Monday, December 31


In the two weeks since I posted my 2012 reading list, I have binged on another seven books, six of which are part of a detective series set in Shanghai in the 1990s (in English, of course, I can hardly read in Chinese anymore), and the seventh is a book about werewolves (two-word review of the book, The Last Werewolf: werewolf sex).

The Chinese mystery series by Qiu Xiaolong were surprisingly addictive -- part crime novel, part social commentary (on China's breakneck economic reforms, the Cultural Revolution), part poetry (the protagonist loves to quote lines from famous poems from both the East and West).

So, in total, the book tally for 2012 was 46½. Not too shabby, even with lightweight novels (and Fifty Shades) on the list.

Friday, December 21


(Left) Pounding chickpeas to make hummus in my grandmother's mortar and pestle.
(Right) Wrap with hummus, sundried tomatoes and wild rocket.

1/2 can of chickpeas/garbanzo beans, drained almost completely
3 tbsp of lemon juice
1 tbsp gomasio
2 cloves of garlic
1 tbsp olive oil
3 slices of sundried tomatoes, cut into slivers for easy pounding

I love chickpeas, but have never made hummus before, deterred by all those recipes which called for tahini. One morning, I had a brainwave and thought, "Well, why don't I just pound some gomasio and just use that instead?"

So I did. And the result was good.

I started by pounding the gomasio, which is essentially sesame seeds and salt (mine had some seaweed in it too), then adding the sundried tomatoes and garlic. When that was a paste, I added the chickpeas (I used only half a can because my mortar and pestle, one of the few items I have from my grandma, couldn't fit the entire can). Finally, I added the olive oil and lemon juice and mixed all the ingredients evenly.

I didn't pound the hummus to a pulp because I prefer mine chunky. Ate it in a wrap with wild rocket and it was yums.

In fact, it was so good that I insisted on feeding a spoonful to my mom. Imagine how someone would look if she was being force-fed vomit or crap. Now imagine my mom with the very same look of suspicion and revulsion, mixed with resignation, because, how can one reject food made by one's own flesh and blood, right?

I laughed until I wept. This was payback for all the times she forced me to eat durian.

Monday, December 17

are you illiterate or what?*

At the start of the year, I went on a book-buying binge when Book Depository had a promo. I still haven't finished reading that giant pile of books -- and, in fact, have bought more since then -- but here are the 39½ I did read this year.

Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim, by David Sedaris
I have read almost everything written by Sedaris and that fact makes me sad. This isn't my favourite book of his, but it still made me hoot with laughter while reading it in public. And I find it highly amusing that the title has nothing to do with the stories (it had come to his boyfriend in a dream).

When You Are Engulfed In Flames, by David Sedaris
The piece on having a lozenge fall from your mouth into the lap of a fellow passenger on a plane is priceless. I think I was in hysterics while reading it. In fact, I think I need to reread it right now.

Don't Tell Me The Truth About Love, by Dan Rhodes
Short stories on love -- duh! -- which still stick in my head after all these months, mostly bittersweet and filled with regrets. The one with the man who became a violin (or some other string instrument) to be with his lover is particularly haunting.

Anthropology, by Dan Rhodes
101 short stories, each 101 words long. Sounds gimmicky, but it is so cleverly written that you forgive the author. (A couple of them made me feel rather dim-witted, because I couldn't understand them despite repeated reading.)

The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman
I thought I would recognise more of the characters in the novel, seeing as it is based in a newsroom, but there was hardly any mention of sub-editors. How can?!? A pleasurable read, nonetheless, with sharp observations on what make people, not just news people, tick.

Blossoms And Shadows, by Lian Hearn
The premise of the story had such potential -- woman becomes a physician in feudal Japan against all social norms -- but I couldn't feel for the heroine at all. She felt cold and remote, and the story was bogged down by the inclusion of real historical figures, such that I had to keep referring to the section in front which listed all the characters and whether they were fictional.

The Sense Of An Ending, by Julian Barnes
Some books, you remember vividly where you were when you read them. I read this while in the hour-long queue for my iPad, surrounded by geeks with their existing iPads. Beautiful sparse evocative writing about the suicide, decades ago, of a boyhood friend of the protagonist and how we reshape our memories.

Was She Pretty?, by Leanne Shapton
I loved Important Artifacts And Personal Property From The Collection Of Lenore Doolan And Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion And Jewelry (yes, that's the actual book title), so I bought this, by the same author. Also, I love the book title. In case it wasn't obvious, the book is about ex-girlfriends (accompanied by drawings in bold, minimalist brushstrokes). Not many words, but all of them biting.

The Complete Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi
Being late to the game, as usual, I picked up this groundbreaking graphic novel earlier this year. The coming-of-age tale of a girl in Tehran is both amusing and sad. Deserving of all the accolades. I regret not reading it earlier.

Sushi & Beyond, by Michael Booth 
I felt hunger pangs at various points while reading this food memoir in which the author ate his way around Japan, and I don't even like raw fish. I was craving yakisoba and takoyaki and his description of nagashi somen -- cold somen noodles riding down a bamboo chute to the diner -- intrigued me. Certain parts were amusing, but there were no new insights into the cuisine.

Garlic And Sapphires, by Ruth Reichl
The story of a food critic who puts on disguises to review restaurants incognito. I must thank my twin for introducing me to this book, it was such a good read. It isn't easy to write about food -- try describing a dish without using the words "delicious" or "yummy" -- and even harder to write about personal triumphs and failures, but the author manages to do both.

Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain
You can almost hear Bourdain's laconic drawl -- familiar to me from his TV show -- in the prose. The book came out more than 10 years ago and reading it now, when he is so well-known -- and sometimes, hated -- gives me a new perspective. Oh, and on the inside of the second-hand book I'd bought were these words from the previous owner: "A self promoting, name dropping, smart ass egotist. Just one more opinionated obnoxious New Yorker." I completely disagree.

Born Round, by Frank Bruni
Devoured this book in one lazy Sunday. Bruni, a former New York Times restaurant reviewer, battled with his weight all his life and his writing about it is painfully honest. The descriptions of the feasts his Italian family threw are epic.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami
I swore off Murakami after 1Q84, but somehow succumbed to this. I justified it by saying it's not a work of fiction. He writes about running marathons -- something I have no desire whatsoever of doing -- but manages to make it relevant to life too: "Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional".

Missed Connections, by Sophie Blackall
Such a poignant book with the most whimsical and tender watercolour illustrations. Based on the Missed Connections ads in Craigslist, where strangers try to reconnect with people they brushed past on the train, acquaintances they've lost touch with, old flames, etc. The one with the Coney Island whale had me in tears.

Bossypants, by Tina Fey
I remember hooting with laughter at quite a few parts of the book, but for the life of me, I can't recall a single memorable anecdote from it. Still, an enjoyable quick read. I think I finished it in one night.

Love, Loss And What I Wore, by Ilene Beckerman
Illustrations and text come together to form a biography of sorts, seen through the dresses the author wore. I bought it as I remember events through what I wore, but somehow, the story failed to resonate with me.

The Vagabond, by Colette
Supposedly a feminist tale of independence, the story follows a newly divorced performer at the turn of the 20th century as she chooses between career and love. Hated the character -- waffling and indecisive. Hated the translation -- should have know anything translated from French would be terribly dense. Hated even the font -- tiny and antiquated. Took me forever to finish this and move on to greener pastures.

Trans-Siberian Handbook, by Bryn Thomas
Well, technically, I didn't exactly read it from cover to cover, but it did provide hours of entertainment and a whole lot of train/Siberia trivia on our epic journey.

Quiet: The Power Of Introverts, by Susan Cain
I don't usually read non-fiction; reading is my escape from reality, after all. But I happened to have this book on my iPad and surprised myself by reading it and gaining much insight into my own personality, strange as it sounds. Cain writes about how introverts are subtly discriminated against, how being quiet is seen as a character flaw to be overcome, and how to embrace it. Now I understand why I need time alone to decompress after a week of work and why I had to summon so much inner strength to make phone calls to interviewees in the past.

The Power Of Habit, by Charles Duhigg
Another work of non-fiction, which made a convincing case for developing good habits to push out bad ones. After reading it, I started making my bed, which I had always considered a waste of time. Apparently, this tiny habit of bed-making spills over to other aspects of one's life. I've yet to see my finances getting any better or my house becoming any cleaner or my exercise regimen shaping up to be more regular, but hey, it's a start.

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, by Seth Grahame-Smith
Don't judge me for reading this. The title hooked me in with its sheer ridiculousness. Also, I was on a train for four days. The premise was interesting enough -- vampirism and slavery -- but ultimately, it was a silly romp.

I Remember Nothing, by Nora Ephron
Another book I read on the Trans-Siberian, sitting on top of a rubbish bin at the end of the carriage to guard my iPad while it was charging slowly from the common socket one sultry afternoon. Must record all these minute details, because otherwise, they will soon be forgotten. (I even had to google this book title, all I could recall was that I read a book by the woman who wrote When Harry Met Sally and died this year.) An enjoyable way to spend an afternoon on a rubbish bin, I suppose. I remember nothing much of the stories, to be perfectly honest.

The Gryphon, Alexandria and The Morning Star, by Nick Bantock
This trilogy that follows the one of Giffin And Sabine, which I was entranced with more than 10 years ago, what with its actual physical postcards and letters. Now that I'm older and presumably more cynical, the follow-up feels gimmicky and uninspired. Still, at least now I have the whole set. The completionist in me is happy.

A Game Of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin
I plowed through the first book from the seven-book series A Song Of Fire And Ice in record time. But by Book Four of the series, I was sick of the writing style, the switching of point of view every chapter, the dense War of the Roses type of political intrigue, the lack of magic and wonder, the sensational killings of characters you had come to care about, until you no longer gave a dem about who lived and who died, the plot which meandered with no end in sight (the last two books are not even out yet). I have never abandoned a book -- except Moby Dick, which is my whale -- but with this, I abandoned an entire series. And I feel good about it, that I am no longer wasting my time. You want fantasy? Go read Tolkien or even the Dragonlance Chronicles.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest, by Stieg Larsson
In case you were wondering, the girl in the titles of these three books is the same girl. And the books get tiresome after a while, with too much back story/drinking of coffee and too little action/mystery/intrigue/violent sex. The first book is readable enough, almost made me want to watch the movie.

Fifty Shades Of Grey trilogy, by E.L. James
What can I say? I was drawn in by the smut and could not stop until I had read the entire trilogy, all the while filled with disgust and self-loathing. If such bad writing can make a bestseller, then why am I not writing one too?

The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins
Being a fast reader, I tore through the series in a couple of days. The premise of teenagers killing each other in a Battleship Royale-like games for food didn't perturb me at all. Only Book One is worth reading, but then after I started caring for the characters, I had to read the subsequent two books. Bah.

The Hunger Pains, by The Harvard Lampoon
A parody of The Hunger Games, this is a quick read, good for a laugh, but also shows up the shortcomings of the original novels.

* One editor who shall not be named used to insist that every book review have a thumbnail of the book cover (also a product shot of every cosmetic/skincare item featured). I'm, like, if you need a picture of the book to be able to find it in the bookstore, then perhaps this reading business isn't for you.

** On the other hand, I do find that the text does look better with a picture accompanying it. In fact, I did try to place the relevant book cover with each of my snippets above, but then Blogger screwed up and I gave up. If you really need pictorial guidance, go to Amazon.

*** On the third (imaginary) hand, I must confess that I actually judge and buy books based on their covers. So sue me.

Monday, November 26

blur like sotong


This dish had been calling out to me since I happened to watch some cooking show at my parents' place last week. I mean, sotong is my favourite food!

The original recipe from Anne Burrell called for olives though. Yucks. I substituted capers instead and I think the dish turned out more than fine.

My first attempt was a failure though, as I got distracted by chopping the capers while browning the garlic. The chao tar smell lingered in my flat for days. Moral of the story: mise en place is important. I seldom have the patience, but in this case, everything happens so fast that it helps to have all the prep work done before turning on the stove.

Cleaning the sotong can be a major pain, but the savoury, briny sotong juice that you end up with after cooking makes it worthwhile. (Or you could just buy cleaned sotong, if you can find it. I couldn't.)

400g squid (about 5 small ones or 3 big ones)
3 cloves of garlic, smashed and peeled
Red pepper flakes
1 cup white wine
1 tbsp capers
1 tbsp lemon juice
2 cups salad leaves (I used mesclun)

Clean the squid by pulling out the plasticky spine and the head with all the tentacles. Discard the spine and head. Peel the purplish membrane off the body and slice it lengthwise (ie. not into calamari rings).

Smash the garlic and discard the skin. Roughly chop up the capers.

Heat up a frying pan with the garlic, red pepper flakes and enough oil to coat the bottom and sides on medium high heat. Watch the pan carefully and fish out the garlic cloves when they are golden brown and a lovely smell fills your kitchen.

Throw in the sotong slices -- and jump back with a squeal. They should go from translucent to opaque in under two minutes. Season with salt. Add the wine, capers and lemon juice (my tweak on the recipe, because it seemed to be kinda fishy) and let the sauce reduce to about half. I was worried about the sotong becoming overcooked, so I rescued them from the pan while the sauce simmered.

Pour everything over the salad leaves to wilt them a little and crack some black pepper over the dish before serving.

Note: For those who don't crack open a bottle of wine without a special occasion -- ie. me -- here's a tip from my favourite food blogger, Smitten Kitchen. I used to shy away from recipes which called for one cup of white wine, because it seemed so extravagant, but now I just use Martini Bianco (which won't go bad like wine).

Thursday, November 15

savoury business

(Clockwise from left) Organic steel-cut oats with sunny-side-up, gomasio, mirin-soy sauce and spring onions; curried oats with caramalised onions and chickpeas; and oat "risotto" with pecorino and peas.

I used to call oatmeal regurgitated cardboard, that was how much I hated them. Slimy, mushy, bland -- ewww, gross.

Then, I started reading about steel-cut oats and how they are different from the usual rolled oats (a.k.a. the instant Quaker oats of my childhood). Unlike rolled oats, which obviously are rolled flat, steel-cut oats are cut (by steel, duh!) into tiny bits, take longer to cook and remain chewy after cooking. I wasn't convinced, but I bought a packet anyway from iHerb because it was so much cheaper compared to Cold Storage.

And then I proceeded to eat them for lunch three days in a row, that was how good they were.

Seeing I am the sort who chooses savoury over sweet every time, it should come as no surprise that I made my oatmeal without a hint of sugar or fruit or maple syrup.

I admit, it took a slight paradigm shift to contemplate making savoury oatmeal. (But then, I had already made savoury granola before, so it wasn't that much of a stretch.) And savoury oatmeal probably sounds revolting to most normal people, but trust me, this is so good, I actually bounce out of bed in the morning because I can't wait to cook and eat it.

Most recipes call for the oats to be stirred on the stove for 30 minutes, but seriously, who has that kind of time? I found some suggestions to add boiling water to the oats and let the pot stand overnight, but that just sounded like a recipe for a tummy ache, even if the slurry was reheated in the morning. I decided to go with the oven route because it seemed the most fuss-free (and I could walk my dog while it was being done).

Just pop 1/4 cup of oats with 3/4 cup of water into an oven-proof dish, add a pinch of salt, cover and pop into the oven for 35 minutes at 180 deg C. (Note: This is for a single serving. I made a double portion by doubling the oats and water this morning and it took 45 minutes before all the water was absorbed.) Stir once about 10 minutes before it is done. Remove from oven, test that it is al dente and add toppings (see below). Eat immediately. Cold oatmeal is an atrocity.

Organic steel-cut oats with sunny-side-up, gomasio, mirin-soy sauce and spring onions
While the oats are in the oven, fry an egg. I'm not giving you a recipe or directions for that hor.

Make the sauce by adding 1/2 cup light soya sauce, 1/4 cup mirin, juice of half a lemon and strips of lemon peel, one thinly sliced shallot, one deseeded, thinly sliced chilli padi (or more) and one cube of brown sugar in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and then let it reduce for a little bit, 10-15 minutes. You will need only 1-2 tablespoons of the sauce, so refrigerate the rest in a bottle. I have kept it for a week without any problems. It goes great with seared tuna, cold tofu and even as a salad dressing.

If you are too lazy to make the sauce, I think soya sauce would work as well, just that the flavours would not be so complex. 

When the oats are done, top it with a generous sprinkle of gomasio, the egg and the sauce. Stir well.

Curried oats with caramalised onions and chickpeas
To make the curried oats, stir in 1 teaspoon of curry powder to the oats 10 minutes before it is done.

While your oats are in the oven, you might as well roast some chickpeas. Open a can, drain the water, rinse, dry with paper towels and place the chickpeas on a tray in a single layer with a bit of olive oil. When the oats are done, so are the chickpeas.

Caramalised onions do take a bit of time and patience, but the results are so worth it. Not for nothing are they called the bacon of vegetarians. Simply slice two onions and fry them with 1/4 cup of olive oil over medium-high heat in a pan that is large enough for the slices to be in a thin layer (ie. not piled up and steaming instead of frying). Stir every five minutes or so, making sure to scrape the bottom for the yummy burnt bits. The onions are done when they are a rich brown colour. Some bits will be crispy while others will be soft.

If you have any self-restraint at all, you will save half the onions for other uses, such as in a pasta sauce.

Top the oatmeal with the chickpeas and caramalised onions.

Oat "risotto" with pecorino and peas 
This recipe is so easy, it is not even a recipe, it's an agar-ration. And it's my favourite of the three here. Not only is it super easy to make, I usually have all the ingredients already in the fridge.

Add frozen peas (as much as you like, about a handful) to the oats during the last 10 minutes of cooking. Grate the pecorino cheese (again, as much as you like, about two handfuls).

Stir the oats, peas and cheese together and add pepper to taste. I swear, it is creamy like risotto -- but without the need to slave over a hot stove. Best!

Thursday, November 1

winging it

My friend MS was in complete and utter disbelief when I told her I had never made chicken wings before in my entire life. In fact, I couldn't believe it either, seeing how I am such a big fan of them, especially Ikea's Best Chicken Wings In The World.

Of course, I had to immediately rectify this oversight on my part by whipping up a batch of hot wings, modifying a buffalo wing recipe from one of my fave sites, Noob Cook (I couldn't find Frank's Red Hot Original hot sauce at Cold Storage Holland Village, arguably the most angmoh supermarket around, but I think Dancing Chef's sauce rocks too).

1.5kg chicken wings and drumsticks (about 12 each, just nice for two racks)
7 tsp ground cayenne pepper
2 tsp garlic powder
60g butter (about 4 tbs)
6 tbsp Dancing Chef Suki Dipping Sauce
Dried chilli flakes, salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 200 deg C.

Pat chicken dry with paper towels.

Mix the ground cayenne pepper, garlic powder and some salt and pepper evenly. Coat each piece of chicken lightly with the mixture.

Arrange the pieces on a wire rack with a foil-lined tray beneath. Bake for 20 minutes, then turn the pieces and bake for another 20 minutes, until crispy.

In the meantime, melt butter over low heat in a pot and stir in the dipping sauce with dried chilli flakes, salt and pepper.

Dump the baked chicken into the pot and coat each piece thoroughly with the sauce.

Wash your hands and dig in.Wash down with a cold bottle of Asahi. Ahhh...

Monday, October 29

the most sinful cake in the world

 After a nine-month break -- no, I did not have a baby! -- I'm back to blogging. Well, sorta. See, I need a place to store recipes of food I have made and the numerous tweaks I made along the way (as well as what to do differently should I revisit them), and I have decided this shall be it. I mean, why start a whole new blog, right? (Yes, I'm that lazy.) (And yes, I still like parentheses.)

And what better recipe to kick off this new start (which, hopefully, does not die off after one post) than this icebox cake.

Since the first time I tasted it, years ago, on a trip to New York, at Billy's Bakery, it's been at the back of my mind. I've always wanted to make it, but never had the occasion to make (notice I didn't use the word "bake", you will see why in just a bit) such a sinful cake -- until Sherv's birthday rolled around. (He likes unhealthy food. A lot.)

A quick spot of googling led me to the recipe on the ever-reliable Smitten Kitchen, and a quick trip to the Phoon Huat near the office got me all the ingredients needed.

3 cups (750ml) whipping cream
3 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp vanilla extract

Beat the above on high until soft peaks form (ie. they flop over when you lift the beater out of the mixture). I bought 1 litre of Millac brand whipping cream (in blue carton), which worked out to be about 4 cups (1 cup more than what the recipe called for).

Note to self: Next time, just whip all four cups and be more generous with the cream between layers, rather than having 1 cup left over (which was kinda just nice for making a mini-cake). Oh and I added 3 tbsp of Baileys, but I think I will double/triple it in the future. Hic!

Instead of the Nabisco cookies mentioned on Smitten Kitchen, I used something I found in Phoon Huat known, rather ominously, as Black Biscuit (basically Oreos without the fillings, $6.20 for a giant bag, more than enough for one normal-sized cake and a mini one). And instead of seven cookies in one layer, I used 11 in a circle and filled the middle with all the broken bits from the bottom of the package. Then I smothered the layer with the cream. In total, I made seven layers, covering the top with one super thick layer of cream.

Being the anal sort, I used a springform pan to make sure the cake wasn't lopsided. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Amazingly, the biscuit will soften and become almost cake-like, yet the entire "cake" will still retain that beautiful rippled pattern.

Easiest and prettiest cake, ever.

Tuesday, January 10

a savoury cookie is a biscuit

Chop 12 slices of bacon (the original recipe called for four, I doubled it by accident, but I think it's still not enough). I think I'd chop the bacon less fine next time, but that's a personal preference. A foodie friend made the brilliant suggestion of trying bak kwa next time. Fry bacon till crisp, then drain on paper towels. (Save the bacon fat for future use, if you are feeling decadent!)

Grate one cup of sharp cheddar. I read somewhere that parmesan would taste even cheesier.

Mix two cups of all-purpose flour, 120g of butter (cut into cubes, salted is fine), one egg, one yolk and two tablespoons heavy cream (I used some leftover sour cream) until combined. (At this point, my feeble hand-held mixer decided to spew cookie dough all over the counter and onto the front of my T-shirt. Ugh.)

Add cheese and bacon and mix well.

Place a length of cling wrap on the counter and lightly flour it. Roll the cookie dough into a log, then wrap it up.

Now, it needs to chill for two hours at least in the fridge. (Just enough time for me to clean all the counters and mop the floor from the mixer accident.)

Half an hour before taking out the dough, preheat the oven to 180 deg C.

Slice the dough into discs and place them on trays lined with parchment paper. Bake for 18 to 25 minutes until they are brown on the edges.

Cool on a rack or you can do what I did and devour five in one go.