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One of the many bits and bobs I brought home from Thailand was a jar of nam prik pow. Or at least, I think that’s what it is. At one of Chiang Mai’s night markets, I came across a stall selling candied fruits and savoury things in jars. Obviously, I couldn’t actually read any of the labels but I was drawn to a particular set of little plastic pots. The stallholder opened some of them for me and it was clear they were variants of chili and shrimp pastes. I bought two – one an almost black, deeply fishy scented tar with a musty kick, the other a rich jewelled red colour with a lighter garlic, chili and fish sauce smell. They’re obviously mass produced, but they taste a good deal better than any of the jarred nam prik pow you can buy over here. I’ve been dying to try them out. (If anyone reads Thai, I’d love to know what it actually says…)

Unfortunately, my original plan for a variant on yam som-oh went awry at the shops, where basically nothing I wanted to purchase was available. No coconut milk, no grapefruit, etc. I think I went into a bit of a panic because I came home with a completely random Ready Steady Cook style bag of ingredients. Rump steak, portabella mushrooms, spring greens and red peppers? Er, ok. My local greengrocer (i.e. the Mean Polish Store) doesn’t exactly carry a wide range of Asian vegetables but still, I have no idea where those mushrooms came from. That being said, I ended up with a rather nice dish – lots of wok-fried greens and thinly-sliced beef with the roasty hot garlicky flavour of nam prik pow seared onto them.

To make this dish vegetarian, obviously it’s easy enough to omit the beef and just use greens and mushrooms. Likewise, soy sauce can sub for fish sauce in the usual way (use a bit less and dilute more with water as I find soy a bit saltier). More challenging is the nam prik pow but you can buy veggie nam prik pow in many Asian markets. It’s worth seeking out, or indeed making your own, as the stuff’s a wonder to have in the fridge.

Spicy Thai beef and greens

  • 1 small rump steak
  • 1 head of spring greens
  • 2 portabella mushrooms
  • 1 red pepper
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 3 long Thai red chilies
  • 1 tbsp nam prik pow (or to taste)
  • 1/4 cup measure, half filled with fish sauce and half warm water
  • 2 tbsp palm sugar
  • 1 lime

To prepare, slice the meat very thinly, cut the mushrooms and pepper into rather less thin slices, and also slice the greens. Finely chop the garlic and chilies. Get the wok good and hot before adding a glug of oil, then add mushrooms. When they’ve coloured, add garlic and chilies.

Next add the greens and the pepper. Of course, the key thing in wok frying is not adding too much volume. Greens seem pretty volumetastic at first but then cook down pretty fast. Still, don’t make this for more than two people or your wok won’t stay hot enough. You want the greens to get that toasty wok hei flavour.

Finally, add the beef and the nam prik pow and fry for a minute. You want the paste to cook and also sear into the beef and greens. Then add fish sauce, water, and sugar and stir to dissolve the chili paste and sugar into the liquid. Mix everything well. Once that’s done, turn off the heat and add the lime juice. Serve immediately.

I should offer a prize for guessing correctly what exactly is in this picture. When we first arrived in Chau Doc, in the northern Mekong, we were perplexed and utterly transfixed by these obscenely glistening mountains that were to be found in stalls all over the night market. Context and smell told us there was a fish component but what else was going on? We remained in the dark until the next morning, when all became clear at the morning market. Before I get there, though, a little about Chau Doc. It’s one of the bigger cities on the Mekong and the last major stopping point before the Cambodian border. As a result, it has the slightly rakish demeanour of the border town (although it’s a ways to the actual border) as well as a substantial Khmer influence in its food and culture. Although there is a tourist market on the waterfront, I didn’t see any actual tourists there, and most of the town had a real provincial feel – urban but not especially concerned to be cosmopolitan. We felt nicely far from home. Read the rest of this entry »

When I was really sick, I wasn’t cooking at all and dinners were whatever I could persuade poor Mr Lemur to put together for us. (This may explain my substantial weight loss, although I really do not recommend the influenza diet.) Now I’m feeling a lot better and well enough to cook, but I’m still fairly weak and in need of simple and nutritious fare. I was craving poached chicken – not the Woody Allen joke of boiled chicken that’s been put through the de-flavourising machine but properly poached chicken that’s juicy, soft and infused with delicate flavours. To go with the tenderness of the chicken, I decided on a mix of peashoots and sunflower shoots – equally tender young vegetables without the indigestibility of winter greens. But you need something to bring all this delicacy into focus, or else it really would be an invalid meal rather than a energising one. Ginger is good for the stomach and ideal with chicken, so I added a zingy Vietnamese-inspired dressing of ginger, chili and lemongrass to wake the whole dish up. Cooking this dish made me feel a whole lot less like a sick girl, but the dish itself isn’t just for the delicate of constitution. Anyone feeling a bit worn down by post-holiday blues could enjoy its revitalising qualities.

Aromatic poached chicken

  • 2 chicken breasts
  • 3 lemongrass stalks
  • 2 large chunks of ginger
  • 20 peppercorns
  • 1/4 cup or more fish sauce
  • 1 lemon
  • 3 tbsp caster sugar
  • 3 tbsp water
  • 3-6 long Thai red chilies, to taste
  • 1/2 cucumber
  • a bag of pea shoots, sunflower shoots or whatever mixed shoots and young leaves you have available
  • a handful of mint
  • a small handful of cilantro

Your first order of business is to poach the chicken. Put the breasts in a heavy pot (Le Creuset of similar, anything that holds heat well) and just cover with cold water. Take one knob of ginger, peel and bash with the back of a knife, then add to the water. Cut off the parts of the lemongrass that are too hard to eat, slice in half and add these to the water. Add the peppercorns and a generous glug of fish sauce. Now bring the water up not to a boil but to the gentlest of simmers. You just want little bubbles forming, no more. Turn the heat down to keep it this way for 5 minutes, then turn the heat off and put a lid on the pot. Leave it for 30 minutes. You will have beautifully moist and perfect chicken without any further effort on your part. Hurrah!

While the chicken is cooking merrily under its own steam, make the dressing. Finely chop the chilies, the other big chunk of ginger, and the good bits of the lemongrass. Add 3 tbsp each of fish sauce, sugar and warm water, plus the juice of the lemon. You might want to add the lemon juice gradually and taste as you go. I found with the level of ginger and sugar, the dressing could take quite a lot of acid. Remember the heat will be greatly dissipated in the final dish so be bold with the ginger and chilies.

Next, wash the sprouts well and cut the cucumber into matchsticks. Tear or chop up the mint and cilantro leaves and mix all together in a bowl. When the chicken is cooked, let it cool and then tear into shreds and mix into the greens. Toss well with the dressing.

And that’s really all there is to it. Not only do you end up with a vibrant and healthy dinner, the poaching liquid is now light Asian-flavoured chicken stock you can store and use for something else. I feel immensely better for having cooked an actual meal and even more improved for eating it. Now, if I could please maybe get my voice back (almost three weeks of laryngitis!), 2012 would start to seem like a less miserable place…

Serves 2-3, over rice

In among all the street food, I wanted to go to one fancy-ish restaurant while in Saigon and a couple of people had recommended Ngon. To get us in the mood, we went for a pre-dinner cocktail at the 23rd floor bar in the (very upscale) Sheraton Hotel, which has a fine view over the city and rather nice 2-for-1 cocktails during happy hour. Unfortunately, we remembered once we got there that we hadn’t written down the address of Ngon, so we asked the hotel concierge. He showed us on a map but we also got a taste of high-end hotel living, because he was really concerned to put us in a taxi. You mustn’t walk, he insisted, it’s not safe. He almost had us believing we were going to some sketchy part of town, but of course, looking at the map it was clear the restaurant was right in the centre, more or less where we’d been wandering all week. If the Sheraton advises against walking to Ngon, its guests must see almost nothing of Saigon except out the windows of a taxi. When we got there (unmolested), I almost didn’t want to go in because it looked too fancy. Ngon is in an old colonial building, beautifully restored, and the garden section is full of fairy lights hung from the many trees that fill the space. It’s really quite magical. I was afraid the food would be Anglicised and overpriced, but we’d shlepped all the way there so we went in. I’m so glad we did…it was one of the best meals we ate in Vietnam and cost less than our Christmas barbeque. Read the rest of this entry »

Well, after a fairly horrible two weeks of illness, I’m finally feeling well enough to resume blogging. I’m by no means better yet – after a proper flu with secondary bronchitis and laryngitis I’m still weak as a kitten and sleeping almost as much as my cat – but I’m itching to write more about Vietnam and Thailand. I’m hoping in the coming weeks to intersperse travel posts on Southeast Asia with what I’m cooking now. But since I’m still on a sick-girl diet of plain rice and chicken, cooked by the wonderful Mr Lemur, it might be a few days before I’m back at the stove. For now, I’m starting a short series of market posts. Like any foodie, one of my favourite things to do in any new destination is to check out the food market, and throughout our trip we spent mornings and often evenings wandering around stalls, tasting new foods and just looking longingly at produce. I’ve been saving these posts up to enliven a dull January with vibrant images. First up, the Mekong delta town of Vinh Long. Read the rest of this entry »

Just a quick post to tell you that I haven’t been blogging this New Year’s weekend because I’ve come down with a truly hideous flu. Not a bad-cold-fake-flu, an actual flu. Nothing caught from Vietnamese street food, I can safely say – more likely the aeroplane home, full of toxic coughing multitudes. In any case, I am iller than I can remember being ever in my life, sweating a 103 fever and wishing I would just die and get it over with. So…I have loads more posts to come on my SE Asian food fest, not to mention the cool things I brought home with me to cook with. But right now, it’s ambitious for me to look a slice of toast in the eye, so it might be a few more days before I’m back on track. More soon…

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