Tom Yum Soup

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One of my favourite soups to make at home is tom yum soup. I learned a version of it at the Chiang Mai cooking school and never looked back since. It’s dead easy to make from scratch and even adding tom yum paste is optional. Granted, the ingredients aren’t the easiest to find, but I’m finding that more and more shops are stocking them. Some of my local supermarkets even sell tom yum starter packs with lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, garlic, shallot, lime and chilli in them. What  I normally do is buy a bit more of the herbs when I see them, prepare them and chuck them in the freezer. With a bit of forward planning, a fragrant spicy soup can be made from frozen to tummy in minutes. If you’d like the soup a little spicier, there’s no need to add more chilli, just pound the chilli padi into smaller bits.

For today’s soup, I had some seafood and plenty of prawns and their shells. I also had some spare chicken bones and made a lovely stock from boiling the bones and the prawn shells and heads together for about 10 minutes. The prawn heads, especially when I squeezed out the orangey guts, gave the stock an intensely briny prawn flavour. You can make the soup with plain water, it’ll still be fragrant but not as robust.

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Ingredients:
15 prawns, shelled
1 large squid, prepared
1 clove garlic, smashed and peeled
1 shallot, peeled
2 thick slices galangal
2 kaffir lime leaves
3 stalks lemongrass, cut diagonally into thick slices
1 chilli padi, smashed

1 small punnet cherry tomatoes (about 16)
1 small bag oyster mushrooms (about 12), torn into large chunks

juice of one big lime
2 tbsp fish sauce

1 bunch coriander, leaves only

Method:

  1. Make stock from the prawn shells and head by boiling them in 2 litres of water for 1o minutes. Strain the stock into a separate pot for making soup.
  2. Add the garlic, shallot, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and chilli padi to the stock and bring to a boil. Next, add the prawns, squid, tomatoes and mushroom and bring to the boil again.
  3. Off the heat, add the lime juice and fish sauce sparingly, tasting as you go along, till you get the right balance of sour and salty.
  4. Serve, garnishing with coriander leaves.

Serves 4.

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Spruce Tacos

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I’d anticipated going to Spruce Taqueria for a while but its opening hours just didn’t do it for me. Not working in the area, it was practically impossible for me to make it there for the week-day lunch only opening hours. Imagine my joy when Travis tweeted that they now serve tacos in the evening between 5.30 and 7.30pm at Spruce itself. Sure, it’d take a bit of a rush there from work, but at least it was doable.

DC and I got there at 7pm and only went in after they assured us that tacos were still available. The head server must’ve thought we were totally bonkers when suddenly we lit up and rushed in upon hearing the taco affirmation. Last orders for tacos were taken at 7.15 so we had to quickly decide how much we wanted. There were three flavours: short rib, snapper and pork carnita. We went for the short rib and pork carnita first. When these arrived, it looked manageable to have more, so we quickly added to our bonkers quotient by asking for the third snapper flavour while just starting our first tacos.

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Only two pictures because they all pretty much looked the same. In order of yummyness, we both agreed that the snapper was the best, followed by the short rib and then a distant third with the pork carnita. Each dish consisted of two tacos and each taco came with two tortillas topped with filling, then taco sauce, shredded cabbage and guacamole, and garnished with plenty of coriander, which unfortunately looked a bit sad in patches. It was finished off with bits of radish and lime. The lime was a bit of a mistake because we’re both big lime fans and ended up squeezing too much on it. The sour drowned out much of the taste of the pork carnita. A pity.

The carnita was basically pulled pork and a bit stringy, though the sauce helped. I liked the tenderness of the short rib but wasn’t sold on how the flavour was drowned out by the rest of the taco. The fish surprisingly held up very well to the robust flavours and its soft, almost mushy texture was a nice counterpoint (plus it was much easier to eat, less effort to bite through the taco).

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The dragon breath later was terrible but it was definitely worthwhile.

Spruce
320 Tanglin Road
Phoenix Park
Tel: 6836 5528

Just a week later, DC and I were fortunately to be in the area on a weekday and we made it to the taqueria itself. The stand is perched at the top of hill, way to the right along the little curved street just coming up from Spruce itself. They were pretty slow to serve the food even though it looked like a fast food shack. Didn’t help that lots of stuff was already sold out by 12.45pm, like beef tongue and watermelon agua fresca. Disappointed, DC went for the short rib taco set that came with tortillas, salsa and lemonade. It was just as good as the tacos sold downhill for twice the price. I’m glad it’s consistent.

I went for the salad bowl, basically the same pile of stuff arranged differently: filling, salsa, guacamole and taco strips crisped to turn into tortillas. I liked the extra dollop of sour cream, it complemented the fiery salsa and filling of mushroom and poblano chiles very well. Plus, the salad is great for avoiding the greater part of the dragon breath (though you still get some).


Another Variation on the Tune of Anchovy

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Inspired by the pasta I had at Big D’s and also by the past due can of anchovies Mum dug out from the cupboard, I had to have a crack of my own version of the salty fishy stuff. As always when it comes to these weekday dinners, I was famished and tired from yet another long day in the office. In less than 20 minutes, I threw this together using stuff in the house and a mixture of herbs including some sad bits of coriander and spring onion Mum left in the fridge and some freshly bought flat-leaf parsley from the supermarket. Use whatever herbs you fancy, or whatever’s left in the fridge.

Anchovies can of course be very salty, but this varies enormously from brand to brand. Just taste as you go along before adding too much. Also, not salting the pasta helps too. I also add some chilli to spice things up a little. Here, I used some aglio olio e peperoncino powder Mum got from Italy (it’s otherwise inedible just on its own with pasta), although simply because it was another past due item begging to be used up. I’d also use fresh chilli or my usual standby of chopped chilli padi.

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Ingredients:

2 tbsp olive oil, preferably from the canned anchovies
6 shallots, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
small sheath spaghetti (enough for one)
5 anchovies tinned in oil
chilli, to taste
good handful of chopped herbs

Method:

  1. Start by sweating the shallots and garlic gently in the oil from the anchovies till barely golden brown.
  2. While still watching the shallots and garlic, boil the pasta in plenty of water till just before al dente. Do not salt the water.
  3. Going back to the shallots and garlic, add in the chopped anchovies and stir to break up into a paste. Sprinkle in the chilli and continue to stir.
  4. Toss in the pasta into the anchovy mixture, adding in a few spoonfuls of pasta water. Turn up the heat and stir till the water is absorbed and the mixture coats the pasta well. Add a few more spoonfuls of water if the mixture still doesn’t stick to the noodles.
  5. Slip in the herbs and stir, stir, stir.
  6. Serve immediately and devour.

For 1.

Ramen Showdown: Marutama

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The whole week was a week of ramen cravings for me. This time we went to Marutama, which I’d not had for years. I somehow never made it back to the one at Central because I found the restaurant a bit dingy and cramped for a meetup, plus memories of queues put me off. I quite liked the ambience of the branch at Liang Court. It’s still dark, but much smarter-looking.

We had chashu on the side. It wasn’t too bad, being tender and fatty with the bonus of being charred to order. It’s far too overpriced for the miserable four pieces you get though.

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Now I really liked the aka ramen. It’s so different from other versions as the toppings are some kind of  seasoned chicken ball, coriander and a squeeze of lemon. Also, the broth is made of 12 types of nuts rather than pork stock. Sure, there was still the usual stuff like runny(ish) yolk egg, seaweed and sesame seeds, but here even the noodles were different. They were much thinner than the usual, resembling the instant noodle type of ramen more than the traditional sorts. I enjoyed the freshness of the coriander and lemon, and with the richness of the soup, it’s now my favourite ramen place.

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Having said that, I still need to find a new favourite place for the more typical pork bone ramen. Suggestions anyone?

Marutama Ramen
177 River Valley Road
#02-01/02 Liang Court Shopping Centre
Tel: 6837 2480

March in Laos: Exciting Eats at a Sleepy Town

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Siamesecat and I certainly weren’t going to stay idle as we cooled our heels in Huay Xai. We immediately set off to eat. The first thing we saw was a little stand selling tam som AKA papaya salad. It’s not commonly known, but Thai papaya salad (som tam) really originated in Laos. It’s made by pounding green papaya shreds into, among other things, cherry tomato, cucumber, dried river prawns and fermented river crab paste. The river crab paste made me slightly worried as I peered into the container full of tiny crab carcasses in gloopy brown goo. My venerable guide book cautioned that food made from such fermented pastes, especially in this area, could give one liver fluke.

Nevertheless, the tam som was made by such friendly people Siamesecat and I just had to pull up a chair at the stall. It was reassuring how locals in mopeds kept pulling up for their tam som fix but not so when they took over the mortar and pestle and tasted the salad as they made it (double-dipping as usual). Of course the mortar and pestle wasn’t washed in between salads. We resolutely ignored hygiene concerns and plucked up the courage for our own order. Like most Lao food, it looked awful but tasted really awesome. We slurped it up in double-quick time as more people DIY-ed their salads, then tried to pay the man who made our salad. He gave us a puzzled look and then it dawned on us that he was another customer and was doing us a favour to make the tam som! He called out and a young girl appeared from nowhere. She accepted money from us but put it down somewhere behind the containers of ingredients, then scuttled off somewhere else. The funny thing was that we never found out who the owner really was. In case you’re wondering, we never got sick eating Lao food. Having said that, I haven’t specifically checked if I’ve got liver fluke!

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Salad obviously wasn’t going to fill us up for long. A stroll to the edge of town (not very far away) took us to a rickety makeshift stand with quite a few people having their share of some kind of spicy noodle. We did our usual mime of sitting down, looking pointedly at the other noodle bowls on the table, then grinning expectantly at the proprietress. She smiled back, pointed at the same noodle bowls and then starting scooping out broth of some sort for us. Contentedly, we sat back, expecting something like this to appear in front of us:

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We were shocked to find that all she placed in front of us was tomato pulp in plain water. First I sniffed at it, then took a little taste (it was slightly sweet and tomato-y), looked up in horror at Siamesecat and then arched a quizzical eyebrow at the proprietress. She apologetically pointed out a large container full of a sambal chilli paste on the table and gestured at the toppings. It was the usual DIY till you get the perfect personalised taste approach so common in Laos. We added some of the incredibly lethal chilli paste, probably about a tenth of what the locals added, some shredded coriander and spring onion, then salt, sugar and msg. The proprietress kept signalling to us that we needed to add more of the msg and was rather puzzled when we demurred. “Crazy tourists,” she must have thought.

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Only after we’d mix-mix-mixed to our (her?) satisfaction did the proprietress retrieve our bowls from us and add in the noodles. The result was cold and a very refreshing burst of hot, spicy and salty with hints of sweet and ferment. The noodles were probably made by shaving a block of steamed rice flour (think something along the lines of Singaporean chwee kuey). They were so good that Siamesecat and I decided to try another bowl of a variation: not shaved noodles but the same cut into cubes. The best part? It cost us next to nothing for each bowl (about SGD0.10, I kid you not).

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We were so pleased with our good cheap eat that we asked for a photo with the proprietress and here we are below. She wrote down her address in Lao for me to send her a copy. I hope she got it.

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As we wandered back into town, Siamesecat spied this lady making egg omelettes on a bamboo fire. Despite Siamesecat’s egg allergy, we went ahead and had one each (bad girl!).

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This omelette was filled with kang kong (some kind of water spinach) and bean sprouts, and eaten with a dipping sauce of fish sauce and garlic. Simple but gratifying.

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We didn’t spend all day eating. My intermezzo was heading to the local Red Cross where for about SGD5, I had a massage and a session in a traditional steam room. The wooden stilt house was built such that a massive wood fire under the house heated a vat of water steeped with local herbs. I don’t know how they managed not to burn the house down. The herbal steam was shunted into a steam room. In a provided sarong, I sat there for as long as I could, apeing the locals by rubbing the condensed steam (and sweat??) onto my arms and legs. Then I sat outside for a while, sipping hot herbal tea, before going in again. Repeat three times and I was relaxed, zenned out and ready for dinner.

With such a name, we couldn’t resist going to Nutpop for dinner. The English menu was a nice change from our usual order-by-gesticulation routine.

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We celebrated making the 15-hour journey in one piece with some local ginger whisky.  I don’t know how it was made, neither do I want to find out. It didn’t taste as good as it looked in the swanky wine glass. We both had difficulty finishing it!

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Thankfully, the food was far better. In our usual greed, we ordered enough for a family. The food was really good as was standard in Laos. What stood out was the pork larp, a meat salad of minced pork, fish sauce and green beans finished off with lime juice; and the steamed river fish. The fish was a lovely departure from the norm of saltwater fish and was done “Thai-style” (whatever that meant). It helped that the lime and lemongrass made it refreshing and thus easier for us to eat more than we should have!

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Mid-Week Herb Pasta

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As always, I hoped to finish up some things languishing in the fridge. I had two sad lemons and some fairly fresh coriander waiting around. A quick trip to the supermarket got me basil instead of the flat-leaf parsley I was hoping for, but rooting around in the freezer got me some butter and chopped shallots. I meant to have some kind of meat with this but was too tired to sort that out, so it was just chopped herbs and butter in this simple clean-tasting pasta. I’m sure this would go amazingly with some grilled fish, although DC thinks it’ll be phenomenal with lamb rack. We’ll just have to try both out before deciding!

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Ingredients:
linguine
1 generous knob butter
2 tbsp chopped shallots
good splash of dry vermouth, sherry or white wine
1 pack basil leaves, finely chopped
1 pack coriander leaves, finely chopped
zest of 1 lemon

Method:

  1. Boil the linguine in plenty of salted water till just approaching al dente.
  2. In a hot pan, melt the butter then gently saute the onions till slightly coloured.
  3. Add the vermouth, turn up the heat and bubble till reduced by half.
  4. Toss in the pasta, chopped herbs and lemon zest. Stir over low heat. If the pasta is not yet al dente, add a little of the water used to boil the pasta and stir till ready.
  5. Check seasoning and serve garnished with a lemon wedge and a sprig of basil.

Serves 2.

March in Laos: Eating in Luang Prabang

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Laos in general and Luang Prabang in particular had lots of great food. Siamesecat and I started off one misty morning with a glass of thick, sweet and strong coffee chased down with a glass of steaming hot tea. Sitting on a wooden bench watching the morning bustle while sipping hot robust coffee was one of those subliminal moments of the trip.

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After having our caffeine and sugar fix, we table hopped to the next stall and tucked into the typical breakfast of foe (yup, almost exactly like Vietnamese pho). I don’t know how they make it so tasty, but thin flat rice noodles with hot broth, topped with herbs and raw vegetables to your preference hit the spot for me every day.   This morning the noodles came with pork strips and tomato. I could have noodles three times a day and not get sick of it. The trick was to experiment with the toppings provided at the table. They typically have salt, sugar, msg and chilli powder but there’s normally lime, basil, coriander, mint, sweet chilli sauce, various types of belachan (fermented shrimp paste) and fish sauce. I especially liked trying out the pongy variations of belachan at the different places.

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Foe is normally served in really small portions, which was fine with us because it gave us all the more reason to snack along the street. Here I’m stuffing my face yet again at a barbecue stand selling grilled animal parts like spicy minced pork patties, water buffalo jerky and belly pork. It was all mmm good.

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For lunch, we again had noodles, the one here a beef version with popped rice cracker-cakes on the side. If you look carefully you’ll spot the two small tubs of belachan on the table. One was the typical shrimp one and the other made of tiny river crabs. We noticed a lot of Lao people take a chilli padi, dip it in belachan, take a chomp and double dip it while waiting for their noodles. I guess the heat from the chilli kills the germs.

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Heavily fortified by all this food, Siamesecat and I proceeded to wander the streets. It was evening when we came across this vampire-phobic cat lying on a bed of garlic. It was obviously bed time.

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It looked incredibly satisfied at the end of that yawn!

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As the sun began to set, Siamesecat and I decided that we really should have something quite special. While we both loved noodles and never got tired of them, we had to try the slightly fancier food too.

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We found a restaurant along the Mekong and enjoyed the view while waiting for our food.

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This place served mainly set menus catering to tourists. We figured that it was as good as any other. Not having any locals to take us to truly authentic places, at least this would allow us to try a bit of everything.

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The set dinner started with watercress salad, a fresh minty salad with sharp watercress and other herbs dressed in a type of mayonnaise. Then it progressed to dried pork sausage with very spicy buffalo skin dip. The pork sausage was like a slightly less fatty salami with lovely smoked overtones while the dip had strips of rather tough buffalo hide bound by a fiery chilli paste. Crispy sheets of dried riverweed with sesame seeds helped to balance out the fire but the extremely spicy beef stew didn’t help things out.

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Siamesecat and I then hit the night market for incredibly cheap buys like a beautiful silk and cotton mix pair of fisherman pants for about USD2.50. There were pretty handicrafts and all sorts of ethnic and hill tribe knick knacks on sale. Apparently a lot of these items were brought over the border to Thailand for sale in their own tourist markets.

I stopped to buy something that couldn’t be exported easily to Thai tourist markets: more food. Supper that night was baguette filled with ping kai (barbecued chicken) and lettuce. It was up to me to choose my sauces again. This time it was at least three kinds of chilli sauce, two of which had some kind of fermented seafood incorporated within, and two types of soya sauce. Amazing.

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