Monthly Archives: February 2012

Penang Feasting

Apom balik – Crispy Indian pancakes

My mother is from Penang, and although we migrated to Sydney when I was just four years old, my family still has strong roots there. Over the years though, my visits have tapered off and the Penang I know has become a memory – rapid urbanisation has fundamentally changed the city so much I don’t recognise it any more. The city has fortunately been declared UNESCO protected so the the city has been cleaned up, but the traffic is still congested, which makes getting around to the best places to eat that little bit more difficult.

Penang has long been lauded as having the best food in Malaysia – particular hawker food. It’s hard to explain why – the best I can give (based on a thoughtful discussion with a fellow Penang-ite in Singapore) is that each hawker is his/her own artist in the way they prepare and cook their dishes, achieving a distinct character, so much so that a certain dish does not taste the same if it’s been cooked by the owners son even when all other variables are constant.

Malaysians in general are quite obsessive about eating the best food and will often drive for an hour to get to “the best [insert food here]” – chicken rice, crab, fried noodles – you name it. Some have become so famous that there are often lengthy queues, which, in the blistering Penang heat, is something even I am not willing to do.

Penang curry noodles

When we were recently in Penang, we stayed close to a massive hawker centre called Supertanker. It’s a bewildering, bustling, noisy, crowded, mass of hungry people in for a quick bite – this I guess is the Malaysian equivalent of a fast food court. It’s quite difficult to explain the whole experience. There are maybe 200 tables and on the perimeter of the area are tiny little food stalls that usually sell just one or two types of dishes – fish soup, Penang char kuay teow, congee, drinks etc. You queue and order your food, pay the hawker, gesture in the direction of where you are sitting, and somehow your dish manages to find you just a few minutes later. They seem to have an amazing capacity to remember who ordered what.

The pace that these hawkers prepare the food is astounding. They are literally human machines – when you’re only charging the equivalent of US$1 for a bowl of noodles, turnover is critical, and these hawkers work hard and fast to feed the masses.

It’s open air but with plenty of fans and I was so happy to enjoy a few of my old favourite that I haven’t had for possibly over ten years. It’s amazing how smells and sounds and tastes can bring back fond memories.

Two dishes I am thrilled to have eaten: curry noodles and “apom balik”. The curry noodles are a Malaysian speciality. I guess the most easy way to describe it is as a laksa, but here, they somehow manage to extract the flavour of the coconut but with none of the thick creamy consistency of some laksas I’ve had outside of Malaysia. The broth is rich yet almost white in colour and the dish comes with a generous spoon of chilli sambal, tofu, squid, fresh cockles and most importantly, cubes of pig’s blood. Now I know that might sound horrifying to many of you, but I just love the squidgy, squeaky, springy texture of these and you can’t get this easily at all outside of Malaysia. It adds a richness to the entire dish that I just love.

The second dish is probably much more palatable – it’s called apom balik, and Indian speciality, essentially a pancake batter that’s cooked in a mini-wok, so that the edges are thin and crispy and crepe-like, with a small “bump” of lightly cooked spongy batter in the middle. Sometimes they are filled with a mixture of sugar and crushed peanuts which are also delicious but I think the simplicity of the plain ones appeal to me (perhaps because I can justify eating more?).

With my gran passing away I’m not sure I will have as many opportunities to sample the amazing food in Penang. But I can take the wonderful memories of the food with me and they come attached with the even more wonderful memories of enjoying it with her.


Pamplemousse Bistro + Bar

 Jamón Ibérico with figs and manchego cheese

Surely Singapore is reaching its saturation point for new places to eat with its tiny population ? The Dempsey Hill area alone seems to be continually expanding with new restaurants, bistros and bars, with Pamplemousse being one of the newer residents (it’s been open just over a year now).

My friend M and I went there to catch up a few weeks ago and decided to forgo the set lunch menu, instead opting for a few appetisers from their a la carte menu and a bottle of champagne. To be fair, in this instance the bubbles were more of a priority than the food.

We ordered the  Jamón Ibérico, homemade fresh goats cheese and the beef carpaccio.

The Jamón Ibérico was “draped” over figs and manchego cheese with some Frisé. I think they tried to get the same effect as using prosciutto but because this type of ham has been cured for longer it simply doesn’t drape as well, so in this instance rather than looking like the slices magically fell on to the plate, it ended up making the dish look quite sparse. Having said that, the ham was delicious with that uniquely intense saltiness that seems to get more intense as it melts in your mouth as you chew.

Fresh home made goat’s cheese with sliced beetroot

The goats cheese was a surprise for me.  I’m not a huge fan of goats cheese. That twanginess that makes it so appealing to most is the thing that I dislike about it. Pamplemousse serves their fresh homemade goats cheese with thin slices of fresh beetroot and there is only a subtle hint of that twang. That, for me, made it palateable but I would think someone who likes goats cheese might want something to taste a bit stronger ? Having said that, it was a light and fresh dish and was refreshing with the strips of beetroot, especially in the hot Singapore humidity.

Beef carpaccio with Chinese pears, quail’s egg yolk with a yuzu and sesame oil dressing

The beef carpaccio was served with dehydrated Chinese pears, a quail egg yolk (which my friend and I ate around) and a mesclun salad with a yuzu and sesame oil dressing. This dish to me captures what Pamplemousse tries to do – European dishes with an Asian twist. I like the idea, but I found their dishes to be a bit confused and instead of being a perfect fusion of east and west, ended up being a bit schizophrenic.

It’s not that Pamplemousse is not good, it’s just that there are so many places out there, that competition is fierce, and I need that wow factor to make me want to go back again.

Pamplemousse Bistro + Bar
7 Dempsey Road #01-04
Singapore
Tel: +65 6475 0080


Cut Singapore

The insanely good bone marrow flan 

Wolfgang Puck’s Cut Singapore is our new favourite restaurant if we’re in the mood for a great steak.

They’ve really managed to get it right. Dark modern interiors, competent and fun staff, incredibly good produce cooked phenomenally well.

Our favourites:

THE BONE MARROW FLAN. My friend C said she would go there just for this dish alone and you know what, I would do it too. I love bone marrow but can understand why some people are a bit terrified of the gelatinousy goodness. This dish would seriously convert anyone. Executive chef Joshua Brown has incorporated the bone marrow into a silky light custard that’s served in the bone, with an intense mushroom marmalade and capers and with a fresh parsley salad. Perfection on a plate.

Blue fin tuna tartare, with avocado, wasabi aioli, ginger, togarashi crisps and tosa soy.  OK so this isn’t exactly steak but I tried it on the firm recommendation of D, who convinced me by ordering it on three occasions. The Blue Fin is farmed, which is great from a sustainability perspective and doesn’t lack in flavour which is doubly great. It’s a piece of artwork when it arrives at your table and is almost so pretty you don’t want to mess up the plate (but inevitably do). Wonderfully simple, clean flavours.

The meat tray with my Japanese wagyu steak

Cut serves true Wagyu beef from the Shiga Prefecture, Honshu, Japan. The marbling in the beef is an absolute marvel – you just  know will give that succulent melt-in-your mouth texture with that explosion of flavour. And you get to select your steak from a meat tray which the waiters will happily walk you through.

For those of you who are not wagyu converts, Cut also serves a variety of beef from Australian Angus to USDA prime to  and even Australian and American wagyu. Try the bone-in cuts – the flavour of the marrow seems to permeate the beef and as you get to the meat near the bone it always seems more tender and tasty.

Cut Singapore
Marina Bay Sands Hotel Singapore
10 Bayfront Avenue, Singapore
 Tel: +65 6688 8517
Only open for Dinner:
6 p.m. – 10 p.m., Sunday – Thursday
6 p.m. – 11 p.m., Friday & SaturdayBar & Lounge
Opens at 5:30 p.m., nightly

Delicate piped shortbread cookies

I have had a bit of an obsession with shortbread since I made Christmas cookies, and I have found a recipe that makes a cookie lighter than air and that literally dissolves on your tongue.

Ingredients (makes about 25 cookies)

  1. 125g butter at room temperature – get the best you can buy because you can really taste it
  2. 35g icing sugar
  3. 50g cornflour
  4. 90g plain flour
  5. Good pinch of salt if using unsalted butter

Method

  1. Cream butter and sugar till light and fluffy
  2. Add the flours and mix on low speed till you get a soft dough
  3. Pipe shapes on to a cookie tray lines with parchment paper
  4. Put into the fridge for 30 minutes to help them keep their shape while they bake
  5. Heat oven to 180C while cookies are in the fridge and bake straight from the fridge for 20 minutes until golden brown

A quick weekend in New York

Doesn’t look anything like the picture on the cart – but it was yummy nonetheless 🙂

I was recently in New York for work, and I was lucky enough to squeeze a weekend of eating and drinking in that fabulous city.

I ate the whole gamut of food – from pizzas and hot dogs from street vendors and at a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden, to  black miso cod at the divine Nobu, with Pastis and Balthazars in between. I was in heaven.

Fresh Fluke sashimi with dried miso

My first meal was at Balthazar where I was reacquainted with exceptional service – having lived in Asia for the last five years, it’s apparent that my standards have been lowered…attentive but never intrusive, our waitress knew what we wanted before we did. Awesome. And it didn’t hurt that the food there was delicious as well. It was far too dim to even bother taking photos but their chicken liver and foie gras mousse (which I have to say it did look a little scarily on the red side) and their lobster with black truffle risotto that I had were both super smooth and rich, and utterly delicious.

One of Nobu’s signature dishes – black miso cod

Nobu was my next dinner. Marrying his training in Tokyo with influences from his time spent in Peru, the chef served up yellowtail sashimi with jalapenos, fluke sashimi with dried miso, rock shrimp tempura and black miso cod, all of which were the ultimate in Japanese cuisine – using only the best produce with a perfect balance of flavours and textures.

French onion soup at Pastis

Pastis was my last lunch before I had to head to the airport. The brasserie is full with people squeezed into tables so close together they may as well join in your conversation, but once you settle in, it all becomes a nice buzzy blur and you can just enjoy your food with your friends. I had a random meal there starting with French onion soup and followed by pancakes. Don’t know really why, it’s just two dishes on the menu that I felt like that day (it might have been a left over from a few too many champagnes at Beauty and Essex bar in the Lower East Side the night before !). It all worked to close off a very busy week in the Big Apple.  Love it.


Brasserie Gavroche

Uncle Henri’s fish quenelle in crayfish stock

Everything about Brasserie Gavroche oozes Parisian sophistication, from the decor and the staff, including the ever-so-chic front-of-house and part-owner – Charlotte, to the outstanding food cooked by her husband, chef Frédéric Colin. Chef Frédéric – the former Executive Chef at the St Regis in Singapore has some impressive experience prior to that, mostly in France and across the world. And he brings all that together in this bustling brasserie in Tras Street in Singapore.

Brasserie Gavroche has been open just a few months and I am happily eating my way through their menu. So far every dish that has been ordered has been amazing. I’m combining my visits (so far) here in this one post, so please bear with the length, but I want to remember and savour each dish again. It doesn’t matter if you go for lunch or dinner, there is only one menu and everything competes with your brain and tastebuds crying out “choose me ! choose me !”. Making a decision is tough.

Bone marrow with garlic confit on Poilâne toast

Let’s begin with starters: bone marrow on Poilâne bread with garlic confit. Not for the faint-hearted – you get four generous globules of bone marrow with garlic on thin slices of the toasted bread, spread with a bright green parsley spread. The bone marrow simply melts in your mouth, balanced with the freshness of the parsley. All the flavours and textures combine wonderfully in your mouth.

If you fancied something fresh you could try the oysters from Brittany – shucked on premises and tasting of the sea. For something warm and comforting order the French onion soup.

In-house rotisserie French spring chicken with salsify fries

Main courses are equally as exciting. I rarely order chicken in restaurants – my only memory of that was when Chef Andre Chiang was still at Jaan and I ordered the Bresse chicken. The food at Gavroche is so good that I tried the house rotisserie of French spring chicken. French chicken seems to just have a different texture to what I’m used to – it’s slightly “springier” for want of a better word, and Gavroche uses a herb butter under the breast skin, flavouring the breast meat and keeping it moist. And although I don’t eat lamb, my Welsh friend could not stop saying it was the best lamb he’d had – ever. A chat with Chef Frédéric later and we found that the lamb was from Wales. The reason why it tasted better than the more easily accessible New Zealand lamb, was that Welsh lamb is no more than 12 months old, as compared to New Zealand lamb which can be up to 18 months old, keeping the flavour and texture more delicate.

Traditional French onion soup

My absolute favourite of Gavroche was Grandpa Henri’s fish quenelle with crayfish sauce. Almost souffle-like in texture, the light quenelles of fish float in a rich crayfish stock. Another excellent example of balance of flavours in this dish which makes you just want more.

The success of Gavroche, for me, is that only the best is selected – of their produce, their wine. There is no compromise – and the result is you get that true Parisien experience. Make a reservation if you want to go because this place seems to get busier and busier each time I go.

Brasserie Gavroche
66 Tras St
Singapore
Tel: 6225 8266


RIP Grandma Khoo 1918 – 2012

Grandma Khoo’s chilli paste in action in a beef rendang

It seems like ages since I posted anything. I was excited a few weeks ago to share some of the fab eats I managed to squeeze in while in New York for work, and then en route home to Singapore I found out the sad news that my grandmother had passed away on the first day of Chinese New Year.  Highs and lows like I’ve never experienced before.

I do understand that she was just part of a generation that I just think was made of tougher stuff than mine, but I am still in awe of who she was – growing up in the small island of Penang in Malaysia, uneducated and not that well-off, she managed to raise eight children, one of whom she “lost” in the war, and three who passed away before their time. She taught herself English enough to get by when she came to stay with us in Sydney, and looked after my sister and I with both my parents working at the time.

And of course, she cooked.

My grandmother was Nonya, so the food she cooked – Peranakan – had influences from Chinese and Malay cuisines. I have some of her recipes which she shared with me years ago, but trying to replicate when she gave measures like “a few eggshells of water” or “enough liquid to cover your first finger knuckle” (no matter how much rice was being cooked) truly tested my ability to taste but allows for true personalisation.

I’dlike to share a few recipes with you that remind me of her. Because she cooked them with love, for my family and I.

Chilli paste used to make chicken curry

Grandma Khoo’s famous sambal chilli paste blend

This is one of those chilli pastes that forms the basis of sooo many Peranakan dishes and can strangely take on different flavours if you add stock or coconut cream, additional spices, and even the type of protein you use. Make sure you have plenty of good ventilation before frying this paste up or you’re house will smell of curry for days after – it’s potent stuff. I’m going to try to give you some measurements as close as I could come by.

Ingredients

  1. 2 large handfuls dried red chillies, soaked in warm water for at least an hour
  2. 1 cup shallots, peeled
  3. 2 thumb sized pieces of galangal
  4. 6 stalks lemongrass
  5. 1 head of garlic, peeled
  6. good pinch of salt
  7. good pinch of sugar
  8. thumb-sized piece of belacan – dried shrimp paste *optional – this is pungent stuff and may put many people off but it actually adds a mellow umami undertone, similar to anchovies, that makes all the difference

Method

Pull the stalks off the chillies and remove as many seeds as possible. Pop all the ingredients in a blender (grandma used to blend all of these painstakingly with a mortar and pestle before she discovered food processors) and store in an airtight container. It should keep in the fridge for up to 10 days and in the freezer for 3 months. You can use this as a base for dishes like chicken curry with coconut cream, or assam fish curry, with tamarind stock. Experiment and let me know how you go !

Acar (pronounced a-char)

This is a nonya pickle that is great accompaniment to balance out the richness in a lot of nonya dishes.

Ingredients

  1. 1 large carrot, 2 radishes, 1 medium cucumber (skinned and deseeded) – juliened to similar sized sticks
  2. 1 red and 1 green chilli, sliced on the diagonal
  3. 2 tbl white sesame seeds
  4. 1 thumb sized piece of tumeric root – cut into think sticks (use ginger if you don’t have access to this and add 1/2-1 tbl tumeric powder)
  5. sugar and salt to taste
  6. enough white vinegar to cover the vegetables in whatever you decide to store them in
  7. you can also add in cauliflower florets and pineapple to the dish

Method

  1. Blanche the carrot, radish and cauliflower with boiling water. They need to stay crunchy, so I would almost cover them with boiling water, let them sit for 30 seconds then strain
  2. Fry the tumeric root in some oil until fragrant. Remove and discard
  3. Add the vinegar to the pan and bring to the boil
  4. Add the vegetables, stirring regularly for 4-5 minutes
  5. Store in a glass container (not plastic or metal) in the fridge for a few hours before serving to allow the flavours to develop