A Chutney for All Seasons

Parsi Tomato Chutney

My seasonal clock seems to be all messed up this year. Normally I don’t even wait for the first autumn leaf to hit the pavement before breaking out my Le Creuset and cranking up the oven. Things like cream, butter and cheese go from occasional indulgences to refrigerator staples, and salad relinquishes its starring role for supporting performances alongside soups, stews and roasts. Not this year. To date I’ve bought one winter squash, have made exactly nothing with mushrooms, potatoes or pears, and haven’t so much as shown a dust-rag to my poor Le Creuset. For crying out loud, I haven’t even had a cup of hot chocolate! Instead we’re still eating things like this, my fridge is full of eggplants and zucchini, and I’m posting recipes a week before November that call for multiple pounds of fresh tomatoes. What on earth is wrong with me?

The easy answer would be our summer travels. Not only did it cause me to miss out on one of the most important food months in the northern European seasonal calendar—which correspondingly pushed my whole eating calendar out of whack—but it got me so hooked on the fresh, bright flavors of the Orient that even now that the weather here has taken a turn towards the Arctic I can’t stop filling my shopping cart with warm-climate imports instead of what’s currently in season here.

In reality, though, I think the reason probably has more to do with what lies ahead than behind. The fact is that I’m simply not ready to face winter again. I was telling Manuel yesterday that life in Germany seems to have two modes: dealing with winter or dreading it. That blissful in-between time of endless blue skies and soft, golden evenings which should be a northern climate’s reward for suffering through the bleaker months just didn’t last long enough this year. By my count there were two good months this summer, one of which we weren’t even here for (and yes, we had plenty of heat in Asia, but it wasn’t exactly weather conducive to enjoying the outdoors!), and that’s certainly not long enough to erase the sting of seven months of misery. I feel like I spent so much time longing for summer and planning all the ways I would enjoy it that now that it’s over—and most of those plans never made it off the shelf—I’m in a kind of denial. Enough denial, it seems, to forsake many of the foods I spend all year looking forward to. Or, at least, enough to postpone enjoying them for a bit longer.

You don’t need to find yourself in seasonal denial to make this chutney, though. In fact, this might just be the perfect time to make it. You see, while for most tomato recipes you want the heavy, sweet specimens of summer, for this one those would be a little wasted. That’s not to say you’d want the utterly flavorless winter tomatoes here, but the ones you find at this time of the year are sort of in between, not worth rhapsodizing over but definitely capable of showing some spunk when left on a low flame for a few hours to mingle with some garlic, ginger and spices. Of course if you still have good tomatoes by all means use them; for those of us that don’t live in a magical sun-kissed fairyland, however, whatever can be dredged up at the supermarket will be more than adequate.

Actually it’ll be nothing short of amazing, as everything I’ve ever subjected to this recipe has been. I’m generally pretty picky about my chutneys, particularly those in the sweet, cooked genre (as opposed to any of the myriad herb/chile/nut/coconut concoctions that are blended fresh); for example, there’s nothing I hate more than so-called ‘chutneys’ that are actually lightly-spiced fruit jams interrupted by a few slivers of rubbery, barely-cooked onion. Or in other words, most of the commercial chutneys I’ve ever bought. This one, though, is a different beast entirely. It comes from one of my favorite Indian cookbooks—make that one of my favorite cookbooks of any genre—My Bombay Kitchen by Niloufer Ichaporia King (from which this incredible curry also comes), and it has become my go-to recipe whenever I feel like bottling my own sweet-spicy-sour taste of the subcontinent. Not only does it have no rubbery pieces of onion, it requires very little in the way of exotica, which means that even those who don’t habitually dip their toes into Indian-food waters will be able to whip up a batch without needing to invest in a lot of esoteric ingredients. The spicing, nonetheless, is perfect: a tongue-titillating dance of sweet, sour, salty and hot discreet enough to harmonize with non-Indian flavors but complex enough to stand up on its own. In previous years I’ve made this chutney with apples and plums, and this year I finally gave it a try with tomatoes, which is what the recipe is actually written for. It’s been equally stellar with all of them, but the tomato version is perhaps the most versatile: so far I’ve enjoyed it smeared on all manner of sandwiches (try it on a BLT with avocado… drool!), layered with cheese and crackers for a snack, dolloped generously on takeout falafel, and mixed with a little mayo and sour cream for an addictive dip. And of course it goes without saying that a spoonful would enliven any plate of rice and curry under the sun.

It also adds a fantastic kick to, ahem, tuna and chicken salads. I imagine it would dress up a big chunk of roast meat like nobody’s business too, but if you want hard evidence on that I’m afraid you’ll have to wait a few more weeks for my report—or simply find out for yourself.

Parsi Tomato Chutney

Although this is called tomato chutney, it’s actually a recipe template that can be used with all kinds of seasonal fruit. I’ve done both apples and plums this way, but you could also try peaches, apricots, pears, quinces, cherries… Just make sure to tweak the seasoning after cooking so you have a good balance of sweet, sour, salty and hot. And here’s a tip: if you can’t face slicing all that ginger and garlic by hand, just throw them into a food processor (peeled, of course, and in the case of the ginger sliced into coins) and blitz them to a medium-fine chop. It won’t look quite as pretty, but it’ll taste just as good.
Source: slightly adapted from My Bombay Kitchen by Niloufer Ichaporia King
Makes: about 1 1/2 quarts/liters; recipe can easily be doubled

3 pounds (1.5kg) ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped (or pitted, chopped plums or peaches, or peeled, cored and diced apples, pears, quinces, etc.)
1/2 cup finely-julienned peeled ginger (about one 2.5-inch/6-cm-long piece)
1/2 cup thinly-sliced garlic (about one large head)
1 1/2 cups (375ml) cane, malt or cider vinegar
1/2 to 1 cup (75-150g) raisins (optional)
2 cups (400g) turbinado/raw sugar, or half light brown and half white
1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons cayenne pepper or hot ground chile (or to taste)
1 small cinnamon stick
4 whole cloves
1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons salt
grated peel of 1 organic orange (optional)

First, open a few windows (you’ll soon see why). Place all the ingredients except the orange peel (start with the smaller amounts given) in a heavy nonreactive pot and bring to a boil, stirring so everything gets well combined. Lower the heat and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until the chutney reaches the consistency of a soft jam. This will probably take at least 2 hours; you can speed things up by increasing the heat, but then you’ll need to remember to stir much more frequently. Particularly once it starts getting thick it can burn in a flash.

Adjust the balance of sugar, salt and vinegar while the chutney is still warm. Add the orange peel if you want it. Add more cayenne if you’d like it hotter. Preferably let it sit out for a day to let the flavors meld and then check the seasonings again. As Niloufer explains it, you want a taste of this chutney to “light up your mouth”; I like to think of it as a wrestling match between sweet, sour, salty and hot.

To bottle for shelf-storage, bring the chutney back to a rolling boil for 2 minutes, then proceed with your favorite canning method. Otherwise, it will keep a good few weeks in the fridge (particularly if you’ve used the full amount of cayenne!).

Singapore Fling, part II

My apologies for the delay! I know you’ve been sitting on the edge of your seats waiting for this: the top ten tempted-me-to-apply-for-gastromonic-asylum, still-haunting-my-every-waking-minute, would-gladly-give-my-firstborn-in-exchange-for-a-regular-supply-of-them eats in Singapore. Please enjoy on a full stomach only. I can’t take responsibility for what might happen otherwise.

p.s. You can see part I here.
p.p.s. How unfair is it that one tiny country gets all this great food?

10. Kaya Toast and Half-Boiled Eggs

If you thought breakfasting in Asia was all about savory noodles, rice and soups, think again. Singapore, in fact, is home to one of the world’s great sweet breakfasts: kaya toast, a combination of thin slices of light, crisp bread (charcoal-grilled, if you’re lucky), generous shavings of cold, salted butter and a thick smear of kaya, a dulce de leche-type spread made with coconut milk, eggs and pandan leaf. Now I certainly had no problem packing away the kaya toast straight, but when I tried it paired with its traditional accompaniment—two half-boiled eggs doused in black soy sauce—I discovered a whole new level of deliciousness. Admittedly the eggs do take a little getting used to; they’re cooked so briefly the whites have only started to congeal, and the whole thing is decidedly more runny than firm. If you think of them less as a side of eggs and more as a silky, salty, eggy dip for the sweet toast, though, you should, like me, find your undercooked-egg qualms evaporate in the morning sun. Kaya toast is available at kopitiams (coffee shops) around the island, but for nearly sixty years the standard-bearer has been Yun Ka, a family-owned business that grew from a single cart into an island-wide chain, and now extends, I see now on their website, to several other countries as well. For atmosphere you can’t be their original location in Chinatown, with its old-school wooden tables and the hilarious vintage posters gracing the walls.

9. Chilli Crab

Is there any dish more synonymous with Singapore than Chili Crab? A relatively recent invention (apparently it was first cooked in 1950) this Malay-Chinese dish is a delicious melange of local mud crabs stir-fried in a thick red sauce. Although it’s called chilli crab, the sauce is not really spicy at all, but rather sweet, tangy and eggy. If I had to sum up the chilli crab experience in one word, I’d cheat and use two: finger-licking. That is, finger-licking good, but also finger-licking messy. Let’s just say there is no elegant way to eat chilli crab. Your face, forearms, clothing and neighbors will all wear copious amounts of crabmeat and sauce by the end of the meal, but don’t worry—everyone else’s will too. You can practice a little damage control with some of the Chinese mantou bread that’s traditionally served alongside; fluffy and soft, it acts as a good sponge to soak up sauce on your plate as well as various parts of your anatomy. Long Beach seafood restaurant on Dempsey Hill does a particularly memorable and splatter-worthy version.

8. Blue Ginger

We ate a lot of Nyonya/Peranakan food in Singapore and Malaysia, so much so that we were joking about how many years might pass before we’d actively crave it again. Then we had lunch at Blue Ginger, and fell in love with Nyonya food all over again. From the kueh pie tee (pastry cups filled with turnips and shrimp) to the roasted duck salad to the sambal sotong (chili-braised squid), beef rendang (dry, spice-laden stew), and ikan masak assam (fish stew with tamarind), everything here was absolutely stunning, as was the ambience inside the beautifully-appointed colonial shophouse—a refreshing old-world contrast to Singapore’s sleek, modern addresses. For a single meal that encompasses the best Nyonya cuisine has to offer, Blue Ginger has my vote.

7. Laksa Lemak

If chili crab is the most famous Singaporean dish, Laksa Lemak must surely be next in line. I’ve been a fan of this coconutty seafood and rice noodle soup for longer than I can remember, but having been to Singapore now I consider myself a connoisseur. Apart from the standard laksa lemak (also called nyonya laksa), Singapore boasts a version of the soup called Katong laksa, called after the Katong neighborhood in which it was invented. The main difference between the two is eatability; instead of requiring chopsticks and a spoon as regular laksa does (which results in a few too many splashes and chin-dribbles for my taste), the noodles here have been cut into bite-sized pieces so all you need is a spoon and a hearty appetite. Spicy, rich and prawny, we savored an amazing bowl at the justly-popular 328 Katong Laksa on East Coast Road. Another very good laksa we stumbled on quite by accident at the Bukit Timah Plaza in a little Nyonya kiosk on the second floor; apparently it’s one of the most lauded non-Katong laksas around town.

6. Cookery Magic

Although it probably looks like all we did in Singapore was eat, we actually did other things too – like cook. For instance we cooked Malay food in the beautiful colonial home of Ruqxana Vasanwala, a Singaporean of Indian descent. A former engineer, Ruqxana is a self-taught cook who gave up her day job ten years ago to teach cooking full-time, and her passion for the subject is evident in the volumes she knows about Asian cuisines. Depending on the day, you’ll find her teaching classes on Indian, Malay, Nyonya, Chinese, Thai, Indonesian and Cambodian as well as Singaporean food, and she’s constantly adding new dishes and cuisines to her repertoire. Twice a day a small group of students gathers in her kitchen (actually she has two, one indoor and one outdoor for the stinky stuff—how clever is that?) to prepare a menu of three to four items, and after cooking everyone sits down to a meal together. In our case that was the most delicious beef rendang I’ve yet eaten, as well as a rich prawn and vegetable stew called sayur lodeh with spicy sambal belacan. Apart from learning the recipes, we learned a lot about preparing local ingredients—how to toast belecan, for example, and how to get all the flavor of a mortar-pounded rempeh without all the work (maybe I’ll share her secret sometime!).

5. Straits Kitchen

I never thought I would live to see the day I’d recommend a buffet to you. Buffets are, as a general rule, not my favorite way to eat; quality is usually sacrificed for quantity, and, well, there’s a ‘must get my money’s worth’ mentality that breaks down even the hardiest of willpowers (guilty!). That said, the meal we had at Straits Kitchen was worth every second of the indigestion I caused myself there by eating enough for three. Housed in the swanky Grand Hyatt hotel, this is the place to go if you want a crash course in local cuisine. The idea here is that a wide selection of hawker food is available in a non-hawker setting; instead of braving a potentially confusing, hot and chaotic hawker center, you can come here instead and in air-conditioned comfort and for a single price help yourself to a wide array of dishes that are every bit as good, if not better, than what you’ll find on hawker menus. There’s everything from Hainanese chicken rice, chili crab and laksa to char kway teow, gado-gado and freshly-made popiah to some of the best Indian food in Singapore. For dessert you can indulge in everything from Nyonya kueh (small rice and tapioca-based sweets) to homemade ice creams to fresh fruit (they have a bottomless bowl of mangosteens!) to my favorite, made-to-order cendol, where you can, if you’re so inclined, special-order one without beans—though be prepared for a few funny looks. The only problem is that everything is so good, and there is just too much to try. Okay, and it’s admittedly a little pricey, but if you’re looking for a way to familiarize yourself with a lot of Singapore’s signature foods quickly and painlessly, I can’t recommend Straits Kitchen highly enough. Just make sure to skip lunch beforehand.

4. Wild Rocket

Willin Low was a lawyer before he figured out what he was really meant to do: cook. He discovered his love of cooking as a homesick student living in England, and later indulged his growing passion by moonlighting as a private chef on weekends. Eventually he decided to make the switch to food entirely, and seven years later he’s the owner of a mini-empire of eateries including his flagship restaurant Wild Rocket, where we enjoyed a magnificent meal. Willin’s food is self-described as ‘Western food with a local twist’, which means he takes food from places like North America and Europe and gives them an Asian makeover. It works stunningly well. Apart from his famous burgers (which many consider to be the best in Singapore), his specialty is pasta, something he learned not in Italy—he’s never been—but at his first restaurant job in one of Singapore’s most acclaimed Italian eateries. We had three pasta courses as part of our tasting menu and all were exquisite; his Asian-influenced bolognese, a deeply savory meat sauce served with handmade rice noodles, was hands-down the best meat-sauced pasta I’ve ever eaten. I also loved his take on Hainanese chicken rice, featuring a boned chicken wing stuffed with fragrant ginger-chili rice, and his velvety cendol pannacotta for dessert. And then there’s the man himself: as if his raw talent weren’t enough, Willin himself is just about one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met, humble, charming, hospitable and obviously very much in love with what he does. Lucky for everyone, he made the right career choice.

3. 2am Dessert Bar

Janice Wong is a genius. That’s the only conclusion I can come to after tasting four of her creations at her desserts-only restaurant in Holland Village. Admittedly, I walked in there without much in the way of expectation, thinking okay, I like dessert as much as the next person, but isn’t a whole restaurant devoted to them overkill? Silly me. At 2am, pastry chef Janice—who has put in time at the likes of Per Se, WD-50, Aquavit and Alinea—has done with sweet things what Monet did with primary-color pigments, or Beethoven did with noise. She’s created art. Now, if you walk into 2am expecting to be able to order a coffee and a piece of chocolate cake and do the day’s crossword, you’ll find yourself in the wrong place. The sweets on offer here are of a more envelope-pushing nature, and the dim, minimalist space is designed for you to focus all your attention on the impressionistic, deconstructed plates in front of you. And what will you find on those plates? A series of elements that conform to a theme, be it a flavor, color or ingredient. Or sometimes none of these; she’s also been known to base a dessert on a favorite painting. Among the desserts we tasted was one called ‘Purple’ which consisted of purple potato puree, blackberry parfait, fruits of the forest sorbet and lavender marshmallows. Although it sounds a little bit odd, it was the perfect blend of sweet, creamy, fruity and sour. Then there was ‘Alpaco Chili Chocolate’, spicy aerated chili-chocolate honeycomb flanked by toast-flavored ice cream, white-chocolate-covered puffed rice and crunchy chocolate ‘soil’. My favorite, though, was ‘Popcorn’, a juxtaposition of sweet and salty popcorn-infused parfait, passionfruit sorbet, cherry gel, dill flowers and popcorn powder. There was a lot going on here—sweet, salty, fruity, herbal—but it all sang in perfect harmony. The other interesting aspect of 2am is that Janice’s business partner Richard Cervantes is a sommelier, and you’re encouraged to let him pair your desserts with appropriate wines. From a light, crisp Otago pinot gris to a raisiny Pedro Ximenez sherry, I thought his pairings were spot-on, so much so that it made me think I should give more thought to dessert-drink pairings at my own dinners. Not to mention, a lot more thought to the desserts themselves.

2. Hawker Centers

From high-end to low-end, there’s a lot of great food in Singapore. But nowhere is it so concentrated, and so accessible, as in Singapore’s hawker centers. I love these places so much I want to export a few to Europe. They’re nothing short of temples to gastronomy, yet at the same time they’re nothing exclusive or rare; in fact they’re part of the fabric of everyday life for most Singaporeans. Basically, what you get at hawker centers is a wide variety of street food, or what used to be street food before Singapore pushed it all indoors in order to better control hygiene. That’s fine by me; I’m all for hygiene, and this means everything is conveniently in one spot. The centers themselves can be large or small, specialized in a certain type of cuisine or offering a bit of everything; the common denominator is that there are multiple stalls, each stall offers a limited number of items at very reasonable prices, and you make a meal by picking and choosing dishes from as many different stalls as you want. I hope Singaporeans realize how lucky they are to have these. Imagine this: you come home late and nobody feels like cooking, so what do you do? Head to the nearest hawker center. Have such picky kids/partner/friends that nobody can ever agree on what to eat? Hawker center it is. Discover your bank account is as empty as your belly? Hawker center to the rescue! Honestly, I don’t know why anyone in Singapore would ever cook. Hmm, maybe it’s a good thing I don’t have one nearby.

1. Iggy’s

Sigh… Have you ever had a meal that was so perfect you wondered how you’d ever be content with ‘regular’ food again? That was how I felt walking out of Iggy’s, one of Asia’s (and the world’s) best restaurants according to any list you can dig up. The thing is, fine dining and I are not the best of friends; I can appreciate the artistry and imagination that goes into this kind of food, and intellectually it can be a fascinating experience, but I’m rarely moved to superlatives (or tears) by a parade of mini-plates of deconstructed gastronomic novelty. Dinner at Iggy’s was something else, though. Every plate put before us was such a masterpiece of perfectly balanced tastes, textures and temperatures, and all the ingredients had been so perfectly chosen, prepared and cooked, that halfway through the meal I found myself so focused on the pleasure of eating that I felt like I’d entered a kind of trance. We had nine courses in total, and of those several—including a 12-hour slow-cooked pork belly with dehydrated parma ham, kalamansi lime sauce and confit onions on a bed of peanut barley, and a stunning Thai-curryesque dessert of coconut sorbet, butternut squash puree, kaffir lime cream and micro coriander—are still so razor-sharp in my memory I can almost still taste them. Apart from that there was a butter-soft short rib of Kobe beef with smoked yogurt and roasted potato, a southern bluefin Niçoise with quail egg, olive puree and truffle oil, and an unctuous slow-poached egg with mashed potato, shaved truffle and bits of crispy chicken skin. Iggy himself (aka Ignatius Chan) came out to meet us halfway through the meal, bubbling with enthusiasm about a trip to Japan he had just returned from. Generous and jovial, he suddenly grew intense when I asked him if he had any plans to expand his restaurant business either inside or outside Singapore. “No, definitely not,” he told us solemnly. “Quality is everything to me, and only by staying small will I be able to maintain the standards I want.” While I was secretly hoping he’d say “actually I’m planning to open a branch just down the street from you”, I guess it’s better this way. Not only will the food stay top-notch, it gives me another reason to go back to Singapore soon…as if I needed one.

A gargantuan thank-you to Aun and Dennis at Ate for putting together such an awesome itinerary for us (make that über-awesome!), and Danny and the STB for taking such good care of us around town. Parts of this itinerary were hosted by the Singapore Tourist Board.