Monthly Archives: June 2011

What tickles your nose?

I find comfort in smells, kawan kawan.  Good smells, of course. Musky aftershave colognes that titillate, feminine fragrances that when inhaled send triggers of happy thoughts of summer days and girly nights out, the clean and crisp smell of newly laundered sheets and clothes,  aromas released by spices being heated in a frying pan, the confectionary perfume of cakes baking in the oven. These are a few of my favourite smells….

However, my most favourite smell of all has to be the fragrance of rice being cooked.  Did you know that rice has a perfume of its own, kawan kawan?  This beautiful aroma is released when the rice grains are almost cooked.  It permeates the house just like coffee being brewed in the morning does.

Rice, being the staple carb in my family, features in every meal, especially at dinner time.  Dinner is a whole family affair, announcing the return of the patriarch, my dad, from work and when homework and chores have been completed. Dinner is when my sisters, both parents and I get to sit down ensemble to chat, discuss, argue and converse at the wooden table in the kitchen with its tiled top where we all convene for meal times.  My mother would have prepared a soup – a clear stock of some meat variety, a dish of sautéed chinese greens, a plate of meat, usually chicken or pork stir fried with another variety of vegetable and/or a dish of steamed fish with slivers of ginger, soya sauce and sesame oil.  Sometimes, she fries the fish that has been seasoned with a little salt and tumeric which turns the oil she fries them in to a yellow river.  This is her tweak on the signature Malay dish called ikan panggang, a type of grilled fish. For this dish, she will have prepared a dipping sauce infused with  lime, sugar, minced chilli peppers and garlic. All these dishes are eaten with a bowl of white rice, with the soup served in individual little bowls to be eaten at the same time.

I know when dinner time is approaching just by the smell of rice permeating the house.  This is shortly before the click of the on/off button on the rice cooker, signally that the rice is done. A little hole on the lid of the rice cooker lets out the steam which is the element that cooks the rice, the steam which is produced by the remnants of what water is left that is required to cook any rice.  The rice is done when all the water has been absorbed by every rice kernel.

My Favourite Smell - Rice steaming

I was feeling a little lost and displaced again the other day. I don’t know what had caused this feeling, I only knew that I wanted some home cooked comfort food. I had been doing a little voluntary work at the secondary school, helping some students with their English.  A Korean girl that I was assigned to had been all but receptive of my role. I had sensed by sitting next to her and through my failed attempts to make conversation that only produced monosyllabic answers that she not only resented my presence but also resented the fact that she had been transplanted from her country to a harsh and foreign place where she doesn’t speak the language and where she has to be taught in a tongue that she finds hard to decipher. My heart went out to this girl because not only is it difficult to be uprooted from what you know, to be transplanted to an unfamiliar territory which can seem hostile because of a language gap and then to have to endure an education in a language that you are not wholly comfortable in, couple that with raging hormones which can cause confusion and irrational mood swings. Not a great combination, my friends.

I was told by her teacher that she is an intelligent girl when she wants to be.  One manifests intelligence in one’s tongue because one knows what words and phrases to use in a conversation, discussion or argument.  It is a challenge to show how intelligent you are when you don’t fully understand your medium of instruction, let alone having to express yourself in this foreign tongue. When expressing yourself in your mother tongue, you can be eloquent, elegant and intelligible.  In a foreign tongue, you risk sounding gauche, awkward and frustrated because the words don’t seem to roll off your tongue like they ought to….. in your language.

At the appartement later, whilst preparing dinner and waiting for the rice cooker to sound her familiar click signalling that the rice is ready, I was suddenly overcome by a throng of homesickness.  It was the fragrance released by the rice that caused me to feel this way, it occurred to me later. Another reason could be my feeling terribly sorry for the Korean girl that spurred this feeling of homesickness on.  Standing next to the rice cooker, I inhaled deeply, taking in the aroma.  I felt how good it is to be able to recreate this sense of childhood comfort.  The fragrance of the rice represented home and hearth, it symbolised the security of the familial space, a haven where I can be myself, let my hair down and put my feet up.  I was glad that in a foreign land, I was able to find this little piece of heaven.

For the Italian, it is the aroma of the tomato sauce simmering or the fragrance of the bell peppers stewing that bring him home.  For my children, it is a mélange of the rice cooking one day or the pasta boiling on another which also emits a unique perfume of its own, both recreating the sense of home for them .

That night, I had the rice ready, and a dish of scrambled eggs with tomatoes to accompany the rice.  This very easy to prepare dish is called Fānjiādàn 蕃茄蛋
in Mandarin and is really a very typical rustic dish.  It is eaten a lot in Taiwan and in SE Asia.

Scrambled Eggs and Tomatoes

This is one of my favourite comfort food, kawan kawan.  Surprisingly, this dish is also much loved by la grande and the Itlalian.  It is what SS remembers eating as a child when life was just the two of us.  Sadly, I have yet to pass this love completely to RN who endures this scrambled egg dish but is not totally enamoured by it.  She only eats eggs if they are white!  I might cook this dish with egg white only, la prochaine fois, mes amis!

I hope that those who are feeling displaced due to a recent uprooting are able to recreate a sense of home through a particular smell that they love coupled with a particular food that they enjoy.  Eating dinner that night, I whispered a little prayer for the Korean girl who tugged at my heart strings, wishing her well and that somehow, in this jungle of foreign words, she is able to recreate a sense of home.


What are they Eating in America Today?

Browsing through the myriad of food blogs on the internet, I came across one that reported Ruth Reichl having said Korean is the next American. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve been eating and enjoying Korean way before she mustered the authority to categorise Korean as the next American. Suffice it to say, I think her statement is really rather passé.  But none the less, she is a revered American food writer and critique and as all people who predict and set trends, be it in fashion or food, what she says goes.  Don’t be surprised that the next American who you may have the chance to speak to is singing about Korean food.

Reichl’s statement has put Korean food on the map for lots of people who haven’t tasted this country’s spicy cuisine.

Korean food is very unlike their neighbouring Japan’s.  Firstly, it is very spicy for those with a delicate palate.  Secondly, Korean food contains a variety of vegetables and can be almost vegetarian although meats like beef, pork and chicken do feature in the cuisine, along with fish.  There is a lot more usage of sesame oil which in my observation, douses all their little dishes. Sesame oil can be detrimental for people with nut allergies, so beware, if you’re one of them. And speaking of little dishes, the Koreans do like serving small dishes of vegetables, pickled with a spicy red chilli paste called gochujang or simply dressed with sesame oil and salt.

These little dishes, known as banchan, are side dishes, usually served with rice. The most common banchan is kimchi, which is served with every meal.  There are many varieties of kimchi, the most common being made with napa cabbage. This fermented spicy vegetable side dish is also the main ingredient in many popular Korean dishes, like the kimchi stew, kimchi fried rice, which is incidentally very scrumptious and kimchi soup, which is similar to the tom yam, only less sour.

I wanted to spice up my day and the natural choice of cuisine could only be Korean. It had been a long morning.  I had errands to run because we were expecting some guests and I had just finished counting up the money that we had made for Save Japan Day at school.  All the addition and sorting out the float which consisted of lots of centimes made me hungry. Fortunately for me, down the road from the secondary school where SS attends, there is a Korean.

I needed some carbs today and settled very quickly for the bibimbap.  This dish has such a cute ring to it.  It sounds exotic and musical to my ears because I don’t speak Korean as all foreign words tend to sound to the ear of a stranger.  I learnt later that bibimbap really is a rather prosaic and ordinary word in Korean which means mixed meal.  This signature dish is served as a bowl of white rice crowned with sautéed vegetables and  gochujang, a hot chilli paste.  Topping the vegetables and rice is an egg fried sunny side up, with the yolk still runny.  Slivers of bulgogi beef can be added too, if one fancies a little red meat.  The bibimbap is served in a stone bowl, directly from the fire to your table, it is so hot that you can hear the ingredients sizzling.

The Stone bowl of Rice

As soon as the bowl is served, the attendant/waiting staff mixes the rice, vegetables and egg up for you.  Usually this version of bibimbap which is called dolsot bibimbap is served with a raw egg that gets cooked very quickly in the mixing against the hot stone bowl.

All Mixed Up

It was totally sedap, kawan kawan.  The gochujang gave it that right amount of heat and spice. The sesame oil left a film of nuttiness so redolent of childhood meals for me.  I love eating plain rice congee flavoured with sesame oil and soya sauce on rainy days or when the weather turns from summer to autumn.

The bibimbap is really a meal in itself as the name suggests.  But my eyes being  substantially bigger than my stomach saw on the menu a side order of kimchi which I of course asked for.  The banchan of kimchi came in a variety of legumes, some pickled in a spicy viniagrette and others sautéed with sesame oil and salt. These little dishes were great accompaniments to white rice and as I was savouring each dish, I also thought that they would go great with plain white rice congee or chook as they say in Cantonese.

Those on the Side

Well, kawan kawan, I really recommend that you try Korean, if you haven’t already.  You don’t want to miss out on the next American trend, do you?


Teri Hatcher’s Teriyaki Meat Balls

I’ve always had a fascination for American movie star, Teri Hatcher.  I first discovered her as Lois Lane in Lois and Clark – The new adventures of Superman – as a young adult.  I wasn’t as enamoured by Clark Kent, alter ego to Superman as I was with Hatcher’s Lois Lane.  She was feisty, savvy and feminine at the same time.  How I day dreamed to be a journalist/reporter just like Lois Lane or was it Teri Hatcher?

But I soon matured and came to accept that journalism wasn’t to be.  I had left Singapore and came to England, the seat of Literature.  Superman? I’ve never heard of him!  I became engrossed in reading the great canons and writing papers. Years later, I got married and had a kid who took up a huge chunk of my energy and caused my brain to shrivel to the size of a walnut. I didn’t read for many years and if I did, the reading material usually consisted of articles and pages from books about how to breastfeed your infant to potty training and how not to bring up a spoilt brat.  Those were dark years, my friends, years deprived of metaphors, passages flowing with adjectival clauses, pages filled with characters you love to hate and poetic ramblings of talented fiction writers. I cultivated the vocabulary of words beginning with p as in ‘are you doing your pee pee again?’ and n for ‘no! don’t throw the pasta at mummy again!’ Without the brain capacity to retain anything else other than mothering books and journals, I was glad to discover mindless entertainment in Desperate Housewives.  That was when I re-discovered Teri Hatcher once again.  This time playing yet another feisty but feckless woman, Susan Mayers.

I was wondering what Teriyaki meant in Japanese the other day when this chain of thought led me to remember Teri Hatcher.  Then in the same chain of thought, I started wondering about her name.  Surely, she wasn’t named after a Japanese sauce?

Well, this then inspired me to cook something with this marinade, having recently learnt to make chicken teriyaki the proper way from Nobuko san at a Japanese cooking class organised by the Japanese mothers at the ISP to fund raise for their country.

Usually teriyaki is synonymous with chicken.  But as I didn’t have chicken in the fridge that day but 2 packs of ground beef, teriyaki meatballs it’s got to be. And besides, meatballs are rather American and since Teri Hatcher is from the United States, I’ll make this dish in tribute to her.  That was how I convinced myself to invent this dish.

Here’s the recipe:

750 g of ground beef

1 knob of ginger, grated, that’s about half a teaspoon.

3 tbsp of light soy sauce.  I used Kikoman

2 tbsp of granulated white sugar

3 tbsp of sweet mirin

For the Marinade – mix the ingredients in a bowl until the sugar melts.  Leave aside.

The original recipe for chicken teriyaki recommends that you add the marinade to the fried chicken when the chicken pieces are cooked.  But for the meatballs, I marinated the beef with the marinade and saved some for pouring over later.

This ensures that the ground beef gets an extra boost of teriyaki.  I left the meat the marinate for at least 30 minutes before rolling them into little balls.  You don’t want them too big for easy cooking neither too small because you want to cook the meat but still retain some moisture in them. The size is about the circumference of the circle that you will make with your thumb and index finger when you make the ok sign with hands my size, round about a size 6 glove. How’s that for precision?

Those are ok size

Heat some oil in a non stick pan.  Very little oil is required, just enough to swirl round your pan.  The beauty of Japanese food is in the minuscule amount of oil in their cooking as witnessed in the various Japanese cooking classes I’ve had the pleasure of partaking in.  Cook meat balls until the juices run clear.

Finally, add the extra marinade and wait for it to glaze. Sprinkle generously with sesame seeds.

Pouring the teriyaki

Serve with a bowl of Japanese white rice or over yellow noodles, if you fancy.

Totally sedap, kawan kawan and so easy to make.  If you haven’t got chicken, meatballs and teriyaki make a good marriage.

Here's to Teri Hatcher

What about the Hummus?

I was wondering about the chickpea today.  This nutritious legume is high in protein and has been around for a very long time.  In fact, I read somewhere that remains of the chickpea have been found in the Middle East dating as far back as 7500 years.

La famille went for a little stroll in the Marais today.  I love this quartier of Paris because it is always very lively there on a Sunday.  It is easy to get lost in the Marais because the area called the Marais is actually pretty big. I wanted to explore the part where the shop windows display pretty funky things and where there is always a long line outside a particular falafel eatery. This part of the Marais is predominantly Jewish, I was told and the food is a mix of Lebanese and Middle Eastern.  It is rather difficult to define the Middle East and for the sake of ease, the Middle East consists topographically of the countries in Western Asia and North Africa.  This makes it a fairly large area geographically.

I was fascinated by a dish known as Humous/Hummus/Humus.  It doesn’t matter how you spell it, the names all mean the same thing – a Levantine dip made of mashed chick peas, olive oil, lemon juice and garlic.  This dish is eaten from Greece to Syria to Israel to Tunisia, Turkey and Lebanon.  In fact, in October 2008, a group of industrialists in Lebanon filed a petition to the Lebanese Ministry of Economy asking them to seek permission from the European Commission totypify humus as a uniquely Lebanese food much like the Pachino tomatoes of Sicily or the Camembert from Normandie, thus creating a huge controversy around this ancient recipe.  The Lebanese felt that their national dish has been usurped by their neighbouring country, Israel.  This caused Shooky Galili  an Israeli journalist and food blogger with an entire blog dedicated to the hummus to say that this is really preposterous as the dish belongs to the region and cannot be claimed by one country as their own.  I tend to agree with this statement because it would be just as preposterous for me to claim Laksa as a uniquely Singaporean dish when it is eaten in various forms in Malaysia and to a lesser extent in Indonesia.  It is a unique dish, no doubt, in that it derived from the Peranakan culture which is a marriage of Malay and Chinese elements.

Humous is eaten, it seems to me, in all the regions where the Ottoman Turks have had the pleasure to claim their own.

Today, I discovered Humous again.  I’ve been eating humous for a long time in London without paying much attention to the historical background of this ancient dip.  In London, the Humous I’ve had the pleasure of tasting seems to have come from mainly Lebanese eateries where it is sometimes served warm with slivers of moist and aromatic lamb or chicken and a generous drizzle of olive oil.  This is known as Humous Shwarma and is yummy spread into pitta bread pockets.  I’ve had Humous in Greek restos and this is usually just a smooth paste that is eaten as a dip with pitta bread.  I’ve bought Israeli Humous in the supermarkets and this normally has whole chickpeas in the paste.

At Chez Marianne, I fell in love once more with this creamy, unctuous dip.  I ordered a grande assiette consisting of a choice of 6 dips from the buffet.  I chose the Humous, of course, Tahini which is similar in consistency to the Humous except that this dip is made from sesame. I had a caviar of aubergines marinated in olive oil, garlic and herbs, a Tzasiki dip, made with cucumber and mint mixed in yogurt and a tuna and tomato spread.   And let’s not forget the vine leaves and tuna.

Plenty of Dips

For 16€, I had my fill of a typical Middle Eastern spread.  Then the lady of the house, Marianne herself came over to say hello and shook her head at my choice. She despaired at the over selection of creamy dips and promptly brought over, gratuit, a dish that consisted of aubergines baked with tomatoes, a sweet pepper and tomato stew which reminded me of the caponata in Sicily, and a brik, a filo pastry parcel filled with minced beef.  I’ve only ever had brik in Tunisia where it is served with an egg enrobed in filo pastry thins.

Brik and Veg

This was truly sumptuous.  I wish I had the word in Arabic for yummy!

As dips are thus defined, they all must be eaten with something that you can dip into.  We were served a basket of bread and to try the house specialities, we ordered a bagel, pitta and an onion bread.

The Bread Basket

The breads were all fresh and delicious.  The consistency of the bagel wasn’t what I had expected.  It was soft, slightly sweet and fluffier that the bagels I am used to. In fact, this bagel really reminded me of the challah, a  typical festive Jewish bread. Very sedap, my friends!

For dessert, for all things nice must end with all things even nicer, I had my favourite – halva.

Heavenly Halva

Don’t let this insipid looking sweet trick you, kawan kawan.  Sometimes, plain Janes have more to them than meets the eye. This sesame based dessert disintegrates in your mouth, leaving a creamy after taste of sesame and honey. It was no wonder that I ate so much of it during my second pregnancy.  RN is partly made of halva, is the running family joke. In fact, halva is a generic Arabic word that refers to a dense and sweet confection made either from flour, typically semolina or tahini which is a sesame paste.

Try!  Then tell me what you think, kawan kawan.  You can’t miss Chez Marianne, it is an ivy covered cottage on the Rue des hospitaliére st Gervais in the Marais district.

Chez Marianne

Don’t forget the Humous and the various cream based dips.  That was how we got to eat the other stuff for free!

It’s All Soup Noodles across the Bridge

The Chinese have a saying that sums up their attitude towards education.  This saying consists of 4 chinese characters forming a proverb that has come to be synonymous with the sacrifices that Chinese parents go through to ensure that their offsprings have the best education that money can buy.  I promise that this is not an anthem to The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a controversial book that had recently been published in the United States.  I am merely recounting an eating adventure and the story that brought to mind this ancient Chinese saying.

This Chinese saying goes like this: Záguōmàitiě  (Zha Guo Mai Ti-air)

It roughly translates into this: Melt all your iron to sell.  It is more figurative than literal, I guess because the action of putting together all your iron utensils, pots and pans, melting them and then selling them to pay for your child’s education is an image that is difficult to conjure up in this modern era where we simply go out to purchase what we need to be thrown out when we’re done with them.   More over, iron was a very important material in ancient China, good for making weapons to defend the country from marauding foreigners, not for selling off to pay for your child’s school fees.

It is always difficult to explain proverbs, let alone Chinese ones which are usually 4 characters long.  Sometimes, I wonder how an ancient culture managed to reduce the meaning of something so important and potent into only 4 characters. It takes a lot of  reduction to come to the essence of the subject, much like a jus reduction, I think.  Chinese people tend to speak in proverbs which can be construed as speaking in riddles, I guess because if you didn’t understand the essence of a proverb and used it incorrectly and out of context, you could be perceived as very rude or worse, stupid.  I remember having to learn off by heart a book full of proverbs and their meanings in my Chinese classes at school.  My prowess in this difficult language would be in my ability to use these proverbs correctly in an essay.  And oh boy, what errors I made even when erring on the conservative side!

“So what has this got to do with today’s post?”  you ask.  Well a story can’t be told in 5 words, so I ask for your patience.

A long long time ago, round about 300 years during the Qing Dynasty, so the story goes, there was a very ambitious young man who studied very hard for the prestigious Chinese Civil Service Exams that a male scholar of any calibre has to sit in order to bring honour and respect to his family, and a guaranteed civil service job.  This said young man although very intelligent and industrious failed each time to pass this examination.  His parents would not consider the idea of his giving up the opportunity, egged him on, fed and loved him until their deaths.

The young man matured and got married and had children of his own.  In all that, he still persisted and sat the exam annually only to fail repeatedly.  He became despondent, suicidal and depressed.   Guilt ridden and feeling that he was neglecting his family in pursuit of his own interests, he announced several times of his desire to call it quits.  But his grown children having watched the sacrifices that their grandparents had made in order to ensure that their father passed his exams did not allow their ageing father to give up.  So the man’s family found him a secluded refuge on an island where he could peruse his books undisturbed.  His devoted wife who understood that a scholar has to be nourished would prepare her husband’s daily meals, cart the dishes in a bamboo basket and bring them on foot to her beloved.  This journey entails crossing over the bridge that connected the island refuge to the mainland and by the time the bamboo basket arrived at the scholar’s quarters, the food had all turned cold.

This angered the husband.  (Ingrate, you think and yes, I agree but the story does not end here…) Her husband’s anger spurred the wife to experiment with ways of bringing food that would remain hot through the journey.  She discovered that if she made a broth and boiled it to the maximum before packing it up to be delivered, the broth would still be hot on arrival.  The broth would contain meat, vegetables and rice vermicelli known as mi xian which is a type of noodle made from ground rice.  But on arrival, she discovered that the noodles had congealed to a mushy mass and the broth had gone cold as before, making the dish inedible. She despaired for days and had to endure her husband’s wrath yet again.  Then it occurred to her that if she did the same thing with the broth – boil, boil, boil til it became bubbly hot but left the ingredients til after she’d arrived at the island before adding them to the broth, the broth would indeed preserve its warmth. What a discovery, kawan kawan, for today this noodle soup is eaten in memory of this scholar and the love that his wife had for him.

The story goes on to depict that the husband finally understood the sacrifices that his wife had to make in order to bring him this hot noodle soup.  Whilst slurping his noodles, tear drops started to form and to mingle with the soup.  He brushed his anger aside and ate his soup and noodle with much humility and gratitude, finally appreciating the sacrifices that his family had made for him. That year, he passed his exams, an old man.

Some believe that the nutrients in the broth which is a stock made from several types of meat – pork, beef and chicken – was what made him pass his exams finally.  Others like to say that he finally came to understand the love between a woman and a man, thus reinforcing the saying that behind every successful man stands a woman…….with a bowl of nutritious soup in this case.

This is how the noodle soup looks:

A bowl of Delicious Noodles

This soup noodle dish is aptly named “Crossing over the bridge Noodles from Mengzi”  Mengzi is the region in Yunnan where this dish derives.

The general ingredients of Meng Zi Guo qiao mi xian are:

  • a raw quail egg
  • ham slices
  • chicken slices
  • coloured vegetables

It starts off with a broth that has been boiled to a 100 degree Celsius  which is then transferred to an earthen pot.

The Nutritious Broth

The dish is cooked in front of you by an attendant in the restaurant.  She adds the quail egg first and gives the broth a  stir.  Then this is followed by the meat slivers – in our case, pork, chicken and beef.  There is a type of Yunnan cured ham that usually goes into this dish but this ham is unavailable in France and the chef of this resto has had to substitute the cured pork with the fresh version.

One by One they all go in

The vegetables go in finally before the noodles:

Adding the Noodles

The grand finalé:

Crossing Over the Bridge Noodles

My eating companions that day were mny, a fellow blogger and Naomi san a fellow foodie who just cannot resist her gohan.  We were all delirious to find in Paris this delicious eatery – simple, compact and yet so authentic.  We didn’t have to cross any bridges to get here only a couple of streets from métro St Ambroise.

Situated in the 11th arrondissement, this little Yunnan eatery is a perfect little place I know I’ll be heading towards again when the winter months set in.  For now, I will dream of slurping the noodles from this soup that is a labour of love with a history of at least 300 years.

Guan Guan Yuan, 14 rue de la folie Mericourt 75011, tél: 01 43 55 09 82 

Oooooh lah lah! C’est Mignon, Ça!

My little friend, the gorgeous baby E. Foard simply loves this phrase:  “Oooooh lah lah!” She says with such panache that it is oh, so cute!  I couldn’t help myself, but I just had to look up the different words for ‘cute’ in all the languages that I could find on google translate.

In Italian, it’s carina, for a girl and carino for a boy.  It’s kawaii in Japanese, ke ai in Mandarin and in Cantonese, tak yi.  In bahasa Malay and Indonesian, it is lucu, pronounced luchu and in Spanish lindo.  Such colourful ways of saying the same thing.  In French, there is mignon/mignonne.  Now, how does one pronounce this, you ask, when the words in the other languages seem much easier phonetically.  Well, c’est compliqué, is what I say!  You can say “mi” but what about the “gn”which makes a rather odd sound akin to “ni-uh”.  The “on” has a silent “n” and makes a nasal sound like you’re trying to swallow the “o”.  That’s as close as I could get to this darn French pronunciation.  So, mignon is pronounced like so: mi-ni-uh-o.

French conversation, Part 1 is to be able to tell the butcher man the cut of pork you”d like for dinner.  With that phonetic chart in my head, I toddled off, with a spring in my step due to my excitement, to le boucherie down the road to get me a piece of filet mignon de porc.  I wanted to surprise my family with a recipe I concocted one sleepless night whilst it was storming outside.  This required the said cut of pork, some honey, balsamic vinegar, whole grain mustard and a frying pan.  Since I had all the ingredients in my pantry, including the frying pan, the rest of the recipe just required cooking the meat.

Now, how do you say mignon again?  I tried to get the word out, especially the part that required swallowing the “o” which I kept in, of course.  After a couple of attempts, I just pointed at the darn cut of meat, only to have the butcher say “Ah! filet mignon!”  Imagine my frustration.  I tried, really I did! Maybe I didn’t swallow the “o” enough….

I wonder why the French have called this cut of pork so.  The filet mignon de beouf is chateaubriand beef in English according to Tony Tobin from Saturday Kitchen.  What cute part of the pig did this cut of meat derive from?

The cute Cut

Here’s the recipe:

1 piece of filet mignon de porc, good for 4 persons.  You can ask your butcher to help with deciding what is a good sized piece.

2Tbsp of olive oil

1tsp of whole grain mustard

2tsp of acacia honey

1/2tsp of balsamic vinegar.  I used one that is slightly fruitier because it had been infused with fig.  Otherwise, balsamic vinegar from Modena will do. 

Salt and Pepper to taste

1. Whip up the marinade so that all the ingredients mix well.

2. Cut your meat into 4 equal parts and make an incision from the sides of the meat much like when you are halving a sandwich bun or baguette. Do not half the meat completely, only slice midway.

3. Using a pastry brush, coat the insides of the meat with the marinade, like you are buttering your baguette.

4. Leave to marinate for 30 minutes.

Then heat some olive oil in a non-stick pan and when the pan is smoking, gently slide the meat into the hot oil and allow to brown.  Turn the meat over to brown the other side. When both sides have been nicely browned,  lower the heat and allow the meat to cook.  Cooking times depend on the thickness of your pieces but do keep turning your meat over so that your meat gets cooked and not burnt.  It should have a nice golden colour to it with perhaps a bit of crust forming because of the honey in the marinade.  You may find it difficult to cook the meat if the cut is on the thick side, then open up the pieces and cook the meat this way to ensure that the insides are done. When the juices run clear, your meat is done.  Remove and scrape the bits that have been left over in the pan and pour some hot water over it. This forms the jus. That, kawan kawanis your gravy. Allow to simmer for 2 minutes and pour over your meat before dishing into individual plates.

That's how it should look in the pan

I served this with a risotto made from carnaroli rice, which is another grain of risotto rice next to arborio.  The latter works just as well.  Cook the risotto like you normally would.  Instead of shallots, I used half a leek which I sliced very finely and sautéed them in a cast iron casserole.  I added a knob of butter to olive oil.  It is important to coat each grain of rice thoroughly before adding the broth or stock.  Risotto needs love and patience, you have to keep adding stock, keep stirring until the rice is cooked.  A glass of wine in the non-stirring hand helps greatly, I found.  Couple that with imaginary sounds of joyful grunts of appreciation from the family and before you can say “hey presto!”, your risotto is done.  Love and patience takes about 20 to 25 minutes, so not long really.  I added peas to mine because I felt the pork needed a blander vegetable to go with it and because I had a bottle of pesto already opened, I added 2 teaspoons of that too.   The risotto should be served as soon as it is cooked.  For added measure, I drizzled some truffle induced oil over it.

The Riso

Risotto ought to still have a crunch on the bite – al dente– is how the Italians refer to this . If you are used to rice that is soft and fluffy, then this crunchy rice takes some getting used to. With the gocce de tartufo, this risotto is simply perfetto!

Try this at home, kawan kawan.  I would love to hear about it.

Dinner all served up - the meat, the carbs and the veg

You Fed Your Kids Black Eggs?

Just a few weeks ago, Grace D and I were having a conversation about pig trotters stewed in Chinese Black Vinegar which is a dish eaten during the 100 days of confinement in a typical Straits Chinese household.  The confinement period lasts 100 days following the birth of a baby when a nyonya, a Peranakan woman is kept home with her new born infant, to be fed, nourished and pampered by her mother or confinement nurse, if she were from a wealthier family.  This period will ensure that she eats all the right foods which will help heal her body from the trauma of birth.  Ginger is to help her swollen belly shrink back to pre-pregnancy size by reducing the “wind”that is still trapped in her abdomen.  The added advantage is that her uterus will eventually shrink back to its virginal glory. (Breastfeeding helps of course, but it’s not as tasty for the mother as it is for the suckling infant.)  Vinegar is to help her rid the toxins that pregnancy had induced, thereby ensuring that her breast milk is as close to organic as it gets for her precious bundle.  A soup brewed with special herbs and dried longans, a sweet and juicy fruit normally consumed fresh in the summer months, will help her restore the iron levels in her blood that she had lost during childbirth.  This is to strengthen her constitution, it is believed.  The dried longans are to help restore the “heat” (yang) in her body which has been depleted during the birth, thereby ensuring that the ying and yang are balanced.  This basically means that she won’t feel chilled as soon as the baby is born.

Pig trotters stewed in Chinese Black Vinegar and ginger is a traditional dish eaten in Malaysia and Singapore during the period of confinement.  Most traditional mothers and mothers-in-law have learnt to prepare it from their own mothers.

I was inspired by this conversation to braise some pork and eggs.  This is a traditional Teowchew dish that I had learnt from my mother.  This dish, although similar in colour and cooking method to the trotters in black vinegar, does not require vinegar, only soya sauce, certain similar spices found in the said dish above and garlic.  Of course trotters would not be the choicest cut since even I, who grew up eating all things strange, do not have a penchant for it, so I can’t expect two half Chinese kids and an Italian to shout for joy at this dinner menu. Instead, I selected 8  joues de porc (pig’s cheeks) which are more succulent than the filet mignon de porc.  That was the closest I could get to the consistency of the trotter.  Alternatively, one could use belly pork in this recipe but I tend to find it too fatty, so given my plan to feed my family on healthier foods, I have decided that the cheeks were better substitutes.

First, hard boil half a dozen eggs.  Set aside to be cooled and then peel them. Whilst the eggs are boiling, marinate the pork with a dash of soya sauce.  I used this:

A Singaporean Dark Soya Sauce

This is a type of dark soya sauce manufactured in Singapore.  It is denser than most and a little sweetened and is usually served with Hainanese Chicken Rice.

If not, you can use this:

The Chinese Cousin

This is superior Dark Soya Sauce from China which is more diluted and saltier.

I’ve alternated between the two as the former one is really difficult to find outside Singapore.  This bottle was DHL-ed to me by my dad.

Here are the ingredients for the Teochew Soya Sauce Pork good for a family of 4:

1 kg of pork belly, cut into 10 cm strips and marinated with a dash of dark soy sauce or 8 – 10 pork cheeks, marinated with a dash of dark soy sauce

3 tbs of rock sugar, granulated sugar works fine too

1 head of garlic or 30 cloves, peeled

8  slices of ginger or a generous knob of ginger

1 cinnamon stick

1 star anise

2 tbs of light soy

2 tbs of dark soy

2 litres water

6 hard boiled eggs, peeled

It really isn’t difficult to cook this dish. In fact, after the initial preparations, the dish simply cooks itself.  This can be done the night before in a slow cooker, ready for dinner the next day.  Because liquids form easily in slow cooking, I would add 1.5 l of water instead. Just follow the steps below and instead of simmering, put the stew in the slow cooker after you’ve removed the foam.

Melt the rock sugar in a little sunflower or canola oil which you would have added to a heavy based pot.  I use my le creuset cast iron pot.  When the sugar is caramelised but not burnt, add the garlic, ginger, star anise and cinnamon stick and fry until fragrant. This should take no more than 3 minutes.  Add the pork to the spice mixture, together with the condiments and give the meat a gentle stir to seal in the flavours. Then add the stock and allow to simmer for 1.5 to 2 hours. Whilst simmering, foam will form which you must remove together with the excess fat, if your cut of pork is on the fatty side.  When all the froth and other undesirables have been removed, lower the fire and continue to let the broth brew.  The garlic will eventually melt into the loh as the Teochews would say, referring to the gravy that will start to form as the stock thickens.  The Teochews call this dish loh bak or see yew bak.  Add the eggs towards the last 30 to 40 minutes of cooking and you will notice them transforming into the black lumps you see in the picture.

Teochew Soya Sauce Pork - Loh Bak

This dish reminds me of happy childhood days, eating white rice just drizzled with the gravy fragrant with garlic, cinnamon and just the right measure of liquorice.  This is really,  truly sedap!

Drown the Rice with Gravy

I make this regularly because la famille simply love it.  SS has been eating this soya sauce/black eggs since she’s been put on solids.  The Italian eats his eggs soaked in the gravy and RN just eats the egg whites which are now brown or black, depending on your perception of this shade of black/brown.  And when we have bread lying about, the Italian mops up the gravy with pieces of baguette. Try it kawan kawan and tell me what you think…. release the Teochew in you! My mah mah (grandmother) would be so proud!

Maki Making

Cooking classes abound in Paris.  Debbie K, a kawan of mine and fellow food enthusiast orgnized one at her favourite sushi bar, Comme des Poissons.  I was very excited to be included in her mailing list because a cooking class at this prestigious sushi bar is trés difficile to come by.  I was told that there is a long waiting list amongst the Japanese housewives in Paris, dying to learn how to make sushi rolls the right way.  Yes, even Japanese housewives are eager to learn from this sushi chef.  What more honour can there be than for Kino san to welcome gaijins like me to his humble resto?

Apron in hand and eager to start, I head off to the rue de La Tour in the seizieme for a 10 o’clock start.  No sooner had I arrived, I saw Kino san bounding up the road to open his sushi bar ready for today’s lesson.  His sushi bar only sits 10 pax at a go and Mondays are when he does some R and R.  This Monday though, he unlocked his resto/bar for the ladies of the ISP (International School of Paris).

The lesson begins full swing in Japanese with Debbie K san translating.  Kino san says a mouthful in Japanese and Debbie K san says two words in translation and so this goes on until end of class.

The first and  most crucial thing we learnt that morning is that the gohan in any sushi roll is the most important ingredient.  Mais oui, I thought, sushi is rolled rice, n’est ce pas? But what Kino san meant was this:  the rice and the sushi vinegar that goes into the rice has to be made fresh just before the sushi is rolled. He would rather be complimented on his rice than on the ingredients that he puts in the rice – his words.  Of course, the ingredients have to be fresh too especially the fish that goes into the sushi.

The rice has to be Japanese short grain rice and this can be purchased in any Japanese grocery store or at the Chinese supermarket, Tang Fréres in Paris. He recommended this brand:

Premium Japanese Rice

This rice is grown in California, incidentally, where the soil and climate are conducive for rice harvesting.

Rice harvested in the autumnal months are more moist than that harvested in the spring/summer months, Kino san explained and this knowledge is crucial in determining the amount of water to be used when cooking the gohan.  Rice is the staple food in Asia and features predominantly in every meal much like potatoes are in Europe and America.  My mother taught me that the correct amount of water to add to washed rice is up to the first knuckle of your index finger and no more.  So if you divide your index finger into thirds, it is the first third from the base of your finger nail.

The rice kernels have to washed very well. That means that the water has to be clear before the rice can be cooked in the rice cooker. Look at the water at the start of the rice washing process:

Cloudy Water

Stir vigourously whilst washing to release the starch from the kernels.  Then pour out the cloudy water and start all over again.  Some people have a special number that they stop at, like my mother who counts up to 6 times. But really, if you’re not too number obsessed, then wash the kernels til the water runs clear:

Clear Water

This works for any type of rice you’ll be washing in future.  Basmati and Thai Jasmine rice have lesser starch content and do not require that much washing. Rice is ready to be cooked once the water in which it is washed runs clear.  Then measure your water as explained above or if you prefer, 4 cups of rice requires 4.4 cups of water (amount of rice x 1.1).  As you know, I am not one for exact measurements because cooking is all about trial and error.  My family has cooked the aghak-aghak (guess-guess in Malay) for generations and the recipes that my parents have shared with me are mostly based on this way of cooking…and our rice is always cooked just right with the first-knuckle-of-your-index-finger measurement.

The rice cooker:  Kino san advised a Japanese made one but in reality, the one I have that has been manufactured in China works just as fine.

Sushi rice has to be cooled before sushi making. Here, you’ll see Kino san fanning his rice after he has added his secret potion of rice vinegar mix:

Fanning the Rice

Of course, he declined to name the proportions of sugar to mirin to rice vinegar and simply advised us to buy this:

The secret potion

Mixing the rice is very important to ensure that it is thoroughly coated with sushi vinegar.  The Japanese word for this action is cutting.  As I watched Kino san, I realized that he was slicing through the mountain of rice several times.  It is important not to break the cooked rice kernel.  Then he waits:

Waiting by the Rice

I love how patient the Japanese people are.  They understand the beauty of the adage that Rome was not built in a day and that grace and patience achieve results.

When the rice was at the right temperature, maki making begun.  First, it is important to surround wrap your mat.  This prevents any excess rice from sticking to the grooves in the mat and makes for easy washing.  I wish someone had told me that before…. but you learn something new everyday.

Then place a piece of nori at the edge of the mat nearest you and wet your hands in a bowl of water that you should have already prepared next to you along with a wet tea towel.  This is to ensure that the rice does not stick to your hands and that you don’t waste any rice by wiping your hands with the wet tea towel and throwing the excess rice back into the rice bowl or trough.  Kino san explained that much respect and regard have to be shown to the number of days that it takes to grow rice which is 88.  The kanji for rice and also the chinese symbol for rice can be pulled apart to make up the number 88 in Japanese and Chinese characters.

Rice equals 88

So “waste not and want not” was what he meant.  It was humbling to see this great sushi chef savouring every grain of rice not wanting to waste even a single kernel whilst showing us how to make maki.

Did you know that nori has a dull side and a shiny one?  Well, Japanese people eat with their eyes it has been said.  Presentation and plating is very important in Japanese dining.  So the shiny side is what you see when the sushi is rolled with the seaweed facing you.

Kino san showed us how to make the expert sushi, that is, with the rice enveloping the nori.  First, spread the gohan on the dull side of the seaweed, then nudge it towards you gently with your fingertips until the rice reaches the base of the nori square.

Nudging the rice towards the sushi chef

Then you do a flip of the nori/rice parchment and voilâ, the seaweed side is now facing you.  Spread a thin film of wasabi in the middle of the nori

The Green Stripe

and then begin placing your filling.

The Filling

When that is done, it is time to start rolling.  Place your thumbs at the base of your mat and push both mat and sushi towards the middle of the mat over the ingredients.

Like So desu

Press gently but firmly down to secure the filling and then roll once more to the end of the nori.  Dahdum!  you have your first maki made!

To say that it is difficult would be lying and to say that it is easy would also be fibbing.  Practice makes perfect is what I can say….. Correct practice, that is. Don’t be put off by the stickiness of the gohan, with time, the rice will no longer be sticking to your hands.  Just look at those perfect sushi hands of Kino san in the picture – sans riz!

I’ve purchased my sushi making ingredients and mat and tonnes of surround wrap.  I’ll be trying this out with the kids.  I bet, they’ll appreciate better the sushi that they’ve made themselves and I don’t have to be ordering livraison from the local non-Japanese Japanese anymore….

Japanese Grocery Shops

Kioko, 35 rue des Petits Chaps 75002

Jujiya, 46 rue St Anne 75002

Nanaya, 81 Ave Mozart 75116

Kanae, 118 rue Lecourbe 75015


Easy Like Sunday Morning

This gallery contains 8 photos.

It’s Sunday morning in Sicily.  When in Rome, do as the Romans do and when in Sicily, do as the Sicilians.  That is, take your time to awaken, listening to the waves roll gently onto the shore.  Listen again and … Continue reading

Say Cheeeeeeese!

Ricotta makes an appearance in quite a lot of Sicilian dishes, both savoury and sweet.  Silvana D had the genius of taking me to a ricotta farm nestled in the hills of Messina.  We had an early start because the artisan of this smooth silky cheese commences everyday at the stroke of dawn.  He apprenticed at 14, learning the art of ricotta making from his father and has been making ricotta ever since.

This is really a small holding where a manageable amount of ricotta is made daily to be sold to small  fromageries in the town centre.  Owners of such small holdings tend to also make the cheese for their own consumption.  This one is no exception.

Ricotta is made by bringing the whey left over from cheese making to a boiling point and then made to curdle with a little vinegar or lemon juice. Whey is a low fat, nutritious and limpid liquid that is a by-product of cheese making.  In effect, ricotta is freshly curdled whey.  Therefore, highly perishable and it is advised that ricotta be consumed within a day or two.

The curdling process is easily achieved, usually with vinegar or lemon juice.  But in the case of this cheese maker, he curdled the milk with the sap from a fig branch that he had picked from his garden.  This is a fine example of living off the land, kawan kawan.  The milk comes from the sheep and goats that are kept by the farmer and these are let to roam freely in the hills munching on grass that grow there.  Sicilians will tell you that sheep’s milk makes the best flavoured and textured ricotta that is perfect for the desserts that they are so well known for – Cassata and Cannoli.

Look at the fig branch soaking in the bucket.  The sap is harnessed by cutting off the leaves and makings incisions in the bark.  The sap infused water is then poured into the vat of whey that has been brought to a boil.

Sappy Water

The chemical effect is extraordinary – the whey curdled before my very eyes.

Freshly curdled milk

It is important to remove the froth whilst vigourously stirring the mixture. As soon as all the froth is removed, the whey is allowed to set and is then scooped into plastic ricotta shaped moulds which act also as sieves to let the excess water drain.  When cooled, the ricotta is then refrigerated and transported to be sold in the town.

Ricotta in its rightful mould

Italian Ricotta is usually made with sheep, goat, cow or water buffalo milk. This ricotta, however, is made from a mélange of milk from the sheep and goat. The cheese maker feels that this gives his ricotta a better flavour than that made from one type of milk.

Having had an early start, Silvana D and I had missed out on breakfast.  But that was no matter because we were offered the freshest ricotta that one can possibly dream of eating, right from the cheese maker’s vat.

Freshly made Ricotta - breakfast from heaven

Who would have thought an insipid looking white cheese could taste this good?  A sprinkle of salt and a handful of bread crumbs from the bread Sicilians call pane duro did the job for me.  The ricotta still warm was so smooth and silky that it simply glided down my oesophagus. No chewing was required even of the bread crumbs since these have been moistened by the liquid from the ricotta.

Funny enough, this actually reminded me of breakfast in Singapore as a child. My mother would purchase from the market a soya bean milk curd that is sweetened with palm sugar syrup which has exactly the same consistency as this ricotta – smooth and silky.  This soya bean curd is called Taufu Fa and can be eaten chilled or warm.

Taufu Fa

Funny also how the world seems to have come full circle.  In Sicily, I discovered fresh ricotta that reminded me of a memorable childhood eating experience. What more could I have asked for, kawan kawan?  But wait, there is more to come….