Monday, 13 October 2014

Kohlrabi Som Tum and a rant on 'Authenticity'


Last Saturday was the day of the The Last BBQ.

The day started the way you would expect a British barbecue to– with grey skies, wind and rain. Thankfully, the skies cleared a couple of hours before the event and we were kept more than warm indoors chopping and frying by the busy stoves. I had not drunk a single drop of alcohol the night before (even though it was a Friday night and my birthday- how's that for self control), so we set about slicing and shredding and chopping kilos of fruit and vegetables right after a few gulps of coffee/ tea. Funnily Sean had about every single wok, pot, pan, and obscure ingredient you could think of in his kitchen– but no food processor. So it was back to a mortar and pestle and a sharp knife, good ol' Asian chef way. Miraculously we got everything done bang on time, and even got the dreaded coconut custard (for 50 people!) to set. 

And everything went wonderfully. 'Wonderful' included the biting chill outside, the grill that wouldn't heat up, the policemen who came because of noise complaints (but who went off happily gnawing on sticky charred ribs), and the homemade bench that collapsed on one end. It was weird but I didn't feel frazzled at all. The pace was quick, no doubt– one moment I could be flipping corn and brushing them with Thai basil butter, and the next crushing peanuts over platters of kohlrabi som tum– but I remember feeling a sense of thrill rather than nervousness. We were feeding people out of a makeshift back alley kitchen and they were digging in messily with their hands, and for a moment it felt like I was back on the streets of Bangkok again, but this time as a hawker.


I didn't get the chance to grab photos once the doors opened to let the hungry crowd in.
From the menu-testing night: friends enjoying food and getting their hands dirty.

That's the main reason I loved the night. I loved that there was nothing pretentious about it– no fancy plates, nor, on the other hand, claims of "100% authentic" fare. The goal was to put together food that people would enjoy eating, and that we would enjoy cooking. We pulled together flavours from home, and just had fun matching them with ingredients we could get here.

A lot of times 'authenticity' becomes a sort of benchmark or judgment criteria for ethnic food, so I sometimes get flak for using British produce when I'm doing something Singaporean. People seem to seek out that exact same dish they had in their hometown/ on their holiday to Asia. If I mess around with a recipe it seems I'm trying too hard or just am not very good. Just to clear things up, I'm never of the romantic notion that my food will be fully local (I will die without fish sauce), nor am I hoping to go down the route of the modern fusion chef. But it does makes a lot more sense to cook with what's fresh and available here rather than something flown all the way from another continent at thrice the price and a fraction the quality. I don’t know if this makes the dish unauthentic, but to me, there is nothing more real and Asian than making do with the best ingredients you can get hold of near you. Plus– loosen up!– cooking should be fun.
And with that rant bit out of the way, here's the recipe for the kohlrabi som tum. Som tum is a signature Thai salad, normally made with shredded green papaya. 

KOHLRABI SOM TUM
Ingredients
serves 2-4
2 medium kohlrabis
2 cloves garlic
4-6 red bird's eye chillies 
2 tbsp dried shrimps
8 sweet ripe cherry tomatoes, halved
3 tbsp fish sauce
3 tbsp unrefined light palm sugar (or unrefined light brown cane sugar)
1 to 2 limes
handful of coriander, roughly torn
handful toasted peanuts

Note all measurements are largely guesstimations. Your fish sauce could be saltier, and your limes juicier. Taste and adjust along the way like a good Asian cook.

You can also add chopped green beans to the mix, as is traditional. We just missed summer i.e. fresh bean season. 

Method
1. Peel and shred the kohlrabi into long fine shreds on a mandolin.
2. Add the garlic to a mortar and smash with the pestle. Follow with the chillies, and dried shrimps, crushing them to release their flavours. Add half the cherry tomatoes, and pound lightly so they release their juices.
3. Add the seasonings- the fish sauce, palm sugar, lime juice. Sort of grind it against the sides of the bowl. Keep tasting and adjust. You can do this in advance, but don't make the actual salad until you are ready to serve, or the vegetables and nuts will go soggy.
4. Finally, toss the shredded kohlrabi, rest of the tomatoes, coriander and toasted peanuts in the dressing. You can add this straight to the mortar but if it's not big enough (especially in the case for 50 people), you can combine them separately in a large bowl. Finish by crushing some peanuts over to serve.

If making this without a mortar and pestle, you can make the dressing by finely chopping the garlic and chillies, lightly bruising the dried shrimp, and squeezing the tomatoes, before combining all with the lime juice, fish sauce and sugar. 

Kohlrabi is a fantastic local substitute for green papaya. It's crisp when raw, with a clean mild sweetness that's very refreshing with the dressing– a powerful combination of sweet, sour, salty, spicy and pungent. Finished off with coriander for floral freshness, and crushed roasted peanuts for a fragrant crunch, this salad is pretty much a perfect balance of flavours and textures.





~
~


Essential Southeast Asian herbs and things


Before I end off, multiple high-fives to: my ace co-chef Sean; our front-of-house, the ever-professional restaurant manager Tulisa; and the banging tunes from Ed and his band). 

And a big thank you to Wholegood for supplying the fruit and vegetables. They've been working with organic producers for years, supplying many top restaurants and retailers, and have only recently launched into veg boxes. A lot of the produce going into these boxes are the same one going out to the shops- top stuff. I'm really happy to be working with them.

~

Recipes and related reads:
Announcement for The Last BBQ – menu and a little peek into our menu testing fun
Foraging at Hampstead Heath with Sean and recipes for Foraged wild green pancakes and Any flower syrup
Ayam pang gang – Nyonya grilled chicken, marinated with coconut and spices (recipe for The Sunday Times)
Sweet and spicy tamarind dressing – tossed this time with celeriac, apple and mint
DIY flavoured/ herb butters- great melted over bbq corn, a steak, sourdough toast, or anything roasted toasted or grilled really

Join the mailing list for some exclusive recipes like the dill-spiked nam pal prik, and roast fennel crab and pickled dandelion bud salad.



Thursday, 11 September 2014

New York Kitchen Adventures, and announcing...The Last BBQ!

Leftover beef rendang on flat sopes with pickled cucumbers and chillies for brunch the next day

I owe you all an update.

Red Hot Chilli Padi went amazingly. We went all out for it– cycling all around the city to gather ingredients, both for our tests and the actual dinner. My thighs hated the trips over the bridges (oh with such passion I tell you), and I'm still not sure I was fully appeased even after cups of fresh apple cider at the Greenmarket. This farmers' market at Union Square was ridiculous– so huge and with such a massive variety compared to the little one I used to manage here (I still love my little Pimlico market though). Spoilt with choice,  I did what any sane person with limited time to shop for a dinner party of 24 would do– buy and eat 6 different kinds of chillies to test the best for sauce; make tater tots with heritage purple potatoes just to see if it's better to stick to the original plan of sweet potater tots; and test out different batters for courgette fries at midnight.



We even took an hour's ferry ride out to see if we could nick some ingredients from The Homestead at Seven Arrows, a farm run by Mike's friend, Meg Paska. Meg was a Brooklyn homesteader (she's amazing, she has a book and you should buy) who decided 2 years back she wanted to leave the city behind to grow vegetables and raise turkeys, chickens, goats, bees, and rabbits. It is currently a one-woman job, which is completely crazy. That day, we helped her prepare new beds for planting, harvest beans and tomatoes, and can peaches, and in return I had one of the best lunches on the trip– homegrown chard, homemade cheese from her goats, golden eggs from the chickens running around my feet, and the best peach pie ever, straight from the oven. It was simple food but the flavours were stunning, a result of the love I could see her pouring into her (not so) little 20 acre plot of land.


Thursday was madness. In addition to my signature shit-hot sambal, we did a green version of a sweet chilli sauce using green jalapeƱos and mint from Meg, and also some homemade mayonnaise with sriracha stirred in. I'd already knocked his flatmate out with a teaspoon of the chilli sauces, which was a good sign. The rendang had been simmering for 8 hours from the night before, with some fantastic grassfed short ribs from The Meat Hook. Mike had built a castle of 70 or so sweetcorn and bacon mancakes and was now on to building (yes from scratch) the extra table. Killer Kaya cocktails downed, we were ready to go.



And it was brilliant. The place was just swinging! I love the sounds of a busy kitchen– plates clattering, oil sizzling– mixed with the comforting sounds of people laughing and munching. To top it all off, we had (the first ever?) Red Hot Chilli Peppers jazz covers from Kyle and his wonderful jazz band. I met people who had come because they read this lil old blog of mine and it made me swell up with pride and amazement that people from across the world read my ramblings. The night ended with giant coconut icecream & peach waffle sandwiches – in other words, in the best way possible.



And so, I thought I'd do something crazy like this all over again back in London.

I've teamed up with the pair from Barry's Hug to host The Last BBQ before the sun says goodbye. One half is Sean, the forager/ gardener that took me on a wild weed adventure at Hampstead Heath. 3/4 of the year, he also works as a chef (currently at 8 Hoxton Square, and he oversees the grill section so you can rest assured that he knows his barbecues). The remaining 1/4 of the year, he spends all the money he's saved in the first 3/4 eating and gallivanting around Southeast Asia. The other half is Ed– or perhaps if I say Ed Laurie and Straw Dog I might get a few more hits from rock fans on this post. After a pretty intense night of menu testing, we've come up with this:


It's going to be a really fun night: a smokin' hot menu (literally) and rockin' music. There will be no fancy dinner napkins and lots of finger licking. See you there, I hope!




GET YER TICKETS HERE !

Related recipes
Mint sweet chilli sauce (variation using green jalapeƱo chillies)
Shit-hot sambal tumis belachan
Ox cheek and venison rendang (variation with simply beef shin)
Kohl-slaw with sweet tamarind mint dressing

Related reads
Red Hot Chilli Padi menu (we changed it a bit to suit the produce)
Meg, her farm, her book 

Join the mailing list for exclusive recipes like Manly Mike's corn and bacon mancakes :p


Sunday, 10 August 2014

Hello New York I'm cooking! And a mayo-free tamarind kohlslaw!


It’s been a while! The past few weeks have been madness! There’s been lots going on– a lot of exciting things that I cannot yet share (but I will once I get the ok), and some bothersome things that you would rather not hear­. Of course, these are all excuses and the main reason is that the sun’s been too glorious and I’ve been spending my time lazing on the grass sipping Pimm’s.

There is one thing that I can share though: I am off to New York in a couple of weeks’ time for a well-needed break (Pimm’s breaks do not count). And I'm doing a little event in our loft with dinner and grooves! (Yes Asians don’t actually know how to take a break.)

I’m hosting it with The Boy, and we thought we would do a twist on American classics with Singaporean flavours. The menu is unauthentic but unabashedly so. It will be a very fun night, with live jazz and a crazy cocktail bar (Killer Kaya rum cocktails anyone?) manned by a sexy tall blonde bartender (i.e. our flatmate). Somewhere in my food/beach-crammed itinerary, I’ll be exploring a friend’s farm and the Union Square farmer’s market, so the produce we use will be seasonal, local and organic (yes duh and don’t judge).


I’m sharing the recipe for the coleslaw today. This is the menu item that I’m really excited about. (No not the mancakes* and not the sliders*.)

Well, I say coleslaw but this is definitely not one’s typical idea of coleslaw i.e. cabbage smothered in sugary mayo (and often accompanied by fried chicken). By definition, coleslaw is simply a salad made up of shredded raw cabbage that’s dressed in vinaigrette, or a sauce that already has vinaigrette (like mayo). The sweet tanginess of the salad is what makes it special in my opinion.

The one I’ve got here is a decidedly summery one. I’ve mimicked the sweet tanginess using tamarind instead, and because it is August and not at all cabbage weather, I’ve gone for kohlrabi and fennel. These two vegetables have a wonderful crunch just like cabbage, but also have a mild vegetal sweetness and herby fragrance. Unlike old-school coleslaw, it is not at all heavy and is bursting with flavours– sweet, sour, spicy, minty, and nutty all at once.


KOHLSLAW (haha) WITH TAMARIND MINT DRESSING
serves 3-4 as a side
Ingredients
1 medium kohlrabi
1 small fennel bulb
handful fresh mint leaves
handful cashews, dry-roasted

sweet tamarind mint dressing
30g (1 heaped tbsp) tamarind pulp
2 tbsp runny honey
1 tbsp naturally fermented soy sauce
3 birds' eye chillies, chopped
squeeze of lime
small handful fresh mint leaves, chopped

Method
1. Soak the tamarind pulp in 2-3 tbsp hot water for a few minutes, mashing up slightly, to make about 5 tbsp of tamarind paste. Mix the ingredients for the dressing, together, adjusting to taste. 
2. Finely shred the kohlrabi and fennel. Julienne practice! 
3. Toss the shredded vegetables, remaining mint, and roasted cashews in the dressing, mixing well till everything is well coated. Done.



The hot weather means I’ve been less inclined to switch on the stove, and god-forbid the oven, so my meals nowadays comprise largely of things you can throw together with minimal effort and heat. Any effort required often only involves the knife, which translates to lots of salads and pickles. Salads don’t have to be boring and this one is proof of that. The tamarind mint dressing is pretty versatile, so you can play around with the type of vegetables you use. Cucumbers are good.  Cabbage for a winter slaw. Roast peanuts if you don’t like cashews. No chillies if you can’t take spicy. Et cetera.

I’ve got a handful more quick fun ideas for those who have trouble thinking beyond a Caesar salad on the newsletter. If you like you can sign up– I have no time to spam and I only send good stuff.

And I don’t know if any New Yorkers read my blog, but if you do, I hope to see you on the 28th! Tickets and more details here.

~

*Idea of mancakes inspired by Chef John. Completely different pancake recipe though– The Boy is in charge of this because he is American.

My favourite salads/ pickles from the blog:
Nyonya achar (the vegetables are all in season now!)
How to sweet-Asian-pickle anything
Smashed cucumbers and marinated aubergines
YUM woon sen (Thai glass noodle salad)

Friday, 27 June 2014

Pho, with Thai basil, mint and coriander fishcakes




There is a huge backlog of recipes I plan to blog about, but haven't. A lot of times I start up the blogger page, stare at the white space and draw a blank. It's not a lack of cooking in my life– I am in the kitchen almost every day. It's not a lack of photos– I am one of those annoying people who disallow her friends from eating until she has taken a good 50 shots.

I start writing and I wonder, why would anyone read this? The recipes seem too short and too easy; you are only required to 1. not be afraid of fire and 2. be able to use a knife. A lot of them are also just variations of older recipes, swopping one ingredient out for one or two others– maybe fennel instead of cumin seeds, basil instead of mint, chard in summer instead of cabbage etc. But today I feel like writing anyway.


Fishcakes have probably appeared somewhere on the blog before, but not with these same herbs and not on top of a bowl of noodles. There is something particularly wonderful about the combination of fragrant Thai basil, mint and coriander; and crisp flaky fishcakes against slippery soft noodles. 

These fishcakes are made using fresh wild salmon instead of canned and aren't bulked up with 95% potato, so you really get the flavour of salmon and a lovely light texture that crumbles in the mouth. 
I have all the herbs growing in my basement flat (surviving thanks to the relatively sunny long days), so it's one of those recipes I can handle (and have handled repeatedly) for a lazy lunch. The three herbs are favourites in Southeast Asian cooking, and I actually first made these in Singapore a few months back. The boy I was seeing gave me a bouquet of chillies and herbs because he knew I liked my 'flowers' edible. I very unromantically made fishcakes out of them the next day. (Shush! He ate them too.) 


PHO, WITH THAI BASIL, MINT AND CORIANDER FISHCAKES
serves 2-4

Ingredients
for the fishcakes
400g fresh wild salmon, skin-on fillets
stock (see below for pho)
1 free-range egg,
3-4 tbsp cornflour (starch)
1" piece of ginger
1-4 bird's eye chillies (to own discretion)
sea salt, to taste
zest of 1 lime
1 handful of thai basil
1 handful mint
1 handful coriander
groundnut oil

for the pho
(I'm not referring to the more iconic beef pho. This soup is a light chicken broth that's spiked with fish sauce and lime.)
300g fresh or 100g dried pho noodles (1/4" wide flat rice noodles)
1l basic Asian chicken stock*
1 tsp rock sugar, or to taste
6 tbsp fish sauce, or to taste

to serve
1 lime, cut into wedges
more bird's eye chillies, chopped
more thai basil, mint, and coriander, roughly torn

*Made from simmering the carcass of a happy chicken with a lot of smashed ginger for 3 hours. More tips on getting a clear broth and general stock-making help here.


Method
1. Place salmon skin-side down in a deep pan. Pour enough stock to cover the fillets, and bring it up to a boil. Once it starts to simmer, turn off the heat, cover and allow the salmon to poach for about 5 minutes. Do not overcook, and err on the side of undercooking, as you will fry the fishcakes further later. Once cooked, remove the salmon very gently from the pan, reserving the salmon-flavoured stock for later.  Remove skin (I eat this, yum #asian), then flake the salmon with a fork.
2. Combine salmon with the beaten egg and enough cornflour for the mixture to come together. Season generously, adding the minced ginger, chillies and lime zest at the same time. Finely chop the herbs and mix in gently. Refrigerate the mixture for a bit while you prepare the noodle soup.
3. If you're living in Asia, you can get access to fresh rice noodles from the market, they are amazing. If not, cook dried noodles in plenty of boiling water till just cooked, then drain, refresh and let sit in cool water- this prevents sticky noodles!
4. Add the salmon-flavoured stock to the rest of the stock, and bring to a boil. Add fish sauce and rock sugar to taste.
5. Back to fishcakes. You can shape them into patties (see photo above) but I have since improved my method to suit the lazy. I drop in about 2 heaped tbsp of the thick batter into medium-hot oil and then sort of shape the edges a bit, flattening with my spatula. Fry, flipping once, till golden on both sides. Repeat till you finish the batter, being careful not to overcrowd the pan.
6. To serve, drain noodles well and divide into bowls. Pour hot stock over. Place fishcakes on top.  Make sure the person eating squeezes lime over and stirs in the herbs and chillies into the hot broth to flavour it just before digging in.*

*That said, you can add as much as you like. Read my little rant about how everyone has the right to decide how they like their soup.



And that's it. It's pretty simple especially if you already have homemade stock in the fridge. The broth is easily flavoured with fish sauce, lime, herbs and the salmon you were poaching. The fishcakes themselves require as much effort as mixing a pancake batter takes and that even 6 year olds could do. If you want to change things around a bit, feel free to. Maybe a white fish, maybe dill, maybe vermicelli noodles instead. I guess that's what I really love about cooking– being spontaneous with the ingredients and having fun with the process.

p.s.  Coley and dill fishcakes, with vermicelli noodle soup may just be up on the blog in future; sod it with the 'not good enough'!

p.p.s. I am Asian so I eat a lot of noodles (on the days when I'm not eating rice, you know?) Get on the mailing list for recipes too short to blog about: roast fennel and miso somen soup; sugar snap peas and chilli shrimp oil vermicelli; marinated soy egg-n-cress noodle soup.

~

More Asian soups
The 'right' way to make stock
'Old-fire' watercress soup
Marrow goji berry stew

More noodle soup
Bittergourd fish soup, and what I learnt about perfect noodle soups in Hanoi
XO fish head noodle soup
Mee hoon kueh (torn handmade noodle soup)
How to make bouncy 100%-fishballs 
How to make Asian egg (alkaline) noodles


Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Foraged Wild Green Pancakes, and Any Flower Syrup


I've forgotten how good it feels to be able to cook in my own kitchen, with ingredients gotten fresh from people who grow them. It's my second blog post since I returned to London, but only the first one about the sort of food I cook.

I've had people ask about the way I cook, and I go 'as local and organic as I can, with Asian influences, and usually very simple'. Then they roll their eyes. ‘Oh, pretentious.’ The whole seasonal, local, organic, sustainable thing is very trendy nowadays, and I almost wish it isn’t, because now it’s become an overused chefy/ hippie/ marketing concept.  (The whole Asian-influenced bit I get away with because my skin is yellow.) Believe it or not, I cook the way I do because it's 1. much fresher (hence healthier) 2. cheaper and most importantly, 3. it tastes better.


It is spring/ summer now in London and prime season for all kinds of wild plants. This also means it is prime season for foraging, in other words pinching unloved weeds off the land for your kitchen. Yes another pretentious trend, but only if you are foraging for the sake of hashtagging it and not actually eating it. 

Just within London, there are lots of spots where you can find edible plants off nature, and these plants are unfortunately going to waste because not many people recognise them as food. I last went foraging at Hampstead Heath, one (very) early morning. I’m not the greatest at recognising the edible ones from the ones that will kill you (lesson 1: my mum has taught me never to trust strangers, and certainly not to put them into my mouth), but I was lucky enough to have a friend who does know his shit with me. We were after the elderflowers– he for a posh crowd he was cooking for, and I for making syrup– but we came across alexanders, burdock, borage flowers, nettles, and a whole patch of wild garlic. We picked just enough for what we wanted (lesson 2: forage responsibly; if you're harvesting huge commercial amounts there will be no more fun for others!) and then hurried home before work began. 


Sean heading for elderflowers; Atiqa amidst nettles

The last two plants I identify easily even without Sean's advice. Yes I got stung by the nettles (lesson 3: wear long socks that don't slip). As for the wild garlic, a gentle rub of its lush green leaves releases the unmistakeable heavenly scent of garlic. It's coming to the end of the season now but the flowers are amazing too. Instead of a single recipe-focused blog post, I thought I'll share a couple of things I did with my foraged treasures. 

The first (very pretentious, local, seasonal, Asian-influenced) recipe is one for crepes made with wild garlic and rice flour, with a sweet-sour chilli dressing. It's inspired by the Vietnamese sizzling rice flour crepes banh xeo, but more tender and almost pancake-like because of the eggs.


WILD GREEN PANCAKES
serves 2
1 handful wild garlic leaves and flowers*
2 large organic free-range eggs
½ cup rice flour
2 tbsp tapioca flour
pinch of ground turmeric
water, to loosen
1 tsp fish sauce
sea salt and white pepper, to taste
groundnut oil, for frying

sweet-sour chilli dressing
½  cup apple cider vinegar
½ cup unrefined cane sugar
¼ cup fish sauce
1-2 Thai bird’s eye chillies, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped

Method
1. Whisk the eggs and flours together, adding water to loosen till you get a thin crepe-like batter. Use a bit of bicep work to make sure there are no lumps. Season with fish sauce, salt and pepper.
2. Heat an 8-inch frying pan till medium hot, and then add a little oil. When the oil is hot, pour just enough of the batter to get a thin layer covering the pan, swirling to distribute it evenly. 
3. Once the batter has started to set, add some of the wild garlic on top, then cover the pan for a minute until the pancake is fully cooked.  Remove the cover, and then flip the pancake over to fry on the other side, till both sides are golden brown.
4. Repeat till you finish the batter. 
5. Whisk all the ingredients for the dressing together until the sugar has dissolved. Pour over the warm pancakes to serve.


*You can replace this with your choice of fragrant greens/ herbs. 

~

The second is for a flower syrup. You can use any flower, but obviously it has to be edible and it has to taste of something or it's just sugar-water. I used elderflowers in this one. Another nice one would be wild rose. You can pimp up your cocktails with this, pour it over cake, stir into fruits, whip through yogurt and top over granola, the possibilities are endless and you can have fun with it over the next 2-3 weeks.



ANY FLOWER SYRUP
Ingredients
1 cup water
3 cups unrefined sugar*
1 cup fresh edible flowers

Method
1. Tap the flowers and leave for a while for any insects to crawl off. You can rinse lightly but say with elderflowers, you do want the pollen bit.
2. Boil everything together for 10 min or until the mixture thickens into a syrup.
2. Strain through a muslin cloth into a glass jar and seal. Yeah, that's it.

*You can change up the taste by using different kinds of sugar– cane sugar, coconut sugar, palm sugar etc; or even try adding honey. 

~

These are very versatile recipes so you can play around with whatever wild greens and flowers you get your hands on; or if you really don't like getting your hands dirty or your ankles stung, the pancakes would work with spring onions or any pungent herb, while the syrup would work with any edible flower you can get your hands on. Don't be a sissy though, because foraging is fun, and knowing that your 'organic seasonal local sustainable' food didn't cost you a thing, makes it somehow more delicious.

Oh last lesson: Try to pick where the dogs haven't been or you're going to get pee-tainted food.


More wild food adventures:
Wild garlic foraging and fried beehoon (Video!)
Steamed sea bass with crispy sea purslane
Free blackberry pie
Stinging nettle saag aloo

Thanks Sean @eatmygarden for the best outdoor lesson one can get.

Photos and tips of more of these wild plants on my newsletter. Do sign up– I only send good stuff.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Mum's Ngoh Hiang, 5-spice pork rolls


I'm fulfilling the promise I made earlier with the (hilarious) teaser video of Mum making ngoh hiang.

I spent a good 5 months in Singapore, and I made it my mission in these past five months to tail Mum around the kitchen, much to her annoyance. My mum is an amazing cook, the best I know perhaps. She started cooking for her entire family from the age of 10. The decades of experience have taught her much more than any cooking school could possibly teach anybody. Watching her in the kitchen is like watching a well-practised piece of choreography by a seasoned dancer– the rhythmic movement of her heavy cleaver against the chopping board; the smooth turns and stretches to reach inside cupboards; the fiery flourish as ingredients hit her wok.  

One of my mum's signature dishes is ngoh hiang. They take a fair bit of work so are often only reserved for special occasions like Chinese New Year, or when I'm back in Singapore (yes, I'm a lucky spoilt girl). 


Ngoh hiang, translated, means five spice. These five spice pork rolls are the Straits Chinese answer to sausages. (In Malaysia they call them loh bak.) Like most Chinese dishes, there are sub-cultural variations; the Teochew version has taro yam added, while the Hokkien version I grew up with has none, though there are plenty of shallots, water chestnuts and prawns added for sweetness and a refreshing crunch. Every household also has their own special combination of seasonings/ ingredients. My mum adds fish to the mix too, and her trademark (shitload of) white pepper.  The whole mixture is rolled in beancurd skin so none of the moist yumminess escapes, then these rolls are steamed and fried till golden brown and crispy. 

Yeah, pretty much sausage, but better.
MUM'S NGOH HIANG
makes 12 to 15  6-inch long rolls*
Ingredients
500g minced pork shoulder*
250g Spanish mackerel, minced
250g sea prawns, minced
500g shallots
500g fresh water chestnuts
4 pieces saltine crackers, crushed*
3 tbsp white pepper
1 tbsp five spice powder
5 tbsp light soy sauce
sea salt, to taste
1 large piece of dried bean curd skin

water, for steaming
groundnut oil, for frying

Method
1. Peel and finely chop the shallots and water chestnuts. For the water chestnuts, squeeze them to remove extra juices, or you're going to get a soggy sausage.
2. Combine all the ingredients except for the beancurd skin together, stirring vigorously clockwise (don't ask me why) till well-mixed. Leave aside to marinade.
3. Meanwhile, prepare the beancurd skin wrappers by trimming and cutting into 6 inch long rectangles. The 6 inches is for the very practical reasons of fitting the steaming plate and easy frying in the wok later.
4. Place 2 tbsp of the filling at one end of the prepared beancurd skin wrappers (the end closest to you), leaving a 1/2 inch gap from the edges. Shape the mixture so it forms a sausage. Roll the skin, tucking in the sides as you go, till the meat is fully wrapped. Place seamside down on your steaming plate. See illustration/ video.
5. Once all the rolls are formed, prepare your steamer. Bring water to a boil and then set the plate of rolls onto a rack set over the boiling water. Steam over high heat for 8 min, till cooked. Remove and set aside to cool while you finish steaming the rest.
6. Heat a wok on medium high heat, and when hot, add about an inch or so of oil into the wok. When hot, add the rolls, and fry on medium heat until the skin is golden brown and crisp. Do not overcrowd the pan and repeat as needed. Leave to cool on a wire rack before slicing into chunks and serving.



* Note I halved her recipe. Like all Asian cooks, she always cooks enough to feed the entire extended family and neighbours and possibly a whole army. It's worth making extra though, as you can freeze extra rolls once steamed, for future instant ngoh hiang-gratification.

* You want a fatty cut of pork. The lard here keeps the filling moist and juicy. Don't be afraid, lard is good for you. As always I insist on meat from a happy pig

* This is the binder, much like rusk or breadcrumbs in sausages or meatballs. Saltine crackers (or soda crackers) are a very nostalgic frugal teatime biscuit for the older generation in Singapore. There is also probably something in the baking soda. I don't like using processed food, but this is her original recipe. I'm going to try replacing this with self-raising flour next time, I'll report back.


And here's the full recipe video, with Mum's tips and a bit of Hokkien cursing thrown in. This is my first time rolling ngoh hiang. Chef has only allowed me to peel prawns/ chop water chestnuts/ cut beancurd skin in the past.

People typically serve ngoh hiang dipped in a sweet thick dark soy sauce (kecap manis) or sweet chilli sauce, but with my Mum's version, I've never found the need to dip these crisp juicy chunks in anything. I have on occasion, tossed them with a Vietnamese-style noodle salad with mint, much like a bastardised bun cha, but most often, these are just had as snacks or with rice.


~


Sunday, 30 March 2014

Oh hello again

It's been 2 months.

I will break tradition and not start the post with a 'sorry', but a thank you for whoever still checks in. I know I've been slow on the blog front, but I hope I've not let anyone down because there's been no lack of food in the crazy past couple of months.

1. Please check out my new site! I finally got it up and it explains all of my multi-split-personalites and shows all the random work I do and am proud of.  There's also a black box that lists 3 things I'm up to lately- anything from magazine features to new popups or workshops. (The blog's still here though).



2. I've been 4 years slow in this but I now have a mailing list and it would be nice if you signed up. There will be updates beyond what's on the blog. No spam I promise, just news about fun projects or events I'm starting or doing. Possibly news about extra food that needs a hungry tummy to help clear. (Yeah I'm totally just pimping this mailing list out.)

... sign up.



3. Photos. Where I left off last week, I was about to host a fermentation workshop at NONG, the space on top of Chinatown where Asia's largest rooftop farm is going to happen. I thought it went brilliantly, thank you for coming if you came. There are some photos up on the Facebook page. And I took the chance to upload a whole bunch of photos from my past events at Carpenter & Cook and Street Feast London. Only a few months late, of course.


(photos by Michelle Tng Ying)


4. On the design front, my work is getting a bit of attention, hurrah. (My work are all edible-themed– ha! surprise!– so I figured you readers might be interested.) My Noodles project was displayed alongside other local designs at this year's Singapore Day in London. My Kueh and Mee prints and tote bags are now sold at a few places in Singapore, one of them being the oh-so-hip Naiise. They did an interview with me a few weeks ago for anyone keen on finding out more about life as a broke designer/ cook. Ah, and it's also somewhere in the April issue of Home & Decor magazine, which is pretty huge stuff in Singapore, double hurrah.




5. I've been travelling, again, this time to BaliMore sun, yoga, and veggies. I've had too many crazy tropical smoothies and gado gado– blanched vegetables with some sort of amazing handmade peanut sauce (and by handmade, I mean she actually grinds the roasted peanuts in a mortar and pestle, adding water and seasoning as she goes along– for every order she gets) and fried prawn crackers. Time to start exploring peanut sauces beyond my favourite Singapore satay peanut sauce.



6. I've been cooking, a lot (despite the lack of news on the blog front). I have been arm-twisted into a fair number of cook-offs and bake-offs. I have also been spending a fair bit of time tailing Mum in the kitchen. Here is a teaser of my mum making her famous Ngoh Hiang, fried beancurd skin rolls stuffed with minced meat, prawns and water chestnuts. I have photos and recipes and notes and even videos, just waiting to be blogged. Please be patient and don't go away!


(watch till the end Mum is hilarious)

Oh, for a while back I also did a weekly food column for Honeycombers Asia, in collaboration with NONG, using the herbs from their garden. There are recipes for naughty Vietnamese noodle salads, mustard leaf pesto, and hibiscus agar jellies so you can go have a browse and hopefully forgive me for not having any recipe posts up lately.




That's it, a summary of the edible bits of the crazy past couple of months in Singapore. The next time I see you will likely be back in London– get ready for some seasonal cooking again :)


You can find out what I'm up to or salivate over more food photos in between my horrible blog schedule on
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Saturday, 8 February 2014

NONG, the farm on a rooftop carpark. And, my fermentation workshop!


A month ago, I made some toast and got to know some Singaporeans doing pretty amazing things at the same time. Singapore is a country short of space and short of people wanting to rub their fingers in dirt, so pretty much all of our produce is imported. It's tough going all 'local, seasonal and organic' here, and I'm not of the slightest silly romantic mindset here that it's ever going to happen. But it's nice to take a step towards that, and if not, at least learn and appreciate that food comes from the soil, not air-conditioned shelves. 

Bjorn (in photo) and Rob founded Edible Gardens to get people thinking, talking and hopefully actually growing, even if it's just in a few little pots in the backyard. They design, build and maintain edible gardens in spots all around Singapore– for schools, restaurants, hippie home-owners and the like. NONG is their latest venture. In a month's time, the top of People's Park Complex is going to be the coolest carpark in Singapore– Asia's largest urban rooftop farm. Right smack-bang in the middle of Chinatown.


Even right now, it's pretty much the coolest carpark I know. The farm's not fully ready yet, but the Edible Gardens team has set up a wicked popup space, giving workshops, hosting events, and promoting work by local designers and crafters. I got to know of NONG a little before everything started (primarily because I needed to nick quite a bit of mint for my toasts), and it's wonderful to see how the space has developed with the help of random people keen to volunteer muscles and/or ideas. The people I got to know are some of the warmest, most passionate people I have met– Bjorn, microgreens-pimping, tattooed hippie; Cynthea, yummy mummy with the craziest ideas...

I've been there quite a bit– to steal mint, to showoff to holidaying friends ("Singapore's cool!"), to cook for a photoshoot, to recipe-develop, to attend workshops on gardening, and now, to host a workshop myself (in return for all the mint I nicked I guess).


Before the pretty stuff went up

A cook-off using local produce and herbs from NONG for local magazine One Day Journal. 
There was a Noma-trained chef but I was really only scared of the housewife ;)

So. Fermentation workshop. Next Saturday,15 Feb.

In two hours, we will make the oh-so-trendy kimchi and oh-so-tricky Nyonya achar. It is hands-on and you will get to bring home two jars of your own (artisan, handmade, quality etc.) hard work. It will be fun. Please do spread the word and come make funky veggies with me :)

Sign up here 
Come make funky veggies!

And check them out
NONG by edible gardens
Edible Gardens

Also check out

Friday, 24 January 2014

Bitter gourd fish soup, and what I learnt about perfect noodle soups in Hanoi



It's going to be a thing now isn't it? Me apologising at the start of every blog post for being away for too long. (Sorry)

I've been wandering around again. Only a few days back I was shopping for fish heads and live chickens for a supperclub in Hong Kong, and a few days before that, I was avoiding motorbikes in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. I loved both cities, for very different reasons, but I'm going to write a little bit more about Hanoi (and noodle soups) today.

The day starts early in Hanoi, likely with a bowl of roadside pho – flat rice noodles and plenty of herbs in a steaming hot broth made either from boiling chicken or beef bones with spices and aromatics. I am not made for waking up early but you could (and the Vietnamese certainly did) tempt me with a good bowl of noodle soup. When I left for the airport, I had racked up a total of 7 bowls of pho. That's not including other noodley things I had – bun cha, bun ho hue, banh cuon, bun rieu, bun oc... more I cannot name because my knowledge of the local language hardly stretches beyond 'hello', 'thank you' and 'delicious'.



My favourite meal was by this petite old lady with a toothy grin and a makeshift stand that appeared as randomly as it went. The place had no sign and no tables. You grab a stool, point at the bubbling pot beside her, and get a bowl of slippery noodles in a tomato broth, with crab pate, sea snails and fried tofu puffs. Everyone helps themselves to a communal basket of Vietnamese mint, basil, and sawtooth coriander. It was amazing.

I'm now back in Singapore and surprisingly, not at all noodled out. Perhaps it's an Asian thing, but I think I could never tire of rice/ noodles/ a really good broth. I've gone on a bit about making broths before; and is sort of a cheeky hook title, because there is no one perfect way. What goes into that bowl with the broth, and even the people slurping down that broth changes how it is made. For instance, a tonkotsu ramen calls for a long hard boil to emulsify the fat and collagen from the pork bones into one rich creamy broth; while a typical Chinese chicken stock wants to be simmered for a long time, but only barely, so the soup remains light and clear while savoury.



And even then, everybody has their own preference for how intense or oily or clear or salty they want their broth to be. I believe every cook seeking for the 'perfect' ramen/pho/whatever broth is really only seeking for the flavours in that soup he had in his mother's kitchen, or the noodle stall he stumbled upon on a particularly cold and/or shitty day, or that very famous restaurant he visited in Kyoto (the last one a less romantic but probably most likely story). I loved that on every Vietnamese table, there is fish sauce, sugar, chillies, lime and herbs you can help yourself to; or in the absence of tables, there is the option of sending your bowl back for extra sugar without the cook giving you the evil eye.

Today, I have for you a recipe for fish beehoon soup. The broth for this type of clear fish soup is delicate but flavourful, and relatively quick to make. Bitter gourd/ melon is a classic accompaniment to this Teochew-style fish soup. It's "blood-cleansing and anti-cancerous and really not that bitter" (years of brainwashing by my mum). Really though, a tiny bit of salting takes away the worst of the mouth-puckering juices, leaving just enough bitterness for a bite to the dish. "Plus, did I mention it's very good for the skin?"



BITTER GOURD FISH BEEHOON SOUP
 for 2 
Ingredients
1 bittergourd (or 2 baby ones, like I used- note: more bitter)
200g very fresh white fish*
100g dried beehoon (thin rice vermicelli) 
sea salt
1/2 tsp tapioca flour/ cornstarch

for the stock
500g fish bones*
200g chicken bones, any skin removed**
1 large handful dried anchovies (ikan bilis)
1 bulb garlic, left whole
water
sea salt and rock sugar, to taste
big dash of white pepper

to serve
fried shallot oil
chopped coriander
chopped red chillies
good traditionally brewed soy sauce

Method
1. Prepare stock. Parboil chicken and fish bones and discard the scummy water. This gets rid of blood and impurities which will make your stock cloudy. Bring the bones, garlic, dried anchovies, and enough water to cover to a boil, and then turn down the heat and let barely simmer for 1 hour. When ready, drain the stock through a sieve and chuck the bones and bits. Season to taste.
This could be prepped in advance; you can double the stock recipe and freeze portions. Once you have the stock, it takes 15 minutes to serve. 
2. Slice bittergourd in half, scrape out the seeds and pithy centre, then slice very thinly. Toss with a big pinch of salt and set aside.
3. Remove any skin and bones on the fish, and then slice into little 1/2 cm-thick fillets. Lightly marinate with a pinch of salt and the tapioca/corn starch.
4. Blanch rice vermicelli in boiling water till just cooked, drain and divide into bowls.
5. Squeeze the bittergourd to remove the bitter juices. Bring the stock to a simmer and add the sliced bittergourd and fish, stir through, and switch off the heat once the stock returns to a simmer. Let the fish continue cooking in the residual heat of the broth (less than a minute).
6. To serve, pour hot broth over the rice vermicelli, along with bittergourd and fish, and drizzle the fragrant fried shallot oil over. Finish with fresh chopped coriander; soy sauce-and-chilli dipping sauce on the side if you like.

* I use horse mackerel, but any firm, fine-textured white fish (bream, bass, snapper, grouper... no oily fish like salmon or British mackerel) would be delicious. As fresh as you can possibly get please, Chinese are anal about this. 
*It might seem odd to also use chicken bones for a fish soup, but it's my mum's trick to a stock that's not overly 'fishy'. Chicken stock tastes neutral enough for it not to taste 'meaty' either, and you only use a little anyway. I love chicken fat but it will work against the lightness of this broth. 




Simple, clean, and so comforting. This was my noodle soup. Add another drop or two of shallot oil, throw in more coriander, or go crazy with the chillies, if you like.

~

More Asian soups
The 'right' way to make stock
'Old-fire' watercress soup
Marrow goji berry stew

More noodle soup
XO fish head noodle soup
Mee hoon kueh (torn handmade noodle soup)
How to make bouncy 100%-fishballs 
How to make Asian egg (alkaline) noodles

If you want more yummy photos in between my very infrequent blog posts
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My lovely friend Uyen returned to her hometown in Saigon around the same time too. A wonderful peek into the Vietnamese culture from an insider's point of view, here.