Chai Tow Kway (菜头粿; Fried Carrot Cake)

Monday, 15 April 2013

If you're looking for a good chai tow kway recipe, you've come to the right place. How do I convince you my CTK is good? By comparing to one that's bad, here, from The Little Teochew in a guest post for Rasa Malaysia.

I've read many recipes for various sorts of steamed cakes made with rice flour, such as chwee kueh, orh kueh, lor bak gou, pak tong gou and, of course, chai tow kway. What's the one common feature they all have? The batter is cooked on the stove before it's steamed. The Little Teochew, unlike everyone else, mixes rice flour with room temperature water, then steams the batter straightaway. Why do the rest of us do extra work? Because unless the batter is thickened before it's steamed, the rice flour would sink and form a hard layer at the bottom of the cake. If you steam rice flour batter without thickening it first, your kway is doomed for failure.

How to Make GOOD Fried Rice

Friday, 2 March 2012


The most common tip for making fried rice is: use day-old rice because it's fluffy and no longer sticky. Unfortunately, fluffy rice alone doesn't make good fried rice. The chewiness of the rice is equally important, and that doesn't change much once the rice is cooked.

How to cook rice that's chewy? By steaming, so that the rice doesn't directly sit in boiling water.

When rice is cooked in boiling water, the cell walls break down, allowing the starch inside to leak out, absorb too much water and turn soft. The change in texture is irreversible, so the rice isn't chewy even if you let it rest overnight. Hence, rice cooked by boiling, in a rice cooker or on the stove, is destined to make fried rice that's at best mediocre even if it's day-old rice.

In contrast, rice that's steamed has no direct contact with boiling water. Cooked at a lower temperature, the cell walls don't break down much, so very little starch escapes. Hence, all the grains are chewy and they don't stick together. The overnight rest, a must for boiled rice, isn't necessary for steamed rice. This fried rice, made with 15-minute-old steamed rice, is as fluffy as can be:

Temperature isn't the only important factor. The amount of water absorbed by the rice is equally crucial. Too much water would make the rice loses its chewiness even if it's steamed. How much is too much? It depends on the type of starch found in the rice.

There're two types of rice starch: amylopectin and amylose. The latter makes rice fluffy and not sticky because it's insoluble. Basmati rice, for instance, is very fluffy because it has a high percentage of amylose. Amylopectin, on the other hand, makes rice chewy by absorbing water to form a gel. Glutinous rice is extremely chewy because it contains mostly amylopectin.

You might have come across the tip that aged, old rice is necessary for making good fried rice because it has more amylose than newly harvested rice. The tip isn't entirely correct. Rice that's too old has too much amylose and not enough amylopectin to make it chewy. It's fluffy alright but it's not chewy, and the texture gets worse when the rice cools down because amylose hardens when it's cold. New rice, on the other hand, runs a risk of turning mushy because it has a lot of amylopectin, which becomes soft if it absorbs too much water.

The best rice – that's easy to work with, fluffy, chewy, and doesn't harden when it's cold – should have a good balance of the two types of starch. I'd call it middle-aged. (Click here to learn more about old vs new rice from Harold McGee.)

So, the rice is steamed to fluffy and chewy perfection, and half the battle is won. Ready to stir and fry?

To win the second half of the battle without wok hei – the smoky, charred aroma created with a professional-grade stove – ingredients are the home cook's only weaponry. Forget about mincing a few cloves of garlic. You need a heap of ingredients – an atomic bomb, in other words, not a few hand grenades – or the rice would be tasteless. But not too much either or the rice would be overwhelmed. (You want to bomb a city, not destroy the entire planet.)

The mix of ingredients must be chosen carefully so that the rice is infused with both fragrance and umaminess. Shallots, dried prawns and salted fish make a great combination. The Chinese would mince these ingredients finely but I think the Nyonya method is far superior. Pounding with a mortar and pestle achieves a very fine grind which a knife can't possibly create. Imagine each and every grain of rice coated with countless specks of shallots, dried prawns and salted fish which have been fried till brown and fragrant. The aroma and umaminess pop in your mouth even before you start chewing.

Adding chunks of meat or seafood to fried rice would be to miss the point completely. It's fried rice, not stir-fried chicken or whatever. A modest amount, cut pea-sized or flaked if it's crab, adds variety but doesn't overwhelm. Each little piece is eaten with some rice in one mouthful, which wouldn't be possible if it's cut too big.

Most people expect eggs in Chinese fried rice so into the wok they go, fried rather than raw so that the rice doesn't sit in liquid eggs and lose its chewiness. Don't forget that eggs would absorb some aroma and umaminess, so there must be sufficient dried prawns, salted fish and shallots – or whatever you fancy – to flavour not just the rice but also the eggs.

Lastly, add salt and ground white pepper to taste, and lots of spring onion or maybe iceberg lettuce, and the job's done. Easy peasy.

DRIED PRAWN, SALTED FISH & CHICKEN FRIED RICE (虾米咸鱼鸡丁炒饭)
(Recipe for 4 persons)

360 g long grain Jasmine white rice (I use Songhe brand)
wash and drain thoroughly; place in 18-cm round cake tin; add 320 ml water (weight of rice plus water is 720 g); let rice soak 10 minutes

50 g dried prawns
50 g salted ikan kurau (threadfin), bones and scales removed if any
100 g shallots, peel

5½ tbsp vegetable oil
2 eggs (use 1 tsp to marinate chicken)
beat with 2 tbsp milk, big dash of ground white pepper, and 1 tsp each of light soya sauce, white sesame oil and Shaoxing wine
200 g deboned chicken thigh or drumstick
wash, drain and dice 1½ cm; marinate with dash of ground white pepper, and 1 tsp each of light soya sauce, Shaoxing wine, egg and white sesame oil for 15 minutes or longer
salt to taste, about ¼ tsp
ground white pepper to taste, about ½ tsp
60 g spring onions
trim and wash; dice to yield 1 cup (sounds like a lot!)

Steam rice over rapidly boiling water for 15 minutes, then check whether rice needs more water. If surface layer is cooked but a bit hard, rice is ideal. Steam another 5 minutes – surface layer should now be soft but chewy – then remove rice from steamer. If surface layer is not cooked, sprinkle with 1-2 tbsp water and continue steaming for another 5 minutes. Repeat if necessary, till rice is just soft. Remove rice from steamer. If surface layer is cooked and soft, remove rice immediately (and use less water next time you steam rice).

After rice is cooked, fluff and set aside to firm up, about 20 minutes. Cover if not frying immediately.

If the rice is fried just after steaming, it's still fluffy and 'Q' but the soft grains would break into small pieces when stirred. You may skip the cooldown when hunger is more important than presentation, or if you can toss rice like a pro.

Whilst rice is cooking, rinse dried prawns, salted fish and shallots. Cut into small pieces, then blitz in mini chopper or pound till very fine. If pounding, start with salted fish, then dried prawns and finally shallots.

In a well-seasoned wok, make a thin omelette with eggs using ½ tbsp vegetable oil. When omelette is almost done, chop into small pieces with spatula. Transfer to a plate and set aside.

In the same wok, heat remaining 5 tbsp vegetable oil till almost smoking. Add salted fish, dried prawns and shallots. Fry over medium heat till brown and fragrant. Increase heat to high. Add chicken and stir through. Add rice and eggs. Stir-fry till chicken is just cooked. Taste and add salt if necessary. Stir through. Turn off heat. Sprinkle with ground white pepper and spring onions. Stir through. Plate and serve.

15-Minute Flower Crab Dry Curry

Sunday, 26 February 2012


If you like crab but can't stomach the idea of being a crab killer, flower crab would be right up your alley. The blue crustaceans are mostly sold dead; live ones caught by local kelongs are available only once in a blue, blue moon, when you're extremely lucky. Or maybe unlucky if you're not into buying food that's still moving.

Nyonya Fried Rice

Friday, 14 October 2011

Fried rice is one of those things. It may be a great chef's finale for a grand Chinese banquet. Or it may be something rustled up by a hungry youngster snooping round the kitchen when Mum is out.

Brilliantly executed, fried rice is sublime. If not, it's (usually) at least edible.

Nyonya fried rice is easier than the Chinese version.

Minced Pork Stir-Fry with Ketchup & Fermented Black Beans

Friday, 19 August 2011

Minced pork stir-fried with fermented black beans is one of the standard items served at places that sell Teochew porridge.

The dish is different from other fbb-based recipes because it's got a good amount of tomato ketchup.

Ketchup goes well with the salty fragrance of fbb. It adds a sweet and sour dimension not found in fbb dishes that are more traditional.

Diced Chicken in Spicy Fermented Tofu Sauce

Friday, 12 August 2011

Fermented beancurd is good stuff. It's gotta be. Otherwise, it wouldn't have survived war, peace, and technological upheavals for more than 2,000 years.

Fermented beancurd is salty, creamy and aromatic. It may be used as a seasoning, or eaten as it is with porridge or rice.

Tired of salting meat with soya sauce, oyster sauce, fish sauce, and plain old salt?

Try fermented beancurd.

If you like chicken, and if you like fermented beancurd, you'd like chicken stir-fried with fermented beancurd. I'm sure of that, like I'm sure your mother is a woman.

DICED CHICKEN IN SPICY FERMENTED TOFU SAUCE (香辣腐乳鸡丁)
(Recipe for 4 persons)

400 g boneless chicken leg, wash and dice 2 cm
Marinade
1½ tbsp white fermented beancurd's pickling liquid
⅓ tsp salt
½ tbsp sugar
1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
1½ tbsp water
Stir-fry
1 tbsp white sesame oil
1 piece ginger, half thumb size, peel, wash and slice thinly
3 cloves garlic, peel, wash and slice thinly
3 bird's eye chillies, wash, trim and slice diagonally 3 mm thick
3 sprigs spring onion (white part), cut 1 cm long
30 g white fermented beancurd, mash
1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
Finishing touch
3 sprigs spring onion (green part), cut 1 cm long
¼ tsp white sesame oil

Mix chicken with marinade ingredients till all liquid is absorbed. Marinate for 15 minutes or longer.

Heat 1 tbsp white sesame oil till very hot. Add ginger and stir-fry over high heat till lightly golden. Add garlic, chillies and spring onions (white part). Stir-fry till garlic is also lightly golden. Add fermented beancurd and stir-fry till fragrant. Add chicken and stir-fry till wok is very hot. Drizzle with wine and stir through. Drizzle with 1 tbsp water and stir through again. Add 2 tbsp water and continue stirring – a few minutes would do – till chicken is just cooked (totally opaque and firm), and sauce is reduced and slightly thickened. Or leave sauce a bit watery if not eating within 10 minutes, because it thickens as it sits.

Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Turn off heat. Sprinkle with spring onions (green part). Stir through. Sprinkle with ¼ tsp sesame oil. Plate and serve immediately.

Pork Stir-Fry with Sesame Oil

Sunday, 7 August 2011

I stir-fry pork with sesame oil. So did my mother, my mother's mother, my mother's mother's mother . . .

I'm guessing that since sesame oil was invented discovered in China –  supposedly some 2,300 years ago during the Three Kingdoms period – Chinese have been cooking pork in it one way or another. 

The version I make is with garlic, ginger, light soya sauce, oyster sauce, Shaoxing wine and salt. I've done it so many times I can practically do it with my eyes closed.

Fried Glutinous Rice

Thursday, 21 July 2011

I've been eating glutinous rice for about a year now, in place of the non-sticky variety. I steamed some one day 'cause I was out of regular rice, and I haven't looked back since. It's more fragrant than regular rice though the quality does vary from brand to brand.

Non-sticky rice can be steamed or boiled but the sticky one can only be steamed. If steamed without the rice sitting in water, it should be soaked for several hours, which was what I did when I was a sticky rice novice.

Of course, I didn't always have several hours' foresight into when I wanted to tuck into a bowl of piping hot rice, and hunger made my brain tick.

Hmm . . . instead of making the rice absorb water before cooking it, why not make it absorb water whilst it's being cooked? Hey, we all have to multi-task, even rice!

Gong Bao Frog Legs

Monday, 20 June 2011

Back when I was a little girl and living in a kampong, I jumped with joy whenever it rained at night.

Why?

Because my father would go frog hunting, and there would be a big pot of frog porridge for supper – Teochew style, of course; none of that sticky Cantonese stuff like in Geylang!

The frogs my father caught were wild and, of course, live. He didn't use any bait, or special equipment except a torchlight. He basically just reached out and grabbed the ones that were croaking the loudest.

(If you're a frog reading this, remember not to croak too loudly when it rains, and my father is in your neighbourhood. And you should leave this blog post immediately, because you really don't want to read the next bit.)

Sambal Udang

Monday, 13 June 2011


Sambal udang was the first recipe I tried from Cooking for the President.

How was the presidential recipe for prawns smothered in chilli paste?

It was excellent!

The ingredients were simple, the instructions were clear and easy to follow, and the results were darn tasty.

Sambal Kangkong (Water Spinach with Chilli Paste)

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Do you know that there's a connection between kangkong and the God of Fortune, aka 财神爷?

I'm guessing you don't, so here's the story:

3,000 years ago, China was ruled by an emperor who knew diddly squat about everything. As with all useless emperors, he had a wicked concubine, and his was called 妲己.

Black Pepper Crab

Sunday, 17 April 2011



Rule number one of crab handling: Make sure it's dead before cutting the string! Ask the crab politely, whilst tapping its legs with a knife or chopstick, 'Hello? Hello? Are you dead?' If it nods its head or says, "Yes, I'm dead," beware of the crafty crab! If there's no response and the legs aren't moving, then and only then should the string be cut. I never forget the rule so no, I wasn't bitten. I was just kidding!

Dry-Fried Bitter Gourd (干扁苦瓜)

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

There're two types of bitter gourd in my neck of the woods: big and small.

I think some health freaks enthusiasts buy the small ones to make juice?

Ewww . . . . They look really bitter – the gourds, not the fr . . . Sorry, health enthusiasts.

Minced Pork & Olive Vegetables Stir-Fry

Sunday, 17 October 2010

If you're wondering what on earth "olive vegetables" are, it's olives and salted mustard greens cooked in vegetable oil till everything is a dark green mush. And what a marvelous mush it is!

The strong flavours from the olives and mustard greens meld together and mellow during the long hours of cooking, creating something that tastes like olives, but better. It's more complex, more nuanced, rounder, smoother . . . an absolute delight with plain rice porridge, straight out of the bottle. But I would say that, wouldn't I? I'm Teochew and "olive vegetables", aka 乌橄榄菜, is a Teochew specialty. It's one of our many ways of preserving vegetables.

Honestly though, I swear I'm not biased. Why would anyone eat an oily, inky black mush – since the Sung dynasty, apparently – unless it tastes really good?

Buddha's Delight (Chap Chai, 罗汉斋, 什菜)

Monday, 20 September 2010

It was my mother's birthday a few days ago. To commemorate her, I made a big pot of Buddha's delight (罗汉斋) or, if you prefer the less elegant name, chap chai (什菜). It was a dish she always made for our first breakfast of the Chinese New Year.