Kerabu making is part and parcel of Penang Peranakan cooking, owing much to the influence from Thai cooking. I love love love Kerabu Kacang Botol for the crunch which the winged beans have, on top of the freshness they render without any hint of the harsh rawness which some vegetables have. It is for the same reasons that I like Kerabu Bok Hnee as well! 木耳 Bok Hnee is the Hokkien anglicisation of “cloud ear fungus“, to literally mean “wooden ear” owing much to its appearance. It is a very common ingredient used in Chinese cooking and typically comes in two forms. The “white” form 白木耳 which is actually more translucent is softer and has an almost jelly-like consistency, thus making it very suitable for desserts. The “black” form 黑木耳 is more resilient to cooking and thus lends textural contrast to accompany vegetables dishes like Nyonya Chap Chye where the rest of the vegetables are cooked until very soft.
One of the things which interest me the most about localised cuisines is the desserts which they have to offer. More often than not, the selection of sweet dishes available at a particular place reflects and mirrors the likes and preferences of the people there. The Japanese are noted for the art of 和菓子 wagashi making, which exudes a transcedental zen-like beauty in form, while in the Canton region of southeastern China as well as Hong Kong, sweet broths with an assortment of ingredients in the form of what the locals call 糖水 tong shuei are enjoyed, not only for their wonderful taste, but also the beneficial effects to health they are supposedly imbued with.
In Singapore and Malaysia, desserts take many forms, owing much to the amalgamation of cultures and heritage backgrounds of the various ethnicities living together. Likening a large melting pot, the culinary practices of various races and ethnic groups continually influence each other, creating a wide variety of dishes unique to this region. And Nyonya kuehs must surely be one of the most iconic amidst the vast repertoire of dishes in Straits cuisine. From Kueh Angku to Kueh Lapis, these peranakan sweets which bring together elements from various components like Chinese, Malay and even Thai cooking with an explosion of both colours and flavour. In Penang, apart from the standard spread available also in other parts of the region, one “kueh” variety seems to be found almost uniquely here and despite its simplicity, is much loved by the locals.
Penang Lok Bak is one of those dishes which had intrigued me for the longest time. Being in Singapore, we are more accustomed to the cuisine and cooking styles of the southern Peranakans at home and in Melaka. I practically grew up eating chap chye, kari ayam and ngoh hiang. My grandma, together with my aunts and my mother would whip up a whole table full of mouth-watering dishes whenever there is a family gathering and these three dishes would definitely make their dutiful appearance on the dining table. Sometimes one, sometimes two and if we are lucky, all three! So a large part of my growing up experience is made up of “food memories”, from eating to observing and finally to cooking.
When I first came across the term “Penang Lor Bak” a couple of years back, I had thought that it would be rather similar to the Tau Yew Bak which was frequently cooked at home as well. But prima facie, it looked no different from the ngoh hiang which I’m familiar with! Utterly confused, I took my first bite and received an even greater shock, only to realise that despite the somewhat familiar flavours, the textural profile was utterly different from ngoh hiang! And to make things “worse”, I actually liked it!
Penang Straits Chinese cuisine is heavily influenced by Thai cuisine owing much to its geographical proximity. About 500 years ago, Penang was part of the Kedah Sultanate which was ruled by the Siamese overlords. So the exertion of cultural and hence culinary imperialism stemmed back long and far. The earliest Peranakans in Penang were said to have been from Phuket, further ascertaining and strengthening the inseparable links between Penang Peranakan cuisine and Thai cuisine. This is very apparent in Penang Otak Otak, which bear uncanny resemblance to the Thai Hor Mok Pla. But the one culinary discipline in Penang Peranakan cuisine which is truly exemplary of Thai influence is the art of “Kerabu” making.
Straits Chinese cuisine is a conglomeration of many other culinary disciplines, bringing together elements from traditional Malay, Chinese, Indian and even Thai cooking to create the eclectic spread of visually stunning and mouth-watering dishes, both sweet and savory, which bear testimony to the glorious cultural heritage and lavishly colourful lifestyles the Babas and Nyonyas of the yesteryears were so well-known for. Many Peranakan dishes are characterised by their rich and robust flavours, be it the tingling sourish hues from asam-based dishes, to the fiery heat from sambal belacan-inspired creations, or the collagen-packed soups. This is usually perpetuated through the liberal use of spices, herbs, condiments and seasoning, all aimed at pushing the limits of one’s palate sensations and experience. Once in a while, we come across a dish seemingly more “subtle” when compared to the others amongst its ranks. A pearl in tranquil elegance amongst the bedazzling glittering of the other gems. Jiu Hu Char must surely be one such dish.
Otak Otak is one of my favorite snacks and it can be enjoyed in so many ways! It is one of the dishes I must have with my nasi lemak and I love those old school “otak buns” from neighbourhood confectioneries for breakfast or tea. They are also good on their own, eaten directly off the leaves. But one thing that has intrigued me for the longest time is its name. “Otak” literally means “brain” in Bahasa Melayu. I’d often wondered what the link between the dish and the jelly-like organ in our heads… very very “mind-boggling”, with no pun intended! It was not until I discovered Penang Otak Otak that this “mystery” is finally solved!
Penang is literally a food paradise! And for many, one of the main highlights of Penang cuisine is its street food. A walk down some of the roads and alleys in Penang and one would be easily led by the nose quite literally, to a hawker stall or two showcasing some of the finest which Penang has to offer. Many of these hawker stalls are not permanent fixtures within a certain kopitiam or kedai, but merely makeshift carts driven around by motorcycles they are attached to, as their “chefs on wheels” peddle their signature dishes from place to place. Seemingly nomadic but in fact, true Penang foodies are in the know of the precise whereabouts of some of these famous stalls, i.e. at a particular junction between a certain “Lorong” and a certain “Jalan” in the daytime, or at which corner of a particular “pasar malam” by night. It could be rojak, laksa, or hokkien mee, but one thing remains a common trait amongst these street food stalls. They rely not on media publicity to draw attention and create awareness on their existence, but solely by word of mouth, through folks who share their gastronomic experiences at these stalls to their relatives, who in turn told their friends, who in turn told their neighbours. Many of them have only one item on their menu, bearing sharp contrast to what hotel buffets and established restaurant joints boast about. But for that one thing they do, they do it best.
This month’s Malaysian Food Fest brings us to Penang! To date, MFF has brought us on a virtual culinary tour to almost all the states in Malaysia. As we come almost to an end of this long journey, it is time for us to pay a long due visit to this beautiful island found on the northern tip of the Straits of Malacca.
“Modern” history of Penang stretches back almost half a millenium ago when it was part of the Kedah Sultanate that was ruled by the Siamese overlords who named the island Koh Maak to mean “Areca nut palm Island” in Thai. Admiral 郑和 Cheng Ho from the Ming Dynasty then pinned this place as 槟榔屿 on his maps, the Chinese equivalent of its Thai name, when his entourage passed through the Malay Peninsula as they set sail for the west. This formed the basis of its name in Malay “Pulau Pinang” which was later anglicised to become “Penang” as we know it today.
Our trip to Tokyo in early 2013 was all about patisseries and ramen. Well, it ain’t a pilgrimage for nothing. We flew budget to Tokyo and that meant transiting in Taipei. It was an overnight flight and after the gruelling experience of spending more than half a day airborne, we were visibly tired and hungry (read: grumpy). After a quick check in-to the apartment we would be putting up with over the next few days, we made a beeline for a late “lunch date” at 麺創房無敵家 Mutekiya, our first pitstop for ramen. Definitely wasted no time in getting into the pilgrimage mode!
麺創房無敵家 Mutekiya is much raved for their ramen, specifically that of the “Kyushu style”. Located at the southern tip of the Ikebukuro JR station, it was conveniently just a stone-throw away from where we stayed. Literally just across the subway line. So coming here to get fed and fuelled made absolute perfect sense!
I bought quite a number of packets of these coral seaweed last year at a food fair. Touted as “sea bird’s nest“, these wobbly translucent branches immediately caught the attention of many
housewives aunties ladies, thanks to the high content of carrageenan, which has textural properties likening collagen. Well, truth be told, it isn’t the real deal as collagen is found only in animals, specifically vertebrates. But its pretty yummy and I’m sure being a seaweed, it has many beneficial qualities as well!
Our last trip to Wulai was some years back and it was a very brief one, to admire the sakuras. Alas we were a little too late then and the season was just over. We’d spent a considerably amount of time in 雲仙樂園, a local amusement park with a gondola that leads into the mountains and didn’t get much of a chance to see much of the old and rustic side of this beautiful small town 40 minutes south of Taipei City. So here we are, back again after all these years to find out more about this quaint little place which we passed through, but never got to know…
Blood oranges are in season at this time of the year and over the last 2-3 years or so, we see a lot of those of the “Moro” variety cultivated by Sunkist imported from the US. Stroke of luck has it that I’d managed to get some Sicilian oranges imported directly from Italy and my oh my, the difference in flavours are so apparent. The citrusy notes from the Sicilian oranges are so much more intense, refreshing and memorable. The US Moro ones really pale in comparison. Each fruit is just slightly less than a dollar each, a small premium to pay for an explosion of palate experience. The best way to enjoy them is of course fresh as they are, or in my case, Insalata di Finocchio con Arancia Rossa di Sicilia, using these Sicilian oranges and fennel , a simple salad lunch the truly Sicilian way.
Over the last year or so, we saw several new patisseries and boulangeries coming up in Singapore. International names like Paul and Maison Kayser made it to our shores and yet, we also saw several local establishments like Antoinette bloom. The latest new kid on the block is of course Laduree. But the one which garnered the most raves and truly worthy of the limelight is undoubtedly Tiong Bahru Bakery.
Yet another F&B venture after their incredibly successful Tippling Club and Skinny Pizza, the folks behind Food Collective under the Spa Esprit Group flew in the suave and dynamic Parisian boulanger Gontran Cherrier to helm this establishment. Born into a family of bakers and patissiers who passed down the know-hows of the trade from generation to generation, Cherrier subsequently received his professional training at l’Ecole Ferrandi, and then l’Ecole de Boulangerie et de Pâtisserie de Paris. Stints at l’Arpège alongside Alain Passard and later Lucas Carton with Alain Senderen, as well as the growing up experience in a family-owned boulangerie by generations of traditional bread makers help to shape and sharpen Cherrier to become what he is today. Yet interestingly, the bakery did not bear the “GC” label, umlike those in Paris as well as Tokyo. “Tiong Bahru Bakery” with a name unassuming and reminiscent of an old school confectionery which many of us here in Singapore may affectionately remember was thus born. But being rustic and nostalgic are hardly the hues and tones this artisan bakery exudes. Those who come in search of traditional kaya toast and egg tarts would be surprised… pleasantly surprised…
This month’s MFF brings us to Sabah, the Land Below the Wind. Admittedly, I do not know anything about Sabah nor its culinary heritage. So I guess its going to be a month of “copycating” around. While searching for over the internet for interesting Sabahan dishes to prepare, I came across Hinava, a raw fish salad made with few other items, and mostly readily available at hand. It seems that simplicity in ingredients and technique is an ideology perpetuated in Sabahan cuisine. While some may dub it as being primitive and unsophisticated, I choose to think that the minimalistic approach actually maximises the experience of the true flavours of each ingredient. Less is more.
We have our own list of “must go” places and eateries which we try to make it a point to visit whenever we are in Taipei. And Pâtisserie Sadaharu Aoki is definitely high on that list. Well, Aoki has dessert boutiques in Tokyo too but there are far too many other patisseries in this Asian Capital of French pastry making as well which we have been want to visit (yes, yet another very long list!), to a point of being literally spoilt for choices. So we were “forced” to limit ourselves to Aoki san’s joints largely in Taipei and keep the visits to his Tokyo outlets down to once or twice (such a shame I know!), until the Japanese list of patisseries has been properly exhausted. But I doubt we’ll see that happening any time soon!
The Taiwanese know their Japanese food really well. Yes you heard me right. Apart from Tokyo or Osaka, most if not all of my best Japanese meals were in Taipei. The Taiwanese are such “nipponophiles” (if there is ever such a word) that they have achieved a certain of specialisation, be it the traditional art of mochi, sushi or oden making, to replicating the concept of Japanese bakeries and boulangeries in their entirety.
But the Taiwanese are far from being mere copycats. The island nation being subjected to Japanese colonial rule for the longest time outside Japan itself, allowed an almost complete inheritance of not merely the superficial but in-depth transposition of cultural practices. Needless to say, this bore an ingrained effect on their culinary and dietary profile as well. During our last trip to Taipei, we’d visited 肥前屋 Unadon Speciality Shop. It is a small restaurant, complete with wooden sliding doors for that authentic rustic feel, most known for their unadon, also known as unagi don, which is short for “unagi kabayaki donburi”. The best unadons we’d seen were probably in Kyoto. But the rendition served up in this little deli in the heart of Taipei is pretty wicked as well, but only for a fraction of the price.
Think cheapest Michelin-star food joints and 添好運 Tin Ho Wan immediately comes to mind. Just google for “michelin dimsum” and pages upon pages of reviews pour forth, some raves and others rants. It had been under much limelight as THE dimsum deli with a michelin star. Yet little known to most, it is not the ONLY dimsum deli which rose to join the stellar cast of other michelin establishments and most certainly not the only one in Hong Kong. Just two years after Tin Ho Wan shot to fame with its conferrment by the reowned food guide, yet another little restaurant, One Dimsum 一點心 specialising also in these little morsels of savory and sweet shot to stardom (pun intended!). Despite having earned its one Michelin star two years back, it seems almost puzzling that there is so much less hype over One Dimsum 一點心 compared to Tin Ho Wan. Why so? Let’s try to find out…
Our last day in Kansai and we were not about to waste it. Chanced upon a new book (then) on cafes and patisseries in Osaka just the night before at a local bookstore in Shinsaibashi. Perfect! We had a quick browse and shortlisted two seemingly promising places to visit on our last day. First off in the morning was to Pâtisserie & Salon de Thé Coichi located near Tamatsukuri Station 玉造駅 which is just a couple of stops away from where we stayed. They open really early for a patisserie, starting the day at 8 am instead of the usual 10 or 11 am, but we don’t mind at all! Just in time for some pastry breakfast! Or so we thought!
永康街 Yongkang Street is a quaint little area in Taipei, located right smack in the city’s centre just next to 大安森林公園 Da’An Forest Park. It is a haven dotted with famous eateries, together with lesser known but no less interesting cafes, as well as some of my favorite pastry joints. We travel to this lovely city on a yearly basis and almost without fail, one day on our itinerary has to be allocated to exploring the intertwining little lanes and alleys for new foodie places we have yet to visit. Always full of surprises.
永康牛肉麺館 Yong Kang Beef Noodles is one of those beef noodles joints which had attained “celebrity class” status, and can be found in perpetually every other travel guide to Taipei. It has often been touted as the first to have anchored itself in this area to sell beef noodles, sharing the common ground of humble beginnings with other big names like the king of xiao long bao, 鼎泰丰 Ding Tai Fung. The latter still has their flagship store at the entrance of Yong Kang Street, but for us, we are here to have a bowl of authentic beef noodles.
添好運點心專門点 Tin Ho Wan Dim Sum Specialty Shop, is opening their first overseas branch in Singapore at Plaza Singapura this week! Only did I realised that I had not blogged about our visit to their “flagship” shop in Mongkok 3 years back! Grr…. oh well… here it is better late than never!
Tin Ho Wan was the hot topic of foodie forums and blogs a couple of years back when it was awarded a Michelin star. Overnight, they were suddenly on the “must-try” list of dim sum aficionados and visitors to Hong Kong. Since then, this little dim sum deli which had its humble beginnings under the void deck of a residential building in Mongkok which could barely house two dozens of diners in one seating, rose to stardom and of course, was much under the limelight from both online and printed media as the “cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in the world”. Well, judging by how affordable dim sum generally is in Hong Kong, this is probably true. But is it doing enough to warrant its Michelin star, to be more than just being the cheapest?
Ladurée, an old guard in the long-withstanding tradition of French pastry-making is a name that hardly needs introduction. It is due to open its first outlet in Singapore in a week’s time. We’d visited Ladurée’s flagship store in Japan just last week. Hopefully this would be a “sneak preview” of we could expect when it hits town soon.
Hello everyone! Kindly excuse us for the long absence! Just realised that it had been 3 weeks since we last posted, only because we had been terribly busy trying to clear our work and run errands before we take a much
deserved awaited break to Tokyo! The trip was planned to take place ahead of the hanami season as it was the only time when both of us could make it! Alas thanks literally to the freak weather, the cherry blossoms bloomed much earlier in Japan this year, allowing us to enjoy their beauty, amidst other spectacular floral displays along the way. The downside is, we had to cut back on several pastry joints which we had slated to visit. Nonetheless we had a really good time in Tokyo!
This trip to Tokyo is all about pastries, ramen and depachikas! We absolutely love depachikas in Japan, so they are surely a “must go” whenever we are in Japan! J lamented that we didn’t get to try any ramen joints during our last trip so I made sure that we had enough ramen this time round for J to remember by! And 5 years ago during our first trip to Tokyo, which incidentally marks the commencement of this blog, I wasn’t much into fine pastry making then. But I do remember being much in awe with what I saw at the display windows of dessert boutiques and patisserie sales counters at depachikas. The level of artistry and presentation in trhe Japanese patisseries then was already quite impeccable and very impressive. Over the years as I grew to appreciate and get involved myself in the French art of pastry making, the desire to return to Tokyo fueled on. So after a long wait of more than 4 years, we are finally back! I will be writing and sharing about the various patisseries and ramen joints we’d visited this time round over the next couple of months or so but here’s a sneak preview of what we’d tried and sampled in Tokyo 2013!
Food is such a wondrous thing. Not only does it fuel our body keeping us energised at hours’ ends, it also fills us with much euphoria and a profound sense of contentment, often after a hearty meal and not without the ceremonious burp and customary rubbing of the tummy. More importantly, food brings friends and family together, seated at the same table to have a meal.. be it to celebrate and rejoice, to pour out one’s sorrows and share one’s grief, or simply to catch up and reminiscent the “good o’ days”. What is even more amazing I thought, was how through food, strangers could become acquaintances, and acquaintances become friends…
We love Taiwan and visit the country almost every year. Beautifully scenery, 24-hour bookstores, refined patisseries, local delights…need I say more? And these are just some of the reasons which make us go back all the time. I love browsing at Eslite Bookstore in Taipei, especially the outlets at Dunhua South Road and the flagship store at Xinyi District. The former is a 24-hour bookstore which means that no matter how late it was and as long as we are up for it, we could always visit for some late night book shopping. And it is during one of these bookstore visits where I learnt how to make authentic Taiwanese Braised Beef Shank 台式滷牛腱, not from one of the books off the shelves, but through a Taiwanese “obasan” whom I only got to know as 李媽媽. So here is my story of 李媽媽72h台式滷牛腱 Mrs Li’s 72h Taiwanese Braised Beef Shank…
We cook asam fish all the time at home. In fact, whenever the belimbing trees are laden with fruits, those few days are asam fish days. For us at home, Ikan Gerang Asam is the default way of cooking asam fish. But of course there are geographical variations to how asam fish is cooked. Ikan Gerang Asam, the Melakan peranakan of preparation depends heavily on the use of daun limau purut (kaffir lime leaves) amidst other fresh ingredients like lengkwas (galangal ginger) to work up the aromatics! And that most certainly helped to work up an appetite! When I was preparing Laksa Belut Perlis, the famous eel laksa from the most northern Malaysian state in the Peninsula, all the rempah (blended ingredients) were basically boiled together with the broth base without any sautéing. But yet, it was still very delicious. And this month’s MFF brings me down all the way to the far south, to the bordering state of Johor for Ikan Pari Asam Pedas.