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Well, there’s really no easy way to put this. So I might as well just come right out and say it.

I don’t know how to cook Chinese food.

Yes, I know this sounds ridiculous coming from a Hong Kong native who ate pretty much nothing else but Chinese food for her entire childhood. Naturally, you would think that Chinese cooking would come as second nature to me. But alas, nothing could be further from the truth. (Chinese eating, however, is another matter altogether and on that front, I believe I do my culture proud.)

I remember the first time I asked my mom to teach me how to cook something Chinese, way back in the day when I considered popping frozen mini-pizzas into the microwave as cooking. I honestly don’t even remember what she was making at the time. You see, what stuck in my memory are exchanges like the following:

Me: Mom, how much soy sauce did you just add in?
Mom: Oh you know, just enough.
Me: … um, how many teaspoons is that?
Mom: Oh I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. There’s no need to measure.

Let me tell you, when you’re new to cooking, nothing is more frustrating than figuring out what to write down in your notebook (aka future recipe treasure trove from whence magical dishes shall be recreated!) when all your mother will tell you is that you need to “add just enough soy sauce.” Right then and there, I became convinced that Chinese cooking was some crazy voodoo magic, possibly involving incense sticks and incantations but definitely not involving actual measurements. So instead, I turned to cuisines with actual recipes(!) published in actual cookbooks(!) and began learning to cook from there, all the while quietly avoiding the topic of Chinese cooking and hoping no one will notice.

That is, until my favorite cookbook-writing duo came out with a book focused on Chinese cuisine, specifically the cuisines of the minority populations of China. As wary as I was about Chinese cooking, I can never resist one of their cookbooks, so our cookbook collection got another book bigger. Thanks to this new addition, I’m slowly learning to overcome my fear of Chinese cooking. And these days, you can even find me guilty of foregoing measurements in favor of instinct. Because if ever there’s a cuisine flexible enough for creative/lazy measurements, it seems it would be ours.

You know what they say: Like mother, like daughter.

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Around this time last year, on those days when wedding planning became just a little too overwhelming, Nathan and I would throw aside our spreadsheets and daydream about our honeymoon instead. Narrowing down our options to a shortlist of destinations turned out to be surprisingly easy since it just so happened that at the top of both of our respective “Places to Travel Next” lists were Spain and southeast Asia. Clearly, we are meant for each other, no? ^_^

Deciding between the two places, however, proved much more difficult.

We consulted friends every chance we got. One of the guys at our favorite sushi spot in the city argued adamantly that we simply must go to Spain, and in particular, Barcelona. A few years ago, he had planned a trip all around Spain starting at Barcelona. Two days after arriving, he tore up his original itinerary and spent the entire vacation in Barcelona. How can we argue with that? Spain, here we come!

Until, that is, we met a couple of family friends for brunch. In the great “Where should Nathan and Angi go for honeymoon” debate of 2009, they were solidly in the opposing camp. As they described the food they ate on their trips to southeast Asia, I had to stop myself from suggesting that we abandoned our eggs benedict and waffles to find some rendang…stat!

In the end, we resorted to pure logistics. With most of my family in Hong Kong, we foresee many trips to Asia in our future and it would be quite easy to take side trips to southeast Asia then. So with that… Vamonos a España!

Just because we haven’t made it to southeast Asia in person yet doesn’t mean we cannot make our apartment smell almost like a kitchen in Indonesia. After some quality time on the internet (mostly by Nathan, who also did pretty much all the cooking for this – lucky me!), we’re armed with a bunch of rendang recipes for inspiration. Rendang originated in Indonesia but has spread to Malaysia and Singapore. It uses many of the same ingredients as a normal curry but the end result is something much drier than a curry, so that the meat is coated in a thick, super flavorful spice crust.

The idea is to make a spice paste with coconut milk, simmer the whole thing until all the water evaporates from the sauce, and let the meat fry in the leftover oil. More often than not, rendang is made with beef. But once you see this photo over on Serious Eats, I hope you will agree that we made the right choice in opting for chicken this time around.

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Khao soi.

Until recently, we thought it was something our friend Reid had made up as a cruel joke on us. He had been to Thailand years ago, you see, and he insisted that he had eaten this really amazing noodle dish there. And the dish did sound amazing – a tangle of egg noodles swimming in creamy red coconut curry with juicy pieces of chicken and garnished with fresh lime wedges, a handful of chopped shallots, and plenty of cilantro. It sounded so amazing that Nathan and I immediately made a pact to find it as soon as humanly possible.

We searched all our favorite Thai restaurants in town, but never did we see those two words paired together on the menus. Hmm, maybe it’s a secret in-the-know item? Or listed only in some untranslated Thai menu? We mustered up some courage and started asking the staff, resulting in many confused smiles accompanied by head shakes. As we began doubting the existence of Khao Soi, we started plotting some sort of revenge food joke on our dear friend.

Then one day, I opened up my RSS reader and saw that Chez Pim just had Khao Soi for dinner! Not only that, but she made Khao Soi for dinner and hey, would you like the recipe? [*insert choir of angels here*] Not being as well-versed in Thai cooking nor as hardcore as Pim, I had to make some slight (read: more wimpy) adjustments at home. But I encourage you to check out Pim’s recipe first for the more authentic version.

And it’s true, I didn’t even think to ask the interweb gods before now – silly me. One quick trip over to Wikipedia and all is explained:

“Khao Soi is a Burmese-influenced dish served in northern Laos and northern Thailand… In northern Thailand, there is a similar dish known as Thai khao soi, which is a soup-like dish made with deep-fried crispy egg noodles, pickled cabbage, shallots, lime, nam prik pao, and meat in a curry-like sauce containing coconut milk… It is popular as a street dish eaten by Thai people, though not frequently served in Western Thai restaurants.”

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Spring is appearing in SF in sneaky little bursts this year – a few days of gorgeous sunshine (Yay! How we’ve missed being outside!) followed by days of chilly rain (Wait, staying home is not so bad either!). But as far as I’m concerned, spring is already here and winter is just being a little lazy and clingy and not willing to let it go until next year. And let’s face it, we’ve all felt lazy and clingy at one time or another, so let’s give Mr. Winter a little break, shall we?

Besides, we don’t need good weather to deduce the arrival of spring, right? I have hard evidence in the forms of snap peas and green garlic in our veggie box from Two Small Farms. To be honest, because our CSA stops deliveries in the winter, Nathan and I are out of practice with our vegetable management skills. The other day, I opened the fridge and vegetables were practically tumbling off the shelves, threatening to crush a curious Toro who was just stopping by to check out the kibbles status of the fridge (yup, still negative).

We needed some spring cleaning (ha!) and needed it fast before next week’s veggie box threatens to jump into the fray. Whenever a vegetable purge is called for, we roll up our sleeves, chop up as much vegetables as is humanely possible, and throw them all into either a Thai curry or a vegetable biryani. You’ve probably guessed by now which recipe won this time.

We ended up with a not-very-traditional biryani because who puts beets in biryanis?! Well, we do, when we’re desperate. But guess what? They actually stained the rice into a pretty red color! Now, if only we made this closer to Chinese New Year, it would be very auspicious indeed.

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Every so often, I like to go treasure-hunting.

In my freezer.

Without fail, I would find some package of meat I had forgotten about hiding way back in the corner, by the little box of baking soda and the bigger box of delicious Melona bars. My last round of treasure hunting unearthed a neatly-wrapped, butcher-paper-encased package of ‘fresh side pork’…Huh?

It turns out that fresh side pork is basically the same cut of meat as bacon, except that it’s fresh and not cured. Not wanting to wait another week before eating it (that’s the amount of time it would take to make bacon), Nathan and I quickly decided on the #2 best use of fresh pork belly: buta no kakuni. We had it at a Japanese izakaya months before and ever since, I’ve been talking about trying to make it at home. Yup, just call me a copycat. Meow.

I will warn you now that this is not a recipe for warm days since you will be heating up your kitchen for multiple hours to make a hearty, belly-warming stew. But on a cold, rainy night, there is nothing better than snuggling up with such a bowl of porky goodness. Plus, your whole house will smell insanely delicious for the rest of the night, so much so that your kitty (if you happen to have one) will go absolutely bonkers.

PS: Another post to come about those miso-glazed eggplants you see in the background above.

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You know what amazes me?

Flour.

Yup, just that – flour.

I mean, think about it. You take flour, add in just a few other ingredients, and you get everything from bread to pasta to dumplings. On top of that, you can use flour to make crunchy, crispy coating for fried chicken or really fried anything. And when a sauce is too thin, you mix up some flour with butter to make a roux and your watery sauce will turn silky in no time. Or you let the roux brown and you’re well on your way to making Louisianan goodies like gumbo and etouffé, which let me assure you, is on my must-cook list of 2010.

So when I was browsing through the latest issue of Saveur and came upon this ridiculous (as in ridiculously gorgeous) photo of chicken paprikash, with a recipe that uses flour to both make the dumplings and coat the chicken, I did not hesitate. One glance over at my bin of flour to check that I have enough at hand and off I went to shop for the other ingredients. Although the recipe calls for a whole chicken cut up into pieces, it would work just as well if you bought an equivalent amount of whatever chicken parts you like. I’m personally a dark meat person, so next time I make this, I may just buy some thighs, drumsticks, and wings.

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Happy New Year!

I thought I’d kick off the new year with a few of my favorite things: lentils, spinach, and Indian food! Sadly, to this day, I have not yet found a good way to take a super appetizing picture of Indian food, so pardon the kind of crappy shot above. I have this theory that Indian food looks best when you have a spread of multiple differently-colored dishes but when Nathan and I are cooking for ourselves, especially on a weeknight, we usually settle for one dish. Ah well. But let me assure you that while this dish may not look that great on camera, it definitely tasted delicious and warmed our bellies.

I love love love dhal and I love love love keeping jars of all the different dhals you can buy at an Indian grocery store in my pantry. Not only do they look pretty and colorful, but they never go bad and they’ll make sure you’re always ready to whip up a batch of yummy dhal for dinner.

This recipe is based on one I found from one of my new favorite cookbooks: “South Indian Cookbook” by Devagi Sanmugam. I had actually picked up this book with some leftover foreign currency at the Singapore airport a few years back and have been loving the recipes in the book since. FYI, in the book, this dish is actually called ‘Paruppu Keerai’ and not ‘Saag Dhal’ – perhaps a difference in dialect?

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