Thursday, 13 December 2012

Singapore Street Food

Five days in Singapore turned out to be a lively multicultural street food extravaganza. We tried snacks from China, Malaysia, India and elsewhere, along with those that were uniquely Singaporean.

'Uniquely' Singaporean - that's a strange one. A tiny collection of islands on the southern tip of Malaysia, Singapore seemed to me to be a smorgasbord of cultures. For such a small country it boasts four national languages - English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. And each of these have themselves been morphed into a new, singularly Singaporean form. The place is a multi-lingual mind bender - my daily conversations with everyone from taxi drivers to market stall holders veered wildly from sing-song English to accented Cantonese to modified Mandarin. Trying to understand the locals while not falling into various linguistic potholes created by localised slang and tonal differences was challenging, but also fun in a 'hey look at me, I'm speaking three languages at once!' kind of way.

The food unsurprisingly reflected this crazy blend of cultures. I was bowled over by the huge variety of 'hawker stalls' and how much locals know and love to share with others their favourite places and dishes. Here's some examples:

Oyster omelette at Singapore Food Trail, Singapore Flyer. Bit greasy, and sea salty, and eggy. Hm.

Carrot cake, made from daikon, chopped and fried in an omelette, unlike the cakes studded with Chinese sausage and spring onion eaten in Chinese dim sum restaurants. I prefer my more familiar dim sum version, but this was interesting to try.

Fried oysters stall at Singapore Food Trail.

Bak Kut Teh - a herbal soup with soft pork ribs and soft, slow cooked garlic. Almost ginseng-like in flavour, although it's not one of the ingredients. A lovely, soothing broth that feels like it's good for you.

The Bak Kut Teh soup stall, also at Singapore Flyer.

Geyland Serai wet market - so clean!!

Not a bit of mess anywhere.

The famous Sinar Pagi Nasi Padang stall at Geyland Serai market, which always has a queue.

Sotong Hitam - Squid stewed in a black ink sauce - soft, spicy, rich and full of deep chilli undertones. One of the best things I ate that week. Really moreish and comforting.

The full Indonesian - nasi padang - rice with my choice of fried beef lungs (paru belado), quails eggs in sambal, young tapioca leaves in coconut milk, fried chicken (arum bumbo) topped with fried chicken floss, pickles (atchar) and of course plenty of chilli sauce.

Turtle soup at the Old Airport Road food centre, an enormous, buzzing hive of hungry visitors and frenetic stall chefs. Considered to be a tonic or healing soup, it uses the gelatinous 'skin' under the shell, the legs and the innards. Despite my initial doubts, having never tried turtle before, I was intrigued to find that what I have heard - that turtle is incredibly tasty, seems to be true. The soup was really, seriously delicious. The flavour was complex and almost spicy in its herbal-ness. Again I thought of ginseng, but according to the stallholder there is nothing else in the soup except turtle, red dates and goji berries. If this is true then the taste of turtle is something I would love to learn more about...will have to try some other versions.

Delicious, lightly sweetened beancurd from Lao Ban Soya Bean Curd, which has been so successful they now have four or five outlets and a website. Their beancurd has a lovely, delicate texture. It is not quite the same as Chinese 'flower' bean curd, with its ginger and rock sugar syrup dressing, but it was very refreshing and a welcome palate cleanser.

The ladies at Freshly Made Chee Cheong Fun in action.

Scallop and prawn cheong fun - not bad. The steamed rice rolls are notoriously different to cook as they can easily overcook. The rolls should be steamed until they are soft and slippery, while each layer is still distinct - so you could unravel the roll if you wanted to. Steamed a moment more and they will overcook, melting into a stodgy mush.

Big prawn noodle soup from Whitley Road Big Prawn Noodle - impressively rich and aromatic prawn broth, with bouncy firm noodles - deeply satisfying.

Sliced pig's intestines and trotters from Blanco Court Food Centre, in an offaly gravy and served with a chilli and tamarind sauce for dipping. The sauce made the dish, balancing soft earthy textures with hot spicy tastes.

Roast duck, barbecued pork (char siu) and roast pork belly at Chinatown Complex. The char siu was especially tasty - soft meat, sweet honeyed glaze and chewy charred edges.

Fish slice and fish ball soup with minced pork. The fish balls were handmade - not bad, if more suited to Asian palates and their love of textures.

Satay street outside Lau Pa Sat. The indoor food stalls are busy by day serving central business district workers, where the building is located. Outside the charcoal grills fire up after dark and Singaporeans crowd in to drink beer and dunk meat into peanut and chilli sauces.

Lau Pa Sat - deserted at night.

Charcoal grilled prawns, chicken and beef - smoky, sweet and moreish.

Erm, not exactly street food! A farewell dinner at Waku Ghin - Australian chef Wakuda Tetsuya's Singaporean outpost and an extravagant treat. This dish features two of my all time favourite things in the world (and some deep sea raw sweet shrimp) - sea urchin and Oscietra caviar. Oh. Wow.

Fresh wasabi root grated on shark's skin. Now I want to own a shark skin grater. Oh dear.

And finally, two little rolls of fatty Wagyu beef, seared on the outside, served with wasabi and lightly deep fried garlic chips.

Bye bye Singapore - what an awesome, awesome trip.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

King Island, Tasmania

I am sitting on the steps from a terrace leading down a grassy slope towards the white sand of Yellow Rock beach, mere metres away. The pale turquoise blue of the cloudless sky is glorious but no match even for the deep blue and light sapphire hues of the sea beneath it.

Earlier this morning a wallaby mooched pass the same spot where I am sitting, leaning forward on its short forepaws to nibble the grass, allowing the joey in her poach to grab a few blades at the same time, before doing a gentle hop forwards on her powerful hind legs.

In just a week I feel I have stepped back in time to a place where community life is still a vital part of living, and where the wild is still on almost equal footing with the cultivated.

King Island is a tiny island off the coast of Australia. It is a short 35 minute flight from Melbourne, the nearest city on the island, yet it feels like a different place entirely.

Arriving at my friend’s house, our first sight was a colony of honeybees that had taken up residence on one of the posts on her terrace! Concerned for her eight month old baby, Clare decided a new home must be found, but rather than look for ways to banish them, she called on local beekeeper and producer of King Island Raw Honey, Dick Stansfield, who popped in the next morning to guide the bees into a temporary hive box and resituate them. If all goes well, Clare and her husband will have their own source of honey in a few months. Before departing, he left a bucket of his own honey in the house.

This first experience of King Island left me with two impressions: One, nothing is wasted – from the wind or solar generated electricity and bottled gas to compostable or recyclable waste, every potential resource is precious when it is limited as it is here on the island. Two, the generosity of spirit on King Island knows no bounds.

Listening to Tim and Clare it seems like their ability to settle into their new life on King Island has been made possible and indeed pleasurable by the friendliness and warmth of its locals. From friendly gifts of just caught fish, rock lobster and abalone, to much needed deliveries of firewood, gas, advice and general well wishing, King Island’s residents seem more concerned about the wellbeing of the community than of the individual self. It was surprising and truly inspiring to experience. It is no longer surprising to me that Tim and Clare wish to make a new life there, offering retreats for bird watchers (the pristine landscape is a haven for vast varieties of bird species), food lovers, and generally disenchanted modern day dwellers.

In my short week’s stay, I met Paul and Cynthia Daniel, who supply most of the island with delicious biodynamic grown fruits and vegetables, Caroline Kininmonth, artist in residence, who built the Boathouse – a restaurant with everything, including outstanding harbour views, cutlery, tableware and beautiful surroundings, except the food (BYO please!), and Andrew and Diane Blake, also artists, whose son Will took us diving. From our first meeting each made an effort with me that I have never seen elsewhere.

Paul took me on a tour of his vegetable and fruit fields, teaching me how to grow tomatoes, pick carrots and beetroots and abide by a biodynamic philosophy in order to grow produce that is unrivalled in taste and health benefits. Together we picked bucket loads of carrots as slender as lady’s fingers and as sweet as sugar, alongside bouncy lettuces, juicy beetroots and earthy sweet potatoes and pumpkins. Later Will and Tim took me out on a boat and showed me how to catch rock lobsters with their bare hands and spear sweep fish. All these efforts were brought to together that evening when both families joined us to enjoy a dinner that celebrated the best of land and sea gathered that day. To me it did not feel coincidental at all that it also happened to be Thanksgiving, an American tradition but so appropriate for the occasion.

The next day Tim went fishing with his friend Ben, while Clare and I marvelled at the home that his wife Sharelle, has created from, literally in her own words, “just sand and the house where it stands”. Looking over her verdant grass lawn, recently planted avocado, peach, fig, nectarine, lemon and lime trees, alongside her raised vegetable beds and tomato plant conservatory, it is hard to believe she is just in her early 30’s and has lived there for only a few years. Inside the house, her repurposed, redecorated furnishings would put any store selling ‘shabby chic’ furniture to shame. Tim returned with a truly magnificent cod, which we roasted that evening and I tasted the freshest fish of my life so far.

The highlight of my week, alongside the beautiful hikes and astonishing scenery, had to be a trip with Tim to find fresh abalone for dinner. Clad in a wetsuit, hood and shoes to ward off the chill of the Bass Strait, Tim taught me how to look for green lip, black lip and tiger lip abalone in the sandy shallows just off the rocks of the island. King Island is a major exporter of abalone to eager Chinese customers, and the island is not short of supply. In a restaurant a single fresh abalone may cost upwards of USD100, but, with the right knowledge and awareness of sustainable harvesting, the delicacies are there for the taking.

Back home Diane showed me how to slice the abalone into paper thin slivers and dress them with lemon juice, soy sauce and wasabi. Meanwhile Tim tenderised thicker slices with a mallet and lightly fried them in breadcrumbs. Both were unforgettably delicious.

That night after dinner we took the ‘ute’ (Australian for pickup truck) out to watch wallabys grazing in the scrub, and follow ring eyed possums as they waddled past, swinging their hips to some mysterious wild rhythm.

King Island has left a mark that leaves me wishing for more, for a simpler way of living, and for a return to a time where neighbouring people trusted and helped each other. I don’t think it is something that can be re-introduced to the Big Smoke like some kind of endangered species, so perhaps the only solution is to go back to the island, as soon as possible.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012


You could do worse than pop into Brindisa London Bridge for a quick lunch. Even without Pisarro in the kitchen the quality is still good. A lovely dish of baby artichokes sautéed with onions, nuggets of crisp Serrano ham and topped with a black olive tapenade and chopped chives was a deliciously luxurious treat for an otherwise mundane Tuesday!

Sunday, 8 January 2012

A pair of poussin

Here are two recipes for poussin which are fun to do, if slightly unusual in technique. The results are definitely worth it. To be even weirder I've listed quantities for cooking just one poussin with each method, mainly because this is the way I experimented with them first. I did also salt bake six poussins in the oven, which worked very well. Just scale up the quantities for each bird. I found I only needed 3 kg of rock salt for the six poussins. Likewise use the peppercorn powder sparingly and don't feel you have to cover the bird - give it a good rub all over and that will be fine.

 The overnight hanging is to dry out the skin a much as possible, so that it crisps up beautifully in its salty crust. I used some string and looped it a couple times around each wing before tying it around our hanging clothes rail. It was just high enough to be safe from our hungry cats, but low enough to give Ro a fright when he came home from work. If you are short on time you could even position a fan on a low setting in front of the bird, to help speed up the air drying process.

 The hot smoked poussin idea came out of reading too many smoky barbecued ribs recipes and wanting to try out a relatively new gadget. Last summer we treated ourselves to a Cobb oven, to take to festivals with the promise of hot bacon sandwiches on cold, damp and hungover camping days. I couldn't resist also getting the 'smoker attachment' - basically a round cast iron box that you put wood chips into and place over the hot coals so they heat up and produce whatever sweet smelling smoke you have chosen. Smoking a poussin seemed a relatively easy way of breaking in the new equipment. And with what fantastic results! Next time I think I'll try a whole chicken, maybe jointed into legs, thighs and breasts...

Sichuan salt baked poussin 

 a fat little poussin
a teaspoon of Sichuan peppercorns
a teaspoon of black peppercorns
two teaspoons of shaoxing wine (sherry or white wine will also do fine)
about 1 to 1.5kg of coarse rock salt
two tablespoons of ginger or young galangal, very finely minced
three tablespoons of spring onions, white and pale green parts only also finely minced
two teaspoons of sea salt
a tablespoon of groundnut oil

 Combine the Sichuan and black peppercorns in a dry frying pan together over a low flame. Keep an eye on the pan and shake it occasionally, making sure the spices don’t burn. Gently toast the peppercorns until they give off a lovely aroma, then take them off the heat and grind them up in a spice grinder or with a pestle and mortar.

While the spices cook wash the poussin, pull out any remaining bits of feather, trim off any fat still clinging to the skin around the cavity and pat dry with kitchen paper. Rub the bird with the wine and then the peppercorn powder. Hang the bird up in a cool dry place overnight.

The next day, ready your wok with all of the rock salt in it and no oil. Make a hole in the salt and place the poussin in breast side down. Pile the rest of the salt over and around the bird, so that most of the bird is completely covered and none of it is directly touching the wok.

Place the wok over a high flame for 20 minutes, covered. Turn the bird over, cover again and heat for another 20 minutes. This time don’t worry about piling up the salt or anything.

 If you don’t have a wok you can put the poussin in a high sided baking tray and bake them in a preheated oven at 230 degrees Celsius.

 While the poussin is cooking you can make the dipping sauce. Mix together the minced ginger, spring onions and the salt. Heat the groundnut oil in a tiny saucepan or by holding a ladle over a flame until the oil is smoking hot. Pour the oil over the ginger mixture – it will sizzle and smell delicious. Give the sauce a good mix and allow it to cool to room temperature.

 Your poussin should be done after 40 minutes, but if in doubt stick a skewer into the thickest part of the leg and press a spoon against the leg until juices run out. They should be clear but if they are pink or red cook the bird for a few minutes more. Put the bird on a carving board and dust off any remaining clumps of rock salt. Let it rest for 5 to 10 minutes.

 To serve, pull off the legs and using a sharp knife take off the two breasts and slice them into bite sized morsels. Dunk the poussin pieces in lots of gingery, oniony sauce and eat while the skin is still salty and crisp.

Mesquite hot smoked poussin 

 a fat little poussin
a dried chipotle pepper
a small shallot
a tablespoon of cider vinegar
half a tin of chopped tomatoes
a clove of garlic, peeled and sliced
two teaspoons of honey
a pinch of fresh or dried thyme
ground black pepper and sea salt

 Soften the chipotle pepper in a little hot water for half an hour, then combine it with the shallot, cider vinegar and tomatoes in a small saucepan and gently simmer for another half an hour or so until the pepper is soft and the tomatoes have melted into a thickish paste. Mash everything together with a fork and mix in the garlic, honey, thyme, salt and black pepper. Taste the mixture – it should be smoky, sweet and spicy. Allow the marinade to cool.

Put the poussin in a zip lock bag, add the marinade and close the bag, keeping as much air out as possible. Squeeze and squelch the bird so it is covered in smoky sauce, then leave it in the fridge overnight, turning it over once or twice if you remember.

 The next day set up your hot smoker with wood chips of your choice. Remove the poussin from the marinade and smoke it for 30 to 40 mins, depending on the heat of your smoker. Check if it is done with a skewer into the thickest part of the thigh as above.