'The true cook is the perfect blend, the only perfect blend, of artist and philosopher. He knows his worth: he holds in his palm the happiness of mankind, the welfare of generations yet unborn.'

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Beijing 1

Even though I have been to quite a lot of provinces in China, this is my very first visit to Beijing. First thing I saw as I stepped out of the plane was a coffee shop:

Correct me if I'm wrong - but I can't imagine coffee shops to be so ubiquitous in China ten years ago. With its increasing status quo and wealth, China has lost no time devouring Western consumer goods - including coffee.

Being the capital of the Qing dynasty, Beijing (and northern Chinese cuisines in general) food has been influenced non-Han traditions, especially Muslim. While pork is the most common meat throughout China, lamb is very common here. The most celebrated way of eating it is to blanch paper-thin slices of lamb or mutton in a hotpot. A friend of mine took me out to one of the most traditional places for Beijing-style hotpot (涮羊肉):


All sorts of snacks are sold here as well
The greenish-grey liquid on the left is worth of mention here. It's called 'bean juice' 豆汁. Remember those thin vermicelli (粉絲) made from mung beans? If you ferment the water leftover from making the vermicelli, you're left with this sour, kind of foul-tasting beverage that traditional Beijing people drink at breakfast time. You're meant to dip the crispy wafer and spicy pickle at the bottom of the photo into the drink so that you experience sweet, sour, bitter and salty flavours all at once. The challenging taste of bean juice is legendary, and I had wanted to try it for donkey's years. Verdict? It's best left for discerning locals...

The traditional kind of hotpot used in Beijing-style hotpot - a fluted copper pan. The soup base is simply water with leeks, red dates and goji berries.

There were only two of us, so a feast was out of the question. We ordered lamb and beef intestines in their natural colour - black. The white variety you see in Cantonese dim sum is actually bleached.
Sesame paste is the common dipping sauce here. As I would experience in the next few days, saltiness predominates in northern Chinese cuisine, and they hardly use much sugar in their cooking. I like my savoury food to have some sweetness to it, and if I were to make my own dipping sauce I would have added sugar to the sesame paste as well... As it is it's too salty for me.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Christmas yule log

Noël, Noël!

“Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us”. Matthew 1:22-23

As an ex-Christian-turned-agnostic, my feeling towards Christmas is somewhat ambivalent. While I think that the claims of Christianity are probably untrue, I continue to be moved by the image of a God who is 'Emmanuel' - not the terrifying God of the Old Testament whose name is so holy that one cannot even utter his name - but a God who loves us so much that he became incarnate and lived amongst us. As Umberto Eco puts it so eloquently:
If I am a believer, I find it sublime that God asked his only son to sacrifice himself for the salvation of all mankind. That's what is specific to Christianity: it isn't the fact that Christianity spent 700 or 800 years debating whether Christ is endowed only with a divine nature, or only a human one, or both, or how many persons and wills he incarnated. Such questions seem to me to belong to a futile theological game, whereas what was really at stake was understanding of the following mystery: How could God have done that for us? But if I think that God does not exist, the the question becomes even more sublime: I have to ask myself how a section of humanity possessed enough imagination to invent a God who was made man and who allowed himself to die for the love of humanity. The fact that humanity could conceive of so sublime and paradoxical an idea, on which mankind's intimacy with the divine is founded, inspires me with great admiration for it. There's no doubt but that this same humanity has done some terrible things, but it was able none the less to invent this really extraordinary story, even if God himself does not exist.
Eco's words resonate with how I feel about Christianity in general: the idea of God becoming man is so paradoxical that, on the one hand I feel that it's the most sublime conception of God imaginable, and a pathetically anthropomorphic conception of the ultimate reality on the other.

The Nativity by Federio Barocci
In spite of any misgivings I might have about Christianity (and fundamentalist Protestantism in particular), every year during this season I cannot help but think of what a wondrous idea the Nativity is. It is in this season that (Christians believe) God is born among us and experiences what it is like to be human. No wonder Christianity still exerts such a magnetic hold on so many peoples even after two thousand years.

Please forgive me for ranting about religion in a food blog - but it is Christmas after all and we should all remember why we have this season in the first place, even for non-believers. Since I will not partake in the Church's celebration of the birth of its Saviour, the best offering I could put on the table is a Christmas yule log, which I'm told is the dessert served around Christmas-time in France. It is essentially a chocolate Swiss roll slathered with frosting and decorated like a tree trunk. There's no end to the possibilities of decorations for a bûche de Noël, and I'm sticking to meringue mushrooms as the only additional decoration, although I may try some crushed pistachios next year as well.

Merry Christmas to you all! May this season be filled with joy, peace and traquillity and may we be thankful for the miracle that we are living in.

A more artistic rendition I made last Christmas...

Monday, 10 December 2012

Meringue mushrooms

It's Christmas season! It's advent in the liturgical year of the Church, and even though I'm a retired Christian, it is by far still my favourite season of the year. I feel a heightened awareness of the blessings in our lives and it's not difficult to see an abundance of joy everywhere in this season of festivities.

I like to make Christmas yule logs in this season even though it's a lot of work (and therefore has to remain a once-a-year undertaking), and one of the funniest elements involved is making meringue mushrooms. I was transfixed by their look the first time I saw them: I had no clue how it could be done. Even though I do a lot of baking, I'm more into the actual mixing of batters and doughs and I'm not really into decorations and piping. Since last year I have been inflicting my friend Hitomi to pipe these meringue mushrooms for me - I mix the batter and she pipes, and I assembled the stems and caps to form mushrooms.

This recipe is from the chocolate guru Alice Medrich. Her instructions on how to make them are fantastic and I'm quoting them almost ad verbatim here. I love her addition of coffee to the meringue to give them some actual flavour other than pure sweetness too. I did however reduce the sugar to make them less tooth-achingly sweet...

Friday, 7 December 2012

Black sesame cookies

No explanations needed I think: crunchy, moreish cookies bursting with the irresistable flavour of black sesames. Either toast the sesames yourself and grind them in a food processor after cooling, or buy ready-ground sesame powder.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Homemade chocolate milk

En blanc et noir

If you grew up in Hong Kong as a kid in the 80's you must have seen this advert:

Like many Asian children, I was forced to drink milk every morning when I was little. I actually didn't mind it, although I knew many friends who absolutely hated it. That said, given the choice, I would have chocolate milk rather than 'plain' milk any day - and I'm sure I'm not alone here! Milk was tolerable, but chocolate milk was just yum.

I still remember how amazed I was when I had my first taste of English milk at 16 - only then did I realise that good milk could actually taste sweet, even grassy. The kind of white watery drink loaded with dry milk powder in Hong Kong obviously gave me the wrong impression of the drink. I became a convert, and chocolate milk gradually faded out from my life.

Since I'm subscribing to a herdshare programme with Highland Haven Farm, I receive 3 litres of milk each week. As much as I love my dairy, I usually have a hard time finishing the stuff unless I use most of it for dessert making. What I tend to do is turning the milk into different beverages:  usually milk tea and matcha latte. This week I have a whopping 6 litres of milk to finish, and I didn't want to repeat milk tea and matcha latte again, so I decided to give chocolate milk a shot. It turned out much better than I could have hoped for, and I think I'll be drinking the stuff every other day for the rest of my life. Incidentally, research shows that downing chocolate milk after a tough workout can help replenish exhausted muscles and significantly aid exercise recovery. Plenty of reasons to consume gallons of chocolate milk every day!

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Kitchen disaster 2

It starting promising, with a well-meant Portugese custard tart:

Twenty minutes later:

Culprit: there was not enough overhang of puff pastry and it shrank during baking, the custard filling spilled...

In desperation, I scooped up some of the filling as midnight snack, which surprisingly tasted pretty moreish!
Bonus: you get to know that your baking pan is really non-stick!

Sunday, 2 December 2012

My 29th birthday

I don't know if I'm alone here, but as I started approaching the end of my 20's, each birthday almost became a dread rather than a blessing. That said, I had a very relaxed and pleasant 29th birthday yesterday - especially since I had a stomach flu on my birthday last year! I spent the day meeting up with some of my students and chilling at uni, and had a potluck with friends in the evening at home. After dinner we watched tonnes of YIF magic videos and tried to decipher how he did those unbelievable feats. It was a day well spent and thanks to everybody for their kind birthday wishes!

First of all, the wacky birthday gifts:

Baking gadgets that I requested, courtesy of my flatmate Tim!

Also from Tim: an unusual recording of the Chopin Etudes by Evelyn Brancatt, with 24 accompanying recipes...

My favourite potato crisps and Vita lemon tea from Yuqing and Bing Bing:

Truffles from one of my students

Free vacuuming tickets from my neighbour Hitomi!

And roses (!!) from Jin Hai - the first time I received flowers outside of a recital...! I'm not sure how I should feel about it haha! :P

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

French baguette in one minute

There's no need for us mortals to cook or bake any more. See how this guy literally draws out a baguette! Baking doesn't get any quicker than this.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Braised pork belly with dried bamboo shoots 筍乾燜豬肉

東坡居士 蘇軾 (1037-1101)
In this age of globalisation, raw ingredients are no longer tied to their terroir and you can easily get most ethnic ingredient in every major city of the world. That being said, certain ingredients are only appreciated by people of that particular region, and sometimes they perish so quickly that they're just not the same when transported to the other side of the world. Take bamboo shoots for example, they get more fibrous every day and has an increasing bitter taste as it grows. Even after digging, its freshness and crunchy texture diminish by the hour - at least that's what people who have access to freshly dug bamboo shoots claim. In fact, many Chinese gourmets regard freshly-dug bamboo shoots as one of the greatest culinary experiences one could have.

In the west, however, most people's conception of bamboo shoots is of the tasteless, pallid canned variety that does nothing but fill up the generic chop suey or whatever take-away stir-fry. In Asia, however, bamboo shoots have always been a culinary delicacy, especially in Chinese and Japanese cuisines. In Chinese culture, bamboos are also a symbol of unrelenting moral uprightness. The great Song dynasty poet, politician, calligrapher and gourmet Su Dongpo (蘇東坡) famously wrote that: 

 'I would rather eat a meal without meat than live in a place without bamboo.
Eating without meat makes you lose weight, but living without bamboo makes you lose refinement.'

Dongpo pork, popular version
It was also Su Dongpo who supposedly invented the celebrated Chinese dish Dongpo Pork which is usually interpreted as red-braised pork belly with Shaoxing rice wine. It happens to be one of the first dishes I learnt to cook, but the dish I'm writing about today is a lesser-known version of 'Dongpo Pork'. It combines the two elements that are so dear to Su Dongpo - bamboo and pork - in a dish. Bamboo shoots come in a great deal of varieties, and for this braise I'm using dried, fermented bamboo shoots which have a rather acidic taste and mouldy smell. For non-Chinese people it would be somewhat of an acquired taste, but like all good things it's addictive once you've got used to it. The soaking and parboiling get rid of most of the unpleasant flavours of the bamboo shoots and they blend beautifully with pork belly. If you can find dried bamboo shoots, I urge you to give them a try, and hope that you'll be convinced!

Thanksgiving 2012

It's holiday time! I went to two friends' houses for thanksgiving this year. It was a busy schedule for a holiday, but one that's filled with laughter, joy and lots and lots of food. I'm thankful that I didn't have to do any savoury cooking and could just show up and be fed - how much better could it get?

Wednesday 21nd November

Arrived at Mark and Jaewon's house in Frankfort, Kentucky with Tim, Hitomi, Assaf, Noa and their cute little baby Mickey.

Mark, the victim of our thanksgiving dinner. He'll be slaving in the next two days.
Assaf and his 18-month-old baby Mickey.
Tim and Hitomi.

We just pottered about while everyone else was busy!

Monday, 19 November 2012

Cocoa génoise cake with Iron Buddha tea cream and milk ganache

Conquering génoise

I've waited for a long time to write about the génoise cake (海綿蛋糕). It's one of the most basic cakes, yet possibly the most difficult to make. It's the go-to cake in European cake-making and is often used as the building block for layer cakes. The main difficulties in making a génoise are the whipping of the eggs to its optimal (but not maximum) volume, and how not to deflate the batter when you fold in the flour and the fat. Even the most experienced bakers can fail a génoise. There're just too many variables involved, and each deviation would make a noticeable difference in the end. If my memory serves me right it was the very first cake I attempted - why a génoise, of all cakes?

Friday, 16 November 2012

Bolognese sauce

My eating habits aren't exactly great now, but I had really terrible eating habits when I was at secondary school in my teenage years in Hong Kong. After a much dreaded breakfast at 6am which usually consisted of oatmeal cooked with water and egg, I would eat three packets of crisps (the smallest size) from the tuck shop at school as my lunch. It goes without saying that the hot food served at the canteen was absolutely dreadful, so for my undeveloped taste buds crisps were infinitely preferable. As unhealthy as they were, three packets of crisps could hardly fill up a teenager's stomach for an extended period of time, so by the time I reached home at 4pm I would get hungry again. Time to eat a 'real' lunch. There were two routes I could go down - either heading to McDonald's or asking mum to cook spaghetti bolognese.

Now, I'm not entirely sure how my mum exactly prepared the 'spag bol' back then, but I can assure you that I would devour it in no time. I'm pretty sure that she just used a pre-made sauce and mixed it with minced pork and lots and lots of chilli. It goes without saying that it's by no means an authentic rendition of spaghetti bolognese, but it was one of my favourite things to eat back then - which was interesting since I didn't eat tomatoes in general (and still don't). I don't like things that are sour and tomatoes are just way too intense for me. Personally I find tomato-based sauces are slightly more edible than whole tomatoes - even though I do force myself to eat the odd slices of tomatoes in a burger every now and then for their healthy benefits.

The first time when I tried to cook an authentic bolognese sauce from scratch myself in my undergrad years, I was appalled by how complicated and lengthy it was/had to be. I had no idea that you're meant to brown the beef in small batches before braising it with the other ingredients - and by braising you're looking at almost two hours, if not more. Even now, I only make bolognese sauce every once in a while since it's really a major undertaking - but then I tend to make a huge quantity so that I can live on it for days. Once you've tasted the real stuff though, you'll find the commercial stuff so incredibly shallow. I would rather not eat spaghetti bolognese than use a premade sauce!

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Black sesame pound cake

The virtue of frugality

I still remember the first time when I made 賽螃蟹 (a Chinese dish of stir-fried egg whites) back in boarding school, a friend of mine asked alarmingly, 'What are you going to do with all those egg yolks?' - and we're talking like 9 yolks here. 'To the bin, of course,' I replied, imperious and supremely confident in my own logic. Those poor egg yolks did end up in the bin of course, and ooking back I'm totally appalled by my attitude and ignorance back in those days. I secretly think that I inherited some of that 'wastefulness' from my mum, who never hesitated to throw away leftovers at dinnertime, even when my grandma wanted to save some tidbits for the next day.

I continued to cook like that for the first few years of my 'cooking life' (starting in boarding school) but gradually I started to think more (and harder) about where food came from. Not just where this particular sea salt was harvested, or whether my chicken is a Bresse - it's thinking about the lives of the animals who sacrificed themselves (unwillingly) for our sustenance and carnal pleasure; those farmers, fishermen and workers who worked an imaginably hectic life day and night so that we can just buy our food instead of having to hunt/fish/butcher/grow our animals or produce. It dawned on me that making the most out of one's ingredient is almost a moral imperative - a Kantian categorical imperative even.

So, I gradually tried to make the most of what I had. When I buy a whole chicken, I would save the feet, wing tips and head for making stock; I would save rendered chicken, pork and beef fat in individual containers so that I can cook with them; I would save grated ginger from squeezing ginger juice for frying rice with later; I would save excess tart crust for nibbling; I would add the peel when I poach apples or pears; I would try to pack most unfinished dishes when I eat out, and so on. Not only is it a healthy thing to do, being thrifty with every bit of your ingredient also means that you gain extra flavours at no additional cost. All those skins, peels and rendered fat can 'add' to your dishes in myriad ways and could have much, much better use than a knee-jerk tossing to the bin.

Of course, this is not to saying that I've reached the point where I would try to turn all those unused egg shells into something else - I heard that they are actually pretty good for you, by the way. But I do try to exhaust an ingredient as much as I can. This week I made some black sesame soup (芝麻糊), which is basically black sesame pureed with water and sweetened. Since I had to pass everything through a fine muslin cloth to remove all the 'bits', I was left with a lot of ground sesame. I then used this leftover sesame paste to make a black sesame pound cake. The leftover paste still had some moisture in it and helped keep the cake moist as well.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

World Peace Cookies, regional version

Et In Terra Pax Hominibus...

Those of you who are frequent visitors of food blogs might have heard of World Peace Cookies, a cookie that has captivated the hearts and minds of countless fellow bloggers and foodies all over the world. It is essentially a chocolate sablé (shortbread) studded with dark chocolate chips and fortified with sea salt - not your average sea salt, but the legendary fleur de sel ('flower of salt') from Britanny, France. It is hand-harvested by Breton women traditionally, and even in this day and age it is not mass-produced and is produced by small local enterprises. Fleur de sel is by and large used as a finishing salt - for sprinkling onto finished dishes - rather than merely making a dish salty. It has a finesse and purity in flavour that is quite difficult to describe when you taste it on its own, but wait till you taste it side-by-side with normal table salt and you will be shocked by how harsh the commercial stuff suddenly becomes.

World Peace Cookies are the creation of the great French pâtissier Pierre Hermé, who came up with the brilliant idea of pairing chocolate with salt in a cookie. The idea might raise some eyebrows in our day, but remember that the Aztecs didn't have 'sweet' chocolate at all, and it wasn't until chocolate was introduced to Europe that people started sweetening it with sugar. In recent years, chocolate with sea salt has been all the rage - chocolate with salted caramel, chocolate bars studded with sea salt, Ferran Adrià's famous toasted bread with dark chocolate and sea salt, etc.Whether or not Hermé was the first person to set the trend, the idea of adding fleur de sel to a chocolate cookie is truly a stroke of genius. Without the salt, they are moreish; with the salt, they are sublime.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Steamed chicken with shiitake mushrooms 北菇蒸雞

The fifth element

If you ask people how many flavours there are in food, they would usually come up with four: sweet, sour, bitter and salty (spiciness is actually a pain, believe it or not!). In the early 20th century, a Japanese scientist by the name of Kikunae Ikeda (池田菊苗) claimed that there's actually a fifth element in food: the umami flavour (うま味/鮮味). It's the deeply savoury, mouth-watering flavour that we associate with great savoury dishes. In a sense, is the flavour of flavour. It's distinct from plain saltiness, but a long-lasting 'flavourfulness' that literally make us salivate. By the way, research has shown that breast milk is the first taste of umami that humans encounter and is extremely rich in glutamates.

Interestingly, umami doesn't taste of anything on its own, but magnifies other savoury flavours and give a synergistic effect. Humans implicitly recognised this long ago and different cultures across the globe must have have been exploiting food rich in umami flavours since time immemorial. Foods rich in umami include fish, shellfish, cured meat (think bacon!) and certain vegetables (tomatoes and leek?). Fermented food, in particular, has long been used to give 'body' to savoury dishes. In East-Asian cooking soya sauce and fish sauce (nuoc nam) are absolutely indispensable, and they contribute depth of flavour to a dish in a way that salt cannot. Not to mention other Asian specialities like Korean kimchi, Japanese miso, etc!

Compared to Asian cooking, it seems that western cooking employs less fermented stuff for seasoning. Sure, there's cheese, wine, bacon and all that, but they're not used as basic seasonings. Interestingly, people in ancient Greece and Rome did use a kind of fermented fish sauce (garum) in their cooking. For reasons unknown to me, its use gradually died out in western cooking. I think it's for this reason - the lack of a basic seasoning that's rich in umami - that classical French cuisine relies heavily on reduction for distilling flavours. Despite its great sophistication, it is extremely time-consuming too.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Matcha green tea biscuits (and a latte)

Matcha craze

For the British people, tea is the tipple to turn to in times of crisis. Not that I've been experiencing any crisis personally, but there's definitely something hovering in the air this week as so much of the east coast of America is being affected by the Frankenstorm Sandy. Ohio state barely escaped from a direct onslaught by the storm, nevertheless the weather turned icy cold in the past few days and and has been unpleasantly damp, grey and depressing. I'm sure the sudden change in weather has got something to do with the hurricane that is wreaking so many people's lives right now. My thoughts are with those families out there whose lives are being turned upside down by this calamity.

Maybe I'm deluding myself, but I feel like it's because of the depressing weather that I got myself into a green tea craze lately. I revisited my green tea butter cake, made lots of green tea biscuits, and am sipping a cup of green tea latte right now as I'm writing at 2am. It's really comforting - I just hope that I will be able to fall asleep tonight!

The green tea biscuits that I make are the kind that you'd want to nibble on quietly with a cup of tea or whenever you want. They're not the kind of moreish baked goods that you want to stuff into your mouth until your stomach explodes, but they have a quiet presence and a pure taste of tea that lingers on your tongue subtly.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Strawberry cream tart

Kitchen disaster (and how to get on with life)

In many creation myths throughout the world, the apparent order of the universe emerged out of a primeval chaos. In Greek mythology, Chaos was personified as the first of the primordial deities and the god of the air. In fact, primal Chaos was sometimes said to be the true foundation of reality (particularly by Ionian philosophers such as Heraclitus). Cooks often have to do just the same: turning culinary chaos into something edible and tasty with a sensible form. With baking there is much less room for for this transformation: everything has to be 'right' to start with if you want your batter to turn into a cake rather than a cookie. Sometimes, however, you're left with no choice but to summon all your faculties to save your failed baking attempts.

Yesterday I had to prepare dessert for a last-minute dinner the next day with a friend who was leaving town soon. I had a carton of strawberries sitting in the fridge, so I thought it's good timing to make a strawberry dessert. I started preparing the dessert last night, thinking that I would have plenty of time in case something didn't quite work out. As it happened, one disaster followed another and it ended up with something very different from what I had set out to make. Thankfully, my rescue efforts weren't in vain it and I was informed that the end-result was edible!

Originally, I wanted to serve berries with a sabayon and caramelise it with a blowtorch. It looks stunning and doesn't require much work. A sabayon is an egg foam made with egg yolks and a sweet wine like Marsala. I didn't have sweet wine any on hand, so I thought that I could substitute with Chinese rose wine, thinking that rose would complement strawberries very well - I often make strawberry tarts with a pastry cream flavoured with this wine and it works beautifully. Well, this particular rose wine I had wasn't of very good quality to start with, and maybe there's just too much of it compared to its subtle presence in a pastry cream... The sabayon tasted bitter, confused and... cheap. I dumped the whole batch.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Mung bean drink 清熱解毒綠豆水

Like the ubiquitous red bean soup, mung bean soup (綠豆沙) is the other popular sweet dessert soup in China. I like to think of them as the ying and yang of legumes: while red beans are warm and comforting, mung beans are cooling and detoxifying. The medicinal properties of mung beans have long been prized in China. The father of Chinese medicine 李時珍 taught that :「綠豆消腫下氣,治寒熱,止泄痢,利小便,除脹滿,厚實腸胃,補益元氣,調和五臟,安精神,去浮風,潤皮膚,解金石、砒霜、草本等一切毒。」 Maybe we don't use them often enough to experience these medicinal benefits, but I'm sure those of you who have had well-chilled mung bean soup at the height of summer would agree with me that it's a godsend: it cools you down immediately like nothing else. No, not even ice cream. It cleanses you from within without the headache that accompanies an icy scoop of sorbet.

The part in the mung bean that gives the detox and cooling effects (清熱解毒) is actually the skin, and its medicinal properties diminish when you cook them for too long. Those who have made mung bean soup will recall that the colour starts off as a bright, clear yellow-green and gradually becomes darker and cloudier after half an hour or so. For this reason, if you want to exploit mung bean's medicinal properties, it's best to cook them very briefly and drain the beans while the soup is still a bright yellow-green. If you continue to cook the beans as you would for mung bean soup, they'd lose much of their detox and cooling properties, but would still help with getting rid of excess liquid and toxins in your digestive tracts (健脾祛濕). If you soak the beans for a few days, they'd transform into bean sprouts (綠豆芽) which are extremely high in vitamin C and full of essential amino acids. A real superfood!

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Earl Grey chiffon cake

The English people are known for their love of tea. Even with the onslaught of coffee chains like Starbucks and Costa in recent years, England is still by and large a tea-drinking nation. Even though it's a terrible stereotype, I did hear the expression 'Would you like some tea?' countless times during the seven years I spent in England (with fond memories, of course). Like coffee, tea refreshes your spirit but doesn't give you the unpleasant jittery attack you get with coffee. It's much more calming and soothing and fits the English national character perfectly - moderation and restraint.

I grew up drinking mainly Chinese tea of course, and I don't think I had heard about the two main types of tea consumed in England, English Breakfast and Earl Grey, until I moved to Wells when I was 16. I remember finding the taste of Earl Grey very intriguing - it had an unmistakable aroma that took me some time getting used to. Its distinctive aroma comes from the addition of oil extracted from the rind of the bergamot orange, a citrus fruit that grows mainly in Italy.

Bergamot orange

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Steamed salmon with black beans 豆豉蒸三文魚

The power of steam

It is well-known that the invention of the steam engine was pivotal in Great Britain's Industrial Revolution (and therefore all the wonderful technological gadgets that you and I are enjoying right now). I'm of the opinion that steam had already contributed to to a revolution no less important for human happiness in ages past. It took place in China more than 3000 years ago when, in a stroke of genius, someone got inspired by the steam that emerged out of boiling water and came up with the idea that one could actually cook in the steam. Even though boiling and steaming both employ hydrogen, it was a hugely significant step in the development of gastronomy:

1. Steam has a higher temperature than boiling water and can cook food in a very short span of time. It takes about 25 minutes to steam a chicken that weighs 1.5 kg. The same bird would need about an hour in the oven.

2. Most of the preparation is done before the actual steaming - you only need to add a few final touches afterwards, if at all, It's much simpler than frying or braising, for instance.

3. It preserves the flavours and nutrients of your food in a way that few other cooking methods can. Your food would literally be cooking in its own juice and, unlike blanching, there's no loss of flavour and nutrients.  Phenolic compounds with antioxidant properties have been found to retain significantly better through steaming than through boiling or microwaving.

4. Since steam is the vehicle for heat, you can use less oil than say, frying or stir-frying. That also means that no oil would splatter and your countertop would be scrupulously clean.

5. Most importantly, you only have to wash the dish you steam in (okay, the knife and chopping board as well...). No need to wash grease-ridden pans and utensils!

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Not-so-tangy lemon tart

'Lemon lovers are a special breed. They are shamelessly devoted to their favourite flavour, and they like it to be assertive and bold.' So wrote Tish Boyle, author of the Cake Book and one of my favourite American recipe writers. Since childhood, I've always been aversive to anything sour. Sure, I find vinegar and lemon juice essential in highlighting the flavours in a dish, but among the 'five flavours' sourness is the one that I've always been apprehensive about. I'm defensively sceptical whenever people tell me that an orange is sweet because I would always find it incredibly sour when I taste it myself - it's a topic which I've decided that I can trust no-one about. For the same reason I try to avoid tomatoes, and all kinds of berries. So I'm sorry, I don't belong to the breed.

That said, I do love the bright, zingy flavour of lemon. Thankfully, you can get plenty of citrus flavour from the skin and be light-handed with how much lemon juice you use. Now a true lemon-lover would argue that sourness is as essential a part of lemony-ness as the zesty fragrance, but I just can't. I shiver when I eat anything moderately tangy - I blame it on my genetics. Perhaps I should be equally magnanimous when I hear people complain that something is 'too chocolatey'.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Thin and crispy sesame biscuits 香脆芝麻餅

In my earlier post on shortbread, I wrote about my predilection for crisp biscuits rather than soft cookies. The biscuits that I am sharing today are thin, shattery and loaded with nutty sesame seeds. Like the whipped cream cake that I made a few days ago, they are extremely easy to make and perfect for those who are sceptical about baking.

Sesame seeds are the seeds of a flowering plant that is grown all over the world. In fact, it is considered the oldest oilseed crop discovered by man (more than 5000 years ago).The sesame tree is actually quite short and rarely grows more than two metres in height, and the pods that contains the sesame seeds are only about three centimetres long. Every year in May and August, the pods split and release the seeds. There're many varieties of sesame seeds, with white sesame seeds being the most common kind, followed by black sesame seeds. The rarest and the most aromatic are golden sesame seeds, which grow mainly in India and, like all good things, are highly sought after by the Japanese.

Sesame seeds are very versatile and are especially popular in Asian cuisines. The Chinese and Japanese, above all, are very fond of these tiny seeds and employ them in countless ways. There's a Chinese sweet soup called sesame soup (芝麻糊) made of pureed black sesames; crispy fried dough covered with golden sesame seeds (煎堆); crispy chicken slathered with sesame seeds (not sesame chicken, by the way!). The Japanese love their sesame seeds no less: from their gorgeous, gorgeous (and pricey!) black sesame paste that you smear onto bread or eat with a spoon; the authentic dip for a pork cutlet (tonkatsu) involves grounding sesame seeds yourself right before mixing in the brown tonkatsu sauce; likewise a healthy sprinkling of sesame seeds on ramen is de rigueur. (Incidentally, sprinkling sesame seeds onto instant noodles makes them a lot more palatable...) Last but not least, there's the ubiquitous sesame oil which has made its way beyond Asia into kitchens worldwide.