Friday, 28 October 2011

Ginger Biscuit – Words & Morsels

What is food, without language to describe and celebrate it? I was lucky to be instilled with a love for both, early on in my life.

I learned English at pre-school kindergarten at a public school, under the no-nonsense eye of an archetypical British teacher, all prim and proper ala Ms Jean Brodie. I remember her fondly; she would drill us for hours on end, on pronunciation and grammar, and to her I owe my lifelong appreciation of the tongue. In class, she was also an enthusiastic and tireless communicator of English social manners and etiquette. She helped set certain standards of behavior that I still live by today.

School day started at 8 am and ended around 3 in the afternoon. To a kid my age this seemed an eternity. But there were blessings. The daily meal routine was tea, lunch, and tea again. We were fed well: at tea, we helped ourselves to sandwiches, cakes, and biscuits, washed down with milk, tea, and fruit juices. Tea became one of my favorite drinks, and afternoon tea with biscuits one of my favorite pastimes for life. Here is a classic biscuit from these early years that I’ve enjoyed, given a twist using fresh ingredients from South East Asia.

Ginger Biscuit

Self raising flour                  170 g
Soft brown sugar               100 g
Bicarbonate of soda          1 tsp
Butter                                     56 g
Fresh ginger                          ¼ cup, grated
Ginger flower                       4 tbsp
Golden syrup                       1 tsp
Egg                                           1


1.     Preheat oven at 180°C
2.     Mix all dry ingredients in a bowl.
3.     Add beaten egg a little at a time to produce a stiff consistency.
4.     Divide the dough into 12 pieces and roll them into a ball.
5.     Bake for 15 – 20 minutes.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

A Soldier’s Tale -- Sichuan Vegetable Soup

I’ll make no bones about it: National Service was kick-ass tough. Oftentimes you prayed you were somewhere else…or dead. But today, with 30 years’ hindsight, and perverse as it may seem, I think I enjoyed my stint.

For those unfamiliar with the term, National Service – or ‘NS’ as it’s known – is mandatory conscription in the armed forces -- usually the Army – that every young Singaporean man is subject to. Many other countries have similar laws, like Israel and Taiwan; Singaporeans undergo a 2 or 2½-year stint, depending on one’s academic qualifications.

The first 3 months, in which you were rudely transitioned from civilian to military life, and whipped from raw recruit to passable soldier, were, as you could imagine, hell on earth. In the strange new environment of the army camp, each one of us was pushed to our physical and psychological limits. Discipline, regimentation, and arduous physical training were used to demolish egos and enforce conformity. We wore the same uniform, ate the same food, slept in the same barracks. Very quickly, we learned to think not as an individual, but as a group, a military unit. A unit in which every member relied on, and trusted, one another.

On the battlefield, your life was in the hands of the man beside you, and his in yours. That was one of the lessons the army taught me, which has stayed with me for life.

I also took away some good friends, who I still keep in touch with today; and this has made my time in NS seem that much more rewarding. However, the story I most want to share with you today is about the army food – which used to send chills through me, and my army mates.

In those days, camp food was prepared by young soldiers serving NS just like the rest of us. These ‘cooks’ were equipped by the army with some rudimentary cooking skills, but not much else in the way of running a kitchen. And it showed, through over-done vegetables, over-steamed fish, and half-cooked rice. My mates would usually push the limp, discolored veggies aside, or on to my plate. And being the glutton I was, I lapped it up – over-cooked or not!

I especially looked forward to Saturday lunch, when the cookhouse served a particular dish every one hated, except me -- instant noodles cooked in anchovy stock. Invariably, the noodles would have been left sitting in the pot for quite a while, and be sodden. As Saturday afternoon was also the start of the weekend furlough, my mates would be more intent on leaving the camp than staying for the bloated noodles. Not I. I’d dutifully troop to the cookhouse, scoop out as much as I could finish, and savor every bite. My mates would always shake their heads in disbelief that anyone could possibly enjoy such #%@!  But I honestly did; I still think of these noodles sometimes, and miss them.

Another dish I got to know and love during NS was a soup -- preserved Sichuan vegetable soup with pork. It was spicy, slightly sour, and oh-so appetizing, and always brought back memories of my days in the army.

Preserved Sichuan Vegetable and Pork Soup

Preserved Sichuan Vegetable  :   80 g, soaked with water, drained and sliced thinly
Pork                                          :   220 g, sliced thinly
Soy sauce                                 :   1 tsp
Pepper                                      :   ¼ tsp
Corn flour                                 :   1 tsp
Ginger                                       :   1 cm, bashed
Stock                                         :   1 litre
Salt                                            :   ¼ tsp
Pepper                                      :   a dash

  1. Wash preserved Sichuan vegetable thoroughly, and soak in water for 30 minutes. Drain and slice thinly.
  2. Marinate pork with soy sauce, pepper and corn flour. Set aside.
  3. Boil stock and preserved Sichuan vegetable for 10 minutes.
  4. Add pork and simmer for another 5 minutes.
  5. Season with salt and pepper. Serve hot.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

The Bake Bug Bites…Gula Melaka Cupcake

Honestly speaking, I don’t really enjoy baking.

Why? Because baking requires too much discipline and precision: ingredients and measurements need to be followed to the T; baking times and processes stringently kept to. It’s simply not me.

Yet, I love cakes and pastries; and am terrified that one day some of these recipes would be lost forever. So, true to my ‘kiasu’ nature, I’ve always tried to collect recipes that I love, and learn at least some basic baking skills in case I ever needed them in the future. Over the years my collection of recipes has grown to hundreds, and they all hide somewhere among my bookshelves.

When the bake bug bites on a rare occasion like this, I’d still rather create something according to whim and fancy, than raid my horde of recipes. So here goes…and I hope you like it!

Gula Melaka Cupcake with Grated Coconut Icing

Butter                         115 g
Gula Melaka             150 g
Caster sugar             50 g
Eggs                             2 large
AP flour                      190 g
Baking powder         8 g
Coconut milk             100 ml
Pandan juice              20 ml
Grated coconut         200 g, mixed with 3 tbsp of pandan juice

Butter                           75 g
Salt                                ¼ tsp
Icing sugar                  440 g
Coconut milk             3 tbsp
Pandan juice             1 tbsp

1.     Preheat oven at 175°C.
2.     Cream butter and sugar for 8 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat for another 5 minutes.
3.     Add AP flour and baking powder and mix well, about 8 minutes.
4.     Add coconut milk and pandan juice and mix until the batter is smooth.
5.     Divide the mixture into 8 cupcake moulds and bake for 20 – 25 minutes.
6.     Cool the cakes before applying the frosting. Decorate with grated coconut.

7.     Cream butter and salt until light and fluffy.
8.     Add icing sugar gradually, beating well at each addition.
9.     Add coconut milk and pandan juice and beat until spreading consistency is reached.

Note: Steam grated coconut for 5 minutes. Let it cool. This will prevent the grated coconut from turning bad easily.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Beef Rendang Burger – Less Fast & No Fuss

I remember the 70s as the decade Western pop culture swept into Singapore like a monster tsunami. Education standards had been on a continual rise, and English was being taught in schools as our national lingua franca. This made western movies, music, and television ever more comprehensible -- and alluring. And Singaporeans lapped up all things western; and, in particular, Americana.

And what could be more Americana than fast food? Burgers and fries became hip and chic. Who could resist stopping for a Coney Dog and a Root Beer Float at A&W whenever you were around the Cathay Cinema at Selegie?

Remember the buzz when McDonald’s opened its very first restaurant at Liat Towers in Orchard Road? and the ‘McDonald Kids’? -- teens too young to enter the discotheque, who instead congregated at this particular outlet on weekends, dressed in the latest fashions and hairstyles. To me, McDonalds always meant great-tasting fries, great breakfast meals, and unforgettable TV commercials!

Kentucky Fried Chicken, on the other hand, always reminded me of my NS days when it became almost a staple, due to the presence of an outlet near my army camp. I remember gathering there for quick bites and ‘talk cock’ sessions with my army buddies before checking in, or for celebrations of any kind.

Burger King won me over because of its purportedly healthier ‘flame broiled’ burgers. Clever marketing ploy or not, it worked on me; and even today, Burger King is still my first choice in fast food, more so during the time I spent in Hangzhou. Other chains have come and gone, like Church’s Texas Fried Chicken and Milano’s Pizza, while a few seemed to have enjoyed a comeback, such as Wendy’s.

In the last few years, burgers have burgeoned in Singapore, becoming once again an ‘it’ food trend, with options ranging from ‘gourmet’ wagyu beef burgers to the startups of young entrepreneur-chefs creating their own formulas replete with injections of local flavors and ingredients. Taking a page from these guys, I humbly offer for your delectation my very own Beef Rendang Burger with Begedil.

Beef Rendang Burger – serves 4

Beef                            450, minced
Corn flour                   2 tbsp
Sriracha sauce            2 tbsp
Salt                              1 tsp


Oil                               2 tbsp
Onion                         1 large, chopped
Salt                              ½ tsp
Brown sugar              1 tbsp
Garlic                          2 cloves, minced
Red chilies                  2, minced
Lemon grass              1, white part only and minced
Galangal powder       tsp
Five-spice powder       ½ tsp
Grated coconut          cup

  1. Mix marinate, beef, corn flour and Sriracha sauce until well blended.
  2. Split beef mixture into 4 patties.
  3. Heat a little butter in a non-stick pan and fry meat patties about 5 minutes on each side.
  4. Toast buns, spread butter and Sriracha sauce (optional), and place the meat patty on top of the bread. Add onion and tomato before serving.
  5. Add begedil, papadams, sunny-side up and salad  as side dishes.

  1. Sweat onion under medium heat until it turns transparent. Add garlic, red chili and lemon grass, and continue to fry for another 1 minute.
  2. Add spices and grated coconut, fry until the paste turns slightly oily and fragrant.
  3. Drain Oil and keep aside to cool.


Potato                         ½ kg, boiled, peeled and mashed
Onion                          ¼, chopped
Garlic                           2, minced
Chili powder               1 tbsp
Salt                              1 tsp
Pepper                        ½ tsp
Cilantro                       10 stalks, chopped
Egg                             1, lightly beaten

1.   Sweat onion and garlic until onion turns transparent.
2.   Add chili powder and mashed potato. Mix well.
3.   Season with salt and pepper.
4.   Add chopped cilantro and split mixture into 4 potato patties.
5.   Dip potato patty into egg mixture and deep fry until it turns golden brown.
6.   Drain thoroughly and serve with the burger.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Tom Yam with Muscle

Think Asian food, and Thai is definitely one of the cuisines that come to mind. Indeed, in the past 30 years or so, Thai cuisine has established itself as one of the most popular in the world.

I love Thai food, especially because of the flavors that arise from its play of fresh herbs and spices. Some of my most memorable eating experiences have come from Thailand – be it the back lanes of Bangkok, or a feast in rural Udon Thani where the entire village gathers to celebrate Thung Si Muang Festival in the town square…

Among Thai dishes, Tom Yam Soup is almost a cliché; yet this clear spicy soup is probably the first introduction to Thai cuisine for most people. It’s still one of my favorites, although the version I like most is not the typical combination of prawn, fish and squid, but this mussel variety.

 Tom Yam Mussels

Oil                               1 tbsp
Garlic                           1 clove, sliced thinly
Mussels                       1 kg, washed and beard removed
Water                          2 cups
Light beer                   2 cups
Galangal                     6, sliced
Lemon grass               2, bruised and sliced
Kaffir lime leaves        2, bruised
Chilli padi                   6, bruised
Fish sauce                  4 tbsp
Thai limes                   2
Coriander                   2 stalks, cut

1.    Sweat garlic with oil for 30 seconds.
2.    Add mussels and quick-stir for another 1 minute.
3.    Add water and beer, and boil. Once the liquid hits boiling point, turn down the heat and simmer for 8 minutes, or until the mussels are cooked.
4.    Add galangal, lemon grass and kaffir leaves and continue to simmer for another 30 seconds. Add chilli padi and season it with fish sauce.
5.    Turn off the heat, add coriander.
6.    Just before serving, squeeze lime juice onto the mussels.

Rules of Thumb:
For every 2 cups of water:
Kaffir leaf : Galangal : Lemon grass     = 1 : 3 slices : 3 cm
Fish sauce : Water                               = 1 tbsp : 1 cup