Archive for the ‘Chinese Food’ Category

Dumpling Festival

June 15, 2010

It’s the fifth day of the fifth Lunar month this Wednesday; the day that we celebrate the Dumpling Festival. There is a story of how it’s to remember the day that villagers threw in dumplings into the river so that the fishes won’t eat this famous poet who was wrongly punished. The poet is unknown to me; all I know is that it’s the reason we have delicious dumplings every year.

There are many versions of dumplings, although it’s essentially made of rice. The one we have at home is made of glutinous rice, with belly pork, salted egg yolk, mushrooms, chestnut, and dried prawns. It’s not too heavy, as the dumpling would not be packed with too much glutinous rice.

In many Chinese homes, making dumplings is a family tradition. In my family, my sister Pamela is the one entrusted to wrap the dumplings because she does it best. My mother would prepare the ingredients, but she does the wrapping which is an art in itself. Pamela actually learnt it from a friend – she taught in remote Kapit, Sarawak and they had to make their own dumplings.

My grandmother tried to teach me how to wrap dumplings. She made me use fine sand instead of the actual rice. After I have tied it, she turns the dumplings round and round – if the sand comes out, it means it is not properly done and I have to start all over again. It’s important because the dumplings are boiled, and water is not supposed to enter into the casing. I obviously failed the test, and have yet to master the art.

My sister can even tie the dumplings with one hand, and it has to be a live knot so that it’s easy to unravel. And she uses hemp strings, not plastic raffia strings because it’s chemical-free and safer for consumption.

These days, we only make enough for the family. But some people make enough to distribute dumplings to their relatives and friends.

We used to look forward to my late grand-aunt’s dumplings. She was the typical wealthy matriarch – the doyen in a family of 13 or 15 children, and maybe 50 grandchildren. She has shoulder length permed hair, and always puts on lipstick and painted her toenails with bright colours. She chain smokes, and is at the Turf Club every weekend.

When she comes in her Mercedes for our great grandparents’ death anniversary prayers, she’d bring the biggest pears and oranges, and durians. She was real generous, and no one made bigger and fatter dumplings than her. Best of all, her dumplings are filled with pig’s trotters – I haven’t had dumplings like that since.

The other dumpling I like is kee chang, yellow dumplings with alkaline water. They are small and dainty, and are eaten with palm sugar syrup. I haven’t had those in awhile too.

Anyway, enjoy the dumplings this Wednesday, wherever you are and whatever variety you like. I like my dumplings with Lingham chilli sauce.

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Soybean Milk Agar-Agar

May 17, 2010

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I was not particularly excited about reviewing The Healthy Family Cookbook; anything healthy can’t be that wonderful. But then I like Cecilia Tan’s Penang Peranakan cookbook, and mine is an old and tattered copy because I often refer to it when I am not sure of a recipe and I can’t get my mom on the phone. So, I was willing to check out the book.

Cecilia is a Penangite, and most of the dishes she featured on The Healthy Family Cookbook is familiar to me. And as I turned the pages, I found many recipes that I wanted to ear-mark and try out.

I love Ginger Fried Rice, and so I featured in the the book review I did in StarTwo today. Check out the review in Kuali, and find out how you can get a 20% discount for the book.

But the recipe that I like most is Cecilia’s Soybean Milk Agar-Agar. In her notes, she wrote that it’d be a nice change from the usual coconut milk jelly, and she was right. It’s rich and creamy, and still feels real healthy… never mind the amount of sugar in it.

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It’s also real quick to do if you buy ready-made soybean milk. I like the jelly well enough, but I also like my soybean milk with palm sugar, not white sugar. And in Penang, the stalls sell Michael Jackson soybean milk – ie soybean milk with cincau (black herbal jelly). So, I just decided that I’ll make my soybean milk jelly the way I like them with my drinks.

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For the palm sugar version, just substitute the white sugar with 200g palm sugar. I added 200g of cincau to the soybean milk jelly, but you can use any amount you like. They are real pretty with the cincau, and the cool cincau is a good addition, especially in this blistering hot weather.

The basic recipe is below :

SOYBEAN MILK JELLY
(The Healthy Family Cookbook by Cecelia Tan)

Ingredients
25g agar-agar, soaked to soften
1 1/2 litre of soybean milk
4 pandan leaves,knotted
75g sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence

Method
Combine agar-agar, soybean milk and pandan leaves in a saucepan. Cook over low heat. Stir until agar-agar dissolves. Add sugar and cook until completely dissolved.

Add vanilla essence. Stir well. Remove from heat. Pour into jelly moulds. Refrigerate.

Bok Choy With Oyster Sauce

April 8, 2010

Some weeks feel longer than others, and I just want to do nothing on weekends. On those days, I just want to make something reassuringly easy that I know will turn out well.
This was how I first learnt to cook my green vegetables. It didn’t involve the theatrics of stir-frying, and was just perfect for our student day makeshift kitchen that consisted of a hotplate.
There really is no recipe. It’s essentially blanched green vegetables with crispy fried shallots and fried garlic, topped with a dollop of oyster sauce. The crispy fried shallots are really optional, fried garlic lends enough aroma to this dish.

Instructions

Chop garlic and slice shallots (if using), and sautee in a little oil over medium heat. Stir from time to time to make sure they don’t burn.
Set aside when they start to brown.
Meanwhile, wash the vegetables and blanch quickly in boiling water. Toss.
Arrange the vegetables on a plate, and garnish with the fried garlic and shallot.
Add a tablespoon of oyster sauce, and toss everything together.

It’s also a healthy dish, and it’s nice to eat crisp green vegetables that are simply prepared. It’s also real quick to make. You can also make more of the garlic and shallot oil, and keep to use another time.

Home-style Hokkien Stir Fried Noodles

April 4, 2010

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Most Chinese in Malaysia originate from Southern China. In Penang and Malacca, the Chinese are mainly from Fujian, and the dialect spoken is Hokkien. Although the Hokkiens is one of the most prominent groups, their cuisine is not so commonly found outside homes, as compared to Cantonese food.

One of the reasons is that Hokkien food is simple home fares. The one restaurant that specialises in Hokkien cuisine is Ang Hoay Lor in Penang. It’s an old restaurant, and their specialties include bak ki mi sua (vermicelli soup with the softest meat coated in starch flour), leek stirfried with tofu, oyster omelette and of course Hokkien char (stir fried Hokkien noodles).

Hokkien mee (noodles) means different things in different parts of Malaysia. In Penang, Hokkien Mee is prawn noodles but elsewhere in Malaysia it refers to big fat yellow noodles stir fried with thick soy sauce and garnished with pork lard bits (like croutons), prawns and pork liver. My current favourite is the one served up at Reunion restaurant in Bangsar Village, Kuala Lumpur.

Then, there is Hokkien Char, which is commonly found in Penang but not elsewhere. Hokkien Char is yellow noodles stirfried with prawns, liver, choy sam (sawi) with a little thickened gravy, and garnished with fried shallots.

Then, there is the home-style version of Hokkien noodles, such as the one served in Ang Hoay Lor restaurant and in homes. It’s just plain stir-fried noodles – yellow noodles stirfried with a little garlic and flavoured with light soy sauce, and garnished with meat, seafood and some greens.

Most everybody knows how to make these stir-fried noodles, and we mostly use whatever is available in the kitchen to make this – anything from pork to cuttlefish. It’s nice to add mushrooms and carrots too.

For me, this dish is elevated from plain to delicious with some sprinkling of fried shallots, and most importantly an accompaniment of sambal belacan (red chillies pounded with toasted belacan (shrimp paste)).

We cook these noodles mostly for breakfast, or when we need to cook something quick to feed lots of people. I hate to admit it, but this noodle dish is one of those home-style dishes that we often take for granted.

I tried ordering it at one of those stir-frying food stalls in KL one day, and realised that there isn’t even a proper name for it. I can’t call it Hokkien Mee or Fukien Chow because that refers to the fat noodles in black sauce, and my Cantonese is too elementary for me to describe what I want.

So, I guess the next best thing to do it to cook it myself.

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Stir Fried Hokkien Noodles

Recipe
(Serves 4)

1 cup of cooking oil
6-8 shallots, sliced thinly
2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
10-15 prawns, remove shells
4-5 squids, cleaned and sliced
8-10 slices of either chicken, or pork
2-3 dried mushrooms, reconstituted in some water and cut coarsely
1/2 carrot, sliced
2-3 tablespoons light soya sauce
1 teaspoon white pepper
1/1/2 teaspoon of MSG, optional
2 cup water
500g yellow noodles
100g bean sprouts
2-3 stalks of choy sam, cut coarsely

Heat the cooking oil, and saute the sliced shallots over a medium fire till fragrant and crisp. Keep stirring, and watch that it does not burn.
Set aside.
(Fried shallots is optional, but it does enhance the taste of the noodles).

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil from frying the shallot. Saute the garlic till fragrant, and then add the prawns, squids, and meat. Saute over high heat, stirring till the prawns turn pink. Lower the heat to medium, and add the mushrooms and carrot.
Season with the light soy sauce, white pepper and MSG. Stir to mix together, and add water.
Let it simmer, and add the noodles, bean sprouts and choy sam.
Stir it all together, and taste. Season with more soya sauce or salt to suit your taste. Let the noodles simmer for a few minutes, and serve.
Garnish with the fried shallots.
Serve with sambal belacan, or cut red chillies in soya sauce.

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Claiming My Chinese Food Heritage

Lor Bak at Kheng Pin

March 24, 2010

The best lor bak – slivers of meat lightly seasoned with five-spice powder, wrapped in bean-curd sheet and deep-fried – are usually found in home kitchens, rather than in stalls and restaurants.

There is an art to marinating the meat just right, and hawkers do not really bother with using the most tender cut of meat or garnish their rolls with vegetables like leek or yam bean or taro for the play of textures and tastes.

But at Kheng Pin coffee shop at the Penang Road- Jalan Sri Bahari junction, Georgetown, Penang, the hawker’s lor bak offering is exceptionally good. Lou Joo Chon has been frying up these treats for 38 years now, and still takes pride and pleasure in his customers’ praises and positive feedbacks.

The affable man is amiable and chats easily with customers, but not during the lunch peak hours. Then, he wouldn’t even have the time or patience to wait for customers to make their selections – he’d just suggest a mixed plate.

There are many lor bak stalls, and they offer all kinds of everything (like frozen crabstick and sausage) wrapped up in beancurd skin and deep-fried. But at Kheng Pin, Lou stays true to the old favourites – lor bak, prawn fritters, and tofu. There is also fish rolls, deep-fried squids and century eggs, as well as root vegetables dipped in batter.

The meat in his lor bak is soft and tender, and delicately flavoured. It’s also wrapped in only a layer of skin, so the meat is encased in a thin crispy wrapping. The roll is also made thin enough so that the meat cooks quickly, which results in a non-greasy skin.

The secret also lies in Lou’s expert frying. No matter how busy he gets, the fire is not set to a roaring high, but at just the right temperature so that the food is fried without the oil seeping through to the food.

Lou turns and prods at his morsels in his age-worn vat of oil till they are done right, and then he drains them in a wire basket.

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I also absolutely love Lou’s prawn fritters. Most people make prawn fritters with one or two medium prawns dipped in batter, but the version here is different. Your every bite will be rewarded with a mouthful of crunchy small prawns. The batter is thin, enough to hold the prawns together and is crunchy rather than dough-y.

But what I also really appreciate with old hawkers like Lou is their dedication to the small touches that makes all the difference. He serves his delicious morsels with his home-made chilli sauce and thick soy sauce gravy. Most hawkers use bottled chilli sauce, but Lou cooks his own chilli sauce which is sweetish and delicious.

He also still provides small metal forks to spear the lorbak and fritters, which are accompanied by slices of cool cucumber.

And that’s why I love going to Kheng Pin for breakfast; where else can you start the day with lor bak, prawn fritters, tofu and century eggs.

The corner lot coffee shop is also open and airy, and they still have the old-style booth seats. I like the kopi-o, and Ceylon tea with milk, and pat poh peng (herbal drink) here too.

The other good eat in Kheng Pin is the wantan mee here. It used to be run by two white-haired brothers, but they have not been there for ten years already. The stall is now run by a husband and wife team, and the latter used to work at the other famous wantan mi stall in Lebuh Cina.

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I love my wantan mee not with egg noodles, but with slippery flat rice noodles (tua pan) that slithers down the throat. The soya sauce gravy is flavoured with rendered pork lard, which lends its distinctive aroma and lusciousness that’s worth getting your arteries clogged up (I am saying that with reverence, k, not impertinence, so please don’t punish me God of Coronary).

The Hainanese chicken rice stall here also enjoys a good reputation, but I have never tried it.

Lou said the coffee shop will close for a week in MacĀ  because they are all going to China for a holiday – company trips make for happy hawkers and good food! When we spoke to him, the holiday date has not been confirmed.

Even when the coffee shop is open, there are times when Lou won’t be there. Chances are he is at some hotel somewhere in Singapore participating in their Penang Food Week. Yeah, he is an internationally-recognised celebrity chef.

Kheng Pin is at 80, Penang Road (near the Chulia Street end), Georgetown, Penang. It opens from 7am-3pm, and closes on Monday.

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Teik Seng, for sinful stir-fried caramelised roast pork

Lor Bak – check out my mom’s recipe

Prawn Gulai

Kerabu Timun

Living Dangerously – Stir-fried Roast Pork

March 18, 2010

I am a Penangite, but I only recently found out about Kedai Makanan Teik Seng (on Jalan Carnavon, next to the old Hup Loong provision shop). It’s a popular `chu char’ place where you can order rice and dishes. We’ve never eaten here simply because they serve dishes that we eat at home all the time. After all, eating out used to be an indulgence and we’d only order food that my mother couldn’t make.

At Teik Seng, they serve good ol’ fashioned simple fares like leek stir fried with tofu, steamed eggs, lala stir-fried with ginger and yellow bean paste, bittergourd with salted duck’s eggs. They also do a delicious sting ray asam curry, and double-boiled soup, and claypot dishes. We also spied butter prawns on another table.

Stir fried roast pork with soya sauce

But it seems that the star dish at Teik Seng is roast pork stir-fried with soya sauce. Eating Asia was raving about it, and they call it bacon candy. We ordered that too, and my colleagues (from Kuala Lumpur) Niki Cheong, Ian Yee and Sharmila Nair voted that the best dish on the table.

We actually ate at Teik Seng two days in a row, and tried the stir-fried roast pork with cili padi. It was good too, with the cili padi adding a subtle kick.

I was a little less fascinated…mostly because we have this dish at home quite often although I must admit that the version here is really good because they use a lot of oil. So, it’s almost like they shallow fry the roast pork in soya sauce.

One of the must-have prayer offerings on occassions such as death anniversaries are roast pork and chicken. And this is what many people do with leftover roast pork, especially during prayer days when there is too much food.

Stir fried roast pork with soya sauce

We love roast pork, but it’s quite impossible to finish eating it especially when there will usually be six to eight other dishes. So, my mother would stir-fry the roast pork with garlic, thick soya sauce and a dash of sugar. It becomes quite a different dish, as the roast pork would be coated with caramelised soya sauce, and stir-frying retains the crispiness of the crackling. I like it with plain hot porridge, and it’s also good for picking on (yeah, like a snack).

Then again, when it comes to roast pork, living dangerously is the way to go. After all, it’s the ultimate indulgent breakfast food – on Sunday mornings, I know of people (some of whom live in my house) who would order roast pork to munch on or to add on to their noodles.

Stir fried roast pork with soya sauce

ROAST PORK STIR-FRIED WITH SOYA SAUCE

1 tablespoon cooking oil
2-3 cloves garlic, smashed
600g roast pork, sliced thinly
2 tablespoon thick soya sauce
salt and sugar, according to taste
(I like about 2 tablespoons of sugar because I like it a little sweet)

Heat cooking oil, and saute garlic.
Increase the heat, and throw in the roast pork. Add the thick soya sauce, and fry quickly so that the roast pork are coated evenly.
Then, add salt and sugar.
Stir quickly over high heat, less than a minute.

Note: Add more oil if you want the roast pork to be more caramelised.
It’s an aromatic dish, and experienced cooks can tell just from the smell if there is enough soya sauce or sugar.

Awesome Aubergine

February 10, 2010

I never thought that I’d actually like aubergine one day…just like I didn’t think I’d ever like capsicum or bittergourd or celery. Yup, I was the typical vegetable-hating child. But here I am, all grown-up and actually enjoying the taste of vegetables… and before I lose my teeth too.

Anyway, none of my housemates (aka my family) would touch aubergine – one, because he is a boy and the other because she is a child. So, when I cook aubergine, I eat it all on my own…which I don’t mind at all.

My favourite aubergine recipe is simple – one that my aunt cooks all the time (and of course, my uncle won’t touch it). She fries the aubergine slices and sets them aside. Then, she sautes chopped garlic, shallots and bird’s eye chilli, and add a dash of soy sauce. She mixes the aubergine and the sauteed ingredients, and it’s absolutely delicious.

She has been cooking aubergine like this for years, and a month ago she served up something similar but with some nice twists.
She used yellow bean paste (I’m into this ingredient now), and adds a drizzle of lime juice just before serving the aubergine.

I love how the aubergine absorbs the salty-heaty fragrant onion-garlic-chilli mixture… and a dash of sourness actually rounds it all up real nicely.

The best thing about my aunt’s new recipe is that she steams the aubergine now. That means the dish is healthier, and less oil gets splattered on the kitchen floor which means less mopping to do.
I don’t really care about the oil clogging my arteries; the drudgery of housework bothers me more.

It takes all of 20 minutes to cook this dish, and I am glad my aunt exchanges recipes with her neighbours when they chat in the playground (and that my imp’s stunts on the swing doesn’t distract her from doing so).

RECIPE

Aubergine With Yellow Bean Paste

1 medium aubergine, sliced
1 tablespoon cooking oil
2-3 shallots (or half an onion), chopped finely
2-3 cloves of garlic, chopped finely
2-3 bird’s eye chilli (or 1/2 red chilli), sliced
1 tablespoon of yellow bean paste
(or substitute with 1 tablespoon of light soy sauce)
1 calamansi lime, optional

Quarter the aubergine lengthwise, and cut into 4in/10cm slices. Steam for 8-10 minutes, or until softened. You can also use a microwave oven to steam the aubergines. Set aside.

In the meantime, heat the cooking oil over medium heat. Saute the chopped shallots, garlic and chilli until fragrant. Then, add the bean paste and saute until fragrant.

Add the fried mixture to the steamed aubergine, and drizzle with lime juice just before serving.

Loving The Humble Bean Paste

February 5, 2010

For the longest time, I had a jar of yellow bean paste at the back of my refrigerator. I forgot all about it because I hardly use it in my cooking. If I am not cooking curries, I am probably cooking Western dishes.

I threw out the jar, without even opening it, because it’s gone so long past its expiry date I dare not find out what was growing in there.

And just like that, I have a million and one … okay, maybe five…recipes using yellow bean paste that I needed to cook that week. So, I kinda rushed to the provision shop and bought a jar. Most cooks like a particular brand, and my aunt used to only buy her bean paste from a neighbour who makes them. But I have no preferences, and just bought one with the longest shelf life left.

Yellow bean paste is made from salted and fermented yellow soybeans. The beans are blended with salt, sweet glutinous rice wine and brown sugar, and fermented for about three months.

They are salty and a little sweet too…. the intensity of both flavours is what differentiates one brand from another.

There are many variations of yellow bean paste, especially in Taiwan where it’s an important ingredient in their cooking. The best dishes with bean paste that I had was at the Taiwanese restaurant New Formosa in SS2, Petaling Jaya (46, Jalan SS2/24, 47300 Petaling Jaya. Tel: 03-7875 1894, 03-7875 7478.) They dish out the best fish cooked in bean paste sauce laced with lethal bird’s eye chilli (as well as the most delicious butter unagi and my favourit-est caramelised yam).

It was after New Formosa that I had new found respect for the humble yellow bean paste sauce. I love the aroma imparted from sauteing yellow bean paste, and it usually goes really well with ginger and garlic.

But I love yellow bean paste most when its flavours are lifted by the fiery heat of bird’s eye chilli.

One of my favourite dishes with yellow bean paste is braised pork ribs.

I first had it a long time ago at my husband’s friend’s then girlfriend’s dinner party. I love the dish, but unfortunately didn’t hit it off with the cook. I think I tried to ask for the recipe, but she wasn’t forthcoming and I didn’t persist.

When I saw the recipe for Braised Spare Ribs In Brown Sauce in Deh-Ta Hsiung’s The Chinese Kitchen, I knew I had to try it. I just added bird’s eye chilli, instead of the red chilli stipulated in his recipe. If you can take the heat, use bird’s eye chilli.

My recipe is simpler than Deh-Ta Hsiung’s recipe, and much much more fiery.

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RECIPE

BRAISED PORK RIBS WITH YELLOW BEAN PASTE AND BIRD’s EYE CHILLI

(Serves 4)
Ingredients

2 tablespoon of cooking oil

2 inch young ginger, julienned

2 cloves of garlic chopped finely

2 tablespoons of yellow bean paste

4-5 bird’s eye chilli, according to how hot you want the dish

600g pork spare ribs

1 cup water

1/2 teaspoon of sugar, or to taste

Heat cooking oil, and saute the garlic and ginger until fragrant.

Then, add the yellow bean paste and saute until fragrant.

Add bird’s eye chilli. (I slice it coarsely because I want to avoid burning my lips from biting into them).

Increase the heat, and add the spare ribs. Stir until they are evenly mixed with the rest of the ingredients.

Add the water, and bring to a boil. Then, lower the heat and let the ribs simmer slowly covered for between 20-30 minutes, or until the ribs are soft.

Stir occasionally, and season with sugar when it’s done.

Claiming My Chinese Food Heritage

January 31, 2010

chives and tofu

We were supposed to choose our favourite Chinese dish for this month’s StarTwo column, and it got me thinking about my relationship with Chinese food.

My late paternal grandfather came from China. He studied in Chung Ling High School in Penang, and then returned to China fleeing some gambling debt or over some misunderstanding or another. He was the only son, so all his sisters doted on him and I think the unspoken rule was that no one was supposed to speak ill of him.

For awhile, during my teens, he wrote to me in English in the loveliest cursive handwriting. Then, he came here for a visit and never went back…and then he became ‘real’…a human old man.

But that’s a different story…that was just a roundabout way of saying that my father who went back to China with my grandfather and came back here when he was ten loves ‘t’ng sua’ (Chinese) food.

One of his favourite meals is the most watery plain porridge with boiled ikan kembung (sek kembung) and the usual condiments. In the good old days, we had weekly meals when we all ate rice from bowls and with chopsticks.

That might not be so unusual in most Chinese families, except that my mother’s dominant cultural influence is Peranakan. We all ate with our hands every meal, and there was always some gulai or sambal on the table. There was cili padi even in our steamed fish.

I wasn’t all that crazy about Sunday porridge lunches; I’d insist on rice instead of porridge, and once in awhile I did the bratty thing and have bread and butter instead. When I left home, and went to a Teowchew Porridge restaurant, I was amazed that people would pay so much for such simple home fares.

To the child that I was, Chinese food was bland and boring. It was what my neighbours’ kids had to eat (and like) – soup everyday, stir-fried vegetables, tofu and something cooked in soya sauce.

But of course, we had loads of Chinese food at home – tofu stuffed with minced meat, meat custard, fish with yellow bean paste, mixed vegetables, ABC soup. They were alright but more like second-liners or food my mom insisted was good for us when we were sick or when the weather was too hot for spicy food.

Every year at Cheng Beng and All Soul’s Day – after we have paid our respects at our great-grandparents’ graves – the extended family with great-grand aunts and all would have lunch at Ang Hoay Lor.

It’s an old restaurant that has been around since my grandfather’s time, and they serve traditional Hokkien dishes. Nothing hot or spicy there, but the food was delicious even to a fussy child.

My favourite was the bak kee mi sua – vermicelli noodles with slivers of pork fillets coated with tapioca starch. The meat is coated with tapioca flour and then dunked in hot soup, resulting in a silky smooth texture. My mom makes it too at home, and it’s one of the dishes that I have to learn from her.

The other good dish here is leek stir fried with prawns and tofu, and my mom always make this for me when I go home. It’s one of my favourite dishes. So, I guess I am more Hokkien than I care to admit.

Anyway, the restaurant is at 260 Jalan Gurdwara (Brick Kiln Road), Penang (tel: 04-2624841). It’s a typical old restaurant, so expect slow service and grumpy waiters, but the food will make up for all that.

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I don’t know when I started appreciating good Chinese food, and I mean home fares and not just restaurant food. Perhaps it’s when I left home, and didn’t have my mother around to pander to what I like and what I don’t.

It’s not so hard to like good Chinese cooking after all. Tastebuds do evolve. Once I became less preoccupied with having everything hot and spicy and sour, I started developing a liking for other flavours – sweet, salty and bitter – that make up the nuances in Chinese cooking.

I began to love how interesting ingredients like yellow soya bean paste is, or how wonderfully aromatic five spice powder and how soya sauce is absolutely the best seasoning ever.

I like ingredients like garlic, ginger and spring onion, as well as the taste and textures of dried ingredients like lily’s bud, black ears and bean curd sheets. Then, there is all the herbs for soup, and the precious Chinese principles for healing through food.

I also started eating at my aunt’s (my mom’s sister), and she has been living in Kuala Lumpur for decades. She cooks all the curries I like, but she also cooks soup and Cantonese-style food. So, I learnt to appreciate the food, and also grew to like Hakka dishes like mui choi kow yoke. I have also found that I like Teowchew food which has a lot of similarities to Hokkien food.

chives and tofu

The adult me enjoyed the adventures of exploring different tastes and cuisines. I just didn’t expect to re-discover Chinese food, and grow to like and appreciate it so much. I especially love vegetables cooked the Chinese style, and I have discovered so many vegetables I like – aubergines, bittergourd, marrow, winter melon.

The one vegetable that I was surprised to have fallen for is chives. I never wanted chives in my fried keow teow, but I love them now.

There is a dim sum shop called Sin Soon Lee in Sg Bakap, Seberang Perai (1281, Main Road – tel: 04-5823846 – closes on Wed) that dishes out the most glorious chai kuih with chives. The chives are sheathed in the silkiest of skin that falls apart at the tiniest bite, and the garlicky chives are fresh and fragrant.

Chives stir-fried with tofu is one of my favourites now, so I’m posting it because it’s one of the easiest and most rewarding dishes to make. There is really nothing you need to do with chives except to let its full-bodied flavours speak for itself. It’s like God made spring onions, and then decided to go wacky and up the ante with chives.

chives and tofu

RECIPE

CHIVES STIR-FRIED WITH TOFU

1 tablespoon of cooking oil
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
8-10 prawns, shelled
100g chives, cut into 1 1/2 in segments
1 tofu, sliced thickly and fried
salt, to taste

Heat cooking oil, and saute the chopped garlic. Add the prawns and fry. Then, add the chives and stir-fry quickly. Add the tofu, and then season with salt.

I Can Take Bitterness

January 28, 2010

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I have had food cravings all the time all my life (except when I was pregnant and all food made me sick all the time). I am quite happy to be ruled by my cravings, when it’s cheese cake or asam pedas or kiam chai boi.

But I have been having strange cravings lately – salads and brocolli and brussel sprouts – maybe my body is telling it needs more greens. Maybe that’s why I ate so much fruits when I was pregnant (a long time ago).

But my latest craving is downright weird – I want bitter gourd! How did that come about? I never touched bittergourd when my mom cooked them… who needs more bitterness? I first changed my mind about bittergourd when I did the Flavours food guide for Seberang Perai, Penang 3 years ago.

It was the bitter gourd soup cooked with pig’s tail in an old restaurant in Bukit Mertajam that first opened my taste buds to the appeal of bitterness. BTW, the restaurant is so old the phone number listed on its signboard only has five digits.

Bitterness is one of the five essential flavours in Chinese cuisine – sweet, sour, salty, spicy and bitter. Bitter gourd is somewhat of an acquired taste; it’s actually bitter-sweet and I like the complexity that its bitterness lends to a dish. It’s actually invigorating, especially when the bitterness provides the end notes.

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Or maybe I am just older, and have swallowed enough bitterness to not be bothered by bittergourd ….haha you know Chinese woman and sufferings…I am allowed trite cliches like this – even if I hate them in writings by Chinese authors (yup, not a fan of Adeline Yen Mah).

Whatever… I am reconciled to the fact that I like bittergourd. There is a restaurant in Petaling Jaya with a menu dominated by dishes made with bittergourd. I know I am way older than my colleagues; they absolutely won’t do bittergourd…sigh.

Luckily, I have other friends. My friend Boon Hooi came over for dinner, and I made her cook her mother’s bittergourd dish. I thought it’d be a plain bittergourd omelette, but her recipe uses yellow beanĀ  paste. It’s delicious, and there was hardly any bitterness left after she had salted the bittergourd slices.

When I cooked this dish again, I didn’t salt the bittergourd because I wanted the bitterness…. really I do, don’t know why. I think it’s better with the slight bitterness. I don’t know if it was just the bittergourd I bought that day, or the yellow bean paste, but the bitterness was neither domineering or overwhelming.

The saltiness of the yellow bean paste was a good balance to the bittergourd, and the egg adds richness, and there is just a tinge of sweetness from the sugar used. The bittergourd absorbs all that flavours, and completes it with its bitter tinge.

I had also taken my aunt’s advice and chosen bittergourd with ridges that were far apart. I am trying to get her to make bittergourd soup – it’s good for cooling and strengthening the body, and improving blood circulation.

One last note, I made this with duck egg the first time, and it was way tastier … must be the higher cholesterol.

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Recipe

Bittergourd Stirfried With Yellow Bean Paste and Egg

1 medium bittergourd
1 tablespoon of salt
1 tablespoon of cooking oil
1 tablespoon of yellow bean curd paste
1 egg
1/2 cup water
1/2 teaspoon of sugar
salt, if needed and according to taste

Halve the bittergourd and remove the seeds. Slice the bittergourd. Marinate the bittergourd slices in salt for 15 minutes. Let it sweat, and then rinse the bittergourd. Drain well.
In a wok, heat the cooking oil and saute the yellow bean curd paste until fragrant. Keep stirring so it does not burn.
Add the bittergourd slices, and mix well with the yellow bean curd paste.
Add the water, and lower the heat. Let it simmer gently until the bittergourd softens.
Break the egg, and beat a little. Pour into the bittergourd, and leave it for half a minute or until the eggs are cooked.
Serve hot