Patience pays off when it comes to cooking. Take it from agriculture marketing specialist Alice Chai, 57, who takes up to six hours to prepare a 2kg batch of XO chilli sauce.
After all, it is a laborious process to stir-fry the dried scallops and dried shrimp over low heat to release flavour and aroma - key steps that cannot be compromised, says Mrs Chai.
Although she saves some time by frying the ingredients simultaneously in two separate woks, she says: "You can't succeed if you have no patience."
She learnt the recipe from a Chinese chef, but hers is a less oily version that allows for a good dose of premium 20-year-old Shaoxing wine, which was given to her by a friend. Other aged Shaoxing wine, preferably at least five years old, would also work, she says.
And since she has a supply of dried prawn roe (har zi), also from a friend, she uses them to add even more flavour to the sauce.
Her XO sauce is very spicy, as it is made with bird's eye chillies, which are small but hot. To tone down the heat, Mrs Chai recommends using a mix of 30 per cent of bird's eye chillies and 70 per cent normal red chillies.
For the past decade, she has been making her coveted XO chilli sauce twice a year - for Chinese New Year and then about six months later for friends and family .
The sauce is versatile - it can be used not just as a dip, but also as a condiment to spice up dishes. For instance, Mrs Chai adds it to her signature claypot tanghoon prawns dish, fried rice or noodles, and asparagus.
She also recommends steaming okra, then topping it with XO sauce and garlic. The avid cook also makes her own bak chor mee tossed in the sauce, which comes with her hand-made pork balls and stewed mushrooms.
Other dishes in her repertoire include black vinegar pig's trotters, oysters and sea cucumber with black moss, yong tau fu and suan pan zi (Hakka abacus seeds).
Steamboat is a favourite for Chinese New Year and she has many variations. If she does shabu shabu, the soup will be made with bonito flakes and kombu, while her more "Teochew-style steamboat" includes pomfret or garoupa, salted vegetables, yam, fish maw, tomatoes and sour plums.
Mrs Chai also gets creative with her yusheng. For the dressing, she uses lemon juice, marmalade and Japanese yuzu soya sauce. Her yusheng is also topped with ikura. Alternatively, for yusheng at any time of the year, she suggests using smoked salmon and caviar on top of salad greens.
She loves eating as much as cooking and enjoys dining at restaurants such as Imperial Treasure Super Peking Duck at Paragon and Imperial Treasure Fine Teochew Cuisine at Ion Orchard.
Her favourite cuisine is Japanese, and her go-to restaurants include Ki-Sho in Scotts Road, one-Michelin-starred Shinji by Kanesaka at Carlton Hotel, Sushi Mitsuya in Tanjong Pagar, and the more casual Itacho Sushi chain.
Her two sons, aged 29 and 34, have also picked up her cooking chops, and she makes it a point to record her recipes.
She says: "Good food must be shared and passed down through the generations. I cook with passion and love. I love seeing people eat my food and watching their happy and satisfied faces."
- 1kg shallots, peeled
- 150 to 200g garlic, peeled
- 300g bird's eye chilli/big chilli, or 150g of each, seeds removed
- 150 to 200g dried chilli, soaked in hot water to soften, seeds removed
- 800g dried scallops, washed and soaked in warm water till soft
- 200g dried shrimp, soaked in warm water till soft
- 500ml cooking oil
- 150 to 200g Chinese ham (from Yue Hwa Chinese Products), diced into 3mm cubes, soaked in warm water to remove saltiness - optional
- 3 Tbs dried prawn roe (har zi, from Pat Chun Singapore in South Bridge Road) - optional
- 6 Tbs oyster sauce
- 6 Tbs Shaoxing wine (from Yue Hwa Chinese Products, or online at Redmart)
1. Put the shallots, garlic and all the chillies in a blender and blend till fine.
2. Steam the dried scallops for 15 minutes. Drain the water and shred in a blender using the pulse function. Or use a fork and shred the scallops in a bowl. Set aside.
3. Drain water from the dried shrimp and place in a blender. Using the pulse function, blend the shrimp till you get coarse bits. In a dry pan, toast the shrimp for a few minutes. Set aside.
4. In a wok, heat 300ml of oil and stir-fry the blended chilli mixture from step 1 on medium low flame for 11/2 hours. It is ready when the oils are released.
5. In another wok, heat 200ml of oil and stir-fry the dried scallops and dried shrimp. Mix well on medium-low flame for one hour.
6. Combine the fried chilli mixture from step 4 with the rest of the ingredients in the other wok. Add the Chinese ham and prawn roe, oyster sauce and Shaoxing wine.
7. Stir-fry on low heat for about 15 to 20 minutes, or till fragrant. It is ready when the oils are released.
8. Scoop into clean and dry glass jars to be used as a condiment for stir-frying dishes or as a dip. The sauce can be kept for three months in the refrigerator or one year in the freezer.
Makes a batch of about 2kg or fills 10 280ml glass jars
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.