Thursday, July 30, 2009

It's not often I don't cook a meal. Be it frozen wontons, reheating curry, or even if it's just some sort of really quick and filling soup thing, something would be done in the kitchen before a meal.
Not today.
It was 6:30. I was hungry. There's nothing in the fridge, coz I haven't had time to buy groceries. I wanted something spicy. And meaty. And realised there was a restaurant downstairs that did takeaway.
It's a "new" Chinese restaurant that opened at the beginning of the year, specialising in Szechuan food. And there was a 10% discount for takeaway.
Pretty good deal? Read on.
I ordered a Szechuan spicy chicken. It's basically chicken with a Szechuan pepper and chilli vinaigrette. Very spicy. Salad like cold. I forgot about that last fact when I ordered, but that's ok, coz as long as it's good, I'll be happy.
Obviously, it wasn't.
There wasn't much wrong with the sauce. It was just...lackluster. But the big disappointment was the chicken.
The pieces--all pieces--were on the bone. There's nothing wrong with chicken served on the bone, as long as there's some good meat in each piece.
In my case, it was just bone. OK, maybe it did have some meat. But the meat was less than a third of the piece. Yup, 2/3 bone. Every piece. Fail #1.
But I paid good money - VERY good money (say, half a week of grocery money) for it. Waste not, right? You'd want to eat as much as you can so you get your money's worth, right?
Try eating a piece of chicken on the bone with the bone disintegrating in your mouth. Yeah, I'm not kidding: the bone crumbled. A small poke made the bone crack and break into at least 6 pieces. To the extent it was almost impossible to separate the meat from the bone. Fail #2.
Then there's the skin. It was supposed to be slightly gelatinous. It wasn't. I felt--and saw--the remnants of feathers still stuck on. Actually, there was a full feather still attached. Fail #3.
And to top things off, this cold dish was more than cold: a piece of chicken was actually still frozen. Fail #4.
4 fails. Bin time. A twinge of pain stung my heart as I disposed of the box and its contents, but there was no way I'd finish that. Not tonight, not ever. And I sure won't be getting anything from there again.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Small luxuries

Conpoy fried rice

Fried rice has got to be one of the easiest comfort food made with nothing more than leftovers and whatever happens to be in the pantry and fridge. Usually that'd be stuff like ham, carrots, peas, and pineapple... not quite what I wanted. Luckily, mother left me a small (but sufficient!) supply of conpoy, or dried scallops, proving once again: mothers really do know best.

The price of conpoy has soared significantly over the past few years. Not that it was ever cheap, of course; but it's not the kind of thing you'll need heaps of in any dish, anyway.

Fried rice is usually the last pre-dessert course in a multi-course Cantonese banquet, and conpoy fried rice is probably towards the high-end of middle-of-the-field. But the problem with restaurant versions of this dish is that they skimp on the conpoy. Massively. Which is definitely not the case when it's homemade.


The massive conpoy chunks made for a great ol' load of umami goodness in the fried rice. Delicious was an understatement. The grains of rice popped, having soaked up the umami-filled conpoy soaking water, coated by a thin layer of egg white and accompanied by the chewy chunks of conpoy. A handful of finely chopped spring onion and a smidgeon of minced ginger rounded off the dish satisfactorily.

Rice-ripened persimmon

Dessert was a simple affair: a "water" ripe persimmon, served chilled. The first time I ate a full persimmon was 2 years ago, during a stay at an onsen-ryokan in Hakone. I'll never forget the taste: it was soft, sweet, and juicy, intermingled with jelly-like bits. It was mindblowing. And unbelievable.
And to this day, it is the only time I will eat persimmon. When they're overripe, bursting with watery goodness, and chilled beforehand.
It's quite hard to get this sort of persimmon on the market anywhere. In Hong Kong, the markets will occasionally have a few, wrapped up carefully in layers of fruit netting and styrofoam trays and glad wrap, to prevent any mishaps that could result in a burst--and thus non-merchantable--fruit. Here, though, I've only seen them available for sale as cheap, almost-past-use-by-date at discount prices. If that's not available, there's always the option of burying them in rice, until they resemble water balloons. Literally.

Conpoy Fried Rice (Serves 1)
1 dried scallop, soaked and steamed for 5 minutes
1 stalk of green onion, finely chopped
1/8 teaspoon minced ginger
2 teaspoons oil
2 egg whites, beaten
splash of shaoxing wine
salt, to taste
1/2 cup rice (preferably from the night before)

To prepare the compoy: in a small bowl, cover the dried scallop with boiling water and allow to soak until it has rehydrated and turns an opaque off-white. Steam the compoy for 5 minutes, or nuke in the microwave for 5 minutes, covered, with the water. Separate into strands, and remove any sinewy bits.

Heat the oil in a wok. Lightly fry off the ginger and green onion to release the fragrance. Add the rice, compoy, and a small amount of the soaking liquid. Toss until the liquid has evaporated, and the rice grains are no longer in clumps.
Beat the egg white lightly with a splash of shaoxing wine and a pinch of salt. Add the whites to the wok, tossing quickly to ensure the rice grains are covered by a thin coating of egg white. Season to taste. Serve immediately.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

school dinnahz~

kimchi fried rice, cucumber and tomato salad with miso dressing, miso soup with tomato.
...well, not quite.

I'm back to living in a concrete box fitted only with one microwave, a gas stove with 2 burners (hardly enough) and very limited benchspace. Did I mention that the kitchen sink is literally just a single metallic depression with no plug for the drain? Yeah, it sucks.

But that's not quite enough to stop me from cooking altogether. There are always ways to work around these obstacles, like better meal planning and mise-en-scene (so no Julie from Masterchef-esque messes!). It does take a bit of adjustment, after 3 weeks of cooking in a kitchen with 5 burners, massive bench space and almost every kitchen utensil and ingredient I want at my fingertips.
It's not so bad. At least there's the freedom to cook (almost) anything I want, as long as it doesn't involve an oven. Or two large saucepans/pans/woks going at the same time.
I had leftover wonton fillings left from last night (which involved making 80 wontons, which are now frozen for those days I just can't be bothered to cook a proper meal) which had to be used in tonight's dinner or else it'd go bad. And letting food go bad is just not something I can allow. Making fried rice is just one way of using it up: other methods include steaming, making meatballs, or stir-fried with thin vermicelli noodles.
Kimchi fried rice
Serves 2
1 garlic clove, minced
A handful of kimchi, chopped roughly
2-3 tbsp leftover wonton filling
1 cup rice
1/2 tbsp vegetable oil
salt, to taste
dash of apple cider vinegar (optional)
sesame oil (not!optional)
sugar, to taste (optional)
Heat vegetable oil in a wok or frypan, then fry off garlic until the aromas are released. Add the leftover filling and saute until just cooked, then add the kimchi and saute. Add rice, and continue to stir-fry until all ingredients are well incorporated. Season with salt, vinegar, sesame oil and sugar to taste. Serve piping hot to hungry souls.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

zumbo time!

The name Adriano Zumbo meant nothing to me until early this year, when my venture into the realm of food blogging brought page after page of photos and reviews of his "divinely" dessert creations. Talks of cakes, chocolate and macarons made me drool like a fool during my lonely himono onna* net surfing hours, and the Zumbo name refused to go away.

*himono onna: from the J-Drama Hotaru no Hikari, the term refers to young women who prefer to laze around at home, surfing the net, watching TV and reading manga than to go out with friends during their free time.

Cake Box, Adriano Zumbo

Nestled between a bottleshop and a chemist, the actual Zumbo patisserie is a narrow and long space, with just enough room for a shop assistant (or two), the cakes and a handful of customers at any one time: three is, at Zumbo's, definitely a crowd.

While pastries, croissants and bread feature, the cakes definitely steal the spotlight. Each one is an edible piece of artwork, seemingly careless yet deliberate in its execution, a simple, yet provocative both visually and in terms of taste. No sloppiness, no nonsense.

Sacher's sister Blanca

Like the blondie to the brownie, Blanca is the white chocolate and pear reinterpretation of the classic Viennese Sachertorte. The top layer of white chocolate ganache is creamy and vanilla-y, and unbelievably smooth. The sacher cake provides a lovely background for the white chocolate and pear notes, but to me the dark chocolate ganache is a stroke of genius. Where the other flavours are lovely and light, this packs a punch, providing the perfect contrast.

Upside down Cloud

I've been wanting to try out the Upside down Cloud ever since seeing the collection. A rework of the Zumbo classic, it is essentially a baked meringue pavlova with lemon curd, topped with devine sable dust. The lemon curd is what a lemon curd should be: smooth, rich, and very, very lemony. The meringue crust is crisp and melts in your mouth, the centre soft and slightly chewy. The sable dust rounds off the entire experience, with its buttery scent and grainy texture.

Miss Marple, deconstructed.

This is a dessert from the cafe menu. Maple and mascarpone filled crepes in orange butter, with strawberries and frozen orange jellies. While the crepes didn't have the "wow" factor I expected (it was too gooey and rich), the frozen orange jellies were surprisingly good. It was like eating shaved orange ice which slowly turned into a jelly as it melted in your mouth, before exploding and washing your tastebuds with freshly squeezed real orange juice.

While Zumbo is a little expensive (the cakes were around $7 each, and Miss Marple almost $14), they are worth their price. The quality of ingredients and the genius of the creations are unparalleled, each like a refreshing Murakami novel- the familiar is made unfamiliar through imagination, style, and execution. It is best shared with someone close to your heart: each cake is an experience that can, in itself, carry a full conversation, as well as being quite filling.

Thursday, July 9, 2009


There's something comforting about a bowl of pho.

Thin slices of raw beef floating on top of rice noodles, topped with shallots and thin slices of onion in a rich beef stock... so simple, yet so utterly delicious.

That's when the fun begins.
Cooked or raw bean sprouts? Basil? Chili? Lemon? Each person has their own preferences, and the bowl of pho becomes more than just beef rice noodles. It becomes a reflection of the person who is eating it.
The purist would slurp it all down as is; the indecisive adding this and that every now and then. Then there are those who know exactly what they want, and others who like to experiment... and so emerges the endless possibilities of how pho tastes.
But, the core of it all remains constant, always the same: rice noodles, slices of beef, onion and shallots, in a full-bodied beef broth.
So, how do you like your pho?