mercredi, février 22, 2012

My Precious Heart

Baby Boy went on a school trip to the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum yesterday.

His teacher had sent a note advising us to give our kids 25 rmb to buy a souvenir (optional). So I gave him 25 rmb, though I would find out later that many kids would have been given at least a hundred. That seemed a little too much for a school trip for Year 3s, but well.

I didn't want the boy to lose his cash and I didn't want him to come home with more junk. But it was a good occasion for him to practise managing his money.

BB : Mummy, I bought you something from the museum!

Me : That's sweet of you, baby.

BB : It costs 15 rmb. And I had only 10 rmb left so I bought a picture with wolves in it for my sister.

Me : I'm sure she'll love it. Very kind of you to have thought of her.

BB : I have no money left to buy anything for myself, but it's ok. I can share the picture with her.

Occasions like this one remind me why I adore this child. He is just so special in so many ways. He makes me so happy to be a mother, he makes it worth my while giving up so many of my youthful ambitions and dreams so that I could stay at home and look after him.

And I wish I had been more generous with the pocket money. I can be such a scrooge at times.

mardi, février 21, 2012

Daikon and Pork Bone Soup

Daikon and Pork Bone Soup

A typical Chinese household enjoys a nourishing soup and 3-4 dishes for dinner most evenings. In our half-Chinese household, where the European half prefers his soups mushy and thick (like when he was a baby), the thin Chinese nourishing soup doesn't make much of an appearance. Except for the Bak Kut Teh which Hub for some reason loves.

Hub has been travelling quite a lot recently, with a new project starting in Guangzhou and meetings to attend in Europe and elsewhere. In fact he left for Korea on Sunday afternoon and promptly texted me a few hours later to say that he had left his wallet at home. How he expected to pay for his hotel rooms, taxis, rental cars, food etc over 5 days and in 3 different countries across the continents I have no idea.

In his absence I felt the need to affirm my Cantonese roots and started boiling soups a few nights in a row. Lotus root and pork ribs with red and honey dates, herbal chicken...and my current favourite : Daikon (White Radish) and Pork Bone.

If I had to be frank it probably started when I saw them selling this gigantic pork bone in the supermarket. It looked like the ones you see all the time in The Flintstones. I just had to buy it and since it had no meat on it it had to go into making soup.

I've also been pretty envious of those Japanese ladies seen hugging a nice white daikon root, somehow it spells domesticity, simplicity and a lot of smell in the kitchen once you decide to boil it.

You see one end of the big bone in the picture

But the result was worth the farty smell. Daikon and pork bone make a sweet and tasty soup. It also acts as a sort of laxative so if you believe the Chinese, do not take any vitamins or medication with it. Not something you'll want to consume more than once or twice weekly. Though if you've made a big pot like me (the bone was gigantic as was the daikon), you may end up using it as a stock base for everything else you'll cook in the week, including a curry.

Chinese soups are best consumed immediately but since I wanted to remove the fat in it I waited till the next day.

Daikon and Pork Bone Soup :

big pork bone (can also use pork ribs, of course)
one daikon (sliced into large pieces)
carrot (optional)
salt to taste

Bring half a pot of water to boil and place the pork bone in it for blanching.

Bring the water to boil again. It will become quite dirty with scum. Drain the water and rinse the pork bone under a running tap. Clean out the pot if necessary.

Bring a fuller pot of water to boil this time and return the bone to the pot. When it starts to boil again, add the daikon and carrots. Cover and boil on low-medium heat for at least an hour. I usually let it simmer after the first hour for a few hours more.

Add salt to taste before serving.

Orange Chiffon Cake

Orange Chiffon Cake

Fei went with Judy to the wholesale fruit market the other day and offered me 10 oranges. They were Chinese-grown and were surprisingly sweet and juicy. I ate them as they were and then had visions of Orange Chiffon Cake which were just nagging to become real.

Pieced together a recipe after interviewing a few chiffon cake experts meaning I took whichever part was most convenient to me. I've also learnt how to make an Earl Grey Tea Chiffon Cake at the ABC Cooking Studio some time back so I've understood the principle more or less - I think.

Earl Grey Tea Chiffon Cake@ABC Cooking Studio

My first attempt at the orange chiffon was a flop though the cake was tall and tasted really good - because it was undercooked. I am still not familiar with my current fabulous American oven and success is rarely guaranteed on the first try. When you think that my chiffon cake guru Shelley actually bakes hers in a small toaster oven you feel like a total wimp.

Like I've been telling the Teenager, it's the player that makes the gear, not the other way round. He's the sort of kid who expects to be geared up in designer sportswear when he signs up for golf, soccer or tennis - and then play mediocrely any way. I digress as usual.

Failing your chiffon cake on a morning when you were supposed to be doing necessary housework added to your sense of failure so I had to console myself by hailing a cab and going out for a foot massage. On a morning of several firsts it was the first time I tried this massage parlour, but had good expectations of it since my former neighbour's father used to go there and was on first-name terms with the staff...

But it was too Chinese for me. Gaudy decoration (lots of gold crepe and big flowers), TV, fruit and tea in the room - and a talkative masseur. Guy asked me if I could speak minnan (aka hokkien), declared us relations and proceeded to tell me his life. Thank God he was still very young so it couldn't drag on longer than the hour I was there. The massage was good but I think I'll stick to the strictly no-talking environment in S.E Asian spas.

Like they say, 失败是成功之母. The cake turned out nice and tall this time round. Moist, fluffy and tall, tall, tall. Nice orange colour thanks to the orange zest and only my barbaric knifing as I removed it from the chiffon pan (while screaming at the kids) made it look this ugly.

Orange Chiffon Cake :

21.5-cm tube pan

6 egg yolks (room temperature)
1 tsp natural vanilla extract
60g castor sugar
60ml canola oil
150-180ml pure orange juice (including the pulp)
1 tbsp orange zest (preferably untreated)
150g low gluten flour (sifted)
2 tsp baking powder

6 egg whites (room temperature)
½ tsp salt
½ tsp cream of tartar
70g castor sugar

Preheat oven at 340°F.

Separate the yolks from the whites.

In a large mixing bowl beat the yolks with an electric hand mixer. Add the vanilla essence and sugar and continue beating.

Now add in the oil and beat.

Followed by the orange juice in 2 times and the zest. I find it easier to zest my oranges whole (about 2 big ones) so I do it before I juice them.

Sift the flour with the baking powder and fold into the batter.

In another bowl whisk the whites till you get a foamy batter. Add the salt and continue whisking.

Followed by the cream of tartar and whisk till stiff.

Whisk in the remaining sugar till you get stiff peaks, gradually lower the speed of the whisk so as to keep the shape of the batter.

In 3 times gently fold the whites into the yolk batter.

Scoop into an ungreased, unlined, unfloured tube pan and bake in the oven for 55-60 minutes or till the toothpick comes out clean.

Fresh out of the oven

Turn it upside down immediately and let it hang/cool for 1-2 hours.

Hanging upside down

Remove the cake from the pan only after it has completely cooled.

After being cooled for 5 hours - not much flatter, I'm happy to say

Keep unconsumed cake in a tupperware in the fridge.

vendredi, février 10, 2012

Chicken Pilaf and Egyptian Day At School

Chicken Pilaf

While the kids were excited about Egyptian Day and have probably learnt quite a bit about pharaohs, mummies and ancient Egypt, mums like myself were up to here (picture the chin) having to run around getting a costume ready, find material to help them create their projects (e.g. posters, models...) and cook something for the Egyptian lunch.

Part of the small buffet spread (didn't feel that there was enough food this year)

I actually had a costume tailor-made (for 250rmb!) last year when Baby Girl was in Year 3 so I was keen for Baby Boy to use it. It took some heavy-handed negotiation as he refused to "wear a skirt". I had to throw in a pharaoh's headdress, a jewel-studded stick, a necklace and the threat not to contribute anything to the buffet to get the boy to agree to wearing said costume. It was well-worth it as he looked quite splendid in the set-up and I believe that he had a great time this morning.

The Pharaoh with his Mummy best friend

I also managed to find an ingenious way to avoid having to work on our friend's project. Kids' projects are often parents' projects, who was the school trying to kid? I was inspired while picking up Lego pieces all over the house to suggest to the boy that he make a pyramid (model) out of Lego. I must admit that he surprised me. Took under 2 hours to build a pyramid - all on his own - and even thought of building an entrance leading to a chamber where a body was being mummified...Isn't he clever or what?

Baby Boy's Lego Pyramid

See the cadaver inside?

For the buffet, I wanted to make life easy and just bring fruit. I mean what did the ancient Egyptians eat besides bread, beer and foie gras? But baby Boy objected to it, which was just as well since most of the other parents brought bread or fruit which would make the meal a little too healthy kids being kids. I made 2 portions of Chicken Pilaf this morning and it was one of the few mains on offer which explained why it disappeared within minutes of lunch starting.

Chicken (Lamb/Beef/Shrimp) Pilaf :

500g chicken thigh meat (deboned)
100g plain yoghurt
1½ tbsp curry powder
1 tsp pepper

3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp butter
1 small onion (chopped)
2 bay leaves
5-6 curry leaves
1 small cinnamon bark
4 whole cloves
4 green cardamom seeds
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tbsp ground coriander seeds
2-3 tbsp ginger-garlic paste
2-3 cups basmati rice (rinsed and drained)
3-5 cups chicken stock
½ tsp salt

Garnishing (optional)
sliced almonds (dry roasted)
fresh coriander leaves
fresh mint leaves
fried shallots

Slice the chicken into bite-sized pieces and marinate them with the curry powder, pepper and yoghurt for a few hours. Only salt as you are cooking the meat.

In a frying pan heat a bit of oil till smoking and brown the chicken pieces. Remove and set aside.

Heat up the vegetable oil in a large pot and fry the onions, bay leaves, curry leaves, whole spices, ground spices and ginger-garlic paste till fragrant.

If using vegetables like peas, long beans or carrots (all chopped, of course), add them now.

Add the butter and the basmati rice and coat the grains thoroughly with the fragrant oil.

Stir the cooked chicken into the rice. Pour in the chicken stock, stir in the salt. Cover and cook on medium heat for 5 minutes, then lower the heat to the lowest and let the rice cook in its own steam for 15-20 minutes.

Before serving fluff up the rice with a fork and garnish with raisons, nuts, fresh herbs, fried shallots etc. As the school has a nut-free policy and kids usually do not like to eat anything green, I cooked a very simple Chicken Pilaf for the occasion.

A few of the projects presented by the other Year 3s

lundi, février 06, 2012

Bacon Loaf and Coffee & Almond Bread Rolls @ ABC Cooking Studio

Bacon Loaf

Judy, Fei and I have signed up for a total of 6 bread and cake-making lessons at ABC Cooking Studio (SWFC branch) so we were there before Christmas to make a Bacon Loaf and Coffee & Almond Bread Rolls. We have been having the same instructor from the last session whom we are pretty fond of, for she's an expat housewife like us (Taiwanese married to a Malaysian) only she has no kids so she had loads of time to kill. Otherwise I suppose one wouldn't want to work for peanuts.

Coffee and almond rolls

I realise that the members of my family prefer savoury breads to the sweet ones. The kids still rave about the bacon loaf and ham rolls, but refused to touch the coffee ones. I am unfortunately not much capable of sitting through the proofing periods required for making bread, so they haven't been seeing much of it at home.

The proofing and baking ovens at ABC cooking studio

We are still left with 2 cake-making sessions and should be going for them in March, in between mosaic and Chinese calligraphy workshops.

Bacon Loaf :

125g high gluten bread flour
1½ tsp dried yeast
1 tbsp sugar
165ml water

125g high gluten bread flour
⅔ tsp salt
2 tbsp olive oil

1 tsp dried basil leaves
⅓ tsp garlic powder

2 tbsp parmesan cheese (grated)
2 bacon slices

Method :

Preheat the oven to 200°C.

Combine ingredients A in a bowl taking care to place the yeast next to the sugar.

Combine ingredients B in another bowl.

Our Taiwanese instructor and my 2 neighbours

Combine doughs A and B. Knead till smooth. Roll the dough into a rectangle.

Sprinkle ingredients C onto it and roll it into a log bottom up. Fold the log into 2 and knead it to mix everything well together.

Form a ball, cover with clingwrap and proof in a warm environment (e.g. 41°C) for 25 minutes.

Poke a floured finger into the middle of the dough. It should come out clean. Gently punch the dough 3 times to remove the air in it, form it into a ball, cover with a wet cloth and proof it on the table for 10 minutes.

Using a rolling pin gently press the shape of a cross on the surface of the dough.

Roll out a 24cm by 15cm dough. Garnish with the cheese and bacon. Roll into a log bottom up.

Slice ⅔ of the roll into 2. Holding on to both strips, plait the dough, overlapping each strip alternatively.

Gently put it into a loaf tin. Cover with the wet cloth and proof for 20 minutes.

Bake in the hot oven for 25 minutes.

If planning to store the loaf, let it cool completely first.

Walking Around Shanghai (Fuxing Park, People's Square...)

Dance demo at Fuxing Park...with Marx looking on

Shanghai is much more a city for business (and eventually international cuisines) than culture or tourism. Almost everybody who came to visit would leave impressed but unconvinced. After you've gone round the parks, gardens, temples, old houses, small shops, skyscrapers and few lousy museums, there isn't usually much else to do except the usual eating or shopping (and even then).

But better be in Shanghai then anywhere else in China or life would not be as convenient, clean or comfortable.

When JW was here I tried to bring her round to see the usual tourist spots, as well as catch the locals in their habitat. One such place was People's Square - on a Sunday.

We know that for a few decades now China has enforced a one-child policy across the country. Shanghai as an important city therefore has many families with only one child. This usually translates to parents (and grandparents) doting on their precious one progeny, wanting the best for him/her.

I was told by many people here that boys generally have a tough time in Shanghai. Most are expected to own a flat/house before they could find a wife, and when they do, many of the girls would expect to have their names on the deed. Then the guy is also expected to turn over his salary to his wife and do at least his share of the housework. I just found out that girls who marry not expecting the above of their spouses are considered to have contracted a 半裸婚 (half-naked marriage)! What does that tell you about general expectations here?

To cut a long story short, a number of the city's marriageable population finds itself still single. So their parents may take things into their hands and gather at People's Square on Sundays to help look for a spouse for their children.

I need a DIL to cook for me...

We were swamped when we arrived at the marriage mart. Since JW was obviously white, they wondered if she was offering a white boy or girl to their marriage mart (think foreign passport); I was asked if I was married (they must have thought I was an old spinster) and if I had a flat (some old guy's son had no flat so it would be difficult to find a local girl)!

Selling daughter selling son!

Everyone was holding a piece of paper with their progeny's CV on it : age, sex, height, weight, monthly income, property ownership (including description of the place), expectations of the opposite sex (whose, I wonder?)...Some even had photographs and usually the person in it would be quite good looking.

Found anyone you like here?

There was a corner where an entrepreneur offered matchmaking services and another corner where from the look of things the offerings were a little more um...mature. My driver's guess was that some of those ladies earned well and were good looking and therefore had high expectations, but they waited too long and were getting past their teeth...

Matchmaking corner

The square near the modern art museum used to be a race course but now it's all proper and legal. There are cafés and restaurants and of course lots of shopping malls all around. On a good day, this is the place to go to for a breather in between shopping sprees.

The lake at Fuxing park

We also visited Fuxing Park. It sounds very Chinese but used to be a French park open only to the French. Located in the former French Concession, Fuxing park is styled after your typical Parisian city park with tree-lined walks, flower beds and a lake in the middle.

Chess at Fuxing park

We were greeted by couples dancing everywhere when we arrived. It was like an open ballroom. There were also families flying kites in the field, a few kids kicking a soccer ball, people playing chess, a few others practising Tai Chi near the water...

I got him to carve stamps for my kids (so-so)

Airing your wet linen in Tianzifang

With JW we also walked around Yu Yuan Gardens, Tianzifang, Xintiandi, Dongtai Antiques Market, the Bund, a few temples...I must admit that if she had stayed another week I would have run out of ideas as to where else to bring her. This year I will make it a point to discover more of Shanghai so that I wouldn't bore myself visiting the same places again and again.

dimanche, février 05, 2012

Chinese New Year 2012

CNY 2012

I left Singapore in September 1995 and have probably celebrated Chinese New Year once before I got married. After that it was too expensive to travel home just for a week, with summer being the preferred period for home visits.

When we arrived in Shanghai last year, it was just a week before the CNY, so we "celebrated" our first CNY in Asia riding on the free-flow firecrackers around us. Shanghai is usually dead during the holidays as its large migrant population closes all shops/restaurants/services and head home, so we weren't too impressed with the experience.

2 months ago we realised that we would be having a week-long break towards the end of January - because it'd soon be the CNY! And the year of the (water) dragon too. We decided to visit Singapore now that we're closer, but many others had the same idea so SQ was fully booked months in advance. We therefore booked ourselves on China Eastern which honestly was a mistake. In this day and age there is still a regular airline that doesn't offer inflight entertainment, that serves horrible meals (piled high on top of the trolley), that doesn't give you a new set of pillows and blankets on a new flight!

Still, it was exciting celebrating my first CNY in 16 years with my family. What I missed was the reunion dinner on the eve of CNY, embracing the traditions of giving red packets and oranges, staying up late, sleeping with lucky money, watching the Hongbao show on TV, checking out the lanterns in the Chinese garden, doing a spot of last-minute shopping in the night markets, visiting friends and relations, lo-hei, wearing new clothes, catching the Chingay procession...everything I have given up when I started living overseas and married a European.


When the Teenager was very small, I kept up with a few of the traditions and organised steamboat dinners with Chinese friends during CNY. Then it fizzled out because Hub never seemed interested enough in my traditions, keeping anyway the barest minimum of his own. Then the babies came along, we moved around more and more and CNY just moved to the back of my mind (and priorities).

This year I stuck 2 red paper cuttings of the character 福 (luck, prosperity) on my doors though I would stop there as I personally find it a little vulgar the Chinese obsession with money (钱 or 财) all times of the year. We should wish for good health and for things to go smoothly - and everything else would follow. You could have all the money in the world, but if you do not have the health to enjoy it, it would be worth nothing.


Mum had to help refresh my memory of what needed to be done for CNY, though I didn't participate in the praying since I wouldn't be doing that when the parents leave the world. I wanted to visit the night markets but the skies refused to cooperate, sending the rain promised by the Water Dragon down on us almost every evening.

Treasure pot

We ate reunion dinner as a family though : my own, my brother's and my parents. Only my sis was missing, but she had her Hub's family to eat dinner with. It was an expensive meal filled with lucky and prosperous-sounding dishes though the kids and Hub failed to appreciate it. I had my first lo-hei in donkey years - and still only ate the crackers. But I ate through everything else, especially my favourite Kum Hiong 金香Crabs.


On the first day we visited my 3rd uncle. It was to be our only visit as most of the relations would gather there so that there would be no need to do the rounds like we used to when we were kids. It was a little disappointing, but let's face it : at my age, most of my parents' older relatives that we used to visit would be dead and we would have little to do with their children or grandchildren. For my parents, with no longer any kids to drag along, they've probably lost most real interest in the visiting so they ended up staying at home watching TV for the past decade. Since we've never been into CNY gambling, we never got into hosting big gatherings either, so all was calm.

This is sad, I suppose. But like everything else there's a time (and place) for celebrating CNY. Take Shanghai, for instance. My Shanghainese friends told me that with small families they no longer see any point in celebrating CNY either. In the big city which becomes dead with most of the migrant workers gone they also fail to gather enough atmosphere for the occasion, having to cook their own meals and just hang around waiting for the shops to open again. Those who can afford it would take the opportunity to travel, since there are basically only 2 holiday periods in China : CNY and the Golden Week in October.

But I talked to my hairdresser yesterday who as a migrant worker went home to his village in Sichuan. There it was the big occasion with waxed meats, big meals (but no touching of sharp objects or fire on the first day), a sharper observance of the traditions, gambling and big red packets. Since he was single, he came home with thousands of Chinese yuan in red packet money. Compared to the 122S$ that each of my kids amassed in their week in Singapore...

红包 money of course is an interesting part of CNY especially for the children. And nowadays it's not like before, you can't usually get your kids to surrender their hoard to you. The amount of money you put into your red packets could also be a study of the differences between the Chinese in different parts of the world.

I was quite surprised to discover that inflation has not reached angpow money in Singapore. When I was a kid (very long ago), we usually received between S$2 and $10. Apparently kids still receive the same amount today 2-4 decades later. A check with my HK and Chinese friends revealed that the Mainlanders (even my driver) put at least 200 rmb (about S$40) in their red packets, if not 500, even 1800rmb!

They seemed a little more reasonable in Hong Kong though, kids usually get between 40 and 80 HKD (in pairs of red packets though) and elderly parents will get much more. I chose to do $6, $8, $12, $18 on average. We agreed that the red packet is a way of giving blessing, so the money shouldn't matter. It shouldn't ruin the giver, shouldn't be a race to see who can give more, shouldn't provide one with yet another opportunity to show off one's wealth. And kids shouldn't become greedy about receiving red packets. There is the whole year for one to show one's family that one cares, why wait for the CNY?

One thing we agreed with Hub and the kids at the end of our stay was that a week is too short a time for visiting Singapore. There was so much I couldn't do, so many friends I couldn't meet up with, so many things I've yet to eat.


Sticky rice cake dipped in egg and pan fried

We are coming to the end of the CNY - tomorrow? I fried my own sticky rice cake年糕 (offered by Hub's Chinese colleague) for the occasion, nudged the kids to let off a few of the harmless fireworks (to no avail), and will go to bed wondering what I could/should do next year to make CNY a more meaningful occasion for my kids and myself.


vendredi, février 03, 2012

Xiaolongbao小笼包Class at the Chinese Cooking Workshop, Pudong

My 小笼包

Xiaolongbao小笼包 is a famous Shanghainese delicacy that, in my humble opinion, is only edible when it's good. I say that because I have tried it at so many restaurants in my one year here, including at the famous Nanxiang Xiaolongbao chain of restaurants (with long queues everywhere), and I have arrived at the conclusion that I would only bother to eat those served at Din Tai Fung鼎泰丰 - very expensive they may be.

Needless to say I wanted to know how it was made so when JW came to visit I arranged for us to attend a private cooking class at the Chinese Cooking Workshop - a cooking school mainly attended by expats in Shanghai. They have opened a branch here in Pudong which saved us the trouble of going all the way to Puxi for the lesson.

JW all geared out for the lesson

Every Shanghainese, when I mentioned that I would be attending the class, laughed in my face. "It's too much trouble, just buy it from a shop!" was the usual advice. My driver told me that he has not eaten them for a long time, "They don't taste as good as they used to..."

Pudong branch of the Chinese Cooking Workshop (also premises of the Bakery Kitchen)

We did make xiaolongpao that morning, albeit pretty ugly ones. The difficulty lies in making a wrapper thin yet flexible and strong enough to wrap the meat in, in making the jello for the meat filling, and especially in wrapping the dumpling.

We were given a recipe for making the meat filling but did not get to see how the jello was made. The jello provides the broth in the dumpling when it is steamed. It is derived from boiling animal parts that provide the gelatine, left to cool then cut into tiny cubes to be mixed with the meat.

Rolling out the wrapper

There is a technique for rolling out the skin, another for wrapping it around the meat. Not at all easy for first timers like us.

Freshly wrapped

The instructor was an experienced cook but I felt that she must have simplified her recipe for her students because the wrapper was yellower and thicker than they should be. She also made us use a lot of the filling - and I do not like my dumplings too meaty or big.

Xiaolongbao - steamed

Still, it was satisfying making my own dumplings and I hope to find the time to try out the recipe on my own in the near future.

Flower rolls - freshly rolled out

At my request we also learnt how to make Steamed Flower Rolls. I was told that mine were very pretty though I have no idea what I did to make them so.

Flower rolls - steamed

I may consider attending other classes organised by the Chinese Cooking Workshop when I have friends visiting because they provide a fun introduction to Shanghai and give us something interesting to do together. Other than that do not expect value-added instructions that more experienced cooks may need and unless you speak Mandarin the young lady they provided as interpreter was only good for simple instruction.

Chinese Cooking Workshop
Room 418, Bldg 1
3611 Zhangyang Lu by Jinqiao Lu
Tel : 139 1732 6055