Saturday, December 31, 2005


For fear of being called an Ah Lian .. oh what the hell ... I just like lotus flowers so much that when Kalyn said she was not familiar with the plant, I just had to find some really nice pictures of lotus flowers to vallidate why I love these gorgeous and understated beauties.

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Categories - Rambling Prose

Friday, December 30, 2005

Weekend Herb Blogging #13 - Lotus Seeds

I am just going to talk a little about lotus seeds and refer to my Eight Treasure Duck posted recently.

I love lotus. Lotus flowers. The fragrance of my Lotus show gel. Lotus roots in soups. So you would think I would adore lotus seeds. But growing up I was rather diffident towards them. Sure, I liked them in my cheng teng, a clear, sweet and icy Chinese dessert, but other than that I was not a terribly huge fan.

They have a powdery texture that I just did not particularly enjoy and their musky taste was a little strange to me. However, they grew on me. And now I quite like them. Especially when they have so many benefits to health.

In Chinese medicine, lotus seeds are neutral in element. They are apparently good for the heart, spleen and kidneys. These tiny little nuggets of goodness nourish the heart and prevent insomnia. They supposedly tone up the spleen and kidneys - when I read this I had visions of my spleen and kidneys looking like Richard Simmons, prancing around with bar bells and doing jumping jacks. Thus, lotus seeds can alleviate diarrhoea caused by a spleen deficiency as well as cure urinary disorders and vaginal bleeding.

Lotus seeds calm the nerves and I think that is quite fitting for a plant that is so prized among Buddhists as offerings to Buddha. I love passing by the temples and seeing the beautiful blooms of lotus flowers in the pails that devotees buy as offerings.

However, if you have abdominal flatulence (I wonder where else it would come from ... or maybe I shouldn't ask ...), poor appetite or constipation, only eat lotus seeds in moderation.

The Chinese love buns and one favourite is the lotus seed paste bun. Sweet and amber-hued, the lotus seed paste filling is wonderfully enhanced by the fluffy, steamed buns. I love lotus seed paste in the Chinese mooncakes which you only get in August during the Mooncake and Lantern Festivals. With a golden globe of duck egg yoke, the lotus seed paste mooncakes are to die for.

I think the lotus is an amazing plant. Almost every part of the lotus can be used in Chinese cooking, from the flower to the seeds. The lotus seed is also considered as an auspicious item as it supposedly evokes good fortune. During the Chinese New Year, candied lotus seeds are given as gifts or tokens to visitors. That is why you will usually see lotus seeds offered in celebratory Chinese banquets as a dessert, in a rich soup, or in dishes like my Eight Treasure Duck.

One note about the lotus seed is that they have little "hearts". These are the tender, new shoots that begin right in the centre of the seeds. You have to remove these are they are quite bitter. Also, if I remember correctly, my grandfather told me that they can be poisonous so always remove these.

For fresh lotus seeds, you simply split the two halves apart and tear out the green shoots. If they are dried, just soak them till they are soft before you split them in half to remove the shoots. you can actually keep the whole if you just split them at the tip and pull out the shoots with your fingernails.

For more information about herbs and such, visit Kalyn's Kitchen for her weekly Weekend Herb Blogging.

Categories - Chinese Herbs

Eight Treasure Duck

Growing up, I was no expert on Chinese food. I'm still no expert by any means but I have been diligently trying to beef up my knowledge and to cook more complex (to me anyway) Chinese dishes.

My first encounter with real Chinese food must have been when I was about 5 or 6 years old. It was a Chinese wedding banquet and I was enthralled by the seemingly never-ending plethora of dishes. The food was colourful, beautifully presented, absolutely delicious and wonderfully exotic yet strangely familiar to me.

In our family, our idea of Chinese food was so muddled with European, Indonesian, Malay and Indian influences that it has become a whole new category on its own. My grandfather was the only one who cooked "authentic" Chinese food and only because they were herbal and medicinal dishes he prescribed to his patients. My grandmother was not that keen on Chinese food for some reason so this encounter with real Chinese food was a revelation. I was thoroughly in love with the rich yet delicate taste sensation of Chinese food.

What was even more amazing was the variety and quantity of food. For years I thought all Chinese people ate 10 courses at home! I was terribly envious and keep angling for invitations to every Chinese home I knew. Imagine my disappointment when I realised the truth.

I was at a friend's home for a Chinese New Year dinner a long time ago and out came this fabulous duck dish onto the dinner table. I remember inhaling the wonderful fragrance with glazed and lustful eyes. The duck was beautifully bronzed and gleamed seductively in the flourescent light. With a deft cut from the cleaver, a luxurious outburst of glutinous rice, chestnuts, lotus seeds, gingko nuts, Chinese sausages and mushrooms spilled onto the platter.

I was entranced. The stuffing was delicious and the duck succulent yet crispy. I was absolutely enamoured.

I never ate this dish again but that brief fling years ago was a lambent ember in my gluttonous soul.

Recently I came across a recipe in Carrefour's website for Eight Treasure Duck. I, of course, saved that with alacrity, although with no real intention of cooking it any time soon. Until I was at the wet market and I saw a lone duck languishing in the corner of the poultry seller's stall. Out of curiosity I asked her for the cost of the duck. She was in a hurry to close her stall so giving me an assessing sideway glance, she said, "Aiyah, I give you ten lah."

I declined gently and was all ready to bugger off to the vegetables stalls when she called me back.

"Miss, miss ah! OK lah, OK lah .. you so smart to bargain one. I give you six lah. OK, six?"

I bargained? I thought I just walked away ... but $6 for the duck was a pretty good deal I thought. I could make Itek Tim or braised duck or red curry duck with lychees or roasted duck ... wait a minute! Eight Treasure Duck! I did a quick pantry check in my head and realised I had most of the ingredients for the dish already! Hurrah! The nerd in me rejoiced.

The deal was sealed. Eight Treasure Duck it was.

I was a little nervous. I've never made this before and the only "oven" in the house is this strange contraption that the landlord assured me was an oven. Upon doing some research on the Internet, I discovered that this is something called a turbo boiler which is apparently the quintessential Filipino oven of sorts. Strange.

Anyway, I plunged in with my usual haphazard daredevilry. With the stout-hearted bravery of the Black Knight, I assembled the ingredients and found some items wanting so I headed back down to the wet market again. The good thing about wet markets is that you can buy things in very small quantity instead of the prepacked jumbo packs of commercial supermarkets. By wasting less and actually paying only for what I need, wet markets are a real boon.

I modified the original recipe a little and it turned out very well. The only thing I might do differently is not to oversalt the stuffing. Forgetting that I had already salted the cavity of the duck liberally, I also added salt to the stuffing. It was definitely too salty but not unbearably so.

Eight Treasure Duck
1 whole duck
1 420g jar boiled chestnuts
- I couldn't find this so I used fresh chestnuts which I boiled. I regretted this as they were very fiddly to prepare. Next time I will use dried chestnuts and boil them instead

1 packet fresh lotus seeds
- how much is 1 packet? I had no clue so I just chucked enough into a cup. I also used dried lotus seeds and just soaked them

1 packet sweet Oriental sausages
- again with the 1 packet. How many sausages is that? Just tell me, dammit! I decided to use 2 normal Chinese sausages with 1 Chinese liver sausage for a smokier and richer taste. One of my better brainstorms
6 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked
- I may use 8 next time as I think the proportion was a little off and anyway, 8 treasures, geddit?
1 bunch coriander leaves, chopped
-I used 2 large bunches
1 red or brown onion, chopped
- I actually forgot this! Thankfully, it did not seem to compromise the taste of the stuffing

2 tbsp dried shrimp, soaked
- I used 3 as the proportions just did not look right and thank God I did!

1 cup basmati rice
- I used glutinous rice instead
Chicken stock
1 tsp 5-spice powder
- what tsp? I went to town with the 5-spice powder
1 tsp salt
- I think I must have used more like 3 which was a mistake. Next time I will use 2
1 tbsp honey (for glazing)

1. Clean and dry the duck and remove the tail glands, chop off the head and remove the fat from the neck.

2. Rub the 5-spice powder and salt all over the duck, inside and out
3. Hang up to dry
4. Cook the rice in just enough chicken stock to cover. Make sure it is only 3/4 cooked and then remove from heat to cool

5. Dice the sausages, onions (which I would have if I had remembered it! Duh!) and mushrooms
6. Drain the shrimps and add to the mixture

7. Drain the lotus seeds and remove the green "hearts" from the centre. These are the tender green shoots inside the seeds and you will want to discard them as they are very bitter.

8. Stir fry all the diced ingredients, the shrimp, rice and lotus seeds and chestnuts till fragrant. Do not add oil as the sausages will grease the pan enough on their own.

9. Season with salt and pepper to taste
10. Remove from heat and add the coriander leaves and mix well
11. Cool completely
12. Stuff the duck with the mixture and skewer closer with toothpicks. You can sew it up too if you want but I was lazy so I just tucked and poked

13. Oil the rack and roast the duck at 220 deg C for 30 mins
14. Glaze the duck with the honey and roast at 180 deg C for another 30 mins
15. I turned the duck around and basted it with more honey as I wanted crispy or browned skin all round, which was not in the original recipe. So I did the switcheroo of sides, honeyed it up and roasted for another 5-10 mins till it was nice and brown
16. Remove and cool slightly
17. Serve by cutting up the duck so that the stuffing is exposed

Using the turbo boiler was a challenge. I read that the temperature was a little higher than the normal convection ovens so I was careful to watch the duck throughout. Good thing I did as it browned very quickly and by 20 mins I had to turn down the temperature in order not to have a charred duck with raw flesh. Adjusting the temperature did the trick though.

The duck was very tasty but I felt that the recipe was very tricky. I thought a lot of the proportions were unbalanced and I had to make a number of adjustments. The ambiguous 1 packet of this and 1 packet of that with no clear indication of measurements or amount was annoying.

It helps that I have eaten Eight Treasure Duck before so I had a feel for the proportions but if I was experiencing this dish for the first time I would be terribly confused. As is, I think I messed up on the amount of salt & I forgot the onion but all in all it is a very tasty meal.

I now have almost 80% of the duck left after lunch which I am going to cut up and put aside for many meals to come. I can't wait.

So, healthwise, this dish does not fare well. It is a very rich dish and the duck is extremely fatty. I gathered more than an entire bowl of duck fat rendering from the turbo boiler. Scary.

Therefore, I give this dish a 4/10 for health. Tastewise, it was pretty yummy so it receives a 7.5/10 with demerit points to the cook for being a daft git who added a little too much salt.

I have to duck now (I am so corny today) but I will talk a little about lotus seeds for Kalyn's Weekend Herb Blogging if I have time later. Have a ducky Happy New Year in case I do not have time to post before!

Categories - Chicken Run, Call Me Others, Chinese Herbs

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Lamb of God

OK, maybe more mutton than lamb but still ...

Last year I spent Christmas in Perth, Australia. On Christmas Eve I went to a church near the beach for Evening Mass. It was really big and new looking and I remember thinking that there were a surprising number of Asians there.

As I sat at the back pews (my usual practice everywhere), I realised that most of the congregation were Filipinos. How do I know this? Because some of the hymns were in Tagalog. Not being able to speak, what more sing in, Tagalog, I would look around the room and hum sheepishly during the Tagalog singalong. But the best was yet to come.

Feeling as if I was trapped in a surreal Fellini moment, I blinked incredulously as I recognised the hymn that started up next. It was Lamb of God. Not unusual. Except that it was sung to the tune of Edelweiss.

It was a terrible struggle to hide my shaking shoulders as I gasp and choked on my suppressed laughter. I kept seeing this vision in my fertile little mind ... a little sheep with edelweiss twined into its fleece, skipping along merrily in a field of edelweiss. I was turning purple and I could not get out of the room since I was sandwiched right in the middle of the pew. It was hell. I never forget Christmas Mass in Perth because of that. And I can never listen to Lamb of God anymore without cracking up. I so know I am going to the fiery pits of Hell.

Anyway, back on earth such as it is ... As if I was not all muttoned out with my Mutton Curry, I had Hainanese Herbal Mutton Soup for dinner last night. This is a dish that also has vast amount of memories for me. My grandfather used to make these incredibly delectable pots of Hainanese Herbal Mutton Soup that everyone will wolf down as if we had not eaten in a thousand years. Even those who did not enjoy lamb would devour every morsel and slurp every spoonful of this flavourful soup.

Knowing it was my favourite dish, he would cook it for me on quite a regular basis and reserve the biggest portion for me. That, of course, did not endear me to my aunts who always felt that I was his favourite. It also did not help that I would make rude, orgasmic noises when I ate my super-large portion of Hainanese Herbal Mutton Soup.

It is one of my greatest regrets in life that I never learnt how to make my grandfather's mutton soup. All I knew was that he learnt it from fellow Hainanese Chinese doctor. He never allowed anyone in the kitchen (in true family tradition) when he cooked it. I can only remember that it had beancurd skin, wolfberries, dang gui, and a lot of other Chinese herbs. I wish I had his recipe. In fact, no one in the family has the recipe and we have all tried to recreate this ambrosia for the gods for decades after his death.

So, every time I am in a hawker place that has Hainanese Herbal Mutton Soup, I have to try it just in case it is in any way similar to my grandfather's. So far, none have come close. I was at the Albert Complex hawker centre yesterday evening and I saw this stall.

I was fairly skeptical as the signboard said Hainanese Herbal Mutton Soup and BBQ seafood. Eh? That is an odd combination. Still, I had to try it. My first sign that all is not well was when I tried to speak Hainanese with the stall keeper. My grandfather taught me this as a child and while I am very rusty and not very fluent, I can still hold a rudimentary conversation in it. The stall keeper could not speak Hainanese and was in fact, Hokkien. Bad sign No. 1.

It was a long wait for the soup and when it came, it was barely simmering in a claypot. By looking at the colour of the broth, I knew immediately that I would be disappointed. It was way too clear, which tells me that the soup has not been simmered long enough. As I dug my chopsticks into the soup, I could see that it was mostly black fungus and beancurd skin. Worse, these two had not been soaked and cooked long enough such that they were still fairly al dente instead of meltingly soft and soaked with the combined flavours of all the herbs. The black fungus was also of an inferior grade, being thick and rubbery.

I tried the broth and it was bland. She had not put in enough and of the right combination of Chinese herbs. She had also added way too much ginger in order to disguise the taste of the mutton. Why do people do that? If I did not want the taste of mutton, I would have ordered chicken soup! It also told me that she did not use the freshest of mutton if she had to do that.

I was supremely disappointed and faintly disgusted. I think it is very very wrong to call yourself a Hainanese whatever when you are not. If you want to emulate the food of a particular ethnic group, at least get it right and do not insult that race or nationality. Even if in all ignorance you mess up the recipe, at least try to offer something in compensation. The freshest ingredients perhaps? A sincere desire to offer the best service as well?

Surly service, poor quality of ingredient, total disregard of the authenticity of a recipe and totally false advertisement made me rate this "Hainanese" Herbal Mutton Soup a 2 out of 10 in my books.

Hopefully one day I can find the elusive recipe that will bring my grandfather's memory to greater life. Until then, the search continues. So before I go ...

Lamb of God, Lamb of God, Every morning you greet me ...

Categories - Rambling Prose

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Indian Indecision

I really think in my past life (if you believe in those type of things) I must have been Indian. It would explain why I always have such a strong sense of deja vu in Rajasthan (I actually almost fainted in one room when I entered it and then I could pin point exactly where a mural had been plastered over without the guide telling me - spooked the hell out of me), why I am always asked to perform at Indian events, why a lot of my Indian clients say I remind them of some famous Eurasian Indian actress/dancer from the 50s and my ability to whip up some mean Indian food.

Whatever it is, I've been asked to perform for the Indian community this New Year. It's all a little surreal. One of them was someone who saw me perform at an event almost two years. He'd forgotten about me (oh woe is me ... LOL!) until he'd seen a back issue of the Tatler magazine and saw my picture in it. And somehow he managed to track me down. Strange serendipity.

The other client is even more unlikely. Couple of years ago, I'd visited a friend for Diwali. Her mother (a real sweetheart) kept saying I reminded her of this famous dancer/actress from the 50s. So out of respect and totally getting her not-so-subtle hint, I danced a little number for her. This client was one of the relatives there and she called my friend up to ask for my contact details.

I decided since I am dancing for one Indian client, I can do another back to back. After all, I will already be in the right costume and I can use the same music. And at least it will be fun as they have asked for Indian classical dance fusion. And the last one will be for my friend's family and they have invited me to stay on and join the festivities after. Typically, I never stay and socialise after a performance but since it is a family event by a friend, I'm game.

The Indian karma continues ... the organiser of the weekend workshop from hell emailed me today. She told me that there were rave reviews about my class and they would like me to teach a few more workshops next year. And guess what the class will be about? Indian classical dance fusion. What I taught at Batam.

I am undecided about this because the last one was so badly organised. I think I need a conversation with some close friends and dancers like 3A and Ser to see if this is something I would like to commit to. I would really hate to associate myself with a shoddy organisation or be treated as poorly as I was before. But I do enjoy teaching and I miss it. Decisions, decisions ...

I don't know what it is but this week is a really strange one. Lots of little coincidences. Lots of blasts from the past. Lots of strange six degrees of separations. I wonder what the cosmos is trying to tell me.

I wonder if I should just go make myself a cuppa and go to bed and stop worrying about things. Right, chamomile tea here I come.

Categories - Rambling Prose

Amnesia Girl

You know, I must really be getting old. My memory is going. Over Christmas I received an email for someone sending me season's greetings. Which is really sweet. H said he just found my contact details after a long time of thinking he's lost it and he really thanked me for making his and Mabel's time in Asia so wonderful.

Awww ... bless. There is only one problem. I have no clue who this person is. I spent the last few days looking through namecards and trying to dust through every cobweb in my memory bank. And I still have no clue who he and Mabel (am assuming that is his wife or girlfriend) are.

The amnesia continues as I received a call from someone who claims to have met me at some social function. Again, I have no clue who he is and have absolutely no recollection despite his mentioning mutual friends and even a description of what I said and wore. However, it sounds like me from what he recounted. "Deprecating wit", "hilarious sense of irony and humour" and "silly faces" sounds like me. "Very put together" did not though.

Anyway, I was too embarrassed to admit I had no clue who he was. So when he asked me out for coffee, I agreed out of sheer embarrassment and guilt. It was only after I got off the phone that I started berating myself. What on earth was I thinking??!!! This is almost like a blind date - for me! I wondered if I'd just be suckered. Damn this faulty memory!

So I reckon I just agreed to a blind date. I cannot remember the last time I did that. I think it was in college when my girlfriend dragged me to a double date with her. And that was a disaster. The guy really impressed us when he tried to ask us if we wanted to go a "launch" after dinner. Some confused moments later we realised he meant lounge. And he also tried to invite me on his "yaks". I was ready to slap the man silly when I realised he meant "yacht". Suffice to say, I was very glad to bugger off home that evening. I also made my girlfriend promise me never ever to make me go on double dates with her. And not to give Mr Yaks my telephone number.

I think it is time I go look up my notes from my grandfather's teachings to find some Chinese medicinal cure for amnesia.

Categories - Rambling Prose

Monday, December 26, 2005

Merry Christmas

May your Christmas be peaceful, loving and full of joy. To all the food lovers and bloggers out there, may it be full of food, drink and blogging. I want to see food porn!

Also, I am curious. If this were the last Christmas we might ever see, what dish or drink would you have? And why?

For me, I think it would be my mum's mutton curry followed very closely by my rosemary and thyme crusted roast lamb with a big ole cauldron of feuerzangenbolle. The mutton curry reason is explained in my Mutton Curry post. The roast lamb is because it was the first dish I cooked for myself on my first Christmas alone on my own. Since then it has been almost an icon of my own individuality and independence. Odd but true.

And feuerzangenbolle? Because if it is gonna be my last Christmas, I wanna be dead drunk. And it tastes so bloody good. That's why.

So come on guys, tell me what your dish/drink would be. I'd love to find out.

Peace and love, all.

Weekend Herb Blogging

My Mutton Curry dish that I submitted for the From My Rasoi food blog event has so many spices and herbs that I thought it would be a good foundation for my first Weekend Herb Blogging entry. Also, this might be a good "tutorial" (sic) of sorts for those who might be a little confused or lost about the plethora of spices and herbs or even terms I used in the post about my Mutton Curry. I hope I am able to submit this in time to Kalyn from Kalyn's Kitchen who started the Weekend Herb Blogging event.

Lemon Grass aka Serai aka Sereh

I love the smell of lemon grass. It somehow evokes images of hot summer days, fresh field flowers, cool water trickling in between your toes and gentle, balmy kisses from a passing breeze.

Just the act of tearing off the papery outer skin of the lemon grass will leave the fragrance of spicy lemon mixed with lingering grass on your hands. Forget the expensive perfumes! Gimme the lemon grass!

Lemon grass used to be common only to Asia but nowadays it can be found just about anywhere. In its unharvested form, it is a tall grass with sharp edged leaves. The bulbous pale base is the best part of the lemon grass and is the part that we use the most for our curries and other dishes.

When you use lemon grass, you have to discard the harder, papery outer leaves till you strip it down to the more tender section. Then slice off the root. The strange thing is that when you slice it into discs across the grain, it looks like lollipop with its pale green, purplish-pink and white circles. I love the look and when there are young kids around, they get a real kick out of the pretty little discs.

You can get lemon grass fresh, dried or powdered nowadays but I just love fresh lemon grass. Slim, elegant, understated yet resilient, this aromatic herb lingers seductively on your senses. I've used it not only to flavour my food but also as a visual centrepiece. Just a couple of stalks in a tall glass or mixed in with some flowers and suddenly you have scented ikebana. Even better, lemon grass is a natural insect repellent so you save a bundle and the environment by not using Ridsect!

I've drank lemon grass infused tea before I go to bed on the advice from an Indian friend's mum when I complained that I was having problems sleeping. Take one stalk of lemon grass and bruise it slightly with your pestle or a rolling pin. Brew some mild tea with the lemon grass and you have a lovely and comforting concoction to take you softly into sleep's arms.

Lemon grass also has quite a number of medicinal properties. It is supposed to help lessen mucus, alleviate fevers, cramps and is a stress reliever. These days, you see it in every aromatherapy shop and it can be found in oils, ointments, soaps, perfumes and even cosmetics.

Galangal aka Lengkuas aka Laos

Try saying that to some German at the Kleinmarkthalle. You'll never get what you want. I've always wondered what the English name is and I've heard it called blue ginger before but someone else told me that was incorrect so ...

Galangal is a root and is from the ginger family. It is easy to mistake the normal ginger for galangal but the skin is way coarser and ridged with woody fibres sprouting rudely from it. Also, the smell is quite distinctive and is more subtle than the ginger. Peel the skin and you have a pale yellow flesh that is quite fibrous. Very much an Indonesian herb as it is used in many dishes there, the lesser galangal is also found in China, India and many other Southeast Asian countries.

You can slice, dice or pound the galangal to flavour your food. Like the ginger, galangal works very well with fish and other seafood as it tones down the overbearing "fishiness" of the dish. Again, it comes fresh or powdered and in Vietnam, Thailand and Laos, you can find it in bottles of powder labelled as Laos. Why, I have no idea but I remember being terribly confused when I asked for galangal at the Asian markets and was directed to Laos.

Apparently, the galangal is so amazing that even the Arabs used it to stimulate their horses. No indication on how they did that but I hope it was not painful. Yikes. But there might be some logic to this usage as galangal is a stimulant and its medicinal properties includes the ability to alleviate nausea, flatulence and rheumatism. It is antibacterial in nature so it has become quite popular in aromatherapy and homeopathic medicine. In fact, I have seen it used in ayurvedic practice for the treatment of halitosis and body odour. And also as a really yummy smelling body scrub at some spas.

I've read that galangal has been used as an aphrodisiac in Europe and Asia for centuries. I'm not sure about that but I sure hope they brush their teeth after eating galangal ... because it's quite pungent and spicy and unless the other party likes you smelling like an Indian restaurant ... well ... But I think this could be attributed to the fact that galangal is a "heaty" herb so you know what they say - "Baby you can light my fire ...".

Ladies Fingers aka Okra

I love ladies fingers. I mean I just luuuuuurrrrve ladies fingers. It is definitely one of my favourite vegetables and when I make curry, I have to have it in the curry. Sometimes I just make ladies fingers curry or sambal and have it with plain white rice and I am a happy camper.

My love affair with ladies fingers goes so far into the recesses of my memory bank that I cannot even remember the first blushing meeting between us. But I know we had a date during art class. When I sliced into a ladies finger to use it to make stamps. The shapes were so cool I went around stamping anything that stood still. My family was not amused when they found the walls sporting ladies fingers stamps. I was not amused when I had to stand in a corner without dinner.

I read that the ladies finger is African in origin. How it became such a staple in Indian and Malay cuisine is a mystery to me but hey, I will not look a gift horse in the mouth. I think it is very possible that the Arabs adopted the ladies finger from the Africans and then brought it into India. And from there, it travelled down to the rest of Asia. In the US, it is known as okra and I was thrilled when I realised how beloved it was in the South. My introduction to gumbo was a happy, happy day. I love gumbo. I can eat it every day! And I make quite a mean gumbo too.

But I suppose the South's adoption of okra is understandable since it is from the hibiscus and cotton family. But if you had told me when I was a little girl terrorising the walls with ladies fingers stamps that I would be finding a bunch of Americans drooling over okra like me, I would have laughed into my okra. What's interesting (and confusing) is that okra is also called gumbo. Apparently gumbo is the Swahili name for okra. Woah ... now who's on first?

Anyway, ladies fingers can apparently be eaten raw. I've never tried that but I would think the sticky, filmy fluid inside the okra will not be able to transform into a glossy film that coats your tongue with the flavours of the okra when it is raw. Also, I vaguely remember my grandfather telling me that it is not safe to eat okra raw so I have never dared to try it as such.

Ladies fingers can also be dried and apparently, they taste exactly the same as the fresh ones when you cook them in stews or gumbos. In Asia, I do not think they like ladies fingers in any form except fresh as all the dishes I have ever tasted have always featured fresh ladies fingers.

I've read that the seeds of the ladies fingers can yield an edible oil that is as good as any cooking oil that we get commercially. Interesting, I wouldn't mind trying that. I wonder where I can get a sample? Also, you can roast and ground the ripe seeds of the ladies fingers and this can be used as a substitute for coffee. In Turkey, they even use the leaves in preparing a tincture to soothe or reduce inflammation. How cool is that? I am telling you I am loving my ladies fingers more and more!

But I had never seen a red okra before. So when I was at the wet market doing my shopping, imagine my surprise when the vegetable seller directed me to this purplish- and pinkish-red ladies fingers. I blinked at him and went, "What's this?" The old man was terribly tickled at my wide-eyed examination of this most unusual vegetable. I gasped and fussed over it such that his wife came over and we discussed the merits of red versus green okra. I even asked her if it tasted the same and she assured me that there was really no difference. But she could not tell me why it was red!

Fascinated, I bought a bundle but just to be careful I went to another stall and bought a bunch of the normal green ladies fingers. I wanted to test out the difference between the two when I got home. I boiled a single green and red okra as an experiment. To my intense disappointment, the red okra lost all its blustery redness under the hot water. It turned a pale shade of green. Severely sulky now, I tried a piece of it. It tasted exactly the same as the green okra. Bugger.

I was not appeased so I did an Internet search and found some information. The data is split. Some claimed that red okra is more flavourful and tender. Not so to my experiment. Others alleged that it makes so difference, which I concur with. Oh well ... at least they looked pretty on my pantry.

Perhaps the lesson here is that it does not matter what colour it is. It's what's inside that is important. 'Cos it all tastes the same in the end it.

I just have to share one of my quick and easy ladies fingers recipe here because it is just so good and satisfying, it's ridiculous.

Ladies Fingers Sambal

A bunch of ladies fingers - cut in half if they are too long

Sambal paste




2 cloves of garlic, sliced

1. Saute the garlic in the oil till fragrant but not browned

2. Add the ladies fingers and saute with the sambal paste

3. Season with salt and a pinch of sugar

4. Add a tbsp of water and continue to saute till the ladies finger is cooked but still crunchy

5. Serve hot with plain rice

You can also add some prawns to this dish and you basically just add them in with the ladies fingers. This is such an easy and yummy dish that every time I make it, I have to fight for my portion. There is just no respect for the chef!

Curry Leaves

The Indian spice seller was such as sweetheart that he gave me two sprigs of curry leaves on the house. I really like going to the wet markets because you get a level of interaction with the stall keepers that you just do not get in a supermarket. They are usually sweet, helpful and are inclined to give you lots of freebies.

For some reason, most wet market stall keepers seem to like me. Maybe it's because I am always so curious about everything and would ask them questions about what that odd vegetables is, how do you cook this fish or what is the best cut for XXX dish. Also, I think it's because I look the way I do so they never expect me to be able to cook. The fish mongers are the first section I have to go through and a couple of the cheeky buggers would always yell out "Lang loy" to me every time I go to the wet market. It's embarrassing as it means "pretty girl" in Cantonese and I always wonder if it is a satorial commentary at my state of no make-up and extremely scruffy clothes when I stumble there on weekend mornings.

After that is the vegetable stalls and almost all of the stall keepers are as old as time. They would smile beatifically at me and ask me what I was intending to cook that day. And then they will break into a discussion about recipes and cooking techniques and marvel that a "young girl" like me can actually and does cook on a fairly regular basis.

The meat sellers are last in the wet market. But strangely, this wet market sells mostly pork or chicken. And there is only one stall that sells mutton and of course it is run by a young Indian bloke. He's very nice and we usually have long, involved conversations about recipes and food. And he would usually reserve a couple of bones on the house for me for making stocks. Very nice of him. In fact, they're all lovely people and I'm always happy to go marketing so I can have a wee chat with them.

Anyway, back to the curry leaves. Most of the time, you get them dried but frankly they are kind of a waste of time dried as you can hardly get any fragrance from them dried. Lucky for me, I have nice Indian spice sellers who give me fresh ones on the house. Curry leaves are as important to curries as bay leaves are to stews. The leaves are fairly smell and very glossy looking. They are so symmetrical that there is something very comforting about their conformity. The dark green sheen of the leaves bely the delicate feel of the leaves and the fragrance is wonderfully spicy and musky, evoking images of the hot spices seen through diaphanous veils.

I've just expended all my passion on drooling over my ladies fingers so I think I will keep the rest of the spices for the next Weekend Herb Blogging. Now I think I am going to go get more ladies fingers to add to my leftover Mutton Curry. Major drool.

Categories - VeggieMight

Mutton Curry for From My Rasoi - Winter

A couple of things instigated me into cooking our family staple for Christmas, mutton curry.

One, I was listening to the radio and one of my favourite shows, The Don & Drew Show, was on. And of course they played Uncle Mutton. This is a hilariously silly song with a strangely hypnotic ability to make you think it is a fabulous song. Such that you will find yourself muttering the words "Uncle Mutton" incessantly, to the worried glances of polyster-clad aunties in the train.

Two, I was trying to participate in Weekend Herb Blogging started by Kalyn over at Kalyn's Kitchen. It would be my first time ever and I knew that the mutton curry would have enough herbs and spices to give me fodder for my inaugural food blogging post.

Three, I decided to go for a two for one and also participate in From My Rasoi, hosted by Hooked on Heat. Although I am not Indian, with only the smidgeon of Indian blood in my confused lineage, curry was a staple of my diet growing up and mutton curry became one of our signature dishes at the restaurant.

Photo by Larry Cooper at coka/Gallery%203.htm

One of my first tasks in the kitchen was the pounding of chilli using the pestle and mortar. As the youngest, this unenviable job was foisted on me daily. I learnt early on that rubbing your eyes when pounding chilli will bring you to tears. Literally.

I graduated to pounding rempah and it was a hard job indeed. The amount of rempah I had to pound daily was the same as my body weight. I think I grew tremendous little mounds of arm muscles. Unfortunately, it was only on one arm.

My grandmother was a firm believer that you never start your kitchen training too young. So there I was, this 5-year-old kid, pounding away on rempah and learning the rudiments of how to make curry. It was tough and my tasks grew as I grew older but I must admit that I learnt the best rempah making skills during my serf days. Back then, I did not realise how important my task actually was. But as I grew up, I realised that I was responsible for the foundation of all our food. The rempah is the base of all our curries.

Essentially rempah is a paste of onions, garlic, chillies, lemon grass etc that is the base for most Peranakan dishes. For different dishes, there are different ingredients and the texture can vary also. You had to pound this just right for each. It cannot be too mushy or you will get baby's food for curry. Yet it could not be too coarse. And all the ingredients had to be combined evenly and in balanced quantities to get the right combination of flavours. Since we never measured anything, I had to pound the rempah based on my own judgement, adding ingredients as I pounded till the colour, smell, texture and feel of the rempah was just right. If it was wrong, I would get a slap on my hands and would have to go back to the pestle and mortar to pound a new batch that would meet her standards. It took me a couple of years before I could pound rempah to meet my grandmother's standards without any re-dos.

My mother was the one who "invented" the mutton curry dish. Although it is mostly Indian, the addition of lemongrass was an indication of our mixed heritage. I remember the day she invented this. In our highly competitive family, it was a practice to "unveil" a new or refined recipe during Christmas. We had Christmas cake competition. We had pineapple tarts competitions. We had apple pie competitions. We had achar competitions. And of course we had curry competitions. All these in just one Christmas! The competition was fierce and recipes were jealously guarded.

I was about 8 years old when my mother decided that she would break away from the pack. She knew most of them would enter with a chicken curry so she decided to submit a lamb curry in the style of a rogan ghosh. However, that day, for some reason, the butcher had run out of lamb. Instead, he had mutton. Under duress, my mother bought the mutton and dragged me home to plonk me in front of the ubiquituous pestle and mortar.

As I began pounding the rempah, I watched my mother "measure" the ingredients in our usual way. A handful of this. A pinch of that. A couple of shakes of the other. We never used measuring spoons or cups. Everything was guesstimation. Which is why it was so difficult for us to impart recipes to others. The way we were taught and how we taught was by demonstration.

"Want to learn? OK. Shut up and watch."

Er ... OK ...

I think I was the first to actually pen down some of our recipes. And only because I had to teach my youngest aunt (long story) how to cook. She had the unenviable and unfathomable position as the (only) kitchen illiterate person in the family with the dubious distinction of cooking the only bounceable omelette on earth. I had to write incredibly detailed and comprehensive instructions for her. Even down to how to peel an onion. Needless to say, I never taught her how to cook curry. It was just be too cruel.

I was the only one who ever watched my mother cook her mutton curry. She was so jealous of her recipe that she would even send me out of the kitchen after I had pounded the rempeh, peeled and chopped the potatoes, onions, tomatoes and ladies fingers. I never saw what she put in her mutton curry till I was 12. Then she imparted the recipe to me only because she needed my help to cook the mutton curry.

The year she invented the mutton curry was also the first year she won the curry competition. My aunts all had their theories and conjectures. But no one knew what exactly was in her curry. It was dense, rich, spicy and pungent but somehow incredibly addictive. And the longer you cooked it, the better it tasted. At the last stage of it's "life cycle", when everything was an indistinguishable mush, it was converted into a curry noodle dish that was out of this world.

My mother won all the curry competitions from then on with this dish. No other curry dish entered ever dethroned her mutton curry. Even after she was gone, and I entered the mutton curry, it was still her mutton curry ... never mine. And I would not have it any other way.

So, to me Christmas became synonymous with mutton curry in a way. With every spicy morsel that pass my lips I remember sitting on the kitchen floor pounding away while my mother stood near me muttering to herself and throwing in spices like one of MacBeth's crones. Winters were never cold as long as I had mutton curry. For besides warming my chilled body, it also filled my homesick and lonely heart with the warmth of my mother's kitchen and the memory of her work roughened hands as they held mine as she guided me on the best way to pound rempah.

No matter how lonely and homesick I was, when I had mutton curry, I would feel closer to home. They say home is where the heart is ... mine is in my mother's rasoi.

My Mum's Mutton Curry

1-1.5kg mutton, chopped into large chunks - try to get some on the bone
2 tbsp oil
- 2 large onions, chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, chopped
- 3 stalks lemon grass or serai, chopped
- 1 knob galangal or lengkuas, chopped
3 tomatoes, chopped
4 potatoes, chopped
Ladies fingers or okra - cut into half or thirds if they are long
Curry paste or powder - I get mine freshly ground at the Indian spice market and they add enough chilli to keep me happy
Chicken stock
Garam marsala:
- 4 tbsp coriander seeds
- 2 tbsp cumin powder
- 1 tbsp black peppercorns
- 2 tsp cardammon
- 4 cinnamon sticks
- 1 tsp cloves
- 1 1/2 tsp nutmeg powder
1 tbsp mustard seeds
1 sprig curry leaves

1. Use your mortar & pestle and pound the rempah. Trust me, it tastes better. If you have to use a food processor, blend the rempah with a little oil. Process 2/3 of the rempah till it is a fine paste. You know it is right when the onions have emitted enough juice to make it a fine, smooth paste. Process the rest but keep it a little coarser. Mix the two lots together well and keep aside.
2. Combine your garam marsala spices but keep about 1 tsp aside while grinding the rest. You want the complexity of texture and taste here.
3. Fry the rempah in about 2 tbsp of oil till fragrant

4. Add the garam marsala and curry powder and continue frying briskly till it is smoking! OK, till it smells so heavenly that your neighbour shows up at your gate to ask "What you cooking?"
5. Add the mutton and fry till the meat is browned
6. Add 1/2 the tomatoes, mustard seeds, curry leaves and some chicken stock to almost cover the meat and cook on low for about 30 minutes
7. Add salt and about 1/2 to 1 tsp of sugar to taste
8. Add the potatoes and ladies fingers and cook till tender, probably about 30-45 minutes
9. Serve hot with rice

* Get mutton on the bone as the bone keeps the meat succulent despite the long cooking process. I actually like having a bit more fat on the mutton too as the fat melts into the curry and becomes these silky morsels that melt in your mouth.
** Try to chop all your vegetables into large chunks otherwise they will melt into mush

*** You can cook this on the crockpot as well

The curry will taste better the next day. And the next. And the next. By the time the meat and vegetables have turned to mush, add some noodles to it and you have a fantastic curry noodle dish. My grandmother used to make these for supper and I would go always go for seconds.

OK, healthwise this dish is a dud. It is not a healthy dish and it's only saving grace is that unlike Malay curries, it does not have coconut milk. I give it a 7/10 for health because all the spices are actually really good for you. Tastewise, I guess I am biased as I am tasting it with all the love for my mother in each bite. So I give it a 9/10 with a little tear on the side.

I will write a bit more about each of the spices in the Weekend Herb Blogging post as there are so many spices to slobber over.

And now onwards to a multiple posts day.

Categories - Meat Me For Dinner