Penny Cai, aka the author and eater behind food blog Jeroxie, works as a project manager in a digital agency. Outside of work, she loves to eat, cook and bake. Born in Singapore, she loves the "gutsy flavour of South East Asia", but also has a deep love for blue cheese, candied bacon, and crème brulee.
We chat to Penny about growing up in Singapore, her greatest dining experience thus far, and her ideal homemade brunch menu.
Tell us about the monthly International Incident Party. What are five tips or techniques you’ve taken from it?
It started from a suggestion of having a cyber gnocchi party, despite our geographical distance. A group of us decided to schedule a post of a gnocchi recipe on the same date and time. It was a lot of fun and, personally, I was really intrigued by how everyone came up with their own interpretation. After emails among the same group of bloggers, I was encouraged to start the International Incident Party. Blogging really brings people closer as we speak the same language – food!
As for five tips, I learnt a really cool illusion photography trick. (Check out the photo of my pumpkin scones with sweet tomato sauce.) I also overcame my fear of baking. I was never comfortable with baking, but the various themes made me overcome it, one recipe at a time. I've begun cooking [recipes from] different cultures, such as Mexican, Japanese, Thai, Chinese and Malaysian. Bloggers influence each other and get exposed to other cultures, using ingredients like lavender or salt as the star of a dish. I learnt how to make a mean and authentic New Orleans gumbo roux. And, finally, I learnt to make candied bacon. It is a hit at dinner parties or just for self indulgence. A must-have recipe in a pig lovers' repertoire.
You’ve lived in Melbourne and Sydney. Which do you prefer in terms of its food scene?
There is no favourite. Melbourne and Sydney have their own unique charms. For example, both have a really good selection of farmers' markets. I'm fortunate to be living close to Eveleigh and Addison markets in Sydney. I really need to chat to the stall holders at the markets. These people give the best tips and recipes for using their produce. The Sydney Fish Market is another big winner for me. I will usually buy a whole salmon or ocean trout. I keep the bones and head for deep-frying or grilling.
I am surprised to see the number of cafes in Sydney. I'm not a coffee snob, but it's quite challenging to find a café that serves good coffee. Sorry, Sydney, but Melbourne definitely wins hands down on this one. Plus, I am still on the lookout for really good brunch places in Sydney. The Premises in Melbourne is the benchmark.
What would your followers be surprised to learn about you?
I made a microwave sandwich on my second or third date for my fiancé. When I first met him, I couldn't cook at all. What is a microwave sandwich? I placed crumbed chicken schnitzel in the microwave to heat it up. I added supermarket-bought shredded cabbage with schnitzel and sandwiched them between two slices of white bread.
Tell us about the best meal you’ve ever had.
I love hawker and street food, however the degustation meal I had at Royal Mail Hotel in 2010 is so memorable. I salivate when I think about it. The first dish that comes to mind is the super, mind-blowing tomato on toast. Expensive ingredients like foie gras or truffle weren’t used in the degustation menu, instead executive chef Dan Hunter created an amazing experience with simple ingredients. Our sommelier introduced us to amazing wines and there were a couple of perfect matches. The service is flawless. The staff were like ghosts, they knew when we needed them and when we didn’t.
Would you say food is the easiest way to learn about a culture?
I won’t say it is the easiest, but it is the tastiest way to learn about a culture. You can understand the history and culture from food. You can also learn and understand the rituals of preparing certain foods during festivals. There is a popular saying, "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are".
As well as dine out, you also love to cook. What does your perfect homemade brunch consist of?
Something with eggs. I love eggs, especially soft and gooey ones. I love making baked eggs at home for brunch. It's really quick, easy and hard to get wrong. I even bought two small cast iron pans for the eggs. Crack two into a hot cast iron pan, season and then pop them into a 160°C oven for about three minutes.
As you were born and raised in Singapore, share your earliest memories around food and Singaporean cuisine.
My grandma – even though she died when I was little, I have vague memories of her and the bak chang that she made every year for lantern festival. The best nyonya chang and seriously no-one can ever come close.
My dad and I would travel for hawker food – roti and kopi in Singapore on weekends. Both of us love kway chap and also Sammy’s fish head curry. Mum is not a good cook, but would take me out to explore different cuisines. One week would be Japanese, another American.
When I go back to Singapore to visit, I still hit all the hawkers and kopi tiam. For me, that is old-school Singaporean. But the cuisine is growing up and there's a lot of fusion going on. Very few do it well and, when they do, it is pretty awesome and unique in its own way. I am looking forward to the next generation of Singaporean food, but I hope that it retains its authenticity.
If money and time were no object, where would you fly to right now and what would you eat there?
Penang. My grandma and dad were from Penang. They fled to Singapore during World War II. I have Peranakan blood in me, but never quite understood a lot of it. I would like to eat my way through the Nyonya food in Penang, and also learn skills from the old aunties. I would like to learn more about the Nyonya culture and its beautiful art.
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