For me, it has to have several components — a seductive yet comfortable setting, cocktails that are as delicious as they are inventive, and a menu that goes far beyond basic nuts and cheeses, filled instead with snacky dishes that actually excite.
Recently, I found a new little place in New York‘s West Village that checks all those boxes: L’Amant, a French-Vietnamese bistro that opened early September …
Anyone who’s attended an A Tiger in the Kitchen event or reading in the last year knows: The big thing I learned from cooking with my aunties in their Singapore kitchens was the importance of “Agak-Agak.”
The Malay phrase, which means “Guess-Guess,” encapsulates their method of cooking. They don’t rely on recipes or cookbooks — ingredients are tossed into a wok by sheer estimation, one that’s based on powerful instinct honed from years of very good cookery.
Since my year of cooking with them, I’ve found myself inspired to do the agak-agak thing more in my kitchen. Where I once was terrified of simply peeking in the fridge and throwing dinner together, with my busy book travels recently, that’s become rather the norm. Out of this new practice, however, has emerged interesting stir-fries, stews and more.
Just this week, as I was trying to recall how I’d made a dish I liked a few months back, I realized with great chagrin that like my aunties, I’ve not written any of these inventions down.
Well, that’s going to be fixed.
Starting with this stir-fry, we’re going to start recording it all. If you love turmeric and sambal, then definitely read on …
Calvin Trillin once wrote of Singaporeans: “Culinarily, they are among the most homesick people I have ever met.”
Truer words have rarely been said. Thankfully for us homesick transplants, however, the Singapore Tourism Board has been on a publicity rampage recently, ever determined to spread the gospel of our extraordinary cuisine.
And so it was that I found myself in the heart of New York City’s fashionable Meatpacking District on Friday, soaking in the heady smells of a creamy spicy laksa brewing, trying to quell my palpitations. Before us was a shipping container, a portable kitchen that the tourism board designed to travel the world, hitting nine cities starting with London in June and ending with Sydney in March 2012.
Starring in New York’s “Singapore Takeout” was chef Malcolm Lee, who helms Singapore’s Candlenut Kitchen, a restaurant that serves traditional Peranakan food, a Straits Chinese cuisine that combines flavors from the Straits of Malaya and China.
Chef Lee will be serving up Singaporean food in New York Sept. 17 and 18 from noon to 3 p.m. and I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview before the public gets to have its first bite …
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 …
As anyone who knows me will tell you, I have spent the better part of my life rebelling, pushing the boundaries, and, often, breaking rules.
There are some things I consider sacrosanct, however — and supreme among them is Singaporean food.
When a dear friend told me this weekend of going to Susan Feniger’s Street in Los Angeles for a kaya toast meal — a popular breakfast in Singapore that involves runny soft-boiled eggs doused with dark, sweet soy sauce and white pepper, and slices of toast generously slathered with kaya, a sweet coconut jam — I was thrilled. I always feel such pride seeing the homespun dishes I grew up with making their way onto American menus.
And then I opened the picture of this “kaya toast” meal. The egg, firm and yellow, was certainly not soft-boiled. The vegetables were disturbing — greens have no place in a kaya toast meal. And the toast didn’t look nearly charred enough.
This, alas, is what Americans are discovering as kaya toast.
The dinner gathering has been impromptu and Chef Simpson of Cafe Asean is feeling a little guilty that he hasn't had time to plan what to cook.
Calmly but quickly, he zips about his spacious Manhattan kitchen, pulling out bags, inspecting his fridge. "This is a good time to eat razor clams, you know," he stops to say, showing us the big bag he acquired from the farmers' market that very morning. "They taste really good right now."
Now, while I've eaten razor clams — or bamboo clams as they're called in some parts of Asia — I've never even thought to cook them at home. A slab of steak, pieces of chicken, a whole turkey — those I can comprehend. Razor clams? They had just always seemed a touch too exotic for my abilities.
Simpson, however, shares none of my apprehension, looking at me like I'm crazy and then shrugging when I ask, "How are you going to cook them?"
"It depends on what I have in the kitchen," is his simple answer. With that, Simpson fires up his stove and away we go …
Years ago, as a freshman at Northwestern University, I used to trek to the computer lab after classes to log onto a Web site and stare longingly at pictures of Singaporean food that someone out in the ether had taken the care to post.
I'm ashamed to mention how long ago this was, exactly — let's just say that this was the first year the university handed out email addresses to incoming freshmen and well, that this "Internet" thing was still new-fangled.
I've never forgotten the kindness of the person — whom I've never known — who put up that rudimentary site filled with pictures of dishes I desperately missed. The photos became my lifeline during that first bone-chilling Chicago winter — and I would spend the next 10-plus years looking for good versions of Singaporean chicken rice or spicy beef rendang in Southeast Asian restaurants across America.
After years of looking, I've finally found a place that I can whole-heartedly say is authentic: Taste Good in Elmhurst, New York. (And I'm not the only one who thinks so — the Singapore Permanent Mission to the United Nations often uses the restaurant to cater its events.) I won't go into all the details here — you'll have to check out my piece on the meal and my quest in the Atlantic Food Channel today — but I wanted to pay a little homage to that anonymous person who saved my sanity all those years ago.
So here's a little visual montage. Whoever and wherever you are, I hope you enjoy these pictures …
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.
Picnics have never been my favorite thing. Bugs, heat, grass, dirt — need I say more?
The picnics of my childhood in Singapore, however, were another thing entirely. The urge to organize one would only occasionally grip my family. But when it did, we’d find ourselves by the beach on a clear Sunday, inhaling the salty breeze as we unpacked plastic bags of food on wooden picnic tables. We’d have sandwiches and fried snacks; an uncle would fire up the beachside grill for the chicken wings we’d marinated.
So when my hungry Let’s Lunch group decided on fall picnic food for our monthly virtual lunchdate, I immediately thought of my bygone Singaporean excursions.
The perfect food for this occasion? My mother’s kong bak pau — a sandwich made up of a Chinesemantou bun filled with braised pork belly …
If one does have to work over a holiday weekend, this is not a bad way to do it: Eating and, well, talking about eating.
On Labor Day, at the Asian Feastival in Queens, I had the privilege of spending a lovely hour on a panel with New York chef and restaurateur Andy Yang (of Rhong-Tiam Express, a tiny Thai takeout place that he opened after closing his one Michelin-star restaurant Rhong-Tiam in January) and Kian Lam Kho, a private chef and caterer who blogs about Chinese home cooking at Red Cook. The food festival, which included tasting booths and cooking demonstrations by experts such as the effervescent blogger Maangchi, was designed to showcase Asian food from all regions.
Outside our cozy conference room, the booths and cooking displays meandered through Taiwan, Korea, China, the Philippines. Inside, however, our panel had a specific angle: Deconstructing Southeast Asian Flavors.
While I had felt that I had already learned a lot in the year I spent traveling to my native Singapore to learn to cook for my upcoming memoir, A Tiger In The Kitchen, I ended up picking up a few handy tips from our lively discussion …