Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A New Attempt and Rediscovery

Unknowingly, I’d spent more than 3 hours in the kitchen that late Saturday afternoon preparing dinner while listening to the limited, repetitive coverage of the Bersih rally on Channel NewsAsia. My menu was a progressive build, which started from my purchase of a bottle of white truffle oil (that made up a third of the dinner’s cost) at noon. The rest of the ingredients were picked up at a hypermarket, mindfully and economically, as to not exceed my personal budget (truffle oil included) comparable to a main course at most starred restaurants in town and yet, are able to be used to create dishes that are much more interesting than most weekday dinners of stir-fried leftovers from the refrigerator with soy sauce, dark or light.

Cream of Carrot, Dried Shrimps and Pumpkin with Truffle Oil

I have been using a lot of carrots and pumpkins for my regimented weekday dinners. Apart from being a rich source of vitamin A, I begin to discover the immense natural sweetness of these two ingredients and have been planning to create a dish to just showcase this character, hence the cream of carrot and pumpkin. I used a stock of sun-dried local anchovies and pork bones, which were simmered for almost an hour. It’s an easy starter to prepare – just pureeing the softened mirepoix of carrots, onions, garlic and pumpkin with toasted dried shrimps and stock. No cream of any kind was used. I topped the dish with a crack of black pepper and a drizzle of truffle oil. I should have omitted the latter as its scent was overshadowed by the pungency of the dried shrimps. The sweetness of the cream was expectedly intense. The dried shrimps gave the starter an Asian twist, which I thought was interesting. This was served with slices of dark rye sourdough.

Spread of Spinach and Anchovies

The chilled spread of spinach and Spanish anchovies in a yoghurt/chilli powder dressing, believe it or not, was supposedly a two-dish of palak paneer and fish/vegetable curry! I’d decided to scrap the idea of preparing two dishes as it was laborious and of course, more expensive. I toyed with the idea of canapés for the spread as well, but ended up conveniently smacking a thick layer of the green paste on the sourdough. I thought the combination of savouriness of the anchovies, sourness of the yoghurt and tinge of heat from the chilli powder worked well with the bland, finely chopped spinach. The remaining spread was sandwiched between multi-grain toasts for breakfast on Monday.

Angel Hair Carbonara, Truffle Oil, Assorted Mushrooms in Balsamic/Muscovado Reduction

One of the reasons why I bought the bottle of truffle oil is to improve my carbonara recipe. Previously, I’d used truffle salsa and the scent was consistently mild, despite my pouring of almost half a bottle to approximately half a pack of spaghetti. Perhaps I should have made some truffle butter for the mix but I guess I’m just too lazy for that. So, this time, with three raw eggs, a pack of grated parmesan cheese, some truffle oil and another generous pouring of truffle oil to every individual serving, the scent was much more prevalent. Instead of the usual bacon strips, I’d incorporated a medley of mushrooms (white, porcini and portobello) into the carbonara mixture. The sliced mushrooms were flavoured with a reduction of balsamic vinegar and a dash of muscovado for a sweet contrast against the rich carbonara sauce.

Not every dish that I make turned out edible like any of the above, I must note. And embarrassingly, I still haven’t been able to grasp the fundamentals of cooking plain white rice. Desserts? I’m definitely a goner. In my last attempt at something sweet, I’d wasted a few eggs, cubes of cheddar, sugar, dried longan flesh, beancurd skin and some wolfberries. Among other memorable sweet failures include a carrot cake that ended up dark brown lumps of carrot shreds, crushed walnuts and pineapple cubes that resemble...I shall not elaborate further. I did consider restarting with simpler desserts like a trifle or crepe. But I’m not really interested in either, so why waste time and effort constructing such dishes, right? I’d decided that I should just stick to what I enjoy making the most – savouries. :D

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Ah Kow and Tai Wah Bak Chor Mee - Hong Lim Complex

There's no doubt that my favourite Singaporean dish is bak chor mee (bcm) or minced pork noodles. I'm always impressed by the strong memory of these bcm sellers in remembering each customer's order because, as simple as a serving may look, the combination of ingredients is endless - from the types of noodles to the optional liver to the addition of chilli paste to a choice of either dry-tossed or soup, etc. Oh, and eat-in or takeaway ar?

I was rather contemplative that morning, deeply affected and concerned about the chaos that would take place in my hometown later in the afternoon. As trifling as it may seem, I related the bowls of bcm in front of me to life itself. You see, the Chinese believe that life is a combination of tastes, more specifically (and in no particular order) - sweet, sour, bitter and spicy. I can't think of many dishes that represent this philosophy. BCM is one of the very few. Sour comes from the black vinegar that, to me, gives the dressing it's distinctive character. Spicy is the dollop of chilli paste coating the noodles. Slivers of liver provide a tinge of bitterness while sweetness is in the broth simmered with pork bones, among other flavourful ingredients. Let's not forget the savoury taste of braised shitake slices and a piece of flatfish crisp. Of course, there's the quintessential, aromatic, crunchy fried lard bits. Imagine mixing all the above. Then imagine taking a bite. Now that's a taste of good life there. I had two bowls that morning but this pleasurable calm before the storm was not that much of a comfort, that's for sure.

I come to Hong Lim Complex whenever I can, to savour Ah Kow's (#02-42) version of bcm, which to me, is a complete bcm experience. Complete means a combination of springy noodles, optimal tang and appetizing aroma of the black vinegar, immensely soaked, soft shitake, sizable serving of minced pork, unlimited offering of fried crunchy fried lard cubes, a dumpling filled with pork, chives and flatfish powder (it's a very simple but thoughtful touch, it is) and a bowl of broth topped with seaweed and coriander. Surmounting all the accolades and respectable ratings that Ah Kow has garnered over the decades, it is this package, the complete, delectable bcm experience, that had me (and many others) returning over and over again.

As mentioned earlier, I had two bowls of bcm. One was Ah Kow's and the other was Tai Wah's (#02-42), from High Street. I had failed to notice this stall until now, thanks to a noticeable queue. And the buzzing Outram Park Char Kway Teow located just opposite Tai Wah. Initially, I thought it was a branch of my other favourite bcm stall, Tai Hwa from Hill Street, now residing at Crawford Lane. Apparently, they are somehow related, as I'd read from some websites. Their dressing was sweeter and lighter as compared to Ah Kow's while the noodles were skillfully cooked to a springy texture. The taste and choice of toppings (pork balls included) did remind me of Tai Hwa's, so that's good.

Approximately two hours after I'd left Chinatown, a group of fellow countrymen were having a picnic at the nearby Hong Lim Park. A much quieter affair compared to the other cities that joined in the call for a fair and clean election back home. I don't believe that it's an impetuous act, but one that is rational, responsible and noble. Had I been informed, I would have dropped by to say hi, at least. Seriously, to oppress, in the most distasteful way, the articulation of national issues and reformation for the better is utterly foolish.