Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Lotus root soup 莲藕烫

When I was growing up, we would have soups at dinner time once or twice a week. My family is Cantonese and slow-cooked soup, or lo foh tong (老火湯) is a Cantonese specialty. The soup is usually a clear broth produced by simmering meat and other ingredients for several hours (usually 3 to 4 hours but up to 6 hours). Chinese medicinal herbs are often added to the pot, the most popular of which are dates (红枣), wolfberry/goji berry (枸杞子) and jade bamboo (玉竹).

Lotus root

Lotus root soup (莲藕烫) is a soup that we have quite frequently. The actual ingredients vary a bit from time to time. Sometimes raw peanuts are added, and sometimes whole dried shitake mushrooms. But the essential ingredients are pork and lotus root. Lotus root is the root portion of the lotus plant. The plant grows in ponds with the flowers, stems and leaves above the water and the roots below the water. Every part of the plant can be used in cooking, either as ingredients or as cooking tools. When cut in cross-section, the root portion look like wheels.

Sliced lotus root

Lotus root is often used in Chinese cooking, especially in vegetarian dishes. It is crunchy even after long hours of cooking and it does not have a strong flavour on its own. Lotus root can be used raw in salads, deep fried as tempura or chips, stir-fries, and of course in chinese soups.

Traditionally, pork ribs is used in this soup. But to produce a less oily soup, I tend to use either shoulder or loin cuts. I like to add carrot to the soup for extra sweetness.

Ingredients (serves 4-6):

250g lean pork ribs or chops
1 lotus root, about 2-3 sections
1 large or 2 small carrots (optional)
2 dried honey dates (蜜枣)
6-8 dried red dates (红枣)
1.5 litres water
Salt to taste

Ingredients for lotus root soup

1. Wash and clean the lotus root of any mud and dirt. Remove the outer skin with a vegetable peeler, or scrub thoroughly (treat it like a potato). Cut the roots cross-wise so that they look like wheels. Peel the carrots and cut them up roughly.
2. Place the pork in a large bowl or pot and pour boiling water over it. Let sit for a few minutes. Rinse with clean water. This essential step removes excess fat, any strange 'porky' flavour and makes for a cleaner tasting soup.
3. Combine the pork, lotus roots, carrots, honey dates, red dates and boiling water in a large pot. Bring to the boil and then turn the heat right down to a low simmer. The soup will be ready in about 2 hours, but I like to cook mine long and slow for at least 3-4 hours.
4. About 5-10 minutes before serving, season to taste with some salt.

Lotus root soup 莲藕烫

Tip: Since traditional Cantonese soups require long hours of cooking over low heat, they are particularly well suited to the slow cooker or crockpot. Just place all the ingredients (except salt) into your slow cooker, put it on Low or Auto setting and leave it for the day. You can do this in the morning before going to work, or around lunch time if you are at home. Hot and nourishing soup will be waiting for you by dinner time. Season to taste with salt and serve.

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Monday, 9 February 2009

Chinese new year feasting

Food is often central to Chinese celebratory occasions and Chinese new year is no different. Being officially 15 days, Chinese new year is a great excuse for family and friends to dine together and indulge in good food. The following was a meal that I had with my family and some relatives last week. We went across the border to Johor in Malaysia. Firstly, because it is often much cheaper for the same if not better quality of food. Secondly, some of my relatives were driving back to Kuala Lumpur that day and it made sense to have the meal where it was convenient for their onward journey.

Almost all Chinese new year menu start with Yu Sheng (鱼生), a raw fish salad that is traditionally eaten during the 7th day of the new year but has become ubiquitous throughout the full 15 days (and eve of). Ingredients include raw slices of mackeral or salmon, shredded carrots, daikon (white radish), orange peel, and red pickled ginger. I have written about this in my Chinese new year post last year.

Tossing the salad and saying good wishes to mark the start of an auspicious new year (with my shadow lying across the table... Ugh.)
Lou hei!

This was fish fragrant eggplant with a twist, made with battered and fried eggplant slices.
Fish fragrant eggplant with a twist

And then a mysterious dish turned up, consisting of a dark log surrounded by broccoli florets and oyster sauce. A waitress snipped the log open with a pair of scissors...
Cutting sea cucumber

... and revealed that it was a large sea cucumber that had been stuffed with a mixture of tofu, carrots, mushrooms and other vegetables. AP and I passed on the sea cucumber itself but happily munched on the filling.
Stuffed sea cucumber

There was also a dish of large king prawn with almonds
Almond prawns

An enormous steamed fish (I forgot what type) with scary teeth
Steamed fish

Kailan two ways: the stems were blanched and then stir fried with garlic; the leaves were roughly chopped and crispy fried.
Kailan two ways

Finally, a platter arrived with two huge Sri Lankan crab, cooked with salted egg yolk and curry leaves. Having crab always seem like such an occasion to me in the past few years as it was one of the top local (Singaporean/Malaysian) dishes I missed while living overseas. The freshness, size and prices are simply unbeaten anywhere else that I have lived.
Sri Lankan crab

Look at the size of them! I wasn't the only person taking photos.
Reaching for crab

Golden crab roe
Crab roe

Here was a crab claw next to one of the king prawns, which was dwarfed in comparison. My brother took a photo on his camera of me holding up the crab claw to my face, and I swear it was about half the size of my face.
Giant crab claw

The entire meal for 12 people came up to around 800 Ringgit (US$230). Unsurprisingly, the crab was the most expensive dish at just under 200 ringgit, but still very reasonable for its size and quality. The restaurant had received numerous awards for fine dining and is a popular venue for wedding receptions and other celebrations with separate function rooms for hire. For those who are interested, here are the contact details of the restaurant:

Restoran Pekin Sutera Sdn Bhd (五福北京城)
No. 1, Jalan Sutera Tanjung 8/4,
Sutera Utama Biz Centre,
Taman Sutera Utama,
81300 Skudai, Johor
Tel: 07-557 3899/07-558 1818

Today is officially the last day (fifteenth day) of the new year, known as Yuanxiao Jie (元宵节), or Chap Goh Mei in the Hokkien/Fujian dialect. Traditionally, it is another important occasion for a family reunion dinner, although not as crucial these days as the new year's eve dinner. If you have been celebrating Chinese new year the past two weeks, I hope you enjoyed the festivities, especially since many of us might be turning to dieting plans in the months ahead!

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Monday, 2 February 2009

Auspicious apples

We have been in Singapore for a little over a week now and the time so far has been, rather predictably, filled with visits and gatherings with family and friends. And lots of food, of course. I will get on to the food in another post. For now, I just want to highlight some funky apples that I saw at my aunt's house during the first day of Chinese new year.

Chinese new year apples

When visiting family and friends during Chinese new year, one must greet each other with auspicious sayings such as 'xin nian kuai le' (happy new year), 'gong xi fa cai' (blessings of wealth and prosperity), and 'shen ti jian kang' (may you have good health). Such phrases are also placed on the walls in the form scrolls and other new year decorations. This is the first time that I have seen it on apples!

Reading from the top right in a clockwise manner, the words on the apples read 'zhao cai jin bao' (welcoming wealth and prosperity) (You might have noticed that the Chinese is rather obsessed with wealth and fortune...).

Zhao cai jin bao

No one was quite sure how the words were created on the surface of the apples, not even my aunt who bought them. My guess would be that paper cut outs of the Chinese characters were pasted on the apples just before they ripen, so that when the apples turn red, the parts covered by the cut outs would remain yellow/green. What do you think?

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