Thursday, February 25, 2010

Vietnamese pan-fried chicken

My mum's very simple recipe for marinating chicken that tastes delicious! 

  • 800-900g chicken thigh fillets 
  • 3 ½ tablespoons sugar 
  • 4 ½ tablespoons fish sauce 
  • 6-7 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 inch piece of ginger, grated
  • a little freshly ground salt and pepper 

In a large bowl mix together the sugar, fish sauce, garlic, ginger and a little freshly ground salt and pepper.  Add in chicken thigh fillets and thoroughly mix together.

Note: You can add in whole chicken thigh fillets or cut the thigh into thirds for more of the marinade to penetrate and easier to cook.

Refrigerate the marinated chicken overnight.

Heat a frying pan with some oil, and fry the pieces of chicken until golden brown and slightly charred on the outside. Can also grill the chicken on the barbecue. 


It’s the fish sauce that makes this dish taste amazing!

Fish sauce is a condiment that is derived from fish that have been allowed to ferment. It’s a staple ingredient in Vietnamese and Thai cooking.

Using a good brand of fish sauce is important – I use Squid brand.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Taste No. 5

Preface: I have not thought about it much before, but since starting this blog and writing about my cooking I find that a lot of the dishes I cook contain umami.


It is generally acknowledged that our taste buds can only perceive four basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. In addition to these four basic tastes, umami has been identified as the fifth basic taste. Umami is a fundamental taste in Asian cuisines and has a long history in Asian cooking. Even though umami was discovered over a century ago in 1908 by Japanese scientist, Kikunae Ikeda, it has struggled for popular acceptance as a distinct taste by Western scientists. It was only recognized as a basic taste in 2000 when researchers at the University of Miami succeeded in proving that taste receptors for umami exist, enabling this fifth taste to gain general acceptance.

All other tastes come from a combination of these basic (or primary) tastes. Just like all colours are derived from the basic primary colours of red, green and blue.

The essence of great cooking is to create a balance when using ingredients in cooking dishes so that all of these basic tastes are in harmony.

Understanding the basic tastes enables you to taste your cooking and recognise what is needed, and make the necessary adjustments. I rarely ever follow a recipe to the dot, I use it as a guide and continually taste while I am cooking, and add ingredients/seasonings as I go to my desired tastes. When you cook a dish it generally never turns out exactly the same as the last time you cooked it. It’s kind of like seeing your favourite band, you have probably seen them live many times and they play the same songs but every show is different, it’s always a different experience.

The Basic Tastes

Bitterness is the most sensitive of the tastes in that we can recognize it even in small amounts. Bitterness balances sweetness, and can also play a vital role in cutting richness in a dish. Common bitter foods and beverages include coffee, unsweetened cocoa, beer and olives.


Saltiness is a taste produced primarily by the presence of sodium ions. Salt is an important flavouring, it is a taste enhancer and taste modifier. It strengthens the impression of aromas that accompany it, and it suppresses the sensation of bitterness.


Sourness is the taste that detects acidity. Examples of foods which exhibit sourness are lemons, vinegar and wines which have a sour tinge to its flavour. Adding sourness to a dish adds sparkle and brightness to a dish (eg: finishing off a dish with a squeeze of lemon). Balancing a dish’s acidity with other tastes is critical to making a dish delicious.

It takes the greatest quantity of a substance that is sweet (vs salty, sour or bitter) to register on our taste buds. Sweetness can add balance and roundness to savoury dishes, and bring out the flavour of other ingredients.


The term umami is Japanese which literally means ‘delicious’. Umami is described as a savoury or meaty ‘mouth filling’ taste, produced by glutamates which is found in amino acid rich foods such as fermented and aged foods (glutamate concentration increases as an ingredient ripens), in protein-heavy foods such as steak and in the additive monosodium glutamate aka MSG (this explains why foods treated with MSG often taste fuller or better). The discovery of umami lead to the chemical isolation of MSG and its commercial production and marketing as a flavour enhancer.

Umami is typically associated with glutamate but many ingredients chiefly owe their umami flavour to other compounds such as inosinate, guanylate and adenylate. The taste of umami itself is subtle and blends well with other tastes to expand and round out flavours. Umami intensifies sweet and salty, and rounds out sour and bitter.

There are a number of foods that contain umami such as:
• cheeses like parmesan and blue cheese
• soy sauce
• fish sauce
• Worchestershire sauce
• soy beans
• vegemite
• seaweed
• sake
• mushrooms (especially shiitake)
• asparagus
• tomatoes
• human breast milk (!)
• beef
• cured and smoked meats (ham, bacon etc)
• fish and shellfish (particularly anchovies and tuna)
• green tea
• savoury herbs like rosemary and thyme

The glutamate taste sensation is most intense in combination with sodium ion as found in salt. This is one reason why tomatoes exhibit a stronger taste after adding salt.

Now that umami is gaining more popularity and influence in cooking, a company in Britain has somehow bottled it all up and just released a tube of umami paste for sale in supermarkets (!

The tube of umami is named ‘Taste No. 5’.

With so many umami rich ingredients out there, I think this umami paste is unnecessary. It would be much better to use and experiment with different umami rich ingredients in your cooking rather than use a paste. It might as well have been called ‘I can’t believe it’s not MSG’ considering that its objective is to enhance the flavour of dishes but it was named Taste No. 5 to apparently evoke the added allure of a high-class perfume (?!) Kind of like Chanel No. 5 I suppose.

The umami paste also has the potential to be overused in cooking like MSG is, with people thinking that the more they add the better their dishes will taste. This is incorrect, cooking is all about balance. Once you have added in the required amount of umami or MSG, adding any more does not make a difference and will instead have a negative effect. In economics, we call this the law of diminishing marginal utility. The law states that as a person increases their consumption of a product, there will be a decline in the marginal utility (satisfaction) that the person derives from consuming each additional unit of that product. For example, think about buffet restaurants. It’s ‘all you can eat’ but we all know that after a certain point, each additional plate of food will provide less utility (satisfaction) than the plate before it.

Umami plays an important role in making food taste delicious but there are also some other reasons why you should use more umami in your cooking -
• Foods that have umami are very delicious and satisfying and, as a result, we tend to eat more food.
• Umami is savoury and creates a sensation that chefs call mouth-feel. We get this mouth-feel sensation from eating fat. So if you use more umami in cooking, you can reduce the amount of fat that you use in your food and still get a great taste.
• Salt heightens flavours in dishes, especially in the presence of umami flavours. If you use a lot of umami in your cooking you don’t have to use as much salt.

Thus, umami = deliciousness + eating more food + reducing fat and salt intake.

On a side note.

While writing this I was googling some information. So what would one expect to find if they input the words ‘human tastes’ into the search box?... well I wanted to read more about and understand the human tastes – how do we taste, what do we taste, what types of tastes do we have etc.

The top searches returned for ‘human tastes’ were articles on What does human flesh taste like?, The Great Taste of Human Flesh…not exactly what I wanted or was expecting, kind of interesting but also kind of disturbing!

I guess now that I may have sparked your curiosity on this subject, you may be wondering ‘what do humans taste like?’ just in case you ever happen to be involved in a plane crash into snowy mountains somewhere in the middle of nowhere with no help in sight, stranded for days and the only way to survive may be to eat your fellow beings…

Articles on what humans taste have obtained information from experts in the area, from some of the most infamous citizens of our time!

Germany’s cannibal Armin Meiwes, in an interview from his prison cell, says - "The flesh tastes like pork, a little bit more bitter, stronger. It tastes quite good."

Karl Denke was a cannibal (also from Germany) who killed people, pickled their flesh and sold it on the black market as pork.

This certainly gives new meaning to all those ads on TV right now encouraging people to eat more pork. In the ad there is a chick catching up with all her girlfriends and telling them that she had ‘porked’ her boyfriend last night, meaning that she had cooked him pork (not eaten him of course!)

You can watch the ad here if you haven’t seen it yet

Get some pork on your fork!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Citrus Attack!

I find the acidic taste of lemons refreshing.

Having any type dessert/baked good with lemon in it is always a delight – lemon tart, lemon slice, lemon cheesecake, lemon custard, lemon sorbet…the list could go on.

I wanted to make some lemon cupcakes.

When I want to cook something that I haven’t made before, I will do a search for several recipes online. Then I collate all the information together to find out what the main elements of the dish are, and then adapt/create my own recipe for it.

If a dish has lemon in it – I believe that it should pack a punch!

So after my research on lemon cupcakes recipes I set my mind to create this –

Lemon yoghurt cupcakes + lemon syrup + lemon cream cheese frosting + candied orange peels + a sprinkle of lemon zest on top = A Citrus Attack!

The result.

To make the cupcakes

These cupcakes require 3 eggs, separated into yolks and whites.

Preheat the oven to 180 degree celcius.

Sift 1 ¼ cup of flour, 1 teaspoon of baking powder and ½ of baking soda into a bowl.

Beat 225g of softened butter and 1 cup of caster sugar together in a bowl until smooth and fluffy.

Add in the egg yolks one at a time and beat the egg into the mixture after each addition.

Then beat in 1 ½ tablespoon of finely grated lemon zest and 2 tablespoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice.

Using a spatula, fold in the flour mixture into the butter/sugar/egg yolk mixture, alternating with some yoghurt (around 1 Cup).

Whisk the egg whites in a separate bowl until it forms soft peaks. Then fold the egg whites into the mixture.

Fill cupcake pans 2/3 full and bake for 15-20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Side note: You cannot buy any decent yoghurt from any of the big supermarkets! There is a lack of variety and 90% of the stock is fat free or 97% fat free. I live in Highgate with a Fresh Provisions nearby in Mount Lawley and they have a fantastic range of yoghurt – full cream, organic, goats, cow, sheep’s yoghurt - the lot.

To make the lemon syrup

Put 1/3 cup of lemon syrup and 1/3 cup of freshly squeezed lemon juice in a small saucepan. Cook over low-med heat stirring occasionally until the sugar has dissolved and the syrup is clear. Remove from heat and set aside.

To make the lemon cream cheese frosting

Beat around 125g of cream cheese in a bowl until smooth and creamy. Slowly add in some icing sugar and lemon juice until you have a thick frosting to your desired taste (I used around 1/3 cup of lemon juice and 2/3 to 1 cup of icing sugar).

To make the candied orange peels

In a small saucepan, heat ½ cup of water and ¼ cup of water over medium heat until the sugar completely dissolves. Then add in 1/3 cup of orange peels. Once the syrup gets thicker and boils with big bubbles, time it and cook for another minutes. Then take it off the heat. Using a spoon, continue stirring it, it will slowly crystallise and the syrup will become white as it goes back to sugar crystals. Keep stirring and don’t let it solidify into one big candy. Allow to cool for a few minutes and then pick out the sugared peels.

To create the cupcakes

Once the cupcakes come out of the oven, use a toothpick to poke a few holes in the middle of each cupcake. Then carefully spoon a teaspoon of lemon syrup onto the middle of each cupcake allowing it to seep into the cupcake (the heat from the cupcakes draw in the syrup so that the insides are saturated with lemony flavour, therefore you need to add the lemon syrup while the cupcakes are still warm).

Let the cupcakes cool and then spread the lemon cream cheese frosting over the cupcakes. Add a few pieces of candied orange peels on top and sprinkle a little lemon zest.

VERDICT: The cupcakes tasted amazing! The cupcakes were wonderfully moist due to the use of yoghurt. All the citrus elements were not overwhelming. I decided to add only little lemon syrup to the middle of the cupcake so that the first bite you take gives you a taste of the lovely lemon yoghurt cake and then with the second bite into the middle of the cupcake you are hit with some zing from the lemon syrup!

Third Party Approval - I made these cupcakes to take to my work morning tea and my colleagues loved them. I thought that for some people it might have been a citrus overload but the feedback that I got was that the balance was good and they tasted great!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Dried Scallops and Tofu

Dried scallop (conpoy) is the dried abductor muscle of scallops. It has a really rich flavour, with a pungent seafood taste and is rich in umami.

Dried scallops are considered a delicacy and are expensive to buy, but you only need to use a little for cooking because it has a very strong and complex flavour which enhance the taste of many dishes. Dried scallops are a great addition to soups, stir fries and used in rice congee. Luckily for me, I get my dried scallops from my parents who buy them overseas from Hong Kong whenever they go traveling.

Here is lovely tofu dish which uses dried scallops.


Box of fresh tofu
3-4 shiitake mushrooms, soaked and thinly sliced
3 dried scallops, soaked and separated into strands
2-3 cloves crushed garlic
fish sauce
oyster sauce
spring onion


Heat up a wok, add in some oil and fry the garlic for a few seconds.
Add in the dried scallops and fry till fragrant, then add in shiitake mushrooms and fry till golden brown.

Then add in a little salt, pepper, (1-2 tablespoons) fish sauce and (2-3 tablespoons) oyster sauce.

Note: you need to over-season and be quite heavy handed when adding in the fish sauce and oyster sauce as the tofu is bland and when the dish is steamed the flavours will infiltrate the tofu.

Fry until dry, then add in ~ 2 tablespoons of water (use the water that was used to soak the dried scallops) and fry for a bit.

Arrange tofu on a plate for steaming, scatter fried mixture on top.

Steam on low heat for ~ 10 minutes, at 8 minutes put some spring onion and coriander on top of the tofu and steam for the remaining 2 minutes.

This is one of my favourite tofu dishes!

As the tofu is steamed on a low heat it maintains a very soft and silken texture, and the strong flavours provided by the fried dried scallop/shiitake mushroom complement the blandness of the tofu making it a very delicious tasting dish.

Pandan aka Green Cake

A chiffon cake is a very light and moist cake that contains vegetable oil instead of butter. Its fluffy texture is achieved by beating egg whites until stiff peaks form and folding them into the cake batter before baking.

I would describe the texture of a chiffon cake to eating a slice of very fresh white bread.

I made a pandan flavoured chiffon cake. The pandanus leaf has been described as the vanilla bean of Asia. Pandanus is used to perfume desserts and rice, its flavour released only on heating is resinous and nutty.


10 egg whites
8 egg yolks
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
140g + 60g caster sugar
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
150 coconut cream
1 ½ pandan paste
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
150g flour


• Preheat oven to 175 degree celcius
• Sift the flour and baking powder together three times (this brings air into the flour and helps to create the fluffy cake texture)
• In a bowl, using a whisk, cream egg yolks and 140g of sugar until it is creamy and thick.
• Add in the sifted flour and baking powder, vanilla extract, coconut cream, vegetable oil and pandan paste into the egg yolk/sugar mixture and whisk everything well together to combine.
• In another bowl, use an electric mixer to beat egg whites on high speed. When egg whites are whisked till soft peaks form, sift in the cream of tartar and add in the salt and 60g of sugar. Continue to whisk until stiff peaks form (Note: add in the sugar one tablespoon at a time and beat thoroughly after each addition until stiff peaks are achieved).
• Fold in the egg whites into the flour/egg yolk mixture using a spatula in three batches until just combined, taking care to fold gently/lightly in order to keep volume.
• Pour mixture into an ungreased chiffon cake pan and bake for approximately 35 minutes until the cake is brown on top and an inserted skewer comes out clean.
• Remove cake from oven and invert it, leave to cool for 1-2 hours before turning out, using a knife to loosen the edges of the cake.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Cooking Makes Us Human

I have just finished a book by Harvard biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham called Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.

The main theories on the evolution of human beings from apes have been:
  • tool making leading to invention and innovation; and
  • meat eating leading to hunting abilities and strategic thinking in catching prey.
Wrangham argues that cooking was what facilitated our evolution from ape to human. In his book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, Wrangham looks at the central role that cooked cuisine has had on the biological and social evolution of humanity.

These are some of the points that he makes -
  • Cooking makes food more digestible and increased the amount of energy our bodies obtained from food. As a result, our food processing apparatuses (jaws, teeth, guts etc.) shrunk and freed up our energy to support a larger brain.
  • It takes a large amount of time to eat raw food. You can more easily digest cooked food, thus cooking reduces chewing, freeing up time to do other things. For example, if we lived on the same kind of raw food diet that great apes do – we would be obliged to spend 42% of our day (just over 5 hours in a 12 hour day) chewing.
  • Cooking meant that we gathered around a fire and ate, so we began to socialise. Whereas we used to eat on the spot where we foraged.
  • Fire is used for cooking. The use of fire provided warmth and led us to shed our hair as a hairless animal can warm itself by the fire and also provided a defense against large carnivores, permitting us to descend from the trees and live on the ground.
  • Cooking developed a social system of economic cooperation, where the men hunted and the women gathered and cooked, and they shared food.
Wrangham also claims that meat eating “has had less impact on our bodies than cooked food…even vegetarians thrive on cooked diets…we are cooks more than carnivores.”

Thus, humans became "human" because we learned to cook our food and use fire!

I thought it was a pretty fascinating read and an interesting perspective on what makes us ‘humans’ different from animals. We can cook!

Does any other animal cook their food? I don’t know of any.

Comfort Food #1 - Tianjin Preserved Cabbage Meat Ball Pasta Soup

Comfort foods are familiar, simple foods that are usually home-cooked or eaten at informal restaurants. Comfort foods are tied to times and places in our memories that remind of us safety, joy, warmth and comfort.

One of my comfort foods is ‘Tianjin Preserved Cabbage Meat Ball Pasta Soup’.

It’s a homey dish that is very tasty and flavourful.

During primary school my grandparents would babysit me as both my parents worked. It’s a dish that my grandfather would often cook for me and I would have a bowl after school.

It’s something that my mum would often cook for lunch on a Sunday when I lived at home.

It’s a dish that I would request my mum to cook when I feel sick because I want to eat something that was easy to digest and flavourful.

Whenever I cook this dish it makes me feel good – I think it’s the combination of soup with meat balls (which contribute a pork based stock), the unique flavour that the tianjin preserved cabbage brings to the dish, pasta, garnish of fresh herbs and the umami provided by the seasoning of fish sauce!

To make this dish, firstly prepare the meat balls by putting 300g of pork mince into a bowl and adding a little of each of the following ingredients to bring flavour to the mince:

  • 2 teaspoons oyster sauce
  • 2 teaspoons fish sauce
  • 2-3 spring onions (finely diced, I mainly use the bottom third as the white part has more flavour)
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon pepper
  • 1 teaspoon cornflour
Mix everything together well so that it is all combined.

In a pot, bring to boil 1.5 litres of water and then add in 1 ½ teaspoons of the tianjin preserved cabbage and spoon the mince mixture into the pot as balls. Simmer on low heat for 45 minutes.

You can buy Tianjin preserved vegetable from Asian groceries in earthenware crocks. It consists of finely chopped Tianjin preserved cabbage (which is a type of pickled Chinese cabbage originating in Tianjin, China), salt and garlic. It is quite pungent so you only need to add a small amount.

So while the soup is simmering, cook pasta according the packet instructions (I used San Remo – Curls) and drain well.

After the soup has simmered on low heat for 45 minutes, bring to boil on a high heat and add ½ teaspoon of salt, 1 tablespoon of fish sauce and a pinch of sugar. Add in the pasta and cook for 1-2 minutes.

Spoon into a bowl and garnish with coriander, spring onion and freshly ground pepper.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Bastardisation of Stir Fries

I have a bone to pick….it’s on peoples conception of a stir fry.

I often get people telling me that they are cooking a stir fry and asking if I have any tips for them. I would ask what they are having in their stir fry and then I get a whole list of every vegetable they have in their fridge and some meat.

I think that stir fries suffer from the idea that it’s the kind of dish where you can chuck anything into a wok, give it a fry, season with some oyster sauce/soy sauce or chilli sauce and whola…

So I try to explain my view of how a good stir fry should be and I begin talking about pasta sauces and pizza.

A simple and basic pasta sauce made with only a few ingredients is very satisfying. One of the pasta sauces I love cooking from Marcella Hazan’s
Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking contains just tomatoes, onion, carrot, celery, some extra virgin olive oil and a little salt, sautéed and simmered on a low heat until it thickens.

The key to a good pizza is one that is not overloaded with too many toppings, 2-3 different toppings, some cheese and sauce is a good guide.

I think that cooking a stir fry should be approached in the same manner as cooking pasta sauces and making pizza. Think about what ingredients you are including and less can be much more satisfying.

Using too many ingredients can complicate and overcrowd a dish. Each vegetable has its own distinctive flavours and the type of meat used changes the taste of the dish.

Just because you can put anything that you want into a stir fry doesn’t mean that you should!

This is a simple stir fry that I cook regularly containing only a few ingredients - snowpeas (or sugar snap peas), prawns and shiitake mushrooms, with some crushed garlic, sliced ginger, and flavoured with some oyster sauce, fish sauce and salt.


  • 300-400g snowpeas or sugar snap peas
  • 3 shittake mushrooms, soaked till softened and sliced
  • 8 prawns, shelled and deveined and sliced in half lengthways
  • 2-3 cloves crushed garlic
  • 2 pieces of ginger, sliced
  • 1 cup of water
  • ½ teaspoon of salt
  • ½ tablespoon of fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoons of oyster sauce
  • 1 teaspoon of cornflour
(Measurements are a rough guide only as I have cooked this dish so much that I don't need to measure anything, I just add each bit in and then taste to correct the flavour. So feel free to play around with the ingredients to your desired tastes.)


  • Heat up a wok, add a little vegetable oil and cook the shiitake mushrooms and prawns first. Set aside.
  • Then fry the garlic and ginger with the snowpeas in the wok, add in some water, cover and cook for 2-3 minutes until the snowpeas change colour and turn a dark green (uncover and stir from time to time).
  • Then add back in the shiitake mushrooms and prawns, add in a pinch of salt, some oyster sauce and fish sauce (add in a little more water if necessary).
  • In a small bowl mix a little cornflour with water and add into wok to thicken the sauce.
Be careful not to overcook the prawns or snowpeas. When you bite into the prawns they should be soft and tender (not rubbery) and the snowpeas should still have a crunch.

You may note that in the photo there is no sauce but around 1 cup of water was added. The cornflour thickened the sauce so that it coats all the ingredients.

Only add enough water to cook with, adding too much water will dilute the flavours of the ingredients resulting in more seasoning required which will affect the taste of the dish.

You are making a stir fry and not a soup, the meats and veges should not be drowning in their own sauce.

I love this dish because it’s simple to make and tastes amazing!

We are known to have four basic tastes - sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Some argue that there is a fifth taste called ‘umami’. Umami is best described as savoury and is found in amino acid rich foods that give a sense of lingering mouth-feel. Umami is not a strongly detectable taste of itself, but it tends to accentuate and embolden other tastes. Umami intensifies sweet and salty, and rounds out sour and bitter.

Shiitake mushrooms and fish sauce are high in umami!

Umami is also found in MSG (surprise!)

So next time when you want to make a stir fry, stop and think about what you are putting into it….don’t bastardise it!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Egg Dish - Chinese Steamed Egg Custard

Recommended: For people who are egg friendly.

This is a very simple egg dish that my dad often made for me as a kid.

The eggs have a cooked consistency of soft silken tofu and custard, flavoured with a little salt, pepper and soy sauce.

1. Fill a saucepan with around 2cm of water and bring to boil.

2. In a small bowl (500ml capacity) crack in two eggs.

3. Whisk the eggs together.

4. Add in water 2/3 full. So ratio of egg to water is roughly 1:3

5. Add in a pinch of salt, and whisk the eggs and water together.
6. Top with ground pepper.

7. Place the bowl in the saucepan of boiling water.

8. Cover and cook for 15 minutes. Steam on a low-med heat.
9. Spoon the egg into a serving bowl.

10. Add some soy sauce and enjoy!

Goodies Galore #1 - Bakkwa

One of my favourite treats to have around the house is bakkwa which is Chinese salty-sweet, dried pork that is similar to jerky.

"If preferred, warm up to soften" - you can warm it up and the best way to do it is to zap it in the microwave for 10-20 seconds.

Bakkwa can be bought from most Asian groceries for around $10-11.50 a box.