Sunday, 29 April 2012

memories of pakistani chinese & a recipe for chicken corn soup

chicken corn soup at thirty-two
i cannot think of a particular cuisine and culture that does not have a version of chicken soup. folk medicine and chicken soup have somewhat of a symbiotic relationship because every mother or grandmother i have known always recommends chicken soup as the restorative broth for coughs and colds. jewish cuisine goes so far as to maintain that chicken soup is penicillin for colds. i am not too sure about that because in my experience coughs and colds run their full course. but i do agree that a large bowl of chicken soup does much to lift the spirits when your nose is rimmed red and raw from having been cleaned too much and your throat feels like it has been sandpapered.

the pakistani version of chicken soup is yakhni. this clear and simple broth is actually steeped in flavour having drawn the entire essence of the chicken carcass. a thin film of fat from the chicken marks the surface as it cools. i must admit i am not too keen on plain yakhni for that reason but was quite content to drink mugs of powdered maggi yakhni as a child. (maggi is a nestlé brand of instant soups, sauces, stocks, seasonings and instant noodles. in south asia, its products include flavours like masala and chatpata alongside chicken and beef). i do sometimes wonder how mama put up with that given that a processed packaged mug of broth is nothing but manufactured flavour. aside from the synthetic  flavoured maggi, my other favourite was chinese chicken and vegetable soup. this was a clear chicken soup with paper-thin slices of chicken and vegetables poached in the broth. in some cases it would be thickened with corn flour. it was very rare for me to choose the common pakistani favourite chicken corn soup when we ate chinese.

i have always wondered what it is about chinese chicken corn soup that makes it so loved by the pakistani populace. its popularity is such that pakistani fast-food chains like black beards, captain cooks and dainty have it on their menu. perhaps its allure lies in how easily it can be made to conform to the pakistani palette. over zealous seasoning with rings of green chillies pickled in vinegar, pepper, soy sauce and red chilli flakes transformed it into a soup of purely local appeal. i always observed this transformation with interest as i tucked into a beef cheeseburger at black beards or the fantastic chicken fillet burger at dainty. the latter was the most perfect deep-fried chicken fillet smothered in mayonnaise on a milky sweet bun. the former had a patty that was too thin to be classified as a real burger but had that addictive quality of fast food. only the sweetness of the bun and a slice of a very yellow processed cheese balanced the peppery saltiness of the patty. i have no qualms admitting to eating these. i probably would not eat them now but back then the occasional burger from these fast food places was the perfect fix for a ‘desi’ burger craving. if i wanted the real deal, mama and baba made perfect classic burgers at home. black beards and dainty were the pakistani equivalent of burger king and kentucky fried chicken and who doesn’t love that guilt ridden fast food fix once in a while. when i was craving fast-food chinese i gravitated towards the peppery chowmein so i was quite surprised when two days ago i found myself wanting chinese chicken corn soup.

it could be the never-ending rain and cold windy weather in london, or a slow recovery from a cold that took residence in my chest and voice box. or it could have been the conversation with my best-friend sk who has been eating bowlfuls of chicken corn soup in from her local takeaway in dubai. i was unable to replicate the pakistani version probably because i do not season my soup as aggressively as i had seen in pakistan. but it is also because i added the egg and lemon mixture into the soup at too low a heat so the egg did not cook in wisps. pakistani chicken corn soup has a clear thick constitution with wisps of egg suspended in it. mine was a cloudy creamy concoction closer to an avgolemono (a mediterranean sauce and/or soup made with egg and lemon juice mixed with stock and heated until thick) . nevertheless it was as much comfort and nostalgia as could be held in a bowl. i garnished it with thinly sliced scallions, a dash of soy sauce and a single twist of the pepper mill. my version of chicken corn soup is nigella-ish – the stock came from a cube, the chicken was diced and sautéed with garlic and ginger rather poached and shredded and it only occurred to me afterwards that a little drizzle of toasted sesame oil would have been most welcome. but i am sure there will be a next time given that o loves chicken corn soup. something tells me that i will be making lots of this next winter. the recipe below makes two substantial bowls of chicken corn soup and is adapted from ainsley harriott’s meals in minutes.

one tablespoon vegetable oil
hundred grams boneless, skinless chicken breasts
one clove garlic, finely chopped
one cm piece of ginger, grated fine
one tablespoon cornflour
six hundred ml hot chicken stock made with a stock cube
hundred grams sweet corn
one egg
one tablespoon fresh lemon juice
one scallion, thinly sliced
soy sauce to drizzle
coarse pepper

dice the chicken into small pieces. heat the oil in a deep pan and cook till almost tender. introduce the garlic and ginger to the pan and cook to release their aromas. don’t let them colour.

blend the cornflour with a little stock and add to the soup pan with the remaining stock and the sweet corn. bring to the boil, stirring continuously and simmer gently for five to seven minutes

beat together the egg and lemon juice and slowly trickle into the soup pan, stirring with a chopstick or fork to form egg strands. correct the seasoning. i personally find that the stock is salty enough.  if you are using soy sauce that will be salty too so avoid over-salting. i use low sodium stock cubes and soy sauce.

ladle some soup into a bowl. garnish it with scallions, soy sauce and pepper and it is ready to eat.  

Friday, 27 April 2012

on perfect granola, lucky peach & the politics of food-blogging

gula melaka granola
put simply, this post is about granola perfected. i believe that granola aficionados should have a recipe to call their own. like most cooking, recipes are seldom invented anymore. instead they are adapted and made ones own through personalisation. but before i move onto the granola i want to take a moment and tell you about ‘lucky peach’ a quarterly food journal co-edited by momofuku’s dave chang. it makes for wonderful reading about everyday issues in food. issue number three is all about chefs. it flits between profanity, colloquialism, the politics of food and a beautiful essay by anthony bourdain on food in film titled eat, drink, fuck, die. and then there are recipes whose steps are connected with arrows like office presentations.  

lucky peach, quarterly food journal
the opening chef rant between dave chang, claude bosi, sat bains and daniel patterson is all about integrity, creation and copying and giving credit. i know that this conversation seems a little oblique but you’ll understand what i am talking about as you read on. the base recipe i have used for my perfect granola is nekisia davis’olive oil and maple granola who has adapted it very slightly from early bird foods' best-selling farmhand's choice granola... having read the chef rant a couple of days, i finally had the time to sift through my thoughts on the issue integrity and creativity.

over the last couple of months i’ve been seeing a lot of frustration in the blogging world. there have been incidences where pictures from the popular pinboard site pinterest have been used without proper attribution. and then there are the disconcerted food bloggers whose pictures and recipes have been lifted and used without acknowledgement. of course none of this is new and as very small fry i’ve never personally been affected by it. before twitter these issues were generally relegated to forums like egullet and chowhound or as extended discussions between blog readers at the end of posts. the ability to moderate comments allowed some sense of decorum to prevail. twitter demands that people should have the ability to moderate themselves, a skill which few people have or exercise. what’s more is that there is little sense of communal ethic for the creative aspect of blogging. shayma is an exceptional food blogger and author of the spice spoon: cooking without borders whose recent post on ‘the sad sideof food blogging’ picks on all these issues including the more serious one of what happens when entire ideas and concepts are copied. as i read the chef’s rant it occurred to me that what all of really want is respect for our creativity, and that respect isn’t the sole province of those with established names and celebrity status.

one of the things i enjoy most about food blogging is that there are some excellent writers out there and they all have different voices. i love that smittenkitchen writes like she’s thinking out loud. it’s almost as if you were sitting across from her and listening to her. shayma’s writing is poetic and makes me nostalgic for pakistani monsoons, steaming cups of tea and hot, flaky samosas dipped in a combination of mitchell’s ketchup and chili garlic sauce. i turn to heidi’s one o one cookbooks when i want recipes with simple write-ups. to me, her photography speaks more than the words. indian simmer’s prerna is a narrative of food memories brought to life with her beautiful vibrant pictures. as the daughter of a writer and craftswoman i am often confounded by the lack of respect that we have for each other’s creativity, but as a legal and human rights practitioner i am very alive to the fact that this is why society needs frameworks of principles and laws. left to our own devices, we are incapable of ethics.

in the time that it took to make and bake the granola, i realised that there isn’t really much one can do about this except speak and write about it. but it did make me realize that one has to be confident about their writing and work and cultivate acknowledgement of other people’s work where it has been used. and when that acknowledgement isn’t forthcoming remember that those who are aware of creativity and individuality will always admire such work. in that spirit, here’s to food fifty-two, nekisia davis’ and farmhand’s choice granola. thank you for inspiring my perfect granola.

i have a couple of notes on my perfect granola as my choice of sweeteners is quite different from the one’s nekisia uses. i recently came back from singapore where i bought gula melaka (coconut palm sugar). this sugar is essentially the sap of flower bud of the coconut tree. it is commonly used in malay desserts and i bought large coins of it at geyland serai market in singapore. the boiled sap is poured into bamboo tubes that allow it to set in a coin shape. the sugar has a distinct coconut smell and has a light caramel sweetness. along with this i used a himalayan honey so dark that it is almost black. this was also bought in singapore and tastes like a light molasses. the honey is necessary as its stickiness gives the granola a bit of character by allowing the oats to develop little clusters.

coins of gula melaka dissolving in olive oil & honey
m’s perfect granola

hundred grams gula melaka
hundred ml runny honey
hundred ml olive oil
one-tablespoon maldon sea salt
one and a half teaspoons ground cinnamon
seven hundred and fifty grams old fashioned rolled oats
one hundred grams sunflower seeds
two hundred grams pumpkin seeds
two hundred and fifty grams mixed nuts – i used almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pecan nuts, cashews and brazil nuts
two large roasting tins or baking sheets with rims

to start pre-heat the oven to a hundred and fifty degrees celsius.

combine the gula melaka, honey, olive oil, salt and cinnamon in a saucepan over low heat. this allows the gula melaka to dissolve easily.

place the oats, nuts and seeds in a large mixing bowl. once the mixture of oil, sweeteners, spice and salt is smooth pour it onto the oats and nuts. mix it well until combined ensuring that none of the oats are left uncoated.

divide evenly between the roasting tins/baking sheets and bake, stirring every ten to fifteen minutes for forty-five minutes. the granola will crisp further as it cools.

wait for it to cool fully before you store it in an airtight jar. according to nekisia this granola should keep for a month. a batch like this does not usually last beyond a fortnight at my place so i’ll have to trust her. my only reservation is that walnuts tend to go rancid rather quickly so i’d personally recommend that if you intend to keep your granola for a month, don’t use them. i used to add chewy things like chopped dates, apricots or raisins to granola but lately i’ve tended towards savoury-sweet granolas. if you prefer something sweeter then you can always up the amount of sweeteners and add some dried fruits.
the combination of gula melaka, honey and salt gives this granola a savoury sweetness. roasting the nuts and seeds together brings out their nuttiness. the colour of this batch is a brown-amber. my favourite way of eating this (aside from dry snacking) is to sprinkle it on greek yoghurt with some sliced fresh fruit. banana always works well, as do peaches and grated apples.    

Thursday, 26 April 2012

avocado on sourdough, paprika egg and tomato jam

avocado on sourdough, paprika egg & tomato jam
breakfast, the first meal of the day is quite an important one at thirty-two. i think mama and babcia should be glad of the breakfast discipline they instilled in me. for aside from my late teens when eating and i had a relationship breakdown i have never gone breakfast-less. o is quite content eating cardboard flavoured bran flakes, which he says, keeps him going till lunch. i on the other hand much prefer my little tupperware of greek yoghurt with a sliced banana and a drizzle of honey. sometimes i’ll leave a tablespoon or two of oats to soften in yoghurt with a grated apple overnight. and i’ll sprinkle it with nuts before carrying it to work. i usually have a jar of homemade granola at hand to spruce up weekday breakfasts. i don’t see why one should content oneself with things that look and taste like cardboard just because it’s a weekday. on weekends o has particular favourites, which always involve eggs.

as of late i’ve been eating a lot of avocado on toast. i’ve found these baby hass avocado’s that are perfect for individual servings and so i decided to introduce o to one of my favourite combinations – eggs and avocado. i first had this combination in arizona and i know that it is very popular in california. american egg breakfasts invariably come with some kind of cheese and sour cream. i find that the buttery flesh of avocado needs to be treated with a little delicacy and this is where the australian’s have figured out the perfect combination. tori’s absolutely right when she says that sourdough, eggs and avocado are ‘the great rendering of a holy australian trinity’. i take no credit for this recipe as it is derived solely from porch and parlour (where i have never been) and tori herself. the little bit of me comes in the shape of a tangy stovetop tomato jam which i feel cuts through the richness of the avocado and the gentle protein of the egg. there is a generous pinch of kirmizi biber that ties the eggs, avocado and tomato jam together in a sweet-spicy heat. i rolled the egg in maldon salt and some smoked paprika as suggested by tori. the yolks should have been a little runnier but i missed the sound of the timer and luckily o wasn’t too fussed about it.

although this is a really simple breakfast, it is the quality of the ingredients that make it taste good. so get eggs that have sunflower yolks and a really good quality sourdough bread. i use clarence court eggs (both burford browns and legbars are excellent). make sure that your avocado is ripe and at room temperature as that helps bring out both its buttery and nutty flavours. drizzle your toasted sourdough with a good olive oil.

and don’t rush. this is the kind of breakfast that you take your time over.

if you still have space left over then you may want to tuck into  a sweet version of avocado on toast. i remember eating grilled avocado drizzled with honey in arizona once and often replicate it on toast. essentially, you take half an avocado, brush it with honey and put the cut side down on a grill. this was served with a side of meat. at home, i just take slices of avocado, place them on toasted bread and drizzle with runny honey or maple syrup. i usually make this when i make cornbread as its slight grittiness provides a lovely contrast. but it’s equally good on sourdough too. 

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

melrose and morgan, primrose hill

granola and bircher muesli, melrose and morgan
it’s ten am on a saturday morning. p and i are meeting for breakfast at melrose and morgan in primrose hill. i’ve been meaning to try this grocery shop-cum-kitchen for a while now and was actually really glad when p picked it over made in camden. i had fully intended to practice yoga that afternoon so wanted something lighter than a full-scale brunch. but my plans to practice got scuppered because the sun came out and we walked through ‘uniqlo square’. a coffee at sandwich and spoon turned into a long chat and then richard dare’s cook and kitchenware shop and mary’s living and giving shop waylaid us.

mary's living & giving shop
melrose and morgan has a tinted glass exterior that gives you somewhat of an idea of the groceries inside. a long table flanks the length of the shop. in the morning mostly sweet things dominate the display – meringues large and puffed like shirts with shoulder pads, a carrot cake thick with frosting and scattered with walnuts sits on a white cake stand and hot cross buns anointed with egg wash glisten lightly. i like that the crumble-topped muffins are cased in cut up grease paper rather than ready made cases.

melrose and morgan
carrot cake
p likes savoury pastry like things and so picked a sausage roll. i cannot resist a good granola and the one at melrose and morgan looked really good. it was nutty brown punctuated with whole almonds, seeds and sour cherries. i picked cold milk over yoghurt as i want to see how crisp the granola was. the milk turned pale amber as the granola lost its honeyed sweetness to it, but the oats remained resiliently crisp. i loved the honey caramel coat on the toasted almonds, pumpkin and sunflower seeds. the sour cherries were just the right balance of tartness against all the sweetened crunchy elements of the granola. if you like granola, this is one to add to your list of loved ones.

our breakfast turned out to be rather leisurely and we reluctantly vacated our seats by the window as we saw a father and son standing and eating. it was only fair though as we had been there for almost two hours. conversation was thick and fast and covered everything from women, the politics of equality in relationships, work place strife and the idiosyncrasies of the food blogging world. p and i have met our fair share of food bloggers for whom food blogging is about becoming so visible on the restaurant and bar circuit that they get invited to every opening. for the both of us, it is the food and the people we share it with that are more important. wander over to p’s writing at a table for one and you’ll see what i mean. 

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

a recipe for roasted grape preserve

roasted grape preserve
o often says that i eat raisins like people eat popcorn at the cinema. on weeknights when o and i settle down for some commercial free television (thank you sky+ for this facility) and i haven’t had time to make something sweet i’ll pull out a bag of flame dried raisins or sultanas. my love for raisins is an extension of my love for grapes. and i have loved both since i was a little girl. i remember baba bringing home bunches of grapes for me. there were the large bulbous ones with thick black-purple skins. i liked these ones despite their slightly rubbery skin and thick seeds. but the ones i loved were the slim elongated oval sunder khani grapes native to afghanistan. after a summer season intense with the sweetness of mango and the cooling seed ridden flesh of watermelon, i would look forward to these delicate grapes whose syrupy sweetness was like a floral honey. the fruit wallah would display the grapes on inverted crates lined with newspaper. their distinct honeyed aroma would invite a swarm of honeybees. i was always reluctant to pick a bunch myself for fear of being stung and waited patiently for the fruit wallah to pick one. baba would hold it up to check the denser parts for fermented grapes making sure that there was as little spoilage as possible. of course some of the grapes would puncture with heat and ripeness and the juices that spilt would leave sticky stains on the skin. sunder khani grapes had pale green translucent skins and if you held them up to the light you could see the flesh of the grape. i haven’t had these since i moved from pakistan in two thousand and one. mama and baba tell me that the sunder khani of my childhood no longer exists as a most of the fruit in pakistan now comes from china and is quite tasteless. however, the memory of them does not leave me and often when i sit down to a bunch of grapes in london, i am nostalgic for the sunder khani of my childhood.

most of the green grapes that i find in london are quite tasteless and so i mostly buy the reddish-purple ones. the south african crimson’s are the tastiest with a sugary sweetness, especially when they are cold. this wasn’t true of the sunder khani though, as they were intensely sweet especially when warm. i know this because i would often steal them from the bag after we had shopped for them despite mama’s consternation on eating unwashed fruit.

sometimes, when i get a bunch of grapes that are tasteless i treat them to a little heat with some honey to coax their slight flavours. it was one such experiment that led to roasted grape preserve. roasting them in the oven transformed them into a syrupy preserve that tastes good folded into greek yoghurt whipped with a little bit of crème fraiche to give it some lightness. more recently i used them in a tartine paired with a ripe brie sprinked with broken walnut halves or firm ricotta lightly fried in olive oil with a sprinkle of maldon salt and sumac. i also discovered the second time round that it was unnecessary to use honey as the natural sugars in grapes (even tasteless ones) concentrate with the heat. if you end up using them for dessert and find that you require sweetness, then you can always sweeten the yoghurt or crème fraiche. i think that they would be a treat folded into a lightly sweetened mascarpone or ricotta. it is for this reason that i called them roasted grape preserve for although they have a texture a kin to compote they are not cooked in sugar syrup.

roasted grape preserve 
a five hundred gram punnet of grapes
one tablespoon olive oil
a roasting tin large enough to hold the grapes comfortably in a single layer

preheat the oven to a one hundred and seventy celsius. 

place the tablespoon of oil in the roasting tin and let it warm in the oven while you wash and halve the grapes. 

once the oil is warm place the grapes in the pan and shake it gently. 
do make sure that the grapes are fully coated with the olive oil otherwise their sugary juices will burn in the oven. return to the oven and let them roast for half an hour to forty minutes, stirring them half way through. 

i like to retain some of the juices as they give the bread in a tartine a bit of moisture. if you prefer less juice then roast for a little longer making sure to check on them frequently so that the sugars do not burn.

Monday, 23 April 2012

little india, singapore

little india, buffalo road
singapore’s local cuisine is a blend of malaysian, chinese and indian influences. after a week of eating chinese and malaysian food both o and i were craving the familiar tastes of the subcontinent and so we headed to little india. there is much to see in this vibrant neighbourhood from the wet market (in singapore open air markets that sell fish, meat and vegetables have wet floors due to melting ice, fish cleaning and vegetable washing that goes on with the produce), food centre and shopping mall in tekka market to the temples, adbul ghafoor mosque and one of the last surviving chinese villas in little india. the residence of tan teng niah is bright and colourful. it features richly carved pintu pagar (decorative swinging doors) and a bamboo roof. the restored building is now used as medical and health shop and a yoga therapy centre.

tailor shop in tekka market 
wet market at tekka market
wet market at tekka market
clothes on display at tekka market
on cuff road i found an old and one of the only surviving spice grinding mills in singapore. its presence is felt in the air outside, which is heady with spice and makes one choke involuntarily. the interior is dark and cool but heavy with spice fumes that make it hard to breathe. a petite lady in a sari with a mask over her face operates the mill. on the day that i went little mountains of red chilli powder sat along side bright yellow ones of turmeric. she tells me that she works five days a week. despite the high demand for freshly ground spices there is an issue finding workers who would perform the task of grinding. so it is likely that the mill will not survive once the lady who currently runs it is unable to do so.

abdul ghafoor mosque, little india
sri veeramakaliamman temple
tan teng niah residence, little india
aside from an abundance of fruit and vegetable shops there are numerous jewellers and flower stalls. garlands of jasmine, marigold and roses are strung for hindu devotees as they go for puja at the temples dedicated to the fiercely courageous kali and vishnu. i bought the jasmine (motia) garlands to wear on my wrist as i did in pakistan. the heady and sweet fragrance of them reminded me of the wedding season in pakistan when my paternal aunt would string the little flowers onto thin wire to wear them as earrings. girls with long hair often wove strings of jasmine into their braids and plaits. baba would often buy the garlands to perfume his mercedes. they were only item permitted to be hung from the rearview mirror.

flower stall, little india
we went to komala vilas twice during my stay in singapore. this indian vegetarian restaurant has existed since nineteen forty-seven and is always busy. o and i had delightfully crisp dosas (fermented indian pancakes) with lentils the consistency of thin milk (sambar), a chilli chutney and a cooling sweet one made with coconut. i tried the rawa dosa that is made from semolina. it is texturally more interesting than the typical dosa but i much prefer the tartness of the fermented dosa. on another occasion i tried the channa’s with roti. they were held together by an excellent masala and were very good. a plate of vadai was less successful if only because the yoghurt that accompanied the lentil and onion fritters was warm and too tart. o loved the badam (almond) milk despite its lurid yellowness. i found it overbearingly sweet much like most milk-based drinks in singapore. the masala chai at komala vilas is excellent as it is not too sweet and well brewed. it is served in stainless steel tumblers with thin rims. the tumbler is seated in a shallow wider version of the glass like tumbler in which the tea is contained. this is meant to be used to cool the tea and is similar to the manner in which truck drivers take their tea at dhaba’s (roadside kiosks) along the grand trunk road in pakistan. they would pour the steaming pakki chai (cooked tea) into the saucer and sip from it. at komala vilas the idea is to pour the tea between the two tumblers allowing the heat to escape. i like my tea as hot as possible but observed that a lot of the men cooled their tea before drinking it.  

masala dosa at komala vilas
on another visit to little india a colleague of o’s joined us. together we tried the fish head curry at banana leaf apolo. this is a signature singaporean dish created in the nineteen fifties by a south indian migrant to singapore. the indian’s and chinese make different versions of fish head curry with the former featuring a rich chilli curry. the fish head used to make the curry is large and has ample meat on it. it was very tasty. chunks of chicken marinated in hara masala were succulent and juicy. our order of biryani never materialised but the bill included a charge for three biryanis. if there are two things you ought to be aware of eating out in singapore, they are the lack of good service and incorrect bills. be rest assured that you will experience both of these very frequently so make sure you check your bill thoroughly. as for the less than satisfactory service, you will need to cultivate patience for that one. i am afraid there is no other solution available.    

ottolenghi's blood orange polenta cake

ottolenghi's blood orange polenta cake
o became british on sixteenth april twenty twelve. it is of course no secret that thirty two loves ottolenghi and so it should come as no surprise that ottlenghi’s creations were an important part of the celebration of his newly acquired status. on the morning of o’s citizenship ceremony the sun decided to show its face in what has otherwise been a very wet april. sadly, a rather stubborn bout of laryngitis had claimed my voice and i remained mute through the celebratory lunch at the islington ottolenghi. the ceremony itself was relaxed and informal. the mayor of finsbury spoke a little bit about the history of the borough and the culture of freedom of speech, democracy and diversity in the united kingdom. choreographed pictures by a photographer who wore a silky tie with a huge tigger and piglet print accompanied the citizenship certificates. o became british to the soundtrack of the beatles playing softly in the council chamber at islington town hall.

after the ceremony concluded we walked the short distance to ottolenghi and sat down to lunch. the flagship minimalist decor and white crockery amplifies the brightness of salads made with vegetables with autumnal tones like butternut squash, heritage carrots and aubergines. earthy grains like farro and quinoa brightened with pomegranate seeds and fresh herbs were like the first blush of spring that is sorely lacking in the weather outside. o and h indulged in a glass of prosecco whilst i had to content myself with a pot of green tea. the three of us had a choice of two salads and a side of meat. h had the lamb, o the beef and i had a thick fillet of salmon that came with a crown of marinated artichokes. o’s butterbean hummus is silky smooth and heavy with the rich sharp taste of tahini. the artichoke on my salmon added a lemony freshness that cut through the fattiness of the fish. chunks of butternut squash that had been roasted until the flesh is tender is lacquered with a piquant greek yogurt dressing. ottolenghi always creates food that appeals to all the elements of the palate – sweet, savoury, tart and bitter. visually, it is a riot of colour and is enough to lift ones spirits no matter how british the weather is.

a slice of blood orange polenta cake
at home, i had made the new citizen ottolenghi’s orange polenta cake delicately scented with orange blossom water. the cake draws texture from polenta and moisture from ground almonds and citrus fruit. its exterior has that pleasing chewiness that comes from the caramel used to glaze the slices of oranges that give the cake its distinctive orange studded surface. this is a cake that keeps well and tastes better as it sits. if you do plan to put it in the fridge i would recommend bringing it to room temperature before you serve it. it is a labour intensive cake in the sense that you will have a pile of washing up to do but it’s definitely worth the effort. it isn’t a very sweet cake although that may well be because i dispensed with the optional marmalade glaze. it is for this reason that o did not take to the dollop of crème fraiche that i served it with. i however like the contrast…

the recipe for orange polenta cake appears in ottolenghi the cookbook on page one nine five. an adapted version of it with american measurements is on the gourmet website.    

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

singapore: the dessert diary

singaporean's desserts are brighter than the
colourful windows at the mica building
my other half loves sweet things. he always likes a sweet something to conclude a meal and is quite content eating a couple of squares of chocolate or a dollop of yoghurt with fruit compote on most nights. he’s a real fan of my crumble, especially pear crumble with a candied ginger crème fraiche. he’s definitely not a fan of south east asian desserts though, so i could never coax him to try steamed egg custard buns whose sweet-salty flavours i so love. red bean steamed buns were totally out of the question. in singapore, i renewed my efforts to get him to try some of the malay, chinese and singaporean sweets and can say with certainty that i cemented his dislike for south east asian desserts. what’s more is that steamed buns and mango pudding aside i completely agree with him.

if i were allowed only one word to describe singaporean desserts it would be ‘psychedelic’. as a child when my family and i took weekend trips to the murree and nathia gali we would indulge in thick slices of buttery pound cake with cups of doodh patti (cooked tea). the cake was so rich it would leave the skin of your fingers soft with butter. but i always suspected that the yellowness of the cake was doctored as it was uncomfortably neon in its brightness. small bakeries along the mall in murree would sell luridly bright neon green, pink and yellow layer cakes with butter cream. i never ate these. then i came to singapore and discovered a world of desserts so bright and psychedelic that it made the pakistani cakes of my youth appear subdued. delicate layers of malay kuih were distractingly bright, their neon akin to the highest setting on the saturation filter in photography. most of these are based on a combination of coconut milk, rice flour, tapioca flour, pandan leaf flavour with agar agar used to set the ingredients together. food colouring is used to produce exaggerated shades of green, pink, purple, blue, yellow, red and orange.

pyschedelic bobo cha-cha
cold desserts like ice kachang and bubur cha-cha are equally pyschedelic and are based on a combination of shaved ice flavoured with sweet syrups or coconut milk. ice kachang includes red beans, sweet corn and palm seeds. o and i tried bubur cha-cha (often known as bobo cha-cha). this is a typical nyonya dessert associated with the peranakan chinese immigrants who settled in the straits. their cuisine is popular in singapore and is a mix of the varied heritage of chinese along with the local non-muslim women that many of the chinese men took as their wives. like ice kachang, bubur cha-cha starts with a base of shaved ice seasoned with spoonfuls of coconut milk. this is topped with cubes of boiled yams and sweet potato. brightly coloured and very tasteless tapioca flour jellies help work your mouth muscles and tapioca pearls add another less demanding exercise of the same. it wasn’t our cup of tea!

the dim sum and steamed bao stall at lau pasat
to be fair there are some south east asian desserts that i really enjoy. o is not a fan of pillow soft steamed buns with centres of red bean paste or yolk rich custards with a slightly savoury edge. i had a lovely steamed custard bun at lau pasat to round a dim sum lunch. i also fell in love with steamed yellow cake, essentially a lighter steamed version of pound cake that i found in chinatown people’s park centre. i tried some local biscuits with pale green centres of pandan leaf flavoured filing. these were salty sweet and would be nice with teh. i introduced o to my all time favourite chinese dessert that is mango pudding. i love mangoes especially pakistani ones with their intoxicating sweet smell and smooth yellow flesh. the perfect summer dessert is diced chilled mango with squiggles of cream. mango pudding is a similar partnership but takes the form of a milk jelly. evaporated milk, mango puree and cubes of mango are set using agar agar. carnation milk is served on the side. presumably it is intended to cut through the sweetness but it has the opposite effect as its peculiar saltiness amplifies the sweetness of the mango. the best one we had was at crystal jade in holland village.

gula melaka pandan cake
to make up for the bubur cha-cha mishap i tried to find o some nice desserts. cedele’s gula melaka pandan cake (palm sugar and pandan leaf) is a celebration of local flavours. the chiffon cake drew colour and flavour from pandan leaves. it was sandwiched with a layer of kaya (coconut jam) and finished with a gula melaka cream-cheese frosting, which tastes a bit like a caramel. it’s only weakness was the density of the chiffon cake most likely through heavy handed mixing. but this is something that can be fixed. my own selection of earl grey affogato with earl grey and fig ice cream was excellent as the ice cream was smooth with the figs providing a chewy contrast. it melted into the affogato to create a cooling tea. i'd definitely recommend both of these to you if you are in singapore.

singapore's sky line in the early afternoon post rain
on our last day in singapore o and i went to ps café, ann siang hill. we sat on the roof terrace serenaded by jazz and surrounded by the glass jungle of singapore’s skyline. an earlier rain shower had drawn the heat from the concrete leaving a pleasant coolness that is so rare in singapore. i had a lemon and honey soother as my sweet conclusion for the day. o had a thick wedge of flourless orange cake with a crown of orange peels. a orange butterscotch sauce and a scoop of vanilla ice cream added more moistness to the cake. i know that o really enjoyed it. as for me, i was content with his company, the jazz and the glass lit skyline around me. 

a special mention goes to freshly baked by le bijoux’s chocolate sponge cake. shaped like a loaf it is has a rich chocolate flavour and a light texture. it reminded me of american devils food cake sans frosting. o insisted on trying laurent bernard whose french patisserie at robertson quay has a distinctly european décor. unfortunately the chocolate soufflé was disappointing with an overreaching egg flavour. it was overcooked and had none of the lightness that is characteristic of soufflé. the raspberry sorbet and pistachio ice cream were excellent though and o’s rum and raisin hot chocolate was outstanding. dark liquid chocolate generously spiked with rum. the raisins are a slightly fiddly addition but their rum plumped bodies made it impossible to leave them seated at the bottom of the cup. so when o was done drinking his hot chocolate i finished them with a spoon.
american ice cream parlours like marble slab, arizona based cold stone creamery and ben and jerry’s are very popular in singapore so if you don’t fancy ice kachang’s and bubur cha-cha you can always head to these for a cold treat. the americana in singapore be it the numerous and familiar chains like the ice cream parlours mentioned above, or nantucket and mrs. fields cookies and places like wendy’s and california pizza kitchen made me miss arizona palpably.           

o and i revisited our childhoods with tubs of movenpick bought from the japanese supermarket near our place. when we were little these were a real treat and one of the few international ice creams available in pakistan. now of course you can get häagen-dazs and there is the homegrown hotspot that brought classic american flavours like cookie dough and chocolate fudge brownie to pakistan. but to return to movenpick, the tubs are square now and not oblong with a see through cover as we remembered them. the maple walnut was excellent but the strawberry was disappointing. our recollections were based on one that was more like strawberries and cream with a pale pink colour. this tub of movenpick strawberry was sweeter, brighter and tasted slightly artificial. perhaps singapore’s love of neon had crept into the box or our memory failed us. 

Sunday, 8 April 2012

toast box - a contemporary kopitiam

singapore national museum
the singapore national museum’s permanent exhibition includes the living galleries one of which is dedicated to food. it is here that i learnt of the origin of the kopitiam, essentially coffee shop. the word kopitiam is an amalgamation of kopi, the malay word for coffee and tiam, which in the hokkien dialect means shop. the kopitiam is a quintessential feature of south east asia and are found in singapore, malaysia and indonesia. they started up in the 1930s and were largely run by the hainanese chinese and were meant to cater to chinese bachelors. by the 1950s they had evolved into coffee and breakfast houses as they began to serve foods like chicken rice and curry rice. the kopi was made from beans that were roasted in a wok with butter and sugar over a wood-fire, ground and then brewed with a sock like strainer. the brew was whitened with sweetened condensed milk and more sugar. it was served in thick porcelain cups. the indian muslims had their own version of kopitiam called sarabat. the term was derived from the arab work sariba, which means to drink. the sarabat stalls typically served teh halia (ginger tea) and halal muslim snacks. eng’s working paper on ‘the kopitiam in singapore: an evolving story about migration and cultural diversity’ sheds interesting light on the relationship of the kopitiam with different immigration demographics and its evolution into a social space for ‘coffeeshop talk’. the hainanese chinese were responsible for the westernisation of the food at kopitiams given their culinary experience of working in european households. this explains why foods such as kaya toast and half-boiled eggs appeared alongside typical hainanese fare such as chicken rice and curry chicken.