The Hexacoto

Listening to the sound of one hand clapping

Tag: food

Anyhow Noodles

“What are you making?” you asked, as you walked into the kitchen. “Ugh, you’re using that giant ass wok. It’s such a hassle to wash,” you said.

“Hey, this wok is feeding your ass so don’t complain,” I replied.

“So what are you making? It looks like you’re just randomly throwing things into the wok and frying shit up.”

“That’s right, I’m making ‘Anyhow Noodles.'”

“Anyhow Noodles? What the heck is that?”

“It’s where you randomly throw things into the wok and fry shit up. When you understand cooking enough at my level, you can throw anything into a wok and it’ll turn out fine.”

“So what goes into Anyhow Noodles?”

“You have to have noodles, that’s why it’s ‘Anyhow Noodles’ and not ‘Anyhow Rice,’ right?”

“I can see that…”

“And then, you add in vegetables, meat, brown sauce and you’re done!”

“Wait hold on. Brown sauce?”

“Yes. Brown sauce. It’s sauce that’s brown.”

“And what goes in brown sauce?”

“Brown flavour.”

“That doesn’t even make sense.”

“It does back home. Everyone knows what ‘brown sauce’ is. It’s an established flavour.”

“You’re making shit up. You’re fucking with me.”

“If you don’t believe me, go ask your friend Cassie. She’ll know what ‘brown flavour’ is. All Asians know it.”

……

“Ok I don’t believe it. She told me ‘brown’ is totally a flavour. Her mum makes food with it too, what the fuck. That’s so weird.”

“Well I’m sorry the food you’re eating is weird.”

“Ok then what’s the meat that goes into Anyhow Noodles? ‘Has-legs’? ‘Living-creature?’ ‘Matter???'”

“Don’t be silly. It’s just beef.”

Wontonception

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Everyone knows what goes into a bowl of wonton mee (云吞面). You typically have egg noodles, baby yu choy or equivalent greens, char siew (roast pork) and wontons, of course.  It’s a fairly simple dish with no frills. However, what if you wanted to frill it up and make it unnecessarily complicated for a potluck party in which you would fish for compliments?

Then you flip the script and create mee wonton.

You see, I go to this potluck party fairly often where people have come to expect that I bring something interesting each time (I brought kueh pie tee previously). But I can’t keep bringing new dishes all the time! Even new animals and drugs are discovered at a faster pace than new dishes are invented. I wracked my head for concepts and deconstructed a dish I practically ate all the time as a kid.

The concept I had in my head was: take the mee, take the vegetables, take the char siew and put them all into the wonton. If you had a wonton stuffed with wonton mee ingredients and put the wontons in a bowl of wonton mee, you can achieve wontonception! I had no idea how to achieve that since I wouldn’t consider myself an expert wonton maker. However, I was determined and set out to try.

My first attempt involved brushing two egg wonton wrappers with oil and putting it into a muffin tin, putting the ingredients in and baking it. It didn’t work. It resulted in a thin-crackling skin that was not very palatable. You see, I was trying to avoid deep frying anything, since deep frying always resulted in grease lingering the air for days. My kitchen did not have a vent and I had to manually vent anything out of the window with a box fan.

Plus, using two wrappers on top of each other wasn’t enough to contain enough ingredients to make for a satisfying bite. I had to figure out a way to expand the working surface area of the wonton, and came up with the idea of overlaying wonton wrappers and then gently rolling them to compress them into one oversized wrapper.

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On it, I had mee pok noodles, baby yu choy, char siew I made from scratch and fried shallots. I used mee pok (flat egg noodles) rather than mee kia (thin egg noodles) because mee pok is the superior noodle and gives a more substantial bite than mee kia anyway. I tossed the noodles with fish sauce, a little soy sauce, and some of the char siew sauce I used to make my char siew. I stirred some sesame oil into the vegetables. The oversized wrapper has roughly six points, like an odd hexagon, and I folded it top-down, lower left and right corners, and then the upper left and right corners before sealing it with some water.

I tried baking the wonton again in a muffin tin. I was really trying to avoid deep frying anything. When the wonton came back out with a disappointing skin, I was like, “Ok fine. I will deep fry you bastards.” And so I did. The smell of grease permeated the air and mocked my failure at avoiding deep frying. But the wontons came out fine. Deep frying solves everything.

I cut into a deep-fried wonton and the contents tumbled out, a mess of char siew, vegetables and mee pok. My job was done. I had created a chimera that I will parade around the dinner party and bards will sing praises of my endeavours. I brought along some sambal belacan chilli I had made to go along with the wontons.

Most people didn’t stop to listen to my big exposition before eating the wontons at the party.

YOU NEVER MADE IT TO 26

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Hi.

I’ve been trying hard to smile extra hard for you, but it’s hard, you know. The stone that moves not, know not how to smile, but tries hard, for hardness is its nature upon which churches and houses have been built. But belies the surface is molten rock; undulating, unsettling, unsure, undone. To rest is to solidify into igneous rocks — glowing embers that ultimately fade to black.

Resting atop a rock lies a temple. In the temple, a pebble falls and clacks on the stone floors, stone-on-stone resounding off of the walls. Clack–clack–clackclack–whirl to a rest. A restive mood permeates the temple that stands on top of a rock. Within the temple lies the echoes of a hundred chants unsaid, mantras unrecited. “What if…” “What if…” “What if…?”

Wind scowls around, tendrils of air swirling around rough exteriors that exude toughness. Howls abound of “Happy Birthday” peel away at stucco and linger wistfully with the hopes of prayers that would never reach your ears. “There is nothing happy about this day,” I thought, picking at paint chips at wedge away so satisfying like scabs over wound. I take care not to bleed. On your wall, layers and layers of well wishes applied on by various people, each a different shade of “missing you” and well-meant love; all bereft. I chip away as they dry.

For my birthday, you got me a Toblerone and some white chocolate with coconut in it, to “share with friends.”

I chant, from beneath bedrock where glowing magma moves from within: “If only I could share it with you.” If only magma could become lava.

 

The Seventh Day

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(This is post is backdated, written on 23rd July, 2016)

It’s been seven days since you left us. You were always asking about Chinese customs, and we believe that on the seventh day, the spirit returns to the home for a visit and a meal.

I went and got you fresh flowers because you like them, even though you don’t put much effort in watering them. I had to replace the water for the bouquet I got for you for Valentine’s Day all the time. Those flowers were yellow, as are these. I know you know I don’t care for fresh flowers, as I think they represent imminent death. Fresh flowers wilt and die, and then we replace them — why should we perpetuate death any more than they should occur naturally? You know I would get them for you anyway simply because you like them. Hopefully these flowers will stay alive until I can bring them to you in Kentucky.

I took the 5 train back home and when I got to our building, I realised I had forgotten my keys and left them at work. I chose to walk towards the Q train because 1) I don’t like retracing my steps and 2) the Q is probably faster to get to my workplace at this time. As I walked towards the Q, I walked past Popeyes. The Popeyes you had always gotten chicken tenders from because they didn’t have any bones and you were picky and ate like a kid. The Popeyes that, back then, when I decided to buy a five-piece-for-$5 chicken (with bones) deal, you were so lazy you always asked my to buy your chicken tenders on your behalf. Maybe it was coincidence, maybe it was divine inspiration, maybe it was subconscious guidance. Maybe your ghost wanted chicken tenders and you made me walk past the Popeyes to buy you chicken tenders for your seventh day ghostly visit meal. I bought chicken tenders when I came back with my keys.

We never got a cat but hopefully Conrad the bear and Peanut the bear suffice to greet you when you return.

I was half hoping I’d open the door and see you with hands on hips, saying “Hiii! What’s up?” as you make that goofy smile. I wouldn’t even have been that spooked, I think. Traditionally, in our culture, we would lay out a tray filled with talcum powder to capture the footprints if the deceased visited on the seventh day. Knowing you, you’d probably have kicked it over and made a big mess. I don’t want to have to clean that up. So no talcum powder.

I set down the chicken tenders, set up the flowers, set Peanut and Conrad around and took a picture. This is the 21st century, I can’t communicate with you via a medium, but I can do so via another medium — I posted on your Facebook.

For some reason, as I ate the chicken tenders, I couldn’t finish them all in one sitting, as you never did. You always ate the tenders and had leftovers and put them in the fridge, as I did that night. It sucks not being able to finish my food, and I blame your ghost for possessing my stomach.

I don’t know why it takes seven days for spirits to return to their home visit — neither more days nor less. But you’ve always had a terrible sense of direction so maybe it would take you that long because you were probably lost trying to find your way back. You got lost whenever we had moved to a new apartment, be it the one in Chinatown or in Brooklyn. I won’t be taking seven days to see you. Just three more days. I heard your body had arrived in the funeral home in Kentucky already.

I’ll see you soon in Kentucky. Until then.

 

<– DAY 6

<– DAY 5

<– DAY 4

<– DAY 3

<– DAY 2

<– DAY 1

<– DAY 0

“That’s something we write for white people”

chowmein

I know, I am super late to the game. Everyone worth his or her salt and MSG has already written about Calvin Trillin’s piece about Chinese food “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” in the New Yorker.

I was quite nonplussed at his poem; it was a fairly tasteless poem, at best skirting around blandly with race while trying to give the impression that it was edgy and exciting. However, I was rather intrigued by the second stanza.

Now, as each brand-new province appears,
It brings tension, increasing our fears:
Could a place we extolled as a find
Be revealed as one province behind?
So we sometimes do miss, I confess,
Simple days of chow mein but no stress,
When we never were faced with the threat
Of more provinces we hadn’t met.
Is there one tucked away near Tibet?
Have they run out of provinces yet?

I’ll explain why that stanza piqued my interest after this fun story:

Near where I live, there’re a couple of Chinese takeout places. One claimed to be Hunan, but was probably about as Hunan as Trillin’s piece was insightful. Maybe the owners were indeed from Hunan, and that Hunan takeout restaurant merely meant “Hunan people making Chinese American food for people”. In fact, my neighbourhood being primarily Caribbean, Haitian and African American, their best seller, aside from General Tso Chicken Special, was actually fried chicken wings with french fries. Every time I go in there and wait for my order, most of the clientele would order “Fried Chicken Wing w FF”. I was probably the only one who bothers to look at the menu.

One night, after work, I was feeling kinda lazy and I just wanted Chinese takeout. As anyone in the U.S. knows, on Chinese takeout menus, under the noodles section there are usually “chow mein” dishes. I had no idea what chow mein was exactly, but since I speak Mandarin, I assumed it was simply fried noodles, because it sounds like “chao mian” (炒面). In my experience of ordering fried noodles, they’re usually fried wheat or egg noodles. So I went up to the acrylic-shielded counter and ordered in Mandarin, “I’ll have an order of barbecue pork fried noodles (叉烧炒面), number 18.”

She responded back in Mandarin, “Number 18? Oh you want fried rice vermicelli (炒米粉, chao mi fen)?”

I was confused. I asked, “Hang on, doesn’t number 18 say ‘chow mein’? That’s fried (wheat/egg) noodles, right?”

“Ohh. no,” she said. “That ‘chow mein’ is simply something we write for white people. While ‘chow mein’ does sound like fried noodles, it actually refers to rice vermicelli here. White people order ‘chow mein’ and get rice vermicelli and they don’t know the difference anyway.”

“Ah, I see. Uh, ok, so can I get the barbecue pork fried vermicelli then?”

“Sure thing.”

“So who orders the chow mein if most of the people here order fried chicken wings and french fries?”

“White people.”

“Oh, I see.”

“Simple days of chow mein but no stress,/When we never were faced with the threat/Of more provinces we hadn’t met.”? Trillin, I was pretty stressed out ordering that chow mein. I went into that Hunan takeout place expecting to go home with an order of fried egg noodles and left with an order of fried rice vermicelli instead. I’m not sure if universally in New York chow mein is always rice vermicelli, because some of my friends attest to them actually getting egg noodles, but they always order in English. In another Chinese eatery (cha chan teng) in Chinatown, I saw a sign for chow mein, but it was thankfully accompanied by the Chinese characters for rice vermicelli. I confidently ordered the chow mein this time expecting rice vermicelli.

It’s hard enough to be an expert on Chinese food, even as a Chinese person. But Trillin, when you claim that life might have been better in the simple chow mein days, I’m afraid you’ve simply been eating rice vermicelli all along, and it’s hard for me to take you seriously.

Singapore’s obsession with “tsap”

These four have something in common: "tsap".

These four have something in common: “tsap”.

Many of Singapore’s many iconic dishes: bak chor mee (minced meat noodles), chilli crab, Hokkien prawn mee, to name a few, tend to have a commonality — more often than not, they all have “tsap” (汁) or sauce/gravy in them. No matter Malay, Indian, or Chinese, Singapore dishes are sauce-heavy and gravy-generous. Singapore’s love for sauces and gravy doesn’t stop at local dishes, but extends its saucy reach to foreign cuisines localised in the country. It is hardly ever talked about, but even in “tsap” can we tease out what it means for a dish to be “truly Singaporean”.

How does Singapore’s love affair with “tsap” contribute to establishing identity? The answer lies with how we localise foreign food. Cuisine localisation anywhere in the world takes into consideration local preferences, and modifies the dish accordingly. For example, mapo tofu in the United States is generally always saltier and less spicy than its Asian counterparts (true can be said for most Chinese food in the U.S. really).

Now in Singapore, discussion of food localisation usually surrounds taste: food is usually made less salty, less greasy, etc. But modification of texture to imported cuisines goes unnoticed, because something as simple as sauce is so basic to a dish that we forget it exists, just as we don’t think about how we breathe and taste. That does not mean we cannot learn something about our psyche and approach towards food from “tsap”.

Case in point: carbonara pasta and pasta with marinara sauce. Carbonara in Singapore is usually heavy on the cream sauce — Singaporeans want to see their pasta sitting in a pool of it, and one of Singapore’s biggest pasta chain Pastamania serves their pasta carbonara swimming in sauce.

Two examples of how carbonara is served in one of Singapore's largest pasta chains.

Two examples of how carbonara is served in one of Singapore’s largest pasta chains.

However, real carbonara is actually pretty dry. Be it in the United States or in Europe, most of the carbonara I’ve had outside of Singapore tend to not drown the noodles in “tsap”.

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Proper carbonara lightly clings to the pasta. Not only just with carbonara, but Pastamania’s marinara dishes are akin to soup.

Pastamania's marinara vs. some other country's marinara

Pastamania’s marinara vs. some other country’s marinara

Of course, one can say that Pastamania, as a chain restaurant, isn’t representative of how the food is supposed to be served and that they serve bad pasta, but that is besides the point. What we’re looking at is how these companies think Singaporeans would like these foreign cuisine best, and their verdict: swimming in a lot of “tsap”. In my experience, not only Pastamania, but many other local pasta establishments, from chain restaurants to slightly fancy “atas” restaurants tend to be heavy-handed on the sauces.

Has anyone ever stopped to think “What makes Singaporean food so Singaporean?” Many will quickly point out that spiciness is an aspect. But just as Singaporeans can be pointed out in a crowd in a foreign country purely by accent alone, “tsap-heavy” food is idiosyncratic to Singapore and is an identifying element when local dishes are compared internationally. An example of “what makes X food so identifiably X?” would be Japanese dishes and their philosophy of preserving the natural flavours of the ingredients, so much so that they serve individual dishes on separate serving dishes so as not to mix flavours.

A reason, I suspect, why Singaporeans love gravy so much could be our mantra of being kiasu, or the fear of losing out. The idea that “more is better” sticks very close to our heart — why would you have less gravy when you can have more? Singaporeans get ecstatic when their dishes come more liao (料), or toppings, and having extra “tsap” comes close. Just think of how people advice when ordering cai png (economic rice) to never forget to ask the server to drizzle/drench the food with sauces, curry, and gravy in hopes of getting extra food morsels. Our desire for value (or fear of losing it) manifests itself in extra “tsap”, so much so that the gravy is sometimes as much the dining experience as the entrée itself.

When ordering cai png, never forget the gravy or curry.

When ordering cai png, never forget the gravy or curry.

Another possible reason could be that Singaporeans are culturally averse to eating anything that is purely dry. Compare eating a baguette with eating a baguette dipped in chilli crab sauce or curry. Compare eating a plain roti prata with roti prata drowned in curry. Think about how even when we eat Khong Guan biscuits, there is a desire to dip it in hot Milo or kopi. I wonder if the heavy usage of steam and moisture in many of our cooking have led us culturally to prefer hot and moist food. Many Americans I know have no qualms about eating cold pizza (gag). In the Chinese language, hot food can be described as re pen pen (热喷喷), literally hot and spewing, and I imagine it is spewing steam; an element of moisture. I guess in English there is “piping hot”, but it conveys less the image of moisture as it does purely heat. I cannot speak for the other major languages in Singapore whether they have similar food adjectives. Gravy and “tsap” do have excellent heat-retaining properties, and are pretty wet too.

What does this say about us as a culture and the way we like our food — which is hot and wet? Well, not much, except that we like our food hot and wet. It is possible to extrapolate and say that philosophically hot food to Singaporeans is a source of comfort, and that gravy on our food not only adds flavour but serves additional soothing properties, but that is a bit of a stretch. However, simply being able to distil what makes Singaporean food so Singaporean is an exercise that can be applied to many other aspects of our lives — what makes Singaporean writing so Singaporean, or Singaporean English so Singaporean, etc etc?

So the next time someone asks “What makes Singaporean food so Singaporean?”, the answer is: If we love it, we lin (淋) a lot of tsap on it.

Adding South-east Asian pizzazz to pizzas

SEAsianpizza2When you think about pizzas, there are really three essential components to every pizza: the crunch (the crust), the goop (the saucy base), and the bite (toppings). If one is able to recreate these three mouthfeels, one would get a decent pizza.

By distilling the essence of pizzas down to these components, I started thinking, “Does pizza always have to have cheese or tomato sauce as a base? What if I have something else that’s also goopy, would that then make for a good pizza?”

And then I started thinking, “Has anyone ever tried to make a south-east Asian pizza that isn’t simply dumping south-east Asian ingredients on top of what is still essentially an Italian pizza, with cheese et al?” I know that people have experimented with all sorts of toppings, but invariably the goopy base always boils down to tomato sauce or cheese.

So perhaps, if I could make goop from south-east Asian cuisine, I could substitute cheese and tomato sauce for the base and make a pizza that is actually truthful to the original taste of the dish!

So on my train commute to work, I sat down and went through all the Singaporean/Malaysian dishes I knew of, and started thinking about their textures. I eventually came up with a first round of dishes a few months ago that I thought could viably be transformed to recreate the three mouthfeels that go into a pizza.

SEAsian Pizzas Round 1

southeast asian pizzasThe first round of pizzas I made for my friends were: (from left to right) Mee Rebus, Char Siew, Baingan Bharta, and Daging Rendang. These pizzas had an additional tweak in that they represented all the major ethnic groups in Singapore, but also covered all the major proteins including a vegetarian option. I’m going to list each pizza and their components.

Mee Rebus Pizza

A dish which in Malay simply means “boiled noodles.” Very unassuming sounding, but is a sweet and spicy curry that’s thickened with mashed potatoes and topped with a hard-boiled egg. I discovered that by increasing the amount of mashed potatoes in the curry gravy, one could achieve the consistency of cheese. I used the gravy as a base. There are, funnily enough, no noodles of course in this pizza, so maybe it should really be called Tak Mee Rebus Pizza, but then that just means “No boiled noodles pizza.”

I don’t really speak Malay.

I topped it with hard-boiled eggs, but also fritters. A recipe I found suggested cucur udang bawang (prawn and chive fritters) but I had a friend at the pizza dinner who is allergic to shellfish so I replaced it with chicken, making it cucur ayam bawang.

Char Siew Pizza

A Chinese barbecued pork dish, glazed with honey, maltose, garlic, and spices. I learnt to make char siew from scratch, and I discovered that the sauce is already kind of thick, perfect for setting as the base for the pizza. This one was a no-brainer, and not much alteration was necessary to make char siew into pizza. Garnished with garlic and cilantro.

Baigan Bharta Pizza

A spicy Punjab dish made from eggplants. Granted, Singapore major Indian ethnic group is Tamil, but I found baingan bharta the easiest to work with. By mashing up the eggplants, they became very goopy, which I used for the base. I then topped it with mushrooms and tomatoes, because why not? This dish is vegetarian.

Rendang Daging Pizza

A Malay dish of spicy caramelised coconut beef, where the beef is original stewed in broth and left to slow cook until the broth evaporates and is absorbed by the beef. The cooking process then turns from stewing to stir-frying.

I took a portion of the stew and thickened it, and used it as the base. I topped it with rendang, and garnished it with chilli and cilantro.

The crust for the pizza, because I’m not really an accomplished Italian chef, was some simple pizza crust recipe I took from the internet using olive oil, flour, and salt.

Since a lot of south-east Asian pizzas are usually eaten with a staple, such as rice or noodles, it made sense to replace the staples with the crust, successfully blending what is traditionally a rice or noodle dish into something completely new, while preserving all of its original flavours (sans the flavours of the rice and noodles themselves).

After the success I had for the first round of pizzas, I proceeded to make more a couple months later (which was a few days ago).

SEAsian Pizzas Round 2

SEAsianpizza2From top left clockwise: Thosai Aloo Masala, Otak-otak, Lor Mee, Singapore Chilli Crab

I decided to go further this time, and represent Singapore’s ethnicities better, while keeping the custom of varying the proteins. I also had the sense to take pictures of the making process this time. Once again, I’ll describe the pizzas.

Thosai Aloo Masala with coconut chutney

In Singapore, the food most people think of when Indian food comes to mind is immediately roti prata or thosai. I decided to go with thosai, because I’m an abysmal prata maker (I’ve tried).

Known in New York as dosa, and thosai in Singapore, it’s a vegetarian Tamil rice-and-lentil crepe dish, topped with any variety of things, from eggs to potatoes to magic. The batter is thinly poured over a flat tawa, just as crepes are. I’m very proud to say I made my own batter, fermenting idli and dal, but there was a necessity to make my own batter.

thosai

Regular thosai/dosa is too thin to turn into pizza, and I had to thicken it somehow. Simply pouring more on the tawa isn’t sufficient, because it’s quite liquidy and wouldn’t stay in place. Thus, I had to alter the proportions of rice to lentils, to achieve the consistency I needed to make a sturdy enough crust to hold the toppings, while still retaining the taste of the thosai.

aloosabzi coconutchutney

I made coconut chutney, and thickened it by reducing the water in it. That formed the base. It’s also one of my favourite chutneys to use for thosai. I topped it with aloo sabzi, a potato filling with curry leaves and turmeric. I had a baking tray that I greased, put it in the oven until it got really hot, and thickly but evenly poured the batter over it, and put it back in the oven for a couple of minutes. I then took it back out when it is lightly cooked, poured the chutney and topped it with the potato masala, and put it back in the oven. It came out as a flatbread sorta pizza, and I was pleasantly surprised how well it turned out.

Otak-otak Pizza

Otak-otak is a Peranakan dish, making it the first time I’m representing this ethnic group in Singapore with pizzas. It’s a spicy fish custard with coconut and eggs. Unfortunately, my otak-otak had the right smell and taste, but wrong consistency, as it failed to custardise properly. I think in my zeal, I put in too much coconut milk, causing there to be too much liquid for the custard to form. I’ll need to try again.

otak sataysauce

But anyway, I still had the fish soaked in the otak custard dip, and at least the flavours stayed. I used a satay peanut sauce as the base, and topped it with the fish

Lor Mee Pizza

A Chinese braised pork noodle dish, usually topped with a braised hard-boiled egg and a variety of other toppings, in a soy-vinegar broth thickened with starch and egg. Once again, lor mee means “braised noodles,” and the lack of noodles in this pizza (replaced instead with a pizza crust) should really name this dish “Lor Ang Mor Peng,” or braised Caucasian pastry, which doesn’t make it sound any more appetising.

lor mee sm

(I forgot to take pictures of the lor bak, lor neng (egg), and lor tsap (sauce), but I did make lor mee the night before so here it is a picture of it)

I lor’d (braised) the lor bak (braised meat) for two days, the egg for one day, and extra thickened the braising sauce with starch, flour, and egg, to form the base. The pizza was then topped with the pork and egg, and garnished with cilantro and fried shallots.

Singapore Chilli Crab

I learnt that whole live crab is cheaper to buy than fish fillets in New York. Maybe it’s because I’m paying for all that shell and whatnot.

Did you know that if you buy live crabs and put them in the fridge, they’re still alive 12 hours later? I put them in the sink to wash them, and they came back to life, like daisies!

So, I guess the Singapore Chilli Crab is a Chinese spicy crab dish, with tomato puree and egg and a bunch of other stuff that unequivocally makes it Singapore’s signature dish. Just google “Singapore signature dish,” and chilli crab usually comes up tops.

And because I wasn’t going put a whole crab onto the pizzas, I had extract all the crab meat manually. I also didn’t have a shell cracker tool. All I had were knives, chopsticks, and a pair of needle-nose pliers.

crabThis small unassuming bowl, containing over a pound of mud crab meat, took TWO HOURS and many an injured finger.

I then prepared the sauce and stirred the crab meat into the sauce, making a thick chilli crab goopy thing which was perfect as a base, no topping needed. I guess ideally I would have preferred the meat to be more in chunks and as shredded as they turned out to be, but hey try removing crab meat manually with chopsticks and needle-nose pliers and we’ll see if you can do it without destroying the meat.

But it turned out well enough and tasted great, so that’s that.

I altered some of the ingredients in the pizzas to account for allergies within my testing group. I took out the belecan (shrimp paste) from the otak, because someone was allergic to shellfish, but kept it in the chilli crab because he wouldn’t have been able to eat it anyway. The good thing about south-east Asian dishes as pizzas is that, not only is it novel, they’re all lactose-free, because we don’t use milk very often in our cooking. So my lact-arded friends get to eat what passes as pizza, I suppose.

Makes me wonder why I’m not pursuing culinary as a profession sometimes.

 

 

 

 

Would you like an Obama bun?

As I was writing about chopstick innovation and learnt how a design company, Nendo, attempted to innovate the chopstick while keeping with the traditions of lacquerware-making from the Wakasa province, a historic province that is today part of the Fukui prefecture, and I learnt a lot about the lacquerware type unique to Wakasa called Wakasa-nuri 若狭塗り.

The Wakasa province is renowned for its exquisite lacquerware, including its signature chopsticks, and the ancient capital of the Wakasa province is a town called Obama 小浜市.

Yes this lacquerware hub of ancient Japan shares its name with the current U.S. President Obama.

“Obama,” which means “little beach” in Japanese, has many of the temples during the Yamato dynasty. Needless to say, when President was first senator and ran for presidency, the city gained worldwide attention.

From Wikipedia:

The city of Obama has received much publicity because it shares its name with U.S. President Barack Obama. It began when Obama as a Senator gave a 2006 interview to Japanese television network TBS where he noted that, when passing through customs in Narita Airport, the official who inspected his visa said that he was from Obama. The Obama City Hall heard about the interview and the mayor, Toshio Murakami, sent Senator Obama a set of the city’s famous lacquer chopsticks, a DVD about the city and a letter wishing him the best. As Senator Obama’s presidential campaign progressed, more local businesses began to organize primary parties and put up “Go Obama!” posters, sell “I love Obama” T-shirts, and produce manjū (a type of Japanese confectionery) with Senator Obama’s face on them. A hula group began in the town in honour of Senator Obama’s home state of Hawaii. The troupe visited Honolulu in June to perform at the Pan Pacific Festival.

President Obama has since thanked the town for their gifts and support, saying “I look forward to a future marked by the continued friendship of our two great nations and a shared commitment to a better, freer world”.

Check out these Obama buns

Of interesting note, the card says: Obama Manjuu, Oba-man, using the typical Japanese practice of making portmanteaus

Also, unsurprisingly, Obama, Fukui’s Wikipedia page has been vandalised. Under “Demographics,” someone wrote, “The population of Obama consists of Japanese aboriginal groups mixed with Indonesians, mulatos, Texans and Koreans.

van

Learn to separate the GMO hate from anti-corporatism

Greggor Ilagan, county council who initially sought to ban GMO in Hawaii, rethinks his position after deciding to learn about GMO himself through scientists, rather than self-styled “experts.” Image credit New York Times

There has been so much GMO food (genetically-modified organisms) hate going round the internet for as long as GMO has been around. Scary pictures depict GMO as a sort of “Frankenfood” that will ultimately give us all cancers and destabilise society. In fact, the New York Times just reported on how Hawaii passed a bill for vote to ban all GMOs on Hawaii, with much support from policy-makers and the voting crowd. Unsurprisingly, the ones most worried about the passing of such a ban are the papaya growers of the island, and county council member Greggor Ilagan, who undertook an effort to actually learn about what GMOs are, found many of the misconceptions he had about genetically-modified food debunked.

While it is true that not everything is known about GMO, the fight against GMO is, if one were to look carefully at the vitriol thrown against the technology, is half-parts resisting the actual technology itself, and half-parts decrying the unscrupulous practices of the corporations such as Monsanto that control the industry. It is important to not to lump corporatism with what is perceived to be the ills of GMO foods, because they’re separate things.

But the sad thing is, the “evidence” given against the science of GMO have mostly been disproved, yet these untruths still are touted around as legit reasons to completely throw GMO out the window. For example:

  • Gilles-Éric Séralini and a group of French researchers published a peer-reviewed study that rats fed GMO corn developed giant tumours and died prematurely — This is one of the most often cited study as to why GMO will kill us all. The study has been criticised for many reasons: 1) The rats chosen for the study were of a strain extremely prone to tumours. 2) Sample size problems. Where the OECD recommends at least 50 rats for carcinogenicity studies per testing group, Séralini only used 10, making it results more likely to be error-prone. 3) Statistical cherry-picking: Séralini did not publish crucial information about the study. The journal that published Séralini’s paper has since retracted it.
  • Judy Carman, Australian researcher, claims that pigs fed GM corn and GM soybean meal showed increased incidence of stomach inflammation. This too has been debunked for the following reasons: 1) While they showed pictures of GM-fed pigs with stomach inflammation, the pigs that were fed non-GM food actually developed more inflammations than the ones fed GM-food. 2) The pigs were subject to terrible living conditions, and that 60% of pigs of both groups developed pneumonia anyway, evidence of bad husbandry. 3) Statistic-fudging: The researchers separated the groups into different bands of inflammation and ran separate statistical tests so that their P-values could limbo underneath the P < 0.05 mark to be confident in. That is, they went fishing for the right values to validate their hypothesis, which was chosen after the experiment run–stomach inflammation.
  • GMO food causes autism. A mere error of confusing correlation and causation, something that can happen.
  • GMO crops pollinate with weeds, passing on their foreign-inserted genes, causing superweeds. GMO crops do not pollinate with weeds (except in rare cases, but that’s a different story). “Superweeds” are caused by improper and excessive use of the pesticides, without rotating types of pesticides used, nor were there other forms of weed control practices used other than pesticides. This led to the weeds gaining a resistance to the pesticides. Unfortunately, because of these superweeds caused by excessive use of pesticides, farmers end up having to use more and more pesticide to kill off these resistant strands, sometimes reverting to the use of pesticides that these GM crops were supposed to phase out.
  • The foreign-introduced genes in GM-food will be passed onto humans when we ingest it, possibly leading to health complications down the road. There are no conclusive studies that have proven this. On the other hand, there have been no studies that can conclusively say that there are absolutely no risks to eating GM-food, but as far as studies can show up to this point, they have been proven safe enough to eat.

Now, we move on to the criticism of the corporatism aspects resulting from the GMO industry.

  • GM cotton has led to farmer suicides in India. Vandana Shiva, an environmental and feminist activist from India, repeated an alarming statistic: “270,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since Monsanto entered the Indian seed market,” she said. Monsanto’s Bt cotton seeds, containing a Bacillus thuringiensis gene, cost five times that of local varieties. This caused scalpers to mix the Bt seeds with conventional ones to sell them at lower prices, and the sham seeds usually result in crop failures, adding on to the farmers’ financial problems. But while the total number of suicides in India grew from just under 100,000 to more than 120,000 in 2007, the number of farmer suicides remained constant at around 20,000 per yer. Yields actually grew by 24% per acre between 2002 and 2008, owing to reduced losses from pest attacks. Farmers’ profits rose by an average of 50% over the same period, owing mainly to yield gains.
  • Monsanto will sue you for growing their GMO if the pollen blows through your field and sprouts. Monsanto has shown no evidence of intentionally bringing a lawsuit against a farmer whose field was accidentally pollinated. Monsanto has filed suits against 145 farmers since 1997, for intentionally planting their patented seeds without having purchased the rights to do so. They’ve only proceeded through trial in eleven of the cases, all of which they won. The idea of “Monsanto suing for accidental cross-pollination” came from the 1999 case of the Canadian canola farmer, Percy Schmeiser, who claimed that his 95% GMO-seeded field was an accident. The judge eventually found Schmeiser to have intentionally planted the seeds, but since he derived no benefit from the planting, did not have to pay any damages.
  • Corporations like Monsanto make seeds that are sterile, and force farmers to constantly have to buy seeds from them each planting. From NPR: “This idea presumably has its roots in a real genetic modification (dubbed the Terminator Gene by anti-biotech activists) that can make a plant produce sterile seeds. Monsanto owns the patent on this technique, but has promised not to use it.””Now, biotech companies — and Monsanto in particular — do seem to wish that this idea were true. They do their best to keep farmers from replanting the offspring from GMOs. But they do this because, in fact, those seeds will multiply.”However, relying on corporations for seeds isn’t new. By the time Monsanto got into the seed business, most farmers in the U.S. and Europe were already relying on seed that they bought from seed companies. This shift started with the rise of commercial seed companies, not the advent of genetic engineering. But Monsanto and GMOs certainly accelerated the trend drastically.
  • The majority of our foods are GM already. Actually, not quite so. Currently, only eight crops (alfafa, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, soy, sugar beets, and zucchini) are widely-grown GM, with some others at risk for contamination. Of the GM crops, corn and sugar beets have a lot of derived products made from them, such as aspartame, amino acids, high-fructose corn syrup, and xanthan gum, amongst some.

I’m sure I’ve missed out on some of the criticisms, but these are the usual suspects raised against GMO.

I’m certainly uneasy with the monopoly these major corporations have over our food production methods, when only one or two major companies supply the majority of seeds sold to farmers. I can certainly understand the companies’ desires to patent their seeds, since they’ve spent time and money into researching them, but not all GM work like Monsanto. Looking at Hawaii’s GM “Rainbow” papayas, it was developed primarily by scientists at academic institutions, has no patent protecting it, and it was a model for how the technology could benefit small farmers. This GM almost single-handedly saved Hawaii’s papayas from an outbreak of the ringspot virus in the mid-90s.

But just because we’re uneasy with the corporation, doesn’t mean the science of GMO is bad. What we should work towards is better regulation of standards and rigorous testing of GM food, and creating a framework of ethical standards that straddles a balance between profit for the corporations as well as understanding that such technology is ultimately created for the benefit of mankind and ending food shortages, not a mere means to a pretty penny. The fear-mongering of sensationalised untruths against GMO is only going to hurt not only the farmers, but ultimately the people as well.

It’s so fluffy I’m gonna die!

shakshouka

I made shakshouka, but this post isn’t about the shakshouka. In fact, it’s about the pita in the background, which I made.

Did you know how cheap it is to make your own pita? Had I known how cheap it was, I’d never have bought those commercial pita. Plus, home-made ones are so much fluffier! Seriously, the initial crunch and then the yield of the white, soft fluffy interior is so luxurious, I could sleep in it.

Let me break down the cost it takes to make pita:

  • 1 lb all-purpose flour costs maybe $1 – 1.50. A 1lb bag yields about 7 cups of flour. The recipe I used to make the pita uses 3.5 cups of flour to make 12 pita, so 24 pitas for $1 – 1.50.
  • 3 packets of active dry yeast for $1, and it’s 1 packet for 12 pita, so 60 cents for 24 pita.
  • Salt, sugar, and olive oil, which are hard to calculate.

So it’s approximately $1.60 – $2.10 to make 24 pita, when most commercial pita sells for, I don’t know, $1 – 2 for 8? This makes it a cost of $3 – 6 for 24, nearly triple the price. Plus most commercial pita are quite tough and flat.

This is the recipe I used, from allrecipes.com.

  • 1 package active dry yeast
  • 1 1/4 cup warm water
  • 3 1/2 cup all purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/4 cup shortening
  1. Sprinkle yeast over warm water in a mixing bowl and allow to stand until the yeast forms a creamy foam, about 5 minutes. Mix in 2 cups of flour, salt, and shortening; beat for 2 minutes with a fork. Stir in as much of the remaining 1 1/2 cup flour as needed.
  2. Turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, kneading in more flour if dough is sticky. Form into a ball, cover with a kitchen towel, and let rest in a warm area for 15 minutes.
  3. Preheat oven to 500 degrees F (260 degrees C).
  4. Divide dough into 12 equal portions; flour your hands and roll each piece into a ball. Cover dough balls with a kitchen towel and let rest for 10 minutes. Flatten the balls into rounds on a floured surface, cover with kitchen towel, and let rest 10 more minutes. Gently roll each dough ball into a circle about 6 inches in diameter on a floured surface. Place pita breads in a single layer on ungreased baking sheets.
  5. Bake in preheated oven until the pita breads puff up, 3 to 4 minutes. Flip breads over with a spatula, return to oven, and bake 2 more minutes. Let cool on wire racks before cutting pita breads in half and gently separating tops and bottoms to form pockets for filling.

I didn’t have shortening, so I altered the recipe and used somewhere between 1/8 and 1/4 cup of olive oil instead. I ended up using all 3.5 cups of flour. The trick to fluffy pita is to really just give them time to rise. Total time taken is about 1 hour 20 – 30 minutes.

Of course I understand that not everybody has the luxury of time to splurge on making pita, when the convenience of just buying them from the store appeals so much more to the time-pressed. But I assure, that oh-so-soft fluffiness of home-made pita is worth it, the lack of preservatives in it makes it healthier too.

So I made a batch of 12, I’m not going to be able to finish all of it in one sitting. I figure it’ll keep fairly well in the fridge in a ziploc bag until when I need it. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some fluffy pitas to roll around in.