What calms you when you are anxious? A warm blanket 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 bring the three together to take my mind off things. I chose the dish after reading the recipes in Sharon Wee’s re-released cookbook, “Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen”.
When I came across her pork meatball and tofu soup, I quickly made a steaming pot, wrapped myself in the blanket, and continued reading.
The 470-page book, originally published in 2012, has been updated and revised and re-released in 2023. It tells the fascinating story of the Chinese Peranakan people through Wee’s own family’s story of prosperity and struggle.
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 raised, and was visiting family.
When I told her that I — and others I’ve introduced the soup to — have been making it over and over again, she immediately understood why: “It’s calming. It is something very common and popular in Singapore. So my mother would have cooked. It’s something we all grew up with.
“It’s a very Chinese soup,” said Wee, as he began to describe how his culture, his food and his people came about.
“The extraordinary Peranakan Chinese food culture comes from the convergence of Malay-Chinese food heritage,” she said. The Peranakans trace their ancestry to the first wave of Chinese immigrants who arrived centuries ago in Southeast Asia, particularly in Malacca, Malaysia. (In 1965, Singapore separated from Malaysia.)
As Chinese people moved into the area, they began intermarrying with locals and a thriving 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 women: men were called babas and women nonyas, she said. Even the word nonya itself, derived from the Portuguese dona, illustrates the mixture of cultures. The Portuguese also occupied Malacca, she said.
Wee has been on a mission for more than a decade to not only document but also preserve and teach people to appreciate the whirlwind of cultures that have influenced Peranakan Chinese food, including Malay spices and marinades, Chinese sauces and condiments, as well as traces of Arabic and Indian cuisine.
The cookbook grew out of something many of us dream of doing: compiling our mothers’ most popular recipes for the next generation.
As Wee delved into her own experience and heritage, the project grew until “Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen” became a memoir and a cookbook.
We were in Singapore in November getting ready to make 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 the family, Wee feels compelled to ensure that fellow Peranakans and others around the world understand the culture’s rich history: “There is an opportunity for this book to honor this community. I wanted (to) do that.”
That’s why it was important for her to make the book as good as possible and protect her work.
In fall 2021, her original cookbook received some attention after Wee shared on social media that another author had “copied or paraphrased” it. This offensive cookbook has been withdrawn from circulation.
Later that fall, Wee was asked to contribute a recipe for Ngo Hiang (five-spice pork and shrimp rolls) to a Washington Post story for Lunar New Year, and as she worked to edit, retest and explain this revenue for publishers, she found herself drawn back to her life’s work.
“The devil is in the details,” she said, explaining how reviewing that recipe made her look at another, and then another.
“My original book assumed that people knew how to cook certain things,” she said. “If I want this book to be applicable to someone outside of Singapore and not seem scary, I knew I would have to add more details.
“I went back to the drawing board – the drawing board was my mother’s original recipes. So I redid the recipes so as not to leave out any details.”
For four months, she retested recipes, enlisting family and friends to help, adding step-by-step cooking instructions — and often photos — with more detailed technical explanations and guidance for those unfamiliar with the ingredients.
She observed dietary restrictions and worked to reduce sugar in “notoriously sweet” traditional desserts, noting that high cholesterol and diabetes are common health problems in Singapore. She created schedules and menus to help people plan meals and celebrations around dishes.
She enriched the background the book offers by commissioning essays from experts on topics such as genetics, women’s roles, fashion and language. And, for those who want to delve deeper, she recommends books and also 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 many spices and foods more accessible and that the explosion of global cuisine has opened more people’s eyes to food around the world. While she hopes people find the story 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 across cultures.”
Pork meatball and tofu soup
4 to 6 servings
Total time: 35 minutes
Make Ahead: Pork mixture can be prepared up to 1 hour in advance.
Storage: Refrigerate for up to 4 days; gently reheat over low heat.
For the meatballs
1 pound ground pork
2 chives, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch or arrowroot
1 tablespoon light soy sauce (see note)
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
For the soup
1 tablespoon neutral oil, such as canola
3 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
1 liter of chicken broth without added salt
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
12 to 16 ounces silken tofu, cut into 1-inch cubes
Thinly sliced chives, for serving
Crispy chili, for serving (optional)
Finely grated fresh ginger, for serving (optional)
Make the meatball mixture: In a large bowl, combine the pork, scallions, sugar, cornstarch, soy sauce, pepper, and salt until combined; don’t work too much. Set aside to let the seasoning incorporate into the meat, at least 15 minutes and up to 1 hour.
Start the soup: In a large pot over medium heat, heat the olive oil until shimmering. Add the garlic and fry until golden and fragrant, about 1 minute, adjusting the heat as needed.
Carefully pour in the chicken broth – it may splash a little at first. Season with salt and pepper and mix well. Cover and bring to a gentle simmer over medium-high heat.
Form the meatballs and finish the soup: Meanwhile, roll the pork mixture into 1-inch balls and place on a plate. Once ready, place the meatballs, a few at a time, in the broth. Do not touch. Gently slide the tofu into the broth and, without stirring, bring the soup to a gentle simmer, adjusting the heat as needed, until the meatballs rise to the surface, about 5 minutes. (If you want to test the meatballs, the internal temperature should be 145 degrees and the meat should be slightly pink inside.)
Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with chives. Serve hot, with crunchy chilli and fresh ginger on the side, if desired.
Substitutions: Don’t eat pork? Use ground fish or shrimp to make the balls. You can use bean thread vermicelli (tang hoon) soaked in hot water with spring onions for at least 15 minutes instead of tofu. Chicken broth can be replaced with vegetable broth.
Notes: Light soy sauce is clear, saltier and more flavorful than regular soy sauce. You can substitute regular low-sodium soy sauce to taste, but it will impact the end result.
Nutrition | Per serving (1 cup soup with 4 meatballs) based on 6: 281 calories, 7g carbs, 58mg cholesterol, 20g fat, 1g fiber, 17g protein, 6g saturated fat, 629mg sodium, 3g sugar
Adapted from the new edition of “Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen” by Sharon Wee (Marshall Cavendish Cuisine, 2023).