Lotus Blue: Durian Season

Summer in New York can be a difficult time for me — not because of the stifling heat or the endless streams of tourists who claim my city.

Rather, it’s the height of durian season — a time that I looked forward to when I was growing up in Southeast Asia. It’s when this “King of Fruit” (as it’s called in Asia) is at its peak — roadside stalls selling it are impossible to miss at this time in Singapore. In New York, however, the fruit can still be hard to come by.

What is durian? If you’d ever been within a 100 meters of one, you’d know. This fruit, unopened, looks like a spiky medieval weapon the size of a football — and it’s the shade of Incredible Hulk, no less. The more noticeable thing about it, however, is its scent, which is so pungent that it’s banned on public transportation in Singapore. I’ve seen the smell of durian described by some as akin to burnt tires or feces — lovers of the stuff, though, think that’s, well, c***.

In Singapore, bakeries and restaurants put durian in many things — cream puffs, dessert sandwiches, cakes and puddings. Because of its smell, I’ve only seen it in a U.S. restaurant once — at Jean-George Vongerichten’s Spice Market in New York City.

So when I spied durian puffs on the menu while out with the insatiable Gael Greene recently, I knew I had to order it …

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Lithuanian Poppy Seed Holiday Cookies: Santa-Worthy Treats

I have the great fortune of living near Sahadi’s, a wonderful little Middle Eastern grocery in Brooklyn that’s filled with bins of dates and nuts and shelves of treats such as pomegranate molasses, Turkish apricots and three kinds of orange blossom water.

As much of a thrill as it is to walk through Sahadi’s on any day, given that you never know what new delicious morsel you’ll discover, it’s particularly lovely in December, when the usually crammed store gets absolutely packed with a shoppers and a frenetic holiday spirit that’s uniquely New York. Excuse me, there are meals to be made — out of my way! You going to get that box of tea or what? Hurry up! (OK, perhaps I am alone in having these thoughts — everyone else may well be imbued with saintly patience since it is the holiday season, after all.)

Being there always gives me that seasonal rush that propels me to the finish line that is our Christmas dinner, however. And this year, I picked up a little extra something I’d been curious to cook with: Poppy seed paste.

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Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake: A Toast to Art, Life, Yaddo

Chocolate mayonnaise cake has been on my mind recently.

It’s not so much the cake itself — delicious as it is — but rather, what it symbolizes.

This time last year, I was nestled amid 400 acres of woods in Saratoga Springs, New York, ensconced in a cozy writing studio with little more than a pesky woodpecker for company all day and a big deadline looming ahead of me. The deadline was terrifying — it was for my very first book. And it was, for various reasons, not the sort that can be pushed off for months or years. This book was coming out in February 2011 come hell or highwater — there was simply no changing it.

And so I packed up my laptop, my notebooks, letters and diaries. And I left the intense social pressure and the cacophony of New York City, fleeing upstate to Yaddo, a storied artists colony that I had long dreamed of attending. I had read about this Yaddo — a place of extreme quietude run by a non-profit corporation that devotes itself to providing literary non-fiction writers, novelists, poets, painters and composers with a little hideout away from the crazy world outside, a window of calm to create.

Among these studios and woods, a shimmering roster of artists has passed through. It was here that Sylvia Plath penned the poems that would form the backbone of her first volume of poetry, “The Colossus.” Patricia Highsmith completed “Strangers on a Train,” her first book, at Yaddo. It’s also where Carson McCullers wrote “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe.” John Cheever practically lived at Yaddo for chunks of his career; and other artists who have spent time at there include Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Philip Roth, composer Leonard Bernstein and photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.

As a big McCullers and Plath fan, it was humbling for me to be invited to Yaddo to finish my book. (It is hard not to begin your writing day feeling the eyes of those before you scanning your screen, probably thinking, “You really gonna write that?”) More important, however, it turned out to be essential help at a crucial time. I was given a comfortable room, a lovely writing studio, three meals a day and an embarrassment of riches in time and solitude to peck away at my memoir.

Earlier this year, “A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family” hit bookstores. That the book managed to make its way out into the world on time is a testament to this warm little place in the woods that gave me peace and fed me well. It was here that I wrote my book, yes, but it was also here that I had my first sliver of chocolate mayonnaise cake at dinner one night.

Both events, I will never forget.

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Caramel-Walnut Upside-Down Banana Cake: Doctor’s Orders

There are many perfectly lovely blogs out there that extol the virtues of healthy eating. Page after page will be filled with photos and recipes of jazzed up salads and low-calorie sweets, all nudging you to at least try to live a better life.

This blog, dear readers, is not one of them.

Yes, there has been the recent issue of the doctor’s concern. But when this concern has somehow led to an untouched mound of rapidly browning bananas sitting on the kitchen counter (because the doctor has ordered the consumption of a banana a day), something has to be done.

Not that this leads to any bananas actually getting consumed, mind you. Instead, a recipe is found — one that calls for ripe bananas that will be turned into a banana cake topped with a thick, hot layer of sweet caramel and walnuts.

The recipe oozes decadence and sin. But it does have a saving grace — there are bananas in there, after all. Isn’t that what the doctor ordered?

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Maple-Bacon Ice-Cream: Cheating Death (For Now)

This is what happens when a girl’s doctor discovers what she sort of does for a living (eat) and starts worrying about her cholesterol and blood pressure:

She comes upon a recipe for maple-bacon ice-cream calling for 12 large egg yolks.

And gosh darn it, she makes it.

One might speculate that there are many reasons for this occurrence — a deep-seated stubbornness, a misguided rebellion, a determination to cling to the belief of invincibility, the attempt to give the specter of death the big, well, you know.

But perhaps the reason is far, far simpler. (This is what she chooses to believe.) This ice-cream has bacon in it. Who wouldn’t want to try making it?
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Cowgirl: A Dessert Surprise


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The evening had been good — entertaining but generally uneventful. Until the question came, "Would you like dessert?"

Having just devoured chicken fried chicken, mashed potatoes, chicken fajitas and a massive bowl of vegetarian chili (plus copious amounts of chips and bean dip), dessert was an unlikely endeavor. But then there it was before us at Cowgirl in New York City: A dessert menu emblazoned with a large tempting picture of the restaurant's signature ice-cream "baked potato."

I was shocked to see the picture — not because of the calories I saw before me. (The dessert consists of scoops of vanilla ice-cream dusted with cocoa powder to resemble a
potato, topped with whipped cream, slabs of lime-sugar "butter" and
chopped pecans dyed green.)

The surprise was there because I took the picture last year for a piece on this blog about Cowgirl's seafood outpost, Cowgirl Seahorse. And there it was, massive and beautiful (if I do say so myself) on this restaurant's menu.

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Lemongrass Frozen Yogurt: The Joys of Cooking Redux



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Years ago, I heard a sports writer complain about how he used to love sports — until he started writing about it.

Once it became a job, he all but stopped watching games on weekends. The thing that he adored had morphed into stress-inducer.

I remember feeling aghast — you get paid to write about something you love. Isn’t that more than many people dream of?

Recently, however, I’ve started to understand. After spending weeks with my nose buried deep in my book manuscript — which is all about a journey home to my native Singapore told through food and cooking — my time in the kitchen has become, simply, work. Meals have been thrown together out of sheer necessity; easy old faithfuls rather than new creative dishes have been making far too many appearances on the dinner table.

The stress of writing and editing my hundreds of pages on food, sadly, had transformed my love for cooking into a source of anxiety.

But I only realized I’d forgotten how to enjoy the act of making food when my Let’s Lunch friends nudged me back into the kitchen — not to put a meal on the table but to whip up something silly and anything but practical: A decadent chilled dessert.

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Pineapple Tarts: The Start Of The Journey


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In the beginning, there were pineapple tarts.

These buttery, crumbly, bite-sized marvels bewitched me as a child in Singapore. My paternal grandmother made the best ones, of course — every Chinese new year, she would hit the kitchen to churn out her tarts, pushing me to eat as many as I wanted as we sat in her living room, unhurriedly passing time.

I never learned to make my grandmother’s tarts as a child, unfortunately.

When I was 11, she died. And the chance for her to teach me anything suddenly vanished.

After many years of mourning this lost opportunity, I traveled back to Singapore in early 2009 to learn how to make these tarts from my aunts. My grandmother had taught them how to bake the tarts when she was alive and they were now the keepers of her prized recipe, which I’ve included below.

The experience was enlightening — but it also generated a spark. I now knew how to make the tarts of my grandmother, a legendary cook in our family and to all she knew.

But still, I wanted more.

Thus began a journey of discovery — one that would take place in the kitchens of my Singapore family. Over the next lunar calendar year, the women of my family would gather over hot stoves to laugh, tell stories, shake our heads and, above all else, cook.

The story of my journey will be shared very soon. (Hyperion’s Voice is publishing “A Tiger In The Kitchen” in January 2011.)

But first, it must be written — and so I must bow out of this blog for a while. Seven weeks, to be exact. (Special thanks to Yaddo, the artists’ colony, for generously offering me a nook in the woods to think and create.)

I hope you’ll forgive this absence, but you must admit, it’s for a rather good reason. 

When I return in late April, I’ll be looking for all of you. My year of cooking in Singapore is over but the journey continues here. And I hope you’ll be coming along with me.

Until then, buon appetito and enjoy …

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Prosperity Cakes (Fatt Gou): Ushering In A Rich Tiger Year


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You will have to excuse the radio silence on this blog. 

Between stuffing myself with pineapple tarts and cooking up a storm in Singapore, there simply hasn’t been a spare moment since the Chinese year of the Tiger began on Sunday to sit down and pen an intelligible sentence.

Amid the bacchanalia, however, some lessons have been learned. The deeper ones — about family, love and the enduring power of ancestral lore — I won’t go into. (You’ll just have to buy the book.) 

But the Chinese new year recipes — usually designed to conjure success, prosperity or love — now those, those I’m more than happy to share.

Over the last few days, I’ve had the good fortune of spending quality time in the kitchen with Auntie Hon Tim, the Colorado-based mother of my dear Auntie Donna in Singapore. Now, Auntie Hon Tim used to own and run a Chinese restaurant in Lakewood, Colo. — so she’s got some serious cooking chops. 

Besides teaching me the quickest way to skim fat off a pot of stew and how to rapidly chop carrots without slicing off my fingernails, Auntie Hon Tim has been showing me how to make some of her favorite lunar new year recipes.

On her must list every year is fatt gou, or prosperity cakes — cupcake-sized desserts that she makes to send friends wishes of riches and sweetness in the new year. 

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Ice Kachang: Savoring The Old


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This is what inevitably happens when I get together with the Fairways Kids, a bunch of friends I’ve known since I was 11, back when my family moved into a Singapore condominium building named (naturally) Fairways.

Sure, we’ll catch up on jobs, lives, kids, significant others. But somehow the conversation always wends its way back to one thing: ice kachang, a sugary dessert featuring a bowl of sweet corn, red beans, palm seeds and jelly topped with a minor hill of shaved ice that’s been doused in syrup so sweet you can practically feel a toothache coming on as you shovel spoonfuls into your mouth.

We were a rambunctious lot — still are, some might say. Rough soccer games, fearless, kickboxing fights in the swimming pool, endless games of volleyball in the tennis court — this was how our youths were misspent. But the highlight of those idyllic days often was a trip over the fence (the shortcut before the condo association built a back gate) to the hawker center in the back. 

What lay at the end was an ice-cold mountain, festive and pink. 

Back behind the fence, we had homework, exams and, later, boy or girl problems to consume us. But at Telok Blangah Food Centre, things were simple. All we had to worry about was whether we had enough coins that day for a bowl of ice kachang.

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