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Beef wrapped in lá lốt leaves is a classic Vietnamese dish that I first encountered in the New York Chinatown restauarant helpfully called Vietnam. It has since changed hands and is now apparently not good at all, but back in the day it was the best Viet food in New York. It looked completely unprepossessing – dingy sign outside and you had to go down some scummy stairs into a dark basement space. But the food was amazing. The owner used to boast that unlike many Vietnamese places in town, he had a chef who had come from Vietnam. I’ve no idea if that’s actually something to boast about, but there were certainly dishes there that you didn’t see in the other phở and bun joints in Chinatown. And one of those was thịt bò nướng lá lốt, which was only served on the days that the leaves had arrived. Knowing it was only sporadically available made it all the more exciting.

Lá lốt leaves are also known as pepper leaves and betel leaves, but most menus and Asian stores I’ve seen simply call them by their Viet name. The leaves are rather lovely: glossy on one side and pale on the other. I saw them in London’s Chinatown last weekend and bought them on impulse. The prospect of recreating one of my favourite of Vietnam’s dishes was too tempting… Read the rest of this entry »

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My recent forays into the world of BBQ, both American and Chinese, has been delicious but rather meat-heavy. I noticed how brown the photography on the last few posts has been. Delicious looking, I grant you, but not so colourful. So I wanted to make something vibrant and this being me, when my thinking goes in the bright, colourful direction, it often comes up with Southeast Asian salads as the answer. The siren song of the spicy salad is never too far away from my ears…

This time, my starting point was a bag of wing beans I’d bought in the Chinese supermarket in London’s Chinatown. Wing beans (aka winged beans, or dragon beans, đậu rồng in Vietnam) are a fantastic vegetable that I wish I’d discovered sooner. They look like a combination of a runner bean and a bitter melon, but they don’t taste like either. Instead, they’re more like asparagus crossed with sugar snap peas – milder than those, but with a really lovely flavour. The beautiful pale green pods turn brown quickly, so use them up as soon as possible after purchase.

Photo by Zufanc, used under CC Attribution Share-alike 3.0 licence.

Wing beans are used to make a Thai salad with coconut cream and shrimp: I was planning more of a Vietnamese meal and I didn’t want the richness of coconut but I did decide to keep the shrimp. After that, it was just a case of putting together a gingery Vietnamese salad dressing and prepping some vegetables, herbs, and nuts to mix into the dish. We ate this alongside beef in la lot leaves, which I’ll post about next. The combination was fab, with the crisp, light, brightly spicy salad balancing the milder, aromatic beef.

If you wanted a vegetarian version of this dish, it would be easy simply to leave out the shrimp and replace fish sauce with soy. It might make it more of a side dish but it’s really all about the wing beans.

Shrimp and wing bean salad

  • 12 shrimp
  • 2 handfuls of wing beans, trimmed
  • 1/2 red pepper, sliced thinly
  • handful of mint leaves
  • handful of cilantro leaves (or rau răm if you have it)
  • 3 tbsp roasted peanuts
  • 3 large chillies, sliced thin
  • 2 tbsp ginger
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 birds’ eye chilli
  • 4 tbsp lime juice
  • 2 tbsp palm sugar
  • 1 tbsp fish sauce

To make the dressing, pound garlic and birds’ eye chilli in a mortar and pestle. Chop the ginger into small cubes then add and pound till you have a paste. Add sugar and pound again. Then add fish sauce and lime juice and mix. Taste for balance and add a little water if it is too strong.

Chop the wing beans into inch-long sections and boil for 2 minutes. Refresh in a bowl of cold water. Peel the shrimp and sauté until just cooked. At the last minute, add a tsp of dressing to the pan – as it boils off, the dressing should sear into the shrimp and caramelise them nicely.

Bash up the peanuts a bit in a bag or (very briefly) in a mini-prep. In a large bowl, combine wing beans, shrimp and peanuts along with pepper slices, herbs and chillies. Dress, toss to combine and serve immediately over regular or sticky rice.

Serves 2, or 3-4 as a side dish

 

I haven’t seen Lemur friends R and S for far too long, especially given they only live in London. So when we finally got in touch, I was thrilled at their suggestion to eat Northeast Chinese food at Manchurian Legends in London’s Chinatown, which is as far as I know the only Dongbei restaurant in the UK. Dongbei describes the region of Northeast China that is also known in English as Manchuria, and because it’s a poor and conceptually distant region to those accustomed to Cantonese food and culture, it has been little explored in the West.

By one of those weird coincidences that seem to bring subjects forcibly to your attention, I’d just been reading about lesser-known Chinese food cultures in Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford’s book Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China. I had no idea how much of China’s vast area was inhabited by non-Han people, and it’s not hard to see a history of subjugation in the contemporary dominance of the Han regions in Chinese politics. Duguid and Alford explore a fascinating range of culinary traditions in the book, and though they don’t include much about Dongbei (since it is actually within the eastern seaboard area of the Great Wall), its native Manchu culture has much in common with the Mongol, Kazakh and other ethnicities that they do discuss. Having read about the very different ingredients and flavours found across China, I was eager to try some of them out at Manchurian Legends. Read the rest of this entry »

The BBQ Shack at the World’s End pub in Brighton has been getting a fair amount of buzz on the back of Observer writer and top foodie Jay Rayner’s piece about it in July. Rayner narrates chef John Hargate’s pit training in Texas and subsequent victories in the British BBQ Society’s annual competition, and his enthusiasm makes clear that, unlike the mediocre grilled meats more often misnamed as such, here is some proper barbeque. I’m not a true connoisseur of the smoked-meat arts but any time you hear that someone is an expert in a very specific form of food, you know it’s worth following up. The World’s End is also helpfully located across the road from the Duke of York’s cinema, so we combined our culinary trip to Texas with, somewhat mismatchedly, Arrietty, the new animation from Japan’s Studio Ghibli.

The first thing to say about the BBQ shack is that the ribs are glorious. Thick, intensely smoky yet with complex layers of flavour, they are some of the best ribs I’ve had. I grant you, I am not Texan and have surely missed out on many hole in the wall ribs experiences, but I have eaten some pretty authentic BBQ in the Midwest and the South, and these ribs stood their ground and then some. They are hickory smoked and doused in a sauce that is as sweet as it should be to match the smoke but in no way too sweet. The sauce is also not excessive. It is not about the sauce, it is about the meat, and the laquering of sauce reflects a careful understanding of that fact. We monstered through those ribs and would, given the opportunity, have eaten a whole other rack.

The other things we ate were also very good, but here a few caveats creep in. The pulled pork is described on the menu as North Carolina pulled pork, which seems odd since the chef is adamant that what he does is Texas BBQ. I expected pork advertised as North Carolina style to come with a vinegar sauce. Instead, it came with an apple-tomato sauce similar to the rib sauce, albeit lighter. As I say, I’m no expert and it is fully likely that this preparation is dead on Texas-style pulled pork. But I think I prefer the North Carolina style pork I’ve had in the States: the vinegar-sugar sauce keeps the meat moist and the piquancy balances the rich meat. Here, I felt that smokiness became overwhelmingly dominant and the meat was ever-so-slightly dry. This is really a matter of taste though, as the pork was still made with obvious care and devotion.

We went with rice and pinto beans for our sides and these were pretty good too. To be honest, Mr Lemur and I are not the best judges of Western-style beans and rice because we keep wanting them to be Latin American beans and rice and they’re just not. They look like Puerto Rican beans but they don’t taste the same, and that’s always a bit of a disappointment to me. But this is hardly the fault of the BBQ Shack, and for Western beans and rice, these were perfectly lovely. Maybe a touch undersalted but generally lovely.

From the first mouthful, it’s clear that John Hargate is a chef who knows his barbeque and who does seriously good things with meat. His ribs are one of the best things I’ve eaten all year. Now, if I could just persuade him to add some kind of collard greens to the menu I’d be in complete BBQ heaven…

BBQ Shack in World’s End pub, 60-61 London Road, Brighton BN1 4JE

I’ve been cooking some more from David Thompson’s epic Thai Street Food and one of my favourite dishes is his version of Phetchaburi jungle curry with minced quail and yellow eggplant. I made it for the lovely N when she arrived from Spain, and it went down very well, but it has to be said that cutting up the quails and removing the meat from their bones was a finicky job. I am the first to admit that I am not an expert poultry de-boner and after spending some time faffing around with knives and scissors, I felt pretty sure I was Doing It Wrong. I need some lessons in butchery from Top Chef Hung, whose chicken chopping skills make me feel especially inadequate.

So, delicious as the recipe is, I wanted to develop a more everyday version that didn’t require an hour of messy meat prep. I decided on minced pork as a substitute for quail and small Indian eggplant as a replacement for the yellow Thai kind that are hard to find in my neck of the woods. I can actually get green Thai eggplant and have made the dish with these too. Somehow, though, I think the dryer texture of the pork works well against the softness of the Indian eggplant, whereas if you make the dish with quail it wants the crunchier quality of the Thai ones.

I messed around with the other ingredients a bit too. Instead of fresh birds’ eye chilies, I added Thai green peppercorns. Again, this was a response to the shift from quail to pork. They may be completely inauthentic in this context but they added nice bursts of sour spiciness and complemented the pork nicely.

Jungle curry with pork and eggplant

  • 4-5 tbsp of dried red chilies, either medium sized or small birds’ eye
  • a pinch of salt
  • 1 tbsp chopped galangal
  • 3 tbsp chopped lemongrass
  • 2 tsp grated lime zest
  • 2 tbsp chopped garlic
  • 2 tsp shrimp paste
  • 200g minced pork
  • 6 small Indian eggplant
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 tbsp fish sauce
  • 1 tsp palm sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 strand fresh green peppercorns
  • a bunch of Thai basil

First up, make the curry paste. Cut the tops off the dried red chilies and dump out the seeds, then soak them for 15 minutes in a bowl of water. When they’ve softened, chop them roughly and blend them in a mini-prep. Next add the salt, galangal, lemongrass, lime zest, garlic and shrimp paste, blending as you go until you have a thick paste. You might need to add a little water to keep it moving, but try not to add too much. Cut up your eggplant at this stage too, slicing each into six wedges. Put them in a bowl of salted water to keep them fresh until you need them.

Now heat a wok to a medium-high heat and add the oil. Once it’s hot, add the curry paste and stir constantly to stop it sticking. Thompson warns that the paste will become “sneeze-inducingly aromatic” and he is not kidding around. I would rather term it ‘coughing fit-inducingly smoky’ and each time I’ve made it, I’ve had to flee the kitchen repeatedly to breathe some fresh air in the back garden before plunging back into the melée. However, I don’t have an extractor fan right now, so you might find it easier if you’ve got a fancier kitchen set-up than I do. Regardless, be prepared for a couple of uncomfortable minutes over the wok.

Next, add the pork and keep stirring till coloured all over. Add the fish sauce and sugar, then the cup of water. Bring to the boil and add the eggplant wedges and green peppercorns. Simmer for a few minutes then add Thai basil and salt to taste.

The dish is pretty spicy, it’s true, but it somehow ends up less hot than you think it will. Served with rice, and especially if you have a cooling cucumber salad on the side, it isn’t as fearsome as you might anticipate.

Serves 4

Recipe adapted from David Thompson’s Thai Street Food.

Eating arepas last week got me thinking about the cheap and delicious Latin food that used to sustain me when I lived in New York. I ate a lot of Cuban food, especially the ropa vieja from National Cafe, a great little neighbourhood place on First Avenue, now sadly closed. They also made plantains fried in pork fat, stuffed with ground beef and topped with crema. I could cry just thinking about them but it truly wasn’t a place for the diet-conscious. My other favourite haunt was Brisas del Caribe in SoHo – also now tragically gone – which in addition to mouth-watering Cuban sandwiches made amazing maduros, or fried ripe plantains. It was more or less impossible to finish both at one sitting, but there was no way not to order the sweet sweet plantains on the side.

While it’s probably a good thing that my lunches these days tend to involve less deep frying in lard, I do find myself craving Cuban flavours when it’s warm outside. Thus, I’ve been spending the last few days impatiently waiting for the plantains I bought in Brixton market to ripen. To make maduros, you need the plantains to be completely blackened, on the edge of fermenting really. If they were bananas, you’d be giving up on eating them and deciding to make some banana bread instead. But they’re not bananas and they are, at this point, perfect. Read the rest of this entry »

Since most of my last post on London eating was consumed by the vitriol I was aiming at the pop-up restaurant fiasco, I thought it might not hurt to return to the wonderfulness of Brixton market. I went there with Caribbean food in mind but before my enormous Guyanese lunch, I came across a storefront selling freshly griddled Colombian arepas. Actually, it was Mr Lemur who discovered it – the man can nose out South American food a mile off. In the midst of a predominantly Afro-Caribbean section of Pope’s Road were a couple of shops focused on Latin American products and packed with Latino shoppers.

Out in front of Las Americas Butchers – which sells meat on one side and cooked foods on the other – was an old dude grilling cheesy arepas with a calm that can only be described as zen-like. I could have watched him lift and turn arepas all day. Actually, given how long it took for our order to cook, I kind of felt like I did. But that’s ok because while we were waiting, someone from inside brought out a paper plate of chicharrones to keep us going. I knew they were going to be good from the look of the hot meat dishes in the window. If there’s one thing you can be sure of it’s that Latin Americans know their pork, and these bites of pork belly and hot crispy skin were sublime. Washing the pork skins down with a sweet café con leche, Mr Lemur was in heaven.

When the arepas were finally deemed perfect by the zen arepa-master, we scarfed them down in a blur of breakfast happiness. I’ve always been a big fan of corn-based breads and Colombian style cheese arepas are a particular favourite. While Venezuelan arepas and Salvadorean pupusas are often stuffed with fillings, the Colombian ones are more like corn pancakes, often with cheese cooked through the dough. These ones were particularly cheesy and nicely caramelised from the griddle. For Mr Lemur, it was a chance to bust out his Spanish and for me it was a nostalgic reminder of New York, where cheap, greasy delicious Latin food is always within reach. But even if you don’t have a Latin connection, the combination of hot cheese arepas and café con leche (perhaps with a little fried pork if you’re that way inclined) is not one to be missed next time you’re in Brixton.

Las Americas Butchers, 26 Pope’s Road, Brixton, London, SW9 8JJ

My trip to Brixton market last weekend yielded some beautiful vegetables including these amazing okra and scotch bonnet chilies. I can buy okra easily enough in Brighton, but it is often over-large and/or a bit blackened around the edges. But in Brixton market there were vast bins of young, small okra with nary a mark on them. I know okra is a divisive vegetable: while American Southerners tend to love it, people from other places find its sliminess offputting. (Even Southerners often deep fry it to dry it out.) I, however, embrace the gloop. I find the texture of okra to be completely alluring and I love using it in Indian bhindi masala and in Southeast Asian curries.

My favourite use of okra, though, is in the Senegalese casserole mafé. Mafé is a Wolof groundnut stew that is usually made with lamb but can be done in various versions with beef, chicken, fish, or just vegetables. The vegetables also seem to be fairly open but I always make it with okra and cabbage. Something about the combination of okra, peanuts, tomatoes and hot citrusy chilies is really addictive and I make this dish quite a lot. I remember an episode of Top Chef in which the judges found the combination of peanut sauce and tomatoes to be weird. On the contrary, the combination is fantastic and what’s more easy to do with store-cupboard ingredients…

Most versions of this dish include meat, but it would be very easy to make a vegetarian (and also vegan) version using only the vegetables.

Senegalese chicken mafé

  • 4-6 chicken pieces
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 4 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 1 tin of tomatoes (or 6 fresh tomatoes plus a spoonful of tomato paste)
  • 1/4 cup smooth peanut butter
  • 1 scotch bonnet chili
  • 2 large handfuls okra
  • 1/2 a green cabbage, sliced into chunks
  • 1 sweet potato or 2 carrots, cubed
  • oil, salt, pepper

First, season the chicken pieces well with salt and pepper and brown in a large frying pan with a lid, or a big pot. Put them aside and use the same pan to fry the onion until it is slightly browned, then add garlic. Sauté for a few seconds then add tomatoes. Cook over a medium heat until the tomatoes break down. Meanwhile, put the peanut butter in a bowl and add about 1/2 cup of water. Whisk until you have a smooth paste. Once the tomatoes are good and saucy, add the peanut paste and mix well.

Next, put the chicken back in, along with your scotch bonnet, cut in half. (If you want it less spicy, just poke a couple of holes in the chili with a knife but leave it whole.) Add a bit more salt and pepper and simmer gently for 30 minutes. Stir relatively often, as the peanuts make the sauce stick.

Next, add your cubed sweet potato or carrot and cook for 15-20 mins. Then add okra and sliced cabbage. Stir carefully and cook for another 15-20 mins, until everything is cooked and soft. Be especially careful to stir at this stage, as you want to prevent the sauce from sticking but also keep the vegetables from breaking up. You can add more water if things seem to be drying out.

Before serving, season with more salt (this will be very variable depending on how sweet your peanut butter is) and remove the chili.

Serves 4.


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