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My friend K introduced me to the pleasures of rice porridge – not quite Chinese congee but a texture more like Italian polenta or Indian upma. I’m always on the lookout for non-traditional savoury breakfasts because I don’t like eggs so most of the savoury breakfast world is closed to me. I love Asian breakfasts, of course, because I don’t like the blandness of most western morning foods and I don’t have any qualms about breaking out the chilies first thing in the morning. That said, this dish is endlessly variable, and if you don’t want spicy food first thing, you can easily modify the dressing to be more sedate. I’ve used my leftover red curry paste but you could use nam prik pow, chili paste or just skip the chilies altogether.

The first trick is to find your rice polenta. If you live in the US, the best kind is Red Mill rice farina, which has a lovely nuttiness because it’s made with brown rice. In the UK, I’ve found brown rice polenta impossible to come by, but Indian stores sell the white rice variety, often labelled ground rice. You don’t want it to look like flour but more like polenta or cornmeal.

Asian mushroom rice porridge

  • 1 cup rice polenta
  • 6 shiitake mushrooms or 1 portabella
  • 3 spring onions
  • a handful of cilantro
  • 1 tsp  chili paste
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp rice vinegar
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1/2 tbsp sweet soy sauce
  • vegetable oil for frying

First make your dressing. Mix light and sweet soy, sesame oil, and rice vinegar and emulsify with a fork. You can add some sriracha to this for added heat.

Slice the shiitakes or, if using portabella mushroom, cut into small cubes. Heat a little oil in a non-stick frying pan and, if using chili paste, fry it for a minute. Add the mushrooms and fry till browned all over. Meanwhile, slice the spring onions and pick cilantro leaves.

To cook the rice porridge, boil 3 cups of water and then add 1 cup of porridge. Lower the heat and stir. White rice porridge will cook in just a minute while brown rice will take about 5 minutes. Either way, stir constantly and taste for doneness. You want it to be soft but to retain a little grainy texture. It shouldn’t be totally mushy.

To serve, top porridge with mushrooms, spring onions, and cilantro and spoon over a few teaspoons of dressing.

Along with Seville oranges, late January brings the first young spears of forced rhubarb into the shops, in a vivid pink that brightens up the vegetable basket. We always had rhubarb growing in my back garden when I was a child. Truth be told, it was about the only thing that grew reliably and the giant leaves completely took over a whole section of the yard. These weren’t the delicate pale pink stems of Yorkshire forced rhubarb but monster stalks, assertively red and triffid-like. I always loved them, whether dipped in caster sugar and eaten raw or cooked in my grandmother’s buttery shortcrust pies and swimming in heavy cream. I found it sad when I lived in the States that American culture had not really embraced rhubarb, mixing it with strawberries and trying to tone down its sour-sweet pleasures. So one of the great pleasures of British life for me is its January appearance, heralding a long season of rhubarby breakfasts, desserts and even savoury uses.

This recipe for a fragrant rhubarb compote has lots of potential uses. You can use it to top french toast, as I do here, or pancakes, or it would be lovely with yoghurt, honey, and granola. It would work as a dessert with ice cream and ginger cake, or on a lemony cheesecake. It could even be served with cold roast pork, in which case I might add star anise to the cooking mix.

The french toast, meanwhile, is the specialty of Mr Lemur. What makes it Chilean? It’s all about the condensed milk. Chileans are obsessed with condensed milk and find ways to put it into everything. Cooked, it becomes manjar, which is a variant of dulce de leche, and is also a popular breakfast item. (I know it seems faintly horrifying, but try it on toast with bacon. Then come back and thank me…) Anyway, Mr Lemur came up with this neat method of sweetening french toast effectively and making it more custardy at the same time. It produces a rich, unctuous toast that is cut nicely by the sour-sweetness of the rhubarb. If you are feeling ambitious, you might even try making your own condensed milk – Almost Bourdain has a great recipe. Even with storebought condensed milk, though, this recipe is a decadent pleasure.

Chilean french toast with rhubarb compote

  • bunch of 6-8 rhubarb stems
  • tbsp honey, preferable orange blossom or similar
  • 3 cardamom pods
  • loaf of brioche or challah bread
  • 3 large eggs
  • 3 tbsp condensed milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/4 tsp cinnamon
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • pinch salt
  • butter for frying

First, make the compote. Wash and slice the rhubarb into 2cm slices. Heat the honey in a heavy-bottomed pot until melted. Add the rhubarb and cardmom, stir well, bring to a boil and then turn the heat down low. Cook for about 20 minutes, or until the rhubarb has become very soft but still has some shape. Remove the cardamom seeds. You can do this part in advance and refrigerate until needed.

For the french toast, whisk eggs, condensed milk, vanilla, cinnamon, salt and milk in a rectangular container (a small brownie tray or lasagna pan works well). Slice your loaf thickly. Heat a flat, non-stick skillet and melt a small knob of butter. When butter is sizzling, dip the slices one by one into the milk and egg mix, turning several times to soak thoroughly. Fry the bread until nicely browned, turning once.

Serve immediately and top with warm compote. I don’t think maple syrup is needed here, but hey, knock yourself out…

Serves 3-4

There’s not much excitement in the produce aisle in January, but one thing that makes my heart beat a little faster is the brief season for Seville oranges. Here in the UK, I suspect people think of them mainly as a marmalade ingredient and find their short appearance in the shops plenty of time for a batch of preserves. But, while I love a good artisanal marmalade, I think of Seville oranges instead as bitter orange or naranja agria, a key ingredient in Cuban, Mexican and some other Latin American cuisines. They must have a longer season in the Americas, where they’re much more commonly found in stores, but here in northern Europe, we usually have to fake the flavour with a mix of lime and orange juice. So, when I see these rather ugly fruits in a basket in my local market, I fill a bag and start dreaming of Cuban mojo and Yucatecan heat. There isn’t a better way to beat the January blues…

Cuban pork chops with bitter orange mojo

For this recipe, I stuck to a traditional combination of bitter orange with pork: it’s quick, and I don’t need much persuasion to break out the pig. But this sauce perks up the flavour of just about anything – other meats like chicken or even beef, starchy vegetables like mashed potatoes or cassava, or as a vinaigrette on salads, green beans and so on.

  • 6 garlic cloves
  • a heaping teaspoon of cumin seeds
  • 3 bitter oranges, juiced
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 pork chops
  • a handful of fine green beans
  • cilantro for garnish

To make the mojo, chop the garlic, sprinkle salt on it and squash into a paste with your knife. Pound the cumin to a powder in a mortar and pestle. Heat the olive oil in a heavy bottomed pot and carefully sauté the garlic. You want it to colour just a touch. Add the cumin, a little more salt, and some pepper. When the cumin releases its scent, add the orange juice. Turn the heat up and whisk for a minute, then turn off the heat and let sit for 30 minutes or so. Test for salt one last time. You want to serve it coolish.

I kept the rest of the dish pretty simple: just season the the pork chops well and pan fry them in some more oil until they’re as done as you like them. Meanwhile, cook rice and steam the green beans for 5 minutes. Assemble the dish and pour delicious mojo over everything. Top with some chopped cilantro leaves.

A friend commented the other day that I hadn’t cooked any Thai food yet – well, I say commented, but it was more of a complaint. But he made a good point. I cook a lot of Thai food and it’s overdue some representation on the blog. Unlike him, I haven’t just come back from a fantastic looking trip to Southeast Asia (sob), so I can’t draw on memories of the genuine article. But I have eaten some amazing Thai food over the years: the most flavourful green curry I can imagine in an Andalucian village of all places, sublime pork relish with crackling in David Thompson’s Michelin-starred Nahm in London, and, perhaps best of all, coconut and shrimp rice in Jitlada, an unassuming strip-mall restaurant I would cheerfully fly back to Los Angeles just to eat at again. We take popular Thai dishes for granted these days, but it’s easy to forget just how genuinely exciting a cuisine it can be.

My Thai cooking is nowhere near the level of complexity of those restaurants, but I did learn a thing or two from food shopping in New York. As I’ve mentioned, Chinese supermarket workers in Chinatown don’t tend to speak much English, but the Thai store people do and some kind shopkeepers were willing to help teach me what to cook with the things I brought to the counter. I got some great tips from the lovely Nong in Bangkok Center Grocery (whose homemade nam prik pow is delicious, by the way, if you’re in the area). She guided me in cooking with frozen coconut, Thai pea eggplant and pomelo, and in my first forays into homemade curry pastes. Thai curry pastes are an absolute breeze to make, with just the labour of peeling and chopping standing between you and fresh, brightly flavoured dishes a million times better than using a jar. This red curry paste can be used in lots of recipes, including the noodle dish below.

Thai red curry paste

  • 15 dried red chilies (about 2 inches long)
  • 5 fresh red chilies (the next size up from birds’ eye)
  • 10 cloves of garlic
  • 5 lemongrass stalks
  • 1 knob of galangal
  • 1 tbsp coriander seeds
  • 11 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tbsp cilantro leaves and stems
  • the zest of a lime
  • 1 tsp shrimp paste
  • a glug of fish sauce

Soak the chilies in warm water for 10-15 minutes. Meanwhile, dry roast the coriander seeds and then the cumin (separately) in a frying pan, then pound them in a mortar and pestle. Transfer to a small food processor. Chop the fresh chilies. Peel and chop the galangal. Peel off the rough outer layers of the lemongrass and chop the tender insides. Chop the cilantro. (This should really be cilantro roots, if you can get them, but I never can so I use stems and leaves.) By now the dried chilies should have softened up a bit and you can chop them too. Pound the garlic cloves, lemongrass, galangal, both sets of chilies and cilantro. Add lime zest and shrimp paste and transfer to the processor. Pulse with a tablespoon of fish sauce if necessary to produce a paste that’s mostly smooth but with flecks of colour and texture remaining. Taste carefully for balance – eaten raw it is going to be quite hot. And remember you’ll be adding sugar and lime to whatever dish you put it in, so don’t worry if it seems a little salty.

Note: If you want a vegetarian version, just omit the shrimp paste and replace the fish sauce with light soy sauce. Similarly, you can make the noodles veggie by replacing the fish sauce with soy (half light, half dark) and using Thai eggplant, tofu, or zucchini instead of chicken.

Red curry chicken noodles

  • 1 tsp oil
  • 1 tbsp palm sugar
  • 1 whole chicken leg
  • 1 1/2 tbsp red curry paste
  • bunch of kai lan, torn into large pieces
  • a thick handful of flat rice or wheat noodles
  • 3 spring onions, sliced
  • 2 cups beansprouts
  • 1 lime
  • fish sauce to taste
  • handful of cilantro, chopped

(I’ve separated out the curry paste from the noodle recipe since you might want to make the paste on its own, but if you plan to make the noodles, then begin with the chicken or vegetables and make the paste while you wait for them to cook.)

Place the chicken in an oven-safe dish, splash with fish sauce and sprinkle with black pepper. Cook at 190 C / 375 F / gas mark 5 for about 45 minutes or until the juices run clear. Cut the chicken into bite size chunks, including the crispy skin, and retain the fat and juices in the pan. Boil the noodles for 4 minutes (or just soak them if they are thin enough rice noodles). Drain and keep them in a colander.

Heat the oil to medium and fry the red curry paste until sizzling. Pour in some of the chicken fat and juices. (Be careful, the pan will spit a bit.) Add the palm sugar and mix well. Keep stirring and scraping the paste to prevent sticking for 2-3 minutes. Add spring onions, stir, and then add kai lan. Keep stirring.

Add a tbsp or so of water to loosen. Add chicken, noodles, and a glug of fish sauce and toss well for another couple of minutes. Turn off the heat. Add beansprouts and half the lime juice and mix. Taste and add more lime juice and/or fish sauce until the flavours balance. Top with cilantro leaves and serve immediately.

Serves 2-3

Haggis Dumplings (photo Lydia Nagai)

I came across this article about Burns night crossed with Chinese New Year in Vancouver and couldn’t resist. Apparently, Chinese-Canadian Todd Wong founded Gung Haggis Fat Choy to bring together  the two major ethnic groups who emigrated to British Columbia: the Scots and the Chinese:

Wong, or “Toddish McWong” as he is known in the Scottish community, invented a new holiday by combining the Chinese New Year with Robbie Burns Day, the holiday that celebrates the birthday of Scotland’s most famous poet. The two holidays fall close together in the calendar year, making it convenient to combine the celebrations, notes Wong, a fifth generation Chinese-Canadian. On Jan. 31, Vancouver’s Chinatown will host the 12th annual Gung Haggis Fat Choy festival where deep-fried haggis won ton will be served alongside single malt whiskey.

Scottish people and Chinese people…eating innards together. Could there be a more splendid version of multiculturalism in action?

It’s been pretty cold here recently, and I’ve been dreaming of rich, warm, food that makes you feel like you are wrapped in a blanket. But comfort food doesn’t have to be bland – of course, I get nervous if there are no chilies in the fridge, so my idea of comfort may be biased. Still, Malaysian sambal offers the potential for a warming combination of coconut milk, ground nuts and a lively spice paste. I’ve been researching Malaysian and Indonesian food a lot recently, and have had some success with the kind of  strongly-flavoured sambal that you eat as a condiment. I’ll post about that type of sambal soon, but for this dish, I wanted a soupier, sweeter sambal that would work a little like a coconut curry.

Hitting the Asian grocery, I found some really fresh-looking morning glory, or water spinach. Kangkung belacan (morning glory stir fried with shrimp paste and chilies) has long been a favourite dish of mine at Malaysian restaurants, and while it can be hard to come by in the US, it’s quite often sold in Asian stores in the UK. (Apparently, it is actually illegal to possess or sell it in the United States, where it is considered a dangerous weed! Since they serve it in lots of restaurants, I’m guessing that law is not especially well enforced, but it might explain its relative rarity in stores.) In any case, I decided that morning glory would add some nice texture and greenery to the sambal.

Because the stems of morning glory are hollow, they have a slightly chewy texture, even when cooked. And because you cook the stalks whole, without chopping them up, they don’t disappear into a dish like regular spinach would. Thus, they retain their personality even when added to a soupy dish like this one. I like this combination of morning glory and chicken, but this dish is pretty adaptable. Made with shrimp or fish, I’d cut back the coconut milk to just a couple of spoonfuls and increase the fresh chilies and lemongrass. You could also swap the morning glory for long beans or chard.

Sambal ayam with morning glory

  • 4 shallots
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 stalks of lemongrass, tender insides only
  • 4 or 5 dried red chilies
  • 1 or 2 fresh red chilies
  • 1 tsp shrimp paste
  • 1/4 cup candlenuts or peanuts
  • 1/2 a can of coconut milk
  • 6 boneless chicken thighs, cut into chunks
  • a bunch of morning glory
  • a glug of fish sauce to taste
  • cilantro

First make the spice paste. Pound the garlic and lemongrass in a mortar and pestle. Chop the fresh chilies into small pieces and then pound them too. Roughly chop the shallots and dried chilies and then put them in a small food processor and pulse till well chopped. Stop before they turn totally to liquid. Turn into a bowl and mix with the pounded ingredients. Add the shrimp paste and stir well to combine. (Note: lots of people think raw shrimp paste smells bad, so put it in at the very end and put the container straight back in the fridge. As soon as you cook it, it begins to smell delicious, so if you find the raw smell a bit off, just get it cooking asap.)

Heat a wok or large pot and add a good glug of oil. When it shimmers, fry the spice paste. You want it bubbling nicely but not burning or sticking to the pan. While it’s cooking, use the same processor to grind the nuts. You want a cornmeal texture, and some bigger bits are ok. Once the paste starts to smell deeply savoury, add the chicken and brown all over. Next add the coconut milk, the ground nuts and a quick glug of fish sauce.

Simmer gently till the chicken is cooked (you don’t want the coconut milk to overheat so keep the heat low). Trim the ends off the morning glory and pick through carefully for bad leaves. When the chicken is cooked, add in the greens and stir until wilted. Taste for salt and sweetness, and sprinkle cilantro leaves on top.

Over at Coconut and Quinoa, Amy Chaplin has a fab recipe for farro salad with roasted squash and chard. I love the combination of grains and greens, but my inner Scot really can’t get past barley as a base for nutty, grainy, chewiness. Of course, in Scottish cuisine, barley is most often found in soups (or at least that’s where I encountered it as a child). I like it fine in soups, but I prefer to make it the star of the show so I tend to cook it like an Italian barlotto; like a risotto but with barley instead of rice. I knew I wanted a barlotto with greens on top, and I decided to add sweet potatoes for warmth and goat cheese for sharpness.

How to flavour the barlotto? I turned to the spices I bought from a lovely North African spice vendor in Paris. I love North African flavours, but I really don’t know these cuisines at all well, so the bright yellow and red spices I brought home tend to find their way into my more, um, experimental dishes. Here, I went for ras-el-hanout, which can have all manner of ingredients, but often includes nutmeg, turmeric, cumin, coriander and cinnamon. The bag I brought home from Paris is fragrant with coriander and nutmeg, with a distinct cuminy undertone that melds perfectly with nutty barley.

For toppings, I used baby red kale and red peppers sautéed in garlic, and I roasted sweet potato with another Parisian find: a mild, bright red chili powder called piment fort. To finish, I added hazelnut and goat cheese. It’s a bit geographically confused, but the overall effect is Mediterranean and has a summery vibrancy despite being filling enough for a winter’s night.

Greens and sweet potato barlotto

  • a cup of pot barley (pearl if you want it to cook quicker, but I prefer pot)
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 tbsp ras-el-hanout
  • 2-3 cups vegetable stock
  • a bunch of baby kale
  • 1/2 a red pepper, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 sweet potatoes, cut into small dice
  • 1 tbsp piment fort, cayenne, or other chili powder
  • 1/2 a round of goat cheese
  • a handul of hazelnuts

Fry the onion in olive oil and, when browning, add in the ras-el-hanout. Cook it a little in the oil but be careful not to burn it. Add in the barley and enough stock to cover by about an centimetre. Bring to the boil then lower to simmer. Keep an eye on it, stir periodically, and add more stock or water as it dries out. You don’t have to watch barley with anything like the attention of a risotto, but do check in on it every few minutes. It will take about an hour or so to be tender and chewy.

Meanwhile, toss the sweet potato with piment fort powder, salt, and some olive oil and spread out on a baking tray. Roast at a high heat until soft. (This seems to take an age in my oven, so timing is very variable.) On a separate tray, roast the hazelnuts for 15 minutes. When you take them out, wrap in a teatowel for a few minutes, then rub off the skins through the towel.

When the barley is almost ready, fry the garlic and red pepper in a wide pan in more olive oil, then add the kale and wilt. Salt to taste. To assemble the dish, pile barlotto in a bowl then top with greens, sweet potatoes, some nuts and some dollops of cheese.

Sichuan food has become increasingly trendy in the UK since the opening of Bar Shu in London and  the publication of Fuschia Dunlop’s fantastic books Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper and Sichuan Cookery. But this fashion hasn’t translated rapidly into the high street. While other Asian cuisines benefitted from recent waves of foodie enthusiasm and ingredients such as lemongrass and coconut milk became commonplace in the supermarket, Chinese food in the UK until recently still languished in 1980s-style takeout hell. In large measure it still does, and I tend to ignore the existence of most dodgy-looking Chinese restaurants around town. Moreover, while I’ve eaten in Bar Shu and enjoyed it thoroughly, that type of expensive, hipster dining experience isn’t really my thing. This is where the miracle of Brighton’s Lucky Star comes in, and for once, I can claim a small part in the story.

A year or so ago, a good friend, knowing my love of Asian food, told me about an ordinary little Chinese restaurant he’d seen bustling with Chinese students. (Brighton’s full of language schools so we have a lot of young people from around the world.) Intrigued, he went in, only to be presented with a bog-standard Anglo-Chinese menu, full of chow mein and kung po chicken. He asked if he could have some of the noodles the kids were eating and, after he assured the waiter repeatedly he wouldn’t find it too spicy, they obliged. He was so excited he texted me four times during that bowl of noodles. Soon I went with a larger expedition. We again begged for some of the dishes on the Chinese-language menu – any dishes, we said, just bring us some of this amazing looking food! We received lamb, fragrant with cumin, green beans slick with chili oil and covered in ground pork, deeply gingery tofu and again the heavenly vermicelli soaking up a porky sauce dusted with Sichuan peppercorns. Everything was completely fresh and the flavours fairly sang.

Soon, our original group started bringing more friends. We befriended the owner, Hong, who was pleased and a little bemused to find a group of white folks so enthusiastic about her food. She told us the chef came from Sichuan province, as she does, and they both return regularly to research new dishes. The menu was still a bit of a challenge and the waiters, while lovely, had understandably limited patience for our interrogations. So I bought a book on reading Chinese food characters and started to order dishes I could at least partially decipher on the menu. I was so proud of my limited Chinese reading skills and recognising ma po tofu or twice-cooked pork led to more amazing food. While the Chinese-reading experiment was fun, Hong took pity on us and persuaded one of the waiters to translate the menu. It turns out, our proselytizing had brought in a regular customer base who weren’t Chinese but wanted to eat the Sichuan regional cuisine.

Now there’s a full English-language menu that includes both familar Sichuan dishes and more unusual ones. A classic dish like beef in chili oil is a real showcase for the Sichuan peppercorn and dried chili combination: smoky warm chilies and floral peppercorns combine with a reassuringly oily broth. The cold potato with chili is at least as good as Bar Shu’s rendition of the dish, amazingly light with enough garlic and chili to infuse the julienned potato with a rich tang. Hong will also steer you toward some Northern fare for a winter’s evening: braised beef with potato, redolent of wine and anise, or by contrast stir fried vinegar cabbage with black fungus, seared with a satisfying wok hei. Moreover, new dishes appear each time the chef comes back from China. This is really exciting regional cooking, balancing traditional dishes with an obvious love for where Sichuan food is now.

I still see people come in for the generic Chinese buffet menu, and I suppose the restaurant relies on those customers too, but Lucky Star’s Sichuan menu feels like a secret club that I’ve been lucky enough to have joined. If you’re ever in Brighton, stop by and say hi to Hong from me…

Lucky Star, 101 Trafalagar St, Brighton BN2 4ER (no website)

One of the hardest things in learning about Asian food from my white European perspective is getting to grips with the astonishing array of herbs and greens used in each cuisine. For one thing, many Asian herbs just aren’t available in the west, and at a certain point, substitutions leave you feeling you’ve lost the spirit of a dish. Even when Asian greenery is available, it’s hard to know what’s what. My favourite Hong Kong supermarket in New York had a pretty simple English-language labelling policy: everything that came from an animal was labelled “fish” and everything else was labelled “chicken”. Entertaining, to be sure, but not super helpful in distinguishing your kai lan from your pak choi. This combination of beautiful produce and language barrier taught me to shop differently, to pick what looked fresh and test out flavours at home. This was an important lesson in starting from first principles, being led by the ingredient, but I still wanted to learn the traditional combinations of the cuisines I enjoyed so much. How to bridge the gap between the ingredients described in books and those piled up in stores remained a challenge.

I was hugely excited, then, to see an array of international herbs at the UK Fiery Foods Festival in Brighton this summer. Now, I am not a gardener, or I’d probably have thought of growing my own herbs before. Seriously, I do not have green fingers. I killed a cactus once. But coming upon a display of fresh lemongrass, Thai basil and Vietnamese coriander was too much temptation to resist and I went home with a giant bag of pot plants. I wasn’t exactly sure at the time what “Vietnamese coriander” was. The woman who sold it to me said it was extremely pungent and I should use only half a leaf at a time. This seemed kind of crazy, since its taste was somewhere between cilantro and lemon verbena. I couldn’t think of a good reason not to throw handfuls into my next spicy salad.

When I got it home, I figured out that I had bought the herb called rau răm in Vietnam, pak pai in Thailand, and daun laksa in Malaysia. It’s an important Southeast Asian ingredient, essential for laksa, as its name suggests, and used in Laotian larb as well as Vietnamese salads, summer rolls and noodles. It also grows enthusiastically, despite my incompetence, so I’ve been testing it out in a range of dishes. It doesn’t quite work in Thai salads where you want the more forcefully perfumey top-notes of Thai basil, and it seems to fight with fruit. It does marry well with meats, though, especially beef, and it combines well with mint and cilantro. Given these affinities, I tried it out in a Vietnamese beef salad that would usually be made with sawtooth herb.

Vietnamese beef and rau răm salad

  • 3 tbsp lime juice
  • 2 tbsp palm sugar
  • 1 tbsp fish sauce
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 4 birds eye chilies (or to taste)
  • 2 tbsp tamarind water
  • 1 steak, trimmed and sliced very thin
  • 1/2 cucumber
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 tbsp caster sugar
  • a good handful of rau răm – 20 or 30 leaves
  • a smaller handful of mint leaves
  • 3 tbsp peanuts, toasted and crushed

Peel the carrot and cucumber and then slice into very thin long strips with the peeler. Put them in a bowl and add a tablespoon of caster sugar. Mix well, leave for ten minutes, then drain and squeeze out the excess liquid.

Make the dressing: pound one garlic clove and one chili in a mortar and pestle, then add palm sugar and pound till softened. Add lime juice, fish sauce, and taste for balance. You might need more of one thing or another.

Chop the rest of the garlic finely, and fry in vegetable oil in a hot wok. Add the meat and cook, stirring constantly, for a couple of minutes until just coloured all over. (Another good option is to grill the steak till rare and then slice it thin and mix with the fried garlic.)

In a bowl, mix the meat with tamarind water. Add the vegetables, remaining chilies, sliced, and herbs. Dress, mix, and garnish with the peanuts. Serve with rice.

Recipe adapted from Luke Nguyen’s The Songs of Sapa: Stories and Recipes from Vietnam.

Having finally vanquished my giant work project, I decided this weekend it was time to spend some quality time in the kitchen. I’ve been exploring Malaysian and Indonesian food recently, and one inspiring source has been James Oseland’s Cradle of Flavor, which is one of those rare cookbooks you can read for pleasure as well as cook from. It’s not just a list of recipes but a real education in the foodways and culinary techniques of the Southeast Asian Spice Islands. I played around with a few dishes this weekend but my favourite was a variant of the cooked vegetable salad urap.

I might have mentioned my love of chilies. Asian spicy salads are probably my favourite thing to cook because the flavours stay bright and separate, and the textures of different vegetables (and sometimes meats) contrast in the mouth. Thai pomelo and chicken salad, Vietnamese grilled beef and lime, and Indonesian gado-gado are some of my longstanding favourites. These salads are main dishes not sides, and once you have a sense of some of the basic structures, you can easily branch out and create new variants.

This recipe is for a slightly simplified version of urap, which you can make with more or less any vegetables you have available seasonally. Dark greens like spinach would be a nice addition, but I went for red cabbage for colour contrast. In some versions of this dish, the coconut is cooked with a spice paste to give a rich, toasty flavour that can also include shallots and shrimp paste. Made that way, you get more of a sambal quality, but I wanted to keep the lightness of the lime flavour and fresh veggies.

Urap (Indonesian vegetable coconut salad)

This salad is properly made with fresh coconut, which does make a big difference to both taste and texture, but I find grinding up coconuts not to be conducive to everyday cooking if you don’t have company coming. It’s a different dish with desiccated coconut, but still a delicious one. You could up the sugar levels to compensate, but I have instead made the whole thing less sweet to create a more lime and chile oriented dish.

  • 5 or 6 lime leaves
  • 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 4 long red chilies, roughly chopped (Holland or similar, not small Thai ones but not so big as to be overly mild either)
  • 4cm chunk of fresh turmeric, chopped
  • 4cm chunk of ginger, sliced in thin matchsticks
  • 2 tbsp palm sugar
  • 4 tbsp lime juice
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2/3 cup desiccated coconut
  • 1 cup (or more) breansprouts
  • a big handful of green beans
  • 1-2 cups of red cabbage, shredded
  • 1/2 cucumber, in matchsticks
  • a big handful of Thai basil

To make the dressing, first cut out the centre strip from the lime leaves then slice them finely. Put them in a mini-prep food processor with the garlic, ginger, turmeric, chilies, palm sugar and lime juice and blend till smooth. Put in a bowl and add coconut and salt to taste. (Be careful with the salt: you might need less than you think.)

Now blanch the veggies: set a pot of water to a rolling boil, and throw in the beansprouts first. Blanch for just a few seconds, scoop them out and drain under cold water. Blanch the green beans for a couple of minutes at most and drain the same way. Then do the cabbage for about 30 seconds to a minute. If you use other vegetables, blanch for as short a time as seems reasonable. Once they’re all drained and cooled, dry them off gently with paper towels (or a clean teatowel if you’re feeling green) and put in a big bowl with the cucumber and Thai basil.

Now mix in the dressing, which will be fairly thick. Taste for salt and lime juice and serve immediately. (Actually, I’ve been eating it happily for a day or so – it’s probably not optimal but it’s still pretty darn good.) You could eat urap on its own with just steamed rice, but here I’ve paired it with a lamb and coconut milk curry. It would also be nice with a homemade sambal belacan, to add some of those funky shrimpy notes in contrast to the freshness of the vegetables.

Recipe adapted from James Oseland’s Cradle of Flavor.

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