Discovering Traditions

One of the hazards of reading information written in another language is relying too heavily on Google Translate.   I use this app all the time to translate menus, signage and web pages.   Sometimes it works very well.  Sometime, not so much.  When I came across a FB page with a  Surinamese version of stuffed bitter melon (niong fu gua)  I eagerly translated the ingredients written in Dutch.  When ‘sardines’ came back, I put it down as a dodgy translation.  After all who would stuff fu gua with sardines? How could that even work?

In response to one of my Hakka Heritage posts, Simone Tai clarified the mystery to me. She said:

Great post! And love your thoughts at the end….does it really matter? I know whenever I meet someone who knows about Stuffed Fu Ga that they are Hakka and likely Chinese-Jamaican! … My mom’s recipe calls for tangerine peel and salted fish (she used canned sardines as a substitute). I never did like Stuffed Fu Gah…too bitter. But have come to enjoy it, first for nostalgia but also a new version: omit both tangerine peel and sardines…I like it much better!

Sardines were a substitute for salt fish! Aaah. Huh? There’s salt fish in stuffed fu gua? I didn’t know that.

When I mentioned Simone’s reply to my Dad his reaction was immediate.

“Yes, my mother used to make it with salt fish too!”

He’d never liked it because of the smell. He recalled that his mother would corn fresh fish with salt, wrap it with newspaper and then hang it out to dry.  It sounded like something  I’d seen in old Chinese shops: paper wrapped fish, hung by their tails and strung up for sale.

Dried fish is a common delicacy in Asian cooking.  In Seoul’s Gwangjang market, dried pollack is especially prized and schools of petrified fish are tied up with yellow ribbons and hung like banners from suspended poles.

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In Singapore’s Chinatown, entire sections of the market are devoted to dried goods and dried fish, shrimp, anchovies, cuttlefish and scallops are laid out in pristine displays.

dried-4 Cambodian  markets are a bit more rustic and their uniquely styled fish is splayed into concentric circles and offered for sale with dried sausages and cured meats.

dried-2In Laos, roadside stalls sell fish hung from the rafters along with wrapped and unwrapped selections laid out on tables. In these open displays, where the fish is naturally dried and closer to its source, the smell can be overpoweringly strong. Swarms of flies hover over the display, settling and moving as fans of air or hands wave them away. With this context, it’s easy to sympathize with my father’s dislike of dried fish.

My Dad says that some people (not him) love the taste of fu gua stuffed with pork and salt fish, claiming that the additional aroma of fish makes it truly authentic.

My mother and her mother have always made the filling with ground pork and fresh shrimp. I grew up thinking this was traditional. Apparently not. In a quick poll, I discovered that 1) most people don’t make stuffed fu gua anymore, 2) those that do, make it wholly with pork  and 3) never ever with shrimp.

So where did my mother’s recipe come from?  Did her mother come from a different village in China?  or did my father’s abhorrence of salt fish force a substitute which then became a new tradition? I’ll never know.

This experience though, has had me poking at what’s truly authentic heritage food. Is it defined by recipe or taste? Is it specified by ingredient or by flavor? Within each family, do traditions evolve according to  preference and a what time does preference get molded by tradition ?

Growing up I’ve never eaten Chinese salt fish. I admit to being curious.  Last week I tried a Cantonese style fried rice cooked with egg and shreds of dried salt fish.  It wasn’t bad.  Maybe I’ll add it to my next batch of niong fu gua. My Dad is in another country, thirteen time zones away.  He won’t mind.

Singapore. November 2016

 

 

Easy Egg & Tomato stir-fry

Egg Tomato stirfryI first had this dish in a dingy restaurant in a back alley behind Beijing’s Pearl Market. It is a home-style dish and not one normally found in restaurants.  It was delish.   I’ve since had it in Taiwan and seen recipes widely available on the internet.

I have perfected my own version. It is less soupy and more flavorful.  At least that’s my opinion … and hubby’s too. Although truth be told, he has to say that; it’s in his own self-interest.

This recipe is super easy to adjust from one to ten servings.  Perfect for single cooks, bachelor sons and lazy Moms.

Egg & Tomato Stir-fry

4 eggs
2 tomatoes, medium size & firm
1/8 tsp soup powder dissolved in 2 tbs water
1 tsp fresh ginger, finely shredded
2 spring onions, 1 inch slices
1/2 tsp Sugar (to taste)
1 tbs Oyster sauce (to taste)

Dissolve soup powder with a bit of water. Mix in eggs

Cut tomatoes into large, one inch wedges. They should be large enough to maintain shape after cooking.

Heat wok with a bit of oil. When hot, add eggs and cook. You can scramble if you wish. I prefer to fold into a loose fluffy omelette. Remove from pan and set aside in a serving dish.

Reheat the wok with oil over high heat. Stir fry the ginger & green onions until fragrant. Add tomatoes, sugar and oyster sauce. Add a dash of water to prevent tomatoes from burning and begin cooking, but not so much water as to make it soupy. Cook until the tomatoes are slightly soft.

Pour tomato mixture on the eggs & serve.

Four eggs makes a simple dinner main for 2 with a vegetable side.
Portions can be adjusted plus or minus  2 eggs & 1 tomato per serving.

Bak Chang

The wonderful thing about Singapore is the availability of a diverse range of foods.  The country is very modern but traditional foods and customs from its  Chinese, Malay, Indian and Peranakan heritage abound.  No time is this more apparent than at festival time … and because there are four official religions, it is always festival time.

It is Duanwu now and Chinese rice dumplings are everywhere.  Sometimes made at home,  oftentimes made for sale by specialty shops, the dumplings are handmade, shared and eaten as snacks and ‘light’ meals.

I can’t do justice to describing the range of dumplings.  For that I  share  this excellent article in Soshiok.com’s Bak Chang 101

For my recent experience in making Bak Chang,  here’s  my re-blogged post.

The Sandy Chronicles

20160603_170146 Bak Chang rice dumplings

If we were having coffee … I’d invite you to have the last of my stash of bak chang. I have three types: Nonya, Hokkien and Kee.  My favorite is the Kee which is also called  crystal chang. It’s  delicious with gula melaka and heady with the scent of pandan and bamboo leaves.

What is bak chang?

Bak chang is the Hokkien word for sticky rice dumpling.   It is also called zongzi in Mandarin and joong in Cantonese.  In the US it’s sometimes called Chinese tamale but that’s just wrong – let’s not refer to it as that.  These pyramid shaped, leaf wrapped dumplings show up in Chinese shops and eating houses every year  around June.   It  is a celebration food for the Duanwu festival and Dragon Boat races.

Chinese legend goes that when the beloved scholar Qu Yuan committed suicide by throwing…

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There’s no Mango in Mangosteen

The Sandy Chronicles

MangosteenIf we were having coffee we’d be looking at the gift of mangosteens from my hubby’s tennis friend. It’s an old, familiar Chinese tradition, to bring gifts of fruit when visiting. When I was young, my Aunties used to do it and depending on whether they were shop keepers or gardeners, I’d have little treats of imported grapes or homegrown mangoes.  It’s a cordiality of friendship that I’d almost forgotten while living in Canada.

Outside of birthdays and Christmas, Westerners do not typically exchange gifts.  In fact, a business colleague once told me how uncomfortable he was when his Chinese employee kept giving him little gifts or souvenirs from her vacations abroad.  I remember feeling similarly dismayed in Beijing,  when direct reports gave me elaborate gifts for Chinese New Year and Harvest Moon Festival. US corporate policy promptly stopped the business habit.  I hear that in newly reformed China,  it…

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TangZhong Bread

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Hokkaido Milk Bread

I mentioned that I have a new hobby?  I’m still at it.

Having baked and eaten several loaves of  chewy homemade bread I began to wonder why Asian breads are so different. One of the reasons why I started experimenting is that it’s so hard to get ‘regular’ bread in Singapore. Forget about regional Jamaican specialities.  Boules, sourdoughs, baguettes are impossible to find.

Let me qualify that.

Specialty breads are impossible to find at reasonable prices. European and artisanal breads can be bought but it’s at places like Paul’s Boulangerie, where they fly in specially milled flour and charge exhorbitant prices.  My neighbourhood has bakeries galore but they all make Hong Kong style breads.  Light and fluffy, the breads are pillowy soft, have an ephemeral crumb and are always slightly sweet.

A little research uncovered a technique called the TangZhong method which originated in Japan but is widely used in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.  It was first publicized by a Chinese author, Yvonne Chen who introduced it in her book ‘The 65º Bread Doctor’.  The technique involves cooking a flour and water roux and adding it to the dough during mixing.  The science behind the roux has something to do with gelatinizing flour and its subsequent hydration effect.  After a little bit of YouTubing and a whole lot of Googling, I decided to try  PastryGirl’s Hokkaido Milk Bread on her Desserts First website.

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Fine, even grained crumb with a touch of sweet

TangZhong breads have half as much flour as a Basic Bread recipe and the technique calls for twice as much kneading.  Many recipes recommend using  a bread maker or upright mixer for the heavy kneading.  However, my under-powered Oster upright  was not up for the job.  After 20 minutes the machine began to overheat and I could smell  traces of burning metal.  I scraped out the dough and spent the next 20 minutes developing my biceps.  For the final proof, I  folded rolls into two regular pans and gave them a finishing  glaze of egg wash.  It resulted in a beautiful, brioche looking bread.

The taste was lovely – just like the breads in the better Hong Kong style bakeries.   I’m not sure if it was the tangzhong or the 40 minutes of kneading, but the bite and chew was definitely lighter and more tender. The tangzhong articles say that the roux keeps the bread moist with a longer shelf life.  So far, my breads haven’t had a problem with shelf life (they don’t hang around long enough) but I can say that these rolls were just as delicious the next day.

It’s an interesting thing, this tangzhong method.  It got me thinking about another hard to find bread from Jamaica, the eponymous Hardo bread.  A non-verified source says that the Hardo was introduced to the island by Chinese bakers.  The distinction of  Hardo is its resilient, fine grained crumb and its ability to keep fresh over a long period. My French born husband would argue with the ‘resilient’ attribute.  He’s described hardo as heavy and brick-like; solid enough to build houses with.

Notwithstanding, the connection between the bread and Chinese baking is intriguing.   Maybe that will be my next project.

Singapore.  April 2016

… but not Nam Prik Mang Da

NamPrikMangDa It’s a good thing to read labels.

Although Nam Prik Pao is lovely addition to any Thai dish, I’m less certain about Nam Prik Mang Da.   In doing a bit of research for some old photo’s I discovered that not only do Thai’s add water bugs to their curries, they also add it to pre-made curry pastes.    It’s call Nam Prik Mang Da.  No doubt it is slightly more expensive than the plain ole Nam Prik Pao.   I’d seen the fresh water bugs in a previous Thai trip.  They have a lovely floral aroma (I smelt it)  and delightful crunch  (I was told) but I thought they’d be  too expensive for commercially made curry pastes.  Not so.

Notice the lack of bug-looking ingredients on the bottle’s label.

Here’s what Mang Da actually looks like.  Yum.MangDa

A Thai Kitchen Secret – Nam Prik Pao

thai-chile-paste-jpgNam Prik Pao is a chilli paste made from roasted red chillis, garlic, shrimp paste and fish sauce.  It is the key ingredient to Tom Yum soup, pad thai and many iconic Thai dishes.

The consistency is jam like and indeed I’ve seen references to it being used as spread on bread. I haven’t tried but I suspect this is for hardier folks than me.

In my Thai cooking class I was surprised to see the instructor putting a teaspoon in almost all the dishes.  Later when I looked at the recipe hand-outs, it was often missing from the ingredients list.  An oversight? or maybe a ploy to hide the secret weapon for authentic dishes?   Well, the secret is out. I have my personal stash at home.

Khao Soy

IMG_20151029_132913832_HDR (2)Khao Soy is a  coconut flavoured curry noodle soup.  It is a regional dish, found in northern Thailand.   I think it must have some Chinese roots since I’ve tasted similar dishes (without the curry) from Malaysia and Singapore.  But then, isn’t that true of all noodle soups in this region?

Traditional Khao Soy is made with a mixture of fresh egg noodles and fried noodles. In Chang Mai its easy to find both in the local wet market. The fried noodles give a pleasant contrast in texture.  But for my home made version, I used fresh bean sprouts. It’s healthier and provides the necessary crunch.

The key ingredient that makes this dish unique is the addition of yellow curry powder to the wet curry paste. My Chang Mai guide called it masala.  In Singapore I used Babas meat curry powder, but any pre-made yellow curry powder should work.

Khao Soy

IMG_20151029_124229137200g chicken, sliced
2 tbs red curry paste
1 tbs curry powder
1/2 cup coconut cream
Water
1/2 onion, thinly sliced (optional)
1 tbs Thai chilli paste
1 tbs fish sauce (to taste)
3 tbs sugar (to taste)
Juice from one lime
2-3 fresh coriander bunches, sliced
2-3 green onions, sliced
200g fresh egg noodles, blanched
100g fresh bean sprouts

Fry curry paste & curry powder with 1 tbs cooking oil. Add coconut cream, fish sauce, chilli paste and 1/4 cup water. Bring to boil before adding chicken to cook. Add noodles and bean sprouts. Adjust flavour with fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and chilli paste. Remove from heat and add coriander and green onion.

Thai Red Curry

Whenever I travel I try to find a cooking class. Singaporean, Malay, Thai, Viet and Khmer people  all share a common love of curries and invariably, the  classes have me cutting up fresh ingredients and pounding them with mortar and pestle.  The ingredients change according to dish but sometimes it feels like I’m learning the same thing over and over again.  Call it rempeh or curry paste, there is always chillis and garlic. Variations include shallots, ginger, galangal, lemongrass, shrimp paste, herbs and dry roasted spices.

In my last class I had an Ah-HA moment.  You can make different dishes with the same paste.   A red curry paste wasn’t only for a Red Curry dish.  It could be used for  a Jungle Curry,  a Yellow Curry, a Phanang Curry, a  soupy Khao Soy, a slurpable Spicy Glass Noodles. The cooking technique is almost always the same.  The difference is in the additional ingredients

After my last trip to Chang Mai (November 2015) I think I’ve finally gotten the hang of cooking Thai.  It begins with this Red Curry Paste from the Siam Rice Cooking school.

Red Curry Paste

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Curry Paste ingredient

10 dried red chillis, de-seeded, soaked and chopped
10 (3 tbs) shallots, chopped
10 (2 tbs) garlic, chopped
1 inch (1 tbs) galangal, chopped
1 tbs lemongrass, chopped
1 tbs Thai shrimp paste
1 tbs Kaffir lime rind,chopped
1 tbs Thai ginseng, chopped
1 tbs coriander roots, chopped (optional)

All proportions are approximate.

Blend or pound into a fine paste.  If using a blender , add a couple teaspoons of cooking oil to emulsify.

A Word about Belacan

Massaman curry paste ingredients (2)Throughout South East Asia, particularly Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore, regional recipes call for Belacan.  Sold in little 2×4 bars they come encased in a sealed, heavy weight plastic package.  The reason becomes obvious when the package is opened and the smell assaults your senses.

Belacan is fermented shrimp paste.  It has the look and smell of something you’d scrape off the bottom of your shoe.  However, it is an essential ingredient to the best south asian curries.   It adds an omph of flavor that is indescribable, but distinguishes an OK curry from a OMG curry.

The key to using belacan is to roast  before using.

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My belacan roasting spoon

I have a gas range in my Sing kitchen, so I have a special spoon to roast it over an open flame.  The spoon is not special, it’s just an old stainless steel soup spoon sacrificed for this purpose.  I make sure to open my windows and close the kitchen door before starting.  Initially, the smell is powerful (or ‘powd-erful’ as Singaporeans say)   but as it toasts  the aroma transforms into a pleasant, charry, smokey barbeque fragrance.

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Thai Shrimp paste

There is a Thai version of shrimp paste which is not as strong.  Unlike belacan, it can be used un-roasted. It also has a different, murky purple colour.  I’ve started using the Thai version for my lighter curries.