The Art of Stir-Fry

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Stir-frying is actually quite simple, as long as you’re quite brave too! Most home cooks only do it on medium heat, resulting in food that’s more steamed than fried. Stir-frying requires a very hot wok and all the ingredients, in small quantities, on the ready. This makes sure that the food is fried quickly and you get that barely charred taste.

Here’s how to do it. First, heat a dry wok till very hot. Then add the oil, swirling to coat most of the wok. Wait till the oil starts to shimmer and barely smoke. Make sure the ingredients are ready. Add the aromatics, like chopped garlic, and stir like mad. When it’s fragrant, add the rest of your ingredients according to how long they take to cook, and keep stirring. Turn off the flame and then season.

Here are some ideas:

Almost Sambal Kang Kong

Ingredients:

2 tsp belachan (about thumb-size)
1 tbsp oil
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 chilli padi, finely chopped
1 bunch kang kong

Method:

  1. Toast the belachan in a dry wok until brown on both sides. Crush using a mortar and pestle.
  2. Add oil to the hot wok and when oil is shimmering, add the shallots and fry till fragrant.
  3. Toss in the chilli padi, belachan and kang kong and fry till kang kong turns deep green.

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Watercress and Tau Kwa Stir-Fried in Tau Cheow

Ingredients:

1 tbsp oil
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 cake tau kwa, cut into squares
1 bunch watercress, torn to small sections
1 tbsp tau cheow, crushed

Method:

  1. Heat the wok and the oil till oil shimmers, then add the garlic. Fry till fragrant.
  2. Add the tau kwa and fry till tau kwa is browned but not burnt.
  3. Add the watercress and tau cheow and fry till the veg turns deep green.

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Chicken, Mushroom and Bean Fry

Ingredients:
1 tbsp oil
as many mushrooms as you like, cut into strips
1 chicken breast, cut into small chunks
handful fine french beans, cut into sticks
2 tbsp shaoxing wine

Method:

  1. Heat the wok and the oil till shimmering. Add the mushrooms and fry till browned.
  2. Add the chicken and fry till browned slightly on all sides.
  3. Now add the french beans and fry for a few seconds.
  4. Add the shaoxing wine and stir till it stops bubbling, then turn off the heat. Add salt to taste.

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All recipes serve two. (Or one greedy person.)

August in China: Stuck in the Mud

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We left Guangxi and headed north to Guizhou, still sticking to Dong territory. We took an early mianbao che (minivan, literally: bread bus) back to Sanjiang and swapped our loaf-shaped transport for a bus that had seen better days. To our surprise, we were not the only tourists headed to Zhaoxing, another Dong village. There was a European couple that looked like faded hippies hidden at the back.

Thinking that this would be an uneventful journey like our last bus ride, we were annoyed when our bus stopped along an ugly mud road winding alongside a murky river. There was construction going on at the embankment above us, most likely a brand new highway. We sat and waited. And waited. And waited. Soon, people got off the bus as there were no signs of people moving.

A motley bunch of people stood and squatted by the buses. There was a group of fairly trendy girls from Guangdong with a contemptuous attitude. They weren’t pleased at all to be in their high heels on a mud bank. Buying a pack of melon seeds from a tribal vendor who appeared from nowhere, they spat melon shells disdainfully at the bus tires. Others haggled and heckled the vendors, complaining that ¥10 for instant bowl noodles and hot water toted from kilometres away was daylight robbery. It was lunch time and they were annoyed that they wouldn’t reach their destination in time for the noon meal.

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I got bored observing all the bored people and headed to the front of the column to check out the cause of the jam. There must have been a mudslide because the road was impassible. A small covered truck was stuck in the mud as it tried to negotiate the tricky bend. There were lorries, trucks and buses of all shapes and sizes waiting behind it and no one dared to take the space at the inner lane for fear of meeting the same fate.

People milled around and pointed and it didn’t seem like much could be done. Lots of people muttered suggestions and then out of the blue, a mixed group from different vehicles organised themselves and started putting pieces of flat stone into the mud. I was taken aback by how someone had evidently gotten things going simply by example and the rest just wordlessly followed. Even the ticket seller lady from our bus helped out. I was very impressed by this show of solidarity and proactiveness. To me, it was yet another sign that China had great things ahead and was not to be trifled with. Later, Willy told me that something like that would never have happened in Spain and that we’d probably be stuck there for months instead of hours.

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In the end, the stones were not very helpful as the truck tried in vain to get unstuck. Before long, an excavator from the highway construction came over and dug us all out of the jam.

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Now what surprised me even more than the stone-laying was this: once the track was clear, the first few trucks moved to the side so others could pass. The drivers agreed that those in the buses needed to be on schedule more than the trucks and that the trucks could make matters worse by getting stuck again. Better to let the slightly more nimble buses ahead first. I was pretty much floored by this big-picture thinking. It’s the one event that impressed me the most about Chinese people.

Before we could hustle to get back on the bus, we were told to stay put and wait for the bus to roll up and pick us up instead. Don’t worry, they can recognise you.

Wow.

My Current Favourite Curry Puff

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I’ve been on a curry puff frenzy lately. Each time I pass by a good stall, I must grab one, even if I’d just had a big meal before. The one at Marine Parade Hawker Centre is no exception. In fact, I often go there for lunch just so I can get my curry puff fix after.

I think we all have our days. Some days the hawkers make things taste extra nice and some days we’re just more receptive to really good food. On previous visits, the curry puff was good though not mind-bogglingly so.

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This time, as I bit into my curry puff I had an epiphany of sorts. The dough was soft yet extra flaky and yielding. There was a lovely fragrance to it. The filling was rich and flavourful. I don’t know how they cooked the potato, but this stuff was pretty much It. The bits of chicken gave little bursts of extra flavour. It was all very yummy, another of those died-and-gone-to-heaven moments.

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By the way, there’s no egg in this version. I like it either way. Hey, you’re only paying $1 here!

Katong Chicken Curry Puff
Marine Parade Food Centre
01-132

Chronicles of MPT: Jalan Tua Kong Lau Lim Mee Pok (Simpang Bedok)

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I went for breakfast at Simpang Bedok and was surprised to find Jalan Tua Kong’s Lau Lim opened a stall here. The story goes like this: the old man running 132 originally set up at Jalan Tua Kong. He had a helper, Lau Lim, who learned the trade from him. The old man had to retire due to health reasons and let Lau Lim take over the Jalan Tua Kong stall. Later, the old man got better and started up 132 again at Kembangan, which then moved to its current location opposite the petrol station. Lau Lim, on the other hand, moved out of Jalan Tua Kong because the rents increased and someone else now dishes out mediocre stuff at the Jalan Tua Kong stall. Incidentally, the mee pok tah at the coffeeshop next to the monsoon drain at Siglap Centre is a pretender too. It used to be good but is now awful. Don’t bother.

Back to Lau Lim’s mee pok tah. I was pretty sceptical as my experience at 132 wasn’t the best. To be fair, I ordered the wrong thing, so I’ll just have to go back and try again. The one here, a $4 portion with normal chilli, was very excellent. Noodle-wise, it’s the best so far! Better than Joo Chiat Chiap Kee, though the chilli sauce there still wins. I liked the texture of the noodles and how the chilli and lard bits worked very well together. The prawns weren’t the freshest, though they were springy and almost crunchy. 132 wins for prawn freshness even though theirs aren’t that fresh either. The fishballs were quite typical. Nothing to complain about. But the soup was awful. Don’t bother. It tasted of msg and dishwater. Yuck.

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Jalan Tua Kong Lau Lim Mee Pok
308 Bedok Road (Simpang Bedok)
Bedok Shopping Complex

Heavenly and Incredibly Easy Poached Pears in Red Wine

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Pear poached in red wine is one of those chi-chi restaurant desserts that’s actually quite a no-brainer to make at home. It’s so much easier yet somehow more impressive than baking a cake. I made some the other night and it was such a revelation!

Here’s where all the leftover red wine stashed in the freezer comes in useful. Or you could just use any cheap not-too-sweet red. Use as many or as few of the spices as you like. I think the poaching liquid ends up like mulled wine with all the spices!

For dessert, I reduced some poaching liquid to make a sauce.  I left the pears soaking in the rest of the poaching liquid overnight. The next morning the pears deepened to the darkest purple ever. This time, I didn’t bother with a reduction and just had them cold as a fancy fruit compote with my thick yogurt. Both were very yummy.

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Ingredients:
½ bottle red wine
4 black peppercorns
4 green cardamom pods
½ stick cinnamon
1 star anise
4 cloves
lemon peel from ½ lemon
½ cup sugar
2 pears

Method:

  1. Combine wine with spices, lemon peel and sugar in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer on low heat.
  2. Get on with peeling and coring the pears. Cut each pear into eight.
  3. By now the poaching liquid should be at least warm. Lower pears into poaching liquid and keep on a low simmer for 20 minutes or till pears are soft.
  4. For serving immediately, fish out the pears and boil the poaching liquid till the resulting syrup coats the back of a spoon. Drizzle the sauce over the pears and serve with Greek yogurt, crème fraîche or ice cream.
  5. Alternatively, leave the pears in the poaching liquid overnight to steep. Eat with yogurt for a decadent breakfast.

Serves 2-4.

A Rather Healthy and Slightly Sinful Lunch

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I ran out of gas yesterday. Even though the new cylinder came very promptly, I challenged myself to make lunch without using the gas stove. I had a rather odd bunch of stuff in the house. First, there was some potato to finish before they started sprouting. There was some defrosted chicken thigh, skin on. In the veg department, there was some curly red lettuce crying out to be used, mint leaves, laksa leaves and some leftover celery. I also had some pear and leftover lemon wedges in the fridge.

It all came together in the form of roast potato in laksa and mint salsa verde, baked chicken and a green salad with celeary and pear. It was light yet satisfying and great for fine sunny weather that threatened to turn cloudy. Try this all together or take it apart to assemble your own version.

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Roast Potato in Laksa and Mint Salsa Verde and Baked Chicken with Skin

Ingredients:
1 russet potato
1 handful laksa leaves
1 handful mint leaves
1 tbsp oil
sea salt

1 chicken thigh with skin

Method:

  1. Scrub the potato thoroughly and slice thickly. Peel the potato if you like but I never bother. Grill the slices on both sides till slightly browned. Remove and then preheat oven to 150ºC.
  2. Chop the mint and laksa leaves finely, add a good pinch of sea salt and then mix with the oil. Smear generously onto potato slices. Put into the oven together with the chicken (and skin) and bake for 15 minutes till the chicken is cooked and the skin crispy.
  3. Serve with the salad.

For one person. Easily scaled up.

Celery, Pear and Mint Salad

Ingredients:
1 stick celery
½ pear
3 small bunches red curly lettuce or other lettuce
1 handful mint
¼ lemon
1 tbsp oil
salt and pepper

Method:

  1. Cut the celery into long, fine diagonals and the pear into fine matchsticks. Tear the lettuce into small pieces.
  2. Put celery, pear, lettuce and mint into a large bowl. Squeeze over half of the lemon, then pour over the oil and add a good pinch of salt and a generous grinding of pepper.
  3. Using clean hands (use spoons if you’re squeamish), toss the salad until mixed well. Taste and add a bit more lemon juice or salt and pepper if necessary.
  4. Serve.

For one greedy person or 2-3 non-salady people.

August in China: Zhuang and Dong Food

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In the Zhuang village, one of the local specialties was bamboo sticky rice. Glutinous rice was soaked in water and mixed with corn, mushroom and carrot. The mixture was then stuffed into a bamboo section then roasted over a charcoal fire. The fragrant rice would swell to fill up the whole container and form a delicate layer of rice paper coating the entire length of bamboo. It was delicious.

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It’s probably one of the earliest convenience foods. Locals would take the prepared raw bamboo packets with them as they went into the forest to work. For lunch, they would build a fire and cook the bamboo packets. Et voila! Lunch on the go. The best part was that the packaging is biodegradable and left in the forest. Free hands to take timber back to the village.

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For the tourists’ bamboo rice, grills were put behind the restaurant. Check out the nifty built-in handle carved out of the bamboo.

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At the Dong village, we ducked into this little noodle shop for lunch.  It was the only food shop in the vicinity and it had only one dish on the menu. The best part was watching our noodles made before our eyes outside the little shack. This was mingling with the locals at its best.

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As we eagerly waited for our noodles, this group of boys happily slurped theirs down. They were eating with such gusto, it had to be good.

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And it was! This version was slightly lighter than the one in Yangshuo. It had far more fresh vegetables (pumpkin shoots, very yummy) in it and there was the option of adding extra chilli to taste. Wonderful. It cost all of ¥3 per bowl.

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August in China: A Village Market

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We were delighted that our visit coincided with market day. The market comes round to this corner of town every eight days, so it was a lovely bit of fortune we had. There were lots of villagers from all over coming here to stock up on necessities and buy and sell livestock.

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Bird flu or not, I was delighted to find a makeshift stall selling chicks and ducklings. Some of these chicks were so energetic that they managed to hop up onto the wire mesh in an attempted escape. The stallholder would simply toss them gently back to join its brothers and sisters.

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There were lots of ducklings of various ages on sale. Some were just a few days old and the older ones about a week or so old.

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They were packed into rattan carriers for transport back so they could be fattened nicely back on the ponds.

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The fruit stall was very popular. There were plenty milling around tasting the watermelon, bananas and grapes. I loved the grapes there. They were like none I’ve tasted before. These were huge, round and bursting with wine flavour. Sure, they had seeds and tough skins that had to be peeled or spat out, but the extra tannins only added to the tart, yet honeyed muscat flavour. I still dream of those grapes. Even the over-priced Japanese grapes couldn’t compare to these.

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Of course, we had to do more than just buy fruit. We ended up buying a live chicken for dinner! The stallholder was taken aback that these silly tourists would buy a chicken. Ours cost us the princely sum of ¥17.40.

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We carried it thus trussed-up all the way back. Willy happily toted it most of the way, basking in the astonished double-takes of passing villagers. It made a slightly tough but absolutely delicious dinner.

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August in China: Children in a Dong Village

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Children at the village certainly did live carefree lives. Walking through the paddy fields,  we saw these girls  taking their bath in the river. It was accompanied by lots of jumping, splashing and falling backwards into the water. Their mum washing things slightly downstream didn’t compel them to help out with the chores. I liked that they had so much of their childhood intact.

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There was a basketball court in front of one of the drum towers. Most of the space was taken up by rice laid out to dry, but the little space leftover was very well utilised. These boys had lots of fun showing off their shots.

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As Willy and I sat watching, some of the kids came right up to us just to stare. I guess they were quite shy and weren’t comfortable talking to strangers from outside the village. It was funny though how they happily grabbed Willy’s pack of airline crackers and took off with it, gleefully grabbing as much as they could. The sad part was that they weren’t good at sharing. Never mind offering us some, the small girls here didn’t even want to share among themselves.

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The boys were horsing around while we took photos. They later gathered round the camera, staring raptly at the screen. They pointed and laughed at each other and their images and then horsed around some more. The horsing around didn’t stop until some watermelon emerged from somewhere and they quieted to wolf it all down.

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August in China: A Walk in a Dong Village

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Just like its bridges and drum towers, Dong village houses are made of local wood. They blend charmingly into the forest, although some villages are much better kept than others. The first picture is of one that tourists frequent more.

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This slightly dustier village was a bit poorer, perhaps because tourist buses didn’t stop here. In this village, Willy and I had an odd sense that the people were wary and suspicious of outsiders. Even the curious children weren’t as open as I expected.

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Nonetheless, I was glad to see that there was some kind of government care in this village. At least the poster shows that they’re bothering to do something about female infanticide, reminding the minority groups that girls are a valuable part of their community.

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In the other villages, prosperity was showing in the form of spanking new houses. This one was very near to the main road. Everything was made from scratch from local timber. Nothing seemed to be metal or prefab.

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The villages didn’t have a proper sewage system. They relied on the age-old system of ponds, algae and ducks.  An outhouse  was built in the centre of each pond and presumably rotated between the ponds. Some of them were pretty clean, with melon creepers vines growing along the borders of the ponds.

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Others were equally pretty, with the red algal bloom. It was only after some thought that I realised why the algae was doing so well. They probably allowed the algae to grow, then drain the resulting water into the paddy fields as fertiliser and allow the ducks to get at the algae. Whether it’s correct or not is another matter,  it’s all pure speculation on my part.

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The back of the village opened out into the valley. The flattest parts at the bottom were filled with paddy fields, while the higher elevations had other crops like tea and corn.

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As we strolled along the back paths, villagers went on with their hard work on the land.

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On the other hand, we tourists went on to climb halfway up a slope and enjoy the beautiful views.

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I could stare out at this scenery every day, it’s so amazing.

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