Thursday, August 28, 2014

Eating in... Hong Kong

When I discovered that the cheapest way to get from the Philippines to Malaysia was via Hong Kong, I was ecstatic. Long on the list of my desired stopovers, I have been wanting to eat in the former British city for years for its Chinese traditions. Specifically for the dim sum and the famous open-air dai pai dong restaurants and hawker stalls, which have since declined in number due to various reasons, including a sanitisation movement enacted by local regulatory bodies (however not without protest). A formerly prominent feature of the city's culinary scene, we were lucky to have visited two of the remaining dai pai dong areas, one at the Temple Street Night Market (famous for seafood) on the Kowloon/mainland side and the other on Stanley Street on Hong Kong Island.

Stanley Street dai pai dong, January 2014

Every evening on the northern end of Stanley Street, a handful of dai pai dong come to life, lining the street with their foldaway/makeshift tables and plastic stools in preparation for an always bustling crowd of locals, expats, and tourists who know an opportunity for good food when they see it. English menus are available, however at our stall spoken English was tricky. So stringing some of my basic Mandarin together to exchange with their Cantonese (the local dialect), we ordered a braised eggplant and chilli hotpot, a grouper and tofu hotpot, and salt and pepper squid.

The aftermath of our meal after being too excited/hungry to take photos prior

While their was no fault on the squid, it was the hotpots that provided a blinding reminder about how good Chinese food can be. The eggplant melted in the mouth within its punchy, slightly sticky yet unctuous braising sauce; while the large meaty chunks of grouper were perfectly seasoned, moist and complemented by soft tofu which lightened the otherwise rich and salty dish. These with a bowl of simply steamed white rice - to ensure not an ounce of sauce was left unenjoyed - resulted in a complete, satisfying and enriching meal to finish off a night of drinking craft beers.

Exterior of Yat Lok restaurant, 34-38 Stanley Street, Central

Down the road was the only eatery we visited twice during our three day stay in Hong Kong: Yat Lok restaurant. Their specialty is roast goose, and special it is. Not unlike the more common roast duck, their amazingness arises from ultra crispy skin, given life by a combination of seasonings that I'm not privy to, and succulent, tender, equally-seasoned meat. On the first visit, I ordered roast goose on rice, allowing the meat to sing for itself.

Roast goose (below), Barbecue roast pork (above) and Chinese greens with oyster sauce

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

5-Spice Beef and Carrot Dumplings

I've been craving dumplings. A few days ago I tried making pierogi, the Polish version, which I filled with a potato, bacon, kale and onion mix pepped up by some toasted cumin and fennel seeds. I wasn't entirely happy with how the dough came out (I'll try this recipe next time) but the overall result was still pretty delicious.

Today, I made Chinese-style dumplings. As I'm currently out of range from an Asian grocer, I thought I'd try my hand at making the wrappers from scratch. I found this recipe and was stoked with how easy it was to make. For my first attempt, they turned out okay but I'll need to work on rolling them out. They say to never blame your tools but on this occasion, I regret using my ridged vintage chappati rolling pin. It's important to roll these out right and the ridges didn't allow me to roll the edges out thinly so that when pressed together, the dumpling wrapper isn't too thick.

I'm still pleased with how they came out though, especially the filling, but I'll be giving the homemade dumplings wrappers another attempt soon.


5-spice Beef and Carrot Dumplings makes 36 with above dumpling wrapper recipe

If you're not fussed about making the dumpling wrappers from scratch, visit your local Asian supermarket and find the pre-made jiao zi dumpling wrappers in the freezer. You may be faced with two types/shapes: circular or square. I prefer the circular ones as the square wrappers are actually for wontons and are made with egg (instead of just flour and water). They would work fine, but the square shape creates 'excess' pastry ideal for deep-fried wontons, for the extra crispiness, or in soup, for aesthetics and the egg noodle-like texture.

Fresh/defrosted pre-made dumpling wrappers

300 g quality beef mince
1 medium sized carrot, grated
1 tsp five spice powder
1 Tbsp ginger, finely chopped or grated
1 clove garlic, finely chopped or minced
2 Tbsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp salt
1 dried Thai bird's eye chilli, crushed/chopped including seeds (or 1/2 tsp dried chilli flakes)
1 green onion/scallion, sliced finely from tip to root
1 tsp sesame oil (optional)
1 Tbsp sesame seeds (optional)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Eating in... Singapore

This post should really be titled "Eating in... Maxwell Food Centre". Having been to Singapore several times before, and about to travel for three months with a 32L backpack, shopping on Orchard Road (a favourite past-time) was low on my priorities. All I wanted to do was eat.

Singapore is famous for it's open-air hawker-style food courts and has several throughout the city which are positively bustling at peak meal times, and fairly busy at any other hour. And despite the generally high living costs of this financial and business hub, this style of eating comes cheap. And so so delicious.

We stayed in Chinatown (at this awesome hostel) and as soon as we'd confirmed our accommodation, I immediately checked Google maps for the closest hawker centre. The slightly touristy Chinatown Food Street, on Spring Street, presents a pretty, sanitised version with all of Singapore's culinary specialities under one roof canopy. Lines are long at various stalls, and the food looks and smells great. We only had a brief char kuey teow (fried flat wide rice noodles) here, but I knew we could get it tastier and cheaper.

Chinatown Food Street on Spring Street, Chinatown
Hill Street Fried Kway Teow (char kuey teow) in Chinatown Complex

Chinatown is also home to a couple of other large internal food courts (including the Chinatown Food Court and Chinatown Complex), but the place we frequented most often was Maxwell Food Centre. At the corner of Maxwell Road and South Bridge Road, this felt as much like home as our hostel. Again, all of Singapore's classics can be found here, but I'm a sucker for my favourites: Hainanese chicken rice, char kuey teow (Singapore style with clams and chinese sausage), laksa, and fried 'carrot' cake (nothing to do with the sweet dessert cake, or carrots for that matter). We ticked these off the list fairly quickly, but I also found some other 'Singaporean' specialities I had to try. This included popiah (fresh Malaysian spring roll), banana fritters specifically from Lim Kee Banana Fritters, and the famous Fuzhou Oyster Cake which appealed to me on so many levels.

Maxwell Food Centre, corner of Maxwell and South Bridge Road, Chinatown

The taxi driver who brought us to Maxwell on our first visit let us in on the local secret: Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice is among the best of this Singaporean speciality in town. We found it quickly by its long line of locals, despite being 3pm. The line moved swiftly and I made our order.

(l) A hungry queue at Tian Tian, (r) perfectly poached Hainanese Chicken
Hainanese Chicken rice with the classic sides: cucumber, clear soup, chilli, dark soy sauce and greens

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Pulled pork, take one

Yesterday I finally embarked on making pulled pork. Its tremendous popularity in the last five or so years has made it a frequent menu item everywhere, and it's fast becoming a feature of many establishments including the food trucks that stake their whole business on it. While this is definitely not a bad thing, it does make me want to conquer this ubiquitous object of our desires.

Really, pulled pork came from roasting a whole hog in a barbecue pit for hours and hours, tender- and lovingly basted and kept turning - including through the night - to ensure even, slow cooking. American barbecue culture can probably claim the phenomenon, but this method of creating juicy-fall-off-the-bone pork is also seen in the Central & South Americas, and Asia, for example in the Philippines with their famed lechon (perhaps an American legacy in the country) which I enjoyed late last year.

Lechon being sold on the street, El Nido, Palawan, Philippines

Obviously cooking an entire pig is a luxury of time and money that not all of us can afford. So, in the day when the pork shoulder, or "Boston butt" in America, was an economical piece of meat to buy, as it was a fatty, tough-skinned, hard-working piece of meat, folks made lemonade out of lemons. They understood that slow-and-low cooking could make this piece of meat tender, flavourful, pull-apart and juicy.

I don't know about you, but I am often allured by the '8 to 14-hour slow-roasted pulled pork' on the menus, yet recently, I've become skeptical. The last few times I've encountered it, the pork has been dry, a little stringy, not all that flavourful. I find vendors often relying on their accompaniments, e.g. sauce or slaw, to try and salvage the lack of moisture that one comes to expect from pulled pork. (One exception, however, was the pulled pork burger I tasted a month ago at Duke's Brew & Cue in Hackney, London. Amaze.)

However, last night, I felt empathy. Whether it was that my pork shoulder was boneless (most recipes recommend bone-in for maximum flavour, which I'd attest to usually, but my shoulder was on sale and at a good price); and/or, that I just didn't leave it in the oven for long enough (6 hours at 140degC/285degF) to let the muscular tissue to break down and dissolve. The result, in any case, was dry pork with a thick layer of fat still existent under the skin. Next time, I will undoubtedly go for bone-in shoulder and at least 8 hours cooking time, or however long it takes to allow the meat to become spoonable. (I admit, I was late putting it in, impatient... and hungry!)

After 6 hours and resting before trying to achieve crispy skin (which I burned half of due to being impatient, again) 

In terms of flavour however, the pork was delicious. A little dry, yes, but tasty. I simply seasoned it in ample salt and pepper before roasting (however I'm curious that in Felicity Cloake's experimentation, she barely mentions pepper and favours sugar for basic seasoning - another aspect to test). I also set it atop quartered onions, garlic cloves and sliced carrots, to keep it elevated and allowing fat to drain off (cooking the carrots and onions to a gluttonous level). I regretted not rubbing in a little smoked paprika ten minutes after it went in the oven, in the after-thought of wanting to impart a slight smokiness, but as J. Kenji Lopez-Alt encourages, I was happy enough to allow my pork to sing for itself, leaving the extra flavours for the accompaniments.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Humble Herring

When I first arrived in Amsterdam in April, I was told that I must try raw herring (haring), that this was Holland's food star, next to Stroopwafels and Gouda cheese. I looked and looked, but realised the timing wasn't right. I was too early. Fishmongers catch these special (minimum 16% fat) herring from mid-May to mid-July in the North Sea, and the first Hollandse Nieuwe ('Holland's new herring') only start to appear on the market at the beginning of June.

Instead of being raw, like sashimi, the herring is actually soused. This means that it's been marinated in a brine which enhances the herring's natural flavours, gives the fish a gorgeous melt-in-the-mouth texture, and preserves them for months of future enjoyment.

Rotterdam Blaak Market

Broodje Haring literally translates to 'herring sandwich' 

When I returned to Holland in June, this was one of my missions: find raw herring. And happily, I didn't have to look far. As a nation-awaited Dutch delicacy (also signalling the beginning of summer), the Hollandse Nieuwe was being celebrated at every fishmonger in sight. I eagerly ordered a broodje haring (herring sandwich) at the Rotterdam Blaak market and as soon as I bit into it, I was in heaven. The fresh, soft-as-goose-down-bread roll was a delightful backdrop to the raw herring and accompaniment of diced white onions, whose sweetness accentuated the herring's mellow yet rich flavour and texture.

Eating in... South East Asia

El Nido, Palawan, Phillipines

I decided early on during our travels through South East Asia (namely, Singapore, the Phillipines, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Laos and Vietnam) that I'd rather be enjoying the sights and sounds of the places around me, even when there was little to be seen and done but relax, than worrying about updating this blog. These things take time and I preferred the notion of doing it retrospectively when our trip had concluded.  This way, I could enjoy reflecting on our food experiences again, and indulge through recalling all of the amazing flavour sensations we encountered.

Sunset on the Mekong, Luang Prabang, Laos

We have been back in the West for a while now, enjoying the local delicacies of various European locations, but nonetheless I have been missing Asia. Maybe due to the affinity I have with the region, or more likely for the simple fact that, this part of Asia is home to some of the best food in the world.

And there's no doubt: we ate well. The novelty of needing to find something to eat every day for three months never wore thin and I cherished the opportunity to find something new, delicious, and even curious (chicken intestine, anyone?), to savour and enjoy. As you can expect, some meals were better than others, yet there were only two meals that I couldn't stomach (though I did choose not to eat balut, the Phillipines' delicacy of fertilised duck embryo...). But let's talk about the plethora of happy meals we did have.

Barbecue lunch of grilled whole fish and pork skewers, pork belly, salad and rice, followed by juicy pineapple, freshly prepared by our kayak tour guides in El Nido, Palawan, Phillipines
The most incredible baked BBQ pork buns from Tim Ho Wan, Hong Kong

It's difficult to pinpoint the best dish, meal and/or dining experience, for they were so diverse and special for different reasons. Was it the barbecue lunch prepared for us by our guides on a secluded beach as part of a kayaking tour near El Nido in Palawan, Phillipines... or, the Michelin-rated yum cha in Hong Kong that was so breathtakingly good, I don't think I will be able to enjoy yum cha elsewhere, as much, ever again... Or was it the feast of fresh crabs and tiger prawns with extended family in Sabah, Malaysia?  Maybe the home-made Luang Prabang noodle soup we had in Laos, miles away from the throng of tourists... or, the eleven-course meal we prepared with a group of strangers in an excellent cooking class in Hoi An, Vietnam?

Thursday, May 29, 2014

My Love for Mexico, Part 2

If you're coming fresh to Part 2, see Part 1 for the lead-in. This is my ode to Mexican food and uses the leftovers from my Mexican-marinated chicken tacos with homemade cooked salsa, refried beans and avocado.

A note on refried beans: for convenience, I used a prepared can (La CosteƱa, to be exact) for the recipe. To save a couple dollars, and for homecooked-wholeness and health, if I had the time and foresight, I would soak some dried black beans overnight and cook them until tender in unsalted, boiling water. After draining, and retaining 1/4 cup of water, I'd add a generous amount of olive oil (start with a few tablespoons), the water and one finely chopped garlic clove to the beans, heating gently. As the garlic cooks through, stir and mash beans with a fork. Add either more water or oil to achieve a consistency you prefer (definitely not runny!). Season with salt and pepper, and a shake of smoked paprika for extra flavour.

So... you've got some cooked salsa, refried beans, red onion/cilantro, avocado, and tortillas leftover? And some eggs? Perfect, huevos rancheros it is!

Huevos Rancheros (The below recipe is for 1, for more, you just need more salsa and eggs!)

I love cooking eggs like this. Basically, you're poaching the eggs in a sauce that also seasons and makes it into a complete meal. The Moroccans and north Africans do something similar, called 'shakshuka', where the tomato-based sauce features cumin and roast peppers more prominently.

2 eggs
Enough salsa to fill a small 15cm pan with a generous layer

Reheat salsa over medium heat, and when bubbling, make two wells in your salsa for the eggs. The deeper the better. Crack eggs, one at a time, into the formed wells. Reduce heat to low and cover pan with a lid. Check after 3-4 minutes. You can tell if the eggs are cooked by how much the yolks jiggle when you shake the pan. I prefer mine a little soft.

My first well (top) wasn't quite deep enough

As the eggs cook, prepare the rest of the dish. Reheat refried beans, and warm through tortillas in a dry pan over medium heat. When eggs are ready, you should be able to slide the eggs/salsa easily onto a plate. Season eggs with a pinch of salt and freshly cracked black pepper. Serve tortillas and refried beans topped with avocado (seasoned with black pepper) on the side. Top with cilantro/onion and a generous squeeze of lime juice.

Best breakfast/brunch/lunch, ever.

So, so good. And especially for the fact that it's full of good, healthy stuff! Even the black beans are very good for you, too. Let's face it, you can't be guilty with this one.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

My Love for Mexico, Part 1

While I continue finishing a post on my recent travels through South East Asia, I wanted to mark my return to the pursuit of deliciousness with some food I prepared earlier. (Thanks to everyone who have been visiting during my hiatus, whether old or new readers, and even if you arrived here by accident, it still fills me with joy when I see my visitor counter going up!)

Slow-braised oxtail stew with carrots, peas and Goose Fat-roasted Sweet Potatoes
(photo courtesy of my brother's Instagram)

While life continues to sort itself out, I've been cooking. And because I'm in the northern hemisphere now, the produce just keeps getting better and better as we approach summer. Of course, at the sight of a full oxtail in the local butcher, I couldn't resist slow-braising it in some red wine and freshly made chicken stock (from the roast a night before) with a bay leaf, some garlic, onions and carrots... but last night, I reaffirmed my love for Mexico.

The inspiration came from seeing corn tortillas in one of the ethnic supermarkets, all the way from Guanajuato, Mexico and complete with the 'Hecho en Mexico' logo. The rest followed: some spare tomatoes in the kitchen, green onions, green peppers and iceberg lettuce on special, a bright leafy bunch of cilantro (coriander) from the Asian grocer, complete with it's roots, ripe avocados, limes, red onion, garlic, a can of tomatoes, a can of refried black beans (found next to the tortillas), and some essential herbs/spices (ground cumin, oregano, ground chilli, smoked paprika). A visit to Dublin's best butchery got me some chicken breasts to give my tacos extra excitement.

Breakfast in Mexico City, 2009

Having travelled* to Mexico for two months previously, I feel I have a really good understanding of Mexican flavours.  (*By now, everyone knows my 'travelling' means eating, right?) Whenever the stars align for some homemade comida mexicana at home, I am brought straight back to memories of eating tacos fresh from one-man food carts, standing around or sitting on plastic chairs with locals on the side of the street.