  2. Hi
    Is the course still available, and how do I register? Thank you

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