Monday, October 31, 2005

Pock-faced Grandma's Tofu

It's almost a month since I returned from Sichuan, China and methinks it's time to revisit that most famed of dishes, MAPO DOUFU. During my last trip, our tour group had this at almost every single lunch and dinner, until we couldn't even bear the thought of swallowing another spoonful of the spicy-hot oily stuff. Tonight's version though is less oily and numbing in spiciness.
Mapo Tofu EB
  • I'm particularly fond of using silken tofu (beancurd) for this dish in order to better contrast the rough minced meat against the extra-smooth tofu sliding down your throat, though any kind of soft tofu may be used (no however to tau-kwa, tau-pok, deep-fried or firm tofu - the texture is just not the same).
  • The tofu (1 block, about 500g) is cut into 1/2-inch cubes and placed in a pot of simmering slightly salted water and cooked for a short while.
  • The original recipe calls for ground beef, though it is very common to use ground pork in its stead - personally, I prefer ground beef (about 180g to 200g) which is more fragrant.
  • Heat up wok and stir-fry the ground beef together with 1 teaspoon of minced ginger until it changes color (note: the usual mapo doufu recipes do not include minced ginger, but I like to add this particular aromatic root to dishes whenever possible, hopefully without hubby noticing too greatly its presence).
  • Reduce heat to medium and add 2 to 3 tablespoons of chilli bean paste (if you can get hold of the authentic Sichuanese Pixian chilli bean paste - made from red chillies and broad beans, all the more power to you!) and stir-fry until the oil becomes a red-hot chilli color (about 30 seconds or so). At this stage, some suicidal people (oops, I meant chilli enthusiasts) also add 1 tablespoon or more of ground chilli paste (even better if they can get their hands on Sichuanese round chillies, chao tian jiao) - I'm not however suicidal.
  • Add the beancurd, approximately 1 cup of chicken broth, 2 teaspoons of light soy sauce, 1 teaspoon of sugar and 1 tablespoon of Chinese Shaoxing wine, bring the whole mixture to a boil and simmer for about 5 minutes until the beancurd has absorbed the flavors of the sauce. Try not to stir too much in case the beancurd becomes too broken-up, which may result in a horrible mushy-looking mess.
  • Add chopped spring onions (unfortunately, I didn't have any at hand this time around) and thicken the sauce with a bit of cornstarch or potato flour mixture.
  • Dish up into a deep bowl and for that final touch, sprinkle ground Sichuan pepper on top of dish.

Mapo Tofu Condiments Mapo doufu condiments which you can find in any supermarket in Singapore - Lee Kum Kee's chilli bean sauce (toban djan) and McCormick's ground Szechuan (Sichuan) pepper. In fact, you can even buy Sichuan peppercorns (reddish brown in color), roast over low heat in a dry wok until fragrant and crush/grind in a pepper-mill. They are particularly fragrant, adding that bit of 'kick'.

Mapo Tofu EB2

A little bit of history/folklore behind this dish: The origin of this dish can apparently be traced back to the Qing Dynasty during the reign of the Emperor Tong Zhi (1864-74).
  • The wife of a restauranteur (who was unfortunate enough to suffer the scars of small-pox) served this dish to a weary emperor travelling through his kingdom, and it was so delicious that a royal edict was issued pronouncing it fit for a king.
  • In another version, this pock-marked lady served this spicy dish to labourers/coolies who stopped by her humble abode daily for their noon repast.
  • 'Pock-marked' (or "ma") is the common denominator here, and unkind as it may seem, the lady has certainly gained immortality thru' this dish - the same chinese character "ma" in this case also means numbing, and that is certainly apt as well.
King or coolie, this is one of the simplest chinese dishes to make, and oh, so satisfying with a simple bowl of fluffy well-cooked rice.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

New Kid on the Block - Food Republic

Food Republic
The hottest mass foodbuzz on Orchard Road these days has got to be George Quek's latest venture, FOOD REPUBLIC, on Level 4 of Wisma Atria.

Unlike the usual shopping mall food-centre (i.e. boring food-stall counters, plastic chairs, bright flourescent lighting, no ambience whatsoever), Food Republic (which occupies at least 75% of this 4th floor) is modelled on a 60s thru' 70s theme with warm yellow lighting, lovely decor of old posters and 70's artifacts on the walls, wooden dimsum pushcarts, and foodstalls displaying names of dishes in the traditional form of vertical wooden tablets. There are also dedicated areas for specialty dining (Chutneys, north indian cuisine), Waan Waan (thai cuisine), teppanyaki counters, sushi bar... but the best news are the general open dining areas (wooden tables and chairs/benches - not a single plastic chair) scattered thru'out this floor, especially the tables next to the glass panels facing Orchard Road and the Orchard MRT station. This nostalgic concept creates a lovely ambience for the delicious food that is the focus of this particular republic!

Here's a sample of the fare to expect - be prepared to 'drool' all over your laptop / computer keyboard!
FdRep Char Kway Teow
Sizzling char kway teow with lots of 'wok-hei' (wok-breath) - a must-try, queue with patience as the line can get quite long...
FdRep Kimchi Pancake
This rendition of kimchi pancake fried in eggs, is quite tasty with spicy undertones from the added kimchi and sliced chillies.
FdRep Dao Xiao Mian Expert FdRep Dao Xiao Mian
Sliced wheat handmade noodles, straight from the expert's hands (believe me, it takes skill to handle that knife and slice thin strips of noodle from that block of dough). The cooked broad strips of noodle are served in an aromatic hearty beef broth. I like.

FdRep Fish Kebab Wraps
We also tried these fish tikka wraps from Chutneys, the north indian cuisine diner onsite, very filling with an interesting tangy sauce.

FdRep Fried Tofu These fried tofu had a wonderful crispy cover on the outside and meltingly silken tofu on the inside, served with fragrant peanut sweet, sour and spicy sauce on the side - want some? go to Bifengtang, the roast duck/meat diner onsite.

FdRep Tandoori Chicken Platters of tandoori and spicy chicken piled sky-high, and don't forget the cheese prata and teh tarik offered by this stall.

The dessert offerings are just as varied, take a look at the greentea pudding with redbeans (in the background) and the mango and pomelo shaved ice (in the foreground).

FdRep Desserts FdRep Souvenirs
Food Republic had its official opening today, and in keeping with its 60's theme, the take-home souvenirs for guests was an old-fashioned hot-water flask - creative, yes but would one expect less from the guy who gave us BreadTalk, and brought Din Tai Fung to our local shore?

Quite a memorable dining experience, especially for a 'food-centre', definitely a place for repeat visits (and I wasn't swayed by the red hot-water flask, which wasn't mine to keep in the first place). Food Republic has just issued a huge challenge to the likes of foodcentres in Orchard Road, especially the adjacent basement food-centre at Takashimaya SC. All I can say is - Let the battle begin!

Tender is thy Meat!

Beef Shashlik
A good friend told me once that one of the best beef steaks to be had in Orchard Road is at this Russian-style Hainanese restaurant at Far East Shopping Centre. For those in the know, yes, he was referring to the Shashlik Restaurant. Unfortunately, other than waxing lyrical about the shashlik, he failed to give me the heads up on the restaurant itself.

Do not confuse the old and badly in need of a refurbishment Far East Shopping Centre (which is after Liat Tower and next to the Hilton Hotel) with the refurbished and hip Far East Plaza (the latter being next to the Grand Hyatt Hotel). Exiting from the lift on the 6th floor of FE SCtre onto a nondescript lift lobby with doors at both ends, I begin to wonder whether I had the right place..... exited doors and went down corridor (with offices?) and yes, right in a corner is the signboard above a pair of wooden doors.

Hubby and I were seated at a table right next to the main door (and we considered ourselves lucky since we had not made reservations and the place was packed). Immediately, we felt as if we had entered a 'time warp'. The entire interior of this place (I cannot bring myself to call it 'decor'), from the furniture, the pictures on the wall, the dim lights, the wooden bar counter with rows of liqueur bottles, the tacky table vases with plastic/nylon flowers, right down to the wooden two-tier trolleys which the service staff use to serve food as well as clear plates, is trapped in 70's mode. Had it been a new establishment done up in a 70's style, it would have been quaint. If you're a baby-boomer and have gone thru' this era, come over for a bit of nostalgia at a place where time has stood still. *Sigh*, even the service staff are from that era, I don't think I saw anyone below the age of 40 yrs - so, be patient with these uncles (with bowties and maroon vests) and aunties especially when they appear to be hard of hearing and have tunnel vision (they never seem to catch your eye or your hand-wave)!

Despite all that, the food is TRULY delicious. The borsht soup (red beet, white cabbage, beef cubes) is hearty and flavorful although I didn't quite manage to taste any red beet - maybe it has been removed or reduced to suit the local palate.
Borscht Soup

Caviar BlinisWe also had blinis (wafer-thin pancakes) with caviar, served with a wedge of lemon and a dollop of sour cream by the side - felt very 'russian' dining on this dish!

Shashlik beef fillet (pic at top of post) and pepper steak (pic below) arrived at our table in sizzling style, and after popping a carved chunk into our mouths, the real reason we're here became apparent. The meat is as tender as tender can be, full of flavors. We requested for the fillet and steak to be done medium-rare, and realized that it was the right decision as the sizzling hot plate (on which they're served) will continue to cook the meat right at the table itself.
Pepper Steak
Flambee Dessert was Banana Flambee, which was flambeed next to our table on the wooden trolleys - very dramatic flames, ending in a plate of melting ice-cream surrounded by sliced bananas, less heavy and sinful compared to the Bombe Alaska.
Banana Flambee Will I come back to the Shashlik? Yes, definitely for its tender beef shashlik, but maybe the next time, I will come prepared with 'sepia'-tinted glasses and bell-bottoms.

545 Orchard Road
#06-19 Far East Shopping Centre
Singapore 238882
Tel: 6732-6401

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Chocolate Yearning

After running thru' the latest SHF#13: The Dark Side Wrap-up on 75 chocolatey desserts at Lovescool, it was not humanly impossible for me to walk away from my laptop without thinking, obsessing and yearning for 'chocolate'. Breaking out a bar of Lindt from the refrigerator was just not going to 'cut it' this time.

And with that, out came Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Herme from the cookbook cabinet, and as I was too too distracted and impatient to deliberate over the choice of chocolate dessert to make, I just turned to the very first recipe in this wonderful book.

Apricot and Ginger Chocolate Loaf Cake: With this as the intro-sentence "This is a dark-as-midnight chocolate cake that gets its strong chocolate flavor from cocoa and small chunks of premium-quality bittersweet chocolate.... completely surprising addition of small cubes of dried apricots and intensely spicy stem ginger...", how could I resist!

Chocolate Cake

Adding Valrhona Gastronomie Cocoa powder and chopped chunks of Valrhona Grand Cru Noir Manjari (64% cocoa) dark chocolate (the book recommended Valrhona Guanaja, which at 70% cocoa is slightly more bittersweet) to the cake's ingredients, I was assured that the pleasurable taste of chocolate would be doubled. I loved the chunks of dried apricots and stem ginger (not crystallized ginger) which gave a sweet and spicy 'lift' to an otherwise heavenly but dense chocolate cake. Unfortunately, hubby is not into 'ginger', and I will have to remember to remove this ingredient the next time around *sigh*.

What was interesting tho' was the addition of almond paste to the cake mixture. I went looking for the same at Phoon Huat (our local baking specialist shop) but couldn't find the same, and eventually settled instead for marzipan. Although both are basically made from the same ingredients comprising ground blanched almonds, sugar and eggwhites, almond paste has a higher ratio of almonds to sugar (at least 50:50 ratio) than marzipan (which is generally 30:70 almond to sugar ratio) thus allowing for more intense almond taste. I should have probably made my own almond paste, but my food processor had 'conked out' - sheesh!

I understand that almond paste is supposed to help the cake remain moist for a longer period of time. 3 days have lapsed since I baked this cake and it is still moist and dense wrapped in saran wrap and foil. Truly a great and simple cake to make, but I must get my hands on proper almond paste the next time around.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

steamed honey pears in place of throat lozenges

Steamed Pears Ingredients
With just four ingredients, one can make a really lovely traditional Chinese dessert that is both delicious and healthy at the same time. This dessert, which is usually taken to soothe the throat and lungs, is very popular especially amongst individuals who generally stretch their vocal chords (i.e. talk a lot) in the course of their work. The usual ingredients are:

  • chinese snow pears (shuet lei, in Cantonese, or xue li, in Mandarin), which are more velvety in texture as compared to the chinese yellow sandy pears
  • chuan bei (fritillaria bulbs), these are the dried little white bulbs shown in pic above (which look almost like barley) - generally used in traditional chinese medicine in the treatment of coughs and phlegm, and for general respiratory health, [caution: not advised for pregnant women]
  • honey (not shown in pic)
  • red dates (deseeded and chopped) - the first three ingredients set out above are the usual traditional ingredients for this steamed pear recipe - I have taken the liberty tho' of adding chopped red dates as I like the contrast in colors, and the flavor of the sweet red dates combined with honey against the chuan bei's slightly bitter sweet flavor

Steamed Pears

  • soak the red dates in water until softened, then chop into smaller pieces
  • peel the snow pears and remove the core - I normally flatten the bottom of the pears so that they can stand on the plate during steaming
  • stuff the core of the pears with the chopped red dates and chuan bei (no more than 3 to 4 whole bulbs per pear)
  • place stuffed pears on plate for steaming and drizzle with honey
  • steam for at least 40 mins to 60 mins on very low fire, until the pears are soft
  • to serve, place pears onto individual plates/bowls and spoon the honey sauce over the pears
Final Tip: During my last trip to Chengdu, one of the local tour guides had strongly recommended that a little bit of oil from fried lard should be added to the steaming water to improve the texture of the steamed pears. As I was too lazy to search for lard and to fry it up to extract the oil, I took the easy way out and instead added 2 teaspoons of olive oil into the steaming water. Did I taste any difference, as compared to steaming without the oil? I'm not too sure but I think the exterior of the pears remained quite moist and did not suffer any 'wrinkling' or 'outer layer' dryness that sometimes happens when steaming food for an extended period of time.

Taste-wise: The pears were really velvety soft (yet not mushy) and the diluted honey sauce (combined with the juice from the pears and chopped red-dates) gave a nice finish to this dessert... very delectable served warm, straight from the steamer.
More karaoke-singing... no problem!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Would you prefer Chilli or 'Worms' in your Soup?

Sichuanese are notorious for their 'mala huoguo' (transliterated into 'numbing spicy firepot'). Having seen the spicy dishes served during the earlier part of our trip, I was personally disappointed by the 'mala huoguo' served at one of our dinners. Take a look at pic below, the firepot had a center portion filled with dried chillies bobbing up and down in the bubbling oily red-hot broth, while the outer ring had a non-spicy chicken herbal broth. It doesn't really look all that spicy, yes?
Mala Hotpot
The sun-dried chilli used in many Sichuanese dishes is a short, very plump and round looking red chilli called 'chao tian jiao' (or 'facing heaven chilli' - by its very name, I can only hazard that eating these chillies produce such fiery results which causes one to look up to the heavens as one gasps for relief!). Various ingredients ranging from vegetables, mushrooms, seafood, meat slices and offal (beef tripes being one of them) are dipped into the hot boiling broth (spicy or non-spicy, your preference), cooked, scooped out and eaten. We discovered to our delight that dipping the ingredients which have been cooked in the spicy chilli broth, subsequently in a dish of fragrant sesame oil supplied to each diner, allows our sensitive untrained tongues to be coated with the sesame oil thus preventing drastic chilli 'burns' and lengthening our dining enjoyment and tolerance for this meal.
Mala Hotpot Accompaniments
As we left the dining room in the restaurant, we realized that our 'mala huoguo' had been specially ordered by our tour-guide with the separate non-spicy chicken broth to cater to our Singaporean tastebuds. In the outer dining area, our noses were assaulted by strong chilli aromas and as we pass each dining table, the Sichuanese locals' firepots were filled entirely with the hot chilli broth (none of that non-spicy chicken broth for them). It's a pity that I forgot to take a pic of the same as I rushed out of the restaurant to avoid being overcome by chilli fumes!

Cordyceps Herbal Duck Soup
Moving from the spicy, on another night in Chengdu, we dined at Qin Shan Zhai Restaurant at No. 247 Marquis Wu Street, Chengdu (Tel: 028-85098875) famous for their chinese herbal cuisine. Confirmed reservations are required especially if you're having the specialty herbal duck soup that has been brewed for hours with the expensive cordyceps ('tung chong cho' in Cantonese, literally 'winter worm grass') [for the uninitiated, this is the brown worm-like stuff floating in the foreground of the pic]. Cordyceps are reputed to rejuvenate and restore health and vigour, are supposedly winter worms which undergo a metamorphosis to become leaves in summer, and shrivel up into root-looking twigs in autumn. Whatever their origins and supposed health benefits, these little 'worms' together with more than 10 different herbs and spices, definitely enhanced the flavors of the duck soup. Unlike the chilli hotpot, we drank bowls and bowls of this absolutely delicious soup!

After all that spicy cuisine in Sichuan, returning to Singapore and dining on simply-cooked vegetables was most appetizing - that feeling may be best portrayed by pic below of panda's breakfast on bamboo shoots (shot at the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Base).
Panda's Breakfast

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Massage with your dinner, Mdm?

Our first dinner in Chengdu was an explosion of chilli used in all varieties and forms in various small bite-sized dishes. This was our introduction to Sichuan street snacks, from an array of dan dan mian (noodles), steamed dumplings and wantons with chilli bean paste topping, cold roast chicken and smoked duck pieces, to glutinous rice balls with stuffings.

Spicy Sichuan Noodles
These were really extra fiery bowls of noodle - the bowl in the foreground with the red chilli oil may look 'numbing' but it was the one in the background (with the dark paste) that was the 'taste-bud' killer, requiring gulps of cool liquid to down the fires!
Xiao Zhe Banquet The whole table was filled to the brim with each person having his or her own set of 12 xiao-zhe (little bite-sized) dishes in small bowls and dishes. With more than half of these dishes cooked with the local chillies and peppers, we made little headway in mopping up our allocated dishes and they kept piling up!
Xiao Zhe Banquet 2 Even vegetables and nuts are not spared the chilli accompaniment - just look at those long beans and the raw or slightly undercooked peanuts in the background. As you probably guess, the cold meat appetizers (smoked chicken and duck slices) went the fastest.

Not forgetting the famous 'mapo tofu' which epitomizes Sichuan's culinary culture, this dish of smooth soft beancurd and minced pork cooked with Sichuan chilli bean paste and ground Sichuanese chillies and OIL appeared at every single meal when we were in Chengdu and Jiuzhaigou. {"marginal utility" for mapo tofu decreased pretty quickly as the days went by} As if the dish is not hot enough, this particular version had sichuan crushed red peppers sprinkled on top as well.
Mapo Tofu
Chengdu is apparently famous for producing expert masseurs, but even I had a culture shock upon seeing these gentlemen giving back and shoulder-rubs and arm massages to the diners at the restaurant, in the midst of their dinner. Wonder if the massage helps to strengthen the constitution for the fiery chillies?
Dinner Massage

Monday, October 10, 2005

The People of the Land

Prayer Banners
Northern Sichuan is home to various Tibetan tribes, and throughout the countryside, one will find these colorful vertical banners mounted on poles or hanging in square pieces on horizontal lines, each color representing a specific prayer request to the Tibetan gods. A riot of vertical colors that calls to be photographed.

Sunning Ourselves
Two friendly locals having a chin-wag while sunning themselves in the afternoon. "Young lady, remember to send us our photo, yah?"

Weaver Maidens Tribal Vendor
Left: A group of elderly basket weavers in a rivertown in Chengdu. A lifetime of weaving, could these 'weaver maidens' still be waiting for their 'herdsmen Niu Lang'? Nahhh - just a cheeky take on this old Chinese myth.
Right: A tribal vendor, cool and collected, as she surveys the busload of approaching Singapore tourists. Little did she realize that her negotiating skills would soon be put to monumental test and her patience tried not once, not twice ... omigosh, she has finally met her match in the ultimate Singaporean shopper and price haggler!

Peek-a-boo Princess My Day will Come
Left: "Is posing in front of a camera really that fun?", the pink Peek-a-boo Princess wonders silently.
Right: Coast clear, it's safe to step out in the open. "When will someone take my picture, too?"

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Quiet Serenity

The following are more photos of this amazing nature reserve park in Jiuzhaigou. Despite the avalanche of tourists, nature has maintained its hold in this serene place but for how long, I wonder?

Misty Morn
This is the view from my hotel room in the early hours of the morning, cold and misty, I should be snuggling under the quilt instead of snapping shots pressed against the freezing window.

Look Yonder
Despite the misty morning, look at what a beautiful day it is, cloud-covered peaks and clear blue waters stretching into the yonder! Definitely worth getting out of bed for!

Limestone Pools
Tiers of limestone pools, one above the other, stacked in random yet creating beauty amidst its curvy lines.

Pearl Shoal Lake
This is part of Pearl Shoal Lake, and as the waters flow through the rocky surface, rivulets of water skip along the surface creating the impression of little pearls jumping up from the water, hence the name above. Click for an enlarged photo and hopefully you will see the 'pearly' impression created by nature.

Pearl Shoal Waterfall
The 'pearl' rivulets eventually find their way down the Zhenzhutan Pubu (Pearl Shoal Waterfall) - whoosh, whoosh, whoosh!

Forest in the Lake
In the middle of a lake, a gnarled tree grows bent in a full bow as if paying homage to the lake that is its home.

Underwater Rockery
Bare rocks under gentle moving waters draws the eye, look too long and you might start getting dizzy!

Golden Halos
Even water puddles by the side of the hiking trail, clear blue in color surrounded by a halo of autumn-hued leaves, are like turquoise jewels waiting to be discovered.

And finally, the journey to these sights involve 28 fairly hair-raising turns up the mountain, a section of which is shown below - thin air and going round and round a mountain can only mean a headache coming on.....
Winding up the Mountain

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Unforgettable Jiuzhaigou

Being a fickle-minded human, I may in time to come forget how stunningly beautiful Jiuzhaigou is but I will absolutely never forget my painful physical reaction to this place!

The nature preserve of Jiuzhaigou is a lovely alpine valley situated in northern Sichuan between the altitudes of 2,500 to more than 3,000 metres. Within hours of arrival in Jiuzhaigou (via a 45-minute domestic flight from Chengdu), I had bouts of nausea, a splitting headache, slight breathing difficulties and by nightfall of my first day in this valley, I had thrown up all contents in stomach - my very first encounter with altitude sickness! Luckily, Jiu Zhai Paradise Hotel had in-house medical consultation, and with medication, an 'oxygen pillow' (a huge inflatable plastic pillow filled with oxygen with a breathing valve and hose attached) and a good night's rest, I recovered the next morning and didn't have to miss out on any of the sights nor the hiking. Unfortunately, I will never live down the embarassment nor will my tour-mates and friends ever forget the sight of pale me sucking oxygen like an addict! Sigh :(

Never mind - methinks the gorgeous sceneries were worth all that discomfort and more!
Trunks-in-Lake Jiuzhaigou (the name is derived from the nine Tibetan villages scattered throughout the valley) is incredibly blessed with dazzling emerald and turquoise colored lakes, and with their still clear reflections, the mirror images can sometimes trick the eye - is that a bird swimming in the water and are those fishes flying among the trees?

With bare ghostly tree trunks lying in the lakes, one's attention is torn between the beautiful forest landscape above and the dreamy contemplative one in the lake!
The contrasts in this valley are quite awesome as one treks along its various hiking trails. One is confronted by powerful gushing waterfalls, like the Nuorilang pubu or waterfall shown above, but as you trek further and turn the corner, you suddenly come face to face with quiet rippling brooks.