Phad Thai noodles, green curry, white rice, red curry, papaya salad, Thai braised chicken in soya sauce
Crispy chicken toast with cucumber dressing
We have a plan: A Meal Plan
There is nothing like a good homecooked meal, and you don’t have to be a chef to serve a hearty meal. The secret is to know what everybody likes. That’s a great start. The next step is to plan the meal. Keep in mind that a really good meal should be good for the health as well, and not only for the appetite.
Think of the favourite dish everybody will enjoy; think of the ingredients (which are within your food budget); think of the time you have to cook and clear up the kitchen; think of whether you have all the equipment and utensils you need. You might have to rethink the dish if it will blow your budget, or if it will take you nearly forever to cook. You might have to make some slight adjustments, but not make the dish look unrecognisable.
How the food is presented adds to the taste somehow. For some strange reason, we also eat with our eyes.
It’s important to think of how the dishes combine, and if there is variety in texture and colour. The combination of a white fish dish and a white cauliflower dish is a bit too pale. Think of the serving plate as an artist’s palate. Adding a bit of colour goes a long way.
There are no set rules (that the author knows of), but serving a cold dessert after a hot spicy meal seems a sensible thing to do. A crunchy vegetable dish goes well with a soft meat dish. Contrast adds life to a meal.
Meal planning has many elements to it. Nutrition is, of course, the big part, but for now, we are listing only the small parts: something to chew on!
By Chayo, Homskil Editor 1
5 January 2021
The Curry in a Hurry Lesson
At my first attempt at cooking curry, I learnt that I couldn’t cook curry in a hurry. It all started when I found what looked like a bar of soap with the words “coconut cream” and a curry recipe on it in a grocery store in London. It seemed like the solution to what do with some curry powder a friend had given me. I was a first year student at university and was quite clueless about cooking.
There was no harm trying, so I bought some chicken from the market near the hall where I was staying. I followed the instructions, I melted the coconut cream, I added the chicken, then the curry powder. Someone came into the pantry and asked me what I was cooking, I said: “Curry”. He looked at my pot and said: “It looks like stew!” and left. It wasn’t very encouraging. It took quite a long time and a lot of curry powder, but eventually it did look and taste like curry. As the saying goes: “Good things come to those who know how to wait.”
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I learnt how important spices were in the history of the world. Europeans came to the East in search of spices. The Spice Islands in Indonesia became famous. Spices were precious commodities. Ships sailed across the world to bring spices back. It was possibly the start of globalisation.
A few years ago, an Indonesian friend cooked Japanese curry for us at home. It was a very complicated recipe. But I found it unusual, and nothing like the Japanese cuisine I was familiar with. I later found out that the British introduced curry to Japan in the 19th century. It was more like a stew with curry powder in it! So I was too far off when I cooked my first curry.
Yesterday, we had roti prata and curry for breakfast. The curry was very spicy, and was a bit too much for some people first thing in the morning. But I like to have a “spice day” once in a while, and my first attempt at curry always comes to mind.
By Chayo, Homskil Editor 1, 31 January 2021
The Peking Duck Lesson
Cooking requires a lot of planning and organising, but once you are organised, cooking isn’t a so daunting, even if you have to do it everyday with a full-time job.
There was a time when I would go to the wet market on Sundays in the morning, and then cook the meat dishes for the whole week, except for Fridays when we had fish which had to be cooked fresh. I would label the containers: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc. Since I would arrive home close to dinner time, someone else who came back earlier would cook the vegetables or the soup. Dessert was usually fruit or something simple.
I learnt to cook several dishes at the same time making the best use of all the cooking appliances available. For example, the stove for a stew, a stir fry and a soup, and the oven for roasting pork and chicken at the same time. Since I was cooking for five, I didn’t have to cook so much. I would freeze the food that would be served later in the week and refrigerate the dishes which would be served in a day or two. We would have freshly cooked vegetables and soup everyday. Some dishes actually tasted better after a day or two, like curries when the spices were absorbed into the meat.
I don’t remember using a lot of complicated recipes. It was more a matter of what I found in the market that was fresh and at a good price. I kept the dishes simple, and used what I had in the kitchen for marinating. Occasionally, we would buy ready-cooked food. Somehow we managed.
Perhaps the craziest thing I did back in those days was to cook Peking duck. I asked someone who was going out to buy a turkey for our Christmas lunch, but she came back with a duck. I was quite horrified. I didn’t know if it was because she didn’t know the difference between a turkey and a duck. She said she did, but the turkey was too big for five persons. I knew how to cook a turkey, but had no idea what to do with a duck. Then I remembered that a colleague used to boast about his Peking duck recipe and how important a particular brand of hoisin sauce was. I asked around the office and someone actually had a copy of his recipe. I read the recipe and set to work. The duck had to be seasoned, the skin had to separated from the flesh and the duck had to be hung to air dry overnight. The next morning I had to roast the duck by kneeling in front of the oven and turning it until it was crispy. Then there was the pancake which had to be made from scratch, to be served with spring onion and cucumber. We had a guest over for lunch who said that the Peking duck was quite authentic. Personally, I thought it was a miracle, and told myself that I would never attempt such a risky venture again.
I had a few male colleagues who did the cooking when they got home from work. The head of the department I worked for said he had to cook the reunion dinner for Chinese New Year. I came to realise that they were very organised people. They worked very intensely in the office so that they could leave on time so dinner could be on time at home.
In more recent times, I have not had to cook under so much time pressure, but the experience of having to cook while holding a demanding job was good for me. Now I can tell younger friends that learning to be organised is the key to managing the kitchen.
By Chayo, Homskil Editor 1, 20 January 2021
An Explosion of Flavours
In response to a feedback from someone who expected more details of the Thai Buffet in the HomeGems – Cooking page, I am adding this post.
Thai cuisine is “an explosion of flavours”. I am not being original here, I think I got it from watching one of Mom Luang (this is a title) Sirichalerm Svasti’s cooking videos. He is also known as McDang. I understand what he means. Thai cuisine is mainly spicy, but there is also the sour, the salty and the sweet, and sometimes all in one dish. Now, that’s a bit of a feat! Thai cuisine has Indian and Chinese influence, although the use of lemongrass, coriander and basil leaves in many dishes makes me think that there is some resemblance to Vietnamese cuisine.
Almost every year, I make the same crazy mistake of volunteering to prepare a Thai buffet, especially when we have foreign visitors from around the world, which means I have to tone everything down so that I don’t give everyone a shock! (The explosion of taste for unsuspecting diners.)
An opera singer told me about how a spicy meal with her family before a concert caused the concert to be cancelled. Sour dishes cause other problems. So the moral of the story is: If you know what is good for you, don’t volunteer to prepare a Thai buffet.
Having said all that, the dishes in the photo are: 1. Thai braised chicken in soya sauce; 2. papaya salad; 3. phad Thai; 4. green curry and 5. red curry.
The Thai braised chicken in soya sauce is salty and a bit sweet. The curries are spicy and the papaya salad is sour. There you have it, all the flavours. The phad Thai is unique – it has assam (tamarind), which is sour, but it is served with salty fish sauce, lime, chili flakes and a spoonful of sugar.
The spoonful of sugar always reminds me of Mary Poppins. For fans of Thai cuisine, there is something almost magical about it: the explosion of flavours.
By Chayo, Homskil Editor 1, 7 January 2021
Chicken bits with a bite
If you are health conscious and avoid fried food, once in a while it’s good to have a “healthy diet cheat day”. It might not be so good for the health, but certainly good for the heart to have something that brings cheer.
I came across a video of Mama Noi’s Kitchen on YouTube, showing Noi make crispy Thai pork toasts, then I found her daughter, Marion, also on YouTube, making Thai-style prawn toast. (Marion’s Kitchen) I took an instant liking to the mother and daughter team.
I decided to try making Thai crispy chicken toast instead of pork or prawn toast, and to serve it with a cucumber dressing (water, sugar, vinegar, fish sauce). It turned out well, so I gave a class on how to make it on Zoom (a Homskil event) during Circuit Breaker (Singapore’s lockdown period). It was so easy. Someone commented that her family liked it so much, they saved some for breakfast the next day.
Crispy chicken toast has a distinctive Thai flavour when you add thinly sliced lime (kaffir) leaves, coriander and thinly sliced chili to the minced chicken, and season it with fish sauce. (Egg is used to bind the meat.) If you would like a Thai drink to go with this appetizer, try ice lemongrass tea.
Until the time when holiday travel can resume, little Thai snacks can give you a taste of Thailand (at a very low price).
By Chayo, Homkil Editor 1, 17 January 2021
“Stretching the Turkey” Lesson
Once when I was having a Dim Sum lunch with a friend, she told me that she cooked duck porridge with the bones of Chinese roast duck. “It gives the porridge a unique flavour.” she said. I thought that it sounded like a good idea and that I should try it one day.
The principle of making the most of available food is basically about not wasting food and saving money. It is good management of resources. I tried out this principle with turkey.
For some reason, turkey isn’t everyone’s favourite meat, especially in South East Asia. It might be because you need an oven to bake it in, and not every household has a big oven or an oven. Most of the time, when turkey is served at home (in South East Asia) it would be bought already cooked. Since turkey is commonly served only during the Christmas season, there is mass production of ready-to-eat turkey, which means that the turkey meat tends to be hard and dry.
I love to cook turkey, so I have been trying to tell everyone that turkey is good: it’s healthy because there is less fat in turkey than in chicken and duck. I beer-brine my turkey. I start off by rubbing the turkey with salt and pepper, then I put it in a plastic basin and pour two or three cans of beer over it and leave it overnight in the fridge. I dry the turkey with kitchen paper towel before placing it in the oven the next day. I always buy a turkey with the pop-out thermometer so that I can be sure that the turkey is cooked on the inside. When the turkey starts to brown, I inject the juice of the turkey from the baking pan back into the turkey with a syringe. This is my secret for making the turkey meat soft and juicy. It always works. The beer-brine solution does wonders for flavouring the turkey. There usually isn’t much leftover after the Christmas lunch or dinner, but if the turkey is a very big one then I use my “Chinese Roast Duck principle” to manage the leftovers.
I prefer to serve the turkey already sliced for the Christmas celebration meal, so I will have bones and some meat leftover. The bones will be used to make turkey rice porridge with shredded turkey meat for breakfast or turkey soup with onions, tomatoes, fuji apples and carrots for lunch. The leftover turkey meat will go into a sauteed vegetable dish or a salad. If there is someone who needs a packed lunch, then I will make a turkey-mayo sandwich. Nothing goes to waste. When the turkey appears in different forms, you are less likely to get tired of eating it.
One obvious reason why turkey isn’t commonly used in Asian cuisine is simply because it is expensive. I found an interesting article on the internet entitled “Where did the domestic turkey come from?“. (www.allabotbirds.org) In the 16th century some Spanish traders brought them from America to Europe and Asia. There were reports that this species of birds called Meleagris gallopavo became commonly known as “turkey”, named after the shipping routes to Europe which passed through Turkey.
I had always thought of roast turkey as “Christmas turkey” and as an English tradition, until and American friend introduced me to the fact that the roast turkey was the American Thanksgiving Turkey long before it became the English Christmas turkey.
I liked the story of the origin of the choice of turkey for the thanksgiving dinner. Put simply: It was a big bird that could feed a large family around a big table. It was a bird that was not bred for eggs. It was more special than chicken, and appropriate for a celebration where there would be abundant meat for the occasion. (It was easier to roast than a cow or a sheep!)
It comes back to the basic principle that mothers live by: “Making a feast for the family with whatever is available“. I once read about a well-known singer who said that she grew up poor, and she remembered how her mother would manage to give everyone a drumstick from one chicken, and they were a large family. There is certainly more meat on a turkey than a chicken, but a mother can make a chicken feel like a turkey. It’s truly a gift to give thanks for: an ingenious mother!
By Chayo, Homskil Editior 1, 5 February 2021
If you can read, you can cook
“If you can read, you can cook.” Zita.
Zita is someone I met many years ago, who was a competent cook and a walking encyclopedia. She had a book, which I found very useful, on diet therapy for people with chronic conditions. It explained a number of common chronic conditions and why people with those conditions need to eat or avoid certain foods. It also had some recipes, if I remember correctly. It started my interest in food for people with special diets. The author of the book wrote about how people with chronic conditions need nutrition, but because there are restrictions on what they can eat, their food tends to be bland and uninteresting, so they end up not wanting to eat. It is a challenge to make meals attractive and tasty with limited ingredients.
I did a short online course on child nutrition and cooking (offered on Coursera) and was very impressed by the course instructor, Maya Adam, who developed a lot of gluten-free recipes because one of her sons is gluten intolerant. She was able to use her knowledge in nutrition in a practical way, she could cook healthy meals. She was a ballerina before she became a doctor, and then a lecturer. I loved her course and the way she involved her three boys in her cooking classes. She talked about mealtimes as being important family time where culture and traditions are learnt. It resonated with me.
Going back to the quote from Zita, it seems logical that if you can read, you can cook, because you should be able to follow the instructions in a recipe. Unfortunately, there are so many people who can’t cook, but they can read. Some people have a natural talent for cooking, but cooking isn’t about talent. It is a basic skill that can be acquired.
I met a journalist who told the story of how she attended cooking classes at the age of thirteen. Her mother cooked three dishes, and her father was happy with the three dishes, but she wanted more variety. The solution was for her to learn how to cook. She never regretted her decision to learn to cook. It added a new dimension to her life: gastronomic experience.
It’s never too late to learn how to cook, you can give your family a surprise and make each mealtime something to look forward to.
By Chayo, Homskil Editor 1, 17 January 2021