The best thing about travelling, in my opinion, is the culinary inspiration that can spring forth anytime during a trip. I got the idea of whipping up my own yoghurt with muesli after indulging in German-style breakfasts at Berlin cafes, so I lugged a one-kilogram muesli pack over thousands of miles back to Bangkok. Now I love to enjoy this hearty combination as a mid-morning snack, which acts as a tummy filler when I need to meet deadlines.
A recent work trip brought me to Berlin, where I stayed on for another four days to recharge my batteries after work had concluded. It was a refreshing change from Asia, the German orderliness a sharp contrast with frenetic Bangkok, and also presented a good opportunity for me to sample German food at its source.
Since I didn’t have much time to do research for my Berlin trip, I decided I’d just enjoy the spontaneity. Besides obligatory trips to icons like Brandenburg Gate, Berliner Dom and Checkpoint Charlie, a lot of my leisure time there was spent cupping a warm brew or slicing wurst. It was partly the weather’s fault. With temperatures hovering around zero, the cold got to me after every hour of walking. My companions, first my colleague and then my good friend who’s studying there, were more than agreeable to the jaunts in cafes too.
Cafes and restaurants in Berlin were surprisingly affordable, perhaps still a significant level above Bangkok’s prices but certainly equal or even less than Singapore’s. I was delighted to find that a cup of coffee was often priced at 2-3 euros (80-120 baht), similar to what higher-end cafes in Bangkok are asking for too, but of a much better quality. Furthermore, a lot of these cafes were individually owned, where the proprietor could often be seen bustling in the background and each place’s quirky character really shone through.
And I love popping into the supermarkets in Berlin to marvel at the dazzling array of cheese, sausages and alcohol on offer. Beer and wine are almost too cheap to be true—I even snapped a photo of a 35-cent beer to prove to Mr. P that I wasn’t lying when I said that alcohol was cheap. If we live in Germany, I thought, we will surely become alcoholics. Guess we Asian folks are missing out on the finer pleasures of drinking!
On my last day, I went on a grocery shopping rampage in Potsdam (where my friend was staying), popping into bakery to bag freshly baked bread, hopping into a boutique to browse locally produced cheese and wrapping it up at the supermarket to pick up as many sausages, goat’s cheese, olive, chocolates and tea bags that could fit into my luggage.
I think travelling is to make one more aware of other cultures and ways of life, and for me the culinary aspects of a place often speak the loudest. The numerous cafe trips in Berlin have given me inspiration to recreate some dishes and drinks on my own back in the sultry Bangkok and certainly left me hungering for more food experiences overseas. Till the next trip then!
You know how they say girls will start becoming like their mothers as they grow older. Now I’m beginning to believe that too. Browsing the stalls at the fresh market in my neighbourhood today, I came upon stacks of phak kwaang tung* (ผักกวางตุ้ง), whose vibrantly green stalks adorned with bright yellow flowers called out to me. “Hmm, these vegetables are too lovely for me to pass them up,” I thought to myself. Even though I had already planned the night’s dinner, I couldn’t resist buying two stalks of phak kwaang tung — and for a song too at 20 baht — to cook them the following night. This gesture so reminded me of my mum, I mused as I trotted home with bags laden with other purchases from the market. When I was still living at home with my parents in Singapore, the vegetables we ate were dependent on what caught my mum’s eye at the market that particular day. Often, when she came back from her marketing, she would declare, “The cai xin looks so fresh and pretty today, so I bought them to cook for dinner tonight.” And the
scary amusing thing, I realise, is that vegetable shopping isn’t the only aspect that I’ve picked up from my mum…
*Interestingly, choy sum/cai xin is known as phak kwaang tung in Thai, which means “Cantonese vegetable”, a name probably derived from its Southern Chinese origins.
Chinese New Year (CNY) came and went. My entire brood flew into Bangkok for a couple of days and we had such a tummy-bursting time! We had a buffet lunch in place of reunion dinner, ate lots of seafood and ordered a Peking duck for our last meal together in Bangkok. My family also brought some CNY goodies over to enable me to savour the festive feeling in Thailand. I had specifically requested for kueh lapis (the Indonesian layered cake) but my parents also brought over a bottle of pork floss snacks and a pack of bak kwa (pork jerky)—stuff food that are more symbolic of CNY, I guess.
Truthfully speaking, I’m rather ambivalent towards bak kwa, which is supposedly the top CNY goodie that so many are willing to sacrifice their money and time to get their hands on. And neither is Mr. P is a fan too. So before my family left for Singapore, I packed two-thirds of dried meat and sent it back with them. If I had kept the entire box to ourselves, I knew it would sit in our fridge for ages untouched.
Now CNY may be over, but I can still feel my folks’ love around. My dear mum suggested using bak kwa to cook fried rice, so I heeded her advice and whipped up bak kwa fried rice not once but twice last week. Both times, I cut the pork jerky into small pieces and mixed ingredients like baby corn, carrots and onions to jazz up the colours. And the results were quite good—the bak kwa yielded a similar taste as lap cheong (Chinese sausages). Mr. P and I both agree that we prefer eating bak kwa fried rice to biting on this calorie-laden snack on its own.
May we all have a prosperous Year of the Snake ahead!
I’m in a soda mood lately. On some hot days, I want to drink fizzy drinks minus the sugar, so I’ll order lemon soda if I’m outside. But not all soda drinks are created equal; some are too sour, others too sweet and the occasional one doesn’t seem to have soda in it. So now we mix my own soda drinks at home, and I’m addicted!
I recall a quirky Thai TV commercial featuring Singha soda, but found a very similar Cambodian version instead on Youtube.
Phat sii iw (ผัดซีอิ๊ว)— which literally means ‘stir-fried soy sauce’—made a recent appearance in my kitchen when I decided to try my hands at cooking this common street food in Thailand. Phat sii iw is a Chinese-influenced stir-fried dish that is similar to char kway teow in Singapore and Malaysia. Well, its name in Thai already alludes to its Chinese provenance.
Like any stir-fried dish, phat sii iw needs one vital component—a wok on high heat—to give it that distinctive wok smell, better known as wok hei in Cantonese or wo qi (镬气) in Chinese. There were many times when Mr. P and I wondered why we couldn’t whip up a favourite restaurant dish at home with similar results, and the explanation we came up with, apart from our lesser culinary skills, was the lack of a highly heated wok—think seasoned woks with high flames in zi char stalls in Singapore and any Chinese kitchen around the world. But alas, most home cooks like me will find it hard to recreate wok hei with just an electric stove, hence I’m craving for a gas stove in the near future where I’ll have better control of the cooking fire.
In Thailand, noodles are simply referred to as kuay tiao with specific names for the different types, such as sen yai, sen lei, ba mii and wun sen. So in this case, what is known as guo tiao/kway teow in Singapore is called sen yai (wide flat rice noodles) in Thailand, which means ‘big strips’ in Thai. I will usually cut the noodles into shorter strands first before cooking, otherwise it will be quite hard to stir-fry them around in my pan.
To make phat sii iw, kale is a vital ingredient. Kale is very popular in Thailand and is easily available in fresh markets and supermarkets. To complete the phat sii iw picture, other vital ingredients are dark soy sauce (sii iw dam), fish sauce and thinly sliced meat/seafood while eggs are optional. Below is an overview of the ingredients I used.
Into a pan on high heat, add chopped garlic followed by sliced pork, stirring them around until the meat turn from pink to pale brown. Add the noodles, followed by fish sauce, oyster sauce and dark soya sauce to taste; by then the mixture will turn into a medium brown. Finally add the kale, stir-frying the entire mixture around until the leaves are slightly wilted.
Mr. P and I bought a Prestige knife set as a Christmas/New Year gift to spur ourselves onto greater culinary heights. We owned another Prestige knife set actually, but that went with us to Singapore and never came back. We didn’t take very good care of our first set though, resulting in some stain marks on the blades, so we decided to save the hassle of moving the knives across countries again. Having learned our lessons, we have invested in another set, but this time round we intend to handle our new friends in the kitchen with utmost care!
There were other gorgeous, higher quality and more expensive knives of course, but we think our new collection is suffice for now until we attain better skills on the chopping board. The set comprises of five knives—paring, slicing, chef’s, bread and utility—which I think will cater to most kitchen needs.
Khaao yam (ข้าวยำ) and naam buuduu (น้ำบูดู), now where should I begin? It goes back to 2008, when a Thai colleague mentioned in passing that khaao yam, a Southern Thai rice salad, was her favourite Thai food. At that time I had just started living in Thailand and I was beginning to taste my way around Bangkok and Thailand. I didn’t manage to try the dish then, but the name stuck in my head.
My introduction to phat kaphrao (ผัดกะเพรา; stir-fried holy basil) goes back to the mid 2000s when I was just beginning my love affair with Thailand. Sharing a meal with Fye, a fellow Singaporean friend who’s a real Thai nut, in Chiang Mai one day, he said: “Phat kaphrao is a no-brainer dish. It’s something that Thais would order when they have no idea what they want to eat.” I’ve heeded his advice since then, often opting for the ubiquitous phat kaphrao at raan aahaan taam sang (ร้านอาหารตามสั่ง; cook-to-order restaurants) if I’m undecided what I want, although fried rice comes in a close second.
Mr. P and I adore mushrooms in all shapes and sizes, from portobellos (expensive in this region) to enoki (goodle needle mushrooms) to Narcissus canned mushrooms and anything in between. It’s the only food that we perennially stock up at home because any mushroom gets eaten as quickly as it pops up in our fridge.