Raw onions can be unpleasant on their own but if subject to some vinegar become sweet and pleasing to the eyes. Make at least an hour before pairing with your dish or store for longer to allow flavors to develop.
Red onions, white vinegar, salt
Prep time: 10 mins
Slice red onions thinly and place in a jar (if storing for >1 day) or in a bowl. Submerge onions in vinegar, then add a tbsp of salt.
Any salad such as tabbouleh, Greek salad or coleslaw, grilled fish or meats to balance the fat or use as garnish on soups that are especially dense or creamy
1 big can of lychee (or 2 small ones), 1 can full of vodka, some patience and then lime
Pour the lychees including syrup into a jar with the vodka. Mix and refrigerate for at least a week. When you’ve had enough (because sometimes you can’t help yourself!), take your favorite glass with 1 big block of ice (or 3 small ones), pour desired amount, mix in the juice of a quarter of a lime and then sip. Do not be fooled if you cannot taste the vodka – give it a few minutes and you will know 😉
2 tbsp of chia seeds, 8 tbsp of water, 4tbsp of yoghurt, choice of fruit
Prep time: 15 mins
Open your windows to the morning light. Mix chia seeds and water in a glass. Let sit for 10 mins, stirring the mixture at the 5 min mark. The pudding is ready once you can see a layer of membrane on each seed. Pour in the yoghurt and garnish with fruit (mango, passionfruit, berries works well). I like to fridge this for abit before eating, so that the juices of the fruit can seep into the yoghurt and chia.
A week ago, Melissa (a good friend), threw me a challenge to provide easily accessible, versatile and easy to make home cooked dishes that involved little effort. As her sharp and quick texts rolled in, I couldn’t help but conjure a vision of Melissa and Edwin working from home whilst 2 years old Eliza wreaked havoc amidst the pile of instant noodles that would give them hypertension after the Coronavirus war was over. And so, whilst these asks presented several challenges to my experimental style, I said yes for the wellbeing of my friends and those who might benefit from this.
Not knowing at this stage how long lockdowns or circuit breakers (as branded in Singapore 😊) will last, I have also added a few other criteria – affordable but flavorful food that results in minimal waste. If you like variety as I do, how do you pair leftover salad with pasta for another day? These are all explored in the upcoming posts.
In summary, the guidance and recipes to be released consider the following criteria:
Easily accessible and affordable – A quick note that I live in Singapore, but the goal is to be considerate to a wide range of readers
Minimal effort – So that you can spend more time on that book, Netflix film or running after Eliza as part of your daily exercise in the confines of home
Versatile – Dishes that can be complementary to others, plus dishes that you will not get sick of
Minimal waste – This just got tougher, but Paul and I have been succeeding on our new year’s resolution so far so I can offer some tips. Or I also might have our neighbor and friends Fanny and Matthieu write a section on this 😊
Delicious and nutritious – Because when all is said and done about the Coronavius, you want to share your food with others and more importantly, make it to the beach!
Finally, be patient and kind to yourself especially if you’re new to cooking and put on some lively music in the background to have fun (or whistle and dance to the tunes). Feel free to reach out – I am happy to advice, share ingredients and take you through the process. Let’s cook!
Simple, good cooking comes down to balancing salt, fat, acid, sweet and a little bit of “kick”! Pizza is a great example. The dough might be mild on its own but add some tomatoes (acid + sweet), cheese (fat), salt and basil (that little bit of “kick”), and you have flavor.
So, let’s start with the essentials that deliver these 5 flavor elements. I’ve developed the following framework so you may choose your own ingredients that pair well with carbs, vegetables and protein. The table below has been populated with what could be affordable and long lasting. You can follow this as a starting point or choose your own – just remember you want balancing flavors so try not to skew ingredients to just 1 or 2 flavor elements.
*Oils/fat: If cooking with meat, always always take advantage of the fat to flavor the oil.
**Sauces or pastes: Pastes or sauces can be made at home but can takes abit of effort and time, and so I’m focusing on store bought options that will reduce your stress in the kitchen. My essentials include a) soya sauce b) miso paste c) black bean paste d) English mustard. With just a small quantity (usually a tbsp), these pastes pack a lot of flavor that can really bring out the flavor in a dish.
***Roots: Root vegetables are cheap, fibrous, very versatile (stir fries, soups, stews, roasts, salads) and have a long shelf life so go for this always.
If a Sri Lankan friend sacrifices a cricket match for an afternoon of cooking, you can be certain that he is a friend for life. So, when Nishan invited (and I might have pestered) me to his home to cook with Shashi and their Ammi (mother) that afternoon, I couldn’t refuse.
Traditional are the tools and intricate is the process of Sri Lankan cooking – but it’s the combined brilliance of quality and locally sourced ingredients that defines the cuisine. Down this rabbit hole we went, with the basics of a curry powder: cumin, fennel seeds, cardamom and curry leaves. When dry roasted, these ingredients produce a semi-toasted and nutty flavor, pairing well with seafood (to offset the saltiness) or red meat (to balance the fat). A quintessential element to Sri Lankan cooking is the versatile coconut – milk for curries (and appropriately usingcoconut milk 1 vs 2), grated flesh for side dishes, husk for fire and more. In western cooking, herbs and spices would typically make their entry into a dish after the meat or vegetables. Here, herbs and spices make their way in first, to “tamper” the oil and release the essence of the spices. One can only imagine the aroma as you prepare a Sri Lankan meal once garlic, onions, curry leaves and chilli are added to the spiced oil… divine!
The product of that afternoon (also the evening’s entertainment) included mutton curry, crab curry, jackfruit curry, brinjal moju and string hoppers. Stringhoppers is a favourite of mine; rice flour, water and salt are combined and hand pressed into a wooden mould, releasing delicate strings of noodles to be steamed and accompanied by a curry and pol sambol – a fresh salad of grated coconut, onions, tomatoes, chilli and lime. Brinjal moju; fried brinjals dressed with a mustard vinaigrette, is a side dish that is unassuming but packs a punch. Nishan’s cooking abilities shined through in the delicious mutton curry cooked in a traditional claypot, skillfully controlling the coconut husk fueled heat. Shashi, Nishan’s sister (who’s also an excellent patissiere), demonstrated how a crab curry should be done to preserve and emphasize the sweetness of the crab flesh. And finally, no Sri Lankan meal is complete without Dhal – there are many variations, but Shashi’s method of tampering the oil first with garlic, chillis, curry leaves and garlic before adding the dhal just before boiling with coconut milk, is a winner for me. Needless to say, everyone left Nishan’s home fully content, myself included.
My first week had passed quickly in Sri Lanka and I was happy, full and hungry for more. Fortunately, the sweltering heat, tropical train rides and highly competitive badminton with Nishan’s friends (Hasa 😊 and Thibo) kept me healthy (2 servings per meal was not to be compromised!).
It was the next week at 3.30 in the morning, as Rachel and I gazed at our star signs in the night sky, that I gained a deeper appreciation of the workings behind Sri Lankan cuisine. Rachel and I had met at Arana eco lodge in Ella, and soon found 2 striking similarities – 1) we had signed up for the same hike at an ungodly hour 2) we were both consultants, trying hard not to break into business jargon whilst on holiday. Akalanka, our well-informed local guide, brought depth into the history of Ella and the surrounding flora and fauna that contributes to the quality of Sri Lankan cooking – the ingredients can be found in your backyard.
By 6am, we understood the meaning behind the monks’ morning chanting, the strategic planting of eucalyptus and pine trees in Ella by the British, the time it took to cultivate a jackfruit and the fascinating story of the mango that caused distress in Shiva’s family (a Hindu mythology) – all in time to admire the day’s beginnings, as the leaves of a mango tree swayed lightly at the peak of Ella rock.
“I am just here to instruct, you do the cooking!!”, came the thundering words of our cooking instructor as we listened with utmost attention. A cooking class in Ella, in what felt like the first week of university all over again (without the alcohol) – a bunch of strangers in a room with eager energies bouncing off each other, exchanging travel stories and laughing at the situation we were in. 8 different curries, coconut roti, a dessert all in the space of 2.5 hours (or so we thought!). What a daunting task, one was to initially think. It is easy to be overwhelmed when life throws you into unchartered territory – so go at it with a sense of curiosity and observe the process to determine if it adds any value or not. And so, time was spent observing the different smells, flavor and texture of the spices and raw ingredients in front of us before we proceeded to cook. Once you know these principles, making a curry is really just about mixing and matching to one’s taste. I was particularly intrigued with the mango curry, wondering why a fresh mango would not be satisfying enough to eat on its own? But roasted curry powder, cinnamon and cloves transforms an unripe mango into a delightful curry with a tinge of sweet and sour combined – perfect with some coconut roti on the side.
After 3 weeks of trains, beaches, mountains and wilderness, I spent my last week in Colombo, making food for people I will stay connected to far into future. Other than Nishan’s family, this included Indira aunty, uncle Romesh and Geetha. Indira aunty welcomed me with a smile into the oasis of her Colombo home, after spending a sleepless night becoming an expert mosquito killer at a different Airbnb. A cup of tea and a few long conversations (or gossip) later, we became good friends. Stories on life were exchanged, badminton was played, lamprais from VOC and Geetha’s amazing food was shared, the heat was blamed for our ice cream runs and Wednesday line dancing was attempted with Indira’s friends. I was also introduced to uncle Romesh, who at 70, is still playing tennis and swimming almost every day. Within a week, I felt like family – and Sri Lanka, another home.
The few dishes inspired from my Sri Lankan travels can be found under the Cook section. For now, these includeroasted curry powder essentials, brinjal moju, pol sambol, pork curry, mango curry and dhal. Inspired by my travels, Sri Lankan style Aglio Olio, celebrates the simple but highly impactful ingredients of Sri Lankan cooking; linguine tossed in olive oil tampered with roasted curry powder, garlic, chilli and curry leaves, dressed with brinjal moju and freshly grated coconut. In any cuisine, you will find multiple variations and debates on what an optimum recipe would look like. However, I do believe that the best recipe is the one cooked with good intentions and shared. And thus, my recipes are written more as guidelines. I encourage you to enjoy the process of cooking, test, observe and make it your own best recipe.
It takes a keen observation of each ingredient to fully appreciate the intricacies of a curry powder. Every home-made curry powder is truly unique for that reason, to decide what works best for the dish and those eating. A roasted curry powder is very versatile – add it into a curry, dust it onto some brinjals, marinade meat with it, sprinkle over pasta. Once you’re familiar with the spices that goes into a curry powder, 10 minutes is all it takes to make your own concoction.
Cumin seeds, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, curry leaves, cardamom. Note that there is no chilli powder added. This can be added during the process of cooking the dish itself so you may adjust to the taste of your party. Optional: Fenugreek (nutty), mustard seeds (bitter), cinnamon sticks (sweet), cloves(bittersweet)
Familiarize by observing, smelling and tasting (pound it to break apart!) a seed pod. Observe that each has a unique smell and flavor, some stronger than the others (such as cardamom), some more bitter than others (such as the curry leaves), some sweeter than the others (such as cinnamon). Next, have a think about what you will cook it with – whether this is meat (fat) or vegetables (bitter, sweet or perhaps bland).
On a hot pan (with no oil), add all desired seeds and roast on medium heat, continuously stirring the seeds. Once you smell the aroma, hear the seeds pop or see the curry leaves curl, immediately transfer to a plate. It is important not to keep it in the pan as it’ll continue cooking and potentially burn.
Grind (a small coffee grinder is recommended to keep it compact) till fine. There will be a slight bitter aftertaste to the powder. A roasted curry powder is fairly versatile with meat, fish and vegetable dishes. I have thought about using it to coat a chicken to be roasted which shall be reported in the near future.
There you go – in 10 minutes you have it, and a big difference the fresh curry powder will make to the curries you will make now and in the future 😊
In the past, I had made versions of curries sometimes wondered why the milk was curdling. Well, my friends, you might also be enlightened after knowing the difference between coconut milk 1 and 2! They come from the same coconut, but processed and used differently 😊 The key difference is that 1 is denser and creamier than 2. Whilst dense and creamy = flavor, coconut milk 1 thickens fast with cooking and therefore can be difficult to manage for dishes requiring long cooking time (>30 mins). Fret not, the more diluted but still flavorful coconut milk 2 will save your day. A combination of both works best, with good timing. As such, I like to use coconut milk 2 first and then a dash of coconut milk 1, 10 to 20 mins before the end of cooking.
Guidance and method
First, the right type of coconut. Not the king coconut or thai coconut you’re drinking right now. The coconut you want is hairy/husky on the outside with a thick, hard flesh on the inside. Breaking this coconut requires abit of physics combined with a surmountable amount of experience (and anger channeling). If you get it right, all it takes is one slam! of your butcher’s knife, and there you have it, a broken coconut. Keep the husk for fire, if you have an open kitchen – otherwise, use as a shell for plants or compost. In Sri Lanka, they use a mechanical coconut grater which – after 3 attempts on 3 different occasions – was taken away from me as “I was not doing it right”. Thankfully, times have evolved and you can go to your wet market and get it freshly grated from a machine (if early enough!). Coconut milk goes “off” within a day from my experience so either a) only buy it on the day you are cooking and store in the fridge or b) freeze the remainder for when the time comes.
Coconut milk 1: Add 1 part freshly grated coconut into a blender with 1 part hot water (some people still do this by hand!). Blend until creamy consistency is attained. Using a strainer, extract the milk. The coconut shreds remaining on the strainer will have lots of milk left, so squeeze with your hands to expel it all out. Coconut milk 2: Coconut milk 2 is made exactly like coconut milk 1. The exception is to use the remainder coconut shreds from coconut milk 1 (post juicing), add the same amount of water again, blend and then strain.
After all that trouble, why wouldn’t we just buy coconut milk from the store and add water? You definitely can but being a purist, I have to argue the flavours are enhanced with a fresh coconut, plus some arm work during lockdown is always healthy for you. But, do what’s best within your means. Food will always taste delicious, if made with the best intentions 😊
Through a cooking class in Ella, I learnt how an unripe mango could be transformed with heat and spices to produce a unique, part chutney part curry dish – doesn’t sound enticing does it? I thought so too, until I tried it!
In a hot claypot or a deep round pot, tamper coconut oil with garlic, onion and curry leaves, fenugreek seeds and black mustard seeds. Add in the roasted curry powder but act fast to turn the stove to medium and stir as it can burn quickly. Once combined, add in green mango chunks and the ground cinnamon + cloves + cardamom. Stir everything together, then add in coconut milk 2 plus cinnamon sticks. Turn heat to low and let simmer for 10 mins or so. After the 10 mins, add in coconut milk 1 and stir now and then until boiling and the mango is soft. I’d highly recommend to make this at least 1 hour before serving, to allow the cinnamon, cloves and cardamom flavours to seep into the mango. The mango, once sour and hard transforms to a soft, mellow sweet with a small tinge of sourness only in the aftertaste.
Nishan made a mean mutton curry that I wanted to replicate in Singapore but at the time, mutton was not in sight so I went ahead with pork, still incorporating roughly the same ingredients but with an addition of English mustard as this goes really well with pork. I also used a combination of Sri Lankan and French techniques in the cooking process which I think brings optimal results. First, searing the pork to brown and allow its fat to melt into my Le Creuset (alternatively, claypot or a deep pot) and then tampering this oil with spices. I purposely used my Le Creuset to take advantage of its abilities to retain heat in the oven for a slow braise of 2 hours, resulting in tender meat and a sauce reduction perfect to be turned into a bolognaise if one desires. This is a dish to be shared so invite your family or friends over – pour over rice or pasta, indulge!
I recommend a combination of pork ribs, pork belly and lean pork to extract flavor from the bones as well as the fat. Roasted curry powder, soya sauce, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, dried chilli flakes, red onion shallots, English mustard, coconut milk 2.
Marinade the pork 2 to 3 hours before cooking with soya sauce, chilli powder, roasted curry powder, salt and pepper. In a mortar and pestle, pound together chopped lemongrass shoots, chilli flakes, onions, garlic and ginger to make a paste.
When ready to cook, heat your Le Creuset or pot with coconut oil and with high heat, sear pork until golden brown. Set aside in the same marinade container. Add contents of the paste into the browning oil at medium heat. At this stage, you might start to get concerned with the stickiness in the pot, that the bottom of the pan is getting browner – do not worry, this is all flavor that will “melt” into the ingredients at a later stage. Once the oil has been tampered, add in the pork. You will notice that the quick sear earlier has released some liquid/water from the pork – throw all of this into the pot, for the flavor from the juices is not to be wasted. Continue stirring the contents in the pot (add more oil if needed) and then add in water to fill half of the depth of the ingredients and a spoon of English mustard. Stir and allow a slow boil at medium heat for 10 mins. Prepare 1 cup of coconut milk 2 on the side and preheat oven at 200C. After 10 mins is over, pour in the milk and then boil on the stove for 10 mins again, adding salt and pepper to taste. Place in the oven for 2 hours at 200C or until pork is tender, taking out the pork every 30 mins to ensure the sauce hasn’t burned. If the sauce has reduced significantly before the pork is tender, add more water and/or coconut milk stir and let the oven continue its work. Serve over rice, mash, quinoa, pasta – any category works!