I’m not generally a fan of specialist kitchen equipment. Mostly, this is because I’ve spent my life cooking in tiny kitchens where finding a place to plug in both a coffee maker and a toaster is a stretch, never mind room for juice extractors, cherry stoners and the like. Urban cooking tends to focus your attention on basic kit: good knives, chopping boards and as many Le Creuset pots as can be stuffed in the cupboard without undermining the floor. I also tend to agree with Alton Brown’s rule of thumb that if a device can only be used for one thing – aka the unitasker – then it doesn’t deserve a place in your kitchen. (I should note the less well-known but equally valuable theory of my friend P, who applies this swiss-army knife rule to men.) People who don’t cook much tend to fetishise these uber-specialist devices whereas those of us who do are more likely to shrug our shoulders and attack the task with a knife or a rolling pin. But all that said, there are some objects that are so beautiful, so perfectly adapted to their culinary task, that they cannot be denied. These are not objects invented to fill the shelves of bougie culinary stores and provide unwanted Christmas gifts for foodies, but rather created to do a specific and important job in a particular food culture. These are objects that resonate, and recently, two of them appeared in my life.
The first is the device in the photograph above. Can you guess what it is? It’s a coconut scraper, a very simple thing made of metal and plastic, and it came to me from half-way across the world. Recently, I met up with inspirational food writer Naomi Duguid in London. You might know Naomi from her wonderful books on Asian food, cowritten with Jeffrey Alford, such as Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet and Mangoes and Curry Leaves. I’ve long been a fan of her writing, which combines delicious recipes with an infectious curiosity about cultures and foodways, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to spend some time with her on her trip to the UK. We poked around some East London markets, which didn’t turn out to have as much in the way of food as we’d hoped, but it was a beautiful day and the markets were full of flowers and books and interesting stuff. Naomi arrived with the coconut scraper, which she brought for me as a gift from her recent travels in Burma. How wonderful is that? It’s a humble tool but a remarkably effective one for scraping the meat out of fresh coconuts, and a really beautiful gift.
The second object is this gorgeous Thai somtam mortar and pestle. I had been reading about somtam – you know that I’m mildly obsessed with the stuff – and noted that Thai cooks use a special conical shaped mortar and pestle to create the distinctive pounded effect. I’ve also made it many a time in my standard European mortar and pestle and it is, to be honest, a bit of a faff. For one thing, my mortar and pestle isn’t nearly big enough, and for another you don’t really want to do the swirling around the bottom of the bowl hand movement when pounding somtam, so the mortar isn’t really the right shape. Then, one day we went grocery shopping in one of the Asian stores in town, and I noticed on a low shelf what looked exactly like the Thai conical mortar and pestles I’d been reading about. Holy synchronicity, Batman! They were wrapped up in newspaper and as I pulled one out and unwrapped it, I could see it was exactly that: a beautiful earthenware mortar with carved wooden pestle, carefully wrapped in Thai-language newsprint. Clearly, this lovely object had appeared in my life for a reason.
So one of these implements is definitely much more practically useful than the other. If I’m being honest, I still prefer to do my fresh coconut in the Cuisinart than by hand. The Burmese scraper does produce a fluffier result but it would take a long-ass time to scrape a whole coconut by hand. The somtam mortar and pestle, meanwhile, is just a joy to use, the shape perfect for pounding and the wooden pestle light enough not to destroy the delicate vegetables. All the same, they are both objects to treasure. I made a meal this week to celebrate both of them: Indonesian lamb shanks cooked with fresh coconut, coconut water, and coconut milk, and Thai green papaya, tomato and green bean somtam. We shared it with lovely visitors from Croatia D&I – it seemed apt to celebrate Naomi’s gift from abroad with new friends from yet another part of the world.
The lamb shanks I adapted from one of James Oseland’s recipes. It’s peppery rather than chili hot, and the three types of coconut offset the spiciness. It was a lovely long-cooked dish somewhat in the manner of a rendang, although saucier as you add in a bunch more coconut milk at the end.
The somtam was a quick papaya somtam, something fresh to counter the richness of the lamb shanks. A bit fusion mixing Indonesian and Thai, perhaps, but I tend to think somtam is never inappropriate as a vegetable dish. I dialed down the chilies because the lamb was quite peppery and because I wanted to showcase the light new Vietnamese fish sauce I bought in London.