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Entertainment, Food & Beverage

Secret to tender beef

Textbook author Joan Fong's beef steak is based on a recipe from The Cathay Restaurant.
The Sunday Times - October 7, 2012
By: Eunice Quek
| More
Secret to tender beef Besides beef steak, Mrs Joan Fong’s other specialities include beef shin soup and butter chicken. -- PHOTOS: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Thank a kitchen strike of yesteryear for Mrs Joan Fong's beef steak now.

The 69-year-old school textbook author recalls: "We used to dine at The Cathay Restaurant and had to order the pan-seared beef that was melt-in-your- mouth. It is like comfort food and perks me up."

When the cooks went on strike in the 1960s to ask for a pay rise, they were fired and started cooking classes to give away the recipes. Mrs Fong's mother attended the class then and passed down the recipe to her.

The original The Cathay Restaurant opened in 1940 serving European fare, before reinventing itself as a fine Chinese restaurant in 1951. It closed in 1964 but reopened in 2007 in Dhoby Ghaut's The Cathay building.

Marinating the beef in bicarbonate soda for 11 hours was the key secret to the tender beef, while a beaten egg in the marinade contributed to the crispy texture.

Mrs Fong's version is a simpler version that requires softening the beef with a meat tenderiser and marinating for at least an hour.

Her Filipino domestic helper Melinda can prepare the dish, and Mrs Fong jokes that she is now the "backseat cook" who gives instructions.

A former physics teacher, Mrs Fong picked up cooking when she got married and lived in Birmingham for three years from 1967 to 1969, when her husband was doing his doctorate in Materials Science.

He died two years ago of cancer. Their two daughters are now 42 and 45.

Mrs Fong says: "Both of us would be cooking chicken wings together and not know if they were cooked. We would be poking around to see if it was fully cooked. Also, when you are desperate for a taste of home, you will make it a point to pick up recipes."

With recipes from her mother, she was able to prepare dishes such as char siew, roast pork, roast duck, as well as mee siam.

Ask about her other specialities and she rattles off recipes for other dishes such as egg drop soup (chicken and corn soup, where beaten egg is swirled quickly into the soup to form what looks like strands of egg), beef shin soup cooked over three hours, and butter chicken.

Fresh fruit are also key in her diet, not just as dessert but in shredded mango salad dressing or freshly squeezed soursop juice.

The chatty writer, who also has green fingers, not only keeps a collection of cacti, but she also has a banana tree and chiku plant and shares the fruit with neighbours.

Her tip to making tasty goreng pisang (fried banana fritters) is to use pancake batter. She says: "Pancake batter is already tasty, so it will make the goreng pisang more flavourful. Melinda uses tempura batter instead, which makes it crispy but I don't think it tastes better."

And proving that the dish is "a success among friends", Mrs Fong's friend shows up for lunch as SundayLife! leaves her home.

The host says: "It's nice to have company for meals and the good thing about home-cooking is that you do not stinge on ingredients. After all, only homemade popiah has crab meat, right?"



500g beef fillets, about 8 to 10 pieces

8 Tbs light soy sauce

2 Tbs dark soy sauce

3 Tbs Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce

3 tsp white sugar

A pinch of salt

3 Tbs water

2 to 4 Tbs oil

10 button mushrooms, thinly sliced

1 tsp McCormick mushroom gravy seasoning

3 Tbs water

1 tsp cornflour (optional)

1 Tbs water (optional)



1. With a meat tenderiser, gently pound each side of the beef fillet.

2. In a large dish, mix the light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, sugar, salt and water till the sugar and salt dissolve.

3. Coat the beef fillets in the marinade for at least one to three hours. You can also leave the beef to marinate overnight for up to 11 hours in the fridge.

4. Heat oil in a large pan on high heat. Drain the excess marinade from the beef fillets into a bowl and save for the gravy. Fry the meat for about two to three minutes each side. Once cooked, set aside on a serving dish.

5. In the same pan, cook the mushrooms for about five minutes till they soften. Add the excess marinade into the pan.

6. In a small bowl, mix the mushroom gravy seasoning with water and add to the mushroom sauce.

7. If the sauce is not thick enough, stir cornflour into water and add to the gravy.

8. Scoop the mushrooms and sauce over the beef fillets and serve with mashed potatoes and salad.

Serves four


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