Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Perfect Laksa- Mastering the Art of 'Tumis'

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For those new to laksa, it is a traditional Singaporean and Malaysian dish which is served with permutations of a strict few condiments: boiled prawns, fish cake, tofu puffs, bean sprouts, cockles, and hard boiled chicken, duck or quail eggs. Some vendors like to vary the toppings by adding shredded chicken or crayfish to the mix. Either way, real laksa deviates not much further from this set of toppings. So, now that you have been introduced to the real deal, if you ever see roast duck, pork, beef, scallops or bok choy coming into play, please let it send alarm bells ringing.

For an interesting article that talks about real, authentic laksa, please visit this link.

Making laksa from scratch is simpler than it sounds. All you need to do is learn the art of 'tumis'.

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The art of making the perfect laksa, or any other curry for that matter, lies in this one simple process known as 'tumis'. Tumis is a Malay term that refers to the act of frying a spice paste till it is properly caramelised. All too often, I have witnessed fellow colleagues and Aussie TV chefs frying spice pastes for a mere 2 minutes before adding the other ingredients for a particular recipe. Please allow me to insist that cooking a spice paste should take at least 15 minutes, not 2 or 3. Undercooked spice pastes turn out dishes that are bland and horrible.

This techinque of tumis-ing can almost be compared to caramelising onions for French Onion Soup. You need to make sure that the base of the dish is completely and thouroughly caramelised before adding in any other ingredients, or else the dish just wouldn't take off. This, in my opinion, is the trick to cooking many a South East Asian dish.

The picture above shows a laksa spice paste which has just gone into the saucepan. It is mild yellow in colour, homogenous, and emulsified. It needs to be fried with the addition of a little oil in the saucepan till the solids in the paste caramelise. This will take a good 15-20 minutes of continuous stirring over a low heat (just imagine you are cooking risotto, keep stirring and don't walk away till its done).

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This next picture (above) illustrates what a properly tumis-ed spice paste should look like. It has now transformed from a pale yellow into a deep red/orange. Notice also that the solids have 'split' away from the oil, and are now frying in their own fat. This is the easiest way to tell when the spice paste is done; the oil seperates from the paste, and the solids begin sizzling in the oil. Now now, there's no harm frying it even longer after this stage; you will just be deepening the colour and intensifying the flavour, which is always a good thing! Thus, I generally continue frying my pastes for a further 5 minutes past this point.

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In the above picture, the dot of yellow stuff is a laksa spice paste that is 'raw'. The reddish dot above it is the same paste that has been cooked for 20 minutes over a slow flame, till it has been properly tumis-ed. Now, that should make for a pretty good bowl of laksa!

Laksa paste:
3 lemongrass stalks, lower 2 inches only, sliced
1 cm galangal peeled and sliced
3 candlenuts (or macadamia nuts), chopped
12 dried chillis, reconstitued in warm water
6 shallots, sliced
2 tbsp dried shrimp, reconstitued in warm water
1 tbsp tumeric powder
1 tbsp coriander powder
1 tsp shrimp paste (that smelly stuff from Asian grocers)
vegetable oil

Place all ingredients into a blender with a little oil and water to facilitate blending. Blend till smooth. Add more oil and water as necessary to keep the mixture blending.

Tumis as per guidelines above.

2 cups coconut milk
3 cups water
noodles and condiments to serve
vietnamese mint (laksa leaf), chopped

Once paste is properly tumis-ed, add in water and coconut milk. Return to the boil and simmer for a few minutes. Season to taste with salt and sugar. Ladle over a bowl of noodles and top with condiments such as bean sprouts, hard boiled eggs, cooked shrimp and chicken. Scatter generously with Vietnamese mint, a must-have ingredient in laksa. Do not fret, Vietnamese mint, and all other ingredients listed are available in Coles and Woolworths supermarkets; the exceptions being dried shrimps and shrimp paste, which are easily available at most Asian grocers.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

Duck Degustation at Isis Brasserie

Isis Brasserie is one of the places in town that I would recommend anyone to go to for some seriously good food. Chef Jason Peppler and his team have, in the past, provided Bev and I with some of our top dining experiences here in Brisbane. For all you food lovers out there, you might like to know that they're running a special degustation menu exclusively for the months of May and June. I have attached the degustation menu here. The menu costs $95 for 9 courses of food, and $155 for food and matching wines.

The feature of this degustation is duck. And my oh my, these people really know how to turn the feature ingredient inside out, manipulating the humble canard into shapes and forms that go beyond our immediate expectations. Lo and behold, duck neck skins, duck eggs, duck livers, duck wings, duck blood, and the entire duck works found their way onto our plates in the most refined and elegant manner.

There was an article in The Age about the dawn of the degustation menu age, and how these dining styles ought to be tools for chefs to showcase their talents and the quality of their ingredients. I completely agree that the chefs at Isis have done precisely that. Even my dining companions agree that they could, I quote: "taste the skill that went into the food".

I apologise for the shoddy photos. I normally have trouble taking photographs at Isis because of the combination of the following 3 factors: 1) I'm still an amateur photographer, 2) their lovely mood lighting makes for a photographer's nightmare, and 3) I just want to dig in as soon as possible, the aroma of duck is way too irresistable to hold off for too long.

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Canape: Duck and pork rillettes, sour dough crostini and cornichon

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Cappuccino of duck with porcini mushroom powder- my favourite course of the night

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Duck neck sausage (in the style of a galantine), with a salad of quince, apple and pistachio

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Duck egg pasta, seared Queensland scallop and sauce albuferra- I lapped up every last drop of the gorgeous sauce

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Duck liver on brioche, crisp proscuitto and sauce soubise

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Civet of duck wing, home-made duck black pudding, peas and smooth potato puree

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Sorbet: Lemon and star anise- I personally loved this combination of flavours

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Seared duck breast, sweet potato fondant and Amarena cherries

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Lemon scented souffle (probably made with duck eggs), white chocolate sorbet

We were highly impressed with most of the dishes on the menu. In our opinion, there were 2 dishes that fell a little under the mark though. We all agreed that the duck liver was slightly overcooked, and the dessert way too sweet. But yet again, in their defence, these are all mistakes to do with the food preparation on the day itself, rather than with the core concept of the dishes. Hopefully, these glitches won't occur when its your turn to dine there!

You need to book the duck degustation menu in advance should you wish to treat yourself to this all out duckfest. I suggest you buzz them real quick as this menu only lasts for a few more weeks!

Isis Brasserie
446 Brunswick Street
Fortitude Valley
Tel: (07) 3852 1155

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Pastries from Absynthe Bakery, Surfers Paradise

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After being at the helm of the Queensland dining scene with his restaurant Absynthe, 2 Michelin Starred chef Meyjitte Boughenout opened Absynthe Bakery on Bastille Day in 2006. Located in the new complex, Circle on Cavill, Absynthe Bakery aims to "bring quality bakery goods to the heart of Gold Coast".

We decide to drop by Absynthe Bakery while in the Gold Coast to see for ourselves if their pastries were as good as they were claimed to be. We arrived a little late in the day, and so the selection had dwindled to the remaining 7 or so varieties of tarts and cakes left in the display. I was initially very tempted to try the vanilla brioche, but decided against it, seeing that it had been left out at room temperature for what I think would have been a good part of the day. Another time perhaps, if I can get there early enough to sample it while its at its peak.

So we ended up ordering 4 types of tarts between us, and we all eagerly joined in the tasting. This is what we sampled: a passionfruit curd and meringue tart, a caramelised pineapple tartet, an apple jelly tartet with caramelised apples, and a raspberry and pistachio tartlet. It was unanimous, we all voted the sour passionfruit tart with the sweet, silky meringue as our favourite of the 4 pastries. The pate sucre (sweet shortcrust pastry) was a perfect balance of crunchy and crumbly, while the passionfruit curd was just as sour as I think sour curds ought to be.

Now I really have to come back soon to munch on that enticing vanilla brioche. I bet its darn good too..

Absynthe Bakery
Circle on Cavill
Surfers Paradise Boulevard
Gold Coast, Queensland
Tel: 07 5504 7114

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