Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Happy Valentine's...and How to Wow Your Loved One - Singapore Chilli Crab

As Valentine's Day is but tomorrow and because I'm in a generous holiday mood, let me tell you how to thoroughly impress and fully satiate your respective loved ones. And it'll work on those whom you're trying to make an impression on for the first time as well. Intrigued?

If you live anywhere around the tropical top end of Australia, slap on your trusty Akubra (the one studded with crocodile teeth), hop into you beat up tinnie (aluminium dinghy), avoid the angry and hungry cousins of those crocs you'd extracted teeth from, and go catch yourself a good sized muddie (mud crab)...
Failing the above, simply mortgage your house so to be able to afford to get down to your similarly trusty fishmonger or seafood purveyor and secure yourself a large live mud crab of around 1.2-1.5 kg. This morning, lively and extremely vicious looking specimens were an eye-popping $36.90 per kg at the popular Charis Seafoods on the Gold Coast in Queensland. Whether slightly cheaper or dearer, a good sized individual would probably cost you around the $50 mark, but your Valentine is worth it right?

Once back in your kitchen (of course it's all about food!), either dunk the crab into a generous slurry of ice (water chilled thoroughly with loads of ice cubes) or into the freezer for 20-30 minutes to put the crab well and truly to sleep so as to avoid cruelty, and any chance of losing parts of your extremities to its crushing claws. The next steps are not for the weak or squeamish but you'll have to properly rinse the crab under running water, then remove its carapace (give this a quick rinse and retain for cooking) and discard all of the grey gill section (known colloquially as the dead man's fingers). Remove the two large claws from the rest of the body then using a sturdy knife, divide each claw into half at the joint and chop the body of the crab into four quarters. Next, crack all of the crab's heavily shelled joints and claw sections with confident sharp blows using a heavy steel kitchen mallet or hammer (but avoid over shattering the shells). Set all crab pieces aside ready for cooking and follow the simple recipe below for the rest of the ingredients needed to prepare the world renown Singapore Chilli Crab!

1.2-1.5 kg cleaned mud crab pieces
2 eggs (beaten)
1 Tbs fresh ginger (finely julienned)
2 stalks spring onion (roughly chopped)
8 Tbs oil

Sauce (mix together):
1 Tbs sugar
1-2 tsp salt (to taste)
4-5 Tbs tomato ketchup (Heinz)

Rempah or chilli paste (blended or pounded together): (edited)
2 large slices ginger
2 large cloves garlic
6-8 large fresh red chillies (depending on heat and to taste, but dish should have some heat)

8-10 red shallots
6 candlenuts
2 fresh kaffir lime leaves (finely slivered)
1 lemongrass stalk (use the tender inner leaves and bulb, roughly chopped)
1 thumb-sized knob galangal (outer skin scraped away)
1 thumbnail sized piece fermented shrimp paste or belacan (dry roasted)

Heat large wok until very hot, add in 6 Tbs oil and stir-fry crab pieces for several minutes until coated in oil and shells turned just slightly orange, then remove. Add further 2 Tbs oil to wok and fry ginger and the rempah until fragrant. Return crab to wok and quickly toss, then add the sauce mixture and stir. Add 2 capfuls of Xiao Tsing wine (chinese cooking rice wine) or sherry and a dash of water to deglaze, return to the boil and cover wok to cook for 5 minutes. Lower the heat and stir in eggs to thicken the sauce and nicely coat the crab pieces. Dish onto a large platter and serve immediately!
(Recipe modified slightly from Mrs Lee's Cookbook by Mrs Lee Chin Koon, Eurasia Press. This is an invaluable reference for authetic and unadulterated Singaporean Nonya recipes authored by the mother of Singapore's most illustrious statesman and former Prime Minister, Lee Kwan Yew).

Let me add that you simply cannot get the same enjoyment from Singapore chilli crab at a fine dining restaurant compared to tucking in at home (or at a hawker or street corner stall when in Singapore), although some such establishments do offer it (see Pearl Restaurant Richmond's ode to the full moon). If dining on mud crabs at Pearl, I dare say that you'll discover that I'm really not joking about pawning the house! But back to tackling chilli crab at home, you'll be able to forget about any table niceties, arm yourselves simply with a nutcracker and get down and dirty with your fingers! In Singapore, the dish is usually served with mantou (or chinese steamed buns) to mop up the wonderful crabby and eggy chilli sauce with once you're done with the crab but crispy grilled baguettes can be a worthy substitute.

As for Valentine's night following your mud crab meal, you'll look across the table at your partner and see a goofy and fully contented grin with chilli crab sauce thoroughly smeared over both hands and on their face, and know that there'll be enough euphoria left over that they'll be putty in your hands for the rest of the evening!

Monday, 11 February 2008

Non-Fish Lovers Beware, Gratuitous Head Shot! - Brisbane Food

Currently back at my childhood haunts and family hometown of the Gold Coast and Brisbane for the week. The Gold Coast is ever busier but essentially remains the same familiar concentration of vulgar urbanity. And as far as I can tell, the place is still largely a cultural and gastronomic desert. Brisbane I concede, is continuing to gain maturity. More surprising however, is that the source for this post comes from deep within that speedily malignant spread of urban development between the coast and the capital city. Our clan had gathered to celebrate the 96-th birthday of the family's most senior patriarch, descending on a relatively nondescript but hilariously named suburban Chinese (& Malaysian) restaurant close-by to the home of some family members.

Those in the know had organised a full 8-course banquet but out of the
procession of dishes some of which were more successful than others, one stood out above. There's a bountiful of fresh fish that can be bought at the various markets and fishmongers back in Melbourne but for sheer variety, the addition of tropical varieties found in the states further north can't be beat. And there's no finer or more delicious example of tropical piscine flesh than a whole perfectly steamed, ruby-coloured Queensland Coral Trout; served simply with the fish's own steaming liquor sauced lightly with soy, generous slivers of spring onion and coriander sprigs, a little dash of sesame oil, plus a final slippery drizzle of hot plain oil that was used to lightly crisp garnishings of ginger and garlic to infuse the aromatics. Who will be able to get enough of the tender pearlescent white flesh spooned over with some of that sauce onto plain steamed rice? And finally, whose manners would be the first to give out and dive for those heavenly pockets of flesh cradled in both cheeks of the head! Salute!

Ya Hoo Seafood Restaurant
Shop 10-11, 22 Loganlea Road, Waterford, QLD
(Spot Score: 14/20; Fish Score: 19/20)

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Spicing up a Sultry Evening - Bismi Restaurant

Cravings for a meal of curry led us on a lengthy stroll up Sydney Road one recent warm and sultry Friday evening. The first aim of the walk was to shake out the work-week cobwebs from our heads by soaking in the free urban sensory rush dealt out by this cosmopolitan stretch of Melbourne suburbia, but our end-goal for trekking towards the Coburg end was to get to Bismi Restaurant to satisfy those curry needs.

Respective bowls of Bismi's chilli chicken, prawn masala and vegetable curry enjoyed with roti paratta

The Sydney Road (and original) branch of Bismi serves up tantalising varieties of South Indian, Malaysian and Singaporean influenced spicy dishes and curries. On entry you'll be greeted by some of the staff that hold fort over the large curry bain marie which leads into a smallish front dining space. This room basically consists of a jumble of small tables and wobbly seating cubes that would give any typical dilapidated student sharehouse a run for their money, but no one seems to mind. We're all here for only one purpose, and that's to indulge in the cheap and tastily spiced food. If there are no free tables left in the front room, which is quite typical, you may be led further into the building where more dining space is available. Once we'd achieved a comfortable balance on our stools during this visit, we chose a Mixed Vegetable Curry ($5), the Prawn Masala ($8), and a Chilli Chicken dish ($6). More than enough for a filling meal for two. The two wet curries were heady with cumin, cardamon, mustard seed, and curry leaves, the vegetables in a mild and creamy green-style sauce while the chilli red prawn masala had a hint of vinegary tang. The winner for me however was the chilli chicken, dangerously red chicken pieces that had been marinated with tamarind and a richly spiced chilli coating. Hot stuff in every sense! A plate of plain basmati rice and several of Bismi's flaky and justifiably famous Roti Paratta (Prata/Paratha) ($2 each) were the perfect accompaniment to the curries. A glass of Mango Lassi ($3) helped temper the inevitable sweating and chilli induced lip numbness. Service from the mix of hired help and Indian students was of the untrained variety and easily distracted but all requests could be sufficiently met despite the restaurant's constantly hectic environment. Again, at these prices as long as food was brought to the table nobody seemed to be bothered in the least!

Food: 3.5 spots - For tasty spicy SE Asian and South Indian style curries.
Service: 2.5 spots - Orders are taken, food arrives, leave it at that.
Value: 4.5 spots - True cheap and tasty.
R-value: 5 spots - Definitely returnable.
Spot Score: 16/20

Bismi Restaurant
848 Sydney Road, Brunswick, VIC.