Sunday, August 30, 2009

Reviewing Madhur Jaffrey's memoir

duck curry - madhur jaffrey's

I have an addiction - a literary addiction to memoirs of writers. You recall that a couple of months ago, I read one by Haruki Murakami. I have read many others previously but my all-time favorite is John McGahern's All Will Be Well. I just finished another by Madhur Jaffrey - Climbing the mango trees; a memoir of a childhood in India - and this one is a very close runner-up to McGahern's.

Madhur Jaffrey is a popular cookbook author of Indian cuisine. What drove me to pick up her cookbooks is my abysmal failure to produce any decent Indian curry despite my best efforts. It's either the yogurt curdling in the gravy or the spices tasting bitter. But when I started trying recipes from her book, I was suddenly cooking edible curries - much to the relief of my husband. I was impressed and reserved a copy of her memoir from the local library.

It is clear that she had a privileged childhood not just by Indian standards, but by any standard. However, there is no hint of smugness or pride. She tells her stories from the perspective of the child that she was and it does not sound contrived. I was amused because I found myself internally comparing our childhoods which could not be more different. She comes from a respectable, almost aristocratic background whose family history is contained in a thick, red leather bound book entitled "Short account of the Life and Works of Rai Jeevan Lal Bahadur, Late Honorary Magistrate, Delhi, with Extracts from his Diary Relating to the Time of the Mutiny, 1857" although it included details of family history prior to that. Could it be more grand? Much of my family history is truncated partly because of the number of adoptions in the family (this was a time when there was no record for adoptions). Part of her childhood was spent in a family homestead with two annexes which housed up to nine families comfortably. Part of my childhood was in a rented L-shaped flat - it had no rooms, was much like a studio but had to fit our family of five. Her family had a garden of not only flowers but all the vegetables for their meals (potatoes, onions, carrots, okra, eggplant, cauliflower, cabbage, kohlrabi, tomatoes...). I don't think I ever saw a vegetable garden except on television, until I was an adult.

It's not that I like to compare my life to the lives of the writers, but the way she writes draws me back to a time when I was young too. I tried to recall if, as a child, I had the same perspective. I identified with her when she chatters about her days in school. It was so easy to slip into the stories that she tells. I felt like I was a child as young as she was then, and she was taking my hand and leading me through her life - pointing out, in rich details, the saris that her mother favors and the eccentricities of her uncle, and nudging me to taste the lush, spiced foods, or suck the tart juice straight from the skin of mangoes from Benares.

duck curry - madhur jaffrey's

duck curry - madhur jaffrey's

Above are pictures I barely managed to take of a dinner I made with a family recipe she shared - Classic Duck Curry with Coriander and Cardamom. As you can see, I deconstructed it a little bit. I fried and roasted the duck to make it crispy, and cooked the curry separately. I had some sweet potato left from a previous dinner and decided to make a mash before plating it with some sautéed spinach. I rested a crispy duck leg on the mashed potato and poured some of the curry over it. I don’t usually plate my food this way – this was totally spontaneous and we had a good laugh over it. The curry was flavorful especially since I added a little of the duck fat to it (as would be the case if the duck was cooked in it). I was surprised at how well sweet potato goes with curry.

Of course I looked-up more information on her and I like these:
A conversation between Madhur Jaffrey and Maya Angelou.
She aspired to be an actress before she started writing about food.
BBC has a series of videos of her instructive cooking - so useful for me.

I feel a little sad that I have to return the book to the library tomorrow, but I will be looking to get a copy for my own library.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Not my mother's fruit cake

fruit cake recipe

Every year, during the school holidays, we packed and dragged our bags to visit my mum's family across the causeway. She was born and grew up in a little rural village in Malacca. My grandparents had a wooden house on stilts and brought up 9 children on my grandfather's single income as a rubber-tapper. Like us, they had humble means and led simple lives. But we, coming from Singapore, were considered city folks and for some reason, were treated as special. Every time, we drove into the village in a rented car, we were welcomed with much fanfair. My grandmother and aunties would pull us for hugs as we kissed their hands in the traditional Malay way. There was much chattering about how we looked, how much we had grown and whether we were too thin or gained weight. I was always a little embarrassed but this was a mere prelude to the attention they would shower us throughout the visit.

To match the welcome, my mum would pull out treats and carefully wrapped food out of plastic bags. Among the stash were two cakes that took a delicate hand and watchful eyes to make. One of the cakes would be the infamous Malay kek lapis (layered cake) - the one which requires you to pour no more than a ¼ inch layer of batter, each layer baked for 2 minutes or less, until golden before the next layer is filled. I love that cake - all the butter and spice equals luxury in a bite. And then there is the fruit cake. My mum told me that a fruitcake is more about the fruits and nuts than cake. It may have been about abundance, but I didn't like it at all. The cake itself was delicious - I was happy with walnuts, I could tolerate raisins, but I didn't like the fruits - glazed cherries, candied pineapples and dried apricots. After my first bite, I didn't care if I never took another from a fruit cake again.

But as it turns out, my husband loves fruit cake. During sahur (the morning meal during Ramadan), S has cereal and milk every meal - it's the easiest to prepare at 4 a.m. He deserved something more. SoI did the unthinkable and made a fruit cake so that he had options. While waiting for my mum to wake up in her time zone, I searched online to get inspired. I really liked Kevin's (of Closet Cooking) recipe - it looked rich and moist. When I finally spoke to my mum, she rattled off whatever she could remember since she hasn't made fruit cakes for more than 10 years. They didn't have molasses so to brown the cake, they "burnt" the sugar. She steamed her cake, not bake. To prevent the fruits and nuts from sinking due to the long steaming time (3-4 hours), she said I should coat the fruits and nuts with flour.

The cake

fruit cake 5 So I took her basic recipe and decided to tweak it. I may have gone too far because I hardly recognize it. I have been using whole wheat pastry flour and was very happy with the results. I upped her use of 1 cup flour to 1½ cup because I wanted more cake. I wasn't worried for about the use of whole flour and the liquid ratio because I was planning to use a natural liquid sweeteners - agave. I wasn't sure I could burn sugar right so I used blackstrap molasses. For the nuts and fruits - walnuts and raisins were pantry staples, so that was easy. I also had dried figs and dates from previous recipes and Trader Joe's orange flavored cranberries which we use in salads. There were a few dried apricots but I wasn't sure if they were enough, so I bought more. I chanced upon these organic dried apricots that were not that bright shade of yellowy-orange. They were a dark brown because they hadn't been treated with sulphur dioxide. See the picture above to compare. Despite its looks, I like the taste of the organic apricots - they were less tough than the regular ones that I am used to. When you pour the batter in loaf pans, spread it level. I didn't do it for one of the pans and the cake came out uneven. I liked using 2 smaller loaf pans, so that each slice did not produce too big a piece. I also soaked cheese cloths in orange juice (yes, instead of brandy) and wrapped the fruit cakes in them for about 5 days. See the one on the right below? I, um, cut a slice to taste before taking the picture. The cake was moist despite the use of whole wheat flour. I think this fruit cake may have made me a convert, but more importantly, S loves it.

fruit cake recipe

fruit cake recipe

Fruit cake recipe

1½ cup + 2 tablespoons whole wheat pastry flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
½ cup butter (1 stick)
5 tablespoons agave
1 tablespoon molasses
3 eggs
½ salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon powder
½ teaspoon ginger powder
½ teaspoon allspice powder
1¼ cup walnuts
1 cup cranberries
1 cup dates
¾ cup raisins
½ cup apricots
½ cup dried figs
½ cup orange juice (optional)

1. Heat the oven to 275°F with a pan of hot water on the lowest shelf of the oven. Line 2 8" by 4" loaf pans or 1 8" by 8" loaf pan with parchment paper or foil. All ingredients should be at room temperature.

2. Mix the dried fruits and nuts, and dredge them in the 2 tablespoons of flour. Combine the flour, spices, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

3. Cream the butter in a mixer and add one egg at a time, followed by the agave and molasses. Mix in the flour mixture and then stir in the dried fruits and nuts.

4. Pour the batter into the pan/s. Bake for 2 hours. Cake is ready when a cake tester comes out clean.

5. Optional: Soak 2 cheese cloths in orange juice and wrap around each cake. Re-soak the cheesecloth after 2 days. Cake is ready to eat after 4 days.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Great California Garage Sale


One of my favorite things to do on a weekend, which I don't do enough of, is scanning Craigslist and going to estate sales. My most memorable so far is the home of a former hunter in Sunnyvale (!) with more than 100 taxidermied animals. I wish I had my camera then. California is getting into the act on Friday and Saturday. I am not sure if you can find this on Craigslist, but here it is: The Great California Garage Sale.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Songs you used to love


So fun! You can check in every day for a surprise tune from the past. Or, click on the button on the bottom left corner to play all the songs.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Coconut milk lemongrass broth with salmon

asian coconut milk broth salmon recipe

I think I have grown more sentimental since I moved 8,000 miles away from my family. Every memory I have of home seems to be sepia-tinted and filled with gentle smiles. There is no darkness, no anger, no crying. Yes, this must be a side effect of homesickness and I won't worry yet until I see small children running in slow motion. But it's nice being able to go to that happy place when life gets intimidating.

When I spoke to my mum on Friday, she was telling me how my niece, 2½ years old, typed on her toy laptop and began to fret, "So much work! This is giving me a headache-lah." I laughed not just because I can see her tiny self doing exactly that - she was clearly imitating her mum - but I used to do the same thing. When I was 7 and helping my mum with small chores, I would take a break to wipe the imaginary beads of sweat off my forehead with my forearm and breathed a heavy sigh.

And it is the same in the kitchen. My mum never taught me to cook as in "For today's cooking lesson, we are going to make ....", but many things she did are imprinted in my mind even though I was not consciously trying to learn from her. Every now and then, I find myself doing things that imitates the way she preps and cooks. It happened again when I made this coconut milk lemongrass broth. I did not follow any particular recipe, and conventional preparation requires me to slice the galangal thin and chop the lemongrass into 1-inch pieces. But I did as my mum would - I just peeled the galangal and cut it into 2. I cut-off the lower half of the lemongrass and just bruised it. And both go into the pot as-is, so that when I scoop the broth, I can easily remove the lemongrass and galangal. While they add flavor, they are not all that pleasant to bite into.

I think she would like this broth. It has flavors that she is familiar with. When I have leftover ingredients, fried rice is usually a sure bet. Mixed vegetables - carrots, long beans, any greens - and perhaps a handful of meat, all so easy to throw into the wok. But sometimes, I have the odd herb or two that didn't quite make it into the food processor for the rempah (spice paste) for a Malay dish like sambal goreng or mee rebus. Lemongrass, galangal, kafir leaves - when stored in the fridge, they are good for a few days. But if I don't feel like making more rempah, this coconut lemongrass broth is my go-to meal. It is so easy to make and I still make it even when I don't have the exact quantity of ingredients, for example, if I just have 1 lemongrass or an inch of galangal. I just let the broth simmer a little longer. If you have never used lemongrass or galangal, I think this broth is a perfect introduction for a first-time attempt.

This broth is a take on the Thai dish tom kha gai, which means "boiled galangal chicken" and usually provides gravy for rice. I make it less thick so that I can drink it directly - perfect if you just want something light. S stirred some brown rice into his. Instead of chicken, I used salmon. I also added carrots and spinach because I had those at hand. There is no heat but feel free to sprinkle a little red chili peppers like my husband did.

asian coconut milk broth salmon recipe

asian coconut milk broth salmon recipe

Coconut milk lemongrass broth with salmon

1 fillet salmon, about 5 oz
2 handfuls baby spinach leaves
½ cup sliced carrot
2 shallots, minced
2 garlic, minced
1 inch ginger, mined
2 lemongrass stalks
2-3 inches galangal, peeled
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 cup coconut milk
2½ cups vegetable stock
1 tablespoon oil

1. Heat the oil in a saucepan at medium heat. Saute the minced shallots until caramelized and then add garlic and ginger. Stir for about 1 minute. Take the bottom part of the lemongrass and bruise it - I use a pestle. If the galangal is larger, cut it into 2. Put in the lemongrass, the galangal and fish sauce. Stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. Put in the vegetable stock. Bring to a boil and then let it simmer at a lower heat for about 20 minutes.

2. Pour in the coconut milk and continue to simmer for about 5 minutes. Cut the salmon fillet into 1-inch cubes. Put the salmon cubes in the broth to let it poach. When the salmon becomes opaque, throw in the spinach. Stir gently and switch off the heat. Serve immediately.

Serves 2

Monday, August 24, 2009



*picture from dee & ricky

Usually when I call my 6-year old nephew, he is playing a video game - either on Wii or Playstation. But last night, he was actually playing with his Lego set. Yes, he built a gun with his Lego bricks only because he is right now obsessed with the James Bond game he plays on Wii and fascinated with 007's guns. But at least he was away from the TV. It's been awhile since I played with those bricks myself, so I googled "Lego" to see what I could find:

Maybe this is more my speed? Lego in the kitchen - stackable containers.

Or Lego to accessorize with.

Lego advertisements.

Forget Disneyland. When my nephew and niece visit, we are going to Legoland.

This has to be my favorite - a pictorial Lego essay.

Totally unrelated to Lego, but a pretty cool video - tracking an adventure through the growth of his beard (via Loobylu):

Dinner tonight

dinner tonight - prawn and bok choy

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Hazelnut date balls

date ball cardamom recipe

Life has been moving in slow motion since yesterday, the first day of Ramadan. The first few days are the toughest; the body is thirsty and the mind is parched. But there is a psychological factor at play. Our long days are usually broken up by meals. When you are working, you look forward to that lunch break. Visions of what to have for lunch floats in your mind. And the comfort of a hot latte is irreplaceable when you are feeling stressed. All that is taken away during Ramadan.

Just as I evolve as a person, what powers me through the day of fasting has gone through a metamorphosis. At seven years old, I fasted because I wanted to be just like the grown-ups and because my mum told me it was the only way to deserve celebrating Hari Raya. Coming home from school, I threw my bag aside and immediately sought the couch so that I could lay there until break fast - I did not intend to move for the four hours leading to the magical Maghrib minute. As a teenager, fasting, for me, was about peer pressure and the challenge of doing something that my friends of other faith thought impossible. So, yes, a little pride was involved. Up until my twenties, fasting was just something you do and not questioned.

But now, I am conscious of the purpose of the fast. When a hunger pang hits, I am reminded of the reason why we do this. It allows us to empathize with those for whom hunger is the norm. Instead of giving in to the feelings of irritation, impatience and volatility that I experience with hunger, I remind myself that it is a fast not only of food, but of my emotions as well. At the end of each day, I am thankful that I completed the fast and I am grateful for the food before me. So life in slow motion is actually welcomed - it allows me to refocus my faith and the quiet turns me inwards for self-reflection.

Date is a traditional fruit eaten to break our fast. It is incredibly nutritional - good source of dietary fiber and rich in vitamins. I used not to like it because I found it too sweet. But a few years ago, while visiting my friend Kristen in Santa Fe, she made these date balls for desserts. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. So I made them to break our fast with. She used almonds, but I decided to try it with hazelnuts. I think you can substitute with whatever nuts you have. I grounded the nuts with a mortar and pestle, but next time, I am going to leave the nuts a little chunkier.

date ball cardamom recipe

The unexpected ingredient is the cardamom. I am familiar with cardamom as a spice in Indian cooking. Here, I was surprised that it added a refreshing note to the sweetness of the date. I also had fun crushing the skin of the cardamom. I usually cook with them whole. The seeds look similar to vanilla beans. I used a mortar and pestle to grind them, but you can also buy ground cardamom. Alternatively, use cinnamon if you are not fond of the taste of cardamom. I shaped the dates into bite-sized pieces; you can make them into bigger 2-inch pieces.

date ball cardamom recipe

Hazelnut date balls

1 cup date, chopped finely
½ cup hazelnuts, chopped
1 tablespoon cardamom or ¾ teaspoon ground cardamom*
3 tablespoon dessicated coconut

1. If using whole cardamom, use a pestle to crush each cardamom. When the skin breaks, remove the seeds. Then use a mortar and pestle to ground the cardamom seeds. To toast the dessicated coconut, put in a dry pan on low heat and stir occasionally until light brown.

2. Using clean hands, mix the date, hazelnut and ground cardamom until well-incorporated . Pinch a small amount and roll between palms into a ball with a diameter of about 1 inch.

3. When all the date mixture is shaped, roll half of them in the dessicated coconut.

* substitute with cinnamon if you don't have/like cardamom

Makes 14

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Dexter love


I held off putting up this picture because it is a picture of my cat's, erm, kitty litter and I wasn't sure if it's appropriate to publish it. Some people might see "pee", but I see art. My husband thinks I am mad for rushing to grab my camera when I saw this heart-shaped stain. It was left by Dexter on the day his foster mum got married, so I believe it was his way of expressing his happiness for her. Congratulations again Sandy and Luis!

Dexter cat 43

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Finally, I am taking steps to improve my picture-taking skills. I just started a short photography course with Nicole Hill Gerula. She promises to teach the basics - photography 101. The true purpose of my attendance is to learn what some of the buttons on my camera do. I have a Canon Powershot S5, which is a point and shoot with limited manual functions. At the beginning of class, Nicole tells us to take out our cameras out so we can start learning about those buttons. The unzipping of camera cases ensues and everyone is pulling out these ginormous cameras with long lenses attached while I quietly remove my modest camera from its bag. My poor camera - after its close-up, it is suffering from pixel envy. But it soldiered on - below are some of the pictures I took for our homework.

Shallow depth of field

Depth of field

Rule of thirds

Rule of thirds

Rule of thirds



Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Fig lemon oatmeal bar

fig bar recipe

I have been in a baking rut. Every weekend, I pull out the baking accouterments and work with the heat to produce something that S can have for breakfast during the week. But I have been repeating myself - biscotti, savory muffins, wholemeal chocolate cookies and bread. If it was a grind for me, the repeats must have been a bore to S. I needed to be inspired! Fittingly, it took a cookie to re-ignite my taste buds; specifically, a lemon fig cookie. My love for figs has been documented. Throw in a lemon? The flavor combination appealed to me. I had also just picked-up an old dessert recipe book from Know Knew Book store and was inspired by its use of wholegrain flour and natural sweeteners like honey and maple syrup. I have already started using whole wheat pastry flour and was keen to try the newer natural sweeteners like agave and brown rice syrup. I chose to use brown rice syrup in this recipe; it is less sweet than agave and honey tends to impart its own flavor.

Since I was experimenting, I decided to use a butter substitute from Earth Balance. When my in-laws visited last year, I bought a tub of the spread on the recommendation of my friend J because it is healthier for those with heart issues. Now, I am one of those who believe it's butter or nothing. But this is not your mother's margarine. It has no trans fat and is non-hydrogenated. In fact, the Earth Balance spread really impressed me. It has a light buttery taste that melts just right on warm toast. Here, I used their baking sticks; this makes the recipe vegan-friendly.

I was very happy with the results. More importantly, S liked it. The lemon was a little subtle - maybe next time I will try lemon peels to contrast more strongly with the figs. I have to confess now that I am actually not a fan of fruit bars - this was just for S. But I like the crust so much that I could eat it even if it didn't have the fig lemon topping on it. The crust tasted a little nutty, like there was a touch of peanut butter. I wonder if that's the net taste of wholemeal flour, oats and brown rice syrup. But it is a promiscuous type of crust - the type that demands pairings with other luscious toppings.

fig bar recipe
Fig lemon oatmeal bar
Inspired by The Common Ground Dessert Cookbook

2 cup rolled oats
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
½ cup Earth Balance (or butter)
6 tablespoons brown rice syrup (or honey)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger

Fig lemon topping
1 cup dried figs, cut into ½ inch pieces
¾ cup water
½ cup fresh lemon juice
zest of 1 organic lemon
1 tablespoon cornstarch

1. Heat oven to 350°F. Mix the flour, oatmeal and spices. Add the brown rice syrup and Earth Balance (these should be at room temperature). Use your fingers to blend the flour mixture until well-incorporated. Press the mixture into an oiled an 8" by 8" baking pan.

2. To make the topping, put all the ingredient, except the cornstarch into a small saucepan on low heart. Stir until mixture becomes fairly smooth. Scoop a tablespoon of the mixture into a small bowl and dissolve the cornstarch in it. Pour back into the saucepan and stir until mixture thickens. If it is too thick, just a little water.

3. Pour fig lemon mix into the baking pan and spread evenly on the pressed oatmeal mixture. Bake for about 30 minutes. It's done when a cake tester comes out clean. Let it cool before cutting into bars.

*Update: On the second day of his breakfast bar, my husband, known for his salt tooth, decides that the crust could do with a little salt. If you are the same way, add ½ teaspoon salt.

fig bar recipe

Monday, August 17, 2009



I've acquired a taste for kombucha (I like the one from Whole Foods), which is banned in Singapore. I'm wondering if I should try to make my own.

My husband prefers Milo dinosaur, which we do make at home.

Insuring a coffee-taster's tongue for £10 million pounds.

Reduce your carbon footprint by making your own sparkling water in your kitchen.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Dinner tonight


L and D had us over for a delicious dinner of homemade dumpling and soup. Dessert was a mango pie and entertainment, as always, was their delightful daughter, A. We are stuffed. Thanks L & D!

Climbing up that hill - a city hike

Not long ago, if you asked me to join you for a city hike, I would have assumed you meant a marathon window shopping session. But yesterday, we did a true city hike with our friends J & H. Even though we went up to the city in part to escape the heat, the sun was as relentless. Sunblock was not optional. We parked at the foot of Telegraph Hill. Armed with a print-out of stairways of San Francisco, we walked up Vallejo Street to begin our hike of the Filbert Steps. (the youtube video provides the appropriate soundtrack while you read this - Running Up That Hill by Kate Bush - don't you just love her?)


That's us (minus me) at the start of our first steps. This is a very pretty walk up. We saw gorgeous houses on both sides; some had small common areas with a modest grill set-up and chairs. But what you notice first was the well-maintained gardens. The carefully pruned cascade of greens made the place look like it was an abundant garden with some houses at the edge rather than just houses with gardens. Once you reach the top of the stairs and look back, a view of the Bay Bridge greets you.



See the sign at the bottom right corner of the picture above? It says "Stairs to Coit Tower". So the steps we had just taken were leading us to more steps. A beautiful view at the top but a few too many tourists.



The Greenwich Steps (above) were entertaining. The gardens of the homes were peppered with kitsch - a tiger, a frog and a parking meter!


But my favorite is the actual Filbert Steps. Living in one of the houses must feel like you were living in a tree house. The wooden steps snaking along the homes enhances the metaphor. Together, the gardens look like a jungle - tall trees, unruly shrubs and a wild parrot colony! J told us they had just seen parts of a documentary about the parrots so I looked it up. You can read about it here. We didn't see the whole colony although it sounded like they were all there and chatting at the same time. We saw a few pairs and I did manage to take a picture of a parrot using the zoom function of my camera. Apologies for the over-saturation of the picture below but it was dark in the shade of the trees and I want the parrot to be visible.


We were entertained further when we met a couple who used to live in one of the houses. We were curious how they carried bulky groceries bags or moved appliances. They told us that they stopped shopping at the supermarkets, started ordering groceries online and made sure they tipped really well. But the delivery guys still hated them. Appliances - the stores charge $1 per step for delivery charges! And of course, the novelty of the parrots wears out real fast when you are subjected to their daily trillings. But it's all worth it for the luxury of opening your front door to an oasis of green (traipsing camera-totting city hikers excepted).


Saturday, August 15, 2009

Sweet soy sauce prawns

sweet soy sauce and black pepper prawns recipe

Our city hike today was fun and I learned more about San Francisco. But more on that tomorrow. Now, I'd like to complete my patriotic duty - Dish #7! It's a simple dish with 5 ingredients - prawns, soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic and black pepper that my husband cooked for dinner tonight. I just took pictures and ate! He says his mom cooks something similar and he was just guessing the dish. He usually just "agak-agak" (estimates) the proportion, but this time, I asked him to note them down so I could write them here. Keep the shells and heads on so that the prawns stay moist.

Sweet soy sauce prawns

1 lb prawns
3 tablespoon soy sauce
3 tablesoon brown sugar
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon oil for frying

1. Mix the soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic and pepper in a bowl. Marinate the prawns with the mixture. Cover and refrigerate for 2-4 hours.

2. Heat oil in a pan or wok to medium hot. Put the prawn mixture in and cook until the prawns turn pink. If you'd like a little sauce in the dish, just add a tablespoon of water while cooking.

sweet soy sauce and black pepper prawns recipe

California State Parks closure


It looks like the start of a lovely day and we are just about to leave for a hike. I was quickly perusing this morning's headlines before we go when I saw this - an article about 100 California State Parks that will close after Labor Day (7th September). So sad. Since moving here, I've really learned to appreciate the outdoors. I look forward to planning a hike almost every week. We've been to waterfalls, forests and valleys, meadows and lakes, and every time, I feel lucky to have the opportunity to be in the wide open space, the immense sky above me and the soft soil beneath my feet.

san mateo

Friday, August 14, 2009

Salted fish fried rice with brown rice

salted fish fried brown rice recipe

My mum told me that salted fish used to be a poor man's food. Fish preserved with salt was food that families could keep for a long time without refrigeration. As a kid, she ate salted fish that had been fried, with plain rice, and a sprinkle of sweet soy sauce, for a meal. Then she had her own family. She would cook chicken, or beef and vegetables for us, but sometimes, she would have a little fried salted fish on the side. She and my dad would eat that with other dishes. I was always invited to try, but I would just wrinkle my nose and shake my head. To me, salted fish was not a poor man's food but rather, it was old people's food. Of course, my parents were barely in their forties at that time.

I have finally acquired the taste for salted fish. I suppose it means I am in the "old people" category now. My preferred way of eating the salted fish is in fried rice. In this recipe for Dish #6, I use brown basmati rice because we are eating more of that at home. This dish is usually cooked with chicken pieces - I substituted that with tofu to cut the saltiness. I also added vegetable broth because I like my fried rice moist. I served the fried rice with my mum's sambal belacan but you can use any chili or sambal you have e.g. Sriracha or sambal oelek.

salted fish fried brown rice recipe

Salted fish fried rice with brown rice

3 cups of day old brown rice
2 oz salted fish, cut into ½ inch cubes
2 oz snow peas, sliced ½ inch
6 oz baked tofu or any dense tofu, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 eggs
4 garlic cloves, minced
1-inch ginger, minced
a few sprigs of cilantro
1 tablespoon fish sauce (or soy sauce)
1 teaspoon white pepper
3 tablespoons vegetable stock
3 tablespoons oil
a few drops of sesame oil

1. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a wok to medium heat and fry the eggs (scrambled). Remove eggs and heat 2 tablespoon of oil.

2. Fry the garlic, keeping heat at medium or slightly lower so that the garlic does not burn. Add the ginger and continue frying until fragrant or about 1 minute. Put in the salted fish, tofu and snow peas. Fry for about 2 minutes.

3. Add the rice and fried eggs, mixing all the ingredients together. Pour in the fish sauce and vegetable broth. Stir well. Then sprinkle in the white pepper followed by the sesame oil. Stir again.

4. To serve, scoop the rice into two bowls and put a few cilantro leaves on each bowl. Sambal is optional.

Serves 2

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Chinese rojak

Chinese rojak recipe

The heat has been getting to me. I know it's summer and I don't want to complain. Afterall, I was born and I grew up in a country that is just 1º north of the equator. But Dexter and I were both pretty listless today. The last thing I wanted to do was spend a lot of time cooking in the kitchen. So I rummaged the fridge to see what I could rustle up for dinner.

I saw that we had the remaining petis we used for the tau pok on Sunday. There was also some bean sprouts and cucumber left. With the whole pineapple we have, Chinese rojak seems like obvious. It also means I have Dish #5 Chinese rojak is like a Chinese salad - raw vegetables and fruit with the petis dressing. I asked my husband to pick up a jicama on his way home and we have a dinner which requires no cooking. Of course when he came home, he brought some yu tiao too. It is also called Chinese donut - strips sweet fried dough that you can get at the deli section of a Chinese supermarket, or you can make it yourself - here is a recipe to try. But you can leave it out if you can't find it.

Like most salads, this Chinese rojak recipe is flexible. You could add more pineapple, less bean sprouts - really whatever you prefer. We also tweaked the rojak sauce to make it thicker.

Chinese rojak recipe

Chinese rojak recipe

Chinese rojak

16 2-inch pineapple pieces
½ medium sized jicama, peeled and sliced
½ cup bean sprouts, blanched
1 small cucumber, peeled and sliced
2 small yu tiao

Rojak sauce
3 tablespoons petis (hae ko)
3 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon water.
1 red chili, blended/pounded, or 1 teaspoon sambal oelek
juice of ½ a lime
3 tablespoons crushed peanuts

Blend the ingredients of the sauce, sprinkling the peanuts as the last step. Mix the ingredients together and divide onto 2 plates. Pour the sauce equally on each plate. Toss and enjoy!

Serves 2

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Pomfret in black bean sauce

fermented black bean pomfret recipe

A couple months ago, I went to the 2 supermarkets I go to most frequently - Whole Foods and Ranch 99 - armed with a notepad and a pen. I wrote down the names of almost all the fishes. Yes, I looked silly but there is a method to the madness. When I got home, I made two lists out of the names. In the first list, I looked up the alternative names for the fishes. Many of the fishes look familiar, but I probably know them by a different name. For instance, I thought I only knew canned sardines and was excited to find fresh sardines at Whole Foods. I wondered what fresh sardines tasted like. To my surprise, after I cooked and ate them, I realized that my mum actually cooked them often in Singapore, only they are called "ikan tamban". It occurred to me there might be more fishes hiding behind other names. Sometimes, when I look at the array of fishes available, I'm not sure I'd know how to cook them, but now I feel less intimidated when I know I've eaten them before.

My second list was to write the mercury level of each fish so I can make an informed decision when I buy fish. I have become more aware of the high mercury level of the some of the fishes I used to eat a lot of - for instance king mackerel. I want to make sure we are not ingesting an alarming level of mercury. So now I go grocery shopping with these two lists in my pocket.

My research for the second list showed that pomfret is low in mercury. This is good news because we ate this fish (ikan bawal) often at home. My mum would make sambal pomfret, curry pomfret, kicap (sweet black soy sauce) pomfret, assam pedas (spicy tamarind sauce) pomfret.... well, you get the idea. I decided to make ikan masak taucu (fish with black bean sauce) which my mum used to cook with ikan kembung (Indian mackerel). It has an intriguing taste - the combination of fermented black beans, tamarind juice and onions produces a tangy sauce.

I used white pomfret - you can use any type. When I fry fish, I always use a wok because the smaller base means I can use less oil. It is also easier to turn the fish over. When I used to help my mum in the kitchen, she told me that she rubs turmeric on the fish to get rid of any fishy smell or taste that the fish might have. Sometimes she also seasons the fish with salt, but I did not do so here because I was using fermented black beans which is already salty.

fermented black bean pomfret recipe

fermented black bean pomfret recipe

Pomfret in black bean sauce
(Ikan masak taucu)

1 medium size pomfret, cleaned and halved
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
¼ onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, sliced
½ inch ginger, minced
2 tablespoons fermented black bean
1 cup tamarind juice (from 2 tablespoons of tamarind paste)
2 green serrano chilies
1 teaspoon sugar
oil for frying

1. Rub the fish with turmeric. Heat about ½ inch oil in a wok to medium heat. Fry each half of the fish separately until golden brown, about 3-4 minutes on each side.

2. Drain the oil, leaving about 2 tablespoons of oil in the wok. Lowering the heat to medium, put in the onions and fry for 2 minutes. Add garlic and ginger, stirring for 1 minute. Add the fermented black bean, stirring for another minute. Then pour in the tamarind juice. Bring up the mixture to a boil, then lower to a simmer. Add the sugar. Let the sauce reduce for about 5 minutes.

3. Pour the hot sauce over the pomfret and garnish with serrano chilies.

Serve with rice and a vegetable dish. I recommend this sambal belacan kangkong.