Tuesday, August 11, 2015
"Why is the soup called ABC?"
I asked on Instagram and got all sorts of (some rather weird) answers. I don't remember asking my mother. I just know it remains as my all time favorite Chinese slow-cooked soup even now. Yes, it's up there with lotus root octopus, watercress duck or pig stomach but ultimately, I can have this soup every day, at any hour.
Life in the food and beverage service industry is hard, truly only those who are living it can understand. Sometimes we don't eat well, other times we don't get to eat at all until we're simply too tired to be bothered with lifting a spoon. Forgotten meals in the fridge is commonplace and going to bed hungry a job hazard, because sleep trumps food when the next shift starts in just a few hours. As we strive to take care of our customers, it is easy to forget about ourselves.
In most establishments the team is like a dysfunctional family, ours is no different. Each crew with his or her own character and various nuances, trying to find a balance between life at home while maintaining the energy demanded by those who walk through our doors. Relationship problems, ailing parents and fatigue due to constant moonlighting are not what we need on top of those long hours. With all that, when it comes down to that moment our bodies protest in raging hunger, we just need something that will go down easy.
Seomthing warm. Preferably with some love. Tasting delicious an appreciated bonus.
As Lee Westcott put it so accurately in his quote in this article about family meal, we try to make them right. While prepping for dinner service, that favorite cast iron pot tenderly brew a simple concoction over a low, gentle heat. As the crew pass by the kitchen bussing tables and doing dishes, they inhale with anticipation and sometimes wonder, what the cook on makanai (まかない Japanese for staff meal) duty is preparing for everyone.
So with this tiny encouragement, they scrub that plate harder and walk to that rather loud customer faster, looking forward to that short moment of solace when they can finally sit down by the pass with nourishment for themselves, temporarily forgetting about the hustle and bustle at the front of house.
A Bowl of Comfort is what I'd say this is all about.
Recipe is completely based on estimation of how my parents made the soup, in Malay we say "agak-agak". Adjust accordingly to your own preferences.
- 500-600 grams pork ribs (I like soft bones mixed with some hard ribs)
- 1 large carrot, sliced diagonally
- 1 large boiling or russet potato, peeled and halved
- 1 large yellow onion, peeled and halved
- 1 tomato, skin on
- 1 teaspoon white peppercorn (optional)
- 1.5 liters water
- salt to taste
In a medium pot or wok, bring about 1 liter of water to a boil. Meanwhile, prepare the vegetables accordingly. As this soup is slow cooked, I like to cut them large so they don't disintegrate and cloud the soup at the end. At the end of 2 hours, the onion will peel its layers easily and potato soft enough to be eaten with a spoon, so go easy on the knife work.
Blanch pork ribs in the boiling water for about 2 minutes, then rinse with cold water, and set aside. (Blanching any longer will dilute the pork flavor, so I prefer to skim off any remaining scum from the soup as it begins cooking.) In the pot of your choice (I use a cast iron pot, you can use any pot suitable for slow cooking), place the blanched pork ribs and the rest of the ingredients (except salt). Add water and bring to a boil, then simmer over low heat for at least 1 1/2 hours. For best results, cook on the lowest simmering heat possible for up to 2 hours. Season to taste with salt.
Serve warm as is or with the rest of your meal. When keeping leftover soup, remove the tomato (if not eaten). Soup keeps well refrigerated for up to 3 days.
Continue reading ABC Soup (罗宋汤)
Friday, June 19, 2015
We recently turned two.
As another chapter will soon come to a close, this place, for which I gave up most of my kitchen time and energy, will tell a new story. It seems like it wasn't too long ago when I drew that pig, baked that coconut lime curd cake and worked Sundays not having a moment to stop for a breather. Was it only a few months ago I baked muffins exploding with chocolate and those little black sesame cookies customers tend to forget to eat with their coffee?
While the owner of that pig tattoo and a few of us share this small nostalgic and romantic spirit of why we are here; at the same time, we embrace change and accept new challenges. Every shift is an opportunity for learning and pushing ourselves further. Every mistake made is a chance to grow stronger. Roles have changed, the roaster and coffee sacks replaced with a befitting wooden centerpiece; ready for hours of congressional laughter over good food and better company.
The time has come for the better.
Time and again I explore my curiosity...
... and so I question our customers, friends we bring to this place, fearless additions to the team and those young, determined, hardworking part-timing kids - why do they love it here?
Why track across the island to this corner of the neighborhood over an hour of public transport, where it's so quiet on some days our visiting dogs have no problem catching their afternoon naps? Why put yourself through all these back-breaking shifts when there's so much to do at school, exams, a full time job, sleepless nights, relationships to be taken care of and life to be enjoyed elsewhere?
"It just feels like (an extension of) home."
"There's no other place like this."
"I'm learning a lot here."
"We share the same principles."
"We are like a family."
"I keep craving for that fried rice. Nothing out there is like it."
As I wash the rice and try to keep those sliced shallots evenly thin, I listen to those answers. Sometimes when the mundane prep work transports my tired, forgetful mind elsewhere, these convictions come back to remind me to step it up. If we are all here for the right fundamental reasons and work together to maintain a sound foundation, our differences will not keep us apart but only complement each other.
Will those blue benches see another two years of blood, sweat and tears? I believe our story has been written, of course, but we will just find out as we move along.
Continue reading Happy Two
Monday, April 20, 2015
For the past two weekends, I've been mostly home bound due to a knee injury. Just as well, as this gave me more than enough time to experiment with two things very Chinese - the pau and pork belly. Okay, let's cut to the chase and put it out there, I really wanted to eat pork belly pau - a piece of melt-in-your-mouth fatty pork belly wedged between one soft, fluffy, slight sweet steamed bun. The Hokkien Kong Bak Pau (扣肉包) is made with pork belly first deep fried, then either steamed or braised in soy sauce.
This is not the weather for any kind of deep frying, and faced with the motivation to spend as little time as possible in the kitchen, we made Dong Bo Rou in a clay pot instead. After using my cheap sand pot so many times, with minor cracks threatening to destroy it, I finally discovered the method to correctly season a clay pot prior to the first use. The things our grandmothers use don't come with manuals, you have to know what you're doing or risk learning from mistakes.
As for the pau, one attempt with a recipe I shall not mention here - surprisingly from a very well known, albeit Western (what was I thinking, really...) food portal - taught me something. Always trust your instincts. If a recipe looks questionable (steamed bun using bread flour?) then it will most likely not work.
Apparently history has it that the pau (one of my favorite Chinese thing to eat), originally called mantou (literally meaning 'flour head'), was first invented by the famous Three Kingdoms Chinese military strategist, inventor and writer Zhuge Liang! As the story goes, Liang was engaged in a military campaign in southern China when his army was hit with a plague. He then came up with a giant dumpling made of pork and beef, shaped like a human head. The unconventional thinker wrapped the head in wheat dough, steamed it and offered it as ritual sacrifice, after which he offered it to his men as a curative. How cool is this right? Although I've not read nor watched Romance of the Three Kingdoms (this must be remedied soon), Zhuge Liang's character in Red Cliff reminded me how brilliant he was (although, of course, it did help that Takeshi Kaneshiro played him in the movie).
As for these pork buns, they are evil. Make and eat at your own risk.
Kong Bak Pau (扣肉包)
Clay Pot Dong Bo Rou (东坡肉)
- 1 kilogram pork belly, skin on, cut into 4 2.5-inch square pieces
- peanut oil for frying
- 1 sprig spring onion, cut into 2-inch lengths
- 5 inches ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
- 5 cloves of garlic, peeled
- 100 grams rock sugar or brown sugar
- 4 tablespoons light soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
- 1 cup Shaoxing wine
- 2 cups chicken/vegetable stock
- boiling water (to scald pork)
- baby romaine lettuce
- chopped fresh scallion
- pickled radish
Soak the clay pot for at least 15 minutes (completely submerged in water) before use. Bring a kettle of water to boil. Set a wire rack in the sink and arrange the pork belly pieces on it.
Heat the clay pot up gently over low flame on the stove while prepping the ingredients. Bring heat to medium high and wait for the pot to smoke, then add peanut oil. Sauté the spring onion, ginger and garlic until fragrant, about 2-3 minutes. Meanwhile, scald the pork belly pieces on all sides with the boiling water. Add the sugar to the clay pot and stir constantly till sugar melts. Add the wine and soy sauces. Once boiling, reduce to low and pour in half the stock. Mix well.
Place the pork belly pieces skin side down in the pot. Top up with the rest of the stock. The liquid must at least almost cover the pork. Add water if necessary. Increase heat to medium high and wait for the liquid to come to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat to the lowest simmer, cover and braise for 45 minutes. After 45 minutes, flip the pork belly pieces and continue braising, covered, for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, basting the skin occasionally, until pork is tender enough to be broken with a pair of chopsticks. Meanwhile, you can prepare the bun dough and let it rise (recipe following).
Remove the pork belly pieces onto a tray and let cool to room temperature, about 1 hour. Meanwhile, skim off any extra oil from the sauce in the pot. Whisk the reduced sauce while the pot is still hot, add boiling water bit by bit to get a nice gravy consistency. Remove and let stand. Sauce will thicken as it cools. While waiting for the pork to cool, prepare the steamed buns.
To assemble the buns: With a thin, sharp knife, slice the pork belly into 1/2-inch thick pieces (each square should cut into 3 pieces). Open up slightly one steamed bun, smear generously the cooled sauce on the inside and stuff a romaine leaf in between. Add a slice of pork, a few pieces of pickled radish and a scattering of scallion. Repeat with the remaining buns, and eat!
Chinese Steamed Buns
Recipe adapted Jen Yu's Chinese Sweet Red Bean Steamed Buns at Use Real Butter.
Yield: 20 lotus leaf buns.
- 1/8 cup sugar
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water (105°F to 115°F)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
- 3 cups flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 tablespoon vegetable shortening
- vegetable oil
In a medium bowl, dissolve the sugar in warm water and add the yeast. Let the yeast stand until it becomes foamy, floating to the top, about 10 minutes. Sift the flour into a large bowl. Add the baking powder, shortening, and the yeast liquid. Mix well. If the dough is dry, add a little water. If the dough is too wet, add a bit more flour. Knead the dough until smooth on the counter top, about 8 to 10 minutes. Place it back into the bowl and cover tightly with cling film. Let the dough rise in a warm place for till it has tripled in size, about 2 hours.
Cut 20 squares of parchment paper, 3-inches a side.
Knead the risen dough until it is smooth and elastic. Again, if it is too dry, wet your hand(s) and knead it. If too wet, add some flour and knead it in. Cut the dough into quarters and make a log from each quarter. Keep the unused dough under in the bowl covered with a damp kitchen towel to prevent from drying out. Cut each log into 5 equal pieces. Roll lightly into a ball, then flatten each piece into a 4-inch oval with a small rolling pin, about 4 millimetres thick. Brush lightly with vegetable oil, lay a chopstick horizontally across the center of the oval and fold the oval over onto itself to form a bun. Gently pull out the chopstick, leaving the bun folded, and transfer it to a square of parchment paper. Place the bun on a tray, cover with a damp towel. Repeat and shape the rest of the dough.
Let the buns rest for 30 to 45 minutes: they will rise a little.
Set up a steamer on top of the stove - I use a large wok and bamboo steamer. Working in batches (give them space in the steamer as they will expand), steam the buns on the parchment squares for 10 minutes. Remove the parchment. You can use the buns immediately or allow them to cool completely, then put them in plastic freezer bags and freeze for up to 2 months. Reheat the frozen buns in a stove top steamer for 3 to 5 minutes, until puffy, soft, and warmed all the way through.
Continue reading Kong Bak Pau (扣肉包)
Life Is Great explores the incredible world of food and cooking. We hope to share with you our most delicious moments and inspirations.
“Just like becoming an expert in wine–you learn by drinking it, the best you can afford–you learn about great food by finding the best there is, whether simply or luxurious. The you savor it, analyze it, and discuss it with your companions, and you compare it with other experiences.”
Julia Child (Mastering the Art of French Cooking)
“Life is short. Live your dream and share your passion.”
- ABC Soup (罗宋汤)
- Kong Bak Pau (扣肉包)
- Pandan Chiffon Cake (Improved)
- Crispy Fried Egg
- Tamago Kake Gohan (卵かけご飯)
- Strawberry Pie
- One Pot Chicken Rice
- Bak Chor Mee (肉脞面 - Minced Pork Noodle)
- Hakka Salted Egg Steamed Pork (咸蛋蒸猪肉)
- Best Egg Salad
- Blood Orange Chiffon Cake
- Hong Kong Part III
- Hong Kong Part II: Zongzi/Bakchang (粽子/肉粽)
- Caffè HABITŪ (the table) at G.O.D. Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
- Hong Kong Part I
- Australia 2010 Part 1: Melbourne
- Bourke Street Bakery, Sydney
- Il Fornaio, St Kilda
- Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne