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Friendships should be rated on the Fried Hokkien Mee Index.  A love for the thick noodles coated in silky black sauce, glistening with lard, with its smoky heady scent pushes one to the highest Friends-I-Can-Count-On-To-Name-Their-First-Child/Demon-After-Me rank while a response along the lines of “You mean the pale fried noodles served with prawns ah?….Yum yum…I tried it in Singapore!” gets one relegated to the Losers-I-Can-Count-On-To-Text-Me-While-They’re-In-The-Loo rank.  Not happening.

One such person on the FICCOTNTFCDAM rank is HairyBerry.  For as long as I can remember, our conversations have been peppered with the two most wonderful words known to mankind (“hokkien” and “mee”, in case I lost you at “lard” above) and eventually, it seemed like the natural progression of things to move on to the next level of our relationship.

We decided to cook hokkien mee together.

Sans recipe and equipped with only the memory of our hokkien mee-eating experiences, we met up early one morning to shop for ingredients.  Not at the grime-ridden Selayang market, no sirree, but at the Village Grocer in Bangsar Village where one can find diced fried pork lard packaged in neatly stacked transparent plastic containers.  There was a fair bit of quibbling about the ingredients that were required for our project as well as  the quantities required, but we finally managed to come to an agreement and stocked up on the following items:

For the noodles:

Dark soy sauce
Light soy sauce
Oyster sauce
Fried pork skin
A tub of lard
Shallots – sliced
Garlic – sliced
Chinese cabbage – chopped roughly
Pork bone stock
Pork loin – sliced thinly
Prawns – peeled and deveined
Dried flatfish powder

For sambal belacan:

Red chillies
Belacan
Sugar
Lime

The experiment was conducted at our super secret air conditioned hokkien mee laboratory which was devoid of charcoal and wok in true city-dwelling style.  The objective was to prove that 1) one can cook hokkien mee at home on a small gas burner without a wok; 2) anyone can cook; and 3) Village Grocer is heaven.

The shallots were sliced finely, then cooked with the pork lard to create a fragrant infused oil.  While that was being prepared, we fried the pork loin in the pan, then removed it and set it aside.  The same process applied to the prawns.  We also blended the red chillies with belacan to make the sambal belacan.  A little sugar was added to this paste.  This was then fried with oil until the oil separated.

The stage was set.

Using a combination of cooking oil and lard, we fried some shallots and garlic in the frying pan, and then poured in some stock.  In went the various sauces until the broth achieved the right colour, consistency and flavour, after which we threw in all the other prepared ingredients, the infused oil and the noodles.  At this point, the noodles were left to braise in the covered frying pan for several minutes until the sauce thickened.  More crunchy pieces of fried pork skin were added at the final point.

We made three batches, and all three batches tasted different thanks to our “agak-agak” style of cooking.  One batch was horridly bitter due to the liberal amount of dark soy sauce used, while another tasted quite close to the original thing.  We learnt that the braising time was important, as was the quality of the noodles used.  One batch turned out too soft and lacked bite as a result of the long braising time.

Lessons were learnt that day, and we certainly didn’t expect perfect hokkien mee.  On hindsight, perhaps we should have allowed some of our sweat to spill into the pan.  We should have probably drunk more wine while cooking too, because I have learnt that I do my best cooking when I am inebriated.

On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d rank our hokkien mee a 5.  Hairy and I will probably still be talking for years to come about our favourite hokkien mee stalls in KL and PJ, and we will probably not be embarking on another hokkien mee project in the next 36 months or so unless someone pays us a lot of money.

It’s a thankless job.  Cooking, that is.  How often do we thank our mums/dads who have had to plan daily menus and have had to ensure sufficient variety to avoid boredom at the dining table?  I now understand how important it is to be thanked for food; it is an affirmation, not of your cooking skills (which you may possibly have little of), but of the effort that went into the preparation of a meal that can only come from the heart.

Oh, and Village Grocer is heaven.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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When I mentioned my obsession with bacon to my brother who lives in the UK, he sniffed, “We don’t eat bacon for breakfast these days.  It’s peasant food.”

I’d like to see him tell mum that.  She lives in Klang, a place she claims is barren of good bacon.  I am literally expected to bring home the bacon every time I visit, failing which she’d serve me broth without any bread and whip me soundly before putting me to bed.

I am an internet junkie, reading anything from Malaysiakini to Martha Stewart’s Delicious Food Recipes, and one day I chanced upon Martha Stewart’s bacon jam recipe.  It involved using a slow cooker, something which I didn’t have at that time, so I put it off to another day.  I eventually bought myself a cheap 3.3 litre slow cooker, and my culinary journey took a different, but positive direction from then on.

The reception towards my homemade bacon jam varied greatly.  Some said it tasted like siu pau (barbecued pork bun) and politely told me that it was marketable, while my mum said perceptively, “There’s alcohol in it, Meena”.  It would have been okay except that she suffers from alcohol intolerance (she breaks out in rashes), and being the good daughter that I am, I fed her not only the bacon jam made with 15-year-old single malt whisky, but also a boozey tiramisu later that night.  Relax.  The amounts were negligible anyway, hardly enough to cause a small bump in the skin, and she slept well that night.

Ironically enough, I didn’t use the slow cooker to make the bacon jam in the end.  The problem with the slow cooker recipe is that one needs to cook it for 3 1/2 to 4 hours on high (or probably about 6 hours on low), but I work in an accounting firm with minimum working hours of 12 hours a day which basically meant that 1) I can never get a tan; and 2) I can never cook bacon jam in a slow cooker.

I followed the ingredients in the recipe to a T, so it’s pointless reproducing it here, but the steps obviously differ because of the no-slow cooker thingy.  After frying the bacon, onions and garlic, and adding cider vinegar, maple syrup, sugar and coffee, I cooked it over low heat on the stove for about an hour, then cooled it down before blitzing it in the food processor till I got it to my preferred consistency.  It then went back to the stove again before I added in a glug of whisky and simmered it for a further 15 minutes. (Note: There is no mention of whisky in the Martha Stewart version, but I think it should be in as it makes a world of a difference.  It’s non-halal already anyway, innit?)

The bacon jam goes wonderfully with cheeses and roast meats.  I even ate it with mum’s nasi lemak last weekend, whereupon mum bestowed upon me her biggest frown for contaminating a much revered local favourite with the likes of Martha Stewart.  Mum’s a stickler for tradition, and I’m a rebel, but she humours me anyway.  Well, sometimes.

I still have some left over in my fridge, this beautiful pot of gold with its sticky, smoky, syrupy, delectable relish.   I asked a dear friend once, in rhetoric, about my elusive rainbow and pot of gold.  She said, “It will get better.  Just focus on the now”.  And I did just that.

“No more did I need to roam.
In all that time I was searching for that pot of gold,
It was with my family and friends, at home.”

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Singapore

I had never tried his food, not for want of trying, but I was still nervous about meeting this man.  For years we had been trying to get a reservation at his restaurant, Tetsuya’s, in Sydney, but because of our inability to commit to holiday plans, and our generally short stay in Sydney at any one time, we had always been unable to lock down a date at this restaurant.  After some time, he became the elusive Chef Tetsuya to us and like most dreams, this one got pushed into the KIV folder, slowly fading into oblivion together with other bits of forgotten items.

Which brings us back to this moment.  Meeting Chef Tetsuya Wakuda in person, in an intimate setting, in his restaurant in Singapore.  As we slowly marched into his private kitchen and lined up against the gleaming stainless steel induction cooking block, it was quite obvious that the cocktails which we had earlier weren’t enough to shake off the nerves at meeting this illustrious man.  Dutch courage is a myth.

I didn’t need to fear a thing, of course.  This man had compassion in his eyes.  When he smiled and talked about the simple foods that made him happy, his eyes sparkled.  Chicken rice and char koay teow are his favourite local dishes, but when he is at home, what makes him happy is Italian food.  A simple spaghetti with bird’s eye chilli and garlic, a heaving bowl of salad and cheese, and good company.

Chef Tetsuya’s expression for his passion for cooking is infectious; his speech picks speed and his voice takes on a pleasant lilt.  “When you eat, every sense of the body is employed.  It is the same with cooking,” he tells us.  “A person learns how to cook from a cookbook, but the rest is from experience.  Cooking is giving.  When you like someone, you cook for that person,” he continues.

It is simple philosophy, but it makes perfect sense.   I look back at my own experience, of seeing my mother work joyfully in the kitchen just to be able to feed her family, and then to my own life where I subconsciously replicate the same manner of caring with the people in my life.  My eyes get watery, and it isn’t due to the billowing steam from the Alaskan king crab cooked at 230C on a base of salt with oil and water.  A splash of lime juice brings out the sweetness of the meat and we nibble on it as Chef Tetsuya carries on with his stories.

“Today, if you have knowledge, say as a sommelier or as a cook, you can live anywhere in the world,” he says.

“What makes a good restaurant?” someone asks him.  “It’s the people,” he says without hesitation.  “People greet you when you enter a restaurant, and chefs cook for you.  When service is good, customers return.”  Waku Ghin’s chef, Sia Kok Hong, nods in agreement.  “He’s a kind boss,” the man from Malacca says shyly.  “I’ve never seen Chef Tetsuya scold anyone before.”  The answer doesn’t seem rehearsed.

Chef Tetsuya helps plate the next dish.  While one of the chefs grates fresh wasabi with determined concentration, Chef Tetsuya picks up a slice of lightly grilled incredibly marbled Grade A5 Kobe beef and proceeds to pile on the freshly grated wasabi on the beef followed by a dash of citrus soya sauce.  “Go ahead and eat it,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.  We expect a sharp hit in our nasal passages, but are surprised with a mellow sensation instead.  “The wasabi reacts with the fat in the beef and tones down the sensation,” he explains.  As expected, the dish is perfect.

As dish after dish is served to us, I begin to understand why Chef Tetsuya is well loved by his employees and his guests.  Despite his fame, he has no airs and graces.  Food is simply prepared with attention and care to its freshness, quality and chemistry between ingredients.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget meeting Chef Tetsuya Wakuda.

Singapore1

Note: Waku Ghin recently clinched 11th place on the San Pellegrino Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2013 list.  Reservations are strongly recommended.

Waku Ghin
The Shoppes, Atrium 2, L2-02, Marina Bay Sands Singapore.

Reservations: +65 6688 8507

About this blog

Food, for me, is a means to an end and not an end in itself.

Food, for me, represents the love of family, the fellowship of friends, and the community and communality it brings.


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