Japanese Crisp Choco Bites: Guilty Pleasure Morsels

My mother discouraged snacking when I was a child. (A policy I’m hugely thankful for now that I know just how little willpower I have.)

However, among the few tidbits allowed during my Singaporean girlhood — as just an occasional treat — were Japanese cookies and chocolate snacks.

These bite-sized morsels were adorable — panda-shaped cookies filled with oozy strawberry filling, thimble-sized chocolate “hamburgers,” tasty biscuit sticks I’d pretend were cigarettes as I held them between two fingers, slowly nibbling them down to nubs. But my favorite was something very basic: Crisp Choco, a milk-chocolate pizza-like pie made with compacted chocolate cornflakes.

In the grand scheme of things, this snack doesn’t seem terribly sinful — it’s not a rich molten chocolate cake or mound of bacon, after all. But it was a treat that we looked forward to — one I count as a guilty pleasure I now allow myself just a few times a year.

So when my Let’s Lunch bunch decided on sharing a guilty pleasure for our virtual lunch date this month, Crisp Choco it was …

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Spam Fries with Key Lime Dip: A Perfect Munchies Hit

A little bit of excitement occurred recently — I just had my first piece of fiction published in an anthology!

It’s a short story titled “Ganja Ghosts” — about, well, smoking the you know what in Singapore. And it’s appeared in a lovely book called “The Marijuana Chronicles,” edited by the brilliant artist and bestselling mystery writer Jonathan Santlofer.

In addition to Jonathan, there are stories in there by Joyce Carol Oates, Lee Child and more. To say I’ve been thrilled would barely even begin to describe it. And yes, all of you should absolutely run right out now and buy a copy!

So, it seemed like a celebration was in order — and thankfully, my Let’s Lunch mates were on board. For this month’s lunch date, we decided to share our ideas for perfect “munchies” …

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Pier 23 Cafe (San Francisco): Bacon, Oysters and A Beer

If you, like me, head to the Ferry Building each time you come to San Francisco, you’ll know the problem that lies ahead.

After all the honey sniffing, cheese poking and book browsing you’ve done, a question inevitably arises: Where to get a lovely drink and nibble with a sweeping view of the water and Bay Bridge?

If it’s anytime after 4:30 p.m. or so and you’d like a comfy spot in the Ferry Building — good luck. Some of the places there have such terrific happy hours that you’ll be battling swarms of commuters and tourists all looking to belly up.

On a recent visit, however, my friend Matt had a better plan. Outside, on the Embarcadero, he started going north, pushing head-on into thick gales determined to blow us back. After a few minutes, our struggles were over when we came upon a little shack of a building.

From the palm trees plastered on its side and the kitschy neon sign that said “Pier 23,” I knew this would be the perfect spot …

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Cheese & Onion Sarnie: A Working Man’s High Tea

If you’ve never had high tea in Singapore, add it to your bucket list.

These feasts, often buffets,  typically unfold over a few hours in posh hotels — all the better if they’re of the colonial variety such as the country’s fabled Raffles — and feature heaping tables of sweets (scones, clotted cream, jam, tiny tarts) as well as hearty servings of local savory dishes such as curry, noodles, steamed Chinese buns and more.

I always look forward to the scones, cakes and tarts — what proper post-Colonial Anglophile wouldn’t? But it’s often the dainty finger sandwiches that I covet first. Cucumber, sweet curried chicken — I can never get enough.

So when my monthly virtual lunch-group, the Let’s Lunch bunch, decided on doing high tea for October,  little sandwiches immediately went on my docket …

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Cheddar-Pecan Crisps: Bubbly-Friendly Bites

Summer always brings much to celebrate — delicious pies, sandy beach picnics, sunny farmstands plump with fresh produce.

This July, we have one more thing to toast: the second anniversary of Let’s Lunch, a monthly Twitter lunchdate that began two years ago when three women from Paris, San Diego and New York gathered online over a sudden — and monstrous — shared craving for BLTs.

Since that first lunch, the group has expanded — the Let’s Lunch bunch now includes folks from ParisSydney (yes, Australia), St. Louis, and more. To mark the many feasts we’ve had, we decided to devote July’s lunch to nibbly bits that that go well with champagne.

What to make? I decided to pull out an old favorite …

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Rolina Curry Puffs (Singapore): A Bite of History

There’s been some chatter on Twitter about curry puffs recently — talk, even, of taking a stab at home-made versions of these deep-fried pastries filled with curried potatoes and hard-boiled egg.

Making these puffs — which are divine, especially if eaten piping hot and freshly fried — has never once crossed my mind. This is due in large part to the fact that they’re ubiquitous in Singapore, where I grew up. At 50 cents Singapore (roughly U.S.$0.40) — about what they cost when I was growing up in the 1980s — these puffs were so inexpensive and easy to buy that not many people thought of creating their own. (I salute @WokStar‘s attempt for our Let’s Lunch date next month.)

Among all the hawker stalls that sell curry puffs in Singapore, however, a few stand out. During a visit to Singapore earlier this year, I had the great fortune of stumbling upon one of them while cruising a hawker center, searching for lunch …

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Popiah: Singaporean Summer Rolls, Just Like Grandma Made

I’ve been thinking a lot about popiah, a Singaporean-style summer roll, recently — not just because temperatures have been creeping up in New York City and the foods of my tropical native country are starting to beckon once again.

As you may know, I’ve been on a bit of a book publicity blitz with the February publication of “A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family.” And in all the interviews and signings I’ve done, popiah — a roll filled with ingredients such as julienned jicama, shrimp, shallots, tofu — has been a recipe that has come up frequently.

It’s a roll my grandmother used to make when I was growing up in Singapore — and it’s one that I crave in the U.S. as you don’t see it often on restaurant menus. Because it’s light, a little spicy and the filling has a nice crunch to it, it’s the perfect snack food or appetizer for warm weather — in Singapore, people often have popiah parties in which the filling, summer roll skins and various condiments are set out and guests mill about, casually making their own rolls whenever they feel like eating one.

During my research for the book, however, I made sure to learn how my grandmother and chef Simpson (of Cafe Asean in New York) make theirs — so when my Let’s Lunch group of virtual lunch buddies decided on small spring bites for our March date, popiah immediately sprang to mind …

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Hei Zho (Prawn Rolls) & A Tiger in The Kitchen Book Launch!

In the middle of a cold, gray New York City winter two years ago, I suddenly found myself thinking about my late grandmother.

This was a woman I had barely known as a child in Singapore. A slender, bird-like lady who spoke nothing but Teochew, the Chinese dialect of my ancestors, the woman I called Tanglin Ah-Ma found it hard to have meaningful conversations with this Westernized, English-speaking granddaughter. Still, we found a way to communicate: Each time I went to her home, food would be set out. Delicious braised duck, gently slow-cooked in a heady mixture of dark soy sauce, star anise and cinnamon and filled with plump cubes of tofu and hard-boiled eggs; umami-packed salted vegetable soup and, at Chinese new year, pineapple tarts, a tiny buttery wonder of a cookie that comprises a shortbread base topped with sweet pineapple jam.

I always thought I’d ask Tanglin Ah-Ma to teach me to make these dishes someday — but when I was 11, she passed away.

Decades later in New York, I realized with deep regret that I had no idea how to make any of these dishes I’d grown up loving. And so I went on a journey, traveling from faraway New York to the country of my birth. Over the next year, the women in my family welcomed me into their kitchens — over many sweltering afternoons, my aunties, my maternal grandmother and my mother gently and gracefully guided me through the foods of my youth, of our shared history. It is a year that is priceless to me because of the stories they told as well as the recipes they generously shared.

I would go into it more but, as you may have heard on this blog, I have a little news to share today. “A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family,” which chronicles my year of learning about my family — and myself — by cooking with them, hits bookstores today. Everything I learned and loved about that magical year is in there — and I do hope you enjoy it. (I’ve also invited several friends to share a treasured family recipe on their blogs today — be sure to scroll down to check out their offerings, ranging from author friend Camille’s grandmother’s zucchini souffle and Phyl’s Nanny Faye’s Hungarian goulash to Victor’s mom’s pad thai.)

Just because my year in Singapore is over, however, it doesn’t mean that the quest to collect my family’s recipes has ended. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle, after all. And so during a recent visit to Singapore, when an auntie I only recently got to know mentioned that hei zho, a deep-fried prawn roll that’s Fukienese in origin, is one of her specialties, I found myself instinctively reaching for my notepad. The camera came out; a pen was located.

Auntie Alice beckoned me into the kitchen, and the journey continued …

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Grilled Cheese Sandwich: Cheddar & Blue With Asian Pears & Rosemary Honey


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There's a lovely little bar near my Brooklyn home that serves the most brilliant grilled cheese sandwiches — the bread is sliced thin and grilled to crisp perfection. And the melted cheddar within is curled around slender slivers of green apples, which lend the sandwich a nice tartness that cuts through the rich cheese.

I think about that sandwich often — and it came to mind again when my Let's Lunch group, a bunch of far-flung bloggers who gather once a month for a virtual lunch date, decided on creative grilled cheese sandwiches for October.

The version I had in mind had a few twists, however …

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Teochew Mooncakes: A Big Tease


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This time last year, I was in Singapore, learning how to make mooncakes, learning about my family.

The lessons in the kitchen were both informative and intense. Along with their braised duck recipes, the women in my family imparted their tales, their advice. I won't go into detail — you'll just have to buy the book when it comes out in February.

But I found myself thinking about my aunties and their life lessons as the Mid-Autumn Festival (which falls today) approached and mooncakes began appearing in Chinatown stores. The celebration, also known as the Mooncake festival, marks the day that the moon is supposedly the brightest during the year. In Singapore, we also call it the lantern festival because it's the night that children wielding lanterns in the shape of dragons, dogs, even Hello Kitty, take to parks and playgrounds to create a river of bobbing lights. 

In China, the celebration also commemorates the 14th Century rebellion against the reigning Mongols. Members of the resistance spread word about their planned uprising via notes tucked into cakes, which they smuggled to sympathizers.

While I learned to make traditional mooncakes in Singapore — filled with lotus seed paste and salted egg yolks — my aunties also taught me a version that's indigenous to my Chinese ethnic group, the Teochews. Filled with sweet mashed yam and wrapped in a decorative rippled fried dough, these "mooncakes" were simpler, less cloying — and just lovely with a hot cup of Oolong. 

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