Arts and Culture, Food, Travel

Our Living Heritage

This week, the Ninja Turtle had the excellent fortune of being invited to the private residence of one of Mother Turtle’s oldest friends, Auntie Sylvia, with the express purpose of learning how to make ang ku kueh. What? you say.

A little bit of context: just as the French people don’t simply call themselves français when speaking among themselves, but rather from the geographic region of origin: i.e. “je suis Parisenne/Bretonne/Vogienne/etc“, the Ninja Turtle identifies as Teochew, in reference to the Chaoshan region of Guangdong, where her forebears originated from.

Ang ku kueh, or 红龟粿, translates literally to Red Tortoise Cake. Red because it’s an auspicious colour for the Chinese, and tortoise for its longevity, good fortune and prosperity (or so says Wikipedia). Looking at the key ingredients – sweet potato, mung beans, tapioca starch and glutinous rice flour, the Ninja Turtle was pleasantly surprised to learn that this dessert is in fact, gluten-free! (It’d be a long stretch calling it Paleo-friendly with the food colouring, but hey, 80/20 rule, right?)

Although ang ku kueh is still widely available for purchase in local bakeries, the sad reality is, like the spoken language of Teochew, the art of making traditional desserts is slowly dying in this globalised world. Hence, when the Ninja Turtle received the invitation to learn from Lao Sim, a master of traditional cakes, she jumped at the opportunity.

Meet Lao Sim, a mother, a grandmother, an expert cake-maker, a Teochew woman. She has lived through WWII, she has known Singapore before it was an independent nation. She speaks in Teochew, Mandarin and English. She is a living piece of our history.

Meet Lao Sim, a mother, a grandmother, an expert cake-maker, a Teochew woman. She has lived through WWII, she has known Singapore before it was an independent nation. She speaks in Teochew, Mandarin and English. She is a living piece of our history.

As most expert cuisiniers are wont to do, the way Lao Sim treats the food scale borders almost on the ornamental – that is to say, she can be quite unspecific with quantities. When her students requested to measure and record the quantities, they would be met with the retort “ah ka ah ka jiu hor lah, ming jing zhung!” which translates to “a guestimate will do” but said in the tone that implied food scales were for weaklings.

From many years of experience, she works with her eyes and her hands to determine how much of what ingredients to use. Her judgement will yield either a frown followed by a brisk addition of some flour, shaken straight out of the bag, or a slug of liquid into a mixture, or a satisfied nod and grunt of approval, whereupon the work would proceed to the next step without fanfare.

As such, the Ninja Turtle feels compelled to disclaim that despite her best efforts in recording, some ingredients’ quantities weren’t always made clear, hence she cannot take 100% responsibility for queer results. Nonetheless, if you are feeling adventurous, here is a recipe with photos.

Ang Ku Kueh Recipe
Equipment
Food scale
Blender
Steaming baskets
Moulds for ang ku kueh

Preparations

Skin of the ang ku kueh

The following list of ingredients is to make one batch. If you’re making two batches – one sweet and one semi-salted, the quantities must be doubled. To differentiate the two types, work with each batch separately and leave out the red food colouring in one batch, or substitute it with another colour if you’re feeling wacky.

  • Glutinous rice flour 300g
  • Tapioca starch 300g
  • Course sugar 7 teaspoons
  • Pinch of salt
  • Unspecified quantity of oil
  • Blended sweet potato 650g
  • Sweet potato liquid
  • Red food colouring

Fillings

Half-salted filling

  • 1kg cooked bean powder
  • 300g sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 1 cup pandan leaf water
  • 3 tablespoons shallots

Sweet filling

  • 1kg cooked bean powder
  • 500g sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 cup pandan leaf water
  • Unspecified quantity of oil

Heat warm water. Add sugar.
Let sugar dissolve over medium heat – do not caramelise.
Add bean powder and stir to a paste.
Add glutinous rice flour to make paste sticky.
Add oil to make the paste smooth.

Sweet and half-salted fillings must be worked on separately. Don’t confuse the batches!

Putting it together

Lao Sim, vous êtes formidable...

Lao Sim, vous êtes formidable…

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Food

Home-grown, Home-cooked

Throughout their travels, the Ninja Turtle and GodzillaPin have eaten (and drunk) their fair share of haute cuisine. It is a great privilege to be able to do so, and anyone who complains about smoked salmon or foie gras or oysters or pastries ought to be punched for gross ingratitude. Nonetheless, it must be said that it is with great relief that they are finally home.

Prior to their travels, GodzillaPin spent a weekend helping Grandma and Grandpa Rabbit work the vegetable plot. Result: fresh haricot verts straight from the vine.

Prior to their travels, GodzillaPin spent a weekend helping Grandma and Grandpa Rabbit work the vegetable plot. Result: fresh haricot verts straight from the vine, cooked within 12 hours of harvesting.

It was the perfect opportunity to use up some of the miso paste lurking in the fridge - mix with soy sauce and ginger, adjust the quantity according to taste.

It was the perfect opportunity to use up some of the miso paste lurking in the fridge – mix with soy sauce and ginger, adjust the quantity according to taste.

A quick stir-fry in the pan with some dried shrimp for a taste of home for the Turtle

A quick stir-fry in the pan with some dried shrimp for a taste of home for the Turtle

And dinner is complete with a lobster soup and a chilled glass of rosé wine.

And dinner is complete with a lobster soup and a chilled glass of rosé wine.

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Food

Choc Chip Cookie Reloaded

OK OK, so the saying goes that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Or something about not reinventing the wheel. You know, those wiseasses and their very clever sayings about not tinkering around and experimenting. Well, to those people, we say pshaw! There is always value in mucking around for the sheer pleasure of it, because who knows what you may get as a result? Sure, there is always the risk of a catastrophic outcome, but en même temps, there is always the promise of a happy surprise.

This chocolate chip cookie did not happen by accident. It happened by compromise. The Ninja Turtle had, for the past several months, started poking her nose where it didn’t really belong (i.e. Paleo websites) and found some mouthwatering recipes that made her wish she was not a Ninja Turtle, but a Cave Turtle. Man, who knew the paleolithic era featured such culinary delights? Did civilization kill off our cooking skills or what?

GodzillaPin, one must remember, is French and therefore, the idea of removing wheat from his diet is sacrilège! In fact, it’s rather interesting to see how well the whole Paleo thing would go down here in good ol’ Gaul, where half the country’s economy is built upon wheat. But we digress…

True to the Caveman spirit, GodzillaPin requested – nay, demanded – the Ninja Turtle to make him some cookies, as his sweet tooth had started raging. As the Ninja Turtle was pottering around the kitchen, the idea of trying out one of those fancy recipes crossed her mind. Out came the linseeds, coconuts and all those weird things that the Paleo community has laid claim to. As soon as GodzillaPin saw those ingredients, suspicion began to grow, and he offered to help chop the chocolate as a pretext to hang around and see just what on earth the female was doing. Imagine the horreur when the suggestion of a wheat-free cookie came up.

Right then. In went the T45 flour, with all the other fancy ingredients.

Right then. In went the T45 flour, with all the other fancy ingredients.

Before we continue, we wish to make one thing absolutely clear, as some people tend to be readily offended by the slightest hint of a joke. This post is not intended to mock the Paleo community. If anything, we’re increasing publicity of the whole movement. No, we humbly acknowledge that in our weakness, we are unable to give up lovely, lovely wheat for the moment, despite being enticed by the principles of the Paleo lifestyle. We thought we will try and ease our way into it by incorporating parts of it, and if we don’t break out in a rash/withdrawal symptoms, we will progressively relent and repent, we promise. For now…

Chocolate Chip Cookies with Fancy Stuff

190g flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
115g butter
130g sugar (any type, we used brown)
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
50g of dessicated coconut
30g whole linseed
60g chopped dark chocolate

Preheat the oven to 180⁰C. Line your trays with baking paper.
Mix the first three ingredients in a bowl. Cream the butter and sugar, then mix in the egg and vanilla essence.
Fold in the dry ingredients and mix until you get a consistent mixture. Mix in the coconut, linseed and dark chocolate.
Scoop mixture by the tablespoon and place them on the baking paper about 2 inches apart. They don’t spread, so you can put them a bit closer if you wish, but ours liked some breathing space.

Bake for 12 to 15 minutes until they turn a reasonable shade of brown.

Bake for 12 to 15 minutes until they turn a reasonable shade of brown.

When they are done, let them sit for about 5 minutes before transferring onto a cooling rack.

When they are done, let them sit for about 5 minutes before transferring onto a cooling rack.

Well, as it was mentioned at the beginning of this post, there are some instances when one regrets mucking around with a tried and true recipe. This was NOT one of those instances. Of course, it must be stated that one must enjoy coconut to like this, but the addition of coconut and linseed created a rich and complex texture to the cookie that we never would have imagined.

So, it was with the deepest regret that we retired the two packets of cookies we bought earlier that day, because who wants to eat that stuff when there is the homemade variety, right?

Which do you prefer? Only one of them hasn't got added preservatives, although all three of them do contain obscene amounts of flour.

Which do you prefer? Only one of them hasn’t got added preservatives, although all three of them do contain obscene amounts of flour.

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Food

The Last Saveur of Summer

Prior to arriving in France, Ninja Turtle had spent a good several years living in Australia. As such, she still occasionally suffers from the tendency to start the week with a vegetarian meal, a testimony to the effectiveness of the Meatless Monday campaign. Also, this saves her from the difficult task of choosing which meat to defrost, because Sunday nights are not meant to be spent making hard decisions.

With an assortment of summer vegetables still readily available in the markets, one would never imagine we are well and truly into fall. In fact, given how the thermostat reached 0⁰C last Sunday night, one would be forgiven for thinking it is already winter. The city council seems to agree – they didn’t think last Tuesday was too early to put up the Christmas decorations. Yep, we have Christmas lights up in Metz.

Anyway, since ratatouille had been done to death over summer, Ninja Turtle decided it was time to give the old gang a new look. Enter a spice change…

Goodbye, herbes de Provence, hello, you sexy thing.

Goodbye, herbes de Provence, hello, you sexy thing.

Cumin seeds are quite the character. They feature extensively in Indian, Middle Eastern and Mexican cuisine, and as dinner was a curry, they were naturally called for. They pack quite a nutritional punch; being an excellent source of iron, it readily complements a vegetarian meal in the nutrition department. It has historically been used as a culinary substitute for the more expensive and rare black pepper, given its close resemblance in taste. This little spice has also got quite an amorous reputation. During the Middle Ages in Europe, cumin became a symbol of love and fidelity, while in the Middle East, cumin is recognised as an aphrodisiac.

Chickpea, Aubergine & Spinach Curry

1 onion
1 green capsicum
1 medium aubergine
2 large tomatoes
Spinach, fresh or frozen
Chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans)
Cumin seeds
Curry powder
Salt
Pepper

  1. If you are working with dried chickpeas, soak in cold water for 8 hours or overnight. Boil the chickpeas with a few cumin pods for about an hour, drain and set aside. If you are working with canned chickpeas, simply pop the can, rinse the beans and set aside.
  2. Chop the onion, capsicum, aubergine and tomatoes.
  3. If you are working with fresh spinach, plunge the bunch into boiling water for two minutes, remove and set aside. You may wish to process it coarsely in a blender. If you are working with frozen chopped spinach, simply reheat and set aside.
  4. In a large wok or skillet, melt some butter. Sauté the onion, then add the aubergine and capsicum. Maintain the high heat, add in cumin seeds, curry powder, salt and pepper. Cover and let vegetables soften a little.
  5. Add in the tomatoes and spinach. Stir and replace the cover. Lower the heat to a simmer for about fifteen minutes.
  6. Turn off the heat, add in the chickpeas and give it a stir. This is the moment to “fix” the taste of the dish, add more spice/salt according to taste. Replace the cover and let it rest for another five to ten minutes.

Food blogs are supposed to feature lovely photos of food that entice the readers to try the dish. Sadly, this is not the case, for GodzillaPin and Ninja Turtle were so hungry, they finished the dish before they noticed the camera on the table, and realised they had forgotten to take a picture. A photo was taken of the leftovers that went into GodzillaPin’s lunchbox for the next day, but it doesn’t do the dish much justice at all.

It's tastier than it looks, we promise.

It’s tastier than it looks, we promise.

Final word: Yes, GodzillaPin carries a lunchbox to work. Yes, it means having to do some planning in advance to cook the right portions, and self-control to not eat everything at dinnertime. Yes, it saves us money.

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