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I’ve long been a fan of XO sauce, possibly because Dim Sum Go Go restaurant in New York makes an amazing spicy-fishy-umami version to slather on its otherwise light and delicate shrimp dumplings. As a 1980s invention designed to connote luxury, it’s probably a terribly déclassé aspect of Hong Kong food culture, but I don’t care, I love it. Still, I’d never have thought to make it if not for a coincidental series of events. First, I was given the Momofuku cookbook for Christmas. It’s a fascinating read and a lovely book but incredibly cheffy: many of the recipes require you to have made a bone stock that takes three days and some special dashi before you even begin. It’s unapologetically impractical. But one thing did stand out – a recipe for XO sauce that required two things I just happened to have: lots of good quality dried shrimp and lots of good quality leftover ham. As it happened, I had a big bag of plump pink shrimp I’d brought back from Vietnam and a vacuum-sealed pack of 5-acorn Serrano ham scraps I brought from Barcelona. It was kismet! Thus began the XO sauce experiment. Read the rest of this entry »
The last time I went into my awesome local chili store Chili Pepper Pete’s, I discovered a new ingredient: green Sichuan peppercorns. I’ve only ever seen red ones before so I asked the guy behind the desk what was up with the green ones. This was definitely the right question as it unlocked exactly the type of conversation you dream of having with your local food purveyor. He told me not only what they are (young unripe peppercorns) but how they source them in Sichuan province and how they’re used there in different dishes. Turns out one of the owners is married to a woman from there and, as he rather smugly told me, he doesn’t go to any of our local Sichuan restaurants as he gets really great Sichuan food cooked for him nightly. (I kid, he was lovely. I’m just jealous…) Naturally I bought a bag of the little wonders and then had to spend some time figuring out what to make to bring out their ‘greener’ flavour.
I was part of a fascinating conversation on Facebook recently, in which an American Jewish friend made a disparaging comment about gefilte fish. Lots of other Americans piled on with the disgust toward these unappetising jarred fish balls floating in gloopy liquid. One person even revealed a childhood with canned gefilte fish, even more questionable than the giant jars. But something funny happened in this thread – both of the British Jews who responded had very different memories of gefilte fish; positive memories of a tasty dish, much looked forward to on special occasions. I have always loved these light fish balls, and during the period that I lived abroad, it went without saying that when I came home for a visit, my mum would cook me gefilte fish as a welcome home treat. I don’t know if there is a transatlantic difference here (obviously it was a pretty small sample and I’ve already encountered one American friend who actually likes the stuff in the jar) but the discussion prompted me to look out our family gefilte fish recipe for Passover. Read the rest of this entry »
I was quite excited to see the Masterchef finalists go to Thailand the other week. Obviously, this was mostly so that I could feel superior to their bungling attempts to make somtam, since the Chiang Mai market cooking challenge was one of the few I could reasonably imagine doing well on. For foreign readers who have not experienced the pleasure of watching Greg and John shout at hapless cooks, I should explain that many of their challenges involve cooking buckets of sponge pudding for soldiers or making high-end dinners for picky aristocrats. Even though some of my favourite past contestants have focused on Thai or Japanese food, the show does tend to emphasise knowledge of ‘honest’ aka British cuisine. Watching them battling with khao soi in Chiang Mai was a rare moment of ‘hey, I can make that!’.
Even better, though, was their trip into the mountains of Northern Thailand, where the food they cooked looked really delicious. One dish began with fermented fish in a curry paste – although I don’t have fermented fish to hand, I really liked the idea of a curry with fish as a base flavour rather than as a main ingredient. I loved the Northern-style curries we ate in Chiang Mai so the episode prompted me to experiment. What I came up with was a properly spicy vegetable curry infused with the umami richness of smoked fish and fermented soy. The recipe is pretty flexible: you could add meat or reduce the chilies. But it is meant to be spicy rather than sweet so don’t hold back too much…
This is my 100th post! I can’t believe I’ve made it to a century – though as these things always work, I feel at once as if I’ve been doing this forever and like I only started last week. We’ve got into a new rhythm, Mr Lemur and I, of cooking and photographing together, and of categorising meals as either ‘bloggable’ or ‘not bloggable’. The categories can be easy: weekend culinary adventures that start with ambitious shopping lists are always bloggable. When friends come to dinner, they usually have to sit around having their food photographed before they get to eat it. If I cook something I’ve written about before, it is automatically not bloggable, but more ususally not bloggable means too simple to be worth writing up, or too unphotogenic. There are a lot of pastas with beans and greens that don’t make their way into these pages. Sometimes deciding that something might be bloggable feels like an effort when you really just want to slob on the sofa and it’s those nights that finding the energy to cook something nice is really valuable. The effort of organising ingredients, getting out the camera and thinking about what exactly to prepare turns a chore into a creative process – which is why I love cooking in the first place.
I was wondering this week what to make for my 100th post but I’ve been working so late recently that I haven’t had time to plan anything elaborate. So I decided to go back to the kind of Thai cooking that I learned in New York – recipes I’ve been making and playing with for years. This recipe is one of those whose original is lost in the mists of time. I thought I remembered it from a book, but I’ve searched through all my cookbooks and it’s not there. Once upon a time I must have read a recipe for a Thai spicy salad with deep fried tofu skin, and I’ve certainly seem many recipes for Thai fish with raw vegetables. But quite how these things came together in my head I don’t know. What I do know is that the richness of smoked fish and the crispness of fried tofu skin are a marriage made in heaven, especially when you contrast them with significant quantities of ginger, lime and chilies. This is a dish that makes me happy, so I hope it appeals to you, my lovely readers, out there in the blogosphere. Here’s to another 100 posts… Read the rest of this entry »
No, I didn’t accidentally type the word ‘orange’ twice: I really did make an orange orange curry. The thing is this: when reading about Thai curries, I’ve often come across recipes for orange curry or even sour orange curry. Perhaps because of my familiarity with Latin American cooking, the first time I read this, I thought it was a curry made with sour oranges. Makes sense, right? But of course, it’s not. Orange curry is orange the way red curry is red and green curry is green. It’s not connected to fruit at all. But that first misreading stuck in my head and when I was shopping in a fairly crappy supermarket the other day and had few options for fresh ingredients, I thought hey, why not make a Thai fish curry with actual oranges? Thus was born the idea for the orange orange curry. Read the rest of this entry »
Another day, another spicy salad. With the gorgeous weather continuing, at least intermittently, I’m still feeling the urge for bright summery food. I really like the Thai way of combining fruits into savoury dishes, and I have a particular love for citrus. The original idea for this dish comes from yam som-oh, a dish based on pomelo that I make in colder weather with nam prik pow and chicken. But the pomelos in the store this week were from China, wrapped up in plastic wrap and suspiciously brown and mushy looking under their plasticky pink skin. Hmm. I’m suspicious of anything from mainland China, what with all the poisoned pet food, baby food, toothpaste, etc, not to mention Fuschia Dunlop’s claim that many middle class Hong Kong residents buy their food imported from elsewhere in Asia. So, no dodgy Chinese pomelo for me. But the grapefruit were nice and heavy so I thought I’d take advantage of their juiciness to make a lighter main course salad with the bitter and sweet flavours of grapefruit, smoked mackerel and endive.
Thai smoked mackerel and grapefruit salad
- 2 smoked mackerel fillets, skinned
- 1 grapefruit, segmented, leftover juice collected
- 100g green beans
- 1 endive, leaves removed whole
- 4 small shallots, thinly sliced
- 2 inch knob of ginger, finely chopped
- the zest and juice of 1 lime
- 6 small red birds’ eye chilies, chopped (or to taste)
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- 1-2 tbsp caster sugar (depending on the bitterness of the grapefruit)
- handful of mint leaves
Blanch the green beans for three minutes, or until not quite cooked. Cool and place in a large bowl. Break up the mackerel fillets into bite sized chunks and add to the bowl, along with the grapefruit segments, shallots, ginger and chilies. Grate the lime zest into the bowl and add the mint leaves.
To make the dressing, add the lime juice and fish sauce to 1 tbsp of grapefruit juice. Add 1 tbsp of sugar and taste. Depending on the grapefruit, this might be enough sugar or you may want to add a little more. You might need a bit more fish sauce too. Once you have the dressing balanced, add a little warm water and stir well, making sure the sugar is fully dissolved.
To serve, carefully toss the dressing into the salad and pile into endive leaves.
Sambal ikan, or fish sambal, is a subgenre of Malaysian dishes that includes both sambal ikan bilis (with the little anchovies that go into nasi lemak) and sambal ikan goreng, a popular dish of fried fish with sambal sauce. Of course, I am interested in anything that starts with funky dried shrimp sauce, but when I was recently told that I should eat more oily fish, I started thinking about how I might combine mackerel with sambal flavours. There is a Malaysian dish called sambal ikan tenggiri, which translates as mackerel sambal. However, the fish used is kingfish, which is in the mackerel family but much bigger than the kind we see usually in the UK. Thick steaks of kingfish are cooked in a sambal sauce, but that approach seemed like it would be fiddly with the smaller, bony mackerel of the south of England. So I came up with the idea of simplifying things by using smoked mackerel fillets and turning the dish into more of a deconstructed spicy salad: fish, lightly cooked greens, and fiery sambal to be mixed with rice as you eat. This approach made for an incredibly easy weeknight meal and also one that brings the richness of the fish and the deep umami pleasures of the sambal to the fore.
Smoked mackerel sambal
- 3 garlic cloves
- 8 shallots
- 3 stems of lemongrass
- 6 fresh medium red chilies
- 1 tsp shrimp paste
- 1 tbsp palm sugar
- 1 tbsp tamarind water
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- 3 fillets of smoked mackerel
- small bunch of bok choy
- 1/2 a red pepper
Roughly chop the garlic, shallots, chilies and lemongrass (using only the soft inside layers) and mix in a mini prep to a paste. Place the shrimp paste in an envelope of tinfoil, squash to a flat disk, and grill on a hot skillet for a minute on each side. Now add to the paste and mix well.
Heat a generous glug of oil in a non-stick pan and add the paste. It should sizzle nicely. Cook and stir for five minutes. Add the tamarind to taste, palm sugar and fish sauce. Cook for another minute.
Cut the bok choy in halves lengthwise and blanch in boiling water for a minute. Slice the red pepper thinly. Now arrange the fish and vegetables on a plate and serve with plenty of sambal and rice.
When people ask me what I miss from living in the USA, my answer is always Mexican food. It’s a bit of an obnoxious reply, as generally Americans ask this question expecting that I might miss something actually originating from the US. I don’t especially miss crappy chocolate or diner food, although if I’m being honest, I do sometimes crave biscuits and gravy. But it is Mexican food that is the big loss, and I don’t mean it as an insult because I think of Mexican food as more than just an import. It’s a crucial part of the North American culinary landscape, whether in Susan Feniger and Rick Bayless’s fantastic restaurants in Los Angeles and Chicago or in the more everyday influence of Mexican immigration to the farmlands of Iowa. I miss going to the farmer’s market to buy tomatillos and poblanos. I miss the local bodega that sells fresh corn tortillas and nopales by the pound. And oh how I miss hot, greasy carne asada quesadillas for lunch, eaten on the hoof, with the promise of carnitas with crunchy pig ear on Sunday.
The UK doesn’t have a lot of Mexican immigrants and so very few of these ingredients or flavours have seeped into the culture here. There’s no range of dried chilies in the stores, and while you can buy tomatillos in London’s Borough Market, paying £7 for a tiny bag might make you weep. Britain can also seem stuck in a racist vision of Mexico that wouldn’t fly at all if aimed at South Asian cultures – Southern Rail has a shockingly offensive campaign featuring a stupid Mexican who speaks pigeon English and a local taqueria actually has a sign of a “lazy” Mexican sleeping under a cactus!
But recently, things have started to change. The Cool Chile Co. makes fresh tortillas daily and ships them to your door, along with masa harina, spices, and of course chilies. I used some of their ingredients to make my traditional Christmas mole this year and the knowledge that proper tortillas are just a day away by first class post is highly reassuring. And the success of Wahaca, Thomasina Miers’s Mexican street food restaurant in London has spawned a rash of new, ‘authentic’ Mexican eateries, such as the excellent Lupita, which focuses on Mexico City food.
It’s something of a sign that Miers felt the need to spell Oaxaca phonetically, so unfamiliar was this mecca of Mexican cuisine to the demographic she was aiming for, but her food – like the chorizo quesadilla with pickled vegetables above – has won over the crowds. When I first visited, every single table was eating burritos. I ordered the cochinita pibil (pork braised in achiote) and soon had enquiries from my neighbours (the tables are closely packed) about my vibrant dish. Now the place is always jumping, and the Mexican market small plates are the draw.
So when our good friend (and brilliant photographer) J visited from Stockholm this week, we took him to Wahaca. We began with a refreshing hibiscus flower mojito, a delicious combination of sweet and sour. We followed cocktails with a spread of small plates: a highlight was the pork pibil taco, garnished with traditional pickled pink onions, which is the image at the top of the post. Another standout was the smoked mackerel taco, with the lightness of a ceviche, balanced by the punchy flavour of mackerel. This was a new dish, and a real winner.
We also went traditional with guacamole and pork scratchings, entertainingly billed as a ‘healthier’ option. Admittedly, the pork skin was baked rather than fried, but still, let’s face it, there’s not much healthy about pork skins dipped in avocado. Delicious, yes. Healthy, not so much.
The cabbage taquitos with pasilla sauce were also new to the menu (yes, I come here quite often, what of it?) and while the vegetables got a little lost in the deep frying, the robust pasilla flavour nicely cut the richness of crispy tortilla and soft crema.
Wahaca is clearly a very successful restaurant on its own merits, but for me the real story is the slow but discernible growth of a Mexican presence on the London food scene. Having the choice of more than one Mexican place you can take an out-of-town guest to as representative of what’s great about London eating is a pretty good position to be in. Now, if I could just arrange for someone to sell those pig’s ear carnitas in Brighton…