Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Noodles tell a tangled tale

The crackle of crispy pork skin, the squish and give of a resilient fishball and the pungent tang of shrimp belachan are some of our local food memories. We may not remember the first time we ate such foods but sometimes, when we least expect it, a stray aroma or unexpected taste will trigger the oddest memory.

For me this happened after my family moved to New Zealand. I was only eleven when this happened and previously grew up in a house with my grandparents and aunts. My grandmother looked after the household and would prepare most of the meals with assistance from my aunts and my mother. When we moved, in this new and cold land, it was just the four of us. My health-conscious and time-short working mother modified the traditional dishes my grandmother used to take all day to make. One-pot meals were the new vogue in our household.

When I moved out I continued to cook in a odd mix of European and Chinese cuisine; my favourite dish during student days was bacon and egg fried rice -- then I rediscovered pork fat and pork belly. A recipe required the rendering of pork fat; the fragrant smell and crackling sound took me back to a childhood where I lived over the outdoor kitchen. My grandmother would secretly render pork fat during the day time when my mother worked and slip in this forbidden ingredient into her cooking, but only when she thought she could get away with it. It was forbidden in the house due to its unhealthy nature. Now whenever I smell, hear or taste pork crackling I think of my grandmother, my childhood house and the papaya tree in the backyard.

My family ran a small takeaway on weekends to supplement income and provide Malaysian/Singaporean-style food to the local community in Wellington, New Zealand. Of course my sister and I were pressed into working for our pocket money and spent one day a weekend clearing tables, doing the dishes, and taking orders.

My sister and I became adept at making trays and trays of wontons after school on Fridays. I think my mother thought that our small and nimble children’s fingers would be good at this. Every weekend, bags and bags of yellow noodles were ordered and my sister and I apportioned them into bowls for the laksa or loosened them for my mother to fry. I also had the job of making the fried rice -- to this day I don’t why she thought I was particularly suited to this dish but I remember her detailed instructions standing by my side; she taught me how to scramble the egg before adding the rice. It bubbles vigorously but this sound decreases over time; once it is silent it is overcooked. I learnt to wait for the right sound.

During opening hours, my mother was in charge of making the mee goreng and would stand for hours at the wok clanging her spatula and taking heed of all the endless variations customers requested: more chilli, no chilli, more fishcake, no fishcake, extra dry, extra wet, no egg, egg white only, etc. She taught me how to make mee goreng for it was a special dish that required deftness with heat, timing and sauce addition. Although I never graduated to cooking this for a customer, this and fried rice are the only two dishes she taught me standing by my side.

To this day I have a great fondness for noodles, especially mee goreng, and fried rice. I never used to know why, only that I would gravitate towards large bowls of pasta or noodles after a stressful week at work. I realise now that I seek comfort and solace in these foods for they remind me of the times that spent together with my mother. She is not verbally or physically expressive and showed her love and care in traditionally symbolic ways that I understood only after many years. I realise now that noodles and fried rice remind me of her love.

We never eat anything in isolation. We bring to the table everything that happened during our day, our week, our current mood and all our feelings at that moment. How something tastes is not just what we perceive on our tongue and nose but the processing of those senses into meaning through our memories. We’ve all experienced the nullification of taste when hearing bad or shocking news during eating. In all cases the taste of the food hasn’t changed but it is our perception of the taste, now coloured by unpleasant news, that has changed. Similarly we form positive taste-memories around happy times. Those memories are stored, re-processed and recalled again and again. The taste of something repeatedly eaten during happy times will subconsciously recall the actual event and all the associated positive emotions. So it’s not surprising that when feeling unhappy, many people start to crave food or tastes that make them subconsciously recall happier times.

Many foods, particularly certain combinations of carbohydrate-rich and fatty foods, elicit the release of satiety hormones and neurotransmitters; they make us feel full, satisfied and contented. Traditionally in the West these have been hearty and rich dishes like stews and lasagne. Here in Singapore our comfort foods may be chicken rice, or curry chicken with bread. Someone with Malay heritage may seek comfort in a big bowl of tulang merah.

What foods do you crave when feeling stressed or tired? What foods make you happy? What are your comfort foods? Were these foods always a special treat? Maybe you got to eat them only when a certain aunt would visit; or during special celebratory occassions?

What can you remember when you eat your comfort food? Who can you remember?

Monday, August 04, 2014

Review: Ujong

Ujong is set up by Chef Shen of Wok and Barrel. Part of the Teng Bakery in Raffles Hotel has been converted to Ujong restaurant and the antique-style tables and chairs give a very coffeeshop/old-style kopitiam feel to the place. A few tables have disconcerting glass tops that peer into tacky displays of retro paraphenalia, e.g. miniature wooden clogs, nonya slippers, etc. I dislike the commodification of nostalgia but I understand the anxiety about heritage that Singaporeans face as landmarks disappear and all that is left are the memories of food.

The Concept
Chef Shen seeks to elevate local or home-style food by using premium ingredients and perhaps by using traditional techniques in the kitchen. The menu consists of familiar sounding items like Nasi Lemak, Bak Chor Mee, Hae Bee Hiam Noodles and various curries, but if you dig a little deeper in the description you'll find that the Bak Kut Teh is made with kurobota pork and pasta substitutes for many of the local noodles. We were a party of three and I'd been warned that the dishes are heavy and substantial so we were restrained in our ordering.

The Food
The Bak Kwa Pork Ribs were sweet, unctuous and slightly sticky; not as sticky as actual bakwa but pleasantly so. They had a good pork taste but were very rich and I kept eating all the cilantro garnishes to refresh my palate.

I asked for sambal and we got two types: one a slightly dark red paste rich in aromatic dried shrimp and another light and fresh paste with an onion base. These were welcome accompaniments to all the dishes.

The Hae Bee Hiam capellini had a sharp tang of roasted dried shrimp and went well with the bouncy texture of capellini. This dish could have been brightened by fresh-cut deseeded red chilli. This was my favourite dish as it looked appealing and I love the pungency of roasted dried shrimp.

The Bak Chor Mee had five-spice pork on a bed of fettucine. The pork was rich and aromatic, but the noodles were heavy; I felt linguine would have been a better. Fresh-cut spring onions would have lightened the dish considerably.

We also ordered a side dish of "healthy alternative baked turmeric eggplant". Whilst it is traditional for eggplant to be deep-fried, anyone who has cooked eggplant will know that this soaks up oil like a sponge. I looked forward to this healthier version because I love a baked nightshade, however this was flavourless and lacklustre. The crispy fried shallots and soft eggplant made for a nice contrasting texture but as someone used to sambal eggplant, salted fish eggplant, or grilled eggplant with miso, I was disappointed. The application of the tasty haebee-based sambal did go a long way to remedy the eggplant. It's strange that eggplant can be so misunderstood when taken outside the context of traditional dishes. I recall a similar disappointment with the Green Pepper Eggplant at Casa Bom Vento (do not order it).

The portions at Ujong are very large and Chef Shen makes no allowances for refreshing your palate. It would seem that the taste of tradition comes as an domineering mother or father expressing their love for you with food. You'd do well to eat or you'd be refusing their love. Each dish is very heavy and substantial and would be very challenging if eaten by a single person. Having a variety of dishes to share alleviates the heaviness of each dish.

The dishes needed brightening with fresh herbs, e.g. cilantro, spring onions, or floral accents like capsicum or deseeded chillies. A tray of condiments like pickled green chillies, fresh chillies and calamansi lime wedges would have gone a long way in lightening the meal.

The Experience
We concluded the evening with a dessert of pulut hitam pudding with coconut ice-cream and gula melaka sauce. This was recommended to us by the friendly staff, whom I suspect may be quite senior in the team that run the restaurant. She preferred this dessert to the "Shendol" as that is known to be an enriched version of traditional chendol.

I am quite blown away by the pulut hitam pudding. The black glutinous rice is ground into flour and this made into a steamed cake not unlike huat kueh. The delicate honeyed notes of the black rice flour come out and match perfectly with the coconut ice-cream. The gula melaka sauce just takes the cake (pun intended) and is our very own salted caramel.

Service was very friendly, unobtrusive but then again we were the only ones dining on a a public holiday Monday. Prices were reasonable for the large portions of high quality meat.

This would be a place I would bring people who have left this region on the second diaspora, e.g. my family. Many of the dishes feel like they've been developed for incredible fussy and astute home tastebuds, e.g. my mother who can taste MSG in the parts per billion, and seek to extend and question what local taste is and should be.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Review: Three Buns

Three Buns by Potato Head Folk is located on Keong Saik Rd. It's set up as a corner diner with a hip-casual vibe. The original old-school floor tiles and white (new) retro-style grills contribute to the atmosphere and the latter allow us to peer into the kitchen. Wafts of grilling meat tantalise us as we are sitting outside on this thankfully cool night. There is an hour-long wait for seating in the air-conditioned upstairs on a Thursday evening at 9pm.

The Concept
I like the menu already. It speaks of a deep understanding of what a burger diner is about, namely, no frills but good, hearty and satisfying meal. The Middle-East and Levant do the best lamb dishes in the world, so it was a delight to see their influence on the lamb burger. And you can't get more iconic than "buttermilk-fried chicken" from the American South. The cheese-fritter burger is a little unusual, something falafel-based would have worked here, but perhaps they wanted to go more "hearty" and less "vegan". Nevertheless, a gutsy fried cheese has its roots in halloumi and I would be curious to see the type of cheese used in the cheese fritter burger.

The three beef burgers give a choice between a classic (always the toughest to get right), spicy and crazy meat-lovers. It seems one can't have fast-food without a meat-lovers choice nowadays. The two mayonnaises are very intriguing: den miso and dashi flavours.

When sitting outside it is counter-ordering but table delivery. It's a very casual, sit-around, after-work kinda vibe.

The Food
We had the Baby Huey (the classic burger) and the Burning Man (spicy with jalapenos). The 150g beef patties were hearty, "burgery", beefy but could have done with a little more char. I didn't get much of the golden beef dripping taste. They were juicy with just a hint of pink in the middle; a dangerous zone food safety-wise for minced meat products, but well, it's by Potato Head Folk so you'd assume top-notch food hygiene in the kitchen.

The Baby Huey lived up to its classic reputation. It captured the essence of what a burger is meant to be. The spiced mayo had pleasing smoky bacon-like bits in it and the tomato was refreshing. The onion relish had just the right amount of tartness to keep the burger from being too heavy.

The Burning Man was overpowered by the dashi mayonnaise, which albeit delicious, saturates all taste receptors in one's tongue. No hint of the roasted jalapeno relish and smoked cheese could be detected. These disappeared into a delicious and creamy ur-paste that could have been flavoured with stock powder.

We also ordered housecut fries, which were double-cooked, crisp on the outside but soft on the inside. They had an earthy potato taste, and were pleasantly salted and not greasy. These are rustic potato chips, not shoestring but almost English-style. They were unpeeled, which contributed to the great potato flavour. We also requested samples of the mayonnaises but although the counter staff made a pretence of registering our order on what looked like an incredibly complicated cash register, these samples never arrived. I guess it's too casual a vibe to care about customization of orders, even though each burger costs a minimum of $20.

The homemade tomato sauce is rich in clover honey overtones which masked the tomato taste. Perhaps I am biased but for me, none can come close to the gold standard in tomato sauce that is Heinz Tomato Ketchup. The homemade chilli sauce is heavy on the cumin and tastes like a pureed salsa.

The homemade cola was nice but the cocktail was a little stingy on the rum. These arrived in oh-so-hip-and-casual paper cups and were not mixed before pouring into the cellulose receptacle, hence a molecule thick layer of rum lay on the surface. At $14 for a cocktail you would think a quick shake or stir would be in order.

The Experience
It is very hip indeed. The service staff treat you with respect, that is, they're pretty cool and they don't pretend to smile if they don't feel like it. That's not to say they're unfriendly, but there's none of that saccharine "Have a Nice Day" obsequiousness that permeates American service culture. No, here they listlessly take your order and look you in the eye, daring you to ask for a customization, which they pretend to acknowledge, but then, since it's, y'know, a casual diner and all (did I mention $20 or more per burger), they promptly ignore. I felt rude to remind them because they did look so tired (and unfriendly) at the end of a day. Perhaps the ubercool (and very loud) music wore down their nerves as we had to shout our orders to the staff.

Perhaps it was telling that the only people eating burgers were Caucausian folk. All the Asian faces I say were clustered together sharing a large plate of poutine-type fries. They were well aware of how expensive this joint is.

The cost for two burgers, one side of fries, one cocktail and one non-alcoholic drink: $80.


A perfectly equivalent burger, but unfortunately not by Potato Head Folk, would be Fatboy's Burger at half the price. Fatboy's also serve their drinks in old-fashioned glasses, allow you to build-your-own-burger and, quelle horreur, have table service.

You would not go to Three Buns for the burgers, but hey, if you were already here at Potato Head Folk, did I mention Potato Head Folk, drinking fashionably casual cocktails in paper cups, perhaps you'd be inclined to purchase an overpriced burger. The taste doesn't disappoint, but the expense would be well-counted as a premium for a Potato Head Folk night out.

Restaurant Reviews Rekindled

After a long hiatus, ca. 15 years, I am going to do restaurant reviews again. I'd thought that food blogging was passe after becoming so ubiquitous, but I just can't stand it when people are wrong on the internet. There's a lot of misinformation out there about food, the dining experience and the art of good eating. So much pretension is entangled with eating that I want to bring the focus back to the food and conviviality.

I am an enthusiastic cook so I will be comparing the cost of ingredients to what would be readily available to anyone with access to Culina, Cold Storage and the local NTUC or Giant. This will allow a "value for money" estimation but culinary skill will, of course, be a premium and not a given for every home kitchen. I just can't stand it when I'm dining out and I'm forced to pay a premium for something I could have made at home with ingredients from the NTUC.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Think Global, Eat Local

In my on-going quest to prepare "international" foods without the exorbitant price tag, I present to you:

Kailan Pesto

500g baby kailan
a large wedge of decent parmesan cheese
handful of cashew nuts
copious amounts of best quality olive oil

  1. Process the parmesan cheese into fine crumbs, not a dust but something like breadcrumbs.
  2. Wash and tear kailan into small pieces. Process roughly, add a bit of olive oil to help make a paste.
  3. Add the parmesan cheese and process.
  4. Add the cashew nuts and process.
  5. Adjust seasoning and add more olive oil to make the desired consistency.

This creates a lovely green paste with a strong parmesan taste. You may wish to adjust the ratio of cheese to cashew nut to have a sweeter flavour. The kailan was masked but the strong cheese and nuts, but there was a hint of greenness - the olive oil also had strong grassy notes which gave a nice sense of verdancy.

Pesto is usually made with a plentiful green herb when it is in season. During summer months, crops of basil and tomatoes are plentiful in temperate climes, so it makes sense to make pesto and tomato sauce from basil and fresh tomatoes; just like jams and preserves from summer fruit and berries.

Singapore is in the tropics and imports almost all its food. There are few seasons for the tropical fruit, but it is extravagant to make pesto from scratch. Of course it is delightful, I especially love smoked basil pesto, but not something you'd do regularly. I came across many recipes for kale pesto. Now kale is another fashionable vegetable, superfood, etc. But kale is imported and expensive. Kale is also a member of the Brassica family (brocolli, choy sum, etc), and so I thought to try making a pesto with kailan, my favourite brassica.

Anything kale can do, kailan can also do. Let's put this to the test.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Extra-special salumi

My friend Candice flew back from Italy and Geneva after a whirlwind Christmas/New Year's holiday. She's even crazier about food than I am; and an order of magnitude more accomplished. She's the only person I know who has thrown a dinner party for 18 where one of the courses included foie gras wontons.

She's crazy about food because she brought back several kilograms of cured italian meats. She left her boots and some clothes behind at a friend's to fit them in.

So last Friday, as a quick no-cook throw-together dinner, we had the following sample platters (just a few tasty morsels from Italy):

  • Finocchiona (Salami with fennel seeds)
  • Lengua di Manzo (Ox tongue)
  • Mortadella al Tartufo (with truffle)
  • Prosciutto di San Daniele
  • Speck Magro (Lean speck)
  • Speck di Trentino (Fatty speck)
  • Bresaola di Manzo
  • Coppa di Parma
  • Sopressa di Veneto
  • Salai di Cingliale (Wild boar salami)
  • Salami di Capriolo (Juvenile deer salami)
  • Salami di Camoscio (Venison salami)
  • Salami di Cavallo (Horse salami)
  • Mortadella di Bologna

The speciality, Lardo di Collonada(sp?), deserves a special mention. It's basically 90% cured and smoked fat with a thin streak of meat running through. Candice told me to eat it with the wild Italian mountain honey and a freshly toasted walnut - I cannot remember the last time I was in heaven.

Wild Italian mountain honey has the most incredible unctuous creaminess. It's still sweet, but there's such a strong, almost gamey, taste to it. It's slightly musky but still floral. The toasted walnuts give off that roasted smell; the sweet nut oils and crunch contrast so well with the soft melting fat. Of course its saltiness and smokiness mix with the sweet of the honey - the bitter rocket leaf just skewers everything together.

Together with a friend who brought over some amazing French cheeses, I was quite in heaven. Candice told me to try the Gorgonzola with a horseradish-applesauce - what a combination. The creamy and pungeant gorgonzola completely mutes the sharpness of the horseradish and you taste the high notes of this spice without the heat at all. It's a vegetal astringency crescendoing over the smooth bass of the cheese. The sweetness of the applesauce only brings out the fruity nature of the gorgonzola.

If that weren't enough she'd also brought back some amazing pasta and found some Truffle Salsa. Together with Italian mountain butter, I couldn't resist and stuffed my face as the cries of my internal watchdog, "It's all just fat and carbs!", faded into the background. I cannot resist the aroma of truffle; and when you have it with butter and egg fettucine, it's a sin to say no.

Candice prepared a second lot of pasta for some latecomers and I went for seconds, despite a distended stomach. Terry asked if I was still hungry.

"No, but I just want to eat more. I'm using a smaller bowl so that I will take less."

I'd heard that eating with child-sized utensils was a technique that Elizabeth Hurley used to shrink her portion sizes.

I cannot remember a time when I've had such amazing food. Oh yes, I can; it was at her previous dinner party.

Never turn down an invitation.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Eating with mum

My mother came to visit me over Christmas. She arrived on Christmas day at night.

She's a health conscious woman who's very concerned with her cholesterol levels. She went to Japan to visit my sister and hardly touched the shellfish for this reason. So I planned for lighter dinners and more substantial lunches, so that she could enjoy herself with slightly less guilt, I figured.

I grew up with my grandmother's Cantonese style cooking and wanted to try Peach Garden here in Singapore on a friend's recommendation. However, our host for the evening said that his favourite branch was closed for a wedding dinner. Wow, must be a rich family getting married to hire out Peach Garden.

DSCF3510So we went to Crystal Jade Golden Palace in Ngee Ann City.

My friend and host felt extravagant and we ordered Peking Duck, Roast Goose, Old Cucumber soup (served in the cucumber) and razor clams; amongst other things.

DSCF3512 So much for the light dinner. Mind you, we hadn't exactly stopped eating since lunch time when we went to Little India to eat thosai and appom. There's some pani puri in the background. Tasty morsels of yoghurt filled puri shells sprinkled with chutney.

Then after a shopping trip for baking goods and tofu setting agent, we went for a quick trip to Chinatown hawker centre to observe popiah skin making and sample popiah.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

La Nonna, Holland Village

La Nonna in Holland Village is an elegant Italian restaurant with dark wood tables and crisp white linen. The knowledgeable and smartly dressed waiters are attentive but not obtrusive. The menu is very authentic and truffle is on offer.

I ordered a Caprino pizza: pancetta, rocket and goat cheese. Wood-fired, of course, and the base was perfectly chewy and savoury. The way traditional Italian pizza should be, that is the toppings as an accent to the bread itself. Before my pizza, I had a complimentary bread basket with ciabatta and thin crispy grilled cheese pizze sticks.

Pizzas (for two or a greedy one) and pasta from $18.
Mains from $28.