Considering making pickled vegetables

As long-standing readers here may have noticed, I like the idea of making from scratch at home products which are often bought as ready-made commercial products. I’ve had a reasonable amount of success with soya bean milk, tofu and salted eggs, which are all very easy.

I’ve also considered making soya sauce at home. While it can be done, as I mentioned in my earlier posting, I’ve decided not to try (at least for now) after chatting to a food scientist who used to work at Kikkoman. During the commercial production process at Kikkoman factories, there is assiduous testing to make sure that the fermentation process does not attract toxic microbes instead of the ‘right’ kind of bacteria, which can easily happen. I’ve also heard how difficult it is to make tempeh at home, and I assume it’s partly for those same reasons.

Another type of food I thought of making at home is Chinese pickled vegetables: mui choy, chye poh, kiam chye — all the things that would give the right ‘kick’ to my somewhat bland dishes. Today’s Sunday Times food question column by Chris Tan addressed this precise issue. The bad news is:

They are not as easy to make as they might seem, requiring successive rounds of drying, seasoning, salting, brining or steaming. These methods may look simple or crude but they are very sensitive to the quality of the starting ingredients, the ambient humidity and temperature as well as the microbes naturally present in the immediate environment.Hence, an experienced eye is needed to tell if the fermentation or preservation is proceeding correctly. Doing this kind of multiple-stage preserving at home is very tricky, frequently entailing much trial and error. Therefore, nowadays most people are content to leave it to the specialists.

The good news is that “many Asian cuisines have easy recipes for mildly sour, briefly fermented pickled greens that are designed to be made and consumed within a few days.” Examples of pickled gai choy, which is a kind of mustard green, include Laotian som pak, Filipino burung mastasa and Vietnamese cai chua or dua chua.

The advice from Chris Tan concludes with this advice:

The Japanese pickling tradition also has many quick pickle recipes. For a good introduction to methods and ingredients, I recommend the book Tsukemono: Japanese Pickled Vegetables by Kay Shimizu.

I don’t have that particular title, but have already been pouring over TSUKEMONO―Japanese Pickling Recipes (Quick&Easy) which is part of my collection of food books. Unfortunately, I’m not familiar with how the different types of Japanese pickles taste and I’m not a big enough fan of pickles in general to go all out on experimenting. I wonder if quick pickles will taste more like nonya acar, rather than anything like chye poh…?

Chye tau kueh (fried savoury radish cake)

Recently, some friends gobbled down two plates of chye tau kueh from the hawker centre in front of me whilst I munched on my gluten-free carob muffin. They felt a bit guilty comparing their fried dish with my healthy snack but actually I really wished I could eat chye tau kueh too!

I came home and flipped through my mountain of cookbooks and finally found a somewhat poorly-written recipe for ‘Singapore-Styled Stir-Fried Turnip Pudding 星洲炒蘿蔔糕’ in a Hong Kong produced cookbook called Asian Snacks Cooking Course 亞洲小食製作教程.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a more authentic recipe in any of my Malaysian cookbooks (an excuse to buy even more :) ?!?). Anyway, it worked really well so am sharing here with you. You may want to compare this recipe with the one from Lily’s Wai Sek Hong.

This is a great snack option that’s wheat- and gluten-free, also no sugar. As long as you don’t find fried foods too unhealthy :).

INGREDIENTS FOR STEAMED RADISH CAKE

960g white radish/daikon
320g rice flour

Wash, peel and chop the daikon.

Use a blender to puree it, then using a sieve, squeeze out as much juice as possible. You need 3 cups of daikon juice.

Mix rice flour with daikon juice in a pot over low heat. The original recipe only uses the juice, but I put in all the daikon pulp as well so as not to waste it.

Stir until it the mixture thickens. This part requires careful attention as it can take quite a while to thicken on low heat but if the stove is too hot, it will clump together very quickly.

Pour the thickened batter into a greased mould, such as an aluminium cake tin. A 9-inch round tin is actually better than the one I used in the photo because it won’t be so full, and because the cake won’t be in such a thick layer, it will take a shorter time to be fully cook. Dark-coloured heavy cake tins are not good for steaming, they don’t seem to conduct heat very well.

Steam for 1 hour. Test for doneness with a chopstick, which should come out clean.


FRIED RADISH CAKE

Cut the steamed and cooled cake into cubes.

Fry ingredients of your choice until fragrant, such as garlic, shallots, minced meat, red or green chilli, spring onions. Add seasonings of your choice.  Traditionally, this is cooked with thick dark soya sauce and preserved turnip and preserved Chinese sausages are a must, with a special chilli sauce for those who like it spicy.

Add the steamed radish cake cubes and fry until browned.

Push ingredients to one side of the wok (or remove from pan), add a beaten egg and when semi-cooked, toss well with all the other ingredients.

My version shown below is cooked with salt (or organic tamari), garlic, stir-fried shallots, green and red capsicums, and topped with raw spring onions and deep fried shallots.

Verdict: close enough to the real thing to keep me happy! Loved the distinct daikon taste in the cake. Now if I can just figure out how to make preserved turnip or chye poh at home, the other members of the family might actually enjoy this as much as me :).

Nearly 1kg of daikon makes a lot of chye tau kueh and I had this in my lunch bento for days!! Next time I’ll only make half the quantity!

Baked beans – homemade & failsafe!

For ages, I have been watching my family members eating tinned baked beans for breakfast, unable to join in because of the tomato sauce which is high in glutamates, amines and salicylates (not to mention plenty of salt & sugar)!! The other day, I finally got down to making Failsafe baked beans from the recipe in the Friendly Foods cookbook.

The result was wonderfully satisfying! Even my family members who are used to the over-flavoured commercial version pronounced this ‘surprisingly edible’.

RECIPE

300g (1 1/2 cups) dried beans – navy, cannellini or flageolet
1 leek, washed and sliced
2 sprigs parsley
1 clove garlic, peeled
2 x 5cm pieces celery
2 Tbs soft brown sugar
1/4 tsp citric acid
3/4 tsp saffron threads [which I omitted, hence the anemic colour of my baked beans]
sea salt

Wash beans and soak overnight with 1.5 litres water. Drain the next day.

Place beans & leek in saucepan. A heavy-bottomed pot for slow-cooking is good, such as a cast iron pot. You can also use a crockpot.Main-Main Masak-Masak › Edit Post — WordPress

Tie the parsley, garlic and celery into a bouquet garni with a piece of string and add this to the pot.

Pour in enough water to cover the beans. Simmer uncovered for about 1 hour or until tender. Remove the bouquet garni.

Add the sugar, citric acid, saffron and salt to taste. Simmer for another 10 minutes.

Here I used dried organic navy beans which I bought at Nature’s Glory.

If you don’t have time to soak the beans overnight, you can use canned beans. It can be hard to find navy/cannellini/flageolet beans, but I’ve seen them at Carrefour and Cold Storage, as well as at health food stores like Eat Organic and Nature’s Glory. Basically, check the stores which stock more western ingredients.

With navy and cannnellini beans being more unusual products in Singapore, even the non-organic canned ones only come in relatively expensive foreign brands. The good news is that tinned, organic navy and cannnellini beans are available at about the same price as non-organic ones :), S$2.30 per tin for Eden brand. Other organic brands cost about a dollar more.

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6/12/8 Update:

Tip 1: Make a large batch, divide into serving portions and freeze. Defrost as necessary.

Tip 2: Aside from eating baked beans with bread (gluten-free bean bread for me) and rice cakes, it’s also good with rice. Especially quick and easy if you have cooked rice on hand at all times in the fridge or freezer.

Recently, I enjoyed a midnight snack of Japanese rice and homemade baked beans, topped with strips of Japanese nori seaweed — delicious!

Green tea silken tofu

Following my attempt at making firm tofu using nigari as a coagulant, I picked up some Glucono-Delta Lactone (GDL) coagulant at Phoon Huat and decided to give this dessert-style tofu pudding (a.k.a. 豆花 douhua/tau huay/ tau foo fah) a go. GDL is thought to be a more healthy coagulant compared to inorganic calcium compounds.

Unlike moulded tofu, silken tofu doesn’t require any special container and produces a greater volume of tofu in relation to the amount of soya milk used. Typically, it takes less than an hour to be ready for serving.

William Shurtleff’s Book of Tofu says that

[GDL is] an organic acid that solidifies soymilk in much the same was that lactic acid or a yoghurt starter is used to curdle dairy milk. A newly discovered solidifier made from natural gluconic acid, lactone makes it possible for the first time to solidify very thin soymilk, and even cold soymilk, by simply heating it to somewhat below the boiling point.

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Following the recipe in Shurtleff’s Book of Tofu:
1 tsp lactone, dissolved in 2 Tbs water
3 1/4 cups soya bean milk
1 Tbs matcha green tea powder
3 Tbs sugar or honey

1) First, I began by making soya bean milk and measured out 3 1/4 cups whilst it was still hot.
2) Mixed in 1 Tbs green tea matcha powder and 3 Tbs sugar. As matcha often clumps up, it helps to sift it into the milk and use a whisk to make sure it is thoroughly incorporated.
3) Dissolved the 1 tsp lactone in 2 Tbs of water.
4) Poured the lactone solution into the soya bean milk, whilst gently stirring.
5) I made individual portions by dividing the still liquid soya bean milk into 6 custard cups. You can also leave the tofu to set inside a single pot. There is no separation of curds and whey, unlike the other method of making firm tofu.
6) The Book of Tofu says to let the soya milk stand uncovered for half an hour while it cools and sets, then cover with cling film and refrigerate. I made the mistake of covering the custard cups with cling film right away, and ended up with condensation on the inside.

Verdict: compared to commercially prepared tofu, mine definitely tasted like an amateur’s attempt. The texture, while very light and soft, could have been smoother. There was also a faint sour taste The green tea flavour was quite subtle, and the amount of sugar was just nice – I wonder what it would have tasted like without any sugar at all?

Anyhow, this is definitely worth another try. The Book of Tofu says that nigari makes the most delicate and delicious silken tofu, so I may use that alternative the next time.

My previous tofu-making postings:
Coagulants for homemade tofu
Making tofu at home
Making tofu at home P.S.
Another word on tofu coagulants

Chef Chan at the National Museum & cooking lectures/classes

I’ve been trying out dim sum recipes (steamed radish cake, water chestnut fritters and chewy pumpkin cake) from the cookbook by chef, Chan Chen Hei, without any idea who he is.

But I’ve just discovered that he’s opened a new restaurant at the National Museum of Singapore (the same place with this food history exhibit that features traditional coconut graters among other things). Not that I’ll be able to try it out… I’ve stayed far, far away from any kind of Chinese restaurant after single-mouthful tasters left me feeling unwell for an entire week, on more than one occasion.

Anyway, Chef Chan will be co-presenting a lecture at the museum on ‘Ancient Chinese Food’ with Huang Zhuolun 黃卓倫, the food writer from Lianhe Zaobao, on Sat, 20 Sep 08 from 4-5pm. Get the full details at the National Museum website‘s section on Lectures on Food & Culture. There are other sessions on tea (16 Aug) and chocolate (29 Aug) as well.

If you’re into learning about food and cooking but relate more to organic, healthy and holistic instead, the hands-on classes on tofu & okara, fermented foods, raw food, vegetarian cooking, baking bread (no oven necessary), traditional Chinese snacks and spreads made from nuts, seeds & fruits, then the sessions at Wholesome Living look quite exciting.

I’ve not been for any food classes before so if have any experiences to share, do leave a comment :).

The spread of bento culture

After being featured in a Newsweek article about packed lunches for preschoolers, Lunch in a Box wondered if bento are a growing trend in the U.S.

Here in Singapore, I’ve begun to notice an increasing number of recent bento cookbooks published in Malaysia. These are bilingual English-Chinese and feature a range of Chinese, Japanese, western and local Malaysia/Singapore foods. The most commonly-found title is this one:

However, I haven’t bought any of these myself because if you already know how to cook, bento isn’t really about the recipes, but about how to combine foods in an aesthetically-pleasing as well as nutritious way, and how to pack the foods. Learning the principles of traditional Japanese cuisine (based on traditional Chinese medicine), which extend to bento, has been the most interesting and enlightening aspect for me. I’m also searching for unfamiliar foods and new ways of cooking them to extend the variety in my food intolerance-restricted diet, and I love the simplicity and back-to-basics character of many Japanese dishes, which is why Japanese cookbooks fascinate me. The Malaysian bento cookbooks don’t include any of these ideas, being a straight collection of recipes with large colour photos of the food packed into cutesy boxes.

The gorgeous photos are another reason why I love well-produced bento instruction books from Japan, and unfortunately the standard of Malaysian cookbooks doesn’t quite match up.

Another aspect of the reproduction of bento culture is in terms of the plastic boxes. While you can find attractive and reasonable-quality lunch boxes at Japanese stores like Daiso, there also exists a selection of cheap, China-made ones. They are very much bento-style, with dual layers, snap clasps and cute pictures, as well as some insulated containers. I’ve seen them at Mustafa (when I went shopping for the coconut grater), but thought they were not worth mentioning as they are very poor quality and more expensive than Daiso’s $2 boxes.

Another word on tofu coagulants

This homemade tofu thing is getting complicated.

Yesterday, I came across this information from Wholesome Living, an organic shop in Singapore that conducts all sorts of cooking workshops:

Commercial bean curds contain chemical substances such as bleaching agent, de-foaming agent, preservatives and coagulant (calcium sulfate a.k.a. gypsum). Commercial tofu manufacturers usually utilize calcium sulfate as a coagulant and marketing it as high calcium food to mislead consumers that it is a good source of calcium to prevent osteoporosis. In fact, this inorganic calcium will cause various health problems such as renal stone problems and so forth. Furthermore from the TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) perspective, consuming too much commercial tofu will make your body too ‘YING’.

[Wholesome Living conducts a Tofu, Soy Milk & Okara 2-session workshop that teaches tofu-making with non-mineral coagulants.]

Various websites, especially those promoting particular brands of calcium supplements based on water-soluble organic calcium (e.g. calcium aspartate etc.), support these points; see here, here and here.

On the TCM view of tofu, Paul Pitchford’s fantastic book, Healing with Wholefoods, elaborates:

For most people, its yin, cooling quality needs to be altered by thorough cooking; adding warming spices such as ginger is particularly helpful for cold persons. . . . Eating massive amounts of tofu regularly (as some Americans do) can contribute to kidney-adrenal weakness, loss and graying of hair, impotence, frigidity and decrease in sexual sensitivity.

At the same time, calcium sulphate is the oldest tofu coagulant used in China, with 2000 years of history (see here).

According to this Singapore-oriented discussion thread from 2005, Phoon Huat stopped selling gypsum (sometimes mistakenly equated with borax) as it was banned from sale, and therefore began stocking Glucono delta-lactone/GDL instead.

(GDL), which is naturally found in honey, fruit juices and wine, is the coagulant used for making silken tofu. As the Wholesome Living workshop teaches the making of silken tofu, I suspect GDL is the ‘non-mineral coagulant’ being used. The action of GDL is different from nigari & gypsum type coagulants as it works as an acid, not as a salt (see Asian Foods: Science and Technology by Catharina Yung-Kang, Wang Ang, KeShun Liu, Yao-Wen Huang).

Sounds like GDL is the way to go, especially for soft tofu for 豆花 douhua/tau foo fa/tau huay.

Read my previous posts on tofu-making:
Coagulants for homemade tofu
Making tofu at home
Making tofu at home P.S.

Making tofu at home

After making soya bean milk at home, with okara and yuba as by-products, the next logical thing to try was making tofu. It was so easy and gave me a great sense of satisfaction (^_^). I refered to the ‘bible’ of tofu by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi.

For the coagulant, I used nigari, purchased from a health food store (Nature’s Glory). This is the coagulant usually used in Japan comprising mostly magnesium sulphate and is made by evaporating sea water. Shurtleff advises that ‘calcium sulfate, a fine white powder, is sometimes mislabelled in the West and sold as nigari. The latter usually has a coarse, granular or crystalline texture, natural nigari is beige and refined nigari is white.’

Aside from nigari, Epsom salts/magnesium sulphate (a popular antidote for food intolerance reactions!), gypsum/calcium sulphate, lemon or lime juice or vinegar can also be used as coagulants. The coagulant used for Chinese tofu is gypsum/calcium sulphate. Glucono delta-lactone (GDL) is a naturally occurring organic acid that is used to produce ‘silken’ tofu. Read more in my earlier post on coagulants for tofu.

The choice of coagulant affects the texture and taste of the tofu, as does the amount used. For firmer tofu, use nigari; softer tofu, use calcium sulphate. The amount of pressure used when pressing the tofu and the length of time it’s pressed also influences how soft or firm it is.

For a quantity of soya bean milk using 1 1/2 cups soya beans + 16 cups water, Shurtleff suggests:
* for subtly sweet, nigari tofu: 2 tsp natural nigari (magnesium chloride) or refined nigari (calcium chloride)
* for mild, soft tofu: 2 tsp Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate) or gypsum (calcium sulphate)
* for subtly tart or sour tofu: 4 Tbs freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice or 3 Tbs apple cider vinegar.

Here’s what I did:

To use nigari, dissolve 1 tsp nigari in 1 cup water. Reduce quantities as appropriate.
For every 4 cups soya bean milk, use 1/2 cup nigari solution.

1) Start by making soya bean milk. See the detailed instructions at Just Hungry.
2) After boiling the milk for 5 mins, remove from heat and leave to cool for another five minutes.
3) Slowly add coagulant and stir gently. Watch the curds form.

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4) Leave for 10 mins and allow curds to settle in the bottom.
5) Prepare tofu-mould. Ideally, use a square/rectangular box with holes. If not, you can improvise with a colander but you will end up with an unevenly-shaped piece of tofu (see photo below). Next time, I will try using one of those plastic boxes for storing ready-made tofu from Daiso, or by Lock & Lock, which have an inner container or even non-tofu specific Daiso plastic containers with inner strainers.
6) Place a piece of muslin cloth into the colander/mould.
7) Gently scoop the curds into the muslin cloth. Squeeze out whey liquid.
8) Fold the cloth over the top of the curds.
9) Place a plate or something flat on top of the curds, and weight it down. I used an unopened 1kg bag of rice and balanced a heavy tin can on top.
10) Leave to set. The firmness of the tofu depends on how long it is left to set and how heavily it is weighted down. I left mine for about 3hrs and ended up with the firm consistency of taukwa, which can be easily fried.

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This small slab (about 12cm or 5 inches across) was made from 2 cups of soya bean milk.

What to do with the whey liquid? If you’ve added the correct amount of coagulant, the whey will be amber-coloured and taste sweetish. Too little coagulant and the whey will be cloudy from bits of loose curds; too much coagulant and the whey will taste bitter.

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Don’t throw away the whey as it’s full of B vitamin nutrients, protein (9% of the protein originally found in the dry soya beans) and natural sugars. You can add it to soup, use in cooking in place of other liquids, or even use it as a biodegradable soap! According to Shurtleff, traditional tofu shops in Japan use the whey to wash their equipment at the end of the day because the soy lecithin in whey cuts through fats. Whey can also be used as a facial wash or shampoo (how’s that for homemade, environmentally-friendly, chemical-free toiletries ?), washing and polishing wooden floors or woodwork to give a natural, seasoned look, as well as a plant nutrient.

Please check out Just Hungry’s detailed tofu-making instructions complete with step-by-step photos (she’s got a real tofu press!).
The comprehensive Wikipedia entry on tofu.
Read about the history of tofu in China here.

Don’t forget to check out my postscript to this entry, with many more links, including how to make your own tofu mould/press from a used milk carton!

Custard powder substitute

Interestingly, custard powder was invented in 1837 by Alfred Bird because his wife was allergic to eggs and couldn’t tolerate real custard. Till today, Bird’s brand is one of the most popular brands of custard powder, and probably the only brand you’ll find in Singapore supermarkets.

As I noted here, commercial custard powder is basically full of nasty additives you’re better off avoiding. In this recipe which called for custard powder, I simply substituted some cornflour instead. Interestingly, many dim sum recipes call for custard powder — the British colonial influence on Hong Kong food, perhaps?

Recently, in Brown Rice Paradise, I saw a natural foods version of custard powder, which contained cornflour, yellow colourings (annatto and a turmeric-derivative) plus vanilla. However, while annatto is naturally-derived, it is the only natural food colouring “found to cause as many adverse intolerance reactions as artificial colours and to affect more consumers that artificial colour” (read here).

Anyway, this natural-foods version of custard powder shows that aside from the yellow colour (which isn’t all that important), you can pretty much duplicate the function of custard powder with some cornflour and vanilla essence. Yay (^_^).

Vegetarian bento: chap chye bee hoon

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Another vegetarian bento (ditch the omelette strips in the bee hoon and this would be vegan) that also tries to be anti-candida, plus low in salicylates, glutamates and amines.

Main dish:
* fried bee hoon (rice noodles) with garlic, cabbage, omelette strips, topped with fried shallots; seasoned with salt only;
* chap chye: dried soya mince, dried soya bean sticks (foo chok [Cantonese], 腐竹), Japanese freeze-dried kouya tofu (read more here and here) cut into chunks [I love the taste and texture of this style of tofu, which I only tried for the first time a few weeks ago], strips of konnyaku, cabbage, mung bean noodles — braised with a tiny bit of chopped garlic and miso.

Side dish:
* chunks of fried homemade tofu –> my first taste of my first homemade tofu!!
* cut-up pear.

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