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July 18, 2010

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Chicken With Preserved Lemons and Olives

July 5, 2010

I was in New York last month for the screening of Sex and The City 2. Hewlett-Packard (HP) hosted journalists from around the world for the screening; they collaborated with Warner Bros on the chick-flick which is in line with their strategy of focusing on their women clientele. Journalists were introduced to HP’s stylish netbooks, which were designed by Vivienne Tam and the latest is their ‘Butterfly Lovers’ series.

Everyone was of course more excited about the movie screening at the Paris Theatre, only a day after its premiere in New York. No, we didn’t meet the SATC cast as they were all in Tokyo, Japan for the Asian premiere.

Still, HP hosted us in style – chauffeuring us to the screening from our hotel in Time Square in a stretch limo. By now, everyone would have seen the movie, so I’ll not go into that – let’s just say that I am more a fan of SATC the tv show than the movies. Still, I am in New York… and two and a half hours of watching beautiful people in beautiful clothes is no hardship.

After the movie screening, there was an after party at the Bergdorf Goodman store. The window dressing all had SATC themes, and they were gorgeous. There were loads of fashionable and beautiful people at the party. Willie Garson (Standford Blatch) and Mario Cantone (Anthony Marantino) were there – they had the best scenes in the movie; the gay wedding scene was the blast. Malaysian supermodel Ling Tan was there. Ivanka Trump was sitting a few rows in front of us, but she didn’t stay for the party.

I was starving by the end of the movie, and was looking forward to the party (for the food….of course). And I was pleasantly surprised to find the Middle Eastern buffet – because of the Abu Dhabi getaway, I guess. There were lamb kebab with yoghurt sauce, couscous, lamb stew with olives, red pepper salad, bread and hummus. I ate my share, but didn’t eat all that much. It was a little hard to eat as there were loads of people milling about.

My New York trip wasn’t an eating trip. I walked a lot, and only stopped to eat whenever I was hungry. And as I was on my own, I didn’t eat in restaurant but only grabbed pizzas and nachos and burritos.

Anyway, I have been craving Middle Eastern food on and off since that party. In New York I was drawn more to the falafel and kebab stalls than I was to the hot dog stands; I just never got around to eating from the stalls because the hawkers were either not ready yet or I was too stuffed from another meal or rushing somewhere.

And at the Whole Foods Market at Columbus Circus, I love the selection of olives – a tub of gorgeous mixed olives and they cost less than they do in Malaysia. I thought of lamb stew with olives, but mostly I just wanted to snack on them.


So, when we were doing the column for StarTwo this month with the theme of preserving food, I immediately thought of making preserved lemons. And when it comes to Middle Eastern food, my most trusted cookbook author is Claudia Roden.

(Adapted from Claudia Roden’s recipe in


4 lemons
4 tbsp salt
Lemon juice

Wash and scrub the lemons. Quarter the lemons right to the end of the stem, but not right through.
Stuff each lemon with a tablespoon of salt.
Put the lemons in a sterilised jar, pressing them down as much as possible. Close the jar, and leave for 3-4 days. In that
time, the lemons would have disgorged some of their juices and the skins would have softened.
Open the jar, and press down the lemons. Then, add fresh lemon juice to cover the lemons in the jar.
Close the jar and leave in a cool place for at least a month.
To use, discard the pulp and rinse the lemon peel to rid it of the salt.

With the preserved lemons, I made Claudia’s Moroccan Tagine of Chicken with Preserved Lemons and Olives. It’s easy to make, and absolutely delicious – the preserved lemon lends aroma, depth and its distinct flavours. The olives are of course delicious; wash them a few times if you don’t them too salty.


3 tablespoons of extra virgin oil
2 onions, grated or chopped finely
2-3 cloves of garlic, crushed
1/2 teaspoon of crushed saffron threads or powder
1/4-1/2 teaspoon of ground ginger
1 chicken, jointed
salt and black pepper
juice of 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons of chopped coriander
2 tablespoons of chopped parsley
peel of 1 large or 2 small preserved lemons
12-16 olives

In a wide casserole, heat the oil and put in the onions. Saute, stirring over low heat, until they soften and add the garlic, saffron and ginger.
Put in the chicken pieces, season with salt and pepper, and pour in about 300ml of water. Simmer, covered, turning a few times and adding a little water if it becomes dry. Lift out the breasts after 20 minutes, and set aside. Continue to cook the remaining pieces for another 25 minutes, after which time return the breasts to the casserole.
Stir the lemon juice, coriander, parsley, the preserved lemon peel (cut into strips) and the olives into the sauce. Simmer, uncovered for 5-10 minutes, until the reduced sauce is thick and unctuous.

Tomato Salsa

June 6, 2010


(In what seems like another lifetime ago, I actually had the time to sew – quilts and patchwork and the cushion cover above.)

It’s World Cup month, and it doesn’t matter if I know nuts about football and the names I recognise are mostly out of the tournament. Every four years, I follow football avidly – reading the reports first thing in the morning. With twitter updates this World Cup, I expect football to be even more exciting this time around.

I’ll confess that I don’t watch all that many matches, especially when they are played in the wee hours of the morning except for the semi finals and finals.
This World Cup, at least the matches will be played at reasonable hours – at 7.30pm and 10.30pm.

I am not much of a snacker, or muncher. But I do love salsa, especially with corn chips. Yeah, I have corn chips because of the salsa, and not make salsa to go with corn chips…go figure.


There is 1001 recipes for salsa, but mine is real simple. I like the tomato-onion-coriander combination, with lemon juice. I also almost add green chillies, and sometimes a few chilli padi. You can make loads of this and leave them in the fridge.

I am also making this salsa this World Cup because it’s held in South Africa. One of the meals I had often in South Africa while on assignment there years ago was pap (maize meal) with this tomato relish. I had loads of it; it’s one of South Africans’ staple food.




(enough for 1 packet of corn chips)

3-4 tomatoes, deseeded and cubed
1 onion, diced
2-3 stalks of coriander, chopped
1-2 green chillies, chopped
Juice from 1 lemon
salt and sugar, to taste

Mix all the ingredients together.

Asam and Jeruk

April 16, 2010

jeruk2 copy

I have a sour tooth; I crave for sourness and I love all kinds of sour. According to Wikipedia, sourness is the taste that detects acidity – there’s tantric acid and citric acid. I don’t know all that mumbo jumbo, but I can distinguish different types of sourness – mouth puckering sourness, refreshing sourness, sweet sourness. Whatever the degree, sourness just livens up the taste buds.

There is the intense sourness that shoots straight into your head, like when you suck on asamboi or bite into a young unripe mango. There is the rounded sourness of tamarind, usually tempered with sugar. There is the sharp sourness of lemon, lime and kalamansi limes. There is the sourness of vinegar – I love the sourness of black vinegar cooked with pigs trotter and old ginger. There is also the sourness of belimbing buluh (carambola) that softens when cooked in coconut milk, and absorbs the flavours of the spices.

I hardly ever crave for sweet desserts, but am always feeding my sour tooth. But I have also realised that loads of sugar is used to balance sour, so I am actually feeding both my sweet and sour tooth.

jeruk copy

My favourite snacks are these asam and jeruk – essentially dried or/and pickled fruits and ginger and lime peels. I’ll also admit that half the time I don’t know what I am eating, except that it’s some fruit.

In Hokkien, they are collectively called kiam-sui-ti, which translates to salty-sour-sweet. And that’s the flavours of these snacks – they are interesting because there are hardly ever single-flavoured; but layered and nuanced. Preserving and drying these fruits also intensify the flavours.

There are stalls in markets and supermarkets these days, selling these asam and jeruk by weight. Once upon a time, we bought these in ready-packed packets, and they cost ten or 20 cents.
Except in provision shops where you can still get them in small plastic packets stapled to a board, most stalls now sell them by grams and a scoop costs a few ringgit, depending on what you chose.

jeruk4 copy

Asamboi must be one of the most popular. These are dried sour plums that are sour, salty and sweet. Connoisseurs can discern the quality of asamboi – good ones are big and fat, and the flesh comes off cleanly from the seeds, and has the sour-salty-sweet balance right. The ones that are overwhelmingly salty are no good.

There is also asamboi dyed red; they are generally similar to the white ones but some of these are softer. Some people like the soft asamboi as their flavours are gentler.

My mother was convinced I was a skinny kid because I ate so much asamboi. I probably spent my pocket money on asamboi everyday. I can’t remember when I stopped chewing on asamboi but it did keep me awake when I was mugging late into the wee hours of the morning (and listening to an emo Malay programme on radio when the DJ reads out readers’ letters on love and heartbreak).

Apart from chewing on them in between sips of iced water, it is also great for making ice lollies.. Asamboi powder (asamboi flesh blended finely with lots of sugar) is also the best dip for fruits like guava and pineapple.

I also love lemon peels. They are also sweet, sour and salty, but is less intense. They are comforting, and not quite as mouth puckering sour as asamboi. I like them especially for long drives to help keep me awake. I also like them better than asamboi to keep nausea at bay.

There must easily be 40-50 types of these preserved fruits at these asamboi stalls. There are lots of plums – or at least they are called plums – in the selection, in varying degree of the sour-salty-sweet balance. The stall owner told me most of them are imported from China.

The other asam I like is the red ginger. It’s dyed the brightest red, and will stain your fingers and tongue. It’s hot and sweet, and best chewed on with sips of the iciest water. There are two types – the drier version which I like best, while the other one is a softer and moist version which lacks the ooomph of the former. I was also recently introduced to crystal-like yellow ginger, which is similar to the preserved ginger found in the West.

These asam and jeruk stalls are my version of the Western candy store. Their offerings are not so pretty, but they get my tastebuds going and they are immensely comforting and satisfying.

Bubur Cha Cha for Chap Goh Meh

February 28, 2010

Today is Chap Goh Meh, the fifteenth and last day of Chinese New Year. In the old days, this is celebrated on a much larger scale. It’s after all the Chinese Valentine’s Day, the only day that young maidens in Penang were allowed to leave their home and stroll down Gurney Drive for all and sundry to gawk at and admire. If hearts went a-twittering, then marriage proposals were sent out.

And let’s not forget the tradition of throwing oranges into the sea, wishing for the dream partner.

It’s a nice quaint story, and I have actually interviewed old people in Penang who partook in these traditions when they were young and single. They remember those days fondly – maybe it’s nostalgia or maybe all old days are good (I am already at that stage).

A tradition that is less well-known because it’s not so romantic and certainly doesn’t make for such compelling recollection is the serving of bubur cha cha on Chap Goh Meh.

Bubur cha cha is a sweet dessert made of coconut milk, with steamed dainty diamond-shaped steamed yam, sweet potatoes (in yellow, orange and purple), tapioca flour chunks, sago and black-eyed peas. Some people coat banana (Pisang Raja) with syrup before adding them into their bubur cha cha, but traditionalists would call this pengat rather than bubur cha cha.

A bowl of bubur cha cha is a pretty sight with its myriad of colours. It’s also one of the best-loved Peranakan dessert because it’s sweet and lemak, and the various root vegetables so more-ish in that concoction. The contrast in textures – the soft potatoes, the chewy tapioca pieces, the crunchy black-eyes peas and the slithery sago – also make downing bowls of bubur cha cha a pleasure.

In Penang Hokkien patois, bubur cha cha is pronounced bubur che che – and che che means lots or abundance. So, it’s considered auspicious to distribute bubur cha cha to family and friends. Not many people still practise this tradition, although some do still cook bubur cha cha for offerings on the ancestral table on this day.

My aunt cooked a simplified version of bubur cha cha (minus black-eyed beans and fun colourful tapioca flour chunks, but she added bananas) today to celebrate Chap Goh Meh, and distributed them to her neighbours. Her Cantonese neighbours do not know of such a tradition but they are happy for the treat because it’s hard to find good bubur cha cha in Kuala Lumpur.

The version here is mostly made of thin watery coconut milk, and the potato and yam pieces are all mushy because the hawkers take the easy way out and boil everything in a pot.

Even in Penang, there isn’t that many places that still sell good bubur cha cha. I always have my fill of bubur cha cha, bubur gandum, and bubur pulut hitam at the stall behind the Swee Kong coffee shop opposite the Pulau Tikus police station.

The best bubur cha cha is still the ones cooked in homes by old Nyonya ladies who is generous with the coconut milk (so that the bubur is “kilat” (has a shiny sheen)), and who would painstakingly cut up the yam and sweet potatoes in bite-sized pieces.


(Serves 8, and enough to distribute to neighbours)

1kg of yellow and orange sweet potatoes
1 medium yam
2 1/2 litres of water
2-3 daun pandan leaves, knotted
2 cups of sugar, adjust according to taste
1/2 cup of sago
Thick milk, from 2 coconuts

Peel the root vegetables. Cut them into bite-sized chunks, and steam for 10-15 minutes until soft (but not mushy).

Bring the water to a boil, and add the pandan leaves and sugar.

Then, add the sago (do not soak beforehand).

Lower the heat to medium, and bring the water to a boil. By then, the sago pearls should have turned translucent.

Add the yam and sweet potatoes, and bring to the boil again.

Then, turn the heat down low, and add the coconut milk.

Stir to mix, and turn off the heat as soon as the mixture starts bubbling gently.

You might also like other Peranakan recipes:

Kiam Cai Boi

Lor Bak

Kerabu Timun

Sambal Melanau + Stir-fried Bean Sprouts

December 10, 2009


We were not expecting good food during our trip to Mukah, Sarawak years ago. A colleague, Diana Rose, had opened a homestay in her hometown, and we thought it’ll be all sago and pepper. Then again, we knew next to nothing about Sarawakian food except for Sarawak laksa and kolok mee in Kuching.

It turned to be a delightful gastronomic trip – we had everything from the yummy sago maggots (it’s all fat and it’s deep-fried) to linut (a starchy literally glue-like translucent mixture that you twirl around a stick and dip in sambal) to umai (raw fish in lime juice with sliced shallots and chillies).

Then, there was the sweet sweet pineapples. I am usually a little wary of pineapples because they gigit the gums, but the Dalat pineapples we had were out of this world. I don’t think I have had such sweet pineapples since that Mukah trip.

There was a brillant cook at Diana’s homestay, and we had the best meals. We had rice and dishes, and one of the first condiments we savoured at his table was his sambal to accompany the fried fish.


His sambal whets the appetite, and is substantial as it has ikan bilis. The ingredients are also easy to find, so it’s not hard to make. I made it during a camping trip to Belum, Perak. Everyone else had gone hiking, and we were staying in an island away from shops and kopi tiams.

There wasn’t much in the kitchen, but there were chillies, shallots, ikan bilis, and limes. It was enough for me to make my sambal because there was also a portar and mestle. And just like that, our plain meal of rice and fried fish was transformed into a feast with this humble sambal.

And that is why I chose to highlight this recipe for our cooking column in The Star on Monday.

I used the small white ikan bilis because that was all I had. But it’s much much better with the bigger ikan bilis as they are much tastier. A colleague who went with us on the Mukah trio said that his mother used to make him the sambal with ikan bilis left over from making stock for his toddler’s porridge.


Anyway, here’s the recipe again

Sambal Melanau

4-5 red chillies

2-3 shallots

1 clove garlic

50g ikan bilis, washed and drained

5cm belacan, roasted

Juice of 1 kalamansi lime

Salt and sugar, to taste

Pound all the ingredients, except the lime juice, until fine. Add the lime juice, and mix well.

The sambal goes nicely with Bean Sprouts Stir-fried with Tofu and Shrimps


3 tablespoon of cooking oil
1 square tofu, sliced
2-3 cloves of garlic, chopped
10-15 prawns, shelled
200g bean sprouts, clean and remove the tails
2 stalks of spring onion, cut the same length as the beansprouts
salt, to taste

Heat 2 tablespoons of the cooking oil, and fry the tofu slices. Set aside.
Heat the remaining cooking oil, and saute the garlic till fragrant.
Then, add the prawns and stir quickly.
Turn up the heat, and add the bean sprouts.
Sprinkle a little water (don’t drown the beansprouts), and stir.
Do not cook too long or the beansprouts would lose their crunch.
Add salt, and the spring onion just before removing from the wok.

Quick Tofu

November 6, 2009



This is an easy, fool-proof recipe. It’s also great for days when you want something light and easy, or when you need a plain side dish to complete a more elaborate spread.

The only thing to get right is in the sauteeing of the shallots. Slice the shallots thinly, and heat the oil over medium heat. When the oil is hot, throw in the shallots and monitor it closely; make sure they don’t get burnt. Take it out a second or two after they turn golden. If you wait awhile longer, it might get burnt and bitter. But if you take it out too early, the shallots will be soggy and soft.




1 tbsp cooking oil
3 shallots, sliced thinly
3 cloves of garlic, chopped finely
1 packet of square white tofu
2 stalks of spring onion, sliced
1 tbsp of oyster sauce

Heat oil over medium heat, and saute shallots and garlic until fragrant. Set aside.
Steam tofu for about 10 minutes, and drain the water
Top with the sauteed shallots and onions, spring onion and oyster sauce

Sambal Cili Merah – Padang-style

October 30, 2009


About a year or two ago when everyone was clamouring to have nasi kandar when the franchises start mushrooming all over Kuala Lumpur, I kinda got turned off. Suddenly, nasi kandar feels so OTT – too much spices, too much flavour and too much hype. And I queue up at the original nasi Pelita shop in Chai Leng Park in Seberang Perai at midnight, together-gether with the factory workers who had just finished their 3pm-11pm shift.

That’s when I discovered nasi padang all over again.

Padang-style cuisine belongs to the Minangkabau people of Western Sumatera and its capital Padang. This style of cooking is so popular that nasi padang stalls are found all over Indonesia, and in Malaysia too.

It started with a visit to Garuda ( a popular nasi padang in Kg Baru where we had ayam goreng bumbu and ayam goreng pop. The chicken is marinated in spices, then boiled or steamed, and then only deep fried.

There was also all the other curries – gently spiced and flavoured with the richness of coconut milk. What’s not to like about indulging in melt in the mouth tendons in curry, or the thin crisps that’s danging dendeng.

For awhile, we patronise nasi padang shops – Sumatera in Mutiara Damansara was a favourite haunt even if it meant we’d go back to work completely lethargic and a little guilty at the excesses we subject our stomachs to.

I even like the nasi padang stall at the Midvalley food court.


Siti's mom-in law's Padang-style sambal cili merah

And in all every one of these nasi padang shops, there would always be two types of sambal – one made of red chilli and another of green chilli. I love them both; they don’t have the depth and smokiness of sambal belacan but they taste fresh and burns enough to whet the appetite.

My colleague Siti is married to a guy whose family hails from Padang, Indonesia. She was our nasi padang guide as she always knew where the next best nasi padang shop is. My nasi padang adventures petered off when Siti moved to another office.

But last week, I visited her and her new baby and her mother-in-law was there. Siti’s mother-in-law had shared her Padang recipes for a feature for Flavours, and I have made her delicious corn fritters.

When Siti offered me lunch, I started off declining mumbling something about going back to work. But on the way out, I singgah in the kitchen and spied the sambal cili merah. Immediately, my mouth watered and I wiped off a plate of rice with that delicious sambal and fried ikan bilis, and sup tulang.

It is kind of strange that I like the sambal so much – I never take red chilli raw, and this has the smell and taste of raw red chilli. And I am a sambal belacan loyallist – there is always a jar in my fridge. But somehow, the Padang-style sambal cili merah works.

Of course, I ask Siti’s mother-in-law for the recipe – and it goes like this : segenggam (a handful) of  cili merah, half an onion and a tomato. Just blend it coarsely, and season with salt and sugar. Then, heat cooking oil (and don’t be miserly and health-conscious), and tumis the chilli until fragrant over low heat. Don’t rush it; cook it slowly till the oil comes up to the surface.

cili sambal merah

I cooked it the very next day, and overloaded on rice. Yup, rice, sambal cili merah and french beans cooked with tanghoon and eggs.

I must get the green chilli sambal recipe – I spy bits of ikan bilis in that. There is another delicious sambal (Melanau-style) that I learnt in Mukah, Sarawak years ago where the red chili is pounded with ikan bilis…. maybe that’s the next posting because I crave it now already.


10-12 red chillies, halved

1/2 an onion

a tomato

1 cup of cooking oil

1 tsp salt, or to taste

1 tsp sugar, or to taste

Deseed the red chillies if you don’t want your sambal to be too hot.

Blend the chillies, onion and tomato coarsely.

Heat the cooking oil over medium heat.

Then, pour in the blended mixture, and leave it to simmer over low-to-medium heat. Stir it occassionally, but let the chilli cook slowly till the oil rises to the top and it is aromatic.

Season with salt and sugar.

Eat with hot white rice. It’s a good accompaniment with fried fish, meat jerkies (the Malay/Indonesian version is called daging dendeng), blanched cabbage in coconut milk, fried anchovies, fried noodles, and just about anything.