Growing up, actor Nick Shen fondly remembers observing his late grandmother cook lunch while doing his homework after school.
Her speciality was steamed fish in Teochew style, that is, with ginger, salted vegetables and pickled plums.
These memories have inspired him to come up with a vegetarian version of the classic Teochew dish of steamed pomfret.
The dish features slabs of tofu (beancurd) that are arranged in the shape of a pomfret. They are laid out on a bed of dried seaweed that mimics the scaly texture and taste of the fish skin. Covering the body is a blanket of chewy oyster mushrooms, pickled plums, salted vegetables and strips of Chinese mushrooms, ginger and red chillies.
Instead of lard, fried soya bean crumbs are added for crunch.
One of the first few times that Shen cooked vegetarian "pomfret" was for a family dinner on the first day of Chinese New Year two years ago for 12 people.
The five-course vegetarian meal included dishes such as curry with mock chicken meat and potatoes, broccoli with mushrooms and his "signature dish", lotus root soup with radish and corn.
The 40-year-old recalls: "It was pressurising as it was my first time cooking for so many people. I spent the whole day in the kitchen chopping and cooking.
"It is my way of showing sincerity through the effort that I put into cooking."
The actor eats vegetarian food most of the time as it is "healthier and environmentally friendly".
A self-confessed perfectionist, the founder of events company Tok Tok Chiang fussed a fair deal over the dish's intricate decorations - from cutting cherry tomatoes into the shape of rabbits to crafting flowers from shredded carrots and Japanese cucumbers - during this interview.
One reunion dinner that he starkly remembers was the year after his mother died from cancer 10 years ago.
"She used to take charge of the festivities by cooking her specialities such as ngoh hiang and baking cashew and almond cookies," he says.
"It felt so different without her and I particularly missed her that night."
These days, the bachelor continues the tradition of decorating the family's five-room flat in Bukit Panjang. He is also busy during the Chinese New Year season as he is hired for God of Fortune appearances and Chinese opera performances in companies and schools.
Shen, who is starring in a Channel 8 drama as a police officer in March and Zi Char, a telemovie on E City (StarHub TV Channel 111 and 825) in August, has also been decorating the corridor of his flat with his neighbours for the past four years.
He says: "It always puts me in a festive mood."
NICK SHEN'S VEGETARIAN 'POMFRET'
- 25g dried seaweed (two sheets)
- 2 blocks rectangular tofu (600g each)
- 2 tomatoes, sliced
- 100g dried Chinese mushrooms, soaked for 30 minutes
- 150g oyster mushrooms
- 2 to 3 pieces Shantou pickled plums (squashed)
- 200g salted vegetables
- 6 red dates
- 6 roasted almonds
- 20g ginger, sliced
- 2 Tbs sesame oil
- 2 Tbs light soya sauce
- 6 Tbs vegetable oil
- 3 Tbs store-bought soya bean crumbs
- White pepper to taste
- 3 red chillies, thinly sliced
- 10g coriander to garnish
1. Line a large plate with two sheets of dried seaweed.
2. Slice tofu blocks into half horizontally. 3. Slice two of the four slabs of tofu into half and then diagonally to get eight triangles of equal size. Set aside.
4. On the seaweed, arrange two remaining tofu rectangles next to each other to form the "fish body". Stack two tofu triangles at the front as the "fishhead".
5. Place one tofu triangle on each side of the "body". Place another tofu triangle to form the "tail". The remaining tofu will not be needed.
6. At each side of the "body", tuck sliced tomatoes and two dried Chinese mushrooms.
7. Cut 1/4 of a piece of dried mushroom and use scissors to cut out a circle. Use the edge of a knife to make a slight depression on the "head" of the fish and place the cut-out in it for the "eye".
8. Cover the "body" with oyster mushrooms, pickled plums, salted vegetables, strips of the remaining dried mushrooms, red dates, almonds and 10g of ginger slices.
9. Drizzle 1 Tbs of sesame oil and 1 Tbs of light soya sauce over the fish.
10. In a wok set over medium heat, bring some water to a boil and steam the "pomfret" for 10 minutes.
11. In a pan set over medium heat, add 2 Tbs of vegetable oil and fry the remaining 10g of sliced ginger till slightly brown for about three minutes. Set aside on kitchen towel.
12. In the same pan, add 4 Tbs of vegetable oil and fry soya bean crumbs for three minutes. Set aside on kitchen towel.
13. After the "pomfret" is steamed, drizzle 1 Tbs of light soya sauce and 1 Tbs of sesame oil on it. Add white pepper to taste. 14. Garnish with slices of fried ginger, red chilli and coriander.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.