My daughter Nicola was returning from her first proper holiday since starting work two years ago and was due home just in time for dinner, so I decided to cook for her.
Then my old friend Agatha, who suffered through Geography tutorials with me at university, called to say she was visiting from Kuala Lumpur. So I said, Come over lah for makan.
I cooked a family favourite, a spicy chicken fry made with boneless chicken. I call it Vernon’s Chicken Fry after our friend Vernon Seneviratne, though he only cooked this dish with pork, not chicken.
Proud of his Sri Lankan Sinhalese heritage and Southeast Asian roots, Vernon attended St Andrew’s School in Singapore and taught there briefly a long time ago before he left for Scotland chasing a dream to become a pilot.
He went with a bunch of other young men, including my late brother-in-law Derrick, all hoping to be Singapore Airlines pilots. While Derrick and the rest went on to fly, Vernon took a detour and remained in England, where he settled down, became a HR specialist and never stopped being a man with an indefatigable zest for life.
Long before I met him in the late 1980s I’d heard countless tales about his culinary prowess. Derrick would recall Singapore Airlines pilots on stop-over in London making a beeline for Vernon’s place for a home-cooked curry meal.
My wife Hedwig, who visited the Seneviratnes regularly during the year she was a student in London, would describe wonderful meals coming out of the tiny kitchen of the flat Vernon shared with his wife Paula and their children Nicola and Ian.
A story of a legendary Peking Duck was repeated many times, and they would marvel at how Vernon air-dried the bird on the rooftop – or was it the balcony – before roasting it to perfection.
But most of all, everyone would wax lyrical about Vernon’s Pork Fry, chilli-hot and spicy, and just the fix when you’d had your senses dulled by too many days of bland British food – this was well before Jamie Oliver and the others helped make curry England’s national dish.
When I finally met him, Vernon proved to be an ageless spirit interested in so many different things, a great teller of stories, an excellent interested listener and one of those open individuals impossible not to like at first sight. By now he was divorced from Paula, whom I also got to know separately and like a lot.
In the early 1990s when our daughter Nicola was a toddler, Hedwig and I took her to London and we stayed in Vernon’s flat, walking distance from the wonderful Chinese restaurants of Queensway.
When he offered to cook dinner one day and asked what we’d like, I said Vernon’s Pork Fry of course. So he produced it, filling his flat with the pungent aromas of Indian spices, so surprisingly wonderful when you’re away from home.
He used a fatty cut of pork, sliced it in small chunks and tossed it in curry powder before frying it with lots of diced onion, fennel and cumin seeds and cinnamon. It was fried slow and long, and was ready when there was no gravy, and the edges of the meat and fat were crisp and even a little blackened.
It was so good with plain rice and a light cucumber salad.
Afterwards, I cleaned out the dish so well that Vernon who had been watching me in wonder declared: “Alan, you are a very thorough eater indeed.” I guess that was after he caught me stirring hot rice in the cooking pan to mop up every last sticky bit of spicy flavour so that nothing went to waste. Nothing.
Vernon’s Pork Fry proved as tasty as everyone had promised, I could not stop once I started, and the cook was pleased.
Now here’s the thing. I don’t really care for pork. I’ll cook Pork Vindaloo and braise a pork shoulder, but I’d rather eat something else if I had a choice.
So when I got home and wanted to cook Vernon’s star dish, I used boneless, skinless chicken breast instead. Much healthier than fatty pork too.
Vernon’s Chicken Fry worked out very well.
I showed our Sri Lankan helper Sylviya Rodrigo how to do it and she picked it up in a flash. She was a talented cook whose repertoire ranged from Indian to Western, Chinese and Middle Eastern, the last because she spent some years in Kuwait before coming to Singapore.
She stayed with us 22 years, put Vernon’s Chicken Fry on our dinner table at least once a week and we never tired of it, though it always seemed too simple to serve at a party.
Once Sylviya experimented by using firm white tofu, taukwa, instead of chicken. She cubed and fried the tofu before cooking it Vernon’s style and that worked too. Vernon’s Taukwa Fry became a staple in our home for years.
When Sylviya cooked Vernon’s Chicken Fry, she made it very dry, frying the chicken for a long time. Sometimes this resulted in the chicken being a little too hard and dry, but nothing ever went to waste.
After she returned to Sri Lanka for good, I resumed cooking Vernon’s Chicken Fry myself and was a little rusty.
I took the chicken off the fire while the meat was still well coated in thick, spicy gravy. Everyone liked it this way, so I’ve been cooking it less dry than before.
That night when Nicola came home and Agatha visited, I served Vernon’s Chicken Fry with my Ginger & Garlic Shrimp, Malayali Vegetable Stew, stir-fried ladies’ fingers and rice.
Nicola was jet-lagged but happy. Agatha declared the meal better than anything she’d had in Little India! Now that’s a generous compliment to savour for a while.
This simple dish we have so often in our home goes all the way back to the day an old friend prepared it for us in his home. I probably don’t do it exactly like Vernon, but everytime I cook it or eat it, I remember him fondly.
For a Sunday lunch I decided to do it Vernon’s way, using belly pork. It turned out perfectly, transporting me across a quarter of a century to the first time I tasted it in that London flat.
I sent some to my friends Shirley and Eddie Goh, and it drew such rave reviews! Shirley declared it “SOOO good” and said: “I’m controlling myself from polishing off the whole tub!”
I still prefer the chicken version, but I think I’m ready to serve Vernon’s Pork Fry when we have guests for dinner.
The recipe works the same way for pork and chicken, though you have to add a little more water for pork, which takes longer to cook.
I always make more than we can finish because it’s great to have leftovers.
The next day: Slather two slices of good bread with butter, add a layer of sliced cucumber, pile on the leftovers and tuck into your Vernon’s Pork Fry Sandwich!
Yum. It’s really so easy.
Vernon’s Pork Fry (or Vernon’s Chicken Fry)
- 1 kg skinless belly pork cut into small chunks
- (Or 1 kg boneless, skinless chicken breast, sliced into strips)
- 3 big onions, diced
- 3 dessertspoons meat curry powder*
- 1 dessertspoon chilli powder
- Half teaspoon turmeric powder
- 3 dessertspoons fennel seeds
- 1 dessertspoon cumin seeds
- A 3-cm stick of cinnamon
- 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 50g butter
Mix the curry powder, chilli and turmeric into the meat and leave aside.
- Heat vegetable oil in a pan, add onions and fry till golden.
- Add fennel, cumin and cinnamon and fry for a minute.
- Add the meat and stir well, to mix in the onions and spices.
- Add half a cup of water, cook covered for 15 minutes, stirring regularly to prevent the meat from sticking to the pan. Add more water if you’re cooking pork.
- As the gravy thickens, add the butter and stir-fry until you’re satisfied with the way it looks. If you like it a little wet, stop cooking. If you like it drier and crisp, add a little more butter and fry longer.
- Add salt to taste.
- Vernon’s Pork/Chicken Fry must look spicy, appetising and the colour must be right. If it looks too pale, add another dessertspoon or two of curry powder anytime while stir-frying.
*Pre-mixed “Meat Curry Powder” is sold under various brands; I use Baba’s. If I don’t have it handy, I substitute 1 dessertspoon each of chilli, coriander and cumin powder (before adding the additional dessertspoon of chilli and half teaspoon of turmeric powders). For a richer aroma, add teaspoon of garam masala powder.