My family and I are about to move countries again so we’re a tad over our heads in a reasonable amount of panic trying to breathe. The goings on here have been anything but interesting as we are too busy doing, not enough enjoying. But today was a little different because my parents were in town and they kept my kids happy in the living room while I was in the kitchen enjoying food again.
This recipe I’m about to share is a tweak of my Nyai’s recipe. My mother brought it around the world with her on her travels, and now I am lucky enough do the same. I’ve been asked a few times for the recipe, so I thought I’d just put it up here for posterity. When you’re living abroad, there really is nothing like making things in the kitchen that taste like what you remembered back home, or from growing up, maybe it was at a friend’s house, or it was the ones your mum made you while you lay on your stomach watching cartoons on the telly, or like the ones you brought for lunch at school and you stupidly traded them with a friend for their American cheese and crackers because of their novelty. You get the idea. It’s comforting and familiar in an environment that often changes too fast (and if that can be said of adults, I daresay we shouldn’t overlook how important constancy is for kids too when moving about across the globe, they are resilient and adaptable but, thinly veiled in play and laughter, also quite delicate too. But that’s a whole other blog post).
These puffs were most recently, as I was reminded, made in large amounts (if I remember correctly something like 200 pieces) for my son’s school international food fair. I have a picture somewhere of me holding my baby in one arm and tongs in the other hand frying them up on site. That was huge fun. I made curry puffs and spring rolls, and my team mates contributed kek lapis legit, fried bee hoon, and jellies. Masses of fun, and of course we sold out.
These are great make ahead little pies, freeze them without cooking, and when you want them, fry them from frozen (or bake them if you’re so inclined). I had made notes of how I made them for the fair but just to be sure, I made up a tiny batch today just to see if the proportions still held up, and they did, so I’m happy.
If you don’t know, curry puffs are a staple snack in Singapore, pretty little crescent moon-shaped pastry parcels encasing curried potato, and deep fried. I’d like to claim boldly that the originators are the Malays with what we call epok-epok, and then they became mainstream Singaporean Chinese with curry that is a bit sweeter and the potatoes further encasing a quarter of a boiled egg. The latter do tend to be quite huge, and not so pretty, but tasty all the same. There are various other fillings now, like chillied Sardines which is delicious too, and at a popular chain, black pepper crab but I hear that isn’t amazing. The Indians don’t need to copy the epok-epok because they have the majestic samosa which I love, also with potato filling, but not cubed potato, rather smashed potato, sometimes with minced mutton, or peas, but definitely with lots of spice and heat. In the UK, they’d call them pasties (not prounouced as in ‘paste’, but rather as an american ‘past’), but those are massive in comparison, traditionally made as an edible bento box for farmhands in the fields or miners or wherever, slipped into their pockets to keep the wearer warm.
Interestingly, the crimped edge was said to have been made large so that the owner could hold his pasty by it, eat the rest of the pasty without dirtying it, and then tossing the crimped edge. Pasties aren’t curried of course, and requires no precooking, the ‘original’ version being just a raw mix of skirt steak cubes, root vegetables, and salt and pepper, and the whole thing cooks while in the oven. Epok-epok on the other hand requires a pre-cooking of the curried potatoes separately, then placing them in the pastry before crimping and frying.
Here we go.
The Potato Filling
Dice the onion, and fry it up til light golden, at which point, add the pounded ginger and garlic, frying for another minute. Then add the paste of your curry powder and water, and fry for another two minutes, adding a splash of water in case it catches at the bottom. Add potato cubes (I would use waxy potatoes over floury potatoes as they hold their shape better). Add about 1/2 a cup of water so that the potatoes can cook without sticking and burning, cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, adding water if necessary as it goes along. Season with salt (not sugar! Overly sweet curries, and sweet epok epok are confusing. No sugar). Over season just slightly, as it will balance out when eaten in the puff. Add salt to just-right, and it will be bland in the puff. Let cool slightly.
I should add here, that the brand of curry powder is, I feel, crucial to the overall flavour, because different brands have different blends. Of course, it ultimately depends on what you prefer, but for us, we’d use Earthen Pot brand or Baba’s (that is, if we curry snobs haven’t got Nyai’s special personal blend on hand).
It’s a bit like shortcrust pastry but hardier. Nyai would do this by ratios, so whatever amount of flour you use, the fat is a third of that. She would use a different type of fat, which I like too, but for simplicity I will give you butter and oil. Mix the flour and salt together, then add to it the fats. Rub the fats into the flour like you would shortcrust, til it resembles crumbs. Add enough warm water to bind and knead lightly for a minute or less. It will be an oily dough, that clumps cleanly together and leaves the bowl clean, but will, because of the oil not be entirely smooth. Hard to describe, but you will understand if you make this. In any case, it’s fine, this isn’t rocket science, just follow the proportions. Leave it to rest about 15 minutes so it isn’t as stretchy and hence easier to work with.
Roll out the dough to about 5mm. This seems thin, but when you cut it, it tends to spring back and ends up being thicker. Can be frustrating, especially at the end when you’re rolling out the trimmings from an earlier roll. Cut with a round metal cutter about 10cm in diameter (or bigger, whatever you like), place in your hand, fill with potato, fold over to make a half moon, and crimp however you wish. Traditionally, the Malays would hold the puff in the left hand, and crimp with the thumb and forefinger of the right hand, using the left side of the thumb to fold over a bit of the edge and pinch down a small corner to get a pretty curved crimp all along the round side of the puff. I remember when I started helping Mum with crimping when I was about 6 or 7 years old, and seriously, I was making big clunking dinosaurs.
At this stage you can choose to freeze them in one layer on a baking sheet, and once frozen transfer to a freezer bag. Fry or bake them from frozen. Either from fresh or frozen, when deep frying, cook them on low-medium heat. If you want a smooth pastry shell, use a lowish heat so the puffs don’t create bubbles in the oil once lowered in, as this causes the skin to blister. If going the baking route, glaze them with beaten egg before baking on a baking sheet at about 190 degrees celsius for about half an hour, or to desired goldenness. Frying gives the puffs a tender-on-the-inside, crunchy-on-the-outside-texture, but once cooled, loses a bit of its crunch. The baked version maintains its crunch for a good while longer, and actually is crisper throughout than the fried version.