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Sometimes, it’s the simple things that you crave. After a hectic time at work, I’ve been feeling generally run-down and exhausted. Not the best frame of mind for culinary experiments and, after a bunch of work-related travel, not the time for more restaurant food either. I wanted to eat something very simple that would nourish my weary soul. Vietnamese bún was an obvious answer. A big bowl of noodles mixed in with meat, salad, herbs and nuoc cham sauce, bún feels simultaneously nutritious and homely; light and cosy. You can make a fairly elaborate bún, carefully sourcing herbs and deep-frying spring rolls, but you can probably also knock one together from whatever leaves and vegetables you’ve got kicking around in the fridge. This is a pretty basic version but no less tasty for that. I didn’t have any beansprouts or lemongrass, so I focused on cucumber, lime and mint as the main flavours to complement the beef.

Simple beef bún

  • 2 limes
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 3 small red chilies
  • 6 tbsp fish sauce
  • 3 tbsp palm sugar
  • 1 steak
  • 1 carrot
  • 1/2 cucumber
  • a small lettuce
  • a handful of mint
  • a handful of cilantro
  • 1/2 pack of thin rice noodles

For the marinade, zest one lime into a bowl with a microplane grater and then juice it. Add 2 tbsp fish sauce, 1 tbsp palm sugar, and 1 garlic clove and 2 chilies, finely chopped. Mix well. Grill the steak briefly on both sides till medium rare. Let it rest for a couple of minutes then slice it thinly and mix the slices into the marinade along with any meat juices.

Prepare the nuoc cham. Pound the remaining garlic and chilies to a paste in a mortar and pestle. Add remaining palm sugar and pound well until the sugar is gloopy. Add fish sauce and the juice of the other lime with several tbsps of warm water to loosen the sauce. Stir until the sugar is dissolved and taste for balance. You might need more lime juice.

Next, make the noodles. Heat a pot of water and, as soon as it comes to the boil, turn off the heat. Add the noodles, stir and cover. They should be done in a couple of minutes. Drain them in a large colander with plenty of cold water to cool them down, then let them dry out.

Now prepare the vegetables. Cut carrots and cucumber into matchsticks, and slice the lettuce thinly. Wash, dry, and chop herbs. To assemble the dish pile noodles in a large bowl for each person and top with beef, lettuce, cucumber, carrot and herbs. Serve with nuoc cham and sriracha.

Serves 2

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One of the most fun parts of living near a Chinatown, as I used to do, is exploring the world of Asian snacks. From chewy squid sticks to those lychee jellies that were all the rage for a minute, Asian snack foods are inventive and often downright surprising for those of us raised on crisps and chocolate. But while salty snacks aren’t something I eat often, I have remained a fan of some Asian soft drinks: coconut water, aloe juice and honey drinks are widely available and lovely in the summer. But my favourite drink has proven hard to find in the UK, with Asian storekeepers looking perplexed when I ask for basil seed drink. I was unreasonably excited, therefore, to find a version in our local ‘ethnic’ store.

Basil seed drink looks a bit odd – either wonderfully fascinating or disgusting depending on your point of view. Suspended in the sweet drink are hundreds of Thai basil seeds, which turn gelatinous on contact with water and float like little frog spawn. Yum? I love it – it’s a bit like bubble tea, except the seeds are small and give just a little texture to the experience of drinking. You can chew them if you like, although they don’t taste of all that much. It’s more about texture. The drink itself can vary but they’re usually sweetened with honey or just sugar.

I’m wondering about making my own. Seeds are cheap and how great would it be to whip up a pitcher of this stuff for a summer afternoon? I could even grow some basil with whatever I don’t drink….

Have you ever wondered what it’s like in the exclusive and rarified world of private members clubs? Yesterday, the lemurs dined as guests at a luxurious private club in London and let’s just say we’re not holding our breaths for an invitation to join.

Lemur friend Bob* was in town and we spent a lovely sunny day eating dim sum, shopping at the food market on the Southbank (where they have excellent churros with chocolate), and catching an art show at the Barbican. It was all so civilised that when Bob’s chum Frank* texted to say we’d be welcome to have dinner at his club, it seemed like the ideal end to the day. I’d never been to a private club before and we all thought it might be interesting to blog about a restaurant that we’d never usually be able to access. Sadly, the club does not allow photography of any kind (must protect the important people from paparazzi you know) so I couldn’t document the food. Luckily, Bob is an artist and he has made sketches for me in the manner of a court reporter. We arrived at the club – let’s call it Something House – and the nice reception staff had all of our names on a guest list and directed us to the rooftop bar. So far, so pleasant. Given the beautiful weather, the roof terrace was spectacular: 360 views around London, a swimming pool surrounded by cushioned seating, and a generous bar area. We waved hello to Frank (who was busy with some other people), settled down on oversized chairs, and perused the cocktail list until a waiter came over to take our order….and that’s where our fantasies of living the good life came to a crashing halt… Read the rest of this entry »

Since Mr Lemur was born in Brazil, he has a particular soft spot for Brazilian foods. It’s probably impossible to feed him black beans too often – we even have a local butcher from Brazil who offered to save us pig’s ears for feijoada – and my experiments in pão de queijo (little cheese breads) have been enthusiastically received. We even buy guaraná soda, which reminds him of his childhood in Rio and reminds me, weirdly, of Scottish Irn Bru, so everyone’s happy there. My favourite Brazilian dishes to cook, though, are the Afro-Brazilian flavours typical of Bahia: deep seafood stews like moqueca and vatapá, thickened with nuts and dried shrimp, and based on the rich foundation of palm oil or dendê. I love West African food (I was thrilled to find great Senegalese food in Paris recently) and so it makes sense that the Afro-Brazilian combination of West African nut-based stews with New World chilies, tomatoes and fruits would hit my food buttons. Xinxim de galinha is a classic Bahian dish, combining chicken and shrimp into an earthy stew that feels warm and reassuring even if you didn’t grow up with it.

The main things that you might not have to hand to make xinxim de galinha are dendê and dried shrimp. The shrimp are easily found in any Chinese or Asian store. Look for fairly big shrimp that are nice and pink in colour – brownish and dull shrimp are probably older and the small ones are cheaper and less flavourful. Dendê oil can also be found in many ethnic markets and maybe even the supermarket if you live in a diverse neighbourhood. It tends to separate in the jar but don’t worry, that’s normal. This bright orange oil makes all the difference to the colour and flavour of the dish.

Xinxim de galinha (Bahian chicken stew)

  • 4 chicken thighs
  • 1 onion
  • 4 spring onions
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • juice of 1 lime
  • 2 inches of ginger
  • 1/2 cup of cilantro (i.e. a very generous handful)
  • 1/4 cup of peanuts
  • 1/4 cup of cashews
  • 1/4 cup of dried shrimp
  • 1 small can of coconut milk (165ml size)
  • 3 small green chilies (serranos or similar)
  • hot sauce
  • 2-3 tbsp dendê oil

Roughly chop the garlic, ginger, spring onions and cilantro, place in a food processor with the lime juice, and process till fairly smooth. Pour this mixture over the chicken and marinade for an hour or till you are hungry.

Meanwhile, toast the nuts on a cast iron skillet till golden and process to fine meal. Next process the dried shrimp in the same way until fluffy.

Dice the onion and fry in a heavy-based pan in a generous amount of dendê. Scrape the marinade off the chicken and pat it dry, then brown chicken pieces in the same pan. When the chicken is browning nicely, add the marinade, nuts, shrimp paste and coconut milk and stir well. Add a little water to loosen. Cut the chilies in half and add them, along with hot sauce to taste. (The dish isn’t really spicy but you want to give a little green chili flavour.)

Cover and cook for 30 minutes, turning and stirring often. The sauce will stick easily so you need to keep quite a close eye on it.

Serves 4.

Recipe adapted from The South American Table by Maria Baez Kijac.

A few years ago, I had the world’s best pork knuckle in Barcelona. It wasn’t long after the Great Portuguese Custard Tart Fight of 2007, in which Mr Lemur and I nearly came to blows in Lisbon after the ill-advised scoffing of the last custard tart by persons who shall remain nameless. Suffice it to say, I was aggrieved and ready for some revenge in the world of Iberian eating. Sweet sweet justice came along when we arrived in Barcelona and went to lunch in an unassuming bar that had been recommended to us. Sadly, I can’t remember the name of the bar, which was fairly central and nothing at all to look at, but filled up with locals at lunchtime. There were a few specials but the one that stood out immediately to me was pork knuckle in garlic.

Long-cooked meats are one of my favourite things and something about the phrase ‘pork knuckle’ just tells you it’s going to be good. Pork knuckle. Even saying it is appealing. Go on. Pork knuckle. Mr Lemur, however, did not share my enthusiasm because he hates eating meat on a bone if he thinks it might be finicky or that he’ll have to use his fingers. For him, the phrase ‘pork knuckle’ conjured up horrifying prospects of trying to wrest shards of meat from a giant bone without getting his fingers messy, and in public no less. He opted for the stuffed aubergine. I don’t think I have to tell you who won. My pork knuckle was sublime, with tender meat and a rich covering of very garlicky braising liquid. The meat fell away from the bone at the slightest touch. Mr Lemur was pissed off and the Custard Tart injustice was avenged. But ever since, pork knuckle has exerted a powerful force on my culinary imagination.

Of course, the problem is that I can never ever make pork knuckle that good. I haven’t even tried to replicate the Catalan dish because that way disappointment lies. But I often see pork knuckles at my local butcher and this weekend I decided to try something else to take advantage of all that piggy potential. Rather than a straight up braise, I cooked the meat propped up in a moat of flavouring liquid: that way, the meat gets imbued subtly with the flavour of the sauce while still remaining dry enough to produce crackling. Meanwhile, the liquid becomes intensely flavoured with rendered pork fat – you can skim most of it off at the end, but you still get a lovely rich sauce to soak the meat. After the success of the Nyonya braised beef I made a couple of months back, I thought I’d try some similar aromatic flavours for this rich pork dish.

Malaysian roast pork knuckle

  • 1 pork knuckle, on the bone
  • 4 shallots
  • 6 cloves of garlic
  • a thumb sized piece of ginger
  • 3 star anise
  • 3 cloves
  • a chunk of cinnamon bark
  • 6 dried red chilies
  • 2 tbsp rice vinegar
  • 2 tbsp dark soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp palm sugar
  • 1-2 cups water
  • 4 tbsp oil

Chop the shallots in a mini prep until they become a paste. Fry in a large oven-friendly pot in the oil. It seems like a lot of oil but the shallots drink it up and you’ll be getting rid of it later anyway. Chop the garlic and ginger finely. When the shallots are beginning to colour, add them and sauté for a couple of minutes. Add the star anise, cloves, cinnamon and dried chilies and fry for just a minute until the spices release their aromas. Now add the vinegar, soy sauce and sugar, along with water to about 2 inches up the pot and stir well.

Score the skin of the pork (or have your butcher do this) and pat it carefully till very dry. Rub salt and pepper generously into the skin. Add the pork to the braising liquid, meat-side down so that all the skin remains dry. Bring the liquid to the boil and then transfer (uncovered) to an oven set very high at first (to help crisp up the crackling) and, after 15 minutes on high, turned down to gas mark 4 / 350 F / 180 C. Cook for about three hours, checking occasionally to make sure the liquid isn’t drying up.

When it comes out of the oven, the skin should already be nicely golden and fairly crispy. However, to finish the cracking, cut the skin off the meat and pop it back in the oven on a baking tray and turn the temperature right up until the skin really crisps up. (I should say that I didn’t plan this dish around crackling – if it’s your main objective, you’re probably better with pork belly and straight-up roasting it. The crackling on this dish wasn’t perfect but it was pretty good all the same.) While the meat is resting and the crackling crisping, skim most of the fat off the sauce with a spoon. Finally, cut the meat up roughly and serve pork, crackling and rich sauce along with rice and greens.

Serves 2-3.

Whenever I go to Paris I like to bring back spices. Last time, it was ras el hanout from the Belleville market and this time I found some amazing Madagascan black peppercorns in Le Comptoir Colonial in Montmartre. Dodgy name aside, Le Comptoir is a fantastic little store with dried beans, leaf teas, and gifts along the walls and a central island made up of heaping vats of spices from around the world.

I could spend hours in a place like this. There are familiar flavours, of course, like the various dried chilies and spice mixes, but even these look – and smell – more interesting when they’re fresh and not stuck in a glass jar.

This turmeric was beautifully vibrant.

There were also some things I couldn’t identify, or at least wasn’t completely familiar with. I think this is some sort of giant saffron, but really it looked like a big basket of hair. A delicious big basket of hair, but a big basket of hair nonetheless.

The assistant was really helpful. In addition to letting us photograph more or less everything in her shop, she was on hand to offer advice on the produce. I overheard her telling another customer that the Madagascan peppercorns were “a little miracle” so I couldn’t resist trying them out. She gave me a taster, grinding a bit into my hand, and the flavour really was unexpected. It’s moderately peppery, not super strong, but with a floral quality that’s quite distinctive. As you can see in the photo at the top of the post, these peppercorns are tiny ovals on stalks, much smaller than regular Indian black peppercorns, and they grow wild in the forests of Madagascar. Given my love of Madagascar’s native wildlife, I was obviously drawn to these little fruits. Perhaps lemurs were playing in these pepper vines before they were harvested and shipped to Paris!

The pepper is going to be used in my regular cooking, but I am also looking for ways to highlight it, rather than just use it as seasoning. I’ve been working up the courage to try Miss Cay’s amazing looking Strawberry Black Pepper Jam, which would surely be the perfect dish to highlight this “petit miracle” of a peppercorn. Until I trust in my abilities to sterilise jars without poisoning my friends, however, there’s the lazy expedient of just rolling fresh strawberries in ground pepper. The combination of sweetness and bite makes a pretty good early evening bite with a nice cold glass of rosé.

I’m very excited that the lovely Thifty Gal has invited me to do a guest post on her blog E for Envelope. She writes on London life, covering theatre, fashion, shopping, and being in general a literary girl-about-town. She has a much more glamorous life than I do, full of champagne parties, theatre reviewing and shiny heels, and now she’s very generously opening her blog to some guest writers. Since I know that glamorous Londoners like Thifty Gal enjoy a trip down to the beach, I’ve contributed a guide to some of my favourite places to eat in Brighton. Check it out!

*Photo: David Hawood, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

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.

Serves 2.

This trip to Paris was less meaty and heavy than previous ones, what with the not eating French food plan, but restaurant food is always a bit excessive, so I’ve been enjoying a week of Asian spicy salads to recover. There’s probably nothing I like more than an Asian salad – the mixture of cooked and raw vegetables, sometimes meats, and sparkily flavoured dressing is my idea of perfect warm weather food. This salad of green vegetables is an idea I learned from Vatcharin Bhumichitr’s great little book Vatch’s Southeast Asian Salads, and I’ve been making it in variously adapted forms for years now. Essentially, the dish involves lightly blanching an assortment of greens so that you end up with a generous bowl of vibrantly coloured vegetables, which are then dressed in a warm coconut and mint dressing. You can more or less make it at any time of year with green beans, broccoli, cabbage, whatever’s available, but it’s especially appealing in the late spring and early summer when you have asparagus and broad beans, or soon fresh peas at your disposal.

Green vegetable spicy salad with coconut dressing

  • 100g green beens
  • half a cucumber
  • 100g sugar snap peas
  • 200g asparagus
  • 300g broad beans (weight in pods)
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 garlic clove, chopped
  • 1 large green chili, chopped
  • 3 tbsp coconut cream
  • 2 tsp palm sugar
  • 1 tbsp fish sauce*
  • juice of 1 lime
  • a handful of mint leaves, chopped

*For vegetarians, add salt to taste instead of fish sauce, and a tbsp of water.

Pod the broad beans, chop the asparagus, top and tail the beans. Bring a pot of water to the boil and blanch the vegetables each for 3-5 minutes, until just cooked. After each one is done, drain well, pat dry, and add to a bowl. Keep the broad beans separate so they can be peeled when cool. Meanwhile, julienne the cucumber.

To make the dressing, heat the oil in a small pot and gently sauté the chopped garlic till golden. Remove from the heat and add the chili, sugar, coconut cream and fish sauce. When you are ready to serve, add the lime juice and mint and mix with the salad. Serve over rice.

Serves 2-3.

I don’t go to New York to eat American food, nor do I spend my time in London eating British food, but somehow I feel like I’m expected to eat French food in Paris. Probably it’s because Paris is at once the self-conscious centre of French haut cuisine and a cultural cliché of bistros and steak frites. We often think of the city as the bastion of a certain kind of French culinary experience that matches perfectly with a tourist itinerary of museums, churches and architecture. In the same way that we expect to eat (delicious) Roman food in Rome, we imagine Parisian food to be an integral part of travelling to Paris. But if the cliché is familiar, it’s also both limiting and not so pleasurable. Maybe I’ve been unlucky, but whereas I’ve never eaten a bad plate of food in Rome, I’ve had a good deal of mediocre bistro food in Paris. Meat dishes heavy on the butter but light on flavour, insipid salads of overcooked vegetables, decently cooked classics that just fail to excite the imagination: eating French food in Paris can seem like a faintly embarrassing exercise in unsuccessful nostalgia.

I’m sure there is amazing modern French food out there, but just as any self-respecting visitor to Paris sees beyond the tourist circuit, I don’t think you can’t get a proper feel for the city by eating only ‘national’ food. I’ve come to think of Paris eating as less like Rome and more like London, where the city’s postcolonial and cosmopolitan cultures make for a plethora of cheap and delicious cafes and restaurants that get you out of the soulless grind of the tourist trail. I’m far from an expert on Paris: I’ve never lived there and I mostly go for weekends or short trips. But I do have a nose for exciting food in unlikely places. So this isn’t an insider’s guide to Paris eating but some itineraries of a tourist who can’t keep to the proper routes. Where do you go when you can’t face ‘French food’?

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