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
Instagram
Facebook
Twitter


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
Instagram
Facebook


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.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Carpenter & Cook Popup– Doing 'that local organic seasonal shit' in Singapore



I love food. It's because I love food that I believe food should be made from stuff you get from people who sing to their plants and name their cows Daisy and Cleopatra, not pre-packed from a factory with an expiry date 5 years later. It's a thing these days isn't it?– local, organic, seasonal blah blah. But beyond comfortably strolling through the supermarket and checking labels for the above keywords, I like to really know where my food comes from. I like to talk to the people behind that amazingly sweet strawberry, see the hens that give me eggs with yolks like orange bubbles, have my pick of fish from the fisherman and grumble about the weather at the same time.

 I've been lucky. The past 4 years as a cash-strapped student in London has seen me juggling, among many random design jobs and cooking gigs, a weekend job as a farmer's market manager. I got to know some wonderful people who really are proud of the food they produce.

I never bought into this whole local, organic, seasonal shit before. A tomato was a tomato was a tomato, right? Then I ate a tomato, British, grown by some of the greatest people I know, in summer. Oh my god it was sweet and it was juicy and I ate them like I would popcorn (they were baby plums, just in case you thought beef tomatoes). Before then, I could never eat raw tomatoes. The ones in Singapore were mostly imported and sour and had a mealy texture from being chucked into cold storage. All the flavour and nutrients that were in that organic (or not) tomato were gone.


Now, back in Singapore for a good few months, I've been trying to get to know the local producers here. It's not an easy task. Even my mum, the most anal quality-driven cook in the world, eagerly reaches for that Japanese sweet potato over a locally grown one because "it's Japanese!!!". Singapore is not known for agriculture. We are known for our airport and bak chor mee and crazy 57 storey-high infinity pools. But there are some great people here doing their thang.

Green Circle is a tiny organic eco-farm in Kranji. The owners aren't growing organic stuff to ride on a lucrative organic trend; they sometimes don't even have enough of something to sell. These are people who really love nature and want to encourage people, especially the young, to learn about their food. When I popped by, Evelyn was casually making a salad from local heritage guavas– little shrunken varieties I don't ever see nowadays because "it's not as juicy as the new ones". I had the most wonderful time nibbling on fruits and tropical herbs I never knew of. "Try this. Ulam raja, means King's salad. It tastes of mango."


There are others, not necessarily growers, but people whom I can rely on for good produce, and makers who really know their stuff.

There's the wonderful fishmongers my Mum's been going to for fresh seafood since forever, and who slip my mum cheeky discounts (see endnotes, an old post here).

And there's Ghee Leong, one of the few traditional bakeries left in Singapore. Here, there are no cakes or trendy matcha loaves; just old-school fluffy Asian bread, using the same method they've been using since they first started. It's a simple no-frills setup, but the place is filled with the heavenly scent of the type of bread I grew up with, and that, to me, is enough. The auntie warns to finish the bread quickly (no problem ma'am) because they don't use preservatives or funny stabilisers.

I have more but this post is long enough as is. I need to get to my announcement.

I'm doing a popup at Carpenter and Cook's, the hippest vintage cafe in town (uh not biased). They're opening a new shop at Jasmine Road, and for one day only, I'll be serving up open-face thick toasts, using some of the best local produce I can gather. There's minimal treatment to each ingredient, no crazy rempahs (or long shopping lists, thank god); just food brought together in a fun yummy way.

The menu is meat-free, simply because I can't find a good source of local meat, but you're not going to miss it. Thanks to some ace mouths PhillipDevon, my two best greedy friends and my Dad, for testing multiple permutations and combinations of crazy homemade mayos, pickles, chilli sauces, local herbs and grilled/fried/roasted vegetables. Thanks also to Bjorn (chef/owner of Artichoke) for sharing his ace tips for local suppliers.


I guess it's sort of a little push for local food producers. But it's nothing pretentious and let's not get all silly and romantic about it. Because yes it is impossible for Singaporeans to be all eating entirely off local producers. But it would be pretty cool if one day my mum reaches for the Singapore-grown sweet potato instead and happily says "it's Singaporean!!!"

It will be a lot of fun even if you don't care about all that bit I just ranted about earlier. 11 Jan, at Carpenter and Cook Jr, from noon till 6pm, or till I run out/ collapse.

~

More farms and markets
A peek into Chegworth Valley
6am at a wet market in Singapore

More cooking gigs
My first plusixfive supperclub

Awesome people's addresses
Carpenter and Cook Jr.
17 Jasmine Road
Green Circle Ecofarm
41 Neo Tiew Road (Kranji)
Ghee Leong (Sing Hon Loong Bakery)
4 Whampoa Drive
Xin Ye Fish Seller
Blk 156 Bt. Batok Street 11 #01-04

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Ho Ho Homemade Sriracha, fermented hot stuff


Ho ho ho! I have been busy. This is not an excuse for being away from the blog, but.. ok it is an excuse. Here's what's been happening the past couple weeks:

1. I've been spending time in south Thailand, standing on my head and eating yogic vegan food (not at the same time). Then gallivanting around the island on a motorbike with a crazy local who brought me  everywhere from the forests to the beaches to his village in bloody flipflops. I love this country. Everyone is always smiling and eating.

2. I have a shop now! HI LAST MINUTE CHRISTMAS SHOPPING? There are only 4 items there now, but I'll be introducing more designs in a bit, mostly edible-themed (of course). There may be the occasional jar of chilli or pickles, if I feel up to it.

3. My mum's away on holiday, giving me full control of the kitchen. I am in awe of mums out there. I always go on about being spontaneous (unorganised) in the kitchen, but when you have so many mouths to feed and for every single day of the week, there is some massive planning involved.

4. However, not having my mum suck her cheeks in at every spill I make has given me the chance to do some fun stuff, like inviting friends over to be guinea pigs, taste-testing multiple permutations of multiple types of local obscure herbs, crazy mayos, and chilli sauces (for something exciting that's coming up soon, watch this space yo). Which brings me to this post.



Sriracha.

Otherwise known as Rooster Sauce, or That Asian Hot Sauce. Frankly, I've been living in Asia my whole life and only first saw it when I moved to London, but I like it anyway so there you go. It's wonderful squirted over a simple fried egg, on top of noodles, into your pork bun (or your cheese toastie), or stirred into sauces for a shortcut bit of tangy fresh heat. 

There's been quite a handful of recipes floating around on the web ever since news of the company being made to halt operations created a sort of tragic panic –funnily more so in the Western world than in Thailand where this sauce comes from. Being a geek, and electrified at the prospects of having the kitchen to myself, I tested about 8 recipes. This is the one that works, with slight tweaks to the ratios. It involves an extra step of fermentation, letting that blended chilli mixture get all funky and amazing with time and (friendly) bacteria. There is a depth and sharpness that doesn't come from just using vinegar alone, or worse, using tomato paste.



HOMEMADE SRIRACHA
makes a little more than 300ml
Ingredients
700g fresh red chillies*
4 cloves garlic
4 tbsp unrefined light cane sugar
1 tbsp kosher salt + extra big pinch
75ml water
125ml white vinegar

Traditionally, red jalapeno chillies are used. I use all serranos, which have a hotter, 'brighter' flavour.

Method
1. Behead chillies and chop up roughly. I leave the seeds in because I am lazy and because I like it hot. Blend chillies with garlic, sugar, salt, and the water, till very smooth. Transfer the puree into a glass jar, and cover.
2.  Leave it in a cool, dark place for 2 days if you live in Singapore, 3 days if you live in London, maybe 4 days if you live in an even colder country. You should see bubbles**.
3. When ready, transfer the fermented chilli mixture into a blender, add the vinegar, and puree again till smooth. Pour through a fine sieve into a saucepan to get all the residue and seeds out.
4. Simmer on medium high heat for 10-15 minutes, stirring once in a while, until the sauce is reduced to a sort-of crepe batter consistency. It will look like it's slightly on the thin side, but it will thicken more when cool.
5. Once cooled, transfer into a bottle, preferably a squeezy bottle for the most authentic Sriracha experience.

** You won't die. The microorganisms at work here are friendly.




I went through that bottle pretty fast. This was perfect sriracha. The wait makes it all the more wonderful, and no it is not a psychological effect.

Is it worth the effort when you can (for now) nip out to buy a bottle? Like making your own jam vs buying one (traditional, artisan, quality yadayada of course), perhaps not, but there is something so sweet and so special knowing that you flippin' made your own sriracha. And if you then gave that sriracha to your friends and family, you may just atone for your whole year's worth of sins. This hot stuff takes a couple more days of (non)work but if you do it now you will get it out in time for Christmas.

And even have time to make a few more chilli sauces because your friends (I) love chilli.
Mint sweet chilli sauce
Sambal tumis belachan (The ultimate labour of love. Only do for someone you want to marry.)

Or pickles.
Sweet asian pickles
My aunt's easy but stunning Nyonya achar
Better homemade kimchi (I lie. There is not enough time for this one now.)

Or stupidly simple things that don't require cooking.
Flavoured sugars– Pandan sugar! (featured in the latest issue of Blogosphere magazine)

~

Happy christmas everybody! Eat loads, make sure your roast potatoes are crispy, and that you finish every last bit of that bird.


Friday, 29 November 2013

On vegetarians v.s. eating vegetables in Asia


In a few hours' time, I am going to be sleeping in a hammock, or maybe lazily reading Blood Bones and Butter (fabulous, do check out) while breathing the salty sea air and overdosing on vitamin D. #smugholidayface  I'm going on a little retreat and it's going to be amazing– the sun, the sand, the yoga... the ayurvedic vegetarian meals, yikes.

Thanks mum for worriedly asking if I should sneak some 'proper' food into my bag, but I'll do fine.

I don't have an issue with vegetables. I love vegetables– in fact, probably even more so than a vegetarian. I love my pork belly but I love the kale lying on the same plate just as much. I've always been brought up on the idea of a meal not being complete without vegetables (and rice, #asian). There never was any disguising of vegetables, no blended spinach chocolate smoothies or zucchini muffins. You just got used to seeing the colour green on the table. We were given vegetables, and surprise! the vegetables tasted good.

We could have a meal with just dishes of vegetables. There could be marrow, simmered with goji berries in a light pork stockaubergines, fried with sambal made with fermented shrimp paste; carrots, shredded and tossed in a sharp fish sauce-spiked dressing; bok choy, simply steamed and then drizzled with oyster sauce. I think you might have noticed something here. Nothing is vegetarian. (And that aubergines and carrots are not green, shush you get the point.)

"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." It's a pretty famous quote in a New York Times article by Michael Pollan in response to all those unhealthy/ crazy diets out there. I smiled when I read that for the first time, because it's exactly the way I eat, rather unintentionally (though I would also like to add "with delight, with friends, and with an extra squirt of chilli", and I don't do too well on the "not too much" all the time).

The sort-of-recipe here is a classic example of that. It's one of my mum's favourite ways with vegetables. This will work with almost anything, and the most boring white cabbage fried this way has me and my sisters chopsticks-fighting. The vegetable here is nai bai, similar to baby bok choy but with a white stem and crinkly leaves, but use whatever greens you like; I dare you to find me a vegetable that won't taste good fried this way, with copious amounts of crushed garlic and dried shrimps, and in good ol' healthy lard of course.



MUM'S VEGETABLE THING
serves 1(me) to 4 
Ingredients
500g nai bai, or choice of vegetable*
8 cloves garlic (yes.)
2 heaped tbsp dried shrimps
2 tbsp lard**
3- 4 tbsp of warm water
pinch of sea salt

Method
1. Soak the dried shrimps in the warm water for 10 min or till soft. Drain and save the soaking liquid it's bloody amazing and forms the stock for later.
2. Trim the bottoms of the nai bai, wash and dry well.
3. Mum pounds the garlic with the dried shrimp and a big pinch of salt in a mortar and pestle. This helps to release their flavour better in a quick stir-fry. You can also just mince very very finely.
3. Heat wok till smoking hot, then add the lard. Once lard is hot, add the garlic-shrimp mixture and stir-fry till fragrant, it will only take a few seconds.
4. Add the nai bai and stir-fry on high heat for a minute, before adding the soaking liquid*.  Continue frying until just withered. Plate up and eat straight away.

*if using a hardier vegetable like cabbage, after adding the soaking liquid, cover and let cook on medium heat till tender. Sweet pumpkinish squashes work extremely well too. 
**from happy pigs please



This is how you eat vegetables in Asia, or at the very least in my home – with lard, and with pleasure.

.. fingers crossed for the next few days.


p.s. Before anybody shoots me, "in Asia" is specific to the Chinese/ migrant Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, aka er, in my home. Muslims of course do not use lard, and certain Indian households do not even use anything that used to move– I am in awe.


Related reads
For the love of lard

Other non-vegetarian vegetable dishes
Killer sambal grilled aubergines
Sayur lodeh, a veg curry but better
Mum's marrow stew
Simmered kabocha squash 
Soon kueh, steamed turnip (gluten-free) dumplings
Cashew asparagus

Friday, 15 November 2013

Bak Chor Mee, noodles dry-tossed in crack



Yes, THE most requested recipe ever from stranded Singaporeans who read my blog.

Chewy egg noodles, slippery with fragrant lard and fried shallot oil and coated with a crack sauce made  with sweet black vinegar, soy sauce and the mother of all chilli sauces, bak chor mee is one of those things that make me proud to be a Singaporean (comes just ahead of our award-winning airport on the list).  It's a dish which our migrant Teochew forefathers brought over, but they gave it their own South-east Asian twist with dried-shrimp chilli and all sorts of goodness, making it quite unique to Singapore. There are tons of similar dry-tossed noodles all over Asia, but I'm not entirely convinced any one could match up to bak chor mee– though I may be biased of course.



I can't pinpoint exactly what it is about a bowl of noodles that makes me go weak in the knees; it's a combination of everything that goes into it.

1. Noodles
The noodles have to be cooked just right so there's still a nice amount of bite. They have to be tossed with the oily sauce right after it's cooked, when it's still warm, so they don't clump and stick together. There are two kinds of 'egg' noodles you can use, the thin one mee kia or the thicker flat one mee pok, but both are noodles made with alkaline water so they are wonderfully chewy.
It is of course easy to get these fresh here in Singapore from the markets, but when I made this dish in London, I had to make my own alkaline noodles fresh. Thank you Charlene again for the pasta machine.

2. Sauce
This sauce is not difficult to make if you already have everything in your fridge/ larder. The ones that require a bit of work are the sambal, fried shallot oil and lard, but these are kitchen staples for me and I make an extra large batch every time. Do not skip out a single thing in this sauce.

The sambal 
When I was younger, and didn't fancy chilli that much (ha ha ha), my mum would order this dish for me and my sisters with the chilli swapped out for ketchup. That said, ketchup bak chor mee is actually quite good. But different. Slow-fried with shallots and fermented shrimp paste (some hawkers add dried shrimps to the usual sambal too), this chilli adds not just heat but a hit of umami to the sauce.

The lard
A lot of hawkers nowadays skip the lard to get a 'healthier choice' sticker plastered on the front of their stall. Pfft. The fragrant lard is what makes the sauce glide over the noodles. The fried shallot oil alone is still great, but do yourself and your grandmother proud and use the damn lard. Lard from a happy pig is one of the healthiest (and most delicious) fats you could eat. My friend Uyen swears it's why she still looks like a teenager. From a chefy point of view, the pork fat also ties together the ingredients for this dish– minced pork, pork liver and crackling.

The vinegar 
I would say the amount of vinegar you use is adjustable to your preference. I always ask for extra vinegar when I order from the hawker stalls. It has a wonderful musky sharpness to cut through all that richness.

3. The toppings
The only essentials (I feel) are minced pork and braised mushrooms.

Minced pork
Bak chor mee literally translates to minced pork noodles after all. The minced pork is simply blanched, but in a rich pork stock so there is no loss of porky flavour as you would get with just using hot water.

Mushrooms
The braised shiitake mushrooms are da bomb and worth making extra. They add an extra juicy sweet savoury something to any plain rice/ noodle dish.

Liver
There is actually a very funny 'non-political' podcast about this. I always ask for "mai ter gua" (no liver) not because I don't like liver (I love it), but because you have to be absolutely sure the liver is fresh and cooked just right or it will smell disgusting and taste powdery. In the version I make, there is no liver simply because I'm lazy to go out and get some.

Everything else
You can get tons of variations of this. With prawns, fishballs, sliced fishcakes, etc. I had no fishballs in London and wasn't about to make them too.
BAK CHOR MEE
feeds 2 
Ingredients
2 bundles of fresh flat egg noodles, mee pok
100g minced pork*
(opt) 70g thinly sliced fresh pork liver *
2 tbsp fish sauce
1 tsp white pepper
1 cup 'Asian' pork stock*, seasoned with salt and white pepper, to taste

For the sauce
2 tbsp good, traditionally brewed soy sauce
2 tbsp Chinese black vinegar
2 tbsp sambal tumis
1 tbsp fried shallot oil
2 tsp lard*

To serve 
chopped spring onions
sliced braised mushrooms (make extra)
     6 dried shiitake mushrooms
     1 tbsp good soy sauce
     2 tbsp good oyster sauce
     1 tsp toasted sesame oil
     1 tsp unrefined sugar
(opt) slice of lettuce, for some greenery

*from happy pigs please

Method
1. I like to do this step the day before so I have less to worry about. Mix the pork with the fish sauce and white pepper. Measure out enough water to cover the mushrooms, then add all the seasonings and mix well. Leave both in the fridge overnight to marinate.
2. The next day, slice the mushrooms into fat slithers. Bring the mushrooms to the boil in the soaking liquid and simmer gently until most of the liquid has been absorbed and the mushrooms are now plump with sexy juices.
3. Combine the ingredients for the sauce and divide into bowls.
4. Blanch the noodles in boiling water until cooked but still al dente. Do it portion by portion for best results. They should still retain a somewhat toothy, springy bite. Drain well by tossing hard in a sieve to shake off excess water, then turn the noodles out into the bowls. Dry toss in the sauce so that each strand is well-coated in deliciousness.
5. The pork stock should be at a rolling boil. Blanch the minced pork in the stock for a minute, or until cooked. Use a fine sieve to remove the pork, then add over the noodles. Repeat with the liver if using.
6. To finish, top the noodles with the braised mushrooms, crackling, and fried shallots. Ladle the hot pork broth into smaller bowls and finish with an added dash of white pepper and spring onions, then serve with the bowls of noodles.



It seems like a lot of work, especially if you are making everything from scratch, but everything is prepped in advance and the actual assembly takes minutes. It is also pretty amazing so it's worth it anyway. I think I've written enough already. I didn't intend to be so pedantic and long-winded but once I started I couldn't stop. Like you would with a bowl of bak chor mee.

This recipe is featured in The Plusixfive Cookbook, along with other kickass (not biased at all...) recipes for Singaporean favourites.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

The Plusixfive Cookbook– YES! OUT NOW!


Sorry for being slow on the blog front again. There have been some massive distractions in my life the 
past couple of weeks, mainly in the form of cardboard boxes and bubble wraps.

I am now back in Singapore, desperately hugging a fan, lying awake at 2am and scratching at mosquito bites on my legs. This will be the case for the next couple of months at least– the Singapore bit, (hopefully) not the melting jetlagged bug-bitten bit. One thing that’s brought me back is the launch of the plusixfive cookbook. For those of you who have been following for a while now, you probably know all about this. I’ve been moaning about layouts and deadlines for the past year, and yes it is finally out.


Plusixfive, a Singaporean supperclub cookbook. Or, how to subvert Singaporean culinary misconceptions, avert stir-fry calamities, make your Nonya grandmother weep with joy, and other badass kitchen skills. Available in Kinokuniya, Popular and all major bookstores and some other cool stores if you're in Singapore; in Bookazine from mid-Nov if you're in Hong Kong; online on Waterstones if you're in London; and on Book Depository if you're anywhere else. We had some limited edition ones on the plusixfive shop, come ruined with extra scribbles and doodles of dead pigs by me and Goz, but I think they are sold out now*.

It’s been a joy and a pain art directing the book and shutting Goz up. Thank you to all those who have helped– chefs, writers, or just greedy friends; photos, recipes or a willing stomach. Thanks especially to the best editor in the world Wei Ling (Epigram books). The official launch happened last Friday. Thank you to Marcus and the rest of Blue Ginger for doing all the dirty work, to our publishers Epigram for getting loved ones together, to everyone who turned up and got a book signed and covered with ugly Sharpie marks by us.


There are recipes by all of us from plusixfive, me included, and if you (like my mum) still don't really believe I can cook, there are also guest recipes from some people who have eaten our food before and definitely can cook– Lizzie (Hollow Legs), Ben (Momofuku Sydney), James (Young Turks), Dave (Burnt Ends), Goz's mama and papa... Foreword by Hsueh, Singapore's top food writer (still the most terrifying person I've cooked for), and James and Sandia from Bubbledogs.

I don't know how to describe this book, but Goz sort of summed it up last summer when we first toyed with the idea: 'In a nutshell, the Asian cookbook scene in London and in Singapore seems to be dominated by Asian celebrities cashing in on the food scene or books written by aging geriatrics and grannies which no hipster would want to be seen reading. I want this book to close that gap'. This book is not your usual pretty cookbook; it's loud and fun and exciting and dotted with messy half-finished food– much like what you get at a plusixfive dinner.


I don't know what else to say but I’ve got a few spreads thrown in to tempt you, and will blog one of the recipes I contributed (with permission) in a couple of weeks’ time. Stay tuned for one of the most requested recipes ever (BAK CHOR MEE!) , or just get the book already.

*Follow me or goz to find out when (if) we might put some more autographed/ vandalized books up for sale. We (I, at least) try not to post too much nonsense.

#plusixfivecookbook #yeahwehaveahashtag


Thursday, 10 October 2013

Roast Whole Cauliflower and Homemade Mint Sweet Chilli Sauce



I love cooking, and even more so if it's for a big group of friends. My friend says I'm mad (while happily munching away seated at my table).

It's not that mad, see. A lot of the cooking I do don't actually involve me doing anything physical or vaguely complicated. Sometimes I do try; I go all out pounding rempah and slamming fish paste and julienning cucumbers– but most times, I just don't work very hard at all. I think the problem with most people is that they try really hard (good on you!) and freak out at all the work involved (not so good) and thereafter swear never to cook for anyone but themselves again. It's a pity because I think cooking for a crowd is fun, so long as you remember that the meal really is about them (having a good time) and not you (trying to wow them).

This is why I love a Sunday roast.  It's a concept that came relatively late into my life, only after I moved to London, but don't worry, I've been making up for all the years of Sunday roasts I've missed. I love it because it's a classic example of no-effort cooking, of simply having a good time with good friends. You do need to get the (teeny tiny) details like timing right, and you might want to skip out on making yorkshire puddings if you're as lazy as me (horrors), but it is essentially chucking things into the oven and perhaps doing a bit of extra pottering about in the kitchen to feel busy. 

That Sunday, roast pork belly was on the menu. There is no work involved; my wonderful butcher scores the skin for me, I take it home, scald it, let it dry overnight, do a bit of salt-massaging, and pretty much chuck it into the oven and leave it there for 3 hours. At the last hour, I chuck a cauliflower in too, whole. Yes, this is one of my greatest delicious shortcuts– roast whole cauliflower. It not only saves me the trouble of chopping and wiping up the annoying little caulibits covering my chopping board and counter, it looks mighty impressive and gives the vegetarians the joy of carving into a roast-something.

In line with keeping everything simple, there is nothing but salt on the pork, and salt and pepper on the cauliflower. I use white pepper because of my mum, who always uses white pepper with a heavy hand, to delicious results– and because I'm anal and it will kill me to have black flecks on white cauliflower. Both the crispy roast pork and roast cauliflower are fab dipped into the sweet chilli sauce. Because I feel like I need to justify my skills in the kitchen, this is made from scratch, but again, this is easy as peanuts and I even pimped it up with cool fresh mint (because to be honest, I went a bit over-excited with the chillies and it's mad hot).



SALT 'N' PEPPER ROAST WHOLE CAULIFLOWER 
serves 2 vegetarians or 4 non
Ingredients
1 head large-ish (800g) cauliflower
1 tsp ground white pepper
generous pinch of sea salt
groundnut oil

To serve 
squeeze of lime
sweet chilli sauce (below)

Method
1. Pre-heat oven to 190 degrees celsius. If you already have a pork belly slow-roasting inside, it should be at that temperature anyway.
2. Peel outer green leaves off cauliflower, and remove the stem and the tougher part of the core. Place on a baking tray, drizzle liberally with oil, and sprinkle sea salt and white pepper over.
3. Roast for about an hour, or till golden brown on the outside and you can insert a skewer inside without resistance. If it gets too dark too quickly, turn the temperature down a little. When ready to serve, add a squeeze of lime and a last tiny sprinkle of coarse sea salt over.

~

HOMEMADE SWEET CHILLI SAUCE
Ingredients
1 cup unrefined cane sugar*
1 cup water
2 jalepeno red chillies
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup rice vinegar
1 1/2 tbsp tapioca starch (can also use cornflour), mixed with 2 tbsp cool water

To pimp up (please do it, it's so good)
small handful of chopped fresh mint leaves

*If you want a clear thai sweet chilli sauce, use white sugar. If you want to feel slightly healthier dipping your fatty pork belly into a bowl of sweet sticky sauce, use unrefined cane sugar. 

Method
1. Chop the chillies and garlic. I left the seeds in and the chillies in quite rough large-ish pieces because I like the bite and sadistic kick of chilli heat.
2. Combine the sugar, water, vinegar, chillies and garlic in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer on a high heat for 10 minutes.
3. Lower the heat till it's just barely simmering, then add the starch slurry, stirring the mixture constantly till it thickens. Remove from the stove and it cool down and thicken even more.
4. When cool, add the chopped mint to the sweet chilli sauce and let the flavour infuse for at least half an hour (which is when your cauli and pork is done anyway).


Some final instructions for a great Sunday:
Bring the roast cauliflower out with the pork belly, let your friends help themselves, and make sure to pour the mint sweet chilli sauce into a bigger saucer so everyone can get messy dunking pork/ cauliflower into the sauce. Lastly, and most importantly, make your friends do the washing up while you lie on the couch eating pudding since you spent so much time slaving away in the kitchen. Ah, don't you just love cooking for people.


Friday, 27 September 2013

Mum's Marrow Recipe (NOT A STUFFED MARROW)



It's come to be a joke among some of the people at the farmer's market; last week I called up one of the farms and requested they bring a couple of marrows for me because they didn't have them last week (due to unpopular demand). Yeah, I reserved marrows.

I love marrow. I know– it's too big and too bulky and takes up half your shopping bag so you have no space for anything else, not particularly attractive, and tastes of nothing. Most marrow recipes seem to involve stuffing the marrow, delicious yes, but almost a begrudging, brave attempt to disguise the blandness of the vegetable. I like stuffed marrow, but it doesn't make sense to me because right at the stage when I'm frying the pork mince with chillies and fish sauce, I feel ready to dig into the stuffing – maybe throw in some mint and thai basil first– rather than spoon it into the soft, tasteless flesh of a hollowed marrow.


The way I see it, the blandness of marrow is exactly what makes it so wonderful a vegetable. My mum makes a dish back home in Singapore using a similarly bland local gourd. I would have bowls and bowls of it and I announced once it's the tastiest vegetable ever. My mum laughed and said it tastes of nothing at all. What happened was, she'd braised it in stock, and all the flavour from the broth had been soaked up by the gourd, turning it into wonderful hot wet (can't find an appropriate noun). This is one dish that will not work better with a 'tastier' vegetable. It's a dish that very much celebrates the mildness of the gourd/ marrow, the quiet ability to take on the delicate layers of flavours of a well-made broth. This dish is also very much about the wonderful texture of a marrow that's been stewed gently till its flesh is soft but not yet collapsing, so it all slithers smoothly and happily down your throat.

Yep, only possible with a boring old marrow.
MUM'S MARROW STEW
Serves 3-4, but I ate it all
Ingredients
1 medium marrow
1" ginger
4 cloves garlic
2-3 cups flipping amazing stock*
handful of goji berries
handful chopped spring onions
sea salt to taste
1 tbsp groundnut oil

* My slightly insane mum makes stock with a specific blend of bones in a big black claypot over a charcoal fire, which is slowly fanned for hours. The charcoal fire might be hard here, but you can still make pretty amazing Asian stock with pork and/or chicken bones from a happy farm/ good butcher's– tips here. This one here is half chicken, half pork (back rib bones).

Method
1. Chop the marrow into chunks, I don't bother peeling because the skin gives it an extra texture and colour that's rather nice. Finely chop the garlic and ginger.
2. Heat the groundnut oil, and add the garlic and ginger to fry till fragrant, remove before browned as they continue cooking after.
3. Add the marrow to the pot, followed by the stock, and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce to a low simmer and add half the fried garlic, ginger, and goji berries. Let everything stew gently on low heat till the marrow is well tender.
4. 10 minutes before serving, add the rest of the goji berries to plump up in the stock. These remain sweet and become surprise bursts of sweetness in the savoury stew.
5. To serve, scoop marrow into bowls, making sure to get a bit of broth and the sweet (newly added) goji berries in. Scatter spring onions and the rest of the fried bits over. Devour.


This is not a punchy dish. No big bold flavours, no crazy spices or sauces. But good, so very good.

(I obviously need to work on expanding my vocab of adjective and nouns)




More on Asian broths:
The 'right' way to make stock 
"Old-fire" Watercress Soup
Soto Ayam (Malay Chicken Soup)