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.