Rice Dumplings wrapped in Bamboo Leaves

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Today Chinese people all over the world celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival or “Duan Wu Jie”( 端午節) by eating a pyramid-shaped rice dumpling (called zongzi) and watching dragon boat races. There are several stories about the origin of this festival and the most common one is about an outstanding poet and politician called Qu Yuan from the State of Chu in China during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) who dedicated his whole life to assist the king to make the state of Chu stronger. He was slandered by jealous officials, dismissed by the king and exiled. During his exile, he wrote a lot of poems describing his love for his country and these poems have endured to the present day in China. In 278 BC the state of Qin conquered Chu. Overcome by melancholy on hearing about the State of Chu’s defeat, Qu Yuan jumped into the river and drowned. When the local people heard about it, they rowed their boats out to the river in search of him to no avail. Then they threw rice dumplings called zongzi (粽子) into the river to feed the fish so that the fish would not eat Qu Yuan’s body. Every year on the 5th day of the 5th month of the lunar calendar,  Chinese people celebrate this festival by holding noisy and high-spirited dragon boat races, getting together for family reunion dinners and eating zongzi. This annual festival is celebrated by Chinese communities in places like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and even in New York and London.

Many years ago, families made their own zongzi but nowadays people buy them from davthe market or from Chinese restaurants. A few years ago, my Hong Kong friend Teresa showed me how to make zongzi. It is takes a bit of practice to make a perfectly-shaped zongzi.  The filling can be savory or sweet. There are many regional variances of the zongzi. For example, a Taiwanese zongzi has different fillings from a Hong Kong Cantonese zongzi or a Singapore Peranakan zongzi. A savory Cantonese zongzi may contain pork, duck meat, salted egg, mushrooms and scallops. The filling inside a sweet zongzi is typically sweetened red bean paste.

Below is the recipe for making a Cantonese savory zongzi (makes about 10).

Ingredients:

3 cups glutinous rice – soaked overnight
2 cups green beans
200 g fatty pork – cooked with a bit of salt or oyster sauce and cut into small pieces
10 salted egg yolks – cooked
5 dried scallops – soaked in water overnight
¼ roast duck meat – cut into small pieces
½ cup dried shrimp – soaked in water overnight, fried lightly to cook it
10 dried shiitake mushrooms – washed and soaked overnight, then braised and cooked in oyster sauce
½ cup soft boiled peanuts
2 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
Bamboo leaves for wrapping

Method:

  1. Wash the beans.
  2. Mix together rice, beans, salt and sugar.
  3. Wash the bamboo leaves. Soak the leaves in water for 10 mins to soften them.
  4. Place two leaves horizontally side by side, with the rib facing upwards, leave about half an inch of overlap between them.
  5. To make one zongzi, fold the pair of overlapping leaves into a cone. Fill the cone with a spoonful of rice and bean mixture.
  6. Place a small piece of pork, an egg yolk, scallops, roast duck, shiitake mushroom, peanuts and some dried shrimp.
  7. Cover the filling with more rice and bean mixture.
  8. Cover the top of the cone with 1 or 2 more leaves and fold the leaves over to make a pyramid shape. Fold the leaves back over the base by flipping the ends towards the pointy part of the cone. Secure it by typing a string over the pyramid.
  9. Repeat steps 5 – 8 to make more zongzi until all the rice and bean mixture is used up.
  10. Boil all the zongzi in a big pot of water for 2-3 hours, always keeping all the zongzi completely covered in water during the boiling process.
  11. Drain the water, cool the zongzi completely before you store them in the fridge or freezer.
  12. When you want to eat a zongzi from the fridge or freezer, you need to boil them again for 10-15 mins until the inside filling is hot. The zongzi should feel soft when it is done.
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Kueh Lapis Sagu

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Today is the end of Ramadan, the fasting month for my Malay friends and to mark this Hari Raya day, I made a Peranakan delicacy called Steamed Kueh Lapis Sagu. When I was growing up in Singapore, every Hari Raya my next door neighbor, a Malay family, would spruce up their home with new curtains and rugs, wax and polish their terrazo floor to a beautiful shine and host a traditional “open house” at their home for all their friends and neighbors. The highlight for me is always the food – the explosively flavorful and tender beef rendang, the crispy prawn crackers and the many beautiful home-made Peranakan kuehs (cakes) which they served to their guests. There are many kinds of kuehs – the white and green Kueh Salat, the coconut-palm sugar pancake called Kueh Dadar, the round balls bursting with flavor called Ondeh-ondeh and the rainbow-hued Kueh Lapis Sagu. Made from coconut milk and pandan leaves, Kueh Lapis Sagu is delightfully fragrant and beautiful to look at.  Depending on the skill (and patience) of the cook, sometimes it comes in layers of purple, red, pink, yellow, green and white but often times it is only in layers of green, white and pink. Its Chinese name is “9 Layer Cake” (九层糕) because it is supposed to have 9 layers of the different colors.

Like many children of my generation, I enjoyed the game of eating Kueh Lapis Sagu by gently peeling the layers off one by one to see how many layers I could peel off without breaking the kueh, savoring every bite as I work my way through each layer.

When I lived overseas, for many years I had missed eating this kueh. Recently, my friend Janet shared her recipe with me and to my surprise, the kueh is really quite easy to make… but it does take quite a bit of patience because it has to be steamed one layer at a time – definitely, a labor of love!

Ingredients:

3/4 cup rice flour
1 and 1/4 cup tapioca flour
1 and 1/4 cup sugar
3 cups coconut milk
1/4 cup water
1/2 tsp salt
red food coloring
green food coloring
green pandan paste
pandan essence

Method:

  • Mix all the ingredients and stir well. Gently sieve the batter to get rid of clumps.
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  • Divide the batter into 3 portions:

Red (add 1/8 tsp red coloring to the batter)
Green (add 1/8 tsp green pandan paste to the batter)
White (add 1/8 tsp clear pandan essence to the batter)

  • Lightly rub cooking oil on the base and sides of a square or oblong glass casserole dish. (A glass dish allows you to see that the layers have even thickness. The casserole dish has to be deep enough to make 9 layers of kueh)
  • Steam each layer for 5 mins on high heat. Wait for each layer to be fully cooked before you add a new layer.
  •  Color sequence for the layers: green, white, red
  •  Wait for the kueh to cool completely before cutting into slices. Tip: If the kueh is too difficult to cut, gently grease your knife with cooking oil.

Note: Each layer is supposed to be of the same thickness. As you can see from the first picture, my layers were of uneven thickness. I started out with the good intention of making 9 layers of uniform thickness. The steaming process got a bit tedious and as I was rushing to run an errand, I shortened my cooking time by pouring on progressively thicker layers of batter, ending up with only 7 layers but it was still very delicious.

Loofah soup

soup with clams
Loofah with Clams soup

You had probably used a loofah sponge in your life, in the shower perhaps, but did you know it comes from the loofah gourd which is an edible vegetable? It doesn’t taste like much on its own but in Taiwan where it is called “shi gua” 絲瓜 , it is commonly found in the local markets and it is often made into delicious soups, like Loofah with Clams soup or Loofah with Carrots and Vermicelli soup.  It is perfect for the hot summer weather as it is nourishing and replenishes fluids; and with the addition of vermicelli, it can be a meal in itself. Enjoy!

Recipe for the Loofah with Carrots and Vermicelli Soup:

1 small piece of lean pork
1 loofah
2 carrots
3 dried scallops
3 dried figs
4 dried red dates
vermicelli

Method:

  1. Rinse the dried scallops, then leave it to soak in a cup of hot water for 1 hour. Remember to keep the soaking water to add to the soup.
  2. Cut the lean pork into thin slices.
  3. Peel and cut the loofah and carrots into small chunks.
  4. Rinse the dried figs and red dates.
  5. Put all the above ingredients into a pot. Add 6 – 8 cups of water.
  6. Boil on high heat for 10 mins, then lower the heat to boil for another 50 mins.
  7.  Add vermicelli and salt to taste.

Loofah with Clams soup:   Omit the carrots, instead you add fresh clams to the pot towards the last 10 mins of the cooking process; and garnish with cut spring onions and thinly sliced ginger before serving.

Loofah with Shrimp soup: Fresh shrimp in shell may be used instead of clams.

 

Tea Oil Noodles

Tea oil noodles
Our Lunch (clockwise from top left: Tea Oil Noodles, Tofu on Hotplate, Shrimp in Wine and Tea Leaves, Stir Fried Spinach

My classmate from secondary school came to visit last weekend.  We went up to Maokong, a mountain in Taipei to explore the tea plantations and stopped at a local restaurant for lunch. It was a lovely spring day and we were lucky to get a table on the outside balcony, overlooking the tea plantations. It was really fun catching up with her… and I was amazed to hear that she had recently started a company called HomeFoods (https://homefoodsgroup.com) – a service in Singapore that delivers fresh ingredients in the exact right proportions and easy to follow instructions to the customer’s doorstep .. to make cooking fun and easy plus you get a hot, healthy meal in minutes! It is perfect for busy people or if you wish to make a gourmet meal at home, you won’t have to spend all day hunting down all the right cuts of meats or spices. If you live in Singapore, do give it a try!

Of the dishes we ordered, my visitors loved best the uniquely Taiwan home-style dish called Tea Oil Noodles.

Tea oil noodles is really simple to make.  Very thin noodles called Mian Xian (麵線) or “mee sua” are cooked quickly in boiling water and then tossed lightly in Tea Seed Oil (苦茶油), sesame oil and soy sauce.  The combination of oils makes for a surprisingly fragrant and flavorful dish. Tea oil noodles is actually eaten as a breakfast food in Taiwan. I have re-created it here for my dinner tonight, to go with stir fried beef!

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Stir Fried Beef with Asparagus Tips, Tea Oil Noodles

1 bunch of thin noodles (about a fistful)
1-2 Tbsp Tea oil
1 Tbsp sesame oil
1 Tbsp soy sauce
Spring onions, chopped
Chili, cut into small pieces (for garnish)

  1. Put the noodles in a pot of boiling water for 3 mins. Remove it while it is al dente.
  2. Drain and toss the noodles with all the ingredients.
  3. Serve hot.

(Note: Tea Oil may be found in Asian grocery stores in Western countries or Amazon. It is usually in a slim bottle and looks like extra premium olive oil)

Oatmeal in a Jiffy

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I have been making these home-made oatmeal cups for my family for years and I saw that many delis and supermarkets in my neighborhood have started selling them last year.  I missed out on a great business opportunity! It’s really very quick and easy to make and especially if you do several jars at the same time in an assembly-line style on a Sunday night, it saves you a lot of time and you’ll get to enjoy a healthy breakfast for the rest of your week.  You can even bring the jar to the office and eat at your desk. It is that simple!

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Oatmeal, guava, loquat, milk tea
  1. Fill each jar or plastic container with several tablespoons of Instant oatmeal.
  2. Top up with dried fruit – cranberries, blueberries, raisins etc. You may add chia seeds or flax seeds if desired.
  3. Cover each jar tightly.
  4.  In the morning, when you are ready to eat, pour out the contents into a cereal bowl and add hot water or add hot water directly to the jar. Presto! Your breakfast is ready.
  5. Add yogurt, fresh fruit, crunchy granola and nuts if desired.

Steamed Cod with wild peppercorn

Taiwan has a lot of beautiful scenic places with poetic names. One place which I visited recently is Xiangtian (“Facing the Sky”) Lake in Nanzhuang, Maoli County. While we were waiting for the bus, we spied several small shacks next to the bus stop selling “Maqaw Eggs”.  What in the world are Maqaw eggs?  It turns out Maqaw  马 告 (pinyin “Ma Gao”) is a kind of wild peppercorn that is famous in Miaoli’s aboriginal cuisine. Its scientific name is Litsea Cubeba, a plant native to Taiwan, China and Indonesia. Its fruit produces a lemony essential oil which is used in soaps and its seeds are used in cooking. The stall was selling hard boiled Chinese tea eggs specially flavored with Maqaw so we naturally had to try them (they were delicious!) as well as Maqaw peppercorn seeds. The proprietor convinced me that they are very expensive in New York specialty stores but it’s a good price at Xiangtian Lake because they are locally grown. Not one to pass up a deal, I naturally had to buy a bottle of the fragrant wild peppercorn. It is supposed to be great for tea eggs as well as pork and fish dishes. So tonight I sprinkled some Maqaw peppercorn seeds on my cod fish and they certainly added a lovely citrony flavor to the dish.

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1 piece cod fish
1 tbsp black bean and garlic sauce (Lee Kum Kee brand)
1/2 tbsp hoisin sauce (Lee Kum Kee brand)
1/2 tbsp XO sauce
1 tbsp Maqaw peppercorn seeds

  1. Rinse the cod fish under running water.  Pat dry.
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    Maqaw

    Place it on a dish, add all the ingredients on top of the fish. Steam for 10 mins or until cooked.

  2. Sprinkle spring onions on top for garnish. Serve hot with steamed rice.

 

 

Three-Cup Chicken 三杯雞

This is a simple Taiwanese dish.  It is a folk recipe that calls for one cup each of sesame oil, soy sauce and rice wine but its name is a bit misleading because in reality you don’t actually cook it that way.  It is my favorite chicken dish in Taiwan.  Its sauce is incredibly aromatic and goes really well with rice.

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Ingredients:

1/8 to 1/4 cup sesame oil *
1/4 cup rice wine
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 Tbsp sugar
2 lbs chicken – thighs and wings, cut into pieces
One inch piece of fresh ginger, thinly sliced into rounds
12 medium garlic cloves, peeled
1 – 2 fresh red chilis, seeds removed and cut into halves
1 bunch of Thai basil leaves (optional)

* I modified the original recipe to use less than 1/4 cup sesame oil and discovered that it didn’t compromise too much on the taste.

Method:

  1. Heat the sesame oil in a frying pan. Add ginger, garlic and chili and stir fry until fragrant, about 1 minute.
  2. Add the chicken to the pan and stir fry for about 5 mins until they are cooked.
  3. Add rice wine, soy sauce and sugar and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar.  Reduce heat and simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to cook the chicken thoroughly.  Add in Thai basil leaves and serve with rice.