5-Minute Cantonese Porridge (Congee)

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Forget cooking Cantonese porridge the traditional way. That takes way too long.

On the stove, simmering raw rice in lots of water or stock till it breaks down and forms a smooth, thick gruel takes 2-3 hours.

In a slow cooker, the process is an overnight job.

Chwee Kueh (水粿; Steamed Rice Cakes)

Thursday, 30 May 2013

There're several types of steamed cakes made with rice flour. If you want to learn how to make these traditional delicacies, chwee kueh would be a good start. It doesn't take long and the ingredients are cheap, so you don't waste much time or money if you fail.

The first step in making chwee kueh is mixing the batter. The main ingredient is rice flour but that alone would make a rather hard kueh. To soften it, you need to add some starch. Some people use tapioca flour; I prefer a mix of cornflour and wheat starch. Of course, the amount of water in the batter is crucial to the success of the steamed kueh. If the ratio of water to flour/starch is wrong, the steamed cake will be too hard or too soft.

Teochew Fish Porridge (潮州鱼粥)

Tuesday, 3 July 2012


How do you tell if the fish you wanna buy is fresh? (a) It doesn't smell fishy. (b) The eyes are bright. (c) The gills are red. (d) It feels firm. (e) The skin is shiny. (f) All of the above. If you choose 'f', then sorry, you're wrong . . . mostly.

Bak Chang (肉粽; Meat Dumplings)

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

My mother made two types of 粽子 every year, kee chang and bak chang. The former is quite straightforward; it's just glutinous rice and lye water wrapped in bamboo leaves. Bak chang, however, is extremely varied in ingredients, seasoning, cooking method, and shape depending on which part of China your family is from. For us – we're Teochews – there're two types indigenous to our culture. The more elaborate type, called 双烹, has a small ball of sweet red bean paste wrapped in leaf lard. My mother always did the simpler type without the sweet red bean paste. The filling is 100% savory with fatty pork belly, chestnuts, mushrooms, dried prawns and fried shallots.

Pulut Inti

Saturday, 14 April 2012

What do pulut inti, kueh kochee, pulut chawan, lopes, ondeh ondeh, kueh salat, pulut tataa, kueh doldol, kueh bengka pulut, and kueh wajek durian have in common, apart from all of them being Nyonya kueh-kueh?

The 10 kueh-kueh are all made with coconut, and glutinous rice or glutinous rice flour. Yet they're all different as can be in texture, taste and look.

Orh Kueh/Steamed Yam Cake (I)

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Making good orh kueh starts with choosing yam that's light for its size. Lighter ones have less water, and less watery ones are nicer because they're more fluffy, powdery and fragrant.

Next, be generous when trimming the yam. The outer part is usually waxy and tasteless. I usually cut 2-3 cm off the top and bottom, and 1-2 cm off the sides.

To enhance its fragrance, the yam should be fried and then seasoned lightly with salt and five-spice powder. Don't let the yam brown or it'd be leathery.

How to Make GOOD Fried Rice

Friday, 2 March 2012


The most common tip for making fried rice is: use day-old rice because it's fluffy and no longer sticky. Unfortunately, fluffy rice alone doesn't make good fried rice. The chewiness of the rice is equally important, and that doesn't change much once the rice is cooked.

How to cook rice that's chewy? By steaming, so that the rice doesn't directly sit in boiling water.

When rice is cooked in boiling water, the cell walls break down, allowing the starch inside to leak out, absorb too much water and turn soft. The change in texture is irreversible, so the rice isn't chewy even if you let it rest overnight. Hence, rice cooked by boiling, in a rice cooker or on the stove, is destined to make fried rice that's at best mediocre even if it's day-old rice.

In contrast, rice that's steamed has no direct contact with boiling water. Cooked at a lower temperature, the cell walls don't break down much, so very little starch escapes. Hence, all the grains are chewy and they don't stick together. The overnight rest, a must for boiled rice, isn't necessary for steamed rice. This fried rice, made with 15-minute-old steamed rice, is as fluffy as can be:

Temperature isn't the only important factor. The amount of water absorbed by the rice is equally crucial. Too much water would make the rice loses its chewiness even if it's steamed. How much is too much? It depends on the type of starch found in the rice.

There're two types of rice starch: amylopectin and amylose. The latter makes rice fluffy and not sticky because it's insoluble. Basmati rice, for instance, is very fluffy because it has a high percentage of amylose. Amylopectin, on the other hand, makes rice chewy by absorbing water to form a gel. Glutinous rice is extremely chewy because it contains mostly amylopectin.

You might have come across the tip that aged, old rice is necessary for making good fried rice because it has more amylose than newly harvested rice. The tip isn't entirely correct. Rice that's too old has too much amylose and not enough amylopectin to make it chewy. It's fluffy alright but it's not chewy, and the texture gets worse when the rice cools down because amylose hardens when it's cold. New rice, on the other hand, runs a risk of turning mushy because it has a lot of amylopectin, which becomes soft if it absorbs too much water.

The best rice – that's easy to work with, fluffy, chewy, and doesn't harden when it's cold – should have a good balance of the two types of starch. I'd call it middle-aged. (Click here to learn more about old vs new rice from Harold McGee.)

So, the rice is steamed to fluffy and chewy perfection, and half the battle is won. Ready to stir and fry?

To win the second half of the battle without wok hei – the smoky, charred aroma created with a professional-grade stove – ingredients are the home cook's only weaponry. Forget about mincing a few cloves of garlic. You need a heap of ingredients – an atomic bomb, in other words, not a few hand grenades – or the rice would be tasteless. But not too much either or the rice would be overwhelmed. (You want to bomb a city, not destroy the entire planet.)

The mix of ingredients must be chosen carefully so that the rice is infused with both fragrance and umaminess. Shallots, dried prawns and salted fish make a great combination. The Chinese would mince these ingredients finely but I think the Nyonya method is far superior. Pounding with a mortar and pestle achieves a very fine grind which a knife can't possibly create. Imagine each and every grain of rice coated with countless specks of shallots, dried prawns and salted fish which have been fried till brown and fragrant. The aroma and umaminess pop in your mouth even before you start chewing.

Adding chunks of meat or seafood to fried rice would be to miss the point completely. It's fried rice, not stir-fried chicken or whatever. A modest amount, cut pea-sized or flaked if it's crab, adds variety but doesn't overwhelm. Each little piece is eaten with some rice in one mouthful, which wouldn't be possible if it's cut too big.

Most people expect eggs in Chinese fried rice so into the wok they go, fried rather than raw so that the rice doesn't sit in liquid eggs and lose its chewiness. Don't forget that eggs would absorb some aroma and umaminess, so there must be sufficient dried prawns, salted fish and shallots – or whatever you fancy – to flavour not just the rice but also the eggs.

Lastly, add salt and ground white pepper to taste, and lots of spring onion or maybe iceberg lettuce, and the job's done. Easy peasy.

DRIED PRAWN, SALTED FISH & CHICKEN FRIED RICE (虾米咸鱼鸡丁炒饭)
(Recipe for 4 persons)

360 g long grain Jasmine white rice (I use Songhe brand)
wash and drain thoroughly; place in 18-cm round cake tin; add 320 ml water (weight of rice plus water is 720 g); let rice soak 10 minutes

50 g dried prawns
50 g salted ikan kurau (threadfin), bones and scales removed if any
100 g shallots, peel

5½ tbsp vegetable oil
2 eggs (use 1 tsp to marinate chicken)
beat with 2 tbsp milk, big dash of ground white pepper, and 1 tsp each of light soya sauce, white sesame oil and Shaoxing wine
200 g deboned chicken thigh or drumstick
wash, drain and dice 1½ cm; marinate with dash of ground white pepper, and 1 tsp each of light soya sauce, Shaoxing wine, egg and white sesame oil for 15 minutes or longer
salt to taste, about ¼ tsp
ground white pepper to taste, about ½ tsp
60 g spring onions
trim and wash; dice to yield 1 cup (sounds like a lot!)

Steam rice over rapidly boiling water for 15 minutes, then check whether rice needs more water. If surface layer is cooked but a bit hard, rice is ideal. Steam another 5 minutes – surface layer should now be soft but chewy – then remove rice from steamer. If surface layer is not cooked, sprinkle with 1-2 tbsp water and continue steaming for another 5 minutes. Repeat if necessary, till rice is just soft. Remove rice from steamer. If surface layer is cooked and soft, remove rice immediately (and use less water next time you steam rice).

After rice is cooked, fluff and set aside to firm up, about 20 minutes. Cover if not frying immediately.

If the rice is fried just after steaming, it's still fluffy and 'Q' but the soft grains would break into small pieces when stirred. You may skip the cooldown when hunger is more important than presentation, or if you can toss rice like a pro.

Whilst rice is cooking, rinse dried prawns, salted fish and shallots. Cut into small pieces, then blitz in mini chopper or pound till very fine. If pounding, start with salted fish, then dried prawns and finally shallots.

In a well-seasoned wok, make a thin omelette with eggs using ½ tbsp vegetable oil. When omelette is almost done, chop into small pieces with spatula. Transfer to a plate and set aside.

In the same wok, heat remaining 5 tbsp vegetable oil till almost smoking. Add salted fish, dried prawns and shallots. Fry over medium heat till brown and fragrant. Increase heat to high. Add chicken and stir through. Add rice and eggs. Stir-fry till chicken is just cooked. Taste and add salt if necessary. Stir through. Turn off heat. Sprinkle with ground white pepper and spring onions. Stir through. Plate and serve.

Kuih Seri Muka/Kueh Salat (I)

Friday, 17 February 2012


The custard layer of my kueh salat (aka kuih seri muka) is a pale avocado green. That's because it's made with (a lot of) pandan leaves. Do you know how the bibiks of yesteryears get a brighter green, naturally? They used dark green leaves called daun pandan serani/suji, which look like pandan leaves but are smaller and darker.

Nyonya Fried Rice

Friday, 14 October 2011

Fried rice is one of those things. It may be a great chef's finale for a grand Chinese banquet. Or it may be something rustled up by a hungry youngster snooping round the kitchen when Mum is out.

Brilliantly executed, fried rice is sublime. If not, it's (usually) at least edible.

Nyonya fried rice is easier than the Chinese version.

Fried Glutinous Rice

Thursday, 21 July 2011

I've been eating glutinous rice for about a year now, in place of the non-sticky variety. I steamed some one day 'cause I was out of regular rice, and I haven't looked back since. It's more fragrant than regular rice though the quality does vary from brand to brand.

Non-sticky rice can be steamed or boiled but the sticky one can only be steamed. If steamed without the rice sitting in water, it should be soaked for several hours, which was what I did when I was a sticky rice novice.

Of course, I didn't always have several hours' foresight into when I wanted to tuck into a bowl of piping hot rice, and hunger made my brain tick.

Hmm . . . instead of making the rice absorb water before cooking it, why not make it absorb water whilst it's being cooked? Hey, we all have to multi-task, even rice!

Mee Siam (Spicy Rice Vermicelli)

Friday, 24 June 2011

The mee siam recipe I'm sharing is from Cooking for the President.

When Wee Kim Wee was an ambassador in Malaysia and Japan, Mrs Wee's cooking took Tokyo and KL by storm (according to the cookbook). She invited 500 guests at a time, and laid out an entire spread of Nyonya delicacies.

Mee siam was one the guests' firm favourites, along with sambal udang and chicken satay.

The 'Mee Siam Mai Hum' Mystery

Sunday, 27 March 2011


During one of his speeches a couple of years ago, the Prime Minister said, 'Mee siam mai hum.' He was relating how he would order the noodle dish, mee siam, without cockles.

The PM was perhaps making an attempt to connect with commoners who eat humble stuff, like me. But the speech set tongues wagging, to put it mildly, because mee siam doesn't have cockles, ever.

The harsher critiques thought the PM's little boo-boo showed how disconnected he was with everyday life. But I think there could be another explanation for his culinary faux pas. What he actually wanted to say was mee siam without tamarind, or mee siam mai assam. How do I know that? Take a look at his grandmother's mee siam recipe, extracted from Mrs Lee's Cookbook (Mrs Lee being said grandmother):

Run your eye through the list of ingredients for the gravy. See? There's no assam in Grandma's recipe.


So, confronted with the commoners' version that always comes with assam, the PM would say mee siam mai assam. But that fateful day, no thanks to a slip of the tongue, he said mai hum instead.

That might be one mystery solved, but I'm still scratching my head. Every single mee siam I've ever eaten is slightly tangy with assam. When I have a craving for mee siam, it's the spicy sourness that I long for. Why on earth would anyone make mee siam without assam?

Teochew Porridge

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Making good teochew porridge is very easy. It starts with the choice of rice: new is better than old.

New rice is rice that has just been harvested and has a high starch content whilst old rice has less. If it doesn't say 'new' on the packaging, that means it's old. It's not as good as new but doable if you aren't a porridge fanatic.