Saturday, February 25, 2006

Men Are From a Different Planet System ...

Ah, the joys of having an obliging housemate with a strong dose of Saving-the-damsel-in-distressitis.

I must look a fright as my housemate took a gander of my flu-infested visage and offered to buy dinner for me. Relieved and grateful, I asked for something simple and easy to eat, thinking that he would buy some noodle soup that would glide easily down my parched throat and soothe my over-worked lungs.

Instead, he came home with a huge packet of rice with an assortment of vegetables and meat. All smelling uttlerly delicious but not exactly the easiest on a battered throat. It is true that men and women communicate on totally different levels. My definition of "easy to eat" was obviously a different kettle of fish to his.

All that time I spend in the kitchen has obviously not escaped his attention. The gastronomic missive of mercy contained enough vegetables but more importantly, okra. He proudly informed me that he'd noticed I cooked quite a lot of okra and so he'd ordered those for me. I was terribly touched by his consideration. However, the delineation between men and women became apparent as his girlfriend rolled her eyes expansively and berated him for buying a sambal dish for me when I obviously had a bad throat. She gave me a commiserating and apologetic look while pinching his arm in reproachment.

There ... you see? A woman would think of that and immediately consider the repercussions of consuming a dish. A man would just think ... hmm, will that taste good even if it promised to eviscerate their bowels for the next week.

Categories - Rambling Prose

Light At the End of the Tunnel

I feel like singing and dancing for joy! Except that I have a smidgeon of compassion for mankind so I will refrain from singing. I am the world's most horrendous warbler - of the variety that do not even attempt to sing in the bathroom for fear of frightening themselves.

And I would dance ... if I had the energy! Just as I was feeling terribly morose and sorry for myself, I received the most wonderful phone call from my bestest of besterest friend in the world. The person I miss most out of all the human being set upon this earth. Graeme had called all the way from San Diego, the loathsome place I cast many surly thoughts at for so entrancing my friend that he has essentially emigrated there, to inform me that he was coming to Singapore to visit me!

I would be dancing the Dance of Joy right now if not for fear that I would be doing the Face Off of Joy with Ground instead. This is the best news I had received in years! I am beside myself with delight! Although I am not entirely sure I like the reasons for this sudden holiday, I am certainly not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. I shall be counting the days till the Staedtler to my Waldorf arrives!

Till then, I will be crossing my fingers and hoping that nothing arises that will change his plans as I shall be horribly gutted if Graeme did not come now. Oh such delicious anticipation!

Categories - Rambling Prose

Friday, February 24, 2006

Stoned Cold Stupid Seafood Pie

I’m not terribly bright at times. I harbour the singular belief that I am infallible despite many evidences to the contrary.

Brought low by the flu, I’d dutifully ingested the horse pills dispensed by the drug-happy doctor and spent a full 36 hours under the covers. I’m not sure if it was the medicine, the ginger tea or just the much-needed rest that made me feel part of the human race again today. But as usual, at the first sign that the earth was not rising up to meet my forehead, I was up and about.

I’ve always been leery of “synthetic” medicine and try to avoid them unless absolutely necessary. And for fair reason since it obviously lowers my IQ considerably. This fear of becoming a blithering idiot typically sees me banishing the little white plastic bags of drugs to the far corner of the medicine cabinet the moment my ocular and olfactory senses make their appearances. You see the problem now, don’t you?

For some reason, I decided that going to the shops to buy my dinner would be more demanding than cooking. See? Drugs do kill … brain cells.

The idea was to put something together quickly from what was in my fridge. The only problem was that I had hardly any vegetables left and everything else was frozen. Fortunately, I have a habit of packing single portions in the freezer that accommodates my lifestyle. Pulling out a small package labelled “Seafood”, I pondered the quickest and easiest option.

A recent post in Stephen Cooks showcasing his marvellous fish and lobster pie had propelled me into a drooling state with its delectable photo, wonderful description and egg custard based filling. In my muddled state, I opted to bake a quick seafood pie with an egg custard filling inspired by Stephen.

I started out well with high hopes that far exceed my energy. By the time I set my little seafood pie into the turbo broiler to bubble and toil, I was thoroughly knackered, requiring a lie-down before I could even swallow my folly.

Fortunately, though I be a fool, I be a small fool. With my predilection to small portions, I had made my seafood pie in a pie tin that was only 4 inches in diameter. It was just the right size as my prodigal taste buds could only manage that much before it decided to fight back. In light of my stupendous dim-wittedness, I dub this pie Steph’s Folly aka Stoned Cold Stupid Seafood Pie.

Stoned Cold Stupid Seafood Pie
2 scallops
2 large tiger prawns, shelled and deveined
2 thick slices of mackerel
½ small leek, sliced
2 shallots, sliced
1 garlic, sliced
Olive oil
1 ½ tbsp white wine
1 tsp of ground oregano
Pinch of ground thyme
Pinch of nutmeg
1 egg – I used a duck egg as I wanted more yolky creaminess
3 almond crackers
Parmesan cheese, grated

1. Butter the pie tin. Mine was a tiny pie tin that was 4 inches in diameter but you can increase the portions according, or use a ramekin for individual portions like mine.

2. Crush the cracker with enough butter (it’s easier if your butter is still fairly firm) to hold the crumbs

3. Line the bottom of the pie tin with the cracker & butter crumbs. Preheat the oven to 200 deg Celsius.

4. Heat some olive oil and butter in a pan and sear the scallops just enough to lightly brown it before setting aside

5. Add the garlic, shallots and leeks to the same skillet and sauté till just soft and transparent

6. Add the seafood and sauté quickly till the fish is just opaque and the prawns begin to redden

7. Add the wine, ground oregano and thyme and cook on low for about 30 seconds

8. Whisk your egg with cream. I used about 4 tbsp, which turned out to be far too much egg custard but that was fine as I steamed the remaining seafood flavoured egg custard and ate that as an appetizer to the pie!

9. Remove the seafood mixture from the stove and stir in the egg mixture

10. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste

11. Pour into the prepared pie tin and sprinkle the grated Parmesan to cover and dot with butter

12. As my pie is a tiny, 4-inch-diameter golden gem, I baked my pie for only 10 minutes and removed as soon as the Parmesan was bubbling and golden brown. If using a normal 9 inch or more pie tin, bake for about 20-30 minutes. Gauge doneness by actually looking at the pie and applying drug-free common sense.

13. Serve while hot

I’ll be honest and admit that I did not taste the pie at its optimum. By the time I set the little, bubbling pie aside to cool, my limbs were trembling with exhaustion and I was feeling the now-familiar constriction of my chest. Fleeing the alluring aroma of the sun-bronzed jewel of the sea, I hied myself off to the bedroom to fall into a dramatic swoon. Too many years on the stage ... I had to take a short rest to recover my breath, feeling much like the ladies of yore who succumbed daily to the morbid embrace of corsets and stays.

The pie was lukewarm when I managed to amble back into my kitchen… my least favourite way to eat pie. Yet, despite my Marilyn Monroe shortness of breath and half-numbed palate, I could still taste the wonderful sweetness of the ocean in this humble pie. The scallops were sweet and plump, and the prawns juicy and firm. In the face of these show boaters, the mackerel suffered in comparison, battling for attention and relegated to understudy status instead.

The egg custard filling was slightly dry and I realised I should have added more cream to give it a softer and more tender texture. No taste or health rating for today's dish since this will just lead to a survey error with my poor health and challenged taste buds today.

I’d simply rate it a 10/10 for folly. My folly for trying to bite off more than I can eat and cooking when ill and perhaps setting my recovery back. And now for more ginger tea and drugs. Joy.

Categories - Fish Tales

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Just Shoot Me and Get It Over & Done With

You know one of those days when you just pray for a swift end?

The bone-deep fatigue that drags your cement shoes-hooved feet across a gritty floor? The invisible burden of Atlas crushing your shoulders towards the ground, compressing your chest and lending your gait the lithesome grace of Quasimodo? The woolly-headedness that creates fuzzy outlines around the frame of your vision?

Yesterday, in the midst of helping 3A Gurl and 3A Hubby move, I felt a sudden buffet of lightheadedness that necessitated the kind of lie-down you only associate with your mothball-smelling aunts. You know … the ones with the rubber bands holding up their stockings.

The flu that I had been trying desperately to fend off had struck back. Take that! Kaplunk.

I still managed to crawl my way to the nearest food court today to get some noodle soup. The alternative was to order in McDonalds … I’m ill but not that ill. And you know how the Fates just love to kick you when you are down? Well, I must be wearing a T-shirt with a bulls eye on it and an X marking the spot.

Shuffling home, I made the unpleasant discovery that the attentive food stall assistant had been suffering a condition that made the simple act of securing the lid of the soup-ladened carton a Herculean feat. Her dainty hand has failed to literally put a lid on it and I returned home with a bulgingly soggy bag and a semi-dry noodle soup.

It was almost too much to bear. This was not the first time this particular food stall assistant had committed this horrible crime. I hurried home as fast as I could with a hot, dripping bag feeling much like one of the geriatrics ambling along with their colostomy bags. Yes, horrible imagery. Misery loves company so suck it up.

I hate being ill. I can’t taste a thing when I am ill and eating becomes a chore because everything tastes like cupboard. I’m not sure if the food was really that bad today, which is odd since I’ve eaten from the same stall many times and it’s always been fairly decent, but the noodles were chewy and strangely elastic. I had a horrifying moment when I tried to bite through a strand of rice noodles and the thing bounced back and hit me in the face!

The soup was bland and I was perversely relieved that Miss Dainty Handed Stall Assistant had been so lazy. The only saving grace was the fresh fish. Even with my AWOL tastebuds, I could tell from the texture and look of the fish slices that they were not of the frozen variety.

Since eating was a bust, I decided that I would try to chase the flu away by chasing the chills away. Yes, I’ve been a shivering mess and not in a good way. So I set a pan of water on the stove, plonked some ginger and a cinnamon stick in and went for a short lie down as I waited for it all to brew.

Nothing … and I mean nothing ... OK, maybe a hot toddy or a warmed snifter of scotch whiskey … soothes and warms the body like ginger tea. With a heaping teaspoon of clover honey, my ginger and cinnamon tea made me feel almost human again. For a while anyway.

And now, excuse me as I go for a lie-down. Creak.

Categories - Call Me Others, Sweet Thang, Rambling Prose

Monday, February 20, 2006

Slow-Cooked Salmon with Shallot-Mushroom & Peppercorn Burnt Butter Cream ... Phew!

Act One, Scene I -
Steph walks blithely down a busy street. Suddenly she stops short, causing a minor collision behind her, as a stunned mullet expression paints a wide swath across her face.

From the glazed sheen in her eyes, it is clear that either inspiration or dementia had struck. With warning, she digs into her bag, pulls out a ballpoint pen and notebook and begins scribbling furiously. The jury is still out.

I usually have a small notebook with me. People look askance at me when I stop in mid-conversation or action (there are some funny stories there but if I wrote them here I might get arrested) to frantically record a sudden thought, inspiration or just something I think is interesting. A journalist friend used to scoff at my manic scribbling during interviews even though I brought my tape recorder. He stopped laughing one day when half his tape was ruined and he had to beg for my notes. To my credit, I read it out to him in exchange for a round of drinks at the local. Note: can be bribed with food and drinks.

Somehow, I always remember things better if I write them down even if I never refer to them ever again. It’s become a comforting habit keeping anarchy and chaos at bay.

I’ve never been described as slow except by all the show-offs during sports days. Sure, I like to take my time eating … to savour every bite, every texture, every luscious drop. However, in the kitchen, I try to be fairly time efficient – the result of being my grandmother’s kitchen serf for so many years.

But for past week, I have been languorously gestating on the concept of slow cooking. Utterly intrigued by the descriptions of “slow-cooked salmon” posted in outstanding blogs like Kuidoare and She Who Eats, I’d jotted this down in my ever-present notebook and have been pondering it. While I have slow cooked meats, it had never occurred to me that this could also apply to fish and that the result can be such a visual delight. I did a little research on this cooking technique but was stymied by contradicting accounts.

Some chefs and bloggers simply coated the salmon with olive oil overnight before seasoning and cooking it in a very low oven for an average of 20-30 minutes. Others skipped the curing and just rubbed the fish with the oil before leaving it to the tender mercies of the oven. However, one adamant chef stressed the submersion of the entire fish in olive oil in a 59 to 100 deg Celsius oven for about 45 minutes.

It’s all terribly confusing so I compromised and poured a 1cm-layer of olive oil over the seasoned fish and cooked it at around 70 deg Celsius for about 40 minutes.

The result was a moist, tender fish that tasted lovely but which I thought a little overdone. Also, I could not capture the bright, vivid orange which slow cooking is supposed to intensify. Next time I will only cook it for 30 minutes.

Another interesting notation describes a reduced sauce of shallots, mushrooms, whole peppercorns and cream. While shallots and mushrooms and cream are not an unusual combination, I thought the addition of whole peppercorns was. I had a hunch it might be a perfect counterfoil to the slow-cooked salmon. But of course, I can never leave a recipe alone so I decided to make it with burnt butter.

Having finalised the storyboard in my head, I started getting to work.

Slow-Cooked Salmon with Shallot-Mushroom & Peppercorn Burnt Butter Cream
1 salmon fillet or steak
Olive oil
Salt & pepper
Shallot-Mushroom & Peppercorn Burnt Butter Cream:

- 3-4 shallots, cut in half

- 1 packet enoki mushrooms (that’s one entire clump), trimmed of the woody end
- About ½ tbsp of whole, black peppercorns
- About 1/2 tbsp of butter
- About 1 tbsp of olive oil
- About 2-3 tbsp of cream
- About ¼ cup of prawn stock (I make this from the heads of prawns which I cook in water, crushing the heads to release all the lovely juices, draining and then reducing)

1. Preheat the oven to about 70 deg Celsius

2. Season the salmon with salt & pepper

3. Lightly oil a baking dish and place the salmon on top

4. Pour olive oil over the fish up to almost 1cm

5. Slow cook the salmon for about 30-40 minutes. I cooked mine for 40 minutes but I think it was overdone so I will try for 30 minutes next time.

6. Heat the butter and oil in a saucepan till the butter is slight burnt and very fragrant. Do not panic. Just lift the pan from the flames, gently swirl and replace on the stove again, to manage the degree of singeing.

7. Add the shallot and sauté gently till soft and transparent

8. Add the enoki mushrooms and peppercorns and sauté gently for about 1-2 minutes

9. Add the prawn stock and simmer gently to reduce

10. Pour in the cream and turn up the heat a little to simmer and reduce the sauce till well mixed and thickened

11. You may wish to adjust your seasoning now but my sauce was just perfect so I didn’t have to add anything else

12. Turn off the heat and start plating

13. Mound the Sweet Leeks on a corner of your platter and place the salmon over it, centering the fish

14. Trail the enoki mushrooms over the salmon and spoon the sauce over these

15. Serve hot and devour immediately with a nice glass of white wine

Initially, I wanted to make creamy mash as a side dish but some prescience warned me that it may be overkill. I had been dying to try Jamie Oliver’s Mussels and Sweet Leeks and today, I was in the mood for leeks. With a Stephie twist, of course. I was still worried that the entire dish may prove too rich and cloying so I decided to use a combination of sour cream and single cream to balance it. And what’s a dish from me without spice? I added black mustard seeds to lend texture and depth to this side dish.

Sweet Leeks
2 stalks of leeks, trimmed, cleaned and chopped
1 clove of garlic, sliced
Olive oil
About 1 tbsp of white wine
1 tsp of black mustard seeds
1 ½ tsp sour cream
1 – 1 ½ tbsp of single cream
Pinch of sugar

1. Heat the butter and oil and add the garlic and leeks and sauté till soft and fragrant

2. Pour in the wine and simmer on low for about 1 minute

3. Add the creams, sugar, salt & mustard seeds and stir. Taste to see if any adjustment should be made. If too sour, add a little more sugar. If too sweet, add a little more single cream and salt. If too salty, add more single cream and a little more sugar.

4. Simmer on low till reduced

5. Serve hot

OK, here is where I gloat. While the salmon may have been slightly overdone, the sauce and the sweet leeks were to die for. The sauce was so rich, tasty and divine that I was making orgasmic noises as I slurped the glossy strands of cream-coated enoki down my grateful palate. Surprisingly, the natural creaminess of the salmon was not intimidated by the assertive sauce and every bite of the saucey fish was just sheer heaven. Smooth, thick cream slipped so easy across the taste buds that the sudden crunch of a robust peppercorn released a heady burst of heat right at the back of the throat that was just … well … sexy.

The sweet leeks deserved their moniker but the inclusion of the sour cream gave it a slight piquancy that elevated it from bubblegum status. The nubby little mustard seeds definitely gave depth to the silky leeks and an exotic twist to an old classic.

The only drawback to this dish is that it is very rich. I was hard pressed to finish my dinner and was relieved that I had not succumbed to mashed potatoes in the end. It was just way too much for a small grazer like me. When I next make this, I will use a smaller salmon fillet and halve the sauce.

This dish is truly manna from heaven. I was completely sated at the end of it, with a blissful grin and the urge to smoke something. Taste wise, it scores a 9/10, with demerit points for getting the cooking time of the fish wrong. Health wise, it is a bust, garnering a measley 5/10. There is so much butter and cream in this meal, I am glad I am helping 3A Gurl move tomorrow. I need the exercise.

P/S. If anyone would like to share their method of slow cooking salmon, please do let me know. I am ever curious and willing to experiment.

Categories - Fish Tales, VeggieMight

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Sinful Breakfast - Chocolate & Banana Sandwich

After being so health-conscious and good yesterday, I felt that I could now go to the dark side. Oh yes ... dark ... dark chocolate.

I'd been craving dark chocolate (like that's unusual ...) and I still had the little drops of semi-bittersweet chocolate in my pantry as well as two bananas so ripe they were on the verge of self-mushilation. I also had those walnut buns from
Cheese Sammich Day and I am desperate to use these up before they started going stale. The humidity in Singapore makes everything go off so much faster than normal.

So, since yesterday was saintly restraint day, today had to be sinful indulgence. Blurry-eyed and slow from sleep, I started putting together a sweet treat for myself.

Chocolate & Banana Sandwich
1 small walnut bun
Cream cheese
Half a small ripe banana
Semi-bittersweet chocolate drops or flakes

1. Slice the bun in half horizontally

2. Spread the cream cheese onto the cut sides of the bun

3. Sprinkle the chocolate drops on the bottom half of the bun

4. Slice the bananas and lay them on top of the chocolate drops

5. Sprinkle a little more chocolate drops on top

6. Cover with the other half of the bun and squish the sandwich slightly to set

7. Zap in the microwave for about 45 seconds to melt the chocolate

8. Eat while hot (carefully!) with a cold glass of milk

9. Go back to bed

The sandwich was scrumptious but I think the next time I make this, I will trickle a stream of amber honey over the banana layer as I think it could do with a bit more sweetness. The dark chocolate was fabulous though and I was licking my fingers as it oozed out from between its golden banana and cheese captors.

I seldom eat breakfast but a sinful breakfast like this is worth repeating. A deserved 8.5/10 for taste to this sweet start to the day but an admonishing 6/10 for being naughtily unhealthy.

Categories - Sweet Thang, Call Me Others

Weekend Herb Blogging #20 - Lotus Leaf, Lily Bulb & Wintermelon


After the storm, comes the calm. Singapore weather is always unpredictable. The sun is either piercingly hot or the skies, water-logged and sulky. Coupled with the island’s perpetually intense humidity, you could not find a better hotbed for the flu.

Like many others, I’ve been trying to keep the flu at bay all week. After a particular hard night, I decided it is definitely time for some good, old-fashion Chinese medicinal soups.

My fascination with the lotus plant is fairly obvious. I’ve written about the seeds, flower and root and finally, it is time for the leaves. Featuring the lotus leaf or he ye for
Weekend Herb Blogging is rather apropos after the heightened emotions of this week - lotus in Mandarin is he, which sounds like the word for harmony or peace.

Lotus Leaf aka He Ye
The summer I was eight and visiting my grandfather, I witnessed my now-uncle’s diabolically successful courtship of my youngest aunt, the undisputed raving beauty (and lunatic, in my opinion) of the family. By all accounts, my uncle would never have fitted in our family. Poorly uneducated with a blue collar job, his greatest disadvantage in wooing Aunt Kris was that he was Chinese. The first time he shadowed her from school, the other aunts immediately dismissed him as a non-contender. After all, how could he even communicate with her?

But Uncle Francis was a wily bugger. He watched. He plotted. He spoke hardly any English at all. But he spoke FOOD. His visits always heralded the most amazing aromas and beguilingly bulbous bags of mouth-watering bribes. He silenced the covey of Valkyries with sweet delights. My grandfather received wines and rich, unctuous roasts. He remembered each person’s likes and dislikes and bribed us according to our individual Achilles heel.

And he targeted a skinny, little eight-year-old as his spy.

To Uncle Francis’ credit, he never exposed me as the Deep Throat of his courtshipgate. Even after he’d won the lady fair, he still had time for me. My love for Chinese kungfu comics began in our garden as he painstakingly explained the storylines in very broken English. He introduced me to simple, home-cooked Chinese cuisine that was as wildly exotic to me as reindeer stew or miso soup!

In exchange, I divulged Aunt Kris’ daily schedule, gave early warnings of competition and coached him on each family member’s likes and idiosyncrasies. His visits were eagerly awaited just for the gastronomical treats! And it was fun to watch the family’s befuddled reaction to this indomitable, unfazeably good natured and unsuitable man.

On one of his visits, he lifted a plump, leaf-wrapped bundle from an acid green plastic bag that pummeled my olfactory senses with the earthy yet fresh scent of tea.

I eyed him covetously as he cut through dark twine and languorously peeled away layers of dull green leaves to unveil a fragrant mound of glutinous rice with glistening mushrooms, lotus seeds, Chinese sausages and other delectable morsels. My attention, however, was totally focused on the leaf! Pressing my nose to it, I inhaled deeply to fully absorb and separate the different nuances. I rubbed, fondled and bent the leaf to gauge its elasticity. I chewed on a little corner to test its texture and taste.

Running to my grandfather, I demanded an answer to this verdant puzzle with such petulant frustration that he told me that to learn what the leaf was, I first had to learn to be like the leaf. I wondered if he’d been spiking his shisha with something more than tobacco and when I had changed my name to Grasshopper.

Grandfather explained that the lotus leaf, by virtue of its name, he ye, was prized as a symbol of harmony and peace. Oh, right … OMMM then. Now tell me what it does! Turns out the lotus leaf regulates the vital functions of the heart and has the ability to quench thirst, correct frequent passing of dark urine (a sure sign of over-heatiness and that you’ve been eating some funky, dark foods), and stop diarrhoea.

The lotus leaf is sweet in taste with a hint of bitterness – isn’t that the case with most things in life? It is considered a neutral herb in Chinese medicine, with the ability to clear summer heat, to the extent of alleviating fevers, and aid digestion. It has wonderful curative properties as it can heal bruises, reduce muscle spasms and stop bleeding. Believed to cure symptoms of dampness due to heat or wind, it explains why the lotus leaf is so useful in easing dizziness and nausea.

When purchasing lotus leaves, try to obtain dark, dry leaves without mould or insect bites. The best place to get these would be the Chinese medical halls. The leaves sold in the medical halls are usually dried but some Asian stores will sell fresh lotus leaves whole. Do not be surprised if these turn out to be rather massive – they can grow up to about 18 inches.

Lotus leaves are widely used in Chinese medicine as well as daily culinary pursuits. From lining bamboo steamers for steam fish or meats to fortifying tonics, this catalyst of health and harmony is indispensable in today’s recipe.

Lily Bulb aka Bai He
As a child, dried lily bulbs were the play toys that kept me out of my grandfather’s hair as he inventorised his herbs or consulted his books. That early memory stuck and I grew up with the childlike naiveté that lily bulbs emerged from the earth as dried, pale brown petals.

Stumbling upon a trowel of fresh lily bulbs in the local supermarket, I initially assumed that these were a misplaced carton from the gardening department. Then it struck me that you could actually eat these! Feeling extremely foolish, I tried to redeem myself by doing some research on this herb.

The lily bulb is called bai he in Mandarin – another symbolic name. Again, the he refers to harmony and peace except in this case, it is increased a hundredfold with the bai prefix.

Like the lotus leaf, the lily bulb is also sweet in taste with an underlying bitterness. A cooling herb, it nourishes the yin, moistens the lungs and has a calming effect. It is highly beneficial for people with weak yin qi and latent heat. Lily bulbs are excellent for easing insomnia, restlessness and irritability.

One of the best cures for a persistent cough or sore throat is a soup made of lily bulbs and mung beans. I hated that soup as a child and would sneak it to the dogs instead. The lily bulb is brilliant for detoxifying. It promotes urination and halts bleeding by cooling the blood and strengthening the spleen and stomach. What I find truly wondrous about this plant is that it is apparently used to cure tuberculosis.

Fresh lily bulbs are usually magnolia in colour but the dried versions range from beige to slightly purplish. You know a lily bulb of quality from its fleshy, thick and brittle petals that are devoid of unpleasant odours and are only mildly bitter in taste.

Wintermelon aka Dong Gua
The wintermelon looks uncannily like a watermelon as first glance. However, the flesh of the wintermelon is the complete opposite being an opaque vanilla instead of lurid red.

I love the clean, mellow taste of this melon but never knew that it aids in weight loss. No, not by tossing it around and staggering under its weight while doing cross training! The ancient Chinese considered this a dietary “herb” due to its high vitamin B and dietary fibre content.

WIntermelons are sweet in taste and cool by nature. They clear heat, promote urination, expel phlegm, help eliminate pus and can cure constipation. Eating wintermelons can help clear the dampness arising from heatiness. They are also a good cure for coughs and intestinal pains as they lubricate the intestines very effectively.

The seeds and peel of the wintermelon are used as much as the flesh. While the seeds intensify the properties of the wintermelon as long as they are not toasted, the peel has the ability to lessen swelling and quench thirst. Wintermelons alleviate abdominal flatulence and urinary problems and have so many benefits that Chinese physicians are prone to recommend it to patients suffering from hypertension and diabetes.

I once asked why wintermelons were thus named when you can get them almost all year round. Ironically, the answer was that they are actually grown in summer and autumn but were traditionally kept in store till winter, hence their name. It makes sense in a crazy kind of way.

These three ingredients are the key players in a soup I morphed from two recipes. The foundation recipe was Lotus Leaf and Pork Soup, a lung nourishing tonic that is low in cholesterol and calories. The soup promotes weight loss without adversely affecting the gastrointestinal system – which I think is very important. Not that I need to lose any weight but I wanted to try this out to see if it works. I am my own Frankenstein and it gives me an excuse to pig out to balance it out.

Then I came across another recipe on
Good Bites for a wintermelon soup that also aids weight loss and detoxification. I decided to combine the two by using all the core ingredients of the Lotus Leaf and Pork Soup but cooking and serving it in a whole wintermelon.

Lotus Leaf and Pork Soup in Steamed Wintermelon

5 conpoys aka dried scallops
- soaked in water for about 2 hours to soften
5 dried shiitake mushrooms
- soaked in water for about 30-45 minutes to soften and stalks trimmed
300g lean pork, cubed
10g lotus leaves aka he ye
2 fresh lily bulbs aka bai he

1 ½ tbsp wolfberries aka gou qi
1 whole wintermelon
- mine was about 1 kg heavy and barely 6 inches in diameter
1 chicken stock cube

Special equipment: Bamboo steamer but you can use any deep steamer

1. Pack the lotus leaves into a muslin sachet (you can get these from the Chinese medical halls when you buy your herbs)

2. Blanch the pork cubes in hot, boiling water. Remove and rinse with cold water. Drain.

3. Put the pork cubes into a claypot or earthernware pot with 5 cups of water, the lotus leaves sachet, the stock cube, the conpoy and mushrooms and bring to boil

4. Lower the heat and simmer on very low flame for about 1 hour

5. In the meantime, slice off the woody root of the lily bulb, peel off the petals and clean. Set aside.

6. Slice off the top of the wintermelon and dig out the seeds with a spoon, leaving a hollow in the middle. Do not dig out all the flesh nor dig too deep down – just get rid of the seeds. Dig out the seeds from the wintermelon cap too. It's messy work but strangely gratifying.

7. Add the wolfberries to the soup and continue cooking for about 15-20 minutes

8. Place the wintermelon onto the bamboo steamer and stack it in a pot deep enough to cover the entire melon and wide enough to stick your hands in their later to remove the steamer without screaming the house down in pain.

9. Pour enough water into the pot to touch the bottom slats of the steamer

10. Ladle the soup into the hollow in the wintermelon, leaving about ¼ inch space from the top. Keep the remaining soup warm on the side.

11. Cover with the wintermelon cap and cover the pot to steam on very low heat for about 2 hours, remembering to replenish the water each time it begins to dry out

12. Uncover the wintermelon, add the lily bulbs and season with salt to taste. If you need more liquid, add the remaining soup

13. Replace the wintermelon cap and continue to simmer for 15 minutes

13. Turn off the heat and carefully remove the entire steamer from the pot. You may be brave and transfer the melon onto a platter to serve but my wintermelon was so soft and tender that I did not dare risk it.

14. Serve hot

As I sipped the fragrant broth, I was impressed at how easy it was to make this soup. The most complicated part was the wintermelon and even that was more a case of elbow grease than skill.

The perfumed broth was a pleasant surprise with its restrained hint of herbs that did not overpower the palate. The meaty, succulent mushrooms and the flavourful conpoy sweetened the soap wonderfully while accentuating the lotus leaves and lily bulbs. I think this is a well harmonised dish that allows each ingredient to make a coy introduction to the tastebuds with each bite. I must admit I did not expect it to be so tasty. For once, a spoonful of soup makes the medicine go down.

The only disappointment was in the seasoning and that was entirely my oversight. I'd expected the chicken stock cube to provide enough salt and so only added about a teaspoon of salt to the soup. It tasted just right before I ladled it into the wintermelon but I reckoned without the faintly tart and absorbent flesh of the wintermelon negating all the saltiness of the broth. The end result was anything but bland but I still felt it could have been a smidgeon saltier. Next time I will be a little heavier handed with the salt. And if I had time, I would make the chicken stock from scratch.

Perhaps it is a psychological effect from knowing that this soup is a health tonic, but I felt really good after dinner. I had wisely refrained from adding anything else to the meal. No rice. No side dishes. Just the soup. But it was such a tasty dish that before I knew it, I was literally scrapping bottom.

Taste wise I give this soup an 8.5/10 because it tasted really good and I loved the presentation of the wintermelon “cauldron”. Health wise I think this deserves a 10/10.

There is one major drawback to this recipe. You can’t have a chocolate for dessert after this. The recipe counsels against any high-calorie intake when taking this soup. I’m not sure if that’s a proper health warning or just common sense but I headed for my oranges instead.

Categories - In Hot Soup, Meat Me for Dinner, VeggieMight, Chinese Herbs