Saturday, August 21, 2010

Peppercorn is still legal tender in Sydney Market...

The unexpected early winter frost had not only created havoc to our herb garden but also caused us to make frequent trips to the fresh produces market. Last weekend, we bee-dived to our favourite vegetables stall as we were running late. We managed to get there before the stall owner packed up to go home. To our surprise, he had set aside a kilo bag of fresh peppercorns and literally given to us for free. He simply added a dollar to the our total payment of the other items we have bought from the stall. "Isn't that a classic peppercorn payment" I told him. We thanked him and he jokingly brushed it away by saying " I can't sell them fresh next weekend and furthermore, I do not know how to use them in my cooking". "Neither do I but I'll plant them instead" I said in reply and walking away with a thought of what am I going to do with it. Although, peppercorn is found in most kitchen and is the most commonest spice used in cooking, it may be hard to believe it was once so valuable that it was used as currency.
I have not seen fresh peppercorn until now. My first priority is to learn how to grow them in my herb garden although conventional wisdom suggests that the best black peppercorns are the Malabar pepper hailing from India’s Malabar Coast which I can easily buy from the local spice shop is a better bet than germinating these berries. I know this plant only thrive in tropical climates and for those who live in colder climates, peppercorn plant does well when grown in containers moved inside during the cold months. I have inevitably taken the challenge to look after these plants and hopefully guarding them against any future winter frost and keeping you posted in the process.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Australian Chinese Beef / Chicken with Black Bean Sauce

Everybody loves this classic Australian Chinese recipe, and it works very well with any meat, especially when some meats will be considered taboo simply because they are outside the range of the generally accepted definition of a foodstuff, not necessarily because the meat is considered repulsive in flavor, aroma, texture or appearance. Like many older Singaporean Taoists, my mother had never eaten or cooked beef in her lifetime. She even discouraged us from the eating beef, although it is not considered taboo, she refrained from beef, because she felt that it was wrong to eat an animal that was so useful in rice growing.With her conviction, beef had been replaced with chicken in her cooking. Instead of beef rendung , we had chicken rendung at home. We did the same thing when we had to cook for a guest who shares the the same religious belief as my mother. We had chicken with black bean sauce instead of beef.

Beef / Chicken with Black Bean Sauce.


2 chicken breast or 500g fillet beef steak
1 red capsicum
1 green capsicum
1 large carrot
3 sticks celery
11/2 tablespoon of salted black beans
2 cloves of garlic finely chopped.
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon cornflour
4 tablespoon oil
2 chicken stock cubes
11/2 tablespoon light soya sauce
2 tablespoon dry sherry

Slice chicken or beef steak into 5mm thick. Combine with sherry, soya sauce and cornflour and mix well. Stand aside for 30 minutes. Soak salted black beans with water for about 5 minutes, drain and rinse with running water. Mesh drained salted black beans with sugar into a paste. Prepare and cut vegetables into strips. Heat wok and add oil, add vegetables and stir fry over high heat for 2 minutes. Remove vegetables form wok. Heat wok and add 2 tablespoon of oil, add black bean paste and garlic. Fry until fragrant and add meat and cook until browned. Add marinate and cook for another minute. Return vegetables to wok and mix well. Blend 1 teaspoon of cornflour with water, add to the beef and vegetables. Cook until the mixture thickens. Serve with rice.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Ever the twain shall meet.....

At times, even as a Singaporean, who comes from a multi cultural and racial upbringing, catering a makan (meal) session for a mixed group of guests from different cultural backgrounds and religious beliefs can require a lot of extra effort. That's what we found out recently when we had a gathering of friends of different nationalities and beliefs at our place.
When you are an omnivore like me, someone who has meat in their diet, you may often not realize that you are in fact cooking with animal products, because you don't think that way since animal products are not restricted from your diet or religious belief. There are some things that your guest may not feel comfortable eating. The best way to find out exactly what your dinner guest does not eat is to ask them. When you cook with animal products sometimes it isn't always clear. However, you can save a lot of work by making similar dishes for the group - a vegetarian version and a meat version. I simply started by cooking the vegetarian first and making sure it is enough to be divided into two portions. Once the vegetarian version is prepared and dished out, add in the non-vegetarian ingredients(e.g meat, prawns) for the non vegetarian version. Here are some vegetarian dishes that lend themselves easily to meat versions for your vegetarian guests without much fuss and effort. We were complimented and praised for the time and effort we put in but felt embarrassed by the fact that we only spent half the time and effort.

Vegetarian Version
Singapore Noodles (Fried Bean Curd)
Ma Po Tofu ( Chopped Salted Radish [Chai Poh] )
Stir-fried Vegetables in Black Beans Sauce

Non Vegetarian Version
Singapore Noodles (Fried Bean Curd)
Ma Po Tofu ( Chopped Salted Radish [Chai Poh] )
Stir-fried Vegetables in Black Beans Sauce

Monday, August 9, 2010

Homemade Kong Bak Pau Wrapper Recipe

Last weekend's lunch was the second dish for my 115 Dishes Heritage Food's personal cooking challenge. Although it has 115 dishes to choose from, my family decided on the Kong Bak Pau because I have never cook it before. Being a proud home cook, I always believe that I have been able to make pau that are at least good as the ones I bought from the kopi taims in Singapore and I have been able to duplicate most dishes I have had in food courts to the many great restaurants during my balek kampung, but making pau is a conundrum I found last weekend. The photo shows my poor attempt to make the wrapper for my kong bak pau recipe. I may be disappointed with the final result but it only heightens my respect for the traditional artisan pau makers who entail many years of practice to achieve perfection and usually far more superior to supermarket paus.

Kong Bak Pau Wrapper Recipe:
6 cups of flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 Tbsp yeast (15 g)
2 Tbsp cooking oil
2 cups tepid water

Dissolve sugar in warm water, add yeast and let the liquid to proof for ten minutes. Sift flour and add cooking oil and pour the liquid and mix together. Bring the mixture together to form sticky soft dough. Knead dough into a ball. Turn the dough out onto a board or table with extra flour and knead. At this point the dough will be sticky, adding more flour if necessary. Knead dough until smooth and elastic but strong and it should resist your fingers when you press them into it and bounce back. Place dough in a large bowl and cover tightly with a plastic wrap. Let dough rise in a warm place for about 3 hours or until it has doubled or tripled in bulk. When the dough has doubled in volume, bring the sides of the dough to the centre and knead gently into a ball. Roll to a long roll and cut into 24 pieces. Flatten each piece of dough to a 2 inches circle on your palm of your hand and brush the surface lightly with cooking oil. Fold into half and lightly press the half circle with finger so that it tapers toward the edge so the edges are thinner than the middle. Place them on damp cloth in a bamboo steamer at least 1/2 inch apart. Steam for 5 minutes over high heat. Remove and set aside to cool.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Was Grandma a founding member of the Green Party?

When I was growing up, even a grain of rice left uneaten will bring a reprimand or a threat my mother that I will be married to an 'ugly' wife if I didn't leave behind a clean rice bowl after a meal. Did I take the threat seriously? Of course I did. The fact that I am married to my beautiful wife is the testamentary proof.
Does this threat work on a modern child? It did work for awhile when our son was young and believed that Santa Claus lived in North Pole. But not for long, when he was in kindy, he reckoned that he had the dumbest parents in the world to believe such a threat from his grandmother. Today, he still thinks his grandmother was a clever person and very much ahead of her time to dished out such a threat for her environmental conviction. We can't win, can we? We should have threatened him with climate change, carbon footprint getting bigger and the uncontrollable greenhouse gas emissions from a start. Well, it was too late, anyway it was nice to think that we did pass the same message to him when he was still writing to Santa in North Pole for his Christmas presents.
I do not wish upon the threat of "marrying ugly spouses" on those who have half eaten food left on the table whether at the food court, restaurant or home. But I do believe the best thing that can happen to food is that it makes it to our plates and is enjoyed. Although the vast majority of us already think throwing away good food is a dreadful waste, but do we really think about the serious environmental implications that go with it. Just think about all the energy, water and packaging used in food production, transportation, storage and food preparation before it arrives on your plate. This all goes to waste when we throw away perfectly good food. We may be asking ourselves, why does so much food that could have been eaten get thrown away? The only reason I can think of is "cooking or preparing too much" and serving too much rice or food and it gets left on the plate or "not using food in time" - for example having to throw out fruit and vegetables because they have gone off in the fruit bowl on the table or crisper in the fridge, or not eating food before it goes past its use-by date.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Traditional Taro Soup

Taro is considered the daily staple food in many Pacific Island countries including Papua New Guinea, whereas it is only commonly eaten during feast days in Singapore( festival of the hungry ghosts and the mid- autumn moon festival). The type favoured in Singaporean cuisine produces smaller tubers up to tennis ball size, which are often barrel shaped or roundish and the skin is purplish brown to brown and the flesh white. Whereas, the Polynesians, Micronesians and Melanesians prefer the more massive variety whose tubers are more often shaped like pawpaw or papaya, and their yellowy skin scrapes pink.
During my stay in Papua New Guinea, I have found that taro is both a common and prestigious food item, due to its importance as ceremonial presentations on communal events and occasions such as weddings, funerals, etc. The leaves of the taro plant are also featured prominently in West New Britain Provinces cooking, especially as cooked taro leaf has the consistency of cooked spinach for dishes such as Lakainai mumu. The Lakalai mumu traditionally contains pork, fish, and garden greens (pumpkin leaves and taro leaves). The tuber itself is also prepared in various methods including baking, steaming in earth ovens. In the Chinese cuisine, taro is used in a variety of styles, mainly as a flavor and texture enhancing ingredient. It is commonly braised with pork or beef with preserved bean curbs in home cooking. It is used in the yam chai or dim sum cuisine in Australia to make a small plated dish called taro dumpling, as well as a popular pan-fried dish called taro cake (woo tau ko) found in most food courts in Singapore. Today, I am posting my mother's popular taro soup. It is a combination of a creamy soup with prawns and Chinese mushroom, together with the soft intact texture of cooked taro, makes this recipe an all time favourite in the family.

Taro Soup Recipe:


600g taro, cubed
180g dried Chinese shitake mushrooms, soaked in warm water and shredded finely.
250g fresh prawns shelled and deveined. Use 150g Dried Prawns (hey bee/ har mine) for authentic taste.
3 cloves of garlic minced.
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
2 Tbsp sesame oil /cooking oil
1 liter stock
1 pc. coriander
1pc spring onion sliced.


Heat the oil in the pan, and stir in garlic. Stir fry until fragrant. Put in the cubed taro and fry until slightly browned
2. Add stock and boil for 20 to 30 minutes at medium heat, stirring occasionally.
3. When the taro is soft, drain and divide into 2 portions. Keep the boiled soup.
3. Pour the one potion of boiled taro with the soup into a food processor or blender and process until it reaches the creamy consistency.
5. Heat one tablespoon of sesame oil in a pot and add fresh prawns (if using dried prawns, fry until fragrant), soaked and shredded Chinese mushrooms. Fry the prawns until its colour changed and pour the creamed taro soup into the pot. Add the other portion of cooked taro cubes into the soup and bring to a boil. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
6. Sprinkle with the coriander and spring onion and serve.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Cantonese pig trotters braised with black vinegar and ginger

Browsing through the photo gallery of the recent Singapore Food Festival's Heritage Feast, which offered 5 different Chinese dialect buffets and 115 dishes to those lucky Singaporeans at home, I couldn't help but salivate at the flavourful Hokkien Kong Bak Pau (braised pork belly served in bun) to Cantonese pig trotters braised with black vinegar and ginger. At the same time thinking aloud to my wife, who was browsing at the photos with me, "wouldn't it be nice if I could only duplicate some of our heritage dishes at home". Before I could finish my thought, my wife seized the opportunity and said " you"ll be the chef and I'll be the food taster", as if cooking the weekend family meals have already been delegated to me from now on . One hundred and fifteen dishes menu is a tall order and making these popular dishes into a reality at our dinner table is definitely a real challenge for next 115 weekends.

Cantonese pig trotters braised with black vinegar and ginger:


2 pig’s trotters cut into serving pieces (get your butcher to do it).
500ml black vinegar
500ml water
500g ginger, cleaned and smashed lightly
300g rock sugar ( if unavailable use brown sugar)
2 tbsp sesame oil
1 tbsp dark soy sauce
Salt to taste


Blanch trotter pieces in boiling water for 3 minutes. Remove and drain to dry. Heat wok and add rock sugar and stir around until it is caramelised. Add blanched trotters to wok and coat well with caramel and cook for 3 minutes. Turn the heat off and set trotters aside. In a heavy sauce pan, heat sesame oil and fry ginger till golden brown and aromatic. Add the black vinegar, water and bring to a boil. Add the trotters and simmer till it is soft and tender.