Saturday, August 22, 2009

quick meals

There is always a batch of wontons in my freezer. Always.

While most of my friends stock up on Mee Goreng or Nissin noodles when they're on special, chances are I'd be sitting at my desk endlessly wrapping wontons, freezing them one tray at a time.


I don't know.

Growing up in a family that ate predominantly Shanghainese food even though we lived in Hong Kong, the difference between Chinese cuisine styles have occasionally stumped my 2-and-a-half year old self. Like why are the wonton wrappers we use white instead of yellow? Why do we not put prawn mince in the filling? And why do we have veges in the filling? And why are wonton wrappers square while dumpling (jiao zi) wrappers are round?

Why? Why? Why?

...and that's how my nickname, yygall, came into existence.

And also signified how much interest I had in food since a young age.

I remember on one occasion insisting on stir-frying my own fried rice, while mum held me in her arms. And on another cool spring day watching mum wrap wontons at amazing speed. I tried to learn, but honestly can't remember how mine turned out. It probably wasn't until age 7 or so that I could finally do it and the resulting wontons (at least, cooked ones) were indistinguishable from Mum's. To this day our uncooked wontons still look different: most of the time hers would have 2 or 3 dimples, while mine would have 1 or 2. But I've gotten much better at making the filling: one taste, and the difference is there.

Celery, carrot, waterchestnut, shiitake mushroom and pork wontons

Wonton fillings are various, and occasionally unexpected. In Shanghai, a lot of "fast food" stores would have a small collection of fillings, from the 三鮮(San Xian, with pork, dried freshwater prawn or kai yang and preserved vegetable; another popular combination is freshwater fish, prawn and pork mince) to various 菜肉 (vegetable and meat) combinations, depending on what's in season. Most vegetables can be used in the filling, though traditionally leafy greens that aren't bitter, are fresh and fragrant are preferred.

One of my favourites is 薺菜肉餛飩. Shepard's purse is quite popular in Shanghai-style home cooking, for its fragrance and texture. Only the youngest of shoots are used, though; and it's almost never served to pregnant or breastfeeding women, or those with heart disorders (Chinese medicine principles). Another favourite is water celery and pork: water celery is like a smaller, condensed version of normal supermarket variety celery, with most stalks not longer than 30cm and as thick as a pencil. It's refreshing, light, crunchy and oh-so-fragrant; something I can eat every day and not get sick of. Ever.

But, having not yet found water celery yet, this combination of water chestnuts and celery is almost as good. It's crunchy, refreshing, colourful, and fragrant; the combination of flavours and aromas from the pork and shiitake is almost perfect. And the does little in terms of taste and texture, but adds that extra little something visually: after all, we eat with the eyes as well as with our sense of taste and smell.

Why have instant noodles, when you can have this instead?

Celery and Pork Wontons
Makes 80
2 packets of Double Merino Shanghai Wonton wrappers
500g pork mince
1 egg
1/4 celery, finely chopped
10-12 water chestnuts*, smashed then chopped
1/3 carrot, finely diced
4 medium-sized dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked overnight, finely diced

1 Tbsp Shaoxing cooking wine
2 tspn salt
large pinch of finely ground white pepper
2 tspn sugar
1 Tbsp water
1 Tbsp sesame oil

*Frozen water chestnuts are available in the freezer section of some, if not most Asian groceries. They're white, round, almost pebble like in appearance. To thaw, just pop a few in a freezer bag, tie it up, then submerge in a bowl of cold water - this prevents them from being overly waterlogged. Pare off any of the skin that may be on (it's dark brown and woody and inedible), smash with the back of a knife (preferably a cleaver of sorts), then roughly chop.

In a large mixing bowl, place the pork mince, cooking wine, salt, pepper, sugar, and mix through. Beat in the egg and water, mix vigorously until the mince is reminiscent of a sticky dough. Add the sesame oil and mix through til well dispersed. Add the chopped vegetables and mix thoroughly.
For more even distribution of filling, divide the mix into 16 lots (halve the mix 4 times), each lot should have enough filling for 5 wontons.
To wrap, the easiest way is to fold diagonally, then press the 2 corners on the hypotenuse (longest side) together in the middle.
To cook, place the wontons in a large pot of boiling water (no more than 20 at a time), stirring gently but constantly during the first few minutes on medium to high heat. Once it returns to the boil, add 1/2 cup of cold tap water for every 10 wontons. Once it comes to boil again, turn off the heat and serve immediately.
The traditional base for wontons is pork bone soup, but it chicken soup, or even watered down soy sauce with a smidgeon of sesame oil can be used. No dipping sauce required.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


Chronic Ramen.
Two simple words that, somehow, managed to nag me endlessly for weeks, ever since I came across the first blog post on Gamushara (or, phonetically, Gumshara). The thought of thick, tonkotsu (pork bone) stock, chashu and ramen haunted my mind ever since.
To me, anything with yellow noodles is a reminder of Dad. My father is a big noodle lover. A gourmet in his own right. Most of my earliest memories involve food, all thanks to him. On one occasion during my grandfather's visit to HK, he drove his Mercedes to this Dai Pai Dong (HK street vendor) for beef noodles after dinner one night. Just him, and his father-in-law. It was so good, my grandfather talked about it to no end, claiming that the beef noodles he had in HK was "the best in the universe". Nothing else compared, according to Grandad. And it irked me to no end that Dad never once thought of taking me there fo a bowl of beef noodles. It was a grudge I held until last year. And man were they good.
Noodles, to be more precise, ramen, formed one of the two reasons for him visiting Japan (the other being onsen, but that's somewhat a different story). Last year it happened twice: once in January, and the second time in December. Both times I was assigned the task of planning the itiniery (he had bought airfares+accommodation, not tour group, because "my daughter speaks Japanese"), and his only request was for ramen. So instead of going to Tsukiji for sushi and sashimi, we loitered around Shibuya and Shinjuku looking for obscure noodle stands. It irked my mum and aunt so much they decided to take matters into their own hands and went to a kaiten sushi for our last meal in Tokyo, leaving Dad and I to enjoy steaming bowls of ramen with only a plastic sheet between our backs and the hurling winter winds outside.
But the best ramen we've had so far was in Osaka, at a place called Kiou Ramen (亀王らーめん). The 黑肉一本面 had a big piece of Kuroniku, their special boneless pork rib chunk which rested on a steaming bowl of noodles, with the usual sides in a white, thick tonkotsu stock. It was so good we were there for two nights in a row. Had the kid from the other family we were travelling with not gotten ill from indigestion (he ate 2 bowls of ramen the previous night), we probably would've made it three.
So, when Gamushara began appearing on blog posts everywhere (well, almost), I wanted to check it out for myself. See what the fuss was about. And if it lived up to the amazing ramen I've had over the years.
Condiments (self-serve, from left to right): roasted sesame seeds, pickled garlic, pickled ginger.
It was Sunday, and way past lunchtime, so the food court was relatively empty. I spotted the stall at once upon entering the food court: all I could see was the back of a man slaving over a pot of stock, who, upon seeing me with eyes at the back of his head or something, turned around and greeted me with a smile. Orders were promptly taken, and about 5 minutes later the bell was rung.
"If the soup is too thick, just bring it back and I'll thin it down for you."

Tonkotsu Ramen ($8.50) with half-cooked egg ($1.50)
I look down on the tray, and can't help but smile. The stock would be the least of my problems: it was just what I wanted. Thick, collagen-rich, it slid over my tongue and lingered on my tastebuds like velvet. It was almost as good as what I had tasted in Japan, or anywhere, for that matter. The chashu was much leaner than a lot of the chashu elsewhere-it had more meat and less fat, which was the way I liked it. And this was before I tasted the noodles.
Oh, the noodles.
The thick tonkotsu stock clung to each strand, like a child refusing to let go of their parents on the first day of school. It carried the richness and flavour of the stock perfectly; and I was done with half the bowl before realising that the condiments remained untouched on the side. Hastily they were added, and what resulted was a nuttier, richer, with the hint and bite of ginger and garlic which merely elevated the experience. Stares came from the neighbouring table, wondering why this silly little girl sitting on her own with three humungous bags was grinning like an idiot while eating her bowl of noodles. more.
Somehow, I managed to finish the entire bowl. It was only then that I started to feel guilty, remembering all the tales of unfinished ramen and realising my expanding appetite...and gluttony. That I had a special occasion dress to fit into at the end of the week. That I was supposed to be on a "diet" of sorts. That thick, collagen-filled bowls of ramen was definitely NOT diet food.
But the heck with diets. Dad would approve, though he may want a thinner soup. Which means it was worth every single mouthful. And every cent of the $10 I paid.
Gamushara (Gumshara) Ramen
25-29 Dixon Street,
Closed Mondays
Food Court is open 10am-10pm, 7 days.