The bitter truth about ageing

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As a kid, bitter gourd was one of my least favourite vegetables. Conversely, eggs were top on my list. So whenever my mum cooked stir-fried bitter gourd with eggs, it became a bittersweet dilemma for me. Should I eat or not eat? My young taste buds abhorred the taste that the astringent vegetable left in my mouth, yet on the other hand I craved for the egg bits.

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“Eat! Bitter gourd is a cooling food,” my mum would command. “We’ve been eating too much heaty food lately, bitter gourd will help to balance our system.”

In the end I would muster up the courage and pick out the smallest possible pieces of bitter gourd, quickly popping them into my mouth followed by a big spoonful of rice to lessen the bitter taste.

Some years later, I would read that women’s ability to taste bitterness diminishes with age—aha! So that’s why Mummy could take bitter food much better than I do, I thought.

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And interestingly, nowadays seeing the pale-green melons stewed with pork ribs at Teochew khaaotom (porridge) stores in my neighbourhood always make me crave for them. Thankfully, like the rest of Asia, bitter gourd is commonly found in fresh markets in Thailand, giving me the chance to bag one of these oblong beauties home for dinners. And hence I conclude that I’m indeed starting to go over the hill and down the slope to less sensitivity to bitterness.

After learning that dabbling salt on bitter gourd will reduce its bitterness, it has been a technique I will deploy each time I cook with this vegetable. If it’s bitter gourd stuffed with minced pork, I’ll rub salt on the exposed flesh for some 30 minutes; if it’s stir-fry eggs thar I’m cooking, I’ll soak the sliced bitter gourd pieces in a salty solution.

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One day, I told myself, I shall eat bitter gourd in its pure bitterness and be on my way to ‘吃得苦中苦方为人上人’ (chi de ku zhong gu, fang wei ren shang ren), a Chinese adage which means that one has to ‘eat bitterness’, i.e. endure adversities, to become a better person.

The ability to imbibe bitterness must be a prized trait, for Thai culture also has a proverb, หวานเป็นลม ขมเป็นยา (khwaan pen lom waan pen yaa), which literally translates as ‘sweetness leads to faintness and bitterness is a medicine’, but actually means praises make one happy but frank advice serves as a good reminder.

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[Recipe] Stuffed bitter gourd in clear soup | แกงจืดมะระยัดไส้

1. After cutting both ends of the bitter gourd, slice it into pieces of about 1.5 inches thick each. Scoop out the seeds in the middle. If you wish to reduce the bitterness, rub salt on the rinds and keep aside for 30 minutes before rinsing off the salt.

2. In a bowl of minced pork, add optional ingredients of diced carrots, mushrooms and vermicelli to season the meat. Usually I will also add some corn flour and soy sauce, plus a dash of sesame oil, Shaoxing wine and pepper to enhance the flavours. Mix well. Stuff the seasoned minced pork into the cavities of the sliced bitter gourds, ensure the meat fit the hollowness snugly.

3. Bring a pot of water/chicken stock to boil. Add the bitter gourd, sliced shiitake mushrooms and carrots into the water, turn down the fire and keep the pot simmering for at least 20 minutes until the melon turns yellowish-green and soft. Garnish with spring onions and cilantro. Serve with rice.

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The flavours of time

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Nothing marks the passage of time better than an aged teapot. I was halfway through an enjoyable dim sum meal on Hong Kong’s Temple Street when the middle-aged stall owner stepped out and placed a worn-out tea flask to brew, on an equally worn-out gas burner, right by the roadside in a crowded Kowloon. I wasn’t the slightest perturbed by the shabby appearance of the flask, in fact after observing the owner strain the steaming brown liquid with deft actions, it dawned on me that the tannin coating accumulated on the vessel over time must have imparted extra seasoning to the cup of tea I was sipping. And, like a vintage teapot, I hope my culinary journey in 2014 will be one infused with strong flavours and immense appreciation.

CNY leftover: bak kwa fried rice

IMG_1098Chinese 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. 😉

IMG_1078Truthfully 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.

IMG_1087Now 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!

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Kuay tiao eats: phat sii iw (stir-fried noodles with dark soy sauce)

IMG_0901Phat 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.

IMG_0891In 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.

IMG_0884To 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.

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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.

IMG_0914Transfer the noodles onto a serving plate. Sprinkle some ground chilli powder and sliced chillies on top, and add a dash of white pepper if you like. Serve!

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Heavenly food gifts

teapigs Hello! Sorry for the lack of updates on this space for the past few months. It’s been a hectic few months for me, having gone on several overseas work trips and moving countries (again), so whatever free time I have I prefer to spend it away from the computer with my family. But despite the inactivity here, I’m still eating lots of good food and I’ve been on the receiving end of several lovely food gifts!

I finally met with Shan, who was back in Singapore on a break from her postdoctoral studies in Scotland. We were secondary school classmates and haven’t seen each other for the past decade, so I was quite excited to catch up with her and another ex-classmate RJ for coffee one Saturday afternoon. Shan gave both of us a bag of her three favourite tea leaves from teapigs as a souvenir (how thoughtful of her!) and shared with us her study life and culinary inspiration in betwen frolicking among sheep and kilt-wearing men dashing in and out of her research lab. As for me, I went to meet her empty-handed…

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A Fiery Homecoming: Stir-fried Sweet Potato Leaves with Sambal Belacan

“Sweet potato leaves were very common in our kampung. We ate them so often when I was young, until I got quite sick of them,” my dad revealed. “But as I grow older I start to miss these leaves and I wish to eat them once again.” I noticed that he became rather obsessed with this vegetable of late, often requesting for hanzi ye (蕃薯叶; Hokkien for sweet potato leaves) whenever we dine out.

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What’s Cooking 2012

2012 began on a slightly unusual note for me: the New Year marked my virgin attempt in cooking for Mr. P’s family in Udon Thani. My mum-in-law has heard about my new-found interest in the kitchen—Mr. P was always telling her of our homemade concoctions—so she requested to taste my cooking. Cooking a Chinese dish was a much safer option as the folks would not have any basis for comparison, as opposed to, say, som tam. I decided on bak kut teh because its thick, peppery broth is most likely to satiate Thais’ strong flavours-inclined palates.

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Of whales and pomfrets

The flood alarm has been sounded for Bangkok for close to a month already. We were initially rather frugal with our meals, trying our best not to use too many ingredients lest we were struck by the rising waters. But three weeks of waiting for the ‘giant whales’ to descend upon our neighborhood (still a if and when at point of writing) have taken its toll on us; we were getting restless at home so we decided to make better use of our weekends at home by attempting to cook new dishes. Mr. P had been craving for fish for several days so we made a trip to the nearby Udomsuk fresh market, zeroed in on our favorite seafood stall and chose one fortunate pomfret to be our guest at home. (Side note: We were pleasantly surprised that fresh produce were still in abundance. A fruit vendor in the neighbourhood told us the week before that his supplies were running low as it was becoming harder to secure fruits from the Rangsit wholesale market—the area is currently flooded.)

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Guotie (Chinese pan-fried dumplings)

When you don’t want something, you see it everywhere; then when you want it, you can’t find it. That was what I encountered for guotie (a.k.a potstickers or gyoza) wrapper. I saw it on the supermarket shelf one day, got the inspiration, went home and researched more on the cooking method, but couldn’t find the wrappers at another supermarket the following day. Despite my thwarted attempt, my enthusiasm wasn’t dampened and I did manage to get the dumpling wrappers in the end.

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