Monday, January 30, 2006

Chinese New Year Tea

Despite my misgivings, I went to a quiet Chinese New Year gathering last night. I was a little hesitant as I did not know the host and was worried about intruding. But my friend Calvin convinced me that it was just the type of arty gathering that would appeal to me.

Isn't it annoying when your friends know you better than yourself? Fortunately for me, Calvin is not one to say "I told you so". The host's apartment was an architectural beauty. I really regretted not bringing my camera as I looked around his apartment. Clean lines, open concept, high ceilings evoking a Soho loft, tastefully exposed brick work in feature areas ... the apartment appealed to me despite it's masculine and industrial feel.

I love lofts but I typically eschew the hip, industrial look (which I think has become uber common now) although I have no problems creating that feel for others. And in Singapore where the lack of creativity has led many homes to sport either the clueless corn-fed country look, the So-Zen-that-I-forgot-furniture look or the industrial meanzcheap look, this apartment scored high in my design books. With its blend of industrial and natural materials, it still managed to exude a fresh appeal despite the overdone design concept. It was a true showcase of the archiect host's talent and skill as well as a real home.

The fact that he was very cute helped too - no, I am not ashamed to admit I am that shallow! I really liked the fact that he had an open bathroom that was encased in industrial bricks that faced the main road! The man definitely had an exhibitionistic streak in him but he assured me the large plants positioned strategically on his balcony saved him from being arrested for public and indecent exposure.

I adored his kitchen which was completely open on one side, looking out into the row of low houses and the trees that lined his street and letting a cool night breeze weave through the entire house. The cement block island was functional yet modern looking. Everything was very stylish yet functional - there's nothing worse than style without form or function. The other side of his kitchen opened into a small indoor garden while another led to his cavernous dining and living room. The balcony was a reading nook that was a simple cement slab overlooking the main street with lush tropical plants on the ledge that prevented you from falling from the "infinity platform". The sense of space he managed to create by using scaled down proportions on his fittings, which still effectively functional, was the crowning jewel of this handsome apartment.

It is apparent he has mad talent and I felt really lucky I managed to see this apartment before he moved out. Yes, the host has just sold the apartment. Apparently, his thing is to buy, design, build, live in for a while and then sell his apartments and houses. How I envy him! I can't wait to see what he would come up with next. It also made me eager for the next art and design gathering where he would show me some of his previous projects.

Another bloke I met last night was wildly hilarious and I was giggling hysterically all night as we discussed some of the design fiascos sported by supposedly high-end resorts and spas. Imagine my surprise when he turned out to be an amazing singer.

There was an architect who turned out to be a fellow yoga practitioner and a neighbour of sorts; a Frenchman who spoke better Chinese than I could ever hope to learn who discussed Chinese poetry and the documentary on Zhenghe on Discovery Channel; and an interesting conversation led by Calvin and another bloke about Thai history and fashion. All these were helped with copious amounts of red wine. All in all, it was a brilliant night.

Waking this morning, I decided I might want to avoid wine today and have a bit of a detox by just having Chinese tea - I remember Mr Tan's little lesson! Looking at my little tray of cookies and oranges, I began playing with the composition. I think being surrounded by so much talent last night made me unintentionally begin to put together a still-life composition. The lighting was just soft enough to make it interesting too and I could feel my hands itching to open up my paintbrush box.

It was a hard struggle to bat down the urge to paint. I knew if I started I would not be able to stop and it would be days before I emerged. I had things to do so I valiantly pushed down the urge. But I could not resist taking out my camera - if only my camera skills were better. Sigh. I definitely did not do justice to the light. But here is what I did during my Chinese New Year tea.

If I give you these mandarin oranges, will you give me ang paos? Please? Well, bah humbug to you too then!

Categories - Rambling Prose

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Happy Chinese New Year - Hou Xi Fatt Choy! (WHB #17)

It’s the 1st day of the Chinese New Year! How do I know this? Because the lion dancers started playing at 9am in the morning, that’s how!

I was having a fantastic dream involving Hugh Jackman, a jar of butterscotch and a bowl of melted chocolate when a large bolt of lightning streaked through the sky and struck the poor man right on the noggins!

The thunderous drums accompanying the lion dancers had woken me up. Fortunately I had consumed enough dream chocolate covered strawberries, fed to me by my love slave Hugh Jackman, not to be truly pissed off.

Peering out my window I could see people walking around purposefully as they traveled to family and friend’s abodes for their Chinese New Year visits. I stretched indolently knowing that I had a leisurely afternoon planned. I planned to have a quiet day in and would cook only one dish today in honour of the special occasion – Hou Xi Fatt Choy.

Now Hou Xi Fatt Choy is no ordinary dish. The name itself evokes all the well wishes, good intentions and wistful hope for the future that this season brings. Metaphorically it means To Wish That Everything Will Prosper. A pretty fabulous wish, isn’t it? I rather like it.

Literally, it means dried oyster (hou xi) and black sea moss (fatt choy). Which is what the dish is made of. Hou xi sounds a little like “all things” and fatt choy sounds exactly like “to strike it rich” in Cantonese. With such auspicious names, no wonder the Chinese serve this dish during the 15 days of the Chinese New Year celebrations.

Made of dried oysters, black sea moss, dried shiitake mushrooms and Tientsin cabbage in a thick broth of oyster sauce, Hou Xi Fatt Choy truly carries with it all the rich history and lush aspirations of the Chinese.

My first encounter with this delectable offering from the sea was when my grandmother served it one Chinese New Year. We had some guests visiting us from Hong Kong and in honour of these guests, she decided to make a typically Cantonese dish. I’d never had it before and at my first gander of it, I was rather dubious of the mysterious, dark colour and the pungent, musky odour emanating from the large claypot.

I changed my mind when I took my first bite of a plump mushroom literally dripping a sinuous trail of brown nectar onto my rice. What was this flavour? It tastes of everything you could ever imagine from the sea. I was completely won over and basically finished the entire claypot of Hou Xi Fatt Choy that night!

My indulgent grandmother knowing that this was my favourite Chinese New Year dish, made it a point to cook Hou Xi Fatt Choy every year that I was visiting – much to my aunts’ and cousins’ jealousy. For some reason I never learnt how to make it from her. It was probably because it was such a seasonal dish and I was not always home during the Chinese New Year.

Finally, in my mid-twenties, I decided to try to recreate the dish myself. Happily, I was successful at the first try and I have been making it almost every Chinese New Year since. It is my little superstition to eat this dish on the first day of Chinese New Year just in case it does bring superb fortune and prosperity. So far, I am still waiting …

Fatt Choy aka Black Sea Moss
No, this is not Kate Moss in her current state. One of the most unusual ingredients in Hou Xi Fatt Choy is the fatt choy bit, otherwise known as black sea moss. It is the most unprepossessing ingredient. Frankly, it looks like a gag gift from Halloween.

A tangle of black strands that looks like the toupee my Science teacher sported in college, fatt choy looked incredibly unappetising. I truly wonder at the first Chinese talking a walk along the beach who decided, “Hey, what’s this? Looks like someone lost their toupee. Oh yums, let’s eat it.” Was the man smoking his mushrooms instead of cooking it? Did the ancient Chinese actually go around sinking their teeth into unsuspecting wig wearers? The mind boggles.

The scientific name for fatt choy is a real mouthful, as they all are - Nostoc flagelliforme. I think it sounds like some fortune telling dominatrix myself and will refer to it as the more romantic sounding fatt choy, if you don’t mind. Despite its name of black sea moss, fatt choy actually does not come from the sea. Instead, it is found in the northwest desert steppes of China and Mongolia, between the rocks in streams or rivers flowing down from the mountains.

Harvesting fatt choy is a tricky business since they grow so high up, and only in autumn. The Chinese prove that they are pretty tricky themselves by using monkeys to reach the coveted fatt choy. Gives new meaning to pay peanuts, get monkeys … get prosperous!

However, fatt choy is not just a wishful hope for fortune. Eating fatt choy during Chinese New Year makes a lot of sense too. With the feasting and consumption of rich foods during this period, fatt choy’s ability to counteract this makes it not only auspicious but necessary. Fatt choy can apparently cleanse the stomach and intestines as it is a gentle fibre, thus aiding digestion. It also helps lower blood pressure.

Fatt choy is rich in calcium, iron and phosphorus. As with most seafood (well, sort of), it is a rich source of proteins and in fact, has a higher protein content than even eggs.

In its dry form, fatt choy looks even worse than when cooked. Matted and crunched up with a rustling, coarse texture that is a complete ringer for some hobo’s hair (not that I go around caressing hobos’ hair), fatt choy typically comes packaged in a clump. You either tear it up or use the whole lot as it melts into a soft, fine … well, clump. But fear not, it breaks up into little fine strands as you cook so it really will not be like eating freshly washed hair.

The Chinese government apparently banned the harvest of fatt choy in 2000 as it was eroding the grassland but it is still widely available in Asia. So I am not too sure if that ban is still in place or other sources of fatt choy have been discovered. Of course there are fake fatt choy. All Chinese delicacies have fakes! To spot a fake, you have to buy it first. Because the only way to tell is if the water in which the fatt choy is soaked turns black. Real fatt choy will not discolour the water. So I guess it is a case of the chicken or the egg here.

Hou Xi Fatt Choy

8 big, fat dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in water till soft
– reserve the water
20 dried oysters, soaked in water till soft
- reserve the water
6 conpoy (dried scallops), soaked in water till soft
- reserve the water
1 clump of fatt choy or black sea moss the size of your hand
1 Tientsin cabbage
2 cloves garlic, crushed
3-4 tbsp oyster sauce
¼ cup of clam juice
1/3 cube of chicken stock
½ tsp of sugar
1 tbsp peanut oil

1. Wash your cabbage and slice them in half lengthwise and chop into 1 inch strips crosswise

2. Slice the stalks off the mushrooms and discard the hard and coarse ends, reserving the more tender portions of the stalks. Cut the mushrooms in half if they are too big, otherwise leave them whole

3. Strain the reserved water from the oysters, mushrooms and conpoy through a muslin to remove the grit and dirt and combine all in a bowl

4. Heat the oil in the claypot on medium heat and sauté the garlic cloves till they are slightly blistered and golden

5. Add the oysters and quickly stir fry for about 30 seconds before adding the mushrooms, stir frying quickly till fragrant

6. Add the clam juice and continue stir frying as you add enough oysters/mushroom/conpoy water to almost cover the oysters and mushrooms

7. Add the conpoy, oyster sauce, chicken stock cube and sugar and braise the lot. Taste to see if you need to add additional oyster sauce if it needs salt or sugar or the water if it is too salty

8. After about 20-25 minutes, add the Tientsin cabbage and braise on low till the vegetables are just tender. Adjust the seasoning if required and stir occasionally to ensure even cooking

9. Soak the fatt choy in some warm water and then gently remove it from the water and add to the claypot

10. Stir to mix the ingredients and leave to braise for another 10 minutes

11. Serve hot with rice

Hou Xi Fatt Choy tastes even better the next day. Just add a little more water and heat it up and it’s even more delicious than before. I had my Hou Xi Fatt Choy with some steamed Chinese liver sausages and hot, steamed rice. For once I can’t wait to have the leftovers!

I am also posting this for Kalyn's Kitchen Weekend Herb Blogging #17 since I think a lot of people would find fatt choy both interesting and scary. Maybe they will feature it on Fear Factor! LOL.

So to all and sundry, Gong Xi Fa Cai and Hou Xi Fatt Choy!

Categories - Call Me Others, VeggieMight, Chinese Herbs

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Lo Hei

There’s a Chinese New Year custom called Lo Hei which is very popular in Singapore. I’m not sure if Hong Kong or Singapore actually invented this custom as it is as old as the Tung Lok Restaurant group. Which is like less than 30 years old. Wait, it’s younger than me??!! Oh woe is me!

A bunch of enterprising restauranteurs decided to capitalise on the Chinese love of superstitions and auspicious traditions by introducing an extremely messy salad. Essentially “lo hei” means to toss. And no, it is not a sly put-down but a symbolic tossing of a salad to fish for prosperity and all that good stuff for the new year.

The salad is made of raw fish, juliennes of vegetables, pieces of fritters, peanuts and a soy and vinegar vinaigrette. There are a number of variations but the basic premise is that you get a bunch of hand-eye-coordination impaired people together to simultaneously toss a salad with chopsticks.

It’s a horrible carnage and I frankly detest the Lo Hei practice. There will always be some idiot who thinks he is the life of the party and will stand on his chair to pick up (badly) bits of vegetables and raw fish and drop it from that height on top of you. When you move to pummel the miscreant with your chopsticks, he will burst into loud Chinese New Year greetings at the top of his lungs in self defense. Whereupon you will pick up your chair to bash the tosser over the head.

The only consolation is that the salad is actually quite tasty but you hesitate to eat it having seen how it was tossed. So no, I am not a fan of Lo Hei as I think it inspires people to act like complete buffoons with the manners of one of Jerry Springer’s guests.

I decided to quietly recreate my own version of lo hei by splurging on a sashimi grade salmon with all the trimmings. However, the moment I stepped out to the shops and saw how crowded the streets were, with everyone jostling and shoving each other in their haste to get home in time to prepare for Reunion Dinner, I decided to make a tactical retreat. No Lo Hei is worth a prison sentence when I usher in the Chinese New Year by beating the crap out of someone for pushing me to the floor.

Consulting my seemingly never-ending fridge of leftovers, I wondered how I could make my own lo hei. Suddenly it struck me. Why not a lo mein instead? I get to toss that around when I make it. And it starts with “lo” too! Corny, but hey, anything is better than braving that crowd out there!

I already had on hand a fabulous, fool-proof lo mein recipe which I discovered on the now defunct Digital Chef years ago. I’ve made this many times and it is an easy and wonderfully delicious dish – even if it is not very authentic. I am slightly abashed to admit that it is a rather Western take of a Chinese classic but I like it so much that I really do not care.

Unfortunately, I did not have any chicken. Well, I had a small piece of flank steak which I could adapt for this dish. Rummaging noisily through my vegetable bin, I dragged out a bedraggled stalk of spring onion, and some cabbage which looked like it was going to turn to a lump of coal soon.

I also did not have enough dried shiitake mushrooms left as I was reserving them for dinner tomorrow. I had to resign myself to the two left. Fortunately, they were plump and fairly large specimens. Bugger, I just realised I did not have any linguine or tagliatelle left. Luckily I had some spaghetti.

Otherwise it was all systems go. I was ready to embark on my Westernised Lo Mein Lo Hei.

Again, everything is guesstimation and I used what I had on hand. You can add more beef or noodles if you desire.

Beef Lo Mein Steph’s Way
125g or thereabouts of flank steak
2 ½ tsp granulated sugar
1 2/3 tbsp Chinese brown vinegar
- I used the vinegar marinade that I saved from the Lian Lian You Yu experiment but you can use normal rice vinegar too
¼ cup soy sauce
1 cup chicken broth
- I cheated and just crumbled ¾ of a chicken stock cube into the water
1 ½ tsp sesame oil
½ tsp black pepper powder
- I like it spicy so if you don’t just lessen the quantity
1 tbsp cornstarch
A fistful of spaghetti
- normally I prefer linguine or tagliatelle but this was all I had on hand
1 tbsp peanut oil
1 tbsp minced ginger
1 ½ tsp minced garlic
2 big fat dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in hot water and a little salt to soften & sliced
¼ of a fairly large cabbage, shredded
1 stalk of spring onions, sliced on the diagonal
- usually I would use a big bunch of about 3-4 stalks but this was all I had on hand
1 small bunch of cilantro, coarsely torn by hand
- I do not like to slice or chop my cilantro as I like to preserve their flavour by shredding them by hand … OK, I just like the way my hands smell after that, OK?

1. Slice your flank steak across the grain into strips

2. Combine 1 tsp of sugar, 1 tbsp of vinegar and 3 tbsp of soy sauce in a bowl

3. Add the beef strips to marinate. Set aside.

4. Combine the rest of the sugar, vinegar, soy sauce with the chicken stock, sesame oil and pepper. Whisk well to blend. Taste to see if it needs adjusting – mine did and so I added a little more vinegar and pepper.

5. Mix the cornstarch with a little of this sauce to dissolve it. Add it back to the sauce and mix well. Set aside.

6. Cook your spaghetti in boiling salted water for about 8-10 minutes or however long your pasta requires. Drain and set aside.

7. Heat 1 tsp of oil in your wok or pan on high heat till it’s smoking!

8. Add the beef and stir fry till it just begins to brown. Remove from wok with its pan juices and set aside.

9. Add the remaining oil and let it become smoking hot before adding the ginger, garlic, mushrooms and spring onions. Stir fry for about 30 seconds on high heat.

10. Pour the sauce into the wok and stir to mix before adding the beef and cabbage

11. Simmer till the sauce thickens, which should be about 2 minutes

12. Add the spaghetti and toss well – Lo Hei!

13. Garnish with the cilantro and serve hot. Actually the cilantro is pretty crucial and not just a pretty adornment – it gives your dish a fresh, peppery kick.

And there you have it. My version of the Chinese New Year Lo Hei – Beef Lo Mein. Some Chinese may be offended at my bastardisation of the Lo Hei tradition but whatever - I sure had fun tossing my noodles. *Cue drums*

I give my Beef Lo Mein a 8.75/10 for taste. It would have scored better if I had more mushrooms and spring onions as well as cilantro but I only had that much and was reluctant to venture out into the madding crowd on the eve of Chinese New Year. Inaction being the better part of valour, you know.

It is a fairly healthy dish as there is no cream or excessive oil used. I also used so much cabbage (which was never in the original recipe) that it became an alarmingly wholesome dish. The only drawback would be for those people on a low carbo diet. So I give this dish a 9/10 for being so healthy.

So, I was fairly pleased with my meal especially as I followed this up with some nice kumquats and loveletters for dessert. Lo hei and behold, my landlord brought a bunch of Chinese New Year cookies too! I have a feeling that I am going to be pigging out again. Cool.

Categories - Call Me Others, Meat Me For Dinner

Friday, January 27, 2006

Comfort Food - Khan Prawns and Spinach

Sometimes you just want something simple. I really like things simple – perhaps a result of the strange complexities and turmoil that my life tends to attract. Simplicity is therefore something I crave and prize but alas, due to my drama queen tendencies, not something that I achieve on a daily basis.

This probably reflects on my food. I wish I had the élan and confidence of a Thomas Keller (and talent, skill and even one iota of his genius) to discover the true nature of an ingredient and highlight and “stage” it so simply yet profoundly that the taste buds are forever transformed.

Instead, I tend to over-do and over-analyse my approach to cooking. How that could have happened on my grandmother’s watch (a formidable woman in and out of the kitchen) is still a mystery to me … and probably to her.

I believe we cook as we live our lives. Similar to how I may try too hard in the kitchen, I am sadly the same in life. I throw myself into things and expend all that I have and am into everything. Work, relationships, hobbies, endeavours … it’s all or nothing. I cannot seem to find a middle ground or balance. I either do it and do it with a passion … or not at all.

Some may think this is admirable but it’s really not. The flip side is that you basically tire yourself (and everyone) out by such flagrant exertion. Also, because you invest so much, you are prone to extremely high expectations – from yourself and others. And typically, this sets you up for supreme disappointment.

In recent months, I have been deeply disappointed and disillusioned by a few people I considered friends … in fact, close friends. Being a bit of a passive-aggressive individual, I chose the path of least resistance. With the strong belief that you cannot change people and frankly, it is not your place to try, I decided to shut these people out instead of confronting them on why and how they have betrayed my friendship and trust.

Yes, it is cowardly of me but it would have been a pointless pursuit. I may be slow but not always stupid. OK, maybe only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. And occasionally Sundays.

To seek a confrontation with them would require some desire to reclaim the misplaced trust and affection. I simply did not have it. Not anymore at any rate. Not generally an unforgiving sort and in fact, ridiculously forgiving to the extent of stupidity, I am however frighteningly resolute and unyielding when the line has been crossed beyond what is bearable. And I have never turned back from a decision, no matter how painful.

Such was the scenario today when a particularly fair weather friend called all blithe and cheery after months of conspicuous silence. Perhaps the PMS (bet you could not tell, eh?) that I was suffering under made me even more distant and remote than usual. Usually, I can feign some level of interest and goodwill even when I think the person I am talking to is the scum of the earth. But not today when I am in pain.

The fake concern and sunny camaraderie in my former acquaintance’s voice was more than I could bear. I suddenly felt extremely tired and just wanted to be left alone. Oh Greta Garbo, how well do I identify with thee …

With civil yet distant tones chilly enough to make my grandmother very proud indeed, I turned down her invitation to dinner, pleading an upset tummy. Which was not exactly a lie. I kept the conversation very brief and I could hear the quiet confusion from the other line. A petulant, petty little part of me was rather pleased that she had been hoisted on her own petard but the rest of me was in Rhett Butler mode. As in Frankly, Scarlett …

It was not a complete lie. I was not feeling my usual skippy self (and a bunch of Aussies are laughing at the visual of me looking brown and with a pouch). I needed comfort food. But comfort food that was fast and simple. After yesterday’s indulgent affair, I needed a clean palette with fresh, healthy overtones.

I decided to make one of my favourite dishes. It’s never failed to make me feel better and is fabulously healthy yet so tasty that it is almost a crime how easy and fast it is to make.

An ultimate comfort dish, you say? I bet you are wondering if this is a prized family recipe for macaroni and cheese. Or a heartwarming curry. Or a rich stew. No, my friend. It is a prawns and spinach dish.

Many would be surprised to discover that, despite my love of creams, spices and unctuous food, my ultimate comfort dish is actually a dish so healthy that even Oprah would approve. Yeah, I like keeping people on their toes. On pointé!

This recipe is for one very hungry person or two small eaters. I was one hungry person today as I missed lunch.

Khan Prawns and Spinach
8 prawns, peeled and deveined, shells reserved
- choose big, fat (not necessarily Greek) ones but keep the shells
1 big bunch of spinach, washed well
- I used Chinese spinach but regular spinach works too
4 cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped
4 small shallots, sliced
1 ½ tsp vegetable oil
1/3 cube of chicken stock cube
Pinch of sugar

1. Heat the wok or pan and fry the prawns shells in a little oil till fragrant, adding a little water. Fry for about 1-2 minutes and then pressing hard on the shells to drain the stock out as much possible, remove these leaving only a little liquid in the wok. Set the shells aside to make stock (I usually stockpile a bunch so I can make a very fragrant prawn stock for soups).

2. Add the rest of the oil and sauté the garlic and onions till the fragrant - and trust me, it will be fragrant!

3. Add the spinach just with the liquid still clinging to the leaves and sauté till slightly wilted

4. Crumble the chicken stock into the middle of the wok, add a little pinch of sugar and a little water

5. Add the prawns and stir fry till they turn gloriously cream and orange instead of glassy and gray

6. Voila, you’re done and you eat this with steamed rice which took longer to cook than this dish

Someone I taught this dish to asked me an intelligent question once. And only once. After that she reverted to her Jessica Simpson routine. This girl actually told me that she never eats seafood while scoffing a tuna and mayo sandwich.

Why the sugar? Because it will coax the additional sweetness of the prawns and counter that slight iron taste of the spinach. But go easy on it as it is just a catalyst and not the main seasoning.

I love this dish. It is so simple and fast. Yet so incredibly delicious. Eating it comforts me immediately with the additional benefit of making me feel virtuous for eating so healthily.

My Khan Prawns and Spinach is a 10/10 in both taste and health ratings to me. Perhaps I should submit this for the Antioxidants blog … hmmm. Would be my first but I think I’ve missed the deadline. Oh well …

And now to take a rest since I was not totally fibbing about being a little under the weather.

Categories - Fish Tales, VeggieMight

Queen Leftifah Rules

It’s definitely time for drastic action when things jump out at you when you open the fridge. After getting bopped on the forehead by a militant lemon and stubbed in the toe by a rambunctious bottle of pesto, I knew it was time to make in-roads on the leftovers I carted home on the weekend.

I decided to liberate some duck livers. My girlfriend had ambitiously purchased these in the hopes of some homemade pate and apparently it was an unmitigated disaster. These were the leftover duck livers which she off-loaded on me with much relief.

After her misfortune, I was rather reluctant to make pate too although I’ve never messed those up yet. The night of the Galbi Tank fiasco, I had spent some time thinking of a kumquat-based sauce for duck. Kumquats are especially abundant now that it is Chinese New Year and I have always preferred them to normal oranges anyway.

Although I had no duck at hand, I suddenly wondered if my kumquat sauce concept might match the duck livers. Hmmm … it may well be a marriage made in heaven or a Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn-type divorce.

It was getting late so I just went for it. Another meal out of leftovers. At this rate, I will be known as Queen Leftifah. Do or die … I keyed in a doctor friend’s number on quick dial just in case. Poor Malcom probably regrets appointing himself as my doctor of mercy.

Please note that the measurements are guesstimations as I typically do not measure when I cook. So the best way is to taste and adjust as you cook.

Duck Liver with Kumquat, Cointreau and Cinnamon Sauce
4 duck livers
– mine had the hearts still attached so I used them too
About 1-2 tbsp of duck fat
I’d saved and frozen this from the Eight Treasure Duck I roasted a while ago so it has the really luscious Chinese 5-spice flavour in it
1 whole kumquat
– I used the bigger, more pitted-skinned ones but you can use a normal orange if you can’t find kumquats
¼ cup of orange juice
2 tbsp of potato water
- or whatchamacallit as I used the water I used to boil my potatoes
2 tbsp of Cointreau
1 level tbsp of brown sugar
1 tbsp of orange-ginger marmalade
– you can use normal orange marmalade
2 ½ tbsp of kumquat zest
– from ye mate above
Pinch of cinnamon powder
– would have used half a cinnamon stick but I honestly decided that the sauce needed this at the last minute when I tasted it and thought … hmmm, needs something …
Salt & pepper

1. Right, here’s the icky part – cleaning the livers. Wash the livers gently in cold water a couple of times. Trim off all the yucky white fats etc from the liver and remove the hearts, making sure to trim them well too.

2. Soak the livers and heart in milk to cover. This will help to remove the blood while improving the flavour and colour. I know, the sight of the pink milk was rather off-putting.

3. Heat the duck fat in a pan and add the livers.

4. Sprinkle salt and pepper on each and let them alone! Do not move them around, turn them or even breathe on them for at least 1 minute! Mine were fairly huge so I sautéd them for close to 2 minutes before turning them.

5. Sprinkle salt and pepper on the other side.

6. After 2 minutes, remove from pan and set aside but keep it warm by covering with a towel.

7. Add the hearts to the pan and sauté for about 3-4 minutes, stirring occasionally.

8. Remove from pan and set aside with the liver.

9. Deglaze the pan with the orange juice and potato water.

10. Peel the kumquat and segment, making sure to remove the tough pith. Remove any seeds from the segments. My kumquats were seedless (yeah!) so I did not have to. *Smirk*

11. Let it reduce to almost half the amount before adding the brown sugar, kumquat zest (sans 1 tsp reserve as garnish) and the Cointreau.

12. Add the kumquat segments and continue cooking for about 1-2 minutes till the skin becomes transparent.

13. Add the orange-ginger marmalade and cinnamon and cook for 1 minute till thickened.

14. Plate the dish with the garlic, sage and potato mash (steady .. recipe incoming below), the duck livers and hearts above this and the kumquat sauce drizzled above and around it.

15. Finish with a sprinkling of the kumquat zest on top. Trust me, it tastes loads better this way.

Garlic, Sage and Potato Mash
2 large potatoes
- peeled and chopped in chunks
4 garlic cloves
- peeled and topped
10 fresh sage leaves
– another leftover which you will be seeing featured a fair bit now as I try desperately to use it up before it goes off
1 large knob of butter
Salt & pepper

1. Boil your potatoes in a pot of water with the garlic cloves.

2. When the potatoes and the garlic are soft when you pierce them with a fork, drain the water (reserving a few tbsp for your kumquat sauce).

3. Season your potatoes, add your butter and begin mashing. G’wan, use some elbow grease!

4. Add enough milk to make your mash fluffy and creamy. You can add more butter or milk according to taste.

5. Tear the sage leaves and sprinkle onto the mash and mix well.

This sounds terribly immodest of me but this meal was superb. The duck livers might have been a tad over-cooked but I was veering on the side of caution because I was not sure how long my girlfriend had had them.

My kumquat sauce was a sweet success though. Ambrosial with a hint of Asian spices, it is a true fusion of East and West. The citrine perfume of the kumquat sauce had me salivating. Aromatic yet sweet, it was the perfect consort to the duck livers.

The rich, velvety livers were wonderfully accentuated by the kumquats and balanced by the honeyed tones from the brown sugar and marmalade. The individual kumquat segments were nectared gems that burst into your mouth like little nuggets of liquid sunshine.

Perched redolently on a fluffy mound of garlic, sage and potato mound, the livers were gloriously mahogany brown and glistening with kumquat sauce. The mash had enough dimension not to be cowed by the strong flavours of its platemates but understated enough to stand its own.

I will stick my neck out to say that this dish deserves a 9.5/10 for taste. It did not score a perfect 10 because I would have preferred my liver slightly less done and I thought I could have added more sage leaves to the mash. But still, for something I just came up with on the fly, it’s a stupendous dish.

Healthwise, it is a bit rich but the kumquat sauce balances that out somewhat so I will give this dish a 7.75/10.

It’s thrilling to come up with another East meets West (hackneyed as that is) fusion and I will definitely make this again.

The only downside is that I could not finish all the liver so I saved these … more leftovers! Will this never end??!!!

Queen Leftifah Lives …

Categories - Call Me Others, VeggieMight

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Confessions of a Taxi Driver I - Death by Fried Rice

I have a unique ability. It's the ability to make taxi drivers talk non-stop. Which they do already. But mine exacerbates this to the extent they will invite me home for dinner, give me their numbers so they can call me out for dinner, actually drive me to a place where they swear the best so-and-so food is, tell me their entire family's history, disclose deep dark secrets and secret recipes, reveal government conspiracies, and also ask me out on dates.

It is a rare, rare taxi driver who will refrain from speaking to me. So much so I have decided to start a Confessions of a Taxi Driver series here. The inaugural Confessions of a Taxi Driver kicks off with today's encounter because it is unusual even by my standards.

The encounter was not even in a taxi. I was sitting at a table at a hawker centre waiting patiently for my food, which was taking an inordinately long time, when the man sharing my table suddenly spoke to me.

"Wah, today very long wait hor?"

"Er ... yes. Very long."

"Wonder why leh. Normally not so long one."

Slightly worried what he was alluding to, I decided to play it safe.

"I think it could be that everyone is out doing their Chinese New Year shopping before all the shops close for a week."

"But not yet what! Why they so kiasu* - Chinese New Year also … eh, it’s in two days hor? No wonder lah!”

(* the Singaporean ambition is to be kiasu which literally means ‘afraid to lose’ - a condition that leads people, read Singaporeans, to take time off work to queue up for two days for a free donut)

By the time my food came, which was a bowl of fish noodles, he’d told me his name was Mr Tan, a taxi driver taking his lunch break. Somehow, as it always does with me, the conversation led to food and Mr Tan proceeded to regal me with many secret ways of preparing Chinese food.

One of the most interesting things he told me was about fried rice.

Apparently, when eating fried rice, one must always ... ALWAYS, Mr Tan stressed most earnestly, drink Chinese tea.

Photo from

“Oh, is that because fried rice is so greasy and can be unhealthy so you need the Chinese tea to cut the grease?”

“No lah! Because of the story,” Mr Tan said inscrutably.

“Story? What story?” I gaped, all agogged.

“I tell you lah.”


“Last time hor, got this man whose wife died very young. Very sad one. Some more he got one young son. But then later he OK. He married again. And the woman also got a son. So now he has two …”


“No lah! Sons!”

“Oh …”

“But the second son he no good. He got very bad heart …”

“Sickly?” I said commiseratingly.

“No no ... he got bad heart. He bad person …”

“Oh, OK …”

“And the mother sure love her own son more so they never treat the man’s own son very well. Every day she make fried rice (dire warning to all those one recipe cooks) but she give more to her own son. So to make the stepson full, so he don’t go and complain to his father, she made him drink a lot of water.

The neighbours see him so poor thing. So every day they make Chinese tea for him to drink. And so he become very strong and healthy even though every day he eat fried rice …”

I could not resist the urge to interject smugly.

“So, I was right then. The Chinese tea counteracted the excessive greasiness of the fried rice, which made him healthier.”

“No lah! I aledi said it because the mother bad hearted. So the gods hor, they punish her. Because her own son every day only eat the fried rice, never drink the Chinese tea. So he get more skinny. She cannot understand why! And then you know what happened?”

“No! What?” I asked wide-eyed and full of suspense. Could have been the fish noodles too …

“He died!”



“So sad!”

“Yah lor! So moral of story is that you must drink Chinese tea when eating fried rice.”

“Because it helps to keep you healthy?”

“Yes, because only eat fried rice no drink tea you sure die like the bad son.”

“OK.” I nod dutifully.

“Oy, Chinese New Year you want to come my house for dinner?”

Moral of inaugural Confessions of a Taxi Driver – you don’t have to be in a taxi to get a grand ole tale. And an invitation to dinner.

Categories - Rambling Prose

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Ten Mix on the Wall

I was Ten Mix on the Wall recently. No, it’s not a scary new moonshine recently unleashed upon the market like the Axis of Evil (still wondering what videogame inspired that to this day). It’s the charming name the Chinese (or rather the Hokkiens) bestow on anyone not of “pure blood”.

I’ve not heard this label in a very long time. Nowadays, most people adopt a significantly civil tone or at least only call you that behind your back. An adorable term only endowed on those of mixed heritage, “Ten Mix’ itself is usually uttered with the same affectionate tones as “nigger” or “chink”.

At first I was rather reluctant to post this article in the light of all the hooha in Singapore about racist comments from bloggers. But then I realized I was not the one making the racist comment but the person to whom a racist comment had been directed. So please stop reading here if this offends you.

The first time I heard the Hokkien word “ten mix” was when I had the misfortune of being enrolled into a public school for about 6 months when I came to Singapore until I was mercifully able to go back to private school. I was very puzzled why one girl started saying that to me and suddenly everyone else was parroting her. I went home and asked my mother what it meant. I was surprised and alarmed when she looked fairly upset and questioned me as to who had called me that. I felt as if I had unknowingly done something bad to upset my mother.

In my innocence, I did not realize that “ten mix” referred to people of mixed heritage which loosely translated would be the same as calling someone a mongrel. You know I was not the brightest kid when I asked my mother why they would be calling me that when we were the same. That was the first time my mother explained how some “pure bloods” would not see the homogeneity of human existence.

It was an important lesson. I learnt to pick up Singlish very quickly in order to stop the other kids from making fun of my accent. I also picked up Chinese so I could understand when someone was insulting me.

When my housemate’s maid turned up recently while I was in the kitchen preparing dinner, I did not pay much attention at first. I say housemate’s maid instead of our maid because I politely declined her services after seeing her work. I was not comfortable entrusting my possessions and privacy to someone who spent more time talking than working, cleaned so superficially that I found myself cleaning up again after her and … the ultimate sin … going through your stuff when she thought you were not watching.

The expression in her eyes as she entered the kitchen gave her away. I could tell she was displeased that I was cooking in the kitchen – perhaps lamenting that she might actually have to clean it now. She muttered something to me but too fast for me to comprehend. I gave her an apologetically questioning look as I asked her to repeat her question. Instead of answering me, she went forth to the housemate to demand why I ignored her.

At this point I decided to really ignore her and continue cooking. But the exchange in the living room was clearly audible since she has not mastered the art of volume control yet. My diplomatic housemate told her in Mandarin that I was European-Asian (literal translation) and that I could not speak Chinese so she would have to speak to me in English. He’s wrong, of course, but I was not going to rudely interrupt their presumptions.

The reaction from the maid was classic. She utttered, “Oh, she’s a ten mix! That explains a lot. Because you can tell she is Chinese but not, you know. Because she has that dirty skin you know. And her nose is so big.”

It’s called a tan, you whitening cream abuser. I’ll have you know that sonnenstudios pay top money to achieve that effect, you flat nose platypus.

As I was silently simmering, she began a commentary on how “all these ten mix” are so snooty thinking we are above them (who is them??) and never speaking to them (again, who the hell is them???). And that it is a common fact that Europeans are very dirty unlike “us Chinese” which is probably why I am not utilising her services. She then lamented that she would have to wait for me to finish cooking before she could clean the kitchen which I was messing up.

Why don’t you try speaking to my face instead of behind my back for once? And I found you so lazy and untrustworthy that I hired another helper (who happens to be a very nice Filipina) instead, you Chinese bigot! And I am forever cleaning up since I use the kitchen so much and you clean like a blind man on weed! No offense to the blind here.

This beacon of grace and tolerance then gloated that it was a good thing that I did not speak Chinese so I could not eavesdrop on them and they could speak freely. At this point, I wondered if all Chinese people speak thus freely when they think people do no understand. If so, it is very telling. And the tale is not pretty. I’d like to believe that this is not so despite this self-appointed ambassador.

I was fairly ready to walk over to give her a piece of mind … in Mandarin … when my housemate finally spoke up. He said that I was actually very clean and if fact, I clean the kitchen better than her. I decided not to poison the portion of soup I was intending to give him.

He continued to say that I was actually a friend, which is untrue as I only got to know him when I moved in. But I knew why he said that and I really appreciated it. I decided to increase his portion size.

And he capped it all by telling her she would have to clean the kitchen no matter how long it took me to cook. He added that I was a very neat and clean cook anyway so she would not have much to do. I began to look for something else to cook for him to go with the soup.

This silenced her verbosity enough for me to swallow my anger like a bitter pill. I was tired of being a ten mix on the wall. I quickly finished cooking, cleaned up and retreated to my room, seeking a welcomed sanctuary from the thick cloud of superior lineage permeating the living room.

It is bad enough I get asked “What you ah?” by tactless taxi drivers and have colleagues speak to me about Chinese heritage slowly and patronizingly as if my lack of language skills was an indication of inferior intellect. But to have to feel the prick of such racial sanctimony in the supposed sanctum of my home was beyond the pale.

Yes, I am a Ten Mix on the wall. But it sure beats the hell out of being a bigot on the floor. Happy Chinese New Year to you too. Perhaps instead of an ang pao I can get her a nice white robe with a matching pointy hat.

Categories - Rambling Prose

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Spare Part - Steph's Piscean Soup

Be not afraid. I will not be posting about intestines or tripe or any other spare parts here. Not that I can promise that I will not do so in the future ...

I had quite a bit of ingredients left from my laboratory experiment that I either had to stow them all away in the fridge or cook up something immediately using them. The first option was not viable as my fridge is totally full. So I decided to cook up something based on all the ingredients left.

Let's see ...

Fish colloid made of fresh mackeral, diced red dates and dried squid. Minced pork also with diced red dates and dried squid. Lotus root. Half a tomato. Ginger juliennes. A little beaten egg. One red date. A little over half a dried squid. Half a mackeral fillet. Skin of half a mackeral fillet.

And I was stuffed. I did not think I would be able to eat a full meal after all the Lian Lian You Yu I ate. The decision was therefore rather simple. I would cook a fish soup.

Steph's Piscean Soup
Leftover fish colloid made from mashed mackeral, diced red dates and diced dried squid
Leftover mince pork mixture with diced red dates and diced dried squid
1/2 a mackeral fillet,
1 cup of cubed lotus root
1/2 dried squid, soaked to soften & cut into quarters
1/2 tomato, cubed coarsely
1 tbsp ginger, julienned
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 red date, soaked to soften - you can add more but I only had the one left!
1/4 cup clam juice
1/2 tbsp oil
Skin of half a mackeral fillet
2 tbsp beaten egg
1 handful coriander leaves

1. Roll thumb-sized fish balls from the fish colloid and do the same with the pork - I managed to make about 4 pork balls and 10 fish balls
2. Heat the oil in your pot and saute the garlic till it begins to turn a little golden
3. Add the dried squid and saute till fragrant
4. Pour the claim juice into the pot and add about 2 - 2 1/2 cups of water
5. Add the lotus roots and bring to the boil
6. Lower the heat and add the ginger, red date and pork and fish balls
7. In the meantime fry the mackeral skin in oil till the crispy
7. When the pork and fish balls rise to the surface, add the fish slices and the tomato cubes and simmer for about 5 minutes
8. In the same oil used to fry the mackeral skin, cook the egg to make a thin golden disc
9. Turn off the flame on your fish soup and add the coriander
10. Keep the soup covered so that the fish will continue to cook but not over an open flame (this stops you from overcooking the fish)
11. Let the egg cool before cutting it into strips
12. Ladle your soup into a bowl
13. Plate your mackeral skin over the top with the egg strips over it

I think that wasn't too bad for a soup made from leftover ingredients and on the fly. It tasted pretty fantastic and best of all, it was wonderfully healthy, which was what I needed after all that deep fried extravagance of Lian Lian You Yu.

I give the soup a 9/10 for taste and a 9/10 for being so healthy. It was truly lip smacking good. Gawd, I ate so much today ... I wonder how much an iGallop costs. *Snigger*

Categories - In Hot Soup, Fish Tales

Monday, January 23, 2006

Lian Lian You Yu

OK, that's a pun on the popular Chinese New Year greeting Nian Nian You Yu, which literally means Prosperity Every Year.

Chinese New Year greeting, Wan Shi Ru Yi - May All Your Endeavours Be Successful

Photo from

Every lunar Chinese New Year, all the Chinese suddenly wax lyrical. Everyone begins speaking in lyrical couplets and breaking into song without provocation during this season. It's like a bad (is there a good?) Woody Allen musical. Even I, with my half baked Chinese, know at least 3 celebratory phrases. One of which is Nian Nian You Yu.

I remember this because I would hear it at a Chinese restaurant or at someone's house for Chinese New Year dinner when they beckon me to partake of some fish dish. It is terribly auspicious to eat fish during this season as the Chinese word for prosperity - "yu", sounds like the Chinese word for fish, also "yu". Thus, you will see paintings of fishes, golden fish decorations, live fish in aquariums adorning Chinese homes during Chinese New Year.

You will also see a plethora of fish dishes served during the Chinese New Year too. Everyone wants to strike it rich and what's more fun than eating your way to prosperity?

I decided to tweak this traditional Chinese practise of fishing for luck through food by playing a pun on the couplet, Nian Nian You Yu. I still had a segment of lotus root left over from my Sea Bass Soup with Lotus Root and Red Dates and I knew I had to use it before it decided to take root in my refrigerator. Then it struck me ... the Chinese word for lotus is "lian", which sounds awfully like "nian", the Chinese word for year. Wouldn't it be punny if I made a dish out of lotus roots to signify Lian Lian You Yu, which to a half deaf person would sound like Nian Nian You Yu?

Yes, I am a sad, sad person. But if it gets rid of that lotus root before it festers, it's all good. So, my under-equipped kitchen became a weird science laboratory as I began experimenting. Warning: Do not ask for proportions for all recipes in this post as I was experimenting and so reverted back to training where we cook by throwing in, dashing, pinching and tasting instead of measuring.

I had the idea of making lotus root sandwiches but in the style of how the Scots would deep fry everything from Mars bars to rude English footy hooligans. Deep fried lotus root sammiches aka Lian Lian You Yu! Brilliant! I was inspired!

I began by slicing half the lotus roots into rings and pickling them in a mixture of Chinese black vinegar, Chinese wine (hua tiao chiew) and a little sugar.

I was inspired by the ginger and black vinegar dipping sauce paired with guo tie or potstickers as well as the Japanese lotus root pickles. By pickling the lotus root, I was giving it a tartness that will counteract the deep frying yet highlight the richness of the dish.

I also decided to give a twist to the classic Pork Ribs with Lotus Roots Soup by making one of the fillings from pork. My take on the Chinese New Year celebratory and auspicious dish would be a lotus root with fish and lotus root with pork sandwiches. The pork filling sandwich cannot really be dubbed Lian Lian You Yu but I had a trick up my sleeves - I would add dried squid to the filling. The name for dried squid in Chinese is "you yu", and thus it fulfills the "yu" in the equation. I was pretty pleased at my own cleverness. Modest, aren't I?

Lian Lian You Yu Pork Filling
I seasoned the mince pork with salt and black pepper powder. I took about a teaspoon of this mixture and spreaded it onto a pickled lotus root ring. I then sandwiched another lotus root ring on top, dipped it in a beaten egg before coating it in flour I had seasoned with salt and pepper. Finally I deep fried this till golden brown

This sandwich was fairly tasty but as I had been rather conservative with the pork filling (it measured approximately 0.5 cm high), I felt that the filling was not succulent enough. So, I made another lotus root sandwich, ensuring that this time I spread a thicker pork filling. The result was much more satisfying with enough crunch and texture to make it a fairly tasty treat. I gave it a 7/10 rating.

However, I had another idea that I wanted to explore from the previous night of contemplation after the Galbi Tang debacle.

Lian Lian You Yu with Pork and Red Dates Filling
Finely dicing some red dates which I had soaked to soften earlier, I added these to the minced pork. I knew the honeyed red dates would complement the pork. Again, I sandwiched these in the pickled lotus root rings, dipped it in egg and flour before deep frying it.

This was more like it! As predicted, this lotus root sandwich now acquired a new complexity that elevated it from a tasty treat to delightful dish, which deserved a 7.5/10 rating. But I still was not satisfied. I had another idea.

Lian Lian You Yu with Pork, Red Dates and Dried Squid Filling
Yes, you read right. Dried squid. And why not? Pork ribs and Lotus Root soup's secret is the addition of dried squid which gives it that ambrosiac taste of the sea. The sweetness imparted by this should give the pork filling an added dimension. So I diced some dried squid which I had soaked hours before to soften it. I added this to the pork and red dates and mixed well.

I repeated the procedures for deep frying the sandwich. What can I say? It was totally delicious and absolutely amazing paired with a dipping sauce I made with julienned ginger and Chinese black vinegar just like the guo tie or potstickers dipping sauce. This was now a 8/10 delight.

But I really wanted to lend an East meets West fusion to this dish to reflect my own ethnicity so I decided to go for broke.

Lian Lian You Yu with Pork, Red Dates, Dried Squid and Sage Filling
Repeat the process for making the pork filling as above but sandwich a thinner layer on one lotus root ring. Placing individual fresh sage leaves on filling, I spooned another layer on top of this before sandwiching this with another lotus root ring. You now had the sage leaves sandwiched between the pork filling, which are in turn sandwiched by the lotus root rings. This is worse than a porn movie! Did I just say that? How mortifying!

At first bite, I knew I had a winner. The sweetness of the red dates, the savoury pork, the intense flavour of the dried squid and the peppery fresh kick of the sage melded brilliantly against the backdrop of the piquant lotus roots. The burst of flavours in your mouth as you crunched through the layers were a delightful surprise. Yet you were left feeling like you had just tasted a long-forgotten childhood treat.

I was jubilant that my haphazard experiment worked so well. I gave myself a pat on the back, which is terribly difficult to do when you are trying to scribble down the score of 8.5/10 in your little notebook at the same time.

I was extremely pleased with this experiment so I set out to make the real McCoy - Lian Lian You Yu.

Lian Lian You Yu
Plain - Scrapping the flesh off a mackeral fillet with a spoon, I seasoned this with salt and ground white pepper, mashing it as I mixed. Do not overmash or your fish will become tougher than a Goodyear tire. Again, I dipped it in egg and flour before deep frying.

I was not blown away by this. The fish filling definitely needed something more.

With dried squid - Luckily, I had anticipated this and had already diced some dried squid which I now added to the fish colloid. This time, the fish filling tasted much more interesting in flavour. However, I realised that because the dried squid is so tough in texture, you had to be careful not to include too much of it no matter how finely diced they are. I detest fish cakes that are too bouncy and hard. If I wanted to take a bite out of Pamela Anderseon Lee's boobs, I would have turned gay now, wouldn't I?

With dried squid & red dates - Somehow, I still felt that the fish filling could be improved. Since I was so successful with the pork filling, I decided to add the red dates to the fish as well. That worked a treat too! I added a little more white pepper powder to give it a little more kick and this time, I was fully satisfied that the combination was just right. I gave this a rating of 7.75/10.

However, I felt that by deep frying the fish, it lost a lot of its natural sweetness. Next time I would like to explore another idea for the fish colloid and lotus root - another take on Lian Lian You Yu. I can see that I will be exploring this idea for a little while more.

So the final selection for Lian Lian You Yu was the lotus root sammich with the fish, dried squid and red dates filling and the lotus root sammich with the pork, red dates, dried squid and sage filling.

I was happy puppy. But I had a lot of ingredients left over. And limited space in the fridge now. Oh dear, I guess I just have to cook something else to use up all these then.

Categories - Meat Me For Dinner, VeggieMight, Call Me Others