Dad’s Shandong-style Jiaozi, the best dumplings in the world

You know what they always say; daughters and their fathers have a special bond. Your dad is the first man you love, he’s your hero and will forever be the standard against which all future men must measure up against. Continue Reading →

Crispy roast pork belly

When my svelte and sexy wife S and I first started dating, one of her friends described me (behind my back) as a “very porky person”. I’m not sure if she was talking about my ever-growing mid-section or the fact that my favourite meat was and still is pork. I’m hoping that it is the latter.

Maybe it’s a Chinese thing — to love pork so much — but for whatever reason, it’s the one meat I don’t think I’d be able to live without. Take me off beef? No problem. No lamb? Wouldn’t miss it. Even chicken I could leave behind, but pork? No way. And, of course, I have a few favourite preparations. Top of the list are xiao long bao and siu yuk. I don’t think I’ll be making xiao long bao any time soon. That said, I do keep hoping (aloud and as often as possible) that S will one day master the technique of preparing these delicious soupy dumplings. But siu yuk, or crispy roast pork belly, didn’t seem too complex. I mean, if I could make pretty decent char siu, surely I could roast me some pig belly too. (keep reading)

Neil Perry’s Awesome Asian Dipping Sauce

When I was counting down my favourite meals of last year, I wrote that one of them was had at Neil Perry’s very sexy Chinese restaurant, Spice Temple. While I had originally gone in slightly skeptical, I left a believer. And while the food may not have been the most authentic, it certainly had flavour, and a lot of heart.

Since then, and because of that visit, my hot and hungry spouse S and I have been cooking more and more from Perry’s Chinese cookbook, Balance and Harmony: Asian Food. It was a book that we had originally purchased (before our meal at Spice Temple) because it was, well, pretty. As cookbook collectors, we occasionally buy texts not because we want to cook from them but because of the pictures, or the layout and design, or because we have all of the chef’s other books, or for any number of reasons. Neil’s recent books are beautiful. They’re a joy to look at, with clean design and gorgeous photos. And so, while we had poured over Balance and Harmony: Asian Food several times, we had never intended to actually use it as a real reference. When we wanted to cook Chinese, we usually turned to authorities like Barbara Tropp, Fuchsia Dunlop or Grace Young. But after that meal at Spice Temple, we decided to give Perry’s book a try. And we’ve been really happy we did. (Keep reading)

Wontons

One of the most satisfying and simple comfort foods in Chinese cuisine is the wonton. A hot bowl of wonton soup is perfect when exhausted or ill. A serving of wontons sauced with a thick, reduced chicken stock is a delicious snack. A portion, tossed in a spicy homemade chilli-oil sauce, can be a fantastically exciting dish to serve friends. And when served with homemade noodles and charsiu (roast pork), they can become part of a bowl full of heaven.

Making wontons at home is something our mothers all did at some point in our childhoods, which also infuses them with that magical quality of nostalgia. For many, slurping down a bowl full of delicious wontons is nothing short of recapturing some of the best parts of their youth. (Keep reading)

Crispy roast chicken to die for

I really love the “new” National Museum of Singapore. I think what architect Mok Wei Wei has done with this space is simply fantastic. He took an aging institution, preserved and updated its best and most beautiful parts, and then added a vast, striking and modern extension, turning it into one of the country’s most iconic landmarks. Over the past year, I’ve visited the museum a lot, both for work and for fun. It really has become one of my favourite places in town.

But one thing I’ve always felt was just a little wrong was that the museum didn’t boast an Asian restaurant. In my opinion, a country’s national museum should have an F&B outlet that offers food from that country – or at least from its region. Until recently, none of the outlets in the museum catered to this need. One serves upscale European food. Another was originally going to offer a lunch menu inspired by regional colonial classics but the establishment’s owner ended up deciding that there was more money in serving booze and turned the place into a overly-hip bar. (I’m told this place will close this month, re-opening sometime early next year as a fusion bistro helmed by Chef Anderson Ho.) The museum’s only cafe serves one – yes, just one – local dish per day, and only because the museum’s director suggested rather strongly that they should offer some local food.

Fortunately, the museum has a new restaurant. And not just any restaurant. Chef Chan’s is the latest incarnation of one of Singapore’s most well-known and respected Chinese (Cantonese) restaurants. Chef Chan Chen Hei, one of Singapore’s most beloved chefs, first made his name at the Pan Pacific’s Hai Tien Lou. He then struck out on his own, opening the first Chef’s Chan in a Singapore Armed Forces Reservists Association clubhouse in the suburbs. The place was an instant hit and he soon moved the restaurant from the heartland to the heart of the city. The second Chef Chan’s occupied a huge space in Odeon Towers, a modern office building facing the Raffles Hotel.

The new Chef Chan’s, by comparison, is small. It has a tiny public seating area and just a few private rooms. Surprisingly, a large chunk of the restaurant’s space is being used not to seat customers but to show off some of the chef’s remarkable collection of Chinese antiques. Dining here feels like you are eating in the middle of a very luxe and very private gallery – which is not at all a bad thing given the restaurant’s location.

My wife S, my parents, and I checked out the restaurant this weekend. My father was a regular at Chef Chan’s previously and he advised us to order what he considers the chef’s very best items: crispy roasted farmer chicken; shark’s fin soup with crab meat and crab roe; and black pepper beef. In addition to these three specialties, we also had a Shanghainese tofu, which was really tasty but also pretty funky – it looked like chopped up pieces of sponge that had been soaked in an admittedly delicious sauce. The beef was excellent. I would have personally liked it a little less peppery, but I’m also a bit of a wimp when it comes to hot food. The soup was delicious. It was savoury and rich and filled with yummy, luxurious things. The overall winner, though, was the chicken. This was without question the best dish we tasted and may just be one of the very best roast chickens I have ever eaten in my whole life.

A lot of Chinese chefs serve crispy roast chicken. But few do it as well as Chan Chen Hei. In his hands, this simple dish is a work of art. The skin is paper thin, crisp and full of flavour. All the fat (which usually appears below the skin) has been magically rendered away. The meat is soft, tender, juicy and a joy to eat. Despite this being the last of our courses (and after the soup I felt pretty full), I made a complete pig of myself.

I’ll be honest. I personally haven’t eaten at Chef Chan’s previous places too often. So, I can’t really talk with any real authority about his other dishes. But my dad has and he reiterated more than a few times that I’d be best served sticking to the 3 dishes that he recommended. And given just how darned good that crispy roast chicken was, I think I may just do what he says (for once). Or at least, I’ll always order the chicken and maybe vary what vegetable S and I have on the side.

Chef Chan’s
National Museum of Singapore
01-06, 93 Stamford Road
Singapore
Tel: +65 6333 0073

Not your usual egg rolls

When I was in high school, my favourite night of the week was Thursday. It had nothing to do with the shows on television that night (although I have to admit I was a fan of both the critically-acclaimed Cheers and the much-maligned Young Riders). Nor was it because the following day was Friday, which of course meant the start of the weekend — and (by the time I was a senior) also meant an incredibly relaxing day, having arranged my schedule so I had no more than a couple of hours of actual class time. There was no regular extra-curricular activity that got me revved up. Nor was there any other kind of after-school special that got my juices flowing. The reason why Thursday night was my favourite was because Thursday was duck night.

Every Thursday, almost without fail, my sainted mother would go to Chinatown and bring home a delicious, Cantonese roasted duck. It was and still is one of my favourite foods, the kind of thing I could not only eat weekly without ever getting bored of it but actually look forward to tasting week after week. Of course, man cannot live on duck alone. To eat along with the duck, mom would whip up one of a number of equally delectable dishes. Of these, there were three or four that she would make most often, their return appearances usually based on the volume and number of “yums”, “mmmmmmmms” and “wows” she heard at our table. Of these dishes, my own personal favourite was a simple dish whose origins I’ve never discovered.

Come to think of it, my mother never even gave this dish, a steamed roll of fish paste and egg, drizzled with a thick, sticky, savory and slightly sweet sauce, a name. Or at least, if it had one, I never knew what it was. Over the years, whenever I’ve asked my mother where she learned how to make this, she’d simply wave me off, saying it was something she picked up and liked making because she knew we (our whole family) liked it and, just as importantly, it was really easy to make.

I’ve always liked that this dish had strong yet clean flavours. Since it was steamed, it was also relatively healthy and acted as a good counterfoil to the much oilier duck that we were devouring alongside it.

Over the years, I’ve mentioned this dish to my darling wife S dozens of times but until this week had never made it for her. To do it properly, I served it with half a Cantonese roasted duck. It was Thursday night all over again.

Steamed fish and egg rolls

3 eggs
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon mirin
1/2 teaspoon salt
400g fish paste
1 red chilli
4-5 spring onions
1/2 cup chicken stock
1 teaspoon dark, thick, sweet soy sauce
2 teaspoons corn starch/flour

Deseed and finely chop the red chilli. Wash and clean the spring onions. Then finely chop them, discarding about 1/3 of the green tips. Stir the spring onions and chilli into the fish paste.

Beat the eggs and add 1 teaspoon mirin and the 1/2 teaspoon salt. Heat a large non-stick pan and fry half of the egg mixture, making a large, round, flat and thin omelet. Slide the omelet out onto a plate or tray. Then use the remaining half of the egg mixture to fry another thin omelet.

Taste your fish paste. Depending on how savoury it is (ideally, try and buy paste that isn’t too salty), spread a slightly thicker or thinner layer on the two omelets. Roll each one carefully into a long and compact tube. Transfer these to a steamer and steam for 12-15 minutes.

While the rolls are steaming, make your sauce. Boil the chicken stock and 1 tablespoon of mirin, reducing it by about one-third. Pour 2-3 tablespoons of the stock into a bowl and mix the cornstarch into it. When dissolved, pour this mixture back into the stock. Then add the 1 teaspoon of the dark, sweet and thick soy. Stir and simmer for a bit to thicken the sauce. You want the sauce to be thick. Season to taste with more mirin or soy.

When the rolls are ready, transfer them to a cutting board and cut them into thick slices. Plate these and drizzle the sauce over them.

Do you moo shoo?

For a good chunk of my life, I’ve harbored a secret. It’s something my wife is pretty disgusted by, something that few friends here in Singapore sympathize with or even understand. But I know there are others out there like me, others that share my hidden shame. Some are even more passionate about it than I am. Those people indulge this vice regularly while for me, it was always an occasional tryst… something that always satisfied me yet also made me feel just a tad ashamed of myself.

But enough is enough. If there is one thing I’ve learned in my life is that there’s absolutely no point pretending to be something that you’re not. And so, I’ve decided to simply come clean and say to the world a few simple but pretty shocking words.

I actually like American-Chinese food.

Well, not all of it mind you. I’ll never understand or appreciate what Americans call “Singapore Noodles” and I find beef and broccoli pretty bland and boring. But I do enjoy my fair share of a cuisine that my darling food-writer wife, who grew up in Singapore, refuses to acknowledge as real Chinese food. I like and have eaten over the years a substantial amount of General Tso’s chicken, cold sesame noodles, eggplant in hot garlic sauce, lemon chicken, sesame chicken, kung pao chicken, and shrimp lo mein. (Note that I’m saying “like”, not “love”. While I do enjoy and even occasionally crave these MSG-rich dishes, I would never go so far as to actually say that I love them.)

Another dish that I enjoy is moo shoo pork, served with pancakes of course. The first time I told this to S, she actually burst out laughing. Not only had she never eaten the dish, she didn’t think that anyone with any taste would ever voluntarily seek it out. I think for quite a while she was pretty freaked out that she had actually married someone who would. Fortunately (for me), she got over it. That didn’t stop her, however, from making fun of my moo shoo madness for the longest time.

A couple years ago, S picked up a book by American-Chinese food-writer Grace Young called The Breath of a Wok. As I’ve written before, we have a ludicrous number of cookbooks. And while we try our best to look through and use as many of our books as possible, there are a few that S might look at but that I’ll forget about and vice-versa. Young’s The Breath of a Wok is one such work. While S has poured over several of the recipes in it, I only opened it for the first time last week. Imagine my surprise and excitement when I flipped the book open and found a recipe for “Virginia Yee’s Moo Shoo Pork with Mandarin Pancakes”. If you can do that, now try and imagine S’s groans of sheer fright and horror when I announced that I was whipping up a batch for dinner!

To her credit, she was a complete trooper. After several hours of pleading, she agreed to help out, taking on the difficult task of making the dough for the pancakes. And at the end of our meal, I was pleased as punch that she actually admitted that she enjoyed her very first moo shoo pork platter. Of course, I should say that Young’s recipe yields a substantially healthier and more flavourful version than anything I’ve ever had before.

Moo Shoo Pork
Adapted from Grace Young’s The Breath of a Wok
Serves 4

1/3 cup cloud ears
5 dried shiitake mushrooms
45g dried cellophane noodles
230g pork butt/shoulder
3.5 teaspoons soy sauce
1.5 tablespoon Hoisin sauce
2.5 teaspoons Shao Hsing rice wine
2 teaspoons cornstarch
3/4 teaspoons sugar
pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 slices ginger
2 scallions, diced
1.5 cups shredded cabbage
1/2 cup cup canned shredded bamboo shoots
1 tablespoon sesame oil

Soak the cloud ears in cold water for 30 minutes or until soft. Drain, trim away the hard parts and cut the rest into shreds. Set aside. In a separate bowl, soak the shiitake mushrooms in 1/2 cup of cold water for 30 minutes. Drain, reserving 1/4 cup of the soaking liquid. Squeeze the mushrooms dry, discard the stems and cut the caps into fine shreds. Set aside. In another bowl, submerge the cellophane noodles in cold water and soak for 15 minutes. Drain and cut into 3 inch pieces.

Cut the pork into small “matchstick” pieces. Put the pork into a bowl and add 1 teaspoon of the soy sauce, 1/2 teaspoon of the Shao Hsing, 1 teaspoon of the cornstarch, 1/2 tablespoon of the Hoisin, 1/4 teaspoon of the sugar, and a pinch of pepper. Stir to combine. In a small bowl, combine the salt, and the remaining 2.5 teaspoons of soy sauce, 2 teaspoons Shao Hsing, 1 teaspoon cornstarch, 1 tablespoon Hoisin, 1/2 teaspoon sugar, and the reserved mushroom liquid. Set aside.

Heat a well-seasoned flat-bottomed wok or large fry pan over high heat. Swirl in the vegetable oil, add the ginger and cook it for 10 seconds. Then remove the ginger and throw it away. Add the scallions and shiitake mushrooms and stir-fry for 1 minute. Push the scallion mixture to the side and add the pork, spreading it evenly. Cook for 20 seconds undisturbed. Then stir-fry for 1-2 minutes.

Add the cloud ears, cabbage and bamboo shoots. Stir-fry 1-2 minutes or until cabbage is tender. Add the cellophane noodles and stir-fry just to combine. Stir the cornstarch mixture into the pork until the sauce has thickened and the noodles are cooked through, about 1-2 minutes. Stir in the sesame oil.

These are to be eaten with Mandarin pancakes. The Breath of a Wok has a fantastic recipe for making exceptional pancakes. For the recipe, please buy the book.

China House, Bangkok

Ever since my friend B described the specially designed contraption that the recently renovated China House restaurant at The Oriental, Bangkok, had commissioned just to roast and dry their lacquered (Peking) ducks and geese, I’ve been a little obsessed about visiting it. The perfect excuse presented itself last week when I spent a day in Bangkok meeting with Dr S and his wife V. As I was literally spending just one day in the city, circumstances demanded that we meet for lunch rather than dinner. I proposed that we have a light lunch at The China House. The double story restaurant is quite a sight to behold. Its exterior is clad with slabs of stacked slate and a long, protruding section lined with large windows invites you to peek into the kitchen (unfortunately, I was ill-placed to catch sight of the fantastical, fowl-twirling invention I had been told about). The street-level entrance takes you into a small space which has a ceiling lined with over a hundred red lanterns, making it a stunning introduction to a breathtakingly dramatic restaurant.

As I stepped further into The China House’s cool, dark interior, the first thing that caught my eye was its sexy Tea Apothecary which sits in a double volume space at the heart of the restaurant. Large canisters of Mariage Freres tea line the wall facing the entrance; it was a bit of a spiritual encounter for me. This is the first (and currently the only) place in Bangkok which serves 35 Mariage Freres teas (including two blends specially created for the hotel, the Oriental blend and the China House blend). I could be wrong, but it is also possibly the only place within a two-hour flight from Singapore which serves such a considerable selection of MF teas. I was determined to have tea in this alluring, intimate salon.

We were led further into the restaurant which has an Art Deco-inspired interior harking back to 1930s Shanghai. I love the private booths for two or four cocooned in red silk curtains. The cuisine here is modern Chinese in presentation but classical Chinese in flavour. Shanghai-based Singaporean chef Jereme Leung serves as its consultant. Since there were only three of us, we ordered a selection of dimsum and a Peking duck (a house specialty). What I enjoyed most about the dimsum were its clean, natural flavours and translucent, delicate skins. I could taste the subtly sweet meat juices in the shrimp and pork siu mai flavoured with salted duck eggs which had just enough fat to make it tender. And I relished the textures of the fine, hand cut fillings as we tucked into shrimp dumplings (har gau) and freshly made charsiew rice rolls (cheong fun) with coriander. We had avoided the “Bygone and Thai cuisine-inspired” dimsum selections because we really wanted to keep lunch simple and reasonably healthy, but I predicted that CH would order the slow braised pork belly served with butterfly shaped soft buns at the dinner he was planning to have there later in the week. The glutinous rice siew mai filled with minced pork and holy basil also sounded promising.

Sharing a whole Peking duck between three people is, in my opinion, a real treat. One gets just enough crisp, paper-thin duck skin to feel just a tad over indulged. Chef Kong suggested that we have some of the duck meat served finely minced in elegant little lettuce cups (sang choy bao). Although this is a fairly common dish, his version was deliciously refined. We ended our meal with more duck served shredded with eefu noodles (sublime comfort food in my books) before proceeding to the Tea Apothecary. I am quickly entering The China House onto my list of must-visits in Bangkok.

The China House
48 Oriental Avenue
Bangkok
Tel: 66 (2) 659 9000 Ext. 7650-1

Photos courtesy of The Oriental Bangkok