Weekend Cooking: How to hotpot

Hotpot has become a family favourite. We don’t really do hotpot that much in Singapore where it is far too hot for hotpot but the cool winters of California are great for it.

So it has become our own little tradition to do hotpot for Chinese New Year Eve (known as reunion dinner or tuanyuanfan 团圆饭) and we do hotpot on Thanksgiving too.

Hotpot is an easy meal for a crowd, provided you have enough utensils and hotpots!

And you preferably need to have access to an Asian supermarket. But if there’s none nearby, you can make do with some other ingredients.


We use a portable gas stove and this fun dual hotpot. Those ladles with little holes in them are great for picking out just your ingredients. And we set out regular soup ladles too. Extra long chopsticks are for cooking the meat with.

But here are my typical hotpot ingredients.


I make two broths in our dual hotpot. One is a vegetable stock made with carrots, celery and whatever else I might have like corn if it’s fresh. And the other is an instant one with dashi powder (or you could make a dashi stock with bonito flakes and konbu) and miso.


I usually buy Napa cabbage and chop that up. Bokchoy would be great too. A more traditional leafy vegetable is tongho but it’s slightly bitter. This year I also added baby spinach that I had in my fridge.

We love the little bunashimeiji (beech mushrooms). There’s also shiitake and king trumpet mushrooms, which are all found at my local Asian supermarket.


While I do most of the hotpot shopping at the Chinese or Vietnamese supermarkets, we prefer the meat from Japanese supermarket Mitsuwa. It’s a bit of a drive but it’s definitely so much more flavourful and tender. Asian supermarkets usually have thinly sliced meat (beef or pork) for hotpot. But you could always buy a nice piece of meat, freeze it for a bit to firm it up, then slice it really thin yourself.


Our favourites are fish tofu, fishballs and cuttlefish balls. They’re springy and fun to eat and cook really quickly. My husband and kids like imitation crabsticks which need just like 30 seconds to warm up in the broth.

Other ingredients may include dumplings, tofu puffs, vermicelli or udon, konyaku, quail eggs and more.

Don’t forget your dipping sauces like peanut sauce, chili sauce or sesame sauce. We also like the Taiwanese shacha sauce which is made from garlic, shallots, chilis, dried shrimp.

Get that gas stove going, the broth boiling, then pick your favourite foods and dunk them in! Happy hotpot-ing.



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Weekend Cooking: Taco Rice

Taco Rice, despite its name, is a Japanese dish. It was first concocted in 1984 but of course various eateries in Okinawa have claimed that they were the birthplace of taco rice. Perhaps most significant is that these eateries were located near US military bases in Okinawa. Some theories on how taco rice came about:

  • a restaurant employee meal that found its way onto the menu
  • a joke among restauranteurs – because how can tacos fill up hungry US servicemen?
  • it was just easier to serve it on top of rice than to make taco shells

I can’t remember when I first tried it.  I’ve never been to Okinawa but I have eaten at an Okinawan restaurant or two in Singapore (which is where I’m from). It probably was where I first encountered it. It’s easy and delicious and I wanted to try it out on the kids. (Also, if you are curious about Okinawan food, here’s an article from CNN Travel with some examples of its cuisine. It’s very different from what we know as “Japanese” food)

Of course that’s not really a proper taco rice. That would include sour cream and lettuce and more spices just like a real taco. If you would like a proper recipe here is one from Chubby Hubby. 

But you know what, I think taco rice is that kind of creation, that kind of amalgamation of cuisines and cultures that is versatile and adaptable and easy for a quick weeknight dinner. Here for instance is another version from Curiously Ravenous, this time with a fried egg and sliced avocado

I started off with two cups of short-grain Japanese rice and one cup of brown rice. And by cups I mean rice cooker cups and by rice I mean uncooked rice. I let my Zojirushi do its magic because I have no idea how to cook rice without a rice cooker anymore. (My Mum cooks rice in the microwave every night or so though so you don’t need a rice cooker to cook rice).

While the rice was cooking, I made a coleslaw. I didn’t have lettuce but I did have a cabbage and lots of carrots and I figured that if I put some raisins in it (don’t yell at me about that!) the kids would eat it. And they did. They really did. I made mine with mayonnaise, rice vinegar, sugar and salt. And of course raisins. The five-year-old, who has never eaten more than a bite (and unwillingly at that) of coleslaw when we are out, had a plateful and excitedly ran to the garage where the Husband was pulling up and yelled that he loved the coleslaw.

Alas the taco rice was sadly not a hit with my younger boy. I was quite convinced that he would like it as he is very fond of eating rice. Oh well, win some lose some!

Sorry got off track. I chopped one red onion, several cloves of garlic and one carrot then cooked them down and added the minced beef. Then add a can of chopped tomatoes and some tomato paste and a variety of spices – a bit of cayenne pepper, all-spice, some Italian herbs, salt and pepper. You could make it spicy too with chile peppers, red pepper flakes, even throw in some Sriracha if you’re up for it. Add a bit of stock (I used beef cos that’s what I had) then cook for a few minutes until most of the liquid has evaporated. I like mine with a bit of gravy so don’t let it dry out too much.

Scoop the rice into a bowl, top with ground beef mixture, sprinkle some of your favourite cheese and maybe some fresh cilantro. If you’ve got lettuce, shred some and pop it on top along with some chopped fresh tomatoes and sour cream if you’d like. How about some salsa? Some guacamole or simply sliced avocado? Some corn would go great too. But I had made my coleslaw and served that alongside.



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Weekend Cooking: Hey pesto!

(A bit too cheesy you think?)



Last Sunday my neighbour messages to ask if we’d like some vegetables from her friend’s garden. Some chard and basil. I was more interested in the chard as I’ve never cooked with it before – not something you find much of in Singapore so it wasn’t a familiar vegetable. (It ended up simply stirfried with garlic and olive oil if you’re wondering)

It was a rather large bunch of basil and I thought, pesto!

We haven’t had pesto for ages. Usually I buy it at stores and toss it into pasta for a quick meal. But most pestos – and pesto recipes – have nuts which is big no in our house since we discovered two years ago that Wee Reader is allergic to tree nuts and peanuts (he also used to be allergic to wheat and eggs but has more or less outgrown those). So we haven’t eaten pesto in ages!

Googling “nut -free pesto” resulted in this recipe from Two peas and their pod. A basil spinach pesto! More vegetables! Fantastic!

My lack of a food processor didn’t stop me from making this. I only have an immersion blender but it comes with a tiny food processor-like container. So I processed the spinach and basil in batches, then added the cheese, garlic and olive oil. And don’t forget the salt and pepper!

Now that I’ve had fresh nut-free basil, I’m definitely excited to make it again! But first, we’ve got to use up this batch.


The next day I cooked some boneless chicken thighs, simply with salt and pepper and a bit of Zhoug spices. Then sautéed some chopped shallot and garlic, added the pesto and some chopped sundried tomatoes. Later I tossed in the cooked chicken (cut into bite sized cubes) and cooked fusili. Added a bit of extra herbs and there was dinner. Wee Reader enjoyed it so much he brought the leftovers to preschool the next day – and ate it all up! (I have to admit having been worried that he wouldn’t like ‘green’ pasta)

I’m guessing the pesto can be frozen but for now it’s sitting in my fridge waiting for the next pasta day.

Do you have any other non-traditional nut-free pesto ideas? I’m wondering about making it with cilantro instead of basil. And remember seeing a recipe for red pepper/tomato pesto.






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Weekend Cooking: Corn Chowder!

It all started with David Lebovitz’s post on Fresh Corn Soup.

Or maybe it started with our Saturday evening barbecue and the eight ears of corn that went on the grill. The kids devoured two, I had one, our dinner guest had one. And then there were four.

Four became three when the kids shared one the next day at lunch.

Three remained three for several days while we pursued other, more exciting, meals.

Three ears of corn sitting on a shelf in the fridge.

It called out for something.

Then the post on corn soup.

Corn soup!

I wasn’t sure if the ‘smokiness’ of his recipe (adapted from The Beekman1802 Heirloom Vegetable Cookbook by Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell) would be welcomed by two little boys aged 16 months and 3. And I wanted it to be a bit heartier as it would be the main part of their lunch. So I went looking for another recipe. And Ina Garten’s Cheddar Corn Chowder popped up in my search.

So I had two tabs on my tablet open while I cooked.

Shucked the already grilled corn, and place the cobs in some water. Bring to boil and simmer for 20-30 minutes.

In the meantime, two slices of bacon, chopped, went into my saucepan to crisp. On hindsight, I should’ve used three.

Remove the bacon and let it rest on a paper towel.

Use the bacon fat to cook a chopped up onion or in my case, because I hadn’t any I chopped up some celery, and a couple of garlic cloves that have been finely chopped. Stir stir stir and cook for a few minutes.

Add two small potatoes, diced, skins on. Cook for a while then add the corn broth from earlier. I also added some chicken stock concentrate. Simmer until potatoes are cooked. Or in my case simmer for as long as I can, get the kids ready to run out to the nearby park for some fresh air and a change of scenery, turn the heat off, go to the park, play play play until it gets too hot and everyone’s tired out (in the hope that they will nap later!).



Return home, run into the house, turn the stove back on. Get everyone cleaned up and ready for lunch.

Pour in about 1/2 cup of whole milk or heavy cream (I used whole milk). Add the corn bits. Make sure it’s all heated through. Season with salt and pepper, a bit of paprika and a bit of cheddar if that’s your thing.

Top with previously crisped bacon.


Serve to hungry kids with some bread.

Verdict: Very good. Wee Reader asks for it again at dinner. That’s always a good sign.


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Weekend Cooking and Cook it Up: Black bean patties, hearth bread and pizza!



Trish’s Cook It Up!: A Cookbook Challenge  encourages us to use our cookbooks more. And I managed to do just that this week!




I owe this one to my mum who was flipping through the May issue of Cooking Light (we get it in exchange for airline miles that we will never use) and pointed out this recipe for black bean patties with a cilantro cream sauce.

We didn’t follow it exactly as we are the glance at the recipe, get the gist of it and adapt it to our tastes/pantry kind of people. I always thought that was how people cooked until I met my mother-in-law, who firmly sticks to recipes, measuring out sauces exactly.

The recipe calls for a can of black beans to be mashed, and a mixture of cooked onion and garlic and spices (it uses ground coriander, cumin, crushed red pepper, salt and pepper but we went with paprika and a mixed herb thing I had lying around, as well as some chopped up cilantro leaves and stems) and two eggs to be mixed together. Then shape into patties and cooked.

We added the onion mixture to the beans and a bit of egg. Then did the flour-egg-panko coating that we had already done with the pork chops then fried them.

The recipe also includes a ginger-cilantro cream but required sour cream which we didn’t have (we seldom have any sort of cream in the house). But the patties worked great with a squeeze of lemon and some fresh cilantro leaves!

I imagine that they would taste even more fabulous with a spicy salsa or a fruity one too – peach and avocado? Or mango and avocado? Or for a southeast Asian twist, achar, a Nonya style, very spicy pickle of cucumber, cabbage, pineapple and various other vegetables.









Now this one is cheating a bit. Because we make kong bah (or loh bah) once in a while. And it’s really easy so there’s no need to use a recipe, at least not for us. But there was a recipe for this (although they call it loh bah) in Jo Marion Seow’s Soya and Spice. 

But I figure that most of you reading this post will have no idea what I’m talking about so here it is. Stewed pork belly (we used what the Asian supermarket called pork shank – less fatty and a bit tougher than belly meat) or what we in Singapore know as kong bah. 

It has long been a favourite of mine, something I would request my late maternal grandmother to make for my birthday when I was growing up in Singapore. It is delectable with its soft tender fall-off-the-chopsticks meat, its soya sauce-based gravy with a hint of spices (star anise, cinnamon) and a bit of sugar. The crockpot makes it all too easy to cook this dish but many prefer to do it on the stove. Sometimes eggs are cooked together with the meat, but we aren’t fans of hardboiled eggs here so we do without. But my Mum wanted to add some dried mushrooms. And these soak up the gravy so well. Yum.

It’s best served with steamed buns or steamed rice.




I mostly turn to my cookbooks for baking recipes. And this Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum is one I’ve been slowly making my way through. I really like her very clear precise instructions as well as ways of shaping loaves, which are great for this beginner.

On Friday I made the Basic Hearth Bread. Bread always takes more advanced planning than I’m ready for! We were going out to Ardenwood Historic Farm in the morning for a picnic lunch so there wasn’t time in the morning to make the bread. So I made the sponge and the starter, popped it in the fridge after an hour and a half on the counter. We got back after 1pm. And it was only around 2 that I managed to get started again. This dough requires about 4 hours of rising – one hour here, shape it then another hour there, that kind of thing. In between all the shaping and rising I was attempting to: put the little ones to nap, feed them a snack, clean up all the picnic stuff, clean the floor, and… type this post!!! It’s sitting in its final rise while I’m typing this sentence. Also rising is my pizza dough that will be dinner.


And that pizza dough is TA DA!!! also from a cookbook.

Alas, it is not something new that I dared to experiment with. Instead, it is a quick pizza dough from Smitten Kitchen that I have talked about here before. It is quick, it is easy. It is half an hour of rising and then you get to rolling and topping. And Wee Reader gets to join in the fun. He, thankfully, is good at not making too much of a mess, but hasn’t quite figured out that it’s all about scattering the cheese and instead prefers to dump big handfuls over the sauce. His favourite topping? Broccoli. And cheese. He happily ate two big slices of pizza. And fast too. That’s a sign of a good dinner.

All in all, not a bad week in terms of cooking from cookbooks!




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Weekend Cooking: Tau Yu Bah (braised pork in soy sauce)






My freezer is full.

I guess I have Costco to thank for it!

We pick up sliced bread for sandwiches and toast, two huge loaves, so into the freezer goes one. Frozen chicken thighs (huge bag). Frozen tilapia (huge bag). Fresh pork chops (huge packet) which I divide up, clingwrap and freeze. Huge bag of frozen Korean dumplings (chicken and coriander). Everything. Is. Huge.

So my freezer. It is full. We’ve been wondering about buying another freezer (or a fridge?) to put in the garage. But at the very moment, I am trying my best to cook from my freezer!

Frozen pork leg = tau yu bah (or pork braised in soy sauce).

It’s usually cooked with hard boiled eggs and/or tofu, but this time, I did a plain pork one. And technically, it should be pork belly, but I thought I’d try it out with the pork leg that was already in the freezer.

Here’s a recipe from Food Canon.


With pork leg though, an hour of simmering on the stove didn’t result in tender meat. I grabbed the crockpot and popped the meat in for another hour and a half. And there it finally all came together. That slightly sweet, savoury gravy with a hint of the spices (star anise, clove, cinnamon) peeking through it, that fork-tender pork made me think of Singapore. Specifically of my late maternal grandmother, whom we would visit every Sunday evening and stay for dinner. She would always be found sitting on her stool in the kitchen when we arrived,  directing the domestic helper through the kitchen tasks. The kids would eat first, grabbing our food off the lazy susan on the table in the dining room, heading out to the front porch to sit on the plastic chairs and enjoy the cool evening breeze. The adults would come and check on us from time to time, but they mostly ate and chatted in the dining room. There would always be a soup of some sort, sometimes a steamed fish (or a fried fish), some kind of pork dish like tau yu bah or kong bah (stewed pork belly eaten with steamed buns, one of my favourite dishes), or chicken, and always a vegetable dish, sometimes cooked with tofu. For a while there was always fried chicken wings as that was the only thing one of my cousins would eat! And my grandmother made this yummy fried prawns dipped in batter that I would often request for my birthday meal. Fruits would always follow, eaten on the front porch. My grandfather would brew his tea and sip it with my aunts and uncles, while us kids slipped in and out of the house, watching some TV here, playing on the swing there, running around the house. Those were good times.





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Weekend Cooking: Pancakes!

My idea of a perfect breakfast: soft and creamy scrambled eggs, a couple of slices of the best prosciutto, freshly baked baguette slathered with good butter, and pancakes.

The husband prefers waffles. So do my parents. And Wee Reader. I’m a pancake lover in a waffle-friendly family.

Sure waffles are crispy and have fun little nooks and crannies for soaking up maple syrup or honey. And I can imagine all kinds of yummy things that would work in waffles (brownie waffles? Cheesy waffles? Bacon waffles? Bacon and cheese waffles? And mmm sweet potato waffles served with fried chicken!). But I’ll take a good pancake over a waffle any day.

What’s a good pancake? Light and fluffy. And not gigantic. I like smallish pancakes (are they called ‘hotcakes’? I’m never quite sure what a hot cake is. Enlighten me please!). But they shouldn’t be too airy – sometimes they remind me of styrofoam that way. It’s not always easy finding a good pancake when we’re out and about. Diners tend to make huge plate-sized pancakes but they can be a bit lethargic. I have had some fantastic ricotta pancakes somewhere, some macadamia pancakes in Singapore, and I recall some great pancakes in this cafe in Illinois. I’ve also been wanting to try those soufflé pancakes in a famous Berkeley diner but so does everyone as there’s always such a long wait, so I’ve not had the chance.

So I mostly resort to making my own pancakes at home.

I’ve experimented with various pancake recipes. But I always always come back to this one that I found on Stay At Stove Dad, where I’ve been a loyal lurker reader for a few years now. It has that extra step of whisking the egg whites, which some might find a bit more tedious, but it makes for nice and light pancakes!

I’ve adapted the recipe slightly (here’s the original)


  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 1/4 cups of milk
  • 2 eggs, whites separated
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Mix the dry ingredients together.  Beat the yolks in a separate bowl with the milk. Add the vanilla extract. Pour the milk and egg mixture into the dry ingredients. Mix until it’s just combined (there will be some lumps). Whisk the egg whites (I use a mixer) until they can just hold a peak. Fold the egg whites gently into the batter.

Melt some butter in your pan. Spoon a ladle’s worth of pancake batter into the hot pan, spread it out a bit (this is a bit of a thick batter). Cook as you would normally cook a pancake (if you haven’t made a pancake before, well, just watch for the bubbles, which sort of tell you that the underside is cooked, then flip over).

This batter makes enough to feed two adults and one 3-year-old with extras for breakfast the next day. I find that placing the pancakes on a wire rack helps prevent the bottoms from getting too soggy, especially if you’re keeping them for the next day. I let them cool, wrap them in foil and pop it in the fridge. Warm in the microwave and eat!

If you like, you could add fresh fruit or chocolate chips before flipping the pancakes. As the bubbles form, place a scant layer on the pancake, then flip over. It works better with thinly sliced fruit. We like banana pancakes.

This Saturday though I decided to try out these pancake moulds that my mum brought over from my family’s store in Singapore. Airplane and truck pancakes for Wee Reader. They were a little more fiddly than I was hoping for so the moulds weren’t the easiest things to make pancakes with. He immediately decided that the airplane pancakes were infinitely better. When I told him last night that he would get pancakes for breakfast on Sunday (he likes to discuss breakfast choices the night before), he emphasized: “not the truck pancakes”!




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Weekend Cooking: Oven-baked ribs and a quickie barbeque sauce that purists will laugh at

So we were at Costco the other day picking up the usual supplies like dishwasher detergent, milk, diapers, fruits (what would I do without Costco?). And the husband wanted scallops (which I wrote about here), but there were none to be found!

Then I thought, why not get some oxtail instead (I love love love oxtail stew – perhaps worthy of another post!).

But there was nary an oxtail in sight.

What’s up with that, Costco?

We already had some rib-eyes in the freezer (yup, also from Costco), so we were looking for something different.

Baby back ribs!

It was a hefty pack of ribs (three racks!) that was shoved into the cart and we dashed out of there before the crowds started surging in.

Now what to do with ribs?

We tried them once on the gas grill. Not really ideal. Too hard to control the temperature. And while they were wrapped in foil, they were a little too dry.

So it was off to the oven, after some hours of marinating in the fridge. I went with an Asian-style marinade, with fish sauce, oyster sauce soya sauce, sesame oil, and various other things I could find like some plum sauce, honey, ground coriander, then with white pepper, bay leaves star anise, pounded garlic and ginger scattered around. Didn’t really follow a recipe, just kept chucking stuff into the bowl and mixing it and tasting until it seemed ok.

Didn’t quite account for that much meat though, so I would up the salt and spices more the next time.

The ribs sat in the marinade for about 5-6 hours, although I think they could’ve done with an overnight marinade.

Then into a 350F oven, roasting pan covered with foil, for about 2 hours. I’ve read about cooking it at really low temps (200+ F?) for several hours, but didn’t quite have the time to do that!

The result: juicy and moist, nearly fall-off-the-bone ribs (and here I have to thank Costco for removing the membrane!), but with not quite enough taste.

What then?

Into a small saucepan went:

– about 1/2 cup of ketchup,
– some splashes red wine vinegar (the only vinegar at hand, other recipes use cider vinegar which might be better)
– about 1 1/2 tablespoons of brown sugar (to taste)
– a quick grinding of salt and black pepper
– a splash of fish sauce
– various spices around the kitchen like some smoked paprika, all-spice, cinnamon

Not really a typical BBQ sauce I know, I did warn you that it would be laughable! But it was tasty, with a nice tang, and took less than five minutes. And I would make it again, although maybe with a splash of hot sauce
(Serious Eats has a list of many more types of home-made BBQ sauce)

Serve with a baguette and some oven-roasted broccoli (toss with olive oil, salt and pepper and minced garlic, pop onto a lined cookie sheet and into the oven for I don’t know, ten minutes or until it’s a little brown and crispy).




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Weekend Cooking: Black Forest cake

We’ve tried many a Black Forest Cake here in the Bay Area. But they haven’t been quite satisfactory, declared the Black Forest Cake fan i.e. the husband. So for his birthday weekend, I decided to just go for it and make it myself. And thanks to two recipes online, here it is!


First get hold of some cherries – these Morello cherries were from Trader Joe’s.

Then make a chocolate cake! I used the cake recipe from Brown Eyed Baker. But decided that I needed an alternative recipe after that as I:

(i) didn’t want to use maraschino cherries – thus the tart Morello cherries above, which required some cooking with sugar (see below)

(ii) wanted to add a chocolate ganache – er, simply because one can never have too much chocolate, plus it was a birthday cake!

So I found this Black Forest Cake recipe from Home Cooking in Montana, which had everything I was looking for!


So with the jar of cherries, save some cherries for decoration, and pop the rest in a saucepan with a few tablespoons of the cherry liquid and a couple of tablespoons of sugar (depending on how tart your cherries are, and how sweet your tastebuds are) and about a tablespoon of cornstarch to thicken it. Simmer for a few minutes to thicken.

Meanwhile, in another saucepan, heat a pint of heavy cream until it’s about to boil, take it off the heat, and pour in about 10 ounces of semisweet chocolate chips. Stir until the chocolate melts. A whisk comes in handy here. Let it cool. I left it on the kitchen counter to cool, checking on it once in a while, whisking a little.

Then with a mixer, whisk a pint of heavy cream with some powdered sugar until stiff peaks form. If you’re not using this straightaway, I’d recommend chilling it.


Ok so your oven has shouted at you to turn it off and you’ve tested your cake with a skewer/toothpick and all that. And cooled it well.

So now you can slice your cake in half (if you, like me, only have one cake pan. Otherwise, you could’ve made two cakes).

Then lovingly slather a good amount of chocolate ganache over the top and sides. Top with the cooled cherries and syrup (you probably don’t need to pack it as much as I did). And some of that whipped heavy cream you did earlier.

Next, gently place your second slice of cake on top. Try not to smush things too much, as it’ll all come out at the sides like mine did.

And once again, plenty of chocolate ganache, the remaining whipped cream. And top with those reserved cherries.


Hopefully yours looks better than mine.


More importantly, it was absolutely delicious.

The birthday husband was thoroughly pleased. Black Forest is his favorite and I have been meaning to make it for a while, but was a little intimidated. Wee Reader surprisingly loved the cherries (I shouldn’t be surprised, he does like Japanese pickles). My mum enjoyed her slice and had a bit more. And I liked it so much I had some for breakfast.


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Weekend Cooking: Mastering the art of Soviet cooking by Anya von Bremzen



“Food was an abiding theme of Soviet political history, permeating every nook and cranny of our collective unconscious.”

“Food, as one academic has noted, defined how Russians endured the present, imagined the future, and connected to their past.”

And as it is for von Bremzen’s memoir of food and longing.

“Inevitably, a story about Soviet food is a chronicle of longing, of unrequited desire. So what happens when some of your most intense culinary memories involve foods you hadn’t actually tasted? Memories of imaginings, of received histories; feverish collective yearning produced by seventy years of geopolitical isolation and scarcity …”

She takes the reader from the 1910s and the last days of the czars, the 1930s and her mother’s childhood with Comrade Stalin keeping a watchful eye, the 1940s and the war, to her parents’ first meeting in 1958, when they were both queueing for something (“My parents met in a line, and their romance blossomed in yet another line, which I guess makes me the fruit of the Soviet defitsit (shortage) economy with its ubiquitous queues.” Then comes her birth in 1963, the year of one of the worst crop failures in post-Stalinist history. Then the 1970s, when she and her mother make it to America, and her First Supermarket Experience, in which she felt “entombed in the abundance” and she slowly began to realise that American food wasn’t exactly delicious. The 1980s and their visit to Russia. Then the 1990s, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, and research for her cookbook. The 21st century brings Putin’s Moscow of extravagance: “not for the fainthearted and shallow-pocketed”.

It is, as you can see, quite a read.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is very much the story of  von Bremzen and her family. And with food at its centerpiece.

And here I have to admit that I’ve never actually had real Russian food. The closest I’ve had is a kind of faux Russian restaurant, run by Hainanese-Singaporean-style Russian in Singapore. It’s a place called Shashlik and it was opened in the 1980s (and still looks like it belongs in the 1980s). There’s borscht on the menu, but there’s also baked Alaska, so something tells me it’s not exactly Russian. 😛

So whether you’re familiar with Russian food or not, this makes for a delectable read, a delve into Soviet history and its food so loaded with meaning. One telling moment is when she first steps into an American supermarket and realises that food, “now drained of its social power and magic” meant little to her if she couldn’t feel the envy of others, couldn’t parade it in front of those without, and didn’t have to queue for hours to get.

It is a book that reminds me to be grateful that I have never gone without, and that I do live in this land of abundance, with all kinds of treats and goodies from different countries just a short drive away. For instance, I had scrambled eggs and baguette at home for breakfast, take-away kabobs, pita bread and salad for lunch, followed by Taiwanese shaved snow for dessert. All in half a day.

In contrast, Von Bremzen tells of her mother, aged seven, having to join a hundreds-long queue for bread, only to realise that she has lost her kartochki or ration cards, a month’s worth of coupons, irreplaceable. And having to sell her father’s suits for millet instead. A time when those living in the cities foraged for birch buds, clover, tree bark. And a pair of galoshes would buy you five ounces of bread, and a grave cost four and a half pounds of bread and 500 rubles.

Von Bremzen’s writing style is conversational and engaging, her story and her family absorbing, if occasionally a little hard to swallow with its depictions of hunger and harshness.

In case you’re wondering, there is indeed a ‘cooking’ element in this memoir. Von Bremzen and her mother reconstructed “every decade of Soviet history – from the prequel 1910s to the postscript present day – through the prism of food. Together, we’d embark on a yearlong journey unlike any other: eating and cooking our way through decade after decade of Soviet life, using her kitchen and dining room as a time machine and an incubator of memories.” And the last pages of the book feature a recipe for each decade, such as Kulebiaka, or fish, rice and mushrooms in pastry; Chanakhi, a Georgian stew of lambs, herbs and vegetables; and Blini.

Anya von Bremzen is one of the most accomplished food writers of her generation: the winner of three James Beard awards; a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure magazine; and the author of five acclaimed cookbooks, among themThe New Spanish Table, The Greatest Dishes: Around the World in 80 Recipes, and Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook (coauthored by John Welchman). She also contributes regularly to Food & Wine and Saveur and has written for The New Yorker, Departures, and the Los Angeles Times. She divides her time between New York City and Istanbul.


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