Saturday, June 29, 2013

Some enchanted evening... at Siniawan

IT WAS ALWAYS a big thrill to venture out of Kuching to Bau and swim at Tasek Biru back in the mist of time. On the way, we take the ferry across the Sarawak River at Batu Kitang, through Siniawan, then Buso before reaching the gold mining town of Bau. These townships were thriving trading centres for the farmers and market gardeners around.

Then a bridge was built and access to Bau was not ruled by the ferry. You can now drive to Bau via Batu Kawa or Matang. Siniawan and Buso were by-passed by a highway. To revive the fortunes of Siniawan, the idea of a night market was born, local businesses would create a fiesta of food and song every Friday and Saturday night. My art mentor Apai Michael Lim is a great supporter of night markets and his deep love of the countryside, being one Sarawak's most famous artist of batiks. He brought us there with Moses, Jessie, David and Darlene who are more interested in eating.

Siniawan is half an hour out of Kuching. We took the turn-off from the highway and ventured down the somewhat unlit road to Siniawan township. In the distance was an alluring glow, a night of reminiscing was unfolding. We could see that the road that passed through the old township has been closed off, lanterns strung across the two rows of colonial-style shophouses. Tables and chairs lined across the road right to the end of the street. All the shops were open and the restaurants, cafes and food stalls were all set for an evening of eating, drinking and shopping.

Apai ordered for us. He was engrossed in deep conversations with the chefs as there was all manner of fresh food, Jungle produce, wild boar meat and venison, seafood and shellfish. We had a fish ball and tau pok soup, chicken kachanma (my favorite confinement food) with dried kachangma, ginger, chicken and Chinese wine (Shaoxing). What a delight it was to have another favourite, stuffed bitter gourd. The pork mince was mixed with flavour-enhancing grilled salted fish. No meal is complete without a sambal dish, the squid was served on banana leaf, with calamansi on the side.

The karaoke had started from the far end of the street on a stage decorated with a Chinese scenic backdrop. The music was from the old days and the singers made tuneful renditions. Thankfully there were no tone-deaf wannabes, no shameless egotistical blow-up dolls and the music added to the atmosphere. The dishes kept on coming; Pak Lo Duck and then the big hit Rojak, the Malay salad, topped with finely chopped peanut. As the rojak has hay ko (prawn paste), I took leave to check out the food stalls selling deep-fried foods on skewers, fritters of all kinds and nonya kuehs.

We had cooling drinks like calamansi on ice, with singboi. And teh tarek or kopi-o. As there an army camp nearby, the men in battle fatigues were present in full force, drinking Tiger Beer.

Sipping on an iced calamansi drink and eating a Kueh Talam, I could't help thinking that this is the perfect scene for one of the many popular swordfighting films of yesteryear. Cheng Pei Pei would at any moment decend on the roof and leap across to the other side of the street. Just hope she doesn't get entangled in the hanging lanterns.

Some enchanted evening...

Friday, June 28, 2013

In praise of Youtiao 油条

A TASTE OF HEAVEN! Chinese fried breadstick Youtiao 油条 (You Char Kway in Hokkien) are crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside. It's the Chinese equivalent of crullers. Youtiao is a childhood favorite. I would always follow Grandad on his daily early morning shop, and hang out at the nonya kueh and youtiao stalls. A couple of sticks and eaten fresh out of the fryer, there's nothing more satisfiying first thing in the morning.

In Cantonese, Youtiao is Yau Ja Gwai (oil-fried devil). It's origin is steeped in history, made as an act of protest against Song Dynasty official Qin Hui and his consort who collaborated to bring down the demise of patriot General Yu Fei, hence the 2 strips of dough joined in the middle.

Away from home, there are always Chinese stalls within Asian supermarkets making youtiao. It's a far cry from the best as there is not enough traffic to warrant them being made continuously. The youtiao is usually cold, fried earlier and if the oil for frying is hot enough and less than fresh, the youtiao will be chewy and soaked in oil. Best to avoid.

When I was in the oil town of Miri recently, Lao Pan Niang took her old mate to have breakfast at Sin Yakin Food Centre. She said the youtiao stall is the most famous in Miri and of course she was right. We watched the family make it, starting with plain flour. Baking soda and baking powder is used and salt added.They go to great lengths to stress they don't use ammonia powder or alum water, a common despicable practice that makes the outside of the youtiao crispy.

'No amonia used' the sign proudly proclaims. So how is it their youtiao is a taste of heaven? Good fresh vegetable oil (no palm oil additives), heated to a high temperature. This will result in very crispy youtiao that is not soaked in oil. Many youtiao makes nowadays add eggs in the dough before frying to n.achieve that skin crunchiness. 2 strips of dough are pressed together and pressed down with a chopstick. It's now ready to be fried.

They supply many restaurants and cafes with their youtiao. So there's contant action in this rather hot enclave. It is traditional to have youtiao with sweetened soya milk.Youtiao is also used (scissor cut) in rice congee as a topping, in Bak Kut Teh herbal soup and in Lek Tau Suan. The Chinese stuff youtiao in Shaobing (roasted sandwich0 or in rice noodle roll (zhaliang).

So we sat down and had the youtiao as is, with teh tarik. We also checked out what the other stalls offered and settled on the Mee Sua and Char Kway Tiaw, after much deliberation. Mee Sua is a Foochow noodle specialty. Touted as a noodle soup of good health, prosperity and long life and served as a birthday treat, it comes with long-life noodles (mee sua), a chicken leg, dried shitake mushroom and boiled egg, simmered until ready to serve when red wine is added to the soup.

Sin Yakin
Lot 2122-2125
Yakin Commercial Centre
Jalan Bulan Sabit

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Kit Perera: your Chef For A Night

KIT PERERA is indeed Your Chef For A Night. He started this gig 10 years ago and specialises in Sri Lankan cuisine though he's equally au fait with cooking traditional French and Moroccan cuisines. Chef For A Night is indeed a showcase for Kit's creativity with spices and flavours that he grew up with as a child in Sri Lanka, where he gathered fresh herbs and whole spices for help grandma cook.

Kit won a cricket scholarship to the UK when he was 17 and it also opened up his culinary passion. He was coaching young cricketers at Lords and in 1985, he embarked on 6-month stints in the UK and New Zealand, and continued this dual periods of coaching and mentoring for the next 15 years.

It was while he was cricket coach and Master at Christ College in Christchurch that the idea for Chef For A Night was born. Parents were always looking at ways to fund-raise trips to Australia and at a fund-raising dinner Kit cooked at, he was auctioned as Chef For A Night for 12 people. His network grew from all his cricketing contacts in the UK and New Zealand, and his 2-year stint at Canberra Grammar School resulted in my dinner parties via the parents of students in the diplomatic corp.

In 2003, Kit was back in Auckland and set up Chef For A Night, while continuing his cricket coaching and mentoring, up to Black Caps level.

WE WERE TREATED to a night of Sri Lankan cuisine at the Fisher & Paykel show kitchen at buzzy Ponsonby Central. To whet our appetite, the dinner started with panfiried king prawns (with sweet chilli lime & coriander dressing) and onion bhaji (with chilli tomato jam and mint yoghurt), pictured above right.

The chilli roti with accompaniments returned spicy hints with a kick of fresh chilli. The bread mix is made from plain high-grade flour and egg and yoghurt with turmeric, cumin and paprika.

Prepare the spice blend of finely chopped chill, garlic, coriander and ginger, sprinkled on top and rolled into the roti before frying with olive oil. This is Kit's preference, rather than ghee (used more by Indians). In Sri Lanka, most villagers use coconut or vegetable oil as they have a high heat tolerance.

For the coconut sambal, ingredients include fresh red chill, freshly grated coconut, shallots, salt to taste and lime juice. No sambal is complete without Maldive fish, akin to bonita flakes in Spanish cuisine.

So this is the classic hot, sweet, sour salty Sri Lankan accompaniment for vegetarian, beef Ceylon or beef dishes.

Beef Ceylon is a Sri Lankan classic. Use cheaper cuts of chuck steak, in a claypot (chatty) slow cooked for 3 hours over open wood fire/charcoal. Kit remembers making this in grandma's open clay oven. For the spice blend, dry roast all these ingredients: dried red whole chilli, whole cumin, coriander, cloves, cardamon pods,  fennel seed and dried curry leaves, then pound in a stone mortar and pestle. Add roasted ground rice to thicken the sauce.

Kit added okra to the the Village Chicken Curry to give it a different dimension, as do Malaysians add potato to their curries. Pan-fry the okra to rid it of its inherent stickiness. Add to curry 10 minutes before turning the curry off the heat.

Use basmati for the aromatic pilaf rice. Soak couple of hours, drain, set aside. Saute sliced onion in olive oil (Kit's preference). Put in cinnamon sticks, cardamon pods, fresh curry leaves and cloves. Add rice and fry, then pour in hot water, bring to boil, cover reduce heat and cook/steam for 10 minutes. This absorption method yields a fragrant and aromatic pilaf rice.

No Sri Lankan dinner is complete without a fish component. Tonight its Monk Fish Coconut Curry. Monk fish is readily available and doesn't flake. Fillet and cut into chunks and marinade in Sri Lankan spice mix (see above) and add tumeric and paprika.

For the coconut gravy: fry in olive oil the spice mix of sliced onion, curry leaves, mustard seeds, 2 chillis sliced half-length ways, seeds left in.

Brown the onion, add one thumb-size grated or chopped ginger plus 2 cloves of finely chopped garlic. Add tumeric, paprika and Sri Lankan spice blend.

Bring to boil 400ml of light coconut milk, transfer coconut gravy with all the spices to the baking dish. Arrange monk fish pieces on top, grill 10 minutes in the middle part of the oven or bake half hour at 200ºC.

Once cooked, add chopped fresh tomato and fresh coriander.

Eggplant Pahi is another traditional Sri Lankan dish. Cut eggplant into 2cm thick rounds. Sprinkle both sides with turmeric, brown on both sides in a frypan or alternatively brush with olive oil and grill on rack. When cooled, cut cut each eggplant round into three.

Get gravy going, pop mustard seeds in a frypan, add 3 to 4 dried chilli. Together with onion, cinnamon stick broken into 2. Saute onions till brown, add grated ginger and chopped fresh garlic, paprika, Sri Lankan spice blend. Stirfry spice blend 2-3 minutes, add 400ml light coconut milk, heat up but not boil. Add eggplant, stir though coconut gravy simmer uncovered until cooked.

What better way to end a glorious evening than have home-made cardamom pistachio ice cream with pineapple carpaccio and minted mango.

Kit Perera
Chef For A Night
Also Kit's Kitchen at Ponsonby Central
0274 883003

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Queenstown Wonderland

THE STUNNING beauty of Queenstown, New Zealand's premier tourist destination is well-documented in picture-postcard images through all the seasons. Being in Queenstown when snow was forecast yielded this photo essay of impending winter.

Monday, June 24, 2013

In praise of Idli

KIT PERERA knows Sri Lankan food. The cricket coach and mentor has been doing his gig, Chef for the Night since 2003. So when he came to visit, he had made idli and accompaniments.

Idli has become the Indian sub-continent's favourite, although it originated in South India. This is Kit's take on idli, a vegetarian breakfast staple. Idli rice is soaked overnight, do the same with urad dal (black gram). You can use basmati rice, sona masuri or 
kolam rice.

Grind the soaked idli rice and lentil (urad dhal) and mixed the batter. To help in the fermentation, add coconut water. Add pinch of salt and a few drops of oil (vegetable, canola or sunflower). You can add fenugeek seeds. Let the batter ferment in a warm environment. There is a slightly sour aroma of the fermented batter (leave 5 to 6 hours), a promise of the treat to come.

Steam the batter in an idli maker for 20 minutes.

Top the warm idli with these accompaniments:

✪ Coconut Chutney
Made with grated coconut, a handful of fresh curry leaves, 
& fresh coriander, 3 green chillies, 1 thumb peeled fresh ginger, clove of garlic, tamarind pulp, pottu kadalai (roasted Bengal Gram, also known as chutney dhal or fried channa) you can blend all ingredients in a food blender or pound to a rough paste in pestle and mortar. Season with salt.

✪ Sāmbhar
A mix of vegetables cooked with red lentils. Made with red lentils, carrot, silver beet and peas. 
Boil lentils together with rest of the vegetables until just cooked and set aside. 
In a saucepan heat olive oil, fry sliced onion, curry leaves, 3 dried red chillies and 1 teaspoon black mustard seeds, Add chopped garlic turmeric, cumin and paprika, fry for 3-4 minutes. 
Transfer vegetable mix in to the onion and spice mix cook on low heat for 20 minutes, stirring from time to time, season with salt. 

✪ Beetroot Temperadu
4 beetroots peeled, thinly sliced and cut into batons. 
Heat olive oil in a large fry pan, fry sliced onion, chopped fresh chillies, curry leaves mustard seeds until onion become a golden colour, add ginger garlic cumin turmeric and paprika. Stir fry for 3-4 minutes.
Add beetroot, mix well, add a little water, cover and cook on medium heat for 10-15 minutes, season with salt.

Kit Perera
Chef For A Night
0274 883 003

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Geraldine Johns reviews The Blue Breeze Inn

FIFTEEN MINUTES into the lunch hour and the Blue Breeze Inn is well-stacked with patrons. This is what happens when you're the hottest ticket in town.And that's why we've delayed breezing in to The Blue Breeze - even though we know we will be in capable hands.
   This is the latest baby of one of Ponsonby's restaurant Godfathers: Mark Wallbank (Moo Chow Chow, nee Rocco; Ponsonby Road Bistro and Magnum before that; Blake St Cafe.)
   But can he pull another rabbit out of the hat?
   There's a sense of glad about this place, partly due to the sun-shiny bright weather outside. That the wait staff have clearly taken heed of whatever they've been told about solicitous and welcoming behaviour further warms things up.
   Among those to attend to our table is Harold the Frenchman. Harold has a Masters degree in up-selling. He also bears an air of insouciance which is not out of place in these surrounds - even if you think it's a bit weird having a French waiter in a place boasting a predominately Chinese menu - with not an Asian face in sight in the open-to view kitchen. (Nor, for that matter, the dining area).
The menu offers the dishes big and small. A woman's heart sinks on learning that the dishes are for sharing. Too many flashbacks involving places that offered big plates, big prices and not a lot of food to go around.

   We shall get the barbecued pork bun. Harold persuades us to do two. We add to that the five spice smoked fish. And the crispy duck. There's some pickled cucumber as a side and later we will add some rice.
   The food arrives in no particular order. It is timed sharp enough to suit the suits who are watching their watches. It is pleasantly plated and there is (thankfully) a generosity about the serves.
   The Blue Breeze Inn is not just hot as a destination; there's a preponderance of Sichuan pepper in lots of the dishes here. But don't say you weren't warned: they post such details on the menu.
   We like these flavours. There's ample differentiation between each plate. We're a little overwhelmed by the unwieldy nature of the duck - you don't want to tackle that in public - but we have no other food quibble. These dishes are so lively and zest-filled you are moved to look more kindly on your world.

   A pity it is lunchtime: we won't be availing ourselves of the wine list - despite the considerable beckon it holds in its breadth and imagination.
   We won't be doing dessert either, in defiance of Harold's exhortations. But we will go back for a bigger night out.
   The Blue Breeze Inn is street food at restaurant prices in bright and, er, breezy surrounds (save for the bathrooms which are trademark dark.) It's a safe place for people who take venue into account as much as the food within. The address adds more strength to the enclave that is Ponsonby Central. And that can only be for the good.

Geraldine Johns

Where 146 Ponsonby Road, Ponsonby, Auckland. Phone (09) 360 0303
When  Lunch: Tuesday - Sunday. Dinner seven days.
How much Small appetites $4 - $18. Big appetites $26 - $38. Sides $3 - $18. Dessert $10 - $15

Aunties at Blossom Court

Abandoned by their menfolk on the night of the first Rugby Test between the All Blacks and France, Aunties decided to have a get-together at Blossom Court Malaysian Restaurant. I'm not a fan of Blossom Court but Aunties are. I find the style of cooking rather robust with indiscriminate use of crustacean but as my recent trip to Malaysia has proved, one can't eat like a Buddhist Nun so I decided to join. After all, Aunties know Malaysian food best.

As the young Chefs are from Penang, Aunties were in for a meal that befits Malaysian Cuisine. Despite the name, Blossom Court is rather a modern set-up. There are no Wau Bulan kites swilling above you, no batik fabric draped from ceiling to floor and the ubiquitous Terandak decorative sun hat is thankfully missing. Tables and chairs match, there's a bit of style.

The Blossom Assam Fish was the star dish, the gravy nicely balanced with spices and tangy assam. The tofu dish was cooked with sweet corn, snow peas, woodear, prawn and pork, rendered in an egg corn flour sauce.

There was approval in unison for the suggestion to order the Petai Sambal Prawns. It's not a dish I eat. The Petai (Parkia Speciosa) is known as Stink Bean.  It is cooked with prawn with sambal, or mixed with  dried shrimp (hay bee), chilli, red onions, belacan, soya sauce and minced meat. A pungent yet irresistible explosion of taste sensations.

I settled for the Hainanese Chicken just to avoid the prawns. More boiled than poached, it was what I wanted. For greens, we had the garlic long beans, cooked simply but it was perfection. So was the Salted Fish Eggplant. We spied specialty foods like Lobak, Nestum Prawns, Bakuteh, Marmite Pork Chop or Chicken, Kam Heong Chicken or Pork Chop. Brilliant!

We had Teh Halia (Ginger Tea) as opposed to the more usual Teh Tarik to round out the meal. Suffice to say, there are favourites like Cendol Ice, Ice Kachang (ABC), Bubur Ca-ca and even Durian Ice-Cream. So if you are homesick for Malaysian treats, Blossom Court can more than oblige.

Blossom Court
135 Queens Road
ph 09 527 7022