Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Christmas Cooking

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup with Chestnut

Christmas cooking duties were split between families this year. My aunt took charge of massaging the turkey and ensuring a tender and succulent turkey and glazing our hunk-a-chunk of a ham and I took charge of the beginnings and the end of the dinner. I was in favour of a panna cotta but my brother insisted and made his case for a chocolate fondant, after all, who would resist a chocolate fondant? So dessert was set in its mould.

On to starters, I love appetisers; they are probably my favourite section of the menu. Given a choice, I would rather have two or three appetisers and forgo the main course. Given my inclination towards appetisers, I normally am never satisfied just planning for an appetiser and would more often than not serve two or three, and if I’m feeling like a super-cook, maybe consider more. This year’s Christmas dinner was no different, the final count was four. After flipping and tagging recipes in book after book after book, it finally came down to a di mare theme and a soup. To start off the seafood medley, we had fresh oysters with vinaigrette and topped off with tobikko. For a touch of drama, we filled this large 2 metre long serving vessel with ice and sea salt and poised those plump sexy oysters on. Following, I served a sashimi platter of sake (salmon) and maguro (tuna) lightly marinated with an orange infused soy based sauce, and poached prawns in a dashi stock with avocado and roasted red peppers salsa. To round off the appetiser section of the dinner and to remind everyone it was Christmas, I made a velvet smooth roasted butternut squash soup with chestnut. (I associate chestnuts with Christmas because of the line from the Christmas song, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire …”).

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On Christmas day itself, we attended a red and green themed Christmas party. Already stuffed with turkey and ham from the night before, we decided to bring red and green themed food instead for a little Christmas fun. Still fascinated by how exquisite and simple the food at Xi Yan was, we decided to attempt at re-creating another dish from the new private dining restaurant, the signature Japanese tomatoes in sesame sauce. Shopping for this dish was a fascinating process. We headed to meidi-ya to hunt down those gargantuan Japanese tomatoes that Xi Yan uses, Japanese tomatoes rather easy to locate, but those XXL ones were not such an easy task, and so we settled for those that were available and served it with the nutty, creamy sesame sauce.

I’m exhausted from the cooking but thoroughly satisfied with my Christmas creations this year. The Christmas soup this year was thankfully miles better than a curry zucchini soup tasted odd from the possibly bitter burnt curry powder, here’s the recipe for the good soup –

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup with Chestnut
Serves 4-6

2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp minced garlic
1 kg butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1 inch chunks
1 birds eye chilli, seeds removed and minced
3 springs thyme, stalks removed
Salt and pepper to taste
4 cups chicken stock
3 tbsp freshly grated Parmesan
10 chestnuts, boiled and shells removed


Preheat oven to 225°C.

Heat olive oil in ovenproof pan over high heat, sauté garlic, with squash and add chilli, thyme, salt and pepper. Cook till squash browns slightly, about 10 minutes.

Transfer pan to oven and cook for another 15 minutes, shaking the pan midway to ensure even roasting.

Return pan to stove and over medium heat, add stock. Cook for another 15 minutes or until squash it tender, remove from heat and puree in a blender. Add water if soup is too thick to ensure a smooth consistency. Ladle into individual soup bowls and garnish with parmesan and a chestnut; or soup can be set aside, reheated and garnish when serving.

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Friday, December 23, 2005

Look Mom, No cooking!

Although I find the act of cooking and following recipes rather therapeutic, cooking on the weekdays sometimes really stresses me out. If I had to cook for myself, I would be quite content slapping some cheese and ham into a sandwich maker or a grill for a toastie; but having to attend a mid-week Wednesday surprise pot luck birthday party is another story altogether. I needed something really simple and easy to piece together with minimal equipment since I would have to cook in a foreign kitchen. The solution, don’t cook. Instead, I tried to replicate Xi Yan’s Cold Tofu Pork Floss dish, no cooking involved (just boiling of eggs, and that can be done beforehand), just buying ingredients and combining them in a presentable fashion. Here’s my impressionistic version of Xi Yan’s Cold Tofu Pork Floss.


1 block silken tofu
1 spring onion, chopped
1 tbsp fried shallots
2 salted egg yolks, chopped
1 tsp sesame seeds, toasted
50g pork floss
50ml store bought tempura sauce


1. Use kitchen towels to pat dry the excess liquid from tofu.
2. Place tofu in a shallow bowl and top with a both salted egg yolk and fried shallots and carefully place pork floss on top of the other two ingredients.
3. Garnish with sesame seeds and spring onions.
4. Carefully pour tempura sauce around tofu and serve.

* If you like more shallots, place more on the side of tofu.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

More Teochew Dining

Huat Kee Teochew Restaurant
74 Amoy Street
Singapore 069893
Tel: 6423-4747

Ever since we stepped into Liang Kee (At Beo Cresent), my dad the true blue Teochew would constantly crave to go back there on a fortnightly basis. Eager to try something different, we started to search for other Teochew fix alternatives, and so here we are at Huat Kee.

The restaurant is located at Amoy street, which makes it a prime choice for many business lunches for Chinese businessmen and other business dealings. Although the restaurant’s signage reads Teochew Restaurant Huat Kee (Since 1998), in actual fact, this culinary history of this restaurant started in 1969 and 1998 is only a reflection of their time at the current Amoy Street address. We entered into the crowded double storied restaurant and were instantly worried that we were not going to get a table since we did not call to make a reservation, but we pushed our dad to the forefront and get him to charm the staff with his Teochew. Seeing how we were their “ka kee niang”, they managed to sit our family upstairs among a sea of reserved tables.

Steamed fish, Teochew Style

The food is traditional teochew and was good enough for my teochew father to consider bringing my teochew grandma, so, I can boldly say, it is authentic and pretty damn good. The first dish to arrive was our vegetables, Kai Lan stir fried with dried sole. The wok hei-ed lard flavoured vegetables were amazingly aromatic, green and crunchy. Following which we had the classic teochew goose meat and the prawn paste rolls. The goose meat was slightly tougher than I expected, but the prawn paste rolls, were good. The fried kway teow that came next was my favourite dish of the night. The sprinkling of chai poh in the noodles, gave it extra crunch and texture as well as a salty tangy flavour. Then came the plat du resistance, the ikan karua tail steamed teochew style – steamed to with preserved plums, tomatoes, ginger and preserved vegetables to create a subtle flavoured broth and retain the fish natural sweetness – the fish was fresh and sweet and the broth was delicate and clean that focused the attention on the natural flavours of the fish. To end it all off, we had portions of orh nee with pumpkin puree and ginko nuts. The warm comforting sticky paste, was thankfully not pumped up with too much sugar, but was wonderful to enjoy. To send you off, they serve you with a serving of ti guan yin tea to make you feel a little better about all the possible bad elements that you might have consumed during the course of your meal, not too bad eh?

Pay: $20-$30 a person

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Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Asian way of Eating

Nasi Padang River Valley (The Original)
54 Zion Road
Tel: 6734-3383
(closed on public holidays)

你吃了饭吗? (ni chi le fan ma?)
Translated : Have you eaten your rice?

In Asia of the world where rice is a symbol of life and culture, rice is synonymous for food. The importance of rice is reflected in the language, where the Chinese and most Asians greet each other by enquiring if they have eaten. A survey of a variety of dishes across Asia would indicated that this is probably the most common way of Asian eating – a steamy bowl of rice with a myriad of colourful and bold flavoured aromatic curries, spicy chilli dishes meats, sweet barbequed meats and salty soy sauce based dishes. In Thailand, dress your rice with some jade emerald green curry in Thailand or in Singapore, a fish head curry but if you are in Western Sumatra, Indonesia, the word is Padang.

Padang, the capital of Western Sumatra, Indonesia, has made a name for its cuisine. Padang food is generally spiced with chillies and coconut milk, making “Nasi”, the natural base ingredient of the meal. This original Nasi Padang stall along Zion Road is the real McCoy, with the original stall owners hailing from Western Sumatra. The recipes have been passed down through the generations and are now safely guarded in a safe. Good news for all Nasi Padang lovers!

Whether you are here by yourself or with a party of 10, the row of dishes will leave you a little undecided on what to try. Try all 30+ dishes if you can manage or eat here for a week until you have decided what all your favourite dishes are. We came as a party of 4 and order nearly 1/3 of the dishes, which covered a sizable amount of space on our table and attracted greedy glances from the table next to us. Most dishes (except for the rock hard fried chicken offal) from the feast that lay before us were “lemaky” good, the only complain I have is that, the food needs to be served at a hotter temperature; I’m not a fan of tepid food. The wonderful padang feast set us back $36 for 4.


Thursday, December 08, 2005

Red Bean Cookies?

Don’t ask me why, but for some reason I thought red bean cookies would have been a good idea. Unfortunately, my concept of the cookie was better than the actual cookie itself - the red bean flavours was too mild to be tasted. They turned out simply as tasty cookies, but not tasty red bean cookies. Boo.

Red Bean Cookies
Makes 48

3 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
250g unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup red bean paste
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup sugar2 large eggs


Preheat oven to 200°C and line 2 large baking sheets with baking paper.

Beat butter, red bean paste and vanilla in large bowl until well blended and then beat in sugar. Stir half of dry ingredients into mixture. Add eggs 1 at a time, stirring well after each addition. Mix in remaining dry ingredients.

Using a tablespoon, scoop out a heaped tablespoon of cookie dough and roll into a ball and arrange the dough balls about on a tray 5 cm apart. Using back of fork, flatten dough balls.

Bake cookies until dry on top and golden brown on bottom, about 14 minutes.

Cool cookies on baking sheets 5 minutes. Transfer onto cooling rack and cool completely.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

You say private dining, I say Xi Yan.

Xi Yan
38A Craig Road
Singapore 089676
Tel: 9695-4957
(By reservation only)

Xi Yan, the first of its overseas branches from Hong Kong, has been the talk of the town since its opening. This private-dining, reservation only restaurant, has taken our little dining city by storm, and is fast becoming one of the harder places to get a reservation. By a sheer stroke of chance, I managed to chance upon a table. I called to find out if there were anymore tables open for December as a surprise dinner for a friend who was coming home from Europe. Unfortunately, they were fully booked out for December and for most of January, but they just had a cancellation for the next day, and it was mine if I was interested, “yes!” was my reflex answer, following which, all I had to do was gather eaters. Gathering eaters was not too difficult a task, I made a few calls, and in an hour or so managed to gather a dozen other interested diners and dinner was set.

There is only one menu per night, depending on what fresh produce is available, and so if you have food allergies, you should probably tell them beforehand, especially since liberally use peanuts for one of their house specialities. The dinner averages 3-3.5 hours, and they serve you 13 courses. The menu does change to a certain extent, but the house signatures – Japanese Tomato in Sesame Sauce, Spicy Sichuan Chicken and Xi Yan Tang Yuan more or less are permanent features in each daily menu.

Despite the banquet fashion and nazi-styled menu, the atmosphere is rather laid back and the food is not too pretentious. The exquisite food comes in huge serving plates and bowls, placed on the lazy susan, leaving you to portion out your own food. Here’s the dinner, course by course.

This Australian baby was gently cooked to retain its natural sweetness. The sweetness of the lobster was also contrasted with the mint sauce and belachan sauce that it was served with. The dips were milder than they sounded, but the flavours complimented and brought out the sweetness of the lobster.

Wow, who knew tomatoes came in these XXL sizes. These huge organic Japanese tomatoes are grown on the outskirts of Tokyo and were the size of my fist. Here they serve it while the tomatoes while there are 90% ripe to retain some firm texture of the tomato. The simple combination is rather phenomenal, with a hint of natural sweetness, the firmness gives it a bite and the creamy sesame sauce and the visual presentation made me think about ice cream – giant scoops of tomato ice cream that is dripping with a caramel coloured sesame sauce.

This Chinese twist on the Japanese cold tofu dish was delightful. An interesting combination of a various simple ingredients created this delectable number. The pork floss provided balance a candy-like flavour to salty sauce and salted egg topping. Serving it on cold rather that hot tofu was a good way of keeping the dish light, simultaneously adding another dimension of texture.

This was perhaps my least favourite dish. A little too spicy for me, and I might have just preferred it as a nibble at the start of the meal, rather than as a dish.

Cooked with kung pao sauce and fresh pepper corns, the taste was surprisingly delicate. Expecting something really spicy, the white pepper shrimp was nectareous with a gentle wisp of spice from the white pepper.

The sticky finger licking good glaze that covered the ribs was divine. The ribs were caramel sweet but had complex flavour from the vinegar based marinade. It was a like a hybrid between kung ba pao and stewed pigs trotters. Although not fall off the bone soft, the glazed Zheng Jiang ribs sticky sauce taste and aromas lingered on our lips.

Before this dish is served, the wait staff will ask the level of your gung-ho-ness and how spicy you would like your Spicy Sichuan Chicken. At the pinnacle is the hellish hot tongue numbing chilli level followed by a medium level spice and the mild. The solution is to ask for mild or medium heat (if you are confident enough) and request for more sauce on the side. The chicken was succulent and the Sichuan sauce was laced with sesame oil making the dish extremely fragrant. The chicken is also served with konnyaku noodles which drinks up the sauce and provides another texture and century eggs to dowse the fire in your mouth.

The pungent and extremely aromatic prawn paste that is traditionally used on chicken and served as the ubiquitous ha chong kai in every tze char stall in Singapore, was appointed another purpose in the culinary world. The prawn paste (rather than shrimp sauce) gave made the skin crisp and fragrant. The smell arrests you before the fish arrives, and when it does, it is quite a sight, the gaping grouper resting on the bed of pomelo. The grouper was very fresh and cooked well, retaining its natural juices and the pomelo added some tartness to balance the strong prawn paste.

Although the crabs are the most visually striking thing about this dish, they are not the main attraction of the dish but what lies beneath. The glutinous rice that cushion the crabs that have been infused with Shanghainese crab roe and the crab’s sweet juiced during the steaming process. Making the roe enriched rice sweet and indulgent.

As a palate cleanser, this was a welcomed change. Despite the general consensus of “I’m so full already” around the table, when this fruit platter arrived, it was quickly consumed. Instead of having the conventional sour plum salt powder at the side as a dip, the fruits were soaked in sour plum syrup. The play of sweet and sour on the fruits was refreshing and calmed the palates down for the next course.

Judging from the name of the dish, I was expected a luxurious rendition of tom yum chicken soup. Instead, we were served a chicken consommé with floating wolf berries and a slice of mature coconut flesh. The soup was delicate in flavour, but the coconut flesh was just too hard, I just did not get how it worked together.

The mushrooms were a little disappointing, in comparison to the other dishes which were bolder in taste.

Bobbing in a warm sweetened ginger soup, the signature Xi Yan tang yuan is perhaps the most extravagant tang yuan ever made. Visually symbolic and comforting, the tasty tang yuan is rather cheeky once in your mouth. With the multi-filling of peanuts, white sesame seeds, candied melon, salted egg and butter, the tang yuan danced on the tongue with a variety of flavours and textures, perfectly rounding off the long dinner.

With regards to the food, the main influences in the food are Chinese and Thai flavours and ingredients. The flavours are bold and there is a high level of commitment to fresh produce here. The dishes were fantastic, but among the spectacular, there were a few rather big question marks. The hard coconut flesh that was too tough to chew? The order of the menu seems rather particular as in our opinion (consensus between dining companions) that the mushroom dish seemed really out of place, making the dish less enjoyable and taking away from the fruit platter that came before. I just do not get it.

The other half of the success of this place is Mr. Tan Keng Siong and the wait staff that he heads. They work in perfect synchrony with the kitchen and with the one wait staff to one table ratio; they are attentive and friendly without being obtrusive. Together, the food and the service do make this place an interesting and decadent dining experience. I guess that pretty much explains the rather full reservation book for the next few weeks. If only all wedding dinners were this enjoyable.

Pay: S$88 nett a person.

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Saturday, December 03, 2005

Hurrah for Ken!

Noodle House Ken
150 Orchard Road
Orchard Plaza
Tel: 6235-5540

After the disappointing outing to Sapporo Ramen Miharu, I was rather determined to find a decent bowl of Ramen that had a full-flavoured broth and ramen that did not taste like instant noodles. I took my cue from the travelling hungry boy, who has slurping bowls of noodles at various ramen shops in singapore.

Thankfully my dinner companion for the night was rather accomodating, since she warmly took to my idea of seeking out this bowl of ramen of which I did not have the address for, and the walk there was going to take at least a 20 minute walk or longer through the swarmp of people in orchard road. Searching for this ramen shop, my eyes lit up when I saw an outdoor Asahi umbrella and I proclaimed, “I think we are here!” Sure enough, and thankfully, we had arrived and were ushered through a narrow alley to the next room, where we were seated.

We did not get to meet Ken, but there is a picture of him on the menu, so I guess you can keep your eyes peeled to spot the man who spends 8 hours making the gorgeous stock for these simple and comforting bowls of ramen. The ramen was bouncy and had a slight resistance when I bit into, and the char siew had a good amount of fat that made the meat juicy and had a hit but not over powering “natural porky” taste. Our dinner was rather perfect, unlike the noodle bars where you eat and run, we savoured and slurped, sipped Ebisu and lingered over conversation.

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Ramen bowls here are priced at $10 or $12, and you can get a large bowl for another $2, and additional goodies in your soup such as corn, char siew, eggs, bamboo shoots, etc, for another $2 or so.

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