Thursday, 30 August 2012

Fried Carrot Cake

I haven't been home in a year. As I touch down on the gleaming un-littered grounds of Singapore, I feel a sudden sense of worry--I don't know what about, that I might have forgotten to switch the stove off in my flat? That my luggage has, like before, been lost in transit? That Singapore has changed so much in the space of a year that I'm more like a stranger in my home, stubbornly insisting on but not actually belonging to this place, that I've been out of the loop so long that I can no longer join in conversations and self-assuredly complain about the latest fad/mall/government policy?

And then all these doubts and worries disappear. I'm greeted warmly by my mum, and by carrot cake from my favourite hawker stall.

I love so many foods from Singapore it would be cruel to make me pick one, and I can't even say for sure that fried carrot cake is my favourite, but I do know that I periodically develop strong cravings for it whilst in London. The way I deal with cravings doesn't involve joining a club of anonymous fellow addicts; it's a rather more cowardly approach of well, giving in to it. This is a dish I've done in London quite a few times, it does take a fair bit of work especially as everything is made from scratch, but it keeps my mind sane and my tummy happy. I made this again just a week before I flew, and ate it from the brown wax papers often used for takeaways (thanks Goz for your magic store of quirky Singapore kitchenalia), because I had dreams of it twice in a row as the date for my trip home drew closer.

I'm sure everyone has this one special dish that they must have when they return home. It might be a hotdog with a squirt of the most radioactively-coloured ketchup and mustard for a New Yorker, or a takeaway of the greasiest fish and chips for an Englishman, but for me, it's this messy slapped-together plate of radish cakes scrambled with eggs and salted preserved radish, the best ones fried in a generous amount of old-school healthy lard and smeared with a spicy sambal. Yes, in the world I grew up in, carrot cake does not come with cream cheese frosting. It's hardly a cake in the dessert sense of the word, and it's not even got carrots in it (it's because radish is referred to as bai luo bo or "white carrot" in Chinese), but this is carrot cake.

serves 1-2
for the radish cakes (makes 2 portions)
200g radish (aka daikon or mooli), finely shredded
100g fine rice flour
150ml room temperature water
150ml boiling water
1/4 tsp sea salt

for fried cakes
one portion of radish cake from above
2 free-range eggs
3 tbsp of salted preserved radish (chai poh), soaked in warm water for 5 min and drained
4 cloves of garlic
drizzle (1-2 tbsp) of fish sauce
4 tbsp of lard (from happy pigs)
(kind of opt, but I'll judge you) dollop of sambal chilli paste
(opt) chopped spring onions, to garnish

I like to split this into a two-stage process, making the radish cakes the day before, and cutting up and frying the day after. I make more radish cakes, to easily satisfy future cravings.
1. Stir rice flour and room temperature water together. Add the boiling water to the shredded radish, and pour everything (boiling water and now-blanched-radish) into the rice flour mixture.
2. Add the pinch of salt, and set the bowl over a boiling pot of water, stirring the mixture until it starts to thicken up into a smooth sticky paste. Pour into a greased shallow dish, and steam over med-high heat for about 20 min, or until cooked and kind of firm. (It firms up more as it cools)
3. Cut into little cubes when it's fully cool, don't worry about ragged edges as these are the bits that get irresistibly crispy (think roast potatoes).
4. Melt half the lard in frying pan. When lard is hot, add the radish cakes and fry till crispy around the edges. I press on it with my spatula for maximum crispy edges. Remove and set aside.
5. Add the rest of the lard to the pan and fry the garlic and chai poh till fragrant, before returning the radish cakes to the pan with a drizzle of fish sauce. Spread everything around the pan.
6. Beat eggs with some fish sauce, and pour the mixture evenly over the radish cakes. Let set until the bottom is nicely browned, before flipping over and browning on the other side.To make it easier on yourself, just cut roughly into smaller portions with the sharp edge of your spatula before flipping, hawker-style. Hawkers here do servings of 20 at once (see above photo of my pan v.s. theirs), so an impressive single-move flip is not only idiotic but plain impossible. It's okay for everything to be semi-falling apart.
7. Smear sambal chilli paste over. You can also fry it directly with the sambal but that's how my favourite hawker does it. Finish with chopped spring onions.

The pieces of homemade radish cakes are soft, but not mushily so, and sandwiched among fluffy layers of fragrant fish-sauce-spiked egg, with just enough fried surfaces and crisp edges to keep things interesting. And of course, you get that periodic umami bite from the chai poh, and the periodic sweet-spicy kick from the sambal.

FYI, there exists, also, a black version of fried carrot cake- fried with sweet thick dark soy sauce instead and usually less eggy/ chunky/ crispy. It seems the black version is more popular in Malaysia, but I do have friends in Singapore who go for the black version, and whom I totally judge. There of course exists the Cantonese dim sum version of fried carrot (radish) cake which most are more familiar with- panfried slices sans egg but dotted with little nuggets of shiitake mushrooms, dried shrimps and chinese sausage to make up for it. I may be biased, I am biased, but my best carrot cake needs neither colour nor sausage, and definitely no icing.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Homemade Old-School Chilli Ketchup

I don't eat tomatoes in winter. I stopped after I ate tomatoes in summer. If you ever need to convince someone to eat seasonally and locally, the tomato is by far the best way to prove your point. The tomatoes flown in from halfway round the world without enough sun to make them blush are nothing at all like the plump juicy babies bursting with sweetness. I've been popping baby plum tomatoes into my mouth straight, really, "once you pop you can't stop"; I'm not too worried though, they are far less dangerous than a can of Pringles. I also get heritage tomatoes in all sorts of colours and shapes, just because they look so gloriously weird. When I can be bothered, I tear basil leaves from my overgrown windowsill plant and beat in a couple of eggs, or toss with some olive oil and torn sourdough bread. But most times they need nothing else.

I've been flirting with the thought of canning tomatoes so I can kind of still have tomatoes in winter, but  I had neither the equipment nor expertise nor the glut of tomatoes in the first place to do so. The googling led me to a homemade ketchup recipe though, and I now have my first bottle of homemade ketchup. I know ketchup seems as Singaporean as Captain Planet, but both were things I grew up with. I loved ketchup as a child, squeezed over a hotdog, dipped into fries, or because the Singapore hawkers are such cool, quirky, east-meets-west beings, tossed with wonton noodles. And to be true to my memory and childhood love of ketchup, it has to chilli ketchup. The kids that got the plain ketchup packets were frowned upon; bo-ring!

6 large tomatoes
2 red chillies (more or less, depending on spice level of chillies/ your tolerance level)
1 large onion
2 cloves garlic
2 star anise
10 cloves
1 tsp ground mustard
1/4 cup molasses
1/4 cup unrefined cane sugar
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tbsp sea salt
(optional) 2 tbsp whey

1. Chop the tomatoes, onions, garlic and chillies (I left the seeds in). 
2. Throw everything into a pot and simmer over a low heat for 4 hours, or until the mixture becomes very thick.
3. Puree the mixture, let chill, and strain into jars, or your old squeezy bottle of Heinz or if you're Singaporean, Maggi chilli ketchup, that you can now throw out. You can store it in the fridge for about a week or more I should think, or 
4. (optional) Add the whey, and leave at room temperature for 2 days, partially covered, before capping fully and transferring to the fridge to stop the fermentation process. This is a brilliant tip from cheeseslave , to improve shelf-life and nutrition, giving you a probiotic boost.

This is real, proper ketchup. Rich with the sweet-tart intensity of slow-cooked tomatoes, with a punch from the spices and a little bit of old-school kick from the chilli. And of course with none of the sodium benozate/ modified starches/ emulsifiers ending with a string of numbers. 

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Mee Hoon Kueh (Torn Handmade Noodles)

My mum is a wonderful cook. You would think this means her kids all grow up brandishing woks and slicing onions without a tear in their eyes. Unfortunately, my sisters, brother and I were not quite the culinary prodigies you expect. You see, my mother was fiercely protective of her kitchen. It was her space, her divine territory, where she did her 'thing', and we mere little imps were not allowed to mess this sacred part of the house up with our amateur attempts at cooking. That sounds a bit harsh and I may be a bit bitter on hindsight, because frankly, it's much more likely that she (like most Asian mothers) just wanted her children to be free from menial distractions, so they could spend their time more conducively i.e. hitting the books or playing the piano.

I have only a cherished handful of memories of time spent in the kitchen with my mum as a little girl, and one of the few things I remember making was mee hoon kueh. These are handmade noodles, done without any of the faff of a pasta machine or even a rolling pin. These aren't even in the usual long thread/ribbon shapes. To make them, you simply tear off a piece, crudely flatten it between your floury palms, and toss it into the boiling pot. Unlike the uniform squares you get in hawker stalls, these homemade ones are ragged affairs, though I remember my sister and I often trying (quite unsuccessfully) to form them into more exciting shapes. The formula is simple, with no egg in it, unlike fresh pasta dough, and I'm sometimes still amazed at the simple miracles flour, water and a bit of bicep work can create.

Mee Hoon Kueh (Torn Handmade Noodles)
serves 1
For the noodles
100g flour (I use white spelt flour, leftover from my breadmaking experiments)
big pinch of sea salt

To assemble
2-3 cups of homemade asian clear stock
handful of roasted dried anchovies ikan bilis
handful of fried shallots + 1 tbsp of fried shallot oil
small bunch of bok choy (or your choice of leafy greens)
chopped spring onions
(opt, kind of) a fresh free-range egg
sea salt and white pepper, to taste

1. Mix flour and salt together, and gradually add enough water till it just comes together to form a dough. I'm sorry I can't give the exact amounts, but that's the old-school way of doing it and also, the amount of water needed may differ slightly e.g. spelt requires less liquid.
2. Knead till it forms a soft bouncy dough, about 5-10 min, then cover and set aside to rest for an hour or more.
3. To cook, bring stock to a boil in a pot. Taste and season.Tear pieces from the dough and flatten between your palms, before tossing it straight into the boiling stock. They are done-ish when they float to the top. Lower the heat to a simmer.
4. Crack open and gently slip the egg into the pot and cover, cook till whites are just set and yolks still creamy, or if you like your eggs fully cooked, do it longer. Add the greens towards the end too, just for a min or so to wilt.
5. Pour into a bowl, drizzle the shallot oil over, and sprinkle the ikan bilis, fried shallots, and spring onions on top. If you must have chilli with everything, like me, serve with a simple sauce made from good traditionally brewed soy sauce and chopped red chillies.

There is nothing like a bowl of noodle soup to me when I'm missing home. These may not be the prettiest of noodles, with their messy torn edges, but I love mee hoon kueh precisely for its rustic simplicity, down to that egg poached unfussily straight in the broth. I like the mix of crispy saltiness from the anchovies and sweet fragrance from the fried shallots but you could do with any topping/extras you like really, crudely-formed meatballs being one of the other popular options.

Anyway, I wanted to share this very special dish and memory, as a hook to get people to the next plusixfive supperclub that I'm hosting with the brilliantly obsessive Jason from feasttotheworld. It's quite a funny menu. There will be (gasp) no rice for an Asian dinner, but we'll be spreading lots of love and dough around instead. Unfortunately, but gleefully, it turns out we have already sold out, though you can still get your share of love and dough now that you've got this recipe.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

August's Nonya Achar

I've been going through cucumbers shockingly fast recently. Aside from self-indulgently placing circles of them over my eyes, I find cucumbers just the most perfect thing to munch into on a hot summer's day, its cool juices instantly soothing my parched throat. Actually, the sun I was whining about in the previous post has stormed off in a spite (I'm sorry please come back), and the rains and cool weather have returned, but I still can't get over the cucumber kick.

I think it might be down to these cucumbers I get at the farmer's market. They look really quite scary with little spikes poking through their twisted bodies, kind of like extra large caterpillars, but this is why you should never judge a book by its cover. These cukes have a refreshing sweet crunchiness that puts the usual pretty smooth ones to head-hanging shame. I've made 2 jars of your everyday dill pickles with them, not bothering with oak leaves and all those messy tips, and they remained perfectly crisp. Pickle-perfection guaranteed, I decided to move on to a more ambitious recipe: the most shit-amazing, irresistible pickle of them all, the nonya achar.

It is also the most strategic time of the year when the other ingredients required to make achar are oddly in season all at once, from the summery cucumbers and beans, to the more wintry nights-evoking carrots and cauliflowers. Even the chillies required for the spice paste to smother your vegetables in is bang in season right now. In fact, almost all the ingredients in this are British. I have a scan of a handwritten recipe from my aunt, legendary achar maker, which is surprisingly even simpler than my "simplified nonya achar", no toasted belachan or candlenuts or galangal at all, and I've further messed around with the recipe, but am surprised this tastes even more shit-amazing. I've also made the achar sans pineapple, it isn't an essential and is definitely not necessary when you've got all these brilliant local produce shining in their own right.

NONYA ACHAR ("Best of British August") 
500g (two large'scary') cucumbers
100g (a small bunch of baby new) carrots
100g (two fists-sized) cauliflower
100g (small handful) french beans

For blanching/salting
2 tbsp kosher salt

For the marinade
150g (3-4 large) shallots
4 red chillies
2 dried red chillies, soaked
1 stalk lemongrass
1 heaped tsp turmeric
1 tbsp groundnut oil, for frying
125ml white rice vinegar
200g unrefined light cane sugar

To finish
large handful freshly toasted sesame seeds
large handful of crushed freshly toasted peanuts

*Cabbage (esp the tender new season ones) can also be added. Proportions are very rough estimates. You can add more of whichever vegetable you like, though do use a heavier portion of cucumbers. Because you'll drain away quite a lot of their weight in water later, and because I insist they're the best part of achar.

1. Chop all the vegetables into finger-length batons. For the cucumbers and carrots, sprinkle over half the salt and set aside to sweat. For the rest of the vegetables, blanch very briefly in boiling water with the remaining salt, just long enough for the water to return to a boil. Lay out to dry if it's a hot sunny day, or chuck into a very low oven.
2. You've got about half hour of waiting to do, so take the time to pound/blend your rempah ingredients and then fry the paste in medium low heat till aromatic. Add the vinegar and sugar, bring to a boil, and then let cool.
3. While it's cooling, drain, squeeze and pat dry the cukes. Combine with the other vegetables and the sesame seeds and peanuts, then pour the rempah over, and mix well. Don't worry if it seems the marinade can't cover all the vegetables, they will start releasing their own liquid as they pickle/ferment (use non-reactive bowls or glass jars). Let the vegetables sit in the marinade for at least a day before eating.

If you've never had nonya achar, think of it as a spicier, more aromatic, more, well, peranakan picallili.  Each bite yields a different texture on the tongue, a delightful crunch of the best of this season, and each crunch gives way to a flavour explosion of sweet, sour and spicy. The toasted sesame seeds add a very different sort of crunch with a very different sort of fragrant explosion, so that, altogether, it's like fireworks going off in your mouth. It's usually had as a little fermented side pickle with heavier rice dishes, just something to stimulate a healthy appetite and digestion. But really, it's pretty hard to resist picking at it straight out of the jar anyway. Do make more, it should last 3 weeks in the fridge and the flavours only meld and become more explosive with time.

Side newsflash: My article "In search of perfect rice" for Crumbs Mag has been mentioned in this week's New York Times Diner's Journal. AHHHHHHH.