Once an avid dancer out to burn the floor, I’m now a stay-at-home wife whose life revolves around trying (not) to burn the kitchen.
Friends compliment me on the many food photos on my Facebook profile, posted for the benefit of my MIL so that she knows we’re eating decently well and not like the poor student and his poor wife that we truly are. But it’s not as yummy or pretty as it looks. They don’t see the burnt sauces at the bottom of our pans and they don’t smell charred sauces or slightly burnt eggs in our wardrobes and cabinets!
It is not uncommon for us to open up the windows to air our apartment even in the dead of winter. Better for me and my fragile nose to hide in a draughtless corner for 30 minutes than for the smell to linger and permeate every fabric in our little one-bedroom.
But smells aren’t the only concern. I just came back from an evacuation – a neighbour set off the fire alarm when she was cooking lunch! It’s a good thing to always check for the blinking light on the fire alarm to make sure it works in case my char siew burns again, no matter how much it strains my old neck to have to look vertically upward *.*
And have I mentioned the scouring of stubborn burnt sauces from stubborn pans? It’s carcinogenic just smelling it!
Despite the perils of the kitchen, it has been a wonderful journey, experimenting different foods to suit Sito’s more..selective palate.
As an undergraduate in the UK, I often alternated between aglio olio pasta from my little kitchen and toasted paninis from Heroes, my favourite sandwich shop. I never craved for local favourites like chicken rice or laksa, and I seldom cooked Chinese food unless it was for a makan session with the Singaporeans or other internationals.
Now, as wife to the husband, it gets a little tricky. Yes, he really will eat anything I cook. (He once finished up a huge portion of my watery sweet and sour pork.) Yes, he doesn’t tire of eating the same thing every day. BUT! I know he prefers Asian to angmoh food. I think he particularly likes fried carrot cake, char kway teow, chicken rice and the must-have mixed rice main dish, sweet and sour pork. I also want to give us some variety – more things for him to look forward to after a day in school and more fun for the rookie chef.
So I spent a couple of hours every Saturday planning meals for the following week. After all these months of researching and concurrent experimenting, I conclude that there are three ways to achieve the oh-so-familiar taste of good ol’ Sg. In increasing order of difficulty:
#1: Use premixes. Why? They’re easy! And best of all, what I have in my big drawer five steps away from where I am now are pretty authentic stuff. Be stocking up on more now that we don’t have to pack our stuff into storage this summer!
Here’s our favourite bento lunch – beef in Lee Kum Kee black pepper sauce, because the sauce keeps the rice moist even after four hours in his backpack.
Second favourite bento lunch – char siew, made with LKK char siew sauce. I always, always burn the sauce and stink up the apartment but hey, it’s char siew and nothing is coming between Sito and char siew! :p
Next week, we are having a Sg potluck dinner, showcasing Prima Taste chicken rice! Akan datang...
#2: Follow Asian cooks based outside of Asia. Why? They improvise for ingredients not easily found outside Asia. Or they know the different names by which these ingredients are called – spring onions, scallions and green onions all refer to the long vegetable usually found floating in soups. My favourite references are justbento.com and its sister site, justhungry.com, and this book called “Japanese women don’t get old or fat” by Naomi Moriyama.
If anyone’s wondering why my references are all Japanese, well, I like Japanese food! :p And I realise that home-cooked Asian food isn’t very different among Asian cultures. Anyway, the websites provide more than Japanese food. And they are all good guides to simple home-cooked fare.
Miso pork is the main dish here – marinade with miso paste and cook, but take care not to burn it (too much):
Beef and potato stew – perfect with rice for a carb-loaded meal!
#3: Bite the bullet and make it from scratch. There’s no avoiding the inevitable when there is just no substitute. I have packets of cai po but where the hell do I find steamed carrot cake to make fried carrot cake?! But I can get the raw ingredients, so... Anyway, for such big experiments, I look at chefs based in our region, such as www.mywoklife.com, wokkingmum.blogspot.com and kitchentigress.blogspot.com.
Here's my super successful attempt at sweet and sour pork, except that it was chicken, using a friend’s simple recipe of 43221: four measures of tomato sauce, three of soy sauce, two of vinegar and sugar, and one of cornstarch. I skipped the cornstarch for this as the mix was thick enough:
After a while, I learn to improvise and create too.
Pseudo “claypot” tofu – cabbage was replaced with broccoli, fatty roast pork with hotdogs and claypot with a normal pot!
Instead of yummy braised seafood yee fu noodles, we have fried egg noodles with prawns and plenty of vege:
So, there, with some guidance, whipping up familiar food can be as easy as it looks. Just be careful not to burn anything!