Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Pierre Herme – Azure

Ever since I started Le Cordon Bleu a month and a half ago, I had almost no chance to eat any dessert other than the ones made by me. On top of the large quantities of things I churn out at school every Thursday and Friday, I also get the itch to make something of my own once in a while. As a result, Jason’s colleagues and our friends and neighbors have been having desserts pushed on them on an almost daily basis. Needless to day, this put a severe damper on my quest to taste test every Pierre Herme dessert on sale in Japan. But I did find a rare gap where there was no dessert at home and I took the opportunity to taste one of PH’s classic items, the Azure.

The azure contains two of my all-time favorite flavors: chocolate and yuzu. In fact I’ve had my eyes on it from the beginning but somehow have always bypassed it, probably because it looks plain compared to PH’s other creations and did not contain any exotic flavors such as cilantro or saffron. However, I was in the mood for something simple and uncomplicated that day and Azure fitted my needs exactly. It is a layer of chocolate ganache and a layer of yuzu cream, sandwiched between a piece of dark chocolate and a piece of chocolate sablee cookie. No fancy decorations or unexpected surprises. It’s simplicity at its best. It might even be my favorite so far.

For other Piere Herme items, see here.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Why can’t life always be peachy and perfect?

Ok, to be fair, my life is not too shabby. We’ve got our health, Libby’s still going strong at age seven, and we are happy with the way things are for the most part. So I shouldn’t complain, right? But it's my blog, so I am going to anyway, damn it!

It all started three weeks ago when we went to Hong Kong for the weekend to see some friends. Since we only had two days and have exhausted most of the tourist attractions on a prior visit, we focused our attention on food. After the first day I started to break out in hives, little bumps like mosquito bites here and there, nothing major. I figured it must’ve been the fengshui or something I ate that didn’t agree with me. I expected the problem to go away when I got back to Tokyo. It didn’t, and in fact got even worse. My stash of Claritin only relieved the symptoms when I took it but never made the problem go away. The problems with western medicine!

So frustrated by the ever present itchiness somewhere on my body, I almost gave in to Jason’s constant nagging and went to see a doctor. Luckily though, I talked to my parents, two veteran allergy sufferers, first. Their theory, and mine, is that some allergies come from within, caused by a toxin inside the body that somehow got triggered by an outside factor. According to them, to make it go away, I have to stop eating any food that could be allergy-triggering or are “heating.”

We Chinese believe that certain food will “bring on” diseases, or in other words, make the body susceptible to illnesses. We say they are “fah.” We also divide food in three general categories: cooling, heating and neutral. I am somewhat familiar with the heating and cooling properties of food but am completely clueless when it comes to which food brings on illnesses. So I asked my mom to give me some examples of food that’s “fah.” “Well, cilantro is a big one,” she said matter-of-factly.

Wait! Woah! Hold on a minute! Cilantro??!! Fragrant, green, healthy-looking cilantro? I just bought a big bunch and in a race against time to prevent it from rotting away in my fridge have been putting it in everything. I even made ice cream with it. No wonder my allergy is not getting any better!

After I calmed down she told me more. Seafood is no good, although fresh water fish is benign. (not helpful because there ain’t no fresh water fish sold in Japan, except for that very seasonal ayu) Spicy food of any kind is bad (I found fresh jalapeno pepper for the first time in Tokyo and had been eating nothing but spicy food lately). Chicken, and especially turkey should not be eaten either, and it’s best not to touch beef or cheese. Hmmm, I think that’s about 80% of my daily diet right there. Add to it the “heating” food such as oranges and anything red in color, I’ll have to eat nothing but rice and green vegetables until my allergy clears up! And no turkey? What about Thanksgiving?!

“So, um, is there anything left for me to eat at all?” I asked. “You can always eat pork and duck!” mom offered enthusiastically. Sure, that helps! The only way I know how to cook a duck is to roast it, and what’s that going to do to my waistline if I make it a daily item on the menu?

Arrrrgh! This is all so irritating. I guess with a mom that’s allergic to just about everything she touches and a dad whose pollen allergy is so severe that he used to schedule his overseas trips to coincide with the peak of allergy seasons, it’s a small wonder that my allergy problems didn’t manifest until now. Still! Why can’t I eat everything I want and be happy?!

Monday, October 31, 2005

Judging for DMBLGIT

As some of you know, I won the “Edibility” category of the ninth “Does My Blog Look Good In This” photography contest last month. Through my win I found a friend in Chubby Hubby, a blogger from Singapore, and a fellow flickrist. I was an instant fan of his aesthetically pleasing and creative food photographs. So when he told me that he was hosting the tenth DMBLGIT contest and asked me to be a judge, I gladly accepted.

There are a total of 45 entries and picking out five top winners for each of the three categories (aesthetics, edibility, and originality) proved to be a difficult task. One photo did stand out in particular and I hope the other four judges will agree with me and give it high marks.

Well, keep an eye on the Chubby Hubby blog for winner announcement and let the best photo win!

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Keep It Simple

A couple of months ago when we went to London, our friends whom we stayed with served us a typical French breakfast on their roof top terrace over looking the Tower Bridge. The first item on the menu was buttered toast dipped in soft-boiled eggs. Maybe it was the fabulous view, or maybe it was the crisp morning air, gooey egg yolks never tasted so good.

Last weekend, we found ourselves stuck at home because of a typhoon that was sweeping through Japan. Jason was surfing the net while flipping through a GQ magazine, and I was reading a book that had to be returned to the library soon. Suddenly he turned to me pointing at a page in the GQ in his hand, “Can we have this for lunch?” And it was the same soft-boiled egg and toast. Having just had a rather filling breakfast, this light fare seems the perfect solution. Plus the sauerkraut bread that I made during the week is turning hard and would be perfect for toast.

Ten minutes later we had ourselves a simple but sumptuous lunch of egg and toast. Who said one has to labor for hours in the kitchen to have a decent meal? Sometimes all you need is ten minutes (of course I’m not counting the hours spent making the sauerkraut bread).

Monday, October 17, 2005

The Scent of Autumn

Does anyone know the English name for this flower? It’s called “gui hua” (桂花) in Chinese and “kin no mokusei” (金の木犀) in Japanese, but what’s it in English?

I was pleasantly surprised my first autumn in Japan when I woke up one morning to a distantly familiar sweet fragrance that I hadn’t smelled since I was a kid in China. It wasn’t until then that I realized that all the trees in the yard were “gui hua” trees! Later when we moved out of that house, one of the things I didn’t want to let go of was those trees, them and my humongous kitchen that took up half the first floor. But that’s a subject for another time.

You know the saying about closing windows and opening doors (or is it the other way around)? I was thrilled to find out one of the trees in my current yard is a “gui hua” tree came autumn in our new apartment.

So what is the big deal about those trees besides the fact that they smell nice? First of all, you don’t know how lovely the fragrance is unless you’ve experienced first hand. It’s not as strong as rose or as sweet as gardenia. If I have to come up with a comparison, I would say it’s like the honeysuckle in that elusive almost-not-there quality, yet it sneaks up on you when you are not paying attention and shocks you with a freshness unknown to any other flowers. Secondly, it’s not just good for its smell. You can eat it. Here is how.

When the flowers are starting to bloom (they only lasts for about a week) pick the ones that had just opened (fully opened ones are not as flavorful). Do not wash, as that the fragrance will be washed off, and place in a small saucepan. Put in sugar and water in a 2:1 ratio and bring to a boil. Boil until syrup thickens and flower turns a dark golden color. Pour into a clean glass jar. This is your “gui hua” syrup. You can add it to any Chinese dessert such as almond tofu, glutinous rice balls or sweet eight-treasure porridge “八宝粥”. Or if you are ambitious, you can make gui hua flavored steamed lotus roots stuffed with glutinous rice, “桂花糖藕”, which I plan to try in the near future.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

My Blog is One Year Old

I had some free time today so I thought I'd organize my blog entries into categories, and what do you know? I found out that I wrote my very first blog entry exactly one year ago to the day!

Two hours of hard labor later, I now have manually categorized every single blog entry I wrote in the past year. Now if you would turn your attention to the side bar, you'll find something called "Let There Be Order" - my low tech solution to blogger's lack of automatic sorting function.

First Week at Le Cordon Bleu

Three people cut their fingers; one person never showed up; one girl lost her wedding ring (later found); another thought she’d lost her mind when she couldn’t find her things in the locker after class (she used the wrong locker and the rightful owner of the locker turned her things in to the administrator); many people locked themselves out of their own lockers (myself included, twice. LCB has a really stupid locker system). Yup, that about sums up my first practical session at Le Cordon Bleu. Eventful, huh!

So what did we make? Fruit salad (to practice cutting fruits the correct way) and Flan au Caramel (aka pudding).

The first lesson wasn’t too bad because the subjects were relatively simple. Besides the salad and pudding, the teacher also demonstrated how to make crème brulee. The fruit salad was really nice due in large part to the quarter of a vanilla bean that was thrown into the mixture. The pudding was the creamiest and most flavorful I’ve ever had. Granted, I don’t usually order the humble flan au caramel in restaurants so I only have the convenient store variety as a yardstick, but I’m still pretty sure it was good. I have mixed feelings about the crème brulee, however. On the one hand, the full-on vanilla flavor was heavenly (can you see the vanilla seeds swimming on top?); but on the other hand, I felt that the texture was not as creamy as the one I made the more scientific way. (LCB does not believe in giving baking time so everything is done by eye-balling, without even a timer! I find this very hard to get used to.)

I hate to sound like a wimp but I was EXHAUSTED after a full day of class (3 hours practical plus 3 hours lecture). Interestingly it wasn’t the practical session that tired me out, it was all that Japanese thrown at me during lecture that gave me a huge headache. It felt exactly like the first week at work: brain overload. The problem is that I have to listen to the lecture in Japanese and take notes in English at the same time. Maybe I will go for the test for simultaneous interpretation after I’m done with LCB, but for now it’s taking every bit of energy and concentration I have in me. It’s still fun though, and I can’t wait till my next practical, where we make classic apple tart. It’s a beauty to behold. I hope mine turns out pretty.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

In Two Days

In two days I start lessons at Le Cordon Bleu. Isn’t it exciting? I went to the orientation session last Friday and received my uniform (two jackets, a pair of pants, two aprons, a hat, and two kitchen towels, all with the LCB crest) and a serious-looking tool set.

Of course the first thing I did when I got home was to take a photo of the jacket and the tools to commemorate this landmark day. Next I labeled all the knives and spatulas and sharpening iron and brush and scraper and whatever else are in that heavy tool kit. I also tried out the chef’s knife and the vegetable peeler while preparing dinner that night. The knife was so sharp that I’m seriously worried because I’m known to be dangerous around sharp objects. The Wusthof peeler, on the other hand, was not as good as my OXO one as it didn’t have much of a grip. I might need to bring my own.

When the excitement subsided I started to get a little nervous. I mean, just by looking at all the tools you know they mean business. What if I can’t understand the teacher’s lectures? What if I fail the test and can’t go on to the next level? And what if, gasp, I don’t actually have any talent at patisserie? To calm myself down and stop my brain from going into overdrive imagining all kinds of worst-case scenarios, I decided to get organized and copy down the curriculum into my day planner. To my great relief, the first demonstration involves flan and crème brulee. Having made a very successful crème brulee only last week, I felt my confidence lift a little. As I read on, I found out that the first part of the basic course is almost entirely dedicated to tarts, specifically pate brisee and pate sablee, both of which I am pretty confident about. After all, I am the unabashedly self-proclaimed Queen of Tarts. This made me feel slightly better and I was able to breath normally again. I bet everyone gets a little pre-LCB jitters? I’ll find out soon from my classmates.

Oh, for those who are looking forward to more photos from my LCB lessons, I am afraid I am going to have to disappoint you. We were told at orientation that showing photos taken in class in a public media, either of the teacher demonstrating or of the teacher’s creations, is strictly prohibited. Blogging was singled out as a no-no, and I could swear the teacher looked in my direction (or is it just my guilty conscience?). We are allowed to show photos of our own work, however, so please drop by and see what I made in class. (I am just afraid that they are not going to be as pretty as the teachers’.) Personally I don’t know why they’re being so tight-assed about this. It’s not as if someone will be able to deduce the recipe just by looking at a couple of photos. However, I am trying to graduate from that school so I thought I shouldn’t break any rules lest my chance of getting a diploma is jinxed.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Are We Too Picky?

We recently went to the UK for a wedding and on the way back stopped in Langkawi for a five-day mini vacation. While the hotel we stayed in the London suburb was everything I had ever imagined the English countryside to be, the food was less than satisfactory. But then again, food is not exactly England’s strong suit. So no disappointment there, and we looked forward to the gastronomic treat that's surely awaiting us in Langkawi.

Before the trip, we spent many long hours discussing which hotel to stay in: Four seasons vs. Andaman vs. The Datai. In the end the Datai won because of its reputation of being a non-family oriented resort (ostracize me for not wanting my tranquil hours by the pool ruined by screaming kids!) with tastefully decorated rooms, impeccable service, and excellent food. In fact I read so many travelers’ rave reviews of the food in the Datai that I was practically dizzy with anticipation: laksa, nasi goreng, roti prata, nasi lemak and of course curries and satays. What would I have first?

Upon arriving in the open-air lobby at the Data, we were promptly served a welcome drink, which set the tone for almost all the food we had at the Datai: watery, bland, and lacked character. For a Malaysian resort, there were surprisingly very few Malaysian dishes to choose from, except at the weekly Malay-Night buffet dinner. But even then our dinner had to be ruined by a watery and tastless nee goreng. Mee goreng, people! How can the chef not know how to cook the most basic dish that any hawker can master? One might argue that being a resort that serves an international clientele, maybe the taste is toned down to please the less adventurous diners. Fine, then what about western food? Shouldn’t they be good if western tourists are the main target? Not so again. Every time we ordered a salad, a sandwich, or a pizza, Jason kept on commenting that even my food tasted better. I should’ve felt flattered, I know, but it was really not a compliment for me, it reflected the, once again, bland and tasteless food.

Are we too picky? Have we been so spoiled by the high standard of food readily available in Japan that we take things for granted? We questioned ourselves frequently and especially when we were served dull and uninspiring food at the Datai. But our soul searching was put to rest when one night we decided to break free and took a 50-minute taxi ride to visit a night market across the island in Kuah Town.

It was only a street of about 200 meters (but don’t quote me on it because I am horrible with distance) lined on both sides with hawkers peddling everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to freshly made local food, most of which we couldn’t name. To maximize our coverage, we devised a game plan and ordered everything that caught our eyes, but only one portion and split everything 50-50. When we came out from the other end of the street, I was rubbing my stomach with a big grin on my face. Now, that’s Malay food, damn it. Was that so hard for the Datai chef to manage?

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The Best Blueberry Pancakes

Last week Jason came home and announced, “Someone sent me a free food magazine today. It looks pretty good. I’m leaving it on the dining table.” I took a glance in that direction and saw a thin booklet with a not-so-attractive cover. Those of you who know me will know that I’m a very visual person, especially when it comes to recipe books and food magazines. If my attention is not grabbed within the first 1/20 of a second, I generally won’t give it a second chance. So the magazine sits in a corner on the table for a couple of days, until Jason hogged the computer again one night and the TV wasn’t showing anything interesting. Bored, I reached for the magazine.

Oh boy, the entire magazine (all 32 pages) was printed in black and white on non-glossy paper! Don’t they know I need to see what the food looks like in full color? Ready to toss it into the recycle stack however, my eyes caught a glimpse of color. Alas, on the inside cover were ten little squares of colored photos. Hmmmm, some visuals after all! One image that stood out was a stack of blueberry pancakes, so fluffy and drenched in maple syrup. Having just bought a pint of blueberries, I was naturally on the lookout for recipes. So I flipped to the page titled “Better Blueberry Pancakes” written by Bridget Lancaster. Instead of a mere recipe, I got the entire rundown on the how’s and why’s of what makes a pancake taste good. Bridget was methodic in her quest for the best recipe and I felt like I was right beside her learning through her trials and errors. By the time I finished reading the article, I had my heart set on the pancakes, and a subscription to the magazine.

The next morning, I followed Bridget’s advice and made the best batch of pancakes I’d ever tasted in my life. Even Jason the pancake-hater voluntarily split the extra one with me instead of pretending he was really full and could not possibly eat another bite. But wait for the best part: I think I might have converted him into a pancake-lover!

So what set these pancakes apart? I feel that aside from the recipe, technique also played an important role. In the back of my mind I’ve always known you’re not supposed to over-mix batter, but I’m sure you all know how annoying it is to see streaks and lumps, especially for a control freak like me. But this time, not only did I resist the urge to extinguish the dry lumps and uneven streaks, I made sure I used the largest whisk and instead of mixing, I scooped up the batter in a big circular motion and tapped the whisk on the side of the bowl to drop the batter back into the bowl. This was repeated while turning the bowl 90 degrees each time until the batter is almost homogenous, but not quite. I feel that this is the best way to ensure the batter is handled minimally to help the pancakes to achieve maximum fluffiness.

Another unusual thing about this recipe is that instead of mixing the blueberries into the batter, they are sprinkled onto the pancake while it’s cooking in the pan. You get golden pancakes dotted with intact berries this way instead of something bluish gray and unappetizing. However, one thing I’ll do differently next time is to cut down the amount of milk. I’ve always noticed that flour in Japan has a higher water content. When using western recipes to make bread, I always have to cut down water by about a quarter. I forgot about it this time and as a result, my batter was a tad too thin and my pancakes weren’t as thick as I would’ve liked them to be. Imagine how much more perfect they’d be if they had thickness too!

So here’s the recipe and I hope you find them as good as I did.

1 tbsp juice from 1 lemon
2 cups milk
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tbsp sugar
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
1 large egg
3 tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1-2 tsp vegetable oil
1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries, preferably wild, rinsed and dried

1. whisk lemon juice and milk and set aside to thicken
2. whisk flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in medium bowl to combine (I also sifted the flour with baking soda and powder twice before mixing with the rest of the ingredients)
3. whisk egg and melted butter into milk until combined. Make a well in the center of dry ingredients and pour in milk mixture. Whisk very gently until just cocmbined. Do NOT overmix
4. heat nonstick skillet over medium heat, add 1 tsp oil and brush to coat skillet bottom evenly. Pour ¼ cup batter on skillet, sprinkle 1 tbsp blueberries over batter. Cook until large bubbles begin to appear, flip and cook until golden brown on second side.
5. Serve immediately with maple syrup.

Friday, September 09, 2005

What a Waste!

I went for a cooking lesson today and out of the five people who signed up only another student and I showed up. The teacher announced that since enough material was measured for five people, we’d have to prepare five servings. A normal person who hears this will assume that the five servings of food will then all be consumed, now won’t she? Wrong!

I swear I’m not saying this just because I’m a pig (which I’ve been known to be at times) but isn’t it so wasteful to cook all that food only to dump them right into the trash? Yup, that’s exactly what we did. We were only allowed to take one serving of everything: three sections of sushi rolls, one inarizushi pocket, 1/5 of the grape jelly dessert, and only one of the five prawns for the soup (the teacher made sure we didn’t throw an extra prawn in the soup). The rest was all chucked in the bin!

We asked why we couldn’t take the rest home and were given some lame sanitary excuses. So fine, but there are so many other students at the studio who, I’m sure, would love to get some free food. But that wasn’t allowed either. I’m guilty of throwing out a leftover dish or two at times, but we are talking about freshly cooked, perfectly delicious food here. I really don’t understand.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Tibet Travel Advisory

I know, I know, Tibet was two months ago, and we’ve already gone on another trip between then and now, but what can I say? Didn’t I confess to being a hopeless procrastinator a long time ago? Better late than never, right? Like I said before, Tibet was such an exhausting trip and what little energy I had left afterwards was drained on the post-trip photo-editing saga that took weeks. When everything was done, well, I was just too sick of Tibet to talk about it, hence the two-month lag. Many friends, however, are interested in going to Tibet (a forbidden territory until recently) and asked me all sorts of questions. And I know lots of other people are probably dying to know more about this mystic place too, so I feel obligated to shed some lights and give some advice should you decide to make the journey (plus, it’s been raining incessantly ever since I got back to Tokyo yesterday, so I’m housebound with nothing else to do).

The point I cannot emphasize enough is to do your homework before going. Keep in mind that Tibet, although opened to tourism for a number of years now, is still in a remote area where living and sanitary standards may not be what you are used to back home. If you are like me, who values a good rest after a day of sightseeing, I highly recommend booking the best hotel/guesthouse whenever you can. In big cities like Lhasa and Shigase, four-star hotels provide clean bedding and hot water showers. Once in the mountainous regions, however, things you take for granted (such as running water) is not always available. I’ve taken photos of all the hotels/guest houses we’ve stayed in Tibet for your reference (photo album attached at the end).

Another major concern is altitude sickness. Even in Lhasa, the altitude is 3500m above sea level and if you go to Lake Namtso or the base camp, it can easily get above 5000m. I highly recommend taking Diamox (acetazolamide) as a preventative before and during your visit. The side effects (numbing sensation in fingers an toes and frequent urination) can be bothersome at first but isn’t it so much better than having altitude sickness ruin your trip?

One of the things that really struck me when I was in Tibet (besides the sunny blue sky and beautiful scenery) is how the Tibetans’ lives are entirely centered around their quest to achieve Nirvana and happiness in the afterlife. People devote huge portions of their days to religious activities to the extent that anyone coming from outside of Tibet may find it incomprehensive. It helps if you at least understand a little bit of history and background of Tibet before your trip. It’s no secret that the relationship between Tibet and the central government of China is filled with turmoils over the years. If you are a foreigner, your guide will not be inclined to get into any discussion on the subject of the politics or the Dalai Lhama. You will mostly likely get the official edited version of the history so it is up to you to do the homework to complete the whole picture. Even if you are not interested in the politics, it will still serve you to learn the history and background on Songtsan Gambo and his two wives (Tang dynasty Princess Wencheng and Nepalese Princess Bhrikuti), the Dalai and Panchen Lhama, and the major branches of the Tibetan Buddhism. A large part of sightseeing in Tibet is spent on visiting various monasteries. If you do not have at least some knowledge of the background, it gets boring really fast. After all, all the monasteries look similar without the history behind them.

Other miscellaneous pointers that might be useful:
- Tibetan roads are atrocious and all but disappear once you leave the big cities. If you are prone to carsickness, bring drugs. And don’t even think about renting a car and driving it yourself.
- Tibet is dusty, especially if you travel on unpaved non-roads. Wet tissues and sanitizing gels come in handy because it’s not always easy to find running water.
- Bathrooms in Tibet are disgusting to say the least. It is far more desirable to ask your driver to stop by the road where you can find a tree to go behind.
- Climate in Tibet is extremely dry so you need to have drinking water available at all times. It is a delicate balance to stay hydrated while being able to hold it until you find acceptable bathrooms. My advice is to drink lots when you’ve checked into your hotel (with clean bathroom) for the day and only take little sips on the road.
- Bring a sleeping bag or sheets if you have to stay in a guesthouse. The one we stayed in at the base camp washes their sheets once a year.
- At the last large city before going into the wilderness, stock up on water and non-perishable food. We found it far more appealing to munch on cookies and bread on occasions than to eat what the guesthouse had to offer. Bottled water comes in handy when there’s no water to even brush your teeth with.
- Bring emergency medical supplies such as motion sickness drugs, painkillers (one of the symptoms of altitude sickness is headache) and anti-diarrhea drugs.
- Tibet is not the place to be adventurous when it comes to food. If it smells or tastes funny, don’t eat it! It is no fun to get the runs when you can’t afford to pick and choose bathrooms. Trust me!
- Last but not the least, be patient and go with the flow. We had roads close on us on several occasions for no apparent reasons and all we could do was to wait it out. It’s part of the Tibet experience!

Here are some photos and comments from our Tibet trip.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

IMBB#18: Summer Frying

I was delighted to find out that the theme for the 18th IMBB, hosted by Linda of At Our Table, is “Summer’s Flying, Let’s Get Frying!” for I had been doing just that. Earlier this year, I decided that it was high time to do something about my being Chinese and not knowing how to cook Chinese food. I made a conscious effort to look up Chinese recipes in search for dishes that are not too complicated to make. Did you have any idea how much deep-frying is involved in Chinese cooking? Sure, it may look drenched in a thick, dark sauce, but underneath all that gooey goodness is a piece of battered and deep-fried fish or meat. Not that I have anything against deep-frying. It’s just that the exhaust fan in my kitchen is not very well designed. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t accomplish much at all when it comes to getting rid of the smell. When I cook something strong smelling, such as duck or lamb, I often still smell it the next morning. It’d take days to get rid of the oily odor that comes hand-in-hand with frying. But with summer came the solution. While other people do outdoor grilling, I do outdoor frying.

It occurred to me that I could set the tabletop burner that I use for hotpots in the winter in the yard to heat up a pot of oil and fry my heart out without leaving a trace of smell in the house. Brilliant, isn’t it? Why didn’t I think of it earlier?!

For my first frying experiment, I made Jason’s favorite Chinese dish – General Tsao’s Chicken. Ask any real Chinese and they’ll tell you that General Tsao’s chicken is the type of quasi-Chinese food invented to suit the American palate. I’ve never seen it on any menus in restaurants in China, or any country outside the United States for that matter. But hey, if that’s what my man wants, that’s what I’ll cook.

This dish being an Americanized Chinese invention actually has its merits: I was able to find an English recipe with exact quantities for all the ingredients (none of the vagueness of “some”, “the right amount” that are so typical of Chinese recipes). So on a hot summer day I set out to make General Tsao’s chicken. The recipe is pretty much self-explanatory except you do not need to mix in so much starch. Being a frying novice, the hardest thing for me was trying to determine when the chicken was done, but it was nothing a few pokes with a chopstick wouldn’t solve.

This was the finished product and it was a huge hit if I might say so myself, well worth the frying trouble. Not only did Jason eat loads of it and brought the leftover to lunch, he talked about if for the next couple of days. The only thing I would change when I make it again is to coat the chicken in the starch after dipping it in the marinade, instead of mixing the starch in from the beginning. I think this will give the chicken a crispier outer layer and make the dish perfect, just the way they serve it in restaurants.

Fueled by the success, I fried up some sea bream a couple of days later, and topped it with a sweet and sour sauce. I also made fried tofu in lemongrass sauce. Believe me when I tell you it tastes so much better than the soggy pre-fried tofu you get in stores. When I come back from my trip, I’m making spring rolls! Oh yeah!

Thanks Linda, for hosting this event and taking my early entry!

Thursday, August 25, 2005


Going to a wedding in Hampshire, UK, then stopping by beautiful Langkawi on the way back. Be gone for ten days!

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Le Cordon Bleu, here I come!

I went to LCB for a trial lesson today, after which I signed up for the fall term of basic French patisserie. Yup, I finally did it!

I’ve been contemplating doing this for almost two years now. However, their strict attendance policy (you flunk out if you miss more than two theory lessons, and three tardiness count as one absence) prohibited me from taking the evening classes while holding down a full-time job. The plan was shelved. Then there’s also the cost. The entire course (9 months) costs the same as my fist two years of grad school tuition combined! I simply couldn’t chalk it up to hobby.

Now, two years later, with some ABC cooking school experience under my belt, and my decision to abandon the pharmaceutical field for good, I felt it was time to rethink about the matter. Over time, Jason and I have come to terms with LCB’s exorbitant tuition as well, and decided that if I were to learn French patisserie, I might as well spend the bucks and learn it properly. However this time, I discovered another disheartening fact about the LCB lessons: instead of recipes, the school only hands out ingredient lists. It is each student’s own responsibility to listen and watch the instructor during demonstration and take notes so he/she can follow it during the practical sessions. My immediate worries were naturally that I wouldn’t be able to completely comprehend all the Japanese thus not getting 100% out of the lessons. So you understand my apprehensions when I went for the trial today. In my bag I had a filled-out application form (binding in that you have to pay a $500 penalty if you decide to back out once handed in. The gall!) but whether I turned it in or not after the trial depended on how confident I felt about my ability to understand the instructions.

With trepidation I entered the demonstration room. Today was the 12th demonstration (out of a total of 22) in the basic course and the items on the menu are choux a la crème, cygnes (swan), and chouquettes.

My tasting plate

The instructor was a middle-aged Japanese man who spoke quite fast. I had a little trouble catching his sentences at first but once I got used to his speech, I found him to be very methodic and logical in his explanations. He did everything so efficiently and fast-paced (having an assistant definitely helped) that I found myself scrambling between taking notes, looking at the demonstration, and snapping pictures here and there. Strangely, it felt kind of satisfying.

To help everyone see what the instructor is doing at any given time, a giant mirror is placed directly above the counter so students in the front row can see.

instructor and his assistant

On either side of the classroom hung two TV screens with live feeds from cameras trained on the counter so students sitting in the back won’t miss anything either.

Instructor demonstrating how to shake the pan to coat chouquettes with sugar clumps

Before I realized it, two hours had passed. The choux, the swan, and the chouquettes were coming out of the oven in batches and the classroom smelled heavenly. My stomach started to grumble as if on cue. While I was busy taking notes, the assistant had lined the counter with plates. The instructor and his assistant proceeded to slice the top off the swan body and split it in half into wings. They then piped crème patissiere into the body cavity and topped it with crème chantilly; perched the wings on the mound of cream and inserted the graceful swan neck.

cream filled swan body

here go the wings

One of each of the menu items was placed on a plate and students were invited to go up to take photos of the finished products and receive a plate for tasting. I joined the line as well.

Tasting Plates

Swan Lake

Choux a la crème


I’ve eaten my share of choux a la crème before, but never in the shape of a swan with a graceful neck sticking out and let me tell you, it was good! Even though I saw two different kinds of cream being piped into the swan body, it was still somewhat of an unexpected surprise to find the layer of light yellow crème patissiere specked with little black dots of vanilla beans underneath the beautifully swerved chantilly cream. I used to like Beard Papa’s choux cream, but LCB’s version seems lighter in texture and more complex in flavor. The chopped almonds sprinkled on top gave it an extra crunch too. The best part is that I now know how to make it myself!

Coming out of the school I called Jason immediately and told him how I really enjoyed the class. He was happy that I was in such a good mood. What can I say? Butter, sugar and cream, combined in the right way are the best mood lifters for me! I do have one concern though. I did know about all the desserts that I’ll have to take home and somehow find ways to get rid of (friends are volunteering already) but I didn’t know about the amount of food they make you taste! Twice a week I have to eat rich pastry for lunch? How am I going to keep my shape? Help!!

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Pierre Herme V: Collection & Emotion Exotic

I love Obon week, I just love it! With all the people going back to the countryside to pay respect to their ancestors, the streets of Tokyo are virtually empty. There are no lines no matter where you go; no traffic jam; no construction next door; AND I was the only customer when I arrived at the chocolate bar on the second floor of Pierre Herme’s Aoyama store.

I thought I was only biking over to get some dessert for the night. When I arrived, the store looked so eerily empty with only two shop assistants standing behind glass show cases that I had the sinking feeling that it might be closed like so many other stores in Tokyo for Obon. But alas, the pale yellow doors slid quietly open and I was greeted with a “irrashaimasse.” I thought to myself, what better time to check out the “bar” when there’s no waiting?

I climbed a straight marble staircase with chrome bars to the second level. As I rounded a frosted glass wall, I found myself face to face with four “bartenders” in the spacious and minimally adorned Chocolate Bar. One side of the room is a huge glass window facing Aoyama-dori, with long narrow counter seating running the entire length of the window. The bar is situated on the far side of the room but no alcohol was visible. I chose to sit on a large leather couch next to the glass wall because the bar stools at the counter looked painfully uncomfortable. The menu arrived with a glass of ice water as soon as I settled into my seat. I recognized some of the same items sold on the first floor but decided to go for the “collection”, a set of three different mousse desserts for 1650yen. Ok, so obviously I wasn’t expecting three full-sized items, but when my “collection” set was presented to me, I almost needed a magnifying glass to see them!

Clockwise from back: lime mousse with raspberry buried inside, topped with yuzu jelly; cocoa mousse with macha granita, topped with sugar violets; chocolate mousse with mashed pear, topped with caramel toffee. My waiter kneeled down and in a hushed tone told me to eat the contents of the three mini shot glasses in that order so the flavors go from light to intense.

The lime and yuzu flavor blended really well, but by the time I got to the raspberry on my third bite, it was getting a little sweet so the tartness of the berry was a welcome contrast. I took my time savoring each bite (there aren’t that many to start with so I thought I’d better cherish everything) and cleansing my palate with water between bites. Maybe I took too long but when I got to the second shot glass, the macha garnita had already started to melt. Besides having very intense macha and cocoa flavors, I didn’t think this one was all that special, and the sugared violet didn’t do much besides adding a little color. The third one was better, although still not as unique as the first one. The chocolate mousse was so creamy and soft I almost thought it was ice cream, but maybe it just has a lot of cream in it. The pear sauce on top was very refreshing and the crispy caramel brittle added texture. Although the variety was good, I thought it wouldn’t have hurt them to increase the portion a little bit. I mean, the three of them combined is not even a full-sized dessert, so why are they charging twice as much?

Feeling a bit unsatisfied as I descended the stairs, I scanned the display case for something more satisfying. My eyes immediately caught sight of a very pretty new item in the Emotion range.

It’s called Emotion Exotic. The bottom layer of pale green mousse is pistachio flavored. In the middle is a compote of pineapple seasoned with lime rind and cilantro (or coriander for some). This is topped off with creamy tapioca in coconut milk. The beautiful pale green round on top is a piece of white chocolate coated with a piece of edible film.

Before I went to PH that day, I told myself I should get something other than Emotion, for I have a tendency to be drawn to them by their esthetics. I was going to get something less visually attractive, something chocolaty, but this was just too gorgeous for me to pass up. I did have one reservation though. The last time I got something unusual from PH, I didn’t like it too much, and this thing has cilantro in it? Don’t get me wrong, I love cilantro (hated till I was about 20, but once I started eating it, there’s no going back) but in my dessert? I expressed my concerns to the shop girl and she reassured me that it wasn’t an overpowering taste and was only there to bring out the flavors in the pineapple. I decided to take a risk.

That night after a dinner of lemongrass flavored fried tofu with rice, we sat down to find out just how exotic this Emotion is. Turned out the shop girl was exactly right. The cilantro and lime just made the pineapple extra refreshing without intruding on its flavor. The tapioca in coconut milk reminded me of my favorite dessert in Singapore – bobo chacha. One slight disappointment, however, was that the pistachio mousse, although flavorful on its own, was overshadowed by the coconut milk. And there’s this other teeny-weeny thing. Sure, it was very tasty and hit the spot, but it was not something I expected from a French patisserie. Take away the fancy presentation and the big name, this was not that much different from something you might find in a hawker stand. Then again, didn’t the name say “exotic?” Plus I really loved its look.

So did Jason the critic like it? He said it was really good without offering any critique. I’m not sure if that’s not due to his mind being occupied by the computer.

Note to self: this is one PH dessert I can try to imitate, sans pistachio mousse.

The Chocolate Bar

Past Pierre Herme entries:

Emotion Eden

Emotion Ludic & Inca


Emotion Ispahan

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Cooking ABC: July

Seeing that my mutilated thumbs are not good for much of anything else except for typing, I decided to catch up on some of the things that I’ve been meaning to post on this blog. First on the long overdue list is the monthly installation of cooking ABC for July. I know I said I was dead tired from the Tibet trip but I did drag my sorry ass out of my house a couple of times to the cooking school as a way to recuperate.

I think I went for a cooking lesson first. The menu was chicken rice. This is not to be confused with the Hainanese chicken rice. The ABC chicken rice hails from Amami Island, a group of islands situated between Kagoshima and Okinawa.

The rice used was a mixture of white rice and germinated brown rice, believed to be highly nutritious. After chicken and takana are cooked together and heaped onto the rice, a clear broth is poured on top, so in the end it resembled ochatzuke (rice in tea). The two side dishes were sesame tofu made from soymilk and sesame paste, with a yuzu sauce; and deep fried ball of shrimp and mountain potato paste. For dessert, we made macha Bavarian cream parfait with corn flake and red bean topping. I think my favorite thing out of this entire menu was the fried shrimp and potato paste. Japanese mountain potatoes are more like yams and very sticky when you grind them up raw (the beloved neba-neba and tsuru-tsuru quality in Japanese food). Combined with fresh shrimp paste, it produced an almost airily light texture when fried.

Next, I scheduled a bread lesson and a dessert lesson back to back. The bread was a challah that I chose to shape into a heart.

I’ve made challah before, but none so soft and eggy. I was really truly surprised at how elastic and stretchy it was. It felt so good tearing off little pieces and putting it in my mouth that I think Jason only had a chance to eat one little section before I devoured the whole thing by myself.

I then made these beautiful little tartlets filled with caramelized walnuts. Great care was taken to ensure the tops come out flat, but I thought it would’ve actually looked nicer if it had a little dome, don’t you?

Although small, they contain 520 calories each, because besides the incredibly rich pate sucree dough and the walnuts that you can’t see, it’s filled with almond cream. It was so good I could see a repeat of the challah incident, so I made Jason take the rest to work. Word has it that everybody loved it. Yesss!

How Stupid Am I ?!

I blame the carrot for being extra hard. I blame Sonia the cleaning lady for hiding the safe guard of the slicer in some obscure place so I was forced to push the carrot with my bare hands. I blame the blade for being so darned sharp. But most of all, I blame myself for being so stupid and careless. What was I thinking! Was it absolutely necessary to get exactly two cups of shredded carrots? Would I have been punished for eternity and beyond for throwing the last bit of carrot out because it was getting too dangerous to shred it? Of course not! Then why did I insist on risking digital amputation for a mere salad?

I had never seen so much blood coming out of myself before. I mean I’m sure everyone has cut their fingers at some point in their cooking attempts, but I’m talking about blood gushing out and dripping down my arms while I tried to tie tourniquets around the thumbs with both arms raised above my head. I now fully understand the important functions that the thumbs carry out, besides pushing buttons on my mobile phone. The right thumb was cut near the tip where it’s mostly thick skin so even though it looked scary – a dangling flap of flesh, it had almost stopped bleeding when I checked this morning. The left thumb is doing far worse. It’s a deep 1cm cut about 3 mm deep in the fleshy part of the thumb pad. Blood was still oozing out but it’s much better compared to last night. Then there’s the pain. A throbbing dull pain that refused to go away for hours and persistently came back every time I changed the blood soaked bandages. Let this pain serve as a reminder the next time I even think of attempting something remotely reckless in the kitchen. Gosh this has got to be the stupidest I’ve ever felt about myself.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

The Things that Nobody Ever Told You About Hanabi

“You are turning into a COMPLETE Japanese!”

Jason said to me when I told him I’d be leaving the house at 2:30pm to meet my friend Tanya at Odaiba seaside park in time to watch the Tokyo Bay fireworks (hanabi) show. Jason, on the other hand, would have nothing to do with the hot and humid weather, the crazy crowds, or the you’ve-gotta-be-there-four-hours-before-the-show crap. So I embarked on my first hanabi trip of the year alone with camera, tripod and picnic food in tow.

Why does she need to leave so early, you say? Let me enlighten you.

First of all, I’ll have you know that leaving one’s house five hours before the show even though one lives only half an hour away from Tokyo Bay is in fact not early at all. By the time I got to Shinbashi station to change to the monorail (Yurikamome) there were so many people going the same direction that it took me half an hour to buy the train ticket. Secondly, the reason I didn’t have to go until so LATE, was because Tanya’s friend who lives in Odaiba (Tokyo’s manmade island) went to the beach at 8am to secure a place for the rest of the group. Thirdly, if you don’t arrive at the beach early enough, even if you have friends nice enough to reserve a space for you, you may never find them in the sea of people on the beach (seriously, you have no idea how many people can pack into a tiny stretch of beach), especially after dark.

So you see? You have to have the right mind-set for an event like this. The hanabi is not a single event (it also involves eating tons of food and drinking copious amount of alcohol before, during and after the show), nor should you expect to sit under the cool summer sky and enjoy an hour-long spectacular show without paying some price.

This year, the price included:
- Waiting in line for 30 minutes to buy my monorail ticket (lesson #1: have prepaid train card ready in situations like this).
- Taking shelter under a tarp when it rained for one hour just before the show, getting sand into everything (lesson #2: bring umbrella even if it was sunny when you left the house)
- Running back and forth between the monorail station, the JR station, and the water taxi station after the show trying to figure out which has the shortest line (lesson #3: don’t linger after the show. Better yet, get up and leave before the finale)
- Lining up in the street for 40 minutes to set foot into the monorail station (see lesson#3)
- Getting caught in a downpour when I got out of the train station so I had to call Jason to come and pick me up (see lesson #2)

Next year, we’ll try to get even closer. (More photos here.)

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

For the Love of Water

This is a picture I took on our blissful ten-day vacation to the Maldives resort Soneva Gili almost three years ago. The water is such a heavenly turquoise blue that I could hardly take my eyes off of it. Even before Maldives however, I have always been in love with water, or at least the idea and fantasy of it. For you see, as much as I love being near water, I am also deeply afraid of any water deeper than my height.

It will probably last all night if I were to tell you all my freaking-out-in-water stories, Jason’s favorite being the time in Phuket when I thought I was drowning while snorkeling off the coast of coral island, despite wearing a life-jacket! The most embarrassing for me though, well actually the two most embarrassing for me are the scuba diving incident in Maldives and the noodle incident at the Great Barrier Reef.

First, Maldives. We went there because our trip to Tibet had to be cancelled due to SARS. All geared up for adventurous travel, I was not content to just lie on a beach for ten days. So I convinced myself that it would be a good idea to spend the time getting our PADI licenses. Not a bad idea, if I knew how to swim (how I learned and then forgot how to swim is a story for another time). To cut a long story short, in our first practical lesson, I panicked when the instructor asked me to take off my goggles in the water (real sea water!). In one horrifying moment, I pulled the breathing apparatus (the one thing that I should’ve hung on to for dear life) out of my mouth and shot straight up to surface. Granted, it was only about 2m deep where we were standing, but to me it felt like a life and death situation. Too shaken, I refused to finish the course. As a result, Jason didn’t get his license either because he said there was no point in doing it alone.

A year later, the Maldives incident behind me, I booked us a trip to a rainforest resort in Queensland, Australia (where Natalie Portman had breakfast less than ten feet from us at the hotel). Missing out on the Great Barrier Reef was simply out of the question, but I knew better to try scuba diving again. So we took a boat trip out to the open sea and went snorkeling. Relaxed and full of confidence the entire boat ride out, as soon as I got into the water, panic struck again. Lucky for me, the boat carried some foam noodles for toddlers (yes, toddlers) to hang on to, and I shamelessly grabbed onto one. With noodle under my arms, I was able to fully enjoy the underwater life of the GBR. We even saw some green sea turtles, the kind in Finding Nemo, and they look even cuter in the flesh.

Since the GBR incident, the nearest I’d been to water was sitting by the pool with a book watching Jason swim. So scarred is my confidence that I hadn’t so much as getting my toes wet in the pool, but it doesn’t stop me from loving the sight of water, which is why I booked another beach holiday for us in September. This time to Langkawi, at The Datai resort.

I had a decision to make. I could either sit by the pool sipping tropical drinks with a good book in hand, or I could try to conquer my fear of water and fully enjoy the pristine beaches. I chose the latter. As of last week, I have joined a second gym, with the sole purpose of learning how to swim. The gym is a 3-min bike ride from my house, leaving me no excuses not to go when Jason takes the car. It offers a variety of free swimming lessons and I intend to take advantage of it fully. One feature of their somewhat unusual pool, however, leaves me wondering whether it’s a good idea to learn swimming there at all: the pool is of my shoulder depth the entire length. The plus side is that I won’t be terrified every time my toes can’t touch the bottom. At the same time, it doesn’t test my limits and I found out when I went to the normal pool at the American Club on Sunday that I still fall to pieces in deep water. My initial goal in taking the swimming lessons was to be able to swim at least one lap (in a normal pool) by the time we get to Langkawi, but with this unexpected set back, I’m not sure how long it will take for me to completely overcome my fear. I might be in this for the long run…

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Am Back

Actually, I came back from Tibet two weeks ago. But is it only me or does everyone feel a low after a vacation? Up until now, I’d always had to go straight back to work the very next day I came back from a trip, so no matter how depressed I was, I still had to get up and throw myself back into the routine. This time was different though. I could sleep in all I want and didn’t have to get out of the house if I didn’t want to. Which is exactly what I did. The first week, I barely got out of bed before 10am everyday and the hot and humid weather gave me the perfect excuse to hole up in the house except Libby’s walks. I didn’t cook much either, and we lived mostly on fruits and porridge for an entire week. That somehow felt good, but enough is enough. So now I’m back, 100%.

Here’s a picture of the fireworks last night at the Gaien baseball stadium, shot from my rooftop.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Farewell, My Cucumber

Farewell, my little tiny cute cucumbers! I’m sorry I’m not able to move you inside or to Hsin-li’s house along with the rest of the herbs. You’re on your own now for two weeks while I explore the Plateau of Tibet. I hope it rains a lot in Tokyo. But if it doesn’t, I hope the 2L bottle of water I stuck in the pot will provide some relief.

Look at how much you’ve grown in the three weeks that I’ve had you. I hope you survive this. Think of it as a test of endurance. I’m sure you’ll come out a better cucumber plant.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Cooking ABC: June

June is the rainy season in Japan, before the really humid and hot summer smothers anyone who dares set foot outside. Taking advantage of the still bearable temperature, I made an effort to go to the cooking school as much as I could this month.

I only went for one bread lesson in June because cooking and cake lessons kept me busy.

This is a wheat germ bread, the first bread I’ve made at the school that didn’t contain eggs. The dough was extremely wet and a pain to knead, but the wheat germ smelled so nice while it was baking. It made really nice bread for sandwiches and toast. I thought the wheat germ added a very nice flavor but Jason insisted that the smell reminded of him of mold.

Him - “This smells funny. Does wheat germ means it has germs in it?”
Me - “Please, don’t be ignorant. Germ stands for germinate, not germs as in bacteria.”
Him - “It tastes funny too. Are you sure it hasn’t gone bad?”
Me - “I just made it yesterday. Trust me, it’s fine.”
Him - turning the slice of bread this way and that, “I don’t see any mold on this, but it sure smells like it.”
Me - “Find, don’t eat it.”
Arrrr, the man is impossible!

One of the three cooking menus this month that immediately caught my eyes was the so-called Asian-styled warm noodles, a twist on the pho. It was paired with a salad topped with battered deep fried prawns, fried tofu with peanut sauce, and a soymilk pudding in peach sauce.

The soup for the noodles was delicious, and when I made it at home, Jason liked it too. However, we used Japanese thin noodles (そうめん) in class, which turned soggy in the soup. When I made it at home, I used real Vietnamese rice noodles and it tasted very authentic, almost as good as my friend Anna’s recipe. Besides the noodle soup, the most delicious part of this meal was the deep fried prawns. The shells were left on, and the prawns split down the middle along the stomach line. They were then opened, pressed into a butterfly shape, marinated, coated in flour, and fried. The entire prawn, down to the shell, was crispy and soaked in flavor. The deep fried tofu paled in comparison. In fact it even tasted a little strange because the peanut sauce was sweet so it was almost dessert-like, but not entirely so. We always make a simple dessert to go with the meals, and I was interested in how the soymilk pudding would taste. However I was disappointed to find the whole thing smothered in the peach sauce and as a result I could hardly make out any soy flavor at all.

The dessert menus for June were mousse cakes. The first one I made was a chocolate mousse cake with banana fillings.

The bananas were sautéed whole in butter until golden on both sides, then cut into chunks with the spatula and flavored with sugar and cinnamon. The challenging part was to smooth the mousse over the ring, top with a chocolate sauce, and smooth that into a shiny surface too. I was mighty proud of my mousse cake and couldn’t wait to get home to take a picture, but alas, I was not careful enough on the way back and had inadvertently tilted the box. A squished cake greeted me when I open the box, and that is why I don’t have a picture of the whole cake =o(

The second cooking lesson I went this month features chili shrimp (a favorite Japanized Chinese dish in Tokyo) and fried rice with thick sauce poured over it.

My all-time favorite dish when I lived in Singapore was chili crab: huge Sri Lanka crabs were battered, fried and smothered in red hot chili sauce. I think I enjoyed mopping up the sauce with fried Chinese steamed buns more than I did eating the crabs. I know the sauce for chili shrimp is quite similar to the sauce for chili crab, so I wanted to see how it’s made. The shrimp was tasty enough, but it was not as spicy as I would’ve liked it to be (mostly due to the fact that the majority of Japanese people simply can’t eat spicy food). However, the base is there, so I think all I need to do is to experiment with it a little to come up with a good sauce. The fried rice was nothing special, and we poured a soup-like sauce thickened with corn starch on top of it. It’s called あんかけ炒飯in Japanese, and 盖交饭 in Chinese, the most common lunch dish you can find in any road-side eateries in China. The almond tofu had black sesame paste in it and I quite liked the variation.

The last of the mousse cake series is a currant mousse cake, with a very shiny, mirror-like surface (in fact it’s called Miroir aux cassis).

Although it was one level up from the chocolate mousse cake, I found it much easier to make. After smoothing off the mousse layer, mousse film was put around the cake and black currant jelly was poured onto the mousse layer. We then tilted the cake to spread the jelly all around. Much easier than the strawberry mousse cake where the jam had to be spread with a spatula.

I never really liked black currant because I always thought they were too tart, but this cake was surprisingly good. The balance of sweetness and tartness was just right so the mousse didn’t feel too heavy to eat.

Next month I’ll be making a chestnut cake! I’ll be sure to post a photo if it doesn’t melt into a puddle in the July heat when I take it home.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Cooking ABC May: Korean pancakes

I was a little rusty coming back from a month long break in the US, so when I went to my first cooking lesson in May, I forgot my camera. As a result, I don’t have any photos of the delicious meal of Korean seafood pancake (chijimi), cold cabbage roll with boiled pork and shiso leaves, and the custard filled dessert spring roll to show you. I am, however, going to give you the recipe for the seafood pancake because it’s simply too easy and too delicious to not share.

The recipe uses tempura flour, but in a pinch you can substitute regular flour and add some salt to it, but keep in mind the texture will suffer a little.

Ingredients (makes two pancakes):
Squid 80g, sliced into 2cm strips
Scallops 80g, cut into 7mm cubs
2 tsp Japanese cooking wine
green onions 40g, cut into 4cm strips
Chinese chive 40g, cut into 4cm strips
Carrot 40g, cut into 4cm thin strips
Kimchi 60g, blot dry and cut into 2cm squares
One dried red chili pepper, seeds removed and cut into thin rings
Tempura flour 100g
Four medium shell-on shrimps
One medium egg
100ml water
2tsp soy sauce
1/8 tsp salt
1/8 tsp sesame oil

1. Combine cut squid and scallop pieces, mix in the cooking wine and let stand
2. Divide all the cut vegetables in two equal portions
3. Peel the shrimps and using food processor or kitchen knife, finely chop into a paste.
4. Beat egg, add 100ml water, soy sauce, salt, and sesame oil. Divide into two equal portions.
5. Using a pair of chopsticks or whisk, mix half the egg mixture into half the shrimp paste until combined. Add 50g of tempura flour and whisk until no clumps are left. (Do not over-mix, otherwise gluten will form, making the pancake too chewy.)
6. Add half the seafood mixture and half the vegetable mixture into the batter. (Do not mix the other half of the ingredients until ready to cook, otherwise batter will become watery from moisture in the vegetables).
7. Coat the bottom of a COLD frying pan with 1 tbsp of sesame oil, drop the batter with vegetable and seafood onto the COLD oil and using the back of a spoon, pat into a round (about 9 inch in diameter). If the oil and pan are hot when you pour the batter in, the surface will get burned before it's cooked. Make sure you cool and clean the frying pan before making the secone pancake.
8. Turn the heat to medium low and cook for 3-4 minutes or until golden, loosening the edge with a spatula occasionally, but otherwise try not to touch the pancake too much. (If you prefer your pancakes to be a little crispy, like me, you may cook the first side until it smells like it’s almost burnt).
9. Flip the pancake and press down with spatula lightly. Cook for 2-3 minutes until desired doneness.
10. Repeat steps 5 through 9 for the second pancake.

While pancakes are cooking, make the dipping sauce:
4 tsp soy sauce
2 tsp rice vinegar
½ tsp Chinese chili pepper
1 tsp sugar
¼ tsp garlic paste
½ tsp white sesame, lightly toasted
½ tsp sesame oil
1 green onion, approximately 4g, diced

Mix all the ingredients except for the green onions. Add the green onions right before serving so sauce doesn’t become watery.

This is an extremely flexible recipe and any seafood will do (I used two types of shrimps). It also takes not time to whip up so I’ve made it at home twice already (once after an all-day hiking trip). Incidentally, we went to a Korean restaurant the day after my first attempt, and for comparison ordered the chijimi. Don’t mean to boast, but I thought mine was so much better, crispy dark golden crust and loaded with goodies. My in-laws agreed.

Other than the cooking lessons, I also went for two bread courses. The first lesson was these cute little buns with rum raisins and sugar sprinkled on top.

I was expecting them to be the hard-crusted type, but they turned out quite soft, with lots of butter in it. Jason surprised me by saying that he liked them, despite the softness.

Next was Green Tea bread, with sweetened red beans in it.

If you think it’s green now, you should’ve seen the raw dough (which I accidentally dropped on the floor, heehee), but surprisingly you still couldn’t taste too much tea in it. My in-laws say it tastes more like a cake, and Jason refused to comment because he said he could taste the floor in it! You know what dude? I drop stuff on the floor all the time and then feed them to you! (Actually, Libby eats whatever I drop on the floor before I have a chance to pick it up.)

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Happy Birthday Libby

My sweet Libby turned seven today. That’s 49 in human years! (But according to this, her real age is only 32. Yes, I’m a compulsive test taker.)

There’s a Chinese saying that goes something like this “a girl goes through eighteen changes before she becomes a woman” (女大十八变). I kowtow to this because it so accurately applies not only girls, but girl dogs also.

This was Libby at the tender age of 8 weeks, waiting for her vaccination shots at the vet’s office. She came home with us on that day and we nicknamed her “FeiFei,” which means chubby in Chinese (肥肥).

She outgrew her chubbiness and cuteness at an astonishing speed and became a gangly teenager who seemed all legs, with no meat on her bones. She stayed skinny for two more years, even after coming to Japan with us (we got her while living in Singapore).

Thank goodness she realized pretty soon that she needed to grow more fur to combat Tokyo’s cold winter and was soon sporting some serious fluff, especially in the nether regions. I thought the new furrier look suits her immensely and she can finally be called a beauty. Or is her beauty only in the eyes of one doting owner?

Well, regardless of what she looks like, we still think the world of her, and here’s to another seven years of swimming

snow eating

Frisbee catching



socializing, singing, cat chasing, and just being a really cool dog!

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Five Favorie Cookbooks Meme

The baton was passed to me by AG of Grab Your Fork . I am guilty of indiscriminate buying of cookbooks everywhere I go, sometimes forgetting that I have a book already and buying a second copy (memory problem, as always). In the recent couple of years however, I’ve veered more towards on-line recipes (Allrecipes for everyday cooking, Epicurious for more complicated dishes, and google searches for less common ingredients) and neglected most of my cookbooks. Thanks to AG, this meme made me take another look at my cookbooks and I rediscovered some books that I forgot I even had, oops. Without further ado, here are the answers:

1. Total number of cookbooks I own:
I counted seventy-four in the cupboard, but there could be a couple more lying around the house somewhere.
2. Last cookbook I bought:
The latest addition to my cookbook collection was Allrecipes’ Dinner Tonight, but I didn’t buy it, Allrecipes sent it to me for free.
3. Last food/cook book I read:
A book on two hundred selected restaurants in Tokyo that are known for their traditional/authentic taste. I found out from the book that a building that looks like someone’s house a stone’s throw from my home is an Italian restaurant. I have been trying to get a reservation but so far no luck.
4. Five (cook) books that mean a lot to me:
- Food for Thought by Vivien Quahe-Seah, a Singaporean doctor who wrote the book on Singaporean cooking after finding out she had cancer (proceeds on the sale of the book went to cancer research). Besides recipes and tons of beautiful pictures of wonderful Singaporean food, as well as Vivien also shared her thoughts and feelings. It is as much a book of recipes for food as recipes for love and living. I am embarrassed to say that I haven’t made a single dish out of the book because when I lived in Singapore there was never any need to cook (food is so readily available everywhere) and now that I don’t live there any more, I cannot find half the ingredients.
- Classic Japanese Cooking Course by Masaki Ko. This book contains many photos illustrating the cooking process and showcasing wonderful Japanese pottery pieces. But the real reason that it is special to me is because my first dog Jack chewed off part of the book’s binding, so whenever I look at the book, I think of him.
- A thin booklet called Asian Desserts that I bought for 100yen (about US 90cents) at the famous Daiso 100yen shop. (Every tourist who’s ever visited Tokyo knows about this place. You can buy just about everything, from dishes to cosmetics to interior decorations to kitchen supplies, all of reasonable quality, for 100yen.) The book has recipes for twenty simple desserts from various Asian countries, each accompanied by an attractive photo. All the recipes can be done within 30 minutes, perfect for evenings when you don’t feel like anything elaborate.
- The Quaker Oat Bran cookbook, bought in the summer of 1995. It’s the book I used to teach myself baking. I still make the banana bread from it once in a while.
- A Chinese cookbook brought back from China by a friend. It has no pictures and is not very big on giving clear instructions (terms such as “some” “the appropriate amount” are employed to describe quantities of ingredients used). I was never able to make anything of predictable result from that book, but it made me appreciate the art of Chinese cooking – in the realization that I can’t do it!
5. Which five people would you like to see fill this out in their blogs?
Rachel of Brown Bread Ice Cream
Keiko of Nordljus
Karen of the Pilgrim’s Pots and Pans
Nic of Baking Sheet
Chefdoc of A Perfect Pear

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Drink Juice and Floss!

Scientists might finally be close to finding a way to predict who will develop Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and how to prevent it. AD is a subject close to my heart not only because the company I just quit launched the first AD drug into the market, but also because I used to work with patients with AD in nursing homes and know what a debilitating and dehumanizing disease it can be. The ones whose children are willing to take care of them in a home setting are truly blessed. More often, because of the demanding nature of taking care of an AD patient, families choose to send the afflicted to long-term care facilities and leave the dirty works to others. I won’t get into the gritty details of how patients are neglected even in the best facilities (it’s hard to demand total strangers to understand the incomprehensible babbles, let alone notice subtle signs of distress), but suffice it to say it made such an impression on me that I am scared of AD more than I am of cancer. The worst that can happen with cancer is that I die, but with AD, I could end up in a living hell.

At the first Alzheimer prevention conference, researchers presented early evidence of how AD might be predicted, along with brain-healthy lifestyles that might prevent the onset of the disease. Among the lifestyles markers that protect one from AD are:

- Drink fruit or vegetable juices at least three times a week (people who do are four times less likely to develop AD).
- Higher education, healthy gum and absence of stroke (education stimulates brain development and gum disease points towards inflammation harmful to the brain)
- Stay socially active in old age.

Full story

Can't do anything with your genes but you can do something with your lifestyle! So down those cartons of OJ and don’t forget to floss!

Monday, June 20, 2005

A Day Ruined

The world is made up of all kinds of personalities. There are shy people, outgoing people, funny people, dull people, smart people, not-so-smart people, etc. etc. Then, there are the crazy people, creeps that behave in such bizarre ways that they should be locked in their houses and never be allowed in public. We met such a person yesterday.

It started out as a pleasant hike in Mt. Takao on a humid Sunday. We picked a six-hour hiking course that would take us to a couple of peaks. Although the beginning of the track was rather crowded with people, it became progressively remote and we were able to enjoy the sounds of chirping birds and the fresh mountain air. Libby happily padded along in the muddy trails, occasionally stopping to take a bite out of a particularly fresh clump of grass.

Half way through our hike, a woman dashed out of the woods from our left, every inch of her skin covered, despite the absence of sun and the humid weather. I looked at the low bush where she came out of and didn’t see a trail. She proceeded to zig-zag down the mountain at surprisingly high speed, hopping over exposed tree roots, passing Jason and Libby about 10 meters in front of me and another hiker. Soon, she was nothing but a red blotch between the trees. Damn that woman’s fast, I thought to myself, wondering if she got lost from her group. Then all of a sudden, she turned back and ran towards Jason, screaming something. Jason, being the non-Japanese speaker, stopped and stared at her in confusion. I quickened my pace to see what’s going on, and heard her high-pitched voice hysterically asking Jason why Libby wasn’t on a leash. Without waiting for an answer she declared that she’s terribly afraid of dogs and demanded that we leash Libby. I looked down at Libby, who was, at the time, right by Jason’s feet minding her own business. I just don’t see in what way Libby was bothering this woman. As she went on and on, I decided to go into my non-Japanese speaking mode. I know, I’m a horrible person for doing this, but I thought it was athe easiest way to deal with a hysterical people who wouldn't stop screaming. So I put on my best gaijin accent and said in Japanese, “I don’t understand Japanese.” This put her into new fits and she frantically searched the English word for leash and came up with rope!

Maybe it was her choice of words, maybe it was the way she was wildly gesturing, or maybe because I just don’t like the way she looked (she’s wearing earphones for crying out loud! Why would you want to assault your ears with manmade music when you can enjoy the sounds of nature? And why are you even hiking if you are afraid of animals? PLUS I do not trust people who are afraid of dogs as a group!), I looked at her straight in the eyes and said firmly, “No, I will not leash my dog because it is dangerous. The road is too slippery.” (Yeah, this is the bitchy side of me that finds its way to the surface every now and then.) I don’t know how much of it she understood, but she got the NO part for sure. She probably thought she was going to put an insolent gaijin/dog owner into place and teach me a lesson, only to be denied of the satisfaction. The look of disbelief was unmistakable on her face. For a second she didn’t know what to say, but then turned around and ran away mumbling loudly, “Unbelievable!” in Japanese.

Unbelievable is exactly what it is. If the woman hadn’t dashed back to yell at us, Libby would’ve never been within ten feet of her, not to mention the fact that outside people she knows, the dog is completely oblivious to everyone, especially when it comes to lunatics like her. I bet Libby wouldn’t even go near her if she was holding a piece of prime rib!

The rest of the hike turned into a ridiculous game of chase. The creep is surprisingly fast but took frequent breaks. To avoid confrontation, we hung back whenever we see her in front, and took different detours whenever possible. She finally tired herself out running away from us and sat down for a rest on a wooden bench at a split. Since we already lost precious time hanging back, I decided that since she was resting, we would overtake her, solving HER problem once and for all. But the minute she saw us coming, she jumped up from her seat and sprinted up the hill screaming to someone she didn’t even know, “Those two people with that dog claim they don’t speak Japanese, and they won’t listen to me! I’m terrified of that dog…” As she ran further ahead, her voice faded. Boy, it must be so stressful to be her.

Our hike sufficiently ruined, we took a different route to get back to the foot of the mountain, missing a couple of points of interest. I realize I might be grossly biased here because, well, it is my precious dog that we are talking about, and like I said, I just don’t get people who don’t like dogs (except kids). That said, I firmly stand by my belief that in a mountain with slippery trails, it’s extremely unreasonable to ask a dog to be leashed (we could both trip and injure ourselves). I realize I could’ve been nicer and explain all this to her in Japanese, but then again, I know a freak when I see one, and any explanation would've just been a waste of time and energy.

At any rate, what kind of a normal person would be scared of this sweet dog?

Photos from the hike here.