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.