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.


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.

makes a little more than 300ml
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.

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.

serves 1(me) to 4 
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

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.

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.

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.
feeds 2 
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

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).

serves 2 vegetarians or 4 non
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)

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.


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. 

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.
Serves 3-4, but I ate it all
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).

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)

Friday, 13 September 2013

Smashed Cucumbers and Marinated Aubergines

I was cooking the other day, with my very helpful friend perched comfortably on the couch observing me.

"Stop pinching the food." 
"What? (munch) Oh."

I know it's a bad habit, but I have an uncontrollable urge to nibble while I'm cooking. It's not even that I'm hungry, or that I need to taste the food (I do use this excuse a lot); I just need to nibble. I don't even realise it sometimes, until I look at the curiously small pile of cut vegetables on the side of my chopping board. 

"The word for it is greedy." (Yes that same friend again watching me type – GO AWAY TOM.)

I'm quite good these days. Before I even start cooking I make a little salad/ snack just to keep dinner safe from my (yes) greedy fingers. It sounds like a crazy thing to do, especially when you're already caught up in preparing the actual dinner, but it honestly takes less than a minute's work and is probably better than the packet of crisps Tom was trying to distract me from pinching dinner with. I usually just wing it with the vegetables that I'm already in the midst of chopping.

Smashed cucumbers is one of my favourite Chinese street snacks/ London kitchen snacks. Visually, it looks a mess compared to the usual neat circles of sliced cucumbers, but their ugly ragged edges hold on to the dressing wonderfully; also, this method is perhaps the quickest way that one could prepare cucumbers. Everyone has a slightly different way of doing the dressing, but I like mine with a drop of chilli oil for a fiery kick to the sharp, musky taste of black vinegar. I say dressing, but this is more so a marinade then a dressing, for the magic really happens when you let all that wonderful flavours seep through the crude smashed edges.

The same goes for aubergines, simply steamed so it becomes a soft sponge for soaking up gorgeous marinades– again, I wing it but my favourites are using miso/sesame paste or sweet soy sauce. I thought I'll throw this one in too; depending on how quick you finish with preparing dinner, you can either have it as a snack or a side dish. Both take seconds to prepare; the waiting time is for you to get on with what you've got planned for dinner. If you can't wait the ten minutes before nibbling, you have a far more serious problem than I do.

1 tbsp Chinese black vinegar
1 tsp good, traditionally brewed soy sauce
drizzle of chilli oil*
drizzle of toasted sesame oil
pinch of unrefined sugar
pinch of sea salt

*To make your own, put 2-3 tbsp dried chilli flakes into a glass jar, heat 1/2 cup groundnut oil till smoking, let cool a little, then pour into the jar, and let infuse for any period of time from1 hour to forever.

1. Using the handle of a large knife, smash the cucumber until it cracks open. Turn knife around and roughly chop into chunks.
2. Mix the rest of the ingredients for the dressing and toss with the cucumbers. Leave for 10 minutes to marinate and become awesome.


1 small young aubergine
1 tbsp good, traditionally brewed soy sauce
1 tbsp fine sugar 
1 tsp mirin*
drizzle of toasted sesame oil

optional, to serve
chopped spring onions
toasted sesame seeds 

*If unavailable, just use a bit more sugar and a dash of rice wine. If you don't have rice wine either, just heck it, it will still be awesome.

1. Chop the aubergine into roughly even, medium-sized chunks.
2. Steam over high heat for 10 min-ish till cooked and soft. 
3. Whisk the ingredients for the dressing until well combined, and toss with the cooked aubergines. Leave for 10 minutes to marinate and become awesome. Sprinkle over spring onions and/or sesame seeds, or don't. 

So, two snacks that took me less than a minute of actual movement. Of course, I spent the ten minutes  styling and photographing them, so dinner didn't actually get made on time that day, but you should be able to have a bit of snacking going on without interruption to your dinner plans.

If you would like the miso/sesame paste marinade, give me a shout below/ tweet/ facebook me, the post  is long enough as is.

Both my favourite vegetables, and both ending their run soon as the seasons change, so load up!
More cucumber/ aubergine recipes 
Sambal Grilled Aubergine Stack
Sayur Lodeh (a veg curry, but better)
Nonya Achar (best time to make this peranakan pickle)
Sweet Asian Pickles

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Satays and Shizzle and Macho Men: Cooking at Street Feast London

This is 2 weeks late, but all you lovely patient readers are probably used to my rubbish blogging schedule by now. Two saturdays ago, I did a stall at Street Feast London. You might have caught a few photos on instagram or twitter, or you might even have been one of those who came down for a bite (thank you).

It was all a bit mad (but all you lovely readers again probably know I have a penchant for signing up for crazy things and at least this time there was no risk of dying in the mountains.) Here's how that crazy week went:
Monday– Got an invite from the Street Feast guys to do a stall for #bloggersaturday (Ooh! Yes!.. Oh no what did I just do)
Tuesday– Planned the menu and conned my friends into joining me
Wednesday– Sweet-talked my wonderful butcher into chopping pork belly and leg of lamb into 0.5 inch cubes
Thursday– Picked up vegetables from the farm shops and achar-pickled them
Friday– Got sauces, marinades and rice cakes made. (Char, you are a nocturnal angel, thanks)

Just a note, I'm not lounging around on summer break here; I work, full-time. Oh what madness. But oh what fun madness.

The day started beautifully with a classic spot of English rain, and homemade bacon-and-egg crumpets (washed down with blueberry gin, oh yeah) by Erik DA MAN. We lazed around watching the rain get heavier, decided it was time to get set up, got set up, had the leaking roof flood our stall, got handsome manly boys to fix our roof (coos), got set up again and stood by the barbecue pit warming our hands while waiting for the first order.

I wanted my menu to be about what my blog is about, so: Suffolk pork belly/ Cornish summer lamb satays, come complete with steamed rice cakes and kickass peanut sauce and achar, a sweet spicy nonya pickle made with the best of this season's vegetables. Yes, all that shizzle. Styled and plated prettily for your instagram shots of course. I think that pretty much shouts me.

If you were one of the brave customers who ventured out in the storm to eat satay, or takeaway satay for your daughter in Oxford, thank you so much an I hope it was worth getting wet for. Thank you also to my amazing team– Charlene the real chef, and Erik the grillmaster; Adam and his Street Feast possum; and the rest of the bloggers who stuck it out in the rain with us (and who fed us delicious fritters/ rice balls/ lemon tarts). #Vibes.

More cooking gigs
Yum Bun popup
My first plusixfive supperclub

Related recipes
August's Nonya Achar
The BEST Sg Satay Peanut sauce  (Pedro the vegetarian i.e. Sorbitium Ices pretty much scoffed it simply with rice cakes)

Note: Marinades for pork/lamb satays are a bit different from the one in blog; give me a shout below or tweet me if you want it.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Steamed Seabass, Crispy Sea Purslane, and Mad people

There are two kinds of cooks I think. One thinks of a dish and then sets out with her list to get all the ingredients for that dish. The other just walks around aimlessly getting her ingredients (often too much) and then thinks of a dish after. I'm the second one, unfortunately. I wish I were more organised. I probably would save a lot more money and time. I see what I like, I bring it home, and then somehow, one way or another, it all works out on the dinner plate. 

You see, I think the cooking bit just happens naturally with great produce. I stroke and gush about the fuzzy skin on peaches, I stick my nose into bushes of herbs and I nibble at unidentified flowers. I wake up at 5am on a Saturday morning to work (i.e. stroke and sniff and nibble) at the farmer's market. I know it all sounds more than slightly mad now so I will stop.

Anyway, I am not the only mental one. It's always nice to find people who are a little mad, mad in the same way and about the same things.  That's the people at Natoora. Franco has gone to great lengths to hunt down the best of every single thing they sell, be it the sweetest nectarine ever or the most carefully grown potato. I see you rolling your eyes now and saying 'Oh, sell-out!" but I would just like to say that I would never ever write about anything I don't truly like or believe in. I don't put up ads on my blog because I hate how ugly they look; I don't blog about the latest restaurant and hope to get invited to their next opening. I'm a rubbish blogger I know – I probably am just as poor as I am when I first started blogging. But I'm writing about these people now, because I know and love that these people truly take pride in what they do. 

This is a dish made using sea purslane from Natoora. Sea purslane is a plant that grows along the Essex coast in summer and its tiny leaves reatain all that lovely natural saltiness from the sea. Because it's so naturally salty, everyone I asked couldn't suggest more than using it sparingly in raw salads; the most exciting suggestion I had was to pickle it. I've gone to make this (read title). I don't even want to say it again because it sounds so horribly pretentious. But everything about this is simple. It took me a total of 10 minutes to make this, and a total of four things went into it (a far cry from my previous post on sayur lodeh). This is using a very classic Chinese technique of steaming fish in a little rice wine and then pouring hot oil over. I've just added the sea purslane garlic and chopped chillies to this hot oil so you  also get a wonderful heat and fragrance and a bonus of salty sea purslane crisps.

Serves 1
1 seabass fillet 
1 handful of sea purslane leaves
5 cloves garlic, chopped
1 red chilli, chopped
1 tbsp shaoxing rice wine
pinch of unrefined sea salt
1 tbsp of groundnut oil

1. Wash and pat fish dry, then place on a plate and rub evenly with the shaoxing wine and salt.
2. Set up a steamer by putting a rack over a wok/ pot of boiling water; no need for fancy bamboo steamers. Place the plate of fish on the rack and steam until just cooked; it took me less than 2 minutes.
3. Remove the fish and set aside. Empty the wok of water and fill with oil. When sizzling hot, add the garlic, chilli and sea purslane leaves and fry till fragrant and crispy.
4. Immediately pour the hot oil over the fish and spoon the crispy sea purslane, garlic, and chilli over. 
* You can also fry more and use that completely addictive topping over noodles or shove straight into your mouth.

So that's it really, 10 minutes and 4 ingredients, but using the best of what some mad people and the British waters have to offer.

On another note,

I will be cooking at Street Feast London tomorrow from noon to midnight. On the menu will be pork belly/ Cornish summer lamb satays, complete with steamed rice cakes and homemade peanut sauce and all that shizzle. Oh and achar, a nonya pickle made using this season's vegetables.  Again, just good food made with the best of British produce. There's gonna be some massive vibes going on down there – see you there yo!

Related recipes:
Sizzling Steamed Whole Flounder
Herrings, roasted with hot stuff (Kaffir lime leaf crisps are amazing)

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Sayur Lodeh – A veg curry, but better

I'm back, brown and bruised from my adventures in Switzerland. I'm surprised we made it back alive; but yes we found our way through the forests, slipped and climbed our way up the rocky mountains, and did a bit of dangerous flying (with a hot paragliding instructor, of course). There wasn't much eating worth talking about to be honest (which is a first for me), but we managed to find wild berries (so good) and stinging nettle (not good), and an old cheesemaker in the mountains of Rigi Kulm, so there was a bit of lovely cheese and foraged nibbles amidst the bread/chocolate/overpriced food.

It's nice to be back. I've missed rice (#asian) and my messy bed (#notsoasian). And after all that crazy heat, (I can't believe I'm saying this) it's nice to be back in a grey chilly London where the sun has had enough of its summer fun and gone back into hiding. I've always loved this awkward period in between the end of summer and early fall, when the weather starts turning chilly, just enough for you to maybe throw on a cardigan, but still warm enough for you to prance around in shorts if you like. On the food-front, it's probably the best time ever – there is still enough sun for a Sunday barbecue, but you can also get away with a weeknight curry; you've still got the delicate green leaves going, but also all the vibrant late-summer reds yellows and purples, and a little bit of the earthy young sweet roots and cabbages.

So I made sayur lodeh.

I guess you could call sayur lodeh a mixed vegetable curry, but it is so much more than that. For one, this is not a random combination of the sorry bits of vegetables sitting in your fridge; it may seem random but each element is there for a reason – like a Kandinsky (sort of, maybe. I know it's a bad analogy shut up). The cabbage and carrots sweeten the broth, the green beans give bite and texture, the aubergines act as a sponge for soaking up all the lovely gravy (which then gets squirted all over the insides of your mouth later). It's so weird and amazing that all these vegetables for a traditional curry from home are in season right now. The rest of the ingredients are typical Southeast Asian kitchen staples; don't be put off by the long list, this is freaking easy to make and when made, gives you at least a couple of Curry Nights in.

Serves 4 to 6

For the rempah
10 dried chilies
100g shallots
3 candlenuts
3 cloves of garlic
1" knob of ginger
1" knob of galangal
1 cm piece of belacan
1 tbsp of dried shrimps
1 tbsp turmeric
2 stalks of lemongrass
2 tbsp groundnut/coconut oil

For the curry
250 ml coconut milk
water/ stock
2 kaffir lime leaves
salt and sugar, to taste

The vegetables
2 large handfuls green beans
4 new carrots
quarter of a white cabbage
1 Asian eggplant

Optional, to finish (If you're Malay don't kill me)       
tofu puffs
pressed rice cakes (lontong)
shit-hot sambal
coriander leaves

1. Prepare the vegetables, rinsing and chopping them. There is no need for geometric accuracy, but the beans should be about finger-length, and the rest, roughly similar chunks, so that they cook in about the same time.
2. For the rempah, first open your windows. Toast the belacan until dry and powdery and (arguably) aromatic. Soak the dried chilies and dried shrimp in warm water for 10 min, then drain, reserving the shrimp-soaking liquid.  Pound/ blend all the ingredients till you get a fine paste. Fry the rempah till the oil separates.
3. Add the coconut milk and kaffir lime leaves, and enough stock/water (including the shrimp-soaking liquid) to cover. Bring everything to a boil, add the vegetables and let simmer till cooked and very tender, but not mushy. Add more stock/water if necessary to get your desired consistency; I like mine slightly thicker. Taste and check for seasoning.
4. Add the tofu puffs and lontong, if you’re using, and the sambal, if you’re a spice fiend. Finish with chopped coriander leaves for some greenery.

For those used to the fiery pungent spices of your local Indian, the gentle mild flavours of this dish might seem kind of wimpish for a curry. I like to think of it instead as a rich vegetable stew, simmered with fragrant herbs and spices and laced with sweet, creamy coconut milk. This – with a big big bowl of rice (oh yes I've missed you) – and a brainless chick flick was the perfect night in before all the grown-up (ah, work) craziness starts again.

Note: though CHOCKED full of vegetables, this is not a vegetarian curry- there's shrimp and shrimp paste, hence why so delicious.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Hobo Adventures,The Sunday Times feature, and Growing up.

This is why I've not been blogging lately, but I promise I'll squeeze in some time on the trains.

(from top left, clockwise) Getting lost in Switzerland, finding wild strawberries, cooking in a Parisian kitchen with Charles and his gorgeous baby, chillin' at the top of Europe.

In other news, I've been featured as one of The Sunday Times best British food bloggers in a wonderful series by Oliver Thring. You can read my full ayam panggang recipe here.

And  oh my god, I guess I'm really a grown-up now.

If you like you can see what I'm up to on twitter/ facebook/ instagram: tongue-styling, vintage plate-hunting, feasting with the lovely Uyen and hanging with Buble's band feeling horribly untalented. Sorry for being rubbish, but I swear I will write a proper post very very soon. 

Monday, 8 July 2013

How to Sweet-Asian-Pickle Anything

Sorry for the radio silence. I have been off gallivanting in New York, kayaking down the Hudson River, eating too many "must-eat" burgers and buns, and having too many late nights (working! Though there were a few parties...).

But I am back! And itching for my kitchen. You know when you eat too many rich and salty and fatty and delicious things, and all you crave after is a bowl of something white and light and plain? God, I felt so happy with my boring bowl of congee. Topped with some fried shallots, spring onions, and pickled lettuce hearts. Forget bread and butter; in Asia, it's rice and pickle that forms the most basic, most ordinary but most essential of meals. 

Pickles aren't difficult to make at all. It sounds complicated but it really isn't. At the risk of over-simplifying things (I probably am), let me try to give you a rundown. First, there are the salty pickles and they take a little bit more time (days to months, depending on the pickle and how pickled you like it) but they keep for a lot longer and you hardly move a finger in that time. You use salt, a lot of it. Then, there are the sweet pickles and they take almost no time at all (hours to days, or even minutes if you are that pressed for time), and you still hardly move a finger. You use sugar and vinegar, and you do still need quite a bit of salt at the start.  If you vary the seasonings/ spices/ herbs you use– soy sauce, fish sauce, chillies, garlic, cumin, whatever– you get different flavours.

I'll talk about sweet pickles today because no one likes waiting more than a few minutes these days. The main ingredient(s) is whatever crunchy seasonal vegetable you fancy. The example here is of some ugly cucumbers and gorgeous radishes I got from the farmer's market. (The cucumbers that look like studded fat green slugs seem frightening, but are crunchier and less juicy and seedy than the smooth ridged ones I'd reserve for nibbling raw). 

1 large cucumber (200g)
1 bunch of radishes (100g)
1 tsp kosher salt

Pickling liquid 
(basically 1:1 ratio but you can adjust slightly to taste) 
1 cup sugar (I prefer unrefined)
1 cup white rice vinegar

(you can skip this)
1/4 tsp cumin seeds

1. Slice cucumbers and radishes into rounds (or whatever shape you fancy, really). Sprinkle generously with the salt and massage into the vegetables. Leave for 10 minutes or so to 'sweat'; you want it to lose about 1/4 its volume.
2. Meanwhile, bring the sugar and rice vinegar to a simmer and stir till the sugar dissolves. Toast the cumin seeds in a hot pan if using, then add to the pickling liquid. Remove from heat and let cool completely.
3. Drain the cucumbers and radishes, and rinse 3 times. I also press them gently to squeeze out any salty water.
4. Place vegetables in a glass container or jar of sorts. Pour pickling liquid over vegetables* and let chill in the fridge for at least 1 hour. These should keep for 2 weeks*, sometimes 3 weeks, but beyond that they start looking a little tired.

*Post-pickle disclaimer: I would not pickle my radishes for more than half a day because they lose their lovely pink. And I would not pickle them together with the cucumbers because then the cucumbers turn sort of pinkish-green, which is not very attractive...
*If you want to use vegetables like cauliflower, I would lightly blanch the florets first.

I told you it's easy. The vegetables are wonderfully crisp and I love how each munch yields a satisfying burst of sweet, sharp pickling juice and earthy cumin fragrance. You can get as creative as you like; I'll chuck some ideas at the end of this post. I love sweet pickles in a banh mi-style baguette maybe with torn roast chicken or slices of roast pork; tossed with boring/ non-pickled vegetables to add zing to a salad; maybe rolled with rice into bastardised sushi; or really, just eaten straight out of the jar with a (clean) pair of chopsticks.

Other ideas:
Carrot and daikon (classic)
Sliced red onions (turn pin and loses its sharpness, gorgeous)
Thinly sliced young ginger (to make sushi gari, the rice vinegar naturally turns the ginger pink omfg)

Other pickles on the blog:
Nonya Achar (my aunt's recipe, stupidly simple but stunning)
Better Homemade Kimchi

In case you wanted congee after all that talk:
Leftover turkey/ chicken congee
Teochew porridge (and preserved turnip omelette)

Read more about how pickles are incredibly healthy (the salt- fermented ones though, to be precise)