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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Thistle (McMinnville, Oregon): The Best of Oregon

There have been many questions since the return to New York following a short book tour and road trip, idyllic and beautiful, along the lush green coast of the Pacific Northwest.

The burning question hasn’t been, “How did your readings go?” Mind you. Rather, the first question that slips out as soon as politely possible is: “OK, where did you eat?”

This being a somewhat book-centric trip — thank you Seattle and Portland for organizing such lovely A Tiger in the Kitchen soirees! — the time for restaurant-hopping wasn’t plenty. Among the several restaurants I did sample, though, one firmly sunk its chompers in me and hasn’t let go: Thistle, a deliciously charming little spot in McMinnville, Oregon, that manages to out-Brooklyn the wave of recent trendy Brooklyn restaurants branding themselves as farm-to-table havens.

After raving like a lunatic about this Oregon restaurant that that serves up amazing hyper-locavore Americana — all made with ingredients from neighboring farms (and a co-owner’s mom’s garden sometimes) — that could put many of its big-city counterparts to shame, I felt a little vindicated yesterday when I learned that The Oregonian had named Thistle its 2011 Restaurant of the Year (in the entire state of Oregon) this week. As soon as the smug joy subsided, however, I needed a Thistle fix.

So, out came the photos and the reverie began…

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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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Miso-Bacon-Corn Chowder: An Umami-Packed Liquid Lunch

The recipes, of course, have been lovely. As have the beautiful photos of creative dishes ranging from BLTs to kitchen-sink concoctions.

But in the close to two years that I’ve had a monthly virtual lunchdate with food bloggers spread out from California to Paris, the thing I’ve most adored is the friendships that have formed, firmly sealed via a shared love for cooking.

Over Let’s Lunch dates and regular Tweets, this trusty band of bloggers has gotten rather fond of one another. So when our dear Karen mentioned that she couldn’t join us for lunch in May because of a strict liquid diet due to cancer surgery, our decision was clear. If Karen had to have liquid lunches in May, then well, so would we.

What to make for lunch? After regretfully dispelling the idea of martinis — delicious, though probably not the most healthy — a filling, hearty chowder came to mind …

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Doenjang Jjigae: Tofu & Seafood Stew (Commoners’ Food)


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You could say I haven't exactly been the kind of daughter-in-law a Korean mother would have wished for.

I can't speak Korean. (I don't think being able to say "kalbi" and "bulgogi" counts.) And while I'm awfully good at eating Korean food, well, making it is another matter entirely.

I'd never attempted many Korean dishes simply because they seem terribly complex — each stew, each grilled meat I sample is always bursting at the seams with complicated clusters of flavors. How could I ever replicate those tastes in my little Brooklyn kitchen? No, no, it was always far easier to just throw in the spatula and hop on a train to New York's Koreatown.

After spending some time in the kitchen with my mother-in-law in Honolulu for book research last year, however, I started to come around. 

Since she lives in Hawaii and I live in New York, it's been impossible to keep the lessons going. So I've been turning to a blogger whom I deeply admire — and adore — who's essentially a one-woman Korean cooking school: the irrepressible Maangchi.

Many of her recipes are incredibly simple — foolproof, almost — and watching her videos helps you figure out whether you're chopping things the right size or grilling meats to the right doneness. Recently, I had her to thank for a lovely tofu and seafood stew I'd been craving …

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Winging It: An Easy Chicken Stew


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My mother will be the first to tell you that she is not a cook. 

(Even though she is. Sort of.)

In my family’s Singapore home, however, it is our maid Erlinda who does the magic in the kitchen most days. Her dishes are typically simple, delicious and never fail to hit the spot.

Like many good home cooks, improvisation has been the mother of many of Erlinda’s inventions. One of my favorite dishes is a super-easy chicken-wing stew that she first tossed together while thinking of the adobos she grew up eating in her hometown of Baguio in the Phillippines.

The stew she makes here, however, is quite different because my mother typically doesn’t stock vinegar in her kitchen. Instead, dark, sweet soy sauce is the main ingredient — but the result can be just as satisfying.

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