Yesterday was Cheng Beng, traditionally a day when prayers would be made to our ancestors. Some folks would take the opportunity to visit and pay their respects at the graves of those who have passed on, a custom which is known as “teh chuah“. Those who “piara abu” i.e. house ancestral tablets at home may also prepare offerings of food and welcome their “nenek moyang” for a feast. And that was what I did. Traditionally, chap chye is one of the staple dishes prepared in our home for ancestral worship but this year I’d decided to go for something similar yet different, and cooked Jiu Hu Char instead.
I’m not sure about you guys, but I’ve had many a moments when I was trying out some dish at a restaurant or diner and immediately told myself, “Man, I’ve gotta cook for myself a pot of that!” This classic oxtail stew is basically one of the very many “recipe cracking” episodes I have of late. Thankfully, this is very simple and rustic food to begin with and thus, very forgiving. The ingredients are also fairly straightforward , all clearly “observable” against the rather clear soup base. The latter I thought, was interesting as most of the oxtail stews I’d had, some of which I’d featured on my blog here and here are more richly coloured. Everything is conveniently cooked in one pot, my trusty Le Creuset round casserole, most of the time in the oven. No fuss at all!
Chap Chye is a quintessential dish for anyone who takes an interest in Peranakan food to learn to cook . It has its roots in Chinese cuisine of course but has since become deeply ingrained and naturalised into the Straits Chinese way of cooking. For us, Chap Chye is a dish which never fail to make its appearance on the dining table whenever we celebrate a major festival at my Grandma’s. Like I’d mentioned before, this dish together with kari ayam and ngoh hiang are hailed as the “holy trinity” which reminds me much of my grandma’s cooking even until today. It is her speciality, which she faithfully prepared the day before, in full knowing that the dish takes a good overnight rest for the flavours to develop and mature. Traditionally, chap chye is a must whenever there is ancestral prayers, alongside other dishes like pongteh but as the generations evolved, the rule for chap chye as a laok semayang has relaxed over time as it is now commonly enjoyed even over simple family dinners.
Just like Samgyetang, Bibimbap is one of the signature must-try dishes which is extremely popular for anyone venturing into Korean cuisine. While the former draws attention through the use of ginseng which is known for its medicinal properties as well as mythical qualities it is said to have, bibimbap attracts the crowd by its dramatic display of colours and appeal. With an assortment of stir fried and fresh vegetables being spread around a bowl of rice, the multitude of components in contrasting hues make it all the more appetising. When carefully chosen, bibimbap can be a really healthy and well-balanced one-bowl meal which is not only highly played on the visuals, but the nutritional values as well.
I love oxtail for several reasons. The flavours from any meat off the bone is amazing, robust and rich. And what more with oxtail, it comes with lots of collagen! Oxtail is also a perfect cut for stewing, allowing the flavours to develop over prolonged periods of cooking, teasing out that essence of all the ingredients added. When I knew that there is an Indonesian oxtail soup called “Sup Buntut“, I knew I have to make it! And I’m glad I did… it was simply delish!
きんぴらごぼう Kinpira Gobo is yet another classic dish in traditional Japanese home-styled cooking. But unlike Daikon no Soboroni, many of us have actually eaten Kinpira Gobo before without realising it. It is often used as a side-dish filler in takeaway bentos from Japanese delis and depachikas, most notable for the crunch from the root vegetables used. Sometimes written in Kanji as “金平牛蒡” Kinpira Gobo is a very versatile dish which can be improvised for other root vegetables like 蓮根 renkon (lotus root), 大根 daikon (white radish) or just 人参 ninjin (carrots) on their own. And yes! the Japanese name for carrots is the same as the korean and chinese name for ginseng!
肉じゃが Nikujaga is a Japanese dish which I got to know only around 2 years back, during our trip to Kansai. Compared to many other popular dishes like agedashi tofu, ebi tempura and tori karaage, nikujaga came really late. I remembered that it was part of the 鰻丼定食 “unadon teishoku” which I’d ordered in a small family restaurant in downtown Kyoto. The original intentions then was to visit an old unadon restaurant which was reputably very good. We had some trouble locating the unadon speciality shop actually and when we finally gotten round to it, the prices for a decent meal there was prohibitive to say the least. Luckily, there was another family restaurant located just diagonally on the other side of the street which also served unadon. Prices for a set meal was only a fraction of what we would have paid at the other shop but we were famished, tired and in dire need to be fueled and watered. The Japanese restaurants we’d had so far have yet to disappoint us. Even the least motivating place we’d dined in was at least decent. So it was a family operated restaurant and that alone told us that it would be disappointing.
Over our numerous trips to Hong Kong, we’d tried quite a number of 雲吞麺 wantan mee joints. I remember vividly the first joint we’d visited eons back was 池記 in Causeway Bay. It was with a 拜碼頭 mentality that we went as they were purportedly very good. Or so said those who recommended the place to me. The experience was disappointing. The serving was too small to justify the price and the soup was laced with so much MSG we probably gulped down multiple times more water to ease our throats and clear it out of our system. And the price of one small bowl of wantan mee at 池記 Chee Kee was easily 2-3 times of what one would expect to pay in Singapore at that time. In short, the experience was pretty nasty. Oddly, the place was swarmed with tourists from across the border, Mainland China. As we watched those who shared the table with us slurp the noodles and down the soup with much relish, we couldn’t help wonder if there was something wrong with our tastebuds or theirs. in retrospect, I guess it was essentially not a case of one being inferior to the other but more of being different. Some aspects of Chinese cuisine have been dubbed as being liberal to a point of being relentless with their use of salt and MSG. Perhaps 池記 had changed their recipe to better suit the tastebuds of their comrades from the “Motherland”. All purely speculative…
Our experience at 池記 inhibited our sampling of many other wantan mee places. Most notable are amongst the 香港5大雲吞麺家 “Wantan Mee Famous Five” in Hong Kong, that is 麥奀雲吞麺家 “Mak An Kee” in Sheung Wan， 麥奀記 (忠記) 麵家 “Mak An Chung Kee” Noodle in Central， 麥文記麵家 “Mak Man Kee” in Jordan, 何洪記 “Ho Hung Kee” in Causeway Bay, and 正斗 “Tasty Congee and Noodles” in Happy Valley. Their roots can be traced back to the original 池記 “Chee Kee” in Guangzhou China, where all of the “founders” of the Famous Five apprenticed. Our “logic” then was if their grandmaster tasted crap to us, the disciples couldn’t stray too far from being unpalatable.
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!
Nasi Dagang, i.e. Trader’s Rice is a very common breakfast fanfare enjoyed by the masses along the eastern coast of the Malay Peninsula, especially in the states of Kelantan and Terengganu. It uses a mixture of white rice (beras wangi) which is first soaked and subsequently steamed with glutinous rice (pulut) with coconut milk added for its wonderful aroma and flavour. This likens another popular breakfast dish, Nasi Lemak over here in Singapore. However, instead of pandan leaves, sliced shallots (bawang merah) and fenugreek (halba) are added. This concoction seems to be the preferred combination for many dishes, as we’d seen in Pulut Lepa and Ketupat Sotong. As we have seen in several dishes from Terengganu, fish is a staple amongst the folks from this region, and Nasi Dagang is no exception. It is eaten with Gulai Ikan Tongkol, a spicy fish red curry cooked with tuna and a hoard of spices as well as buah belimbing, one of my favorite ingredients I love to use in Straits cooking. And this month’s Malaysian Food Fest seem like a timely affair to visit and pay tribute to this time-honoured dish.
Having made a rustic bread like the focaccia, I needed a stew to go along with it. A simple italian fare like Pollo alla Cacciatora couldn’t have been a more apt choice.