5 Secrets to Making Fabulous Fried Rice

fried rice 008
Leftovers come together beautifully in a delicious bowl of fried rice

Everyone loves fried rice!

I know, I know, it’s a bold statement to make. I don’t think it’s a stretch though. Just think about the infinite permutations worldwide. Examples include: Indonesian nasi goreng, Thai pineapple fried rice, Filipino garlic fried rice (siningag), and that’s only in Asia! (Don’t worry I’ll delve into these a little more in another post). Fried rice is also wildly popular at Asian restaurants, often served with lunch specials and always ordered by my friend, X, who shall go unnamed.

I have a confession to make. Fried rice is the last thing on the menu I’d order when dining out (unless it’s chicken and salted fish fried rice, yum!) for one reason—it’s so very simple to make at home. A quick dig in the fridge for cooked rice, last night’s leftovers and whatever treasures are lurking in the back, and everything comes together in the wok in less than 20 minutes!

Making fried rice is easy in theory, but getting it right does take a little know-how. I don’t know about you but I’ve dished up my fair share of burnt fried rice, clumpy fried rice, and simply not very good fried rice.

After years of experimenting and watching, however, I have to say my fried rice is pretty good.  So here are my 5 secrets anyone can pick up and you’ll soon be on your way to making fabulous fried rice.

Read more at SmithonianAPA.org/PicklesandTea.


Ingredient Spotlight: Shanghai Bok Choy

The many faces (and phases) of Shanghai bok choy

Doesn’t this vegetable look familiar? You can find it at just about every corner grocery store and you probably know it by another name: baby bok choy. In fact, its proper name is Shanghai bok choy or green stem bok choy.

True bok choy has snow-white stems and dark green leaves with ruffled edges. Bok choy sum (“sum” means “heart” in Cantonese signifying a younger plant) is almost identical in appearance except for its smaller size, lighter green leaves, and most distinctly, yellow flowers. Miniature bok choy sum is also available and, confusingly, is sometimes called baby bok choy too.

Shanghai bok choy has flatter stems than regular bok choy and its spoonlike leaves and stems are the same shade of light green. While it grows to about a foot or more, it is usually harvested young (6 inches or less) and sold in the “baby” stage, hence the popular label baby bok choy.

In a perfect world (and to avoid confusion), I would label the vegetables more accurately—baby bok choy sum and baby Shanghai bok choy. But, here we are …

How to buy and store: Buy tightly closed buds without yellowing leaves and store in the crisper for up to 5 days.

How to prepare: To cook Shanghai bok choy whole, strip the outer layers to reveal the tender heart. Stir fry or steam them whole (or halved) and serve them as an accompaniment to a braised dish such as pork braised in soy sauce (lo bak)Teochew braised duck, or thit kho.

Season: Shanghai bok choy is available year-round


Stir-fried Shanghai Baby Bok Choy

Here’s how I like to cook Shanghai bok choy. It’s not a recipe per se but more of a technique which you can use to stir fry any vegetable of your choice, from pea shoots to choy sum to Chinese cabbage.

Time: 10 minutes
Serves: 2-4 depending on whether it’s a side dish or main

1 bunch Shanghai baby bok choy (about a pound or 4 to 5 plants)
1 tablespoon canola oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
A few sprinkles of salt to taste (or soy sauce/ fish sauce)
Drizzle of sesame oil (optional)

Cut about 1/4-inch off the bottom of each plant. Rinse thoroughly to get rid of the dirt in between the stems.

Cut them crosswise into 1-inch pieces, keeping the stems and leaves separate.

Preheat a 14-inch wok or 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Swirl in the oil and wait until it starts to shimmer. Add the garlic and stir for 15 to 30 seconds until fragrant.

Raise the heat to medium-high, throw in the stems and toss to coat with oil and garlic for about 1 minute. Add the leaves and keep tossing until the leaves are just wilted.

Add the salt and stir until some liquid has been released and the vegetables are tender and bright green, another 1 to 2 minutes. If you’d like a little more “sauce,” add a tablespoon, or two, of water.

Drizzle with sesame oil, if desired, and serve immediately.


If you’d like more information on bok choy or other Asian vegetables on the go, please consider purchasing the Asian Ingredients 101 iPhone app.

Stocking a Gluten-free Asian Pantry

I’d be so sad if I couldn’t share bakmi, one of my favorite Indonesian dishes–it contains wheat noodles, sweet soy sauce, AND soy sauce–with my gluten-free friends. 

A few years ago, my friend randomly mentioned that her mom has a stash of wheat-free soy sauce kept in a safe place at her neighborhood Chinese restaurant. And every time she goes there the owners whip out the bottle and happily prepare her favorite dish–shrimp fried rice–for her.

I was much bemused by this. I’d never even considered that Asian cooking contained a lot of wheat products, and besides, I didn’t know any Asians who were bothered by wheat. In fact, we live on wheat products. Egg noodles, wheat gluten (aka TVP), bean sauce, soy sauce–all of these products contain wheat.

Then last year, I was visiting my husband’s aunt who was recently diagnosed with celiac disease. I wanted to cook for her from my cookbook and her pantry was stocked with gluten-free products. Both she, and I, were pleasantly surprised at how many Asian meal options she had.

Read more (plus print my list in PDF-format) … 

Chinese New Year Cake

New year cake and mandarin oranges are two standards eaten during Chinese New Year’s

My family doesn’t celebrate Chinese New Year in a big way. In fact, my dad has always insisted we are NOT Chinese. My siblings and I always took that statement with a pinch of salt, and we had a real giggle the day he got a phone call from an old classmate asking for Tan Giok Sin (his entire family officially changed their Chinese names to Indonesian names in the 1960’s to promote “assimilation”).

This year, I’ve been thinking about this holiday in a new way since our baby is due on February 16th, two days after the Spring Festival (another name for the new year as it also marks the transition of winter into spring) on the 14th. I expounded on my reflections in an essay to be published on Leite’s Culinaria on this date so I won’t repeat them here but I did try out a few new year recipes I’ve been craving, one of them being nian gao (literally “year cake” or as a homonym, “higher year”) made with Chinese brown candy/sugar and glutinous rice flour.

When I was growing up, my dad would come home with a gift basket of goodies from the office during Chinese New Year and nian gao was inevitably one of the items nestled among the luxury dried goods (mushrooms, scallops, oysters and other expensive unidentifiables), candies, sweetmeats and mandarins. Legend has it that nian gao was offered to the Kitchen God either as a bribe or so that his lips would be busy chewing on the sticky cake that he wouldn’t report unfavorably on your family to the Jade Emperor in heaven.  An unfavorable report meant bad luck for the household for an entire year and you didn’t want that!

I didn’t really like nian gao then—the circular cake was usually wrapped in lotus leaves which to my childhood nose had an odd musky smell, I hated how the brown sticky bits got stuck in my teeth, and besides the cake was far from sweet enough.

Funny how tastes change. I now love its mellow sweetness, and each slice coated with a light, crisp egg batter and a heat-softened sticky interior offers my mouth bites akin to delicate pillows of edible goodness.

New Year Cake (Nian Gao)

Adapted from The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen (Simon & Schuster Editions, 1999) by Grace Young


The main ingredient, glutinous rice flour, is a symbol of cohesiveness; be sure you don’t use regular rice flour. Brown candy (peen tong in Cantonese) is a Chinese sugar sold in slabs about 5 x 1-1/4 x 1/2 inches. You can find them in 1 pound packages or sometimes sold loose in bins at Chinese herbal shops or Asian markets. Use soft golden brown sugar if you can’t find it. In Indonesia, nian gao is called kue keranjang (basket cake) or kue cina (Chinese cake) and are sold widely during Imlek, the Indonesian name for Chinese New Year. Instead of being dipped in egg and fried, the slices can be grilled and rolled in shredded coconut.

Time: 1 hour 30 minutes (30 minutes active) plus sitting overnight
Makes: 1 (6-inch) cake

3 slabs brown candy (peen tong), about 6 ounces
2 teaspoons vegetable oil, plus more for pan-frying
3 1/2 cups (16 ounces) glutinous rice flour
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1 egg, beaten until frothy

Chop the brown candy into small pieces and place in a heatproof bowl. Pour 1 cup of boiling water over the sugar and set aside until it dissolves into syrup.

Grease a 6-inch, round, straight-sided baking dish with 1 teaspoon oil (or use cooking spray).

In a large bowl, place the flour and make a well in the middle. Stir in the cooled syrup and knead into a dough, adding about 1/4 to 1/3 cup more cold water. Knead for about 5 to 10 minutes until the dough is smooth, slightly moist and shiny.

Turn the dough out into the dish and pat down until it fills the dish evenly.

Sprinkle the sesame seeds on top and pour 1 teaspoon oil over, using your fingers to lightly press down on the seeds.

Steam the cake for 35 to 40 minutes over high heat until the cake starts to pull away from the sides of the dish. (Click here for steaming tips).

Carefully remove the dish from the steamer and place on a rack to cool. Cover loosely and let cool at room temperature until the next day.

Run a knife along the edges of the cake to loosen it and invert onto a plate. Flip the cake right-side up onto a cutting board and cut into quarters. Cut each quarter crosswise, not into wedges but into 2-inch wide strips and cut each strip crosswise into scant 1/4-inch-thick slices.

When ready to serve, coat a frying pan with oil and heat over medium until hot. Dip each slice into the egg and pan-fry in batches, cooking each side until golden-brown, about 2 to 3 minutes. Serve immediately.

Pat’s notes:
Nian gao is usually served over the course of the 15 days of the new year celebrations when family and friends come to visit. You can wrap it up in plastic and refrigerate for this time, if it lasts that long!

As grandma always says, please share!

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What’s in a Curry?

Golden-hued Madras curry powder

Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as a generic curry powder. In fact, the term curry powder didn’t exist until the 18th century when local cooks in Madras (now called Chennai in India’s southern Tamil Nadu state) packaged a spice blend for British colonialists to take home with them. Hence, Madras curry powder is one of the most common curry blends you can find on the market.

So what’s in a curry? It is, to put it simply, a blend of spices called a masala and may contain two or three spices, or a dozen or more; and it varies from region to region, household to household.

It is widely accepted that curries originated in India and the phenomena has spread across the world through migration and trade over the centuries. The Indians who migrated to Southeast Asia brought with them not only their religion and cultural practices but their cuisine and cooking techniques as well.

In Singapore, I grew up eating Indian-style fish head curry and roti prata dipped into mutton curry. I also ate curries based on spice pastes called rempah (Malay) and bumbu bumbu (Indonesian). These pastes comprised herbs and spices such as chilies, lemongrass and galangal plus other ingredients like candlenuts and shrimp paste to make a wet paste instead of a dry spice blend.

My mum would also make what she called a Chinese-style curry. And surprise, surprise, I discovered the Vietnamese have a very similar version. Cathy Danh was gracious enough to share her grandmother’s recipe with me.

Vietnamese Chicken Curry (Ca Ri Ga)


This mild adaptation of an Indian curry has a Vietnamese twist added—sweet potatoes. Cathy Danh’s grandmother cuts up her chicken into various parts. But Cathy likes to make it with just drumsticks since they’re a hot commodity in her family. She also uses a combo of white and sweet potatoes. If possible, allow the curry to sit overnight so that the chicken really absorbs the flavors from the spice-rich gravy.

Time: 2 1/2 hours (30 minutes active)
Makes: 4 to 6 servings as part of a multicourse family-style meal

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped (1 1/2 cups)
2 tablespoons Vietnamese or Madras curry powder
2 1/4 teaspoons salt
3- to 4-pound chicken, cut into 8 serving pieces; or 3 pounds bonein
chicken parts of your choice (drumsticks, wings, breasts, etc.)
20-ounce can (2 1⁄3 cups) coconut milk
1 cup water, plus more as needed
2 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes and/or russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks

In a large pot, heat the oil over medium heat until it becomes runny and starts to shimmer. Add the onion and stir and cook until slightly softened, about 2 minutes. Add the curry powder and ¼ teaspoon salt and stir until fragrant, about 15 seconds.

Add the chicken and brown for 3 to 4 minutes on each side. Don’t worry about completely cooking the chicken at this point, you just want to sear the meat so that it retains its juices and doesn’t fall apart during cooking.

Add the coconut milk and water followed by the potatoes. Make sure the chicken pieces and potatoes are completely submerged in the liquid. If necessary, add more water. Raise the heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cover. Simmer for at least 1 hour, preferably 2.

When the dish is done, the chicken will be fall-apart tender and the gravy will be thick from the starch of the potatoes. Add the remaining salt. Serve hot with freshly steamed rice or French bread.

Variations: When frying the onion, throw in chopped lemongrass or crumpled kaffir lime leaves for a very Southeast Asian flavor.

Add red chili flakes or ground red dried chilies to give the curry a little more kick.

For a lighter curry, decrease the amount of coconut milk and top off the difference with water.

Pat’s Notes: For a true Viet flavor, buy Vietnamese curry powder from an Asian market. This golden curry mixture is very similar to a Madras curry powder and is made of curry leaves, turmeric, chili, coriander, cumin seeds, cinnamon, cloves, bay leaves, allspice, and salt. Cathy’s grandmother prefers the Con Voy brand but D&D Gold Madras curry powder is also recommended.

As grandma always says, please share:

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Win a copy of my cookbook at RasaMalaysia.com!

Who doesn’t love a cookbook giveaway?

Just leave a comment on my guest post on RasaMalaysia.com by December 14th where I reminisce about some unforgettable duck. And you might be the happy recipient of The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook. Many thanks to Bee for organizing it!

Photo by Lara Ferroni excerpted from The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook.

Here’s a snippet …

When I was growing up in Singapore, my mother would sometimes bring home a whole or half duck—succulent, slick with soy sauce, and very tasty—from the nearby hawker center to supplement our dinner. My siblings and I would dig in heartily, devouring every part of the bird. And we, a family of dark meat lovers, always came away with satisfied grins on our faces, as unlike with a whole chicken, no one had to contend with white meat. Even though mum is a fabulous cook, I remember wishing that she would be too busy to cook more often…

Click here to read the rest of my guest post on RasaMalaysia.com.

Psst… for another chance to win The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook, visit Leite’s Culinaria. This contest ends December 15th.

Good luck!

As grandma says, please share:

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Sardines wrapped in a sustainable (and baby-friendly) package

My (baby’s) heart beats for sardines

Pregnancy does strange things to you. Let me count the ways:

1. Baby brain (If you thought morning-after hangovers were bad … and you have it ALL the time).
2. Multiple aches and pains (Everywhere! Even in places you didn’t know existed).
3. Food cravings (Yes, pregnant women really do love pickles, but not always with ice cream)
4. Heartburn (Horrible, horrible, and especially if you’ve never had it before).
5. Frequent visits to the potty (Self explanatory).

One of the biggest changes I’ve experienced, especially as a food writer, is a diet that has gone topsy-turvy. On some days, even post-morning sickness, I don’t feel like cooking or eating.

Then, there are all the food no-no’s. No rare steak. No sashimi. No foie gras. No alcohol. No soft cheeses. No deep sea fish. Granted most of these items are not a huge part of my diet, I am an avid fish eater. I’ve long been aware of sustainable choices but since getting pregnant I have been more careful about what fish I consume especially since one of the biggest concerns is seafood contaminants.

Large predatory fish—like swordfish and shark—end up with the most toxins (such as mercury, which affects brain function and development), industrial chemicals (PCBs and dioxins) and pesticides (DDT). These toxins usually originate on land and find their way into the smallest plants and animals at the bottom of the ocean food chain. As smaller species are eaten by larger ones, contaminants are concentrated and accumulated.

I really wanted to participate in this year’s Teach a Man to Fish event (sorry Jacqueline!) but I was a bad, bad girl and missed the deadline.

However, I figured it’s never too late to expound on the pros of sustainable seafood.

We all know about the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch List right? In October, they released a “Super Green” list of seafood that’s good for human health and doesn’t harm the oceans. The Super Green list highlights products that are currently on the Seafood Watch “Best Choices” (green) list, are low in environmental contaminants and are good sources of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. A triple whammy!

An unusual find–canned sardines packed not in tomato sauce but in olive oil with an assortment of other goodies

On this list is a childhood favorite of mine—sardines. Fresh sardines are not the easiest to come by (especially in Asia) so the next best thing is canned sardines. Now don’t scoff at me please, but I loved canned sardines as a child. My mom would simply sauté them in the tomato sauce they were nestled in and serve it over rice.

As a matter of fact, one of my first “cooking” lessons during home economics class in secondary school was how to make sardine sandwiches. I can still remember my teacher, Ms. Judy Loh, eagerly opening a distinctive red oval can to reveal the headless specimens packed tightly within. (A little about Ms. Loh: she had super-short hair shaved close to her head but she still managed to look somewhat feminine with a fringe that fell over her forehead in wispy curls. Did I mention she also taught physical education? Go figure!)

Next, she lifted the sardines out of the can, into a bowl and mashed them with a fork, mixing in the tomato sauce from the can. “Don’t worry about removing the bones,” she said. “They’re soft enough to chew and full of calcium!”As a 14-year-old, you’re skeptical about everything so I wasn’t quite convinced. Then again, you also never argued with your teacher when you’re in Catholic school.

Ms. Loh threw in some chopped bird chillies and shallots and mixed everything together into a paste. She scooped the mixture onto white bread, spread it out evenly and cut the sandwiches into dainty fingers for us to try. Honestly, it wasn’t bad!

Well, Ms. Loh was right about the goodness of sardines. A 3 ounce serving of the canned variety (with bones) has 38% of the daily value of calcium, PLUS as a rare natural food source of Vitamin D, that same 3 ounce serving has well over 100% of the recommended daily intake. Did I mention that it also contains omega-3 fatty acids good for heart/eye/brain function and health?

In addition, sardines are low on the food chain and reproduce rapidly, making them a very sustainable option. Being low on the food chain also means being low in mercury and PCBs, which makes sardines an especially smart choice for pregnant women like me. I can meet my recommended fish intake goals to support brain development in my little bundle of gestating joy.

Sardine puffs–a childhood favorite

One fine day a few weeks ago, being a pregnant woman, I was struck by a craving for sardines. As luck would have it, I had just received a copy of Andrea Nguyen’s new cookbook Asian Dumplings: Mastering Gyoza, Spring Rolls, Samosas, and More Mastering Gyoza, Spring Rolls, Samosas, and More. And guess what I spied flipping through it? A recipe for sardine puffs, a favorite in Singapore and Malaysia where it is known tenderly as “karipap.”

I was up for a challenge so I also made Andrea’s Chinese flaky pastry dough to go with the sardine filling. The pastry came out with delightful concentric swirly patterns (hence the name “karipap pusing”) that just fell apart into delicate shards in your mouth (and elsewhere).

Can you see the concentric circles in the cross-section of the dough?

For the exact recipe for the Chinese flaky pastry, do pick up a copy of Asian Dumplings. And for additional tips on making all manner of dumplings, everything from pot stickers, to soup dumplings, to wontons, visit Andrea’s helpful website AsianDumplingTips.com.

Karipap sardine all bundled up and ready to go into the fryer

Sardine Puffs (Karipap Sardine)

Instead of the usual sardines in tomato sauce, I found a Portuguese brand that came packed in pure olive oil with bits of chili pepper, carrot, cucumber and even a laurel leaf. This recipe, adapted from Andrea’s, uses store-bought puff pastry. Yes, I give you full permission to be lazy and head to the supermarket. For the Chinese flaky pastry recipe, please pick up a copy of Asian Dumplings. This filling tastes great on toast too!

2 (3 oz) cans sardines in pure olive oil
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1 pinch of salt
1 tablespoon of ketchup
1 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil (from the can)
1/4 cup chopped shallot or red onion
1 hardboiled egg, chopped
1 pound store-bought puff pastry, thawed

Remove the sardines from the can and reserve the oil. Use a fork to split open each sardine and lift off the spine bones. Set the flesh aside and discard the bones (or not, just like Ms. Loh advises).

In a small bowl, mix the sugar, salt, ketchup and lemon juice together. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a medium skillet and add the shallot and cook for about 3 minutes or until translucent and fragrant. Add the sauce and cook stirring for about 2 minutes. Add the sardines, stirring to break up the flesh. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the egg. Cool completely.

Preheat the oven according to package directions.

Roll out a pastry sheet to about 10 inches square and cut into four 5-inch squares.

Fill each square with 1 to 1½ tablespoons sardine filling. Moisten adjoining edges with water and fold over to form a triangle and press closed. Use the tines of a fork to press on the edges to seal well and place on a prepared baking sheet.

Repeat until all the pastry or filling is used up. Brush with beaten egg and bake for about 15 minutes, until golden brown.

As grandma always says, please share:

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