Thursday, March 21, 2013

Fun with Food

As I get older, I find myself having more and more national pride for Malaysia.  While I have bucketloads for New Zealand (where I moved to when I was one), being Malaysian-Chinese by origin is something that has always been true but nothing I thought hard about.  Now that I have moved out of home, and away from the biggest connection to that part of me (my parents), I can't help but be proud of Malaysia every time I hear people have travelled there and loved it; or love the food yet have never been to the place.  As such, Malaysia deserves more than one post, especially on a blog about food, but today I want to share about a young Malaysian artist/architect.

Hong Yi, aka 'Red', is known as the artist who "likes to paint, but not with a paintbrush". She has created amazing portraits using alternative medias and my favourite is her depiction of 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.  Every day this month, however, she is playing with food

Image source(s): 'Oh I See Red!', recreated into collage

Brilliant!  My favourite: Hokusai's 'The Great Wave' in nori and rice.

As a fellow Malaysian-Chinese (and architect), who turns out to be the same age aswell, I feel an (unusual?) affinity with this bright young thing.  And now that she is doing what she does with food, I like her even more.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Ode to the Sandwich

There is nothing like a good sandwich.  I am currently home sick from work with a head cold brought on myself by going to sleep with wet hair.  One of my mother's cardinal rules growing up, only to be broken after a late night game of indoor netball.  A mistake I will not make again!  Nonetheless, I thank Buddha for not being sick at my stomach as I still retain my hunger and ability to eat.

As I was too excited and hungry to have foresight, I have no evidence of what I am about to describe, but you can believe and taste with your imagination the goodness of my recently devoured sandwich.  From top to bottom:

A thick slice of fresh sunflower and barley bread
Avocado, smeared on its underside
Torn coriander leaves
Crunchy iceberg lettuce
A swirl of Sriracha
Thin slices of Edam cheese
Fresh cucumber, laid in overlapping slices, and
French herb pâté
Over another thick slice of fresh sunflower and barley bread.

The only thing missing was some carrot and daikon pickle which would have made the flavour combination perfectly reminiscent of a Vietnamese baguette sandwich off the streets of Hanoi.  Punchy and lively yet soothed by the subtle creaminess of pâté and fresh bread.

So, is it the comfort of good bread that makes a sandwich so fulfilling?  Or the right combination of flavours that would sing together in any manifestation?  Inevitably, for the most sublime sandwich, it is both.  But this, I feel, being so easy to achieve, makes the sandwich a food opportunity that we should not relegate to merely an option we take when we run out of time or other 'more exciting' ingredients.  Each to their own for whatever flavour and texture combinations are willing, but I'm sure many are aware that the most satisfying take can simply be a few slices of cheese, melted between two pieces of toasted bread (preferably all heated at the same time).  A perfect example of the great pleasures a simple sandwich can bring.

I'm sure this wont be the last time I talk about the so-called 'humble sandwich' but until then: go to your kitchen and slap together a sandwich with fillings you like and bread you have, and be reminded of why there is nothing like a good sandwich.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Oh, Sweet Bread

With desserts, I'm pretty lazy.  If there are too many ingredients that I don't already have in the cupboard, I'll be reluctant to make it.  Besides the fact that my sweet tooth is small, health-wise I don't mind if there isn't something sweet around.  It could have something to do with the few months of my life where I ate a sweet muffin at least every other day (a whole other story), or maybe it's that small guilt factor that comes with pouring a cup of sugar into a bowl with half a block a butter already sitting in it.  Of course, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do but I'd probably save the guilt for a cheeseburger.

Our annual office picnic in the weekend however did call for desserts and I thought long and hard about my contribution.  A raspberry chocolate brownie? A flourless black doris plum upside down cake? Both personal favourites when the occasion arises but I was feeling lazy for baking. And I had no chocolate in the pantry. Fresh fruit salad? I did need to go to the local fruit and vege market anyway...

I turned to Heidi Swanson for some inspiration.  Award-winning author of the blog 101 Cookbooks and books Super Natural Cooking and Super Natural Every Day, she had made a name for herself through her natural and whole food cooking philosophy made easy, delicious and accessible through her blog and publications. I hadn't read much of her work before I picked up Super Natural Every Day in Portland's Powell's bookstore, but I was already in a phase of wanting to cook with less processed ingredients. I was sold.

So, I turned straight to the dessert or 'Sweet Treats' section and slowed down straight away.  As I mentioned in my first post, I like reading cookbooks just to read and in the urgency of needing to find a dish to make, I couldn't help myself.  Gorgeous recipes such as Watermelon Salad and Membrillo Cake led the chapter, though were out of my reach due to not having any medjool dates, quince paste or rose water around.  Then, the perfect simple recipe: Sweet Panzanella.

Panzanella is traditionally an Italian savoury bread salad often made up of stale bread tossed in typical Italian flavours such as tomatoes, onions, basil, capers and olives, in a oil and vinegar dressing.  A beautifully easy summer's picnic lunch, making Swanson's sweet variation fit for my occasion.  The list of ingredients exceeded no more than 6 and I only needed to buy a loaf of whole grain seed bread and some fresh fruit.  The original recipe calls for raspberries but suggests the option of using either plums, peaches or nectarines - all fruit fiercely in season right now.  My plan was to find the cheapest juiciest option at the market, and cheap and juicy I found: Plum Delights for $1.99/kg. Yahtzee.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Inspired for Goat

I’ll admit quickly that I love watching My Kitchen Rules Australia.  The casting is brilliant with plenty of characters to love, hate and talk about the next day over morning tea.  For obsessives like me, it reinforces knowledge while also learning something new though it’s also just exciting to see how and what people cook when under pressure.  The question at the back of my mind: could I pull that off?

For MKR Season 4 followers, you’ll know who I’m talking about when referring to the ‘Spice Girls’ - a pair of girls from India and Bangladesh who were very vocal and very critical.  High expectations were therefore created for their ‘Instant Restaurant’ and these were by no means met.  

I was, however, inspired by their mistakes.  They proposed a goat biryani for the main course and the result was unflavoured rice compiled haphazardly with stewed goat, nuts and tomatoes.  While biryani vary from region to region and country to country, it often means a rich curry-like stew cooked separately to rice but served layered together to let flavours mingle shortly before serving.  When I saw the Spice Girls cooking their rice in the microwave, I immediately wished for a more pullao (or pilaf) style preparation.  All those beautiful spices creating a flavourful curry - why not cook the rice in it? 

Luckily, our local Pak n Save often stocks cuts of goat and I had recently stocked up on some key Indian spices (coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cardamom, cloves, mustard seeds, cinnamon, etc).  Due to my boyfriend recently finding out he is allergic to night shades (i.e. tomatoes, peppers, chillies, etc), I also had to think about how to create the curry without a typical tomato and chilli base.  One thought was to use chicken stock, but I went with the can of coconut milk I had in the cupboard for a rich creamy texture.

Goat needs slow cooking, so the strategy was to braise the meat low and long in the spices and coconut milk in my Staub cocotte (the best French cookware, in my opinion) with rice added towards the end. I’d let it continue to cook in the turned-off oven overnight, in the hopes of awaking to perfectly cooked goat and rice.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Past pursuits

I’d like to give some background to the opening photo collage of my first post.  It collates some, but not all, of my food photos from meals past.  From Mexico, to Japan, San Francisco, Portland (Oregon), Hanoi, Beijing, Paris, New York and Wellington, New Zealand - this celebrates a handful of sites where I have enjoyed both great and not-so-great food. 

While I hope that I will encounter nothing but the best, I have on occasion found myself making bad food decisions after following dated advice or wisdom from those who don’t share the same cravings as myself. One such regretful breakfast was at Mama’s SF in, you guessed it, San Francisco. A spot renowned for its breakfasts, I had seen this name pop up in many San Francisco guides so thought it was a must-do.  After waiting in line for over an hour, during which I remembered I wasn’t big on ‘traditional’ breakfasts, I hoped to find something tantalisingly savoury on the menu.  For whatever reason, I chose the blueberry pancakes.  Bad decision.  Long story short: Lively vibe, okay pancakes, standoffish service and a feeling that they want you eaten and out asap.  After all, there are 50 people waiting outside.  I wouldn’t recommend it.  But I’m learning.  

Mama's SF blueberry pancakes, San Francisco
Pho Bo, Hanoi, Vietnam

Green tea soba noodles and tempura vegetables, Shizuoka, Japan

Epicurious tourists live by the common adage that you don’t know a place until you eat with the locals and on every trip I learn again and again that it’s certainly true. The character of the food often parallel’s aspects of a region’s culture and this is what I find so enthralling about travelling by eating.  For example, I found that Mexico is a place of flavours over texture whilst Japan is pure and fresh or an adaptation of foreign cuisine.  Hanoi has bite, kick and lively hits while Paris is a stronghold of tradition and best enjoyed with another (there are too many petite bites that one could possibly consume on your own).  

Observations easily equatable to an understanding of place, I feel. Perhaps less exciting than the there-and-then, the unarguable experience of authentic flavours means it’s easier to attempt their recreation at home.  Of course, Google and region-specific cookbooks help jog the memory or unlock key combinations as well, and this is something that I love.  The ability to allude to those memories of travels past by eating and tasting the same flavours as you did when… sitting low to the ground on a plastic chair, under a makeshift blue tarpaulin roof opposite locals as you slurped up a pho bo (Vietnamese beef noodle soup) made zingy by a squeeze of lime, and spicy with a big spoonful of chilli sauce swirled into the rich clear broth; or, sitting outside the Musee d’Orsay amongst hungry pigeons and chatty teenagers, while loading a baguette tradicional with terrine de canard (duck) and a local Camembert cheese the guy at the deli recommended, and chomping into it as bread crumbs dropped inevitably to the ground. 

I'm constantly awaiting the next opportunity to either recreate the memories or create new ones to be remembered in future meals.  Hopefully I won’t have long to wait.  In fact, tonight I will be visiting a local Japanese restaurant where I’ll hope to be brought back by the chimes of “irrashaimase” (“welcome, please come in”) by the restaurant staff to all of my experiences of dining in Japan.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The first post

Friends tell me this was a long time coming. And none of them were surprised when I explained the topic was to be food.  For those who don't know me, I'll use food writer M.F.K. Fisher's explanation, from the foreword of her 1943 publication 'The Gastronomical Me': " most other humans, I am hungry."

During Fisher's time, food-writing as a genre was uncommon to themes such as suffering, struggle and love - she was among the first.  Recently, however, food has become a frequent topic for discussion and documentation as the love and critique of food becomes less exclusive to professional connoisseurs. It seems that more than a few boatload of us are anywhere from mildly to extremely obsessed with food and it makes us happy to be able to talk about it and share our ideas and opinions, whether warranted or not. 

In my case, it is an extreme obsession and this will be confirmed by most people I know or have met for more than 15 minutes.  The dream: to have my daily occupation revolve around food and with a golden retriever by my side (another obsession).  Though I am no professional, I do consider myself equipped with a fair palate and heightened desire to be delighted by whatever I ingest.  The student-me enjoyed a newfound freedom when moving to Wellington for university, and I frequented many cafes and restaurants with the help of the Entertainment Card.  Now, I cook more at home and the spending of money on food is a considered process based on previous experience, excellent rumours and value for money (though not to say 'cheap').

I love sitting down with a good cook book for a plain read and enjoy visiting supermarkets, specialty food stores and farmers markets wherever I am.  My cooking style is based on being inspired by what I can find and my travel revolves around eating or looking at/for food.  I'm open to most flavours and textures, when prepared right, though despite my Asian background, you would never see me choose the chicken feet or tripe from the yum cha trolley.  My sweet tooth is small and I am very rarely not hungry.

So here goes: my Pursuit of Deliciousness online.