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Life In Food With Violet Oon: Perfect pineapple tarts for Chinese New Year

SINGAPORE – It is the start of the pineapple tart season, which commences this year on Feb 1 with Chinese New Year, carries on into the mid-year Hari Raya festivities and culminates in Deepavali, the Festival of Lights, which falls this year in October this year.

This recipe for pineapple tarts first appeared in 1977 in the series of Peranakan recipes I was commissioned to write for Her World magazine by then editor Betty Khoo.

It was then compiled with other recipes into a slim volume called Peranakan Cooking by Her World and published by Times Periodicals, which was under the Straits Times Group, the parent company of today’s The Straits Times.

The book was launched on July 15, 1978, in Times Orchard in Lucky Plaza, a bookstore that spawned a small empire.

The launch party was a Peranakan extravaganza, with nibbles for makan, a dondang sayang (Peranakan poetic art form) band and bibiks and babas dancing joget to keroncong music.

I was 27 going on 28 when the recipe was first published in the magazine and 29 when the book was launched. It marked a milestone in my lifelong journey to collate, capture and celebrate Singapore food, which I had started at the newspaper New Nation, where I first ventured into food reviewing and recipe writing.

This recipe brings us back to the basics. Helping me in the peeling, chopping and cooking of the pineapples is STFood Online Editor Hedy Khoo, who was an eager young food photographer when I first met her.

She gamely took on the challenge of making the pineapple jam and baking pineapple tarts in different styles, from pillow to open-faced, as gifts for friends and family.

Though Chinese New Year looms next month, there is still time to get your whole fresh pineapples from the market to start the annual bake.

I am sharing the authentic old-school way of chopping the pineapple flesh by hand, but feel free to use the food processor instead.

An even easier shortcut is to use canned pineapple – drain the pineapple, weigh, chop and cook with 30 per cent less sugar and some of the pineapple juice from the can. My friend from the University of Singapore, Mr Richard Fung, who has lived in Toronto, Canada, for 45 years, shares that his mother chopped up canned pineapples and the resulting tarts were scrumptious.

You can also buy ready-made pineapple tart filling.

In Chinese culture, the pineapple’s many “eyes” symbolise fertility and plenty. In several Chinese dialects, the word for “pineapple” sounds like “the arrival of prosperity”.

In 2002, when I was invited to cook a dinner at the legendary James Beard House in New York for its daily guest chef fund-raising event, I found – to my surprise – that the pineapple took centre stage on the wallpaper of the living room salon as well as all the way up the stairs.

In the pineapple’s true home in South America, as well as the Caribbean, the fruit symbolises friendship and hospitality. Families hang pineapples as an edible invitation outside their homes to perfume the entrance and welcome guests.

In the 16th century, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus took the pineapple from the New World to Europe and it became a symbol of royalty and nobility, as its lush growth of hard leaves resembles a crown.

In the same century, it was also introduced to India via the Cape of Good Hope and via the Pacific Ocean to Macau, Taiwan, Manila and Singapore.

I was deeply moved by the many heartwarming messages I received in response to my chicken briyani recipe last week, including several from Singaporeans based abroad in Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States. Closer to home, third-generation spice seller Jeya Seelan told me he has received a spike in requests for his briyani mix.

May food continue to bring us together across borders.

Pineapple Tarts

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