Thursday, March 26, 2009

Chinese Restaurant At Winner Hotel

Winner Hotel's Chinese restaurant is one of the oldest restaurants in town. Even after bigger and fancier hotels came up, those who preferred taste over ambience would still chose Winner's Chinese restaurant for wedding banquets. But over time the place became really shabby and small compared to TABH, Pan Pacific and Magellan Sutera, which are now the top places for wedding banquets. With the preference for ambience and grandeur first and food last, wedding banquets are terrible gastronomic experiences, and I have not heard of one good wedding banquet dinner in any of these fancy hotels. People just accept the fact that hotels can't do good banquet dinners, with their constraints such as no pork allowed, no msg and no big burning burners and woks and lack of good Chinese chefs. Not only that, with wedding banquets now at 100 tables compared to the modest 20-30 tables in my time, if you arrived late, you don't even get to meet the bride and groom. You are treated to a boring slide show of their youthful days before they met each other, then the mandatory picture of their university graduation, then pictures taken during their courtship and finally, if you are still watching, pictures of their wedding. You make small talk with people you don't know sitting at your table and maybe you can catch a glimpse (if you haven't yet escaped through the side doors) of the couple with their parents on the stage far away doing a general toast and wave to the crowd like the Queen or the Pontiff on special days.

Of all the restaurants for wedding banquets, the best in KK was the now extinct Borneo Hotel, out in the second beach of Tanjung Aru. Borneo Hotel banquet food is legendary in this town. Even at 40 tables, the hotel's restaurant turned out exceptional dishes like deep fried stuffed crab claws, seafood gratin in crab shells, crispy fried chicken, abalone kailan and many more. What a pity this generation is growing up eating substandard banquet dinners. When I was a kid, I looked forward to those dinners because wedding banquets were special occasions thrown by parents to to fete their friends to the best money can buy. In those days, sharks fins were real and the ingredients were of top quality.

The Chinese restaurant in Winner Hotel has recently re-opened after renovation, and I was told that the food is very good. I agree with A, who directed me to Winner, that it is impossible to find a restaurant that serves Chinese-Cantonese food like the old days and Winner is probably the only one left. So with a lot of expectation, 12 of us dined at Winner last night.

I shall call this dinner The Good, The So-So and The Ugly.

The Good


This came steaming hot and the fish maw was flavorful while the soup was not too starchy. Like my FIL said, it was the best fish maw soup so far.


Crispy skin chicken. I could hear the crunch when Wey bit into the skin. Also, unlike many places where the chicken is precooked and re-fried, this was not so the meat was moist and tasty.


This was my favorite of the night, steamed white pomfret Teochew style. Although the pomfret was from the freezer not the tank, it didn't have that frozen smell and taste. The tomatoes, tamarind seeds, ja cai and all made the sauce slightly tangy and sweet while the fish was tender and smooth. Very well done.


Sabah veg with garlic, done nicely leaving the veg crunchy and delicious. As L's mom pointed out, this is a dish that can never be replicated at home, simple as it looks. I agree. Unless you have an inferno for a burner, you will end up with a plate of wet and soft stalks.

The So-So


The hot and cold platter was made up of good and bad appetisers. The jellyfish was good, not overly soaked with bicarb or whatever, the processed fish and prawn fingers were okay, I'm not sure about the duck, the salad prawns was tasteless except for the mayo and the sharks' fins scrambled egg was heavy and wet, ugh.


I am often wary of ordering braised pork leg because I have not eaten any that comes near to my MIL's. Again, I was disappointed. The leg was done soft and tender, which was good, but the taste was somehow 'just almost there'. It was like they either didn't use enough soy sauce or didn't sear it at the beginning. Wey, for whom I ordered this dish, was the first to eat it and he whispered to me, "There's a plastic flavor!" I took a bite and knew what he meant. It was really the flavor of Chinese rose wine, a wine that is so highly scented it can spoil a dish if you use more than say a teaspoon. I once stewed pork belly with an overdose of Chinese rice wine, and Wey made me promise to never cook that dish again. The rose wine Winner had used was lighter in flavor, but still, it was there and I think they should have used Shaoxin wine instead.


Maybe because I like my lotus leaf rice simple, with just the flavor of the lotus leaf infused in good rice, I didn't like Winner's version which had peas, carrots, corn niblets (that trio of frozen veg which spells cheap ingredients), Chinese sausages, ham and I don't know what else. It was like a bad fried rice in lotus leaf.

I really feel that the next dish is at the borderline, between so-so and ugly.


I was looking forward to taro ring with mixed veg, one of my favorite dishes and something I've tried cooking recently without satisfactory results. Winner's taro ring is just as bad as mine, edible but not impressive. A good taro ring should be light, lacy and crispy outside and the mash inside should be soft and tasty. Winner's taro ring has a tasty mash (but would've been better if the ring was thicker so that it'll taste 'meatier') but the exterior was not lacy and crunchy. What made the dish taste even worse was the mixed veg inside, a lapchap mix of baby corn, celery, carrots, peppers, mushrooms, chicken all cut too fine and made too jook (overwhelming in taste) by the addition of 5 spice powder and too much cornstarch.

The Ugly



The much awaited 8-jewel duck. This was a dish I hated as a child, but have grown to appreciate with time. I can do a pretty mean version, but the last time I did one was 15 years ago. The duck has to be deboned, seared and then steamed until even the bones are soft.

What was wrong with this dish? First of all, I will remember when I next cook this to turn the bird upside so that when diners dig into it, they will end up with a spoonful of duck skin, meat and some 'jewels'. This was served with the breast facing down, I think, so the first round for all of us was just skin and jewels. Because it wasn't particularly tasty, or because we were too full by then, nobody went for a second helping. The jewels in the duck were also not my kind of jewels. I didn't count the number of jewels, most of which were lotus seeds, cashew nuts (instead of chestnuts) and pork. I sure didn't taste any Chinese ham. But what really put us off was the ducky smell. I know it wouldn't be a duck without that smell, but it was quite strong and offensive. It reminded me of my goose down pillows which gave me horrible nights of imsomnia until I threw them away.

The total bill came to RM367/US$100 only, which was very cheap since the meal was for 12 diners. Winner doesn't add any tax or charge so rush there before they do. I will be back, but I will stick to certain dishes only.

Winner Hotel
Level 1
Kampung Air
Tel: (088) 243 224

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ferdinand's, The Magellan Sutera Harbour Resort

We haven't been here in years and a friend recently raved about it, so we decided to pay Ferdinand's a visit last night. I don't know if it was because we were late at 8:30, but the restaurant was empty except for one couple. For a place that can seat about 60 people, the restaurant was pathetic.

Ferdinand overlooks the resort's swimming pools, the little beach and the sea beyond so the view is awesome. The restaurant is very comfortable and elegant without being overly posh although they tried, by putting their waiters in silly striped coattails. While I like a lot of privacy when fine dining, Ferdinand's felt out of date and abandoned, like everybody is eating somewhere else we don't know of. So I realised last night that ambience is not just how beautiful the decor and setting are, but also the whole feel. The place felt dead, or about to die.

But, on a positive note, the food was good except for the dessert, and I have made my disappointment known on the questionnaire form they provided at the end of the meal. What I also wanted to say but didn't because I didn't want to appear as a cheapskate, was probably the reason people aren't coming is that in an economically uncertain time like this, RM71/US$20 before tax for two small pieces of lamb rack is ridiculous. I don't know about you, but whenever the food is served at fine dinners, I always feel a funny wave in my stomach, and I have to hold back this terrible urge to suddenly throw my head back and laugh at the big plates and the bird feed portions. I like fine dining for its elegance, and many courses in small portions make very decadent and luxurious dining compared to one big meal of pasta or a giant steak. However, when you have to pay RM40/US$11 for a soup, RM25-30/US$7-8 for a salad, RM60-90/US$17-25 for a main and RM20-30/US$6-8 for a dessert, plus that glass or bottle of wine, and gov't tax and service charge, I have this urge to shout, hey, I could eat an ostrich for that amount of money. I know my mom would say something like that and get a look from me, like, you don't understand, this is fine dining.


We started on a crabmeat salad, RM24/US$7 ++. It was quite ordinary, crabmeat (definitely frozen) with some mayo and a few pieces of lettuce and sun dried tomatoes. I don't know why they are so stingy with the greens, it is a salad after all.

This was accompanied by a basket of assorted bread with the usual tomatoes and eggplant tapenade and a dip of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, on the house. Oh, and a small piece of bruschetta. Then came the little surprise, a lovely lemon-lime sherbet to clear the palate for the next course.


My pan fried cod with an herb crust, RM60/US$17++. The cod was thick in depth but not in breadth, done just nice and very moist, with a flavorful crusty crust. Cod being an oily fish, I couldn't finish this cube of fish unlike steamed cod, which goes very well with rice, which I can never get enough of.


Hub's lamb rack was two little chops of 2 small ribs each rather than a rack. To me, a rack is only a rack if there's at least 3 ribs in one piece, or just have the whole 4 ribs in a piece. But it was done perfectly, crusty seared outside and tender moist inside, RM71.25/US$ 20 ++


These guys (Filipinos are such great singers!) came along and sang at the next table. The Korean guy asked for 'My Way' and I sputtered. I hate that song. I know this is bad of me but I'm annoyed by how Asians love 'My Way'. This song is so over-sung, and is probably the reason I hate going to karaoke joints. And it is a stupid-sounding, draggy naggy song too. The only place I want to hear this song is at a funeral, out of deep respect. "And now, the end is near/here..."

Remember I told you that I never know where to look when singers come serenade at my table? While they were at the other table, I was mentally stressed thinking, where shall I stare, and what song shall I request? Hub looked relaxed and dreamy. Oh oh.

Then they came and sang a lovely song which I can't remember the title of. I could see Hub with a funny look in his eyes. Oh oh. He is such a music person. They finished and asked us what song we wanted them to sing, and Hub said, "More love songs." I was embarrassed so I asked for a chippy Abba song. They did a good version of Chiquichita followed by a Filipino love song (which we requested), "Dahil sayo/Because of You". When they finished, I told them that we were celebrating our 24th wedding anniversary one day early and they said, ah, we have the song for you. It was hard not to laugh but I controlled myself, for they sang "I Don't Like to Sleep Alone"! If they knew how many nights we preferred sleeping alone in the last 24 years after a fight! But, they were good and the cello is such a mellow romantic instrument that I too was taken in by all that love stuff. We both decided that we would still marry each other even if we went back in time. Wine and music really can rob people of their senses.

These guys sure made the dinner special.


Ferdinand's dessert menu is disappointing, with at least 3 out of 6 items being some kind of mousse, which I don't like. So I settled for their apple tart, which was a bad end to a nice meal. The puff pastry tasted of commercial pastry margarine while the apple slices were tasteless because they were sliced so thin. RM18/US$5 ++

Overall, we enjoyed ourselves but I walked away with a pounding headache that is still there this morning. I know it was that Wolf Blass Eagle Hawk Chardonnay, because I've had it before, and I'm never going to drink that again.

p.s they also gave two little favor packs of pretty good home-made chocs on the way out.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Marmite Pork

Marmite pork--yum!

As a kid, I had poor appetite and was skinny and anaemic and my mom would have bottles of Marmite and Bovril at home as prescribed by the doctor. These two very British spreads are still easily available here, even in little grocery shops, and they are the result of Sabah's British colonial rule in the 50s. If you come into my kitchen, you will always see Marmite and Bovril on the counter, in the biggest bottle they come, 470 g. They are as essential as soy sauce and cooking oil and I make sure I'm never out of them. People have comfort blankets, but I have comfort condiments.

Which do I prefer? I'd have to say "Marmite!" even though I do love Bovril too. Sometimes, I'd take a teaspoon of the stuff and eat it just like that and feel comforted that I've had my Vitamin B complex for the day. Truth is, besides the nutritional goodness, I love the salty-savory-sourish taste of Marmite. I love it on bread, on crackers, in my congee, in my noodles and in my rice. I stop at drinking it though. That would be strange, sipping a cup of steaming Marmite.

The Australians and NZders have a vile version of Marmite called 'Vegemite'. I shudder when I type this word, Vegemite. It shows that you can be so close yet so far, even in taste. If I had to , say, pledge citizenship allegiance to Australia by eating Vegemite, I'd fail. Back to Marmite. Do you know why Marmite tastes so good? Marmite is made from yeast extract, a by-product of the beer making process (another plus) and it naturally has lots of glutamic acids, a non-sodium form of monosodium glutamate, those magic chemicals which perk all savory food up with that extra xien/umami taste. For more info on Marmite, check here. For more Marmite recipes, here's the official Marmite site.


Marmite is good enough to eat as it is, but in Malaysia, Marmite lovers use it as a condiment. I've never tasted a good restaurant Marmite chicken or prawns. I think the cooks are too stingy when it comes to using this ingredient and as a Marmite lover, I want to taste the Marmite, not the soy sauce and sugar. The great thing about cooking a dish yourself is that you can add as much of any ingredient as you like. This recipe doesn't make a shy Marmite dish: I used 2 1/2 tablespoons of the stuff. The dish is intense in flavor and taste and you just need a good soup and a plate of garlic fried greens to complete the meal. The sauce is sticky and especially good with plain rice. Hub said "Hmmm!" at first bite and Wey didn't complain like he did earlier when I was frying the pork. He doesn't like sauce-coated fried stuff and thinks deep-fried food should be eaten as they are, nice and crunchy. But tonight, he actually ate most of this dish. I saw the original recipe in a magazine and made some changes, to my convenience and taste, such as doing away with the chopped onions and chili sauce, replacing Chinese black vinegar (partly for the sake of those who have no idea what Chinese black vinegar is) with Worchestershire sauce for a more tangy taste and black soy sauce for a deeper color instead of light soy sauce. Marinading the meat before frying it also made it tastier, and the egg white helped the cornflour to stick better so, yes, this is a winner and I'm inspired to do a similar dish with Bovril and beef.

update: I just made marmite prawns and find them simply the best, better than pork!


Marmite Pork
500g meat*
1 egg white
dashes of white pepper
1 T light soy sauce
1/8 t salt
--marinade the meat with these ingredients for at least 1 hour. Alternately, you can use 1 T of the Marmite sauce below to marinade the meat, but add the egg white.

2 to 2 1/2 T Marmite
1 T Lea & Perrins Worchestershire sauce
1 T tomato sauce
2 T caster sugar (or honey)
1 t dark soy sauce
100 ml water (omit if using honey)
--mix well

For frying: 1 cup cornstarch + 2 cups veg oil

* you can also use lamb, pork, pork ribs or large prawns with shells on, chicken boned or with bones

1. Chop or cut the meat into rectangular (not cubes because it may be too thick & hard) pieces about the size of a large walnut (I can't think of anything else). If using chicken with bone on, cut it bigger, say the size of a large egg.

2. Marinade meat for 1 hour.

3. Coat each piece of meat with the cornstarch (you can shake them in a plastic bag) to cover completely, shake off excess.

4. Heat up 2 cups of oil in a wok and deep fry meat in medium heat until golden and cooked. Blot on kitchen paper.

5. Pour all the oil away, wipe the pan or wok with paper towels to clean and add the sauce ingredients. Let sauce cook at high heat until it is very thick, then add the fried meat pieces, tossing well until the sauce is all absorbed by the meat. Remove onto a plate & sprinkle some sliced hot chilies for extra oomph. Serve with plain rice. Eat with fingers.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Green Tea Red Bean Roll

green tea
Green tea roll

The first time I ate green tea cake was in Singapore years ago, from a bakery called Sun Mou Lin. I remember I was hooked on it and couldn't get enough of the moist, light and subtly flavored cake. Green tea cakes came to KK after that, but until now none of the local bakeries do a good version. That is, until Lorrine of Ganache (she takes orders!) came along, and her green tea cake is my absolute favorite. Because green tea can be very subtle, it is not easy to make a good green tea cake. You can't add too much green tea powder to the cake or it'll taste slightly bitter and dry, giving your tongue a pulling, dehydrated kind of feeling. Apparently this dehydrating feel is the reason why people drink green tea: green tea draws out the oil from the food in your guts. I've been told many times by my friends in China and Hong Kong that the reason why Chinese people don't put on weight easily despite eating being their national hobby is because they drink lots of tea throughout the day. It is common to have a pot of tea brewing in Chinese homes, just like how coffee lovers have their coffee machines on 24/7. Old folks will say "Tea washes your guts" as they chomp on their 5th piece of stewed belly pork.

Green tea powder is called macha in Japanese. I made this cake using Japanese macha I had bought from Cold Storage in Singapore, and I am very disappointed with the results. The green tea flavor is almost nil and the cake looks more beige than green. I shouldn't be surprised though because I know macha should look greenish-yellow. Macha from cake ingredients shop give a stronger flavor and color, but the resulting cakes will still be light greenish-yellow, not green. I can safely bet that any green tea cake out there that looks greenish has loads of green coloring in it, so be warned.

Instead of making the usual green tea gateaux, I decided to use a semi hemispheric 'cassata' pan that I make my jellies in, an idea I saw in Alex Goh's book, Fruity Cakes, and from where I got the recipe for the sponge too although I had to adjust some of the ingredients. The sponge is light, but can be moister. I also added little chunks of kiwi fruit, just because I have it. Okay, it was really just to give the cake a bit of green color. I didn't mix the red beans with the whipped cream because I didn't want the beans to color the cream and so I added the beans in the center of the cake.

If you are tired of rich sinful cakes, try this light angelic green tea cake. And if you are sensitive to green tea like me, remember to not eat this cake at night. I couldn't sleep all night after eating this cake plus a few cups of fragrant green tea.

Green Tea Red Bean Roll

The Sponge
A: 4 large egg yolks
50 ml milk (or use diluted cream)
50 ml corn oil
85 g cake flour
1 1/2 T good macha powder
1/2 t double action baking powder

B: 4 large egg whites
1/8 t cream of tartar
80 g caster sugar

1. Preheat oven to 170 C, grease and line a 32 cm x 32 cm (13" x 13" ) baking tray*. Sift the flour, baking powder and macha powder together.

2. Using a hand whisk, mix all the A ingredients in a bowl until smooth.

3. Put the egg whites and cream of tartar into your electric mixer bowl and beat until the whites are foamy. Add all the sugar and beat until stiff peaks stage; do not beat beyond that or the whites will loose its holding strength.

4. Add about 1/3 of the beaten egg whites into 'A' batter to lighten it, then pour the 'A' batter into the remaining whites and quickly fold (I use my hand) to mix well.

5. Pour batter into the baking tray, level it and bake 25 minutes. Cool cake completely.

* or use a 23 cm (9") round cake tin. Cut the cake into 2 or 3 layers when cool and fill the layers.

Filling: fresh fruits (optional), 3/4 cup cooked red beans, 1 1/4 cups dairy cream (more if making a round gateaux), 1-2 T sugar

To assemble, cut the cake to fit a semi hemispheric pan and line the pan with the cake. Whisk the dairy cream with the caster sugar until stiff. Add some chopped fresh fruits and cooked red beans to the cream (or you can add the red beans after filling the cake with the cream) and fill the cake with the cream mixture. Cut another layer of cake to fit the top and cover the cake in the pan with that. Cover the cake with cling film and leave in the fridge for at least 3 hours before serving.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Ma Po Tofu

ma po tofu
Ma po tofu

I have eaten great ma po tofu in Australia and even Singapore but in Malaysia, this spicy signature Sichuan dish has always been elusive. Just as in the less authentic Chinese restaurants in most countries other than China, ma pa tofu in Malaysia has been adapted for local tongues and the dish is totally different from the real thing in Sichuan, China. Our local version is a plate of bland wimpy tofu bonded with cornstarch sauce that tastes of tomato ketchup, far from the authentic version that hits your taste buds and nasal cells with the wonderful combination of chili oil, Sichuan peppercorns and hot broad bean sauce. But of all the countries, ma po tofu is the most unauthentic in Japan, where it is very popular but is totally adulterated into a thick saucey dish that doesn't taste a bit like the original ma po tofu.

It is almost like a test of a restaurant's authenticity to me, whenever I order ma po tofu. Just by the look, I know whether the dish is authentic. There should be red chili oil, lots of it so that instead of a cornstarch sauce, the tofu swims in red oil. There should be Sichuan peppercorns, usually in powder form. There shouldn't be thick gooey sauce, although I have been wrong on this because I have come across a ma po tofu that looked too corn-starchy yet it it had the flavor of the Sichuan peppercorns, hot broad beans sauce and chili oil, which are absolutely essential to the dish. I think cornstarch is added when there's too much liquid in the dish and a lot of liquid makes it easier to turn the tofu pieces without breaking them up. Definitely an amateur's trick.

Hot broad bean sauce from China. These sauces are very salty and the best are the ones with some whole broad beans intact. Brands vary in taste, so get a good one. Lee Kum Kee's hot bean paste is not.

Even with all the essential ingredients, ma po tofu can turn out bland. That was my ma po tofu before meeting Leila, who's from Chengdu, Sichuan. I used to cook a bland ma po tofu because my tofu was cut too big and I thought a shorter cooking time will result in softer, silkier tofu. Leila taught me two important tips about cooking ma po tofu: the tofu must be cut small, to increase the surface area so that more sauce can coat the tofu, and equally important, so that the tofu will not break up into a mess (think span and tension). Tip no. 2 is that you must let the tofu cook for at least 5 minutes or longer in the sauce. Leila lets her tofu cook gently for nearly 10 minutes, but I can't wait so I don't.

In KK, I like the home-made tofu from a lady who has a stall next to Chiu Tai Seng. I never liked sui (water) doufu (as white beancurd is called in Chinese) and it was only recently that I've come to like tofu especially after eating home made tofu from this aunty. Most tofu in our markets is coagulated with calcium sulphate which masks the subtle soy beans flavor and makes tofu slightly firmer (ideal for making stuffed tofu) and more easier to handle. One stall in Lido makes silken tofu with fruit acid, but the tofu is not very fragrant, probably because the soy bean milk is not concentrated. I dislike the fact that everybody dips their hands into the trough of water where the tofu is immersed without using a plastic bag or glove. I also dislike the silken tofu packed in a plastic container; the tofu never comes out whole. A good strongly soya bean-flavored silken tofu makes all the difference to this dish.

sichuan peps
Sichuan peppercorns are pink and naturally cracked open.

One last word on ma po tofu. Apparently there are two stories to the name of this dish. Ma (as pronounced in the second intonation) means pocked-marked while po means grandma, and a certain pocked-marked lady in Sichuan was said to have come up with this dish long ago. However, ma also means numb, and the second story says that the word ma refers to the distinct Sichuan flavor called mala which means numbing hot, a sensation that comes from the Sichuan peppercorns and la means spicy-hot, which comes from chili oil. I never knew Sichuan peps had that numbing property until I went to Sichuan about 3 years ago. Up to then I thought the pink Sichuan peps had this nice distinct flavor that is different from white or black pepper. It turned out that the Sichuan peps we get in this country (and probably elsewhere other than China) aren't fresh enough to give the ma sensation. Leila insisted that I store the Sichuan peps she brought me in a glass container in the fridge to retain the freshness. If you haven't experienced ma, you must. Take a Sichuan pep and chew it with your front teeth. Within seconds, the tip of your tongue will tingle and you'll feel some bubbles effervescing on it and then a slight numbness will take over. It's fun and addictive. I love the thrill of mala. I dream of visiting Chengdu and Chongqing in Sichuan and eating all the mala food. Imagine a cuisine where not only the flavor is important, but the sensation too. Amazing.

Ma po tofu is a dish full of flavors and is best eaten with hot plain rice.

Ma Po Tofu
500g silken beancurd
150g beef or pork, minced
2 T hot broad beans paste
1/2-1 T light soy sauce (optional)
1 T fresh ginger, minced
1 T garlic, minced
2 T Sichuan peppercorn oil
2 T red chili oil
1/2 t Sichuan peppercorns, freshly grounded
1/2- 1 cup Swanson's chicken stock
2 T spring onions, cut fine
2 T Chinese leeks, in 1.5 cm diagonal lengths

1. Cut the tofu into 1.5 cm or 2 cm cubes, put into a colander to drain away all water. There's no need to blanch the tofu.

2. Heat the Sichuan peppercorn oil in a wok, or just use veg oil and add 1 t Sichuan peppercorns when the oil begins to smoke. Lower heat to medium. You can remove the peppercorn or let it remain in the oil. Quickly (the peppercorns burn easily) add the bean paste. Fry a couple of seconds until fragrant. Now add the chopped spring onions, garlic and ginger and fry in medium heat for a couple of seconds.

3. Add the minced meat, breaking it up to separate and to mix well. Fry for a minute or more, until the meat is nearly cooked. Add 1/2 T light soy sauce.

4. Add the 1/2 cup chicken stock (remember that the tofu will release liquid as it cooks), then the tofu and stir carefully. Cover, and let it simmer (medium heat) for 5-7 minutes.

5. Add the leeks, stir well to mix. Taste and add more stock only if necessary (not too much or the dish becomes bland and watery), bean paste or soy sauce to taste. If there's too much water, you can thicken with a cornstarch solution (2T cornstarch : 2 T water) but this is not very authentic.

6. Remove onto a plate and sprinkle with grounded Sichuan peppercorn and chili oil.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Celery Stir-Fry

Celery stir-fry

This is my MIL's na shou (expert) dish. Although simple, I can't get it as good as she does. The secret lies a lot in control of the heat used in cooking this dish. I usually stir up a slightly charred veg (heat too high) or watery dish (heat too low) that tastes very different from Ma's. This CNY, I stood watching her, memorizing how she quickly fries every item, washing the wok after frying each item, tasting as she fried (which I never do) and combining it all perfectly without overcooking or undercooking, at just the right temperature so the veggies don't dry up nor sweat.

In Chinese meals, instead of salad, a simple plate of greens fried with garlic is always on the table. Well, in my home at least. I think that simple fried veg is the best way to eat your greens because the quick frying doesn't destroy much vitamins yet reduce the veg to half the volume so that you eat much more than you would compared to uncooked veg, as in salads. Serve this as an alternative to that daily plate of greens and even the kids will eat it. All my three kids love celery. If you are one of the unfortunate ones who hate celery, you can substitute it with stem kai lan (the type without leaves), Japanese squash and even cucumber or any veg that does not go too soft upon frying. The cashew nuts are optional.

Celery Stir-Fry
3 stalks celery
1 small carrot
1/2 pkt (about 200 g) fresh waterchestnuts
1 can button mushrooms (fresh ones are not used bc they can darken the sauce)
200g chicken breast
1 pkt (about 200g) fresh baby corn
salt and pepper
homemade chicken stock or 1/2 can Swanson's chicken stock
veg oil

garnish: toasted or fried cashew nuts (optional)

1. String the celery to remove the hard veins. Cut each celery stalk into 2-3 long strips lengthwise and then cut into diagonal pieces about the size of your thumb.

Peel and cut the waterchestnuts into small cubes about the same size as the celery. Do same with the carrot, button mushrooms and baby corn. Cut the chicken breast into similar-sized cubes and marinade with salt & pepper and a heaped teaspoon of cornstarch and a teaspoon of oil.

2. Heat the wok up, add about 1 T oil and fry the celery. Add a pinch of salt and fry, then add about 2 T of chicken stock and fry until it is about half-cooked. Remove onto plate. Rinse the wok and re-heat, and fry the corn (again add salt and a little bit of stock) until half-cooked. Remove corn to plate, wash the wok and fry the carrot the same way. Since the carrot will take a little longer, cover it while it cooks. When carrot is 1/2 done, add the waterchestnuts and mushrooms to the carrots, fry and season again. At all times, there shouldn't be much liquid/stock so make sure you add the stock in small amount just to keep the veg from searing and also the heat should be adjusted up or down. eg if you are frying each veg, the heat should be medium but increase it to high when you add the veg together because more heat is needed. The heat is best when it's high enough to keep the veg from 'sweating' out any liquid yet not too high to burn the veg.

3. Now add 2 T oil to the clean wok and fry the chicken (this is the healthy way. If you don't mind the oil, you can use 1/2 cup of oil to fry. This is done in the restaurants to get quick, even cooking and tender & better tasting meat but it is oilier even after you pour away most of the oil after frying) until it is about 3/4 done. Now add all the other fried veg and keep tossing and frying. Taste and add more salt if necessary. This dish should be refreshing to the palate so don't add too much salt.

You can thicken with cornstarch solution but because the chicken had been marinaded with cornstarch, the liquid from the veg will thicken the liquid slightly. I find that this dish tastes better without any cornstarch thickening.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Kuishin-Bo, Singapore

Yeah, we ate Japanese again, and it was the same Kuishin-Bo lunch buffet I had on my previous trip to Singapore about 6 months back. Hub's Uncle Bernard and wife insisted on treating us to the buffet again so there we were, at 12 noon when the office crowd streamed in and the whole place was like a funfair.

Kuishin-Bo specializes in buffets and the quality is not compromised by the variety. The nett price is S$26.90/RM65/US$17 for lunch and S$35.90/RM86/US$23 for dinner and I'm told that the major difference in the dinner buffet is the Hokkaido snow crabs and better sashimi. However, as buffet goes, too much of anything makes it loose some appeal so this time I just stuck to two plates of main and one dessert. And oh, I had 3 cups of the best chawan mushi ever ever and some beef nabe. I felt a little sick after that, and skipped dinner. Buffets are wasted on me.



Those are topshells, which were chewy and rather bland unfortunately because I think they had been frozen. There were grilled sanma, saba, squid and tempura which I really had to pass as my waistband was cutting into my stomach.


Beef nabe.


There were many items from which you can choose to have teppan style. Beef shouldn't go wrong you'd think. But it was disappointing. The beef was bland and not as tender as I would've liked.


Kushin-Bo makes the silkiest, softest chawan mushi (steamed egg) I have ever tasted, unusual for a buffet joint. I rejoiced at the silken texture with each spoonful. There were 2 gingko nuts at the bottom while on top was a slightly thickened sauce that was probably made with dashi and mirin. The amazing thing was you'd think the custard will harden with constant steaming because the cups were kept simmering in a bamboo steamer but I went back for another two cups (yes, I had 3 cups) and they were all out of this world. I was at Five Sails, Sutera Magellan last Sunday for lunch buffet and their chawan mushi had the firm texture of creme caramel. No good.


I enjoy konyakku jelly for their bite, and those jelly 'caviar' are fun to eat. And I love jellies because they aren't fattening like cakes and creamy desserts.


I was told that mochis made from Japanese glutinous rice flour taste best but these were quite ordinary.

Kushin-Bo's lunch buffet is definitely value for money. There were many more items, including dried scallops and ginseng congee, soba, somen plus the usual beverages and teas. Be sure to make a booking because they are full everyday.

Kushin-Bo, Tower 1 , Suntec City
Tel:6836 5877

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Nanbantei Japanese Restaurant, Singapore

Singapore shopping is all about Orchard Rd isn't it? Yes, you can go to Vivo City or Raffles City and others but Orchard Rd has all the brands and shops the other places have, plus more, and even the same brands carry more variety of merchandise than the other places. So that's why we ended up on Orchard Rd day after day, and Hub slept on any chair he could find while Yi and I wore a hole in his wallet. The good thing about having a shopping companion who doesn't shop is you can dump all your bags with him while he sits/sleeps. You only need to make sure he gets to eat on time and everything will be alright.

The economy slowdown is very obvious in Singapore. There were not many tourists, and on any day on Orchard Rd, there was hardly a crowd. I've never seen Orchard Rd so quiet. Although Tang's Great Sale was on, the payment counters were free of any queues.

As Yi wanted to check out Far East Plaza, we decided to have dinner in a long-established yakitori (Japanese charcoal grilled meat and veggies) restaurant situated in the same building. We loved the pork yakitori in Takashimaya and I wanted to pig out on all things yakitori, washed down by a cool beer. I had bought a little book called Appetite Guide To Japanese Restaurants In Singapore 2009 from Borders and Nanbantei was in the area. I think Japanese food must be the second most popular cuisine in Singapore, after their own food. And btw, there's no need to pay S$5 for the book like I did. If you eat in any Japanese restaurant, ask for the book and it's free, one to a table. Bummer.

Nanbantei apparently has been around for over 20 years, specializing in yakitori. What I like about the place is that their exhaust hood was so powerful that when I got out of the restaurant, I didn't smell like I had been smoked. My sweater (I've discovered that in super hot Singapore, you must bring a sweater if you shop indoors--their aircons are on full blast) remained floral-scented from the Chloe spritz in Tangs.

We ordered two yakitori sets plus an a la carte order of beef tongue. Between the two of us, it was too much food (surprisingly) and Yi didn't help much as she went in and out of the restaurant to check out the (old) shops in the plaza. All the yakitori were very good, but I think if two people were dining, it's best to order one yakitori set and a non-yakitori dish to share. As it is, we ended up with 20 +1 (the extra order of tongue) sticks of yaki which is a bit much because yakitori is seasoned well and you need to eat it with plenty of plain rice to neutralize the saltiness which means you'll be up to your throat with food.


The wedge of cabbage was surprisingly sweet and tasty. You tear off the leaf and dip into the miso sauce if like but I found it was unnecessary.


Sashimi in Singapore is always, always better than in KK.


The first sticks to arrive were asparagus wrapped in pork, and some leaf veg and chicken wraps on top. MmmMmm.


Next was okra and pork belly, something (I've forgotten) wrapped in pork belly, shiitake mushrooms and plain okra.


Nanbantei's famous house tsukune chicken balls and leeks n pork shoulder, I think.


I love this, grilled gingko nuts with coarse salt, something I first ate in Shanghai. It was creamy, slightly sticky and sweet-salty and the gingko flavor was strong. I hope it helped rejuvenate my memory cells some.


A grilled tiger prawn and a miso sauce-covered stick of tender beef.


Some grilled quail eggs, chicken liver and I can't remember what else.


Buttery, sweet & crunchy, which was probably because it was grilled raw and not parboiled, this a la carte order of beef tongue with a sprinkle of shichimi-togarashi Jap 7-spice powder (I think) was very good but not cheap at S$9/US$5.40 each stick.


Dessert was thick red bean with a ball of soft mochi.

Including a miso soup and plain rice, the sets were about S$32-34/US$21-22 each, which was not cheap considering that this place was price-rated one $, the decor was unimpressive and the building and the shops were rather ancient. I can't imagine the bill at Tatsuya in Goodwood Park Hotel, which is the only Jap restaurant in the guide book price-rated at $$$$$. Frightening. I am looking forward to eating at Akashi on my next trip because it sounds like a great place to eat for only $$ and it's easy to find, at Paragon on Orchard Rd.

Since there are many yakitori-ya (restaurants that specialize in yakitori) in Singapore and even Tangs and Takashimaya offer yaki sticks, at 1/3 of the restaurants, I don't think I'd come back specially to eat in Nanbantei because the yakis were very good but not outstanding. Come to think of it, all yakitori I have eaten anywhere taste great so there's no point searching to the ends of the world for a good yakitori restaurant. That said, there can be bad yakitori restaurants too, but I've been lucky so far.

Nanbantei Japanese Restaurant
#05-132 Far East Plaza, Scotts Rd
Tel: 7633 5666

Friday, March 6, 2009

"So, Tell Me, Why Do You Blog?!"

She crossed her arms and looked at me straight faced, and said like a discipline teacher to a bad student, "I look at your pictures (and this is where I was ready to be modest and say, no, my photos are not that good) and the effort you put in, and so (hand to head, like in frustration), tell me why do you blog and give away your recipes?!" And before I could even recover, she said, "Do you know how much danger you are exposing yourself to?!" Another friend piped in, "Yeah, and you reveal so many things!" And the conversation goes on about how young people are stupid to expose themselves online and blah blah blah. How about some nice words and encouragement, my friends?

I have been reading John Ortberg's Living The Life You've Always Wanted the last few days, and one sentence in Chapter 11 touched me, "Imagine if each time you saw another person your first thought was to pray for him or bless her." This is in special reference to people who offend you or, in Ortberg's words, " Imagine what it would be like if, any time you were challenged or anxious, your reflexive response would be to turn to God for strength." When N asked me in that tone, I tried to put what I read to work, and instead of shooting back with daggers and claws, as I would usually do, I mumbled something about having too much time with nothing better to do, that I enjoyed making friends with people of similar interest I've met online and that I've learnt many new recipes from others too. Later, at home, as I thought about it, I was upset at the way the person had put it, in that tone, like I am a looser to let everybody have my recipes for nothing and at the suggestion that I've been stupid by exposing myself to online dangers. This person informed us that her son is on Facebook, "but he makes sure his photos are not on it." I can safely say that if he does that, he has missed the point of joining Facebook, and he won't have many friends and acquaintences. It's like getting into a relationship and not giving your best shot because you are afraid of being hurt. The relationship won't go anywhere, so what's the point.

That doesn't mean I think it is wise to put up boudoir pictures of yourself on Facebook. I would be very upset if my children were careless on the net. I would still tell young people to be careful, very careful, with what they post, whether it is a photo of themselves half naked or a lamentation about their boss. Recently, I read an article about how prospective employers request information from headhunters regarding potential employees' online habits, personality and background as revealed in their blogs, Facebook and so on. So before you start dissing your boss in your blog, you better remember that that 3-second loss of insanity may cost you a future job, and that high from one romantic night as revealed on your blog may cost you a respectable spouse one day. Sometimes I do let my guard down, and start saying things that I shouldn't or post photos that I wouldn't have done so 2 years ago. Yes, it gets so comfy sometimes I forget my blog is open to the world. I was jolted when I went to a blog through another and read about how this guy found his 8-year old daughter's photo, which he had put up on his family blog, in a Japanese site that blogged about perverted sex. Although the pervert did not alter the photo, it was bad enough to have your child's photo put up in a paedophiles's blog. People can use your photos, remember that. That is why I have started to watermark my photos. Which also brings me to the issue of copyright.

Somebody emailed me that one of my articles was to be published in a magazine (not identified to me) in Feb and distributed to all the major bookstores like Borders and Times. I was pretty upset that the letter was more to inform me, and not to seek my permission. I refused, and they have replied that they won't publish it. If any of you notice my posts published anywhere but on my site, please tell me. I also think it is bad manners to copy in entirety anybody's posts and put it on other sites without asking, and not giving credit to the person who wrote it. I am told that many bloggers face this problem, especially in this country, and even mainstream newspapers are doing it. It is shameful, and nothing less than stealing other people's work especially if they are making money from it. Posts on websites are for all to read, but permission and credit must be given and the writer has the sole rights to his/her posts. This is especially so in the USA where copyright notices are not required for written work as long as you can prove it is yours, from what I've found out. I may be wrong on this, and would love some feed back if you know about this.

So, getting back to my point. Before I continue reading Ortberg, and a halo starts to hover over my head and hold me back from reacting, I want to reply this friend. Online, so I can say all I want. And that's the beauty of having a blog: I can express myself, my opinions and let out my grouses to nearly 1,000 readers per day and you can't stop me. This influence comes with readership growth although that was not what I was looking for when I first started blogging.

3 years ago, I couldn't restart the computer if Microsoft failed to start up properly. I couldn't attach a file to my email. My only knowledge of computer software was when I prepared spreadsheets. I knew nothing about blogging. I couldn't upload photos from my camera because I had my Hub and my son Ming to help me. I just needed to holler. Then one of my kids went through an emotional period, and I found out she had something called a blog. I began to check on her, and my days were dependent on if she was up or down. From there, I discovered the world of blogs, especially food blogs. Then one fateful night, I had a bad dinner at the just-opened Delifrance and I told my son Ming I wished I could tell people how bad the food was. He suggested that I start my own blog, since I've always loved to write, and with his help, the rest is history.

Now back to what my answer would've been if I didn't suppress myself. The overriding reason why I blog now is because I am a housewife with lots of time, and blogging has become a hobby. I am trying very hard not to blog at night. The first year of blogging, I stayed up until 3 am sometimes and my first white hairs appeared. As a hobby, blogging has pushed me to pick up photography, which I'm very much in need of honing. Blogging has also brought me many new and wonderful friends, some of whom I've met in person and am very comfortable with. I am naturally a people person, and I've kept in touch with a pen pal from Japan since I was 15 (although we've lost touch in the last three years or so). Many have written to me about their families, and how their expanded list of recipes and cooking have made meals more delightful, and their kids more interested in cooking. One person wrote me about coming to church (since I don't hide the fact that I'm Christian) and I hope she'll write me again and save me from sorting through my mail to get her. Letters like these lift my heart and make me feel good that in some way, my time and effort have not gone to waste. Through blogging also, a couple of readers have shared with me their struggle as parents and I appreciate it when people trust me enough to share their problems. I don't regret writing about my struggles as a parent. In fact, I want my kids to one day read those posts when they are parents themselves. I also hope that in my small way I can help people in similar situations see their problems from a more positive angle. And in turn, readers have been very supportive and encouraging when I am down. Lastly, I am the recipient too of many recipes tried and tested by other food bloggers who have generously given their cooking experiences and recipes for free. I have a list of food bloggers and reviewers whose recipes and opinions I trust and refer to. I belong to a community of food lovers, all of whom so far have been wonderful to know, even if it's online. I look forward to and appreciate readers' comments (but there are too few and I do get discouraged).

I also blog to record my cooking adventures so that my kids, friends and myself can have easy access to recipes that work. Not all cookbooks give accurate measurements, and experience and trusted recipes make the difference when it comes to cooking.

Many have asked me why I'm not doing this for money, and I've had a couple of enquiries on advertising costs on my blog now that readership is up. I do intend to put up more widgets for ads, so that when somebody asks why I blog, I can say "It's for money" and feel proud of myself that I'm not an idiot giving away recipes for free.

So now that I've given my reasons, I have a question for N: Why do you read blogs? Or even go on the internet which is mainly jammed with information put up not only by companies and authorities but also bloggers.

This is 2009, friend, and blogging is here to stay.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Kev & Jo's Anniversary Dinner

(For optimum reading pleasure, please click on the widget on the right to hear the special song of the day :))

Kev is one of the most romantic man I know. His love language is gift-giving especially to his wife, Jo of A Feast. Kev loves to give Jo presents (I still remember that one of his first gifts to her, when she was in Form 5, was a bottle of Joy perfume and a watch) and surprise dinners on her birthdays and their wedding anniversaries. I remember a surprise birthday dinner at TABH one year and poor Jo was the worst dressed among the guests because she thought it was an ordinary family dinner. For their 30th wedding anniversary (gosh, they were precocious!), Kev offered to splash on a big celebration dinner and to take Jo to Bangkok and Singapore but she insistently refused. He was a little upset.

What Kev didn't know was that Heather, their beautiful daughter who works in Shanghai, had plans for a celebration weekend and dinner for her parents' anni. She had to let her mom in on the plan so that her dad wouldn't whisk her away. It was such a well-kept secret that Kev couldn't even recognize his first child as she walked through the gate a couple of days ago. Part of the reason was probably she had a French man in tow.

William is a young French chef (do all French man have a bod like yours, plus cook like you?) who works in Shanghai and what better way to meet your gf's parents than on a surprise visit where you are to prove your culinary skills to a couple who cook and talk food all the time. Of course if you're working as head chef in a top restaurant that is vying for 2 Michelin stars, you'd be confident enough to take on such a challenge.

Last night's dinner was limited to a prestigious few: Kev's best friend Brian and his wife Jo, Kev's bro Reuben and his wife Lina (Ben was best man at their wedding, as he resminisced in his toast), and my Hub and I, me being Jo's best friend I hope (Jo, I have been blessed by your friendship all these years). Brian and Kev were colleagues and some of you know who Brian's famous son is but since they love KK and want to live here incognito, I won't be telling. Rueben and Lina are excellent cooks too, I'm told, although I've yet to attest to that (are you guys reading this??).

How often can you get a professional chef to cook at home? From the flowers on the dining table to music from Cynthia McCorkindale's Bistro Blues album, which I love, to the menu that also acted as our place cards, to the thoroughly enjoyable company, everything was just beautiful. Even the weather was beautifully cool as we sat al fresco in Jo's patio where the large outdoor kitchen was taken over by calm and cool William, who teased our sense of smell as he cooked, making us wonder in hungry excitement what he was whipping up for us. Jo's 3 girls were excellent butlers (hey Don and Bryan, you missed out big time!). I could go on, but I'll let the photos tell you what we had:



I've had too much cheap champagne and this giant bottle from Moet & Chandon is proof that you mustn't scrimp on fine things. This champagne is absolutely delightful, full of bubbles and not a bit sour. I'm sold. No more cheap bubbles for me.

My Documents

My Documents1

The kids had a prawn penne dish, very subtle and light which Wey wasn't used to. I stole a few bites and wished it was part of our menu too.


Appetizer was candied cherry tomatoes, lightly sweet outside to balance the slight sourness inside, crisp outside to crunch with the liquid inside. Now this looks simple, and I'm sure most of us can do a version of this. But you'd have to get the toffee to coat to the perfect thickness so that it won't be too thick to chew or too thin to not be tasted, and the sugar to taste just right, not too sweet or bitter.


This was truly amazing: a medium-thick broth of prawns heads and shells that had been brewing all day until it was reduced to a small amount. It had the flavor of lobster bisque, only more intense. Absolutely lovely. If I were to do this, I don't think I could get the taste right.


This salad was perfect served in a glass, because the flavors of the salad are layered--you first start with the greens (William, like all good chefs, used local ingredients. He ditched mesclun and rocket, which are pricey here, and used--surprise--local red bayam and pea sprouts) dressed in a beautiful orange sauce, then to the next layer that tastes of basil which refreshes your palate and then to the bottom of the glass where an avocado and orange paste awaits. Along the way, you munch on the grilled tiger prawn, fresh, sweet and perfectly cooked with a superb orange sauce (Jo, I need this recipe!) that had been reduced from hours of simmering.


William specializes in seafood and pastries, and for our mains, he dared cooked local tuna. I have never cooked local tuna well, and I avoid eating it too because cooked tuna steaks are often hard and dry, tasting like wood I imagine. I wished I had watched William cook this, because the tuna was just cooked, about 95%, and again, I've noticed, William was excellent in controlling the taste and the salt level. A superb piece of fish, served unexpectedly on bean sprouts and sauteed brinjals, topped with a sauteed leek and a secret tangy sauce.

Have you noticed that we weren't served any starch? Is that why the French are so slim as versus the Italians (all those pasta and cheese)? But what about those devilishly delicious French pastries?


This bottle of vin santo 'holy wine', a dessert wine that's sweet and nearly brandy-like in aroma, was made on the vineyard & farm that Kev and Jo stayed in during their Tuscany trip 4 years ago.

My Documents2

Dessert was all about chocolate: chocolate mousse in a spicy 'soup' topped with milk froth. Hmm. I generally dislike mousse, especially when it's very foamy light yet gelatiny-firm. This mousse was not moussy, more like a soft choc cream so it was okay for me. We were also spoilt by a box of Godiva chocs, and lastly, I dared present a banana-choc cake which was based on a version from Lorrine of Ganache. We had no idea what song to sing when the young lau fu lau chi couple cut the cake and Jo requested for that oversung but most romantic Chinese song, The Moon Symbolises My Heart, lead by none other than my Hub, who has a great (as in nice) voice but never remembers lyrics other than the choruses.

Lessons learnt from this dinner:

1. Don't overload in quantity. According to Jo, they were worried when shopping with William. We usually load up a truck when we do dinners, don't we, always afraid that there won't be enough food, and we serve too much with too many different meats.

2. You can use local ingredients when cooking western, even French.

3. Keeping the company small means that even though you set the sitting places, everybody can still participate in the conversation. Round tables especially makes this much more easy and pleasant.

4. Having a real professional chef cook for you at home is a decadent luxury.

5. Don't forget the presentation, from the glasses to the flowers to the plates, because that lends to the sense of pleasure and comfort of the dinner.

My Documents3

Congrats, Kev and Jo! You have one of the truly happy marriages I know, and my wish is that we'll all be around to celebrate your 60th wedding anni. Food will have to be pureed, but hey, who cares by then?

Heather (and William), you have frightened the rest of us off hosting home dinners. It was truly a wonderful and delightful evening and I am very inspired! Can you be my kei nui so you can do my wedding anni dinner too?
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