Don't Call Me Chef

Published: Sunday April 6, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Friday April 11, 2014 MYT 6:31:22 PM

Tastes that travel

Food mapping: The Don't Call Me Chef columnists feature some of the dishes they've had on their travels.

Food mapping: The Don't Call Me Chef columnists feature some of the dishes they've had on their travels.

We take home more than fond memories and souvenirs when we travel.

Dumpling love

BEFORE leaving for my two-week holiday to Germany last year, I mentally prepared myself for a diet of pretzels and beer, assuming that finding vegetarian food would be a challenge in the land of wursts (there are purportedly some 1,500 varieties of the German sausage) and beer.

Bavarian Semmelknoedel - It's not easy to find a vegetarian meal in Germany but when you do find one, it's sublime.
Bavarian Semmelknödel – It’s not easy to find a vegetarian meal in Germany but when you do find one, it’s sublime. – S. INDRAMALAR/The Star

I was pleasantly surprised to find out how wrong I was.

While there definitely aren’t 1,500 varieties of anything vegetarian in Germany, there certainly was more for me to eat than just pretzels. I had Spatzle (a German kind of pasta), Käsespätzle (a cheesy version of that pasta), Kartoffelpuffer (potato pancake) with Sauerkraut or Rotkraut (fermented cabbage/red cabbage) and an array of desserts, of which my favourite had to be the many types of ApfelKuchen (apple cakes) I tried.

But the tastiest vegetarian meal I tasted was the semmelknödel (bread dumplings) I tried at Wirtshaus in der Au, a cosy eatery in Munich.

Visually, the dish looked pretty unspectacular – when the pretty, dirndl-clad waitress set the plate in front of me, I wasn’t too excited to see two pale brown, tennis ball-sized dumplings, served with some tomatoes and some creamy gravy on my plate. My husband’s duck and potatoes looked so much more appetising.

But then I cut a tiny piece of the dumpling and tried it with a bit of the gravy and it was, to borrow a phrase used (much too often) by my colleague Kenneth Chaw, life changing. No, I’ll go a step further. It was soul-satisfying. The dumplings (which are made from stale bread, flavoured with herbs and seasoned with salt and pepper) were so simple but so rich and packed with flavour, especially when they soak up the accompanying gravy.

When I returrned home, I immediately looked online for recipes for semmelknödel.

I was surprised to learn how simple it was to make this dish – very few ingredients are required and hardly any preparation. The key to a good dumpling is the bread used – it has to be at least two days old and naturally, the better the bread, the better your semmelknödel will be. The bread is soaked in boiling hot milk for about two hours and then made into a dough by mashing it with chopped, sauteed onions and mushrooms, parsley and egg. The dough is then shaped into dumplings which are boiled until they bob to the surface. I know, it’s hard to believe that a boiled dumpling can be so soul satisfying, but you have to take my word for it.

Semmelknödel (Bavarian bread dumplings)

300g stale bread
1 cup milk
1 medium onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
5-6 shiitake mushrooms, chopped fine
2 tbsp chopped parsley
1 egg
Salt and pepper to taste

For the sauce
2 cups mixed mushrooms, sliced
1 small onion, minced
1/4 cup cream
1/4 cup milk
1 tbsp cider/white wine
knob of butter
Salt and pepper to taste

To make the dumplings: Roughly break the bread into a large bowl. Bring the milk to a boil and pour over the bread. Cover and let it soak for 2 hours.

Heat some olive oil in a pan and cook the onions until soft and lightly browned. Add the garlic and after a couple of minutes, the mushrooms. Cook until the moisture that escapes from the mushrooms evaporates, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Add the onion and mushroom mixture and the chopped parsley to the bread. Mix well to form a dough – the dough should be soft and moist but firm enough to form balls. If it’s too dry, add more milk. If it’s too wet, add some breadcrumbs, plain flour or semolina.

Wet your hands and roll the dough into balls, slightly bigger than a golf ball.

Put a pot of salted water to boil. Once the water comes to a rolling boil, reduce the heat so it simmers. Add the balls into the water with a slotted spoon and cook for 15-20 minutes or until they bob to the surface. Remove and drain.

Optional: Once drained, heat some butter in a skillet and gently toast the dumplings in the butter for a couple of minutes until lightly browned.

For the sauce: Heat the butter in a saucepan. Add the minced onions and cook till soft and translucent. Add the mushrooms and cook till slightly browned (make sure the mushrooms all touch the hot surface of the pan and are not piled in a heap as this will make them soggy and prevent them from browning nicely). Reduce the heat and add the cream and milk. Stir. Add the cider and then season. Remove when the sauce reaches the consistency you desire.

Eating through the Big Apple

I HAVE been to New York twice, and both times alone… and I don’t mind at all because it doesn’t feel like a strange new city. Maybe it’s the endless hours spent watching US television shows, but it’s fairly easy to get acquainted with this city’s streets and subway system.

Mac and Cheese is America’s favourite comfort food. – IVY SOON/The Star

With Google Maps, I was able to scan the neighbourhood to see what shops are in the vicinity and where the nearest subway station is. There is also so much written and blogged on things to do and places to eat in New York that I think I spent way too much time sifting through the information.

Luckily for me, a well-informed foodie (as only a Malaysian can be) had recently moved to the city, and she gave me good pointers via WhatsApp. Initially I was going to eat uniquely New York, or American food. But by the third day, that plan went out the window and I just ate whatever I wanted whenever I wanted because there were just so many choices.

This is an adventurous city, and keeping an open mind was the only way to go.

I quickly learnt that New Yorkers think nothing of queuing for hours… be it for free tickets for Shakespearean performances in Central park, or for cronuts at the crack of dawn, or whatever the latest fad in town is.

The first inkling I had that I was at the wrong kebab cart was the absence of a queue. Sure enough, there was a long queue down the road in front of Halal Guys which supposedly serves up the best kebab and falafel in town at the corner of 53rd Street and 6th Avenue. It’s down the road from the MOMA Museum, so plan your itinerary accordingly.

Since David Chang’s Momofuku restaurant is just around the corner on 56th Street, I darted in for a slice of their famous crack pie.

And that’s really how I charted my random meals in New York. There is always something interesting around the corner.

I tried out Umami Burger, which was the rage last year, with a helping of fried pickles in Greenwich Village. I thought that was a full lunch till I came across Gray’s Papaya down the street.

I just couldn’t not have their hot dog because it’s such a New York institution. So, I wolfed down a Gray Papaya hot dog standing at the street. Good thing I did too because this outlet recently closed down after 28 years because they could no longer afford to pay the rent (up US$10,000 to US$40,000 a month).

One of the best places to sample New York’s diverse food choices is at the Sunday Dumbo Food Market in Brooklyn. Just play tourist to the hilt and walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, and follow the crowd.

At the Dumbo, there was a smorgasbord of goodies from all over the world – lots of Asian food but what I found interesting was American offerings such as the pulled pork sandwich (which boasts the longest queue), lobster rolls, jumbo fried turkey drumsticks and buttermilk fried chicken. The lemonade with maple syrup from Vermont comes highly recommended.

Sometime during the trip, I decided I had to have rice and so I made my way to Chinatown. I skipped the familiar Cantonese cuisine and had Szechuan food. A US$6 (RM20) meal comes with a huge helping of twice-cooked pork belly, rice, vegetables and soup.

My favourite Chinatown meal though is the Xi’an meal (from Shanxi, China) of flat cold skin noodles with spicy lamb cooked in cumin.

But my most memorable meal in New York was at SoCo, a Southwestern restaurant in Brooklyn with two friends. The menu had items like red velvet waffles with fried chicken, lobster and shrimp on grit and oysters with white wine and cream.

But the dish that was on everyone’s table was the Mac and Cheese in a skillet. It was rich and creamy with a crunchy cheesy top, and oozing with deliciousness.

Even with all its choices, it’s ultimately this comfort food I crave for from my New York trip, and I have been trying to replicate the perfect balance of creaminess and cheesiness that a decent Mac and Cheese must have.

And it so happened that I came across a Mac and Cheese pin on Pinterest that asserted Martha Stewart’s recipe is the best, an opinion echoed by a few other bloggers. It’s a good recipe, with a whole load of cheese. Just google Martha Stewart Mac and Cheese recipe and make a batch tonight.

Larb-ly Lao

AN article in the International Business Times some years ago gave 10 reasons Vientiane is the world’s best capital city, among them, “sparkling clean oasis”, “laid-back Laos”, and “Beer Lao”.

Larb is the unofficial national dish of Laos. – JANE F. RAGAVAN/The Star

I visited Vientiane 16 years ago. Then, a lot of the roads were still unpaved and I would return to the hotel with dirty feet covered in red dust. But it didn’t matter – I remember having a relaxing time there and the beer ... ah, the beer!

As memorable was the unofficial national dish of Laos: the herby minced meat salad called larb (also spelled laap, larp, laab or lahb). I had the dish for dinner practically every night, each time a different kind of meat and at different restaurants to enjoy the variety on offer.

With its complex flavours, I first thought making larb involved a complicated process. It doesn’t, but there’s an essential ingredient that every good recipe says never to omit: toasted glutinous rice powder. This is not, as I first thought, glutinous rice flour (tepung pulut) – it’s grains of glutinous rice that are toasted and then ground. Easy enough to make at home. It acts as a thickener, and the nutty taste that comes from toasting enhances the flavour of the finished dish.

Larb is often eaten with steamed glutinous rice, which is served in a little woven lidded basket such as the one in the picture. Pinch off a little of the rice with your fingers and use it to scoop up the larb.

The food would always be served with jaew bong, a delicious fiery Lao chilli paste that has as one of its ingredients, dried water buffalo skin. It induced tears and cleared the sinus. Nothing a bunch of tissues and Beer Lao couldn’t fix.

Lao Spicy Minced Chicken Salad (Larb Gai)
Serves two

300g boneless chicken, coarsely minced
1 tbsp ground toasted glutinous rice (recipe follows)
2-3 shallots, thinly sliced
1 tbsp fish sauce
½ tbsp fresh lime juice
½ tbsp grated palm sugar
1 fresh long red chilli, finely chopped
Small handful fresh mint leaves, roughly torn
Small handful fresh coriander leaves, roughly torn

Heat a medium frying pan over medium heat. Add chicken fillet and flatten it into a thin patty. Press down to cook the bottom, but do not let the meat brown too much. Flip the chicken patty over to cook the other side, then gently break up the meat into small chunks. Toss around until chicken is completely cooked. There should be some liquid at the bottom of the pan. If it looks dry, add a little water and bring to the boil.

Turn off the heat and add ½ the ground toasted glutinous rice. Stir into the liquid. Add shallots.

Combine fish sauce, lime juice and palm sugar to taste. Add some of the dressing to the chicken with the chilli. Taste and adjust seasoning. Add more ground glutinous rice if the dish is too watery.

Toss in mint and coriander. Serve with plain rice or glutinous rice.

To make ground toasted glutinous rice, put a handful of glutinous rice into a dry skillet/frying pan and toast over medium heat, tossing constantly, until the grains are golden brown, 20 to 30 minutes. Pound or grind the rice until fine. Store in an air-tight container and use whenever a thickener is needed.

Tags / Keywords: Opinion, Lifestyle, food and travel, Laos, larb

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