Saturday, July 24, 2010

MasterChef Final versus Federal Election Debate

Just in case you haven't noticed, cooking is is as hot as the stove right now. It has been predicted that the the final MasterChef, a popular reality TV cooking show is going to overshadow the election debate between the first women Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. The original time slot has been rescheduled so that it does not coincide with each other.The only leaders' debate scheduled for the federal election campaign has been brought forward and shortened to avoid clashing with the rating bursting show. Call it clever marketing strategy or a new social phenomenon, if you will. But why an important election debate between two leaders is threatened by a estimated audience of four millions viewers tuning to a channel to watch who wins the reality TV show on a Sunday night. Is it because the debate is likened to a puff of hot air? Or because the contest of ideas between Julia and Tony is a leftover of their predecessors. Hmm.. maybe somewhat stale. Whereas the food-oriented game show has gone all out its way to nourish the dream, in both contestants and us of being able to be a MasterChef regardless of their backgrounds. Of the many people who successfully auditioned for this show, different professionals from lawyer to pharmaceutical scientist were among the finals, who went through the series of cooking challenges, pressure test and eliminations. What is it about at this time we live in that has so many of us trying our hands at cooking?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Simple food, simply prepared, can be the best to eat

You can blame squarely on our inherited cultural psyche of kiasuism for hospitality that there's always the temptation if you're entertaining, 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 four families to my home for a potluck party this weekend but with a twist - each family is asked to bring a dish that served four to six and mustn't cost more than $10-$15, along with a wine that cost $10 or less. I will post the outcome of the potluck dinner party and the "bring a plate" recipes in the coming weeks. 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. Maybe you can contribute your recipe to help.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Drying your invisible washing in the balconies is soon legally allowed in NSW.

As an Overseas Singaporean living in an ever changing world and so is my extended family. Recently a Swiss has been added beside the Malaysian, Australian, American, Indonesian, Thai and English as relatives; they are mainly related to me through their marriages into my extended family. I often bear the blunt of a joke of being from a "fine" country at family gatherings. I know that we Singaporeans get fined for everything, but do you know that there are three states in Australia - NSW, Queensland and Western Australia restrict putting washing on a balcony to dry. For once, I laugh last. We are not the only fine country to have silly fines, after all.
An article's headline in this morning weekend papers said that the NSW state government is proceeding with environment-friendly strata regulations to allow residents to hang their washing outside. The article stated that the Department of Fair Trading in NSW has proposed a change to strata by-law which prohibit washing from being hung on anything except designed clotheslines without the permission of the owners corporation - a measure many believe has contributed to high use of greenhouse gas producing clothes dryer. Equally interesting is that if approved next month , the proposal will allow apartment residents to dry their washing on the balconies, provided it is "not visible from the street". The new laws allow an occupier to hang washing that will be visible from street level only with written permission approval of the owners' corporation.
Trying to balance environmental concerns with fears the aesthetics of a building would be diminished by laundry hanging outside with a culture that sees it as messy or a blemish on the landscape would be tough act to follow. Surely that kind of culture needs to be transformed.

I grew up in a terrace house in Singapore. My mother washed our clothes by hand with the help of a washing board and hung them out to dry on bamboo poles in the inner courtyard or the backlane (aw bouy hung). I never really saw a dryer until I was in my mid twenties when I came to Brisbane. We have a ten year old dryer which looks as new as it came off its packaging. It is right there in our renovated laundry room and very convenient to use. Now even we are in mid winter, we hate to say that we use our clothes dryer far less often than we should. Still, my past forces me to examine my rationalizations for using our dryer. Didn't my mother hand washed our clothes and hang the laundry out everything in the open to dry. She didn't even have the luxury of a washing machine.She didn't use softener for the final rinse but starch instead. And, as a kid, I thought the greatest thing was to watch the clothes came in baked stiff from the hot tropical sun that our school uniforms would stand up by themselves. And on those rainy days, the laundry hung in the bathroom and kitchen to drip dry but not without a stern warning from mother that we were to wear our school uniform for a week if we continued to play in the puddles in the unsealed lorongs (lanes) to and from school. Sorry for the side track and mumbling but burning coals in the power house to run a dryer while the sun is shining just doesn't make sense. Here is my 5 cents worth:
1 Cent. Clothes last longer.
2 Cent. Clothes and sheets smell fresher
3 Cent. Save energy, thus preventing pollution.
4 Cent. Save money.
5 Cent. You get some exercise and fresh air outside.

Friday, July 16, 2010

What do Singapore have in common with Hong Kong?

The answer is - we both have a sweet tooth but called it differently. We called it cheng tng and they called it tong sui. Tong Sui, the Cantonese variety of sweet dessert hails from the cities of Hong Kong, Macau and Guangzhou in southern China. Literally translated, it means sugar water. The local populace simply love them just as Singaporeans love their cheng tng desserts. There are often shops or stalls which devote themselves just to selling different types of Tong sui desserts, may remind some of the cheng tng stalls found in nearly every food court in Singapore. Like our cheng tng stalls which offer a great variety of hot or cold sweet soup such as red bean, tau suan, sweet potatoes and the traditional gown bee tng or five flavours, soup made with dried longans, barley, ginkgo nuts, lotus seeds. Tong sui is a collective term for any sweet, warm soup or custard served as a dessert such as sesame soup, peanut, walnut with rice dumplings and my favourite dan tan ( double boiled egg custard).

Double-Boiled Egg Custard Recipe


1 cup hot water
1/2 cup evaporated milk
1/2 cup sugar
6 eggs


Empty the sugar into a bowl and dissolve sugar with hot water to make a syrup. Set aside to cool.
Break eggs in a mixing bowl and beat eggs lightly. Whisk in the cool syrup and evaporated milk. Strain the egg mixture through a fine sieve into rice bowl or cups. Bring mixture to steam for 15 – 20 minutes.
Serve warm with sweet red beans.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

How to chase away the homesick blues with Hokkien Prawn Noodles.

Shorter daylight and cold weather can make a new arrival from bright and sunny Singapore feel homesick. And what is the quickest way and easiest way to ease the gloom? When this happens, you need an ingestion of comfort food that gives the warm fuzzing feeling of home. There are two options. Firstly, you can go to the nearest food courts in the CBD or its surrounding suburbs where large ethnic groups live and congregate. Perhaps you may be able to find something similar to Singapore's hawker fare. You will be pleasantly surprised by its authenticity and originality of the dishes provided by the various ethnic groups as a meal.
Roast pork and char siew in Sydney, I reckon are very good, arguably even better than Hong Kong since many of their best chefs moved to Sydney in the 1990s and just before the British hand over Hong Kong back to China. Following the infamous students upheaval at Tienanmen, the nothern Chinese flavours including Shanghainese and Beijingnese were given a boost from the influx of Chinese migrants in their unique "food districts" scattered around the greater Sydney. Unfortunately, we do not have the numbers in Sydney to stake "a little red dot" to call our own. Take our Singapore food here in Sydney- it's the same old tedious same old Malaysian-Singaporean food - apart from a handful of exceptions serve roti prata and new Asian fusion food.
Surely, there must be room in our eat streets for a few real Singaporean ethnic kopi tiam (cafes) or restaurants, eateries that cater for people who like, say Bak Kut Teh or Prawns Hokkien Mee, Mee Rebus or Indian rojak.

I tried to duplicate Hokkien Prawn Noodles last weekend at home. It would have been a hard act to follow especially everyone knows how this popular hawker food should taste like, but thanks to the "sng kam"(calamansi lime), we have salvaged from the recent frost. It is "okay lah" after a squeeze of the indispensable sng kam on the noodles saves my pride of being the masterchef at home.

Hokkien Prawns Noodles Recipe

500 gm Hokkien Noodles
500 gm thick nee hoon (rice vermicelli), soaked in warm water for 10-12 minutes and drained.
5 eggs
1/4 cup minced garlic
500 gm prawns (parboiled)
250 gm belly pork (parboiled)
250 gm squid(parboiled)
250 gm bean sprouts
100 gm Chinese chive (ku chai)
1/2 cup light soya sauce
2 1/2 cup prawn stock.
6 calamansi (sng kam)

The trade secret for this dish is to have a good prawn stock. Start by shelling the prawns but keep the tails intact. Collect the prawn shells and heads for the stock. To make prawn stock, pour about 4 Lt of water in a stockpot. When the water come to a boil, put the belly pork to cook for 5 minute and drain parboiled belly pork, put aside to cool for slicing into strips. Next put in the cleaned squid and take it out once it turns white in colour. cool and sliced into rings. Do the same with the prawns, it shouldn't take more than a minute in the boiling water. Put in 1 kg of pork bones boiling water and keep boiling at medium heat. In the meantime, heat a tbsp of oil in a wok to fry the prawn shells and heads until fragrant about 8 minutes. Add the fried prawn shells and head to pot. Simmer stock for an hour.
To fry the noodles, heat wok and add oil and saute the garlic until fragrant about 1 minute. Break egg and spread the egg around to cook about 1 minute. Add soaked bee hoon and 2 ladle of stock into the wok and fry until bee hoon absorb the stock. Add hokkien noodles and fry for a minute and add 4 ladles of stock, cover with a lid and let simmer for 3 minutes. Remove the lid and add remaining ingredients except the sng kam and season to taste. Fry for a minute and add another ladle of stock. Dish up your Hokkien Prawn Noodles, served with the sng kam and sambal blachan or cut chillies

Saturday, July 10, 2010

How to make Hospital Corner bed just like Army boys.

Nobody loves a pushup, right? They're practically a hallmark of every basic-training Army scene farmiliar to every male Singaporean ever since the mandatory National Service started. Usually performed by a bunch new army recruits laboring under a brutal corporal and in a cold dark morning as part of the 5BX (exercise routines to muscle up scrawny 18 year old in a time set period of 3 months) or as a collateral punishment as a platoon when someone struck out his right leg at the start of a march in Enche's (Sargent Major) sacred parade square. Aside from their other newly learned strange traits of being new recruits, they soon able to stomach five roti pratas at one sitting when allowed to signed out for their first home visit and drinking themselves silly at parties, army boys (national service conscripts) make the best bed because they know how to make hospital corners like the nurses. While many may argue there are other far more important things to learn in this mandatory national obligation and life might seem far too short for this sort of trivial household chore, there are fewer things as pleasing and inviting as a well-made bed.

How to make a Hospital Corner of a Sheet

1. Take corner of sheet between thumb and
finger and draw around corner of the mattress.
2. At the same time, slip other hand under side edge of sheet and draw upward into a diagonal fold.
3. Lay this fold up over the mattress.
4. Now turn under mattress the part of sheet left hanging.
5. Drop upper fold and tuck in under mattress. This makes a box like corner.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Honey, I have strunk the cabbages...

These miniature cabbages are definitely not the result of the recent cold snaps that hit Sydney and its rural areas or those delicate handcrafted ceramic souvenirs you buy in Bangkok. These perfect miniature versions of cabbage known as Brussels sprouts come as no surprise to many, since they are closely related and both belong to the Brassica family of vegetables that include cabbage, collard greens, broccoli, kale, and kohlrabi. Unlike the leafy warm-climate Asian vegetables like choy sum, bok choy and ong choy which are susceptible to the slighltest frost, the Brussels sprouts love the cold. Without exception, they need a cold, frosty winter to grow and flourish. These quintessentially winter vegetables are tastiest after a good stiff frost. Although the sprouts look and taste like cabbages but they don't grow like a cabbage. They are buds which form like a spiral staircase up a central stalk of the plant. The stalk grows to about a metre high and the sprouts maturing over several weeks from the lower to the upper part of the stalk.
My son is not a great fan of the Brussels sprouts because he still remembers the sulfurous odour of the overcooked sprouts we mixed into his rice porridge and given to him when he was a baby. The odor is the reason many people profess to dislike Brussels sprouts, if they've only tried them overcooked with the accompanying sulfurous taste and smell. Generally 6–7 minutes boiled or steamed is enough to cook them thoroughly, without overcooking and releasing the sinigrin. When buying Brussels sprouts, choose those which are firm, compact and vivid green. They should be free of yellowed or wilted leaves and should not be puffy or soft in texture.Finally choose those of equal size to ensure that they will cook evenly. Before cooking, we usually cut a cross in center of the stem or cut the sprouts into halves, this aid the penetration of the steam or to allow the heat to permeate throughout the sprout while cooking.
Perfectly cooked Brussels sprouts have a crisp, dense texture and a slightly sweet, bright and "green" taste, which we find to be a good substitute and immensely compatible with my mother in law's karabu recipe.

Brussels Sprouts Karabu Recipe:

500 gm Brussels sprouts
5 pcs shallots or one small red onion (thinly sliced)
2 Tbsp kerisik (toasted grated coconut)

Dressing Sauce:

2 Tbsp sambal belachan
50g dried prawn, soaked and pound
1/4 cup lime juice
11/2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt.

Before washing Brussels sprouts, remove stems and any yellow or discolored leaves. Bring a pot of water to boil and put in the Brussels sprouts. Cook sprouts for 5 minutes and empty them into a colander. Rinse the sprouts under cold running water to prevent further cooking. Halve or quarter the sprouts. Mix the lime juice into the dressing ingredient and stir until the sugar dissolves. Toss the Brussels sprouts, sliced onion and toasted coconut in a salad bowl. Enjoy.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Double jeopardy for my daun kaduk and laksa leaves

With Sydney recording its coldest June morning since 1949 when temperatures dived to 4.3 degrees and the cold snap has terminally ravaged my collection of exotic tropical plants and herbs in the backyard. I begin to understand why farmers are always at the mercy of the weather. It is too late to blame myself for not bringing those precious herbs and plants (daun kaduk, turmeric, laksa leaves) indoor earlier. I have also learned, it is worth knowing a bit about how they grow and where they originally came from with their geographically origins as well as between species, so that you can extend the growing possibilities and provide adatation even where you live is outside geographical regions. It is so easy to overlook the climatic needs of these tropical plants and if you ignore its needs and not providing the conditions that suit them, you are likely to be disappointed like me.
In the meantime, I have salvaged the frost damaged daun kaduk and the laksa leaves by freezing them for future culinary use in the deep freezer.