Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Melbourne Bites # 6: Soup Pho the Soul

This is one thing that I look forward to on every visit to Melbourne. A piping hot bowl of pho in an aromatic beef broth that ever fails to put a smile on my face. The key to a good bowl of pho literally boils down to one thing – freshness. From the slippery rice noodles to the accompanying beef and offal and even down to the beansprouts and herbs (typically purple basil and Vietnamese mint) served as accompaniments. Of course the clear broth brings everything together – you’ll know it when you taste it.

With its large Vietnamese population, Melbourne serves up some of the best pho I’ve ever tasted. Pop by Pho Chu The in Richmond to feed your stomach as well as your soul.

Pho Chu The
270 Victoria Street
Richmond Victoria

Melbourne Bites # 5: Warung Agus

Balinese food in Melbourne – who would’ve thought? But this place really is a testament to how a city can cook up the most delectable food simply by scooping into its melting pot of cultures. A meal here promises a sensation for the tastebuds – every dish is packed full of flavour and perfectly executed. The pork satay is exceptional as is the gado gado. The accompanying sambals offered with every meal pack a real punch and cuts through the richness of coconut milk that is used quite liberally in Balinese cooking. But the standout here is the Babi Guling – a slow roasted pork dish with oh so sinful crackling. The meat is perfectly cooked and the accompanying sauce intriguing and addictive. A definite must try.

Warung Agus
305 Victoria Street
West Melbourne
Open for dinner Thursdays to Sundays only

Melbourne Bites # 3 & 4: Read and Bite

If you ever feel philosophical about feeding the mind first before the stomach, drop by to Books for Cooks in Fitzroy – a bookstore that is a dream for me – a shop wholly dedicated to all types of cook books… from popular titles to some rare and quirky ones (think Taiwanese Chinese cookbooks from the 1980s). Floor to ceiling shelves of gastronomic literature – this is a true haven for cook book lovers.

And once your brain is bloated from all that reading – feed your stomach and head a few shops down to Enoteca, a wine bar that also serves up great snacks to accompany your drinks. We opted for Jamon Iberico, the Rolls Royce of Spanish hams, served with grissini. Delightfully rich – this may not be for everyone with its high fat content, but with a glass of wine or two – it might just be the perfect accompaniment to finish off a decadent afternoon of reading and biting.

Books for Cooks
233-235 Gertrude St
Fitzroy Melbourne

229 Gertrude Street
Fitzroy Melbourne

Melbourne Bites #2 - Addicted to Rice

I’m not ashamed to say it. I am addicted to rice. Rice that is cooked perfectly for me trumps every other food craving I ever have. There’s something heart-warmingly familiar about a bowl of rice that comes from being the common thread in all meals I’ve had since I was a toddler. First Taste of Soup restaurant in Footscray serves kick ass rice – firm to bite quality Jasmine rice grains slowly cooked in earthen claypots to reveal a deliciously golden brown crust. The rice is the star here but a wide variety of toppings (we tasted the black bean pork ribs and pickled vegetable steamed pork patty) are a great accompaniment. Choose from a wide range of herbal double boiled soups with your meal – and you just might check yourself straight into Rehab for Rice.

First Taste of Soup
104 Hopkins Street, Footscray

Monday, September 29, 2008

Melbourne Bites #1: Vue for Value

Vue de Monde, rated twice by Gourmet Traveller as restaurant of the year has a reputation for the finest French food in Melbourne and probably all of Australia. Of course, with this status comes fine food at a price. But for a bit of restaurateur Shannon Bennet’s magic, check out Café Vue, its casual but not poorer cousin which serves up no frills lunches at a very reasonable price. Sit out in the Café’s courtyard under the precious Melbourne sun and have the ever popular Vue burger (deliciously juicy meat patty with bacon, fresh lettuce and luscious aioli, sandwiched in a house made brioche sesame bun) with a side of shoestring fries… all for $10. Magnifique!

Cafe Vue
430 Little Collins Street (at the front of the Normanby Chambers Building)
Monday to Friday from 7am to 4pm.

Melbourne - 10 Bites and 5 Nights

Just spent the last 6 days in Melbourne, visiting my brother and cousins who live there. What a place... there is lots to love in Melbourne - the architecture, the arts scene, the brilliant coffee, the hidden alleyways... but most of all for me - the food is fantastic. There is never a shortage of interesting and innovative eateries - from cafes, to fine restaurants, to takeaway joints - Melbourne for me is the food capital of Australia and has a tasting plate that reflects the diversity of its inhabitants that call it home. And so - I present in the following entries - Melbourne - 10 bites and 5 nights. Enjoy.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Guiltless Gluttony

I am always working on the equation for the inverse relationship to my greed. Basically, I am trying to crack the code for maximising the amount of delicious food I eat while minimising the feelings of guilt that follows.
So in search of mathematical genius, I took it upon myself today to have vietnamese fresh spring rolls for lunch. Being the non-deep fried variety and filled chock full of veggies, I figured that this was as healthy a lunch as I could get without eating something that tastes like cardboard.
Fumbling through my fridge, I pulled out fresh mint, thai basil, baby cos, bean sprouts and some rice vermicelli. Unable to find any protein (we were out of chicken breast which I normally poach to include in this), I resorted to the good ol' crab sticks (which really aren't crab at all... hey, I was desperate). I then whipped up a sauce of hoisin sauce, fish sauce, freshly squeezed lime juice, chopped chillis, chopped mint and roasted crushed peanuts.
Munching one of these delicious morsels over lunch, I pondered on whether I had finally cracked the code of guiltless gluttony... and then proceeded to devour another nine... just to be sure.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Udon with Spicy Aubergine Ragu

For lunch today, I prepared a simple meal of udon noodles with a spicy aubergine ragu. Creamy aubergine in a spicy pork mince ragu on top of al dente rice noodles. Simple but delicious.

200g minced pork
1 aubergine diced
1 garlic finely minced
3 shallots diced
2 chillis finely diced
1 teaspoon finely minced ginger
1 teaspoon chinese black vinegar
2 tablespons mirin
Dash of white pepper
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspon sugar
3 tablespoons tomato ketchup
1 tablespoon sambal chilli
1 cup water

1. Coat diced aubergine lightly in corn flour. Deep fry in canola oil till slightly golden brown. Remove ad drain on kitchen paper. Meanwhile, boil udon in salted water.
2. Marinate pork mince with mirin, sugar, sesame oil and white pepper. Sautee garlic, shallots, ginger and chilli in a pan. Add pork, ketchup and sambal - stir fry by breaking up pieces.
3. Add water and simmer. Return aubergine back into pan and simmer further until sauce thickens.
4. Place udon into bowl and top with aubergine ragu. Garnish with thinly sliced spring onions.
Slurp Up!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Italian with Heart

I had the privilege of joining in the celebration of the wedding anniverary of close family friends, the L's last night. The L's are close family friends and have been there for my family during our darkest hours when dad became critically ill. They are incredibly giving people and last night, celebrated 33 years of marriage.

We celebrated this wonderful occassion at Trattoria Lafiandra Al Museo - an unpretentious, cosy Italian restaurant housed in the Singapore Art Museum. Another close family friend who had hosted a party there previously arranged for a menu designed by the chef and owner, Cataldo Lafiandra.

We started off with the antipasto which consisted of grilled vegetables (portobello mushrooms, zucchini, eggplant), calamari with aioli, eggplant parmigiana. The presentation of the dishes were very rustic as were the flavours - robust and had a great home cooked element to them. The eggplant parmigiana in particular was excellent - oven baked eggplant rolls in home made tomato ragu filled with meltingly gooey mozzarella.

We then followed with two types of pizza - rocket with fresh tomatoes and parma ham. Both were very good with perfectly thin and crispy crusts. Chef Cataldo is also very generous with his toppings, the latter pizza covered with deliciously salty prosciutto.

We were also served a very hearty fettucine bolognese. A dish that is often misunderstood because of the trashy versions that are served in American style diners... this was done the way it should be. Hand made pasta tossed in a rich ragu of beef and pork mince in tomatoes finished with a hint of cream... Love it.

For mains we were served an assortment of simply grilled crayfish, pan fried dory, grilled chicken and beef fillet with sauteed mushrooms. Aside from the chicken which had obviously spent too much time on the grill and was actually burnt rather than charred, everything else was delicious. The beef was cooked to a perfect medium rare (just the way I like it) and had been simply seasoned with salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice.

The food at Lafiandra has a comforting factor to them with most dishes being hearty in portion and flavour - the restaurant is very unpretentious and doesn't try overly hard to impress. Prices are very reasonable which is something which I have found is a rarity for good Italian food in Singapore.

We left Lafiandra happy and I was glad to have been able to share such a joyous occassion with such dear friends. Happy Anniversary Uncle KL and Aunty CH... May your life together be like one big party - filled with delicious food, infectious laughter and great company in one another.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Delma's Mee Goreng

Delma has been our maid in Singapore and now a close family friend for the past 7 years. She has a colourful personality - full of life and an infectious laugh. Over the years, Delma has become a very good cook - gathering recipes passed on to her by our family and friends. One of these dishes which she has really made her own is her mee goreng. What is great about her version is the spicy oomph achieved by her home-made sambal, her skilled frying of the noodles to achieve a dry, firm to bite texture with a slight charred flavour and heaps of fresh crunchy beansprouts that add sweetness to the dish.

Dried chillis (rehydrate in water and discard liquid)
Chilli padi
Large red chillis
Red Shallots
1. Pound the above ingredients to a fine paste in the mortar pestle. Fry paste in canola or sunflower oil and season with salt and sugar.
Mee Goreng
Fresh egg hokkien noodles
1 egg
dark soya sauce
sliced fish cake
lean pork thinly sliced
minced garlic
loads of beansprouts
roughly chopped spring onions
maggi chilli sauce (I know... but it works!)
1. Scramble and fry 1 egg in oil in the wok and remove (This is to season and seal the wok to prevent the noodles from sticking when fried).
2. Without adding any further oil, fry egg noodles with dark soya sauce on a medium to high heat until the noodles are dry and slightly charred. Remove noodles from wok.
3. Add a little oil and fry shallots, minced garlic, sliced fish cake, sliced pork and prawns. Add sambal and fry till the fragrance hits you. Toss the noodles back in the wok and mix through.
4. Season with salt and maggi chilli sauce. Add chopped spring onions and loads of bean sprouts. Fry for a further minute until warmed through an serve up!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Hidden gem

We stopped by Keppel Country Club (10 Bukit Chermin Road) for a game of tennis the other night and decided to have dinner at one of the many restaurants there since it was starting to rain fairly heavily. Now I've never been fond of going to restaurants in Country Clubs... maybe because I have a perception that these restaurants cater to club members and face little competition compared to restaurants located in areas filled with eateries.

But I stood corrected on this night. We decided to check out Kome, the new Japanese restaurant in the club. The restaurant is open to the public but members get a 5% discount and have the 10% service charge waived. Bento lovers be warned - unlike many Japanese restaurants in Singapore, Kome only serves bento sets at lunchtime - dinner here is strictly an ala carte affair. Our table ordered a few dishes to sample given that it was our first visit.

The grilled hamachi cheek was perfectly grilled with sea salt, the firm fleshed fish still moist and packed full of flavour. We also tasted the pacific saury done in the same way - a much sweeter tasting fish than the hamachi, it was delicious.

The grilled cod, chawanmushi and the house specialty - garlic fried rice served in bamboo bowls, were ordered as sides. Each was very well executed and hard to fault.

What stood out for me however is the quality of the sashimi here. The Chirashi-don, an assortment of raw fish on sushi rice was heavenly. Kome uses a much thicker cut of fish and the selection was very generous. Most importantly - the sashimi here is very fresh and was pretty as a picture when it arrived - a testament to the executive chef, Tony Young's, experience from having trained and worked in Japan for many years.
We finished the meal very happy - Kome is a very competent Japanese restaurant with its sashimi being the star attraction for me here... however it wasn't as busy as I would have thought it would be on a Saturday night. Perhaps there are many out there like me that think less of restaurants located in country clubs - but for its sake I hope that, they too, will learn not a judge a restaurant by its location.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Breakfast for champions

The first meal in the morning sets the mood for how you feel for the rest of the day. And in Singapore, there aren't many things that give me the perfect kick start to the day than a steaming cup of local coffee and deliciously crispy kaya toast in a local coffeeshop. Local coffeeshops are a far cry from commercial American coffeechains - no air conditioning, no plush chairs, and most importantly... no ridiculously overpriced beverages.

Instead, you get rustic decor (think plastic chairs, old checkered tiles and a ceiling fan) decked out usually in heritage buildings (which indicates how long they've been serving up a local brew). Best of all, you can have a deliciously strong brew sweetened with condensed milk, accompanied by freshly toasted bread - all for a fraction of what you woud pay for one drink in the Starbucks further down the street.

So it was with great excitement when mum and I went to Tong Ya coffeeshop (located on Keong Saik Street just on the fringe of Chinatown) after church on Sunday. Friends had recommended this iconic establishment - and I was craving for a much needed caffeine boost after having trouble sleeping the night before.

We ordered local coffee, soft boiled eggs and Tong Ya's famous uber crispy kaya toast. As they serve up variations of this toast - you have to specifically order the thin and crispy version.

As we waited for our breakfast - I looked around the coffeeshop - plastic chairs... tick, old ceiling fan... tick, retro checkered tiles.... tick... unique old world charm that can't be replicated... massive tick.

The coffee arrived first... and it really hit the spot. Tong Ya serves up a local brew that is low on acidity and fairly robust with a slight bitter aftertaste. Perfect for my caffeine fix and I soon forgot about my lack of sleep the night before.

Because the crispy verson of kaya toast takes a while to prepare... I decided to order a bowl of katong laksa from the same coffeeshop while we waited (ok yes... I was being greedy AGAIN). Whilst the laksa was far from being spicy enough - it was pretty tasty and is a lighter version that you'll get in many places - probably from the use of less coconut milk .

Just as I slurped up the last noodle in my laksa - the main event arrived. Beautifully done - the kaya toast here is uniformly golden brown and sandwiches a thin slice of cold butter and very fragrant kaya. Unlike many thin crispy versions sold elsewhere, this toast wasn't dry and overly brittle. Perfect when dipped in soft boiled eggs and oh so satisfying!

This was definitely the best version of kaya toast I have tasted... and having it in a historical building in Chinatown made it all the better. I finished my meal happy... knowing that I just had a fantastic breakfast... and that the rest of my day was going to be just as brilliant.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Poultry & Grain

There are many dishes that local Singaporeans claim to be the proud national dish. Personally - I think that Hainanese chicken rice is the perfect mascot dish for this little island. There are thousands of variations of this fantastic dish all over Singapore - with some serving embarrassing examples and others creating magic with the basic ingredients of chicken and rice.

But just what makes a fantastic chicken rice? My assessment is based on some key fundamental traits, which while seemingly basic, is something that few get right altogether:

1. The Poultry - the chicken has to be still moist (ie. not overcooked till the meat becomes dry and tasteless) with a smooth, almost slippery skin that is achieved through careful poaching and submersion of the chook in iced water after the cooking process.

2. The Grain - The rice has to be packed full of flavour from a well seasoned chicken stock with noticeable but not overpowering notes of garlic and ginger. The rice grains should also have good bite (ie. not mushy overcooked gunk) without being too oily (which is an indication of way too much rendered chicken fat being used.

3. The Condiments - Thick black sauce which is only slightly sweet should be balanced against a ginger sauce that is not overly spicy or salty. Of course, there is the crucial chilli dipping sauce which should have a definite kick (from a blend of chilli padi) with a fine balance of garlic and my preference of lime juice - to cut through the fat in the poached chicken.

Sin Kee located on the second floor of the Margaret Drive Food Centre is a legend in the competitive local chicken rice scene. It has been around for yonks and is a great example of a chicken rice that gets a big tick in most of the elements highlighted.
Digression - This is a photo of one of the experienced cooks at this eatery preparing the chickens for cooking. Some may think it is a little morbid - but I actually think its pretty cool.

Anyways - back to the chicken rice. The chooks used here are huge - we ordered a whole chicken and it was a challenge finishing it amongst the four of us. The chicken skin here is exceptionally smooth and almost too tempting not to eat. The meat is perfectly cooked and very succulent. My only complaint is that Sin Kee uses a type of chicken which is quite high in fat content. The condiments were very competent and the chilli dipping sauce definitely had a good kick from the fiery chilli padi.
And of course... the rice - oh the rice! The rice here is very good - it is fragrant, aromatic, flavoursome. Exactly what good chicken rice should taste like. In fact I was so taken by the rice that I managed to scoff down two large bowls... which was more than I really should have eaten (refer to previous entry on the yin & yang).

I love Hainanese chicken rice - and the version here gives you a taste of history and a unique sense of warmth that is hard to put a finger on. More importantly, there is a strong sense of identity in this dish that is unmistakeably Singaporean. And whilst I only spent the earlier part of my life here, I identify with this dish - and in my books, that's a connection that I am extremely proud of.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Yin & Yang

"My passionate hunger for food is fed by my greedy nature ."
And when I say greedy I mean I choose to eat alot. At times I feel guilty for my indulgences - and this was the case yesterday when I grabbed lunch at the Amoy Street Food Centre in Singapore's Tanjong Pagar district - an area that is rich in its mix of the old and the new. There are many offices within this area which still houses many heritage shop houses. And so you get an eclectic mix of the office crowd as well as the older generation locals at lunchtime. Faced with the overwhelming choice in this area, I realised that there was no way I could make do with just sampling one dish in this hawker centre - and what better way to overcome this by having two lunches in one?
Of course, being the philisophical glutton that I am, I decide to ease the guilt of my greed by applying the principles of the yin and the yang to my choice of grub. And so I started with something healthy - a roasted chicken and pumpkin wholemeal tortilla wrap from All Natural Kitchen. This relative newcomer stands out from the sea of sodium and cholesterol in the hawker centre by offering all natural ingredients in low fat, low carb, low everything meals. The wrap was filled with very moist roast chicken, sweet roasted pumpkin, cos lettuce, fresh tomatoes and a yoghurt dressing. Fresh, generous and well priced (S$5.50) fare for those craving for a lunch that does less damage to your arteries.

Still feeling peckish, I decided on the other extreme for the second course of my lunch - a glistening plate of Singapore char kway teow (from one of the oldest stalls in the food centre that was simply named after the dish itself) - flash fried flat rice noodles with egg, bean sprouts, lup cheong and fish cake. This popular local dish had a good charred flavour (or "wok hei" which the Chinese refer to as the unique taste that can only be achieved by a strong stove fire and a well seasoned wok) but was overly greasy. Still, I lapped it up fervently, with guilt lingering at the back of my mind which I eased with thoughts of my starter to the meal.
I finished my lunch satisfied - and surprisingly not as full as the amount of food would suggest. Yes, I over indulged again - and I probably could have only had one of the two meals. But my lunch embodied everything about a delicately balanced meal... from the new age wrap to the old school char kway teow, from guilt free eating to guilt laden decadence.
"And anyway, everybody knows that there is no yin without a good dose of yang."


I, along with people almost everywhere, adore Japanese food. Along with the huge variety in this great culinary country is their take on Western food - and thus Yoshoku is born - basically Japanese interpretations of popular Western dishes (think hayashi raisu for English beef stew and corokke for the French croquettes). I particularly love the Japanese hamburger steak or wafu hambaaga - and here is a simple recipe for it. This is delicious eaten on its own or with steamed rice. I chose to be a little decadent here and served it with a side of spaghetti with a homemade tomato sauce.
350g beef mince (I like to buy a rump steak and grind it up myself)
200g pork mince
1 brown onion minced
1/3 cup panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
1/4 cup low fat milk
1 egg beaten
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1. Mix panko and milk and set aside. Fry onions on medium heat in canola oil until lightly browned. Set aside till cool.
2. In a large bowl, combine beef, pork, cooled onion, egg , salt, pepper and panko mixture. With your hands, combine the mixture by folding thorougly. Throw the combined mixture back into the bowl a few times to remove any air bubbles. Divide into four patties about 1.5 inches thick each.
3. Fry patties in lightly buttered pan until a brown crust forms on each side - approximately 5 minutes on each side. Add 1 tablespoon of sake into pan and cover. Let this steam for about two minutes.
4. I must admit I use a cheat's version of the sauce at this stage - S&B (a household japanese brand) makes an instant powdered demi-glace sauce (only the Japanese would dare to do something like that). Otherwise, I have also served this with a teriyaki sauce (combine 2 tablespoons sake, 2 tablespoons mirin, 1.5 tablespoons japanese soya sauce and 2 teaspoons sugar for each pattie and simmer) which is equally good.
5. Of course, the all important fried egg sunny side up completes this dish.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


Being back in Singapore has made me lazy. Back in Perth, I was always thinking about what to cook for my meals - it was always something that I looked forward to and probably the most creative part of my day (and that's saying alot about what I do for a living). But here in Singapore, my mum's maid is a fantastic cook - so every meal is taken care of. And if not - the affordability and variety of food available within walking distance makes it so convenient just to not worry about cooking at home.

In need of creative inspiration today, I decided to whip up my own lunch - and since I decided on this very late in the morning, I had to make do with what was in the fridge at that time.

And so, a simple meal was born - Spicy mapo tofu with diced chicken on steamed rice, topped with an easy over fried egg. Took all but 15 minutes to prepare which was probably less time then I would have spent going out and deciding on a takeaway meal.

This was definitely as simple a meal to prepare as you can get - but sometimes fuss free meals made on the fly are surprisingly satisfying... More importantly, I remembered again what it feels like to not only look forward to the next meal, but also in creating it.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Recipe: Stuffed chicken wings

I have always loved the deep fried stuffed chicken wings found in the many Vietnamese restaurants back in Perth, Western Australia. My personal favourites are found in the long time establishment Viet Hoa on William Street and more recently Phi Yen located on Brisbane Street which serves up a much better bowl of Pho (Vietnamese beef noodles). Having been away from Perth for the past 5 months, I suddenly craved for these today and so after consulting a few recipe books and making a few tweaks of my own - made some of these deep fried morsels for dinner tonight.

12 large chicken wings (winglet only - drumette can be reserved for another dish)

250 grams pork mince
100g diced water chestnuts (canned ones are fine)
chopped spring onions
chopped coriander roots
diced red chilli
approx 1 soup bowl of rehydrated mung bean vermicelli
1 teaspoon white pepper
pinch of sea salt
2 tablespoons light soya sauce
splash of sesame oil
For deep frying
1/2 and 1/2 mixture of corn and tapioca flour
1 egg
Sunflower or canola oil

1. Carefully (without piercing the chicken skin) run a paring knife around the two little bones in the winglet - remove these once you have dislodged it from the encasing meat.
2. Mix the ingredients for the stuffing thoroughly. Use one hand to hold the winglet (as if you were holding a cup) and the other to tightly stuff it with the stuffing mixture. At this stage, it should look something like this:
3. Steam the stuffed wings for approximately 7 minutes.
4. Very lightly (my first batch suffered from too much flour) dip the prepared winglets into the beaten egg and then dust sparingly with the flour mixture.
5. Heat a wok with oil (enough to cover approx 4 wing) until wooden chopsticks sizzle upon contact. Deep fry in batches of 4 until golden brown.
6. Serve on a bed of shredded ice berg lettuce and sweet chilli dipping sauce.

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