Friday, May 20, 2011

How to brew chrysanthemum tea

Hello everybody,

Today's blog is a tutorial on how to brew chrysanthemum tea. Chrysanthemum tea is not just a simple, tasty beverage. It also has medicinal benefits, as documented in Ben Chao Gang Mu, or Compendium of Materia Medica written by Lee Shi Zhen during the Ming Dynasty.  Ben Chao Gang Mu is like the first traditional Chinese medicine encyclopedia.

A copy of Ben Chao Gang Mu I bought during a trip to Shanghai, China.  Topped with Chrysanthemum flowers for photography.
The page which shows "Ju" or "Ju Hua"- Chrysanthemum flowers.  Lee Shi Zhen notated two types of chrysanthemum- normal, cultivated chrysanthemum and wild chrysanthemum.  They share many characteristics but are different for the purpose of Chinese medicine.
Traditional medicine lives on in the modern world.  In my own family, it seems like my grandmother and mom have an herbal remedy for everything.  There is a soup or drink to cure every symptom.  As for chrysanthemum tea, it is used when we are feeling a little under the weather, sluggish or have a mild fever. And, I can attest, whether it is really due to concoctions of herbs or, perhaps equally, just the act of love and show of concern, the herbal remedy works pretty well for mild ailments.

That is why even when I moved away from home, I still try to brew some simple stuff for myself whenever I feel like I need it.  But, my chrysanthemum tea never tasted like my mom's.  Instead of tasting light with a hint of flowers, it was usually slightly bitter and a little sour.  What I lacked in the "technical know how" I supplemented with efforts in the forms of extra heat and brew length.  I would bring the water up to a rolling boil, toss a huge handful of flowers in the water and pretty much let the flowers simmer this way for at least an hour.  I figured if it didn't taste right, at least I could still get the most potent tea in return for my efforts.

On a recent trip back to Singapore, I complained of headache due to jetlag.  And, of course, my mom brought out her chrysanthemum stash and started brewing the tea.  Below I have noted how she brewed a perfect pot of tea. 

Here is the correct way:

1/2 Cup of dried chrysanthemum tea
A pot of 2L of water
Sugar (Optional, adjusted to personal taste)


1) Boil a full pot of hot water in a kettle, about 2L of water in all.

2) Measure 1/2 cup of chrysanthemum flowers.  Put the flowers in the pitcher.
A pitcher and half a cup of packed chrysanthemum flowers
3) Then, carefully add a little hot, boiling water, enough to partially cover the flowers.  Stir with a stirring rod and empty out this water.  This process gets rid of any surface impurities and keeps the flavor of the tea pure.  Let it soak for 3 minutes and swish the flowers around before emptying the pitcher.
Flowers soaking in hot water
4) Then, add the rest of the hot water to the "cleaned" flowers and let the tea soak for 5-6 minutes before serving.

5) Pour into a cup and serve with sugar (to taste).

Thank you for reading.

Chrysanthemum Tea Flowers:

Full English Version of Compendium Materia Medica by Li Shi Zhen:

Monday, May 16, 2011

Chrysanthemum Shaped Cookies

Pipped chrysanthemum shaped cookies
Hello everybody,

What is your favorite cookie?  Do you like it crispy or soft and chewy?  Does it have a dense, buttery texture, or is it a little lighter?  I don't really have a favorite cookie, but I do prefer my cookies to be light, thin and crispy.  In fact, a lot of times, when I find myself handing over money to buy cookies from the "professionals", it is for the type of cookies I just described because I could not bake them at home myself.  So when I experimented with recipes and came up with this successful lot, I knew I hit a winner.  Best of all, it is so simple!  Cookies served at fine bakeries can now be baked right at your home.


Makes 48 Cookies:

(Let all chilled ingredients come to room temperature first.):
2 Sticks Butter
3/4 Cups Sugar
1/2 Tsp Salt
1 Cup Salad Oil
3/4 Cups Water
4 Cups flour
1 Tsp Custard Powder
1 Tsp Vanilla Extract
1 jar maraschino cherries (Sliced in half)


Pre-heat oven to 350 F.

Cream the the butter and sugar together until the butter has turned into a paler shade.  This is an important step and will affect the final texture of the cookie.  If you don't cream the butter long enough, the sugar cannot incorporate into the butter and will remain grainy.  Over-cream the butter and the end result will be an oily dough.  For this recipe, I used a Kitchenaid stand mixer on speed setting 4, and beat it for 2-1/2 minutes.  (Just another helpful hint: The temperature of the butter is important.  The butter is ready to be creamed if the surface is slightly melted, and when you press your finger in it, it yields without resistance.)

After creaming the butter, add the oil, water and salt.  Start beating slowly and beat until you get a homogeneous mixture and see no more lumps.  At this point, stop beating. You might be surprised to find water and oil in addition to butter in a cookie recipe, but that is why the texture of the cookie is so different.

Next, add in flour and custard powder all at once and beat until combined.

Load the dough into a piping bag fitted with the chrysanthemum tip and pipe onto an a ungreased cookie sheet.  Don't worry about not greasing the pan or using parchment paper because the dough will release from the pan despite being soft and light.  A helpful hint on piping using this tip.  The piping tip is special.  Because of the way it is shaped, it is easy to mistakenly rest the feet directly on the sheet before piping. If you do that, you will end up with a messy cookie with a big hole in the center. To achieve better results, I suggest holding the pastry bag with the fitted tip close to the sheet, but not actually touching it. Give the bag a good gentle squeeze and lift the bag up swiftly to release the tip from the cookie.

This is the size of each cookie. 

A plate of pipped cookies, ready to be topped with cherries.
Add in a cherry in the middle.  It doesn't matter if the cookies do not look perfect when they are just piped, they will bake up perfectly. 

Pipped cookies with a cherry in the middle.
Bake in a 350 F oven for 15 minutes, then lower the heat to 250F and bake for an additional 5 minutes.

Golden brown cookies.  They really look like cute flower petals, don't they?
Remove from the oven and let the cookies cool on the pan for 15 minutes.  Store in an air tight container.  Consume within 3-4 days.
Have a great week ahead!


This special piping tip will be available at in June.  Perfect for summer baking!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Thai Green Curry with Chicken

The Thai Green Curry I cooked while at cooking school.  It sure was tasty.  :)
Chiang Mai Cooking School Part III:

"What is the secret recipe, you have to teach me!" Probably the most flattering response you get when you cook for others, am I right?  If you ask me that question, I'll gladly share all my tips and secrets with you, but don't you hate those who say, "Oh, it's a secret family recipe, and I can't share it..."?  What's the big deal?

We are always searching for that "secret" in cooking, as if there is some mysterious recipe, a magical ingredient, or some sprinkle of fairy dust that will take your cooking to the next level.  Might there be some tricks that you don't already know about?

In my experience cooking for my friends and family, I've found that very often, the "secret" to a successfully executed dish lies in one or two key steps in the recipe.  Once you master and understand these key concepts, you can always whip up a dish time and time again with the same consistency and success.  No, there is no secret sauce, no special ingredient, no magic to be found here.  Some recipe authors do a good job of writing down all the details and steps, and some let you fail a few times before you discover the trick yourself.  I certainly haven't suddenly become master chef Nobu just because I cook out of his gourmet cookbook.  He hasn't revealed all his tricks!  :)  So how do we gain mastery?  Of course, like all things in life, cooking is about attempt, failure, and re-attempt until you find a way.  And trust me, you will find your way.  Discovering the tricks to a dish via making mistakes is a rite of passage. There are no secrets.

Ok, so no more chasing secrets or begging for secret recipes. Thai Green Curry is the perfect example of how there is no secret recipe.  The ingredients are standard and the cooking method is basic. In fact, the curry paste is now so readily available that you don't even have to make it yourself anymore.  So what differentiates a perfectly cooked green curry from a mediocre one? The answer is this: rendering the coconut milk.  What?  Yes, rendering the coconut milk.  This small step brings out the natural oils in coconut milk and gives the green curry its body.  If this step is done correctly, your green curry will pretty much cook itself. 

Let me show you what I mean.

300g (1 1/2 cup, 10 oz) chicken breast- thinly sliced
250 ml (1 cup, 8 fl oz) of thick coconut milk- keep 30 ml (2 tablespoons aside to use as a garnish)
250 ml (1 cup, 8 fl oz) thin coconut milk (This is coconut diluted with a bit of water)
100g (4 tablespoons) green curry paste (See Resources)
3 Thai egg plants- cut into 1 cm (1/2 inch) pieces
40g (2 tablespoons) palm sugar - optional, and it is ok to substitue with dark brown sugar
30 ml (2 tablespoons) fish sauce
2 Kaffir lime leaves- torn into pieces, discard the stem (See Resources)
30g (1 cup, 1 oz) sweet basil leaves
1 big, green pepper, sliced
1 big, red chilli (optional)

1) The first step in Thai green curry is to render the coconut milk.  Coconut milk, like all milk, is rich in fats. By heating it in a wok and stir frying for 3-5 minutes on high, you will start to see the coconut oil separating out from the milk. Only then can you proceed to step 2.
When the coconut milk first hits the wok.

After about 2 minutes you can see bubbles forming and the fat almost coming out of the milk.

Fully rendered coconut milk. 
2) After rendering the coconut milk, add the green curry paste and fry for 1-2 minutes.

3) Once the paste show a little brown on the edges, add the chicken and cook until the outside of the chicken appears cooked.

4) Add the thin coconut milk and bring to a boil. 
5) Add the big and small egg plants.  Let it simmer for 4 minutes until the egg plants are slightly soft.
6) Next, add the palm sugar, fish sauce, kaffir lime leaves and half of the basil leaves.

7) Turn off the heat and serve garnished with the big green chillies, the big red chillies, the remaining basil leaves and the thick coconut milk.

8) Plate and serve hot!

I hope you enjoyed this three part series on Thai cooking.  Next week, we will get back to baking.  I can't wait to show you some of the new gadgets we have in our store for this summer cooking season!

I find Chiang Mai too pretty to express in a few pictures.  The people I met and the instructors I learned from all enriched my trip, and I felt a sense of peace the whole time I was there. Here is the final set of pictures from around Chiang Mai:
Visiting Wat Pra Singh .  It coincided with the first day of Song Kran (Thai new year).  Thai people usually visit the temple on this day to pray for the new year.
Monks getting ready for the Sankatan ceremony- Offerings of essential items to monks- In the storage containers, I spotted some medicine, drinks, snacks and dried noodles.  It is believed you give medicines away in order to receive good health for yourself and your family.

Note the sand on the ground. The locals will bring a handful of sand back to the temple on Song Kran because they believe it replaces the sand they track outside on visits to the temple throughout the year. The temple is such a sacred place that it is believed nothing should be taken away from it. Not even a grain of sand.
One of the celebrations of Song Kran is the throwing of water.  Thai people believe splashing each other with water washes away bad luck and sins. A lorry full of people having a wonderful time!
A friendly wave, and a bucket of ice cold water was tossed on me while I travelled in a tuk tuk. A note about water temperature, usually it is room temperature water, but some pranksters will put ice to chill the water before tossing it. They want to hear you scream! And oh yes, i screamed. Really fun!
Thanks for reading!  Have a great week ahead!

Green Curry Paste:

Kaffir Lime Leaves:

Thai egg plant:

Chiang Mai Cookery School

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Pad Thai-The real deal

A casually plated dish of Pad Thai.  Fresh off the wok.
 Cooking School in Chiang Mai- Part II

Hello everybody. Today we are going to cook Pad Thai, and the first ingredient we are going to add will be ketchup. Stop. I am just KIDDING! 

But seriously now, sometimes when I order Pad Thai at restaurants in the United States, I get some soft, messily fried tangled mess that is coated with a thick layer of ketchup.  At first, I couldn't understand why ketchup makes such a regular appearance in a traditional Thai dish.   While I understand and respect the element of personal preference of seasoning in cooking and that a chef can take a lot of creative license with ingredients, putting ketchup in Pad Thai is sort of like putting a piece of kiwi in sushi. It is inauthentic and doesn't add to the overall flavor of the piece.

So, why ketchup in Pad Thai?  Well, I suspect the reason is because one of the ingredients in Pad Thai is tamarind sauce.  Tamarind sauce can be perceived to be a rather exotic ingredient because it can be difficult to find in a mainstream grocery store.  Since tamarind sauce has a flavor that is best described as smokey and a little sour, ketchup may seem like a good substitute if no easy replacement for tamarind sauce can be found.  While that is certainly an acceptable substitution, it is important to note that ketchup is not only sour, it is sweet at the same time, with lots of umami flavor.  Whereas the tamarind flavors unite the flavors in pad thai, ketchup tends to dominate and becomes the lone, top flavor.  And the last thing we want to eat is a dish renamed as “ketchup sweet noodles." With online stores, today you can get tamarind paste delivered to your doorstep relatively economically (See Resource).

Real pad thai is easy to make, and the ingredients are humble and simple.  There are three rules when making pad thai: 1) Make sure the wok is hot. 2) Do not over soak the dried pad thai noodles.  3) Do not fry more than 1-2 portions at a time unless you want to end up with a mushy, gelled mess.   

Here is the pad thai I learned to cook from the Chiang Mai Cookery School:
Approximate amount of ingredients for 1 serving.
Ingredients (2-3 Servings):
10 oz dried pad thai noddles.  Soak it in water for about 10-15 minutes
3 tablespoons oil
1 tablespoon garlic
1 tablespoon dried shrimps
1 cup firm tofu, cut into tiny pieces
6 tablespoons chicken stock or water
2 eggs beaten
3 tablespoons of roasted peanuts
1/4 cup chopped chives
1 cup bean sprouts
2 limes

Seasoning Sauce
3 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons tamarind juice (To make tamarind juce, soak the seeds in hot water and then dilute the water)
*Note, there is NO KETCHUP!

1) Heat the wok on high for about 2 minutes.  To test the wok for appropriate "hotness", drop a few drops of water in the bare wok. If it sizzles immediately, the wok is hot enough.
2) Put the oil in the wok and fry the garlic, dried shrimps and tofu until the garlic turns golden brown. 
Note the hot, sizzling wok.
3) Immediately add the rice noodles.
Noodles added, after the ingredients have browned.
4) Keep on stir frying on the high heat. 
5) Next, add the chicken stock (or water) and stir fry until the noodles are soft.  Only when the noodles have become soft can we turn down the heat and add the sauce ingredients.
Added chicken stock, it is almost ready now!
6) Stir well to combine.
7) The next few steps should take no more than one minute in total to execute. Add the eggs and stir-fry until the eggs are cooked and well combined with the noodles.  Add the peanuts, chives and beansprouts.  Stir fry until combined.
8)Turn the heat off, garnish with lime or with more fresh chives.  Serve warm.  :)

In the meantime, enjoy these beautiful photographs from Thailand:
Rattan tools used to catch fish in the rice paddies.
Releasing of Sky Lanterns, or Khom Loi.  It is believed that the lanterns will float away all your worries.
A rice farmer, husking rice, the traditional way.
Rice husks and a water buffalo

Have a great week ahead everybody!


Tamarind Paste:

Chiang Mai Cookery School:
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