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Saturday, November 6, 2010
We have a saying in Chinese that goes like this... 吃饱饭没事做. Literal translation of that is 'Having nothing better to do after being fed'. The phrase is normally used to describe people who choose to engage in frivolous, meaningless deeds. As I kneaded the dough with perspiration beads forming on my fore head, that phrase resonated incessantly in my head.
Youtiao/ Yau Char Kuai are humble street food that I can find in many parts of Asia. In China/ Taiwan, this deep fried bread dough is taken for breakfast with soya bean milk. We also dip this into savoury porridge for breakfast or lunch. In Singapore/ Malaysia, we mix this with sweet prawn paste and vegetables in a local salad dish known as Rojak. And yes, we have also acquired the taste of dipping these in coffee.On the streets of Thailand, they have started serving this with pandan coconut custard. Quite simply, to me, the Yau Char Kuai/ Youtiao is the Baguette of the East.
However, nobody ever bothers to make this at home. When I was younger, we used to buy this for 30cents. Now with inflation and affluence, it has gone up to between 50cents and a dollar. Like what L had sensibly put it, you can get everything for a couple of bucks without any hassle.
When I first saw this recipe at Ellie's Almost Bourdain, I had wanted to make it. I was originally only curious about the custard because I had eaten it on crusty toasted bread in Bangkok and it was delicious. 2 weeks ago, when L and I were in Bangkok,we spotted these finger sized Youtiao and I knew I had to try them. L's verdict was that the longer versions tasted better as they are softer and more fluffy in the inside. The shorter ones which are stretched less, were denser. Then last week I came across an article in the papers about David Thompson whose cookbook ' Thai Street Food' was the original source of this recipe. David Thompson, an Australian chef who had won a Michelin star for his Thai restaurant, Nahm, in London, recently created some controversy when he opened a branch in Bangkok and caused general outrage after he was quoted as saying he was on a mission to revive Thai cuisine.
Words spoken out of ill-judgement, I felt. If anything, Thais are gentle but very nationalistic people. I can still recall how my Thai classmate in primary school used to tell me proudly that Thailand is the only SE Asian country that has never been conquered by foreigners.
Anyway, when I saw David Thompson's article, I immediately thought of this street dish again. Maybe it is a calling or whatever you call it, so as '吃饱饭没事做' as it may be, I still decided to make this.
I do recall seeing how the street vendors would pull and stretch the dough, cut them into thin strips, stack them together and press a chopstick over them. However, doing this at home is quite a feat. Awkward with the wet dough, I sprinkled flour on my pastry board and tried to roll the dough out as consistently as I could. Boy, did my kitchen look like a flour speckled war zone after the exercise. It took a while for me to get a feel for the dough. About half of my fried Youtiao looked really ugly, short and stubby with some looking more like fried dough squares. I got the hang of it after a while but working by yourself is tricky. I now know why there was always 2 people working at the stall, one would monitor the oil temperature and tend to the frying dough while the other concentrated on pulling and cutting the dough.
So would I do this again? Hmmm.... not in a heartbeat but I believe I would.
Recipe (As seen at Ellie's Almost Bourdain)
Please refer here for Pandan Coconut Custard
About 1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp white sugar
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of ammonia (baking ammonia) or 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) (* See note)
2 cups sieve plain (all-purpose) flour - more as needed
about 2 tsp vegetable oil
plenty of vegetable oil, for deep-frying
1.In a large bowl, mix the salt, sugar and bicarbonate with 1 cup of water, stirring until dissolved. Pour the flour into a large bowl. Make a well in the centre, then add a few tbsps of the prepared water. Work to make a loose, dry crumb then gradually incorporate the remainder of the water as well as the oil, kneading well after each addition. While kneading, occasionally gather the dough into a ball, pick it up and slap it several times, to stretch the gluten. When all is added, continue to knead and slap for at least 5 minutes - longer is better - to arrive at a silken, smooth, soft yet quite wet dough. The dough must be quite wet - if it's too dry, this will inhibit the puffing of the bread as it cooks.
2.Cover and leave to prove and ferment slightly in a warm, airy place for 6-8 hours or longer, until the dough has almost doubled in size and slowly springs back when pressed.
3.On the streets, the dough is patted and knocked back then slowly and gently stretched into long rectangular strips about 20 cm x 5 cm x 5 mm (8 in x 2 in x 3/4 in). Home cooks might prefer to roll the dough into the required shape. Make sure the surface and the rolling pin are dusted with plenty of flour to help prevent the dough from sticking. Leave to rest and prove for about 10 minutes, covered with a slightly damp cloth.
4.Now cut into smaller strips, each piece about 5 cm x 2 cm (2 in x 1 in). Brush the centre of a piece with a little water and top with another piece, pressing the middle sections lightly together. Repeat with the remaining strips. Some cooks use a skewer dusted with flour to do this, lifting one piece of the dough and pressing it against the other piece in the middle to secure the pair.
5.Pour the deep-frying oil into a large, stable wok or a wide heavy-based pan until it is about two-thirds full. Heat the oil over a medium-high flame until a cooking thermometer registers 180-190C (350-375F). Alternatively, test the temperature of the oil by dropping a cube of bread - it will brown in 10-15 seconds if the oil is hot enough.
6.Deep-fry the bread 4 or 5 pieces at a time until puffed, floating and golden. Turn each piece constantly during the deep-frying, to ensure that the dough puffs up then cooks and colours evenly. Experienced street cooks will deep-fry as many as 20 in a batch, but I have found that 4 or 5 at a time is enough to handle. Most cooks in Thailand will use a pair of large, long chopsticks to turn the pieces of bread - you can too, or a long-handled pair of tongs will do the trick. As each batch is cooked, lift out with chopsticks or tongs and drain on paper towel. Use a fine strainer to scoop out any scraps, which would taint the oil, and repeat until all of the shaped and cut dough is used.
7.Serve warm with a bowl of sugar or some dipping custard and a newspaper, and pepper with some gossip.