Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Stir-fried Chicken with Walnut – Grandpa’s Favourite Dish

Stir-fried chicken with walnut is a traditional recipe. While the origins of the dish are unknown, it was one of a handful of dishes shared by almost all people from the north to the south of China. Since walnuts and chicken used to be expensive, this dish was often served during celebratory meals.

I remember my grandpa loved this dish so much that it even the lack of teeth didn’t deter him from eating it. He would say to my grandma, “walnuts are good for the grandchildren. They are good for the brains and hopefully they will study well in school.” Subsequently, I found out that he spoke a half truth. The Chinese also believe that walnut promotes longevity. No wonder my grandpa lived into his mid-80s before passing on.

Stir-fried Chicken with Walnut
Blanched walnut
Walnut                      100 g
Peanut oil                 2 cup + 1½ tbsp
Chicken breast       300 g
Assorted pepper    ½ cup, cut into diamond shaped
Ginger                       4 slices
Garlic                         ½ tsp, minced
Sugar                         ½ tbsp.
Salt                             ½ tsp
Chinese wine          4 tbsp

Oil velveted chicken
Chicken marinate:
Chinese wine          ½ tbsp.
Soy sauce                ½ tbsp.
Salt                             ½ tsp
White pepper         a dash
Sesame oil               1 tsp
Corn flour                 ½ tbsp.

1.     Soak walnut in warm water for 30 minutes. Peel skin (optional). Drain till dry. Fry walnut in 75°C oil.  Increase heat gradually and fry till the nuts turn golden brown. Drain thoroughly. Set aside.
2.     Heat oil till hot. Blanch chicken meat for 1 minute (oil velveting) and drain thoroughly.
3.     Heat 1½ tbsp. of oil till smoking point. Quick fry vegetables till slightly charred. Meanwhile, add sugar and salt.
4.     Add chicken and continue to fry for another one minute. Pour Chinese wine.
5.     When the wine is about to evaporate completely, add walnut. Fry thoroughly.
6.     Serve hot.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Hangzhou Great Eats

There is a feature of Hangzhou that would normally escape the day-tripper or casual short-term visitor: its endless evenings. While a typical twilight lasts minutes, some geographical or meteorological quirk has given Hangzhou a twilight that stretches for hours, bathing its streets, malls, parks, and willow-lined canals in a soft crepuscular glow and giving this city of 6 million inhabitants a seductive intimacy. Stay for a season and you’ll discover this effect.

Despite its large-city bustle, Hangzhou is human in scale and a delight to traverse on foot or bicycle. Located in prosperous Zhejiang Province in China’s southwest, it regularly ranks at or near the top of China’s most ‘livable’ cities. Visiting Hangzhou in the 13th century, the Italian traveller Marco Polo famously raved, “It is without doubt the finest and most splendid city in the world.”

Even today, life in Hangzhou gravitates around its fabled West Lake. Better known as Xihu, this man-made lake had its beginnings sometime in the 8th or 9th centuries during the Tang Dynasty and was expanded over the centuries to its current size of 6.3 sq km. Ringed by parks and green mountains, straddled by stone bridges, dotted with pavilions, pagodas, temples and romantic villas, the sight of West Lake, especially on a misty morning, would be a cliché were it not so meltingly beautiful. Hangzhou is rich with other worthwhile sights such as the Xixi wetlands and the tea-growing Longjing hills, but they are overshadowed by the magnetism of Xihu.

Historically, Hangzhou was a city of commerce and culture, associated with artisans, poets, scholars, and the intelligentsia. It was the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), a centre of silk production in ancient times and today, and its most famous culinary creation, Dongpo Pork, is named for an 11th-century poet and governor who admonished his cook to “Do the pork over a medium flame, use no water but wine, and it will naturally be done.”

To a large measure food establishes the rhythms of life in this city. The residents wake early to a simple breakfast (oddly, breakfast fare is indifferent and almost an afterthought), eat lunch at 11 am, and by 4 or 5 in the afternoon, sit down to dinner. The day ends with supper at 8pm. Tea-drinking has evolved into a rich subculture in Hangzhou, spurred by the legendary renown of the local green tea called Longjing or ‘Dragon Well’. Most afternoons, locals head to the plantations in the hills to a lunch of carp bred in mountain spring water and fruit plucked from overhanging branches tableside. They sip tea on the terraces as women, basket on their back, harvest the leaves metres away; and play mahjong and smoke under shady arbours with drying tea leaves scenting the wind. Little wonder that when Hangzhou denizens chance upon harried or boorish behaviour in others, they are apt to say, “This person is obviously from out of town.”

Hangzhou is the capital of Zhejiang province and its cuisine displays the core virtues of the Zhejiang style: the blending of sweet and salty flavours; boiling, stewing, braising, and simmering favoured; meat is cooked in its own juices, the dishes fresh, tender, fragrant and rich – either crispy or soft, but far from greasy. Seasoning is never over-rich or underdone, and the meat falls easily off the bones.

To this provincial style Hangzhou cuisine has its own inflections, going further in lightness – especially in using even less oil – and sweetness. Cooks make use of the best available freshwater carp, eels, shrimps and crabs, and abundant local vegetables and fruits. Bamboo shoots are a particular favourite; stewed, for example, in peanut oil immediately upon being unearthed and enjoyed for their freshness, tenderness and deliciousness, which are best in spring. 

Here is a tour of the best places in Hangzhou to experience its cuisine.

Lao Tou Er You Bao Xia
493, Wen San Xi Lu, Xihu Qu
Tel: 0571-88979700

In the field of mid-priced local fare, two worthwhile chains exist in Hangzhou: Waipo Jia and Lao Tou Er You Bao Xia. Tourists and visitors would flock to the former, which is better known, while ‘those-in-the-know’ discreetly make a beeline for the latter.

Even during its humble beginnings as a roadside stall, it was common to see posh cars parked beside Lao Tou Er You Bao Xia. Today, the chain is 12-outlet-strong throughout the city, with its largest located outside Xixi National Wetland Park, a popular tourist attraction.

Known for its signature Quick-fried River Prawns and Deep-fried Ribbonfish, waiting times at peak hours are at least 30 minutes for a table. But once seated, dishes arrive with machine-like efficiency. A comprehensive menu offers many popular home-cooked dishes, making it a great, reasonably priced entry to the cuisine of a typical Hangzhou household. While there, also check out the Braised Stinky Tofu with Shrimps, Stir-fried Cabbage and Wine-infused Red Dates. The average spend is about RMB50 per person.

Zhiwei Guan (main restaurant)
83, Renhe Lu, Shang Cheng Qu
Tel: 0571-87018638

Like a living guardian of posterity, Zhiwei Guan has witnessed the milestones of Chinese political and culinary history over the last 100 years. Founded in 1913 and located next to West Lake, its cuisine remains authentic and seemingly unadulterated by the avalanche of new and trendy styles, especially from the west.

One gripe, however, is that recent renovations have diluted the charm of the old-world interiors, which used to be in concordance with the elderly folks living in the area who make the restaurant their haunt for dining and mingling. It is still a great destination for a breakfast of old-fashioned Hang Bang (or Hangzhou-style) noodles and dim sum. Jostling with the crowd of morning diners – if you are up to it – can be a charming whiff of local dining habits and mores.

The ordering process goes like this: Study the menu on the wall and memorise your order, which you tell to the cashier, after which collect your food at a nearby counter. The locals eat simple breakfasts, typically a bowl of noodles, a basket of buns, or simply savoury bean curd. So the sight of the hoard on your tray, especially for us Singaporeans, is a sure give-away of ‘foreigner’ status.

P.S. If you prefer an ala carte meal at a lakeside setting, they operate another branch at 10,  Yang Gong Di, Hong Li Shanzhuang Nei. Tel: 0571-87970568.

Pu Shu
61 Yu Gu Lu, Qingzhi Wu rukou.
Tel:  0571-87203382

Although they are relative newbies on the scene in Hangzhou, getting a seat at this scenic restaurant is a challenge. Be advised to make an appointment and be prepared to wait at least an hour for a seat. As the only other restaurant in the West Lake district (the other being Zhiwei Guan above), Pu Shu attracts a younger audience. And although the interior is young and hip, the dishes are mostly traditional provincial food found around Hangzhou. If you are not familiar with the menu, the service staff could assist; but the Hangzhou-style appetisers are highly recommended.

When booking, ask for a private room at the highest floor where the scenic West Lake forest awaits you.

Xiang Zhang Ya Yuan
25 Zhong Shan Bei Lu, Pingfeng Jie
Tel: 0571-86500022

Previously known as Long Ding Lou and located high up in the tea-growing mountains, their land was acquired by the government, forcing the move to the city centre and the change of name. The owners belong to a famous lineage of tea-growers in the mountains who served simple, down-to-earth, but tasty ‘peasant’ food with ingredients mostly harvested and sourced from nearby farms.

The current restaurant looks more polished and the food presentation more refined, but the core cooking style remains. The ingredients are also fresher than most restaurants in the city and the same high quality has been maintained. One of the most pleasant surprises was the ‘roti prata’ counter at the entrance manned by an Indian staff who also makes the prata. Not only did the prata taste great, it actually made a good side dish that complemented the local dishes.

As Hangzhou is surrounded by rivers, freshwater seafood is not to be missed as well. The freshwater fish found here is usually fatter and their meat tender. River prawns, with sweet flesh and bursting with roe, are eaten blanched simply in boiling water.

Zhang Shengji
77 Shuang Ling Lu
Tel: 0571-86026666

This is another food institution in Hangzhou famous for its soup of double-boiled duck and bamboo shoot. Like most other venerable names, it began as a humble restaurant with a signature recipe: a soup drawn from traditional Hangzhou cuisine in which dried bamboo shoots and a 60-day-old duck is double-boiled in an earthen pot. The restaurant today occupies a 5-storey building and operates a couple of branches in the city.

Despite the size of its operations, its food quality has not diminished, and a pleasant surprise was finding a Hangzhou signature dish such as Sweet & Sour Fish scoring high in a city filled with competing efforts. Try to go to the restaurant before 5pm, otherwise you should consider booking a seat.

Jiangnan Yu Ge
49-53 Guolou 15 Kui Xiang, Shang Cheng Qu
Tel: 0571-89969261

This 2-year-old private kitchen maintains a low business profile and is known only to Zhejiang food connoisseurs. Located on the outskirts of the busy shopping area, it contains 5 private rooms with a façade that blends inconspicuously into the cityscape. But don’t be fooled by the young staff and chipped crockery, the quality is superb.

The restaurant is headed by Chef Cai from the neighbouring city of Ningbo, and customers have absolutely no say in what they eat – only in what they do not eat. You select a prize range on booking and the menu is presented to you upon arrival. The interior resembles an unpretentious family living room, and, given the restaurant’s autocratic streak, the ambience is surprisingly warm. Chef Cai loved to cook since he was young, influenced by the tastes and techniques that he grew up with. Seafood remains his forte although he incorporates trends and updates his cuisine by talking to customers and leafing through magazines.

While modern ‘nouvelle’ cuisine seems to be running out of steam in gastronomic circles, it is heartening that a chef still seeks to innovate his repertoire one step at a time.

Hui Juan Mian Guan
130 Wang Jiang Lu
Tel: 0571-87805323

This noodle restaurant receives scant mention in foreign travel magazines or books but it is packed with locals as early at 10 am. The menu is short and functional; simply pick your noodle and select the condiments to go with it. The noodles are freshly kneaded in the kitchen and if you are a first-timer, you won’t go wrong opting for their signature dish – yellow croacker with preserved green noodle soup. It might look like a fast-food chain, but every ingredient in the bowl is perfectly cooked and seasoned.

For the side dish, order the Hangzhou-famous must-try, braised soy sauced duck. This duck is marinated in a special-concocted soy sauce, pressed with a heavy stone overnight, then dried and cooked to produce meat permeated with the sweetness of the soy.

Li Cheng Chashi
114 Longjing Lu Jiu Xi
Tel:  0571-87996488

A trip to Hangzhou wouldn’t be complete a visit to the Longjing tea plantation at Mount Shi Feng. Madam Wang owns the plantation that was passed down through generations. In fact, they were one of the handful of growers appointed as of Longjing tea suppliers to the Qing royal family and to the top government officials of present day Beijing. The tea plantation was bestowed a title of Xie Yuan during Qing period.

Ming Qian Longjing are tea leaves picked during the first spring when the green shoots are tender and few. The quantity being extremely small, these leaves are much prized and highly collectible. Madam Wang’s collection is so highly sought by Chinese and Hong Kong clients that often no leaves are left for public retail.

Try spending an afternoon in her garden sipping the best Longjing she has to offer. If she is in a good mood, she would even cook an excellent traditional Hangzhou meal using fresh produce, including chicken and fish, from her garden.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

1960s Chinatown breakfast -- a living portrait in Singapore

Having breakfast in Chinatown in the 1960s was like eating with a large extended family. 

It was a sea of familiar faces: the hawkers were mostly people from the same neighbourhood; some, in fact, were one’s own relatives. But mostly, the hawkers were housewives or retirees seeking to supplement meager incomes peddling food on the streets at a time when legislations like the hawker license were unheard of.

This state of semi-anarchy resulted in the explosive proliferation of our street food as we know it today. A shantytown of makeshift stalls sprang up in Chinatown, in the lanes and 5-foot-ways that cut through the ranks of 3- and 5-storey prewar shophouses and Art Deco-style SIT buildings that packed the area between Kreta Ayer Road and Temple Street.

While the shops and businesses occupied the street level, people, including many hawkers, lived upstairs. Living conditions in the upper storeys of shophouses were horrific – even slum-like -- by today’s standards. Individual and even multiple families occupied tiny, dark, airless cubicles. The few toilets there were, the kitchen, and corridors, were shared by everyone. Women cooked into the wee hours in the cramped, often single, kitchen; and there was not an ounce of privacy. The burdens of living were relieved by simple joys like sewing and gossip and plenty of community spirit.

One of these pleasures was food. Different dialect groups would congregate and live in distinct portions of Chinatown, giving rise to clan and other communal associations specific to each ethnicity. In particular, the arriving immigrants brought the food and culinary traditions of their homelands and planted them in Chinatown.

By the break of dawn around 6 am, hawkers could be seen stacking up crates and boxes along the already crowded streets and under the staircases, often assisted by members of their family. Wooden trays would be perched on top of the crates as serving counters and ‘dining tables’. Other hawkers would peddle their food in 3-wheel carts, trundling them through the alleyways of Chinatown. Food would literally ‘fly off the shelves’, and by 10 o’clock the hawkers would wrap up, clean up and head home to the rest of the day’s chores. The next day it begins anew.

The hawkers of Chinatown embodied the diversity of cultural histories and economic realities to be found within that half-square-mile of seething humanity. In fact the personal story can sometimes be as piquant and fascinating as the flavours on the plate; here are some faces and their foods that I remember.

Yong Jie  (容姐)-- as she was known in the neighbourhood -- came from Shenzhen after WWII. Rumour had it that she fled with bags of money stolen from her husband, then squandered the loot in Singapore and was reduced to earning a living selling fried dumplings. Yong Jie had adopted a girl -- a common practice among single women of the day – in the hope of securing some care for herself in old age. 

Each morning Yong Jie and her daughter would set up a stall at the end of Sago Street, next to Keong Saik Street – the spot no longer exists, having being replaced by Chinatown Complex. She would set a wooden tray, about the size of a school desktop, on a crate. Next to it would be a charcoal stove supporting a wok of boiling oil. She made Fried Dumpling at 10 cents each; in fact, she was the only person I ever knew in Singapore who sold this particular food.

Fried Dumpling was an old Hakka creation that has disappeared even from China. It used to be called “za” dumpling (); since “za” sounded like “fried () in the Hakka dialect. It gradually came to be called “zha” dumpling (), as “zha” was the actual word for “fried” in Hakka.

The version I encountered in mainland China was a dumpling pan-fried until crispy and then eaten dipped in sugar, salt, or a ginger/garlic dip. Yong Jie perhaps took her cue from the Goreng Pisang man, as her dumpling was dipped in batter and fried, and eaten with five-spice salt.
Add caption
PENNYWORT DRINK image by Mark Ong
Ku Po (姑婆) was a retired Samsui woman who shared a cramped 20-sq-m room with her daughter’s family of six. Every morning she would head to a nearby ice-factory with two thermos flasks. She would line the bottom of the flasks with newspaper-wrapped dry ice, and fill the rest of the space with ice popsicles. She then roamed the streets selling the popsicles to young children.

Past noon Ku Po would head home; along the way she would stop at the market to pick up some pennyworts and pickled lemons. Her grandchildren would wait eagerly for her at home, hoping for leftover ice popsicles; the family then gathers to pluck, wash and pound the pennywort leaves. Ku Po’s daughter then squeezes the pulp for the juice.

Come evening, Ku Po and one of her grandchildren would carry a container filled with pennywort juice to the cross-junction of Banda Street and Sago Lane. At one of the busiest spots in Chinatown, she sets up a makeshift stall selling iced pennywort and pickled lemon juices.

The customers to her stall would probably be people headed to the funeral parlours at nearby Sago Lane; or they would be kids; or labourers who worked at the construction sites and warehouses.  Pennywort juice was one of the cheapest ways, it was believed, to ‘cool’ the body and purge it of toxins generated by the hot sun.  The pulp of the pennywort, too, had its remedial effects, being commonly applied to cuts, swollen joints, and even acne.

As pennywort juice had a unique intense rawness to its taste, heavy syrup was added to ‘sweeten’ it, and a glass went for 5 cents.

DRIED COD PORRIDGE image by Mark Ong
Mui Ku (梅姑) was a retired ‘ah mah’ from Shunde who lived in a small room with a roommate, a ‘sister’ from the same province in China.  The two old women had accumulated some savings from their days working as ‘ah mahs’; but to help stretch it, they prepared a Shunde recipe to sell -- dried cod and peanut porridge.

Dried cod was a cheap source of umami in southern China, where Mui Ku came from. It was usually grilled so that its flavour would come through completely when the cod was used as base for stock. Sometimes the dried cod would be blended into powder as part of the marinade in wonton and meat loaves.

Mui Ku would wake up at 4 am to set up the charcoal stove. She would grill the dried cod and hammer it with a stone pestle; meanwhile the porridge was set to boil for the next two hours. The pulverized pieces of dried cod, as well as peanuts, would be added to the porridge. She would then fry noodles in batches and store them in aluminium pots.

Mui Ku’s partner would have already set up the stall made up of wooden crates under the staircase of the shophouse where they lived. At 6 am, Mui Ku would man the stall while her partner delivered orders to nearby residents on a round metal tray. They charged 10 cents for a bowl of porridge and delivery was free.

By afternoon, their business day done, the 2 friends would go around Chinatown scavenging for cardboard to sell as scrap.

It was rare for a Eurasian family to live in Chinatown in those days. Auntie Rose, along with her family, was considered ‘rich’ by the neighbourhood because her husband worked at a bank. However, Auntie Rose would bake cakes and kuehs in her spare time to earn some extra pocket money. The neighbours and friends would come to her house next day to collect their orders. Apart from butter cake and Swiss roll, I remember most vividly her Serikaya.

Serikaya is nearly impossible to find today, and most Singaporeans have never heard of it. Even in the early years, it was only well-to-do Eurasian and Peranakan households that prepared Serikaya, and it was usually for their own consumption. Serikaya is a custard of egg, coconut milk and sugar, with pandan leaves for a delicate fragrance – and it has always been laborious to make.

Serikaya was usually eaten with toast or as accompaniment to steamed glutinous rice. Even back then, Auntie Rose hardly made this confection, as Serikaya didn’t have a long shelf life and refrigerators weren’t that common.

Mr Chua did not operate a stall but he supplied ingredients to hawkers in Chinatown. He worked in a kelong and so was often away for days at a time. His family looked forward to his homecomings, as he would bring fresh sea-catch such as groupers, snappers -- and even a tiny crocodile once. After the family has had their pick, the excess would be sold to the neighhourhood hawkers at a discounted price, and one item in particular was much sought after: pickled mangrove crabs.

The family would pickle these mangrove crabs, or ‘wa kee’, in bottles and distribute them to Teochew porridge stalls around Ellenbourgh Market. The wa kee were small crabs that inhabited the mangrove swamps feeding on the propagules, or buds, of the mangrove plant. They emerged from their mud-burrows at dusk and were known to climb as high as 6m up a tree to forage. To harvest the crabs a net was held at the base of the tree and a long stick used to scare or dislodge them, dropping them into the net.

The Chuas would soak the crabs in soy sauce or vinegar, together with garlic, chilli and coriander leaves. The Teochew in particular considered pickled wa kee a delicacy and relished them with porridge.

The Lees were Hakka. Mr Lee held an administrative post at the bank and so the family could afford a whole shophouse storey to itself. Mrs Lee was a good cook and many a time the aroma of her cooking would fill the area around her kitchen.

On festive seasons, Mrs Lee would reserve 'ikan parang' (wolf herring) from the fishmonger and set up a mini-factory in her hallway. She would scrape the flesh from the fish and beat it into paste. Her 3 children would stuff this fish paste into various vegetables, churning out ‘yong tau foo’ which would then be delivered in boxes to families nearby who had preordered them for dinner.

There was a particular dish that only a true-blue Hakka would order from Mrs Lee -- stuffed egg custard in animal intestine. Its preparation was, like many traditional dishes, laborious: the intestines had to be cleaned and flushed with water. Eggs would be whisked with meat stock and poured into the intestines, which then had to be slow-boiled in simmering water to avoid the intestines bursting. Finally, the cooked intestines were cut into 1.5 cm-thick slices and eaten with a dip or cooked in a broth.

Note: This article first appeared in ZbBz on September 2014 as 'The Flavour of a Life'.