Lusting for the magical blue potion

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For the past few weekends, I felt like an alchemist in my kitchen. I had been boiling water, scalding flowers and tinkering with colours in a quest to achieve a desired potion.

Sounds too far-fetched? In reality, it’s just butterfly pea flowers that have piqued my interest in creating natural colour extracts. I bought a batch of butterfly pea flowers so I was very eager to try my hands at extracting colours from them. These blue extracts are often used in Malay and Peranakan cooking to dye rice and desserts—now I finally know where kueh salat got its colour from—while in Thailand they are commonly made into a blue/purple drink called naam dork anchan (น้ำดอกอัญชัน). I got the inspiration to brew my own blue potion following recent visits to several hotels in Thailand and Laos that served their welcome drinks made from butterfly pea flowers.

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The common names of this tropical Asian plant—butterfly pea or blue pea—sound innocuous in English but its scientific name is way more blush-inducing: Clitoria ternatea. This herbal plant is so named because of the shape of its flowers, which, with vivid blue hues and light yellow markings, supposedly resemble a particular female anatomy, but you have to look at the flower from its front to get the idea. (I think whoever named this flower must surely be a man!)

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[Recipe] Extracting colours from butterfly pea flowers is easy peasy. Place the flowers in a bowl or container, add hot water and then wait for the colours to infuse into the water. Initially I used around 20 flowers to two cups of water, and an indigo-blue hue was yielded. I decided to go for a less intense blue so I soaked five flowers instead. This time round the colour created was a lovely cobalt blue, which reminded me very much of chemistry experiments during my schooling days.

After the colours have infused into the water, pass it through a sieve to remove the flowers and any loose petals. The flowers would have imparted a strong floral note to the water, so stir in some honey or sugar to the desired sweetness and your butterfly pea drink is ready.

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Now more fun—and magic—is under way. Adding a few drops of lime will increase the acidity of the water and change its colour to purple. I could see twirls of purple slowly spreading across the water after I squeezed some drops of lime juice. Serve the tea warm or chilled, with or without lime, but the lovely hues of blues and purples are sure to impress!

Butterfly pea flowers provide an inexpensive and organic way to extract natural colourings without having to rely on artificial food dyes and will certainly make good kitchen science experiments for those with kids at home, don’t they?

butterfly pea drink

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Pulp fiction: when mango meets sticky rice

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Parents are always willing to shower more love than what their children can reciprocate, and giving khaao niaow (sticky rice) is one of the myriad ways Mr. P’s parents show their concern. Before our recent trip back to Mr. P’s hometown in Udon Thani, we asked the parents to source some sticky rice grains for us, suggesting that about one kilogram would do, but instead they prepared a 10-kilogram sack for us. We had to insist on leaving half the grains with them because 10 kilograms would probably take us more than a year to finish since we don’t eat sticky rice for every meal.

We brought home the five-kilogram sack, and I’ve since been looking for ways to polish off the sticky rice grains. Enter mangoes, the perfect nuea khuu, or soulmate, for sticky rice when it comes to the dessert department. But not just any mangoes will do for khaao niao mamaung (ข้าวเหนียวมะม่วง), or mango sticky rice; ideally it has to be mamuang naam dorkmai (มะม่วงน้ำดอกไม้), a cultivar with a slender, creamy-yellow body whose flesh yields a sweet, fragrant taste. (Here’s a good overview of mango cultivars in Thailand.)

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But if mangoes are like wives to sticky rice for desserts, then durians must be the mistresses. As it all boils down to preferences, some would say mistresses are better than wives durians complement sticky rice better. I like both versions, but sticky rice, coconut milk and durian make quite a ‘heaty’ and calorie-laden combination, so it’s best not to indulge in this trio together too often.

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And here I’d like to share an anecdote in which yours truly showed her silliness. One day, just hours before I was supposed to board my flight to Singapore, I traipsed to my neighbhourhood fruit stall with the intention to buy some mangoes. I reached the store and saw a batch of mangoes wrapped in foam netting neatly placed together. Holding up one yellow fruit, I pulled away its wrapping slightly.

“These mangoes look a bit different, without the usual pointy end,” I thought to myself. “Hmm, maybe they aren’t the naam dorkmai varieties. But beggars can’t be choosers. I don’t have time to hunt for mangoes to bring with me to Singapore to make khaao niao mamuang for the folks.” And so I bought two mangoes.

As I walked home, I started pondering about these fruits again. Something didn’t feel quite right, but I couldn’t put a finger to it. Once I reached home, I snapped a quick shot of the fruits and sent it to Mr. P. He replied, “Thais don’t eat such mangoes with sticky rice.”

“So that’s why!” I thought to myself, abandoning all thoughts of taking the 1.5-kilogramme load with me to Singapore. After all, YC told me that Taiwanese mangoes were available in supermarkets in Singapore, so I could also use other cultivars to make the dessert for my folks. Hence, I left the mangoes at home for Mr. P to eat while I was away.

Later that evening when Mr. P got home and I was already at the airport to catch my flight, he sent me a photo of the sliced mangoes. The flesh was a deep orange and a core filled with round black seeds covered with a jelly-like coating, so my mangoes were actually papayas. Doh!

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On a less silly note, the recent interest in mangoes has added to my experience in the kitchen too. Mr. P showed me the proper way to de-skin and slice a mango. “Use common sense and experience to guide yourself. Don’t believe the instructions others dispense on their blogs!” he remarked. So there you go, read everything (including this blog) with a pinch of salt and endeavour to try everything on your own.

[Brief instructions on how to slice a mango] 1. With the mango firmly in your hand, peel the skin off the top cheek. 2. Make lengthwise (or criss-cross) cuts of about one inch thick, then insert the knife from the side and slice around the stone in the middle. 3. Flip the remaining mango around; repeat steps 1 and 2.

For the best effect, chill mangoes after cutting, only taking them out of the fridge when you’re ready to serve with sticky rice. Heavenly!

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Just as happy as a clam on a bed of spaghetti

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Hoi laai phat naam phrik phao (หอยลายผัดน้ำพริกเผา), or stir-fried clams with Thai roasted chilli paste, is a very common dish at khaao kaeng (mixed dishes) stalls in Thailand, but the serving size is typically quite small for my liking. When a seller scoops up a serving of the stir-fried clams onto a plate of rice, more often than not there will be at least one empty shell lurking among them, so actually you’re just getting more shell than meat. But of course, the essence of this dish also lies in its flavourful sauce; some people like to spoon steamed rice mixed with the briny juices.

Mr. P and I think that eating this dish particular outside home offers less value for money as compared with other dishes, but things are very different if you buy fresh baby clams and cook them on your own though. One kilogram of baby clams—it cost us about 70 baht from the fresh market—is more than enough to satiate two gluttons like us.

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I love looking at these lovely clams. It looks like Mother Nature has taken the time to paint criss-crossing lines on each single shell, so much so that in Thai they are known as hoi laai, or patterned shells. While cooking this dish requires very simple steps, preparation needs to start a bit earlier. Being the seabed-dwelling creatures they once were, these clams carry with them more than just a whiff of the ocean, so I usually soak the mollusc in water for at least an hour before cooking to ‘force’ them to spit out sand and gritty bits.

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Besides baby clams, to cook this Thai dish, other must-haves are roasted chilli paste (naam phrik phao) and sweet basil leaves (bai horapa). Together, these holy trio makes the most alluring combination—now who says three’s a company?—that my favourite naam phrik phao brand, Aroi-D, features the dish on its packaging (see above).

Once the stove is heated up, I look forward to stirring the clams in the skillet. As they bump into one another in the pan, they give out ‘kraek kraek’ sounds, and that’s when I’d conjure up images of a future pet dog at my feet, equally stirred by the smells and sounds from the wok. After a few minutes, the heat would have left its mark on the ingredients: not only would the basil leaves have released their fragrance, the clams would have opened up to reveal their inner goodness while their previously grey colouration with tinges of blue and greens would have given way to an irresistible shade of orange.

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Interestingly, this Thai dish also makes good company with spaghetti, giving me one more way to cook pasta. I got the inspiration when I visited a local Italian-Thai restaurant serving fusion food, with spaghetti stir-fried with clams as one of its signature dishes. Simply prepare spaghetti as per your usual method before topping the plate with the stir-fried shells. To me, the sauces seeping through the spaghetti strands, juices sitting on the opened shells, garlic bits and stir-fried basil leaves all come together to make a very pleasing and appetising sight.

Many empty shells later, we were as happy as a clam. Burp. 😉

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~~~

Hoi laai phat naam phrik phao | หอยลายผัดน้ำพริกเผา

Ingredients (serves 2)

500g baby clams (Manila clams work fine too)
1 cup horapa basil leaves, plucked
2-3 tbsp Thai roasted chilli paste
3-4 cloves of garlic, chopped
2-3 chillies, sliced
2 tbsp oil
1 tbsp fish sauce (optional)

Method
1. Soak the clams in water for at least 30 minutes, then wash the shells under running water, giving them a quick rub at the same time and discarding any with mud inside. Pluck the basil leaves off the stems, rinse them and set aside.
2. Pour oil onto a heated wok or skillet before adding the garlic. Fry the garlic until it turns a light golden. Add in the clams and stir-fry them for a few minutes. Once the clams start to open up, add Thai chilli paste and chillies, making sure the paste is evenly coated throughout the mixture. Give the sauce a quick taste, adding fish sauce if needed.
3. Finally, add in the basil leaves and stir-fry the mixture for about a minute of so. Turn off the heat.
4. Discard any unopened shell. Spoon the mixture onto steamed rice or cooked spaghetti. Serve.

Cha-om: leaves with an offending smell, but the power to please

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THAI cooking has no lack of pungent (note: this is subjective) but yummy food items. I don’t even classify durians—and especially Thai durians—within this category yet. Sator is one classic example, although the culinary use of these stinky beans is not restricted to Thais only as the Malays and Peranakans are also known to whip up superb stink-bean dishes (think prawn and petai sambal).

Another strong-smelling favourite of mine is cha-om (ชะอม) or acacia leaf. The tropical variant (Acacia pennata) of the acacia family, the leaves are commonly used in Thai, Lao and Burmese cooking. And these leaves can be quite a stink bomb indeed. When I brought them home from the market, the leaves stank up my kitchen and fridge, as though someone let off a vicious, lingering fart.

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But offensive smells aside, the fresh acacia stalks mesmerised me to bits. The way Thai vendors handle their greens are often a showcase of ingenuity. For this cha-om bundle, a banana leaf was folded and wrapped around the stalk ends as a base, with a thin bamboo strip securely tied around as a clip.

However, closer inspection of these feathery bundles would reveal tiny thorns on the cha-om stems, so do exercise caution when plucking the fronds off the stems.

One of the best ways to taste the inherent goodness of this vegetable is through khai jiao cha-om (ไข่เจียวชะอม) or acacia omelette, which is very easy to make; the steps are similar to how one would cook minced pork omelette, for example.

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[Recipe] Break the eggs into a bowl, add the plucked cha-om leaves and whisk the mixture. Add a pinch of salt and few drops of soya/fish sauce. Heat up some oil on the skillet on high heat, then pour in the egg mixture. Unlike typical omelettes which require a rather thin film to cook well, cha-om omelette should be rather thick and the mixture should come to a height of, say, 1/2 inch from the base. When one side of the the omelette is golden-brown, flip it over. When both sides are evenly cooked, remove the omelette from the skillet and place them on a piece of kitchen towel to absorb the excess oil. When the omelette is sufficiently cool enough, use a knife to cut them into square chunks or slices, depending on preference.

The offending smell would have disappeared by now, leaving a fragrant omelette of yellows, greens and browns. Serve the omelette on top of steamed rice, dunked into kaeng som (Thai sour curry) or dip them into naam phrik kapi (chilli dip). Whichever way it is, the omelette is guaranteed to be potent yet pleasing.

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Food cubes: from the neighbourhood

20130622-152123.jpgI’m definitely not the most disciplined person around when it comes to blogging—and dieting—but in order to make my food scribblings more consistent on this space, I decided to feature on-the-go photos taken with my iPhone and add them to this space. I’ve amassed a lot of photos in the tiny device, so I hope to pen down some of the culinary inspiration that strikes me whenever I’m out and about in a new section called “Food Cubes”.

Kai yang Wichian Buri | Kai yang (grilled chicken) is a Thai staple, but the district of Wichian Buri in Petchabun province has rose to fame by being associated with the grilled birds, so much so that many kai yang stalls will declare their style as Wichian Buri. Just a stone’s throw from our apartment in Bangkok lies one of the most superb kai yang vendors we have tried. The grill fashioned from an used oil tin and corrugated zinc may not make the most appealing setting, but the smoked birds that come out from this stall are just yummy.

Coconut ice-cream | Coconut desserts are aplenty in Thailand, but coconut ice-cream remains my favourite. I was walking the talaat nat (makeshift market) in the neighbourhood one evening when I had a sudden craving for coconut ice-cream, so I bought one and enjoyed 10 minutes of heaven as I browsed the stalls.

Khanaeng | I first tasted khanaeng, or cabbage sprouts, at our favourite neighbhourhood restaurant, and since then I’ve found these vegetables the size of a child’s fist at the local fresh market and learned to replicate the same dish at home. How not to love these Brussels-sprout lookalikes, especially after they are stir-fried with minced pork, chillies and a liberal dose of Shaoxing wine?

Eggs | Interestingly, eggs are one of the most sensitive markers of rising expenses in Thailand. In the six months since I moved back to Bangkok, the prices of eggs at the local market have been constantly inching up. The smallest and biggest eggs at the market used to cost 38 baht and 41 baht respectively just earlier this year, now the prices are hovering between 41 baht and 44 baht. Inflation—it’s happening everywhere.

Jaew bong: a mother’s burning love for her sons

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JAEW bong (แจ่วบอง), the spicy chilli dip of Northeastern Thailand, is the best culinary representation of Mr. P’s mum’s love for her sons. A type of chilli relish in Thailand, jaew bong is what naam phrik num is to the northerners and naam phrik kapi is to the central Thais, and somewhat like what sambal is to the Malaysians, Singaporeans and Indonesians.

Whenever Mr. P is back home, his mum never tires in whipping up her son’s favourite dishes. Like maeng kork—it isn’t Mr. P’s favourite though but he had a sudden craving and the parents obliged—MIL whipped up her version of jaew bong during our recent visit back to Mr. P’s hometown in Udon Thani. When Mr P’s brother lived apart from the parents, he also requested for their mum’s jaew bong whenever he was home.

Plaa raa, the fermented fish—fragrant to some, pungent to others, but definitely intense—is a vital component. Chopped shallots, lemongrass, kaffir leaves and bird’s eye chillies were first roasted over a slow fire to release the fragrance and increase their brittleness before combining the mixture with minced plaa raa to be pounded in a mortar to create the paste, according to MIL’s recipe. Just as how naam phrik differs from region to region, the ingredients and steps of making jaew bong also vary from mother to mother.

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On the morning we departed from Udon, MIL handed over her special concoction, reminding me at the same time to store the paste in the fridge. “It can last for several months,” she said.

Back in Bangkok, we assembled a raw vegetable set of cabbage, winged beans, string beans and cucumber, blanched bai tamlueng (ivy gourd leaves), together with sticky rice, to eat with jaew bong. The ideal way is to dip the greens into jaew bong, while interspersing the fiery flavours with knobs of sticky rice kneaded up from the woven bamboo basket. I especially liked the slight smoky flavour of the jaew bong, the result of grilling the ingredients over a slow fire.

And now whenever hunger pangs strike, Mr. P just have to reach into the fridge for doses of his mum’s love, all across the 500km of physical distance.

In Isaan, a bug hunting season begins

a plate of deep-fried beetles

THE night was sweltering, the air exceptionally still and humid. Nary a thing moved, and neither the leaves nor wind. Sprawled on the bamboo swings outside the house, Mr. P and I each nursed a can of chilled beer, hoping the coolness would banish the hot spell. The heat was unbearable; I tore the cover from a magazine and started fanning myself with that piece of paper.

A couple of steps away, Yai Canton (or Grandma Canton, nicknamed by me because her father came from Guangdong province eons ago) had perched herself on a foldable chair under the lamppost. On the ground, she had placed a rice-cooker pot half filled with water. Palmy, her three-year-old granddaughter, and my eight-year-old niece, Pin, were busy trailing the maeng ii-nuun (แมงอีนูน; chokchafer beetle) that fluttered awkwardly around the fluorescent light beaming from the lamppost. Each time any of the girls caught a bug, they would squeal in delight and proceeded to place it in the pot.

I was curious as to why the pot was filled with water, but Pin, ever the inquisitive one, beat me to it. “Yai, why did you fill the pot with water?” she enquired.

“If I don’t put water inside, the beetles will escape and fly off after you put them into the pot.” Why didn’t yours truly think of that before, I thought to myself, the silly urban dweller that I am.

Yai Canton was catching these bugs to eat them. Insects are commonly eaten throughout Thailand, but it is a culinary preference most symbolic among the Isaan people. Insects might once be an additional source of protein, but it’s now more commonly eaten as a snack among the Isaan natives, according to Mr. P. When his mum asked if he missed any food, he replied maeng kork (แมงกอก; I haven’t found the English name and would appreciate any information on this) and a big plate of these deep-fried beetles (pictured above) surfaced the following day.

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Sweat trickling down our backs, we continued to sit on the bamboo swings. A motorbike with two riders zipped past us. One of the them donned a head torchlight while the other was clutching an empty bottle. They sped into the darkness, where the sugar cane fields lie.

Then an engine hummed and a pick-up turned into the lane. It was Det, Mr. P’s brother. After parking the vehicle, he joined us at the little bamboo hut outside the house. He exclaimed, “I saw so many lights among the field as I drove in. It’s like a festival out there.”

Moments later, Tom, a childhood friend and neighbour of of Mr. P, rode past us on his motorbike. Mr. P shouted after him in the Isaan dialect, “Where are you going, Tom?” “To catch maeng kork!” he replied, with a bottle clutched in one hand and the other controlling the motorbike handlebar.

Then another motorbike crossed the road. And another. All of them rumbled down the lane leading into the fields, away from the houses in the village.

Yet another motorbike sounded, but this time toward us. It was Apple (pronounced Ap-pern), another of Mr. P’s childhood friends. After a day of work manning his mini mart, he dropped by to chat with Mr. P. He swung himself off the motorbike and seated himself beneath the bamboo hut.

Observing the continual string of motorcycles advancing into the darkness, Apple remarked, “Maeng kork can only be caught during these few days only, just before the rainy season begins. This is the time when the maeng kork go in search of spots to lay their eggs.”

Like Yai Canton, these villagers had caught the insect-hunting bug (no pun intended) that particular night, and everyone was using their own means and ways to ensure a meal of beetles.

Soon after, Tom was back.

“How was your catch?” Mr. P asked.

“Just a few only. There were as many humans as there were bugs in the field!”

Everyone laughed. And the sultry night wore on.

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Just stir in the oats

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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.

Have food will travel

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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.

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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!

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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!

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