Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Veitnamese Pho versus Teochew Beef Kuih Tiaw?

Although Sydney is brimming with Vietnamese restaurants serving up delicious steaming, hearty bowls of beef noodles. It is impossible to convince many of my Singaporean friends that the Vietnamese beef kuih tiaw called Pho, is comparable to the Teochew beef kuih tiaw found in many food courts in Singapore. It has always served me well as an altenative when the hunger for "hawker food" strikes. I have also added it to the "die die must eat" food list for visiting Singaporeans and new Singaporean migrants, but I must admit they are quite distinct in their own merit where taste is concerned. Pho originated in northern Vietnam may have carried French and Chinese influences is most often served in extra-large bowls with a side dish of Vietnamese basil, lime,bean sprouts and chillies that are added to taste just before eating. The broth is traditionally made with beef bones, oxtails, flank steak, onion, and various spices including cinnamon, coriander, cardamom, star anise, roasted ginger and fennel. Pho can come cooked with almost any type of meat (usually beef) and many pho fans like me, prefer to get a smorgasbord of different cuts of beef, including everything from tripe and meatballs to lean raw flank steak with slices of cooked beef. With the kuih tiaw (rice noodles), sprouts, spices, and generous portions of beef that go into the typical bowl of pho, it is one of the more substantial soups around, and can be considered a balanced meal all by itself.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Is Tapioca aka Cassava or Ubi Kayu Safe to Eat?

Tapioca commonly known as ubi kayu in the Malay language and 木薯 (mushu)in Chinese. In both languages, it is aptly named because of its woody appearance. It is primarily grown in many Pacific Island countries and also in many parts of Asia, including Indonesia. In Papua New Guinea, the plant is grown for its edible tubers, which serve as a staple food in many parts of the country. The majority of frozen tapioca found in many Asian grocery stores is imported into Australia from Pacific Island countries such as Fiji and Tonga. Historically, its value as a famine relief crop has long been recognized. In many parts of South East Asia during the Second World War many people survived on tapioca roots. But on other hand, it has been reported that raw tapioca or unprocessed tapioca can be a potential public health and safety risk due to the presence of cyanogenic glycosides in the raw or unprocessed tapioca. This can lead to exposure to hydrogen cyanide and its related toxicity.

Is tapioca safe to eat?
Tapioca is safe to eat providing that it is prepared properly. It can be made safe to eat by first peeling and slicing the tapioca and then cooking it thoroughly either by baking, boiling or roasting. Frozen tapioca should also be prepared in this way. Furthermore, the majority of raw or unprocessed tapioca imported into Australia and New Zealand comes from a variety known as sweet cassava which is normally low in cyanide content. Here is a tapioca pudding recipe that has been consumed traditionally in both Singapore and Malaysia and has a long history of safe consumption.
Incidentally it has just won a cooking prize at my workplace!

Chiu Chu Kuih aka Tapioca Baked Pudding Recipe

1kg fresh tapioca, peeled and grated, if unavailable, use frozen grated tapioca
385 ml thick coconut cream
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs beaten
2 tbsp tapioca flour or corn flour.
2 tbsp butter

Grease a 20cmx30cm (8"x12") square tray with butter. Mix all ingredients in a large bowl and stir with a long wooden spoon. Pour mixture into the baking tray. Bake in a preheated oven at 180 C for 35 to 45 minutes or until set. Put under a grill for 15 minutes or until the crust is golden brown. Leave to cool for at least 6 hours before cutting to serve.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

What is tempeh?

Although tempeh is now commonly available in Sydney and can be found in the refrigerated section of most well-stocked grocery stores. It is not as common as I thought among young Singaporeans here.I was surprised to find a number of young Singaporeans who are living away from home and probably cooking for themselves for the first time, have recently emailed to ask what is tempeh and how it is used. On close observation, tempeh looks like a square or rectangular piece of mouldy compressed bean cake Fear of the unknown can often make you stop dead in your tracks of using it in your cooking. For the uninitiated, tempeh is made from cooked and slightly fermented soybeans. A traditional Indonesian food originated from Java, it is made from soybeans, grains, and a mould culture that is fermented and pressed into a block or cake. This vegetarian food can be used as a substitution for meats. Furthermore, I have adapted a recipe to make homemade tempeh and saving half the price you would pay in the supermarkets by using a store bought fresh tempeh as a tempeh starter for the initial start up.
To make 1kg tempeh you need the following ingredients:
- 500 g whole dry soybeans
- 3 tbs vinegar
- 200 g of fresh tempeh

Soak the soybeans in 2 liter water overnight. Split the soaked soya beans by squeezing them with a kneading motion in a big basin or bowl. Stir gently causing the hulls to rise to the surface, then pour off water and hulls into a strainer. Add water and repeat until most hulls are removed. Put the hulled soyabeans in a large cooking pot and add water to cover the soybeans. Add 3 tablespoon vinegar and cook for 30 min. In the meanwhile, put the fresh tempeh in a blender and blend until fine like breadcrumbs. Drain off the water and dry the soybeans by continue heating them in the pot on medium heat for a few minutes and until the beans are dry. Allow the soybeans to cool down to below 35°C.

Sprinkle the soybeans with the blended tempeh. Mix with a clean spoon to distribute the blended tempeh evenly. It's very important to mix the blended tempeh very well, it reduces the risk for spoilage and the fermentation will be faster. Take 4 plastic resealable bags 18 x 18 cm and perforate them with holes at a distance of about 1 cm by a thick needle. This will allow the mould to breathe.
Divide the soybeans equally in the four bags and seal them. Press them flat, making sure that the total thickness of the beans is max 3 cm. Place the packed beans in a warm place to incubate for about 36- 48 hours during which the tempeh fermentation takes place. Then the plastic bags should be filled completely with a white mold and bind the soybeans into a cake form. The the entire piece of newly formed tempeh can be lifted out as a whole piece. Keep the fresh tempeh in the fridge to be used within a week or can be kept frozen until needed. Now you know how to make tempeh. Stay tuned on how to cook the tempeh.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Kuih Lapis Beras or Kow Teng Kuih aka Nine Layered Kuih

Like many Overseas Singaporeans, cooking a traditional dish without being able to get the main ingredient is a real setback. Believe me, it is usually the main essential ingredient in the recipe that is missing or unavailable. Unless we can find a substitute ingredient and make do with whatever is available locally, we might as well resign and wait until for the next balek kampong to eat and enjoy the real thing. On other hand, it can also be quite rewarding, to produce a replica of the original recipe with a twist of your own. Like this Kow Teng Kuih, we have just cooked for afternoon tea, fresh coconut cream and pandan leaves are required if we follow the original recipe. Even though, both of these ingredients are readily available in the Asian stores at this time of the year, we didn't bother to drive the distance to get them. We simply used canned coconut cream from our pantry and do away with the pandan leaves. Unfortunately, our pandan plant didn't survive the winter cold.

Kuih Lapis Beras or Kow Teng Kuih aka Nine Layered Kuih Recipe.

150 g rice flour
125 g tapioca flour
75 g glutinous rice flour
400 ml can coconut cream
1 cup sugar (300 g sugar)
300 ml water
1 tbsp red food colouring

Sift the rice flour,sugar, tapioca and glutinous rice flour into a mixing bowl. Add in coconut cream and water and mix well. Divide the batter into two portions. Colour one portion red.Heat steamer and heat a well greased round pan (8 inches or 20cm) for 5 minutes. Pour half a cup of white batter onto the heated pan and coat it evenly to about 5mm thick and steam for 5 minutes or until set. Repeat and alternating the white and red batter until all the portion are used up.After steaming the last layer, steam it for another 15 minutes. Let cool completely before cutting as desired and serve.When I was a child, I used to peel the kuih layer by layer to eat them.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

How to make Soyabean Paste aka Taucheo

Most people conveniently buy soyabean paste from the Asian stores or supermarket theses days. This, of course, saves time and energy and convenient to our present hectic lifestyle.But the downside, is that it becomes a noticeable separation between the origin and the end product. What you don't know is when and how it was made, how it was treated and stored prior to your purchase.So much so that it is safe to say that many traditional homemade foodstuff are in danger of becoming a an invisible art. It has become our personal challenge since we started writing in this blog, is to collect as many traditional and family 'secrets' recipes for many to share. For those ambitious few who may wish to create their own pure homemade and traditional foodstuff , a classic recipe is presented here as start to our new challenge in this blog.

Teochew Ah Mah's Taucheo aka Granny's Soyabean Paste

2 cups soyabeans
6 cups water
1/3 cup sea salt

To make two cups of soya bean paste, soak the soyabeans in cold water overnight or at least 8 hours and drain. Heat a wok over medium high heat and add soaked soyabean to toast for about 30 minutes. Making sure the soyabean is not burnt and set aside to cool. Place the soyabeans in a paper bag and roll over with a rolling pin or a wine bottle, to remove the skins. Discard the skins. In a big pot, add the soyabeans with 6 cups of water. Bring it to a high boil and immediately decrease the heat to medium low heat to prevent boilover. Boil gently for about 2 1/2 hours or until soyabeans become tender. Transfer the soyabeans onto a bamboo tray lined with cheese cloth. Cover loosely with banana leaves and keep in a very warm place to ferment for 5 days. In a bowl, combine the fermented soyabeans and mash with the sea salt. Transfer the the soyabeans to a earthen or ceramic jar with a lid. After mellowing for a week, they ready to be used but it best kept in a refrigerator to turn into taucheo. Store in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator and they will keep fresh for months.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Why is melon treated like a durian?

Although durians and melons come from two different families of fruits, they both often undergo the same type of scrutiny by some of their potential buyers before they are bought. Like the durian, melon is smelt for fragrance, weighed and tapped. To pick a good melon, the expert says choose a fruit that feel heavy for its size. When tapped lightly, your melon melon should sound hollow to indicate that it's mature and ripen. Most melon are picked ripe, so their sweetness doesn't increase once it is harvested. Avoid those with bruised, soft, watery,punctured,cracked or decayed rinds Choose a melon with a firm yellowish or creamy underside or ground spot since it rests on the ground as it grows. Of course, buying a cut melon wrapped in cling saves you the guesswork, but look for firm, juicy, deep pink-colored flesh and shiny dark seeds, if any. Avoid flesh with white streaks or a reddish-tan color, or that is either too soft or watery. To prepare melons for serving, chill melons before eating for the best flavor. Wash the dirt from the rind with water before putting it in the refrigerator. Before cutting, rinse the rind again under cold running water. Once cut, cover with a cling wrap to prevent from drying out, then store on the lowest shelf of the fridge for up to three days.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Fish Head Curry and Lemongrass

I have gone AWOL in my blog for a while. It is not that I have nothing to share, but I was thrown out of sync since I started working on my new job as a clinician in the department. I hope to get myself reorganized quickly to the new regiment and adjust my daily routine around it. There are many other things waiting for me to do. The herb garden is high on my job list and has been scheduled as priority for this weekend's chore in the backyard. Thanks to the frequent showers in the last fortnight, the weeds have sprouted as if there is no tomorrow and compete for the limited space to grow in the garden beds. Besides, every gardener knows that this is a common trait among the weeds; they do not huddle together in one place, but spreading afield, each takes up the habitat for which it is best fitted , and so is enabled to survive and multiply in the world of flowers. As I do not use chemical herbicide to eradicate weeds in my garden, I was down on my knees and pulling and digging out the weeds with my hands and a weeder since dawn. I have only managed to finish weeding half of the garden beds and relocated a clump of lemongrass to another location, just before the sun reached its zenith in the sky. I can still recalled planting this fragrant and lemon-scented grass since I came back from Papua New Guinea 12 years ago. Since then it has multiplied and flavoured many of our Nonya and Malay dishes. In the past, we used to resort to the unreliable dried "serai powder" we bought from the Asian stores. These days lemongrass is available in any Chinatown or at any supermarket with an Asian fresh food section. Lemongrass is one of the most essential herbs without which Thai curries, Malaysian laksa and dozen of other dishes of Australia's new Asian cuisine would not be the same. Although it is mainly associated with the cooking of South East Asia, lemongrass makes a delicious herbal tea, and also an effective pest repellent. Just tie the outer leaves in a loop and cook with food to impart lemon scented flavour. Be sure to remove before serving.

Lemongrass Fish head Curry


300g red onion, sliced
20g fresh galangal sliced
40g fresh lemongrass, finely sliced
60g garlic
20g candlenuts
95g ground dried chilli paste
2 tsp belachan (shrimp paste)
1 tbs turmeric
50mls vegetable oil


5 twigs Vietnamese mint (laksa leaves)
125g sugar
20g salt
100mls tamarind juice
1 stalk lemongrass
900mls water
6 okra, diagonally sliced
8 cherry tomatoes, halved
1 medium pineapple or 1 can 432g of Pineapple cubes
500g Red Snapper fish head, or 500g any other deep sea fish fillet.


Blend first 8 ingredients to form a fine paste.
In a heavy based pan, heat the vegetable oil and fry the paste until fragrant (approx. 3 -4 minutes).

Add the lemongrass tie in a knot with its leaves, Vietnamese mint and seasonings to the paste, pour in the water and tamarind juice and simmer for 15 minutes.
Increase heat, add the sliced okra,pineapple, cherry tomatoes and fish fillets and cook for a further 3 - 4 minutes.

Remove from heat, pour gently into serving dish, remove the lemongrass and serve immediately

Saturday, October 24, 2009

What makes a good egg?

Until recently, buying a carton of eggs used to be a simple task of opening to check and see none are cracked before putting them in the shopping basket. These days, a staggering set of choices confronted us at the supermarket aisle and demanded our immediate attention to choose from generic to free range, organic to bio dynamic and barn-laid to cage eggs even before you want to buy any. To further complicate matter, there is egg packaging that spells out the production system used to raise their hen. Surely, the endorsement by the RSCPA accreditation on the egg packaging is enough to paw at your heart string and make you to consider this ethical-moral reason between free range or barn-laid and cage eggs. You may be left high to ponder over this ethical decision, but the functional claims of Omega 3 and antibiotic and hormone-free eggs still demand your thoughts before you buy that carton of eggs.
Since we have to faced with all this bewildering array of options every time we shop for eggs in the supermarket, my wife and I have been thinking at the possibility of keeping a couple of chicken in the backyard to supply eggs for the the family. We will soon let you know whether an egg from a hen raised on organic principles taste better than a hen in a cage. More importantly, what makes a good egg.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Why Cockatoo Is Not On My Guest List.

"You are living in a bird park" is a frequent remark we often hear from overseas visitors. They are often fascinated by numerous wild birds visiting our backyard. Unlike the famous Jurong Bird Park in Singapore which has a world largest man-made aviary, our feathered residents live in their natural habitat at Edna Hunt Sanctuary and surrounding vacinty. We happened to share the same post code with them, as a matter of fact, they are our next door neighbour! Like all neighbourhood, we have all sort of neighbours, some friendly and quiet and some not so friendly and loud living together. Of course, we have our favourites, there are neighbours that are treated as if they are part of our extended family, whereas some are kept at a distance and only received a diplomatic nodding of the head at the occasional meetings in the street. We would like to introduce our feathered neighbours in the coming blogs. For a start, the Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo, with its distinctive sulphur-yellow crest and loud raucous screech, is the first neighbour we would like you to know. Some of you may have already heard of them. In Singapore, they are known as Eng Ko and in Papua New Guinea every pet Cockatoo is called Koki. In the northern Australia it is usually found in pairs or small parties, but in the south it often congregates in large flocks of up to a hundred noisy birds. They are often seen in the neighbourhood foraging and social interaction in the morning and late afternoon, before returning to their roost at dusk. It is interesting to note, when feeding, they have a ‘sentinel warning system’ where one or few members of the group kept a watch from a nearby perch over the ground-feeding flock and screech loudly if an intruder approaches.

Although their popularity as a caged pet bird has always been high on the 'A' list and also have a long association with human contact, we are not too keen to add them in our guest list as they becoming a pest around urban areas, where they use their powerful bill to destroy timber decking and wood panelling on buildings. Furthermore, my pet hate is to see them biting off smaller branches and leaves from our gum trees, which are not eaten,however. This important activity may help their bill trimmed from growing too large, but sorry not in my backyard especially nibbling on my old gum tree.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Mum's No Brand Essence of Chicken

Most,if not all of us are familiar with Brands essence of chicken. I cannot think of another brand name that is as legendary to a point where it has embedded in many of our memories. This chicken essence concoction has been around for as long as I can remember. I know many in our community, especially the elderly Singaporean uncles and aunties, swear by it for the numerous claims made for its beneficial properties that they are told and retold; they have raised the brand to a mythological level. It is widely believed to be a 'brain food' for students studying for their important examinations and also well known as a "pick up food" for the convalescents and new mothers, and naturally becomes an acceptable social gift for many Singaporeans and multi packs are given and graciously accepted at Weddings and Birthdays.
Yet Brands is essentially a British invention. It is said that it was developed by one Henderson William Brand, a Royal Chef to King George the IV way back in 1820, as a tonic food for his ailing royal employer. It didn't stay in the the royal kitchen but was spread to every corner of the Colonial British Empire of yesteryear. Brands first arrived in Asia in the 1920's in Singapore and very quickly was accepted as it already had similarities with our Asian tonic preparation. Little did I know that many of our hand-raised chicken in the backyard would eventually end up in the chicken broth that my mother made. "Where is the brown cockerel with black tail feathers?" we would ask repeatedly asked when we came back from school. " I have traded it for the condensed milk from the shopkeeper at the Kit Ai Tiam" was one of favourite answers and accompanied with a plateful of roti spread with sweet condensed milk as a compensation to lessen our loss. Of course, our older siblings knew that they were be rewarded later with a bowl delicious chicken broth whenever the cockerel disappeared prior to the end of school examination period. Today, I am going to differ slightly on how my mother made her home brand chicken essence during my formative years in Singapore. First of all, I do not have any chicken in my backyard and secondly, I do not have a double boiling jar, a special ceramic pot where the chicken is cooked using the heat from the boiling water and not directly from the original heat source. This cooking technique ensures there is no loss of liquid or moisture (its essences) from the food being cooked. Instead,I have improvised for this exercise, by using a covered ceramic jar and the jar is then steamed for several hours inside a big stock pot. Furthermore as a follower of frugal living, I am using chicken bones carcases instead of a whole chicken as written in mum's recipe.


6 chicken bone carcases
½ cup water
½ tsp salt


Wash and trim of any fat or skin from the chicken bone carcases. Put the trimmed chicken carcases into a mortar and pound the the bones with a pestle.
Prepare the steaming utensil by putting a small bowl in a ceramic pot. Pile the pounded chicken bones carcases on top of the bowl.and add 1/2 cup of water. Cover the ceramic pot with a lid or seal with a foil. Put the ceramic pot into a stock pot and add enough water to cover half of the ceramic pot. Bring the water to the boil then lower to a simmer for 2 hours. Cool before removing the steamed bones carcases on top of the inverted bowl. Carefully remove the bowl before pouring out the chicken essence broth. Add salt to taste.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Ban Chang Kuih aka Mee Chien Kueh

Also called apom balek in Malay, this is a popular hawker snack in Singapore when I was a child. Traditionally cooked in a cast iron pan over charcoals, this sweet pancake with crumpet- like texture is usually eaten for breakfast but it is also enjoyed throughout the day. I do not know whether ban chang kuih are still traditionally made and sold in Singapore, as late as the 1970s ban chang kuih were "called" in Singapore streets everyday. The ban chang kuih man paddled his tricycle around the neighbourhood with a cast iron pan on top of a stove fashioned from a disused 44 gallon oil drum and called his wares by ringing a handbell to a repercussive voice of "ban chang kuih... ban chang kuih."
This afternoon, I cooked this fluffy pancake filled with roasted peanuts and sesame seeds for tea but could only give myself six out of ten for the end result. I didn't manage to get the crispy edges like the ban chang kuih from the hawker. Nevertheless, I have gave it a go at this popular street snack.

Ban Chang Kuih Recipe:


2 cups Plain flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
8g yeast
1 egg beaten
1 tbsp oil
21/2 cups water


100g raw peanuts, roasted
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1/2 cup sugar.
50g butter

For batter, mix together flour, salt, sugar, and yeast. Make a well in the centre of flour and add egg, oil and 21/2 cup of water, then mix into a smooth batter. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside for at least 2 hrs.
In the meantime, roast the raw peanut over a very low fire until slightly brown and set aside to cool. Do the same to the sesame seeds. Place the peanuts in a mortar and using a pestle crush coarsely. Combine peanuts sesame seeds and sugar in a small bowl.
Heat a non stick 15cm frying pan over low heat. Pour in 1/2 cup of batter into the heated pan and spread evenly, cover and cook for 2 minutes or until bubbles appear. Sprinkle peanut mixture over the surface, dad with butter and fold the pancake into half. Cover pan and cook for another 1 minute or until pancake is crisp on the outside and cook and soft on the inside. Serve hot with your tea or coffee.

Monday, October 12, 2009

What is the food closely related to Grandma?

If you are an older Singaporean, you would probably share the same answer with me. I guessed you would have chosen kuih as the answer. Not only it is an integral part of the family's daily life, it is also included in our traditional festivities such as Hari Raya and Chinese New Year. Like all grandmothers, kuihs come in different shapes, colours, texture and designs. They are as sweet as the "Ti kuih" ( nien kau or sweet sticky rice cake) or savoury as rempah udang (spiced glutinous rice roll) for you to choose. Just as it is difficult for you to choose your faourite grandma between your maternal or paternal side of your external family, Nyonya (Peranakan) and Malay kuihs are very hard to distinguish. Unless, you addressed different names on the mom side and the dad side to help differentiate family members, unlike English, we just have "grandmas" we cannot tell if they are from your mom or dad's side. But in traditional Chinese, they have different names to help clarify these situations so you do not have to ask whether it is on the mom or dad's side. ( Mom's mom = 外婆 Wai po and Dad's mom = 奶奶 Nai nai).

You may have your favourite, but in most cases like they both have the same basic ingredients you loved. In almost all kuihs, the most common ingredients for kuihs are grated coconut, coconut cream,pandan leaves and sugar, rice flour glutinous rice flour, and tapioca or mung bean flour. Not that my wife Jo is going to be a 奶奶 (Nai nai) soon but she has a collection of kuih recipes, just in case. Here is one of her kuih recipes.

Kuih Talam Recipe:

Base layer:

80g rice flour
40g tapioca flour
40g mung bean flour (green pea flour)
250g sugar
20pcs pandan leaves (blended and liquidised into juice)If unavailable, pandan essence or 1tsp. green colouring with 700 ml of water.
1 tsp alkaline water.

Top layer:

50g rice
11/2 tbsp of green pea flour
1tbsp tapioca flour
11/2 tbsp tapioca flour
450 coconut milk
1tsp salt

Mix the ingredients for the bottom green layer in a saucepan and cook over a low flame until thickens slightly. Pour into a greased 20cm square tray and steam for 15 minutes. In the meantime, cook the white layer by combining all the ingredients in a saucepan and cook and stirring continuously over a low flame until mixture thickens slightly. Pour the white mixture over the grenn layer and steam for 20 minutes. Cool the kuih completely before cutting to serve.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Migration From One Country to Another

I have just received an email from a soon-to-be resident to this country. He asked me a long list of questions from racism to everyday living in Australia. He reckons that I am able to help just because I am a "Singaporean uncle" and have "lots of experience as a migrant" who has been living overseas most of my life. Well, I must admit that I wear the honorary "Singaporean Uncle" badge given by fellow Singaporeans, as an age-given right. But the immigrant experience may not be quite the same for the young ones. I am afraid it has changed in many other ways since I first arrived in Australia. Advances in technology (I can now call someone in Singapore from my PC) and cheaper budget airlines mean that today's immigrants are less likely than their earlier counterparts to sever all ties with their homelands. Maybe, the only common factors are - getting a job , finding a place to live and so on - but maintain vital ties to their homelands was quite a different story during my time. It took nearly a fortnight for me to receive a letter from Singapore via air-mail.

Unlike many parts of Asia, especially in South Asia, it is not a common practice for an average family to have a live-in maid in Australia. Not only it is not customary, it's just beyond the financial mean of an average income Australian family to have a full-time live-in maid. A maid may often be seen as a necessity rather than a luxury in present Singapore. In many Singaporean homes it is necessary for both parents to work in order to lead a comfortable lifestyle and sustain a family. The financial strains of living in the highly competitive society have made it difficult for young couples to survive on only one income. Due to this, live-in maids are becoming the norm and the image of the "traditional" family - where Papa goes off to work and Mama stays at home to raise the children. - does not reflect reality for most people today. Nevertheless, for the most part our social institutions are still built around the outdated belief that only one parent (typically the father) should be working and the mother stays at home. Some people think that women with children simply shouldn't be working even at part-time jobs. Some years ago, an English doctor, whose son died while under the care of a nanny was severely criticized in the newspaper and on radio talk back shows because she allegedly put her career before her family. Sound too familiar in Singapore? In its recent past, Singapore too has had its fair share of headline news of children deaths and abuses while under the care of maids or paid care takers. Horror stories such as these force many working parents to agonize whether their financial well being and personal independence are being sold at the cost of their families. These are important factors to consider when young children form part of the family to migrate.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Why there is no silkworm in the wild?

Last night,we baked this mulberry and apple crumble pie for our gathering of friends at home.It soon became a conversation piece at the table because most of the young Singaporeans present,not only had they not tasted it before, they had not seen a fresh mulberry fruit. Since we didn't use up all the mulberries collected from this year's bumper crop on the tree, we felt duty-bound to pass a bowl of mulberry fruits around. Of course, we were not surprised by their admittance that they had not seen a fresh mulberry fruit since they grew in a city state most of their lives. Furthermore, mulberries are more homegrown rather than commercial available in the stores or supermarkets as the fruits are very perishable and does not ripen off at the same time. In the course of conversation, it was brought up that the black fruited mulberry (morus nigra) that we eat is a different to the white fruited mulberry ( morus alba) leaves that silkworms eat as their primary food source. Another point of interest in this 'hanashi no tane" (conversation piece) is that the silkworm has been domesticated since sericulture has been practised for at least 5,000 years in China that it is entirely dependent on humans for its reproduction and no longer occurs naturally in the wild. I can't help but to ponder over the piece mulberry pie, is it not correct, due to the domestication process by human having accelerated the pace of evolution in an unnatural way, that I have not find a single silkworm chomping away the leaves of my mulberry tree.

Mulberry and Apple pie Recipe.

2 cups plain flour
1/4 cup of caster sugar
125 g cold butter, cubed
2 tbsp of cold water
2 tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp of orange rind


500 g fresh mulberries
410 g can apples
1/4 cup caster sugar
1 tbsp cornflour

Add sugar, orange rind into the flour. Rub in the cubed butter into flour until the mixture is fine and crumbly and add water until the mixture resembles bread crumbs. Place the apples, sugar and corn flour in a small pan and stir over low heat until the mixture is slightly thickened. Set aside to cool and add mulberries and gently stir through. Spoon into a 23 cm pie dish and smooth the surface and sprinkle the flour mixture on top of the pie.Sprinkle the brown sugar. Bake at 210 C for 10 minutes and reduce oven temperature to 180 C and bake for another 30 minutes or until crumble topping is golden. Serve with cream or ice cream.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Why are Mulberries not sold in the fruit shops or markets?

Mulberries are not readily available in fruit shops or markets as they are very difficult to handle and perishable because of their high water content and thin skins. They soon ferment or get moldy. Not only they are difficult to transport because of its perishable nature, they are also difficult to harvest as they ripen over an extended period of time unlike many other fruits which seem to come all at once. This is why you rarely seem them in stores. But you're most likely to find mulberries in the gardens or your neighborhood, parks, in fields, especially along the edges of open bushes and ripening in late spring and early summer. Furthermore, you can spot ripe mulberries in season from a distance because the fruits make such a mess on the ground.

As a prevention for my mulberry bush to make a mess in the backyard, I have been going around the bush and collecting the ripened berries in the last couple of days, in some ways reminiscent of a nursery rhyme I have learn as a child. Once, I have collected enough berries I will make a mulberries pie. Please stay tuned.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

What is the cornerstone of Nonya and Malay cooking?

This uniquely hot belachan sambal (chilli and dried shrimp paste) is the base ingredient and seasoning found in most Singaporean Nonya and Malay cooking. Most people conveniently buy a bottle of sambal belachan from the Asian kit ai tiam (stores) these days, but the classic home made recipe is here for those seeking to create an authentic Nonya or Malay dishes. It has a robust and feisty flavour, thanks to the happy marriage of tastes between the fresh chilli and the dried shrimp paste. The riotously pungent sambal comes from dried shrimp paste which emits a powerful smell when toasted, a smell most foul especially to the uninitiated. But to most Singaporeans, this fiery hot and addictive fix has whelped the appetite of many of us since our childhood.

Just as a dish is never complete without shoyu (Soy sauce) to the Chinese,Japanese and other Asians, the Peranakan flavours most of their dishes with sambal belachan. It is used most often as a dressing for most Nonya salads (kerabu) but it also goes well with vegetables and seafood such as prawn and sotong (squids).

150g Fresh red chillies
50g toasted belachan
5 limau kasturi aka sng kam (calamansi lime)

In a mortar, add the fresh chillies and pound well with a pestle to the desired consistency. Add the toasted belachan and mesh into the chilli paste. Squeezed the lime juice into the pounded sambal belachan just before serving.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Given a $10 budget, to get creative with a potluck dish.

You can blame squarely on our inherited cultural psyche for hospitality that there's always the temptation if you're entertaining or wanting to wanting to impress, to go out of your way and buy the most expensive produce available. I must admit that it is difficult not to feel that way. It doesn't have to be that way. As an experiment in entertaining on a tight budget, I have invited about eight families to my home for a potluck party this long weekend (as Monday is a public holiday for Labour Day in New South Wales) but with a twist - each family is asked to bring a dish that served four to five and mustn't cost more than $10, along with a wine that cost $10 or less. I will post the outcome of the potluck party and the "bring a plate" recipes in the coming week. Since my philosophy is simple food, simply prepared, can be the best to eat I am going to shop around for some low cost ingredients and boost it with some flavour that will appeal to friends and family as my contribution. Please stay tuned.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Sydney was painted red...

Yesterday, I was woken to a surreal red glow in the sky just outside the window. At the same time, I was able to hear and see a severe wind was lashing and whipping up a bright orange haze across the field. Before I realised what actually happened, a blanket of red dust had begun to shroud Sydney just before dawn after a cold front moved in from central Australia and western NSW and causing severe delays at Sydney airport and prompting warnings from health authorities. By mid morning, everything was painted red inside and out side the house with a fine film of reddish colour of ochre powder. I have no idea how the red dust crept into the house with every window and door tightly shut.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Mian Jin by any other name is still Mian Jin

I must admit that I didn't know seitan and mian jin ( 麵筋, a "wheat meat" often used as a vegetarian mock meat) is the same thing until I was invited to a vegetarian lunch at a friend's place. It must have been a clever marketing ploy to invent a fancy new name for a common vegetarian food, believed to have originated in ancient China, as a meat substitute now commonly available in many western supermarkets as well as in Asian grocers and health food stores. Although it may be new to the west, mian jin or seitan is a vegetarian food that has been eaten in Asia for hundreds of years. Besides, Asian vegetarian restaurants often use it used to simulate pork, poultry, beef, or even seafood, due to its ability to take on the texture and flavor of meat or seafood.
After lunch, I was given two recipes on how to make seitan or mian jin at home. One is using the traditional method of rinsing away the wheat flour under running water and leaving the gluten behind and other is made easier and quicker by using vital wheat gluten flour. Since I manage to buy the vital wheat gluten flour form the local Asian grocer, I made some seitan last weekend. I used it for an experimental vegetarian dish, which received an apt remark from our Teen son, "Dad's Mock Abalone", as it was chewy as fresh abalone!


1 1/2 cups vital wheat gluten flour
1/4 cup rice powder
1 cup very cold water or vegetable broth
1/2 cup soy sauce

Simmering Stock:

10 cups water or vegetable stock
1/2 cup soy sauce
10cm kombu (dried kelp)

In a large bowl, mix together Vital Wheat Gluten Flour and rice powder. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and combine with a firm spatula, knead dough for about 10 minutes until a spongy, elastic dough is formed. Allow the dough to rest in a bowl for about 10 minutes. While the dough is resting, bring to boil water, soya sauce and kombu, in a large pot. Remove from heat and allow to cool. This stock must be cold before it is used. Now roll your dough into a log shape about 20cm long and cut into 3 equal sized pieces. Place the pieces in the broth. It is important that the water/broth be very cold when you add the dough, it helps with the texture and ensures that it doesn't fall apart. Bring the water to a boil.Turning the pieces every now and again Boil the seitan for about 30-45 minutes, or until it floats to the surface. Now you've completed the first step, Return the seitan to the cold simmering stock. Bring the stock to a boil, lower the temperature, and simmer in the stock for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Let it cool in the simmering broth for at least a half an hour. It is best if it cools completely. What you do next depends on the recipe you are using. If it calls for gluten use it as is. To store seitan, keep it refrigerated, immersed in the simmering stock. If it is brought to a boil in the simmering stock and boiled for 10 minutes twice a week, the seitan will keep indefinitely. Otherwise, use it within a week.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Barley Water aka Ee Bee Chui

Whenever my mother felt that there was an onset of an illness to anyone in the family, she would religiously believe in her ancient folk medicines and the mysterious healing power of the herbal teas that she brewed in a earthen kettle over a charcoal stove. Incidentally, the thought of having to drink the bitter herbal concoction was enough for us to make any sickness to go away. However, her first line of attack for any illness was making us to drink gallons of barley water. By the way, I am not talking about the stuff you buy in in a can or bottle. I'm talking about the viscous stuff she make up herself. It was the slimy viscosity of the homemade brew which did the trick and you don't get this in the brands you buy off the super market shelves these days. Brewed barley water is a traditional Chinese cooling drink; the addition of lemon is a fusion of Western idea and many would agree that the homemade brew is vastly superior to the commercial variety. You most likely to be served homemade barley water at most kopitiams (coffeeshops) in Singapore when you ordered "Ee bee chui"

Home made barley water is made by cooking pearl barley at the ratio of ten parts of water to one part of pearl barley, then slowly simmered until the grain is very soft then finished in a number of ways. There are recipes that call for the water to be strained after reducing the liquid, after letting the mixture stand for several hours to allow the barley to really soften or strain as soon as the liquid is cooled.

Barley Water with Candied Winter Melon Recipe:


200g pearl barley
100g candied winter melon (optional)
150g rock sugar
2litres water
In a large saucepan, bring all the ingredient to a boil over medium heat. Lower the heat and simmer for 45 minutes. Cool slightly before straining. Serve warm or chilled.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Our Glen Dale Elizabeth turns 50

Our grand 50 year old azalea bush Glen Dale 'Elizabeth' outside our bay window puts out a spectacular display of spring flowers at this time of the year. This grand old lady would have to be one of the most colourful small Autumn to Spring flowering shrubs. Although her blooming period in spring is restricted to a month or less, she is in fact a flowering shrub for all seasons. In winter this evergreen azaleas light up a lush green area of the garden. In spring, the vivid display produced by her is showy and placed her among the most decorative shrubs for the home garden and parks; throughout the summer and fall the leaves again add a pleasing, deep green color to the garden. Some deciduous varieties show up the warm autumn tints of the leaves and are particularly attractive with a background of evergreen plants in the garden before the leaves drop.

Although our grand old lady likes to differ from her cousin Rhododendron, the two were classified in the same genus of Rhododendron by the botanists, but many gardeners still treating them as if they were two separate types of plants. All her cousins Rhododendrons are mainly evergreen, whereas she and her siblings are mostly deciduous except for two popular groups the Kurume and Indica azaleas are evergreen. The plants are mainly native to the Northern Hemisphere, although some species do occur in Malaysia and Papua New Guinea and one rhododendron is native to the rainforest of northern Queensland.

Azalea shrubs are easily propagated and increased by taking a cutting about 2.5 cm long and placing the cut end about 50mm deep in sand. Roots on azalea plants can form within two weeks during late spring, and the plant may grow another foot tall before it is ready to be planted permanently in your yard. As azaleas range in size from tree like giants to prostrate dwarfs, decide the space you have to fill before you plant your shrubs.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Chinese Pretzels are good to Dunk...

These round twisted pretzels are usually coated with hard sugar icing which I have omitted with a valid reason, make ideal snack with drinks and are especially good to dunk in a cup of coffee or tea such as I like to do with other biscuits. I usually like to dunk my biscuits in my coffee. If you are into the habit of dunking, you will agree with me that it is quite an art after all. It requires the perfect timing and skill from the time you dunk the biscuit into your drink and lifting up without breaking to put it into your mouth. Biscuit dunkers face much more of a challenge. If recent market research is to be believed, one biscuit dunk in every five ends in disaster, with the dunker fishing around in the bottom of the cup for the soggy remains. The problem for serious biscuit dunkers is that hot tea or coffee dissolves the sugar, melts the fat and swells and softens the starch grains in the biscuit. The wetted biscuit eventually collapses under its own weight.
(Source BBC News)
Scientists have finally explained the perfect way to dunk a biscuit. People have long had to endure lumpy tea when their favourite nibble disintegrates to form a grey sludge at the bottom of the mug. Only a scientist could dunk like this
Now researchers from the University of Bristol in the west of England have published the mathematical formula that governs the whole process. Their work is set to revolutionise tea and coffee breaks the world over, especially when a list of recommended dunking times is published.
BBC Science Correspondent Pallab Ghosh: Different biscuits have different dunking times The study reveals precisely why we are drawn to dunking - it seems more of the flavour of the biscuit is released into our mouths if it has first been dunked in a hot drink. The Bristol team calculate that up to 10 times more flavour is released this way than if the biscuit is eaten dry.
Their two-month investigation has also established the best strategy for dunking chocolate biscuits. The "flat-on" approach requires the nibble to be immersed biscuit side down.
This minimises "chocolate bleed" into the tea or coffee and keeps the coating rigid enough to prevent the biscuit from breaking in half. The team acknowledge this technique requires a degree of skill on the part of the dunker and have therefore designed a prototype dunking holder to help the less dexterous.
Dr Len Fisher, who led the research, said a biscuit could be viewed as lumps of starch glued together by sugar. When the hot tea or coffee enters the pores in the biscuit, he explained, the sugar melts and the structure becomes unstable. "You have got a race between the dissolving of the sugar and your biscuit falling apart and a swelling of the starch grains so that they stick together, giving you a biscuit which is purely starch but rather softer than what you started with," he said. "As with most things in physics, we can write equations which govern this."
Dunk with confidence with my homemade pretzels.

Chinese Pretzels Recipe:


2 cups flour
2/3 cup icing sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/3 tsp baking soda
1 egg
2 tbsp water
6 cups oil

Sift flour, sugar, salt and baking soda twice, add egg, water and mix into a soft dough; if dough is too dry add water accordingly, knead dough until smooth. Cover dough with a cling wrap and let it sits for 30 minutes. Roll dough into 3mm thick and cut into 24 strips. Take each piece and lightly stretch by keeping other end of dough firmly pressed on the table.; twist dough like a rope and bring both ends meet to form a circle and twist again. Heat oil for deep frying pretzels over medium heat for 3-4 minutes or until golden brown. Remove and drain on paper towel.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Is this the Spinach that Popeye the Sailor eats?

While it is perfectly true that this shining green vegetable with ribbed white veins leaves and stems that range from white to yellow and red has a string of names to confuse you, it is full of vitamins and minerals and therefore extremely good for you. Siverbeet also known as Swiss chard, Seakale beet, Crab beet, Perpetual Spinach, Spinach beet and Mangold are available in the green groceries and supermarkets all year round.To add to your confusion, silverbeet is often called spinach in New South Wales and Queensland. Although they are both from the same plant family - Amaranthaceae, they are very different in texture and taste. Unlike the spinach which has a refined and more delicate flavour, it has an earthy flavour (especially in the stalks which I normally discard in my cooking). Interestingly, in Australia, the leaves are valued while the Mediterranean and European cooks value the stalks. In fact, the leaves are often discard and used as a folder. If you are doing a sustainable gardening in your space-poor backyard you will find that it is not called "perpetual spinach" without a good reason. The leaves can be picked or cut continuously over time, is a far better option than "once off " crops. Thus the continuous harvest of this vegetable plant ensures your family with a steady supply of folate, fibre and vitamins and saves you money and time. Here is a simple silverbeet dish with a Chinese twist.

Sherried Silverbeet with Garlic and Oyster Sauce:

1 bunch silverbeet
2 cloves garlic minced
2 tbsp oyster sauce
2 tbsp soya sauce
2 tbsp dry sherry or rice wine
1 tsp sugar
1 chicken stock cube
2 tbsp oil
1/4 cup water
1/2 tsp cornflour
Salt and Pepper

Wash silverbeet, shake off excess water and remove leaves from stalk and cut leaves into 5cm slices. Heat wok high heat and add oil, add garlic and saute until golden brown. Add silverbeet leaves and toss until wilted.
Combine water with crumbled stock cube, soya sauce, oyster sauce, dry sherry and cornflour, mix well and pour into silverbeet and toss until mixture is boiling.Cover and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

No Smoking in the House, Please.

I did not bring this smoking ban from Singapore. Neither was it imposed on my hand-rolled cigarette, a habit which I have given up 20 years ago. But it was banned ever since the smoke alarm was triggered off by my experiment on smoking foods in the kitchen. Like most Singaporeans, having smoked food is not part of our traditional culinary inheritance, I didn't acquire this taste from eating canape`s or finger food of smoked salmon, oyster and mussel from a platter and sipping glasses of champagne at business functions or cocktail parties. But I learned eating smoked food when I was working in the remote forest of Papua New Guinea.
Smoking is a process of preserving meat and fish that has been in place for centuries to the Papua New Guineans. They often travel afar to fish or hunt for food and such trips may take them away for days before they can bring back their hunt to feed their families at the village.To prepare for the long trip home, they smoked their hunt in order to preserve the fish or animals such as tree kangaroos, wild boars and cassowaries ( a large three toed bird which is almost as large as an ostrich and cannot fly). Nowadays, smoking for preservation is still common in Papua New Guinea where transportation is limited and the humid and hot equatorial climate impacts upon food life cycles.
Coming from a place where smoking was once necessary to preserve food, I now used more often to simply provide a pleasant mild smoky flavour or something of a delicacy, instead. Here is a recipe where I used a wok to smoke this meat and chicken for a recent dinner party to cater to the taste of some bourgeois friends from Singapore.
You will need a wok (preferably an old wok only to be used for smoking food hereafter), lots of aluminum foil, a cake rack, and a smoking mixture of 1/2 cup of raw rice, 1/2 cup of dark brown sugar, 1/2 cup of tea leaves, 2 sticks cinnamon, 4 strips of dried mandarin rind, and 2 star anise.

Tea Leaves Smoked Meat, Chicken and Duck Recipe:


Marinate the meat with 2 tbsp of soya sauce, 1 tbsp of sugar, 2 tbsp of dry sherry or rice wine and salt and pepper for at least 1 hour.
Line a 12-14 inch wok with aluminum foil, allowing 4 inches of overhang
Put smoking mixture in the bottom of the wok
Set a 10 inch cake rack about 3 inches above the smoking mixture, put a piece of foil on the rack and arrange the food to be smoked on it in a single layer.
Sprinkle some hot black tea or water into the bottom of the lined wok, this will allow the material to smoke rather than burn.
Place cover on the wok, crimp the excess foil around the lid to completely seal the wok and to prevent steam from escaping
Turn the heat to high, smoke for 20 minutes then turn off the heat and leave for another 10 minutes.

Open the kitchen window and turn the exhaust fan on high. If possible cook outside in the veranda or balcony but even then, it may cause your neighbour to ring the Fire Department.