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.


Homestyle Salt Baked Chicken

My hometown Ipoh is famous for it’s traditional Cantonese style salt baked chicken. The marinated chicken is wrapped in baking paper and then buried in salt and baked. A good salt baked chicken is tender and juicy and very aromatic. Two important ingredients used in salt baked chicken are: 1) sand ginger (沙姜) or cekur root in Malay, and 2) Chinese Angelica root (当归).  Both have a very distinct smell and flavour that will immediately give you the association with Salt Baked Chicken for those who know their SBC well.

Sand Ginger 

I would like to clarify that sand ginger is actually different from normal ginger. Do not mistake the scientific name Kaempferia galanga with Thai galangal either. Sand ginger has a slight peppery taste and goes well as a marinade for chicken and pork. The Chinese call it sha jiang and the powder form can be found in traditional Chinese medicinal shops. In Malaysia it is called cekur and fresh cekur roots can be found in the wet markets. The roots and leaves are used in curries and traditional Malay rice dishes. Individual farmers plant them in small scale because the yield is low and it takes a long time to grow. Therefore, you might have to be at the market at the right time and day for a chance encounter.

Chinese Angelica Root

Chinese Angelica root or dang gui is a type of medicinal herb readily available in Chinese medicinal shops. It has a nice herbal fragrance that can be released when boiled. That is why it has to be soaked in boiling water for a few minutes before it is cooked with the chicken. If you use it dry, the smell will not come through. The main function of dang gui in this dish is to infuse the chicken with a herbal fragrance. Tuck the slices in between the chicken skin or nooks and crevices. 

With these two ingredients ready, you can easily make salt baked chicken at home. Thanks to modern technology, lazy home cooks like me can cheat our way through with an air fryer or electric oven. No need to buy a whole tonne of salt to bury the chicken. Just rub the marinade over the chicken, wrap in foil and bake in an air fryer.  

Marinating Ingredients:

  • 2 heaped tsp sand ginger powder
  • 2 tsp sea salt
  • 1/4 tsp pepper
  • 4-5 tsp sesame oil (enough to make into paste)
  • sliced Chinese angelica roots (enough to tuck inside the chicken)

Tips:

  • Make sure you rub enough salted marinade over the thick parts of the chicken
  • You can use a whole chicken or cut it up for faster cooking. You can also use chicken drumsticks only
  • Poke a skewer through the thickest part of the chicken, if the juices run clear it is done

Easy Breakfast Quiche

Basic breakfast staples — eggs and toast. How many ways can you make breakfast with these two ingredients? I like to keep my weekend brunches interesting yet simple. So I decided to use bread as a shortcut for my mini quiche crust. You can call it mini egg tarts or shortcut quiche or even omelette muffins.

Basic Ingredients: 

  • Bread
  • Eggs
  • Salt and pepper

Additional Ingredients:

  • Milk
  • Onions
  • Chives /Parsley/Coriander/Basil
  • Dried Herbs
  • Bacon
  • Tomato
  • Avocado
  • Capsicum
  • Cheese

Tips:

  • Add milk if you like a slightly smoother texture. If you prefer a crispier version, ignore the milk. 
  • Bake at 170 degrees Celsius for about 20 minutes. The egg will rise and puff up when it is done, but will flatten once it cools.
  • You can use the leftover bread and arrange them in a tray. Pour more egg mixture over it and sprinkle with tomatoes and cheese. A bigger version has been created.

My housemate Pam used to make these little egg muffins without the bread crust. She bakes the omelette mixture in a silicone muffin tray and once it is done, you can just tip the whole egg muffin out. She calls it her whatever-you-like egg muffin, loaded with bacon, onions, cheese and just whatever else she has at home. 


Durian Kuih in Handcrafted Pandan Cups

Durian. A thorny issue for many. Some love it for it’s rich and complex flavours, described as sweet, creamy, bittersweet, intense or buttery. Others stay far away from the disgusting, pungent, nauseating fruit that wrecks havoc in hotels, airplanes and confined spaces. When Western friends who have never tried the fruit ask me how durian tastes, I describe it like this: smells like onions but tastes like custard, imagine eating onion custard.

I like custard. So when I saw some Hoen Kwe flour in the cupboard, I decided to use the extra durians to make this custardy durian dessert. Hoen Kwe flour is a type of mung bean flour mixture mostly made in Indonesia. It is cooked and left to set into a pudding-like texture and best served cold. It is usually sold in small little packs of 100 grams. And it comes with instructions on the pack itself. I am adding durian into the mix for this durian delight, only for durian lovers. It actually tastes stronger than pure durian itself. 

Learn how to fold pandan cups in this video too

Ingredients:

  • 1 pack Hoen Kwe flour
  • 3 cups coconut milk
  • 1/2 cup durian flesh
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt

This recipe can fill up approximately 30 pandan cups. If you did not make enough pandan wrappers, just pour the remaining mixture into a tray. Let it set, chill in the fridge and then cut into pieces for serving.

Tips:

  • If you are using thick coconut milk or coconut cream from a pack, dilute it with water to make up to 3 cups. You want the mixture to be milky, not too creamy. Then cook the mixture to a thick, goopy consistency.
  • Make sure the dessert is properly chilled before serving. It needs to be cold for that refreshing taste.


Chili and Lemon Grilled Fish with Banana Leaf

Grilled flounder wrapped in banana leaf

I love cooking with local Malaysian herbs and spices. Everything is just so pretty and colourful for the camera. But that’s not just it, the smell and flavour that these herbs release when you cut them is an like an appetiser, teasing your senses before the food is ready. 

Besides the mix of aromatic fresh herbs, banana leaf also contributes to another aspect of the dish. The light fragrance of the banana leaf gives your grill items a nice smell during cooking. It also protects the contents from drying up during the grilling process. You can find a lot of food that is cooked with banana leaf in Malaysia. 

So using the basic curry blend ingredients of garlic, shallots/onions, chilli, ginger and lemongrass, I added lemons into the grill fish wrap for a Thai twist. This basic blend is the base to many curry and spicy dishes. Whether you are using a charcoal grill or electric oven or air fryer, this recipe works for all gadgets in general.

Ingredients:

  • 10-12 pcs shallots
  • 8 cloves garlic
  • 3 red chilis (more if you like spicy)
  • 2-inch pc of ginger
  • 2 stalks lemongrass
  • 2 lemons
  • salt and pepper
  • olive oil
  • banana leaf for wrapping

Tips:

Remember to add the oil generously. It helps to cook the fish and the herbs evenly and releases the aromas

Towards the end of grilling, just take the banana leaf off and let the grill crisp up the surface for an aromatic golden top

Press the lemons to release the juice when done