27 February 2007

Nouvelle Lo Hei

Lo Hei has evolved over the years since the first time I was allowed to hold a pair of chopsticks and join in the vertical aerobics over a big dish of raw vegetables and fish. Now, the fish used may be raw salmon, or even smoked salmon. Lo Hei condiments are now also sold in a variety of packaging, even bringing in Thai influences that smelt heavily of fish sauce. And the icing on the cake for me this year was how we did our Lo Hei on the marble table top instead.

My father suggested it, then proceeded to scrub, rinse and wipe the table top so that it'd be impeccably clean to eat from. While initial responses included shock, horror and disgust, everyone started to embrace the idea and have fun arranging the ingredients on the table once it was declared sane to eat from.

And for prosperity, happiness, and pure superstition, we shaped it all into a figure of eight.

Then the aerobic exercise commenced alongside random, well-wishes for the new year ahead.

24 February 2007

Don't hang up your cheongsams just yet!

The Seventh Day of the Chinese New Year is today, and that means Lo Hei Day! That is, plenty of chopsticks doing vertical aerobics over a huge plate of shredded raw vegetables, raw fish, plum sauce, and my favourite crispy deep-fried er... Damn, I don't even know what they're called.

We're supposed to shout out auspicious wishes for the new year like 'Shen Ti Jian Kang' (Good Health), but sometimes when I can't think of any great cheng yus (four word phrases), I just resort to going down the list in the cheng yu book that I used to have to memorise in secondary school. Of course, they are used out of context so I say it really softly - 'Ai Bu Shi Shou' (Loving something so much that you're reluctant to part with it), 'Ai Wu Ji Wu' (Loving a crow so much that you even love the house that it is perched on). My mandarin truly fails me everytime I need it the most, but I can handle a couple of cheng yus every now and then.

And although I don't usually admit to this, every time I have Lo Hei, I try to scoop up only the crispy bits and the raw fish. They're really The Best. Just for laughs, maybe one day I'll have a Lo Hei of only raw fish and crispy bits. That way, every scoop is pure bliss.

Go to trusty wikipedia for more information on Lo Hei.

18 February 2007

Why it is better to have a daughter and not a son.

The day before the Chinese Lunar New Year, my family usually has a gathering for all the sons (and their families) of the Yuen family to reunite for a simple dinner. This year, it was decided that it would be at our home, and that it would be a potluck (phew!). Everyone was really obedient and brought at least a dish each. Of course, it was still my grandma who prepared the most to bring over.

However, even though work was considerably lessened for my family since it was a potluck, there was still a ton of work to be done. My mother was the first to wake up to begin the day's preparation, followed by me. So while we cut, chopped, marinated, washed, heated, sliced, roasted, stir-fried, cleaned up, organised, re-arranged, soaped, rinsed, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera (seriously, there has to be alot of etceteras here to justify the work)......, The Son and The Father slept.

And at 1pm, the son finally opened his golden eyelids. After waffling around the home for a little, walking past things that were lying around and waiting to be put back into its rightful place, he decided to direct his golden eyes on the computer monitor and lay his jade fingers onto the keyboard.

Soon after, he used his majestic voicebox to ask the imperial question, 'Is there anything to eat?'

Within a matter of minutes, The Banquet was set up and His Majesty aka The Father, was gently nudged awake. He then moved to the table, sloth-like, and ceremoniously plonked himself down at the head of the table, waiting for his humble servants to bring his bowl of grub. The Crown Prince aka The Son again used his golden voice box to ask 'No meat ah?' Of course, his humble servants pointed out that there was some ham in the omelette and that he may help himself to all of it if he so wishes.

I guess His Majesty must have felt a little guilty, because later on he decided to help his servants clean up the palace for the rest of the day. But of course, The Son resumed fighting armies of demons and monsters on his computer until the guests arrived.

What happened during the Reunion Dinner shouldn't be too hard to guess, but that shall be a story for another day.

14 February 2007

The Day About Love

In the last few hours of the day leading up to Valentine's Day, Fel and I got a little delirious, leaning over a bridge across the Singapore River. Right after cursing and swearing at a few teenagers hawking roses, and balking at heart shaped balloons floating around, we started inventing crazy stories about clouds, laughing at ridiculous things and dumping things into the river (it was accidental, I swear!).

So Valentine's Day is here again. The day when guys are pressured and obliged to surprise/impress their girlfriends (new or old) with gifts, flowers and magnanimous gestures. Poor men.

The restaurants will be packed, florists will be busy all day long, teddy bears will fly off the shelves, and chocolates will be consumed in obscene amounts.

While it is all fine and dandy to embrace this day, just as we embrace Father's Day or Mother's Day, I can't help but think how people like my Grandmother feel. I don't know much about her love for my grandfather, and I'm not sure if she even knows that Valentine's Day falls on the 14th February, or what it means. But if Valentine's Day is a day of love, it should be a special day for my grandmother too. Why not, especially since she has 20+ grandchildren and 10+ children whom she loves, and who loves her too? Why not, especially since she has built up a healthy repertoire of dishes that she cooks for us all at family gatherings to show us how much she loves us?

She probably has enough recipes stored in her head to fill up a cookbook. Her recipes have evolved over the years and have been tuned to suit our Yuen family's tastebuds, making those recipes all the more precious. However, there is one dish rooted in our family's history that she still has no clue how to make - Steamed Egg Custard. My great-grandmother's Steamed Egg Custard in particular.

I had blogged about it before, when my uncle made it quite a while back. Somehow, he was the only person in my family who had picked up the recipe from my great-grandmother. He knew the exact proportion of water to egg and the timing, which involved burning a joss-stick. Once he told me about the joss-stick, I was sold to the recipe. I imagined my great-grandmother keeping an eye on the lit joss-stick, willing it to burn up faster so that her preying grandchildren would finally be able to feast on her ultra smooth and silky egg custard.

I had been waiting for a good opportunity to recreate it, and after a visit to a famous shop in Chinatown along Temple Street that sells great steamed egg custard, I wanted to see if the recipe my uncle shared with me could beat it.

But a minor problem was that I could not remember the amount of rock sugar to add, and how to add it to the steamed egg custard. If I didn't remember wrongly, even he couldn't tell me and told me to estimate (agar agar) it.

I set out on this exciting little experiment of mine, recording on the white board in my kitchen the exact proportions used in the recipe, while winging the sugar syrup to add to the custard. To make it even more precise, leaving little room for error, I used my kitchen scale instead of the emptied egg shells to measure the amount of water to add to the beaten eggs. I even made it a little more exciting by trying out the steamed egg custard in three flavours.

Steamed egg custard is usually available plain, or with 'ginger juice'. To add to that, I made one infused with pandan leaves and, in light of the upcoming Chinese New Year, one with mandarin orange juice (though on hindsight, I should have used mandarin orange zest to flavour it instead). Since it was an experiment after all, I also steamed the egg custard in three different receptacles to find out which receptacle would result in the best texture.

As it turned out, the mandarin orange did not come through, and the best texture came from the one steamed in my small ceramic cup. The worst was the one steamed in the short-shotglass. Also, both my parents commented that the one steamed in the small ceramic cup is exactly like the one that my great-grandmother made, smooth and silky, and precariously wobbly on the spoon.

Some people may prefer the type sold in Chinatown, firmer and paler in colour, though still soft and creamy. Yet I can't help but feel inclined towards and proud of the Yuen Family version.

I've decided what I'm going to contribute to this year's Chinese New Year potluck - Steamed Egg Custard, the Yuen way! I hope my grandmother will love it too. Although it was only my first try at the recipe, because it worked well, I'll put up the recipe anyway.
So here's my gift to everyone out there. Happy Valentine's Day!

My Great-Grandmother's Steamed Egg Custard
Serves 1

1 egg
3 egg shells worth of sugar syrup* (or just use a kitchen scale to measure the weight of the egg and multiply this times three to get the weight of sugar syrup required)

*sugar syrup = 1 part rock sugar to 4 parts water

Create sugar syrup by combining water and rock sugar, and bring to boil over medium heat.
Remove from heat when sugar has almost dissolved and leave to cool. (**see below for variations)
Beat egg well, but not until too foamy, then beat in cooled sugar syrup.
Strain into a ceramic bowl and steam for an hour.

**For Steamed Egg Custard with Ginger: Add 1 tbspn of roughly chopped ginger to hot sugar syrup at this point.
For Steamed Egg Custard with Pandan: Add 1 pandan leaf, chopped into small bits/shreds, to hot sugar syrup at this point.

11 February 2007

Tres Simple Chicken

Ever since my graduation from Warwick, I've been in and out of jobs, that is until last Monday. It was the first day of the rest of my life (or at least the next 6 years), and while a little nerve-wrecking, it turns out that I had absolutely nothing to worry about. I haven't done much so far, but I can just sense that it is going to be really fulfilling. There's so much I want to be involved in and so much I want to help change, that I'm actually really excited to get down to work proper.

Anyway, the great thing about this job, compared to all the previous jobs, is that I have normal fixed working hours. While working in the service industry, my working hours had been totally social life unfriendly, and had screwed up my body clock. Now, back to the 9-to-5 (or rather 830-to-6) work-day, I've had plenty of work-life balance and time to meet up with friends after work.

Determined to do even better than that, I planned a small little teeny weeny gathering for my Warwick friends, that I planned to host at my place together with Fel. The menu was simple. Just four courses, of which the dessert was to be prepared the day before.

But who would have known that I would forget to bring my key that day, have to wait for my brother to reach home after work, leaving us only an hour to prepare the other three courses?

What really saved the day was the fact that I had chosen one of Jamie Oliver's recipes for the main course. Anyone who has cooked from Jamie's Cookbook would know that his recipes are mostly fuss-free. Just toss together and bake. Or just saute all ingredients in a pan and serve.

His Roasted Chicken Breast with Cherry Tomatoes and Asparagus was precisely one of these recipes that was just toss-and-bake. I switched the breasts for thighs and drumsticks and added some thyme to the dish as well. And while Jamie's proportions or timings might be a little off at times, I'm proud to announce that his timing for the dish worked. As the chicken was roasted on top of the bed of tomatoes and asparagus, the flavours of the vegetables were able to permeate the juicy chicken. It had an understated simplicity that everyone cleaned off their plates.

Jamie saved my day by leaving Fel and I plenty of time to cook the other two courses, so keep this recipe in case you find yourself in a similarly sticky situation one day. Meanwhile, I'm going to keep an extra housekey in my wallet from now on!

Roasted Chicken with Cherry Tomatoes and Asparagus
Serves 6 as a main course.
Adapted from Jamie Oliver's Cook with Jamie

12 pieces of chicken drumsticks and thighs
24 trimmed sticks (cut into any length you desire) of asparagus
36 halved cherry tomatoes
Leaves from 3 sprigs of thyme
2 tsps dried rosemary
2 tsps sea salt
2 tsps freshly ground black pepper
Drizzle of olive oil
Balsamic vinegar (optional)

Preheat oven to 200 degrees celcius.
Toss everything together in a bowl.
Put the vegetables onto a tray lined with aluminium foil and place the chicken on top.
Season well and cook in the middle of the oven for 25-35 minutes.
Serve drizzled with balsamic vinegar.

07 February 2007

My Irritatingly Skinny Friend (ISF)

Addy, Val (my ISF) and I, at the airport.

Everyone definitely has a skinny friend. That would be the girl who has a neverending appetite and a metabolic rate to match. The one who complains about hunger just a few hours after a really big meal, yet always has to find for the smallest sizes in the boutique. The one who only works out occasionally, and has the porcelain fair skin.

Having an Irritatingly Skinny Friend is actually not a bad thing, since she eats virtually anything except peas and pineapples. She is willing to eat absolutely anything else I experiment with, from the overly exotic to the downright plain.

But she'll tell me if I've gone overboard with the flavours and tell me if she hates it. I LOVE her for that, but now she's gone off to Milan and won't be back for many moons.

How I hate her for that.

01 February 2007

Three Courses from Cocina Nueva (Part 3) - The Nutty Professor

Rabbit food. At some point in my life, I adored eating muesli, nuts, cereals and could have them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. At that time, I felt that it was quick to prepare (what preparation??), filling, and was available in a huge array of flavours (right.). That's when friends used to tease me about surviving on 'rabbit food'. Thank goodness I'm over all that now. But while I'm pretty much sick of muesli and cereals for perhaps the rest of my life, I've never quite lost my adoration for nuts.

Macadamia nuts, Hazelnuts, Cashew nuts, Brazil nuts, Almonds and Peanuts are my top five favourites in decreasing order of preference. The bottom line really is, that I love nuts in all its form, even naked - unroasted, unsalted.

So when flipping through the dessert section in Jane Lawson's Cocina Nueva, in light of my profession of love for nuts, it should be no surprise that I flagged the Almond Cake recipe. I decided to attempt this cake for the Sunday lunch with Val and Addy because the recipe sounded quick enough to complete in the limited time I had left. And I'm mighty glad I did, as everyone who tried it, loved it.

It was incredibly soft, moist and fluffy, with slightly crunchy caramelised mahogany exteriors. Since I had a whole bag of roasted ground peanuts lying around, I decided to substitute half of the almond powder with peanut powder, resulting in something perhaps a little more aromatic and strong flavoured than otherwise. It was truly proof that the most simplest of dishes can still be out of this world.

In fact, I was so satisfied with the outcome that I made it again today to share with some friends from my previous work place. This time, adding mandarin orange zest instead of zest of a Sunkist orange, and using only peanut powder rather than a combination of both. The texture remained but it took on a slightly tanner shade while the flavour was decidedly more oriental, for lack of a better word. Truth be told, it reminded me a little of one of my favourite snacks, Min Chiang Kuey (Peanut Pancake). The mandarin orange zest was really haunting, there but not quite there - a flavour that is so familiar yet exceedingly difficult to pinpoint for the untrained palate.

This won't be the last I attempt anything from this cookbook, as I've fallen head over heels in love with it. Three attempts and already a perfect record of three successes. Simply prepared, delicious and still gorgeous food - that just about sums up the recipes from this cookbook.

Almond and Peanut Cake
Adapted from Jane Lawson's Cocina Nueva

250g cold butter, cut into cubes
1 tsp vanilla extract
Zest of 1 lemon
Zest of 1 mandarin orange
310g icing sugar, sifted
4 egg yolks
125ml milk
200g almond powder
200g peanut powder
4 egg whites

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees celcius.
Cream butter, vanilla, lemon zest, orange zest and 250g icing sugar with an electric mixer until creamy and pale.
Gradually add in 4 egg yolks and beat until well combined.
Add in milk and almond/peanut powder and beat until well combined.
In another clean, dry bowl, whisk egg whites with remaining 60g icing sugar until firm peaks (I was not sure what firm peaks constituted, but I whisked until the peaks held when I lifted my beaters from the egg whites, but the tips of the peaks flopped over a little).
Fold 1/3 of the egg whites into the batter then fold in the rest of the egg whites.

Pour into a 9 inch round cake tin that has been greased and lined with baking paper.
Bake for 30 minutes in the oven then cover with a piece of aluminium foil and bake for another 20-25 minutes.
Leave to cool then invert the cake onto a tray and dust a layer of icing sugar over the top then serve.