Monday, June 20, 2011
It has never ceased to amaze our friends from Hong Kong whenever we asked for a second helping of cut chillies or hot chilli sauce at the yum cha lunches together. “How can you enjoy the delicate taste of those dim sums when you have numbed your taste buds with chillies!” they exclaimed. Just as it is difficult for them to convince us to give up on the chilli with every mouthful of dim sum and enjoy the delightful morsel as it is presented, it is even more difficult for us to eat without chilli. Well, unless you are true blue Singaporean, the likelihood of you to understand this spiritual experience or otherwise is out of the window. There is simply nothing quite likes it – it’s a delightful sensual culinary world of chilli. This usually begins with a tingling wave when the chilli first comes into the contact with the tongue. It gradually gives way to a warm heat but soon passes into a numbing, almost anaesthetic feeling on the tongue. For those who are not accustomed to this eating habit, it can be a burning sensation but to many Singaporeans it is peculiarly addictive because it is purported to give them a spiritual lift to go with that sensual experience.
Buying chilli can be expensive, yet the plants are perfectly easy to grow even in the cool temperate regions of Sydney. You can grow plants from seed but it is easier to buy seedlings from the local nursery or Asian stores and it no time you’ll have all those wonderful chilli to harvest and eat. There are several different varieties of chillies, which lends their own characteristic flavour to their spiciness of their particular regions’ dish. The Thai and Korean cuisines usually demand mainly hot chillies, whereas we prefer the medium to hot chillies for the simple cut chilli to go with most Singaporean dishes such as kuih teow soup or beef noodle soup.
Friday, June 10, 2011
As a direct descendant from a less sophisticated early immigrant stock of Singapore for whom a cup of tea was a cup of tea, obviously without knowing Lu Yu, a Chinese writer at the time of Tang Dynasty in his “Classic of Tea” wrote tea was more than just a drink , it was a symbol and a ceremony. I didn’t know much about this all important drink until I started travelling in my early twenties to Eastern Asian countries. Like many Singaporeans from the same era, tea was either Chinese tea or English tea. We didn’t have a choice over the type of tea in the restaurants at that time, where tea was normally served freely on the house as a complimentary welcome drink and topped up endlessly throughout the meal. Imagine the faux pas written all over me when I committed a cardinal sin of not knowing what type of tea to order with my yum cha at a Hong Kong restaurant when I first visited many years ago. Even until today, it is difficult for me to taste the difference between the astringent pale yellow Dragon Well tea from Hangzhou to the Oolong (Black Dragon) tea that includes such brand as the Iron Goddess of Mercy from Jiangxi which when pressed into bars is said to be as hard as iron. The only exception is the tell-tale smell of the Jasmine tea which remains my favourite and fool-proof tea beverage when I am ordering in the Chinese restaurant.
The preparation and sipping of tea are part of the tea ceremony of a kimono clad Japanese who have given a quasi- religious elevation of this ancient ritual from China and the daily life of a manual worker in Hong Kong. But in Singapore tea drinking has never reach such esoteric heights. However, in modern Singapore, the Chinese tea comes with the Bak Kut Teh. It is served with the tea cups and tea pot immersed in a basin of hot water for hygienic purposes rather than ceremonial. After all, many of us come from the coolie stock and like tea should be left to brew and steep in our heritage.
Tuesday, June 7, 2011
Cupping a warm mug of tea in my hands on a cold winter morning, I was out in the garden admiring the showy flowers of our seventy odd years old camellia tree that had bloomed for us at this time of the year. “These teh hwa are beautiful, aren’t they?” said my wife as she picked a dewy flower for display indoor. “Have you just given a new name for the camellia?” I asked as I raised my mug of tea for a sip, without realising that teh hwa (茶花tea flower) was a name given for camellia in her Hokkien dialect. Before she could reply, I answered my own question to myself, “silly of me, of course the tea plant is related to the Camellia family” and also realised that the mug of tea I was sipping came from the tea plant (Camellia sinensis which is the source of commercially grown tea).
We have yet to identify this magnificent evergreen flowering camellia of ours but we believe it belongs to the species Camellia japonica which is the remote ancestor of many of our garden varieties. Our camellia has flourished in our front garden almost without attention and grows into a three metres tree since we first lived here. We have another different camellia in the back garden. It produces many fragile, dainty flowers which have a sweet peaty fragrance. But the petals fall quickly to the ground and when fresh form an attractive carpet before turning unsightly with spent blooms on the ground. Therefore I would recommend choosing a variety that flower freely and hold well on the tree and do not fall. Camellias are long lived. Often, the older they are, the better they are. Thus they make excellent commemoration trees as house warming gift for friends and relatives.
Monday, June 6, 2011
Although bak chung (rice dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaves) is one of my favourite snacks which is available throughout the year in most Asian stores in Sydney, but I do not normally buy this traditional rice dumpling to eat except during the Dragon Boat festival which is celebrated today in many Asian countries like China, Hong Kong and South East Asian countries with a large Chinese community. Strange as it may seem, eating bak chung on any other day is likened to eating Christmas pudding at any other times of the year.
Growing up in Singapore as a child, I can vividly remember, each year, as the month of Fifth month of the Lunar calendar approaches, every traditional Chinese household became busier than usual , thrown into a frenzy activity in the kitchen by the bak chung making season. It was customary to exchange dumplings among friends, neighbours and relatives as early as one week before the festival. My mother would make it a point to have the dumplings on the day itself and also offered the dumplings to the dearly departed ancestors. This traditional culinary event falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar to commemorate a Chinese patriot and poet Qu Yuan who committed suicide by throwing himself into the Mi Luo River on the fifth day of the lunar month. The legend goes that when the villagers heard of the suicide, they immediately raced in their boat to search for him. Thus began the tradition of having dragon boat races until today. It is also told that when the poet’s body could not be found, the villagers started throwing dumplings into the river to divert the fish from eating the patriot. Another explanation is that the rice dumpling was thrown as an offering for Qu Yuan. Whatever the reason, eating bak chung have become an integral part of the Dragon boat festival just like Christmas pudding is to the Yuletide festival.
My wife and I have just finished wrapping three dozen of bak chung and they are now boiling in a big pot in the kitchen to be ready for afternoon tea and tonight’s dinner. For the recipe and how to wrap a bak chung, please click on my previous posting on the right hand side of this page.
Photos of today’s bak chung will be posted once they are cooked.
Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Today is officially the first day of winter in Australia. I do not know why it does not wait for another three weeks to coincide with the Winter Solstice on the 21st of June when it has the shortest day in South Hemisphere. The solstice itself may have been a special moment of the annual cycle of the year; and for many of us, it does not matter really, since it lasts only a moment in time. But as the temperatures outside drop it is time to cook those hot winter favourites such as this Meatloaf Roast for the family again.
Chinese Meatloaf with Honey and Hoisin Sauce.
500g lamb mince
250g pork mince
1 onion finely chopped
150g water-chestnut (optional) chopped or 1 carrot chopped
1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
½ cup chopped coriander leaves
1 egg lightly beaten
½ tsp 5-spice powder
Salt and pepper
¼ cup water
2 tbsp hoisin sauce
2 tbsp honey
Preheat oven to 175 C. Line a loaf pan with baking paper. Combine the mince, breadcrumbs, onion, water- chestnut, coriander, egg and 5-spice powder with salt and pepper to taste in a bowl and mix well with your hand. Press the mixture into the loaf pan and smooth the surface. Cover with a foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 30 minutes or until the juices run clear when pierced with a skewer. To make the glaze, heat ¼ cup water with hoisin sauce and honey in a small saucepan and bring to a boil and simmer until thickened and glossy. Remove the meatloaf from the oven and drain away the liquid from the pan. Spread the top with the hoisin and honey glaze and bake for another 15 minute until cooked through. Rest in the pan for 5 minute before removing and serve hot with rice or potato.