the hinata diaries

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

TGIG - Thank God It's Gluten

Finally got round to trying the gluten-free macaroni and cheese that I got at SuperNature a couple of weeks ago. Quick disclaimer: I don't have any dietary issues with gluten, but I know of some people who do, so thought I'd try this out of curiousity.

Curiousity satisfied. No more gluten-free anything for me ever again.

Perhaps I should've started with a search on gluten in Wikipedia. I found this out from the site only this morning:

Gluten is an amorphous ergastic protein found combined with starch in the endosperm of some cereals, notably wheat, rye, and barley. It constitutes about 80% of the proteins contained in wheat, and is composed of the proteins gliadin and glutenin. Gluten is responsible for the elasticity of kneaded dough, which allows it
to be leavened, as well as the "chewiness" of baked products like bagels.

Basically, gluten = chewy. Macaroni without gluten = macaroni without chewy (alright, chewiness) = not very good macaroni.

It looked pretty weird out of the box already, being an odd shade of chalky plaster white. The macaroni also had a strange tendency of sticking to each other while cooking. And finally, upon taste testing, it was bizarrely crumbly after the first or second chew, with the dry texture of half-cooked rice. The cheese sauce was pretty decent though in a luminous orange crappy cheese sauce kinda way.

So now, for the first time in my life, I know what gluten's about and am extremely grateful to be able to digest it (fingers crossed things don't change!). And, of course, filled with respect for all the people who are gluten intolerant yet make planning and eating fabulous gluten-free meals look so effortless.

Since the uninspiring macaroni didn't warrant any photo time, thought I'd end off by sharing a pic of my latest little treasure - macarons from Le Chocolat de H in Tokyo courtesy of Nicky's recent trip there. The beautiful assortment contained chocolate macarons with a variety of fillings - chocolate, coffee, caramel, vanilla, pistachio and framboise, with delightfully sticky, smooshy centers.

Needless to say, my macaron cravings, rather than being satiated, have now been whipped up into a frenzy that I reckon can only be addressed by a trip to Tokyo or Paris NOWNOWNOWNOWNOW.

Except that's not happening any time soon.

I guess I should still be grateful about the gluten though.


Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Nuclear Sichuan: Da Ping Huo

Was in Hong Kong last week on a work trip and grabbed the chance to check out Da Ping Huo, a cosy, private Sichuan kitchen that has been featured in numerous magazines and publications.

Da Ping Huo is located down an alley at 49 Hollywood Road, on the corner of Graham Street. The entrance to the restaurant is dimly lit and unmarked - a silent waiter standing motionless by the door was the only indication of the establishment within. We nod, almost conspiratorially, to indicate that, yes, we are the table for 3 for the 2nd seating. You start to wonder if you're off to dinner or to journeying into the underground to buy contraband.

A quick burst of energy - Wang Hai, owner, maître d', husband of chef Wong Xiaoqiong and apparently also a celebrated painter and talk show host, springs upon us with his cherry red glasses and beaming smile, and chirpily ushers us in.

The space looks more like a gallery than a restaurant, consisting of a single open room of raw concrete. The paintings on the wall - large, almost floor to ceiling canvasses, echo the colours of the room, gloomy grey with sudden splashes of colour. Bright spotlights enhance the drama of the room. Although the restaurant has a mere 5 tables (to seat up to a maximum of 26 diners), these tables are lined up against the wall, leaving a vast corridor in between that showcases the dishes being whisked from table to table.

Amidst the modern design elements though are deep hints of the familiar. The larger tables are round rather than rectangular, keeping to the spirit of traditional Chinese communal dining. Unreserved chatter flows endlessly from the tables. One wall proudly displays framed black and white pictures of the chef as a young girl in a Cultural Revolution-era uniform. And Wang Hai's sheepish apology for having to speak in Mandarin (his English isn't very good) reminds you that, for an evening at least, you've escaped from the Four Seasons and the slick, made-for-expats side of Hong Kong.

Likewise, the meal that followed, while sharp, delicate, elaborate and flawlessly executed, was quintessentially home cooking. In contrast to say, Xi Yan in Singapore, where each dish is lavishly presented and the nuances carefully explained, our dishes were served in plain white crockery and laid on the table with little more fanfare than "This is pork. Is not so spicy." (A variant which came up a couple of times was "Is spicy. Maybe eat with rice.")

All in, we had 13 courses, consisting of 4 appetizers, 7 "main courses", 1 closing savoury dish and a dessert. Being in the presence of colleagues (our job is in no way related to food), I was a bit sheepish to snap pics or write down elaborate descriptions of each plate, so unfortunately this is the best I can do from memory:

  • Sliced cucumbers in Zhenjiang vinegar
  • Mapo tofu
  • Glass noodles in a spicy sauce with pickled vegetables and crunchy soybeans
  • Chicken with peanuts, black beans, chili and sesame oil
  • Spiced beef stew
  • Braised pork belly with glutinous rice and sweet potato sticks
  • Melon soup
  • Dumplings in sweet chili and bean sauce
I'm missing 3 appetizers, a soup and dessert, I think. Additing to this smorgasbord copious amounts of rice and tea to douse the fires in us, and you can imagine how completely stuffed we were by the end of the meal. The pain eventually retired though (think by early next morning!), and gave way to pleasurable memories - of nuclear, stinging la and tongue-numbing ma, both of which were to be found in great quantities. Simply put do not trust Wang Hai when he grins at you and cheekily whispers "Is not so spicy". Run for the hills when he raises a worried eyebrow and cautions "Is very spicy". That said, it does save you money on collagen lip injections once the swelling kicks in...

The complexity of each of the dishes, despite their simple presentation and common introduction, really caught me by surprise. Each dish had subtle variances - sometimes a kick of vinegar, sometimes the lingering taste of honey, sometimes the crunch of fresh vegetables. It's amazing how many bad Sichuan restaurants think that a truckload of chillies and peppercorns is all that is needed to make a good dish (fie on you!). The order of the dishes was also perfectly planned in order to prevent your tastebuds from overloading any specific flavour.

In line with the restaurant's quirky but successful marriage of the stylish and the homey, the meal ends with chef Wong stepping out of the kitchen to greet the guests, then taking centrestage in the middle of the room for a round of traditional China music. Wong is a classically trained soprano, and her tiny frame belies her powerful voice. The night we were there, she chose a traditional Xinjiang folk song, a simple but haunting melody involving maidens brushing their hair by flowing streams and calls to harvest grapes for wine.

We finally leave the restaurant the same way we came in - cheerfully escorted by Wang Hai, who pretends not to notice (that or his glasses need changing) our stomach-grasping groaning and painfully slow walk. Even through our pain, we can't miss the pride in his face, the confidence that he, as our host, has shown us a wonderful, one-of-a-kind experience that we'll recall with fondness. He knows we'll be back.

Da Ping Huo is definitely worth checking out when you're next in Hong Kong. At HK$250 a head and 2 hour seatings, it's also a much smaller financial and time commitment than many other private diners, both in HK and in Singapore (dinner at Xi Yan, by comparison, is priced at S$80 a head and requires 4 hours). Pictures (aside from the napkin one that I managed to hurriedly snap) are courtesy of what appears to be the restaurant's official homepage:

Da Ping Huo
L/G Hilltop Plaza
49 Hollywood Road
Central, Hong Kong

Phone: +852 2559 1317

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Heaven in a bowl of soup

I recently started watching a Japanese anime series titled Yakitate Ja-pan! It's the story of a young Japanese boy, Azuma Kazuma, with a talent for baking, and whose goal is to create a definitive bread for Japan. The series is very much a slapstick comedy, and a running gag features the exaggerated expressions of rapture and astonishment as people sample Azuma's latest inventions.

A bite of Azuma's first creation, soy toast, for example, sends his grandfather surfing stormy seas of miso soup on a board of soy toast, and swashbuckling his way through pools of natto in a fetching Kill Bill outfit.

A later creation, a breakthrough 324-layered croissant (apparently most regular croissants only have 54 layers - I subsequently tried counting my stale Simply Bread croissant and couldn't find more than 30) sees a teary Japanese cosmonaut landing on the moon (croissant-crescent-moon...), and launching said croissant into space while dramatically proclaiming "One small step for the baker, one giant step for the bread world!"

And so on.

I oftened laughed out loud watching these scenes - they were so exaggerated, so ridiculous, so plain fun that you really can't help it.

But either the series is really getting into my head, or there's some truth to these crazy scenes, cos last night, when I tried Neil Perry's Scallops with Sage and Burnt Butter in Pea Soup, I swear the universe stood still for a moment and fireworks exploded overhead.

In The Food I Love, Neil Perry's recipe for Cream of Pea Soup is footnoted with the statement:

"This soup makes a magical sauce for barbecued seafood and meat. Pan-fry scallops with sage and burnt butter, pour some pea soup into a bowl, add the scallops and then pour the burnt butter over - sigh, heaven!"

The man wasn't kidding.

I'd first tried the pea soup on Sunday afternoon, and served it with sliced fillet steak as the main course of a light Sunday brunch. A combination of peas, romaine lettuce, chicken stock, leeks and shallots, it was homey, tasty, simple and yet sophisticated, and the visual contrast between the bright green soup and the pink fillet steak made for a pretty picture.

Fortunately, we had lots of leftover soup by virtue of using it more as sauce than as soup, so yesterday evening seemed a perfect opportunity to try out the lauded scallop recipe.

And it turned out to be in a class of its own, quite simply one of the most fantastic things I've ever tasted, period. This can definitely be attributed to the amazing combination of ingredients, cos goodness knows it's also one of the quickest and most foolproof recipes ever (think about it - you're supposed to burn the butter, it's like free license to muck up as you please!). You pan-fry the scallops in a bit of butter, remove and plonk in the soup. You then continue frying the butter, adding more as necessary, and toss in some sage leaves. Fry the leaves till they're crispy, and then pour the lot over your soup and scallops. I ended up with the rough ratio of 1 scoop of soup: 2 scallops: 4 sage leaves: 2 tablespoons of burnt butter per bowl, which seemed pretty optimal.

The one big surprise that came out of this dish (aside from the metaphysical experience of course) was just how good sage tastes. I'd been pretty prepared to fish out the sage leaves and put them aside (I'm a big picker of food), but figured out I'd try just one in the name of culinary due diligence. I ended up gobbling all the rest. Those leaves taste pretty damn good - sharp and peppery, kinda like a cross between Thai basil and curry leaves. The taste and scent of the leaves blended very quickly with the butter, and resulted in a luxurious, caramel-coloured drizzle that elevated the humble soup into something really divine.

With this dish, words can only convey so much, so I'll stop here. Please try this when you can, and let me know what weird and wonderful world it transports you to ;)

Thursday, April 13, 2006

World's top 50 restaurants

The Restaurant Magazine just came out with it's 2006 list of the world's top restaurants, here they are:

1 El Bulli, Spain - The Penfold's world's best restaurant, best in Europe
2 The Fat Duck, United Kingdom
3 Pierre Gagnaire, France - Chef's Choice
4 French Laundry, US - Best restaurant in the Americas
5 Tetsuya's, Australia - Best restaurant in Australasia
6 Bras, France
7 Restaurant Le Louis XV, Monaco
8 Per Se, US
9 Restaurante Arzak, Spain
10 Mugaritz, Spain - highest new entrant

11 Can Fabes, Spain
12 Nobu, UK
13 Gambero Rosso, Italy - highest climber
14 Gordon Ramsay (Royal Hospital Road), UK
15 Restaurant Alain Ducasse, France
16 Jean Georges, US
17 Le Cinq, France
18 Daniel, US
19 Oud Sluis, The Netherlands
20 Chez Panisse, US

21 El Celler de Can Roca, Spain
22 L'Astrance, France
23 Hof van Cleve, Belgium
24 La Maison Troisgros, France
25 L'Atelier, France
26 Charlie Trotter's, US
27 Le Gavroche, UK - outstanding value
28 La Colombe, South Africa - Best restaurant in the Middle East and Africa
29 Enoteca Pinchiorri, Italy
30 Rockpool, Australia

31 Le Calandre, Italy
32 Le Bernardin, US
33 Noma, Denmark
34 Restaurant Dieter Muller, Germany
35 St John, UK
36 Hakkasan, UK
37 Martin Berasategui, Spain
38 Le Quartier Francais, South Africa
39 Chez Dominique, Finland
40 L'Ambroisie, France

41 Die Schwarzwaldstube, Germany
42 Dal Pescatore, Italy
43 Bocuse, France
44 L'Arpege, France
45 Gramercy Tavern, US
46 Bukhara, India
47 De Karmeliet, Belgium
48 Oaxen, Sweden
49 Comme Chez Soi, Belgium
50 DOM, Brazil

Thursday, April 06, 2006

A grown-up Easter treasure hunt

If Easter is anything to go by, I must've been a pretty pragmatic kid growing up. Every year, the shelves of neighbourhood expat supermarkets would suddenly be swamped by technicolour foil-wrapped bunnies, ribbon-and-laced baskets of miniature chocolate eggs and elaboratedly packaged egg-decorating kits. I understood the basic premise, that the Easter Bunny would hide said chocolate eggs and other assorted candies under the garden hedge, which we would then discover to our greedy delight, but this really didn't make much sense to me.

First off, you never see wild bunnies in Singapore. The Easter Iguana maybe, even the Easter Sewer Rat, but never an Easter Bunny.

Next, even if the Easter Bunny had journeyed via some underground trans-Pacific tunnel to my sunny shores, would he really know to go to Tierney's to buy his chocolate eggs? If he did, why didn't I ever see him at the checkout? Or at least, hear about him from the ladies in the butchery section who always seemed to have tons to report when my mom surveyed the latest cuts? Surely the appearance of a rabbit, buying a trolleyload of chocolate (does he pay by Amex?), would be worth sharing?

Third, we didn't have a garden hedge. A bunch of trees, yes, and a miniature botanical garden of potted pots, but what on earth was a hedge? Even if we planted one in anticipation, wouldn't it be rather unhygienic to leave food there - what about the 30 degree heat? the ants? Sure, free chocolate's great, but not if it's half melted and covered in assorted creepy crawlies!

And so I came to a simple and natural conclusion - let me buy my own chocolate, and eat it when I want, how I want. And let that right not be limited to Easter, but apply daily and in perpetuity.

All the same, I have to admit that the thought of gaining a hoard of edible treats - that a designated weekend equates to an entitlement to vast amounts of good food - was a bit tough to pass up this year. And so off I went to Culina, one of Singapore's top importers of fine foods, for this year's grown-up Easter egg hunt.

Amidst the seemingly 30 varieties of olive oil, mountains of cheese and assorted dry snacks, I finally settled on the following:

And my own personal favourite, a can of Clement Faugier's Creme de Marrons de l'Ardeche. Apparently, this chestnut puree is French kitchen staple, and is great dolloped on yoghurt or spread on a warm crepe. The can alone is tres charmant, non?

Sharing Culina's Park House premises is an organic supermarket aptly named SuperNature. I figured I owed it to the generations of intrepid Easter treasure hunters to pop in and look around, even if I don't have any particular philosophical inclinations towards organic food. I mean, I think it's noble and all but honestly, $13 for a pack of organic barley?

Still, I managed to find a handful of fun stuff to try:

  • A bottle of Thorncroft Pink ginger cordial. The thought of mixing this with ice cold sparkling water on a warm Sunday afternoon by the pool was impossible to resist.
  • A pack of spelt grains, for the day that I venture to try Alain Soliveres' spelt risotto.
  • A pack of Annie's Homegrown Rice Pasta and Cheddar (i.e. mac and cheese). Mac and cheese from a box always seems a bit vile, with all the artificial flavourings and preservatives, but this seemed fairly healthy. Plus it has a Rabbit of Approval, how much more befitting of an Easter theme could this be?

Tasting reports to come soon!


Culina Parkhouse

21 Orchard Boulevard

#01-23 Parkhouse

Singapore 248645

Tel: 6735 8858

Mon-Sat: 10am-8pm; Sun: 10am-6pm


21 Orchard Boulevard

#01-21 Parkhouse

Singapore 248645

Tel: 6735 4338

Mon, Tues, Thurs, Sat: 10am-7pm; Wed, Fri: 10am-8pm; Sun: 11am-6pm

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

History in a bowl of prawns

One of the great things about food blogging is that you get exposed to, and are encourage to explore, different exotic ingredients and cuisines. From rosewater to truffles, harissa to mentaiko, every meal becomes a culinary flight of fantasy into faraway worlds, every day a new discovery.

And so you scour markets and catalogues, track down reknowned chefs at their latest endeavours, and plan holidays or spare moments during business trips around the procurement of the best local produce or the latest hot restaurant.

Amidst all these pursuits, it's easy to forget that the best food is often what you grew up with. Which is funny in Singapore, where a simple walk around the neighbourhood can saturate your culinary senses:

The piercing smell of spices, sharp and pungent.
The shrill cries of hawkers inviting you to sit and partake.
Fiery woks in a state of perpetual motion.
Roasted meats hanging off skewers, waiting to be carved.
Rice of all colours, drenched in vivid gravies.
Thick, viscous coffee streaming out of well-worn pitchers.
Jewel-like cubes of dessert peeking out of beds of shaved ice.

All this amidst the neverending chatter of coffee shop talk in what seems to be a million different dialects.

Cooking at home is no less varied. Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew, Malay, South Indian, Peranakan (itself a fusion of Chinese and Malay cuisines), Malaysian (a mix of all the above plus some unique dishes), Singaporean (all that plus), Western (bastardized to varied extents)... all fall into my category of food I grew up with, my native cuisine.

I'm therefore making a conscious effort to cook (and therefore blog about) more Singaporean food in all its guises, colours and flavours.

First up, one of my favourite growing up dishes that's planted pretty firmly in the category of 'Cantonese' - Chow Har (literally Fried Prawns).

I found the recipe for this dish in the great bible of Singaporean home cooking - Mrs. Lee's Cookbook. Mrs. Lee's Cookbook is one of the cornerstones of Singapore's short history as a nation, and can be found on almost every kitchen shelf here - it's as if a copy is handed out together with your citizenship. As if that wasn't sufficient contribution to shaping Singapore's collective social consciousness, Mrs. Lee is also the mother of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's first Prime Minister and undoubtedly the most influential person in Singapore's history.

The first edition of the book was published in 1974 and till this day, thirty years later, is still the best selling cookbook in the Malay Archipelago. In 2003, Shermay Lee, Mrs. Lee's granddaughter and founder of Shermay's Cooking School, relaunched the cookbook in an updated, full-colour edition. The New Mrs. Lee's Cookbook subsequently won at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards 2003 in the category of Special Awards of the Jury (English – Rest of the World), testifying to the relevance of its recipes to a whole new generation of Singaporeans and beyond.

I'm proud to be the owner of a 1983 edition of the original book, which was passed to me by my dad shortly after I moved to Beijing. Compared to the elaborate and lush cookbooks of today, the original Mrs. Lee's Cookbook seems sparse, even unforgiving. Black line drawings of ingredients and dishes fail to visually inspire, and refuse to offer any additional guidance as to whether your dish will turn out as it should. Dishes and spices in their native Malay names intimidate any newcomers or non-natives - Assam Pedas? Ayam Buah Keluak? Heepeow? Do those sound even vaguely edible?

What the book does offer that few others can though, is the comfort and pride that you're cooking using recipes that have been handed down through the generations, the appreciation of food as an integral part of Singapore's social fabric.

It's easy, when cooking, to pretend that you're a little god, controlling the fates of ingredients, amalgamating and alchemizing to suit your whims. But a flip of Mrs. Lee's Cookbook humbles you - you realize that these are dishes that have been around for generations, that countless hands have put together over the years and will continue to do so for many more years to come. Dishes that trigger a million childhood memories and that today you can't live without. As funny as it may sound, you realize that food is bigger than you. Indeed, Mrs. Lee's Cookbook isn't just a collection of cherished recipes - its pages also contain a brief exposition of Peranakan history and women's lives in a Straits Chinese household; illustrations of traditional Nonya wedding dress; translations of frequently used ingredients' names between English, Malay, Chinese, Indonesian, Thai, Tamil and Tagalog; a foreword by Mr. Wee Kim Wee, former president of Singapore; and an example of Chinese calligraphy - strong reminders of the bonds between food, history, society and culture.

And so, on to the prawns! This is a very simple, toss-everything-together-and-fry recipe that shouldn't take more than 5 minutes to prepare, all in. The sauce is strong, thick and sweet - remember when eating a traditional Chinese meal, all meat and vegetable dishes are placed in the center of the table and shared. Your own little eating space is contained in an individual bowl of rice, on which everything is placed. Serve the prawns the same way and you'll find that, once all the prawns have been shelled and devoured, your rice is now covered with a layer of the sauce, which makes for a second round of enjoyment that is in no way inferior to the first.

Chow Har
Serves 4 as part of a 3- or 4-course dinner

1kg (2lbs) large prawns, seasoned with salt

(Mrs. Lee suggests that you "remove a band of shell from the centre of the prawn, trim the feelers & sharp tips." She also suggests that the finished dish is served on a platter garnished with cucumber and tomato slices, which was probably a lot more attractive in the 1970s than today. Feel free to experiment with both the presentation and 'user friendliness' of the prawns - in familiar company both steps can be easily skipped to no overwhelming detriment.)

12 stalks spring onion, cut into short pieces
8 tbsp oil

For the gravy, boil together:
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tbsp cornflour
6 tbsp ketchup (the original recipe quaintly calls for 'tomato catsup')
1 tbs oyster sauce
1 tbsp ginger juice
1 tbsp wine
2 tbsp water

Hopefully I'm not violating a copyright by reproducing the below instructions verbatim from the book. I just loved their staccato pacing - short, succinct and punctuated. You can really imagine your own grandma standing behind you in the kitchen guiding you with the exact same words:

"TO COOK: Heat a frying pan until very hot, add in 8 Tbs. oil. When the oil is
hot, add in the prawns. Stir fry until cooked. The hot oil seals in the juices
of the prawns. Pour the sauce over the prawns, and stir in the spring onions.
Serve immediately."

More on Mrs. Lee's Cookbook to come!