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.



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

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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. 


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

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. 

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!

Monday, 14 December 2015

2-minute Noodle Bowls, and a Christmas present from the Japan Food Hall

So, as you can tell, school life did not turn out to be quite that free and easy after all. I haven’t had a breather till this week- my Reading Week before the exams. I’m pretty sure I should be writing about Apple’s competitive strategies instead of noodles; and calculating profit margins instead of teaspoons of soy sauce. In my defense, I really needed a bit of healthy distraction– and a bowl of noodles.

There was a time in my life when literally the only thing I could do in the kitchen was boil water. (I even burnt rice with a rice cooker) Back then, packets of emergency ramen were my late-night guilty pleasure. Cue stereotype of Asian student feverishly studying while slurping cup noodles and then falling asleep in a pile of books and empty plastic tubs. While that is still sort of true, I like to think I’ve progressed beyond instant seasoning packets and takeaway boxes (and falling asleep with dirty bowls).

I make my noodle bowls from scratch, and they take me no more than 2 minutes of active time in the kitchen. They’re my version of fast food–just healthier and tastier. (These quick and easy bowls are also perfect to rustle up when you come home shit-faced from a night out.) Feel free to mix up the ingredients with whatever bits and bobs you’ve got lying in you fridge.

With spring onions and black pepper

The egg is optional if you are in a rush. The only active ‘real’ work involved here is putting the kettle on, pouring the water over noodles, and stirring in miso, probably a minute in total. But if you really do need some form of a recipe…

Serves 1
1 bundle of glass vermicelli noodles
2 cups boiling water
2 tbsp good red miso
soy sauce, to taste
½ tsp sesame oil
1 stalk spring onions
generous pinch of freshly ground black pepper

Bonus topping (make extra for future noodle bowls)
large free range eggs

1. Place glass noodles in a large bowl and pour the boiling water over. Cover and set aside for 10 to
12 minutes, or until the noodles are pliable and translucent.
2. If you’re too lazy, you can just wander off back to your books in the meanwhile. If you’re doing the egg bonus: Place eggs in a small saucepan with enough cold water to cover by about a centimeter. Bring to a boil over high heat and once boiling furiously, turn the heat off and let sit, covered for 6 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water a few times, tapping the eggs lightly to crack and then letting sit in the cold water until your noodles are ready. Extra eggs can be kept in the fridge once drained.
3. In a separate little bowl, add the red miso and steal a few tablespoons of hot water from your noodle bowl. Stir the miso and water together till you get a smooth runny paste.
4. Your noodles should be done now. Stir the miso solution and sesame oil into the noodles and soaking water. Adjust seasoning to taste with soy sauce, if necessary. Peel and halve the egg and top the noodle bowl with it. Snip spring onions over with kitchen scissors and finish with generous grinds of pepper.


with sprout top ribbons

This is slightly more advanced, in that you actually need a pot, and maybe a chopping board. Basically, boil udon noodles until just cooked; or thin egg noodles if you are really impatient. Throw in some greens* at the same time. Drain, then toss in the simplest concoction of soy sauce and fragrant spicy oils.

Serves 1
1 bundle of dried udon noodles
2 handfuls of sliced greens

for the dressing
1 tbsp good light soy sauce
2 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp chilli oil (or 1 tsp chilli flakes and chuck in more sesame oil)
2 tsp Chinese black vinegar (or balsamic vinegar)

* Sprout tops, spring greens, or cabbage are great here, but if you are really too busy (or lazy) to chop, get a bag of chopped kale. 

1. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Once the water is boiling furiously, drop in the udon noodles. Cook until tender but still springy, according to the package instructions.
2. My thick udon noodles took about 8 to 10 minutes, so I added the greens a bit later, after I’ve given the noodles a 5 minutes head start. Egg noodles will only take seconds, so for those, add the greens first.
3.  Meanwhile, stir together the ingredients for the dressing in a large bowl.
4. Remove the pot from the stove, drain well and then slip straight into the bowl. Toss well with chopsticks so that each strand is coated with the dressing.
p.s. you can also top this with an egg if you were smart and made extra eggs like I suggested.


That’s it, really as easy as it sounds. What I find really important here though, is to get a proper, naturally fermented soy sauce; and for the first recipe, a good tub of miso*. I use Kikkoman most often, but there are lots of good brands available nowadays. It’s not an issue finding great Asian produce in London nowadays– if you live in East London and wander down Mare Street, or you can do it the 21st century way and go online.

I’ve been collaborating with two really great Japanese supermarkets here the past months (read more below), so yes that is another reason the past months have been so hectic. The kind folks at the Japan Food Hall have offered my readers free delivery on all their orders before the year end- so there you go, Christmas present from me: mummyicancookFREEDELIVERY_311215 The Sanuki handcut udon on their site is really worth checking out– seriously beautiful chewy texture and flavour. I use their Hikari red miso too, if anyone’s curious; and only have good words to say about their service.

I guess that sort of rounds up what I've been up to/ eating the past months, and yes it is time to return to the books. Have a very happy gravy-filled Christmas everybody, and I'll report back in the new year with recipes to tackle our post-holiday bellies.


*Miso is one my absolute kitchen staples (I have 4 different tubs at home at any time). For the miso-uninitiated, I wrote a miso primer and a collection of miso recipes for the Great British Chefs and the Japan Centre. There's much much more you can do with miso besides soup:

Oh one last thing, I have something exciting and possibly noodley coming up in the new year. Get on my mailing list for first peeks when it's ready.