In life, there are often moments where you hear something you just can’t believe.
“I am making dinner …” recently was one such moment for me. And as soon as my friend Jesse – whom you may recall from his sharing of some lovely photos of India nosh with us recently — spoke those words, I insisted on knowing all the details: What are you making? How are you making it?
And most important: You can cook?
Jesse is many things — a terrific journalist and a talented photographer for starters. But cook? This I had to see.
Soon enough, a little stash of photographs appeared in my inbox …
Among the things I miss the most about my native Singapore is one simple activity: Sitting by the beach on a steamy summer evening and looking out at the water as I reach for stick after greasy stick of freshly grilled satay.
The satay expeditions of my girlhood were frequent — few things beat the smoky smells of chicken, beef and mutton marinated in a potent cocktail of lemongrass, garlic, galangal, and turmeric getting barbecued in open-air food stalls, after all.
And my family, being hyper competitive as it is, always made a sport of it. Dad would order satay by the dozens and the race would begin to see whose pile of sticks, stripped of meat, would be the largest at the end. (You would think my father, being the oldest and the only male, would always win. Well, not in this cutthroat family, he didn’t.)
So when my Let’s Lunch crew decided on BBQ for our monthly virtual lunch date, satay seemed a must. I’ve only made it a few times in New York — never in Singapore, where it’s so easy to find and cheap (30 to 50 cents Singapore per stick, or 23 to 40 cents U.S.) that it makes little sense to go to the trouble of making it.
It’s not often that I am so taken with a person that I find myself immediately professing my adoration at every turn.
Recently, however, I met one such someone — a man named Dan, a chef who fed me well for a month in the mountains of California and who wowed me each day with the meals he set on the table.
For those who don’t follow me on Twitter, I just spent a month in Northern California at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, an artists colony that offers the gift of time and space to create. The program invites artists from various disciplines (musical composition, fiction, poetry, choreography, visual arts) to spend a month on the property — close to 600 acres of some of the most beautiful hills and forests I’ve seen — with nothing to do except wake up every morning, have a cup of coffee and start working.
Such colonies have been a lifesaver for me — I wrote the bulk of “A Tiger in the Kitchen” over seven weeks at Yaddo in 2010. (My book never would have made it out on time had it not been for my time there.) As many artists will testify, you can often accomplish in weeks at a colony what would likely take you months or more at home.
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 …
June always has me thinking of the summer a few years ago that I devoted myself to conquering pies.
With a perpetually hungry Iowan in the house, pies are often in huge demand around here, no matter the season. But this craving fully rears its head when it’s warm and farmers markets start filling up with sturdy red sticks of rhubarb and berries, plump and bright. Having made enough pies to feel confident enough to try any filling combination, however, I recently set my sights on savory pies.
Having grown up in a former British colony, pies filled with steak and minced lamb have long been a favorite of mine. So when my Let’s Lunch group of bloggers suggested baking pies for our June virtual lunchdate, I immediately started plotting my version of a curried pot pie…
There are several things that set my stomach aflutter whenever I step off a plane in San Francisco: a simmering hot bowl of pho topped with bright pink thin slices of steak still gradually turning brown at Pho Tan Hoa in Union Square, the roast chicken at the always lovely Zuni Cafe.
Once these items have been checked off the eating list, however, a new craving inevitably sets in: Mexican. While New York does have any number of decent Mexican places, the tacos and enchiladas at California’s ubiquitous taquerias always seem — to me — far superior.
So, when a break in book events and book store visits recently led me to Oakland, where my friend Ann casually mentioned an excellent little Mexican joint nearby, I immediately said, Let’s Go …
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 …
This is my general policy on sweating: It’s disgusting. Don’t do it.
Well … unless there is good reason. Like, say, an awesome bowl of soup noodles.
On the hottest day of summer so far in New York, a scorching bowl of ramen seemed like an insane choice for dinner. But there we were in Midtown, just blocks away from the recently opened Totto Ramen — a new sliver of a noodle shop by the owners of Yakitori Totto, whose grilled rice balls coated with a crispy soy-sauce glaze have occupied more of my dreams than I can count. (Hey, Thomas Keller is a fan of the place, too.)
Since we were practically within sniffing distance of the new place, a visit was definitely in order …
This might be what they call a classic New York food fairytale.
Boy moves to New York. Boy starts selling fish tacos at out of a little stand at the Brooklyn Flea in Dumbo. Boy’s tacos develop a hungry following. Boy opens restaurant.
And to add to the cool factor, he opens it in the loading dock of a former garment factory in downtown Brooklyn — talk about economical use of space in this land-starved city.
The Boy in this case would be Forrest Cole, who explains on his Web site that he first started selling fish tacos at the flea after fruitlessly trying to find a “worthy example” of a Baja-style fish taco in the city.
Now, that’s talking quite a bit of smack about New York’s many pre-existing taco joints.
We had to see just how “worthy” these fish tacos were …
A few weeks ago, I found myself on the phone, frantically shuttling between calls to my aunt and my grandmother, trying to jolt their memories and nail down the ingredients we needed for my Singapore family’s take on chicken curry.
As the calls got more confusing and the ingredient list grew more nebulous, my friend Basil, a Singaporean of Indian ethnicity, sat nearby, listening in with an increasingly incredulous look.
“You’re sitting next to an Indian,” he finally said, “and you’re not asking him how he makes his curry?”
A very good point.
It turns out Basil, better known to his friends as the hard-to-miss, gregarious guy at any bar that he frequents, also knows how to cook. He learned 20 years ago in his grandmother’s kitchen, when he was drafted as a teenager to help her after she’d lost a leg to diabetes. “She would park her wheelchair at the entrance to the kitchen and bark out instructions to me,” he said.
Well, her lessons must have stuck because Basil then proved that he could rattle off her curry instructions as quickly and surely as he can list the latest Manchester United stats.
The moment I got back to my Brooklyn kitchen, I knew I had to try it.