Royal Seafood: A Singaporean Chinese New Year Feast

It’s difficult being far from home at the holidays — which is what makes February a trying time most years.

Living in New York, far from the Chinese new year feasts and festivities of Singapore, I always feel like I’m missing out. Thankfully, though, there was a special dinner this year — on the seventh day of the lunar new year no less. Now, the seventh day is the day that Chinese celebrate as “Ren Ri,” the day that humans were created. (According to Chinese mythology, the first life-form the goddess Nu Wa created on the first day of the year was the chicken — go figure.) And since it’s the birthday of humans, the Chinese celebrate it as everybody’s birthday.

So it seemed fitting to be heading out to a Chinese new year celebration at Royal Seafood in New York on a day that we could toast everybody’s birthday …

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Green Tea Butter Cookies: Dragon Year Treats

Chinese new year, for me, has always been about my late grandmother’s pineapple tarts.

The buttery cookies topped with sweet home-made pineapple jam are so firmly connected with the holiday that all other cookies simply cease to exist whenever the lunar new year rolls around.

As much as I love them, I don’t quite have the equipment at hand to make them this year, alas. One must still celebrate, nonetheless. So, in a pinch, I whipped together a batch of buttery shortbread cookies flavored with green tea powder I’d picked up in Singapore and had never used in baking before.

The result? A delicious springtime treat that I may just have to include in my new year cookie rotation in years to come…

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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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Auntie Jane’s Potato Gratin: A Singaporean Christmas Casserole

Chinese new year may belong to my grandmother, she of the legendary pineapple tarts. And my Koh family aunties, a stalwart group of women who make mooncakes rather than buy them each year, may own the Mooncake Festival. But Christmas — that will always, always be my Auntie Jane’s holiday.

In Singapore, where Christmas is typically celebrated by people of all races and religions — largely as a secular festival, one squarely centered on getting together to eat and exchange gifts — my family, representing a jumble of religions in itself, would do the same. It didn’t matter whether you were Buddhist, Protestant, Catholic or Jewish — we were united on Christmas Day in our quest to eat well, share gifts and sing along to cheeseball Christmas carols.

The venue for these celebrations was usually my Auntie Jane’s — she always had a beautiful tree, a wonderfully decorated home complete with holiday cards she had received fashioned into a 2-D Christmas tree plastered onto a wall and a large buffet table topped with turkey and ham, fried rice and noodles.

The one dish we truly looked forward to, however, was a potato gratin she whipped together just once a year — filled with sliced chipolata, a skinny British sausage that’s packed with seasonings, mushrooms, onions and potatoes, this gratin was a meal in itself. (And it’s usually a hit with even the pickiest of child eaters.)

Despite my fondness for it, this gratin was yet another family dish that I’d taken for granted and never attempted to make. But when my Let’s Lunch group, a monthly Twitter-fueled virtual lunch-date, decided on sharing a holiday dish from your family or culture this month, I decided it was high time I gave my Auntie Jane’s recipe a shot…

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Braised Brisket: Seder a La Singapore

Sometimes, one just needs a good muse to get the juices flowing.

In my case, that would be a certain brisket I spied recently once the cut of meat began flooding butchers with Passover on the horizon. Now this was a beautiful five-pounder with an impressive girth, hearty red hue and slick coating of fat. Thoughts of what I might do to it washed over me instantly — something conventional, perhaps? Or a return to the trusty sweet and sour brisket recipe I’ve hauled out time and again? And then I thought of my Auntie Alice’s Singapore-style braised duck recipe and how unforgettable that soy sauce gravy inflected with ginger, garlic and five spice powder is.

In recent weeks, I’ve spoken often of how one shouldn’t be intimidated by Southeast Asian recipes — yes, it’s a less usual form of cooking than you would see in most American kitchens. The ingredient lists can be long and the sometimes numerous steps can be mind-boggling. But if you love the flavors, try to understand and dissect them, I’ve been saying in book appearances and interviews — and then adapt those techniques and spice strategies to everyday dishes in your own kitchen.

Faced with my brisket, I thought perhaps I should heed my own advice. My auntie’s braising strategy works wonderfully on duck — so why not beef? Armed with a bagful of garlic, ginger and an onion, I was ready to give it a shot …

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Pfeffernüsse: Victory Sweets

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My mother called the other day, saying she’d been thinking it was time for a change.

Time, specifically, to take down the massive German flag that’s been hanging in my girlhood bedroom in Singapore since the 1990 World Cup. (And the discovery of the wonder that is Jurgen Klinsmann.)

There were protestations, of course — the Germans were doing well in this year’s World Cup. They might win it all again! Why jinx things by folding up my precious flag?

That point, of course, is moot right now. After getting trounced by the Spanish earlier this week, the Germans take to the field today — not to fight for the World Cup. Instead, third place is theirs — if they’re lucky.

Now, when I’m stressed or depressed, I tend to storm the kitchen. So, what to make for this occasion?

“Time to write about some octopus recipes!” my friend Kevin suggested. (Given that I don’t sanction the rallying cry to grill Paul the Psychic Octopus, who predicted, to his German aquarium’s dismay, that Spain would knock Germany out of the semi-finals, I decided to ignore this.)

Something more humane, perhaps. Cookies, for example, seemed harmless enough.

And Martha Stewart had just the recipe …

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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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Panettone: The Seven-Day Bread


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If you are among the people who believe that nothing says “The Holidays” like a festive loaf of panettone, let me just say this: You are mad.

This bread, it is evil.

It will drive you insane, make you tear your hair out. You may find yourself repeatedly staring intently at an unrising bowl of taupe glop, thinking, “Just, why, God, WHY?”

I mean this for the folks out there attempting to bake it, that is. (If you’re the sort who buys panettone in a store then, sure, go for it. I’m sure that’s pretty harmless.)

The problem I had here was holiday spirit.

Recently, I found myself so infused with the stuff that I decided to tackle panettone for the Bread Baker’s Apprentice challenge

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Leftover Turkey Hash Brown Quiche: Dieters Beware


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As much as I love Thanksgiving, I may adore the days after the holiday even more.

One word: Leftovers.

Sure turkey dinners with stuffing and corn pudding that have been doused in so much gravy that you have a thick, glistening brown moat on your plate are unbeatable. But this is also a great time to rev up your creativity in the kitchen.

What to do with your mounds of leftover turkey? Our Let’s Lunch bunch — a group of far-flung home cooks who have a monthly lunch date on Twitter — decided to tackle this question for December.

My answer? A garlicky turkey hash brown quiche.

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