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We wanted to fit in some dim sum on Sunday, because really what’s an urban Sunday without dim sum? When I lived in New York, I ate dim sum all the time in a proper old fashioned palatial banqueting space with mean ladies pushing carts around. The anticipation of what might come next was part of the pleasure, backed up with the knowledge that you could always go up to the various stations for emergency potstickers, greens, or snails if hunger overtook you. The disadvantage was that they didn’t bother offering the more Chinese dishes to western diners. You could probably flag the ladies down and insist on chicken feet if you were determined enough, but my experience was that nothing too alarming was shown to me. Things were a little different in London, where the Crocodiles took me to Golden Dragon, a favourite haunt of theirs for many years. Read the rest of this entry »
Apologies for my radio silence: I’ve been away from the blog for a while, largely because work has been getting a bit overwhelming of late. But I’ve also been getting in some major blog research for you, gentle readers. This weekend took me far from the concerns of my job and into an all-out festival of overindulgence in London. Friday night set the tone with a raucous 40th party for a good friend. You get a bunch of Glaswegians together with money behind the bar and before you know it a chandelier is broken* and we’re dancing to Betty Boo. By Saturday morning I was hungover and ready for a serious ingestion of Asian food. This is where the Crocodiles came in. Who are the Crocodiles? They’re London friends who are also serious foodies and, in particular, Chinese food fiends. This weekend they took us in hand (ooh matron!) and, in between film screenings at the London Film Festival, they took us to some of the best restaurants I’ve been to in ages.
First up is Bar Shu, which won’t come as a surprise to any Asian food lovers in London. It’s long been regarded as the best Chinese food in London, Fuchsia Dunlop consults on the menu, and it’s really the place that kick-started the Sichuan food trend across the UK. I was massively excited to eat there, but also trying to temper my anticipation a little. Just because a restaurant has a strong reputation doesn’t automatically mean it’s going to be good. I needn’t have worried: Bar Shu served some of the best Chinese food I’ve ever eaten.
We were a fairly big party, so after a couple of appetiser suggestions, we sat back and let one of the Crocodiles order. He had what seemed like an involved consultation with the waitress in Cantonese, so we had no idea what was coming. This is a very unusual situation for me, since usually I’m the one who takes over and orders all the food. I can’t help it: I’m a restaurant top! This time, it was surprisingly relaxing to let someone else take charge. More food arrived than we could possibly photograph before hungry chopsticks attacked it, and also we only had a phone camera, so the pics aren’t great. This is just a rough sketch of the deliciousness that appeared…
Appetisers included the pea starch jelly with black bean sauce at the top of the post, some amazing gourd scented with orange, and these delicious pork rolls in garlic sauce. The rolls, filled with thinly sliced carrot, had a beautiful light spicing that the Crocodiles tell me is a speciality of Bar Shu.
We also had some little whelks in chili-studded broth, marinated cucumber, and Three Silken Threads: julienned papaya, mange tout and radish in mild chili oil.
All of these were fantastic, but merely an introduction to the wonders to come. First up was lamb ribs with lashings of chili (their description), which came as a whole rack of lamb ribs, expertly sliced up tableside, and covered with a sticky sauce topped with fresh chilies and preserved mustard greens. The meat was soft and richly flavoured, and vanished in a flash.
There was also a light shrimp and peanut dish that, to be honest, wasn’t entirely to my taste, and some delicious cold shredded potato. But the piece de la résistance was Fragrant Chicken in a Pile of Chilies. The dish arrived as a huge pyramid of dried Sichuan chilies, studded with a few visible chunks of chicken. The idea is that the chicken is buried treasure and you spend happy and relaxing time poking at the mound with your chopsticks, searching out nuggets of crispy fried chicken.
I’m still dreaming about this dish. It was soooo good. It wasn’t crazily spicy – quite hot but not overwhelming. The chicken was richly flavoured and crunchy with bits of fried skin, and burrowing in the chili pile was just lots of fun. I could go back and eat this weekly, and I honestly might.
The Bar Shu people had to throw us out eventually, since we sat around picking at our vast mounds of food and drinking till well after 11pm and could have hung out longer. The whole evening was a joy – eating delicious food with good friends. And, really, it wasn’t that expensive. It was pricier than crappy Chinese food in Chinatown but for such amazing Sichuan cuisine, it was actually super reasonable. As the centerpiece to my weekend of Asian gluttony, I don’t think I could have done better.
*Not us, honest. No, really, it just happened. Totally mysteriously.
Bar Shu, 28, Frith Street, London W1D 5LF
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 »
Before summer made a last-ditch effort to appear this year, giving us a few blissful days of 79 degree weather, we had a more normal southern English autumn of sun and showers. Mr Lemur and I decided to take a popular local walk along the base of the sea cliffs from Brighton to Rottingdean. It’s easy to forget what a beautiful place I live in, and this walk was the perfect reminder. Plus, we had an ulterior motive: we’d heard that a regular looking pub in nearby Rottingdean had a Jamaican chef who made really good Caribbean food. Clearly, this was a necessary research excursion… Read the rest of this entry »
I’ve been playing around with some chillies I bought from Brighton’s new spicy food store, Chilli Pepper Pete’s. They came in a huge bundle, about 25cm long, just asking to be hung up rustic-style in our kitchen. The store owner told me she has them specially imported from China, so I’m not entirely sure what they’re called. They are mild in the same way as the dried reds you usually find floating in large numbers in Sichuan cooking. Cooked until softened, they lend flavour for the timid, but are entirely edible and not as threatening as they might look. But unlike regular Chinese chillies, these impart a delicate smoky flavour. It’s not as aggressive as chipotle, but imbues food with a mild smokiness that’s really pleasing. I’ve used them here with spring greens but it would work really well with tofu or, I think, with pork.
Last night I tested the combination out on JD, M and their friend from London who came by for dinner. Given the unseasonably beautiful weather we’ve been having, I should probably have been making light summery salads but I’ve always thought a long day at the beach can work up an apptite for hearty food. Since M is a vegetarian, I made several vegetable dishes and one meat one for the omnivores. For the meat-eaters I slow-braised some pork in dark soy and ginger and for a couple of other vegetable dishes, I turned to Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford’s Beyond the Great Wall, which I’ve been reading avidly. I made a simple but delicious dish of tofu skin in chilli sesame dressing and another of edamame with pickled chilies and sliced garlic. (Er, yes, detecting a theme there. I had a moment of fear that P might not like chillies but luckily she did!) It was a relaxed mix of dishes, all simple, based on one main ingredient, and perfect for an unexpected late summer evening.
Chinese chilli braised greens
- 2 onions, diced
- large chunk of ginger, julienned finely
- 6 garlic cloves, chopped
- 6 long red chillies, halved
- 8 very long Chinese dried chillies cut into 2 inch lengths, or about 20-25 normal sized ones
- 2 tbsp shaoxing wine
- 2 tbsp thin soy sauce
- 2-3 heads of spring greens, collard greens or cabbage, sliced
Sauté the onion until it is soft and browning in places, then add the garlic, chillies (fresh and dried) and ginger. Fry until soft and fragrant.
Add greens, wine and soy sauce, cover and cook on a low heat for 30 minutes.
The smokiness of the long chillies is a key feature of this dish. If you can’t get those, add in a dried chipotle to get some of the same quality. This dish works as I served it here as a side in a Chinese meal, but it also works as a simple dinner served with rice. I’ve also served it with simply grilled beef on top, or, for a more substantial vegetarian main meal, it’s good with creamy cubed tofu mixed in.