Monday, January 18, 2010

jollof rice and nigerian indomie

I was recently accused of being ‘eastern’ (whatever that means, I suppose eastern as opposed to being white and western). it seemed a strange label – being called ‘eastern’ and I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. perhaps I naively think of myself not firstly in terms of skin colour, race, culture or background – I’m just me. and perhaps I just never thought that any of my friends who knew me well would think of me in primarily in those terms. if anything, I am sometimes accused of not being Singaporean enough (also, whatever that means).

that is not to say that I have an aversion to my skin colour (I quite like my tan), race, culture or background. all those factors contribute to who I am as a person. I embrace the fact that I grew up in singapore, that I am chinese, that my default comfort food is rice. but I also embrace the fact that I’ve lived away from singapore for a third of my life, that london is now home, and that spaghetti is also my default comfort food (particularly in spaghetti pie).

anyway, I love rice. I love rice in almost all of its forms. I say almost, because I hate rice pudding. I absolutely detest that stuff. but rather than start a diatribe against rice pudding, I shall sing my soliloquy of love to rice: I love it white and plain. I love it all fragrant and chockfull of turmeric in briyani. I love it vinegared and nestled beneath raw fish in sushi. I love it deeply yellow (or squid inky) with squid rings and prawns in paella. I adore risotto. I love my parent’s fried rice. and as I’ve recently found out: I love jollof rice.

i first had jollof rice when the long suffering O (anyone who’s a real friend of mine is by definition long-suffering to put up with my idiosyncrasies) made it for me. Jollof rice, for the uninitiated, is a west African rice dish made essentially from rice cooked in a paste of tomatoes, peppers, onions and palm oil, which lends to its luscious red colour. O invited me and the DC to her aunt’s over Christmas last year, and there again, was a big pot of Nigerian jollof rice. it was great. I ate nothing but jollof rice (and the fried rice that O insisted I try, I just couldn’t face any meat). it was so good I emptied the contents of the pot into a turkey sized Ziploc bag and took it home and ate it for days after. O’s aunt was mortified that I scraped the bottom of the pan to dislodge all the gooey caramelized bits into my Ziploc bag.

O tried to teach me how to make it, but her instructions were along the lines of: blitz the tomatoes and peppers and onions, fry the rice in palm oil and cook it all together till done. O - I think I need a demonstration (with samples). I wanted to cook it for ages but procrastination got the better of me. I bought two pointy red peppers over the weekend (to be honest, I bought them also because reminded me of Spock’s ears, though that in itself probably isn’t the best reason to buy vegetables of any sort).

anyway, here’s pictoral proof of my efforts. nowhere as good as O’s or her aunts. I ate it with roast chicken which had a liberal dose of paprika.

on a completely unrelated tangent, O and I found ourselves talking about Nigerian indomie on one of our (almost) weekly saturday brunches. for everyone who’s eastern like me and grew up in singapore, Malaysia or Indonesia – you’d be very familiar with indomie, makers of millions of packets of mi goreng asli, eaten with fried eggs and ABC kecap manis by us easterners by the tonne, which undoubtedly has been the saving grace of homesick Singaporean/Malaysian/Indonesian students in the western nations. well, did you know, Nigeria has their own indomie – it’s made by a Nigerian company and they have flavours catered for the Nigerian palate. they have jollof flavoured indomie. DC and I are trying to get our hands on some and do a taste test. Get in touch if you’ve ever had both iterations – we’re curious.

happy place

I used to have a happy place when I was a child. You know, the happy place in your mind you go to when you're sad, bored or lonely. Mine was a spacecraft – built for one. It was egg shaped (think eerio aarnio-esque), had a blue furry seat which reclined fully in to a bed. And it had all sorts of buttons, levers and dials. There were windows which I would look out into space, and with me on my cosmic voyages, was timothy the teddy bear. All this was in my head of course, the spacecraft I tried to build in my bed wasn't egg shaped and it was constructed out of pillows, but trusty timothy was with me. I was fascinated by the space-travel volume of my Charlie Brown and Peanuts children's encyclopedia, and I would gaze endlessly at the pictures of astronauts in space. They had to eat sticky food due to the lack of gravity in orbit - and there were lots of pictures of them eating macaroni and cheese.

I was thinking about that happy place recently – I haven't gone there since I was 12. But as random thoughts go, I thought about what I'd eat if I were an astronaut. I don't care very much for those freeze dried packs of beef stew one finds in camping shops apparently developed for space travel. As sticky foods go, I love sticky rice. I love sticky rice with sweet ripe sliced mangoes. I love it cooked with coconut milk and pandan custard in kueh salat. I love it steamed in lotus leaves with bits of pork belly, chicken and water chestnuts at dim sum.
And as with many of my random thoughts lead to the kitchen, I found myself making these chicken rice balls. Minced chicken (or minced turkey works too), marinated with soy, a splash of rice wine, sesame oil, mixed with chopped scallions and bits of mushroom. The mince mix was rolled into little balls, then coated with glutinous rice which had been soaked overnight. The rice coated chicken balls were then steamed for 25 minutes and eaten with a chilli sauce.

p.s. I still have trusty timothy, though now he resides in my wardrobe beneath my row of suits rather than on the bed in our makebelieve spaceship – I rescued him from storage in my parent's house and flew him up to london with me a few years back because I couldn't bear (lol) the thought of him languishing alone in that dusty store-room.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

a parent's love - jindalle and princi

I know my parents love me because they keep sending me food and other food related items. Every time they visit, they bear suitcases full of my favourite chilli sauce, chicken rice paste, laksa kits and lots of other stuff from home. I've learnt to stop trying to dissuade them with assurances that actually I can get all that stuff in London – it's their way of showing me they love me and you can't argue with that. I have a mate who routinely gets pineapple rice paste simply because she once mentioned she liked it, and now she doesn't have the heart to tell her mom she can no longer bear that stuff. She secretly gives it away. I don't think it’s a uniquely Singapore trait though – comparing notes with my mates, I discover American moms send cookies, Japanese moms send ramen and sushi seasoning.

My ever-resourceful mother had somehow found a willing mule in the lovely SH and he was loaded up with a large parcel for me and DC as he travelled back to London after his Christmas break in Singapore. It proved a little bit of a problem actually meeting up with SH since I had no idea what he looked like. Mom said I might recognise him from when we were kids at church in Singapore. She also said we'd both have things to talk about because we both play the violin. Of course – because I remember everyone I've ever met as a child and I talk about the violin lots. Not. I do love my mom's logic. Anyway, I decided I'd take SH to dinner to thank him for his mule efforts – I figured, we both had mobiles and at worst, I'd just approach every Chinese person with a large parcel at picadilly circus tube station.

We were craving Korean, and DC had read a review of Jindalle. CC was persuaded to come along for dinner and so we trooped there, large package in tow which was being opened and its contents examined as we walked down haymarket. As DC regaled random facts of high stomach cancer rates in Korean people because they eat so much chilli, we ordered a seafood pancake, dolsot bimbimbap, tofu and kimchee soup and marinated pork and beef for the grill. All spicy and chilli laden of course. Nothing beats the cold like lots of spicy chilli and warming grills.

Despite the rather abrupt and random service (there was a slight kerfuffle involving our request for extra bowls), the food was nice. Not amazing. But nice and it hit the kimchee-craving spot. A selection of kimchee, potato salad and beansprout salad to start us off. I always find it amusing we get potato salad in Korean and Japanese restaurants. Perhaps in my mind I link potato salad so closely to the german version that any other version, especially in the context of a Korean/Japanese restaurant amuses me. The kimchee wasn’t as spicy as I'd hoped, but we reckoned it had been tailored for slightly less robust occidental palates. The seafood pancake had a healthy seafood to batter ratio, crisp on its edges, and ever so slightly gooey in its middle.

The tofu and kimchee soup had a poached egg and a selection of seafood. The rest weren't too keen on the soup to begin with, but I liked it. I'll eat anything that contains a poached egg – such is the comforting power of the poached egg and its oozy goodness over plain sticky rice. Poached egg, spicy and contains tofu – what's there not to like? The dolsot bimbimbap – sticky rice topped with raw beef slices and a raw egg yolk served in a hot stone bowl – was adequate. The bimbimbap sauce was sweet and spicy and the beef was fresh, but our main complaint was that the stone bowl wasn't hot enough. One of the joys from eating dolsot bimbimbap is the crispy layer of rice that results from the bottom of the rice being seared into caramelly crunchiness as you scrape the last bits from the pot. You need a searingly hot stone bowl to achieve this, and alas, ours had its Fahrenheit failings. i like saying "dolsot bimbimbap" - everytime i say it, i remember the time working late in Tokyo when i ordered in, this poor chap from the korean place i rang came bearing my dolsot bimbimbap, stone bowl and all right to my desk in my office. i almost fell off my chair laughing. it took all my broken japanese i then knew to say thanks, and to ask for what one should do with the stone bowl when i was done - i hardly thought it was disposable.

We had been warned at the point of order that the marinated meats might not be as spicy as we'd hope for as they had been down-spiced for the western palate. They did have a little bit of heat and as they grilled, we waited and poked the meat intermittently to prod it to doneness. While we waited, we talked of Seoul Garden – the chain of Korean inspired meat barbeque all you can eat buffets in Singapore. I say 'korean inspired' because to call it a proper Korean barbeque would be pushing it. the conversation brought back memories, of after school binges on weekends with my high school mates, starving teenage boys (and girls, but mostly the boys would eat like there was no tomorrow) who would pile their plates high with strips of beef, pork belly and frankfurters ( I did say Korean inspired) back to the table where we burn them to carcinogenic doneness on the tabletop grill. This would inevitably be followed by the bottomless frozen yoghurt binge also at this Korean inspired barbeque joint, where we'd make an assortment of sugar laden concoctions involving frozen yoghurt, sprinkles, the odd bit of jello and toffee sauce. It seemed a simpler time then – all it really took to make us happy was lots of food, but then again maybe I'm glossing over all that teenage angst. To be fair though, all it takes to make me happy now is still lots of food.

They brought us a dissected orange each to top our meal off.

As all greedy Singaporeans would, we decided that puddings were in order. That dissected orange just wouldn't do. SH suggested the creperie on wardour street. We trooped there, large package still in tow (we hadn't lost it yet). I was secretly glad the creperie was closed because that meant we could go to Princi. I love Princi – I find every excuse to drop in there whenever I'm in Soho. They do proper bellinis, mean coffees, and I go into gaga meltdown just walking past the bread and pastry counter. I have to physically restrain myself from leaping over the glass counters and stuffing my face full of their puffy slices of wood fired pizza with mozzarella, brie, speck, asparagus all glistening and beckoning come-eat-me in their sultry pizza voices, the trays of assorted cakes and creamy tiramisu, the bowls of devilishly handsome salad. It's enough to make anyone expire from sheer want and unadulterated lust. We took turns at the cake counter making our selection, and we had a strawberry and custard tart, a zabliogone and chocolate mousse cake, a pear and apricot tart and some other chocolate/custard cake that was just as delightful.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

teddy bear's picnic

If you go down in the woods today
You're sure of a big surprise.
If you go down in the woods today
You'd better go in disguise.
For ev'ry bear that ever there was
Will gather there for certain, because
Today's the day the teddy bears have their picnic.
Ev'ry teddy bear who's been good
Is sure of a treat today.
There's lots of marvelous things to eat
And wonderful games to play.
Beneath the trees where nobody sees
They'll hide and seek as long as they please
That's the way the teddy bears have their picnic.
Picnic time for teddy bears
The little teddy bears are having a lovely time today
Watch them, catch them unawares
And see them picnic on their holiday.
See them gaily gad about
They love to play and shout;
They never have any cares;
At six o'clock their mummies and daddies,
Will take them home to bed,
Because they're tired little teddy bears.
If you go down in the woods today
You'd better not go alone.
It's lovely down in the woods today
But safer to stay at home.
For ev'ry bear that ever there was
Will gather there for certain, because
Today's the day the teddy bears have their picnic.

I love Henry Hall's Teddy Bear's picnic song. It makes me smile and I think of paisley blankets on grass, plastic tea cups, egg and cress sandwiches, cake and teddy bears. I think of growing up reading Enid Blyton. Of the Magic Faraway Tree. Of the Famous Five and their adventures. Of Mallory Towers and their midnight feasts. It's odd living in London now, and remembering the picture I had as a child of what England would be like. All I can say is – where are the endless picnics in the woods and everyone eating blancmange and macarons? It was a great mystery to me as a child, what blancmange and macarons were – none of the adults really knew and I made up in my head what they looked like. One of the first questions I asked an English person when I first moved to london was – what one earth is blancmange? No offence to those who love blancmange, but I must say, it was nothing like what I thought it'd be like and i'm still getting over the disappointment.
I digress. It wasn't quite the Teddy Bear's picnic. But we had egg and cress sandwiches and cake. And adult tea cups. Mrs Eclectic Elephant has been very much pregnant and it was her baby shower. She was brave enough to trust me with the baking so I arrived with scones, a lemon cake, mushroom and crab tarts and coffee chocolate cupcakes. and these teddy bear cookies.

all the best Mr and Mrs Eclectic Elephant. And to Baby Yowser, I can’t wait to meet you.

get me outta here!


off the main throes of Kensington high street lies Kensington court – a mere slip of a pedestrianised passageway where arcadia resides. DC and I had found ourselves at high street Kensington having run an errand, and we were cold, hungry and indecisive. hot food was needed, and quick. there was a throng of chain restaurants that beckoned with their predictable food – strada, cote, prezzo. we made friendly banter with the cold waiter lurking outside arcadia as we perused their menu. the cold was playing with our ability to think – arcadia was empty except for a table of two, and the waiter seemed a little too keen to entice us in. but the menu promised rabbit ragu – I had visions of warmly comfortingly steaming, slow-cooked tomatoey goodness – we decided to take a chance.

the interior of arcadia was as far from chain restaurant formulaic uniformity as interiors go. gilded mirrors, an odd selection of watercolours and paintings of old-school italian families all clad in lace and black and eating sunday lunch. the wall was painted with mural of what looked like a tropical forest (sans toucan and other Amazonian features). italian opera piped softly through. the waiters descended on us in trios and patiently answered our inane questions about the menu.

the bread basket arrived – cold swirls of dough and off cuts of cold pizza. I spied a lonely anchovy on one of these off cuts. oh dear God. I thought, silently praying “Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, and please save us from whatever potential monstrosity the mains are likely to entail”. other than being stone cold, the bread also reminded me of those airplane rolls you get on the little tin trays that masquerade as a meal when you’re stuck in the coach class of a flying aluminum tube – suspiciously soft, dubiously sweet, with a little pat of criminally tasteless butter in tin foil. it’s the sort of bread you know you shouldn’t eat (along with all the other stuff on that tin tray), but you do anyway in some inexplicable response to the emotional trauma of being imprisoned in the aluminium tube, often made unbearable when you’re stuck in the middle seat between two fat ladies. I wanted to walk out and across the alleyway towards to neon blue lights of prezzo.

I was undoubtedly pleasantly surprised when I took my first bite of the rabbit ragu lasagnetta. blown away even. prayer does work. it was actually almost amazing. thin handmade sheets of egg pasta on the right side of al dente sandwiched layers of soft minced rabbit that had been slowly cooked in tomato. this was lasagna as how it should be – blousy yet comforting without any of the white stodginess of the school dinner versions. it brought me memories of the best home made lasagna I ever had when I once spent a summer in perugia – Nonna, the italian woman who made it told me how she used chicken wings to make the stock in which the sheets of pasta were cooked in and then layered with tender chicken pieces, fresh cherry tomatoes, mushrooms and slices of mozzarella. I wanted thirds.

I digress. DC’s seafood spaghetti cooked in a tin foil parcel was impeccable. the waiter made a great show of opening up the foil envelope that housed the seafood spaghetti. it was worth the show – the foil curtains were raised to reveal a happy abundance of seafood – lagoustines, prawns, baby octopus, calamari and mussels. all were perfectly cooked. no rubbery squid rings on this plate.

it was soon decreed once our mains had been tasted that this place would get our pudding order. we reckoned that if they did our pasta this well, puddings would possibly be a safe bet. we went for the chocolate and hazelnut tart with vanilla ice-cream. it was reassuringly hazelnutty tasted like gianduja.

arcadia isn’t a destination dining venue – in all honesty, and because I’m very lazy, although I would very happily eat at arcadia again, i probably wouldn’t schlep all the way to high street Kensington just to eat there. it’s the sort of place you’d like to have in your neighbourhood as your local italian – the food is honest and stands by itself without the embellishments of superfluous cream, butter and olive oil that chain Italians sometimes resort to in their quest for tastiness. just don’t eat the bread.

Friday, January 08, 2010


I itch for change. I sometimes actually crave it. Despite all my risk averse tendencies, I itch for change. This itch has led to moves across countries. It's led to the sudden and very determined bid to take up a new sport or skill. I once spent a weekend painting the entire studio flat I was then residing in a cathartic bid to scratch that itch and to rid myself of some boy-related angst. There was also that time I tried to learn how to play the saxophone. I'm not sure what it is, whether that itch emanates from some subconscious need to run away from reality, or a physical response to deal with underlying emotional tension. Or perhaps the itch is simply just an itch, the curiosity as to what lies in the land-of-different-from-right-now.

I don't always need a big change. Sometimes a small change will do. Like making pasta from scratch. Like getting a haircut. Though there was that time I came home with punky spiky hair dyed red much to the amusement of my very understanding mother. I still have to masquerade as a professional of sorts in my day job, so I didn't go down the punky spiky hair route, but I did give the lovely Jorych a very wide brief and trusted him to do as he wanted with my hair. I wanted something different, and he gave me something very different. Jorych gave my hair a final artistic tousle as hairdressers do and asked for my thoughts – i told him I looked like a boy. He disagrees. I am pleased though – the haircut's grown on me quite quickly.

The haircut deserved to be taken out to dinner and I wanted to catch up with the fantabulous LG. A last minute ring round on a Wednesday afternoon in a bid to get a Thursday evening dinner reservation proved a little challenging. I was more than pleasantly surprised to bag a table at Murano – Angela Hartnett's Italian venture out in Mayfair. Decked out in my favourite LBD, FMBs (don't you love these clothing acronyms) and my new haircut – dinner at Murano beckoned. But then I read Giles Coren's review of
Semplice and I changed my mind. I'm an indecisive woman. But I was curious about a place which converted Giles Coren to risotto. Murano would have to wait.

Perhaps I was v hungry. I wanted to eat most of the offerings on the menu (save for the cod – bad to eat cod). I started with the Giles Coren coverting risotto – Milanese risotto with saffron and bone marrow. I can't say that I had the conversion experience that Giles Coren had. Maybe it's because I am already a risotto convert. It wasn't the best I've ever had (that accolade will have to go to the brown crab risotto at the sportsman in kent), but it was pretty good. A deep rich yellow with heaps of saffron, studded with oozy bone marrow. It was a touch more al dente than I had first expected, but like my haircut, it grew on me quite quickly and I was sad to eat the last spoonful.

The risotto was followed by a tagliata of Fassone beef with French beans and a mixed salad. I chuckled when I read the footnote accompanying the description of the Fassone beef explaining that the Fassone beef comes from piedmontese cows and only the females are used because they are more tender. Slices of sirloin, cooked medium rare, still lovely and pink in the middle and extremely tasty with almost a hint of gameyness.

LG started with the Ravioli with braised Fassone beef, spinach sauce and aged ricotta cheese. She also had the milk fed veal with broad beans, carrot and a herb sauce. I have to admit a twinge of plate envy when LG let me steal a bit of the ravioli – it was blousy as ravioli should be. The veal was very tender and the carrot puree a nice touch.

We shared a pudding – a pairing of rum baba with an almond and chocolate tart with Chantilly cream and pistachio ice-cream. It came with a rather large chocolate pistachio crisp. I was secretly pleased LG didn't really take to the rum baba because I love rum baba – I love the texture, the sponginess in my mouth, oozing with rum as your jaws clamp down on it– the sweetness of the sponge against the hint of spicy heat of the rum, the richness of the cream. It makes a perfect bite.
I'm not sure the itch will ever be sufficiently scratched. It's been somewhat soothed by my haircut, dinner and an evening spent with a loved friend and remembering that I have much to be content about and thankful for right now in my present reality. Though admittedly as I write, Google is scouring the net for drumming lessons…
9/10 Blenheim Street
London W1S 1LJ
t: 020 7495 1509

Monday, January 04, 2010

new year's resolutions

I was trying to remember how I’ve spent various new year’s eves in the noughties. last year, I played poker in a cocktail dress and killer heels with boys in tuxes at a casino royale james bond themed house party. I rang in the millennium at the overcrowded banks of the thames. various new year’s in between in strappy tops at overpriced clubs drinking overpriced cocktails. and I’ll always chuckle at the memory of that one year where I spent the last 15 minutes of the year running through a carpark with seanster, pheebs and pilot hoping to catch the fireworks outside the esplanade in singapore. this year, I was in my favourite shorts, flip flops and a teeshirt that says “I recycle boys” – and I’ll have to say it’s been the best of the decade. in a bittersweet sort of way.

this new year’s eve was a duvet evening. metaphorically speaking. I didn’t stay in bed – I rang in the new year’s with my best friends and DC at home. We wore silly hats, drank an abundance of proseco, watched fireworks from my garden. We had chinese hotpot and two deserts. two because we coiuld – homemade pear sorbet. and a melty chocolate fondant cake with ice-cream.

and as I fished for bits of salmon belly with my little wire net out of the bubbling pot of soup, I had a duvet moment – I was comfortably cocooned amongst people I loved and I was soothed in the deeply belly warming way that only hotpot soup can – the communality of cooking your meal together, eating an assortment of bits of meat, fish, vegetable, dumplings and tofu – usually overcooked, in a paranoid bid to avoid salmonella poisoning. and also because you've lost the dumpling you were eyeing and by the time you've found it it's gone slightly mushy.

as the radio chimed in the strains of big ben counting down to the new decade, we clinked our glasses of bubbly and I said goodbye to the memories, the mistakes, the disappointments of the past year and the past decade. I bid adieu to the angst of my twentysomething years, the constant uncertainty of where I was going to be and the novelty and unsettledness of moving cities. I’ve decided to stop running for a bit. I’ve walked away from a move to HK and i've committed to staying at home in London, at least for the next few years. and despite the seeming settledness that remaining static entails, I’m excited about what that brings.

anyway, my rabid thoughts on the new year, when all I really wanted to talk about was fried chicken. new year’s resolutions don’t work for me. it’s odd because I’m absolutely stubborn about lots of things. but every year I’ve resolved to turn vegetarian, train more, watch less telly – i do the exact opposite, I eat lots of steak, refuse to go to the gym and slob in front of the telly for hours on end. it’s classically human – you want to have what you can't. you want to do what you can't.

so anyway, rather than face the inevitable disappointment of failure to stick to well intentioned goals, I’ve simpler resolutions for this year and for the decade: to laugh more, to have deeper friendships, to be (more) fabulous. and to eat more fried chicken. simply because I love fried chicken and life’s too short to not eat fried chicken.

first day back at work, and I’ve done reasonably well. I’ve gone for a run and did quite a lot of productive delegation. but I also forgot to eat lunch, so come dinner time I was hungry. DC asked what was cooking, and I said, fried chicken.

bitesized pieces of chicken thigh fillet, marinated in soy sauce, chilli bean paste and sesame oil, dredged lightly in flour, bathed again in egg and then lovingly panko-ed and fried in hot sunflower oil. lovingly panko-ed because I love panko – it gives a crunch like no other breadcrumb can yet somehow still remaining light in its own panko-ey way. DC was a little bemused by my addition of the chilli bean paste to the marinade, but it worked well – a little beany spicy kick beneath the crunch of the panko and the tenderness of the just-cooked chicken. it would have done well with the sweetness of a little Japanese kewpie mayonnaise, but we had to settle for hellman’s.

our meal was not without any virtuosity – we ate our chicken with a crunchy green salad. and leftover mash – because we believe in our household, that potato counts for one of your 5-a-day.

to a new year and a new decade. to more laughter, deeper friendships, being fabulous. and more fried chicken.