Private Affairs

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DC took me to Private Affairs one Friday night to cheer me up after a stressful week. We weren’t sure about whether this place would last as we were the only ones there that night. We opted for the Luscious Dinner 4-course set ($98++). DC had a duck carpaccio that he liked a lot but didn’t leave a lasting impression on me. My Alaskan king crab, though, was wonderful. It really was lusciously seafood-y and briny, and bursting with fresh juiciness. The avocado mousse and passionfruit cream had just the right level of richness to complement the crab and the squid ink tuile provided a nice bit of contrast with its delicate crispness.

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For mains, DC had the Maine lobster. When I tried it, I almost regretted ordering what I did because the lobster, like my crab appetiser, burst with fresh, well, lobster flavour. It wasn’t your typical vaguely rubbery tasteless boiled lobster. This one was expertly cooked in a buttery foam, making me want to devour it shell and all. In fact, I think DC gnawed as much of his lobster shell as he could!

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Remember I almost regretted my order? But I didn’t. My main course of Welsh lamb loin held its own. Again, it was expertly cooked so that the lamb loin was tender and flavourful. Accompanied with the soy bean mash and the rich, intense jus of lamb and olive, this was very very good. (Unfortunately it paled against another dish I’ll blog about next time, but that’s a story for another time.)

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Our third dish was a pre-dessert. DC had a yummy cheese platter and I had a sorbet. Both were competent though not particularly anything to rave about. Plus, the lighting in the restaurant is so dim that it was impossible to get good pictures anyway. Good thing we were the only diners that night so we took pictures with flash whenever the wait staff weren’t looking (!).

For the real dessert, DC had peach tofu with salted caramel and lemongrass ice cream. The purple thing is a lavender sheet, which I felt tasted a bit like one of those  portable soap sheets for washing your hands. I liked the tofu a lot. It was very tender and smooth, more like tau fa than actual tofu. It was a bit like eating peach-scented egg tofu that was sweet.

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I had the chocolate mousse with miso sponge. The miso sponge was a very inventive touch to an otherwise tired dessert. I’m so glad he didn’t go down the molten choc cake route. Here, the miso sponge was very tender and very savoury, making for a lovely contrast to the sweet chocolate mousse and the deep flavour of the dark chocolate chips. It’s a pity he put pop rocks in the dessert. The dark chocolate “sand” is a bit overused in molecular gastronomy and I really don’t like the popping on my tongue.

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That dinner was good enough to send us back to Private Affairs a few weekends later for a semi-buffet brunch celebration. It was good value for money at $68++ per person without alcohol. The food wasn’t quite as exquisite as the dinner we had, but it was still pretty darn good. The idea was that we ordered whatever we liked from the brunch menu, from typical breakfast staples like mini-muffins, yogurt, pancakes and eggs, to brunch staples like fresh oysters, to more exciting things like cured sardine, panfried scallops and coffee ribs with a twist. All these we could order as many servings as we liked. For the main course, each chose one. Everyone liked their own main courses and I naturally felt that mine of melt-in-the-mouth sous vide French chicken was especially nice. If you want a taster for Private Affairs, the brunch is the way to go.

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Unfortunately it was third time unlucky when DC and I returned to Private Affairs. We tried out their celebratory 8-course menu for October consisting of greatest hits in the chef’s repertoire. There was the familiar course of many dishes, with some good and many others falling flat. I was deeply disappointed by the lack of quality control and lack of service recovery for a restaurant that aspires to this calibre. First, even though I made an email booking just like the previous brunch (with acknowledgement from the PR manager), they lost our booking and took a while to get us a table. It didn’t help that, unlike our first experience, the restaurant was full as there was a big group taking up much of the restaurant with a separate special menu and a few other tables doing the a la carte option. The kitchen was obviously not ready for this onslaught and some dishes came out different from described in the menu. For instance, the raw Hokkaido scallop with lettuce gazpacho jelly came with  a pool of bright green liquid instead of jelly and there was no way of eating the dish properly as we weren’t provided with spoons. We just had to fish out the scallop from the watery liquid and the wait staff later whisked away the plates, only looking slightly puzzled when I pointed out that we had no spoons and weren’t able to enjoy the dish properly.

No less, two dishes stood out. The kurobuta pork cheek with blood orange jelly was very good. I’m not sure about the slightly odd gel-like texture of the accompanying avocado gnocchi but the pork cheek itself was done so that it was meltingly good. The slightly tart and sweet blood orange jelly really lifted the flavour very well.

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The second noteworthy dish was the apple cake dessert. Again, there were parts that I didn’t quite agree with, in this case the apple cinnamon spaghetti. DC liked it a lot and slurped up mine too, but I found it a bit too molecular gastronomy, and too reminiscent of past biology experiments dealing with calcium alginate gels. It was a cute idea nonetheless. What blew me away what the apple cake itself. It was essentially an apple-flavoured cross between mousse and semifreddo, with apple jelly in the middle. I loved how it was just on the verge of melting and how the clean green apple flavours shone through very well. The lemongrass ice cream was a lovely light yet creamy accompaniment to the cake. Thumbs up!

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It was the last part of the dinner that disappointed me. The PR manager came over to chat with us. No matter that she didn’t apologise for the mix-up in reservations. She asked how the food was and I responded that it was patchy. Taken by surprised, she asked why and was reluctant to probe much further after I asked how much she wanted to know, showing her the brief notes I took on my slip of printed menu. She did concede that the lettuce gazpacho was meant to be a jelly and not liquid, and then said that the chef designed the menu out of popular dishes. Telling us that other people liked the menu certainly does not make me like a less than ideal experience more.

In short, this restaurant has lots of potential as the chef is obviously very talented. His kitchen and staff do on occasion let him down. It took me a long while to decide to post about this place as I have very mixed feelings about it. If you take my experience as a gauge, you’d probably get a good experience two-thirds of the time. For me, unfortunately, I’m not going to come back for a little while.

Private Affairs
45 Joo Chiat Place
Tel: 6440 0601

 

Two Chefs Eating Place

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Another night of eating adventures found us at Two Chefs Eating Place with Tricia and Mfluder. We’d heard good things about the butter pork ribs topped with a strange white powder and were intrigued. It was also a night where I left my trusty Canon S90 at home and had to use my trustier iPhone as a stand in instead. I apologise for the worse than normal photos. First up was the butter ribs. We weren’t sure what to make of it because it was deep fried pork ribs scented with curry leaves, as is usual for butter-anything, and topped with what appeared to be milk powder. While the pork was tender enough, I wasn’t sure about the flavours and whether it was worth raving about. It was a bit odd, but the sweet milky flavour was pleasing enough for DC. For me, it didn’t make the cut for a reorder.

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What I liked far better was the spinach in three eggs sauce, which looked alarmingly like something not normally seen on a table (more like something seen after a long night’s boozing). No matter, the flavours mingled really well as the salted egg and century egg was minced quite finely and obviously left to stand for a while. One thing that could improved was that the vegetables could’ve been a lot less soggy. They were way too overcooked I felt, but the taste made up for it.

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The mushroom tofu followed in the theme of gloopy. Again, taste belied looks and the smooth texture of the tofu won me over straightaway. This was a comforting dish that easily wins people over.

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Following up on gloopy came the lemon shrimp with pork floss. It’s an interesting take on lemon chicken as the flavouring is exactly that, just that the fried bits were prawn. Tricia and I were trying to figure out exactly what was inside (fish? chicken?) till someone remembered that we ordered prawn! The lemony mayonnaise on top was a nice touch and the pork floss just gilded the lily. It was imaginative, though I’m not sure if this is something that really works. A possible reorder I think.

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The last dish of note was fried chicken with garlic, I can’t remember the exact name of the dish but everyone at the table liked it. It was sweet and peppery and of course garlicky. They used spring chicken so it was tastier and very tender. It was everyone’s favourite dish of the evening. Now all I have to do is remember the name!

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The last dish was black pepper crab. Too bad it wasn’t good enough to be featured. Lesson learned: only order what everyone else at the other tables have especially when it comes to crab.

My verdict? It’s experimental and has some winners, don’t expect every dish to be great.

Two Chefs Eating Place
Blk 116 Commonwealth Crescent
#01-129
Tel: 6472 5361

A Tatsuya Birthday Dinner

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In a fit of extreme generosity, Dad brought us to Tatsuya’s for my birthday dinner. We went for the seasonal omakase, which was many kinds of sublime. The thought that all the seafood had been flown in either fro Tsukiji or Fukuoka fish markets made the food even more delicious.

The first course was a duo of anglerfish liver and fresh ikura (salmon roe). The anglerfish liver was made into a pate. Smooth and unctuous with just a touch of fishiness to remind you that it’s fish not fowl, it was contrasted delicately with a light vinegar sauce. Sorry Kiraku, this version rocked my socks. And the ikura! As it is, ikura is one of my all time favourites. This version came with every single delicate egg sac intact and only very lightly sauced. The only pity was that there were two or three eggs that weren’t as fresh as they should be. It was still good though, because the others, each so incredibly bursty, made up for it.

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Next up was probably the best dish in the meal. I know the picture below doesn’t do it justice, but the crab tofu with century egg sauce was out of this world. I felt like I was eating crab chawanmushi because the tofu was so thick and rich. The crab formed a matrix that held the tofu together – succulently, just sheer crabily. The textures and flavours came together beautifully from the softness of the tofu to the yield of the crab and crunchiness of the shrimp roe to the earthiness of the century egg. It’s the one dish I’d go back for again and again.

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The sashimi plate came next. The fish was all fresh and good, though the otoro and amaebi weren’t the best I’ve tasted. I liked the yellowtail and swordfish, especially the dressed yellowtail in special sauce. I also liked how the waitress told us that everything on the plate could be eaten. The sprig of tiny pink flowers tasted vaguely of lavender and was an excellent interlude to the fish.

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The next dish was what we all felt was the weakest link. It was the simmered item: Japanese yam cakes with yakitori chicken and leek then sprinkled with yuzu. The yam cakes were still slightly crisp from the deep fryer (!) and had a very pleasing slightly starchy texture. I’m glad it didn’t have the gummy texture of the raw version. Now the rest of the dish somehow seemed unbalanced because the chicken was far too sweet and salty and the leek too pongy for my taste. I didn’t intend to have onion breath from a Japanese dinner!

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What followed was better than the preceding dish. Grilled barracuda topped with mentaiko mayonnaise and pickled ginger stem was quite good. It was a bit too rich for Mum and she pushed it to Dad. DC loved it though, mentaiko and especially mayonnaise are his favourites. I liked how the fish was grilled: slightly charred on the outside, moist perfection on the inside. The mentaiko mayonnaise was rich and full of oily fishy goodness.

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The next dish redeemed all the sins of the preceding dishes (bar the crab tofu of course). The sushi was amazing. Start first with the amberjack topped with caviar. Savour the unadulterated freshness contrasted with the dark, deeply savoury caviar. Then go for the swordfish aburi. Enjoy the contrast between cooked and fresh fish, and charred rice. Now have the sweet shrimp topped with prawn roe. Can you detect that special aroma of almost burnt crustacean? Ready for the otoro aburi? It’s pretty good but save the scallop with foie gras for the last. It’s that good. Smooth sweet scallop with fatty foie gras coming together in perfection in your mouth. Mmm…

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The waitress came round and asked if we were full. If not, she suggested the house temaki specialty. We were full but not about to pass up the house specialty. The waitress returned, urging us to quickly eat before the seaweed got soggy. My initial thoughts on the first bite were “quite normal what, salmon skin, prawn roe, cucumber, rice, what’s the big deal?” Then it dawned on me. The textures were an epiphany. There was firm rice, crispy salmon skin with a touch of rich mayonnaise, crunchy bursty roe, and fresh crisp cucumber. Wrapped with freshly toasted seaweed, it was an exploration of four kinds of crispy. Amazing.

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We ended the savoury courses with a fantastic miso soup made with fresh baby clams. It was amazing how many clams I could fish out of one regular bowl of miso soup. The clams made the soup amazingly deep and richly seafoody yet not at all fishy. The miso rounded it all off nicely. Another coup for the chef.

When we finally surrendered to the waitress, she brought out the dessert of sweet pear, pomegranate and persimmon. The first two weren’t particularly special, but I liked the persimmon. It was sweet and yummy, though I’m not sure it’s that much nicer than a regular one at the peak of ripeness.

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One strange thing about this place is that while the food is posh and incredibly expensive, the waitresses talk quite loudly and seemed to treat us like friends, not so much customers. It nice and we felt at home quite quickly, but it seemed rather out of sync that the waitresses practically shouted orders at each other, so it’s not a place for a quiet dinner. It took a bit of getting used to though!

While of course not perfect, the meal was very good. DC said it’s the best Japanese he’s had in Singapore and he’s an authority given his extensive eating at these places. Definitely a place for celebrating birthdays and bonuses.

Tatsuya Japanese Restaurant
Goodwood Park Hotel
22 Scotts Road
Tel : 6887 4598

Possibly the Best Vegetarian Food in Singapore

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Naive was so good we went there twice in a month, a rarity considering how promiscuous we are with our food places. This post is an amalgamation of both visits. At the start of the meal, a waiter will bring round a mortar and pestle filled with black and white sesame seeds for a wellness ritual of sorts. It was quite a nice start grinding up the seeds for sprinkling onto our food later.

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We started off with the excellent and almost unbelievably good brown olive rice. With the savoury olive paste inside, it was tasty enough to eat on its own. The kaffir lime leaf strips on the top brought it up a notch so much so that it was almost a waste to eat the rice with the dishes!

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The tamarind tofu cake was flavourful and the firm tofu tasting almost meaty. It really didn’t taste at all like I was eating a vegetarian dish. I liked how the seaweed wrapping the tofu gave it plenty of umami flavour that went well with the spicy tangy sauce.

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My favourite dishes were the monkeyhead mushroom ones. I can’t decide which is better, the braised version (Enchanted Forest) or the slivered and fried version (can’t remember the name).

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Both versions tasted fairly similar, they probably used the same sauce. It was made from good stock nonetheless and I’ll definitely have it again. I liked the texture of both versions. The fried version had a very nice crisp-chewy texture while the braised version was somehow firm and again, almost meaty. It certainly didn’t feel like I was eating vegetarian here.

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There were quite a few dishes that didn’t work for me. DC liked the golden oats (it’s his soft spot), but I felt that it was too pedestrian. The tofu in the dish didn’t shine at all. There was also the rendang tofu paired with mantou. That flopped because the taste was neither here nor there and the mantou gave the wrong taste associations: tongue was expecting darkly savoury and sweet, but got spicy instead. A big no-no.

I also didn’t like the steamed tofu with water chestnut and orange sauce. It didn’t help that the service is a bit odd: our waitress was this “I know better than your mum” type who didn’t get her recommendations right. She told us that the special of the day was two kinds of steamed tofu, one was orange and watercress and the other something I can’t remember. I expected that it would be a pairing of tofu, which would be rather interesting, but we were disappointed. It was also a bit annoying to find that the portions were really small. At first, we ordered only one olive rice and asked for a bowl so we could share. When the food arrived, we realised that we needed extra. At this point, the server took away the empty bowl, meaning that we couldn’t even share out the first bowl of rice and start eating. Sure, the second rice arrived very soon, but befuddling moments like these punctuated our entire meal.

Last gripe: the bowls are pretty but hopelessly impractical. The sloping sides made it impossible to rest our chopsticks  naturally in between bites. I kept trying to put my chopsticks down only to realise belatedly that I had to angle them 90 degrees before it would work. Eat there and you’ll realise it.

Final verdict: the cooking at this place is very good, if they fail it’s because of the flavour profile falls flat, not the textures or cooking technique. There are some dishes that work really well, especially the signature monkeyhead mushroom and tofu cake dishes, as well as the olive rice. Other dishes aren’t so good, so be careful of the side-ish dishes. The place is too expensive for what you get and the service is very odd! (See above, plus they don’t take reservations for groups of less than five. I don’t see what’s stopping people from making reservations for five, turning up with three and telling the restaurant that the others didn’t want to go because of their odd requirements.)

99 East Coast Road
Tel: 6348 0668

Pseudo-Japanese Noodles

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I don’t call myself an expert on Japanese cooking, but when I feel like cooking Japanese for myself I make noodles with miso paste and dashi powder. Both are easily available from Japanese supermarkets. Miso paste comes in a bewildering number of variations. While the white version is more common, I like the deeper flavour of red miso. Dashi powder is simply Japanese fish stock powder. You could try making it from scratch, but since it’s msg and bonito anyway, I don’t bother and just buy it from the shop.

I like both soba and udon for this dish, but soba is easier to have on hand as it comes dried, unlike udon that needs to be bought fresh. I like the subtle flavour of green tea in chasoba best as it offsets the rather earthy flavour of buckwheat rather well.

One variation on the theme had me using some fancy Japanese tofu from Meidiya and some pork ribs I unearthed from the freezer. It’s definite worthwhile paying the $1 extra for good tofu, and this hits the spot for comforting and fairly healthy.

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Ingredients:

6 pork ribs
2 bundles of chasoba
1 tsp dashi powder, or to taste
¼ Chinese cabbage, cut into small chunks
1 box good Japanese tofu, cut into large chunks
2 tbsp red miso paste

Method:

  1. Put the defrosted pork ribs in a saucepan, cover with water, bring to a boil and simmer for about 30 mins or till tender. Remove the ribs from the stock.
  2. Cook the noodles according to packet instructions, then strain and run under the tap. Put into serving bowls.
  3. Bring the stock to a boil and add the dashi powder and Chinese cabbage, simmer till tender for about 3 minutes, then add the tofu.
  4. In a little bowl, mix the miso paste with a couple of spoonfuls of hot stock to dilute. It should be a runny paste before you add it to the soup.
  5. Bring the soup to a quick boil before ladling out onto the noodles.

Serves 2.

Dear Dessert at Camp

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DC and I were stuck for options one evening and we ended up at Camp for dessert. While the food was fine, it was horrifyingly expensive. A juice and dessert each cost us slightly more than $40.

Nevertheless, the strawberry shortcake was rather good. I liked how fresh strawberry was baked into the tasty cake. The creme anglaise instead of boring vanilla ice cream was a very welcome change. While the presentation in mess tin was quite cute, the high sides of the tin made it hard to dig into the food, so it kind of evened out plus and minus.

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The green tea and tofu tiramisu was quite interesting. It was hardly tiramisu to me as there wasn’t liqueur nor coffee in the mix. I could only taste the macha powder sprinkled on top, no green tea anywhere else in the dessert. The cake layer was kueh bolu and the cream layer had a centre of tau hway which I liked very much. It was a very imaginative dessert, though I’d probably not order it again as it didn’t really wow the tastebuds.

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House, Barracks and Camp
8D Dempsey Road
#01-01 to 06 Tanglin Village (Dempsey Road)
Tel: 6475 7787 / 6479 9212

August in China: Food in Chengdu

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The first pit stop for food was at Mr Bunglez favourite noodle place opposite his building. It has a rather impressive steamer at the front of the shop selling bao and other steamed goodies to supplement the noodles.

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The star of this little place surely had to be the noodles. There were three types: the regular thin lamian type, the flat type like meepok or fettucine, and the large flat sheets like ravioli sheets or mee hoon kway. They were served according to weight, so you could order one, two or three jin of the good stuff. For us two Singaporeans embracing the low-carb craze, we opted for one jin servings. I worked my way through the various flavours and on several occasions out-ate Mr Bunglez by ordering seconds. I did, however, concur with him that the best variation was the lajiang mian (hot sauce noodle) with minced pork and the best chilli sauce ever. It was complexly savoury, with slow burn chilli and the almost menthol kick of huajiao (Szechuan peppercorns). This stuff was so addictive I ate a portion practically every day there.

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Not all Sichuan food is spicy, case in point being the tomato-egg noodles at this famous joint further away from the town centre. Here, it’s a simple affair of noodles in a tomato broth topped with a fried egg. There’s something about the combination of sweet-savoury tomato and oily fried egg that really hits the spot after a night of clubbing.

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Of course there’s also the street food. Here’s me with a stick of barbecued tofu coated with chilli powder and msg. It probably pickled half my insides and made me lose a handful of hair with the amount of sodium on it, but what’s street food if not satisfying and unhealthy?

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And of course Mr Bunglez took me to an upmarket place for authentic Sichuan food. Oh my, mapo tofu and shuizhu yu are such revelations done the right way! Authentic mapo tofu is done without minced meat and has liberal lashings of chilli powder and huajiao. I don’t know how they do it, but the depth of flavour and contrast with the soft smooth tofu was simply awesome.

Shuizhu yu (literally: water-cooked fish) is a complete misnomer. Don’t be fooled by the innocuous-sounding name. Fish slices come in a vat of boiling chilli oil. It’s so covered with dried chillis and huajiao that it’s hard to spot the fish under it all. Again, the combination of chilli oil and numbing huajiao practically anaesthesized my tongue, but you know what they say about painkillers and addiction!

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Finally, there’s the mala huoguo (spicy numbing hot pot) which most people would translate as steamboat. I grew up eating steamboat Cantonese style in which the thinly sliced morsels were cooked in light broth made with chicken and pork bones. Here in Chengdu, mala huoguo is more a pot of chilli oil with a small ladleful of broth in it rather than broth with a bit of oil on it. This way, the raw morsels are pretty much boiled in chilli oil. After boiling each slice of meat in the numbing hot chilli oil (of course there are huajiao inside, this is Sichuan food!), I dipped it into my bowl of xiangyou (fragrant oil), a concoction of sesame oil, chopped coriander and a good dose of rich black vinegar. Of course, the wimpier you are the more vinegar you add. At first the morsels aren’t spicy at all, since the xiangyou washes off most of the spice. As I ate, I found the food getting spicier and spicier. The xiangyou was obviously soaking up the chilli and huajiao. Shortly, I felt the familiar addictive anaesthesized sensation on my tongue. Then I started sweating and soon after, I was gasping and pleading for peanut milk to soothe the spice. Needless to say, it was a fantastic meal. Sorry no pictures this time. I was too distracted to take pictures of the food!

An Ugly but Comforting Egg Drop Soup

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I try to buy vegetables from a little stall near the Tampines library instead of getting them from the supermarkets. It’s mainly to support small businesses and also because the stuff there is fresh and quite varied. It’s the only place I’ve found red spinach (yup, it was completely red, not a shred of green in it, and made a very delicious cream soup) and new kinds of herbs. One of these days I’ll pluck up the courage to try them. But this time I picked up some gou kei vegetable (also called matrimonial vine in restaurants), something I normally have while eating out. It’s apparently good for the eyes, and it’s a lovely deep green, so there’s a lot going for it. I like its faintly bitter and astringent, almost medicinal flavour. In soup, it’s very comforting after a long day. The big plus is that this recipe is so easy!

This vegetable isn’t the easiest to handle. It has thorns at the base of each leaf, so please be careful when stripping the leaves off the stem. Of course, only use the leaves and tear off any tough bits of stem if you can be bothered.

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Ingredients:
small pot water
1 bunch gou kei, leaves only
2 chicken legs, cut into small pieces
1 tbsp shaoxing wine or dry sherry
1 packet silken tofu, cubed
2 eggs

Method:

  1. Bring the small pot of water to the boil. Add the gow gee and chicken and allow to simmer for 5 minutes.
  2. Add the wine and tofu cubes and bring back to the boil. Season with salt.
  3. Beat the eggs and turn off the fire. Stir the eggs gently into the soup and serve with rice.

Serves 1 or 2.

Note: Try adding the eggs without beating, stirring gently so only the whites turn into soft strands. It’s a bit of a prize to find some half-set egg yolk in the soup!

November in China: Of Wine and Stinky Tofu

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The drive from Ningbo to Shaoxing had much of the same dreariness. Knowing how similar tourist places were, we matched our expectations with the weather, bracing ourselves for yet another tourist trap.

Shaoxing city proper was a typical Chinese city with lots of grey buildings and little else. The tiny historic quarter was different. It had lots of old restored buildings, canals, and tiny lanes. We had to leave the car behind and transfer to the hotel’s minivan.

Our boutique far exceeded expectations. It was an old building with rooms surrounding a private inner courtyard. Mum and Dad were enchanted. I especially liked the slate roof and red lanterns.

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The rooms made it extra special. I had a traditional canopy bed, a mahjongg table and a rattan rocking chair. My parents had a modified opium bed with pretty carvings. The bedding, though, was thoroughly modern, with soft pillows and mattresses, unlike the typically hard beds in the rest of China!

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For breakfast, we had the local carb-rich fare: youtiao (deep-fried dough fritter), mantou (steamed bun), bao (steamed bun with filling) and watery rice porridge. The porridge was eaten with a cube of furu, fermented tofu in several styles. It was smooth, salty and almost cheesy, somewhat like goat cheese. Yum.

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Of course, that little bit for breakfast wasn’t enough. I had to conquer another frontier, chou doufu (stinky tofu), which originates in these parts. These are sold in push carts all over town, each claiming to be the best in town, each proclaiming to be stinkier than the rest. They can be spotted a block away, just from the special aroma reminiscent of rotting garbage.

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I bought two pieces of stink on a stick for ¥1. It’s actually not too bad. It’s crisp and salty on the outside and smooth and silky on the inside. Somehow the smell didn’t really bother me when I ate it. It just wasn’t very stinky when I got close. Mum kept her distance from me and Dad as we hit the museum.

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Soon we were hungry (again) and went to Shaoxing’s best restaurant for lunch. We had to order the famous cold dishes, drunken chicken and drunken fish. Not a regional specialty, but still good was braised firm tofu with fresh herbs. These were a fab departure from the usual oil-laden fare.

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The drunken fish was some kind of raw salted fish then soaked in shaoxing wine. It was salty and, well, fishy with a mild fragrance from the wine and a mild alcoholic kick. Great to nibble on with hot tea before lunch proper.

The chicken was something closer to home. Mum makes it quite often, though she does it Taiwanese style by steaming then dousing in wine. Here, the traditional way is to poach the chicken in wine and leave it to soak. It’s heavenly, like a  very grown-up interpretation of Hainanese chicken.

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Now after all that eating, we proceeded to the drinking, or rather the buying for future drinking. Shaoxing is especially famous for its rice wine. It has to be made from a particular lake in the town before it can be called Shaoxing wine. Though this being China, I doubt many wines are really made using water from that lake. Out of the myriad types, we chose hua tiao (medium, quite like sherry) and nu’er hong (dry and slightly savoury).

I think we spent enough to give this shop its year-end bonus. It had a mind-bloggling array of rice wines all made in the region. I can’t imagine how each bottle differs from the other, it’s quite different from regular wine where the grapes are different and the vintages are different. Here, the rice and water must be pretty much the same and while the wine is aged, it’s not done according to the year like wine. Yet, each brand claimed to be different and indeed the  ones we tried all tasted quite unique.

In the end, we bought six mini-bottles as gifts, three big bottles of good aged wine for personal consumption and one big bottle for cooking. The sales lady was taken aback by our request to have the oldest possible wine for cooking. Shaoxing natives normally use cheap new wine for cooking, but we found that we could tell the difference. She was horrified that we wanted to cook with a five-year old wine. We settled for a three-year old instead.

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Pesto Variations: Laksa

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Today’s instalment in Pesto Variations is inspired by the many laksa pesto dishes I’ve tried at various places around Singapore, some decent and some utterly FAIL.

By the way, laksa is also known as daun kesom and Vietnamese mint.

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If you look more closely at pesto and laksa, you’ll find that laksa is remarkably easy to adapt to a pesto style. Both have some kind of root aromatic, herb and nut. Pesto: garlic, basil, pine nut vs laksa: shallot, laksa leaves, candle nut. The remaining ingredient in pesto is cheese, which adds umami to complete the flavour profile. For laksa, dried shrimp and belachan do the trick. I’ve used only belachan in this recipe, you could add or substitute dried shrimp.

Ingredients:

½ tbsp belachan
½ tsp salt
2 cloves garlic
2 good handfuls laksa leaves
2 red or green chillis, or to taste
½ tbsp sunflower oil
linguine
handful cashew nuts
1 cake tau kwa, cut into small rectangles

Method:

  1. Toast the belachan in a pan until smoky.
  2. Combine belachan, salt, garlic, laksa leaves and chilli in a food processor and pulse till smooth, adding the oil after a few pulses to help the mixture along. You should get a fine-ish paste. The pesto is done.
  3. Cook the linguine to taste.
  4. Toast the cashews in a hot pan and roughly chop once cool enough to handle.
  5. Sear the tau kwa on all sides in the same hot pan.
  6. When the pasta is done, toss it in the pesto, adding a drop or two more oil or cooking liquid to loosen. Top with cashews and tau kwa.

Serves 2.

P.S. In case you’re wondering, the picture and recipe have been previously posted on my now-defunct OSF.com account.