January 5, 2012

How to become a better cook

I vividly recall the first dish I ever tried to cook when I was twelve. It was my version of fried rice whose recipe I had tried to guess by watching the cook in the "Chinese" food van near my house.

It was an undeniable disaster.

Fortunately I now know that teaspoons of turmeric powder are not quite the same as soy sauce, which is what gave the rice its brown colour. So if you think you're a terrible cook because you have trouble making even instant noodles, trust me that everyone starts offs as a blank slate.

"I suck at cooking. Can I ever be a good cook?" is something I hear a lot. The theme of this issue of Indulge is "deconstruction" so it's a good time for me to take you through the stages of evolution from knowing nothing at all to becoming a great cook. I'll pretend to be Buddha-like and call it an "eight-fold path to cooking enlightenment". Let's start with...

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September 21, 2011

How to make great scrambled eggs

Simple, creamy scrambled eggs are a delightful breakfast. It's a dish designed to highlight the egg's flavour without the need for any other strong flavours. Yet, I have friends who keep telling me they can't get it right, or that it wasn't as good as one they had at a hotel or restaurant. It is for people like them that I am writing this guide to simple, delicious scrambled eggs. Oh, and it has pictures too.

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June 8, 2007

Recipe: Tom Kha Gai (Thai coconut soup)

After my recipe for Tom Yam soup, I got many emails asking me for a Tom Kha soup recipe too. It's another crowd pleaser, and in contrast to Tom Yam, is milder, creamier, and richer. In Tom Yam, the citrus flavours of lemongrass and lime leaves take the lead, but Tom Kha's earthy flavour comes from Kha or galangal as you might know it.  

What follows is the recipe I use to make Tom Kha Gai at my restaurant. This is by no means the one true method. As with almost any well-known dish on this planet, you can make changes to suit your taste and style. I will suggest some of them in the "notes" section after the recipe. Give each a try, and you might find a new personal favourite.  

White creamy soups are hard to photograph, especially when you're using real food, but here is a picture anyway. The soup met a noble end after the photo was taken. It ended up in my belly.  

Tom Kha soup

On to the recipe, shall we?

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August 1, 2005

Recipe: Tamarind chicken wings

Want a relatively easy recipe for finger food with an Asian twist at your next cocktail party? Then perhaps this recipe for Tamarind Chicken Wings might fit the bill. It's my own adaptation of an old Peranakan dish, Ayam Siow. I use chicken wings because they're tasty and they're cheap as well. The flavour is very fruity-sour from the tamarind and very sweet from the sugar. The original recipe calls for far more sugar than I've used. Be sure to marinate the chicken for long enough so the flavour seeps into the chicken. The recipe below is for 1/2 Kg of chicken (a bit more than a pound), but scales up pretty well.

Let's get on with the recipe, shall we?

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January 10, 2005

How to make perfect steamed rice

Rice... that wonderful grain. The foundation of Asian cuisine. The neutral agent with which all flavours meld. What would we do without it?

Steamed rice is pretty simple to make. But it surprised me when I was teaching a cookery class a couple of months back and some people asked me how to make rice that wasn't sticky or overcooked or undercooked. Then I got a few queries on email about the same thing. And of course I promised in my article on fried rice that I would write a piece on how to steam rice properly. So here it is: the simple oil-free way to get nice, fragrant, separate rice that's perfectly cooked. All you need is rice, water, and a thick heavy-gauge pan with a tight-fitting lid.


(Image courtesy stock.xchng - the free photo site)

What you need

Long-grain rice - 1 cup

Water - 1.5 cups

How to make it

First, you need to wash off the excess starch from the rice. This will prevent it from making a sticky mess. Put the rice in a deep bowl, and in your sink, run cold tap water over it. Once the bowl is full of water, use your fingers to swish the rice around. The water will start getting murky. Now gently pour this water out. Repeat this process till the water is mostly clear. This will take at least 4-5 washes.

Now fill it up one last time. Don't wash the rice again. Just leave it in there, covered with water, for about 30 minutes or so. Why am I doing this? I freely admit I'm still trying to figure out the science behind it, but it results in a much fuller, softer grain. After the soaking, you will notice that the rice grains have turned a nice milky white.

OK, let's drain the water out carefully again. Try and get as much water out of the bowl as you can without pouring out the rice grains as well. This takes patience.

(All this isn't as complicated as it's beginning to sound. I just like to ensure I've covered everything.)

On to cooking the rice...

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January 5, 2005

Recipe: Orange-lemon Chicken

My friends are always bugging me for "quick n' easy" recipes. Then I give them a stir-fried chicken recipe, for instance, and they come back to me and say, "Hey, that chicken took me half an hour to chop, and the two tablespoons of garlic was a pain to mince." So I'll show them how I mince garlic in 10 seconds with my Chinese cleaver, and they say, "if we tried that, we'd lose our fingers". What is a chef to do? Tell them to watch more Yan Can Cook, that's what! See how the man handles his cleaver.

Having said that, I will offer this recipe with the caveat that it is quick n' easy to make, but if you're slow at wielding your knife, the preparation work may slow you down. But hey, it's a nice dish that's a change from the hot n' spicy Thai stir-fries I'm so fond of. I know Swati wants this recipe really bad after she had dinner at Shiok.

This dish combines two citrus flavours - orange and lemon - with chicken breasts and just a touch of chilli that brings out the full flavours of the orange and lemon. It goes well with rice, or fried rice if you prefer. Wait, the chilli-basil fried rice recipe I gave earlier may be a good companion to this too. (Beware: it will be a strongly-flavoured meal. If you prefer French food, leave now. ;)

This is a real photo of what it looks like:

Orange-lemon chicken

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And here's the recipe...

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December 27, 2004

Recipe: Eggplant in tangy chilli sauce (Terong Balado)

I know what you're thinking. Where on earth has ze chef vanished? Why hasn't he written anything in so long? Has he run out of steam?

The answer to that last question, dear reader, is, er, yes, I was indeed running out of steam. 'Tis the season to be jolly for you folks, but for those of us who work in the hospitality business, it's peak season, which means we're working harder than ever. Alas, I'm not at my creative best when the workload is so much.

Nevertheless I decided to post this Indonesian eggplant (aubergine) recipe because it's simple, it's tasty, and it doesn't require any exotic ingredients. If that's not enough, a fringe benefit of this recipe is that the chilli sauce can be used as a tasty dip for a whole lot of things. Even if you don't like eggplant, the tangy sauce is still useful. What's more, once the sauce is made, the dish is 5 minutes away from being done.

(We digress for a moment to let you know that Chef's Notes has been nominated for a food blog award for best blog by a chef. Please go and vote for me, folks! :)

For most of my life, I hated eggplant, probably because the only way I had it was an overcooked pulpy mess known in India as baingan ka bharta. Only recently did I try some well-cooked eggplant and I converted. It reminds me of my hatred of mushrooms till I was 15. Ah, the scars left by early culinary experiences don't always heal quickly. Better late than never, I suppose.

OK, back to the dish. Here's what it looks like:

Eggplant in tangy chilli sauce

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Bet you want the recipe, huh?

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December 2, 2004

Recipe: Tom Yam Gai Soup

Gosh, I certainly get many emails asking for a Tom Yam soup recipe. Why, I wonder. Could it be because of my tireless advocacy of it as a cure for everything short of a heart attack? Heck, it's certainly strong enough to scare the living daylights out of any viruses. What micro-organism could resist such a relentless assault from the hot n' sour combination of chillies and lime juice with a background of lemongrass and lime leaves?

The funny thing is that though I've tasted Tom Yam soup at many places, I don't think I've had two identical versions of it. Every chef seems to have his or her own balance of flavours that works best, just as I do. It's amusing (and sometimes very annoying) when a customer walks into my restaurant and then argues that my Tom Yam is not "authentic", just because it tastes different from the one bowl of soup he had on a two-day trip to Bangkok. That, however, is not as annoying as someone asking for a "very mild" version of it, even though my menu clearly describes it as "fiery" and even pleads with people not to ask for it "mild". 

So, ladies and gentlemen, this is my recipe for Tom Yam soup. Try making it, especially if you've got a cold and your nose is red and runny, or if you've got a sore throat that needs to be cured. 

Here's what the soup looks like:

Tom Yam soup

And here's the really long-winded recipe, complete with copious chef's notes.

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November 5, 2004

How to make great fried rice

One of the most common questions I get as a chef is about making good fried rice. This usually puzzles me because "fried rice" in Asian food is hardly haute cuisine. In fact, it's the very opposite of it. Fried rice is not one single dish. It is more of a way of combining leftover rice with leftover anything else and turning it into a one-dish meal. 

This "leftover" philosophy of fried rice also means that there are an infinite range of ingredients and flavours that can be combined to create new and interesting versions of fried rice. From the simple egg fried rice to the Indonesian Nasi Goreng (which translates to "fried rice", incidentally) to the Thai Basil-flavoured Rice, you can make any number of tasty dishes that will fill your belly.

As I wrote earlier, fried rice is more of a formula than a single recipe. So rather than list actual ingredients and give you a recipe, I'll explain a few basic things you need to get right to make sure your fried rice comes out great. (But don't worry, a recipe too shall follow.)

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October 6, 2004

Recipe: Hot pepper prawns

Hello, my dear readers. It is time for another recipe. This time it's a quick n' easy prawn recipe - Hot Pepper Prawns. Heck, anything with prawns is quick n' easy because prawns cook so fast. It's a real pity that some of our Indian restaurants simmer them till the cows come home, sucking out the life from the delicate creatures.

Oh alright, they've technically already had the life sucked out of them before they go into the pot, but you know what I'm talking about.

This dish is simple in its flavours. There is no combination of multiple complex flavours like one of my Thai or Malay curries. Yet, sometimes a simple dish is what you need. All this dish needs to go along is some simple fried rice (just stir-fry yesterday's leftover rice with some ginger, garlic, spring onions, eggs, and salt.) and perhaps a stir-fried vegetable dish. You can make all that in under 30 minutes.

If you get medium to large prawns, this dish should take very little time. There isn't even much chopping to do. The hardest part is to devein the prawns, and I've written an entire article devoted to that topic. Don't be put off by the amount of pepper in the dish. Sure, it makes the dish decidedly peppery, but you can't have hot pepper prawns minus the pepper, can you?

Here's a preview of what it will look like:
(I've got a little more sauce than usual)

Hot pepper prawns

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What you need

Medium Prawns (shell removed and deveined) - 150 gm

Butter - 1-2 tbsp

Black pepper, freshly ground (coarse) - 2-3 tsp

Garlic - minced - 2 tsp

Thai bird chillies - finely sliced - 1 tsp (omit this if you can't take the heat)

Light soy sauce - 2 tsp

Dark soy sauce - 2 tsp

Oyster sauce - 1 tbsp

Chicken stock or water - 2 tbsp

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September 14, 2004

Recipe: Ma Po Tofu

One of my readers wants to know if I serve Ma Po Tofu at Shiok and if I know a recipe for a vegetarian version. (Sorry, dear lady, I seem to have accidentally trashed your email so I couldn't send a reply. I hope you will check back and read this recipe.)

Let's talk about Ma Po Tofu. It's a well-known dish from the Sichuan province of China, and in keeping with their reputation, is pretty strongly flavoured. As I've said in an earlier article, I am not the biggest fan of the bland flavour of tofu, but this dish is a wonderful spicy background for it. I love to have it with plain fried rice and some stir-fried veggies.

The original version is made with minced pork (or beef) which gives it a hearty flavour. As in most Chinese dishes, the meat is not added in large quantities, but just enough to lend its character to the dish. At Shiok, however, we make a proper vegetarian version of it by replacing the minced beef with minced fried tofu instead. While it doesn't give it the same flavour, it comes close to the texture of the meat. (We also reduce the oil considerably.)

Here's what it looks like:

Ma Po Tofu

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(As with all our food photos, this too is real food, not the fancy fake stuff often used in food photography.)

And here is the recipe...

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August 31, 2004

Recipe: Tofu stir-fried with basil (Tao Hoo Pad Bai Kaprao)

In my last column on tofu, I promised a tofu recipe. As I was wondering which of the many tofu recipes I should write, the plight of one of my friends came to mind. There she is, a vegetarian student in New York, trying to squeeze in some quick food between studying and working. She implored me to give her veggie recipes that don't need hours to make. So this one's for her.

While much of the hard work in making Asian food is in the preparation, tofu is fortunately easy to cut. Nevertheless, it's essential to have a sharp knife handy as it reduces the chances of cutting yourself. Get a Wusthof or Global chef's knife if you can afford it.

Now, back to the recipe. Today, we're making a Thai favourite - a stir-fry of tofu with chillies, garlic, and basil. I absolutely love Thai basil (pad kaprao) stir-fries and half the week, I have it in one form or the other. This is my adaptation of the meat version of the dish.

Here's what the finished dish looks like (made with firm tofu):

Tofu stir-fried with basil

(The red and yellow peppers aren't terribly authentic, but I like them, hence their appearance.)

On with the recipe, shall we?

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August 30, 2004

How to cook tofu in a stir-fry

Today's question is from Rajesh Krishnamurthy, who is having problems with handling tofu. He writes:

I have always had problem with tofu, in that it crumbled or was too soft. I've tried frying it in a wok for a few minutes but not too happy with the results. Do you have any tips for that?

I have not one, but more tips for that. You're not the first person to ask me about that either. The first time I tried making tofu, I got the tofu equivalent of overcooked scrambled eggs. It took me a fair bit of research to figure out how to tame the darn thing.

Rajesh, I have no idea where you live, so I don't know what type of tofu you get in your part of the world. There are a fair few varieties of tofu you can find in the east. The most common varieties you'll find in shops here are the soft, silken tofu and the firm pressed tofu.

The silken tofu has a higher water content, is very fragile, and is best used in soups and salads. It has a mushy, creamy texture and has the consistency of a soft custard. It it totally unsuitable for stir-frying and will readily disintegrate if you stir-fry it. Are you sure this isn't the type you're buying? Ask if your shop has "firm tofu" or "pressed tofu".

The firm tofu feels fairly firm to the touch and can be cut into cubes relatively easily. This type has a smooth surface on the top of the blocks because it's been pressed to extract some of the excess water in it. (This, incidentally, also increases the protein content per kg of the tofu.) The tofu is fine for stir-frying as long as you don't cut into very small pieces or toss the living daylights out of it. If the tofu is sold packed in water, it most likely is the firm tofu.

What's that? Your supermarket sells only the silky type? Well, you'll just have to catch the next flight to the nearest Chinatown, won't you?

Yeah, right. OK, here's my quick-fix instead.

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August 23, 2004

Recipe: Laab Kai

Laab is a wonderful hot n' sour salad from Thailand. It's also very low in fat, but bursts with flavour. The primary flavours are hot (from the chilli), sour (from the lime juice) and salty (from the fish sauce) If you want a circus on your tongue, try Laab. It's also made very quickly - less than 10 minutes if you work fast.

I've modified this version to my liking (the lemon grass, for instance), so it may not match other recipes exactly.

Here's what it looks like:

Laab Kai - Thai Hot n' Sour Chicken Salad

and here's how to make a 2-portion serving...

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August 19, 2004

Ask the Chef: Deveining shrimp

A reader known only as "Strongbow" wants to know about deveining prawns (shrimp)

I had a query regarding cooking prawns and I hope you won't mind answering it. I live in Ireland and here we often buy prawns in the frozen state from the local Asian shop. Is it necessary to de-vein these before cooking. My wife seems to think that it's mandatory and spends like 40 minutes or so in de-veining these. My mom also told me at home that it is mandatory to devein prawns before cooking else you'll have indigestion. What's your take on this?

Your mum is partially right, Strongbow. Before I give you a "yes or no" answer, let me explain exactly what "deveining" means. The explanation may cause a bit of squirming, but it's necessary.

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August 13, 2004

Cooking seafood properly

It's always great to get reader mail, especially when they have genuine problems that inspire an article. This one comes from Shanti, who says:

Whenever I cook salmon (not like a curry, but pan-fried), it tends to become too hard. How do I keep it flaky and soft? We cook it till we think it is well done - about 10 minutes on each side.

Well, first of all, I'm envious of Shanti having salmon. I wish we in India got decent salmon at a decent price. Sadly, neither of those has happened. 

Her question, however, is quite simple to answer.

Just don't cook it to death, my dear lady.

10 minutes on each side murders any texture, moisture or flavour the fish has got, unless your steaks are 2 inches thick, of course. (And if they are, you have a very accommodating mouth, I must say.)

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August 4, 2004

Recipe: Gado Gado

Gado Gado is a wonderfully light vegetable dish from Malaysia / Indonesia that doesn't follow any fixed recipe. In fact, it can be made with any leftover vegetables in your refrigerator. This makes it highly versatile. Use the veggies in this recipe as a guide but use whatever you have. If you want a totally vegetarian version, leave out the boiled eggs.

Here's what our restaurant version looks like

Gado Gado salad
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Cabbage - 100 gm (1 cup) - shredded
Beans - 200 gm (2 cups) - cut into 1/2 inch lengths
Carrots - 4 medium-sized - peeled and sliced thinly
Cauliflower florets - 100 gm (1 cup)
Beansprouts - 50 gm (1/2 cup)  washed

For the garnish:
Some lettuce leaves and watercress
Eggs - 2 - boiled and quartered.
Potato - 1 medium-size - boiled in its skin, peeled and sliced
Cucumber - 1/2 - thinly sliced

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August 1, 2004

Hot wok, cold oil

When I was a young lad, I got hooked on watching cookery shows. At that time, we only had one Star TV channel, but much to my delight, they showed a different cooking show every afternoon. One of my favourites was The Frugal Gourmet by Jeff Smith (who recently died, unfortunately). One of the first cooking principles I learnt from him was "hot wok, cold oil; food won't stick" (A wok is a Chinese frying pan; a beastly version of our kadhai). This simple piece of advice can dramatically improve your cooking. It certainly made a difference to mine!

I've watched plenty of friends and family cook dishes at their homes, and one of the most common mistakes is to not bring the frying pan or cooking vessel to the correct temperature before adding oil. If you add cold oil to a pan that's not hot enough, you will lower the temperature of the pan even further. When you then add your seasonings or other ingredients, it will no longer fry. Instead it will soak in the oil.

When an ingredient soaks in oil without frying, it has many nasty side effects. First, because the oil isn't hot enough to sear the outside of the meat or vegetable, it gets absorbed into the food, making for a greasy dish. Second, food will stick to the pan more. (More about that shortly.) Lastly, you won't get the texture you want.

When a wok is hot enough, adding oil on top of the hot metal create a thin film of oil that goes into the pores of the metal, creating a "non-stick" effect. The oil then dances easily on the surface. You will now have to use less oil to saute or stir-fry your food.

So how exactly do you know when your wok is "hot enough", you ask? No, you don't have to keep a thermometer handy. Some simple guides will do the trick - what Asians have been doing for ages.

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July 30, 2004

Recipe: Thai Fruit and Shrimp Salad

This dish, called Yam Polamai, has always been a hit with my guests, despite its unusual ingredient list. While it's on my restaurant menu, not too many are adventurous enough to try it, possibly because the idea of combining fruit and shrimp with a chilli-lime dressing isn't so appealing. That's a real pity because the sharp contrast of textures, colours, and flavours is a delight on the palate.

I first found this recipe through one of Madhur Jaffrey's delightful cookbooks on Far-eastern cookery. I have modified the recipe a little to my liking, adding some mint leaves to give a cooling counter-point to the other sharp flavours and adding a touch more red chilli.

Here's what the finished dish looks like:

Yam Polamai - Thai Fruit and Shrimp Salad

And of course, here's the recipe so you can make it yourself:

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