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Cooking techniques

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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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.

Rice

(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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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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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 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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