Tuesday, 3 May 2016

My Meatballs in Chilli Oil, and Chopsticks Brunch Club


Just a little glimpse into what's been cooking the past brunch clubs... and a tiny restrained shout-out:
2 DAYS TO GO TILL CHICKEN AND RICE COOKBOOK IS OUT!

The past months have been a rather haphazard series of small challenges– events that put me just outside of my comfort zone, though not horribly so and probably good for you, sort of like when your PE teacher would force you to do sit-ups. Among these are exams (a shock for me after years of art school and then working as a designer); filming recipe videos for Sainsbury’s Magazine and Happy Foodie (you know when you cringe hearing your own voice recorded? Except this time it’s also your face and your garlic-crushing un-manicured hands); auditions (no comment); planning for the cookbook launch (in a week!!!) and finally, hosting pop up events again.

Since the start of the year, I’ve started doing monthly brunch clubs out of my home, in support of Action Against Hunger. I haven’t shouted about it much on the blog; just quietly sneaked in an extra “Chopsticks Brunch Club” tab at the top– but I’ve gathered enough stories and pictures now I figured it’s time to share them, along with my crowd-favourite meatballs recipe.


You can find great brunches in London but almost every cafĂ© just serves variations of avocado and poached eggs on toast, which albeit yummy, doesn’t do justice to the range of deliciousness you can have in the morning. Back home there's light noodle soups, congee (rice porridge), fried rice cakes, and sometimes even curry. No forks and knives– hence Chopsticks Brunch Club. Brunch club was also a welcome change from supper clubs because I didn’t have to deal with a dirty kitchen in the wee hours of the day, hurrah. I’ve been having lots of fun writing menus every month using whatever seasonal ingredients look best at the farmers’ market or the little independent grocers/ fishmongers/ butchers in my neighbourhood.

It’s funny because years ago, you would have to twist my right arm off to get me to regularly cook for people, let alone a dozen strangers. Coming to London 6 years back was a huge step for introverted me– and learning to cook was really me finding my way, and then later, friends, in this scary new city. I’ve missed hosting supper clubs and delicious events. So despite my oily, sweat-soaked state at the end of each brunch club, I beam stupidly looking at the East London ‘hipster’ sharing jokes and pickles with the banker that’s made his way down from Fitzrovia.  Food has such a weird wonderful way of bringing people together.


MEATBALLS IN CHILLI OIL
Makes 12 big balls

Ingredients
600g fatty minced pork (outdoor-bred preferably)
5 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
4 tbsp good light soy sauce
1 heaped tbsp sea salt
1.5 tbsp light brown sugar
3 tbsp sesame oil
1 tbsp groundnut oil
1 tbsp grated ginger
½ cup spring onions, finely chopped
1 heaped tbsp tapioca starch (or cornstarch)
2 large free-range eggs, beaten
125g panko breadcrumbs

for the dressing (double/ triple as needed)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
2 tablespoon Chinese black vinegar (or balsamic vinegar, in a pinch)
1 tablespoon chilli oil

to finish
Fresh coriander or
Spring onions, thinly sliced

Method
1.  Combine all the ingredients in a large mixing bowl, stirring vigorously clockwise (don’t ask me why, Mum insists) till everything is well mixed.  Gather the mixture and then throw it back down into the bowl. The mixture should sort of come together and firm up after a few times of slapping. (I swear I am not making you do all these weird things just for laughs.)
2. Wet your hands; this helps to stop the meat from sticking to your fingers. Form golf-ball sized meatballs with the mixture, smoothing them out with your fingers. Arrange on a greaseproof-paper lined platter.
3. Place the meatballs overnight in the fridge to marinate and help them firm up slightly. (This is a great make-ahead recipe for brunch clubs and dinner parties!)
4. When ready to cook, prepare your steamer (a deep pot or wok with a steaming rack really). Bring water to a boil, and then set the platter of meatballs onto a rack set over the boiling water. Steam over high heat for 15 minutes, till cooked.
5. Meanwhile, make the sauce by stirring all the dressing ingredients together.
6. Remove the meatballs and dish out onto plates, along with any juices that have accumulated in the steaming platter. Douse with the dressing, and finish with a sprinkling of fresh coriander or spring onions for some greenery.

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Steaming is a very typically Chinese style of preparing meatballs, and it helps the meatballs retain all the lovely flavours of their marinade. A bite will immediately send salty rich juices oozing so they mingle in your mouth with the fiery kick and sharpness from the chilli oil and black vinegar dressing. I served them with light congee for the brunch club but plain steamed rice or blanched noodles will be perfect too– make sure to spoon all the sauce over.


It’s been a busy month of (see above) so I was planning to give May a skip but due to popular demand (yay) I might do one at the end of the month after all– sign up to the mailing list to get first wind of menus/ dates! And also, all the latest exciting cookbook news!

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Related reads/ recipes
Chopsticks Brunch Club past menus
No-churn rhubarb condensed milk ice cream
Crispy roast pork belly
How to sweet-asian-pickle anything
Congee

To hopefully get you inspired to start your own supper/ brunch club
Action Against Hunger interview

My first time being filmed and awkward for Sainsbury's
Stir-fry tips for Sainsbury's Magazine

Monday, 7 March 2016

"Chicken and Rice" Pre-orders and a Kitchen Q&A with Mum


Mothers' Day falls on the second Sunday of May in Singapore, so it isn't quite time for me to be sending Mum cheesy messages or presents– but all the same, it's hard not to miss the feisty woman when everyone around me is off spending time with their mothers. I've been living in London for more than 6 years, and I like to think I've become all independent and "a big girl" now – yet the bouts of homesickness still hits sometimes in little unexplainable waves.

My lovely publicists at Penguin had just given me a prod earlier in the week to remind my readers that Chicken And Rice is now up on Amazon for pre-orders (OH MY GOD), and while procrastinating on this blog post, I gave Mum a quick buzz on Skype. I thought it would be fun to share a little kitchen Q&A that will, hopefully, get us all excited about the book at the same time. Mum was why I started this blog in the first place. This humble old page grew out of a little collection of my kitchen adventures, written to prove to her I wasn't starving away. Thinking back, some of the food I made then was horrific; but I was curious, stubborn and hungry enough to continue. It's funny how that has evolved into my own cookbook.

The book is littered with tips I've gathered from years of Skype calling and annoying her in the kitchen; so it's a perfect time to give you all a little glimpse into the Mummy behind Mummy I can cook.


Translated from Mandarin and removed of Hokkien curses:

When and how did you first start cooking?
I started cooking when I was 10. It was a big family and we were expected to help around the house and the farm. Your Ah Ma (grandmother) was often busy, I was often greedy/hungry– so I naturally started cooking to feed myself. No one really taught me. I just started watching and helping her prepare the vegetables. I noticed what ingredients tasted good together and would make a mental note to use that in my next meal. It's also very much just making do with what I could find. The nearest shop was a 20 minute cycle away and we'd only go there for essential pantry top-ups. If there was nothing in the fridge, I would go pick some vegetables from our farm or nick* tapioca and papayas from around the kampung (village). *Note to readers: I think the modern cool term for this is 'forage'.

Favourite ingredients?
Garlic, shallots, ginger are must-haves. I always have full baskets of them.
Dried shrimps and dried anchovies for flavour.

Must-have kitchen tool?
My wok. I got this one when your father and I first moved into our house 25 years ago. It's cheap, nothing fancy, but I've been cooking every day from it. You want a cheap wok; but season it well and take care of it– no detergents!

What would you tell someone new to cooking?
Don't touch my wok.

No, something helpful please. 
Use the best produce you can get hold of and cook simply. You don't need much to make good food if you start out with good ingredients.

What do most people do wrong in the kitchen?
Overcooking their food. When it comes to vegetables, a quick toss over strong flames is enough. Learn to control the heat! When it comes to seafood, understand that each type and size of fish needs different timings. I didn't read any books or memorise anything. It all comes down to experience and willingness to try different ingredients every time you cook.

Give me your kitchen mantra.
The most important thing is understanding your ingredients- once you have the basic understanding of flavour and how they come together, everything you make will be delicious. Many chefs nowadays don't understand...It's not always "the more the merrier"!

Who do you think is the best cook in the family?
Me of course.


It's not only recipes and kitchen tips that I've gleaned from Mum. Her approach to cooking has been a key influence over the way I cook; you've probably gathered her focus on ingredients and 'making do' from the 20-minute Skype interview we did. I've had a little rant about authenticity on the blog before ...I find the most 'real' form of Southeast Asian cooking doesn't necessarily come from the cook who scours the city for morning glory; but the one who can adapt recipes to make use of the freshest ingredients he can get hold of.

This is what Chicken and Rice is all about – Southeast Asian recipes from a London kitchen. The photography was done over the course of a year rather than the standard two week-long intensive photoshoot, because every dish was made (and eaten by friends/ housemates/ neighbours) following the seasons.  If you're not yet convinced, the book contains my illustrations of smiling bananas and evil chillies.


 PRE-ORDER YOUR COPY HERE :) 


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Related reads and more from Mum
My debut cookbook, and a behind-the-scenes sneak peek
Kohlrabi som tum and a rant on authenticity
'Agak agak', the intuitive way of cooking 
Mum's Ngoh Hiang- 5 spice pork rolls (video recipe)
Mum's fail-safe greens
Old-fashioned barley water
Watercress chicken soup with goji berries
How to make stock

Will be keeping the mailing list regularly updated, sign up if you like!




Sunday, 7 February 2016

Yu Sheng, the messiest Chinese New Year party salad



Unfortunately, for me, the season’s indulgences don’t really stop after Christmas and New Year’s– for I have Chinese New Year to get my belly excited for. Unlike the Western New Year, which is all about the drinking, parties and fireworks, Chinese New Year is all about gathering family and friends together over food and gossip.

While I’m currently ??? miles away from home, one of the loveliest things about a multinational city like London, is the fact that you’re never far away from other homesick individuals. I’m not just talking about fellow Singaporeans or Chinese; I mean my blonde-haired blue-eyed Russian/ Swedish/ German/American mates too. A Chinese New Year party at home is a perfect excuse to gather your friends for a feast–whether they’re Chinese or not. In fact, even if you’re not Chinese, take this time of the year as the perfect occasion to try your hand at a different cuisine.

Last Saturday, I had a mini Chinese New Year party photoshoot for the Jamie Oliver site. I sent out a last-minute “SOS. Food.” message to all the friends living in my neighbourhood and got them round for a bit of early festive eating. If you were wise and planned ahead though, you can up the Chinese points by making your guests wear red and have your house pretty much decked in as much red as you can find. You can also turn the Chinese New Year tradition of exchanging oranges into a pretty sweet party trick i.e. force your guests to bring a couple of mandarins along with the obligatory six-pack of beer or bottle of wine.



There’s a pretty much endless list of celebration foods, but I decided to write about a dish that’s quite specific to Singapore and Malaysia– yu sheng, a raw fish salad with a dizzying mix of shredded colourful vegetables and a plum sauce-based dressing. What’s really exciting about the dish is that it involves the combined wrist power of all your guests. The dish starts out beautifully pristine, each component sitting in their neat little coloured mountains. Everyone then gathers around with a pair of chopsticks and at the indication of the host, digs in with fury, tossing the salad as high as possible while shouting their wishes for the new year. As a kid, over-eager little me would climb onto a chair and gleefully wave my chopsticks above the adults, screaming about acing my exams. I worry and scream about different things now, but the salad party remains a yearly tradition.

The original salad consists of an intimidating total of 27 “prosperous” ingredients, including raw salmon, different varieties of shredded vegetables, pickles, roasted nuts and seeds and fried crackers. Rather than give up on this Chinese New Year tradition altogether, I’ve simplified and adapted the recipe so you can easily recreate yu sheng with ingredients that are readily available in London. 


YU SHENG
TOSSED RAW SALMON SALAD WITH PLUM SAUCE DRESSING

Ingredients
Serves 4-6
200g (1 large) carrot
200g (1 small) daikon radish/ mooli
200g (1 large) cucumber
200g sweet potato
200g pomelo*
groundnut oil, for frying
100g raw salmon sashimi, thinly sliced

toppings
¼ cup toasted sesame seeds
¼ cup roasted peanuts, crushed

for the sauce
200g plum sauce*
2 tablespoons lime juice (1 lime)
2 teaspoons sesame oil
¼ teaspoon five spice powder
big pinch of sea salt
big pinch of white pepper

* Pomelo is a citrus that looks like oversized grapefruits. It tastes similar but is less bitter and has a fragrant sweetness. If you can’t get hold of it, use grapefruit segments, tossed with a bit of sugar.
* Plum sauce is available from most Asian grocers and even the larger supermarkets. If you can’t get hold of plum sauce, use the same amount of your favourite marmalade with extra lime juice stirred in. It won’t taste exactly the same, but is a delicious dressing that works well with the rest of the ingredients. 

Method
You'll have to hop over to the Jamie website to read the full feature!



Pro-tip on hindsight
Lay your table (and possibly floor) with paper or disposable cloth to make your life easier. This salad is quite literally an explosion of colours, flavours and texture; and while delicious, is a messy noisy affair.

I’m off now to my third Chinese New Year party of the week– a hotpot session where again, the combined greediness of friends and family is essential. Gong xi fa cai, and enjoy your excuse for a second New Year!