Singapore Cooks

Singapore Cooks: Spicing up life with cooking

Avid home cook Arulanathan Balakrishnan enjoys experimenting with ingredients in his dishes

Administrative executive Arulanathan Balakrishnan is a "big-time carnivore", who makes dishes such as roast chicken rubbed with sumac, za'atar and tom yum paste; and has mutton biryani regularly appearing on his dining table at home.

Then a vegan friend showed up for dinner one day.

The 29-year-old rustled up a chickpea curry for her.

Instead of regular potatoes, he added sweet potatoes to the curry.

He says: "Curries can get rather boring, so having sweet potatoes lends a sweet tone to it."

The dry curry features chickpeas, green peas and sweet potatoes simmered in an aromatic tomato and onion-based sauce that is more sweet than spicy, like a Japanese curry.

Stirring cumin and mustard seeds into the mix accentuates the fragrance of the curry powder and adds depth of flavour.


The vegan chickpea curry by Mr Arulanathan Balakrishnan (above) uses sweet potatoes as well as cumin and mustard seeds.

The rich and velvety curry was such a hit that he started cooking the dish for his family as a side dish.

He cooks two to three times a week and says it is a form of therapy.

"The kitchen is a sacred space where I can forget my stress," says the bachelor, who lives with his parents.

"Playing with ingredients opens up a whole new world of possibilities and gives me a sense of achievement."

The gregarious host also cooks for friends once or twice a month. Hotly requested dishes include laksa, sambal prawns with quail eggs, nasi lemak and hummus jazzed up with rendang and Thai red curry pastes.

One of his earliest memories was being mesmerised watching batter whipped in a cake mixer during his mother's baking sessions.

Later, he was tasked with chopping ingredients and was then taught how to make curries, sambal and biryani.

His mother, 56, is a housewife and his father, 62, is a bus driver. He has an older sister, 37, who is a housewife.

His favourite subject in secondary school was home economics and he learnt to bake carrot cake and shepherd's pie during those classes.

During his free time, he holed up in the school library and scribbled down recipes for chocolate walnut cake, cheese fondue, mushroom pizza and pan-fried potato cakes from cookbooks.

He still refers to these recipes, which he stores in a file.

Besides Western food, Asian flavours also make up a huge chunk of his cooking repertoire.

Thai food is one of his go-to cuisines to cook, with dishes such as tom yum soup, tom kha (spicy and sour coconut chicken soup) and Thai green and red curries.

His interest was piqued after attending a Thai cooking class in Silom Thai Cooking School in Bangkok while on holiday there last year.

"I love that Thai food has a balance of sweet and spicy flavours, with lots of lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves thrown in," he says.

When he visited Ubud in Bali in December last year, he also attended a cooking class and picked up recipes for dishes such as gado gado (Indonesian salad in a chilli peanut sauce), fried tempeh in sweet soya sauce and Balinese- style chicken satay.

He says: "It is amazing to learn about cultural intricacies through food. I enjoy watching how locals eat and live during my travels."


VEGAN CHICKPEA CURRY

INGREDIENTS

2 Tbs olive oil

1 tsp mustard seeds

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 medium red onion, peeled and thinly sliced

25g ginger, peeled and thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, minced

400g canned diced tomatoes

250g sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2.5cm by 2.5cm cubes

230g canned chickpeas, drained

200ml coconut milk

3 Tbs Baba's meat curry powder (from FairPrice supermarkets)

1/2 tsp salt

150ml water

100g frozen green peas

METHOD

1. In a pan set over medium heat, add olive oil, mustard and cumin seeds. When the seeds start popping after one or two minutes, add the onions and saute for two minutes until they turn translucent.

2. Add the ginger and garlic, and fry for one minute.

3. Add the tomatoes, sweet potatoes, chickpeas, coconut milk, curry powder and salt. Stir well and bring it to a boil. If the curry is too thick, add 150ml of water, one Tbs at a time and mix well.

4. Cook the curry for 10 minutes. The sweet potatoes are cooked when a fork goes through them easily.

5. Add the peas. Stir the mixture and cook for another minute.

6. Turn off the heat. Pour the curry into a large bowl. Serve with rice.

Serves three

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 17, 2017, with the headline 'Spicing up life with cooking'. Print Edition | Subscribe