Monday, February 24, 2014

Enchanting Puerto Rico, Old San Juan Revisited

San Cristobal Fort 
The forts, the colorful buildings, the ocean, the food.  My daughter described Puerto Rico as "enchanting". In particular, the word describes an islet tucked within the northern side of the island, called Old San Juan.  Travel aficionados will want to know that it is one of those 1000 places to visit before we die.

A sketch on the wall, drawn by a prisoner
awaiting execution.
For me, Old San Juan reminds me of Malacca and perhaps that's why I am so drawn to it.  Malacca is where a few of my ancestors came from so in a way, there is a special affinity for Malacca on my end.  The two small cities were founded around the same time.  Two majestic forts anchor the two corners of Old San Juan.  Puerto Rico's historical significance stemmed from its geographical position as the entryway into the Caribbean, 4000 miles away from Spain across the Atlantic Ocean.  One can only imagine the actions and conversations that took place in those casemates, secret tunnels, dungeons and sentry boxes.   And like Malacca, these colonial legacies are only ghosts of a glorious past.

In Old San Juan, the unusual blue cobblestoned paths and the array of candy- colored buildings guide you along the narrow streets up and down the hill.  The unique blue tiles were furnace slag that served as ballasts on the Spanish galleons.  Hopefully, heavy traffic nowadays will not undermine these tiles.

The pastries of Cafeteria Mallorca
What keeps my family back to Puerto Rico is its cuisine.  La Bombanera, an established cafe from the early 1900s was under repair.  We went further down the street to Cafeteria Mallorca (300 Calle San Francisco) for breakfast with the locals.  I ordered a cup of Puerto Rican coffee, of a soothing, milky consistency, along with mallorca with ham and cheese.  The sandwich was a double-sided toasted pastry with the filling, dusted with powdered sugar.

After touring San Cristobal fort, we looked forward to lunch at Cafe Puerto Rico, recommended by no fewer than five local residents, one of whom exclaimed that it reminded him of his grandmother's cooking.  Curious to know what the fuss was with 'Mofongo', I was not disappointed.  I chose a fried basket of mashed yuca that contained bacalao (codfish) stew.  That, along with a mojito, ended a blissful day of old world charm.

Mofongo stuffed with stewed bacalao

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The beach

It was my daughter who noticed the beach sand
in this wedding photo.  

The beach runs in my family's blood.  My mother was born in a mansion fronting the sea.  My parents got married not too far away from one, in Telok Kurau.  I grew up on the East Coast. Until his early eighties, my father swam in the sea with his friends every morning.

In New York. I confront the daily dilemma of whether we should move uptown to be closer to the kids' schools.  Do I trade my river view for one of Central Park or Park Avenue?  One quick gaze at the boats moving upriver and the seaplanes gliding on the water runway, and my mind is quickly made up. I need to be near water. It calms my soul.

There is therapy from the languid lull of the sea.  The lapping waves.  The soft dips into the sand.  Or perhaps, the adrenaline rush of the cold, gushing ocean waves. And on a good beach, the unique shells that sweep up to shore and the bashful crabs that burrow deep in seconds.

I enjoyed reading the last chapter of "Sambal Days" by Aziza Ali in which she lavishly described the picnics and weekends spent by the beach with her family.  Aziza and I were co-panelists at the Singapore Writers' Festival last year.  Her reminiscences could very well have captured my sisters' enjoyment of their beach days, same era, same place.  For my sisters, their playground was Loyang before the stretch was creamed into the Changi Airport runway.

Singapore had to sacrifice many things in order to prosper, among them, the natural beaches that lined the East Coast.  Recently, my kids showed my father a magazine photo of coconut trees lining a white sand beach in Thailand.  He told the one thing that they will remember for life.  "Our beach looked like that."

These days, we venture far and wide in the hunt for what was once taken for granted in the past.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Pounding and grinding

Shame on those horny birds on Valentine's Day.  This blog entry is strictly about the various ways to pound and grind ingredients, a question recently raised on FB by an old church friend, Celery Lim.

In my grandaunt's time, as she had described to me, potential mothers-in-law went searching for prospective  brides and judged their cooking proficiency by the pounding rhythm and fineness of their rempah spice paste.

My little daughter, a true Nonya from the very start.  Mothers-in-law will go crazy for her. 

Batu lesong 
The equipment of old was the batu lesong (mortar and pestle).  To this day, I believe that using a batu lesong produces a more refined spice paste.  There is a "more pronounced kick and tighter fusion of spices brought about by the pounding", as opposed to using the electric blender.   I am omitting the batu giling here, only because it is a super heavy stone slab one rarely finds, except perhaps in Little my friend Lynette and I once did and carted off in her car.   The slab came to NY but knocked the legs off my wooden kopitiam table across the Pacific Ocean.

As I had written in my cookbook, with a new mortar, my mother pounded dry grated coconut to absorb the grit tucked into the fine crevices of the new mortar.  Pounding the coconut also left a shine to the surface of the mortar and pestle.  A smooth surface was essential so that bits of the paste would not get stuck in the crevices.
A French mortar and pestle
The French use a daintier mortar and pestle, almost like a chemist's, in which they pounded their black pepper and bay leaves.

These days, new mortars come with smoothened surfaces but buyer beware, most are also made of a more inferior granite that is not held in the same regard by the older Nonyas.  So don't discard your grandmother's and use it as a decorative flower pot!

My Cuisinart food processor 

Obviously, the electric blender is more convenient and practical in this day and age.  The processor comes with shredder (good for fine strips of jicama for popiah) and the dough blade (my cop-out when making pastry dough).  With electric blenders, the cup size should not be too big.  Otherwise, the ingredients will jump about and thus make it harder to produce a fine paste.  I purchased a hard-core processor with a smaller cup attachment.

The good old coffee grinder

 It is also worthwhile to keep a coffee grinder to refine hard spices such as cinnamon, cassia bark, nutmeg, star anise or cloves.  Some of these ingredients are essential for bumbu kueh, the cake spice blend needed to bake the delectable Kueh Lapis.  

A stick/ immersion blend

I am also a fan of the stick or immersion blender although it is more relevant for Western cooking.  In particular, for pureeing Vichyssoise or mushroom soup within the pot itself.  However, the stick blender comes in handy to make that small batch of spice paste when you fit all the ingredients in that little container that comes with the blender.

When pounding or grinding, stop periodically and use a spatula or spoon to press down the paste, and then resume the process.  Sometimes, with a blender, a few spoonfuls of water could 'lubricate' the blending process to produce the desired fine paste.  That said, happy pounding and grinding!


Monday, February 3, 2014

Baby Back Ribs (with recipe)

I was in a conundrum this Chinese New Year.  The extraordinary wintry, snowy weather dampened the mood to slush down to Chinatown to stockpile on groceries.  As I look out the window now, swift, angled slashes of snow rain down furiously on the streets, yet unsalted and unplowed by our new and insufferable mayor.

CNY took place the day after a museum family event that I co-chaired, and two days before Superbowl.  Not that I am a football mom of any sort, but my little boy loves the game and I wanted to do something small and special.  Hence, I allocated time this weekend to preparing traditional party food such as guacamole, wings and ribs, as opposed to the elaborate and much more elegant Tok Panjang (a Nonya buffet spread).   Yet, I kept thinking of the babi panggang that my mother would order from our favorite Hainanese caterer, Ah Heng.  Charcoal-grilled belly pork with a special marinade, a distinct flavor and aroma and crispy skin, served up with kuak chye (pickled vegetable).  Not at all like the siew yoke (roast pork) commonly found alongside chicken rice

I made do with baby back ribs, for the time being.  Enjoy the recipe.

Hawaiian Side Street Ribs
(adapted from Saveur, May 2006)

Serves 6


7 pounds ribs, cut into 6- or 7- rib portions, slit halfway through between ribs

Ingredients for simmer 
1 whole garlic, chopped
4 inches knob ginger, chopped 
¾ cup rice vinegar 
¼ cup salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Ingredients for sauce
2½ cups tomato ketchup
1½ cups orange juice
6 tablespoons honey
6 tablespoons light corn syrup
4 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
½ teaspoon Tabasco sauce
½ cup light brown sugar
2 cloves garlic, chopped


Fill a pot with cold water, enough to cover the ribs.  Bring to boil over high heat. Add in the simmer ingredients.  Add in the ribs and bring to boil, then lower to a simmer, partially covered.  Simmer for at least an hour until the meat is tender. 

Meanwhile, to make the sauce, combine the sauce ingredients together in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat.  Lower the heat to a simmer and cover partially. Stir occasionally until the sauce thickens, about an hour. 

After boiling the ribs, drain the ribs and leave the ribs to dry in a single layer on sheet pans.

Arrange the oven rack 3-4 inches from the broiler.  Preheat the broiler.  Brush both sides of the ribs with the sauce and broil the ribs, bone side up first, for 3 to 4 minutes.  Turn over the ribs and brush the meaty side with another coat of sauce.  Broil these meaty sides for another 3-4 minutes. 

Repeat this process another 2 times until the ribs are nicely coated and the meat looks well absorbed in the sauce.  Serve warm.  

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