River South (Hoe Nam) Prawn Noodles: Rainy Day Fukienese

Snow, biting winds, ice chips pelting my windows — last weekend’s storm in New York City has had me wondering why I don’t just throw in the towel each winter and decamp to tropical Singapore.

What has gotten me through these past few freezing, sloshy days however, is my intense memory of and cravings for Singapore noodle soups.

These are harder to find in cosmopolitan New York than you’d think. Sure, Cantonese wonton soups and Vietnamese phos are everywhere. But beefy Teochew broths spiked with star anise or rich Hainanese curried noodle soups? I actually have never seen those on menus around here.

So when the weather starts turning in New York, the cravings begin. Which is how I haven’t been able to get Hoe Nam prawn noodles out of my head …

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Gambling Rice: A Grandmother’s Tale

The food of my Singaporean grandmothers has always inspired great yearning in me.

As you’ve probably heard, this yearning was so intense that a few years ago it inspired a journey to rediscover the dishes of my girlhood in Asia, a tale that ended up forming “A Tiger in the Kitchen.”

Of all the dishes that I learned to make in my one year of cooking in Singapore, one stands out: Gambling rice. It’s a simple dish of rice cooked with Chinese mushrooms, pork belly, shallots, cabbage and more — one that my late grandmother used to whip together in her kitchen out of sheer necessity.

At a time when my family was mired in poverty, she turned her living room into an illegal gambling den. In order to keep her gamblers at the table, she started cooking for them when they got hungry — and what she made was a convenient one-bowl dish that they could easily eat as they continued to play cards.

I love the story of this dish because it says so much about my grandmother and the smarts, creativity — and business acumen — of this lady. So much that I’ve shared it with just about everyone I’ve talked to about “A Tiger in the Kitchen.”

I’d never talked about this recipe on my own blog, however. So when my Let’s Lunch crew decided on sharing a grandmother’s dish this month to fete the paperback publication of our own Patricia’s “The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook” — congrats, Pat! — I knew the time had come …

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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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Teochew Mooncakes: A Big Tease


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This time last year, I was in Singapore, learning how to make mooncakes, learning about my family.

The lessons in the kitchen were both informative and intense. Along with their braised duck recipes, the women in my family imparted their tales, their advice. I won't go into detail — you'll just have to buy the book when it comes out in February.

But I found myself thinking about my aunties and their life lessons as the Mid-Autumn Festival (which falls today) approached and mooncakes began appearing in Chinatown stores. The celebration, also known as the Mooncake festival, marks the day that the moon is supposedly the brightest during the year. In Singapore, we also call it the lantern festival because it's the night that children wielding lanterns in the shape of dragons, dogs, even Hello Kitty, take to parks and playgrounds to create a river of bobbing lights. 

In China, the celebration also commemorates the 14th Century rebellion against the reigning Mongols. Members of the resistance spread word about their planned uprising via notes tucked into cakes, which they smuggled to sympathizers.

While I learned to make traditional mooncakes in Singapore — filled with lotus seed paste and salted egg yolks — my aunties also taught me a version that's indigenous to my Chinese ethnic group, the Teochews. Filled with sweet mashed yam and wrapped in a decorative rippled fried dough, these "mooncakes" were simpler, less cloying — and just lovely with a hot cup of Oolong. 

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Oyster Omelette (Or Luak): The Food Of Love


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Food, love, passion. They’ve always been intertwined for me.

Sure, diamonds and Louboutins are perfectly nice and all that. But a man who knows how to feed you well? Now that’s truly priceless.

I’ve been thinking about why that is the case ever since my Twitter Let’s Lunch bunch, a global group of cooks who have a monthly virtual lunchdate, decided to put together aphrodisiac-laced dishes in honor of Valentine’s Day. In a story this week in the New York Times, food researchers say that the powers of aphrodisiacs have been rather exaggerated. Very few of the usual suspects — asparagus, chocolate — have proven to be able to boost the libido, apparently.

But how else to explain oyster-induced tinglies or the quickening heartbeat that truffles inevitably seem to cause?

Science be damned. I’d rather carry on believing in the potent sexual powers of food, thank you very much.

For my Let’s Lunch afternoon delight, oysters immediately came to mind. They’ve gotten me into trouble more times than I choose to remember. And, they’ve also long been regarded as aphrodisiacs perhaps they’re filled with zinc, which is a key nutrient for testosterone production.

Besides, there’s a Singaporean fried oyster omelette dish that never fails to get my heart racing at the mere thought of it. 

Just like it can be with love (or what comes after love), however, this dish proved to be a little tricky to pull off …

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Shantou: Going Home


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Some girls are Daddy’s little princesses — as for me, I was more like Daddy’s little eating partner.

My dad and I, our obsessions are numerous. But the one dish that we find ourselves constantly craving is ta meepok (also known as meepok ta), a tagliatelle-like Chinese noodle that’s tossed with bits of crunchy, fried pork lard in a chili-soy-black vinegar sauce and topped with fish balls, fish cakes and bits of minced or sliced pork.

It’s a simple dish by the Teochews, an ethnic Chinese group, that we’d eat for breakfast in Singapore every day if we could. (More important, if our bodies could handle it.)

So the moment I landed in the Teochew city of Shantou, China, for our trip back to the village where my great-grandfather was born, I knew what we had to eat right away.

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Mooncakes: The Taste of Sweet Rebellion


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You know you’re walking into a hardcore kitchen when the first thing you see is stacks upon stacks of boxes filled with gorgeous home-made mooncakes.

The women on my Dad’s side of the family in Singapore – they’re fearless cooks.

Pineapple tarts, bak-zhang (glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves), black vinegar-braised pig’s trotters? They could whip those together with their eyes closed.

Recently, however, the task at hand was Chinese mooncakes, eaten to mark the Mid-Autumn Festival, which falls this Saturday.

Now, there are a few old stories that explain the reason for eating these little cakes, which usually are filled with sweet lotus-seed paste and come either with a thin, baked crust or a soft, pliant dough skin that’s scented with pandan, a vanilla-like flavoring used in many Southeast Asian desserts. My favorite is the one of Ming revolutionaries planning to overthrow the Mongolian rulers of China during the Yuan dynasty and spreading word via letters baked into mooncakes. (Julia Child would’ve been so proud!)

During my Singaporean girlhood, I’d known the stories, I’d eaten the cakes. As for making them? That seemed so laughably difficult it never once crossed my mind.

It turns out, however, they’re incredibly easy to make — you just need the right teachers.

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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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A Tale of Six Meatballs


CIMG4598 It’s a little scary what can happen when a journalistic killer instinct is directed at something seemingly innocuous.

Like, meatballs. And the battle to be voted top meatball chef in a six-way competition.

There is the non-stop smack talk. There is the repeated invocation of maternal units. There is, even, the reflexive forming of menacing kung-fu gestures anytime the word “meatball” is mentioned.

And we haven’t even gotten to things that my fellow competitors did.

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