AGAR AGAR RECIPES

Agar-agar is actually a type of seaweed. You can buy it in powder form or in seaweed strips. I usually use powdered agar for convenience and we use a lot of agar-agar in Southeast Asia for desserts.

However, I have recently discovered that you can use agar-agar strips in salads, just like seaweed. This is something new to me because agar has always been used for making desserts. Apparently in Southern China and Taiwan, agar strips in salad is quite a common appetizer. After all, it is a type of seaweed.

So here it is, tried and tested, my agar seaweed salad.

Agar Seaweed Salad

Ingredients

  • agar-agar strips, soaked in water
  • carrots
  • cucumber
  • jicama
  • coriander

Dressing:

  • garlic, chopped
  • fresh chillies or chilli powder
  • sesame seeds
  • 2-3 tbsp hot oil
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp oyster sauce
  • 1 tbsp black vinegar
  • salt and sugar, to taste

The agar strips gives a crunchy and refreshing texture to salads. It is almost like glass noodles, but crunchy. And since it is neutral in taste, the agar-agar does not alter the salad taste in any way.

Method

1) Cut agar-agar into 2-3 inch strips and soak in water for about an hour or so. Let it absorb water to plump up.

2) Put some chopped garlic, chilies, and sesame seed in a bowl. Heat 2-3 tbsp of hot cooking oil and pour it directly into this mixture. Add some soy sauce, oyster sauce, vinegar and a little salt and sugar to taste. Let the dressing cool.

3) Cut some jicama, carrots, cucumber and coriander into strips. Mix the soaked agar-agar strips together and add the salad dressing.

My Agar Easter Eggs

Agar-agar pudding is so easy to make and super refreshing for the tropical weather. Compared with gelatine, agar-agar can set at warm temperatures of 35-45 degrees Celcius, making it perfect for tropical weather. Plus, it only takes a few minutes to solidify, unlike gelatine which requires chilling at low temperatures over a longer period of time. So this year I decided to use the agar-agar pudding recipe to make agar Easter eggs. Please refer to my video on Agar Easter Eggs for further instructions.

I use the blue pea flower moss pudding recipe to make blue marbled eggs. Moss pudding is a popular agar-agar pudding recipe in Indonesia. This recipe uses eggs in the agar mixture. When boiled, the egg separates from the mixture to form lumps of protein, creating a marbled effect against the blue liquid.

Blue Marble Eggs (makes about 12-15 egg shells):

  • 3.5 tsp agar agar powder
  • 100g sugar 125ml coconut milk
  • 550ml water
  • 100ml blue pea flower water (about 20 flowers)
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Tips:

  • the more blue pea flower you use, the darker the blue colour
  • keep stirring the mixture when you start to boil it. This is to prevent the eggs from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Stop stirring after 2-3 minutes, when you start to see the egg proteins form. Leave it to boil on its own. Too much stirring can cause the egg solids to turn into really small pieces, losing the marble layers.

The other Easter egg agar-agar recipe I created is golden osmanthus eggs using osmanthus flowers. It’s basically making an agar-agar and osmanthus tea mixture and getting it to set. The trick is getting the flowers spread out over the egg instead of all clumping at the bottom. I do this by letting the agar mixture set in 2 layers. Since the osmanthus flowers sink to the bottom, letting the first layer set before pouring the next layer gives you another flower layer somewhere in the middle. It takes about 15 minutes for the agar to set. So experiment by pouring in different amounts of flowers and layers to get the effect you want.

Golden Osmanthus Eggs (makes about 6 egg shells):

  • 350ml water
  • 1 tsp agar agar powder
  • 3 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tsp dried osmanthus flowers

Tips:

  • while waiting for the agar in your mould to set, make sure your remaining agar mixture is kept warm. Put it over a hot water bath or keep it somewhere warm. If it cools down too rapidly, it will set
  • you can set the agar in 3 layers if you want to spread out the flowers even more


BLACK SESAME PUDDING

Have you ever seen a sesame plant? I never had any idea how sesame seeds come about until I went to the village of Wuyuan in Jiangxi province, China. Wuyuan is hailed as the most beautiful village in China and I have gone to witness first hand the pretty landscapes that were much talked about.

As I walked along the ancient town, I noticed there were stalks of paddy or wheat looking grains being dried under the sun. I asked one of the village ladies what those were and she told me that those are black sesame plants. The sesame seeds are inside the pods. So they dry them under the sun, then remove the black sesame seeds from the pods.

My mother and I were pretty amazed by this random discovery. We have always heard this myth about black sesame being dyed black from white sesame seeds. Witnessing this first hand made us sigh in relief. It is safe to eat black sesame! It is not made with artificial black colouring! Black sesame plants actually exists.

I love black sesame desserts. So I can now rest assured as I make my dessert that they are natural and healthy. Below is my black sesame pudding recipe that you can whip up in just 5 minutes.


Braised pomelo skin

My hometown Ipoh produces a lot of pomelos. Big, fat, juicy pomelos. We eat the flesh as it is or use them in salads. But the skin is usually tossed out. Sometimes my mother collects the pomelo peels and dries them under the sun. She uses it as a mosquito repellent by burning it.  Smoke from the dried pomelo peels will drive mosquitoes away. 

Pomelo peels have a pleasantly strong, citrus scent. Using them to smoke out mosquitoes seems like a waste of good ingredient. I remember my grandmother used to talk about how delicious braised pomelo peels are but it is a very complicated process. My parents used to rave about this braised pomelo peel dish too but nobody at home has ever made it before. So I did some research on pomelo peel and read up about this ancient Chinese recipe that is slowly disappearing— braised pomelo pith. 

I found 2 references to be particularly useful:

Christine Ho’s Braised Pomelo Pith recipe (https://www.christinesrecipes.com/2013/10/braised-pomelo-pith.html) is simple, straightforward and adapted to our modern lifestyle.

Hong Kong cooking show Grandpa’s Kitchen 阿爷厨房 (https://youtu.be/s5L5Zl3faJw) presents a very traditional way of cooking pomelo skin that is intriguing yet challenging.

I decided to take on the traditional recipe challenge. 

Method

It begins with a very complicated process of grilling the pomelo skin until it turns black. Soak the charred pomelo skin in water to soften. Once softened, scrape off the burnt skin layer. Soak the remaining pulp and squeeze out the water repeatedly. Continue this process for 7-8 times to get rid of any bitter taste. 

Prepare lard. Soak the pomelo skin in lard before braising it in a pot of special fish stock. The main ingredient of the broth is a dried flat fish 大地鱼 which gives the broth it’s super umami flavour.

Conclusion

This traditional dish is slowly disappearing due to the tedious process. It took me 2 days to prepare and cook and this dish— making the lard, searching for dried flat fish, processing the pomelo skins. The skin is very soft and spongy and absorbs the flavour of the broth. It is like biting into a sponge that is filled with rich, flavourful soup, bursting into your mouth with each bite. It is a good dish but not sure if it’s worth all the work. Will be making shortcuts to this dish again, using Christine’s simplified method of preparing the pomelo skin and leaving out the lard. Should produce a lighter and cleaner taste that is more in line with our modern, health conscious lifestyle.

I have also found another way of using up pomelo skins—candied pomelo peels. This we will save for the next post..  


Vegetarian mushroom scallops & abalone

King oyster mushrooms are very versatile when it comes to meatless recipes. The texture is firm and chewy, almost meat-like so you can fry or steam or braise it to mimic meat in recipes.

I find that the texture comes really close to scallops when you cut it into round pieces. And the top is just shaped perfectly like an abalone when cut. In this recipe video, I make my butter garlic scallops and abalone with broccoli.

Tips:

  • Use low heat when frying the garlic so it does not burn quickly
  • Adding olive oil before butter prevents the butter from burning

Rainbow Rice

The actual practice of colouring rice with natural ingredients already exists in both traditional Yunnan and Malaysian culture. Combining my gastronomical adventures in China with my native Malaysian culinary knowledge, I was inspired to come up with my own version of rainbow rice. Simple and healthy rice cooker versions that you can easily make at home.

Inspiration

When I was living in Beijing, I used to frequent this cozy Yunnan restaurant that serves up a King’s Feast or Wa Wang Yan 佤王宴. This feast originates from the Wa ethnic minority group in Yunnan province where all the food is laid out on a huge table covered with banana leaves. A very impressive layout that fills up the entire table with colourful rice, vegetables, meat and ethnic delicacies. You can see the Southeast Asian influence here as they offer you a pot or basin to wash your hands at the table. Eating is to be conducted with your hands. 

I noticed that they had three different types of rice laid out on the table. The restaurant owner told me that one of them is rice cooked in Pu’er tea. That really fascinated me as I have never thought of cooking rice in tea before. Pu’er tea gives the rice a light tea fragrance that doesn’t overwhelm the natural aroma of rice. So I kept that idea in a little corner of my brain, telling myself that I will try it out one day. 

When I finally went to Yunnan a couple of years ago, I got to try the feast of the Dai ethnic minority group, known as shou zhua fan 手抓饭 meaning rice grabbed with hands. Again, I noticed the different coloured rice arranged in a radial pattern on a bamboo platter. Dying glutinous rice with the natural colours from flowers and herbs is a tradition in Yunnan culture. They have something called 5 coloured rice – red, purple, yellow, black and white rice soaked in dye extracted from local plants and flowers. Platters of colourful glutinous rice are served during festivities and for ancestral prayers. 

Back in Malaysia, our traditional Malay rice dishes comes in a variety of colours too. Besides the plain white nasi lemak (coconut rice), there is also the nasi pandan (usually paired with grilled chicken) which is cooked with the juice from pandan leaves, nasi kerabu (Malay herb salad rice) which is cooked with the blue water from blue pea flowers and nasi kunyit (usually paired with curry chicken) which is cooked with turmeric powder or fresh turmeric. These rice dishes do not only look attractive, they smell absolutely wonderful. 

With inspiration from both places, I have listed a variety of natural colour options to be used for dying rice:

White – coconut milk or just plain water

Green – pandan leaf

Yellow – turmeric powder/fresh turmeric or saffron

Blue – blue pea flower

Brown – Pu’er tea

See the different combinations of rice you can make with natural herbs and spices

Tips

  • For a stronger blue colour, blend the blue pea flower with some water
  • You can add these herbs and spices to your rice according preference: onion, garlic, ginger, galangal, kaffir lime leaf, torch ginger flower, pandan leaf, lemongrass, star anise, cloves, salt and pepper 
  • For a healthier option, I add organic coconut oil instead of coconut milk for the wonderful coconut fragrance
  • Pu’er tea needs to be diluted with water so that you won’t taste the bitterness of strong concentrated tea. You can also add cloves and star anise to the rice for a stronger flavour
  • These aromatic rice goes well with meat curry, fried fish, grilled chicken, herb salad
  • You can use white rice, glutinous rice or mixed grain rice. Some people like to mix plain rice with glutinous rice to get a slightly firmer and stickier texture. Turmeric rice is traditionally made with glutinous rice. 
  • Coating knife with a layer of oil can minimize stain from the turmeric roots. The coat of oil protects the knife and makes the yellow stain easier to rub off

Goat cheese tofu with ham

Yunnan is a huge province on the south-western fringe of China and it’s cuisine is as colourful as the vast array of ethnic groups that live there. One of the Yunnan dishes that my fiancé keeps talking about till now is the goat cheese tofu with ham. 

Goat cheese tofu or ru bing 乳饼 is a Yunnan specialty, made with milk from mountain goats. The process is just the same as making paneer cheese, pressing the milk curds into blocks of solid cheese/tofu. As for the ham, the ancient town of Nuodeng in Yunnan is famous for their salt cured hams 诺邓火腿. These hams are cured with salt derived from the salt well inside the ancient village. The food documentary A Bite of China documents this amazing process in detail. Just like pepperoni and mozzarella, the rich flavours of Nuodeng ham pairs perfectly with the muted flavours of goat cheese tofu. 

Since I’ve already tried my hand at making paneer cheese (check out my previous post on paneer cheese experiment), making Yunnan cheese shouldn’t be too difficult. The only thing is to find some goat’s milk. My local dairy co-op shop nearby sells fresh goat’s milk from Malaysian farms. It won’t be as rich as the milk of mountain goats in Yunnan but that will do. Local goat’s milk come in tiny bottles of 250ml and is more than double the price of cow’s milk. So I proceeded with this kitchen project with 500ml of goat’s milk at a cost of approximately RM12 (equivalent of US$3).

According to the ru bing recipe that I found on a Chinese cooking website, 5 pounds of milk should yield about 1 pound of cheese. With my 500ml of milk, I am prepared to accept a small yield for my first goat cheese experiment. 

METHOD

  1. In a saucepan, bring goat’s milk to a boil.
  2. Turn off the heat and stir to let it cool for about a minute, the temperature should now be about 80 degrees Celsius. Stir in some rice vinegar. Look out for any curdling as you pour the vinegar. As soon as you see curds appear, stop adding any more vinegar. The pH should now be around 3.4 to 3.8. Let the milk rest for 3-5 minutes so the proteins can fully form into curds and settle.
  3. Clip a cheesecloth over a pot. Pour the curds onto the cheesecloth and and rinse the curds with some water. Let the liquid drain.
  4. When the liquid comes to a slow drip, gather the cheesecloth and wrap the curds into a square block. Put a flat heavy object over it to press the remaining liquid out. Let compress for 24 hours (keep it in the fridge if the weather is warm).
  5. Cut the block of cheese into thin pieces.
  6. Thinly slice some Nuodeng ham and soak them in hot water for a few minutes to get rid of some of it’s saltiness.
  7. Slit the cheese in the middle just enough to insert the ham, but not cut through all the way to the end. You want to sandwich the thin slice of ham into the pocket of the cheese.
  8. Pan fry the cheese till golden on each side. Serve with a mixture of salt and pepper (or sichuan pepper powder).    

TIPS

  • At Yunnan restaurants, a dipping powder is provided on the side. It is usually made up of sichuan pepper powder and salt. Since I don’t have sichuan pepper, I substituted with black pepper. Both works well to enhance the taste of the cheese.
  • Traditionally, an acidic solution made from a local Yunnan herb is used for making cheese. But for convenience of the modern household, vinegar is sufficient.  If you are making small batches like me, pour the vinegar by the spoonful to avoid over-pouring. If you are making a big batch of a few litres of milk, then you can pour directly from the bottle until reaction occurs.  

RESULTS

Indeed, the goat cheese has a much better texture than cow milk cheese. It has a fine, silky and creamy texture that is different from paneer made from cow’s milk. When pan fried, some of the cheese melts slightly to meld with the ham inside. The smell of goat cheese here is mild, and is negligible when paired with salt and pepper powder. It’s almost like pan fried tofu but with a more robust flavour.

As you can see from the pictures, my yield is a thin piece of cheese about 12×12 cm. The cost of this tiny piece of cheese is a little over RM12 (US$3), not including my ham costs. Conclusion: goat cheese doesn’t come cheap unless you have a mountain full of them. So enjoy the little luxury that is this goat cheese tofu with ham. Bon apetit!


Pickled Okra

In Malaysia, okra is typically stir fried with garlic, chilli and a little tamarind juice. The tamarind juice gets rid of the slime and balances the spicy flavour. My usage of okra was therefore limited to stir fry with chilli and garlic or dropping them in curries. 

Recently I discovered another way to eat okra – pickling it. I first encountered pickled okra at a brunch place in Shanghai. My Bloody Mary cocktail came with a celery stick and a piece of okra hanging on a toothpick. I didn’t know you can eat okra like this! 

I took a bite. Crunchy. Hmm…cold and refreshing. And not slimy at all.   

So I decided to google up ways to pickle okra and settled on this recipe. I adjusted my pickle liquid accordingly and liked the salty and sour taste that it produces.

Feel free to adjust your pickle juice according to taste. I find the salty and sour taste suits the okra as an apetiser. 

Pickle Liquid:

3 cups water

1.5 cups rice vinegar

2 tbsp salt

1 tsp sugar

Method:

  • Sterilize a glass jar with boiling hot water.
  • Put the okras and other vegetables such as chili, garlic and herbs in the jar.
  • Put the ingredients for pickling liquid in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Once boiled, pour into the jar with okra and vegetables. Make sure the liquid covers the vegetables.
  • Close the lid and let it cool down. Keep in the fridge when completely cool. Okra is ready to be eaten the next day. 

Tips:

  • You can pickle other hard vegetables together in a jar – chilli, onion, garlic, dill, cucumber, carrot.
  • Pungent herbs like onion and garlic needs to be pickled for 2-3 days. Other vegetables are ready after a day.
  • Serve your pickled okra whole. Bite into a whole okra to feel the crunch. Okra is crunchy when it is cold. 
  • You can also dip your okra in a glass of Bloody Mary

Whey Pancakes

Whey, the by-product of cheese, is the liquid that remains after the cheese curds are removed. This slightly acidic liquid is actually very suitable for making pancakes. It’s acidic nature reacts with the baking soda to release lots of carbon dioxide bubbles, making the pancakes airy and fluffy. 

I made some paneer cheese recently and was left with some whey. So I decided to make some plain pancakes and…some durian pancakes. Yes, I also had extra durians in the fridge, so why not?

I used the whey pancake recipe from King Arthur Baking Company, with a little bit of modification. 

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 tbs sugar
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 cups whey
  • 2 large eggs
  • 50g butter (melted)
  • Optional: durian flesh (100-200g)

I could see bubbles forming in the batter as I let it sit for a few minutes after mixing. And indeed, the plain pancakes came out perfectly light. After making 2-3 plain pancakes, I added some durian flesh into the remaining batter. The durian made the batter thicker and creamier. The resulting pancakes were even thicker and fluffier than the plain ones. The image featured above this post is my stack of durian pancakes. They look so pretty!

Tip:

Flip the plain pancake after bubbles emerge all over the surface, but for the durian pancakes, you should start flipping when it begins to bubble because the sugar in durian causes the pancake to burn faster


DIY Paneer Cheese

Palak Paneer or spinach curry with Indian cottage cheese is a default dish that I always order when I go to an Indian restaurant. I like it that the spinach gravy is not spicy and of course, I love it for the cheese. An Indian friend once mentioned that you can make your own cheese with just milk and vinegar, and I have always wanted to try it out since. So while researching paneer recipes online, I came across a very detailed explanation on how to make your own paneer here: https://www.indianhealthyrecipes.com/how-to-make-paneer-cubes-at-home/

I gathered my ingredients and made 2 attempts at this experiment. I followed the method in the recipe using Chinese rice vinegar as my preferred form of acid. Rice vinegar does not have that sharp acidic smell so I did not have to rinse my curds off with water after. Here is what I learnt from my 2 experiments in the video below.

METHOD

Batch 1Batch 2
After turning off the heat, the milk was stirred for a couple of minutes to cool down before adding vinegarVinegar was added immediately after turning off the heat
Stirred the milk over long intervals in between spoons of vinegar
Intervals between each spoon of vinegar was short
Curdling process took about 15 minutesCurdling process took 5 minutes
Differences in methodology between Batch 1 and Batch 2

RESULTS

Batch 1Batch 2
Curds were small and of sandy texture. Final block of cheese was crumbly and breaks easily.Curds were in big lumps and smoother. Final block of cheese was firm and solid.
Differences observed in final product

CONCLUSION

The milk reacts quickly with vinegar while it is still hot. Vinegar needs to be added while the milk is hot because chemical reaction is retarded when milk cools down. The longer the curdling process is dragged out, the more dehydrated the curds become as it sits in the acidic liquid longer. Therefore, we can see the curds from Batch 1 is dry and crumbly compared to Batch 2.

My tips and recommendations from this experiment is:

  • use a pot with a narrow opening to prevent it from cooling too fast
  • use double layer of the disposable kitchen cloths. Disposable cloth is better because you don’t need to wash it after. The smell from the cheese is pretty strong and hard to wash off.
  • gather all curds into a ball and make sure they are not wrapped into the folds. This will give you a nicely shaped cheese.

DIY Organic Marigold Tea

My mother’s friend gave us some marigold seeds earlier this year. She studied Traditional Chinese Medicine and told us about the benefits of marigold flowers – it helps to maintain healthy eyes and soothe skin irritations and can replace the benefits of chrysanthemum as tea. We have been drinking chrysanthemum tea regularly and chemical free chrysanthemum flowers are difficult to come by nowadays as prices increase during the COVID-19 lockdown. So we decided to plant our own marigold flowers.

How to prepare your own marigold tea

  1. Pluck the marigold flowers and rinse them clean.
  2. Spread it out on a tray to dry. Before it completely dries, pluck out the petals. The bottom part of the flower are the seeds. You can sow the seeds to plant more marigolds.
  3. Let the petals air out and dry some more. The drier the flowers, the longer you can store them.
  4. Take a bunch of petals and put in a mug or teapot. Pour boiling water and steep for a few minutes and your marigold tea is ready.

Marigold is also known as the poor man’s saffron. You will notice that the tea turns yellow once you pour hot water onto the petals. It gives out a nice golden colour and a slight citrusy fragrance. I have some mint in the garden too and I dried them and mixed them with the marigold for a marigold mint tea. Ah, smells wonderful.

So try making your own marigold tea today instead of buying chemically processed teas. Healthy and organic teas can be easily made just at home.