Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Chilli Crab---My First Kill!

I hardly ever cook crab at home, though I love eating them. That’s because I could never muster the guts to slaughter them! Yes, I am a wimp when it comes to personally ending the life of one of God’s creatures for the cooking pot…

In Singapore, when we talk about crab, what’s on everybody’s mind is almost always Chilli Crab.

I think this dish’s place in the ‘national cuisine’ of Singapore is richly deserved. Though there are many various claimants to the original birthplace of Chilli Crab, for sheer satiating deliciousness, no country does it the way we do.

However, having eaten Chilli Crab since I was a boy, I can say too, that I’ve borne witness to the gradual changes in the dish, especially in flavor and the type of crab used. It began as a simple affair---just local mud crabs---but over the years has come to embrace a richer harvest, including the Sri Lankan crab, Alaskan crab, and snow crab of today. The gravy has also evolved: it is sweeter, and often much less spicy, than I remember it.

In the old days, people ate Chilli Crab sometimes with rice, but more often with the local version of the baguette known as ‘French loaf’. And nothing tasted better than dipping chunks of French loaf into the thick gravy. These days the French loaf is all but forgotten, replaced instead by the steamed or fried Chinese bun called ‘man tou’.

I never like my Chilli Crab with the sweeter and finer textured man tou, and sorely miss the simple French loaf, with its rough thick crust heavily soaked and dripping with spicy crab gravy!

Ideal choices for the crab to be used are Sri
Lankan and Indonesian, whose meat is firmer.
Recently, I took the bold step of slaughtering a crab. Where an experienced cook would have made light work of it in a minute or less, I took more than twenty, with much of it spent simply drumming up the courage!

I was trying to replicate the Chilli Crab I used to enjoy at home back in the 60s. To achieve this, I made my own chilli paste instead of relying on the off-the-rack versions available today---which would have given me flavors different from those of my childhood. I also skipped the step where you quick-deep-fried the crab, since I preferred my crabmeat succulent, soft and juicy, and the skipped process would have left a light crust on the meat. Therefore, enjoy!

Chilli Crab

Oil                   1½ tbsp
Onion              ½, sliced thickly
Red chilli         2, sliced thickly
Chilli paste      2 tbsp
Mud crab         1 kg, cleaned and chopped and smashed lightly
Wine               2 tbsp
Stock               1 cup
Tomato           2, quartered
Salt                  ½ tsp
Sugar               1 tsp
Egg                  2, lightly beaten
Corn flour       1 tbsp, diluted with 1 tbsp of water
Coriander        1 tbsp, sliced
Spring onion   1 tbsp, sliced

Chilli paste:

Oil                   8 tbsp
Shallots           130 g, chopped
Garlic               80 g, chopped
Candle nuts     60 g, chopped
Belachan          50 g, mashed
Chilli paste      250 g
Salt                  ½ tsp
Sugar               2 tbsp


1.    Fry onion and chilli over low flame until the onion turns soft. This will caramelize the onion.
2.    Increase the flame to the maximum, add chilli paste and fry for 30 seconds before adding the crab. Quick-stir for 1 minute. Add wine around the circumference of the wok. This process helps to evaporate all alcohol content. Continue to stir-fry for another 1 minute.
3.    Add stock, tomato, and cover the wok with a lid. Let the stock boil for 5 minutes, without opening the lid.
4.    Remove lid, season the mixture with salt and sugar. Lower the flame and add beaten egg and stir thoroughly.
5.    Thicken the sauce with corn starch.
6.    Garnish the dish with coriander and spring onion and serve immediately.
7.    After eating the crab, it is a practice to finish the sauce by dipping baguette in it.

Chilli paste:

1.     Saute shallots with oil until light golden brown, add garlic and belachan and continue to fry until all ingredients are golden brown.
2.     Add candle nuts and chilli paste and cook until oil surfaces. If the mixture turns dry or begins to burn during the process, add a tbsp of water during the frying.
3.     Season with salt and sugar. The cooked chilli paste can be kept for 2 weeks refrigerated.

Note: Crab could be deep-fried in hot oil for 30 seconds, and drained before cooking. This will form a very light crust on the meat. But I prefer to skip this step as I like the crabmeat smooth and soaked in the gravy thoroughly.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Mixed Vegetable Stew – A Lesson in Giving

When I was growing up, we had a part-time helper who swept the house surroundings and cleared the rubbish. This woman had come to Singapore directly from mainland China, with no education, and was widowed at a very young age with an adopted daughter. So to make ends meet, she had taken on multiple jobs, including cleaning for us.

Her day at our house would usually end around 2 pm, and since her chores were relatively light, she frequently had free time on her hands. I had a love for food since I was a kid, and most people knew it. So, she would occasionally cook food that I liked to distract me whenever I was up to mischief at home. I remember a particular dish vividly. She would make fish paste from scratch, stuff it into green chillies and steam them for a couple of minutes. We would eat these stuffed chillies, dipped in soy sauce, while listening to Rediffusion or watching the TV together.

Her salary was meager; however, Chinese New Year was special to her. She would cook a huge pot of vegetarian stew and distribute it to all her relatives and friends. I remember how she would scrounge and save to buy the necessary canned and dried ingredients in dribs and drabs; in other words, her preparations for the dish began as early as 12 months before. The dish was simple but it meant a lot to me. So, I’m replicating this dish as a little tribute to this lady, from whom I learnt the art of giving, along with a number of yummy dishes!

Mixed Vegetable Stew with Preserved Bean Curd

Tie soaked lily buds into a knot to
prevent it from integrating during cooking.
Oil                                           1 tbsp
Ginger                                     1-cm slice
Button mushroom                 80 g   
Dried Shitake mushroom       10 g, soaked for 30 mins.
Dried black fungus                 5 g, soaked for 15 mins.       
Dried lily buds                        10 g, soaked for 15 mins.
Dried bean sticks                    20 g, deep-fried for 30 secs. 
Red dates                               10, soaked for 15 mins.
Cabbage                                  150 g
Preserved bean curd               2 tbsp, mashed
Vegetable stock                      750 ml
Salt                                           ½ tbsp

1.             Saute all mushrooms with ginger until fragrant.
2.             Add preserved bean curd and fry for another 5 minutes.
3.             Add stock and red dates and simmer for 20 minutes.
      4.      Add cabbage, fried bean sticks and simmer for another 15 minutes or until the vegetable    
               turns soft. Season with salt.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Mr. Bean - Keeping Alive Teochew Pastry Traditions

At 15, Chan Kim Ho was faced with a decision that would change his life forever: take over the family business, his father told him and his kid brother…or I will close it down. While his brother opted to continue his education, eventually becoming an academician at the local university, Mr Chan left school and took over the Poh Guan Cake House.

Freshly-baked Teochew pastries available everyday in the shop.
When he decided to step in, the enterprise was already old, founded almost 30 years earlier, in 1930, with just three products to sell -- peanut candy, red bean cakes, and lotus cakes. These were originally snack specialties of Hokkien province in China; their tastiness made them popular in Singapore, but they were also must-serves at weddings. When he took over the shop in 1958, Mr Chan had to work 16-hour days aided by a single helper. But business grew and he began distributing to provision shops and coffee shops.

His products became a common sight in the coffee shops of the 1960s and 70s. His peanut candies, especially, would fill large glass jars that lined the cashier’s counter; however, Mr Chan also witnessed the steady decline of Chinese pastry making. The introduction of western cakes and pastries hurt the traditional industry deeply. In the face of faltering demand and competition for a shrinking pie, Mr Chan decided to learn the preparation of bean paste fillings under two masters of the craft.

Poh Guan successfully grew after this astute move, and today employs a staff of about a dozen in the production end of the business. Despite this, the boss insists that no other person but himself should make the cake fillings.

Mr. Chan still cooks the fillings
for all his pastries personally.
Mr Chan proudly tells us that while the ingredients might be few and simple – beans, sugar, and lard; to achieve consistency of the mix, and timing in the addition of each ingredient, is a hard-won skill. The final bean paste should be moist, sweet, and meltingly smooth.

What’s heartening to this 68-year-old doyen of Chinese pastry making, however, is the revival among the young of giving out traditional Chinese cakes at weddings. This has an advantage, Mr Chan says with a twinkle in his eye, because Chinese cakes last longer, unlike the western ones that require refrigeration and have a short shelf life.

A rare treat: pepperweed kueh made with
 a hard-to-find herb from China.
While ever the traditionalist, Mr Chan also seeks to make the old, new again. From time to time, he introduces traditional cakes with newly concocted fillings such as durian, green tea, pineapple, and yam. One of the company’s creations is a cake made from a Chinese herb – or weed, as he puts it. His sister who lives in China would harvest, wash, air, and sun dry the herb, and Mr Chan would bring it back to Singapore. 

The cakes thus produced are only sold at Poh Guan, while the same cakes produced by his competitors, he whispers conspiratorially -- have the “weed” replaced with pepper! Apparently, this special herb also has medicinal benefits as a detoxification agent, remover of dark spots on skin, and eliminator of gray hair. 

Poh Guan Cake House
Blk 531 Upper Cross Street #01-57
Singapore 050531
Tel: 6534 0136

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Lup Cheong & Clay Pot Rice – Two Perfect!

I remember a line from a song in Barbra Streisand’s movie Yentl, it went “The more I learned, the less I know”. That line reminds me how important it is to keep pursuing new knowledge, and to always maintain an open mind. It reminds me that sometimes even the most trivial things in life have something to teach---like preparing and eating preserved Chinese sausages, or ‘lap cheong’.

During the month-long run-up to the Lunar New Year, Singapore’s Chinatown would be transformed; its narrow streets and sidewalks lined with makeshift stalls selling all manner of festive goodies and decorations, and thronged with shoppers. What catches my eye would be the barrage of preserved food that suddenly appears like magic only at this time of year---dried sausages, waxed duck, dried fish, and even preserved animal innards imported from China or made locally.

I remember helping to make dried sausages when I was young. Meat from different parts of the pig would be carefully apportioned, minced and seasoned; the marinated meat then stuffed into pig intestines and dried in the shade for weeks. Later in life, I learned that the ideal climatic conditions for preparing such dried products in China presented themselves in the last quarter of every year. Dry desert winds from the north would hasten the drying process without scorching the meat---and thus their abundant availability at that time of year.

Needless to say, I love these sausages…especially the liver sausage, or ‘yuen cheong’. My friends and I sometimes call the especially superior versions of yuen cheong, the ‘Chinese foie gras’---with little exaggeration. The smooth richness of liver, coupled with the layered notes of the marinade---in particular of Chinese wine---is beyond description.

The dried Chinese sausage is remarkably self-sufficient, containing within its transparent sheath all of its flavor and essence; therefore, the best ways to release its culinary potential are often the most simple and basic. I like mine placed on top of rice as it cooks, so that the infused oil of the sausages flows into the rice, adding subtle flavor and a mouth-watering fragrance. Or it could be mixed with other marinated meats, in the case of clay pot rice; or made crisp and then fried with vegetables or meat.

I’ve always preferred the first option---steamed and eaten neat with oil-infused rice---thinking it was simple, straightforward and required no pre-preparation. How wrong I was! I found that out when I bought a cookbook by Gigi Ng from the famous restaurant, Ser Wang Fun, in Hong Kong last year. I knew Gigi from the years I lived in Hong Kong; I was already a die-hard fan of her restaurant’s food and its famous made-in-house dried sausages even before we met. I will write more about Ser Wang Fun’s food and review its cookbook later in this blog.

I’ve also picked up the finer points of cooking clay pot rice from a friend. This friend of mine, a famous pastry chef, has spent hours perfecting the technique he learned from master chefs during numerous trips to China.

Clay Pot Rice with Mixed Sausages.
(serves two)

Rice                 2 cups, washed and drained thoroughly
Water/stock    2 cups
Salt                  ½ tsp
Oil/lard            ½ tbsp.
Sausages         2, preferably liver and meat sausage each
Ginger             2 slices, julienned
Soy sauce       1½  tbsp


1.     Drain rice and let it rest for at least 30 minutes.
2.    Put rice in a claypot, pour boiling water, oil and salt, and let it boil vigorously for 4 minutes. Lower the heat to simmer and continue to cook for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, rotate the clay pot so that rice will be evenly cooked.
3.    Add sausages and continue to simmer for another 5 minutes.
4.    Increase the heat to the maximum for the final 5 minutes; remember to rotate the clay pot so that crust would be formed all round.
5.    Just before serving, pour soy sauce around the circumference of the lid, let the soy sauce slowly seep through the gap between the lid and the pot. The residual heat will increase the fragrance of the soy sauce before eating.
6.    Mix well before serving.

Preparation of the Sausages
1.    Boil water in a saucepan.
2.    Remove strings from the sausages and place it into the warm water.
3.    Simmer sausages for 10 minutes in the case of liver sausages or 14 minutes for meat sausages.
4.    Remove the sausages from the simmering water and let it dry in a cool corner for at least 3 hours. This step will make the skin of the sausages crisp when cooked.
5.    Pan fry sausages in a dry (without oil) pan or place it on top of the boiling rice.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Some of My Best Hits of 2011

2011 was an eventful year! After being away from Singapore for 4 years, I came back and saw the country in a different light. Much has changed since I left.

Orchard Road’s changed almost beyond recognition. Marina Bay Sands is completely new to me. The MRT has gotten more crowded and taxi fares have risen beyond my reach. The number of eateries has sky rocketed, so has the variety of cuisine, but in general, quality has suffered, and a certain bland homogeneity or ‘sameness’ seems to be the hallmark of our street and mid-range food these days.

Having said that, I did have memorable meals in Singapore and elsewhere.  They are too numerous to list, so I’ve chosen a memorable few:

The Ivy : http://www.gastronautdiary.blogspot.com/2011_08_01_archive.html

It’s the setting for many a movie, the haunt of stellar Hollywood, and the rave of my star-struck friends---and I finally made it there in April this year. The food was good instead of fantastic, but it was the experience of glam, fun and people watching that made it all worthwhile.

113N Robertson Blvd.
Los Angeles, California 90048

Old Hong Kong Legend Restaurant – Hangzhou Food Promotion

I’m a big fan of Chef Ng Sui Hong’s cooking in Hong Kong. In fact, his restaurant is the first and only Hangzhou restaurant in the world with one Michelin star to its name. Chef Ng comes from a family of great cooks and he shoulders the family tradition with pride. Old Hong Kong invited him to their flagship restaurant at Raffles City for a week-long promotion in May, and I had the opportunity to savour Chef Ng’s handiwork again.

 Raffles City Shopping Center
252 North Bridge Road
#02-18 Raffles Place

St Pierre The Restaurant : http://gastronautdiary.blogspot.com/2011/12/chef-in-black-plays-with-his-food.html

Chef Emmanuel Stroobant is an old friend and I’ve been eating at his restaurant for years. At the recent launch of his new ‘concept cooking’, we were treated to his undivided attention as he cooked right in front of guests and ‘played’ with his ingredients like a maestro in front of the orchestra. The evening was full of whimsy and surprise, and, most importantly, Chef Stroobant made it a truly personal experience.

3 Magazine Road
#01-01 Central Mall

Mun Kee Roast Meat Restaurant

An impromptu dinner organized by my HK food buddies Margaret and Fraz took me to an unexpected eating spot in Jordan, Hong Kong, for unforgettable roast goose. Only a limited number of birds are roasted each evening and served at 7.30pm sharp, to ensure crispy skin and succulent meat. It was great, and so were the rest of the dishes.  Most of all, it was the company at the table of Hong Kong and Singaporean friends, that made the meal special.

1A Reclamation Street
Jordan, Hong Kong

Fu 1088 :

A trip to Shanghai in June was especially fruitful because I met some of the nicest friends from Hong Kong---Amy, Alex and Wai. They chose to include me in their food escapades and this was one of the great meals they brought me to. Located in Shanghai’s French concessionary in an old bungalow, this restaurant serves some of the most exquisite Shanghai dishes in town.  The appetisers and main dishes were superb; just skip their carbohydrates and desserts.

375 Zhenning Lu,
Changning District
Shanghai, China

Teochew Restaurant Huat Kee (1998) Pte Ltd

It took a visitor from Hong Kong to introduce me to one of the best Teochew restaurants in Singapore. As one walks into the restaurant, he will be greeted by intimidating displays of abalone and sharks’ fin. However, the staff was not at all pushy; in fact they were helpful in suggesting dishes from the more affordable sections of the menu. True to Teochew cuisine traditions, the food was simple but packed with quality ingredients and fine cooking. I became a total convert after just one bite!

74 Amoy Street

Restaurant Andre

In the four short years I was away, one star chef was born and grew to own an eponymous restaurant that’s become one of Singapore’s culinary raves. I was told it wasn’t easy to get a table, but thanks to some well-connected journalist friends of mine; six of us were treated to a dinner executed with sharp creativity and a bold play of ingredients. Although most of Andre’s cooking techniques were by now familiar on the fine dining landscape, he earned high marks, in my book, for the youthful, adventurous spirit of his cooking.

41 Bukit Pasoh Road