Thursday, October 20, 2016


This dessert (also frequently transliterated as watalappan) is probably one of the CC's favorites even though the CC is not much of a dessert person to start with!

It's related functionally to the very Spanish flan which is another one of the CC's favorites.

The massive difference between the two is that the Sri Lankan dessert substitutes coconut milk for the cream and milk in the original. This changes the chemistry in a significant way. It also adds a ton of "sweet" spices that flourish on the island. The sugar is substituted by a very specific palm jaggery which adds a smoky flavor and brown color to the product.

Flan is notoriously hard to make. It's very finicky about the percentage of fat in the cream and the milk and the water content. Flubs are common and the act of making it requires real skill.

Almodóvar films an entire flan recipe in his movie Volver. It's both a love ode to the wonderful dessert and a character study in the great tradition of silent films. By eavesdropping on a character who's clearly very talented at making it, and watching her do the thing she loves, we learn more about her than could be inferred from mere dialog.

The chemistry of coconut milk is much simpler than that of cream plus milk. Some genius made the substitution historically and it's a knockout since the proportions in coconut milk are exactly right to get the correct consistency and hence, flubbing is kept to at a minimum.

The jaggery that needs to be used is a palm jaggery called kithul jaggery. It's a little hard to find but it has a characteristic flavor that's hard to reproduce. Regular jaggery simply doesn't have the smoky flavor and it's not sweet enough.

The CC found it in London of all places which led someone to remark, "What does the CC do in London? He buys Sri Lankan jaggery and hauls it back to New York." This has irony written all over it since the CC was in Sri Lanka earlier in the year and didn't haul it back then. However, the bottom line is "Globalization, baby!"

The dessert is traditionally steamed but you can easily make it in an oven with a water bath as long as you have large pans. It also scales effortlessly. Best of all, it needs to be made ahead of time and cooled so you will be able to impress your guests without much effort.

It's just pure magic.


(serves 4)

100 gram kithul jaggery
200 ml coconut milk

2 cloves
1 large stick cinnamon
1 vanilla pod
3 cardamom pods

5 large eggs (read notes!)

Note 1: The jaggery is conveniently sold in 100 gram units wrapped in the dried palm leaves.

Note 2: The amount of milk in a standard can of coconut milk is close to 200 ml. Good enough. This recipe is quite forgiving. Shake it well before opening.

Note 3: The CC has seen pandanus leaves (called rampe in Sinhalese) added to the coconut milk. Great taste if you have some. Can be found frozen and work like a charm.

Note 4: The jaggery is quite hard and tradition calls for shaving it. The CC smashed it with a hammer and used the pieces. It made no difference since it dissolves completely and you will filter the product anyway. Tradition frequently wastes time without asking the obvious questions.

Note 5: If you use regular jaggery, you will need 4-8 tbsp of brown sugar to get the right sweetness.

Note 6: There is no way to predict how many eggs will be needed. Firstly, the coconut milks have different amounts of liquid. Secondly, the eggs are of different sizes even within the same grade. Lastly, the yolks are of different sizes. The CC started with four and then was forced to add one more to get it right. Chances are you might need an extra egg or one less. Start with four and go from there.


Remove the cardamom seeds from the pod. Crush the cloves and cardamom in a mortar and pestle.

In a saucepan, heat up the ground cardamom and cloves, vanilla pod, cinnamon and ground nutmeg with the coconut milk and the jaggery. Bring it to a boil and turn down the heat to very low. Stir until everything dissolves and the spices steep into the liquid. Roughly 12-15 minutes. This also has the advantage of removing some of the moisture from the coconut milk.

Taste it. It should be cloyingly sweet and the spices should be prominent. (Don't worry. The final product will be nowhere near as sweet. We still have the eggs, remember?)

Strain the liquid into a bowl and let it cool down to room temperature. (Stick it in a freezer if you're in a hurry.) Discard any spices or solids left behind. Make sure that the mixture is cold otherwise the eggs will scramble when you incorporate them.

Beat the eggs but not too much. Don't incorporate too much air into them.

Strain the egg mixture using a fine sieve into the cold coconut milk liquid above. You will need to use a whisk to get the egg mixture through the sieve.

This step is CRUCIAL. The final product will simply not work without it.

Mix the batter gently to incorporate it completely. It should be slightly dense and thick but still liquid.

Split the mixture evenly into four oven-proof bowls. Cover each of them tightly with aluminum foil.

Now, you have two choices.

Steaming: Steam the four bowls in a steamer for 40 minutes. Check at that mark. They should be jiggly. If not, steam for an extra 5 minutes.

Baking: You're not really baking. You will need a deep pan that can hold the bowls. Preheat the oven to 350°F for 10 minutes. Heat some water in a kettle. Place the bowls in the pan. When the oven is heated, and the water is boiling, pour it in the pan around the bowls. Cover the pan itself with a separate piece of aluminum foil and put it in the oven. Steam for 40 minutes. Check. If not jiggly enough, steam for an additional 5 minutes.

The trick with the water is that all the energy is going into vaporizing the water so that the egg mixture itself never goes above the boiling point of water. Very clever and this clearly scales effortlessly.

Let them cool down to room temperature. Chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve. They are frequently topped with more cashews and raisins but this is a bit of gilding the lily.

Friday, October 7, 2016


It's not well known but the CC is crazy about pickles.

Broadly speaking, the world of pickles is divided into two kinds — acid-based and oil-based.

This has everything to do with botulism which is a bacterium that grows in the absence of oxygen. You need some technical chops to make oil-based pickles.

Acid-based pickles are vastly easier. Firstly, the acid prevents the growth of bacteria in the first place, and secondly, they're just tastier by the CC's taste buds. So life is easy for the CC.

The CC has grown up with pickles. He used to make them routinely as a kid with his grandmother and his great-grandmother (!) growing up. Looking back, it seems painfully clear that the grandmother wasn't that particularly interested in them. She continued for a few years after her mother died but that tapered pretty quickly. The family was even less interested which leaves the CC as the sole flag-bearer. And so it goes.

Except for the absolutely amazingly awesome green-peppercorn and lime pickles, the CC doesn't care for any of them. (They were mostly oil-based. Except the one that the CC likes. Hence the bias.)

The Indians and the Japanese have an vast tradition of pickling. (Other cultures obviously do too but the CC is just pointing this out as a compare-and-contrast.)

It's quite extraordinary. It was much more needed in the Japanese case because of the short growing season. It was completely unnecessary in the Indian case but the CC assumes they just loved the taste?

Fast forward to the modern world and the Japanese have an amazing device that allows you to make pickles without mistakes. It's just a plastic doo-hickey that presses down. It serves two purposes. It allows you to keep the vegetables below the water line, and if necessary, it presses down to allow vegetables to release their juices.

It works like a charm.

The absolutely simplest pickle involves just three ingredients — four, if you count water.

It's called 塩漬け (shiozuke - salted pickles.) The konbu and the salt combine to add a magical umami to the final product. Salt lowers the pH. They are acid-pickles in all but name.

The firmer the ingredient, the easier it is. It's pure magic with such things as the stalks of rainbow chard or watermelon rind.

Theoretically, the hard stalks of kale or broccoli should work but the brassica family simply doesn't taste that great. The CC has tried it. It basically sucks. Let it go.

These pickles are best eaten within three to seven days because the ingredients will continue to soften but you want that crunch!


rainbow chard stalks
4 tbsp salt
2 small cuts of konbu

boiling water


Cut and wash the stalks. In a clean sterile container, layer the konbu followed by the stalks. Top with the salt.

Pour boiling water all over it. Figure out a way to make sure that the ingredients stay below the water line.

Ready in three days.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Kaeng Som (Thai Sour Curry - แกงส้ม)

This is the ultimate grande dame of Thai curries.

On the one hand, it's so simple to make that it's made almost weekly in Thai households. On the other hand, simply because of that everyone, their mother, their grandmother, their dead great-grandmother and her long-dead ancestors have an opinion about it!

(Read the post about food and identity to understand this phenomenon.)

That having been said, the dish is easy to make casually but extarordinarily hard to make expertly.

It's hard for the same reason that chefs routinely test novices with making an omelette, or that you end up skating naked making certain Italian dishes.

You're using a minimal set of ingredients, and there's no place to hide. Either you nail it or you don't, and if you don't, there's no way to fix it.

It's the ultimate test of technique. It's doubly hard for those of us who didn't grow up with a Thai grandmother beating us up while we were learning. We're going to have to take our beatings the ol'-fashioned way via experience.

What is it?

It's a simple water-based "sour" curry that's really quite "primitive" (to use David Thompson's description) in which vegetables and fish are simmered. It's served with rice (of course!)

There are only five ingredients that matter - chillies (which are emphatically not Thai but New World), garlic, shallots, shrimp paste, and tamarind.

There are also ingredients that will "balance" it - e.g. palm sugar, etc.

All the magic is in the paste which takes a bit of effort with a mortar and pestle. Thai curries simply don't work with food processors. You need to pound the ingredients.  (The neighbors rang the bell to check that everything was OK since the sound of pounding wafted out the kitchen window. It sure was, kids, it sure was!)

For the record, it's harder to pound soft ingredients into the right consistency than hard ingredients. This one is filled with soft ingredients — garlic and shallots.

If you persist, and the CC is sure that the readers on this blog are the kind that would do so, you'll be rewarded with sheer magnificence. Everything that is so wonderful about Thai food distilled down into one elegant minimalist package.



2 tbsp dried shrimp

4-6 long red chilies
3 red shallots
3 cloves garlic
1 tsp shrimp paste

2 cups water
tamarind water (thin)


fish sauce (nahm pla) to taste
palm sugar (optional)

Note 1: The kinds of vegetables you can add varies. Long beans are classic as are bamboo shoots, or raw papaya but the CC has seen modern stuff like cauliflower, cabbage, etc.

Note 2: The village roots of this dish should be "obvious".

Note 3: There is a relatively modern variation that plonks in a square-piece of cha-om omelette. Cha-om is going to be impossible to find outside of California. It has a strongly sulfurous smell exactly like that of kala namak in Indian food. The texture is not dissimilar to samphire. If you're feeling particularly flush with money, the combination would do the trick. Otherwise substitute a bitter green and kala namak for a rough approximation.

Note 4: You still need to make the square "omelettes". Cook them thick with egg in a pan like a frittata. Flip, cook the other side. Cool and cut into squares. (They should be quite dry since you're going to plop them into a curry.)

Note 5: This is not a "fancy" dish. All the crazy caveats aside, this is closer to the fast and the furious. You should be able to make it in at most 30 minutes if you get all your ingredients in a row.

Note 6: There is considerable warfare even among the Thai population about how "thin" the curry should be. The CC is going to stay out of this particular "Vietnam".

Note 7: Side dish. The ultimate test of serving Asian food. Keep it simple. The dish is spicy hence sliced cucumbers.

Note 8: You need a fish broth ideally. David Thompson suggests pounding some dried shrimp as the first step of the recipe. Works like a charm. Instant "fish broth" as the deeply dead great-great-great-grandmother would've understood and appreciated.

Note 9: The "correct" sequence of pounding is the driest hardest first to softest wettest last. This just makes it easy to do the pounding. In this case, it would be dried shrimp, soaked chilies, garlic, shallots. and finally shrimp paste.


First make the tamarind water. Soak the lump of tamarind in 1/2 cup of boiling water for 20 minutes. Strain it squeezing the tamarind. You can do this directly into the boiling water later.

Soak the separately chilies in boiling water for the same 20 minutes. Pull out the chilies. Reserve the water to add to the broth.

Roast the dried shrimp briefly on a skillet. Put aside. On the same skillet, roast the shrimp paste wrapped in aluminum foil. Flip and keep roasting until it gives off its characteristic smell. Be careful not to burn it.

(These first three steps can clearly be done in parallel.)

Start making the paste. Pound the dried shrimp followed by the chilies, the garlic, and the shallots. Add the roasted shrimp paste and make a smooth paste.

Combine the stock, tamarind water and paste and bring to a boil. Add fish sauce to taste. Add some palm sugar to balance the flavors. Let it simmer for 4-5 minutes.

It should taste hot, sour and salty.

Add the vegetables and let them cook through. Add the fish and let it poach for 2-3 minutes.

Serve at once with rice.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Caesar Salad

Probably the CC's favorite salad. Its salty umami-laden magic is just off the charts and it's truly sad that it's turned into a bad cliché with horrible ingredients.

Years ago, the CC visited April Bloomfield's justly famous restaurant where the "star" of the dinner was a whole pig. The lead-in to the dinner was this amazing Caesar salad and since the entire dinner was unlimited (minus the pig), at some point there was a call for salad seconds.

The table was ambivalent and after a pregnant silence, the CC shouted out a very loud, "YES!"

The table staff got some more and then they teased the CC while they served him, "I guess you don't want any more, right?"


This is her recipe unexpurgated. The CC doesn't know why it took so long to make it. It's literally perfect and the CC is smacking himself upside the head as we speak.

If you have a deep measuring cup and an immersion blender, this is a cinch to make.

There are a few changes. She prefers "neutral" oil but the CC overwhelmingly prefers olive oil. The vinegar change is marginal.

She goes with a a classic Caesar salad. Romaine, dressing, croutons but if you want a complete meal, feel free to top it with a grilled chicken (along with the filleted anchovies mentioned below.)

(Source: Directly from April Bloomfield's book A Girl and her Pig.)



1 large egg
7 whole anchovies (separated into 14 fillets)
1/4 cup champagne vinegar
2 medium garlic cloves
3 tbsp Dijon mustard
1/2-1 cup olive oil (very approximate!!!)
1/2 cup parmigiano-reggiano (grated coarsely)


romaine lettuce (separated, washed, dried)
parmigiano-reggiano (for grating)
a "few" anchovy fillets (for topping)
pepper to taste

Note 1: The raw egg is non-negotiable. Buy eggs from a reputable source. Wash them thoroughly in warm water with soap and dry before you crack them. All the germs are (mostly) on the surface. The egg has strong properties to repel invaders even if mildly cracked. That's why raw eggs last longer in the fridge than cooked ones!

Note 2: You only need half the dressing since there's no way to make "half" an egg. That's how it goes.

Note 3: The dressing will last for at most 3 days in the fridge afterwards because of the raw egg. You'll just have to eat this excellence twice. The CC's heart bleeds for you.

Note 4: The CC used a blend of 1/8 cup champagne vinegar and 1/8 cup sherry vinegar. It makes a difference. The champagne vinegar by itself would be too tart.


Drop everything for the dressing into a deep measuring cup except the oil. Blend gently. Add the oil a little at a time and blend it.

(She dumps the stuff one at a time but frankly, the CC saw no difference between dumping everything (minus the oil) in at once. Adding the oil a little at the time is mostly because you want it to get to a certain consistency. The CC did not need anywhere near 1 cup of oil. Chances are the CC's egg was larger.)


It should be sharp (from the mustard and vinegar), salty, and umami-laden. You should not need to add salt. The ingredients should be salty enough. Balance the ingredients if necessary.

Mix the salad thoroughly with half of the dressing. The filleted anchovies and the parmesan are on top. Chill for at least 5 minutes and then serve.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Tom Yam

This is hands down one of the absolute favorites of the CC in the Thai repertoire. It was requested so frequently by the CC's friends once that it was practically a standby as appetizer before "other" meals.

It also happens to be extraordinarily easy provided you have the right ingredients.

At its heart, it involves the simmering of extraordinarily fresh ingredients and then topping with some protein and aromatics.

Once again, it's a meta-recipe where you can have tom yam goong (shrimp) or tom yam gai (chicken) or tom yam talay (mixed seafood.)

David Thompson's recipe is ultra-minimalist and ultra-purist and it would work if the CC lived in a tropical climate and had access to the very best of produce in large quantities. It also eliminates shallots which is fine for royal cuisine but that's not what you're getting on the street.

Not having access to that quality of produce perenially, the CC's version is closer to that of Kasma Loha-Unchit's which tweaks the parameters to get the same taste profile.

The soup is an exercise in freshness. Simmer it at the last moment. Ideally, the boiling hot soup should be poured over the fresh meat/seafood and served at once. They will cook in the boiling broth and be both perfectly cooked and tender at the same time.

The CC once had a the sister of a friend who refused to eat barely cooked shrimp until we persuaded her to try it. Then she wanted seconds and thirds (of which alas, there were none!) A convert to the excellence of barely cooked seafood.

The existence of this soup on menus across the country may be a cliché but there's a solid reason it is one. It's a masterpiece of flavor.


3 cups water

1 small block tamarind

3-5 kaffir lime leaves
3 pieces lemongrass (sliced at a diagonal, pounded lightly)
1" galangal (sliced, pounded lightly)
3-4 Thai chillies (or to taste)
1 tbsp nahm prik pao (roasted chili paste/jam)

2 shallots (sliced lengthwise into thin slivers)
1 small tomato (sliced into quarters)
1/2 cup straw mushrooms

fish sauce (to taste)


1-2 limes
cilantro leaves

Note 1: It's best to use water rather than broth. You get a very sharp clear taste profile. Broth muddies the waters so to speak. Think of it as the difference between limpid watercolors and an oil painting.

Note 2: The fresher the chicken/shrimp/seafood and also the aromatics, the more this soup will shine.

Note 3: The chicken should be sliced thinly against the bias. The shrimp can be left whole. The seafood should also be sliced finely.

Note 4: Since the galangal, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves are not eaten, technically you could strain it. That's not the Thai way and yet the CC has seen it done in a superb "fancy" Thai restaurant in Manila.

Note 5: Scallions are fairly traditional too but the CC doesn't like the clash between the shallots, scallions and cilantro. He likes the sharper watercolor flavors.

Note 6: There are excellent brands of nahm prik pao on the market. No artificial ingredients, etc. You could be a purist and make it but the CC finds that these are not just acceptable but positively excellent.

Note 7: The CC would like to draw your attention to a powerful concept. The idea of a background "mellow" sourness (tamarind) allied with a perfumed "fresh" sourness (lime). You will see this idea as a conceptual framework all along Southeast Asia whether it's kudampuli + lime (South India) or dried raw mango (aamchur) + lime (North India) or tamarind/vinegar/raw mango + calamansi (Philippines.) You'll see it Italy too (vinegar + lemon). It's an extraordinarily potent idea.


Smash the galangal and lemongrass lightly. Add them, the chillies and kaffir lime leaves to the water.

In a separate bowl, pour hot water over tamarind and let it soak for 20 minutes. Strain through a fine sieve into the same bowl of liquid. Discard the remnants.

Bring the liquid to a boil. When it is boiling, turn the heat down to a low simmer. Add the nahm prik pao and let it simmer for 10 minutes. Add fish sauce and check to taste. It should be aromatic, spicy and salty (and a little tart and sweet from the tamarind.)

Add the shallots, tomatoes, and mushrooms. Bring to a boil again for 2 minutes.

Turn off the heat. Squeeze the lime juice into it.

Pour over the chicken/seafood in individual bowls. Top with the cilantro leaves.

Serve at once with jasmine rice.

The Medieval Myth

One of the most pernicious lies about medieval cooking is that cooks used spices to cover up the smell of rotting meat (or fish.)

It just persists and persists and persists and it's just ludicrous on the face of it.

If we can distinguish between these things via smell, surely our fore-bearers were equally talented at it.

Also, spices were not cheap. The Arab and the Venetian middle-men had a stronghold on the supply and they charged pretty hefty premia for these things.

The upper classes who could afford the spices could obviously also afford the best meat and fish that money could buy since it was all local back in those days.

The idea has been thoroughly debunked by scholars like Paul Freedman but the popular imagination keeps it alive. It's absolutely amazing that so silly a meme has persisted for almost a few centuries at this point.

It's very clear to see the antecedents of medieval European cooking in modern terms. Just pick up a Persian or an Indian cookbook. They still have the same relation to spicing that would be expected in Europe in the middle ages.

Nobody in history has ever wanted to eat rotting meat. We have extraordinarily sophisticated tuned apparatuses in our systems to detect against poisoning. They even go into complete and utter overdrive to prevent us from doing so (e.g. vomiting during pregnancy, etc.)

Consider this idea as debunked.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Tom Kha

No, the CC hasn't lost his marbles. He knows that the soup is uniformly referred to as tom kha gai in the US except that the soup is not a soup and the "gai" (chicken) is basically optional.

It's really a family of stews at the heart of it.

For starters, there is neither the concept of "soup" nor that of "courses" in Thai cooking. A rich dish such as this would be served with rice and it would be a blowout meal (because of its richness.)

The tom roughly suggests a soup or a stew and the kha refers to galangal. Substitutions are pointless since galangal is the main feature.

Secondly, it's really a meta-dish in the sense that the basic stew is prepared first and then other stuff added. You can have tom kha tao-hoo (with tofu) , tom kha hoi (with shellfish), tom kha talay (with mixed seafood), etc.

The dish is all about the aroma, and you have an insanely umami-laden broth with a mildly sweet, savory, sour broth and a solid kick on the back-end.

The CC will provide a recipe with a mild variant that he once had — it had a slight amount of pandanus (screwpine).

Superb in every way.


3 cups coconut milk
3 cups chicken broth (substitute with water)
1 stalk lemongrass (sliced on a bias)
10 pieces of sliced galangal
2 chillies
1 piece pandanus
2 cilantro roots
3 kaffir lime leaves
1 tbsp palm sugar

fish sauce

12 pieces chicken (sliced against the bias into thin slices)
1 cup straw mushrooms
2 shallots (sliced lengthwise)
1-2 lime(s)
1/3 cup cilantro leaves

Note: The chicken is cut into very small pieces. It's poached in the broth. This preserves its tenderness because it's barely cooked through.


Smash the lemongrass, galangal, and cilantro roots gently in a mortar and pestle. Add them to the coconut milk, broth, chillies, pandanus, palm sugar, and kaffir lime leaves. Bring to a boil. Simmer very gently at a low heat for 12-15 minutes.

Add fish sauce to taste (this provides the salt.)

Taste it. It should be intense, faintly sweet and fragrant. It will become tart once you add the lime later.

(Technically, you can strain it at this point but that's not the Thai way.)

You can stop the process here if you like. (Remember it's all about the smell and it dissipates so don't wait too long.)

When ready to serve with jasmine rice, bring once again to a boil. Turn off the heat. Add the chicken, mushrooms, shallots, and lime. Let it sit for 3-4 minutes.

Serve with the cilantro leaves on top.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Dark Side of Food

One of the most important concepts associated with food is that it is pretty much the only activity that we do daily. There's also shitting but that's the end result of eating.

We eat to live. Literally. Our bodies are just a mechanism by which food gets transformed into fuel for our brain.

Every other activity that we do daily is basically optional but not eating.

There are many consequences to this simple observation. We'll proceed from the relatively trivial to the relatively profound.

No, your mother's version of that dish is not the "best". It's not even "typical". It's probably even shit. Let's start with that.

It's just something you ate on a daily basis and hence established the basis on which you rest your (very shaky) foundation of food. You may even perpetuate that because it's the only thing that you know. If you want to break out of the arbitrariness of your birth, and it is extraordinarily hard to do so, then you must first accept this brutal fact.

Did you notice that the CC referred to your mother's cooking as "shit"?

Notice how the metaphor neatly connects to food. We work symbolically through food. Everything from "no free lunch" to "corny" to "sour grapes" to "dish fit for the gods" — Shakespeare made the last one up as he did also "salad days", "in a pickle" and "the milk of human kindness".

There are literally no languages that don't have wondrous phrases related to food. It's so elemental that it's taken for granted. Everything from "essere buono come il pane" ("to be as good as bread" = "as good as gold") to 羊頭狗肉 ("sheep's head, dog meat" = "false advertising".)

Since eating is literally the only mandatory activity that we do, it goes without surprise that it's the ideal mechanism of enforcing group conformity.

There are absolutely no religions in the world that don't have a mandatory taboo on some form of eating. Judaism has kosher laws, the various religions in India have strange forms of vegetarianism, Christianity imposed rules of eating on Fridays, etc.

Needless to say this is all bullshit. Humans are famously omnivore. What one group eschews another embraces. The Chinese would laugh at the Jews. The meat-eaters mock the vegetarians. Fish on Fridays? Please.

Notice the bullshit metaphor also works via food. The only thing worse than your own shit would be the shit of a bull.

These rules have nothing to do with food and everything to do with enforcing group identity. You define yourself not only by what you are but also but what you are not.

The group identity mechanism works via what the Japanese would call  内外 ("uchi-soto" = "inside-outside"). Follow the food rules and you're an insider. Don't and you will be brutally excommunicated.

Lest you think that this mechanism is "religious" in nature, the CC will be happy to pontificate.

Try arguing barbecue in the US. There's great barbecue everywhere from Virginia to South Carolina to Kentucky to Texas. However, none of these groups agree with each other. Everyone seems to think their own version is the "best" — an entirely laughable notion that any outsider (like the CC!) might care to disabuse them of. They're all great; they are just different.

So you see, your mother's version of that dish is not the "best". It's your own fierce form of enforcing identity. You are sticking by what little you know and even if your mother is a terrific cook, you are trying futilely to convince others that it is food fit for the gods.

The most famous example of this "food as identity" enforcement was the Spanish Reconquista — the re-establishment of Christian rule in Spain. The Arabs and the Jews were forced at sword-point to eat pork in public as proof of their "conversion" to Christianity. The Spanish then took their concept to the Philippines which had no particular ban on pork and hence turned the pig into a newly formed "religion".

The great ramen maker, Momofuku Ando, neatly also turned these religious identity rules to his advantage by casually observing that there was no religion in the world that didn't embrace the chicken. The first ramen noodle flavor was chicken. (He wasn't particularly interested in the vegetarians.)

Which brings us to the fact that vegetarianism is another example of an entirely post-facto-rationalized system erected on extraordinarily shaky foundations.

Humans are omnivorous. We will literally eat anything which you can plainly observe because what one country or ethnic group rejects, another will happily eat. Since they all can't be right and they're all equally human, it stands to reason that they all must be wrong.

Science backs it up in spades. We are omnivorous, and we definitely evolved because of our capacity to eat meat. Arthur Clarke famously points this out in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Kubrick gives this profound notion the utmost respect by filming it most memorably with a magnificent jump-cut.

We even have specialized meat receptors in our stomachs. Evolution at its finest. It gave us a powerful concentrated source of fuel and pushed our brains to much larger sizes.

Is there a point to this depressing discourse which is almost tailor-made to offend just about everyone? Why yes, there most certainly is.

If you really want to get to understand another culture, the ideal mechanism is through its food. Not only will you be wearing a different identity, it will make it far easier to discard your own. Discarding your identity is not for the weak. You will be left adrift and will be forced to fend on your own. The group enforcement mechanism will kick in dressed in full riot gear.

However, it's one of the few ways to throw off the arbitrariness of your birth (which you had no choice over) and get to enter into entirely new mindsets.

When phrased like that, you're looking at the greatest adventure in life. Needless to say, it's highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Ikan Kuning (Fish stew with Lime, Turmeric and Basil)

The CC bought some amazing black bass from the local fisherman and was going to make the afore-mentioned steamed fish with fermented black beans, ginger and scallion except that the CC hates repetition and is easily bored.

This is a wondrous dish from southern Indonesia. You see the Indian influences right off the bat (turmeric) and the Southeast-Asian influences (galangal, kaffir lime leaves, basil, etc.) The New World shows up as chilis, of course.

Ideally this dish is cooked with a whole fish or fish segments with bones but let's get real. Just make it with a fillet. It's not the same and it does matter but not substantially so.

Pair it with the most basic rice you can make because the flavors in the dish are already overwhelming.


black sea-bass
4 tbsp lime juice

2 shallots (chopped coarsely)
2 cloves garlic
1 red chili
1/2" ginger (chopped coarsely)
1/2" galangal (chopped coarsely)
1 fresh turmeric (chopped coarsely)

lemongrass (sliced diagonally)
1" pandanus leaf
4 kaffir lime leaves

peanut oil

2 cups water

lemon basil (or Thai basil or Italian basil)


Note 1: Once you combine the lime juice with the fish, the clock is ticking. Do it after you make the paste, and right before you start cooking.

Make the tamarind water. Pour boiling water over the tamarind and let it steep for 20 minutes. Pass the mixture through a sieve keeping the water and discarding the residue.

Pound the shallots, garlic, chili, ginger, galangal, and turmeric to a paste. Set aside.

Combine the fish gently with the lime juice and tamarind water set aside. Let it sit for 10 minutes.

Heat up some peanut oil till it shimmers. Add the paste, lemongrass, pandanus, kaffir lime leaves and let it fry till the raw smell disappears. Add the water and bring to a boil. Let it cook for 5 minutes.

Add the fish and the lime juice and tamarind water. Let it cook through. This is swift. No more than a few minutes.

Top with the basil and serve at once.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Mugi Gohan (Barley Rice)

The CC is insanely fond of this dish.

This is the ultimate "poor people" dish in Japan and even today there's a slight disdain towards it.

Historically peasants paid rice as taxes in the feudal era. They had a tendency to hide stuff from the authorities — tax evasion is as old as mankind! — a point memorably made in Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai (七人の侍). The peasants frequently mixed other grains that were not taxed to their cooked rice — barley, millet, etc. which contributes to their "lower class status". Ironically, this is why the they  never suffered from beri beri but the upper classes did.

It was also served as army rations and today is often served in school lunches, all of which add up the reasons that it is really resented.

Which is too bad because it's freakin' awesome!

Since the CC has no associations with it, the CC is free to love it. It has texture, nutrition, lack of boredom (white rice?), flavor and chewiness.


1/2 cup barley
1 cup rice

3 cups dashi (or water)


Note 1: The only "trick" is that the barley needs to be soaked ahead of time for 30 minutes so that they can be cooked together.

Note 2: You can vary the proportions. More barley, less rice, etc. This is the median that the CC likes.

Note 3: Use dashi if you can.

Soak the barley for 30 minutes. Rinse the rice under cold water until it runs clear. Let it sit for about 10-15 minutes.

Put all the ingredients in an open pot. Cook until the rice is done. Depending on the humidity you may need to add a little more water at the end.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Hiyashi Tan-Tan ((冷やしたんたん)

One of the wondrous things about ramen is that it gives Japanese chefs full freedom to explore creativity outside the traditional norms of washoku. It allows them to escape the "wa" (和) of the washoku (和食) — the "Japanese-ness" of meal formats, rules, etc.

Every culture has some escape pod by which they can break the rules and are no longer subject to the dictates of "traditional culture". You need a release mechanism for creativity and rebellion.

Ramen is unambiguously Chinese and hence "foreign" however the Japanese have adapted it, refined it, and taken it to great heights. In the spirit of experimentation, it's not unusual to find "Thai Ramen" and "Indian Ramen" and "Italian Seafood Ramen", etc. in Tokyo. Any number of tricks from other cuisines are amenable as long as they ultimately get integrated into the ramen format.

The CC first ate the dish at a restaurant near his former workplace. It's a riff on a riff on a riff.

The owner of the restaurant is Burmese who ran away to Japan, lived there for a decade, and in spite of marrying Japanese, was unable to get a permanent visa. The couple opted for "life, liberty and happiness" and Japan's loss is New York's gain.

Tan-tan men is a variation on the classic Sichuanese dan-dan mian (担担面) — the spicy-tingly noodles with ground pork, pickled vegetables, and chili oil.

The Japanese version sticks to the idea broadly. It somehow got caught up with the very Sichuanese doubanjiang (辣豆瓣酱) possibly because its umami is very similar to miso.

So the ground pork is stir-fried with ginger, garlic, scallions and toban jan (as it's called in Japanese) until you have a loose dry mixture.

The ramen noodles are topped with an intense pork broth, the spicy ground pork mixture, slivered scallions, etc. This is a broad idea. The specifics depend on the creativity of each chef. You'd probably find slivered cucumbers or bean sprouts. It may be topped with rayu (chili oil.) It all depends.

Ramen, being served piping hot is cold weather food. Japan has blistering summers and a history of a lack of air-conditioning. The very hot weather dish, hiyashi chūka, featured here often is a response to that.

Hiyashi tan-tan is the bastard love child of hiyashi chūka and tan-tan men as conceived by a Burmese entrepreneur trained in Japan to satiate the ramen-crazy Yankees in a blistering New York summer.

What could be cooler than that?

There are some elegant subtle melodies inside it that make it sing.

Traditional ramen is frequently made with stock made from pork bones. It has a milky-white color.

The stock here is much lighter as befits a summer dish. Seafood-based or chicken-based which has been hit with a solid amount of sesame paste. Traditional Japanese sesame powder (gomashio) is made with roasted sesame seeds and has a brownish color. This one is clearly made with unroasted ones which gives the broth the same intense milky-white color. The CC strongly suspects that the restauranteur is just using tahini thus introducing a Middle-Eastern ingredient. It's New York, after all. Why not?

The advantage of cold-ingredients pre-prepared to a restaurant should be obvious but one of the complete non-negotiables is that the ramen has to be made fresh. You can dunk it in ice-water to cool it down but it must be freshly made.

Since the recipe clearly has diverged so far from its roots, such as they are, the CC feels absolutely no shame in diverging further. It would almost be regretful to stick to the format. The pork has been subbed by ground seafood (non-traditional) and bamboo shoots (absolutely traditional.) The cucumbers and scallions are retained in the summer heat.

It's the beauty of ramen. Within the broad tradition, as Cole Porter might have put it, "Anything goes".


(serves 2)


2 pieces kombu
4 cups water
1/2 cup dried shrimp (or bonito flakes or both)

1/3 cup sesame seeds

Ground Pork

1/2" ginger
2 cloves garlic
1 tbsp toban jan
1 tbsp soy sauce
sugar (to balance)
peanut oil

1/2 cup ground pork (or ground seafood or ground chicken)
1/2 cup bamboo shoots

2 packages ramen


sesame oil


Note 1: Once the sesame paste is stirred into the cool broth, you cannot reheat it again. The broth and paste will separate which will destroy the texture. It must have its ice-cold white texture.

Note 2: Mound the pile of the ground pork mixture in the center. The toppings should be to the side. Yes, this is "only" aesthetics but it really goes a long way to emphasizing the cold-hot nature of the dish. The spicy pork with the ice-cold ingredients. It will all turn red-gold once you start slurping.

Note 3: If you have time, soak the sesame seeds in water. Don't worry too much about this step. You can always loosen the sesame paste with the dashi you make.

Note 4: The whole recipe is eminently scalable and can be made ahead of time. Except the ramen. They must be made fresh. You'll probably learn the hard way the science behind this step.

Note 5: It takes a while to chill all the ingredients especially the broth. Maybe the CC's fridge is crappy but it took more than 6 hours to get it down to the right temperature.

First, make the dashi. Heat up the kombu with the water. Just before the water boils, fish the kombu out and discard. If you don't do it, the broth will turn bitter. Add the dried shrimp/dried anchovies/bonito flakes and bring to a loose boil. Let it steep for at least 15 minutes. Pass the broth through a double layer of paper towels. You should be left with a clear golden broth.

Meanwhile, take the soaked sesame seeds and grind them to a fine paste in a mortar and pestle. Add some of the above dashi if you need to loosen the paste. Add the paste to the dashi and add salt. Set aside and let it chill.

Cut up the cucumber, carrots, scallions into long very thin batons of the same size and set aside to chill.

Make the ground pork mixture. Smash up the ginger and garlic in a mortar and pestle to a paste. Heat up some peanut oil in a skillet. When shimmering, add the ginger-garlic paste. Fry for a bit. Add the toban jan and fry for a little bit. Add the ground pork, soy sauce and sugar and let it cook until it is dry. You will probably need to add 2-3 tbsp of water to make sure it doesn't burn. Add the bamboo shoots towards the end. Take off the heat and cool. You can store this for a few days. Chill it.

When ready to serve, make the ramen. The ones the CC has require 2.5 minutes. Immediately dunk in an ice bath.

Top the ramen with the chilled dashi. Put the ground pork mixture in the center. The cut up scallions, carrots and cucumbers to the side.

(You can add sesame oil but that's gilding the lily.)

Slurp the intense icy awesomeness.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Stir-Fried Squid with Long Beans, Thai Eggplants, Shrimp Paste & Green Peppercorns

There's this wonderful Thai restaurant near the CC's old workplace which has a dish that the CC is obsessed with.

It ticks off all the right notes - funky, umami, complex with enough heat to set your mouth alight and yet, in that precise Thai way, it works!

The CC has had plenty of opportunities to "reverse engineer" this particular dish. It looks like a variation on the equally famous pad prik khing.

The CC is totally a sucker for the green peppercorns that come in the dish. They are not easy to find but you must get the ones pickled in brine not in vinegar.

There seemed to be a complex metallic note behind it, and the CC figured it the old fashioned way when he spilled some on his shirt. It was fresh turmeric. The CC was out a shirt but had gained a recipe. Cosmic balance and all that.



4 kaffir lime leaves (sliced very fine)
4 cloves garlic
1 large shallot
2 tbsp shrimp paste
1 tbsp fish sauce
1" galangal
1 lemongrass stalk
1 small turmeric
2-3 Thai bird chilies
sugar (to balance the taste)


peanut oil

2 squid (read notes below)
6 Thai eggplants (quartered)
8-12 long beans (cut into 1" pieces)
1/2 cup bamboo shoots
3 tbsp green peppercorns

Thai basil


Note 1: You will need a mortar and pestle to pound it to a paste. A food processor is simply not the same.

Note 2: Traditionally, the paste may require more or less ingredients depending on the quality thereof. For example, the CC only used 1 chili pepper since it was super hot. You need to taste and adjust based on the ingredients you have.

Note 3: The squid are cut into 1.5" x 1" pieces and cross-hatched with a knife. They will curl up and quickly cook in the stir-fry.

Note 4: The stir-fry goes at a rapid pace. You will need to have everything ready.

First prepare the paste. In a mortar and pestle, pound all the ingredients together to a fine paste. You may need to add more fish paste to loosen the sauce, or a little more sugar if it feels too salty. The paste should be thick, pungent and definitely have a bite from the chilies.

Heat the peanut oil until it is shimmering. Add the paste and fry for a bit. Add the eggplants and continue frying for 2 mins. Add the bamboo shoots and the long beans and fry for 2-3 mins. You may need to add 2-3 tbsp of water to loosen the sauce at this point. Add the squid and the peppercorns. Take off the heat as soon as the squid curl.

Top with the basil leaves.

Serve at once with jasmine rice.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Steamed Fish with Fermented Black Beans, Ginger & Scallions

Many moons ago, when the CC was in school, the CC learnt this simple dish from his friend. We'd get together to make this because we needed to pool our money to afford the fish and this is not a dish that reheats at all. Make it, eat it, be done with it.

When described it has the barest of ingredients but it is simply bursting with flavor.

The salted preserved black beans (豆豉) are actually fermented and salted soy beans. They are intensely flavored with a salty umami taste (much more intense than soy sauce, say.)

Traditionally, this would be made with a whole fish which is stuffed with the ingredients and steamed. Additional slivered ginger, black beans and scallions would be scattered over the top while serving. A few drops of intense sesame oil completes the dish.

When the CC saw black sea bass at the farmer's market, he knew right away that he needed to make this dish again.

You need to use fish with the skin on. The skin has all the flavor. The CC never understood the idea behind removing the most flavorful part. As the much older Japanese mother of a friend once said, "Why do they remove the best part?"

Why indeed?


fillet of white fish (with skin)
1 tbsp preserved black beans
slivered ginger
slivered scallions

sesame oil


Note 1: The recipe below has been adapted to fillets but you can always make it the traditional way. Stuff half the stuff inside the cavity and sprinkle half on top.

Note 2: Don't add salt. There's plenty already in the preserved black beans.

Note 3: You will need a skillet which has a cover.

Heat up some oil in a pan. When hot but not shimmering, place the fillet skin side down on it, Toss the ginger, scallions and black beans over it. Add four tbsp of water and cover the pan. Let the fish steam at medium-low heat until done.

Serve over rice with the other ingredients from the pan. Add a few drops of sesame oil to the fish, and more ginger and scallions if desired.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Sopa de Almejas (Clam Soup)

There is this wonderful Peruvian restaurant in Connecticut that the CC has been visiting for more than a decade. It makes a killer sopa de almejas.

Since the restaurant is a bit of a hike for the CC, he always ends up ordering the soup — rather than the other possibly amazing dishes — and he's never disappointed. It's served with some bread (at best, average) and some amazing homemade aji criollo.

However, it's the soup that really sings and the CC has been trying to reproduce it ever since.

At long last — it only took a decade — he's untangled the various strands and made it for himself, and it's exactly as killer.

There were several hidden problems that needed to be solved. One was that the soup came with this emulsified broth with a very deep taste. Inside it were placed four or five rather large clams. Finely chopped cilantro was sprinkled on the top. The broth had no solids but it had an intense flavor. There was a reasonable amount of oil in the broth like all restaurants. However, this turned out to be a red herring. There were more important things at play.

Some things were really obvious. There was a lot of tomato purée in the broth. There were the deep notes of black pepper. It was clear it was some kind of fish broth. It also had a very deep cilantro flavor that could not be coming from the tiny amount of stuff sprinkled on top.

The other clue was the price point on the menu. It was one of the cheapest items, and the serving was large enough for a very good lunch. Now, clams are rather cheap on the Eastern seaboard but they're not that cheap so that means the ingredients inside the broth had to be cheaper. (The CC considered the possibility that they were using commercial clam juice but the taste of the broth had a subtle fresh flavor so it didn't seem very likely.)

Other clues. The clams were served on the half-shell and were very juicy. They could not have been cooked with the broth, and they were too plump to have been sitting in there for too long.

Two other important clues.

The dish always took a little longer to serve than other dishes (when the CC went with friends) and the surprising one —  the broth was served piping hot. It was served almost at boiling point (close to 90-95°C.) When the broth cooled down, the soup didn't taste as good. Clearly, the temperature mattered greatly.

Peruvian cuisine is the ultimate mashup — besides the indigenous Incan origin, it's had Spanish, Italian, Chinese, West African and particularly Japanese influences.

It was clear that the broth had tons of umami but once again the price-point was critical. They may have been using MSG but it was being done with a light hand.

The critical insight is that this was a cheap restaurant surviving on very low margins. Nothing could be wasted. There were shrimp on the menu and they were clearly buying them whole. The broth was being made with the shrimp heads and the shells. They are the source of the resonant thumping flavor. Also, the broth clearly had onions and garlic and tons of black pepper and cilantro. However, after the broth being made, it was being filtered and solids pressed and tossed out. Then the clams were being shucked, and cooked in the broth, and whole thing brought to the table piping hot. They were also generous with salt.

Why did the temperature matter?

The CC is not completely sure but it seems plausible that the bitter notes of the cilantro and the pepper were dominating at lower temperatures. When hot, you just got the heady hit of the salt and umami from the broth and the tomatoes.

Sopa de Almejas

Note 1: The clams that the CC gets are the standard East Coast clams. The giant ones are easier to find up in Connecticut, Massachusetts & Maine. This doesn't matter as much. They were definitely using local stuff not Manila clams, etc.

Note 2: The salt in this recipe is really crucial. You need to add a teeny bit more than you think completely rational. The CC added salt to the boiling broth until it tasted "correct". It was a lot more than he expected. It will not be the same without.

Note 3: Unless you have shrimp heads and shells in your freezer, the clear substitute would be dried shrimp. You will also need some kombu unless you plan to add MSG. Not going to work otherwise.

Note 4: As ridiculous as this sounds, it's better with crusty bread that has been wrapped for about 6-8 hours in foil so that it goes just slightly limp from the exhalation of the moisture from the starch. The CC is perfectly aware that this is anal retentiveness of the highest order.

Note 5: The broth really needs to be at a boil. The CC is not kidding.


(serves 2)

1 dozen clams

2 tbsp oil
1 small onion (diced fine)
6-8 cloves of garlic (chopped)
4-6 tbsp tomato purée
1 piece kombu
1/4 cup dried shrimp
1/4 cup dried anchovies (if you have them)
1/3 cup diced cilantro (stems and all)
3 tbsp coarsely ground black pepper
4 cups water

finely chopped cilantro leaves (to serve)


First make the dashi.

Bring the water to the boil with the kombu. Right before the water boils, remove it and discard. If you don't do this, the broth will turn bitter. Toss in the shrimp and anchovies and let it boil for about 7-8 minutes. Skim the nasty froth that comes on top. Strain and keep the liquid. Discard the solids.

Heat up the oil. Fry the onions and the garlic until golden. Add the tomato purée and fry for a bit. Add the dashi, cilantro, salt and black pepper and bring to a rolling boil. Cook for about 6-7 minutes. Turn off the heat and let it steep for 10 minutes or so. Strain the broth pressing down on the solids to extract as much of the broth as necessary. Discard the solids.

(If you have two pots, the dashi can directly be strained into the second step. It will save you tons of time.)

Steam the clams with either the broth or some water. As they open, remove them and shuck off the half-shell. You can also just shuck them and store if you don't want to serve them with the half-shells.

Filter the clam broth with some paper towels. Clams are generally very gritty. Add this clam broth to the other broth.

Bring the broth to a rolling boil. Check for salt. You may need more.

Pour the broth over the clams. Add the cilantro on top. Serve at once with the crusty bread.

This can't be entirely surprising for a recipe that was a decade in the making.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Dog Days of Summer

When it's crazy hot, you just need some "chilled Chinese". (Recipe in the link.)

Hiyashi Chūka (冷やし中華)

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Watercress Soup

The CC has been obsessed by this soup both because of the taste and the color. It tastes like early summer and it's both delicate and hearty at the same time. It's very French in that you are making magic out of crap that grows by the side of a ditch.

Making it well, however, requires a certain level of skill.

Watercress is an aquatic weed that has an aggressive peppery flavor. It's been commercially cultivated forever so it's not hard to find.

The problem with greens is that overcooking turns them from a bright green color to a drab olive-green. The reason has to do with the science of chlorophyll which is tied up in cells. When the cellular structures are broken typically in an acidic environment, the magnesium in the chlorophyll gets displaced by hydrogen ions which changes the color.

The choices to preserve the color are pretty much all poor.

You could quickly blanch the vegetables and dunk them in an ice-bath which preserves the cells. You could cook the vegetables in a slightly alkaline environment but that has a tendency to turn them into mush and taste soapy. You could cook them for the barest amount of time while watching the clock and reheat them to the barest minimum.

You can easily see how the word "skill" would attach itself to these three choices.


2 bunches watercress
1 tbsp butter
1 large onion
1 potato
1/4 cup peas (frozen is fine)

3 cups water (read the notes below)




Note 1: The CC prefers that the taste of the watercress be dominant. Broth is too aggressive. A dashi made with just kombu is ideal but water is preferred over most broths.

Note 2: The watercress leaves must be plucked. This is a tremendous pain in the ass because the plant is basically a weed and grows copiously in all directions so you will have to work hard to strip the leaves.

Note 3: If the CC may use the oxymoron that is "conventionally unorthodox", the peas would be it. They help with the nutrition and the color.

Heat the butter in a vessel. Toss in the chopped onions and sautée for a while. Add the potatoes and let them cook for a bit. Add the broth and let it come to a boil. Add the peas and let cook until the potatoes and peas are tender.

This is the critical step.

Bring the mixture to a boil. Toss in the watercress and turn off the heat.

Purée with an immersion blender or with a regular blender if you don't have one. You can pass the mixture through a sieve if you want a refined presentation or just leave as is.

If you need to reheat, make sure you do at the barest of temperatures just up to the serving point.

Garnish with chives. Serve at once.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Weekend Menu

Japanese meal 
Nori sumashijiru (Clear nori soup)
Tuna sashimi (marinated in soy and mirin)
Mugi gohan (Barley rice)
Asparagus & shiitake ohitashi
Radishes "massaged" with sea salt

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Thai Oyster Omelette (Hoi Tod - หอยทอด)

People who head to Bangkok would probably be surprised that pad thai is not the most popular street food. It's something called hoi tod.

This is a crispy oyster omelette that is irresistible because it tickles all the different parts of your food longings. There is the super crispy, slightly soft, slithery continuum between the crisp edges, the eggs and the oysters. The oysters, eggs and fish sauce add an absurd umami. The scallions, garlic and cilantro are just classical tastes and the crispy bean sprouts add textural contrast once for added measure.

The recipe is clearly not Thai. It seems to be a Chinese idea ("scallion pancakes") adapted to Thai tastes. However, it's vastly more seductive than pad thai.

Hoi (หอย) refers to any shellfish really. You could use mussels but the one thing that is absolutely necessary is that you shuck them and keep them raw. This is a bigger pain for mussels than oysters (provided you know how to shuck them safely and cleanly.)

The hardest part about this recipe is that you don't have a flat iron surface with a roaring fire underneath. An iron skillet or a non-stick pan are going to come closest provided you pre-heat them and really get them going.

Remember this is street food so you'll have to keep everything ready ("mise-en-place") so that it can go in at high speed. This recipe is really going to test your classical French cooking skills even though it's so easy that it's the most popular street dish in Bangkok.

The recipe is adapted from David Thompson's book but it's so popular that there are tons of recipes all over the web. Clearly, this is a much-loved item.

David Thompson who's probably the leading authority in the world on Thai cooking calls for a mixture of mung bean flour and rice flour but it's hard to find the former. The latter works excellently. However, if you have access to an Indian grocery and bung in some urad flour, it's going to achieve the same result. The goal is crisp and it really resembles more than anything a dosa except it's not fermented and a second layer of eggs is going on top.

Coherence in the French manner of a "perfect" omelette is simply not necessary. Even though you can rather trivially make it into a perfect flipped omelette, such precision for a street dish is rather besides the point. Don't sweat this part. It's far more important that you cook it individually and serve it as quickly as possible.

The dish originated as a fast snack at seaside towns in Thailand before migrating to the rest of the country. So did Sriracha. They are match made in culinary heaven.

The CC's friend noted that while the oysters added a perfect counterpoint, you could easily envision the dish with something that supplied the umami like shiitake mushrooms and the CC would concur. It would also work with something like snails. (This heresy is probably going to make the Thai internet explode with outrage but that's par for the course for a much loved dish.)

There is a savage irony to the fact that notes for a simple street dish are so copious but what can the CC do? It's a choice between an expensive airplane ticket to Thailand or cheap local oysters and making it himself.

That's street food. You need the culture otherwise you are stuck working hard to achieve something that's both dirt-cheap and fast.

Whither, progress?


(per serving)

1/4 cup rice flour
1/2 tsp salt
cold water

3 oysters (shucked)

2 tbsp peanut oil

2 eggs
1 tbsp fish sauce (nahm pla)
1 red chilli sliced fine (prik kee noo)
1 tbsp sugar
1 scallion - both white and green - sliced really fine
white pepper

2 sprigs cilantro (minced)

bean sprouts

1/2 tbsp minced garlic


[1] The Thai overwhelming prefer "white pepper" over "black pepper" for aesthetic reasons. They don't like the black flecks. Sorry but this is one of those details that the CC is simply not going to sweat. Certainly not at brunch.

[2] The traditional "choice" is between "crispy" and "extra crispy". This is trivial to achieve by increasing the proportion of rice/lentil batter and bunging it in at intervals. (Just read below the understand the process.)

[3] The oysters will have plenty of oyster liquor. Separate it, filter it -- East Coast oysters have plenty of grit -- and add it to the egg batter.


First, make the rice flour batter by mixing the rice flour, salt and cold water. The cold water will make it go into suspension faster. It should be slightly thin, slightly salty and when tasted after 10 minutes, not taste like flour. Add some more water otherwise.

Mix the eggs, fish sauce, sugar, chilis, scallions, 1 tbsp of the minced cilantro, and white pepper as a batter in a separate bowl. You won't need salt since the fish sauce is plenty salty.

Pre-heat your skillet. It should be as hot as possible.

Add a tbsp of peanut oil. When hot, ladle the rice batter all around it. It will bubble furiously and start getting crispy right away. Let it cook for a minute or so and gently loosen the edges. Cut into four pieces and push them towards the edges of the skillet.

Add the other tbsp of the oil in the center. Add the minced garlic and let it color a bit. Add the oysters in the center and let them cook for 30 seconds.

Pour the egg batter, gently all over the pan, adding a little bit over the crispier rice batter bits so that it makes it into an omelette. Let it cook. You can flip it if you like but not necessary. The CC prefers that the outside be crisp and the inside soft.

Serve over a bed of bean sprouts with the extra minced cilantro on top. Sriracha on the side.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Japanese Five-Grain Rice (五穀米)

Every country has a healthier version of its staples in the modern world. This is a recipe that you are unlikely to find in a standard Japanese cookbook.

The number "five" (go - 五) has a special significance in Japanese cooking. Traditional Japanese cuisine — washoku (和食) — has long been characterized by the principles of  "five colors, five tastes, five ways, five senses, five outlooks".

It's really a shorthand for how to make meals more nutritious and serves as an organizing principle for daily meals. (It sounds hard but the CC assures you that it's shockingly easy in practice.)

The five grains mentioned obviously feature rice but there are other grains from the wheat family. They add both texture and nutrition.

The recipe below features -- white rice, brown rice, black rice, barley (mugi) and oats but in the modern day, you'll see everything from Job's tears (hato mugi) to farro to quinoa.

The general principles stand though. You want rice and you want a complementary set of grains for nutrition and texture.

The black rice turns everything purple and the dish is visually arresting. It also has a nutritionally complete set of amino acids and with the addition of the sesame provides a complete meal (even though that's not how it would be served.)

Lest this sound some like some "austere" dish from the land of peace, love and granola, the CC will tell you that you will be chowing this dish down faster than you can say "roast pork".

It's herushi (= healthy), it's visually appealing, it's delicious, it's nutritious, and it's addictive!

It's a modern-day classic of Japanese cooking.


1/2 cup white rice
1/4 cup brown rice
1/4 cup black rice
1/4 cup barley
1/4 cup rolled oats

2 1/2 cups dashi

1 tbsp sesame seeds


[1] The proportions are 2:1:1:1:1 with the white rice being 2. That adds up to 6 units so you want about 10 units of the dashi. You can always add more water later.

[2] The various soaking times are different because the stuff is cooked together. If you don't follow this, the softer stuff will be mush while the harder grains have barely softened.

[3] The sesame seeds act as a white counterpoint to the purple. They are also necessary for nutritional reasons. The fat is needed for the absorption of the amino acids. The CC also sometimes sprinkles gomashio (= sesame and salt roasted and powdered into a fine white powder.)

[4] The purpose of letting the dish to sit for a few minutes afterwards is that the starches bind the dish together. It makes it easier to eat with chopsticks. If you're not a chopsticks person, ignore this point. Also, this dish is made for bento boxes. It's awesome at room temperature.

[5] The dish is a game of texture. It's chewy and each bite is different because of all the various grains. This is one of the reasons it's "addictive".


Soak the black rice in a bowl for at least 4 hours.

Soak the brown rice in a bowl for at least 2 hours.

Soak the barley in a bowl for at least 2 hours.

Wash the white rice in copious water until it runs clear. Wash the oats too. Let them drain together in a colander. (This level of "soaking" is sufficient to get the right texture. You don't want them too soft.)

Drain the water from the other three components and mix together.

Combine the five grains, the dashi with some salt and bring it to a boil. Let it cook in an open pot till the liquid has been absorbed, roughly 10-12 minutes. Check that the grains are cooked. If not, add some water and let cook further. They should still have a chewy bite (= al dente).

Turn off the heat and let it sit for 4-5 minutes.

Meanwhile, lightly roast the sesame seeds in a skillet till they are golden. Set aside.

Sprinkle the rice with the sesame seeds and serve.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Controlling Texture

One of the biggest blunders in the CC's life is not realizing that for certain dishes, if you wish to control the texture precisely, you must soak ingredients for variable amounts before you cook them together.


Make that:


The CC certainly knew the general principle but failed to apply it in specific cases mostly in the case of rice where the CC is not really in his natural element. This is just sad and this public shaming is his mea culpa.

To put a positive spin on it, we're always learning and will continue to do so - hopefully! - till the day we die.

What's the recipe? Oh there's one but the CC hasn't quite nailed it perfectly yet so you'll just have to wait. Gotta learn a few tricks from the marketing guys. Keep 'em waiting.

In the interim, may all your food have awesome texture!

Thursday, March 3, 2016

An Apology to Mexico

Every once in a while the CC needs to get off his high horse. It's never a particularly pleasant process but honesty and scientific accuracy demands that one do so.

The claim has been made that Mexican dried shrimp were the "best" and the CC argued that best is, at best, subjective. Here's the original recipe where he argued that it doesn't matter.

The CC takes it back. It does matter.

The CC walked past a sign at a known store which said "Tenemos camaron seco (+ pescado seco)" and the CC instinctively knew what that meant. Awesome stuff with, at best, a quasi-legal status.


So he walked in and asked for it. It was lunch hour and the Mexicans just had a conniption about the
CC asking for it. Some crap was offered and the CC just said, "No."

Common sense prevailed and a bag was produced.  After about two minutes, the salesmanship element kicked in and a second bag was pushed onto the CC at a "discount."

The CC recognizes that the price was more than a touch speculative but that's the way the commercial markets work. It's not the end of the world.

The excellence comes from a singular point. It's just shrimp and salt dried in the sun. Nothing else.

Well, these babies kick ass and the Chinese stuff is crap. This is the real deal and CC will bow down to true excellence when he sees it.

Now the CC is one with the sign.

Tenemos camaron seco -- We have dried shrimp!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Getting Medieval on the World's Tastes

The format of medieval cuisine has waned over the centuries but if you squint hard enough, you can still see its antecedents reflected in modern food.

Medieval cuisine — at least in the European sense — was characterized by its use of exotic spices and ingredients. Meat was expensive with game being even more so. There's heavy use of black pepper, saffron, cardamom and ginger and a reliance on a sweet-sour taste. Nuts make their way into most dishes either in the native form or as a thickener – almond milk is practically a cliché.

Most cooking was hard not just from the point of the expense of ingredients and firewood but labor as well. There were no modern conveniences. Everything was done by hand. When we talk about "medieval cuisine", we end up inevitably talking about the nobility because that's what's documented and they're the only ones who could afford to do so.

The modern conception finds some of these dishes to be strange. Meat cooked in sugar syrup or honey is relatively alien to the modern palate – even though it tastes terrific. Our tongues are still the same but our trained response seems to be a little off-center. (You can still see it in dishes like pork chops with apple sauce except the sauce is now served separately.)

Even the format of the meal is a little strange. The stomach needed to be "opened" with an apéritif (literally from Latin: aperire - "to open"), then followed by vegetables, then "heavy meats", then "closed" with aged cheese and a digestif.

If you recognize the above as the slightly modified format of a classic French meal then you will understand the medieval roots of modern eating. (The placement of the salad has been moved around a few times by the French and Italians – and the Americans – but that's fodder for another post.)

Medieval cuisine in its traditional sense but with New World enhancements is most clearly seen today in Persian and Indian cooking. Indian is not that surprising because most spices originally came from India and classical Indian cooking borrows heavily from the Persian format so they are joined at the hip. In fact, most cooking styles borrow heavily from the Persian format given that they were the original Empire spread over vast swathes of modern-day Asia, Africa and Europe. You can see the same formats spread with the medieval Arabic Empire over Northern Africa into Spain and all the way to Sicily.

The point is that these cooking styles have still maintained their "medieval nature" — there's heavy use of spices, saffron, black pepper, ginger, nuts, and a marked preference for sweet-sour tastes.

A slight detour must be made at this point about why spices lost their use in Europe as opposed to modern-day Iran and India where they are still as popular as they were a millenia ago.

Most spices were imported from India to imperial Europe. The spices were a province of the nobility and both Constantinople and Venice were founded on the basis of taxation of the spice trade. In modern economic terms, the middlemen made the spices expensive. This was the whole basis of trying to find a new sea route to India – disintermediation – a way to bypass the taxation. Once these routes were found, and the New World accidentally discovered, the price of spices went down precipitously because of the lack of taxation and the fact that alternatives were found to grow spices in the newly discovered Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti and Dominican Republic), various islands in Indonesia, etc.

After that we come to a cliché of human nature. Anything that the hoi-polloi discovers is anathema to the upper-classes just like the old money on Fifth Ave. would disdain the Brooklyn hipsters. And so, spices fell out of favor with the upper-classes in Europe in favor of a "purer cleaner taste" — reverse snobbery at its very finest.

The critical point is that these ideas never did fall out of favor in the places where the spices were grown where the distinction between "expensive" v/s "cheap" simply didn't exist. Spices were always cheap across the growing areas and the swathe populated by traders traversing routes that were not subject to taxation. Places like Sicily are more like the lands that "time forgot" — they had no strategic value and they kept the formats even though their neighbors did not.

This is what explains meats cooked in cashewnut milk with heavy spices in classical Awadhi cuisine even though the cashews are New World – they would've been almonds originally — or the love of almond granita in Sicily. Sicilian dishes like sardines cooked in a sweet-sour sauce or the very Persian "Jeweled Rice" (javaher polow) are all modern-day embodiments of medieval cooking.

The past bleeds into the present — and in a very aggressive format. It's just hard to see until you squint just right.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Petrified Bacon

The title is a reference to an absolutely brilliant piece by the sculptor Isamu Noguchi and part of a series of "petrified" works which also feature petrified rye bread, cheese, sugar and ice cream!

The reference, of course, is to the famous meat-shaped stone (肉形石) in the collection of the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

While the CC understands the need not to touch art, never before has he seen sculpture which has such an overwhelming tactile quality. You just want to reach out and touch it. It positively screams for it.

What's clear is the artist's unerring eye in identifying natural rock samples and then sculpting them minimally to perfection.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Roasted Marrow Bones with Parsley Salad

The CC has been craving to make this recipe ever since he ate it at a restaurant a few years ago. It took a while to source the marrow bones and a little longer for the weather to get cold enough to make it.

The recipe is based on one that Fergus Henderson re-popularized. It's a complete classic and deserves to be so. It's also completely straightforward and will make your cooking seem fancier than it is if you serve it at a dinner party. (If you scarf it down by yourself, which you very well might, this blog is a judgment-free zone.)

The killer step is the combination of the French way of serving (with fleur de sel) and the English way of serving (with a tart parsley salad) both on toasted crusty bread. The English and the French ways are fairly related since La Manche is not very wide and the Norman Invasion is now more than a millenium old.


(serves 4)

Marrow Bones

8 marrow bones

Parsley Salad

3 cups parsley leaves
1 large shallot (sliced into paper-thin quarter-rings)
2 tbsp salt-preserved capers (de-salted, chopped)

1 tbsp champagne vinegar
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp mustard

black pepper (lots!)

fleur de sel (to serve)
toasted crusty bread (4-6 per serving)


[1] It's very rich so a little goes a long way. Two bones each per serving works very well although three each with some extra toast would make a nutritious complete meal.

[2] The salad is best assembled at the last minute and it needs to be tarter than the usual salad so go with a 1:2 ratio of vinegar to olive oil rather than the traditional 1:3.

[3] The capers need to be preserved in salt not vinegar.

[4] The tiniest dab of mustard actually gives a faint background taste that is really great.

[5] The CC rebelled against the original recipe which finely dices the shallots. Extremely fine quarter-rings give it a much more refined texture which contrasts the salad against the rich creamy marrow.

[6] The first step in the recipe is entirely optional. It's very chef-y and it is aesthetic in nature not functional. Skip it if necessary.

[7] The timing of this recipe crucially depends on whether you start with thawed bones prepped or frozen bones. The times and the size of the bones matter greatly. Chez CC, we serve as they get ready, the sizzling bones are always coming out on time. Sharing works wonders.


If you are going to prep the bones, dump them with ice into a bowl with two tablespoons of salt and cover with cold water. Every three hours, drain the water which will be bloody and repeat the process. Four times and you will have immaculate white bones and there will be no more blood in the water. This step is really aesthetic. You can roast the frozen bones directly. The blood will turn black when roasted. (Chefs are control-freaks about precision so this step really helps because the bones are now thawed and can be controlled precisely.)

Preheat the oven to 450°F.

Make the toast and set aside. Slice a baguette on the bias and let it toast in the oven. Depending on the slice size, it should be 4-5 minutes.

Clean the bones and make sure they are absolutely dry. If they are short you can put them vertically, with the flat sized down. Otherwise lay them horizontally. Don't sweat this.

Roast in the oven for 25 minutes. It will take 45 minutes if they are frozen. The marrow will be quivering like jelly and slightly puffy when it's done.

Meanwhile, assemble the parsley salad. Make the vinaigrette. Toss the salad.

Serve the roasted marrow bones with the parsley salad, toast and fleur de sel on the side. Eating is a matter of topping the toast with whatever combination your heart desires.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Scotch Woodcock

The CC has long maintained that if one wants to have an appreciation for English food, one must look to the period before the Great War (World War I) which destroyed the aristocracy.

Here's a very old recipe with a strange name. However, it's perfectly at ease today in the age of umami even if the 19th century lords wouldn't have heard of the word or the concept.

The recipe is truly spectacular at many many different levels. It's umami-laden which makes it irresistible; it's nutritious and attractive to look it, it has a variety of textures that makes eating it a sheer delight and it's breakfast!

Like all aristocratic recipes, it's a little bit time-consuming (although not as much as you think thanks to modern-day devices and conveniences.)

What is it?

It's excellent bread (or sometimes toast) that's lavishly spread with anchovy butter on which are piled soft scrambled eggs (made with cream) on which are piled more anchovies and assorted herbs.

It's relatively free-form when it comes to the herbs. English cooking was fairly easy-going with the herbs even back in the day. It could be chives or parsley or even salted capers. Seasonality and all that.

What really makes the clock tick, as they say, is the anchovies. The umami is the rock star and for that you must make the anchovy butter but it's straightforward with a mortar and pestle and a refrigerator — spare some pity for the poor sod that had to churn the mixture with ice to get it "to set" before refrigeration.

The CC's favorite part is that the anchovy butter is called "Gentleman's Relish". Now there's a term the CC could get behind.


Anchovy Butter

4 anchovies
8 tbsp butter

Scrambled Eggs (per serving)

2 eggs
2 tbsp cream

Misc (per serving)

1 slice rye bread
1 anchovy (neatly separated into two fillets)
minced herbs (parsley OR chives OR capers)


Note: This recipe is quite salty from the anchovies. Don't add too much salt in the eggs.

Anchovy Butter

First, make the butter. This is best done ahead of time. Pull the butter out of the fridge and let it soften. Fillet the anchovies, wash to get rid of the extra salt and pound to a paste. When the butter is softened, whip it with a fork till soft (called: "creaming the butter") and fold the anchovy paste in to make a compound butter.

You can take this and make a torchon with some plastic wrap if you want to get fancy, or just put it in a ramekin, cover it with some wrap and place it in the fridge.

This is best done ahead of time. This stuff lasts a long time even though the CC will personally assure you that you will plow through it in no time.

Scrambled Eggs

For the scrambled eggs, mix the eggs with the cream, salt and pepper. Scramble them over high heat so that the curds are relatively large and dry. (This is in distinct difference to the French-style of scrambling eggs which is over low heat where the eggs are soft and creamy and have almost no curds.)

Set aside.


Spread anchovy butter over the bread. Pile some of the scrambled eggs on top of it. Put two of the half-anchovy fillets in an X over them. Sprinkle with the herbs and serve.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Innocence of Lamb's Lettuce & Parsley

It used be a well-known fact that herbs have "other" properties than just the ability to enhance and garnish food.

Much of this information is narrated in folk songs and folk tales and has made its way down to us in extraordinarily encoded form. Decoding this is, of course, the raison d'être of an academic.

Perhaps you have heard of a classic tale called Rapunzel?

The Brothers Grimm are responsible for its transmission to us. There are two version of their tales — one in 1814 and a revised and annotated version in 1857. As the brothers grew older, they systematically bowdlerized the tales they had collected themselves, stripping them of their sexual content and violence. The earlier versions are unambiguously more interesting.

Let's recap the tale of Rapunzel — a pregnant woman craves "rapunzel" and goes into the neighboring garden to get it. When caught, she agrees to give over the child to the witch. The witch imprisons the female child in a tower. One day, a prince hears her singing and climbs into the tower using her hair. The witch finds out, and she pushes the prince off the tower blinding him. Love prevails and the prince's vision is restored.

Rapunzel is a weed also known as lamb's lettuce. This is a total substitution on the part of the Brothers Grimm and the association with lamb and "innocence" should be noted. Even they weren't above keeping some of the resonance in the story even though it gives it a totally different feel.

The original story is called Persinette and "persil" is French for parsley. Persinette could loosely be translated as "Little Miss Parsley".

The pregnant woman was craving parsley. Most adult readers here would know that pregnant women don't really crave green herbs. Salt, sugar, sour stuff, sure but herbs?

The tale is coded.

She wanted the parsley to concoct a brew because parsley is an abortifacient. The child is not wanted. The "witch" is a woman with a garden who knows the properties of herbs and grows them. Her taking the child away could easily be seen as an act of generosity not of cruelty.

Additionally, the Grimm Brothers change another key component of the tale. In the classic tale, the witch finds out the existence of the prince because she is heavier than the prince. However, the original tale has Persinette ask the witch why her dress doesn't fit any more and feels tighter and tighter.

She's pregnant and Persinette and the Prince have been doing plenty of the ol' in-an'-out rumpy-pumpy.

Now the tale comes full circle. Like mother, like daughter.

Note that the girl is innocent before she is born and still innocent in the sense that she has no clue about sex. This only makes sense in a deeply Christian world of "original sin" as would be typical of an European folk tale.

Also note that the witch's motivations make more sense in the original version. You could easily write a version from her point of view making her the heroine not the villainess.

The tale has so much more resonance when seen in the correct light.

To bring a more modern feeling to the same idea, have you heard of the Simon & Garfunkel's classic "Scarborough Fair"? The song is an old English folk song and the lyrics are coded.

The opening lyrics go as:
Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.
Remember me to one who lives there.
She once was a true love of mine.
What on earth are parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme doing there?

"Going to Scarborough Fair" refers to the act of "making the beast with two backs". Bumping uglies, hooking up, doing the dirty in modern parlance.

A concoction made of parsley, rosemary, sage and thyme was a well-known abortifacient. The parsley, in particular as pointed above, is an important component.

The song was written in 1966 when abortion was illegal in the US. It's not clear whether Simon & Garfunkel knew but it seems extraordinarily hard to believe that two talented intelligent men didn't know what they were singing even if their audience was clueless.

A cursory search on the web suggests these ideas are still well-known and prevalent in countries that ban abortion. Parsley is far more easily available that RU-486. Less effective perhaps but definitely easier to find.

The deeper one penetrates into the art of cooking, the more one is confronted with the more elemental and universal aspects of humanity.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Huevos Rotos

After the insane tapas party, the CC needed to make something basic and elemental. He did some searching and, lo and behold, he had all the ingredients necessary for a nutritious and tasty breakfast.

This is not a "fast" dish. However, you don't need to do much. Set the timer and get away.

Best eggs ever. They combine the magic of "home fries" and poached eggs in one easy dish.

You need to serve them with jamon serrano, of course.


(serves 2)

1 large onion (chopped coarsely)
1 green pepper (chopped into matchsticks)
3 fingerling potatoes (chopped into thin rounds)
4 cloves garlic (minced fine)

4 eggs

1/4 cup parsley
1 tsp paprika (agridolce)

olive oil


You need a frying pan that has a lid.

Heat up some olive oil in a pan. When it shimmers, toss in the onion and the garlic. Fry for a bit. Add the peppers and let them fry for a bit. Add the potatoes, turn the heat down to the lowest possible setting and let them cook. Add the paprika, salt and pepper. Let the potatoes cook for at least 25 minutes. Add the parsley and let cook for an additional 5 minutes. (Total of 30 minutes.)

Keep stirring while the potatoes cook. Every 10 minutes is sufficient. No need to break them up.

You will be able to smell the potatoes being done. It's unmistakable.

Spread the mixture evenly over the pan. Crack the four eggs in the four corners. Cover the pan and let cook for 4 minutes. You may need an extra minute but take the pan off the heat once the whites are set.

Serve the poached eggs - two per person with the potatoes below. The yolk will be barely set but that's perfect when you crack it and it coats the potatoes. Enjoy with the jamon in tow.