Popiah: Singaporean Summer Rolls, Just Like Grandma Made

I’ve been thinking a lot about popiah, a Singaporean-style summer roll, recently — not just because temperatures have been creeping up in New York City and the foods of my tropical native country are starting to beckon once again.

As you may know, I’ve been on a bit of a book publicity blitz with the February publication of “A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family.” And in all the interviews and signings I’ve done, popiah — a roll filled with ingredients such as julienned jicama, shrimp, shallots, tofu — has been a recipe that has come up frequently.

It’s a roll my grandmother used to make when I was growing up in Singapore — and it’s one that I crave in the U.S. as you don’t see it often on restaurant menus. Because it’s light, a little spicy and the filling has a nice crunch to it, it’s the perfect snack food or appetizer for warm weather — in Singapore, people often have popiah parties in which the filling, summer roll skins and various condiments are set out and guests mill about, casually making their own rolls whenever they feel like eating one.

During my research for the book, however, I made sure to learn how my grandmother and chef Simpson (of Cafe Asean in New York) make theirs — so when my Let’s Lunch group of virtual lunch buddies decided on small spring bites for our March date, popiah immediately sprang to mind …

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Kok Kee WanTon Noodle: Battling a Memory


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"It is impossible," my Singaporean chef friend Willin said to me one day, "to please everyone when you make wanton mee."

This Cantonese-style noodle dish, which is ubiquitous in Singapore, is usually served dry, with the broth in a small bowl on a side. The thin yellow noodles come swimming in a salty sauce that's usually some combination of soy sauce, a sweet and dark thick soy sauce, sesame oil and, perhaps, oyster sauce. Slivers of Chinese roast pork, vegetables and wantons (which is how wontons are spelled in Singapore) are scattered on top and a smear of chili sauce is scooped onto the side for added fire.

There is one fundamental problem with wanton mee, according to Willin. It's fairly easy for hawkers to make and there are so many variations on the dish out there — each hawker center in Singapore usually has at least one, if not two or three, stalls selling just wanton mee. The noodles could be more al dente at one place; the gravy could be thicker and saltier at another. The wantons could be soft, boiled versions or crispy and deep-fried.

"Everyone ends up loving the exact kind of wanton mee they grew up with," Willin says. "So unless you're making that exact kind, they're not going to love it."

It's an interesting perspective, but I still wasn't sold — until I trekked to a spacious hawker center in Singapore's Lavender neighborhood to sample the dish at Kok Kee Wanton Noodle, a little stall that had come highly recommended by some of the most discerning palates in Singapore…

 

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Kong Bak Pau: Braised Pork Belly Sandwiches


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Picnics have never been my favorite thing. Bugs, heat, grass, dirt — need I say more?

The picnics of my childhood in Singapore, however, were another thing entirely. The urge to organize one would only occasionally grip my family. But when it did, we’d find ourselves by the beach on a clear Sunday, inhaling the salty breeze as we unpacked plastic bags of food on wooden picnic tables. We’d have sandwiches and fried snacks; an uncle would fire up the beachside grill for the chicken wings we’d marinated.

So when my hungry Let’s Lunch group decided on fall picnic food for our monthly virtual lunchdate, I immediately thought of my bygone Singaporean excursions.

The perfect food for this occasion? My mother’s kong bak pau — a sandwich made up of a Chinese mantou bun filled with braised pork belly …

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Kitchen-Sink Stir-Fry: Spring Cleaning Your Fridge


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It’s hard to think about spring when there’s still snow on the ground in New York. But one must be optimistic — which we are over here in the Let’s Lunch crowd.

Fresh off our breathless postings on aphrodisiac-laced dishes in February, our thoughts immediately turned to warmer times as we debated what to make next for our monthly virtual lunch date.

How about “spring cleaning (the fridge?)” Stephanie over at The Cosmic Cowgirl suggested.

And so, kitchen-sink recipes to help you springclean your fridge it was.

Now, since I have several solid grocers (and one neat butcher) within a 2-minute walk of my Brooklyn apartment, I tend to buy as I cook. (I’ve never really been one to stock up my fridge like there’s no tomorrow, anyhow.)

Nonetheless, there are a few basics that I must always have in my fridge: Bacon, tofu and some sort of ground meat, usually pork or beef.

Bacon is a wonder that must be consumed on its own, in my book. (Or, in a bacon explosion. Or a BLT. Or … I digress.)

But what to do with tofu and ground pork? The possibilities are endless …

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