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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Cowgirl: A Dessert Surprise


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The evening had been good — entertaining but generally uneventful. Until the question came, "Would you like dessert?"

Having just devoured chicken fried chicken, mashed potatoes, chicken fajitas and a massive bowl of vegetarian chili (plus copious amounts of chips and bean dip), dessert was an unlikely endeavor. But then there it was before us at Cowgirl in New York City: A dessert menu emblazoned with a large tempting picture of the restaurant's signature ice-cream "baked potato."

I was shocked to see the picture — not because of the calories I saw before me. (The dessert consists of scoops of vanilla ice-cream dusted with cocoa powder to resemble a
potato, topped with whipped cream, slabs of lime-sugar "butter" and
chopped pecans dyed green.)

The surprise was there because I took the picture last year for a piece on this blog about Cowgirl's seafood outpost, Cowgirl Seahorse. And there it was, massive and beautiful (if I do say so myself) on this restaurant's menu.

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Portuguese Sweet Bread: True Crack Bread


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There has been no small amount of grumbling in this household recently.

The complaints are rather monotonous — they all go something like this: What happened to the bread baking?

It is true that not too very long ago, there had been great ambition on this front. The idea had been to make a bread every week along with dozens of bakers around the world in a quest to bake our way through The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.

But then, of course, life intervenes. (In my case, that would be the months spent traveling for research and then writing The Book.)

Gradually, my smoke-filled kitchen (thank you, ciabatta) and bygone bagels were becoming faded adventures in our memory.

During a break in the hubbub, however, I decided this nonsense had gone on long enough. The bread-baking bible was dusted off and my trusty KitchenAid mixer was resuscitated.

On the docket was a bread I’d been curious about: Portuguese sweet bread, a type of loaf, lovely, soft and sweet, that’s popular in Hawaii and New England. (It was introduced to those regions by Portuguese immigrants.)

Now, in the times that I’d tried it, it had always reminded me of the slightly sweet buns and loaves I grew up eating in Hong Kong and Singapore. It was time to see how this recipe would turn out in my own kitchen …

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Lemongrass Frozen Yogurt: The Joys of Cooking Redux



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Years ago, I heard a sports writer complain about how he used to love sports — until he started writing about it.

Once it became a job, he all but stopped watching games on weekends. The thing that he adored had morphed into stress-inducer.

I remember feeling aghast — you get paid to write about something you love. Isn’t that more than many people dream of?

Recently, however, I’ve started to understand. After spending weeks with my nose buried deep in my book manuscript — which is all about a journey home to my native Singapore told through food and cooking — my time in the kitchen has become, simply, work. Meals have been thrown together out of sheer necessity; easy old faithfuls rather than new creative dishes have been making far too many appearances on the dinner table.

The stress of writing and editing my hundreds of pages on food, sadly, had transformed my love for cooking into a source of anxiety.

But I only realized I’d forgotten how to enjoy the act of making food when my Let’s Lunch friends nudged me back into the kitchen — not to put a meal on the table but to whip up something silly and anything but practical: A decadent chilled dessert.

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Pineapple Tarts: The Start Of The Journey


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In the beginning, there were pineapple tarts.

These buttery, crumbly, bite-sized marvels bewitched me as a child in Singapore. My paternal grandmother made the best ones, of course — every Chinese new year, she would hit the kitchen to churn out her tarts, pushing me to eat as many as I wanted as we sat in her living room, unhurriedly passing time.

I never learned to make my grandmother’s tarts as a child, unfortunately.

When I was 11, she died. And the chance for her to teach me anything suddenly vanished.

After many years of mourning this lost opportunity, I traveled back to Singapore in early 2009 to learn how to make these tarts from my aunts. My grandmother had taught them how to bake the tarts when she was alive and they were now the keepers of her prized recipe, which I’ve included below.

The experience was enlightening — but it also generated a spark. I now knew how to make the tarts of my grandmother, a legendary cook in our family and to all she knew.

But still, I wanted more.

Thus began a journey of discovery — one that would take place in the kitchens of my Singapore family. Over the next lunar calendar year, the women of my family would gather over hot stoves to laugh, tell stories, shake our heads and, above all else, cook.

The story of my journey will be shared very soon. (Hyperion’s Voice is publishing “A Tiger In The Kitchen” in January 2011.)

But first, it must be written — and so I must bow out of this blog for a while. Seven weeks, to be exact. (Special thanks to Yaddo, the artists’ colony, for generously offering me a nook in the woods to think and create.)

I hope you’ll forgive this absence, but you must admit, it’s for a rather good reason. 

When I return in late April, I’ll be looking for all of you. My year of cooking in Singapore is over but the journey continues here. And I hope you’ll be coming along with me.

Until then, buon appetito and enjoy …

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Chilled Soup: Those Healing Green Beans


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The Chinese in Singapore are big believers in the healing properties of soups — specifically, “heaty” and “cooling” soups, which either add fire to your body or cool it down, getting just the right balance of Yin and Yang. 

I know it’s sacrilege to say this — and I can already hear the clucking of my Mum and aunts who might actually read this — but I don’t give two hoots about heaty or cooling.

The most important question for me always is, “Does it taste good?”

And with green bean soup, the answer is: Yes, oh yes.

Despite my love for this sweet soup, I’ve never known how to make it. So, when my Let’s Lunch friends, a group of intrepid cooks spread across two continents who’ve been staging virtual lunchdates, suggested that we make a chilled soup for our next meal, I jumped at the excuse to learn my mother’s recipe.

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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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Cinnamon Raisin Bread: Devil in a Loaf Pan


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It was only as I was licking cinnamon sugar off a plate after rapidly devouring three slices of bread that I managed to put a finger on the word I was looking for to describe the cinnamon raisin walnut loaf I had just made.

Trouble.

And this is coming from someone who has generally preferred savory or plain loaves to sweet cinnamon-raisin breads.

Peter Reinhart’s recipe for cinnamon-raisin bread? It’s trouble.

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