Sunday, 25 December 2011

Sugee Cake – A Rare Festive Guest

When I was a kid, home visits were planned semi-formal affairs; dates would be arranged and fixed days beforehand. Quite commonly, such visits would extend over meal times; and, if the hosts happened to be relatives, the visit would even allow staying over for a game of mahjong.

Remember Singapore in the 60s? There were no expressways; buses were few and infrequent; taxis were reserved for the rich; and only a handful of Singaporeans owned cars. While you could go almost anywhere in Singapore today with just a 30-minute ride on the MRT; in those days it took hours to get from A to B!

And…it would be unthinkable to arrive empty-handed. I remember lugging bags of fruits, and containers of home-cooked food or cakes, to the home we were calling on. And if they were close relatives, we even brought expensive dried foodstuff such as mushroom and abalone.

The hosts would reciprocate of course, with loads of food to make their guests feel welcomed. And this always included home-baked cakes followed by a sumptuous dinner. Sugee cakes and butter cakes were commonly served.

I love sugee cake; it’s rich, grainy and has a unique taste. Sad to say, good sugee cakes are hard to find these days, and they seem to make an annual appearance in homes only at X’mas and Chinese New Year.

Sugee, or semolina, is in fact durum wheat, which is commonly found in Italian and Indian cooking. I’m not sure how and when sugee made its way into our Singaporean cuisine, but it has become identified with the Eurasians and the Peranakans, and every household among these seems to have its own ‘version’ or ‘recipe’ of the cake.

So, this being Christmas, I’m baking Sugee Cake to fulfill this year’s quota. : )

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Osmanthus Sugee Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

Unsalted butter          114 g
Semolina                     75 g
Caster sugar                100 g
Cake flour                   28 g
Baking powder           ¼ tsp
Almond                       38 g, blanched and finely chopped
Egg whites                  1½
Egg yolks                    3
Milk                             20 ml
Rum                            1 tbsp
Osmanthus                 30 g
Salt                              ¼

Cream Cheese Frosting
Cream cheese             100 g
Butter                          55 g
Icing sugar                  150 g
Osmanthus                 3 tbsp

1.      Cream butter with 25 g of sugar till light and creamy. Add rum and semolina and mix well. Cover and let it stand in a cool place overnight.
2.      Preheat oven to 170° C.
3.         Beat egg yolks with 50 g of sugar until thick, add osmanthus flower. Fold in chopped almonds and cake flour.
4.         Beat egg whites with remaining 25 g of sugar till stiff.
5.         Add egg yolk mixture to butter mixture and finally fold in the stiff egg whites.
6.         Pour into cupcake moulds and bake 30 – 35 minutes or until golden brown.
7.         Let the cake cool on a rack before frosting.

Cream Cheese Frosting
1.         Beat butter and cheese until creamy.
2.         Add ½ of the sugar and osmanthus and beat until combined.
3.         Gradually add the remaining sugar until the consistency is achieved.
4.         Pipe the frosting on the cupcakes.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Hong Zhou Restaurant - A Star In His Own Right

It was elite credentials by any standard – to be among the first batch of chefs awarded the country’s highest culinary honor, the National Grade of China; and to be recognized as one of China’s 8 most illustrious chefs. But these were not Chef Wu Rui Kang’s, they were his dad’s.

Photo by Isaac Lau
Chef Wu’s entry into Michelin fame was dramatic. His restaurant’s non-inclusion in the inaugural Michelin Guide Hong Kong 2008 was greeted with howls of disbelief and derision from local food magazines and netizens. The credentials of the Michelin arbiters were questioned, in particular their knowledge of the Chinese food scene in Hong Kong. The following year came the much-deserved nod from Michelin, with a one-star ranking.

In fact Chef Wu’s sterling career was hardly heralded. After graduation from university he held a senior post in the Chinese civil service, from which he left to start a small restaurant in Hangzhou. As business grew, he decided to shift his base to Hong Kong, where his father was working at that time as executive chef for a renowned Hangzhou-style restaurant.  Chef Wu opened the Hong Zhou Restaurant in 2006.

Top right, clockwise: Stuffed Lotus Root with Glutinous Rice; Drunken Smoked Carp;
Cooked Bamboo Shoots; Chopped Vegetable with Bean Curd and Fried Vegetarian Goose.

“Hangzhou cuisine is one of the eight great cuisines of China; Sichuan and Cantonese being two of the others,” said the Chef. “But while Sichuan and Cantonese food has become well-known inside and outside of China, Hangzhou food is just beginning to get popular, especially in China”, he adds, “and in Hong Kong, Cantonese and Shanghai food is still king”.

Fish Balls with Chinese Ham
So while the Chef is highly esteemed in Hong Kong food circles, his audience remains small, ardent, and focused. But Chef Wu is patient and resolute.

“Hangzhou food is pretty pared down; ingredients are the focus, and the main ingredient always delivers the key flavor,” he explains.  “Not spices, not the sauces…but the main ingredient itself; even salt and oil are used very sparingly”. Presentation, likewise, boils down to the deftness of skill of chef and knife. “Hangzhou food,” enthuses Chef Wu, “has lasted so many centuries because of its simplicity and strong traditions”.

Fried Fresh Water Eels
That’s why tweaking his flavors to suit the Hong Kong palate is something he has stood against from the start; while the use of air-flown ingredients all the way from Hangzhou is a practice he has always insisted upon. Such rigorous measures -- and not half-efforts and compromises -- are what he believes authenticity and reputations are built upon, and what he believes will ultimately win him a large audience for his beloved cuisine. Now he has the star to prove it.

But what makes a great chef? “It takes a combination of assets -- kitchen ethics, intelligence, and innate gifts”, says the Chef. Kitchen ethics implies respect and humility, especially before teacher or master, he says, and the willingness to give your best in everything from cooking to personal hygiene. In short: attitude.

Smoked Yellow Croaker
Intelligence is the drive for technical mastery. Chef Wu lists essential areas such as kitchen skills, cost control, and financial/business acumen. Finally, innate talent and passion is a factor. “But”, stressed the Chef, “it must be coupled with a lot of hard work”. Only then will innate gifts make a difference, and raise the aspiring chef above all the other chefs to allow him to achieve greatness.

Dong Pu Pork

Hong Zhou Restaurant
1/F Chinachem Johnston Plaza
178-186 Johnston Road, Wanchai, Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2591 1898

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Paper-wrapped Chicken---A Tribute to a Friendship

“A friendship that lasts for a quarter century is something to rejoice about!” someone once said to me. I guess I’m a lucky man then, for I have several friends who’ve shared my ups and downs for well over 25 years. One of these friends, I met during my army days. Her name is Annie.

Annie and I worked in the same army camp, in different buildings; but we were as good as only desks apart. We chatted often through the army’s intranet system, and met daily for lunch. Annie was unfailingly friendly, chatty, and helpful, and always lent a hand to anyone who needed it at the camp.
She was, basically, a generous soul; and a hit with the guys---straight or otherwise.

To straight guys, she was the girl you’d want to bring home to meet Mom; to gays, she was the fag hag we all adored. In fact, one of Annie’s most sought-after ‘services’ was to pretend to be the ‘girlfriend’ of her many closeted gay friends whenever the need arose---which was pretty often!

So, Annie, I, and a few other army mates, grew to be close friends. We would spend weekends at her flat, playing mahjong, watching videos and---as we would say in the 70s---‘talking cock’. Annie lived with her folks, and we all got along very well, especially at the mahjong table.

Annie was a wiz in the kitchen; and she made sure everyone in the house---family and friend---was well fed. Annie and her family weren’t well off; she would take on ‘sidelines’, like privately promoting household appliances and beauty products, to bolster her salary so that she could help out with her family’s expenses. Yet, the way she cooked and fed us every week, you’d think her mattresses were stuffed with dollar bills.

And so, we went through life together, as any group of old friends do. Romance, heartbreak, career, marriage, children, mid-life crises…

Of life’s rollercoaster of joys and sorrows, Annie and I shared more than 30 years’ worth, even though at times our communications were reduced to little more than an exchanged sms on a birthday or festival, especially when we lived in different countries.

Annie is today happily married and lives in a lavish, beautiful home. She is the proud mother of two delightful teenagers to whom---I’m surprised, but happy, to say---I’m more good buddy than aloof ‘uncle’, despite the formidable age gap!

Today is Annie’s birthday, and I’m dedicating this dish to her, and our friendship. It was a dish she always cooked for us during those far-off weekends at her home. Sadly, she refuses to cook it for us anymore, not for anything else, but because she has forgotten this humble recipe even as she has added many newer ones to her cooking repertoire!

Happy birthday, Annie!

This 100-year-old dish originated in Guangdong, China.
The original wrapper was rice paper, like that used for Chinese calligraphy.

Paper-wrapped Chicken

Chicken                                    600 g, chopped into 8 pieces
Dried mushroom                  8 pieces
Oyster sauce                           ½ tbsp.
Chinese wine                          ½ tsp
Ginger juice                            ½ tsp
Light soy sauce                      ¼ tsp
Honey                                      ½ tsp
Salt                                            a pinch
Sesame oil                              ¼ tsp
Pepper                                    a dash
Spring onion                         8 x 4 cm long
Baking paper                         8 x 22 sq cm
Oil                                            4 cups

1.              Marinate the chicken with all ingredients for at least 30 minutes, preferably overnight.
2.             Oil the baking paper. Place the paper diagonally in front of you, and the chicken, mushroom and spring        
             onion horizontally, and wrap.
3.              Heat oil to 375 degrees Celsius, fry chicken for about 15 minutes or until well cooked.
4.              Drain well and serve.

For those who are health conscious, you could bake the paper-wrapped chicken at 220 degrees Celsius for 15 minutes.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Dried Sole & Peanut Porridge---A Portrait in Black & White

When I was a kid growing up, people would sometimes say they had two ‘mothers’. And everyone knew what they meant.

One mother was, of course, the birth mother; the other was the amah. The ‘amah’, literally ‘mother’ in Chinese, usually came from a tiny village in Canton, a southern province of China, and was easily recognized by her black and white outfit and, often, a long pigtail.

At the turn of the 20th century, many of these women left China for Southeast Asia in the hope of finding work. Uneducated, unskilled, but fiercely loyal, they often ended up as domestic helpers with rich families or in expatriate homes. They cleaned, cooked, washed, and even baby-sat; and it was very common for their employment with a family to start in their late teens or early 20s.

The amah was legendary for her work ethic. Job-hopping or demanding a raise were unheard of; and most amahs stayed with the same family their entire working lives—becoming, in effect, a valued member of their adopted family. They worked extremely hard and sent the bulk of their hard-earned money back home to China. Out of the small stipend they kept for themselves, their famous frugality still enabled them to accumulate savings, and I have heard of amahs offering loans to their employers in times of need!

It was common for the hardy amah to outlive her employers. She would continue to serve the next generation in the family and its children, all the while cementing her status within the family, to the extent that some amahs became de facto family matriarchs, whose opinions were sought, and respected.

There was another side to the amah story. Some of these women from China took a different ‘career path’—as chambermaids in brothels. I knew some of them who worked in the brothels that dotted Keong Siak Street, a well-known red light district in Chinatown until it was cleared for development.

These chambermaids, also dressed in black and white, made good money from the tips given by the ladies of the night and their patrons. True to form, the bulk of these earnings would be sent home; and from what remained these maids would scrape and save for a very special occasion. Every year, during the Seventh Lunar Month, or Hungry Ghost Festival, well-known Cantonese opera troupes from Hong Kong would be invited to perform as part of the festivities. The temporary wooden opera stages would pop up all over Chinatown---and that’s what these chambermaids had been saving up for.

They would splurge on banners festooned with floral designs made up of folded dollar bills. These banners would be given to their favorite performers. I was told that they would sometimes lavish their favorites with jewelry and homemade herbal soups!

Most of these amahs and chambermaids took vows of celibacy; strong bonds of sisterhood developed among them, and they would spend off days together. As they grew old and retired from the brothels or their adopted families, some would return home to China. Most, however, ended up in a room rented with another ‘sister’ or two. There they lived until they were no longer able to take care of themselves, whereupon they would end their days in an old folks’ home.

Dried sole or "柴鱼" in Chinese
I knew a couple of these retirees when I was young, and they would spin their tales to me during their leisure hours. Much of their day, however, was spent searching for income to meet daily expenses. The “sisters” I knew would prepare porridge and fried noodles to sell in the neighborhood in the morning; and in the afternoon, they would go around scavenging for cardboard to sell as scrap.

The porridge they prepared was a recipe typical of their hometown in China. In fact, I ate it so often that the particular aroma of the dried sole has become strongly tied to my childhood reminiscences. The dried sole is also often used in Cantonese cooking as a base ingredient for stock. It’s hard to find this porridge in Singapore, but luckily for me, it is quite common in Hong Kong, especially in dim sum restaurants.

Fried tang hoon is a must as it
adds texture to the porridge.

Dried sole and peanut porridge

Rice                      1 cup
Salt                       ½ tsp
Oil                        1 tbsp
Water                  7 cups
Pork ribs            300 g, scalded in boiling water and drained
Dried sole          150 g, toasted and bashed
Dried oyster      80 g, soaked and drained
Peanut                 150 g
Ginger                 20 g, julienned
Salt                       1 tbsp
Soy sauce           2 tsp
Spring onion
Fried tang hoon

  1. Wash rice thoroughly. Soak rice with ½ tsp salt and oil with a little bit of water for at least 30 minutes.
  2. Boil water. Add rice to boiling water.
  3. Add pork ribs, dried sole and peanuts, and boil under high heat for 10 minutes.
  4. Boil for 1 hour. As the grain disintegrates, keep stirring or the porridge will stick to the base of the pot and become burnt. Try not to add water during simmering, but if it is necessary, ensure that you add boiling water.
  5. Season with salt and soy sauce.
  6. Sprinkle spring onion, fried tang hoon and pepper before serving.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Sze Thye Cake Shop - Son Set Industry

The First Day of Chinese New Year probably means more to Mr Koh Sun Liang than to any of us -- because it is the one rest day of his entire year.

Call on him the remaining 364 days, and he is hard at work at the Chinese pastry shop began by his father more than sixty years ago. The workday for the 66-year-old begins at six every morning when he starts preparing dough and the sweet fillings. By 8 am, Mr Koh is ready for his first customer; his has been a lifetime devoted to his craft.

At 12 he learned the methods of making traditional pastries and snacks from scratch. It was, and is, tedious work. The chief ingredients for the sweet fillings are green beans from Thailand and red beans from China.  The beans are soaked and then cooked and blended in a process that takes at least two days.

The shop with its multi-layers of trays holding the fruit of the old cake-maker’s labor, harks back to the 1950s and 60s; to a time when western cakes were not easily available, or were expensive, and when Chinese cakes and snacks such as these were common as afternoon tea or made gifts for friends.

Many of the pastries are handmade; moulds were used or the cakes were simply shaped with fingers. Mr Koh owns more than 100 of these wooden cake moulds, some intricately carved. He tells us they were made in China and were at least 60 years old. Business has not been good for a while, he says.

His customers were mostly folks in their 50s or older; what he sells does not appeal much to the younger generation. His handmade sculptures of sugar and candy find their main purpose as festive or votive offerings at birthdays, weddings, and temple events and ceremonies. They bring the bulk of business for him these days.

Future prospects seem no brighter; Mr Koh’s search for someone to replace him has been fruitless so far. The long hours, hard tedious work and slow business, have all seen to that.  Bent over the moulds, fingers white with flour, he runs the shop, today, all by himself.

The Sze Thye Cake Shop has been located at Lian Seah Street since 1950; it moved to its present address in 2005.

Sze Thye Cake Shop
Blk 2 Beach Road
Singapore 190002
Tel: 6337 7010

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Chef in Black Plays with his Food

What’s my idea of the ultimate eating experience at a restaurant? A chef given a free hand to cook the freshest ingredients available, in the best possible way, matched with the ideal glass of wine, in front of an appreciative table. It actually materialized a few nights ago.

There we were, six of us seated at the bar counter, as Chef Emmanuel Stroobant and his assistant whipped up a 15-course dinner in his so-called “playground”. But this was a culinary playground with a difference – there was no open-fire stove in this kitchen, instead a Miele steam oven stood off to the side. What others may see as a limitation or insurmountable challenge, Chef Emmanuel seemed to relish as he introduced one creative dish after another -- Japanese Tomato “fruit” with Parmesan gelation topped with Fleur de Sel, Japanese melon with Habujo, Salmon with Cep and Bacon…

The Oscietra Caviar, Egg Confit and Sour Dough were a match-made-in-heaven even for the jaded tongues at the table. This deceptively simple dish comes through in its complexity of flavors: the saltiness of world-class caviar, mixed with the slight sour taste of bread coated with a sous-vide cooked egg yolk.

Truffles were in season; and Chef Emmanuel teased our taste buds with white and black truffles in two separate creations -- Tartare of King Scallop with White Truffle, and Steamed Grenaille Potato with Black Truffle. With these two delicate creations, scallop and potato were like the supporting cast in a great movie, complementing the truffles with their quiet presence.
Traditionalists of French cooking would be surprised with the Sea Bass Bouillabaisse with Sea Urchin Crouton; the soup was delightfully light, and for a brief moment reminded me of miso soup. I could have done with a more generous dose of sea urchin on the crouton though. The Otoro, a couple of courses later, equally delighted me (how could Otoro ever fail to delight?). Skillfully sliced, torched, and baptized with wasabi oil, the fish was perfect!

There seems to be two opposing camps to the question of sous-vide cooking; I happen to belong to the skeptics. But Chef Emmanuel, who firmly affirms that this slow-cooking method is here to stay, very nearly converted me! He had dry aged Angus beef tenderloin and confit prepared at 54°C for three hours, yielding a blood red slice of meat, which he assured us, was well-cooked. My verdict? The full flavour of beef came across bloody strong (pardon the term) through the butter, shallot, and herbs. Whopping shiok!

The evening was buoyant and freewheeling, and quips flew between chef and guests. Everyone was cajoled into declaring likes and preferences, and even what we would like to see for the next course. But unanimously – and wisely, I might add -- we insisted on putting ourselves in Chef Emmanuel’s good hands.

Perhaps I was really full by the time dessert arrived, by they didn’t deliver the punch I was expecting. The flash-frozen Vietnamese Mint “After Eight” was a good break from the savoury dishes that went before it, but I felt the Gelatin-coated Fig was slightly overpowered by the saffron.

Admittedly, there were triumphs and near misses, but in all, it was a performance that lived up to its promise of playful creativity. We witnessed a chef at the height of his powers, trusting his instincts to make bold choices, and inventing in an almost improvisational manner. Exhilarating and memorable.

Limited to a party of 6 persons; priced at nine-course dinner at $250++ per person, 12-course at $350++ and 15-course at $450++ per person. Reservation is required.

Saint Pierre
#01-01 Central Mall
3 Magazine Road
Singapore 059570