The origins of Japanese curry (and other foods)

Just saw this very interesting article which explains how Japanese curry came via the British navy. Its adoption wasn’t culinary reasons, but because of very practical, medical ones. Read also how ramen, tempura, and even sushi and sashimi have their roots outside of Japan. I won’t give away any more of the fascinating story, you’ll have to read it for yourself :):

Japanese Curry and the Navy
July 31, 2007
by Fumihito Yamamoto

Failsafe cashew-carob paste

From The Failsafe Cookbook, p. 187, ‘Deborah’s Cashew Paste’ with carob variation.

I halved the quantities, so I used:

1/2 cup raw cashews
approx. 2 tbs canola oil
1/2 tbs carob powder
1 tsp caster sugar

Put cashews in blender, blend briefly. Add carob powder and sugar. Add oil a little at a time and blend until the desired consistency is reached. Use as sandwich spread as a Nutella substitute.



1) Bought organic raw cashews from Eat Organic. A pack (seems like just over 1 cup) cost S$12 but tastes very fresh, unlike a lot of commercial raw nuts which have a raw and stale taste.

2) I bought toasted carob powder from Organic Paradise, S$3.70 for 250g (Eat Organic doesn’t sell carob, I was rather surprised.). There was a choice of raw or toasted. I wonder if there is any difference between the two for Failsafers?

3) Reduced the amount of sugar in recipe – have done so for all recipes in The Failsafe Cookbook and found the result more than sweet enough. In any case, carob doesn’t have the bitter overtones of pure cocoa so tastes sweeter, and hence less sugar is needed when replacing cocoa with carob.

4) End result tastes very nice, and strangely enough, tastes like banana!?!

5) *WARNING* the cashew-carob paste is terribly heaty/yang! I tasted 1/4 tsp and my throat started to hurt immediately. I will just have to save this for special treats and consume in tiny amounts. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised because of the concentrated nuts and oil. My guess is that carob is not as heaty as real cocoa but my guess is that it is still on the heaty end of the scale, and the fact that I used toasted carob must have made it even more yang.

Moral of the story: Failsafe eating may avoid certain nasty food reactions but doesn’t mean it’s good for you in terms of having a balancing constitution in Traditional Chinese Medicine terms *sigh*……

Cross-cultural culinary interpretations: “chuka”

I had blogged earlier about Chinese food done Indian style and yoshoku, Japanese interpretations of western dishes which have now become integrated into ‘Japanese cuisine’. In recent months, I also read in the Singapore press about about chuka, which is Taiwanese food adapted for the Japanese palate.

I’m curious as to what extent Chinese food in Japan explicitly distinguishes between the wide variety of regional Chinese cuisines. Is all mainstream Chinese food in Japan derived from Taiwanese cooking? The fact that chuka is specifically Taiwanese in influence points to an interesting historical connection: Japan’s 50-year colonial rule in Taiwan from 1895-1945.


Here’s a recent review of a chuka restaurant in Singapore from TODAY newspaper.

4 June 07

Sangokushi offers a unique blend of Japanese and Taiwanese cuisines

Shermaine wong
WHERE: Sangokushi, 30 Robertson Quay, #01-03 Riverside View
TELEPHONE: 6238 8962
OPERATING HOURS: 11.30am to 2.30pm (lunch); 6pm to 10.30pm (dinner) daily.

Closed during lunch on Mondays.

Before you mistake it as yet another attempt at fusion food, this
restaurant’s unique blend of Japanese and Taiwanese food is actually a
bona fide cuisine called chuka, which is popular all around Japan

Taiwan-born lady bosses, Rita Chou, 36, and Kasei Mizuno, 47, co-own
Sangokushi at Robertson Quay, with the latter helming the kitchen. Rita
discovered chuka cuisine while she was a student in Tokyo – incidentally
in the same restaurant that Kasei was working in then

After being in Singapore for four years, Rita roped in Kasei – who has
more than 20 years of experience cooking chuka cuisine – to set up shop
in Singapore, and Sangokushi was born last May

Essentially a Japanese version of Chinese food, chuka cuisine prides
itself on serving lighter-tasting Chinese dishes – which the Japanese
prefer – while retaining the ingredients’ original taste

While the bulk of her initial clientele were Japanese thrilled to find a
restaurant serving authentic chuka cuisine, Rita now sees an increasing
number of locals coming in as well. No surprises here, since the flavours
at Sangokushi are appealing enough to attract a bigger audience

Case in point – the handmade pan-fried pork dumplings ($5 for six pieces).
Easily one of the best I’ve had, the dumpling’s thin skin was browned to a
crisp on one side and when I bit into it, the pork and vegetable juices
flowed easily.

A Taiwanese favourite, the humble deep-fried chicken chop ($10), was also
done to perfection here. Ever the meticulous chef, Kasei insists on using
Taiwan-imported tapioca starch to coat the slab of chicken thigh meat
because the result would be an “airy and crisp” coating. She was right.
The tender chicken chop turned out flawless.

Weight-watchers will enjoy the sautéed seafood with celery ($18), a
delicate-tasting dish that allowed the fresh squid and prawns to take
centrestage. This home-style dish, added with juicy shimeiji mushrooms,
stayed true to its chuka roots of keeping flavours original and light.

Sangokushi’s sautéed crab with garlic ($45) is a must try – just the smell
of the dish alone justifies that tag. Rita says they try to buy meatier
flower crabs to give diners more bite for their buck. Deep-fried to seal
the juices in, generous amounts of fried minced garlic are then sprinkled
over the crustacean. It was so delicious I had to stop myself from
blurting out oishii in the crowded restaurant.

If you like offal, then make a beeline for the pig’s liver with chives
($9). This particular dish is not commonly found in Taiwan, but is
popular in chuka restaurants in Japan. The liver was done just right – 90
per cent cooked so it remained tender. Paired with chives, bean sprouts
and garlic, it would make a fine pairing with white rice.

Kasei has been dishing out her seafood la mian ($13) for more than 20
years in Japan and her experience certainly showed up in this simple bowl
of noodles – fresh ingredients (prawns, squid, mushroom and a mix of
veggies) complemented the silky ramen noodles and robust tasting milky

I ended my meal with the Sangokushi special dessert ($4) – homemade mango
puree with sago was topped with a scoop of ice cream. Though simple, it
was refreshing and I particularly liked that it was not too sweet.

Blending two cuisines so popular with us locals might seem like a
no-brainer – yet Sangokushi is one of the rare few restaurants, if not the
only, to serve chuka cuisine here.

Judging by the never-ending stream of customers at the door and those
lapping it up inside the restaurant while I was there during lunch, one
can safely conclude that Rita and Kasei have struck pay dirt with their
quirky mix of Taiwanese and Japanese flavours.

Cosmopolitan cities vs. cosmopolitan sensibilities

This interesting essay appeared in yesterday’s Straits Times. I think it captures very well the difference between living in a cosmopolitan city – where many different cuisines are available, and developing cosmopolitan sensibilities – an individual’s acceptance of and desire for (foods of) varied cultures. Looking back to the article I posted earlier on cosmopolitan food culture in San Francisco, it seems that hybrid practices – where influences from different sources combine to create new dishes and cuisines, is yet a different kind of development.


July 29, 2007

Feeling alien among Asians
By Colin Goh

TWO weeks ago, the Wife and I moved from Brooklyn to Flushing, in New York City’s borough of Queens.

Flushing is perhaps best known to the rest of the world as the site of the US Open, although we didn’t move there for the tennis. If there was any particular attraction, it was probably the food. (At this point, my friends may register their total lack of surprise.)

Flushing is home to New York’s largest ethnic Chinese community, and is the second largest Chinatown in the United States.

Here, I can get mee pok with ter kua (pig’s liver) and other porcine spare parts at 2am, laksa with hum, char kway teow (also with hum), mee siam (alas, sans hum), Hainanese chicken rice, and even Peking duck sold at $1 a slice. There are also many Indians, Koreans and Malaysians, and of course, their respective eateries.

Surrounded by fellow Asians, we should have felt right at home. But…

The first hint that we were different came just after we’d moved in and went to the Indian restaurant at the end of our street specialising in dosa and vada, which we know as ‘thosai’ and ‘vadai’. In Singapore, I’d have thosai at least once a week in Ghim Moh, and I was thrilled I could now get it every day, even in New York.

But when we stepped inside, everyone, both staff and customers, turned and stared at us like we were Martians. And when we sat at a table by the window, we also noticed that whenever Chinese people walked by, they’d do a double take.

The owner later told us we were the first Chinese ever to step into the place, even though the neighbourhood teemed with Chinese people.

Similarly, we never, ever saw an Indian family come for dim sum at the Cantonese restaurant or zhajiang mian at the Taiwanese cafe either. It seemed strange to us, as Singaporeans, that despite the mixed community, there was so little cross-makan traffic. Had we crossed some invisible boundary?

We had come expecting familiarity, only to find we were aliens even to fellow Asians, which somehow accentuated our feelings of difference.

This was reinforced when we came home one evening to find our next door neighbour – a Chinese man – standing outside his house, bare-shirted and thwatting his leg, I suppose, to stimulate circulation.

This was the first time we’d met. We’d always suspected Chinese people were staying next door because they’d paved over their entire garden with concrete. But what confirmed it was the very first thing he said to us, as he thwatted away.

Not ‘hello’, not ‘nihao’, but (thwat, thwat), ‘Zu duo shao qian (How much is your rent?)’. And here, I’d thought Singaporeans were gauche for always asking each other which district they lived in back home.

The Wife and I looked at each other, and after an awkward pause, we told him. It seemed rude not to, especially on a first encounter. He was incredulous. ‘For one room?’ he ejaculated, thwat, thwat.

No, two. ‘Two?’ he frowned. ‘Why do you need two rooms?’ We explained we needed an office as we often work from home. He didn’t seem to understand this concept.

We learnt that he was a construction worker from Shandong, and one of six tenants in the house, every room of which had been rented out, including the living room, apparently a common practice in Flushing.

‘Rent me your other room,’ he said, thwatilly. ‘My lease runs out next month.’ We hesitated, and he added, ‘The place is too large for you!’ The Wife politely said our landlord wouldn’t allow us to sublet. ‘Just say I’m your brother!’ he persisted, completely serious. We laughed nervously and changed the subject, but he seemed to have lost interest in chatting.

When we asked if he’d ever been to the Indian restaurant at the end of the street, he shook his head. ‘Indian curry is funny,’ he said. ‘Not like Chinese curry.’

Before leaving, he asked where we were from. Taiwan? Hong Kong? Singapore, we said. ‘Ah, waidi ren,’ he said, thwat. ‘Foreigners.’ Well, that sealed it. With a thwat, no less.

Singaporeans often debate whether we can have a national identity, or if all we can ever be is an agglomeration of fragmented communities. We also talk of having to preserve our mother tongues and cultures.

After our experience here, I’m convinced we already have a national identity, even if it’s by exclusion. Chinese Singaporeans can never truly be Chinese Chinese. I’m also not sure we should try too hard to be so.

I may have my mother’s tongue, but I want it to taste more than just one kind of curry.

Failsafe rolled oats cookies (Anzacs)

I tried this recipe out of the Failsafe Cookbook. It meets the requirements of the Failsafe food intolerance diet, but contains *yikes* white sugar & golden syrup. For someone trained on anti-candida (and other healthy-eating principles) it’s quite scary to be cooking like this! But I decided to go for it since my eating options are so limited already.


1 cup plain flour
2 cups rolled oats
3/4 cup sugar [I reduced this to 1/2 cup and cookies are definitely sweet enough]
125 g butter
2 tbs golden syrup
2 tsp sodium bicarbonate
2 tbs boiling water

Mix together flour, oats and sugar.
Melt butter and golden syrup together.
Mix bicarbonate with boiling water and add to butter mixture.
Pour into blended dry ingredients and stir to combine.
Place large spoonfuls of mixture onto greased oven tray, leaving room to spread.
Bake at 160°C for 20 mins.

[Sue Dengate, The Failsafe Cookbook (2007), p. 168]


[NB: this photo was taken of my 2nd batch of cookies, where I followed the oven temperature instructions exactly. The result was much darker than the first time I made these and was judging the appropriate cooking time purely by sight.]

Baking notes

1) Reduced the sugar to 1/2 cup. Will try reducing even more next time.

2) Golden Syrup is not easy to handle! Firstly because even before I had broken the plastic seal on the Tate & Lyle’s retro-styled tin, tiny ants swarmed my kitchen. Had to clean out the whole cupboard and wash the unopened tin in soap water. So I have since kept the golden syrup in the fridge, which means it’s pretty stiff when you try to spoon it out. Solution: use a metal spoon heated up in some hot water, and a hot knife to spoon and almost cut it out of the tin!

3) There was only just enough liquid to bring the whole mixture together and bits of rolled oats seemed to keep falling out instead of staying in a nice cookie ball. However, they held together very well once they were baked.

4) I was impatient and tried to use the Fan Bake function on my oven, which worked well with my muffins and puff pastry – simply reduce the oven temperature by 20°C, and cut the baking time by half. However, when I did this, the cookies were not sufficiently browned on the outside, or dry enough on the inside. In the end, I had to reduce the oven temperature to 90°C then leave them in long enough to become more solid, which took 20 mins as recommended in the recipe anyway.

My cookies were chewy – I hope they are meant to be that way. They taste really nice (the allure of forbidden sugar :)?) and because of the high quantity of oats, they are very filling as well.

P.S. Want to know why these cookies are so popular Down Under and are called ANZACS? Read a bit of food (and military) history here.

A good reason to make your own salted eggs

As I wrote recently, I am trying to make my own salted eggs at home for the first time. It’s really easy, following either of the two methods at Lily’s Wai Sek Hong : here and here and also on Wikipedia — either a brine solution method, or a dry method.

Today’s Sunday Times report on Singapore consumers’ responses to China-made food products included this important statistic:

This year, 41.6 per cent of the salted duck eggs and 26.1 per cent of the century eggs from China were rejected after they were found to contain a cancer-causing industrial dye called Sudan II.


Oh dear, I wonder what’ s in the remaining 58.4% of salted duck eggs from China? Maybe not as toxic as Sudan II, but possibly also not suitable for an additive-free diet.

14/4/08 Update: Further tips from me on making salted eggs here.

Onigiri, Chinese salted eggs and salt

I have been making onigiri thanks to the excellent instructions by Just Hungry.

Maki discusses the possible fillings you can use in these Japanese rice balls on that page as well as here and a full primer on onigiri here.

I had a couple of ideas myself, the first of which is to use Chinese salted eggs. After all, they are always best eaten with plain white rice (the beautiful flavour of the yolks is wasted in mooncakes!).

Much as I adore salted egges, due to my many food sensitivities, I haven’t eaten them in a looong time (;_;). Commercial ones give me hives, possibly because of preservatives and colouring. Here are more reasons to make your own salted eggs.

For the sake of my onigiri, I decided to finally attempt to make my own salted eggs. My grandmother told me that she used to make them at home decades ago. I’m not sure if the preserving process will produce any substances that I’ll react to, but I guess we’ll soon find out in three weeks’ time when my haam daan 鹹蛋 are ready :).

There are plenty of recipes on the internet, but Lily has actually tried both methods and blogged about it here and here. The methods are also summarised on Wikipedia (I didn’t realise that so many cultures in Southeast Asia also have their own version of salted eggs!): a brine solution method, or a dry method.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find ducks eggs so have made do with regular chicken’s eggs, which don’t produce such a good result apparently. As I don’t want to use Chinese wine (I’m allergic to alcohol) to soak the eggs before coating in salt and I don’t know what substitute can be used, I chose the brine solution method.

I started out by using salt from a massive 1kg bag I bought super-cheap for 70cents at Sheng Siong. It was the commonly-found ‘pagoda’ brand, which we have used at home, but never before bought such a large bag of it. However, the brine solution immediately turned a dirty grey and there was plenty of scum when the water boiled. Seems like there are plenty of mineral impurities in this bag of salt? I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but it looked so unpleasant and suspicious that I threw the brine solution away and started again with a small bag of Cold Storage No Frills cooking salt we had lying around in the kitchen. It dissolved easily, the water was clear, no scum. Phew. And that’s what my eggs are soaking in now.

Moral of the story: ‘salt’ can refer to many different substances… what exactly are we eating? Harold McGee’s bible on ‘the science and lore of the kitchen’, On Food and Cooking (p.641), says that

Standard table salt is often supplemented with additives, as much as 2% of the total weight, that prevent the crystal surfaces from absorbing moisture and sticking to each other. These additives include aluminium and silicon compounds of sodium and calcium, silicon dioxide – the material of glass and ceramics – and magnesium carbonate. Other compounds may be added to keep these additives from excessive drying and caking. Most anticaking additives do not dissolve as readily as salt, and cloud the brines for pickled vegetables, so specialised pickling salts omit them. These additives may also contribute slight undesirable tastes of their own.

There’s your answer – make sure you get the right kind of salt for pickling (which is basically what making salted eggs is).

Also, impurities in salt in general aren’t always undesirable. Premium unrefined sea salt and Fleur de sel, which are known for their delicate and complex flavours, and dull grey colour in the case of some unrefined sea salt. These special qualities are actually due to ‘minor minerals, algae and a few salt-tolerant bacteria’ so unrefined sea salt therefore contains ‘traces of magnesium chloride and sulfate and calcium sulfate, as well as particles of clay and other sediments’ (McGee, On Food and Cooking, p.642).

[Interesting fact: apparently, China has become the world’s largest producer of salt since 2006 (ref: The Salt Institute).]

Back to the salted eggs. Here are the quantities I used:
*6 chicken eggs [regular size in Singapore, small by British standards!]
*700ml water [I measured, this was the amount that covered the eggs nicely in the cointainer I was using]
*1/2 to 3/4 cup salt [1/2 cup was actually about all that could dissolve, but I added a bit more for good measure :)]

I put it all into a small Corningware mixing bowl, for which my Corningware serving dish lid fit nicely. One of the more difficult bits is how to weigh down the eggs to make sure they stay submerged. I used a ceramic teacup saucer which fit nicely inside the mixing bowl, and even that started to float, so I poured more water over it and the weight of the water held the saucer (and eggs) down. Some people suggest a giant Ziploc bag filled with water on top of the eggs (see comments here).

The kitchen is a very hot place because of all that cooking going on, so not suitable for leaving the eggs & brine to do their thing, as I read in various internet instructions. My grandmother also always used to insist on keeping her salted eggs in a cool place. This reminds me of what my Chinese tea instructor said about not keeping fine Chinese teas in the kitchen because the heat is not good for them. She said keep your teas in the living room, so I guess the same goes for the salting of eggs :).

19 more days to go before testing one egg to see if they are done…. I’ll have to try some other onigiri fillings in the meantime!

Day 20 update:
Tried one egg, the very centre of the yolk hadn’t become fully salted yet. Otherwise, they were passable salted eggs and obviously less saltish than commercial ones. I had never before noticed the distinct flavour of chicken eggs, but having been used salted ducks’ eggs all along, these were noticeably chicken! Will try another egg on Day 25.

Day 30 update: Finally decided the eggs were done and took the remaining eggs out of the brine solution.

Day 40 update: Cooked the last of the salted eggs. Found that one of them was incompletely preserved – the yolk had not changed. Wonder why?

14/4/08 Update: Further tips from me on making salted eggs here.