It was a joke made by her husband - Courts Asia's group chief executive officer Terry O'Connor, 50 - that spurred housewife Janice O'Connor to become a better cook. He had declared her speciality dish "Chicken Ding", microwaved chicken which would go "ding" when ready.
The Hong Kong-born Mrs O'Connor, 63, the eldest of five siblings born to a teacher and housewife, recalls being barred from kitchen duties as a child because she was born premature and too "small and skinny".
She says: "I was never allowed into the kitchen. To cook instant noodles, I would put the noodles in tap water and leave it to boil. I didn't know I was doing it wrong."
But just before she moved here 26 years ago, she decided to stop being a "lousy cook".
She devoured cookbooks, signed up for cooking classes and badgered friends for recipes.
Before long, the O'Connors became known for their legendary home-cooked dinners and Christmas parties. These are thrown yearly, typically with a charity angle.
Their two children, Daniel, 27, who works at an events company, and Jennifer, 24, a London-based graphic designer, usually help out.
In the process, Mrs O'Connor, now a Singapore permanent resident, has amassed recipes from friends all over the world.
Late last year, she decided to compile 100 of them - including contributions from friends - into a 216-page cookbook called Open Kitchen.
The book, which will be launched next month, is a tribute to her late mother, Madam Lee Mo Tai, who died in 2016 and was a celebrated cook in the village of Lung Mei, in Tai Po, Hong Kong.
She was known for her kee zhang (alkaline dumplings), the dish being featured today, which is commonly eaten as a dessert rice dumpling dipped in sugar syrup.
Kee zhang gets its yellow hue from soaking the rice in alkaline water, which requires burning lychee wood, collecting its ashes and pouring water over the ashes through a cotton cloth to collect the natural alkaline that drips through.
Commercially available alkaline water is often used today to cut short the process. Sappan wood, traditionally used for colouring, then adds an auspicious red centre to the rice dumplings.
"I haven't eaten kee zhang for a long time. So when I first made this and it tasted exactly like what mum made, I was in tears," she says.
Other notable recipes in the book include a calamansi and prosecco marmalade, the result of wanting to use up leftover sparkling wine; a minced pork glass noodle soup recipe contributed by a Laotian friend; and grilled Thai pork cheek with Thai dipping sauce, from a Thai friend.
At her parties, the seasoned host serves the pork cheek with a bouquet of greens, as an invitation for guests to wrap the pork in lettuce cups with bell peppers, cucumber, carrots and herbs.
Mrs O'Connor, who enjoys connecting with people through sharing food, says: "You can get all kinds of recipes from anywhere to make anything. But the personal touch and the stories behind a recipe make all the difference."
• Open Kitchen is available for pre-order online (makeawish.org.sg/en/donate-cookbook). It is free with every $100 donation made to the Make-A-Wish Foundation Singapore.
KEE ZHANG (ALKALINE DUMPLINGS)
For the rice dumplings
- 1.5kg glutinous rice
- 1 litre natural alkaline or bottled alkaline water from supermarkets
- 80 bamboo leaves 20 grass straws
- 20 5cm-long pieces of sappan wood (optional, from shops that sell Chinese herbs)
- Water for boiling dumplings
- For the sugar syrup dip
- 400g golden cane sugar
- 1/3 cup water
1. Place the rice in a large container and rinse a few times with tap water. Drain the water and pour the alkaline water over the rice. Ensure that the water covers the rice. Leave to soak in the refrigerator overnight.
2. Soak bamboo leaves and grass straws in a large container overnight.
3. To prepare the dumplings, take two pieces of the leaves and place one over the other. Spoon three tablespoons of rice into the centre of the leaves, and spread the rice into a rectangle shape. Add a piece of wood - lengthwise - to the middle portion of the rice. Then add another three tablespoons of rice, to cover the wood.
4. Fold the two ends to meet in the middle. Then add another bamboo leaf on either side and fold into a rectangular parcel. Take one grass straw, wind it a few times around the dumpling and tie it into a parcel.
5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 to wrap the remaining dumplings.
6. Bring water to a boil in a deep pot.
7. Let the dumplings boil for three hours over medium heat. When ready, remove from the pot and leave to cool.
8. In a separate small pot, melt the sugar with water and bring to a boil. Scoop into a small dish and leave to cool. 9. Serve the dumplings with sugar syrup on the side.
Makes 20 dumplings
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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