Wednesday, June 27, 2012

2 Easy Ways to Love Your Chinese Greens

If you've ever walked into an Asian supermarket, marveled at the variety of beautiful greens available and wondered what on earth to do with them - keep reading. 
Growing up in Malaysia,  we were blessed to have the bounty of the Chinese vegetables available to us all year round.  We enjoyed gai lan, various mustard greens, choy sum, bok choy, snow pea shoots, Chinese cabbage, snake beans,  winged beans or dragon beans,  water spinach, mustard spinach, radishes, turnips, lotus root, jicama, taro and I could go on for days.  My mum's style of home cooking was a wonderful combination of all the various cultural influences that existed around us but when it came to vegetables she almost always cooked them Chinese style.  Her reasons?  a.  Ease and quickness of prep,  b. The Chinese way of lightly cooking vegetables maintains the freshness and nutritional value of them,  and  c. Mum always enjoyed the crunch of quick-sautéed greens and taught us to love the same.  In most Indian and Malay cooking (the other two main cultural influences in Malaysian cuisine),  vegetables are often cooked to within an inch of their lives.  The vegetables are murdered, massacred and mutilated beyond recognition and I'm pretty sure that all nutrition-related intentions for eating healthy can be forgotten.  You may as well be eating potato chips. This is not to say that I don't enjoy the incredible vegetarian feasts that are served on banana leaves at Indian restaurants all over Malaysia - trust me,  a banana leaf vegetarian lunch is high on my list of favorite meals and a life-changing experience for those of you who have yet to experience it.  However,  on a daily basis and on weekdays when time is a commodity nothing beats cooking veggies the Chinese way. I can whip up a delicious veggie side dish in 15 minutes or less, while something else is cooking and so can you!  My husband tells me that he never loved vegetables until he met me,  and my four-year old LOVES her greens.  He's my husband and has to say such things - she, however has no filter and is brutally honest.  Tonight,  as we were eating a dinner of soy sauce chicken,  jasmine rice and blanched baby bok choy with garlic oil,  she said "The bok choy is the best part!"
There's no reason to serve boring, bland, blah veggies - trust me,  anyone can make these dishes.  There are definitely more complicated, time-consuming ways to cook vegetables Chinese-style, but these two preparations are designed to be quick and easy, and get you into cooking Chinese greens regularly.  Take a look at these simple instructions,  go to your favorite Asian supermarket, get some greens and try your hand at cooking them.  Give yourself a few tries - in no time at all,  you'll be a superfood,  veggie-cooking machine.  We won't go into the health benefits etc. We all know greens are good for us.

Easy Chinese Greens,  Style 1 (serves 3 - 4 as a side dish)

1lb Chinese greens  (Gai Lan or Chinese Broccoli shown in these pics)
3 tablespoons peanut oil
5 garlic cloves - minced or sliced thinly into garlic chips
Vietnamese fish sauce, oyster sauce or soy sauce (optional)
Salt to taste

 1.  Mince garlic or slice into garlic chips.  Depending on how I feel,  I use both methods pretty interchangeably.  If I'm tired, lazy or crunched for time - chips.  If I'm enjoying a glass of wine while cooking and pretending to be a famous chef on my own tv show,  I mince my heart out. 
 2. Separate leaves from stems,  particularly if the greens you are using have tough stems.  Cut leaves and stems into bite size pieces.  Try to keep the pieces the same size, however there's need to be a stickler for perfection.

3. Heat the oil in a wok over high heat.  Add garlic and salt. Sauté for about a minute until fragrant.  Be careful of the temperature of your wok at this point - with so little stuff in the wok,  the risk of it getting too hot too quickly is high.  Turn it down to medium if you feel it's too hot.  This just takes a couple of tries and experience to get the hang of it.  We want to make sure the garlic cooks and releases that great flavor into the oil,  but we don't want it to burn.  If by any chance the garlic burns,  please start over.  The bitterness of the burnt garlic will make the dish inedible.  Once the garlic is fragrant and your kitchen smells divine,  add only the stems.  Give them a few stirs,  then add a couple of tablespoons of water - the steam will help them cook.  Cook for about three minutes,  adding small amounts of water to generate some steam.
4. Add the leaves.   At this point,  add whatever other seasonings you like - oyster sauce,  soy sauce,  fish sauce.  Just a teaspoon or so of any one of these is enough.  Two quick stirs to mix the seasonings through and you're done.  The leaves literally cook in about 15 seconds.  You'll know they're done when they turn a bright, beautiful green and are slightly wilted. 

Easy Chinese Greens,  Style 2 (serves 3 - 4 as a side dish)

1lb Chinese greens  (Baby bok choy shown in these pics)
3 tablespoons peanut oil
8 garlic cloves - minced or sliced thinly into garlic chips
Vietnamese fish sauce, oyster sauce or soy sauce (optional)
Salt to taste

1.  Peel and mince garlic.  No garlic chips for this recipe - only minced garlic will do.  
2.  Slice each baby bok choy in half lengthwise,  from bottom of stem to tip of the leaves.  Doesn't this look beautiful?  At this part of the prep,  I am singing with gratitude at the bounty of the earth's goodness.  Ok,  I'll stop before I go too far with this singing in the kitchen business!
3.  Bring a large pot of water to a rapid boil.  Add baby bok choy and cook until bright green - about one minute depending on size.  Work in batches if you need to,  to avoid over-crowding. 
As you're removing them from the pot,  arrange them in a dish in a nice pattern.  Sometimes I use a large round dish.  Here they are in a square pyrex dish.

4.  In a wok or sauté pan,  heat the oil over high heat.  Add minced garlic and about a half teaspoon of fine salt,  and turn down to medium.  Stir the garlic,  keeping a watchful eye for when it begins to brown.  As it begins to brown,  you have to really baby it - the key is medium heat and moving it around in the pan a lot.  Once it turns a gorgeous nutty, brown color,  add whatever seasonings you would like and remove from heat.  I generally don't add any seasonings, and prefer it with just the oil, garlic and salt.  It's deceptively simple,  but incredibly delicious. 

 5. Pour the garlic, oil and seasoning mixture slowly over the baby bok choy,  being careful to get some on every piece.  If you're looking at this,  and you're not compelled to eat it - geez,  you must be from another planet! :o)

And here's the same dish made with mini bok choy,  which seem to be popping up at Asian markets everywhere these days.   I've only cooked with these twice now,  but they're always a big hit.  In this version of bok choy,  the stems are very tender and thin.  

Once you've mastered these two preparations,  you can play with adding things such as Chinese rice wine,  carrots and red & green peppers for color,  slivered ginger, mushrooms etc.  Once you've gained an understanding of how simple it is to cook this way,  you will have as many different variations as you can think up with whatever ingredients are available.  The sky's the limit. 
Happy cooking and happy, healthy eating!
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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The 5 Best Things I Ate On My Last Trip Back Home

We were home in Malaysia for three and a half weeks over the Christmas holidays.  There was a lot of good eating.  That's putting it mildly - let's just say every meal was a dazzling example of how completely brilliant Malaysian cuisine is.  Does that sound slightly over the top?  I think not.  Believe me when I say that writing this post is going to be very, very painful.  Painful because none of these dishes are available in NYC.  There are many approximations and some even come close - but nothing seriously good.  I'm going to try and describe these so you'll understand:

1.  First and foremost, and always on my mind:  Seremban Beef Noodles (aka Gubak)
No trip back to my hometown is complete without a visit to my favorite Seremban Beef Noodle stall.  The legacy began with very humble beginnings as a tiny stall on the 2nd floor of the Seremban Wet Market.  They only offer one dish - Beef Noodles.  What culinary genius sold his soul to the devil for this creation?!   Pastry-wrapped langoustine at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon would not distract me from a heavenly bowl of Beef Noodles!   
The home-made rice noodles are plump, toothsome and the perfect vehicle for the gravy.   The thick, sticky, flavorful gravy is beef-broth based - meaty bones and knuckles are boiled for hours with star anise and peppercorns to extract every ounce of beefy,  marrow-y flavor, then reduced to the perfect consistency to coat the humble noodles.  Brisket and tripe are cooked in the same soupy mix until melt-in-the-mouth tender.  Crunchy peanuts, pickled mustard and sliced scallions top everything.  Excuse me while I dry my eyes.  
If you've never experienced beef (or any) tripe before,  trust me when I say one taste of this and you will understand what's so great about it.  I don't think I've ever experienced beef tripe any other way,  and I'm not one of those people who love innards because of the very weirdness of them.  But I LOVE these.  Pure heaven in a bowl.  
I wish I had a better picture of this to share - but I was too eager to dig in so this is what I have.  The piece of beef on top is the tripe and the brisket is what is below.   
If you're ever in Seremban,  head to the Pasar Besar Seremban (Seremban Central Market),  go upstairs and look for stall #748.  Alternatively,  if you prefer a cleaner, air-conditioned environment,  go to Quinn Seremban Beef Noodles 108, Jalan Toman 6, Kemayan Square, 70200 Seremban.  It's a branch of the famous market stall, built by the original owner for one of his daughters.  Equally good,  but you miss the flair and personality of the dirty, old market. 
    Seremban Beef Noodles, Malaysian cuisine, beef, noodles, broth, beef balls, tripe, Seremban

2.  Fried Char Kuey Teow at Taiping Market
We visited a beautiful, small town at the foothills of Peninsula Malaysia's main mountain range called Taiping.  My mother was born and raised in Taiping, and went to the Convent there.  Yeah,  you read that right.  But that's another story.
On our first morning there,  we went to the Taiping Market for breakfast.  The Taiping Market consists of two buildings built in the late 1800s.  One of these buildings houses a food court - the old, original Malaysian concept of a food court.  Not Sbarro and Panda Express here.  Instead you find Hainanese chicken rice,  Nasi lemak, Wan tan mee,  Pau, Dumplings,  Laksa,  Rojak.  You could eat for days and days, and never eat the same thing twice. The char kuey teow is what stood out for me here.  Originally from Penang,  I believe this Taiping version has surpassed the Penang offerings. Rice noodles,  crunchy beansprouts,  Chinese chives, eggs, shrimp, chili paste and blood cockles are stir-fried and given the traditional "wok hei" treatment which imparts a glorious smoky flavor to the entire dish.  "Wok hei" is a technique of cooking in a wok at very high temperatures, and occasionally catching some flames in the wok while stirring the ingredients vigorously.  Please folks,  don't try this at home.  I doubt the Malaysian eateries here in NYC have mastered the "wok hei",  which is why Char Kuey Teow is never replicated to the standard that it is back home.
If you're ever in Taiping,  head to the Taiping Market at the corner of Jalan Maharajalela and Jalan Tupai - magic awaits you there!
Char Kuey Teow, Malaysian cuisine, noodles, shrimp, blood cockles, chives, beansprouts, egg, dinner

3.  Fried Taro Dumplings or Wu Kok in Bidor,  Perak
I have my dear brother to thank for a visit to a famous little eatery in a town I've never been to in my life.  We drove through Bidor in the state of Perak on our way south from Penang back home to Seremban.  Bidor is a sleepy little town with not much going on.  On some town roads,  you'd be lucky to see two cars go by.  When you get to the center of town,  all of a sudden there is a flurry of activity.  Cars parked everywhere,  horns honking,  people milling about,  waiting for tables,  picking up to-go bags - so THIS is where everybody is!  It's almost as if this restaurant is the raison d'etre for this town.  The restaurant is called Pun Chun Chicken Biscuits & Restaurant - they are famous throughout Malaysia for their duck drumstick noodles and these gorgeous little things - fried taro dumplings stuffed with roast pork.  I'm not a fan of duck or drumsticks,  but the petite Wu Kok stole my heart. Originally from Hong Kong,  and available at most Dim Sum spots,  the ones here are to die for.  Purple taro root is boiled and mashed,  then filled with sweet, savory Chinese roast pork and deep fried to absolute perfection.  Crunchy on the outside,  soft and fluffy on the inside and filled with deliciousness,  these are absolutely criminal!  In my dreams,  I am a size 2 and I have the little old lady from the back kitchen at Pun Chun cooking these up in my kitchen here in Brooklyn.  Yes,  I know Wu Kok are available at the big banquet-style Dim Sum places here in NY,  but not. like. this. 
If you ever find yourself on the North-South Highway from Kuala Lumpur to Penang or back - please take a break and stop at Bidor for a meal.   Pun Chun Chicken Biscuits & Restaurant is at 38 - 40 Jalan Besar, Bidor, Perak.  It's on the main road in town - you can't miss it. 
Fried Taro Dumplings, Malaysian cuisine, taro, yam, roast pork, pork, lunch, Bidor, Pun Chun

4.  Appam Balik aka Terang Bulan at Taiping Market
A sweet treat that is found at hawker stalls everywhere in Malaysia,  Appam Balik is a great example of how something really simple can be so delicious.  It's basically a pancake filled with crushed peanuts, sugar and creamed corn.  Doesn't sound like much,  right?  I know it sounds kinda plain,  possible even a little "meh!"  This is the one thing I wish I had had more of while back home.  There are two types - the thick ones and the thin crispy ones.  Just like we have deep dish and thin crust pizza here,  the difference is essentially the same.  Some folks like the doughiness of the thick pancakes,  and some people love the crunch of the thin ones.  I prefer the thick ones myself.  Unlike regular pancake batter,  this batter has baking soda and baking powder added,  which results in a lovely,  airy pancake which is the perfect vehicle for the filling.  The combination of crushed peanuts and creamed corn is pure genius.  Once again,  slightly crunchy on the outside and soft, melty and sweet on the inside, Appam Balik are usually bought to take home in a plastic bag to enjoy once you're not so full from whatever meal you just had at the hawker center.  This is a complete shame,  since one is not enjoying it while it's still hot and just out of the pan.  The gravity of this is only just occurring to me as I write this.  Note to self:  When next home in Malaysia,  plan an outing for just Appam Balik alone,  separate from any official mealtime.  It deserves it's very own time and it's very own spotlight.  These are easily made at home - I have made them before and they come out very nicely.  I will share the recipe next on the blog,  for those of you who would like to try it. 
Appam Balik, Malaysian cuisine, dessert, peanuts, creamed corn, pancake

5.  Baby Oyster Omelette at End of the World Seafood in Penang
Last, but most definitely not least - my favorite dish in the whole of Penang island - the baby oyster omelette.  I've been a fan of this dish ever since I can remember.  When we were kids, we spent a few weeks in Penang every year.  There were countless trips to Gurney Drive,  a popular seafront promenade that was famous for the many hawker stalls lining the street.  In my mind's eye,  I can still see where we used to park the car,  the walk up to the tables,  the layout of the stalls and I even remember exactly what the guy making the baby oyster omelettes looked like.  I know,  I sound like a hawker stalker,  don't I?  The hawkers are no longer on Gurney Drive,  but I'm happy to report that they've all re-located to a space close by and the baby oyster omelette is as good as ever.  We also had this dish at a famous seafood place called End of the World Seafood and it was pretty much the same thing.  If there was one slight difference,  I would say that it lacked the "wok hei" element which the Gurney Drive version has.  Baby oysters are enrobed in a crunchy, smoky egg omelette with a goopy, glutinous, thick center.  The goopiness is a result of cornstarch which is cooked in the pan before the eggs are added in.  The oysters are delicate and bursting with flavor.  The dish is served with a sweet, clear hot sauce to dip each bite into.  It's midnight,  I'm hungry - in Malaysia we would just hop in the car and head to the nearest hawker stall for a feast of whateveritisyou'recraving.  Here in Brooklyn,  I take a sip of water and I bid you goodnight.  
Baby Oyster Omelette, Malaysian cuisine, Penang, oysters, egg, omelette

Who's coming on a food tour of Malaysia with me?  Drop me a note at and let's plan a trip. Pin It