Friday, 30 September 2011

The Heart of Claypot Rice

I love claypot chicken rice. The multi-layers of satisfaction that a good one brings to me are hard to describe…but I’ll try.

Details matter and even the accompanying soy sauce  is sourced
from Kwong Woh Hing, regarded as the best manufacturer in Sg
You open the lid, and the aroma hits you first: the smell of burnt rice, of dried sausages, and salted fish. The pot of rice, topped with moist glistening meat, greets your eyes. Then come the mouthfuls of flavor: the sweetness of dark sauce and lard, the succulence of chicken, and – for me and others like me – the brittle hardness of the golden bottom ‘crust’. When it comes to claypot rice, you eat with nose and eyes, as much as mouth. We Singaporeans have a word for it – ‘shiok’ (utter satisfaction)

So, when I moved to Hong Kong and encountered claypot rice (which in Hong Kong is only eaten in winter), it was a pretty big shock. Why wasn’t the rice properly burnt? And, where was the dark soy sauce? I came to miss the Singapore ‘version’ tremendously. But…it was better than nothing.
This dish allows one to appreciate the true
flavours of rice, chicken oil and ginger.

Gradually, like a novice learning the art of meditation, my perspective changed, and I began to appreciate the elegant simplicity of the Hong Kong version. I focused on the rice itself, and saw how the accompanying ingredients drew the best out of the simple grain.

In cooler climates, where food does not go bad that easily, people are more used to the freshness of meat and the crispness of herbs and vegetables. Their taste buds, it seems, are more acute to tastes and textures. We, in the hot tropics, on the other hand, are used to food that is more heavily spiced, seasoned, or cured that came as a result of earlier times when refrigeration was non-existent, and food that was less than fresh needed to be masked.

When we in Singapore eat claypot rice, we use the dark sweet sauce with a vengeance. While this gives an exceptionally robust aroma to the dish, it drowns out all its other flavors. In Hong Kong, I came to realize that their lighter cooking style actually brought to the fore other qualities of claypot rice that I used to overlook, such as the taste and texture of the rice grains, the seasonings of the main meat, the quality of the preserved/waxed meats, and the fragrance of the light soy sauce.

In Singapore, I came closest to this eating experience at Claypot Fun, a restaurant at East Coast Parkway. They do claypot rice in Hong Kong style; the owner having taken considerable pains to adapt, master and transport the spirit and taste of this version of claypot rice to Singapore. No dark sweet sauce is added or even offered on the table, and the rice isn’t burned to the carbon-like extent we’re used to.
Cheong fun and fried cruller -
odd but it is a marriage made in heaven

The flavors of this style of claypot are less explosive, less immediate; but each mouthful brings mounting discovery as the distinct and innate tastes and smells of rice, chicken, sausage, and soy sauce become more and more apparent, and mingle in your mouth. To heighten enjoyment, add some chicken oil (a special optional condiment) into the steaming claypot, because -- as any gourmet will tell you -- when it comes stirring up full-bodied flavor nothing beats a touch of animal oil.

Deceptively simple but getting the right texture
of porridge takes skill and a play of grains
I loved the porridge here as well. Two different types of rice go into it: one to give the porridge its smooth gooey texture, and the other to produce the so-called ‘rice breath’. The Chinese have always been fastidious about rice. In the restaurants of old Canton, it was common to specially hire a chef for the sole purpose of cooking rice and porridge, and this expert would normally be the highest paid man in the kitchen. Modern Chinese kitchens may not go so far, but some come awfully close. Claypot Fun grinds the rice for its ‘cheong fun’ skin daily to ensure optimum freshness, and the gorgeously silky melt-in-your-mouth result clearly repays the effort.

Other dishes worth looking out for:
A comfort food with a twist:
steamed egg custard with pork crispies
Loaded with cholesterol but packed with taste:
 Claypot Pork Liver
The Dance of the Stoves
Growing up, this was how I remembered that claypot rice would be prepared on the streets. The rice would be washed, drained and kept until it was ready for cooking. This allowed the rice to absorb water, resulting in fluffier grains when cooked. Next, a bit of salt was added to the rice to enhance flavour, and oil to add glisten to its appearance. The rice was then cooked at different temperatures at various stages. Turning the pot on the stove ensured the crust was evenly formed. In the past, it was common for the chef to have 20 or more charcoal stoves lined in front of him. The stoves would be operating at different flames and temperatures, and the chef would rotate the pots among them, like a game of musical chairs.

Note: Claypot Fun also serves dim sum from morning till 3 pm. 

Claypot Fun
Playground @ Big Splash
Blk B, 902 East Coast Parkway
#01-11 East Coast Park
Telephone: 65-6440 7975

Friday, 23 September 2011

Sandy Lam does Drunken Chicken!

I first met Sandy in 2003. We were collaborating on a publishing project, one that brought us to Shanghai, Malaysia, and to Hong Kong before and after the SARS epidemic.

Before I worked with her, I had known Sandy as a pop singer. At the time we met, I actually owned a CD of hers that is still with me today -- Wild Flower. I liked its East/West and Retro/Modern arrangement and treatment, which resonated with my state of mind at the time. That aside, I wasn’t very familiar with her work. However, by the time of the completion of the project, which became her first published cookbook My Shanghai, we had become friends.

Sandy was a thoughtful, considerate friend; and often surprised people with the fastidious attention she paid to them. I remember clearly an incident. She was flying from Hong Kong to Shanghai to meet me. She had brought with her a box of meat pies from a particular shop in HK that she knew I loved. When we met, she happily handed the box, which she had personally hand-carried on the plane, to me. However, in the tumult of meetings and other distractions that followed, I forgot about the meat pies completely. Unbeknownst to me, the pies had been passed around to feed the other people who were there that day. The following morning, Sandy’s manager confided to me that the singer had actually observed that I had given the pies a miss. She was an attentive friend, indeed!

We were even caught in a local paparazzi newspaper with her
If our paths crossed later in different cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai, or Taiwan, Sandy would take me, and often my partner too, out for a meal. Sandy and I loved to eat and cook. If we were in Hong Kong, she would cook for us at her home. Being of Shanghainese birth, Shanghainese food was, of course, a forte of hers. It was at times like this that one would see the private, even domestic, side of the superstar. At other times, one would see the consummate musical professional.

Sandy was someone who had always known what she wanted, what worked for her, and the importance of following her own convictions. She never rested on her laurels, and always sought ways to grow as an artist. From language and painting classes to -- would you believe it? -- vocal lessons; in each album, music video and concert; she  would push the envelope and challenge herself. For that, I admired her.

And now, with a couple of singles just released and a concert this evening, I’m going to cook a recipe of hers that we have often enjoyed and loved. But, I’m giving it a tweak of my own!

Drunken Chicken

Chicken                      1
Water                         2½  litres
Spring onion             2
Ginger                        5 slices
Coriander                   1 sprig, including root
Salt                             1 tbsp

Chicken stock           1 litre
Bay leaves                 2
Rock sugar                100 g
Hua Tiao wine           ½ litre
Salt                            4 tbsp
Dried osmanthus      20 g

  1. Boil water with spring onion, ginger and coriander. Hold the chicken by the neck and submerge it into the boiling water. Do this three times; each time, wait for the water to boil before lifting the chicken up, then lower it again when the water starts to boil again. After the third immersion, lower the chicken into the boiling water, turn off the heat, and cover the pot with a lid. Let it rest for 40 minutes.
  2. Remove the chicken and immerse the chicken into the chilled stock that has been prepared earlier. Cover it and chill in the refrigerator overnight.
  3. Before serving, remove the chicken from the broth and drain till completely dry.
  4. Chop chicken into bite-sized pieces. Pour a spoonful of the liquid over the chicken and serve.

1.   Boil chicken stock, bay leaves and rock sugar. When the stock boils, remove it from the heat, add salt and dried osmanthus. When the stock cools to room temperature, add Hua Tiao wine.
2.   The stock must taste like seawater. Chill the stock overnight.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Devil’s Meat Loaf -- one hell of a dish!

It’s been said so often, it’s become a tired old cliché. But I’ll say it again…we in South East Asia are spoilt for choice when it comes to food.

For this, we have history largely to thank, for ensuring a continuous stream of different foreign influences into our culture – and hence, food – for hundreds upon hundreds of years. These influences were uniquely diverse, as they came from neighboring countries as well as far beyond.

Before the coming of the Europeans, the dominant power of this region was the Indonesian empire of Srivijaya, whose territory included modern-day Malaysia and Singapore. This was followed by a period of European colonization in the 17th to 20th centuries, which introduced Portuguese, Dutch, British, Spanish and other influences to South East Asia.

Western colonization brought trade opportunities and development to our region, and with it, floods of immigrants from all over the world. Europeans from the colonizing countries, as well as Chinese, Indian, and Arab immigrants, brought their habits and ways of life, and cuisines, to their new homes. This resulted in tremendous change and experimentation – especially in food. Old cooking traditions met new ingredients and techniques; new climates imposed new limitations or opened new possibilities; and different cuisines encountered and inspired one another…

Over generations, the various cuisines as we know them today gradually emerged, and are still evolving. Growing up greedy and adventurous in Singapore, I’ve eaten my fair share of British colonial-era dishes. And I must admit I have a soft spot for this nostalgic class of food, especially the classic British meat loaf and the Eurasian meat curry known as Devil’s Curry. To be precise, Devil’s Curry is a Cristang dish, Cristang being a traditional hybrid of Portuguese, Eurasian, and Malay cuisines.

This time around, I’ve decided to be bold and combine these two favorite dishes of mine. I present the Devil’s Meat Loaf!

Devil’s Meat Loaf

Ground beef                            500 g
Spam                                        200 g
Bread crumb                            ½ cup
Egg                                           2
Eggs                                         2, boiled for 7 minutes and peeled

Ketchup                                   4 tbsp
Chilli sauce                               1 tbsp
White vinegar                           ¼  tsp
Honey                                       ½ tsp

Oil                                             2 tbsp
Onion                                       1, chopped
Garlic                                         2 cloves, chopped
Tumeric powder                       ½ tsp
Chilli powder                            ¼ tsp
Mustard                                     ½ tsp
Belachan                                    ¼ tsp
Black pepper                             ¼ tsp, ground
Fresh chilli                                  2, finely minced
Water                                         ¼ cup
Salt                                             1 tsp

  1. Preheat oven at 175 degrees C.
  2. Mix beef, spam, and bread crumbs thoroughly. Add seasoning, eggs, and season with salt.
  3. Pour ½ portion of the mixture into a greased meat loaf pan. Lay hard-boiled eggs across the pan. Cover the eggs with the rest of the meat mixture.
  4. Spoon sauce on top of the meat mixture and spread it evenly.
  5. Bake for 90 minutes.

1.   Saute onion and garlic under low heat until the onion turns soft. Add the rest of the spices and continue to fry for another 5 minutes. Add water and simmer for another 5 minutes. Season it with salt.

1.   Mix all ingredients and whisk it thoroughly under low heat. Set aside and cool.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Hokkien Prawn Noodle – sweet smell of success!

If like me, you are Chinese and grew up in Singapore, it is hard to find anyone among us who does not like Hokkien Prawn Noodles. Whatever the version -- fried, soup, or braised -- we all have a favorite, or favorites. Even the Peranakans, many of whom are Hokkien in descent, have their own version. Me, I love them all.

Hokkien Prawn Noodle arrived in Singapore with the immigrants from Fujian province in southeastern China, and quickly became a mainstay of roadside hawkers and coffee-shop stalls. But, what was once a cheap meal for working folks has become, in today’s affluent times, a dish that can easily cost close to S$10 with its add-ons of bigger prawns, pork tail, and even abalone. Let’s focus on the soup version.

Back in the 60s when ingredients were much cheaper, hawkers and stallholders were more generous when they were brewing their soups. They would fry loads of prawn heads and shells and pour them into their pork soup base. The resulting brews would often be so pungent with prawn odor that I used to joke they smelled like the Singapore River, before it was cleaned up! To aficionados that smell was the sought-after hallmark of a well made prawn soup.

Apart from the all-important prawn-and-pork broth, the other key ingredients would be boiled prawns, slices of pork or pork ribs, egg noodles, bean sprouts, kang kong, and fried spring onions.

I have always hesitated to cook this dish at home, because of the expense of buying a sufficient amount of prawns to make a quality broth. However, on a recent trip to Hong Kong, I came across dried prawn heads and shells that cost a fraction of the price of fresh ones, and work just as well. So, here’s the recipe. Enjoy!

Prawn Noodle Soup

Lean pork                                250 g, cooked and sliced
Fish cake                                200 g, sliced
Yellow mee (油面)                  1 kg
Rice noodle (米粉)                  300 g, optional
Bean sprout                             500 g
Kang kong (通菜)                    200 g

Water                                       5 litres
Prawns                                    750 g
Pork bones                              300 g
Sugar cane                              250 g, optional
Ginger                                      50 g, bashed
Oil                                             2 tbsp
Dried prawn shells                   250 g, soaked in water for 1 hour and drained
Ikan bilis (鱼仔)                    100 g
Garlic                                       100 g, minced
Belachan                                  100 g
Chilli paste                                2 tbsp
Lemon grass                            2 stalks, bashed
Rock sugar                              100 g
Salt                                           2 tsp

Spring onion
Pork crispy
Sesame oil      

1.      Boil water. Add prawns and cook until the shells turn pink. Remove the prawns and place them into a bowl of chilled water; making sure the chilled water covers the prawns by 1cm. When the prawns have cooled, remove their heads and shells and set them aside for the broth.
2.      Add pork bones, pork, sugar cane, and ginger to the previously boiled water and continue to simmer for 1 hour. Remove the pork once it is fully cooked and allow it to cool. Slice the pork.
3.      In a clean wok, fry the dried prawn shells until it they are completely dry. Add oil, the fresh prawn heads and shells that have been set aside, ikan bilis, ginger and belachan, and fry until the mix is fragrant. Add chilli paste and fry for another one minute. Remove the mixture, add 1 cup of stock, and blend. Add the blended mixture to the stock and simmer for another 40 minutes. Drain the stock. 
4.      In a clean pot, put sugar and 4 tbsp of water and boil until the sugar caramelizes. Pour in the stock (step 3) and continue to boil for 10 minutes. Season it with salt.

1.      Boil mee with bean sprout and kang kong for 30 seconds.
2.      Drain and pour it into a serving bowl.
3.      Add sliced prawns, pork, and fish cakes.
4.      Pour in the stock until it fully covers the mee by 2 cm.
5.      Garnish with dried spring onion and pork crispy.
6.      Add a dash of sesame oil and pepper before serving.
7.      For those who like it spicy, add chilli paste, dried chilli powder, or even sliced fresh red chilli.

Note: Yellow mee is commonly used for this dish, but you may prefer a mix of yellow mee and rice noodle. I myself prefer rice noodle only. It’s simply personal preference.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Over the Moon in The Peninsula, Hong Kong

I’m here in Hong Kong. And the most raved-about mini egg custard mooncake in the city is staring me in the face. The immediate question on my mind is: should I gobble the whole thing in one orgiastic mouthful, or nibble it bit by bit to prolong the ecstasy…?

Of late, the Peninsula Hotel Hong Kong has been over the moon in more ways than one. Four hundred and eighty thousand of their mini egg custard mooncakes were sold out within one day. Veteran journalists, columnists, and bloggers of Hong Kong – normally a most jaded bunch – have been enthusing non-stop about it that they’ve received as a festive gift from Spring Moon, the hotel’s celebrated restaurant. There was even an unofficial ‘race’ to see who would be the first to taste and review them! When these cakes were offered on the Internet, they sold out within minutes of appearing, and they have become one of the hottest commodities on Ebay.

So, did they live up to the hype? I’ll come to that later.
Photo by The Peninsula Hong Kong

I’ve been a big fan of the Peninsula Hotel since the 80s. Who could resist the legendary High Tea at the Lobby; The Felix in the 90s, with its oh-so-hip Starck-designed interiors and the famous view from the urinal in the men’s toilet; and of course, venerable Spring Moon. But, with the opening of other international hotels and their in-house restaurants, I had begun to neglect the grande dame; my last visit to Spring Moon was four years ago.

So, as I walked into the restaurant, it felt like seeing an old friend again: the interior remains familiar and warm, and the service was still impeccable. I still love the roasted walnuts on the table, and the XO sauce, served as a dip, has yet to disappoint.

Spring Moon’s Dim Sum Combination
The starter was a dim sum trio. The size of the deep-fried yam roll was just nice, unlike those of other restaurants, which fill your stomach with one serving. The portion of yam was thin enough so that there was balance between lightness and the presence of the yam. I usually associate yam paste with dryness, but this yam roll was surprisingly moist. The char-siew puff was well executed too; and I loved that the minced pork in the scallop siew-mai was crunchy, and the scallop fresh.

Roasted Peking Duck
It may not be the best Beijing Duck I have ever tasted, but I wouldn’t mind having it again on my next visit to Spring Moon. However, I would prefer having the skin and meat served on different plates, as eating them separately with the pan cakes would add a different level of satisfaction to the dish.

Steamed Crab Claw with Homemade Red Pepper Sauce accompanied by Abalone Rolls
This dish looked gorgeous with its understated plating. I went for the abalone/asparagus roll first. The combination of the broth gravy, asparagus, and abalone gave a sense of incredible lightness, yet carried a full-bodied luxurious feel. The red pepper sauce also worked well with the crab claw.

Braised Pomelo Peel with Yunnan Ham, Shrimp Roe, and Bamboo Fungus
This was the highlight of the lunch. The preparation of pomelo is long known to be laborious, and requires patience and skill. The end result would be a bread-like skin with very little taste, but which acts like a sponge to soak in whatever sauce or gravy it is simmered in.

Not many restaurants offer this dish, and those that do, often serve up a fibrous and tasteless dish. But with Spring Moon’s, we were pampered with two delicate layers of flavor. First, the pomelo was stewed with Yunnan ham, giving it a taste that was distinctive and rich; the aroma of the cured ham was really appetizing. Secondly, as I enjoy prawn roe, to bite into the pomelo, which was sprinkled with it, felt like eating pure prawn roe. I was in heaven! This dish was a celebration of skill, tradition, and subtle balancing of tastes. This alone would be worth flying back to Hong Kong for.

Fried Rice with Diced Scallops, Crab Meat, and Garlic
The fried rice was nice; but if I could be forgiven for nitpicking, it would be about the rice grain itself. Being Singaporean, I was raised eating Thai fragrant rice, and this rice was definitely not from Thailand. But then, it’s just a personal preference.

Spring Moon Mini Egg Custard Mooncake
Now, the verdict on the mooncake. Like all odd pairings in food, such as tomato with garlic, and chocolate with strawberry, custard with salted egg yolk, while seemingly strange, is a marriage made in heaven. The Chinese knew this well -- that’s why we love custard egg buns. The combination of custard and salted egg yolk in this mooncake was well executed; and the mooncake skin was buttery rich and fragrant. I liked it very much, but I would stop short of going ‘gaga’ over it. Having said that, I can now proudly boast to my friends back home: that I am one of the privileged few to have eaten THE mini egg custard mooncake!

Spring Moon
The Peninsula Hong Kong
Salisbury Road, Kowloon
Hong Kong, SAR
Tel: 852-2920 2888

Friday, 2 September 2011

Stranger than Life

There are no short cuts in life! And it took me more than 50 years to realize this brutal truth.

Growing up in modest surrounds, and taught to respect and adhere to Chinese traditions and conservative values, I could hardly wait to ditch the old, and embrace the liberal Western lifestyles I saw in movies and on TV.

A pair of drawings by Steve for my 24th birthday
Starting from my first paycheck, I was hell-bent on spending every hard-earned dollar I made on the things I lusted for. This acquisitive streak kicked into high gear when I became a fashion buyer, and, later, a fashion journalist.

Back then, in the 80s and 90s, travel, communication, and IT, had made the world a smaller place; economies in Asia boomed and everyone seemed to be indulging their dreams. For me as well, it was a high-flying period of life, literally. I flew to fashion shows in the fashion capitals of the world, interviewed the movers and shakers of the industry, and bought designer stuff at obscene discounts. My wardrobe was like a mini high-end boutique, with labels most people would find hard pronouncing -- Versace, Mugler, Castelbajac, Miyake – and designs so complicated I myself had problems putting the clothes on! Did I wear them all? No, I was always happy with just T-shirt and jeans.
And they matter most!

Setting up my first home was exciting too. I couldn’t wait to replace the old hand-me-downs from my parents and relatives with brand-new Minotti sofa, Mackintosh chairs, Edra cabinet, B&B Italia dining sets, and B&O sound systems. Yes…big names mattered to me; but were they comfortable? Some but who cares?!
And, like many an English-educated Asian, I hankered for western food though I was surrounded by Chinese cuisines. I would go on gastronomic trips to Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe, and learned to cook a mean full-course French or Italian dinner. But when it came to local cuisine, I could manage only a handful of dishes. Yet, when I was depressed, sick, or really hungry, it would always be fish-ball noodles or nasi lemak I longed for…

These days, nothing beats being with someone I care for, wearing my most comfortable bermudas and T-shirt, munching away in some hot, humid hawker centre -- as long as I’m eating my comfort food.

Comfort food like the dish below, which brings back the innocence of simpler days. I remember the Chinese New Years of my childhood, when neighbors and friends would give each other live chickens as the festival drew close. Yes, chickens then were prized “expensive” gifts to be given away, and each household would usually receive quite a number. Being too plentiful to finish in one go, the birds would be kept in a huge basket, their numbers dwindling as the weeks passed. While they lasted, the chickens would become my pets; and boy, was it exciting whenever I spotted a freshly laid egg in the morning!

With eggs that fresh, not much else was needed. And this is a “Muji” dish I often enjoyed, where each ingredient is a staple of the kitchen.

Eggy Rice

Egg                        1
Soy sauce           1 tsp
Oil                         1 tbsp, preferably lard
Rice                      3 cups

Dried onion       1 tsp
Lard crispy         1 tsp
Pepper                a dash

1.    Break the egg into a rice bowl; pour soy sauce and oil on it.
2.    Scoop piping hot rice over the egg and mix thoroughly. The heat from the rice would cook the egg within minutes.
3.    Sprinkle fried spring onion, lard crispy, and pepper, and serve immediately.