The Saturday Kitchen – Salted Egg Long Beans with Pork

Ever since my father passed away six years ago, I head out with my mother for lunch a few times a week to keep her company. She lives alone with the helper, and thankfully a hop skip and jump from my brother’s house and mine. Working from home and having a flexible schedule allows me to do that, and I’m thankful for the time I spend with her, and even more thankful for her good health which allows her to eat anything she fancies and go anywhere she pleases without hindrance. She is 83 this year.

So last week, in one of our usual lunch time escapades, we decided to try out a new Thai restaurant in Bedok, a housing estate not far from home. I had passed that restaurant many times and had become quite curious about it, seeing it was constantly busy. A very casual eaterie with rather friendly staff, Nakhorn Thai served a long list of authentic Thai dishes. Many of the staff seemed to be Thai as well, which was another good sign of authenticity.

We had Pad Thai, the classic rice noodle dish sprinkled with chopped peanuts and chilli flakes (it pairs surprisingly well with the flourescent green Fanta), and a dish of salted egg long beans with pork. I had never seen salted egg cooked with long beans before, and it turned out pretty delectable. As it is a homey dish, I thought I’d try to make it myself as part of a midweek meal.

My version turned out quite successfully I must say and it is incredibly easy to do. Best served with white rice, and other dishes of course. As for Nakhorn Thai, it turned out to be a good discovery, with good food and very decent princes. So for the long bean dish, here’s my recipe.

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Salted Egg Long Beans & Pork Stir Fry

  • Servings: 3-4 as part of a larger meal
  • Difficulty: easy
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1 clove garlic, sliced
1 shallot, sliced
4 slices ginger
2 tbsp oil
2-3 Tbsp salted egg powder (or 2 salted egg yolks)
2 Tbsp water
12 long beans, sliced into 2cm lengths
200g lean pork, sliced (marinated in 1-2 tsp soy sauce, and 1/2 tsp cornflour)
1 chilli, sliced
2 tsp fish sauce
1 tsp oyster sauce
1/4 tsp sugar
Pepper to taste

Method
• Boil long beans in a pan of water with 1/2 tsp salt for about 5 minutes until cooked. Remove beans from the pan, rinse in cold water to stop the cooking, drain and set aside.
• Heat cooking oil in a pan/wok and saute the garlic, shallot and ginger for 2 minutes until fragrant. Add in salted egg powder and saute. If it absorbs all the oil too quickly, add in 1-2 Tbsp of water and mix it into a paste.
• Add in the pork slices and chillies. Stir fry until the pork has changed colour. Add in the fish sauce, oyster sauce and sugar, and toss to coat.
• When the pork has fully cooked, add in the long beans and toss to coat and heat through. Scoop it onto a plate and serve with white rice.

 

The Saturday Kitchen – Traditional Cantonese Fried Glutinous Rice

The Chinese don’t often use glutinous rice in their cooking, but when they do, one of the most delectable dishes is fried glutinous rice. The moist nuo mai fan wrapped in lotus leaves, steamed with lup cheong (Chinese sausage), black mushrooms and chicken and served at dim sum is much more common the world over. But this fried version is a not-so-distant cousin, with its roots also in Cantonese cuisine. In Singapore, it is a very common breakfast dish which you’ll find at the hawker centres, though hardly seen in proper restaurants. Perhaps it is considered too humble.

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My mother told me her family’s maidservant Ah Seem used to cook it when my mother was a child back in the 1930s. Ah Seem tended to cook mainly dishes from her home village back in Kaiping. While I know this is indeed a traditional dish, a nugget of information like this just brings alive that sense of continuous heritage and history with the food we eat.

Lately I have been experimenting with this fried glutinous rice dish. I like it very much but I always thought it was tricky to make. Once I got hands-on, it is surprisingly quite simple. It is cooked in a way similar to making risotto but the end result is springy dry-ish rice with a short bite, tender and moist inside. It is nicely complemented with a plethora of textures and flavours from the savoury depth of the lup cheong, the softness and fragrance of the Chinese mushrooms and the crunch of fried peanuts. The final sprinkling of spring onions is important too. Apart from making the dish look prettier, its subtle minty flavour lifts the dish with its high notes.

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The trick to making this  dish is to cook it over low flame, adding a little water at a time to get the rice cooking, but not to get it too soggy. Patience is paramount because the end point is rice which is moist inside, but largely dry on the outside. Having said that, it is not an arduous dish to make. Have a go at it.

Traditional Cantonese Fried Glutinous Rice

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: Moderate
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1 cup glutinous rice, soaked for 2-3 hours at least
4 slices ginger
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 Tbsp oil
6 black Chinese mushrooms, soaked in 1/4 cup water and sliced
2 Tbsp dried prawns, soaked in 4 Tbsp water
1 lup cheong (Chinese sausage), sliced
1 Tbsp fish sauce
1 Tbsp oyster sauce
2-3 Tbsp Chinese cooking wine
Salt and white pepper to taste
2/3 cup stock (or water mixed with 1/2 tsp chicken stock powder)

3 Tbsp peanuts, skin on, toasted in a pan
2 Tbsp sliced deep fried shallots
1 Tbsp Chopped spring onions

Method
• Heat oil in a wok and sauté garlic and ginger for a few minutes until fragrant.
• Drain the dried prawns and mushrooms, but set aside their soaking liquid for use later. Add prawns, mushrooms and lup cheong into the wok to saute. Add cooking wine and fry until fragrant – about 2 minutes.
• Drain the rice and add to the wok. Toss to coat, and fry for about 2 minutes,  then add 1/4 cup of the stock as well as the prawn and mushroom soaking liquid, oyster sauce and fish sauce. Stir fry and let the rice soak up the liquid. Add salt and pepper.
• When the rice has soaked up the liquid, add another 1/4 cup and fry until it has soaked up the liquid again.
• By now it should be al dente, so proceed slowly. Keep adding 2 Tbsp of the stock and fry until the rice has soaked up the liquid, then check if it is cooked through. If it isn’t, add another 2 Tbsp stock at a time until it is done. Do so over a fairly low flame, and keep the rice quite dry.
• When the rice is fully cooked but still with a touch of al dente, turn off the flame, check on the seasoning. To serve, top with some peanuts, deep fried shallots and chopped spring onions.

Note: For added crunch, you can also sprinkle some deep fried silver bait to the dish which also gives you your day’s worth of calcium. 🙂 If you want to add a spot of ‘gourmet’ to this humble dish, add some dried scallops (soaked in water for 20 minutes, and drained) and replace oyster sauce with XO Sauce.  

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Journey Back to the Ancestral Village

I headed back to my ancestral village in June. That’s the thing about being an ‘overseas Chinese’. We all have ‘ancestral villages’, where our ancestors lived and made that journey out of the poverty of China at the turn of the century.  In this case, the village I sought out and visited was my maternal grandfather’s childhood home. It is in the district of Kaiping, in Guangdong province, China. This is the Pearl River Delta area where the Sze Yup people come from.

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His village is Tao Yuan Chun (which means Peach Garden Village). He left it in 1919, when he was in his late teens, on a wing and a prayer to hopefully find a better life. Having lost his parents when very young and with no siblings, he was relatively lucky to be a carpenter’s apprentice. But riddled with abject poverty and hunger, things were desperate. So one night as I have often been told, he left the village with nothing but the shirt on his back — like countless young men before and after him —  and made the journey to the coast. From there, he got on a junk and sailed to Singapore. Fortunately for him, he did not get caught in human trafficking rings (which were also rife then) and eventually made a success of himself.

While my grandfather never saw his homeland again, it had always been very much in his mind obviously, as his childhood memories had passed into the collective memory of the family. (I had never met my grandfather. He died a year before I was born, but he had been spoken of so much, his identity is very much a part of my consciousness.)

When we realized we would be in Hong Kong for a bit in June, we decided to pop over for a day trip to see the ancestral village. But it wasn’t so easy to get the details down. A little bit of asking around within the family yielded me the name of the village, and surprisingly even the address of the house where his home had once stood over a century ago. With that information and my grandfather’s name, I contacted a private tour guide in Guangdong – Jennifer Choi – to help me locate this place and bring me there. She was a gem. She wrote to the Kaiping Municipal Government who has a department, I believe, that helps overseas Chinese track down their roots. Apparently, they verified the information (which was a great help) and gave her the GPS co-ordinates of the village. You see, these villages can be as small as hamlets in rural China, and you may not be able to locate them so easily. Getting clarification from the local government gave us some assurance that we weren’t off on a wild goose chase, for the information we had was rather sketchy.

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We based ourselves in Macau the day before our trip to Kaiping. Early the next morning, we headed across the northern land border to Zhuhai, a modern city a far cry from the village, and met Jennifer and Mr Leong, the driver. In his air conditioned MPV, we travelled two and a half hours on 21st century highways to Kaiping. After which it was another half hour on the main roads before we turned off onto a little country lane and bumped our way three and half kilometres past rice fields, dragon fruit plantations, plywood workshops, ponds and little villages. Round a corner, past another rice field, we saw a medium-sized, algae-green pond and beyond it, an even smaller village. Finally we had arrived at Tao Yuan Chun. If I were being dramatic, I’d say my journey that day was 97 years in the making, which started under terribly desperate circumstances.

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Many old houses still stand there, but there are as many new builds that have squeezed their way up in between. The generous car park at the front of the village, while relatively empty, holds a few BMWs and other vehicles. In the late morning, it looks like most people were away at work. Hardly anyone was around to cast a curious glance at this small group of strangers. Being generous, I’d say there are no more than 60 houses here. They are arranged in a grid form, separated by narrow alleys just wide enough for two people to squeeze past.

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We easily found the address we were looking for. It was a small, grey brick house with peeling couplets and pictures of door gods on it. Looks like the remnants of a wedding left behind. A villager who walked past said the house was now empty. The occupants had built a modern one to the back of the village and recently moved there. No matter. They weren’t anyone we would know, anyway.

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It was just amazing to see and stand on the ground where my grandfather, then a  thin, hungry, desperate teenager, started the journey of his life to find a better one. For me, making this trek back was already quite arduous – by plane, ferry (from HKG to Macau), on foot for a little bit, and by a very comfortable car. How did he make that journey all the way to the coast without any of these modern vehicles? It must have been with a lot of resilience, determination and guts to fling your future to the unknown and hope for the best, with nothing more than the knowledge that you would be willing to work to make it — whatever ‘it’ may be. I was  pretty awed, and have an even greater respect for what he did and where I came from. The people then must have very stoic and resilient and resourceful, but one could imagine how miserable life must have been to drive them out on such a long journey of migration. (The terrible migration issue taking place today on the other side of the world has not been lost on me. Some things don’t change, sadly.)

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At the same time, ironically, there was no chorus of angels singing and a feeling that I had come ‘home’. Yes I had connected with my roots by coming full circle physically, and realising a few truths. But this village was in no way ‘home’ to me, and I didn’t feel any massive connection apart from the fact that my grandfather came from there. Which I respect, don’t get me wrong. My distant roots may have started off here, but home is Singapore, where my connection and my living roots are firmly entrenched, and where he, in fact, lived his life.

Every overseas Chinese family would have a similar story to tell, but each family’s story is in turn unique. And I am part of that huge diaspora that flowed out from the Pearl River Delta so long ago.

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By the way, if you are looking for a private guide into these parts, I found Jennifer Choi very helpful and reliable. You can contact her at http://www.synotrip.com/jennychoiman

The Saturday Kitchen — Stir Fried Cabbage and Green Beans with Galangal

It’s been quite a few weeks since I last wrote. I had been caught up with some exciting collaborations with our public libraries regarding my children’s book (I’ll write about that in another post), and made a trip to Kaiping in Guangzhou to see the UNESCO World Heritage diaolou. Incidentally that area is also where my grandfather came from 97 years ago. More of that too, in another post. 🙂

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But staying true to the Saturday Kitchen, for which I have to do lots of catch up, I’m posting an Indonesian vegetable recipe which I cooked a while ago. While it sounds bland, it really isn’t due to the strong aromatics that go into the recipe.  I think it goes nicely with coconut rice, and a curry chicken. The added plus is that these are very inexpensive ingredients here in Asia. So here goes:

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Stir Fried Cabbage and Green Beans with Galangal

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: Easy
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8 shallots, sliced
4 garlic, sliced
4 large chillies, seeded and sliced
5 thick slices ginger
5 thick slices galangal
1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 head of cabbage, sliced
200g green beans, slice into 2-3cm lengths
Salt and pepper to taste

Method
Pound the shallots, garlic, chilli, ginger and galangal in a mortar & pestle, or blitz it in a blender.
Heat about 1 Tbsp oil in a wok and saute the pounded ingredients for about 2-3 minutes until it has softened.
Add the cabbage and green beans, salt and pepper to taste and stir fry until it is softened and cooked through. You may want to sprinkle 1/2 tsp of water into the vegetables to prevent it from burning or getting too dry. But this is really just to dampen the vegetables, not to add any significant amount of water.
When the vegetables are cooked through, dish it out and garnish with sliced red chillies.

 

Spicy Green beans and cabbage

The Saturday Kitchen – Chewy Peanut Butter, Fruit & Nut Cookies

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Cookies, particularly chewy ones, are one of the most irresistible comfort foods I can think of. When it’s about 4pm, whether I am peckish or not, I must have a cup of tea and a cookie. It’s a small mid-afternoon treat and perks you up when your internal engine is slowing down.

I made this batch of cookies recently which combines every evil edible I like – raisins, nuts, peanut butter and chocolate chips. It’s so easy to do, and didn’t last long in the cookie container.

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Chewy Peanut Butter, Fruit & Nut Cookies

  • Servings: about 24 cookies
  • Time: 30mins
  • Difficulty: easy
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125g soft butter
1/2 cup peanut butter
120g brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
120g cup plain flour
1/2 tsp bicarb of soda
Pinch of salt
1 cup raisins
100g walnuts or almonds (or a mix of both), chopped
100g dark chocolate chopped

Method
• Cream together butter, peanut butter and sugar until is fluffy and light. Then beat in the egg.
• Combine flour, baking powder and salt in another bowl and mix well.
• Add it to the dough, mixing well. Stir in the raisins, nuts and chocolates.
• Drop tablespoonfuls of the cookie dough on a baking sheet, and bake 180C for 12 mins or until golden.
• Remove from the oven and let it cool for a few minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

 

The Saturday Kitchen – Easy Balinese Roast Chicken (Ayam Betutu)

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I’m almost apologetic posting yet another Bali inspired recipe, but let me say first that the cuisine of Bali is quite different from the rest of Indonesia. While it features the same kind of ingredients, the Balinese use them in a way that results in distinctly different flavours. It’s a bit more earthy, less fiery, and the flavours of the individual ingredients are somehow a bit more pronounced. Another distinct difference in the cuisine of Bali is that it includes pork, as most Balinese are Hindus, whilst the rest of Indonesia is predominantly Muslim.

So that said, here is my latest offering — an easy to make Balinese-style Roast Chicken, or Ayam Betutu. The original recipe requires the chicken to be marinated, wrapped in opor leaves, steamed for over an hour, then roasted for another hour or so. Like with the babi guling, I have taken the pretty elaborate recipe and whittled it down to something I can make easily, while (hopefully) maintaining all the flavours. The only lengthy process is the marinating. What I did was to marinate it in the morning, leave it to soak and roast it just before dinner.

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Easy Balinese Style Chicken

  • Servings: 6
  • Time: 40 mins
  • Difficulty: Easy
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12 chicken thighs or one whole chicken

Marinade
8 shallots
5 garlic cloves
6-8 candlenuts
1 chilli padi (add more if you like it hotter)
25g ginger
25g kecur (lesser galangal)
40g galangal
1/2 tsp belacan
2 stalks lemongrass
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp black peppercorns
11/2 tsp salt or to taste

Method
• Pound all the marinade ingredients together into a paste. Rub it all over the chicken and leave to marinade for 4 hours at least.
• Roast in the oven for 40 mins at 180C, or until cooked through.

The Saturday Kitchen – Green Chilli & Tomato Sambal

It’s not Saturday. I missed the boat again…but let’s just pretend its Saturday today and we’re going to make a nice meal tonight. Whatever you have planned, this addition is going to fire it up a bit more, and add a bit of tropical holiday excitement to the dinner table. 🙂 So here goes…

There’s nothing like a sambal to liven up a meal. A staple among the Malays and Indonesians, sambals are made from the most common ingredients found in the village garden. Housewives from centuries ago must have first wondered what to cook for the daily meal to please the husband and the bored kids,  looked out the window and found the plethora of aromatic herbs and vegetables growing. They must have picked up a bunch of their favourites, pounded them together, cooked it up and discovered it made a fabulously aromatic condiment, perfect to go with their staple of rice and fish or vegetables. At least that’s how I imagine it would have happened, and I think I’m not far off the mark.

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There is an incredible diversity of sambals found throughout Asia, and they are testimony to the creativity of  homecooks of the past. Always made from local ingredients, the humble sambal fires up the palate, and enlivens any meal, no matter how simple. They can be made from dried fish and prawns, to jackfruit and durian, and so much more. Stuff of the land, real locavore cooking in this part of the world. While the latter two sambals mentioned are among the more exotic examples, this green chilli and tomato sambal is something easier to make and more easily enjoyed. While it contains lots of large green chilli, they are really not hot, and you can adjust the heat as you like by the addition or omission of chilli padi.

This makes a good condiment with any rice-based meal, or grilled meat.

Green Chilli and Tomato Sambal

  • Servings: About 1 cup
  • Time: 20 mins
  • Difficulty: Easy
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1 tsp belacan
4 cloves garlic, sliced
8 shallots, sliced
8-10 large green chillies, sliced
1-2 chilli padi, sliced (if you don’t have any, you can substitute it with 1/2 tsp chilli powder)
2 tomatoes cut into wedges (or use canned tomatoes)
1 heaped tsp brown sugar or palm sugar (gula melaka)
2 tsp tomato paste
1/4 cup water
Salt and pepper to taste
Lime wedges to serve

Method
Heat a wok or pan and toast the belacan briefly until it is fragrant — about 30 seconds. Remove it and set it aside.
Heat 2 Tbsp cooking oil in the pan, and sauté garlic and shallots. Add in the belacan and fry for a minute or so.
Then add the green chilli, tomato wedges and chilli padi, and fry until the the chillies have softened somewhat.
Add in the tomato paste, sugar, salt and pepper and cook until the tomatoes have softened. You may have to add about 1/4 cup of water if it’s too dry.
Let it cook for another 5 minutes, then transfer to a plate and let it cool a little.
Serve with a few wedges of lime.