Mee Pok Ta: This One’s For Dad

People often ask me what’s the first thing I have to eat when I step off the plane in Singapore.

It’s impossible to say because the answer really is, everything.

Right up there, though, is mee pok ta (also known as ta mee pok), a dish comprising al dente tagliatelle-like egg noodles tossed in a spicy aioli together with fishballs, sliced fishcakes, minced pork and crispy cubes of fried pork lard.

The dish has special meaning for me — in Singapore, my father and I love nothing more than to get in the car first thing in the morning and drive over to our favorite mee pok place nearby for breakfast. There, as each fiery bite of noodles sinks in, we’ll slowly wake up.

So when my international Let’s Lunch group of bloggers suggested posting a Father’s Day-inspired dish for June, mee pok came to mind. I had never attempted to make it before — it’s so inexpensive (about U.S. $1.50 or $2 a bowl) and easily found in Singapore, no one needs to bother.

In New York City, however, it’s an entirely different matter. So with a bag of fresh noodles from New York Chinatown in hand, I decided to give it my best 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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Birthday Noodles: To Sweetness & Longevity


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One birthday is good, but two is always better.

Growing up in a Singapore, a country that follows the lunar as well as the Western calendar, celebrating two birthdays each year was always a given. Cake, flowers and presents are lovely for Western birthdays. But for lunar calendar birthdays — or Chinese birthdays, as my family calls them — things are several notches simpler. The star of this show is always a bowl of noodles, symbolic of longevity, a pair of hardboiled eggs, representing fertility or life. And all of this comes in a sugary soup — "so the whole year will be sweet," as my mother says.  

For too many years in America, my Chinese birthday — which I'm fortunate to be able to remember easily because it falls on Diwali each year — passed with little fanfare. Sure, my parents would call New York to wish me well. But the noodles, the eggs and the sweet broth — that always seemed like just a little too much trouble.

This year, however, as Diwali began today, I found myself temporarily stranded in Singapore due to unforeseen circumstances. So for lunch, my mother had a little treat planned: birthday noodles. "You must eat this," she said. "For luck."

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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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Oyster Omelette (Or Luak): The Food Of Love


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Food, love, passion. They’ve always been intertwined for me.

Sure, diamonds and Louboutins are perfectly nice and all that. But a man who knows how to feed you well? Now that’s truly priceless.

I’ve been thinking about why that is the case ever since my Twitter Let’s Lunch bunch, a global group of cooks who have a monthly virtual lunchdate, decided to put together aphrodisiac-laced dishes in honor of Valentine’s Day. In a story this week in the New York Times, food researchers say that the powers of aphrodisiacs have been rather exaggerated. Very few of the usual suspects — asparagus, chocolate — have proven to be able to boost the libido, apparently.

But how else to explain oyster-induced tinglies or the quickening heartbeat that truffles inevitably seem to cause?

Science be damned. I’d rather carry on believing in the potent sexual powers of food, thank you very much.

For my Let’s Lunch afternoon delight, oysters immediately came to mind. They’ve gotten me into trouble more times than I choose to remember. And, they’ve also long been regarded as aphrodisiacs perhaps they’re filled with zinc, which is a key nutrient for testosterone production.

Besides, there’s a Singaporean fried oyster omelette dish that never fails to get my heart racing at the mere thought of it. 

Just like it can be with love (or what comes after love), however, this dish proved to be a little tricky to pull off …

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Shantou: Going Home


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Some girls are Daddy’s little princesses — as for me, I was more like Daddy’s little eating partner.

My dad and I, our obsessions are numerous. But the one dish that we find ourselves constantly craving is ta meepok (also known as meepok ta), a tagliatelle-like Chinese noodle that’s tossed with bits of crunchy, fried pork lard in a chili-soy-black vinegar sauce and topped with fish balls, fish cakes and bits of minced or sliced pork.

It’s a simple dish by the Teochews, an ethnic Chinese group, that we’d eat for breakfast in Singapore every day if we could. (More important, if our bodies could handle it.)

So the moment I landed in the Teochew city of Shantou, China, for our trip back to the village where my great-grandfather was born, I knew what we had to eat right away.

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