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LISBON, PLUS SURF’N TURF PORK BELLY AND SHRIMP SAUSAGE SANDWICH

After what seemed as long as forever, but now, feels as short as a blink of an eye, five weeks of traveling in and out of 6 different countries, I am now, finally, back home.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to sum up a journey as long as this one in one post.  It began in Hong Kong, then Taipei then back to Hong Kong, then it departed towards London, then Madrid, and Lisbon, then finally, passing by Germany, back to Hong Kong, then back to Beijing.  It was a zig-zaging montage of cityscapes, sounds, smells, flavours, stimulations… but also disorientations, sense of aimless drifts, dubbed by a relentless seasonal flu somewhere at end.  How do I tell such a story I have no clue.  I suspect I would be inadequate but I shall try.

I shall try, starting with Lisbon.

Why Lisbon?  I don’t know.  I guess there are moments in life that didn’t feel particularly monumental at the times, but somehow, years and years later, they stay with you whenever you feel like looking back.  Lisbon, in the best sense, felt as such.  There are cities where we go to feel the future.  New York, London, places that strut at the tip of our times, erecting glories built in glasses and steels, forward.  Lisbon, as rare as it is precious, is not that kind of city.  Lisbon, to me at least, comes into the scene as an ageing beauty.  Her allures permeates in a lingering perfume of melancholy, on the surface of every faded tiles, behind every half-closed wooden windows, cut deep into every folds of her stone-paved labyrinth.  She is old.  She is complicated.  There are a lot of bygone glories, loss and pain in her untold stories, some remembered only objects that cannot speak.  I found myself striken by a sense of wounded dignity at her unguarded moments.  In fact, sometimes  her unpolished cheeks marked with spray paints and the crumbling of her once beautifully tiled facades, like a ripped silk dress, made me feel impolite to stare.  But, I guess, that’s why Lisbon felt so unique.  Holding her own, almost carefully, with a flustered sense of self-esteem… she sits quietly, a city by the sea.

A place like her leaves an impression.  She made me wonder about the life she’s had.  She made me want to dig deeper.  She made me wanna do things that I’ve never done to any other places, beyond the politeness of walking through her streets and allies, beyond gorging the foods that she cooked.  I wanted to get more intimate.  Closer.  I wanted to hear her sing.  And if there’s one thing that I think you should do in Lisbon, however cheesy it may be, you should hear Lisbon sing.

And she sings Fado.

OF COURSE, WE HAD TO FINISH THE MEAL WITH A SANDWICH.  WE JUST HAD TO.  THAT’S HOW IT’S DONE.

BUT THIS TIME, WE WEREN’T SORRY THAT WE DID

First of all, it might help to mention that I am not a music person.  I have almost zero song downloaded to my smartphone, and in the 7 years I’ve dwelled in New York, a trip to New Orleans, I have never stepped a foot inside a jazz bar.  Curried goat, yes, but Bob Marley who?

So no, I don’t usually do this.

But to come to Lisbon without listening to a bit of fado, a music as burnt into the soul of this country as anything can hurt, is a regret that I wasn’t planning to walk away with.  However, before I go on, I warn you, that a fado experience in Lisbon can prove to be borderline awkward if you have some kind of personal distance-issues.  Chances are, as we were, you’d be seated on a stool tucked in between the elbows and knees of total strangers, so crowded it’d be difficult to reach down to your phones to take a selfie.  Chances are you’d be forced to share foods, and drinks, too, oh hell, conversations even.  If you got problems with any of those things as I almost do – oh fuck did I mention that they smoke indoors, too – chances are, it would be uncomfortable.

But again, chances are, you would regret it if you didn’t.

A young woman in her 20’s came into the tiny spot reserved for performers, professionals and amateurs alike.  Carried only by a couple of guitarists sitting a feet away, she started singing… no, more like… pouring her heart out on the floor.  There was so much passions, longings and losses that I felt through a song that I didn’t understand.  Her body moved like a stringed puppet, cringed, shaken, pulled by the very own emotions in the melody that she sang.  Her voice, at times almost inaudible, at times piercingly loud, communicated words without any translations.  It felt… brave, almost, bleeding this much feelings to a wall of strangers staring within an arm’s length.  Just when I thought I got a sense of what fado was, after her, came an old man in his 80’s.  He was more talking then singing, waving and pointing his hands in every possible gestures, sometime as if in an argument, sometime as if in mourning.  It was comical but not funny.  It was crude but endearing.  I can’t say I know fado, but if you ask me, the beauty of it is not in the perfection of vocal skills, but in the generosity of common strangers, singing their hearts to you on a sleeve.

We left the bar a bit in awe, with a couple of new German friends who were forced to share their chorizos with us.  Walking home on her crooked slopes echoing her voice in heart-strung melodies, Lisbon felt more mysteriously beautiful than before I got to know her.

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MAMA’S BRAISED CHICKEN LEGS ON RICE W/ FRIED CHILI CAPERS

IT IS, DILEMMA.

FORTUNATELY, ONE THAT COULD BE TACKLED WITH A BIT OF REVERSE-ENGINEERING.

We don’t, most times for good reasons, screw with heirloom recipes.  Recipes that are passed down for generations.  Recipes that our grandmother learnt from her grandmother, so on and so forth, are generally deemed as the sum of all collected wisdoms in a pot, sacred, untouchable.  Recipes that should and will be followed, obeyed even, without any desecrating thought of adding an extra tbsp of mustard here or a dash of unholy spices there, otherwise somewhere inside the dusty family album, grandma’s tearing up.  Because this is how it has always been done, as far as recipes go, is an unarguable instruction.

But should they be?  My family, for one, doesn’t have an “heirloom recipe”.  Not really.  My mom is a fantastic cook, which probably isn’t a credit to both of my grandparents whom, from what I’ve heard, were either too short-lived or too much of a diva to teach her anything in the kitchen.  And as far as paying-it-forward goes, she never writes anything down.  So all in all, a single generation and one big approximation, I think, is probably not an heirloom recipe makes.  But, if I were to pass down anything from my mother’s repertoire of ambiguous recipes, if there’s anything that resonates my memory of cooking and eating together as a family, it is this.  My mom’s braised chicken legs over rice.

I don’t quite remember when she started cooking this dish, but by estimation, somewhere right after we moved to Vancouver from Taiwan.  This tastes and smells like coming home after school.  And as a notoriously picky eater back then, this evoked my first acknowledgment of hunger.  In my wishfully sentimental heart and eagerness for an “heirloom”, I would pick this recipe out of it all, to be passed to people by whom I would like to be remembered.  You.  But coming back to what I was saying, I don’t regard heirloom recipe with absolution.  If anything, and I’m sure as in most cases, it is a progression.  If I were to pass this recipe on, looking back, I wouldn’t do it exactly the way she did it.

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HOW TO EASILY SOUS-VIDE IN OVEN, WITH OR WITHOUT WATER

FOR THE PAST 35 YEARS OF SOLEMN HATRED FOR WHITE MEAT, OF CLAWING CHICKEN SAWDUSTS OUT OF MY THROAT, IT MEANS TO TELL ME THAT ALL ALONG, I COULD’VE BEEN EATING THIS SUCCULENCE?!!

IS THIS A JOKE?!!

Let’s face it, most of us never took the idea of “sous vide” seriously as a realistic potential in our home-kitchen, now did we?

This French-sounding… European-ish words (“sus-vahyd”?) that refer to vacuum-sealing our ingredients and submerging them under a warm bath for a long period of time, thus resulting in the extraordinarily supple texture in any cuts of meat, okaaay, all sounds as wonderful as having little house-elf who rap us a Kanye song and clean around the house.  Nice, clap clap, but who are we kidding right?  Hey, believe me, I with you.  Or… at least, I was with you… until a few weeks ago I swear.

I mean, as someone who loves to cook to a degree of obsessive nature, I’m all about humping a technique that, legend has it, could transform a cardboard-like piece of chicken breasts into something so juicy and tender that it defies my anti-faith for chicken breasts.  But to acquire such wizardry, well, I’ll need a wand of course, and it’s called a sous vide-machine.  Thing is I would gladly “sus-vahyd” everything – hey I think it totally makes total sense – IF ONLY I was sitting on a machine that sucks all the air-molecules out of the bags, and another that keeps my tub of water at a constant temperature without asking too many questions.  But guess what, I don’t have a sous vide-machine”s”, and I’m guessing you probably neither.  I guess, we’re all just muggles!  So in the end, the idea all goes back to resembling a fabulous Dobby who raps Kanye → not a realistic potential.  Or is it?

A few weeks ago, I was introduced to Chef Steps, a great blog that promotes “Modernist Cuisines for home-cooks”, and at the top of its honorable agenda, is the mission to teach everyone how to sous vide at home, without any machines that is.  It gave me hope, it really did.  I considered it as an invitation into Hogwars.   So I immediately dove into the first experiment, which was to tightly wrap salmon in a zip-lock bag and cook it in a pot of 120 F/50 C water that they said could be maintained over the stove…  Okay, I would elaborate the experience in meticulous details for you but it could pretty much be summed up in one word, well, impossible.  On gas-stove, on induction-stove… whatever, not even the lowest possible setting/flame could keep a pot of water at 120F/50C without heating it up eventually, not to mention the obvious impracticality and side-effect of babysitting a pot of lukewarm water for 40 min, or worse, hours…  Chefs, it’s not you, but it doesn’t work on my stoves.

But to their credit, the effort wasn’t spent in vain.  The episode curiously reminded me of how, a long time ago, I used to babysit a pot of water in oblivion for my hot spring/onsen eggs, only until the moment when I found out that… wait, I HAVE A HOUSE-ELF!

Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce you to – Dobby, no, THE OVEN.  Uh-humph, sorry, have you met?  Yeah, it’s this really old piece of technology, dinosaur really, that was designed to, guess what, creating an environment at a… yes, constant temperature!  OK, at this point, we’re not even gonna pretend that we’re “sous vide-ing” anything, which means “under vacuum” in French.  We’re not vacuuming anything, but just keeping to the principle of cooking foods under low temperature for a prolonged period of time.   And I don’t know if you know this about earth, but in most cases, the temperature of water will eventually level to the temperature of its surroundings.  What it means is that a pot of 120F/50C water sitting inside an oven that is constantly at 120F/50C, will stay at… YES, 120F/50C!!  Do you see where I’m going with this?  Do you?  With a little adjustment to the oven-setting to make up for the heat that goes into cooking our foods, my friends, this is your new kitchen-revelation.

Results… the salmon, was a bite of the softest and warm embracive epiphany you could ever put in your mouth.  I would replace it with how I cooked salmon in this recipe and gladly eat it for the rest of my lives.  Then the chicken breasts… what chicken breasts?  It transformed the chicken breasts into something… not of this earth, okay.  This is not chicken breasts, not even chicken, because planet earth does not breed this type of animal which has an unbelievable texture as if a chicken screwed a water-balloon and had a baby on Mars that spoke French.  The texture, the suppleness and bounce, is for a lack of better words, infuriating.  It means to tell me that for the past 35 years of solemn hatred for white meat, the chicken-sawdusts that I’ve been clawing out of my throat, all along, could’ve been this succulence?!!  Is this a joke?!!  

But to my own surprise, amidst the simultaneous anguish and enlightenment, the wizardry didn’t stop here.  Remember my sauna eggs?  A little experiment I conducted based on the theory that, with a little adjustments in temperature and cooking-time (difference in air and water heat-conductivity and such boring sciences, blah blah blah), the same water-bath results can be replicated by using dry-heat only as well.  But does it work with things other than eggs?  YES.  The chicken breasts and salmon cooked inside a water-bath in the oven, VS the same ingredients being cooked simply wrapped up in parchment in dry heat at a different temperature/time, are essentially, undistinguishable.

You can “sous vide” in the oven, with or without water-bath.

So here, my friends, fuck being muggles, come to Hogwarts with me.  With a simple thermometer and oven thermometer, let’s do magic.  I will continue this experiment with more ingredients and do a Part II or perhaps even Part III, but for now, I think you’ll be too busy eating – can’t believe I’m saying this – chicken breasts.  I guess it’s true, nothing is impossible.

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