“I’m very much from Melbourne,” says Etta head chef Rosheen Kaul, who caught people’s attention last year with her Isol(Asian) Cookbook volumes.
Kaul was born in Singapore and moved to Australia when she was nine. Her dad is Kashmiri and her mum is Singaporean with a Nyonya, Filipino and Chinese background. “I can talk about it so simply now, but it’s actually very complex. Each of these cultures is so interesting,” she says.
Both her parents are great home cooks, so she grew up surrounded by good food and big meals. “That’s what we call proper food. I never feel complete if I eat a salad for dinner,” she says, laughing.
So even if she made a detour to study psychology and neuroscience, it’s no surprise, knowing her appetite, that she became a chef.
“Once I got into the kitchen, I was: ‘This is exactly where I'm supposed to be.' It fits my sleeping pattern, it fits my love of food and it fits my perfectionism. For that greedy little child who loved tasting and eating and understanding why things were delicious, it was just perfect,” she explains.
After working in some of the city’s best restaurants like Lee Ho Fook and Dinner By Heston, she’s heading a kitchen for the first time at Etta in Melbourne's Brunswick East. There, she skilfully marries her Western training with the food cultures she grew up with, punctuating the menu with coriander chutney, crispy school prawns and sambal.
“To be able to cook my food and the food that is homey to me and is familiar to me, makes me really happy,” she says.
The Isol(Asian) Cookbook editions she created with illustrator Joanna Hu were another vehicle to share her recipes with the world.
The duo is working together again on a cookbook, which will be released next year by Murdoch Books. One of the recipes she’s especially excited to showcase is her mum’s bakwan kepiting, a Nyonya crab and pork meatball soup.
“When you say ‘feels like home’, it definitely does. Eating something brothy is something that is just so deeply comforting to me. And I chose that recipe as well, because it is a more unusual recipe. I don't see a lot of Nyonya recipes around,” she says.
“We've got an oversaturated Internet of the same things over and over and over. Everybody's lasagne and everybody's this and it's just like, 'how about something else, something different?’”
“To be able to cook my food and the food that is homey to me and is familiar to me, makes me really happy.”
Nyonya cuisine comes from the Peranakans, people of Chinese-Malay heritage, and more specifically Peranakan women or Nyonyas – the proud gatekeepers of the cuisine. While Nyonya dishes can be time-consuming, Kaul loves how easy this soup is to make. Its home-style nature contrasts with the food she's making at Etta, which recently has ranged from retro Australiana and her creative twists on Chinese cuisine.
For bakwan kepiting, you simply shape balls out of shredded crab, pork and fish mince, and bamboo shoots, then cook them in chicken stock. “You get that flavour from the meatballs, from the pork and the crab, that permeates the liquid. It's super simple, but it's got heaps of depth of flavour,” she says.
“Everyone knows how to make meatballs. Everyone knows how to make soup. So it's very accessible for everybody.”
Bakwan kepiting (Nyonya crab and pork meatball soup)
Bakwan kepiting is a traditional Nyonya dish of tender crab, pork and fish meatballs in a delicate broth. Scented with golden, roast garlic and spiked with coriander, this dish is part of a traditional wedding spread. Unlike some Nyonya dishes, which can be somewhat time-consuming and complex, bakwan kepiting is quite straightforward and can be enjoyed simply with a bowl of steamed rice. My grandmother was of Peranakan heritage, and my family has enjoyed this dish for as long as I can remember, along with ayam buah keluak, sambal terong and ngoh hiang.
If you are picking your own crab meat, you’ll need a fresh mud crab of around 1.2 to 1.5kg. Alternatively, fresh-picked crab meat can be purchased from good fishmongers. Young bamboo shoots can be bought canned from well-stocked supermarkets and Asian grocers.
- 3 tbsp vegetable oil
- 6 garlic cloves, minced
- 225 g canned bamboo shoots, drained and shredded
- 2 litres stock
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp MSG
- 300 g skinless, boneless snapper fillets
- 300 g pork mince
- 1 egg
- 2 tbsp soy sauce
- ¼ tsp ground white pepper
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 300 g crab meat, picked
- ½ bunch coriander, picked and washed
- Heat 2 tbsp oil in a deep, heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat and fry the minced garlic until it just starts to brown (around three to four minutes). Set the garlic aside in a large bowl and allow to cool.
- Add the remaining 1 tbsp oil to the pan over medium-high heat and sauté the bamboo shoots until fragrant (around three to four minutes). Remove and set aside. Add 50 g of the bamboo shoots to the bowl of fried garlic, and set the remaining bamboo aside.
- In a pot over medium heat, add the stock, salt, sugar and MSG and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and keep the broth simmering.
- Place the fish fillets on a stable chopping board and mince finely using a sharp knife. (Traditionally, we use a spoon to gently scrape the fish meat, which keeps it bouncier.) Add the fish to the bowl with the garlic and bamboo shoots and mix thoroughly with the pork. Add the egg, soy sauce, white pepper and sesame oil. Mix thoroughly, then finally add the crab meat.
- Shape the pork and crab mixture into large meatballs (about five to six centimetres in diameter), then carefully drop each one into the simmering soup. Add the remaining bamboo shoots back into the soup and simmer the soup for 10-12 minutes. When the meatballs float, they are ready.
- Serve in a large soup bowl communal-style, or ladle into smaller individual bowls. Enjoy with hot rice, garnished with coriander.
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“Singapore’s original fusion food, Nyonya cuisine, also known as Peranakan, features strong Malay and Indonesian influences with its use of spices and coconut milk. In this recipe, beef shin results in a beautifully tender meat, whilst the coconut milk and candlenuts make a moreish sauce.” Adam Liaw, Destination Flavour Singapore