Shermay Lee: Singapore’s Peranakan culinary superstar

The renowned chef and cookbook author talks about fiery Peranakan women, her favourite food, and her late uncle Lee Kuan Yew’s sharp palate

Are most Peranakan women ‘chilli padis’ in the kitchen?
Are most Peranakan women ‘chilli padis’ in the kitchen?
21 Aug 2015

Are most Peranakan women ‘chilli padis’ in the kitchen?

“I think it’s true. I'm not going to pretend,” laughs Shermay Lee, 39.

She stirs her drink, fingernails painted an electric blue to match her pants and effervescent mood. “In the old days, Peranakan women were not given much education. The moment they were born, it was all about being at home and learning the refinements of being a nonya. From morning till night, they cooked, sewed beaded shoes or got dressed up; they were like aristocrats. Their self-worth and even marriageability was dependent on how well they could cook. [That sort of explains] the daoness (Hokkien for arrogance) and the ego [in the kitchen],” she says.

We are at the lovely The Clifford Pier in The Fullerton Bay Hotel. A historic setting for the cookbook author (who’s published two updated versions of her grandma’s 1974 book Mrs Lee’s Cookbook) and founder of Shermay’s Singapore Fine Food to showcase the restaurant’s SG50 ‘Singapore’s Culinary Grande Dames’ menu. She helped curate the eight Peranakan, Cantonese, Anglo-Indian and Eurasian dishes featured in three iconic Singaporean cookbooks. The books are by her grandma Mrs Lee Chin Koon (Lee Kuan Yew’s mother), her grand-aunt Mrs Leong Yee Soo, and Ellice Handy, the former principal of her alma mater, Methodist Girls’ School.

So… is she a chilli padi? “I think I have to be, especially when I train chefs. Most times, when I walk into the kitchen, I look younger than the other chefs and I’m the only woman, so it’s tough. I don't shout; it doesn’t work. It’s about earning credibility. And the way to do that is to know your stuff. [For instance], if they show me their chilli sauce, I can tell them whether they used the right variety of chilli,” she says confidently.

Presently, we see no sign of fieriness in the niece of our late founding father (she is the daughter of Lee Kuan Yew’s youngest brother, Dr Lee Suan Yew). Instead, she is bubbly and speaks in crisp English softened with Singlish words like “wah”. Her eyes light up when she talks about her “babies”, her line of heritage sauces and marinades like cilicuka and bak kwa marinade under the Shermay’s Singapore Fine Food brand. She recently closed down her eponymous cooking school and retail shop in Jalan Merah Saga after almost 12 years, citing rising operating costs, to concentrate on food manufacturing and consultancy. “I want to be the brand that people think of when you mention chilli sauce,” she declares.

As dinner is served, she relentlessly snaps photos of each dish with her smartphone like any seasoned instagrammer. “I know, live in the moment and enjoy the fireworks [instead of photographing them], right?” she jokes self-deprecatingly, her gaze never leaving the camera. As we dig into a sublime popiah made using her granny’s recipe, we remark how delicious it is. “Hmm, I’m enjoying my own food,” she replies without a hint of self-consciousness, crunching into a kueh pie tee shell.

Shermay's favourite things...
Shermay's favourite things...
21 Aug 2015

Shermay's favourite things...

Item to put on rice: “Sambal belacan. Or nonya gravy like itek sio. But I now eat mostly quinoa instead of white rice. As you get older, carbs become really dangerous.”

Dish cooked by grandma: “Mee siam (pictured above). My family loves to have it every few weeks. Now our helper makes it.”

Junk food: “Nachos. But even then, it’s organic nachos with chia seeds. If I eat something like Cheetos, it feels like foam and the artificial taste is very clear. ’Cos my palate is my profession. I haven’t eaten McDonald’s in a long time.”

Nonya kueh: “Onde-onde. I make it myself. It needs to be tiny so that you can pop the whole thing in your mouth, and it bursts [with liquid gula melaka filling]. The pandan needs to be real pandan juice, not [artificial] flavouring. The ones that you get commercially are terrible: huge, doughy, dry and artificial, they totally lost the plot.”

Bak kwa: “SuperNature’s [artificial] hormone-free one. But now I’m into making my own bak kwa. This way, I can choose how atas or mass my meat quality is. [Shermay’s bak kwa marinade] is super umami, it has oyster sauce, soy sauce, fish sauce and caramel. No, I’m not trying to be Bee Cheng Hiang — this is my home-style version of bak kwa, which is rich and complex. I love empowering people to cook at home; it’s no different from a cooking school.” 

Shermay's favourite things...
Shermay's favourite things...
21 Aug 2015

Shermay's favourite things...

Hawker dish: “Yong tau foo (pictured above). Which is my favourite stall? Wah, then I better say chicken rice! It’s easier. I like Loy Kee for its roast chicken.”

Drink: “Choya [umeshu] with soda water and calamansi lime is very refreshing. Especially when the weather is [hot]. I also like good coffee; usually a latte or cappuccino.”

Cooking oil: “Really good olive oil from Culina. Each bottle from Italy — I forget the brand — costs about 36 bucks. But a cheap bottle of wine also costs the same. So you might as well get good olive oil because when you cook with it, not only is it better for you, it can last a long time. However, people in the food industry now say coconut oil is good for you, so I want to try cooking with organic extra virgin coconut oil. Like fry rempah (spice paste) with it. I think it will work — Indonesians use kerisik (toasted grated coconut) in their dishes, so it makes sense.”

Food-related memory of uncle Lee Kuan Yew: “As much as he was health conscious to the very end, he actually had a very discerning palate. He was a foodie and knew his Peranakan food well; his memory of his mother’s food was very strong. He said the closest one could get to his mother’s cooking after she passed away was through my food. I take that as a compliment. Which particular dish of mine did he love? You’re asking what every journalist has asked; they want to pin it down. Well… I made achar for him.” 

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