July in Vietnam: Out on the Mekong Delta

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

My next short jaunt out of Ho Chi Minh City was a tour of the Mekong Delta. The Mekong flows through much of Southeast Asia and is of utmost importance to the livelihood of those who live along its banks. When it reaches the sea, the mighty river breaks into many distributories flowing over the vast expanse of the Mekong  Delta, stretching at least a 100km along the coast of Vietnam. Even its distributories are vast, taking some effort to cross.

00404

At some places, the river was narrow enough to build a bridge across.

00437

At others, the opposite bank was a bit too far away for a bridge.

00410

We had to crowd with the motobikes in the ferries to get across. Aside from the usual chickens, ducks and vegetables, one even carried live fish in a makeshift waxed canvas tank.

00403

The river was their livelihood and people lived along the river even if it meant building their houses on stilts. No matter if there wasn’t land in the front, a hanging garden did the trick.

00396

Others grew their garden on the balconies, like this house with its dragonfruit cacti creeping down towards the water.

00391

Further away from the river were places of worship, like this Khmer temple that looked like it had been transplanted from Cambodia.

00408

This area being close to Cambodia, there was a significant Khmer minority here. Some of the Buddhist temples I saw in this area were of quite a different style from the other Mahayana temples I’d seen in Vietnam. This was definitely closer to the Thai and Lao style temples…

00407

… even down to the saffron-robed monks running the temple.

00409

There was also a scattering of other places of worship, like this church here. It looked a little incongruous rising elegantly from the rather scruffy stilt huts along the river.

00395

As part of the tour, we were taken to see some of the cottage industries. One of them was food manufacture. Here, ladies patiently worked over wood fires making rice paper by hand.

00398

Others tempered melted coconut sugar to make rich caramelly coconut candy.

00399

And men did the grunt work of pressing popped rice into blocks which would then be coated in syrup and cut into crispy-crunchy sugary snacks.

00400

It was lovely wandering through the little hamlets in the area, passing under gardens and other topiary.

00402

And also chancing on a wedding banquet, where the happy couple was happy to let tourists take pictures of them on their big day.

00448

There were also some quiet backwaters…

00441

… which weren’t so quiet when children popped out of nowhere screaming “hello hello!” at passing tourist boats.

00442

It was lovely to wave back at them…

00444

… their smiles were such a lovely lift to river experience.

00445

Advertisements

A Very Alcoholic Cherry Almond Cake

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

I’d recently discovered some really nice dried cherries in Carrefour that don’t quite cost the sky (just an arm and a leg). It allowed me to finally try out Nigella’s recipe for a cherry cake. Her version involved natural glace cherries. I haven’t seen natural glace cherries anywhere in this corner of the world before and I thoroughly detest the typical bright scarlet ones, so I upped the decadence level by soaking the dried cherries for some hours in a mixture of kirsch and rum. It worked out beautifully, tasting a little like christmas fruit cake. It gets even better the next morning as the alcohol from the cherries infuses the cake. I’d imagine it’ll do wonderfully with extra dark rum scattered over the cake and left to age for a week before serving.

Before we get to the recipe, a few tips on prep work. First, soak the cherries overnight in a mixture of kirsch and rum. I ran out of kirsch, so topped up the alcohol with dark rum to cover the cherries in a bowl. Use brandy, whisky or vodka if you don’t have either the above. Next, halve your cherries or chop them very roughly  as I think the cherried alcohol infuses better in the cake that way. Last word on flour: I don’t really like the hassle of stocking both plain and self-raising flour and also keeping track of my baking powder to make sure that it’s not expired yet. What I do instead is to make up my own baking powder by using cream of tartar and bicarbonate of soda. If you’d like to tailor your own recipes, halve the amount of baking powder to find out how much cream of tartar to use, and halve the amount of cream of tartar for how much bicarbonate of soda to add.

IMG_2121

Ingredients:

200g dried cherries, soaked overnight in alcohol mix and then halved
250g flour
1½tsp cream of tartar
¾tsp bicarbonate of soda
200g butter
120g sugar
3 eggs, beaten
2 drops almond essence
100g ground almonds
about 3 tbsp milk

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 170ºC. Butter and line a loaf cake tin.
  2. Drain the cherries, reserving the soaking liquid
  3. Cream the butter and sugar till light and fluffy, then add eggs and almond essence.
  4. Fold in flour and ground almonds.
  5. Make up the cherry soaking liquid to 6 tbsp with the milk and fold into the cake mixture.
  6. Fold in the cherries and scrape out into tin.
  7. Bake for 1 hour or so until a satay stick comes out clean.
  8. Let cool completely before removing from tin.

Makes about 12 slices.

A Healthy Picnic Lunch

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

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.

IMG_0800

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

IMG_0802

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.

IMG_0803

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.

IMG_0809

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.

IMG_0795

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

IMG_0796

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!

IMG_0794

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

IMG_0826

… and the spooky black cat with scary eyes.

IMG_0824

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.

IMG_0835

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.

Sticky Snail Buns

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

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.

IMG_0861

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.

IMG_0859

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.

June in Thailand: Food Festival and Other Sukhothai Eats

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

Tom and I pulled into Sukhothai in the evening and we settled into a charming guesthouse (that would later steal money from the stash we put in safekeeping with them, unfortunately). We wandered out onto the street looking for food and chanced upon a banner advertising the Sukhothai Food Festival. It was just on the opposite side of the river from our guesthouse and nicely within walking distance. The place was bustling but not too crowded, just right for soaking in the atmosphere yet getting our food with no problem.

00297

There was loads of stuff on offer, from salads and fish cakes to rice with dishes and plenty of fruit and desserts. Here was where I introduced Tom to the joys of rambutan and my favourite, mangosteen. But let me show you just the highlights. I particularly liked the salt grilled river fish. The tilapia-like fish was coated generously in salt and grilled over a charcoal fire. When it’s on the plate, just lift off the skin, scales and salt and all. The interior is steaming hot and incredibly juicy, heavenly with the spicy lime and chilli dipping sauce.

00351

Then there were the grilled jumbo-sized prawns. Oh my, how fresh and succulent and good these babies were. It was Tom’s first time eating proper prawns, so I taught him how: grab and pull off the head, being careful not to let the juices dribble out, then quickly suck out the brains; peel carapace off body section by section, dip in sauce and devour. There’s something just so magical about charred crustacean. Like my prawns, I lost my head and blew my daily budget getting more. I’d just have to eat less the next day. (As if.)

00294

The most fascinating thing I saw of the festival was this dessert stand. It made gossamer-thin pancakes, even thinner than paper-thin, somewhat like Singaporean popiah skins. With the pancakes came a bundle of coloured spun sugar, a bit like cotton candy. Eat by rolling sugar in pancake then popping in mouth. It was a great dessert and we stood for ages at the stand, mesmerised by the deft twirlings of the chef slapping dough ball on hot slab to make perfectly round pancakes in perfect timing.

The food festival was so good we went there two nights in a row, but of course that’s not all we saw of Sukhothai cuisine. I read in the guidebook of a place that specialised in Sukhothai kway tiew noodles. It took little coercion to get Tom in on the hunt and after one failed attempt (it was closed), we sat down to two variations of the exceptionally thin flat rice noodles. The first was a bowl of scalded noodles with toppings, somewhat like the Vietnamese noodle salad bun thit nuong. It had bits of boiled pork, deep fried wanton skin, chai poh (preserved turnip), grated peanut, beans and herbs, all topped with lime and fish sauce. The medley of flavours was refreshing and a delicious change from the usual soup noodles or fried noodles.

00354

Speaking of which, the fried version was very yummy too, thanks to the generous sprinkling of deep fried lard over it. It was somewhat like pad thai minus the ketchup and shrimp. While both were delicious, I think the unfried version was slightly more unique.

00357

Stomachs sated, we were satisfied enough to head out to the attractions of Sukhothai.

April in The Philippines: Eats

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

After Malapascua, Omar and I ended up at SM City Mall at Cebu City. Having seen so many Jollibee branches along the way, we couldn’t help but try out the Filipino answer to McDonald’s. My Palabok Fiesta with Chicken Joy was such a joy for the carb lover, it had so many different types of starch! There was the Palabok Fiesta, some kind of bihon (thin rice) noodles topped with a gloopy salty sauce, egg, shrimp and crispy bits; then there was the patty of rice wrapped in burger paper; and the mashed potato; plus don’t forget that corn and carrot have loads of carbs too. The fried chicken was very good, much better than KFC. I pretty much gave up at the brownie (more carb anyone?) at the end and only managed a couple of sips of my seemingly extra sweet iced tea. What an experience!

00367

The next day, we did enough walking around Cebu City’s Carbon Market to work up an appetite.  No pictures of this place partly because it was crowded and I was afraid of getting anything stolen and partly because when I felt safe enough to take pictures, I felt like I was intruding on the friendly locals. It was a strange dichotomy I know, but that’s the strange charm of Carbon Market. The place is one of those messy markets that makes it clear that on no uncertain terms that it was not built for tourists and would never be. There were stalls of all kinds selling things from clothes to cooking pots and hardware, to cooked food, to grain, to vegetables, to meat. There were queues snaking all over at the grain stores. Yet strangely there was no problem at all getting a spot on a bench to grab a quick bite of lunch. There the local food was unbelievably cheap and also very good, and the lady boss delighted that two very foreign looking people would pull up to her stall for sustenance.

Yet there was another side to Carbon Market. There was debris strewn all over most parts and the more deserted areas were more than slightly dodgy. The ground was covered in a thick layer of grey muck from all the crap built up over the years. I suppose that’s where the “carbon” bit of the name arose. (After exiting the market we doused our feet in bottled water before proceeding.)

Some other bits of the market were slums packed with squatters. We didn’t realise this till we wandered down one alleyway again in search of food. There was a lady frying a whole load of springrolls. Assuming that she was selling them, we asked how much one was. She simply gave us each a crispy lovely parcel of goodness to try and it suddenly dawned on us that she wasn’t selling them! It was her daughter’s seventh birthday and they were celebrating with the entire neighbourhood. Before we knew it, she stuffed a good dozen perhaps of them in a plastic bag and pressed it on us, of course refusing payment. Such generosity and hospitality was almost too unbelievable. It was beautiful.

By the time we left Carbon Market it was time to eat again. We tried out Chow King’s halo halo, one of those uniquely Filipino concoctions with everything and the kitchen sink in it. Think ice kachang and an ice cream sundae cross-bed in a bizarre Frankensteinian way. This one had lurid purple yam ice cream, various types of radioactive hued starch balls, comparatively normal red beans, oat bits, jelly, creme caramel and even some kind of tapioca cake in it. The fruit in the mix was candied banana and candied jackfruit, plus some coconut shavings (if you call coconut a fruit). It was, well, very sweet from being drenched in so much syrup.

00388

Here I am doing my darndest impression of enjoying it. We ended up eating most of the shaved ice and then headed outside to get some mango from a street-side hawker.

00389

Last up in the series is this tea time set I had. It was in a fairly chi-looking cafe. Needless to say, everything had carb in it and everything was faintly sweet. It was very good though. There was one of tapioca strips studded with prawn and then fried to a crisp, then there was more of that Palabok bihon stuff, there was also a purple version of kueh dadah (coconut pancakes rolled up and stuffed with coconut sugar) and there was a kind of sweet, moist donutty batter with an salted egg wedge in it. Very yummy and lovely.

00395

Orange Clove Cake

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

It was a good thing sis-in-law borrowed my usual baking book. I had to dig out my folder of recipes printed off the net, most untried and some 10 years old even. This one came off epicurious.com and I’ve done the usual modification to my own taste. The cake turned out surprisingly good. Somehow the clove brought out the freshness of the orange zest and lifted the flavour very well. This is a great recipe also because it uses up egg whites, the bane of kitchen leftovers.

DSCF7077

I served it with yogurt, honey and orange slices for breakfast and it made for a faintly indulgent yet not too sinful start to the day.

DSCF7071

Ingredients:

240g plain flour
½tsp bicarbonate of soda
1tsp cream of tartar
½tsp salt
¼tsp ground cloves
170g butter
200g sugar
zest from 1½ oranges
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 eggs
2 egg whites
½cup milk

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 160°C. Line and butter a loaf pan.
  2. Combine the flour, bicarbonate of soda, cream of tartar, salt and ground cloves.
  3. Beat butter, sugar and orange zest till creamy. Add in the eggs one by one, beating in between each addition, followed by the egg whites and vanilla extract. Beat till light and creamy.
  4. Fold in the flour mixture and milk alternately till you get a thick batter.
  5. Smooth into loaf pan and bake for 50 to 60 minutes or until a satay stick comes out clean. Let cool in pan and slice when cold.

Makes 1 large loaf, approx 12 thick slices.