February 2011 | KitchenTigress

Cereal Butter Prawns (I)

Melt some butter and, when it's bubbling nicely, grab a few sprigs of curry leaves and rip off the leaves (with style, of course). Toss 'em in the wok, together with a roughly chopped up cili padi. Stir vigorously, knocking the spatula against the wok now and then. (Not sure what the knocking is for but that's what chefs do. Maybe it's a man thing?)

Butter, curry leaves and cili padi are all ingredients with pretty strong flavours but they complement rather than overwhelm each other. Each stands its ground, yet works with the other two to create a killer combination loved by young and old alike.

The party of three is excellent as it is but why stop there? When the aroma of the curry leaves starts drifting round the kitchen, tip a good half cup of cereal into the sizzling butter (with a flourish please). A few more vigorous stirs and – voila! – there's a pile of golden sand in the wok. I know many people would happily eat this crunchy sandy mixture with a shovel! It's so good it makes even cardboard taste good. (Not that I've tried, of course. I'll stick to prawns fried in the shell, thank you very much.)

I'd always thought cereal prawns were made with oatmeal, so my first stab at the recipe was with some Quaker instant oats that had been sitting on the kitchen counter, unloved and untouched. When the oats were mixed with melted butter, all I got was a disgusting, soggy lump that tasted downright nasty. Into the bin it went, no hesitation at all, and the prawns were eaten sans cereal.

Note to self: (1) "麦片" means cereal flakes; that's why "麦片虾", in English, is cereal prawns; (2) oatmeal is commonly referred to as "麦片" (which isn't wrong since oat is a cereal) but, strictly speaking, it should be "燕麦片'; and (3) I need to improve my Chinese!

The second time round, after a bit of research, I bought a pack of Nestum All Family Cereal. This one, recommended by many cooks, worked like a charm. It was super fragrant and super crispy – a total success! There were smiling faces, finger licking, and nods of approval all round. YAY!
Did you know that Nestum cereal, made by Nestlé, is 67% wheat flour? The rest of the ingredients are rice flour, sugar, corn and various vitamins. So everyone who eats Nestum cereal, thinking it's good for his health because that's what the ads say, is actually eating enriched, baked flour. Except it's sold at almost four times the price of regular raw flour. Nestlé is really smart, eh? No wonder it's the biggest food company in the world.

13 August 2012 Update

How to make cereal butter prawns

Step-by-step guide

Prawns are deep-fried, then tossed with a cereal mix that's crispy, spicy and incredibly aromatic. The aroma comes from Nestum cereal, curry leaves, milk powder and butter.

cereal butter prawns

Cereal mix
  • ¾ cup Nestum cereal, original flavour
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1½ tsp sugar
  • 1½ tbsp milk powder

  • 8 medium size prawns, 300 g – trim, devein, wash, dry thoroughly
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ½ egg, beaten
  • 1½ tbsp plain flour

  • vegetable oil for deep-frying
  • 30 g unsalted butter
  • 1 bird's eye chilli, thinly sliced
  • 6-10 sprigs curry leaves – rinse, dry with paper towels, discard stalks
  1. Thoroughly stir cereal, salt, sugar and milk powder. Set aside.

  2. Sprinkle prawns with salt. Add egg and mix thoroughly. Sprinkle with flour and mix till coated. Deep-fry in just smoking oil over maximum heat possible till just cooked. Drain.
  3. Heat butter till bubbling and lightly brown. Add curry leaves and chilli. Fry over medium heat till fragrant.

  4. Reduce heat to low. Add cereal mix. Stir till lightly golden. Curry leaves should crisp up as excess moisture is absorbed by cereal.

  5. Add prawns and toss till well mixed, turning off heat as cereal turns fully golden brown. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Plate and serve.

Har Lok (Dry-Fried Prawns)

Har lok (干煎虾碌) is a classic Cantonese prawn dish with a slight western influence. Prawns in the shell are marinated with dark soya sauce, pan-fried, then tossed in a sauce. The simple sauce is made with tomato ketchup and Worcestershire sauce. There's lots of delicious umami flavour, and the aroma is irresistible.

Har lok was the prawn dish that ruled the scene before (relative) newbies like cereal prawns and butter prawns usurped its throne.

Back when every household cooked practically everyday and eating out was a rare occasion, har lok was the centrepiece for festive occasions.

It's fallen by the wayside a bit, which is not necessarily a bad thing because that makes room for new dishes. But let's not totally forget the Cantonese classic, shall we?

Strictly speaking, har lok shouldn't be made with whole prawns. It should be made with chopped up pieces because "har lok" means just that, prawn pieces. But the chopped up pieces would be really small unless I have huge – read expensive – prawns.
The scrooge in me forbids paying for big prawns, only to chop 'em up. So please excuse me for making har lok which isn't true to its name, with smaller, cheaper whole prawns.

Chopped up or not, har lok is delicious so long as the prawns are succulent and fragrant.

This is an easy recipe. Your har lok will be delicious so long as the prawns are fresh and not overcooked. Frying prawns in the shell gives them an irresistible aroma. You'll drool before the dish is done. And you'll lick the plate clean after it's done.

har lok
  • 16 prawns, 600 g – trim, devein, rinse, dry thoroughly with paper towels
  • ½ tbsp dark soya sauce
  • ½ tbsp salt
  • 2 tbsp tomato ketchup
  • 2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • ⅛ tsp white sesame oil

  1. Marinate prawns with dark soya sauce and salt for 15 minutes.

  2. In a bowl, stir Worcestershire sauce, tomato ketchup and sugar till thoroughly mixed. Set aside.

  3. In a wok or pan, fry prawns in very hot oil over high heat till 70-80% cooked, in batches if necessary to avoid overcrowding. Transfer to a plate.

  4. Drizzle 2 tbsp water around the pan/wok. Swirl to deglaze. Add Worcestershire sauce mixture. Reduce sauce till slightly thickened. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Add prawns and toss till well coated and fully cooked. Sprinkle with a few drops of white sesame oil. Plate and serve.

Pandan Leaf Chicken

Whenever I see pandan leaf chicken, I'd remember the lunch I had with my Australian boss in a Thai restaurant in Melbourne. That was a long time ago, when Australians probably weren't as familiar with Thai food as they are now.

One of the dishes we had was pandan leaf chicken and, as I chatted away, Boss did something that I still remember now. He picked up a piece of fried chicken, unwrapped it, and put the entire pandan leaf in his mouth – no chicken, just the stiff, wiry leaf!

My eyes widened in horror and my mind went, "WHOA! WHOA! YOU ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO DO THAT!"

I guess I should have warned him immediately but I was too taken aback. I was speechless for a second and then – when I was about to yell, "DON'T EAT THAT!!!" – I could see that the leaf was already halfway down his throat. "Oh sh¡t! He's gonna choke, and I don't know how to do the whatever manoeuver!"

As I panicked at the thought of my boss lying on the restaurant floor, dead, he stretched his neck like a pelican or seagull swallowing a big fish. And then, lo and behold, the leaf was down! Crikey! See the photo? A fried pandan leaf is stiff enough to stand upright but he managed to swallow it.

Glad that I didn't have to phone for an ambulance and there was someone to drive me back to the office, I breathed a sigh of relief and continued eating. I didn't say anything about the pandan leaf, and my boss thankfully didn't try to eat another piece.

Some years after the pandan leaf incident, I ordered some vine leaves wrapped with rice and whatnots whilst having lunch with a friend. Being the country bumpkin that I was (and still am), I had never had dolma before.

After the Greek dish arrived, I looked at the vine leaves and remembered my ex-boss' culinary faux pas. 'Hmm, am I supposed to eat these things that look like lotus leaves?' I wondered. I didn't want to embarrass myself in front of my new friend, so I unwrapped the leaves and gingerly pushed them aside.

"Aren't you going to eat those?" my friend asked.

Dang, those leaves were meant to be eaten! I was wrong but, hey, not as wrong as the man who ate a fried pandan leaf. "I don't like vine leaves," I said without batting an eyelid.

Source: Thai Food, David Thompson
(Recipe for 5 persons)

3 chicken legs, about 600 g skinned and boned
1 piece ginger, thumb size, wash, peel and chop roughly
2 coriander roots, wash and chop roughly
3 cloves garlic, peel and chop roughly
10 white peppercorns
5 tbsp palm sugar
3 tbsp red rice vinegar (or any sweet vinegar)
pinch of salt
½ cup kecap manis (thick, sweet soya sauce)
2 tbsp white sesame oil
2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
pinch of ground star anise, optional

large pinch of white sesame seeds, toasted
24 large pandan leaves, washed and dried
oil for deep-frying

1. Wash and dry chicken. Chop bite-size.

2. Blend or pound marinade ingredients till smooth. Use half to marinate chicken for at least 2 hours. There should be enough to almost cover the chicken. Chicken may be marinated overnight without being overseasoned.

3. Remaining marinade is the dipping sauce. Taste and, if necessary, dilute with 1 tbsp water. Sprinkle with white sesame seeds. Cover and set aside.

4. After the chicken is marinated, wrap each piece in a pandan leaf. Click here for a video on how to wrap the chicken. Don't cover the meat completely. Exposed parts will turn brown and fragrant after deep-frying.

5. Drain wrapped chicken for a few minutes to remove excess marinade. Deep-fry in just smoking oil over high heat till leaves are brown and meat just cooked, 2-3 minutes. Drain. Serve immediately with the sauce on the side.

Dry-Fried Bitter Gourd (干扁苦瓜)

Bitter gourds that are really bitter have hard, narrow ridges, and they're dark green. The less bitter ones have wide ridges, and they're softer, and more yellow.

The bitter gourds I cook are the big type that, over the years, have become less bitter. I used to sweat them before cooking but that's not necessary now.

I love frying the living daylights out of thinly sliced bitter gourd in a stonking hot wok. No water is adding during the cooking process. Water would cool down the wok.

The bitter gourd slices should be slightly charred. Ditto the egg. Ideally, the egg sticks to the wok a bit and burns. I scrape off the little bits of slightly burnt eggs which, along with garlic and caramelized light soya sauce, add to the fragrance from the charred bitter gourd.

(Recipe for 4 persons)

250 g bitter gourd (aka bitter melon), rinsed, trimmed and thinly sliced crosswise
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 big clove garlic, thinly sliced
1 tbsp light soya sauce
pinch of sugar
1 egg, beaten with ½ tsp light soya sauce

1. Spread out bitter gourd on a plate for 10-15 minutes so that it dries out a bit.

2. Heat wok (preferably not non-stick) till very hot. Add oil and heat till just smoking. Add garlic and stir to coat with oil. Do not brown. Add bitter gourd. Stir briefly, then spread out bitter gourd in the wok and let it fry, without stirring, till lightly brown. Turn over and fry till second side is also lightly brown. Drizzle with 1 tbsp light soya sauce and add pinch of sugar. Stir till soya sauce is absorbed. Drizzle with beaten egg. Wait a few seconds for the egg to turn slightly brown. Mix gently, scraping any egg that may be stuck to the wok.

3. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Plate and serve.

Salt-Grilled Salmon Head

I have a great solution for people who don't eat fish heads because they don't like the eyes staring at them.

Eat the eyes first, then there's nothing to stare with!

When I made my very helpful suggestion to an ang moh friend who didn't like ocular animal parts, he thought I was kidding.

So I promptly dug out one of the eyes that was causing him distress, and popped it in my mouth. It was so smooth and soft, it just glided down my throat.

"Mmmmm . . . oishi! Delicious! Do you want the other one?"

"Er . . . no, thanks!"

So I ate the left eye as well.

He had no idea what he was missing! And he still looked horrified, shrinking back in his chair, even though there were no more fish eyes staring at him. God knows why!

In case you don't know, the soft stuff much coveted by eye connoisseurs like myself are the muscles that attach the eye to the socket.

I eat the entire eyeball except for the white round thingy and sac. These are, I think, the lens and lens sac but I'm not 100% sure.

There isn't much meat on a salmon head but the little there is comprises the choicest parts of the entire fish. The "collar" – or front part of the neck if the fish had a neck – is full of fat that melts in the mouth. The cheeks just beneath the eyes are moist and smooth as silk. Then there're the fish lips charred to perfection.

"Meow meeoow miaaw miiaao . . ."

See? The resident fish experts agree with me!

This recipe is pretty idiot-proof because salmon heads don't overcook easily. Get your salmon head as dry as possible, and your grill as hot as possible.

salmon-grilled salmon head
  • ½ salmon head, cleaned and rinsed
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1 wedge lemon

  1. Dry fish head thoroughly with paper towels. If possible, refrigerate for a few hours, uncovered and placed on a rack, to help the fish head dry out. Or you could use a hair dryer!

  2. Preheat grill. Line grill tray with aluminium foil. Place grill rack in the tray.
  3. Sprinkle ¼ tsp salt on cut side of fish head. Grill till slightly charred with oven door ajar, 7-8 minutes. Fish fat should start bubbling and spitting after 5 minutes. Turn fish over. Sprinkle skin side with remaining ¼ tsp salt. Again, grill till slightly charred, 7-8 minutes. Serve immediately with wedge of lemon on the side.

Steamed Pork Ribs with Pickled Plums

Ribs again, after the last post on coffee pork ribs? Well, that's all I have in the fridge.

The last time I shopped was more than a week ago, before Chinese New Year. I tried to stock up last Sunday but there wasn't anything fresh at all.

The market and supermart were all clearing their leftovers from before the holidays. I'm guessing they'd be clearing their old stocks till this weekend, so I'm following suit. No one's fobbing off stale stuff on me!

After feasting on "heaty" goodies like steamboat and bak kwa, it's time to rebalance the body by eating more "cooling" stuff like fruits and vegetables.

For meat devotees who must eat an animal part or two everyday, pork ribs steamed with pickled plums is a good option. According to traditional Chinese medicine principles, frying or roasting meat makes it "heaty" but steaming doesn't. And it's even better if the steamed meat is paired with pickled plums, which is a strong "cooling agent".

Steamed pork ribs with pickled plums is good for whetting the appetite because it's a bit sour. Loss of appetite is one of the signs of an overly "heaty" body, together with bad breath and a furry tongue. If indiscriminate eating continues despite these warnings, there could be mouth ulcers, throat infections, acne and, in serious cases, nose bleeds.

Want to balance your body's ying and yang after indulging festive goodies? Have some steamed ribs, with a pickled plum or two thrown in. It's not necessary to abstain from all meat. Done the right way, you can have your meat and eat it too!

Source: All About Pork Ribs
(Recipe for 4 persons)

400 g pork prime ribs, chopped 2½ cm (1 inch) long, washed, and dried
1 red chilli, washed and roughly chopped
1 tbsp mashed pickled plums (水梅), without seeds
1 tbsp light soya sauce
1 tbsp plum paste (酸梅膏)
1 tbsp water
1½ tsp Shaoxing wine
1 tsp oil
½ tsp sugar
¼ tsp ground white pepper

½ tbsp potato flour
1 tbsp roughly chopped spring onions
. . . or Chinese parsley

1. In a deep plate, stir marinade ingredients till well combined. Add ribs and massage till marinade is absorbed. Set aside for 30 minutes, stirring once midway. Sprinkle with potato flour. Mix thoroughly.

2. Steam ribs over bubbling water till tender, about 1 hour. Sprinkle with spring onions or Chinese parsley. Serve, with steamed rice generously drizzled with the savory meat juices.

Coffee Pork Ribs

Coffee pork ribs is a Singaporean dish popularized by celebrity chef Sam Leong. It's meaty, savory coffee you can chew. Pork ribs are marinated, deep-fried, then tossed in a sticky coffee sauce. Pork and coffee make an unusual couple but their marriage works surprisingly well.

I love food that's slightly bitter, like  bitter gourd and bitter chocolate, and anything made with coffee such as coffee cheesecake and coffee candy.

Pork ribs deep-fried and coated with coffee?

Yes, please!

Making coffee pork ribs isn't difficult. The only tricky part is deep-frying the ribs so that the batter is crisp but the meat is still juicy. But it's nothing that can't be nailed after practising a few times.

The sauce for the ribs is made with instant coffee powder, Worcestershire sauce, maltose and sugar. The recipe is from "All About Pork Ribs". I like it because it has the right hint of coffee, and it doesn't use any unusual ingredients.

Like a lot of people, I have quite a jaded palette. So I'm always on the lookout off the (culinary) beaten path, hoping to find something exciting. That's why I love the taste of coffee in a savory meat dish. It's unusual, in a very good way.

This recipe has a good balance between ribs and coffee. You can taste the coffee, but it doesn't overwhelm the ribs.

coffee pork ribs
  • 500 g pork prime ribs, chopped about 3 cm long
  • 1 egg
  • 1½ tbsp oyster sauce
  • 1 tsp white sesame oil
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ½ tsp sugar
  • ¼ tsp baking soda
  • 3½ tbsp water

  • 3 tbsp plain flour
  • 3 tbsp potato flour
  • vegetable oil for deep-frying
  • 2 tbsp maltose
  • 2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 2 tsp instant coffee powder
  • 3 tbsp water

  1. Wash and dry ribs. Beat marinade ingredients till well combined. Massage ribs with marinade. Marinate for 2 hours, stirring once mid-way.

  2. Mix potato flour and plain flour. Give ribs and marinade a thorough stir. Transfer ribs (minus excess marinade) to flour mixture. Toss till ribs are well coated.

  3. Deep-fry ribs in moderately hot oil over medium heat till just cooked and lightly brown, about 5 minutes. Drain.

  4. Reheat oil till just smoking. Refry ribs till golden brown. Drain again.

  5. Heat sauce ingredients till thickened. Taste and if necessary adjust seasoning. Add ribs. Toss till well coated.

  6. Plate and serve.