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SINGAPORE HAWKER MARATHON: CRYSTAL DUMPLING (ZONGZI) MADE WITH SAGO PEARLS

 

WHAT:  Beautiful, jewel-like, crystal dumplings called zongzi made purely with sago pearls, which I didn’t actually eat in Singapore.

WHY:  Although, as far as I know, this is technically not a “Singaporean thing”, but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t.  Its glossily translucent and elegantly geometric body is made entirely with tapioca sago pearls, making it enthusiastically bouncy, springy, chewy, the most texturally cheerful dumpling out there served cold with coconut dark brown sugar syrup.

HOW:  By soaking and various natural coloring agents, we are turning plain sago pearls into colorful mushy fillings that, through baptism of boiling water, transforms into these gem-like, glassy and slick dumplings that are wonderfully chewy, cooling and simply euphoric to look at.  It’s a texture thing, very much like the addictive quality of tapioca pearls inside boba teas.  The single source of fragrance and flavor that is fused into these dumplings (except the green ones that are made with pandan leaf) depends solely on these spear-shaped leaves, often times called zongye (dumpling leaf), mostly harvested from a particular type of East Asian evergreen bamboos.  It’s hard to describe it to those who haven’t personally experienced it, as it is a truly unique fragrance.  In my best ability, but probably inadequate, I would say it’s a combination of very intense corn husks and grassy tea leaves.

If you feel wary of this unfamiliar ingredient, trust me, once I was too.  But after getting over my illogical fear – one that wasn’t even inconvenient because you can buy these leaves with only a few clicks on your computer – I am now so in love of it that I want to use the leftover, incredibly aromatic cooking water as a base for soups!  And once I’ve learnt how fun it is to shape them, I just want to sit by a sunny window and make zongzi all day long.

Staying in line with the Southeast Asian flavors of this series, I’m proposing a serving syrup made with coconut milk, dark brown sugar and sea salt, mimicking the flavor of palm sugar.  But any other sweethearts like honey, maple syrup, or date syrup will do, too.

 

IT’S A TEXTURE THING!

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Singapore hawker marathon: Coconut rice part two, lemongrass fried chicken and fragrant salmon cake

 

THE CRUST IS THE HERBS, THE HERBS ARE THE CRUST, ONE AND INSEPARABLE, CRUNCHING TOWARDS A COMMON, GLORIOUS PURPOSE

WHAT:  The overkill toppings for my nasi lemak, none other than the jacked up lemongrass fried chickens, and a salmon shrimp mousse fused with herb pastes and grilled inside aromatic leaves.

WHY:  Nasi lemak wants toppings.

HOW:  I was once floored by a fried chicken I came across in Kuala Lumpur during the Ramadan, and it took me several years and at least six attempts to get it as close to what I remembered as possible.  Instead of heavy flour-based breadings, these chickens are suited in a delicate, crispy, nest-like formation of blazing lemongrass, ginger and spices.  The crust is the herbs, and the herbs are the crust, one and inseparable, crunching towards a common, glorious purpose.  And that is to be the best damn fried chicken you’ll ever taste.  A few of my past mistakes that you should take note from, is that the chicken needs to be marinated inside the herb-puree for at least six hours in order to reach its true calling.  Then instead of a breading, a minimal amount of potato starch or cornstarch is added at the end to form a very loose, very watery “batter”, which acts more as threading than breading, pulling all these dispersed pomace of aromatics into a thin weaving of crispy crust.

Then let’s talk about this thing called otah.  Truth is I’ve only had it once at the airport of Singapore, hardly a credential that qualifies me to speak on its behalf.  But that single encounter was more than enough persuasion to make me believe that my life is no longer complete without it.   It is essentially a fish mousse, made predominantly of mackerels, that is heavily seasoned with a condensation of southeast Asian herbs, nut butter (most likely candlenuts, but you could use cashew, walnuts or macadamia nuts) and coconut milk.  The mousse itself is relatively easy to make.  And I made concessions where I can bear, replacing the act of deboning and skinning mackerels with easily accessible skinless salmon fillets and shrimps.  But the laborious part, like a Mexican tamale, is stuffing it individually inside aromatic leaves which gives the fish cake a significant boost of aroma once it’s grilled.  I’d love to tell you that you can simply cook the mousse inside one big ramekin and call it a home kitchen-friendly rendition, but that would be a sore mistake as you miss out on a simple, best-kept secret.  That nowadays, just because an ingredient is unfamiliar, doesn’t mean it’s hard to come by.  Aromatic leaves such as banana leaves can be easily purchased online.  And once you’ve worked with it, overcoming the fear of the unknown, you’d be wondering where it has been all your life.

 

FRAGRANT SALMON SHRIMP CAKE 1

FRAGRANT SALMON SHRIMP CAKE 2

FRAGRANT SALMON SHRIMP CAKE 3

FRAGRANT SALMON SHRIMP CAKE 4

FRAGRANT SALMON SHRIP CAKE 5

LEMONGRASS FRIED CHICKEN 1

LEMONGRASS FRIED CHICKEN 2

LEMONGRASS FRIED CHICKEN 3

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Singapore hawker marathon: Coconut rice part one, tomato chili sambal and lemongrass ricotta

 

An incredibly fragrant coconut rice cooked in pandan extraction, a tomato-based chili sambal boosted with Italian anchovies, and a lemongrass-infused coconut milk ricotta crumbled with thinly sliced shallots and bird’s eye chili marinated in fish sauce

WHAT:  Nasi Lemak, Malay’s signature fragrant coconut rice cooked in coconut milk and served with a spicy and sweet chili sambal.

WHY:  You haven’t really had rice until you’ve tasted nasi lemak.  And if you have tasted nasi lemak and consider this statement grossly exaggerated – as I once was – then it’s highly probable that it’s because you haven’t had this nasi lemak.  Best yet, most components can be made days ahead of time.

HOW:  Let’s face it.  There are a lot of underwhelming nasi lemak out there.  And I say this with the full acknowledgement that it’s an explicitly personal opinion resulting from my deeply rooted disagreement with more than one of its traditional, possibly beloved, practices.  The coconut rice, without any dispute, is the heroine of the entire dish.  We should all agree that if this part isn’t done right, then none of the others shall matter.  But in my three to four encounters of nasi lemak in Malaysia and Singapore, more often than not, the rice appears fragrance-less and purpose-defeating, a crime that even if I could overlook, is sentenced to death with an aggressively sweet chili sambal slapped over the top where the scattered insult of dried anchovies and roasted peanuts lurks nearby.  I don’t care for whole dried anchovies and/or roasted peanuts.  Two ingredients that, in its entirely intact, crude and un-manipulated form, is only acceptable as cat snacks and dive bar nuts.

So here I’m setting out, if for no one else but myself, to make things right.  In order to inject my desired level of fragrance into what is truly coconut rice in my mind, the cooking liquid is blended with pandan leaf and lemongrass before brewing for a short while over heat.  The result is a jade-like green extraction that in conjunction with coconut milk and coconut oil, nursed the most incredibly fragrant pot of jasmine rice that I’d be happy eating with just a sprinkle of sea salt.  Then in exchange of the overdue removal of whole dried anchovies, I went for a tomato-based chili sambal flavored with Italian anchovies in olive oil and dried shrimps, which provide a deeply nutty, seafood-y backdrop as the tangy sweetness of tomatoes and apricot jam forms an addictive conflict with fiery and condensed red chilis.  It is a general wisdom – and happens to be true – that amongst two rich and intently juggernauts, a refreshing and preferably sharp medium is duly warranted.  In rejection of the common trifling of sliced cucumbers, I say a lemongrass-infused coconut milk ricotta crumbled with thinly sliced shallots and bird’s eye chili marinated in fish sauce, is just the creamy yet laser-sharp liaison to bring this epic coalition to focus.

These few components without much else (or at least how they are traditionally made), together inside cleverly folded wrappers, are little pouches of portable delights grabbed on the go by busy Malaysians and Singaporeans alike.  But for the most insatiable amongst us all, there are also some much available overkills.  For lemongrass fried chickens, and fragrant fish cake they call otah, please proceed to Part Two.

 

TOMATO CHILI SAMBAL 1

TOMATO CHILI SAMBAL 2

TOMATO CHILI SAMBAL 3

COCONUT RICOTTA 1

COCONUT RICOTTA 2

COCONUT RICE 1

COCONUT RICE 2

COCONUT RICE 3

COCONUT RICE 4

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Book announcement + Singapore hawker marathon: Tai Hwa pork noodle

THE ONE MICHELIN-STARRED HAWKER NOODLE FROM SINGAPORE, NOW AVAILABLE AT YOUR NEAREST CONVICTION.

AND BTW, I WROTE A BOOK.

Wow, it’s been awhile.  I know I tend to say that a lot here, but this time, it has really been awhile.

The reason why I haven’t posted a single word on this blog for almost 2 months, or really, my general absence from this space for the past whole year, hasn’t exactly been a secret.  I’ve mentioned it briefly once or twice before but there hasn’t been an “official” announcement of any sort, so I guess, I’m making it official today.

In a nutshell, I wrote a cookbook.

Or more precisely, I have just finished the manuscript of my cookbook, which is scheduled to be published around October 2019.

I feel strange announcing this with such formality, maybe because the notion of a cookbook, for better or worse, has become quite a predictable outcome in the food-blogging community, sometimes a sorely needed contribution, but sometimes, let’s be honest, a bit not.  From a personal standpoint, I feel strange parading with what could be perceived as an unnecessary accessory, regardless of how excited I feel about what I wrote.  I guess it’s a mixed feeling, and to start telling you about it I have to boil it down to one simple question:

Why did I write this book?

Many of you already know that I started this blog in 2012 after two years of moving to Beijing as an expat wife.  For the total of six years that I spent with Beijing – before moving to Hong Kong in 2016 where we’re currently residing – it had been the most violently unhappy and emotionally destructive relationship of my life.  It’s an open sentiment I have expressed freely at every random chance I get, however, never explained in a thoroughly chronicled and consolidated manner, with an intimately dissected beginning to an end.  Although the process was unsavory, to say the least, to burrow so deeply and nakedly back into a period of time which I had literally fled away from, this tormenting affair seems unfinished in a way, imperfectly broken without a final, twisted, exhausted closure.  It feels important, needed even, if for nobody else but myself.

The cookbook, for a lack of better words, is my breakup sex with Beijing.

Though the title of the cookbook hasn’t been decided yet, it’s a memoire that surrounds the topic of what I would like to call escapism cooking, of how I abused this previously harmless hobby of mine as a recreational drug that aided my escape from this unpleasant reality.  It was written mostly as my personal post-traumatic therapy, possibly self-indulgent and shrieking with internal monologues.  But for anyone who care to read it, I hope it shines a light on their own struggles in life, whatever and wherever it is, that we can always make something positive out of it all.  And sometimes, even delicious.  So until then, we’ll talk more in detail.

But for now, I’m back.  And we need to talk about this Singapore hawker situation.

 

SINGAPORE HAWKER RECIPE MARATHON:

 

 

After the handover of my manuscript, I took a trip to Singapore for the very first time.  Within the first couple days, it became acutely apparent that an in-house investigation into Singaporean hawker recipes, the uniquely fused heritage between Malay, Chinese and Indian, is not only warranted but embarrassingly overdue.

If you love foods, and I mean it way beyond the confines of cooking and eating, extending into the history, politics, incentives and metamorphosis of what, where, how and why people eat what they eat, then you should be utterly infatuated with this powerful and glorious mutant, in the best sense possible, that the Singaporean diet has become.  A virtually utopian foodscape where each cuisines happily concedes their areas of shortcomings, thus, not just allowing, but welcoming the other parties to input, reinforce and further transforming its very own culinary identity and heritage, then to share it all under an open roof without bias.  In any other parts of the world, that notion makes wars.  But in Singapore, it makes unfathomably complex and delicious foods that would have been otherwise inconceivable by any party on its own.  Stronger together.  Sadly more a slogan than reality.  But in Singapore, they eat it for breakfast.  If that’s not worth copying, I don’t know what is.

So here I’m kickstarting a Singapore hawker marathon, starting with Tai Hwa Pork Noodle.

WHAT:  The infamous, one Michelin-starred hawker noodle in Singapore called bak chor mee, now available at your nearest conviction.

WHY:  This seemingly unimpressive bowl of yellow noodles under random heaps of ground pork, livers, fish balls and wontons, was possibly underestimated as well by the Michelin critics who came in skepticism and left with their mind-blown.  A rich and complex vinegary introduction, hidden from its unassuming appearance, surprises your initial senses and awakens every urge to dip deeper.  The jagged bak chor (means minced pork) with creamy and almost melty livers, entangle inside the bouncy strands of noodles together with a rich, tangy and savory gravy that you can’t quite put your finger on but couldn’t stop eating either.

HOW:  To recreate my personal rendition of Tai Hwa’s pork noodle, I’m doubling down on their signature vinegary element while reinforcing what I thought was lacking in its slightly ambiguous gravy, hoping to bring it further into focus.

Upon my observation, pork noodle’s gravy is predominantly made of four separate components:  dark vinegar, mushroom sauce, lard and a chili oil.  The typically used Chinese black vinegar is unique but short in well-roundedness, which can be perfectly complimented by the addition of fruity and fragrant balsamic vinegar.  The mushroom sauce is the main body that provides flavor and complexity – which in my opinion was the weak link in Tai Hwa’s pork noodle – and therefore I’m creating an ultra-concentrated mushroom jus by powdering and caramelizing dried shitake mushrooms.  I’m presuming that Tai Hwa’s lard is probably rendered in conjunction with dried sole, an ingredient quite elusive even in Asia, so I’ve substituted with specks of deeply browned and disintegrated anchovy fillets with surprising resemblance.  Last but not least, a chili oil made with sichuan chili paste to put that last cherry on the cake.  If cake is a savory, sophisticated, all-rounded bowl of noodle that flows euphorically like an unexpected and life-changing symphony.

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Simplified, tall fluffy pancake, stuffed with cheese

NO SEPARATION OF EGG WHITES AND YOLKS, NO WHIPPING THE WHITES AND FOLDING IT BACK IN, AND YEAH, NO MAYONNAISE EITHER.

 

If you use the internet, you’ve probably seen this.  This super lofty, tall and wiggling souffle pancake, said to have originated from Japan, that will surely tickle the feathers of anyone who has a soft sentimental spots for stacked fluffiness.

I, for one, am not a pancake person.  Or at least, not in its traditional form.  But over the years, I’ve been patiently waiting for a game changer that would summon my inner fluff-craze that has been dormant inside my cold, pancake-less heart, and I thought, maybe, this is it.

Well, not quite.

Upon further investigation, I realized that the recipe for this pancake requires violating one of my many holy baking commandments – Thou shalt not ask for the separation of egg white and yolks, separate whippings, and folding them back in.  I am not thy bitch. – carved into a plastic chopping board and hung onto my fridge in permanence to remind me of the gods’ wrath against disobedience.  So typically, if I see such thing, I just walk away.  But something, a small voice inside my head, an imploding honey cake from the old ages perhaps, held my foot in the ground.

Thing is, whole eggs whip up marvelously fine just as well.

If it’s air that we’re after, whipping egg whites separately isn’t always necessary.  I thought, if I could just find the right ratio between flours and whole eggs that are whipped together with sugar until almost mousse-like in consistency, then I can streamline this recipe and turn this batter into a one-bowl, fuss-free and fool-proof epiphany that even I can’t fuck up.

And guess what, I did.  A super tall, lofty, spongy one-bowl batter that doesn’t need separation of white and yolks, no folding the whites back in, and yeah, no mayonnaise either.  My heart should be content.  My inner fluff-craze should awaken and shine lights upon the golden gate that welcomes me towards pancake enlightenment.  Right?

Well, not quite.

Thing is, like all other earnest yet disappointing pancakes that had come before it, flavor-wise, this pancake was still completely boring.  Cottony fluffiness, yeah, but remind me again why I want to eat cotton again?  I sat and stared, faithful, receptive, in waiting.  A sign will come.  It must come.  All these journeys of questions and answers, flipping and flopping, reincarnations and repetitions, can’t all be for nothing.  Pancake must mean something!  It must!

I waddled my slumbering, meditating body towards the fridge for a diet coke, the thought-juice if you will, and out the corner of my eyes, there it was – A Laughing Cow (regrettably not a sponsor).  Of course!  If the gods intend a purpose for this pancake’s spacious and buoyant volume, surely, it would be for nothing else but, stuffing!  And what is better to aid its mildly sweet and airy crumbs if not this exuberantly creamy and contrastingly salty cheese?

I put my theory to work, and it worked.  An unlikely but wondrous pairing that is texturally light yet creamy, flavorfully sweet yet salty, a faintly vanilla sponge moistened with a mildly cheesy funk.  In the end, excused by its entirely oil/butter-free crumbs, a slim waterfall of melted butter and a squirt of honey is appropriately commenced.  Pancake, is that finally you?  Oh where have you been…

 
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ONE-POT SICHUAN SAUSAGE (OR ANY SAUSAGE) RICE W HERBS SALAD

THE ABUNDANT FAT AND JUICES FROM THE SAUSAGE WILL DESCEND GODLY AND SEEP DOWN THROUGH THE RICE BELOW, FLAVORING AND AIDING THE FORMATION OF THE HEAVENLY BOTTOM CRUST

If you follow my Instagram, then you’d know that I’m head-deep in rushing towards the finishing line on my cookbook.  Yeah, I’m writing one, and this is probably the first time that I’m mentioning it on the blog, all very anti-dramatic and all.  But I promise to talk more about it when the time comes.

For now, let me quickly leave you with a recipe, well more like a technique almost, that I think everyone who struggles with weeknight meals (or writing a book no less) should have in their repertoire.  Inspired by claypot rice, here’s how to turn any type of fresh sausages and a few cups of rice into a one-pot, steaming, savory, fluffy and crispy wonder.  If you have a few minutes to spare, you can prepare this sichuan-inspired sausage thoroughly studded with fatty guanciale bits (Italian cured pork jowl), burning with toasted chili flakes and tingling wtih sichuan pepercorns.  Or, you can use any other types of your favorite, fresh sausages like sweet Italian, spicy Italian, or fresh Mexican chorizo and etc.  Either way, the abundant fat and juices from the sausage will descend godly and seep down through the rice below, flavoring and aiding the formation of the caramelized, heavenly bottom crust.  Then this steaming and comforting one-pot wonder is complimented by a scallion and tarragon salad cooled by a touch of Greek yogurt.  If you’re anything like me, you don’t even need bowls.

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THE PHYSICALLY AND FLAVOR-MASSIVE, BEIJING SUPERMARKET FRIED CHICKEN

SAVORY JUICES GREASED WITH RENDERED FAT RUSHED ARDENTLY OUT OF THE MEAT… A NOSTRIL FULL OF AROMA AS A MIXTURE OF CUMIN, CHILI, GARLIC, AND THE IRRESISTABLE SMELL OF CRISPED CHICKEN SKINS SENT ME INTO AN ANGRY SPIRAL OF REGRETS AND RESENTMENTS

In AA they say, there are twelve steps to recovery.  Well, this fried chicken is my Step Nine. 

Specifically, if you (hopefully) aren’t familiar, this is a stage where the recoveree make direct amends to people whom they had harmed, wherever possible, as a part of the process to obtain emotional balance and closure.

So here I stand, almost two years into my recovery from six traumatic years in Beijing, I am ready to talk about this fried chicken.

To start from the beginning, I first saw these fried chickens inside a supermarket a few blocks away from our apartment in Beijing.  Calling that place a supermarket is a gross exaggeration whereas a glorified convenience store would be more appropriate, but for six long years, I passed by that supermarket about once a week on a conservative average, and I consistently dismissed the peculiar stall that was tucked in a dingy corner by the entrance with a sign that read, “Meixiang Fried Chicken“.

Peculiar indeed, not because there was a random fried chicken stall inside a suspicious convenience store, but that as ambiguous as it was, almost everyday around 3pm, there would be a line cued up at its greasy window, as long and meandering as my bafflement.  Typically, a line exceeding 15% of the total crowd-size stretching the entire block, is a mathematic proof good enough to send me into investigation, but feeling prejudice towards this entire city in general, I thought either this fried chicken was an understated treasure, or these people were out of their minds.

For six years, I went firmly with the latter.

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THE INCREDIBLE CHICKEN TOFU – FROM THE MIND OF A CHEF

TENDER EDIBLE CLOUDS MADE WITH CHICKEN BREASTS?!!  WHAT IS THIS WIZARDRY, DANNY?!

Holy shit, did you watch Season Six of Mind of a Chef with Danny Bowien from Mission Chinese Food?

Did you see where his mentor Yu Bo, in episode two, turned a puddle of pink chicken-slush into pillows of fluffy-looking curds, something they call, chicken tofu?!

Did you gush outloud, tender edible clouds made with chicken breasts?!!  No special curd-forming acid or salt required, virtually fat-free, and answers the prayers of millions of suffering souls of how to triple the volume of two pieces of chicken breasts without adding much more calories, but more importantly, transforming its woodsy nature into custardy, melt-in-your-mouth, weightless pillows of savory delights?!!!

Did you close your eyes and imagine exhaustively of what it’s like to cuddle the impossibly light and quilted bodies in between your tongues, a dream that feels unreal but known to be true?!!

Did you marvel?!

Did you cry?!

Did you say oh please baby Jesus dear Lordy, can someone please tell me how this wizardry is performed?!!

Well, guess what, you’re welcome.

And the spicy version drenched in chili oil, you’re double welcome.

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