Home-Cooking highlights in 2014

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 has been another great year of cooking, loving what I do and learning to do it better while at it. It kept my family and guests happy. It helped me to make connections with my past, my relatives, other home cooks and food suppliers.

I continue to rediscover my Wong family roots and renewing connections with my relatives. They got to read about The Malay Mail feature on my late Mum. When I was in Ottawa during my Sabbatical, I reconnected with one of my uncles and we talked about my Mum's cooking and how much he misses some of her dishes. I have also bonded with some faithful suppliers who have become friends and from whom I have learned so much about our produce. I continue to receive feedback from those who have tried the recipes on the blog and are happy with the results. It is interesting how food and cooking bring people together.
The discipline of sharing recipes and keeping track of it's progress meant that I have also benefitted tremendously from journaling my cooking experience. And I am still learning. That is the posture I have all the time. I have met cooks who are eager to share their ideas and tips, and that is fine. But being a keen listener is important and it is amazing how much you can learn from even casual tips. A home cook may not have the wide education which a professional chef has, but they have family traditions and proven cooking tips, even if they do not get the science right all the time.  Often key tips can lead to significant improvements in recipes or better and simpler techniques.

1. Cooking with my church's Food Ministry team

The enthusiastic ladies from my church Food Ministry team. 
I should pause and make specific mention of the team of home cooks who serve in my church's Food Ministry team. They have a "called passion" (sounds like a redundant phrase but stringing  these two words together does describe something) for cooking. It is important that each person finds that his talents and heart can be used to serve God and others.

Their enthusiasm and hard work at perfecting dishes and coming up with new recipes inspire me. And when a team works and synergises together, it is amazing how much can be learnt and accomplished.

In Singapore where we are accustomed with outsourcing just about everything - childcare, home-cleaning, cooking - there is a need to rediscover the joy of using your gifts in service. In our urban city, we have also lost the "cooking community." I can remember childhood memories of times when cooking was a bustling social event where every family member chips in and there were noises of chatter, mortars pounding away, the steady rhythm of the chopper hitting the wooden blocks etc.

Oh well, in Singapore we are raising children who think cooking is reserved for foreign helpers or too menial for their attention, unless they are trying to duplicate a Junior Masterchef's soufflé!

It will always take time to raise a team but there are hidden talents in home cooks which can blossom when they find the confidence to cook for others and realise that a lot can be accomplished when we work as a team - a "cooking community."

2. Learning to cook in a different environment

My visit to Toronto and tasting all kinds of cuisine inspire me to try my hand at new dishes, such as Paella. 
I spent my first 5 months in Toronto (Canada) for my Sabbatical. Being in another culture has been a good culinary-learning experience for me.

Toronto, like many North American cities, is a great place to eat well and cheaply, that is, if you cook your meals yourself. The produce here is fresh, fantastic and reasonably priced. Local (and colourful) beets, radishes, tomatoes, kales and onions were gorgeous. And the cheeses! Going "organic" has become an excuse to jack up prices (and like everywhere else, paranoia-inducing) but if you are discerning and not too gullible, you can get yourself some very good produce.

Toronto is also very multi-ethnic, in fact far more than Singapore. The presence of different races and nationalities are large enough to ensure that it is economically viable for their culinary ingredients to be imported or grown there.

This city is indeed a haven for chefs. Much of the produce would be considered "gourmet" if imported and sold in Singapore. So, to be able to learn to cook them and not regret over expensive mistakes was an enriching experience.

I have held a few cooking classes, mostly of an informal nature, using home kitchens. And I discovered that cooking is one thing but cooking and teaching is quite another. In fact, some of my first classes did not work too well as I was teaching "way over their heads", introducing complicated details to would-be cooks who were just starting out. Teaching something exotic like belachan was a big mistake, sending a Spanish rushing off for fresh air.

I had to also serve myself some comfort food from time to time, and staying in a students hostel is also an interesting experience of learning to come out with something from my own cuisine (Southeast Asian) which I could enjoy, using limited facilities and ingredients. One can learn a lot when you are forced to use what you have and improvise.

As I had Malaysian and Singaporean friends, learning to cook a reasonably good Nasi Lemak and Penang Prawn Mee was a learning experience. I have also become more aware of how my blog (or cookbook) can be more helpful as ingredients are different in other parts of the world.

It was an educational experience to live in another culture. And yes, I should mention that I enjoyed writing on the April's Fool's satire on Singaporean food in Toronto. It amused many but it did annoy some. I had to add the disclaimer right at the top. The disappointment when you realise it was just a joke can be overwhelming for a Singaporean missing Bak Chor Mee in the heart of winter.

3. A new appreciation for French Bistro Food 

Good french bistro food uses a fast and simple approach to cooking from local, good and fresh ingredients. For this reason, it is difficult to find good French bistro food in Singapore.

The visit to Quebec City was an eye opener. The food in this French city is stunning. I have now a new appreciation for bistro food i.e. French Onion Soup as it should be, topped with fresh cheese curds, Poutine using good potatoes in a good beef sauce, tasty pan-seared pork loin etc. Mostly old school and working from a small space, every dish was well prepared and presented. The key is access to good ingredients.

Good French Bistro food can be an inspiration in so many ways for home cooks and restaurant owners. And the idea is to learn the principles, not duplicate the recipes.

4. My Mum's Mee Jawa

It took me 3 years since I started this blog before I got down to my Mum's Mee Jawa. It did look formidable when I read her recipe but once I started working on it, many of the steps were intuitive. I have to say that her recipe was spot on as it tasted exactly like hers: the sauce, the prawn crackers and form texture to color and flavours, it was Auntie Ruby's.

My late Mum could only write in Chinese and she hardly recorded down her recipes. She just rattled them off and one of her bi-lingual friends would record and translate it. I used to think that its' accuracy is suspect. But having worked on it, I have come to realise that my Mum was more careful than I thought and she held nothing back in her enthusiasm to share everything she knew. If there were secrets in her recipes, it did not stay that way for too long. Unlike other cooks I know, she was spontaneously generous in letting others know. If more Asian cooks have this attitude (after all we are only passing on what previous generations have taught us), our cuisine will be in a better state and our young will not be so enamoured by Western cuisines. Certainly this blog and the new cookbook should reflect her attitude.

5. More Noodle Recipes

I know this will create a "duh" reaction for those who are used to making their own noodles, but the thought of kneading and then threading noodles is always a put off for most home cooks, not to mention the floury mess. That said, my Mum did use a noodle roller to make her "ban mee" and I have never forgotten that.

Then came along Philip's Noodle Maker. Simple, clean and cool to use, just add flour, water or egg and presto, the noodles wriggle out, even if creepily.

It was a game changer. With daily access to good home-made noodles, I am now motivated to work on wheat-based noodle recipes, may it be Chinese, Korean, Italian pastas or Japanese Ramen. The fresh noodles taste even better in Mee Goreng. It has been a lot of fun making and cooking them and varying the amount and type of flours and liquids. You can easily make up your own noodle recipes. With noodles that good, simple sauces will do for the daily dinner. You can easily come up with your own sauces and garnishes, using whatever you have in your kitchen.

I will recommend the Noodle Maker to anyone who loves noodles. That includes a lot of us and Philips is definitely spot on with this gadget. And for what it does, it’s price is very reasonable ($270).

6. Perfecting my Mum’s Curry Puff

Some types of foods need a lot of practice to master. That is certainly true for my Mum’s Curry Puff. I am glad to say that her recipe is spot on, having tried it a few more times this year. I am grateful for some ladies in church for testing out her pastry and patiently working at it. Don’t expect to get it perfect on the first few tries. Even if the shapes are odd, it will look home-made. However it turns out, it will taste a lot better than commercial ones. It is a great party dish and the effort put into learning it will pay off. And yes, we get to keep a precious tradition which can be easily forgotten as we get accustomed to commercial versions.

7. More Sous Vide cooking at home

This bowl of beef and egg is cooked the Sous Vide way. The flavourful 48-hour short rib beef and 45-minute onsen egg is easily assembled for dinner if you have pre-cooked it. It is really delicious. 
I think this year is a watershed one for Sous Vide cooking at home. Gadgets are more affordable than ever. Many of my relatives and friends have started using this cooking technique. While most are still  using it occasionally, for some, it has become the usual go-to method to produce clean, fast and easy meals. I am surprised myself at how some home cooks are cooking more now that they have learned the sous vide method. Definitely, Sous Vide can be helpful, beyond just eggs and beef. Check out my blogging about Sous Vide for the home here.

8. Working on the Cookbook

I have been working on perfecting the Nasi Lemak rice for the cookbook
This was the year where the major writing for the cookbook was being done. It was not as simple as "copy and paste" from my blog as the cookbook has a stronger focus on techniques. I had to revisit some of the blogged recipes and made further revisions. Feedback from those who used the recipes have been helpful and please continue to email or leave a message on FB. Your feedback will help other home cooks.

I don't think recipes - strictly speaking - can be perfected. In fact, the more experienced you are, the more relaxed you will be on the different ways you can cook something. Take the Nasi Lemak Sambal for example. There are a few ways of doing it and each can be equally delicious, depending on the preference of the diner..

As I write and reflect on our cuisine (Southeast Asian), I have come to a better understanding and appreciation of the unique features of our cuisine. It uses such a variety of techniques and ingredients and the results are all the flavours which we love and crave for. It can be more challenging to get it right consistently. But it is worth working at. Our Nasi Lemak, curries, rendangs, sambals and Nonya dishes are unique and reflect the diversities of and interactions between our local cultures. New and amazing recipes are evolving all the time and both home cooks and commercial chefs should continue to experiment and share their recipes. It is my hope that TFC will not just inspire home cooks but more blogging and sharing of local recipes.

It has been another great year of cooking and learning. I wish you a blessed new year and may you continue to enjoy cooking and keeping your family and guests happy.

I will be posting a 2014 photo-log soon. Keep a lookout for it.

Nasi Lemak always pleases
These short rib beef burgers kept some students happy when I made them at Wycliffe Hall, Toronto. 
These woks of curries made many Torontonians happy.

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