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.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Pork Roast Singapore Hainanese Style

I believe that I have been able to make kiam chye (Chinese preserved vegetables) that are as good as the ones bought from the Asian stores in Chinatown and I have been able to duplicate most dishes I have had in many restaurants, but making Hainanese roast pork is always a challenge. I have always wanted to make this dish at home to rival the quality of those crispy crackling and succulent meat of the Hainanese roast pork, available only from those famous shophouses in Seah Street (commonly known as Hainam Quei or Hoinam Kai when I was a child) in Singapore. I know it is possible to make very good roast pork usually for more superior to the suburban Chinese BBQ shop but it wont be as good as the roast pork make by a Hainanese Ah Ko (cook) in Singapore.Last Sunday's roast dinner was a close second but nevertheless, I post the recipe and a photo for you to judge.

Roast Pork Hainanese Style Ingredients:

2.5kg boneless pork loin roast
1 cup sherry
1 cup soy sauce, light
1/2 tsp Chinese Five Spice ( See below for recipe)
5 cloves garlic, chopped
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup oil
1tbsp 5-spice powder

Chinese Five Spice

star anise
Szechuan Peppercorns

Stir fry until fragrant and grind fine.

Score the pork skin with a sharp knife at regular interval and rub salt, pepper and five spice powder into the pork all over.Combine all ingredients, except pork roast.Put pork roast in large plastic bag (or plastic container). Pour marinade over pork. Marinate at least 6 hours in refrigerator, or overnight. Preheat the oven to very hot 250 C. Rub in oil and salt to ensure a crisp crackling. Place the pork with the rind side uppermost on a rack in a large baking dish lined with aluminium foil. Add a little water to the baking dish. Roast for 45 minutes, or until the skin begins to crackle and bubble. Reduce the heat to moderate 180C. Roast for 2 hours. The pork is done if the juices run clear when the flesh is pieced with a skewer Do not cover the pork or the crackling will soften. Rest the pork for at least 10 minute before cutting .

Saturday, September 5, 2009

What is Chop Suey in Cantonese again?

I often wonder at the similarity between the famous Chop Suey, a popular dish in American Chinese restaurants with our traditional chap chai; and thinking they must have originated from the same place in China and handed down through the early Chinese migrants to both countries.. Before I pour oil into the fire and have a go at it's origin, I would like to walk down memory lane of my first encounter with this famous American dish in Los Angeles Chinatown, twenty five years ago. This classic American Chinese stir fry vegetable dish in which meat, poultry or fish is often added or it may be vegetarian is thereby very much similar to our chap chai. The name chop suey refers to pieces of different meat and vegetables as in an English translation of the Mandarin tsa-sui,(杂碎) and the Cantonese tsap seui,. There are many who think that stir fry dishes like chop suey were actually first created in Toisan a rural region south China. Many early Chinese immigrants to the United States did come from that area. Although, there are various colorful stories about its origin, I always like to remind my guests of this version of the lore, whenever I served this dish at home. This bit of the lore about the origin of chop suey suggests that a Chinese-American cook was annoyed at the way restaurant customers were treating him. As a way of retaliating at the patrons who'd earned his ere, he cooked up scraps of food that were destined for the swill garbage bin. The patrons ended up enjoying the dish and asked for it on future visits without realizing it had been meant as a pay back from the cook. Incidentally, the Cantonese translation for swill is "sow suey".
Making chop suey is a great way to use up leftovers of meat, fish and poultry as well as an excess of fresh vegetables. There seems to be a glut of Chinese Cabbages in the market at the moment, we bought this Chinese cabbages at a dollar each! There is no better way to use up these cabbages before it goes to the swill.

Chap Chai Recipe:

50g Lily buds (Kim Chiam)
50g Dried Beancurd skin (tau kee)
20g Black Fungus
50g Mung Bean Vermicelli
50g Dried Chinese Mushroom (Shitake Mushroom)
500g Chinese Cabbage
100g Carrot (sliced)
60g Fermented Soya Bean Paste (Tau Cheo)
50g Garlic (chopped finely)
750ml Vegetable stock
3 Tbsp Oil
5g Salt and pepper
2 Tbsp Soya Sauce


Soak lily buds, dried beancurd skin, black fungus and Chinese Mushroom in water until softened.
Heat wok with oil and fry garlic until slightly brown, then add fermented soya bean paste
When garlic and fermented soya bean paste is fragrant, Add all the ingredients (except for the mung bean vermicelli), stir well and until vegetables softened. When bubbling, stir in the mung bean vermicelli and simmer for another15 minutes. Add water, thick black soya sauce and salt and stir for a while

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Let's Spring and Roll a Popiah...

It is a normal practice to order a plate or two of three different hors-d'oeuvre to make a happy but light start to a meal in a Chinese restaurant. But not in the case of my teen son, who would only request a double serve of his all time favourite deep-fried spring rolls and nothing else. Not surprising for someone who thinks that everything edible is deep fried, right?. We proved him wrong when we had non-fried spring rolls as our main course for dinner at home, last night. Unlike the deep-fried spring roll, which is a favourite hors-d'oeuvre in the restaurants, the non fried version called "popiah" is a very popular street snack available from hawker stalls and food courts in Singapore and Malaysia. Traditionally it a festive food to cater for large family gatherings and as an altar offering to the gods. Sadly, serving popiah at family gathering is such a rare thing nowadays because the prep work is so intensive and time consuming. My mother used to spend hours shredding vegetables, pounding hydrated dried chilli and garlic in a mortar separately into a fine paste, rendering pork lard and deep fried bawang merah into crunchy onions topping, making omelet strips, and most of all, hand-shredding the jicama (bangkuang, yam bean, sengkuang) and finally cooking it together with loads of belly pork and shrimps for the main filling. In order to compliment her popiah's filling, she would only patronise the handmade popiah wrapper from the neighbourhood "Popiah Phoey Uncle". As a child, I used to be amazed by Popiah Phoey Uncle's ability to hold a lump of dough in one hand and pressed it in a circular motion on to the pan just enough to form a very thin yellowish white popiah skin. It was indeed a sight to watch. The art of swinging the dough onto a pan and pulling quickly to form a thin popiah skin is something I likened to a magician!

Popiah (Non-fried Spring Rolls) Recipe:


2 kg bangkuang (jicama) if unavailable use cabbage as an alternative.
250g french beans (sliced)
1 carrot (julliened)
8 pcs tau kwa (hard bean curd)
350g medium sized prawns (shelled and deveined)
150g garlic
2 tbsp osyter sauce / light soya sauce
5 tbsp sugar
1 cup water
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp pepper

30 pcs Popiah wrapper
200 g lettuces
1 cup roasted and finely chopped peanuts


1 cup sweet soya sauce (Tee Cheow) if unavailable use Hoisin sauce.
1/2 cup chilli paste (sambal olek)
1/2 garlic (finely grounded)
1/2 cup prawn paste (hae koe) diluted with water (optional)

Peel jicama (bangkuang) and carrot and cut into matchstick strips and set aside. Cut tao kwa (hard bean curd) into thin strips and fry in oil until slightly browned. Drain on towel paper towel. Saute a teaspoon of garlic and add in the prawns and removed with a slotted spoon when cooked. Add in remaining garlic and saute until golden before adding jicama and carrot. Stir fry for a minute before adding salt, pepper, sugar, oyster sauce and pour in the water. Cook over medium heat until the jicama and carrot is soft and the liguid has been absorbed. Add the french bean together with the bean sprouts and stir fry for a minute before adding the prawns. Remove from heat and empty into a large bowl. Your guests are invited to DIY the popiah at the table after you have have shown how to assemble a popiah. To assemble a popiah, simply lay popiah wrapper on a large plate. Spread 1 tsp sweet soya sauce or hoisin sauce, 1/2 tsp chilli sauce, 1/4 tsp prawn paste(hae koe) and garlic paste. Adjust the amount of sauce to personal taste.Place a lettuce leaf over the the sauces and add 3-4 tbsp of filling and top with roasted peanut, tau kwa. Fold the two sides of the wrapper and roll up into a cylinder shape. Eat it like a kebab or cut it into 4 or 5 pieces with a sharp knife.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The First Day of Spring Celebration

Today is the first day of spring in Australia and New Zealand. It didn't jump straight out bed as if the alarm clock was set on 1st of September. But it has been stirring from its winter slumber since a fortnight ago, and creeping slowly out of bed, much to the annoyance of many spring flowering buds, who are waiting impatiently to burst into blossom. It is just like waking a teenager in the morning to get ready for school. I know the sun will do the trick for me, I simply pull the curtain and let the sunlight into the room. It works every time! No wonder, the sun is worshipped by so many cultures since the beginning of time.
Astronomically speaking, the vernal equinox falls on September 22nd in the Southern Hemisphere should be the middle of spring. The first flower of my orchid plant blossomed a fortnight ago, has confirmed the arrival of spring. It was also heralded by the blooming of deciduous magnolias, cherries, and quince in the gardens of the neighbourhood. Just like my son, it will give all sort of excuse just to stay in the cosy bed for another minute. Well, the only meaningful and acceptable excuse is the daytime temperatures still lag behind because the earth and sea have thermal latency and take time warm up.
Although the phenological definition of spring relates to indicators, the blossoming of a range of plant species, or the flowering of my orchid may be the indicator of spring. I have to wait until the soil to reach the temperature for my seedlings to survive and flourish before I start transplanting them in the herb garden bed under the Hill Hoist.It therefore varies according to the climate and according to the specific weather of a particular year.
Today, my wife and I celebrate the first day of spring, not only as a time of growth, renewal, of new life (both plant and animal) and the start of better times. It is our wedding anniversary. I will raise a toast with my homemade rice wine and say; To my wife.