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FEATURE: Cooking at Raffles with Singapore's top chefs.

SINGAPORE, April 4 Kyodo


It's 10 a.m. on a Friday morning in the gleaming demonstration kitchen at the Raffles Culinary Academy.

Chef Charlie Chang putters over his mise-en-place as a gaggle of ''Tai-tai,'' Singapore's answer to ''Ladies Who Lunch,'' a handful of expatriates and a few tourists arrange themselves into two rows before the academy's teaching center.

Each student riffles through the day's recipes, contained in a dark green Raffles Culinary Academy file folder, as Chef Charlie's assistant gets a massive pot of water boiling on a gas-fired hob about a meter in front of the class seats.

Class settled, the chef tucks into the day's first recipe, Hainanese Chicken Rice, a standby of Singapore's hawker centers and perhaps the island country's most famous ''down home'' dish.

Within seconds the aroma of chicken stock, chicken powder, chicken oil and spices fills the kitchen with a mouth-watering perfume.

Plopping a whole chicken, including the head, into the boiling cauldron, which has turned the adage ''If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen'' into a serious reality, the chef then turns to preparing the rice.

''It is most important to get your rice washed at least 30 minutes ahead of time and let it drain. This will help the rice cook more easily and means you will have rice in which the grains will each separate out,'' Charlie tells the students.

Knotting up some pandan leaves to add to the steaming stock and spices flavoring the rice, he then warns the class against using ''pandan essence'' if fresh leaves are unavailable.

''Essence is OK for desserts, but never for main course dishes. If you don't have the leaves, leave them out, there is no substitute,'' he adds.

''It's OK, they are screw-pine leaves and around everywhere,'' a Tai-tai whispers helpfully to a somewhat befuddled tourist who has never before heard of either pandan or screw-pine leaves.

Pandan crisis over, the chef then slides into preparing ginger, chili and chicken sauces to garnish the boiled chicken.

Furiously taking notes, the class cranes to watch every deft move of the top chef at Raffles famed Empire Cafe before suddenly plopping back in amazement as Charlie de-bones and then rebuilds the entire chicken on a serving dish with just a few lightening fast flicks of a massive cleaver.

''Add the rice, the sauces and there you have Hainanese Chicken Rice the Raffles' way,'' the chef beams.

Questions pop from the students and then its into a fast stir-fry demonstration of Seafood Hor Fun, flat rice noodles with seafood and vegetables.

Lor Mai Kai, steamed glutinous rice with chicken, and Ah-Ball-Ling, glutinous rice dumplings with red-bean filling in sweet peanut soup follow in equally quick succession.

Three hours pass in a flash for the scribbling students and then, after a quick break, everyone gathers round tables in the academy's dining area to lunch on what Chef Charlie has just taught them to cook.

The feast, including wine, is all part of the S$60 ($33.15) fee for the more than four hours of learning.

The chef joins each table in turn, offering tips and answering questions before class breaks for the day.

Armed with certificates attesting to having learned the secrets of the hawker centers from the hands of a master, each student now can try to replicate the feat in her or his own home.

And replication is not difficult.

Having completed courses in Continental, Mexican, South Indian and hawker foods myself, I have recreated each and every dish in my own kitchen and reaped, possibly unjustified, praise from friends gathered to try the dishes.

Raffles Academy recipes are clear and straightforward and the demonstrations by professional chefs trained in whatever style of cooking is the subject of the day's lesson allows plenty of time to take notes and ask questions so the home chef can cook the dishes without worry.

Raffles Culinary Academy is in Raffles Hotel in Singapore and offers cooking courses most weekdays, some Saturdays and some evenings for about S$60 per student.

Monthly class schedules are available online and reservations are accepted by telephone, fax and e-mail.
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Publication:Asian Economic News
Date:Apr 9, 2001
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