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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786 Yassin Restaurant: “Drunk Food” To Remember


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The moment I heard about 786 Yassin Restaurant, a place in Singapore that reputedly serves outstanding Indian mutton soup, I instantly begged to be taken.

When done well, soup kambing, as it’s called, is a hefty flavor bomb that’s hard to forget. It comes infused with coriander, cumin, cardamom, turmeric, nutmeg and star anise (among other spices) and dotted with crispy fried shallots and soft onion chunks.

This, no doubt, is the Chanel of soups.

When to have it, however, turned out to be something to consider.

“You can’t have soup kambing now lah,” said my friend Basil, who had told me about Yassin, prompting me to immediately suggest heading there for dinner. ”It’s mabuk food.”

Ahh, drunk food — the dishes that are the perfect panacea when you’re leaving a bar at 2 a.m. and looking for something to quell your hunger and sober you up. In the case of soup kambing, this heady concoction of spices does an especially efficient job of clearing your head and helping you wade out of your Chivas fog.

I didn’t want to have to get drunk in order to try Yassin’s though. So after some persuading, we were on our way.  

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Indian Chicken Curry: A Grandmother’s Recipe


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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.

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Gayatri Restaurant: One For The Road


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Your last meal in any city is no small matter, I’ve always believed.

It’s the meal you might still be able to taste as you look out at the diminishing skyline from the plane; the one that you’ll be thinking of to tide you over until you return again.

During my most recent trip to Singapore for book research, where to have my last supper was a particularly hard decision.

I’d eaten well. In just a few weeks, I’d clocked not one but two visits to Hock Lam for the umami bomb that is its gooey beef ball noodles. I’d trekked to the seafront Changi Village to sample the nasi lemak, a Malay dish of coconut rice with a fried chicken wing, sambal chili, fried egg and crunchy anchovies, from a hawker stall I loved but hadn’t visited in over 10 years. And I’d had a lovely lunch at Iggy’s, a high-end restaurant that served up a custard-like French toast dessert topped with thick flecks of truffles that was truly unforgettable.

When plotting the appropriate finale, one thing instantly came to mind.

My friend Basil had told me a few weeks back about taking some people to his favorite restaurant in Little India to eat spicy mutton, drink beer and watch the world go by. 

The choice was obvious.

Come, I said, let’s go.

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Braised Duck A L’Aunty Alice


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When I think of the family feasts of my Singapore girlhood, there’s always a duck in the picture.

To say that my people — that would be the Teochew ethnic group from Southern China — adore duck would be a major understatement. During a recent trip to Shantou, the area in China where my great-grandfather lived as a boy, duck and goose were inescapable at every dinner table.

So it’s more than slightly sacrilegious to say that I often avoid duck simply because it isn’t one of my favorites. (Hey, I’m a big hunk of red meat kind of gal – what can I say?)

I do make an exception for some versions, however — and Teochew-style braised duck is one of them.

While I’m really good at eating it, making it is another matter altogether. But this was something my Aunty Alice, the best cook among my mother and her sisters, was intent on fixing right away.

On a recent weekday, she arrived at my Singapore home armed with two ducks and a bag of ingredients and the tutorial began…

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