Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Pretty often you hear people say "All things happen for a reason...". I'd like to dismiss this as yet another cliché but events in the past few years have put my (premature) scepticism in its rightful place.
It all started in 2010 with a broken leg and a following house arrest right after I spent 3 months running 10km every fortnight and just signed up for a half marathon. Having nothing to eat at home, I went back into the kitchen, remembering as I was growing up how much I enjoyed cooking and baking. A personal blog turned into a food blog, though I'm pretty sure at the time only 5 people were reading my long-winded stories on wanton soup, cocoa brownies and chicken rendang. Food blogging made me try new things - cook a turkey that just barely fit our fridge, bake finicky soufflés, try out sugar work (let me tell you it was madness) and unassuming chiffon cakes.
A year into the blog things picked up and friends who read it regularly (yes, still the same group of 10 people, I think) started to ask if I'm going to open a restaurant. I laughed. They've obviously missed that bit about my broken leg, not that I often let out in public how tiring it now gets for me after being on my feet for a few hours in the kitchen, I literally have to sit down and prop my legs up to reduce the swelling around my ankle.
Then a few asked when will my first cookbook be out. I believe I may have rolled my eyes. "Why not? Everyone writes a cookbook nowadays, have you seen those food bloggers and celebrity chefs?", a friend insisted. I spent the next half an hour educating the poor soul on how the world doesn't need yet another cupcake book no matter how pretty I can make them look on expensive matte paper and how every time another 'simple Asian meal in 20 minutes' book is published, a kitten dies somewhere. Really, I'm no Deb Perelman, Nigel Slater or Nigella Lawson.
But then as I cooked and ate my way backwards, recipes from my mother and Vijay's mother surfaced. My best food friends, with equally sharp and picky palates - Najah and Nazrah - got me on my feet over their heirloom family favorites rich with atypical influences of Javanese, Ceylonese and Nyonya influences. I realized, a year into the blog, that people should know about these recipes. How our mothers used to do things and make every meal special, rarely with any shortcuts or modern conveniences. How these traditions can be easily lost even within the time frame of my generation, where tattered, dogeared recipe books of our matriarchs end up under the bed instead of in our kitchens.
So at the end of 2011, Najah and I brainstormed our cookbook project over very strong coffee. We mapped out our ideas, recipes and concept. We even almost started a complete project plan and even contemplated self-publishing should no one be interested in our offering. But then we got caught up with other things - me with my job, Najah with her post-graduate studies and Nazrah still being miles away in Dubai moving houses more than once in a year. Our project was shelved, though at the back of my mind, I thought this will give me more time for food research and recipe testing.
Ironically, no such breezy time is now available. Sometime back in November 2012, exactly a year after Najah and I scribbled our list of recipes over coffee, Page One came knocking on my door, taken with what they saw here.
I was suddenly a little worried, nervous and yes, again sceptical. The most recent photos are mostly iPhone shots. My writing? I'm not so sure, I think my style has become quite polarized. Will they want to publish the book I want to write? Will we be able to shoot the photos we want to show? I told Najah and she ended up being more excited than I. "WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?", she practically screamed into our electronic conversation in block letters. "It's going to be crazy and tiring... and I have no space!" I came up with lame excuses, really. Najah was having none of them. "Use my kitchen! Shoot the photos at my house!" I have nothing to lose, as long as I can write the book we originally set out to, Vijay said. Tell them what you won't do, another writer friend offered.
After 3 months, it was done. The proposal was the easy part - I have more than two years worth of material to pick from. The idea was sold and I signed away the next year of my life on a dotted line. David Lebovitz in this attempt on Nigel Slater's moist chocolate beet cake explained at length why he would buy and read a cookbook in this age of readily abundant Internet recipes.
"... a book that I wanted to spend some time in a comfortable chair with, savoring the recipes, the spontaneous, engaging, casual writing, and the gorgeous photos. I have an iPad, and possibly could have read it on that. But then I would have missed the thick, coarse paper, and the delicate lushness of the photographs would have gotten lost behind the shiny screen."
I hope to write a book with not only recipes with our own touch but more importantly, our stories and how food, among other things; continue to bring us together. The challenge is to produce a different kind of Asian compilation, shot unexpectedly, while staying true to our heritage and not kill another kitten somewhere. The journey will bring us new experiences, both in cooking and food photography. Just like this version of the Sarawak kolo mee, something I whipped up on my own out of desperation and wander lust after our travels to Kuching.
Notes: This is my adaptation of Sarawak's famous kolo mee. You can use any bouncy egg or wanton noodles in place of the actual curly noodles which can only be obtained from Sarawak. Traditionally kolo mee is a simple breakfast to brunch noodle dish served as is. Nowadays vendors in Kuching add prawns, chicken slices and some even an additional side of pork offal soup. Halal versions make use of stewed beef, beef meatballs and beef broth, which I find equally delicious.
In a medium bowl, mix the minced pork meat with oil, soy sauces, oyster sauce, Worcestershire sauce, some salt and pepper. Leave to marinate for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Meanwhile, prepare the rest of the ingredients. In a frying pan, heat up 5 tablespoons oil and fry the sliced garlic gently till brown and crispy. Drain the garlic pieces on some kitchen paper; reserve the garlic oil in a bowl.
- 600 grams pork belly or pork neck, minced
- 2 teaspoons peanut oil
- 3 tablespoons light soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons dark soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon oyster sauce
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- 4 cloves garlic, sliced finely
- 5 tablespoons peanut oil for frying
- 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce (add to taste)
- 250 grams Char Siu (Cantonese barbecued pork, sliced)
- 3 tablespoons Char Siu gravy
- 1 stalk spring onion, finely chopped
- 4 portions kolo noodles (or any bouncy egg/wanton noodles)
- additional spring onion for garnish
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Meanwhile, return 2 tablespoons of the reserved garlic oil in the same frying pan and cook the marinated minced pork over medium high heat till done, about 5-6 minutes. Prepare 4 serving bowls and in each one divide the remaining garlic oil, vinegar, fish sauce, Char Siu gravy and chopped spring onion. Cook the noodles in the boiling water till just about done, drain, and immediately divide into bowl. Using a pair of chopsticks, mix well each bowl of noodles with the dressing.
Add some minced pork and arrange a few pieces of Char Siu onto each bowl. Garnish with fried garlic and spring onion before serving.
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.”
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