April 9, 2010

Thai Coconut-Mango Jelly, Awards & the Phenomenon of Food Photo-Journaling

Congratulations to myself! I finally found a time to actually sit down in front of my computer; read, think through and analyze with my brain; speak and write from my heart and with my guts. Such precious moments!

But before I initiate flame on the cannon and begin to fire projectiles of my thought (at you), I would like to thank my lovely fellow bloggers-cum-friends Anncoo, Bee Bee, Joslynn and Tracie for bestowing upon me these lovely awards:

Don’t the e-plaques look chic and sleek! I’ve come to realize that many fellow bloggers out there have already received the awards. As much as I hate doing this, I think I’ve got to put a halt to the tagging, which has been spreading like bushfire in, especially, the food blogosphere.

Nonetheless, I’d love to dedicate the honors to you: my fellow home-based food bloggers who keep posting up wonderful work; my readers and blog visitors who actually care to read about my nonsense and who can put up with my long-windedness. Kudos to you! Thanks a million for the encouraging words that you’ve been sending me via emails and comments on my blog posts! You’ve totally made my year! I promise I’ll keep this little journal alive as long as I’m still breathing despite the insanely hectic schedule. (Y’know what, at certain point, I almost felt like my life has been hit by an apocalypse. *Fainted*)

Easter sunset, taken on April 10, 2009, by Prior Lake, Minn., U.S.A.

Anyway, let’s shift our focus here for just a bit. I thought I could seal my mouth real well on this issue phenomenon. After what I saw yesterday and what I’ve been reading these past couple of days, I seriously think I need to speak out!

I was invited to an informal dinner by the company I’ve been working for. A number of co-workers joined as well. Quite a big crowd of 10, and these folks opted for Chili’s (restaurant.) After placing order to the waiter, I diligently listened and responded to the conversation that was rolling at the table. The restaurant was dimly lit; the ambience was rather pub-like. Pardon me for my ostensibly shallow knowledge of fine dining – I’m a wild once-rusticated urbanite who hardly eats out. Then, when the plates of food began to flow in, point-and-shoot and cell-phone cameras popped out of nowhere. Flashed. Snapped. Flashed. Snapped. The rest of the crowd made way for the photographers while patiently waiting for their turn to feed their hungry soul. It was close to 8.30 that evening before we got to eat, after a tiring day at work.

The cynic in me stirred up instances of suspicion. After reading this article from The New York Times, I’ve been feeling disturbed by the fact that many people nowadays photograph just about every food that goes into their stomach. What next? Post all the food pictures onto Facebook and all other social networking Web sites imaginable!? Show you what they’ve eaten and criticize the food even though they aren’t professionally certified chefs but self-proclaimed foodies who think they have the finest and most adventurous taste buds in the universe!? For crying out loud, for what!? “Yo, dude! Look, I had Chili’s sizzling beef steak!” Erm ... yea? What else? “Hey, I had Chili’s molten chocolate cake with that that gigantic scoop of ice cream and oodles of chocolate sauce on top!”

My chocolate cake with molten peanut butter center. It's been a while since I last made molten cake.

Jealous now? Me, no. I could see you definitely enjoyed the food, just like how I would. I, too, love beef steaks and molten cakes. I, too, take pictures of beef steaks and molten cakes – but not with every freaking plate of food that I eat. Here are my reasons to justify my stand on the said matter, and they’re purely Pei-Lin’s:
  • Flash and poorly lit places are a no-no for any food photographers. (Or am I just nitpicking!?)
  • Cell-phone cameras are one of the worst food photography gadgets ever.
  • Every criticism should be constructive and should come with credibility and responsibility: If you aren’t professionally trained chefs or don’t have culinary knowledge – even for you to survive in the kitchen while fiddling with a Chinese cleaver – please don’t try to criticize the work of others. Enjoy the meal and pay with due respect. I personally think you can only condemn the chefs in the event of food poisoning that resulted from dining out. Oh, file a lawsuit too to do yourself some justice!
  • Cameras and flashes are an eyesore at diners and restaurants, where hungry people are waiting diligently and patiently to curb their hunger once the food has arrived – and some just want a peace of mind while ingesting their food!
Like I said, for me, food unlocks the many interesting facets of a culture, especially one that’s new to me. Whenever I cook or bake a new dish, I pick up a new lesson: I get to learn about the language, customs and celebrations, and many other aspects of the culture.

My fresh garden-and-seafood pasta salad, inspired by my American mom Bonnie and my American brother Luke's love for pasta salad. Let's see if I can recall the recipe for this; it was all done by eyeballing.

I’m not a good food photographer. However, I do post pictures of steaks, molten cakes and other foods – but only when they’re home-made and simply because I love doing so. Adequate styling has to be made to the object of the photo shoot for the sake of presentation. I guess it’s that obsession-compulsion and perfectionist in me. Whenever I get to try others’ food, my culinary understanding increases further. As long as I’m alive, I’m imperfect: just got to think twice before commenting or criticizing. Last but not least, mine still hasn’t gotten to the point where psychiatrists and psychoanalysts would consider pathological; it’s an idiosyncrasy. *LOL*

I’m going to leave it to you to decide whether you agree or disagree with me on this. If the said article resonates in you and that you’ve formed some sort of opinion regarding that, it’d be great if you can share it with me. But, I was just trying to speak out my mind. No bad intention at all. So, please don’t attempt to spam or blackmail me. Everyone deserves the rights to free speech and free expression according to the First Amendment.

Before I can finally shut up, I’d love to share with you this interesting Thai recipe. Thailand is just north of my home country Malaysia. As a neighbor, I get to eat Thai dishes from time to time. And, I’ve got to admit that Thai food is among my favorites. I simply adore its burning-hot sensation, flavor intensity and piquancy. The wide array of ingredients used is fascinating.

Over these last few weeks, mangoes have been getting ubiquitous. About 2 weeks ago, I managed to yank 3 kilograms worth of Thai mangoes back from the local night bazaar for a super-good deal. I paid MYR10.00, or USD3.00, for that many mangoes! I’d say it was a good investment. Besides eating them raw, I incorporated them in my dessert.

After much debate between the angelic Pei-Lin and the devilish Pei-Lin, I discarded the idea of making the Thai dessert of mangoes with sticky rice and sweet coconut sauce. Although it’s my favorite Thai dessert, I didn’t want to be the one who sucked in most of the calories from the glutinous rice! Well, I did try to make this when I was in the States and my American family friends loved it. Perhaps, shall remake this the next time I have a bigger crowd to feed. Hahaha …!

Khao neaw mamuang, or the Thai dessert of mangoes with sticky rice and sweet coconut sauce, made on June 30, 2009

In the end, I made wun mamuang, which translates as coconut-mango jelly in Thai. It’s one of those answers you’ll be delighted to hear when you have a bad case of sweets cravings. It’s rich and yet doesn’t feel heavy both in your mouth and on your hips. The use of agar renders the jelly a nice little texture that’s neither too soft nor too hard; that springs a little at your first bite and yet disintegrates as your teeth sink deeper. The mellow tropical marriage of mango and coconut becomes the highlight of the day. So fruity, so refreshing. Not cloyingly sweet, too! Having one slice definitely is not enough! Perfect on hot, hot summer days!

Here’s to dedicate this traditional Southeast Asian treat to all you out there who will be getting splashed and drenched during Songkran next week, including my great helper who’s now back in her hometown in Cambodia reveling in pre-Songkran festivities! Once again, Happy Songkran!

Wun Mamuang, or Thai Coconut-Mango Jelly
Adapted from "Periplus Mini Cookbooks: Thai Cakes and Desserts," by Chat Mingkwan

For the bottom layer:

1 Tbsp unflavored powdered agar
375 mL water
50 g caster sugar
250 mL thick coconut milk
** I used canned coconut cream, which worked just as well. **

250 mL puréed mango flesh
** The mangoes I used had orange-colored flesh; hence, the "gold" color of my jelly. **
  1. Combine (A) together in heavy-bottomed saucepan; over medium heat, heat to fully dissolve the sugar and slowly bring the mixture to a boil whilst stirring constantly
  2. Once the mixture has come to a boil, remove from the heat and leave aside to let cool slightly
    ** Don't let the mixture cool away for too long as it does set easily, like what happened to mine. To remedy the situation, I dumped the almost-set mixture into the blender and puréed it real well. **
  3. When the mixture has cooled slightly, stir in the puréed mango flesh.
  4. Estimate and prepare metal or plastic mold(s) that is/are of the right size and height. Run the mold(s) in cold water, then set on a flat surface and pour in the mango mixture -- the agar mixture should not exceed 3/4 the capacity of the tin.
    ** I used two very, very small rectangular loaf tins. So, the molds I used are metal. I'm sure you can find the right mold(s) for the jelly. Well, just trust your brain and judgment. **
    **Running the tin/mold in cold water will help ease the unmolding of the jelly from the tin later on.**
  5. Chill the deal in the fridge for 20 minutes or till the bottom layer has completely set
For the top layer:

1/2 Tbsp unflavored powdered agar
375 mL water
2 Tbsp caster sugar
1 pandan/screwpine leaf, cut into 4-centimeter pieces

1/4 tsp salt
60 mL puréed mango flesh
** The mangoes I used had orange-colored flesh; hence, the "gold" color of my jelly. **

1 ripe mango -- washed to clean, peeled and flesh sliced into bite-sized pieces
** The mangoes I used had orange-colored flesh; hence, the "gold" color of my jelly. **
  1. Whilst the bottom layer is chilling, prepare the top layer: first, combine (B) together in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly -- the sugar should have also dissolved fully by then.
  2. Stir the salt into the hot agar mixture till well-mixed, remove from the heat; pick out to discard the pandan leaf, then set aside to cool. Once cooled, mix in the puréed mango flesh. Set aside.
    ** Don't let the mixture cool away for too long as it does set easily, like what happened to mine. To remedy the situation, I dumped the almost-set mixture into the blender and puréed it real well. **
  3. Arrange the mango slices on top of the fully set bottom layer. Then, pour the mixture for the top layer over.
    ** I learned from another fellow blogger Shirley, of køkken69, that to reduce the likelihood of the two layers of jelly "detaching" from one another, skip the cooling process. Instead, immediately combine the mango purée with the hot agar mixture and pour it over the fully set, chilled bottom layer whilst the mixture is still HOT! She made the same jelly with the same recipe not too long ago. What a coincidence! Good tips! Why didn't I think of that!? Thanks, Shirley! **
  4. Chill the whole deal in the fridge for 40 minutes or till the top layer has fully set.
  5. Slice the fully set jelly into desired shapes, unmold or dish out, and serve chilled. Best consumed on the same day it was made.


qinyi said...

pei-lin!! your molten chocolate cake looks yum! never thought of pairing it with peanut butter. what a great idea :)
i like thai food too. esp pad thai. mango glutinous rice is a tad too sweet and rich for me. we can't get decent mangoes here, so this recipe will have to wait till i get my hands on some juicy thai mangoes in the far future! :)

Honey Bee Sweets said...

Hi Pei-Lin,
I couldn't agree with you more about people taking pictures at every meal they eat. However I am too guilty of such acts when it comes to new restaurants that I like and special dishes they serve. I felt real bad when those poor hungry souls(mostly family) waits for me to angle and shoot at the food before they can dive into it. It's happening every where now isn't it?! Is it a "disease"? Lol! Anyhow, I love your photos, always makes me feel bad about my poor photography skills! And I can see you put in a lot of effort for a post, so keep up the great work! Shall try out your Thai coconut-mango jelly...looks good! Have a wonderful weekend my friend. ;)

tracieMoo said...

Pei-Lin, I had something like this at the dim sum restaurant. Is the bottom layer melt in mouth?
I was wondering what it was when I was eating them. Peanut butter flavoured!
I had a strong feeling it was coconut cream. Arh.. with mangoes sounds so much better.. :)

Love your write up. Keep posting delicious looking food! I think we are so immune to these pictures that we don't get hungry when we see them, but of how well the presentation is done. I really love the photo of the pasta. Would love to know what's in it if you can recall... :)

tasteofbeirut said...

Beautiful! I especially love the last dessert with the sticky rice and mango puree!

Christine Tham said...

Totally agree with. Yes please give due respect to the one cooking the food and enjoy the meal. Taste is very subjective as whatever not to your liking is not others poison.

Even you are a good cook does not give you leeway to criticize others cooking.

tigerfish said...

Your Thai jelly...every bite is goodness...how true.

Quinn said...

I personally think it is part and parcel of social. Everybody fake a bit just so they don't piss anyone off. Office politics can be quite overwhelming sometimes.

As for criticizing the food and all, I personally disagree only certified chefs have rights to criticize other people's work. One man's work of art could easily be another man's chaos. I've once had a crab salad and complained it diluted my dressing and that they should have passed the salad greens through a salad spinner. I cannot replicate that salad at home but my taste bud tells me the water there makes no sense. Again, not because I'm a customer and I pay for my food so I have all the rights to yank like a barbarian.

And yeah, I gotta agree you're just being a little, just a little nitpicking when it comes to flash and dark places. I think some people photography food because certain occasions are memorable to them. My aunt makes great lasagne, but for DINNER all the time. It was really good we need to snap some photos but we're no experts with sophisticated tools so flash does it all; which is why we always hear people say 'that photo does no justice to that piece of lip smacking lasagne!'

I think it is harsh to say only home-cooked food should be being photographed, what about people who blogs about restaurant review? It is somehow a fact that some people need to wait for their food to be done photographing before eating, it's just whether that person mind or not.

And I think props should be there to bring out a dish rather than compliment the dish. I've seen plates of lasagne (you couldn't see the layers anymore after baking) photographed just by itself with a plain fork next to it and that is enough to make me scream and munch of my screen.

That was a good debate I'd say. It's good to speak up your mind, it's a free world. Sorry I'll have to admit I prefer that sticky mango rice over wun mamuang. Oh my god....orgasmic!!!!

ICook4Fun said...

This is such enlightening post Pei-lin. No doubt most of us are visual person. We all like looking pictures of beautiful and mouthwatering food that is why you see so many food blogs popping up everyday. I do take some pictures of the food I ate in a restaurants but it is done discretely with no flash whatsoever. And that also depend on who I am with. I only do it when I am with my family and good friends. I don’t take pictures when I am eating out with someone I am not familiar with or being a guest at a dinner. I am worry that they would think that I am weird or something. I will only take pictures of certain dishes that I ate when I am on vacations somewhere or back in Malaysia. This is for me remember the wonderful time I had especially with my family or maybe to recreates some dishes that I ate.

I totally agreed with you that the taste of food is very subjective. It might taste good to you and to me might not. That is why I refrain myself from criticizing the food I ate publicly. I guess having a food blog have turned some of us into Foodie Paparazzi ha ha…

By the way, love the mango agar agar. From the color of the agar agar I thought you put some gula Melaka to it. I guess the color is from the mango you used.

Mama Holli said...

Love your blog!!! I have posted you up on my blog today!!! Just giving you some link love!

Cheryl said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Keren Ruth said...

Hey Pei-lin,
I thought it was funny that you should say that about taking pictures of food since now when I have to run out and take pictures of food quick they all call me Pei-lin :) But I suppose it is a different thing when you are out to eat. although I have done that too. oh dear. ;) hope your day is lovely!

Shirley @ Kokken69 said...

Hi Pei Lin, what a coincidence, indeed! I was using the recipe from the same book! I have actually seen you leaving comments at some common blogger friends, so your name is not new to me :). It's fun to share the same dish and oh, I totally agree with you about the photographing in restaurants thingy... I feel really awkward doing it...

Angie's Recipes said...

Your molten chocolate cake looks so sensational!
The sky picture tells me that you are a pro photographer!

Elin said...

Pei Lin , this is a great dessert. Thanks for sharing and well said on the part of people taking photos with flashes and handphone. Haha somehow I agrees with you that :))

Jo said...

Pei-Lin, the molten chocolate cake look so, so good. I would have like some. Whilst at it, throw in the rest of the meal as well.

Kitchen Butterfly said...

Those jelly towers rock.........coconut and mango - superb!

Tuty @Scentofspice said...

Pei Lin,
Keep up your wonderful writing, recipes and photographs.

It's been such a long time since I've had agar dessert. It's time for me to revisit the desserts that I grew up with.

Sonia (Nasi Lemak Lover) said...

I'm like Gert, I only take food photo when I taking meal with my family or friend.

Christine@Christine's Recipes said...

Hi pei lin,
I couldn't agree with you more. More and more people take photos at every meal, including me as well, haha...
But I just take those that I think are good and well-presented.

Aw, your molten chocolate cake is very beautiful, making me drool right now.

noobcook said...

you made such gorgeous looking foods! especially the molten cake with peanut butter spilling out, that looks so delectable. Congrats on your awards!

daphne said...

How interesting! and like noobcook- i just posted on jelly too..and similar name as well! hahahaa What a coincidence.

I thinking i might try out the mango/sticky rice combo too. Appeals to me for sure.

zenchef said...

It all looks delicious and beautiful but what i really want to know.. did you save me some? :)

Chow and Chatter said...

interesting I personally feel if its fun to snap pics of their food why not I have done it and with a camera phone!!!!

Great jelly

Love Rebecca

petite nyonya said...

my dear, you are seriously killing me with all those luscious photos of desserts! that peanut butter choc lava cake takes my breath away!!! and i yearn for some of that coconut mango jelly of yours too! tsk! tsk! tsk! anyway, you are free to voice your opinion so go ahead, no reservations. you won't have issue with me photographing food at restaurants coz i just won't do it. 'paiseh'. that's why you don't see me doing any food review post etc. ;)

Food For Tots said...

I totally agreed with you. For me, I hardly took photos when I was dining out. I prefer to enjoy eating my food than anything else. Your mango jelly looks great! Can't keep my eyes off them. ;)

RoseBelle said...

I have got to try that mango jelly recipe. I love mango. I saw a package of mango pudding yesterday at the grocery store and almost bought it but didn't because I figured it was better to make it fresh. But yeah, the mango jelly is a must try for me!

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