Archive for February, 2009

East side love

brick lane
Brick Lane

Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Street and Leicester Square, predictably, were the first few places I saw when I first came to London. They’re the ultimate tourist destinations, crawling with parka-wearing, flag-waving, camera toting groups from all over the globe. To them, this is London. Not mine.

new cross road
New Cross road in the summer

It might be a huge cliché these days, but I love the East End. Living in the south east London area (the eternally ‘up and coming’ New Cross) during my uni years (and experiencing my fair share of souf-eaz lundun culture… god I miss Goldsmiths) was a big part of that love forming.

beigel bake
People of all ages love Brick Lane’s Beigel Bake

I remember how easy it was to hop on the East London line before it closed, and being able to shuttle to Shoreditch and therefore Brick Lane (for bagels from the Beigel Bake every time, natch) in a jiffy. These days, it’s a huge trek that usually involves at least one train ride, followed by a bus ride.

truman brewery
The iconic Truman Brewery

It’s a place I take every friend or family member to when they visit London. There’s always something new to see, something new to eat, there are always new sounds, new colours.

cherry blossoms
Japanese cherry blossoms from Columbia Road Flower Market

One of my favourite bits is Columbia Road Flower Market in the spring. I adore the little shops and galleries along the edges of the market, the characterful stallholders…look out for the brilliantly camp Cockney guy near the end of the market in colourful rasta colours bemoaning having to sell chichi travellers pink Japanese cherry blossoms! Naturally, I had to have some. He was well pleased when I obliged him and asked for the ‘light red’ flowers instead of embarrassing him by using the term ‘pink’… ;-)

Fried calamari

There’s also ‘that’ fried seafood storefront, selling cups of prawns or calamari for £3/£1.50 respectively. It’s not the greatest fry, but perfect for when you want something to graze on while perusing the market…

Perfect coffee next to the StArt gallery
And next to the StArt gallery is this amazing little coffee stand. Such a cheerful fella, the guy who mans it. They use Arabica beans for the brew… ’twas an excellent cup, with a perfect cashmere-soft foam for my cappuccino. Yum!

outside campania gastronomica
Flowers outside the new Italian café/deli, Campania Gastronomica (didn’t get a chance to try it – too crowded)

All in all, a day spent here is just my cup of tea. Or, should it be, a perfectly brewed cup of coffee?


February 22, 2009 at 8:51 pm 21 comments

Marking the end of Chinese New Year

flower market
Taken at the flower market in Hong Kong last year

Western new year is over in a flash (or in some cases, prolonged only by an enduring post-party hangover), but Chinese New Year is celebrated over two weeks. I hadn’t really observed tradition this year (no relatives in London means there’s no bai neen for me – visiting houses to wish relatives good fortune and such) apart from making radish cake and giving my parents the requisite phone call on New Year’s day… ;-)

The last day of the Chinese New Year (the 15th day) is called yuen siu, also known as the lantern festival. In Hong Kong, Victoria Park would have no doubt been alight with massive lit floats and structures (though, I don’t think they did it last year…hmm!) and with children running rampant with (health and safety approved) plastic lanterns depicting the cartoon character du jour, though more traditionally one would carry paper lanterns lit with a single candle; another popular lantern is the ubiquitous bunny-shaped one, which is my personal favourite (though, I remember my childhood days when it was the epitome of cool to have a plastic Sailor Moon lantern.)

Families will also indulge in the making of and eating of tong yuen (湯圓), sweet glutinous dumplings. More of the latter, as modern times means most people would rather buy ready-made varieties from the supermarket chiller… but as someone who had never made tong yuen before, I can vouch for how easy it is to prepare in your own home! My black sesame filling is a tad rudimentary and not molten and silky like I prefer, but it definitely sated the craving for tong yuen on a chilly London night!

Sesame-filled tong yuen

Black sesame tong yuen
Based on a recipe from Flavour and Fortune
For the black sesame filling
1 1/2 cups black sesame seeds
1 1/2 cups icing sugar
1/2 cup solid shortening (I substituted some unsalted butter, which probably contributes to a much richer taste).
For the dumplings
2 cups glutinous rice flour
3/4 cup hot water (approximately)

1. For the filling: place the sesame seeds into a dry pan and toast over a medium low heat until fragrant. Tip into a mini food processor and pulse until powder-like.

2. Mix in the icing sugar and knead in the shortening/butter until you get a well-mixed paste. (In reality I didn’t read the instructions thoroughly and bunged everything into the food processor. It worked okay but kneading by hand will probably make a smoother paste. My food processor isn’t very good either at ‘powderising’ the black sesame seeds, so my mixture was rather coarse.) Refrigerate until firm (again I didn’t do this as I didn’t have time – but this will make filling your tong yuen much easier as you can shape the filling into small balls and work the tong yuen dough around it).

4. For the dumplings: Sift the glutinous rice flour into a bowl and slowly add the water, stirring with long chopsticks until the mixture comes together to form a dough. Knead with your hands until smooth and elastic (you may not need all of the water – and this recipe is so simple, you can just add more rice flour or water as you need to get the right consistency).

5. Break off a small piece about the size of a 50p coin (smaller or bigger depending on how large you like your tong yuen to be – it’s easier to fill a bigger one though!). Roll between your palms to create a ball.

step by step
6. Now make an indentation in the middle of the ball and work, using your fingers, to make the hole deeper – forming a ‘cup’ if you will – large enough for a nice wodge of filling. If you’ve refrigerated your filling you can roll little bits into small balls and fit it inside the hole before drawing the edges together and rolling again into a smooth ball. With my slightly liquidy filling this proved more difficult, so I didn’t put as much into each ball as I would have liked! (And sometimes the filling leaked out… as you can see from some of the tong yuens in the background in the picture below!) I find it easier to pinch the open ends together and then draw the two corners together again before rolling. Roll between your palms until completely smooth.

7. Put a pan of water onto a rolling boil (gee, lots of rolling in this recipe…) and carefully drop the tong yuens in. They’re ready when they float to the surface. Remove with a slotted spoon and place into a serving bowl.

Tong yuen
8. In a separate pan, bring more water to the boil and drop in one piece of rock sugar or peen tong (a brown slab of sugar, readily available in Chinese supermarkets) and a knob of ginger. Bring to the boil and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Taste. It should be lightly sweet and gingery but not syrupy. Ladle over the tong yuen and serve.

February 12, 2009 at 1:21 am 11 comments

Making Chinese crispy pork belly (siu youk)

meat stall

I love Chinese siu mei (roasted meats). I remember many a time, when I first came to London, I craved nothing but a simple plate of chaa gaai faan (char siu pork and chicken on rice). However, what I fancy usually varies. There’s soy sauce chicken, roast duck, char siu and crispy pork belly, and they’re like CHILDREN to me – how are you ever going to choose a favourite? Sometimes it’s all about the silky smoothness and sweet savouriness of soy sauce chicken. But give me a good tender piece of char siu – I love the end bits where the meat is lightly charred and smokey – and I’m good. Roast duck is heavenly when soaked in that ubiquitous sweet soy; perfect together on rice or in a hot steaming bowl of ho fun (flat rice noodles). And crisp pork belly (siu youk)? A gorgeously sinful piece of meat – the juicy meat, flavoursome fat, crisp skin… but one of the complaints our family has most of the time about store-bought pork belly is that the skin is never quite crisp enough. (Or perhaps, are we buying from the wrong places? This is in Hong Kong, mind!).

Regardless, siu mei is something we always just buy, never make ourselves at home. Nor have I ever questioned what goes into making such delicious meats. I’ve made soy sauce chicken wings before, though I could never achieve the same uniform glossiness of the store-bought variety. And I keep meaning to make char siu after my mom keeps saying how easy it is (and I shall, once I get my pork tenderloin from Paganum!)

But I was inspired by Helen’s fantastic homemade Chinese crispy pork belly that I had to give it a shot myself. For some reason I didn’t use the same recipe (googling led me to this excellent recipe with step by step pictures) but the results are good!

Chinese roast belly pork

My favourite bit was playing butcher and chopping (not slicing) the pork into bite-sized pieces with a big knife – the sound of the crunchy crackling was amazing!

You’ll need to prepare the pork at least 24 hours in advance for the best flavour. So here’s the recipe, thanks to happyhomemaker88!

Chinese crispy pork belly
Serves 2-3

Nam yueFor the marinade
1 cube fermented red beancurd (nam yue, pictured)
1/2 tbsp Chinese five spice powder
1/2 tbsp white pepper
1/2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tbsp salt
1 tbsp rice wine (I ran out of Chinese rice wine so subsituted cooking sake)
For the pork belly
1 x 1kg piece pork belly
1 tbsp coarse sea salt
2 tbsp white vinegar

1. Mix all of the marinade ingredients together in a small bowl until well combined.

2. Using a sharp knife, score the skin of the pork belly all over (you can ask your butcher to do this for you). The more you score, the more fat will be released and the crispier your pork belly will be! Turn the pork belly over and make incisions in the meat about 1/2cm deep and about 2cm apart.

Chinese roast belly pork
3. Rub the marinade into the pork flesh (make sure to rub into the incisions as well).

4. Place the meat skin-side up into a container. Pat the skin dry with kitchen paper, then rub in the coarse salt. Place, uncovered, into the fridge and leave to marinate overnight.

5. Take the meat out an hour before roasting (so about 2 hours before you want to serve). Preheat the oven to 200C/400F.

6. Place the pork belly on a rack in the middle of the oven and roast for 20 minutes. Then, brush the skin with the white vinegar and switch the oven to the grill (broil) function. (The white vinegar is to help speed up the crackling process.)

Chinese roast belly pork
7. Keep an eye on your pork belly as it cooks; it should take about 45 minutes. Now, the tip here is to let the skin char for ultra-crispy crackling (the logic is that this is how you know the skin is crisp all the way through and not chewy on the bottom).

Chinese roast belly pork

8. So don’t worry if your pork belly is a bit charred – use a serrated knife to scrape away the blackened layer and reveal a golden-red layer of crisp pork skin. (Admittedly I think I went a bit far with the charring this time, so the skin was nice and crisp but a bit dry for my liking. Next time!)

9. Using a large knife, chop (don’t slice) the pork belly into bite-sized pieces. I do this by holding the knife over the skin, then hitting down hard on the back of the knife with the heel of my hand. A nice, clean chop – just listen to that crackling!


The pork tasted just like the versions I buy from roast meat stalls in HK. I never would have figured out that fermented beancurd was a major player in the creation of this marvellous piece of meat!

February 8, 2009 at 1:03 am 49 comments


A freelance journalist and full-time gourmand, eating her way mostly through London and Hong Kong.

Current location: London


Charmaine currently digs: the smell of coffee; adding ponzu to everything; bill granger; still eating natto with every meal; caressing her Nikon FM2n.



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