A Healthy Picnic Lunch

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DC and I went to check out St John’s Island over the weekend. We hopped over from Marina South Pier by ferry. The 45 minutes ferry ride was comfortable and painless compared to the earlier hassle of finding parking at the ferry terminal. It was one of those incredibly hot yet lovely days and it showed off the island beautifully.

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The sky was blue, the clouds fluffy white and the thick growth of trees a deep lively green.

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There wasn’t a great deal to the island, only a research centre for marine studies and a holiday camp. The rest of the island that was accessible to visitors was pretty much a little park, probably equivalent to a zone or two of East Coast beach.

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Still, it was a lovely walk and surprisingly not quite as hot as we expected as most of the way was pretty shady especially a bit further from the beach. It was a lovely little bit of Singapore that was a nicely contradictory combination of well-kept park and forgotten bucolism.

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There were some mangroves along the coast standing upright in the water that was so clean it was almost clear. Only the sand clouded it up slightly.

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We spent a while peering at the little fish darting amongst the stilt roots of the mangroves.

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While there obviously weren’t any roses here, coming here was a good opportunity to stop and smell and observe. And of course test out the macro feature of my new camera!

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There were also cats on the island. Here’s a pretty one watching out warily both for us…

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… and the spooky black cat with scary eyes.

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Then we adjourned to a shady park bench for a very refreshing Thai-inspired salad redolent of mint and lemongrass. The ever-enterprising DC whipped out cold drinks from a little styrofoam box and it completed our meal very nicely. All we needed to do next was head back to the ferry and home, wash up and have an afternoon nap. Bliss.

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Thai-inspired chicken pasta salad

Ingredients:
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp lime juice
1 tbsp palm sugar
2 tbsp extra virgin olive or peanut oil (optional)
2 cooked chicken breasts, shredded
1 cup pasta, cooked
2 stalks lemongrass, finely chopped
1 red chilli, finely chopped
1 shallot, finely chopped (optional)
2 large handfuls mint leaves
2 heads baby butterhead lettuce
10 cherry tomatoes, halved

Method:

  1. Combine the fish sauce, soy sauce, lime juice and palm sugar, stirring to dissolve. I use pellets of palm sugar bought from Myanmar and leave it overnight in the fridge to give the sugar time to dissolve. Taste if you dare at this point to test for balance. It should be incredibly salty, fishy and sour all at the same time. Add more sugar to temper the sourness slightly and more fish sauce or soy sauce if it’s not fishy-salty enough. Don’t worry too much at this stage, you can tweak later too.
  2. In a large bowl, combine the oil, shredded chicken and pasta, then stir in a few spoonfuls of the dressing. Now toss in the lemongrass, chilli and shallot and keep stirring till well combined.
  3. Tear the mint and lettuce leaves into the salad and keep tossing. Taste and add more dressing if necessary. Spoon into a plastic box for storage and keep as cool as possible for your picnic.

Serves 2.

La Nonna: Good but Flawed

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La Nonna’d been on my to-try list for a while. We went there one gloomy Sunday for a pick-me-up lunch. I liked how hot bread came quite swiftly. There was the crispy flat bread and the softer bun to choose from. The bun was very tasty with the olive oil and balsamic vinegar provided at the table. Nothing like hot bread to start a meal. The only problem was that the flat bread wasn’t that great and the bun was the type that would go stale once cold. Everything had to be eaten hot and eaten now.

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We ordered a couple of specials as appetisers. The first was pan-fried mozzarella wrapped in pancetta. It was a rather decent dish that was pretty well executed especially with the drizzle of balsamic vinegar as a finishing touch. Two flaws marred the dish: first, the cheese was a rather run of the mill mozzarella. Next, the cheese wasn’t oozy at all. The best part is that if the cheese was good, it wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t oozy. And conversely, if the cheese was oozy, it wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t very good!

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Next up was the spicy sausages. These were very tasty, but I felt that they were so heavy-handed with the spice that I couldn’t quite enjoy the meaty flavour. A little more restraint with the chilli and it would have been just perfect. The new potatoes on the side were excellent, particularly paired with the mustard. Again, another dish where a little tweak would have made it just perfect.

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Next came our main course of the house special pizza. It had asparagus, truffle and a runny egg on it. The combination was very good, especially the truffle and egg. I liked how the truffle aroma was just right, enough to entice but not too heavy to drown out everything else. By now you must be wondering about the downside. It was the crust. It tasted and looked frozen as the edges were too uniform and the flavour too flat. Freshly made pizza dough always has the most amazing medley of smells which this version lacked. Again, such a pity.

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After the mains, we had a cappuccino to recuperate. Here I had no complaint as the coffee was rich and robust. Thumbs up.

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And then dessert. DC and I are split on this. I liked the crust but wasn’t sure about the apple filling. DC found the crust too hard and liked the filling a lot. He also liked the rather novel combination of chocolate ice cream with apple tart. I wasn’t sure. Here, it wasn’t so much good but flawed, it was more good but controversial!

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La Nonna seems to be a restaurant that’s on the brink of going downhill. There’s lots of promise in the food and good flavours to be found, just that the chef needs to be vigilant and not cut corners. All its flaws are very much fixable, I hope they do something about it soon.

La Nonna
76 Namly Place
Tel: 6762 1587

Quick Eats: Hot Tomato

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I went to Plaza Singapura for a quick lunch one weekday with a colleague and headed to an old favourite: Hot Tomato Express. I love how no-nonsense both the food and the prices are, and how the service is friendly and flexible. The set menu included either hot tea or pre-mixed iced lemon tea. Not only were they good enough to give us hot tea with ice instead of the usual over-sweetened iced tea, they also gave us lemon in the tea without us needing to ask. Plus, they even provided extra ice in case one glassful wasn’t enough. Now that’s what I call good service.

The food’s good and cheap too. I liked the lamb chop with aglio olio spaghetti. It costed only $13 for the set including soup and tea. The soup that day was tomato soup, a thick chunky version served with crisp garlic bread on the side. On to the lamb chop. It came with two generous chops, both nicely seared and browned on both sides. They were on the fatty side, so not for diet days, but the fat made such a difference! The brown sauce on the side made the (again!) generous serving of spaghetti very yummy and the green salad on the side was yet another bonus.

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In short, a great place for quick, cheap and very satisfying food.

Hot Tomato Express
68 Orchard Road #B2-40 Plaza Singapura
Tel: 6341 9162

Au Naturel at Zi Yean

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Zi Yean is one of those newfangled zichar places that serves up rather imaginative dishes. Its name means “natural” in Cantonese and we were rather amused by the very fitting “au naturel” chopstick holders.

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They’re specially printed with the restaurant name on the back even!

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Dinner started off with a very yummy double boiled soup with sea whelk, cordyceps and Sakura chicken. The special was tasty and full of chickeny goodness and umami flavour from the seafood. This is excellent for chasing away a cold. One problem though is that the quality varies from visit to visit. We went there for dinner two nights in a row and on the first night, the soup was perfect. The next night, however, the soup was oversalted, which kinda ruined the flavours. Pity.

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Next up was the spinach in superior broth. I liked how they added century egg and topped it with a sprinkling of crispy silver fish. With smooth, non-gritty spinach, earthy century egg and salty crunchy fish, this made for a killer combination that beats most other places hands down.

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I felt that the honey pork ribs were a bit of a weak link. It was your typical deboned pork rib in sweet sauce, tender enough but nothing in particular to rave about. Perhaps I just don’t particularly fancy sweet savouries.

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The final main dish was the most interesting: crab meat fried with egg white and topped with a raw egg yolk. The dish arrived piping hot and the idea was to quickly stir in the egg yolk so the gooey stuff coated the crab-egg white pieces. I liked the texture a lot as it had varying bits of chewy from the crab pieces and the dried scallop, that  coupled with the softness of the egg white was a winner. I like egg, I like crab, this is dish is kinda hard to beat.

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We had orh nee for dessert. The yam paste here is very nicely made though it doesn’t quite beat the grandmaster at Ah Orh. The paste is fairly smooth with little bits of yam embedded inside. It’s topped with soft pumpkin pieces and has very little oil. Avoid the accompanying coconut milk because they use the stuff from a carton. Less than fresh coconut milk mars the taste terribly. I like this version quite a bit because it’s good enough and it’s less oily than other versions.

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Other things worth eating are the home made tofu topped with bonito flakes and any of their basic stir-fry dishes. Go there with family or lots of good friends so you can try more dishes!

Zi Yean
Blk 56 Lengkok Bahru #01-443
Tel: 6474 0911 (Air-Con) / 6471 0253 (Non Air-Con)

June in Thailand: The Elephant Trek

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Over lunch, one of the villagers lounged around smoking his pipe as we slurped down our noodles. We wondered why as he didn’t make any contact at all with us. No one else in the village came into the hut, not even inquisitive children.

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It was only after lunch when we set off that we realised that the mystery man was our mahout! Jare told us that there was only one elephant this time because the rest were turned out to feed. We had this handsome female to take us for a little spin round the jungle.

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But first we had to walk own our own two feet for a little while so the poor elephant wouldn’t be too tired out. The path took us through more hilly forest and yet more padi fields.

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The  Danish couple went first, spending a good hour on the elephant. When it was time to swap, they jumped down quickly and strangely, neither wanted to continue on with the ride.  Tom didn’t want to take the elephant because of his issues with animal welfare. So it was just me.
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After 15 minutes, I was ready to call it quits. Going up wasn’t too bad as the elephant plodded along the forest path. All that happened was that her ears flapped the horseflies around, occasionally slapping my mud-encrusted feet and I got frequent bashes on the face from twigs and branches. And she must have had a dribbly nose because she snorted a few times, spraying me with a fine mist of what I hope wasn’t elephant snot. However, when the path starting trailing downwards, I had to hang on for dear life to the bamboo howdah, wondering desperately why there wasn’t a seatbelt of some sort to stop me from being flung forward over her head. Branches were still slapping me on the head and horseflies were still trying to get at me. I turned back and looked imploringly at Jare who was leading the rest on foot. Thankfully, he signalled a stop after half an hour and I got off the elephant in double quick time.

It was lovely to get back on my feet again and we continued onwards to the final village where we’d spend the night, enjoying the views all the way.

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It was amazing the generousity and warmth of the Karen villagers. The area we were in was fairly remote and not many tourists came by.  The locals would never know when someone would turn up and ask for shelter. Hospitality is very much a part of them. According to Jare, they led treks to each village on average once every three to six months: the villagers had rather infrequent contact with tourists. This trek was as untouristy as they come, especially given the very basic conditions and the difficult terrain we had to pass through.

Even on the last morning, the elements didn’t let up and we walked out of the forest in the driving rain, footpaths turning into muddy rivulets.

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After finally making it to the main dirt track did we see a motorised vehicle, but only after waiting a good four hours. Here, hitchhiking is the norm and it was customary to give lifts to anyone who asks. Here’s a picture of us crammed in the back of the pickup together with other hitchhikers. We were about to leave Karen and their beloved country…

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… but not before a little grasshopper landed on my head in farewell. Just before reaching Mae Sariang, it flew back off into the forest, leaving only photos and memories as reminders of its presence.

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June in Thailand:Deeper into Karen Territory

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We headed out from the village into the newly transplanted padi fields, green shoots pushing out from the dark brown earth.

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Jare explained to us that the charred trees were from the previous growing cycle where the chaff was burnt in the fields to break down the nutrients quickly for the next batch of seedlings. The trees were collateral damage, a testimony to the impact of man on nature.

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There was also the occasional little hut dotting the valley, made as rest huts for the tired farmer.

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In one of these huts, Jare and Kiat found a traditional headpiece worn by the villagers to protect them from the elements. It shields the head, neck and back from the fierce sun and offers some relief from the incessant drizzle so characteristic of that season. It wasn’t too uncomfortable, but the moment it started pouring again, I was back in the humid poncho!

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Soon, we moved further away from the village where it was too far away and not worth the effort for the villagers to farm. Here, the valley gave way to an incredible spectrum of green, Nature showing us the inadequacy of our own paints and colours.

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Even more beautiful were the little splotches of bright colour on the way, including this pretty pink flower that came into our path all of a sudden.

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Jare pointed out various weird and wonderful creatures, including this cow-horned insect, a beetle of some sort. It’s amazing how long and curved its antennae were and the odd mask-like back with black dots on white looked so out of place.

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In direct contrast was the stick insect Kiat coaxed onto his parang. I’d not seen one before except in pictures, and it was almost a shock to see how, well, stick-y this fella was! The details were amazing, even down to a little knob of a shorn off branch on the top.

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Soon, we reached our destination for lunch, another village nestled in a valley, this time a little lower so there were plenty of coconut trees.

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Here, they were a little bit more old school, with shrunken skulls from the way back in the days where they dried enemies’ skulls and hung them up to ward off evil and other enemies.

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The strangest thing was sitting around the stove slurping up the instant noodle lunch Jare cooked for us, watching the skulls stare out at us from their empty sockets.

June in Thailand: Life with the Karen

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The next village we got to was slightly more remote. Again, we stayed in the house of the village chief where they provided bedding and cooking space. Jare and Kiat did the honours for the cooking and while waiting for dinner to be served, the village headman brought out home made rice whiskey.

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We sat round on very empty stomachs downing shots of (thankfully not very strong) local whisky from the same chipped china cup. Even though we could only communicate through sign language, the villagers were always smiling and trying their best to ask questions about us, like which country we came from and how old we were. When we were through with dinner, the villagers did the washing up after us. In Karen culture, a visitor who washes up after himself is one who never returns. After dinner, we rolled out sleeping rolls provided by the family and dropped straight off to sleep, the incessant rain still beat on the eaves of the hut. We wondered how our damp clothes would have any chance at all of drying.

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In the morning, the rain seemed to have stopped for a while and we woke to the sounds of inquisitive children staring in at the door. They were none too discreetly trying to make enough noise to get us to wake up and pay them some attention yet not alert the adults of their innocent mischief.

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We got up, put away the bed rolls and went out to find that the whole village was awake and it seemed like the day had started long before we arose. Only the youngest and the oldest were still around. Here is the village headman’s wife and one of her many grandchildren.

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She was very happy to have her picture taken and I hope the photo got to her safely. It was so lovely to see the great love for her grandchild in her eyes. Beautiful.

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After a quick breakfast of chillied sardine with rice for me, Jare and Kiat, and toast for the farangs, we said our farewells to whoever was left in the village and headed off. There was quite a way to cover yet.

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June in Thailand: Trekking in Karen Country

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After the first village, we headed into Karen country proper, passing through jungle tracks well-known by the locals. Here Jare and Kiat pointed out a tree that was used as a lookout to survey the surrounding environment. Having checked in with the village headman and knowing the local news of the area, there was no need to climb the tree to check things out. Anyway, we were already well forewarned that the weather for the area was set to be very wet and to be prepared for our parade to be rained upon.

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Already, the clouds were starting to roll into the valley. We walked up and down the green, green slopes, some of which were terraced to grow rice.

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Trekking involved tramping up dry slopes in the secondary forest before it started raining and when it started raining, trying not to slide back down the same, now muddy, slopes. After a hairy moment where Kiat had to push and prop me up to stop me from sliding down a good few metres,  Jare cut each of us a bamboo walking stick. By now the skies started to intermittently open on us and there were only a few moments where it was lovely enough to take photos.

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We had to climb over a few hills to get to the next village to spend the night and the view from the top down into the valleys were nothing short of beautiful. One highlight of the trek was the view: the fabulous panorama of the valley below, complete with the sight of two rivers merging into the Salawin River, clouds blowing past us as we trudged on.

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There were plenty of buffalo about. I’m still not sure whether they were wild or loosely belonged to a particular village.

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Downslopes were harder, especially in the mud when it started raining again. The good thing is that we had plastic ponchos that stopped our bums from getting too dirty. The bad thing was that the poncho also made it more slippery when we fell . One funny moment came when Tom slipped and fell on his bum, sliding forward so fast that he managed to kick me off my feet too, resulting in two people whizzing downhill. Jare and Kiat were very amused by my shriek of surprise and subsequent whingeing. At least it got us down the hill slightly faster.

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Occasionally, we halted for a break and sometimes there were little rest huts along the way. These were built for villagers to take a break from the day’s labour in the fields.

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We were very thankful to chance across one when the rain got especially heavy, and we huddled damply and very humidly there till the rain eased off.

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Still, being out in nature had its charm, especially when the clouds parted slightly…

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… and when they revealed the incredibly verdant hill range below.

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Despite the rough going and difficult terrain, we made it up there in one piece and were overjoyed to cover the last stretch that stood between us and bed.

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Sticky Snail Buns

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These sticky snail buns are always a big hit. As Mum prefers non-chocolatey things and DC’s mum likes nuts, these were a natural choice for Mother’s Day last week. They’re so good that I caught Mum chewing on something as she snuck out of the kitchen. True enough, there was one less on the rack! These gooey, crunchy spiced buns are quite irresistible both fresh out of the oven and also the next day cold from the fridge. Somehow keeping it cold keeps the syrupy bits crackly and crunchy. I can never stop at one.

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Packed into a pretty box, these little buns beckon so glisteningly and enticingly, it’s no wonder Nigella urges in her Schnecken recipe to “apply to face” as soon as cool! Now I’ve made loads of modifications to her recipe to suit my taste and sense of practicality. I replaced golden syrup and maple syrup with honey because it’s easier to find and I have no idea what to do with leftover golden syrup. Plus I find that the fragrant honey I use gives a lovely aroma to the buns. Also, I find  the recommended amount of 150g sugar for the filling a bit excessive and have cut it down tremendously. Feel free to scale up the sugar if you have an especially sweet tooth! Lastly, I find that this recipe makes quite a lot of dough, so make sure that the buns don’t sit too long in the proving stage. Either that or halve the amount of dough and make 18 instead of 24. That would mean less dough and more syrup, so leave to prove for as long as you like instead of hawkishly watching them to make sure they don’t fill up the muffin tin too easily.

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Ingredients:

dough
3 eggs
150ml plus 1tbsp milk
75g unsalted butter
500g bread flour
40g sugar
¼tsp ground cloves
½tsp salt
1½tsp yeast

syrup
125g unsalted butter
4 tbsp brown sugar (or equal proportions of white sugar and dark brown sugar)
5 tbsp honey

150g pecan halves

filling
2 tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg, freshly grated

Method:

  1. Beat the eggs. In a separate bowl, combine 1 tbsp of the beaten egg with 1 tbsp milk and set aside the mixture to glaze the buns later.
  2. Melt the butter, then combine with the eggs and 150 ml milk.
  3. Into a bowl, stir the flour, sugar, cloves, salt and yeast together and then pour in the liquid ingredients above. Using the dough hook of a cake mixer, knead for 5 minutes on high. Alternatively, knead by hand for 10 minutes.
  4. Form into a ball, oil the bottom of the mixing bowl and drop into the bowl, turning to coat with oil. Cover with a tea towel and leave to rise for about an hour or till doubled in size.
  5. In the mean time, prepare the syrup. Melt the butter in the microwave (medium for 1-2 minutes), then whisk in the sugar and honey. I don’t know how it works, but this magically turns it into a thick syrup. Spoon about 1 tbsp of syrup into each cup in two 12-bun muffin tins.
  6. Top with the pecans, making sure that each pecan half faces down. About four halves go into each muffin cup.
  7. When the dough is ready, knock it back, knead once or twice and halve the dough. On a flat surface (I normally use a long piece of aluminium foil), spread out half the dough with your fingers to form a rectangle about 15 cm long and 30 cm wide. Glaze the surface of the dough so it’s damp and sprinkle on a thin layer of sugar. Sprinkle on half the cinnamon and half the nutmeg, or just grate the nutmeg directly onto the dough.
  8. Roll up the bun from the long side and push it gently but firmly away from you till you have a sausage seam side down. Don’t worry if the dough is a bit sticky, with careful handling, it shouldn’t go too pear-shaped! Using a sharp knife, cut the dough sausage into 12 even pieces. I normally halve and halve it again to get four logs, then cut each into three. Take each swirly piece and lay into the muffin cup so the swirly part lies on the syrupy-nut mixture.
  9. Repeat with the other half of the dough mixture.
  10. Leave to prove for 20 minutes. Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC.
  11. When the 20 minutes is over, or the buns are risen and puffy, bake for 20 minutes. You’ll probably want to swap the trays at the 10-minute mark so they brown evenly. They’ll come out brown and gooey and the syrup is likely to bubble over, so make sure there’s a pan on the bottom of your oven to catch drips.
  12. Carefully loosen each bun with a knife and place a roasting tin over the muffin tin. Invert carefully and the sticky buns should pop out into the roasting tin. Carefully replace any fallen nuts and transfer any leftover syrup in the muffin cups onto the buns.
  13. Leave to cool and either eat as soon as possible or keep in the fridge overnight.

Makes 24.

Crab of My Childhood

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I’ve been eating at Hua Yu Wee for years. My parents love this place and it was a natural place to have a birthday celebration for my father (yes, a second time, we always find excuses to eat good food).

We started off with the deep fried baby squid. Here, it’s done to perfection because it’s incredibly crispy even after sitting for a while. It’s the right blend of sweet, spicy and peppery. ‘Nuff said.

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The sambal dua tao are one of the few good renditions on the market. Here the sambal is spicy and not overly sweet with plenty of dried shrimp in the mix. I liked how the plump mussels were incredibly fresh and full of clean flavour. Thumbs up.

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The chicken was probably the weak link for the dinner. While the chicken was nicely browned and crisp, it wasn’t particularly flavourful and the green chilli sauce didn’t do much to lift it. Definitely not a re-order.

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Fish at this place was faultless as usual. The live seabass was steamed till just done and lightly seasoned with soy sauce and coriander. The smooth texture and good flavour of the fish was excellent as usual. Good with rice.

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Then came the stars of the show: the crab. Note how they’ve changed the presentation so people get to the good bits quick instead of having to turn over the shell first. The crab here is always sweet and meaty, and the chilli crab sauce is thick and spicy. I’m not such a big fan of chilli crab but the sauce is great with the deep fried mantou.

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My favourite type of crab here is the pepper crab. I like how it’s deeply spicy without being overwhelmed by peppery-ness. It’s got plenty of the depth of flavour of pepper and the top notes that quickly fade when pepper gets stale. This version is my favourite, I guess it’s hard to describe it well when the taste is so familiar. Just go have some and tell me what you think!

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Hua Yu Wee
462 Upper East Coast Road
Tel: 6241 1709