Saturday, May 29, 2010

Your hands are a tool in the kitchen too.

Walk into any modern kitchen, chances are you’ll be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of gadgets and machines at the ready to chop, dice, mix, press and knead. Sadly to say, we have become so mechanized in the kitchen that we tend to overlook the use of our hands. Our grandparents and parent frequently relied on their experienced hands for preparing dishes and even measuring the the amount of ingredient with their bare fingers.
Basically the reason why we can't cook like them is because we have forgotten that our hands are a tool. Your hands will tell you something your eyes can’t, and feeling something tells you the most possible information.You have to do it by feel and you can only tell that with your hands. That’s especially true when it comes to making puff dough, which loses its buttery, flaky texture if overworked by a whirring food processor. I grew up in a kitchen where there was no electrical machines or gadgets. My mother insisted on making all her pastries by hand, including the tiny sweet "kok chye" she made herself during Chinese New year for her family and relatives.To watch her prepare dough was to understand the simplicity of it but also the practice needed to turn out consistently her famous curry puff.

I can still remember how she would quickly use two knives to cut the lard into the flour. But once she added the ice water, her hands were the only instruments in the bowl as she converted the loose mixture into a solid mass until there are no longer any bits of flour clinging to the bottom of the mixing bowl. "You don’t want to knead it any more than that because you do not overly handle the pastry " she cautioned. Because cooking by hand was second nature for her, she sometimes found it difficult to put them into words the tactile sensation of preparing a dish that way. This explained the reason why mum would only say " I can't tell you why but this is how I do it with my hands".
So why not get back to basics and give it a try at home? Ultimately, it’s not the specific recipe that yields that perfectly tender biscuit or flaky pie crust, but the technique of using your hands as a tool.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Singaporean Table Manners and Tableware

There are few sights more intriguing to those born and reared in Singapore than the sight of someone eating rice with a knife and fork rather than scooping them up from a spoon. Different cultures observe different rules for table manners. Many table manners evolved out of practicality. For example, knives and forks, however, although common in Western countries, did not catch on in Singapore, perhaps as is the case in East Asian countries, Singaporean food is usually served in sizes suitable for picking up by chopsticks or fork and spoon. As a rule, every individual has his or her own chopsticks and a rice bowl or a set of fork and spoon(minus the knife) with a dinner plate at the table. An extra set of chopsticks or spoon is used to serve food from a communal food dish to each individual plate. The individual's bowl containing food is handheld and lifted close to the mouth, to which the food is delivered with chopsticks. While eating soup, it is not considered bad manners to make a slurping sound in Eastern Asian cultures; it is a major faux pas in the West.

Like many Singaporean families, each family sets its own standards for how strictly these rules of table manners are to be enforced, I am pretty sure we all shared the same threat from our grandparents when were young that leaving uneaten grains of rice in the bowl would eventuate marrying a pock-faced spouse.The moral of the threat as we know, is not to waste food. Of course, we continued to use this threat to our son when he was young, not so much on the wastage of the few grains of rice but rather it made the dishwashing easier.Beside finishing his meal with a clean rice bowl we also insisted that he addresses all of the elder members at the table before starting, perhaps telling them to please "eat rice" as a signal to help themselves, as part of the Confucian value of respecting his seniors, in which we are still trying to instil on him.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Sweet Taro and Ginkgo Dessert (Orr Nee, 芋泥 /白果 )

While this traditional Teochew dessert called Orr Nee Pek Qwee ( 芋泥 白果 -Sweet Taro with Ginkgo Nut) originated from Gua Mah's recipe often requires somewhat rare and expensive ingredients and time consuming preparation, I managed to make the dessert last weekend. A friend had recently given us a kilo bag of ginkgo nuts collected from the ground of an old garden. It was unequivocally clear to us that such a rare find reserved a good treat. Although ginkgo are now easy available in the Asian grocery stores around Sydney, they are sold dried, frozen or canned. However, the fresh nuts are seasonal and not easy to find in their fresh form. I was told that the spongy outer covering of the ginkgo fruit was extremely odoriferous and luckily it was removed before the nuts were given to me. I was only left to cracked the nut case with a nutcracker; for the inner skin, I dropped the shelled nuts into hot water on the stove for a few minutes to loosen skins, then rub skins away (in the water) with my fingers when it was still warm. Ginkgo nuts are particularly esteemed in East Asian countries and are used in traditional Chinese food and they are believed to have health benefits. The Japanese cooks add Ginkgo nuts (called ginnan) to a popular steamed egg dish called chawanmushi.
Ginkgo nuts have a slight bitter taste and to overcome the bitterness, I candied the ginkgo to be used for this dessert. Here is how you candied the ginko nuts;

Candied Ginkgo Nuts Recipe:

In a saucepan, bring 4 cups of water to boil. Add the ginkgo nuts and cook over a medium heat for 15 minutes. Drain away the water and rinse a few times in cold water ( this helps to remove the bitterness) Drain in a colander and set aside. Combine 1 cup of sugar and 2 cups of water in a saucepan and bring to boil. Decrease the heat to medium low and add the ginkgo nuts. Simmer for 30 minute or until the ginkgo nut are cooked and caramelised into a shiny golden colour. At this point, the ginkgo nuts will have absorbed most of the syrup. Be careful not to burn. Set aside to cool and to be used as garnish for the sweet taro dessert.

Recipe: Sweet Taro and Ginkgo Dessert (Orr Nee, 芋泥 /白果 )


1kg taro
1/2 cup cooking oil or margerine( original recipe calls for lard)
1/4 cup of sugar
1 cup candied ginkgo

Peel taro and slice into thin pieces. Steam taro until tender. Put taro in a deep bowl and set aside to cool. Mashed taro with a potatoe masher until smooth. Press the mashed taro through a sieve with a spoon and discard any fiberous taro left in the sieve. Heat oil in a deep sauce pan. Add mashed taro and stir until oil and taro are blended. Gradually add 6 cups of water into the taro misture and continue to stir and cook for 20 minutes over low heat until thick. Add sugar and stir for another couple of minute. Serve warm with candied ginkgo topping.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Oats Porridge with Meatballs

Say the word “Quaker Oats ” and chances are, images of recuperation after an illness during of your childhood come to mind – when Mom served steaming bowls of the oatmeal porridge at the bedside to whet up your appetite and coaching you to eat up the last spoonful of this nutritious porridge to bring back your health. But it has changed for me, since coming to live in a country where the night time temperature may drop to single digit during winter. Instead, images of cold winter mornings come to mind – steaming bowls of the breakfast cereal topped with cinnamon, honey and cream. The image is cozy, and the dish is, too, but it's so limiting for such a versatile and tasty grain. Not only are oats compatible with sweet flavors such as fruits, cinnamon, brown sugar and maple syrup or honey. They are also compatible with savory foods and flavors such as chicken, fish and prawns. You can add texture to your soups with a bit of oats, especially the heartier, steel-cut variety. Furthermore, when you're making bread or other fruited breads, pull out this sweet mixture of oats, cinnamon and brown sugar and sprinkle a bit on top for extra flavor and crunch. Or try cooking it in chicken porridge ( kai chok) or pork porridge (chi yoke chok) instead of using rice. Hey, come to think of it, why not try a bowl savoury minced pork oatmeal on a cold morning instead?

Pork Oatmeal Porridge Recipe: Serve 6

3 cups of rolled oats
6 cups of water
500g minced pork
I egg
2 tbsp. cornflour
2 spring onion finely chopped
2 tsp soya sauce
2 tsp sesame oil

Conbine in bowl minced pork, egg chopped spring onion. corn flour, soya sauce and sesame oil. Place one tablespoon of mixture onto centre of palm and roll to form meatball. Place meatball on a plate and put it aside. In a saucepan add 7 cups of water and 2 3 cups of rolled oats. Let stand for 10 minutes. Bring to boil and simmer for 15 minutes stirring occasionally. Add meatballs into boiling porridge and cook for another 10 minutes. Season to taste. Enjoy.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Happy Mother's Day

On the second Sunday in May of each year, we celebrate Mother's Day in Australia, which happened to fall on today. Although many places choose a different day to celebrate,(Mothering Sunday is March 14, 2010 in the UK and Ireland.)all the same we like to wish every Mum a "A Happy Mother's Day" with this bouquet of flowers we have just cut from our backyard. At the same time, we would like to print this article by Li Hong which says it all.

A mother's love
By Li Hong (
Updated: 2006-04-10 12:09

Last night while driving my son home from school, I lost control and snapped at him for disrespecting his mother. He was complaining about her looking older, the wrinkles around her eyes and her habit of nagging him about things, like putting on more clothes or drinking more water at school to ward off colds.
"Your mother is, and always will be, the most beautiful woman in the world," I said to him and he blushed. He knows I seldom lose temper.
Driving through the windy spring of Beijing, seeing my child sit there speechless, I felt tears spring to my eyes.
For me, and millions of my countrymen, spring is time for remembrance.
In the spring of last year, I said goodbye to my mother, and gently kissed her face for the last time. She has been lying on a mountain slope in my hometown in Anhui Province, southern China, for a year now, with my father, who died in 2001, beside her.
Even though my parents are always in my thoughts, my job has kept me from visiting them. I haven't sent my mother flowers, even though red, yellow and blue blossoms are now everywhere, in the gardens, on the mountains and in the fields.
During the Chinese Spring Festival, I requested my younger sister and elder brother to kowtow to Mom and Dad, sending them goodies and lots of paper money, on my behalf. My sister used to cry out on the phone line. She said Mom loved me the most.

My mother gave me a second life. When I fell ill to hepatitis B, a de facto death sentence in the countryside in 1979, Mom sold all our chickens and eggs to pay the hospital bills. When that wasn't enough, she was on her knees asking to borrow 50 yuan from a better-off family in the village to make the payments.
After I recovered and came home from the hospital in Anqing City, I asked where they had gotten the money for the bills. Dad told me everything and his voice was coarse. My mom just smiled.

Friday, May 7, 2010

MasterChef Gua-mah's Teochew Boiled Pork

Teochew food is known for its fish dishes and vegetarian dishes and particularly the use of very light flavouring and seasoning (salt, spices) is a feature or characteristic of Teochew cooking, which seeks to bring out the natural taste of the ingredients used. My maternal grandmother was the quintessential Teochew MasterChef in the family for the simple reason that she was of Chaoshan origin.
I always remember the simple dish of boiled kambong fish (sek her) cooked in brine and the prickle olive (num) eaten with rice porridge (潮州糜 or mue) was her daily stable food. Her simple way of life and her austerity were well known to her offspring. Needless to say, her most elaborate Kiam Cai Ak Terng, a soup boiled with duck, preserved salted vegetable, tomatoes and preserved sour plum was only served on feast days. As a child, I always thought that my Gua-mah's (maternal grandmother) Teochew food was a bit bland and little did I know that I have inherited her simple taste for food. One of my favourite taken from Gua-mah dishes is cold boiled pork. It is a popular side dish I like to cook for my family and friends, especially offer as an appetizer or drink companion. According to Gua-mah's recipe it is made with pork belly the same cut used for bacon but I prefer to use lean pork loin. It is simplily delicious with vinegar with garlic and chilli or sambal belachan in contrast to Western custom of serving a sweet sauce with pork.

Teochew Boiled Pork Recipe:

1 kg pork loin
2 tbsp Chinese rice wine.
5 pcs spring onion
5 cloves garlic
2 slices ginger
1 tbsp salt

Vinegar Chilli and Garlic Sauce.

1/2 cup cider vinegar
5 cloves garlic finely chopped
2 chillies finely chopped

Bring 5 cups of water to boil over medium high heat, add the pork and boil for 15 minutes, skimming off the impurities. Decrease the heat to medium and add seasoning ingredients. boil the pork and turn the pork several times to evenly cook the pork for another 45 minutes. Stick a chopstick into pork loin to check whether it is cooked. It is cooked when the liquid oozing out is clear after the chopstick is withdrawn. Turn off heat and let the pork to cool in the stock Transfer to a container and cling wrap and refrigerate overnight Reserve the stock for other use.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Mum's Ying and Yang Food.

Like many Singaporean children in my childhood, I was brought up constantly hearing from grown-ups that certain food is hot or cold for the body. Of course, it shot straight through the other ear. Furthermore, most of us took it as the "Oliverian's way" of stopping us from asking for an another serve of our favourite tucker. No, it is not about the food being served hot or cold but rather they are thought to have cooling properties, while others have warm properties.

This ancient philosophy of hot and cold food lies in the hearts of most Singaporeans culture even today. It is common to hear amongst Singaporeans, a sore throat is caused by consuming too many spicy (hot) foods. Instead of taking a panadol, a long list of prescription for herbal teas to cool the body is often given with good intent by loved ones. Similarly, coughs or flu are more likely to be treated with dietary changes than antibiotics or cough medicines from the local general practitioner. I can remember a bitter "niang teh" (herbal tea) was mother's thoughtful way of preparing us to combat both heat and cold. She firmly believed that we needed the weekly niang teh that would make us perspire and rid us of all evil sickness! I often now wonder, whether she was striking a balance of yin and yang in her cooking and also mainly to revolve around the challenge of serving a diet that contains a healthy balance between the two.