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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Ciano: A Night to Remember


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The idea had been to have dinner, plain and simple.

No thinking about writing about the dishes as we're eating. No scribbling of notes. No blogging. This was a celebration, after all. There should be no room at the table for work of any sort.

But the moment our food started arriving, the game plan changed. Ciano, the much-anticipated new restaurant by Shea Gallante (who greatly impressed critics and diners at the now-shuttered Cru, where he earned three stars from The New York Times' Frank Bruni), pretty much had me at shrimp balls.

From my first nibble of rock shrimp polpette ($8 for five), the deliciously warm one-inch balls stuffed with big chunks of shrimp, I was hooked. Out came the paper and pen and off we were …

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The Fat Radish: Modern British (Sans Modern)


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Step into The Fat Radish, a new restaurant in New York's Chinatown, and you may feel as if you've left Manhattan firmly outside the door.

British accents envelop you the moment you enter the sliver of a bar area; the menu is packed with a tantalizing looking blue cheese pork pie and the burger comes with "chips" not fries — thank you very much.

Chef Ben Towill (of the Australian Kingswood in the West Village) describes his new endeavor as "modern British" and its studied shabby chic decor certainly telegraphs as much. The walls are exposed brick, coated with a thin veneer of white, a motley collection of stiff backless stools or benches are your chairs of the evening, homey pots of rosemary and thyme line a divider in this former Chinese sausage factory — which bears the Chinese graffiti marking it as such. (Although, it's unclear as to why workers in a sausage factory would have needed the Chinese characters branded on a wall to remind them of where they were.)

Even the name conjures up thoughts of a certain U.K. restaurant that continues to captivate: Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck.

It's lovely to see so much thought and care go into weaving the story, the ambience of a new restaurant. Now, if only this much attention had been paid to the food…

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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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Totto Ramen: Noodles Worth Sweating Over


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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 …

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Joseph Leonard: A Salty Start


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Joseph Leonard is one of those restaurants that might have you thinking, “Recession? What recession?”

On the first night that the little West Village restaurant started serving dinner, it was so packed that finding a spot to perch for a drink was a challenge, much less a table for four. And this was well after 9 p.m. on a weeknight.

But this level of interest in a place so new it had a dessert menu to tempt diners but weren’t actually equipped to serve dessert yet is unsurprising.

New York food folks have been working themselves up into a big froth over Joseph Leonard, after all, since Gabriel Stulman, a former owner of the much-beloved Little Owl and Market Table in the West Village, announced he was opening a new restaurant. And, of course, it didn’t hurt that Vogue.com did a “People Are Talking About” item about the carefully planned grandma’s garage sale meets farmhouse rustic decor of the place more than a month before it opened.

While I’m generally skeptical of this level of pre-opening hype, I have a great deal of respect and fondness for Little Owl and Market Table.

And, Joseph Leonard (named for Stulman’s two grandfathers), with its cozy setting and equally comforting lineup of dishes, is likely to please many — especially those who love salt, which chef Jim McDuffee (formerly of Bouchon Bakery) seems to be rather fond of.

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Burgers: A Marriage of Shrimp & Tofu


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I now appear to have a regular lunch date with a gregarious bunch of new friends.

We love to cook and we love talking about cooking — so this little thing about never having met hasn’t exactly stood in the way of our growing friendships.

It all began with a lazy Sunday morning conversation on Twitter when three women, one in Paris, one in San Diego, and one in New York, started craving BLT sandwiches. That blossomed into our first intercontinental BLT lunchdate, which nudged us to new levels of creativity.

Ellise in Paris made a beautiful BLT with chipotle mayonnaise and Poilane bread and Karen in Atlanta created a mouthwatering grilled fontina cheese BLT. Nicole in San Diego actually baked a truly unusual Basque sheepherder’s bread for her BLT. (You’ve got to check out Nicole’s sheepherder’s bread pictures — it was a yeasty architectural wonder if I ever saw one.)

Our virtual lunch left us (temporarily) sated — but hungry for more.

So, for our next lunch, we decided to tackle another standard: Burgers.

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