Friday, January 28, 2011

Dried Oyster Fatt Choi


For the Cantonese, good-sounding dishes are important to start the new lunar year. Dried oysters and fatt choi are two must-eat food during Chinese New Year (CNY) because dried oysters, called hoe see in Cantonese, sounds like 'good things' if you pitch the 'see' a little lower and fatt choi sounds like 'to prosper, to grow rich'.

I usually get my dried oysters from Chew Thai Seng near Kian Kok High but the traffic jams there this time of the year is just too crazy so this year I bought the oysters from Man Cheong, an old Chinese grocers now located at Taman Mesra in Penampang. They didn't have high grade dried oysters so I had to settle for the cheaper, smaller Korean ones.

The Hakka lady who sold me the dried oysters said that the smaller oysters are perfect for a dish she usually cooks for the most important dinner of the year, the CNY reunion dinner, which will fall on next Tuesday. The oysters are sauteed briefly in oil, wrapped with a minced meat paste and bundled in fatt choi, a rare moss that grows in Mongolia, and steamed. A sauce is poured over the steamed oysters before serving.

I attempted the dish last week, adding extra seasonings to my taste. The feedback was very good but sometimes I wonder if it's because my guests are being polite. I couldn't tell because I was sick and my taste buds were too. I think the dish was rather light so it should be a good contrast to the rich CNY dishes. What it needed was a bit more flavoring in the oysters, so that's what I did the second time and I think the results are good enough to share with you.

When choosing dried oysters, pick the big, plump unbroken ones. Flat oysters are usually not as fresh and tasty. The greenish oysters are superior to the dark brown ones in flavor. Fatt choi has received bad press for being adulterated and colored. Real fatt choi is a khaki-black color and the soaking water should stay clear and uncolored or you've got the fake stuff. It looks crazily similar to black human body hair and doesn't have any flavor but has a nice, soft, slightly el dente bite. Good fatt choi stays firm after cooking while the fake ones will disintegrate. How do you tell? Peer into the packet of fatt choi, looking for hints of khaki-brown color. The price usually will tell too. Good fatt choi is about RM400 per kg.

Kind of strange-looking, but black sea moss is a CNY delicacy.

Dried Oysters Fatt Choi
12 dried oysters, soaked for 2 hours
2 slices of fresh ginger
a small handful of dried black moss (fatt choi), soaked and rinsed until grit-free
200 gram ground pork* seasoned with salt and white pepper
3 t oyster sauce
1 t light soy sauce
1/2 T cornflour + 3/4 cup chicken stock
1/2 t salt, or more to taste
1 t sesame oil
1/2 t caster sugar (optional)

1/2 kg spinach or young pea sprouts or other greens**
red chili or pepper strips

* if making a lot of wrapped oysters, I would buy 1 packet of ground pork from the market (choose the reddish mince over the whitish ones; less fat) and chop about 2 cups of fresh pork, season it with salt and white pepper, spin it around in a bowl with my hands until it is sticky and bouncy, and mix in the bought mince. YOu can use prawns or fish mince if like.

** you can blanch the greens or serve the oysters on lettuce, something we call 'bau sung',  sung sounding like life or alive.

1. Clean the dried oysters well. Pat dry. Put 1 t veg oil in a frying pan/wok and fry the oysters with the ginger and  1/2 t light soy sauce (remember dried oysters are slightly salty even after soaking) for about 3 minutes until the oysters are dry. Remove from heat to cool.

2. Wrap each oyster with the meat paste and then wrap the fatt choi around the middle of the meat-covered oyster. Add a strip of red chili for color. Put oysters on an oiled steaming plate and steam 15 minutes.

3. Heat a pot of water, add 1 T veg oil (preferably 'cooked' peanut oil i.e. heated until hot & then cooled--it'll give a better flavor) and 1/2 t salt to the water. When water boils, add the greens and blanch until just wilted. Remove quickly and run cold water over to stop the cooking. (Sometimes I under-cook and don't run cold water; saves a step and keeps the veg from cooling.) Drain well (must do that or the liquid from the veg will dilute the sauce) and arrange on a serving plate.

Or, you can just arrange lettuce on the serving plate. Each person serves herself by wrapping an oyster on a lettuce leaf.

4. Arrange the steamed oysters on the veg-lined serving plate.

5. Put the 1 t oyster sauce, light soy sauce, sesame oil and sugar into a small saucepan and heat. Season to taste. Add the cornstarch solution, stirring well, until the sauce turns clear and shiny. If too thick or thin, add more stock or cornstarch solution.

6. Pour the sauce over the oysters and serve immediately.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

New Kum Den, Melbourne

No new dishes the last/this week because I was/am knocked out totally by laryngitis since last Tues that gave me chills, fever, joint aches, cough, lost of voice and something I've never had before--sticky eyelids. I've been waking up everyday since last Sunday with swollen, sensitive eyes glued by some icky discharge and I hate that feeling. The doc said it's related to my flu because the ears, eyes and nose are connected. If it's bad, it can go to the brains too. So don't be stubborn like me. Run to the docs before your eyelids get glued.

I haven't even started on CNY baking. I know all of you have already baked and packed your bottles of pineapple tarts, prawn crackers, cashew nut cookies and all those yummy snacks. I haven't even shopped! I am feeling slightly better today so I think I'll start baking tomorrow. I have a couple of new recipes to share so stay put. In the meantime, here's a post on a meal I had in Melbourne last month.

This was the graduation celebration dinner we had with three other sets of parents (and a grandma) and the graduates' friends at a restaurant in Chinatown called New Kum Den. There were 2 dozens of us so we had 2 tables. The mood was very happy and hopeful. I think for parents it was a relief to wash their hands off a financial burden and for the graduates it was a relief to not have all-nighters and deadlines. I was missing the rest of my family, especially Hub, who couldn't get away from work. It felt odd to be there without him because we celebrate all our kids' 'events' together. Anyway, the food:

Chicken with a salted egg yolk batter, pretty good.

Stewed pork was okay I think.

Garlic kai lan, never fails.

Silky beancurd  with crabmeat and prawns, good.

Sweet and hot clams with Chinese crullers for the sauce. The thing about clams is that they're mostly shells. I've come to the conclusion that clams are best eaten at home, a plate to a person. Otherwise it's just too unsatisfying.

Mixed veg with scallops. 

Roasted duck. The duck was chopped too big and didn't taste good or bad. No matter how many times it was spun around on the lazy susan, it remained more than half uneaten. It left me wondering whether it was the chef's fault or the duck's.

The fish slices had the usual bland bi-carb of soda texture and taste. But then again, maybe all Chinese restaurants in Melbourne use too much bicarb of soda. Bicarb of soda makes food tender, preserves it, masks staleness, swells meat up so they look thicker but for all that, the taste and flavor of the meat'll be gone.

The free dessert. There were 12 of us at each table. This amount is good for one person. Whadde.

A big "thank you"  again to Amanda's parents who generously footed the bill even though it was agreed that we'd split it. 

Monday, January 24, 2011

Jing Du Ribs

Jing Du ribs

As the person who cooks and plans the meals, my family's diet and eating habits are in my hands.  I can pander to their tastes and cook all the unhealthy food they want, or I can stand firm and make teach them to eat healthy food. I admit that as an indulgent mom, I am guilty of feeding what must amount by now to 50 pork bellies to my son Wey. He was a skinny scrawny kid who was so thin he had dark circles under his eyes. Then one day, he discovered pork belly and samgyubsal and that was all he ate. Every dinner. I didn't mind because samgyubsal is so easy to prepare. I learnt a long time ago as a young mother that if a kid is a picky eater and likes a certain food, let him have it until he tires of it. If you control him, he'll fight you and the food/diet fight can last until he leaves the house. It worked with every new food the kids liked but Wey's love for pork belly looks like an eternal one.

I am thankful that years ago, my boys both gave up all fizzy drinks. I didn't make them. They just decided one day that they didn't like the taste of sweetened canned and bottled drinks and quit drinking them. I often told them that fizzy drinks are bad but didn't stop them from drinking them. If I did, maybe they would've been defiant. The only time they find fizzy drinks in my house is when I have a dinner party. Years ago Hub stopped me from serving fizzy drinks to friends because "if they are bad for us, they are bad for anyone" so I served juice instead. Now that juice is considered the new bad drink (gives you tooth decay and extra calories--you'd drink an equivalent of 5 to 6 oranges in one tall glass, so 10 to 12 oranges in two glasses, but would you eat that many oranges in one go? Juices also deprives you of fibre), I boldly serve water only.  Maybe kids think that I am one stingy aunty but I know I'm doing them a favor.

For health and responsibility to the environment, we've been eating mostly veggies the last three weeks and enjoying the lighter and healthier meals. I decided a few days ago that we have paid our dues and can afford to have some meat in our bodies.

Jing du pork ribs is a classic ribs dish in China and I've always wanted to cook it.The recipe is from a fantastic Chinese cookbook, Nostalgia Chinese Cuisine. The ribs were very good and the only negative comment was from Hub ("Strong herbal flavor and too sweet"), but the rest of the family gave their thumbs up. Frankly, this dish requires too much work. Better to eat it at restaurants.

Jing Du Ribs

1 kg pork spare ribs, cut into 10 cm/4" lengths

1. Marinade ribs with 1 T light soy sauce and 1/2 t dark soy sauce.
2. Deep-fry ribs in hot oil until golden in color.
3. Put ribs into a steaming plate and mix in the following:

1 stalk spring onion, tied into a bundle
50g ginger, smashed lightly
3 (4 original recipe) star anises
1 cinnamon stick
5 cloves
1/2 T (1 T original recipe) cumin
2 (3 originally) slices licorice (gan chao)
1 t sugar
1 T dark soy sauce
1 T light soy sauce
1 cup water

4. Steam ribs 45 minutes under high heat until meat is tender. Lift out the ribs, keep the stock.
5. Deep-fry ribs in hot oil for 5 minutes, remove. (I skipped this step because of the extra oil and work but re-frying the ribs after steaming will give extra flavor and the ribs will look better)
6. Mix the following in a pot or wok:

200 ml of the retained stock
1 T concentrated orange juice (or use 1/2 T plum sauce)
2 T tomato sauce
1 T chili sauce (I omitted this)
1 T Worcestershire sauce
1 T HP sauce
2 T sugar (reduced from 3 T)
1 T shaoxing hua tioa wine

7. Boil the sauce under high heat until it is thick. Add the ribs and continue to boil, tossing well, until all the sauce is evaporated. Serve hot.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Wong Kwok's Poon Choi

WKR's poon choi, RM388+, doesn't include rice but includes a bowl of msg-laced herbal soup.

Another poon choi (basin dish), this one by Wong Kwok Restaurant (WKR). Seafood lovers will prefer WKR's poon choi to Fisherman Seafood Restaurant (FSR)'s because there's fish, prawns, pacific clams, scallops, sea cucumbers (in big chunks, unlike the nearly invisible ones at FSR), fish maw, fish skin and fish balls. There's also a pork knuckle (the only 'serious' meat) but it was so hard I couldn't cut it with my metal spoon, a few pieces of plain white cut chicken if you are lucky to find them, mushrooms, winter melon, bean curd skin, mung bean noodles and broc.

By the time we got through 1/4 of the bowl, everything was mixed up because WKR's poon choi was too soupy. Taste-wise it was fine at first but got boring because everything was coated with the gooey soup and tasted boiled, like they just cooked everything in the gooey soup. There were also so many different ingredients the dish became "lap chap", a term meaning hodgepodge, in a negative way.  I much prefer FSR's poon choi even though it didn't have as many varieties. A relative from Hong Kong dining with us said that the poon choi he ate in a village in HK was drier, with rows and layers of chicken, duck, prawns, a large portion of kou rou/kiew nyuk and plenty of white radish. Sounds more like FSR's poon choi.

FSR's poon choi, RM388 net, includes rice but no soup. There's plenty of meat, and they are not all boiled. The prawns have been fried, the duck roasted, the oysters stewed and the chicken boiled and it tasted like corn-fed chicken.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Halva To Dim Sum

Here's some of the food we ate in Melbourne:

1) Breakfast at Chimmy's (342-344 Bridge Rd, Richmond)

You don't have to wear an LBD and your mom's pearl necklace to eat brekkie at Chimmy's. The food was very good too.

Madrid omelette with cubes of potatoes and chorizos was yummy, AUD15.80/USD  /RM.

Fruit bread, can't remember price, was heavy and sweet and good with a hot cup of coffee.

2) Dinner at Wennie and Josh's


This was dinner cooked by Josh, fiance of Yi's ex-roomie Wennie, who's going to be Josh's wife in two months. Thanks, Josh & Wennie, the delicious dinner and your company made it one of my most enjoyable and relaxed evenings in Melbourne. Both of you make sure a beautiful couple and I'm looking forward to your wedding photos (gorgeous gown, Wennie) and your visit soon.

3) Seafood lunch at Hooked (172 Chapel St)


Hooked was given a good review by Gourmet as a place for healthy seafood, so I ordered the fish pan-fried instead of battered and deep-fried. Unfortunately, the fish was not impressive, tasting a notch better than dory which I dislike. The rest of the stuff on the plate was good, especially the salad and the pesto. Which is an insult, considering that seafood is the mainstay of the restaurant.  At AUD18.90, not cheap, not too expensive.

4) Yum cha/Dim sum at Crystal Jade (not related to the xaiolongbao and la mien Crystal Jade chain of restaurants), at the corner of Little Bourke St and Russell St,  right at the entrance to Chinatown.
Looks are deceiving. The ha gow was authentic in that it had strips of bamboo shoots but the prawns were minced and not springy to the bite, and worse, didn't have any prawn flavor. The cheong fun was too soft while the beef filling was bland and flavorless and that's how it was with all the other dim sum. The meat just tasted uniformly tender and tasteless. Btw, do you, like me, HAVE to have mustard sauce with ha gow (prawn dumplings)? 

Crystal Jade's dim sum (dainty Chinese mouthfuls, mostly steamed, eaten for breakfast and lunch over copious cups of tea) looked delicious but tasted otherwise--the meat, whether pork or prawns or beef, were overdosed with bicarb of soda, making them tender and swollen (yes, tender and swollen) but tasteless. In fact, I was disappointed with the Chinese food in Melbourne this trip because the meat and seafood were flavorless and had the same texture, tender and soft, so that if you were blindfolded, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference between chicken, pork and beef and all fish would taste the same. The sad thing is, I think most young people who grew up eating meat marinaded with bicarb of soda think that's how meat tastes in Chinese restaurants. Using bicarb of soda in meat may be a world-wide practice with Chinese food now, and that's truly bad.

I am convinced now that Hong Kong's dim sum is  still the best in the world, whether it's at traditional dim sum restaurants or the newer classier ones. In Hong Kong, if the food is not up to par, the rent and picky customers would kill the restaurant within a month. In such Darwinian circumstances, it's no wonder HK is the food heaven (IMHO) of the world.

5) Halva, Prahran Market

This halva 'cake' was about 20 cm/8" tall and full of nutty flavors.

Halva is a yummy confectionary found in the Middle East, Turkey, Eastern Europe, Africa, India, Greece and many other countries. In China, dragon's beard is a kind of halva floss. I'm not sure what halva this was--I'm guessing it was Turkish, based on the rose petals-covered Turkish delight next to it. I loved it and would choose it over baklava anytime.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

MoVida Next Door

MoVida is at 1 Hosier Lane, near the Federation Square. MoVida Next Door is next door to it.


I had a short list of restaurants I wanted to eat in in Melbourne, among them Cutler & Co, which is rated by Gourmet Traveller as the best Australian restaurant for 2011 and yes, it is in Melbourne, not Sydney. However, being a country bumpkin from Borneo, I didn't make any reservations and I didn't know that most restaurants in Melbourne are closed on Mondays. I was told that Cutler & Co would have a long waiting list and I had to choose between eating and shopping (not so great since the Oz dollar was too strong. My daughter had warned me that Oz is more expensive to shop and eat than Europe, and I didn't believe her until I got there). Lucky for us, MoVida was open the last Monday I was there so we were clever and got there at 5 pm just when they were opening.

The sign said MoVida Next Door, and when we were seated, we asked and were told that the original MoVida (the one listed as Melbourne's top Spanish restaurant and one of its top ten restaurants) was next door.  I was very tempted to move next door (so I can brag to you that I ate at one of Melbourne's top restaurants) but the promise of the same food at lower prices convinced me to stay. Also, the cooks, and especially the head chef, were running between the two restaurants and I was comforted by that.

A couple of nights before that, we had gone to another Spanish restaurant and had a so-so paella which left me craving for paella. Unfortunately, MoVida only served a limited variety of tapas and raciones (slightly larger plates of tapas), and the tapas were not the ones we liked, those canapes-like tapas we ate in Barcelona. I don't think there's any Barcelona-type tapas restaurant in Melbourne, which is strange especially since there are not one but two MoVida tapas restaurants.

MoVida has an open kitchen and it was fun to see them cook. MoVida's bread rolls (in the bucket, on the house) were the hardest I have ever eaten, so hard that they can knock a dog dead. The bread hurt my mouth and tongue and I had to tear it off between my teeth like a cannibal.

Potato tortilla, AUD 4, was good but then I've never had a bad tortilla.

Empanadillas, AUD3 or 4, was quite good but very small, about the size of a little curry puff.

Fish of the day with Serrano ham, AUD18/USD19/RM58, was very disappointing because the fish had a not-so-fresh flavor--fishy with a hint of refrigeration. I expected nothing but the best since the waiter had said that this MoVida specializes in seafood. We struggled to finish even such a minute portion. The portion was so small it made us giggle at the pretentiousness of it. Come on. That's a ridiculous portion for that price.

Lomo (char-grilled pork loin with preserved peppers & salsa verde), AUD15/USD16/RM48, was the best dish we had. The pork was tender and tasty, the preserved peppers tangy and crisp and the salsa refreshing. Simple but very well done.

The ternera (veal girello poached with white anchovies & mojo picon), UD12.50/USD13.3/RM40, was light and delicate but a little bit bland.

The bill came to about AUD53/USD56.50/RM170 (not cheap but not that expensive either for such a highly rated restaurant but it is a tapas restaurant after all, not a fine-dining restaurant. The original MoVida too has similar setting and menu) and we weren't too full so we left to grab a pho. Just as the waiter had said, MoVida was next door (if you eat at MoVida Next Door like we did, you use the washroom at MoVida) so I took a photo of its menu, just in case you are going there. For such a famous restaurant, the menu is surprisingly limited.

MoVida's menu is limited.

Walk down Hosier Lane and you can see walls of graffiti, something that Melbourne artists are proud of:


Thursday, January 13, 2011

Sticky Date Pudding With Butterscotch Sauce

Sticky date pudding (this is more of a cake because I didn't soak the cake with butterscotch sauce to make it a sticky pudding) with butterscotch sauce.

I had some guests over for dinner last night and served sticky date pudding for dessert. I searched the net and the same recipe turned up everywhere so I searched the images and liked the photo on this site. I usually don't try recipes from official food websites because a lot of them are just copy and paste recipes and I suspect the reviews and ratings are fake but the recipes in this particular website seem true and tried, with step by step photos. In fact, I liked the site so much I linked it straightaway.

Yi and I made the cake in under an hour, 5 minutes to prepare and 50 minutes to bake. It was that easy, no separation of eggs and no weighing, everything went into the food processor, and since I still haven't got my replacement blades for the processor, I just used my hand whisk. Of course I had prepared the dates much earlier but this is one of those simple recipes that don't require you to drag out the mixer or use all your kitchen tools. The pudding is also light on fat, using only 1/4 cup of butter and 2 eggs. You can substitute the butter with veg oil without damage to the texture or even taste since there's so little of it. You don't even need to whisk the butter; just add to the boiling water. I like such recipes.

When the batter was done, we stared at the puddle. It was watery, like heavy cream, and even someone like Yi who doesn't bake often could tell that something wasn't right. I threw in a handful of flour and hoped for the best. You know what, our guests loved it. The pudding/cake was soft, moist and delicious. It was not as soft as the pudding we ate in Melbourne but nearly as good. Maybe as good. Butterscotch is one of those heavenly flavors and I couldn't stop eating the sauce even though it was too sweet. Two months ago I was feeding my family and guests rose chiffon cake, then last month I fed them bread and butter pudding. This month, sticky date pudding is our dessert. YUM.

I didn't have golden syrup for the butterscotch sauce so I used the recipe that's circulating on the net, in sites such as If you do try the original sticky date pudding recipe (I've given both the original recipe and my try out), do tell me how it turned out. Maybe I'm wrong about the batter. In any case, the pudding turned out great and I've also found a great new website.

If you prefer a cake texture, just serve the warm cake with the butterscotch sauce but if you like a sticky, gummy pudding texture, prick holes all over the surface of the cake when it comes out of the oven and pour half the butterscotch sauce over and leave a couple of minutes for the sauce to seep in.

note 26/7/11: By mistake, I forgot to add the butter until the end (step 4) when I made this cake a few days ago. I whisked in the cold firm butter into the batter and the batter became fluffier instead of watery and the resulting cakes were very light.


The cake is good served with cream if ice cream is too sweet for you.

Sticky Date Pudding With Butterscotch Sauce
1/4 cup butter
1 1/2 cups pitted dates (korma)
1 t bicarb of soda
1/2 cup (original recipe was 2/3 cup) caster sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/4 cups + 2 T (original was 1 1/4 cups) self-raising flour
1 t vanilla
1 1/4 cups water

note: you can add some shaved choc for extra flavor

1. Oven @ 180 C. Line an 8" or 9" (smaller pan gives a higher cake) round spring form pan with paper and grease the sides. For individual ramekins, grease the base and the sides.

2. Put the dates into a saucepan with the water and when it boils, take the pot off the fire and add the baking soda (it will fizzle) and butter (it will melt)*. Or, as I pointed out in the note above, you can leave the cold but not hard butter until step 4 and blend it into the batter. Stir, leave to cool.

3. When cool, either put into a food processor or use a hand whisk to blend the dates. I like the texture very fine but with some bits of dates here and there so you can take 1/2 of the softened dates out and mash them lightly with a fork and keep them aside to be added at Step 4.

4. Add the eggs and vanilla, pulse until just combined. Sift the flour in anther bowl, add the sugar and stir to mix well. This not only breaks up any sugar lumps but also prevents clumps of flour in the batter. Fold flour-sugar mixture gently until into the batter until just combined. If adding butter now, whisk it in with an electric hand-whisk. Fold in the reserved dates, mix well.

5. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake 50 to 60 minutes (mine cooked at 50 minutes, using a 9" round pan). Stick a wooden skewer into the center of the cake. If it comes out clean, the cake is done. For 2 1/2 " ramekins, bake 30 to 35 minutes; test with a wooden skewer in center of cakes. If using muffin pans of 2 1/2", bake about 25 to 30 min depending on how much batter you filled the pans. Muffin pans usually bake faster because of the dark metal.

6. For a sticky, pudding-like cake, pierce holes in the cake with a skewer and pour 1/2 the butterscotch sauce into the holes (don't cook the sauce too thick and make sure it's warm if you want to do that) while the cake is warm and still in the baking pan so that the cake becomes sticky and gummy or just serve the cake with the sauce, for a cake that's not sticky or sweet. Serve with vanilla ice cream of course. NB: You must serve the pudding (and the sauce) very warm because it's best that way.

Butterscotch Sauce (amended 30/4/11*)
4 T unsalted butter
3/4 cup brown sugar (reduced from 1 cup)
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
1 T vanilla extract
a large pinch of salt (reduced from 1 t)

*my previous recipe made so-so butterscotch that doesn't have a strong butterscotch flavor or color as you can see from the 1st photo. This recipe is IT. It's absolutely delicious!

1. Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the sugar and stir with a wooden spoon. Stir frequently over low heat, 3 to 5 minutes. Be sure to get the sugar that's sticking to the sides of the pot. When the sugar caramelises, it will bubbe, turn more liquid and look like thick sand.

2. Add all the cream and use a whisk to stir once in  a while over medium heat, about 7 to 10 minutes. Remove from stove and let cool.

3. Whisk in half the vanilla extract and salt, taste and add more to taste.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


My paella, like a woman low on confidence so she overloads on makeup, was so overloaded you can't see the rice. Less is always more, with paella and make up.

The Best Paella: this is how a good paella should be; it should be all about the rice. My first impression was that the rice had the flavor of grilled prawns. The rice was rich, wet out and firm inside, caramelised slightly without that steamed rice texture that my paellas always have. Notice that the rice comes to half the height of the pan--that's now it should be or the rice becomes steamed and fluffy. Like mine.

Before Barcelona, I was quite happy with my paella ("pie-a-yah") and the reason I've not blogged about the dish was because I couldn't get a good photo since I only cook it for dinner, when the whole family sits down together. Post Barcelona, I still couldn't get  photos good enough to blog but the reason for not blogging about paella is different: I can't get my paella right, even after many tries. Once in a while I do but most of the times I've not been happy with the results. My family loves my paella and thinks I've set my paella standards too high after the Barcelona trip.

Before eating The Best Paella in Barcelona (though not all paellas that we ate were as good), I was happy enough with my paellas but now I keep trying and failing to get them just like The Best Paella. I know where I go wrong, but I seem to repeat it each time I cook paella. I know I may never cook a paella as good as The Best Paella, in which each bite was a wonder--fragrant, aromatic mouthful of rice that's coated with a wonderful sauce yet firm inside, without the steamed rice taste of my paellas--but I have made enough mistakes cooking paella to write about them. Cooking paella stresses me, because I have to be by the fire all the time to make sure the rice doesn't burn or turn into congee. Paella is not an easy dish to do but it's not impossible to get a reasonably good paella.

What I've learnt from mistakes:

1.  Don't be tempted like me to overload (it's a Chinese thing) the paella with ingredients. Like they say, it's all about the rice. A great paella should have a bottom of crispy, golden brown rice (soccarat) but frankly I've never achieved that. I suspect it's because I've always used too much rice for my 34 cm pan. I've recently been given a big paella pan and I tried it out last night. Unfortunately I still overloaded the pan, so no golden crust.

2. Use the correct-sized paella pan. Do not try to overload a paella pan to feed six if the pan is only for four. The rice and ingredients should not fill more than half the height of the pan so that the rice will not get that steamed, fluffy taste.

3. The fire is important. I found that a large stove burner is good because the fire and heat is spread out instead of being concentrated at a smaller area. The rice is likely to burn and not cook if the fire ring is small. I've found that with my new 38 cm paella pan (thanks, E, for not just giving me the pan but also carrying it all the way back), I need to use two burners, turning the pan once in a while. I've read that there are special paella burners for the bigger paella pans. My 34 cm pan, which I bought for 10 euros in Barcelona, cooks well with a single burner although I still turn and push the pan around to make sure all the rice is cooked. Paella pans are wide with small indentations on the base and usually have red handles. They are made of carbon steel so you need to wipe them with oil after every use.

4. My biggest, biggest mistake is always overcooking the rice. Since you can't stir the rice after it's added to the pan, or it'll turn creamy like risottos, and you can't cover the pan (I used to before Barcelona; now I have tasted a good paella I know the difference is that covering the rice while cooking gives me steamed rice), it's hard to get the rice fully cooked so I often add too much stock and let the rice cook for too long. The best thing to do is to rest the rice for about 10 to 15 minutes, covered with foil, and it'll cook. I never seem to have enough time to rest the paella because the family would be seated, hungry and impatient as I struggle to get the rice cooked evenly.

Unfortunately, I can't get Spanish short grain rice such as bomba rice here so I do use arborio or risotto rice.

Apparently Valencian paella is the real thing, and rabbit is used instead of chicken. I've not cooked any paella other than mixed seafood and chicken paella. I think if I get it right, I can just cook a simple seafood paella with prawns and mussels without overloading. Paellas aren't easy to cook because you can't really quantify the ingredients as the ingredients vary in water content and flavor, the liquid absorption of the rice differs according to the variety and the amount and intensity of heat differs so that each time you can get different results. It takes experience, a lot of it, to make a good paella. Just like make up.


Seafood, Chicken & Chorizo Paella (6-8 servings, 38 cm pan)
6 to 8 medium-sized prawns, unshelled, dirt veins removed
6 to 8 mussels, shells on, cleaned
a handful of squid rings
6 to 8 pieces of chicken (I like with bones on but you can use de-boned chicken), seasoned with some salt
3 chorizos, cut into 1.5 cm pieces
1 cup peas or flat beans (or omit)
1/2 red bell pepper, in very thin strips or chopped
1 onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 t saffron
1/4 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped plus extra for garnish
1 T fresh rosemary, chopped (optional)
6 canned tomatoes, chopped
1 1/2 t paprika
salt to taste
6 cups fish/prawns/chicken stock
2 cups short grain bomba or arborio rice
olive oil
1 lemon, in wedges

1. Put the stock into a pot, add the saffron and bring to a boil. Lower heat until just barely simmering.

2. Put 2 T olive oil in a 38 cm paella pan (preferably over two burners side by side) and fry the chicken until golden. Add the chorizo and fry until lightly browned. Remove them from the pan. Fry the squid rings until cooked, remove, then fry the prawns (add oil!) at high heat to get that grilled flavor, seasoning with some salt. Remove when nearly cooked.

3. Put another 2 T olive oil into the pan and add the onion and garlic, frying them in low heat until they turn transparent. Add the paprika, tomatoes and bell pepper and fry (low heat) until the mixture thickens and dries up. This is sofrito, which gives the paella flavor. Now add the chicken, chorizo, rosemary and parsley. Add the rice and stir well to coat with the sofrito*. Season with salt. Add all but 1 1/2 cups of the stock. The rice should be covered by the stock. Turn the fire up so that the stock boils for about 2 minutes, then turn it down to low, pan uncovered. Once in a while, turn the pan to get even cooking. Do not stir the rice although sometimes I poke it here and push it there to check and make sure it is covered by the stock. Sprinkle the rice with the remaining stock if necessary.

4. When the rice is 3/4 done (translucent with white center), push the mussels (I like to place them meat side down to cook better, then turn them up before serving), prawns and squid in. After about 5 minutes, add the peas or bell peppers and let cook another 5 minutes. Level the surface with a spoon. It's okay if it's slightly soupy; the stock will be absorbed when you let the rice sit. It's ok if the rice is still white in the center; do not overcook. Switch heat off, cover the pan with foil and let sit for 15 minutes.

Arrange lemon wedges around the rice, sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve paella straight from the pan.

*if the chicken is in big pieces, I like to add the stock first to cook the chicken and then add the rice.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Squires Loft, Melbourne

Docklands was a port area and now the waterfront serves as a pretty backdrop for trendy restaurants.

Docklands in the south of Melbourne has been revived into a residential and commercial area with many trendy restaurants along the waterfront. Squires Loft, a steak restaurant, is one of them. I had expected Squires Loft to be a chain restaurant like TGIF and didn't expect much of the steak dinner, hosted by J's parents, who were also in town to attend their son's graduation ceremony. J and my daughter were in the same course the last 5 years and it was very nice of them to include us, together with their relatives, in their son's celebration dinner.

I had the 300g scotch fillet  medium rare and it came rare instead. I didn't want to return it since nobody did theirs...kiasu. While the flavor of the steak was very good, the steak had quite a few streaks of gristle. I think the steaks were about AUD33 to AUD45, more if the steak is Angus beef.

Yi's medium rare rib eye was done just nice.

J's mom had the wagyu burger which looked so good I wished I had ordered the same thing.

J's dad had the grilled prawns kebab.

A very rich and delicious hot chocolate fudge cake with ice cream.

Yi and I shared a sticky date pudding with butterscotch sauce. This was so good, it stands out as one of the best desserts I had on the trip. It was served warm, wasn't too sweet, the flavor was superb and the texture was perfect: fine, soft and moist. I wish I had the recipe.

Other than my steak being too rare and there was a bit too much gristle (or whatever they are called), we enjoyed the dinner and the company. Thanks, J, for the dinner and best wishes to you!

Squires Loft, 818 Bourke St, Docklands, Melbourne is open for lunch and dinner Mondays to Saturdays.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Poon Choi, KK Fishermen's Seafood Restaurant, KK

Poon choi being distributed in a village in China.

I've never heard of poon choi ('basin dish') until I started reading food blogs, especially those of Peninsula bloggers. All I know of poon choi is that it is a communal dish shared by villagers in Hong Kong (back when there were villages in HK) and Southern China during festivals. Poon choi combines all the best ingredients available in one big deep dish and the many ingredients result in a rich soup or gravy that is delicious with rice. It is a clever dish because it can be prepared ahead and heated up when needed and everything in one big 'basin' saves on plates and space. It also obviously can feed an army or two, instantly.

When CL, a dear friend whom I've known since high school and pin-stripped suits (we worked in the same department in the bank) came back for a holiday last week, I took the chance to get nine of us ex workmates to sit down for a poon choi dinner at KK Fishermen Seafood Restaurant in Lintas Jaya, where Open University is located too. Most of us had never eaten poon choi and looked forward to it, jaded though our tastebuds are.

I was a little bit disappointed when the poon choi was brought to our table. I read that poon choi is a showy dish of quality ingredients, each ingredient arranged in a single layer, making many layers in a deep dish and diners consume the dish layer by layer, ending with fabulously delicious Chinese radish at the bottom, saturated with all the goodness from the meat. Our poon choi was a big platter of meat arranged neatly in sections, not layers. I've thought about it since and I think poon choi ingredients can only be in layers if it is indeed cooked for a village feast. For 10 or 12 diners at a table, if you layer the ingredients, you'll get a small deep dish or, in our case, a large dish of ingredients arranged in sections.

Poon choi of boiled free range chicken, roasted duck, sauteed prawns, braised dried oysters, pacific clams, sea cucumber, dried scallops stuffed in old cucumber (I think the scallops were semi-dried because they were soft and didn't have a deep flavor), stuffed fish maw, Chinese mushrooms, broccoli and Chinese radish.

Poon choi's fun to eat. Princesses won't enjoy it because they have to stand up and grab the food. None of us were princesses and we had a great time. Love you girls!


KK Fishermen Seafood Restaurant's poon choi is RM388 nett for 10 diners, although I think it can easily feed 12 because we could only eat 2/3 of our deep dish. You'd think that everything will taste the same but each meat still had its own flavor and texture and the sauce/soup wasn't too salty or too watery. We all agreed that the poon choi was delicious although two of my friends found that Wong Kwok Restaurant's poon choi is better, with more seafood and even larger quantity. Another friend, however, found WK's poon choi gravy/soup too watery and Fishermen's poon choi's gravy just nice. My only complain would be that there weren't enough sea cucumber to go around and the dried oysters were not of good quality and were small and bland. There were also cheap fried meat balls but I suppose I can't expect abalone at that price. Poon choi is all about meat, because in the old days in China, when people were too poor to eat meat daily, the best animals were kept for festivals.

Maybe it's because I have always enjoyed communal dining such as steamboat and yosenabe, or maybe because poon choi is different from the usual individual dishes, I am looking forward to another poon choi binge, especially with the festive Chinese New Year air, this time at Wong Kwok Restaurant. If any of you know a good poon choi in KK, please let me know.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Journal Canteen, Melbourne

Journal Canteen (JC) has been given good reviews in food magazines such as Delicious and Australian Gourmet Traveller, which is how I found out about the restaurant. Journal Cafe on the ground level (JC is on the first floor) is for coffee and cake and the restaurants are not the same. JC is the one that's mentioned in reviews because the head cook/chef is Rosa Mitchell, whose rustic cookbook 'my cousin rosa' is for sale on the kitchen counter. The recipes for the dishes served in JC are all in the book. Rosa herself seated us, by the high table looking out at Flinders Lane, but we moved to a more comfortable table, sharing it with 4 other people. The restaurant was packed.


JC's menu is limited; the menu for the day is scribbled on the black board. The restaurant was formerly a classroom and efforts have been made to give that casual feel. It's not fine dining (although the prices are clearly not canteen prices) and you are reminded of that when the waiter comes and wipes the crumbs left by the previous diners off the table onto the floor with his bare hands. That's just to show how homey and causal they are around there, I suppose. Have a Chinese waiter do that in a Chinese restaurant and he'll be regarded as disrespectful and sloppy.


Yi was on diet and didn't want meat so she ordered a veg main, baked zucchini. The prices weren't clear. We saw 18/24 scribbled next to the mains and didn't ask, because really, how much can baked zucchini cost in a casual retaurant, even if it's highly recommended? Well, AUD24/USD25/RM77 is how much, for 4 strips of baked zucchini on orzo. 

I had the falsomagro, Sicilian beef roll stuffed with cheese and egg, also AUD24/RM77. 

Both the baked zucchini and falso magro were very good (although we both prefer the zucchini; the falsomagro was a little bit dry and boring) and came with a complimentary salad of bread and plain lettuce. There was only one dessert, a choc tart (coffee is complimentary), and we decided that there were just too many (better) choices in other places. The damage was AUD48/USD51/RM154, which I thought was expensive, given the meagre portions.  Sure, the food was good (not excellent) but Melbourne is not short of good Italian restaurants so I think JC is overhyped and overpriced for a 'canteen'.

Journal Canteen, 253 Flinders Lane, Melbourne. Closed Sundays.
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