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We wanted to see the Rain Room at the Barbican. It’s a cool-sounding installation by Random International (which sounds like a pop group) that involves a room that rains around you but somehow doesn’t rain on you. Apparently you can walk around inside this vast rain sculpture and not get wet. I say apparently because we didn’t actually get to see it. By the time we got to the Barbican there was a queue like an execution and the nice staff cheerfully told us it would take about three and a half hours to get to the front. Yeah. Three and a half hours. I’m not committed enough to many things to wait that long and certainly not an art piece that, however neat sounding, would take less than three and a half minutes to experience. So we decided to come back on a Tuesday morning in January when the fuss has died down and instead went for lunch. Read the rest of this entry »

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One of the advantages of being a food blogger is that friends often give delicious food-related gifts, and  the most wonderful version of this is getting out-of-the-blue home-made giftage. The other day I came into my office to find a tiny, beautiful jar of homemade hot sauce made by my multi-talented colleague Ukelele Lady. She’s a huge chili head and has taken to making hot sauces as a bit of a cottage industry. This one is called Ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb and is of course made with cherry bomb chilies. They’re not the hottest but they’ve got a lovely sweet flavour. I couldn’t resist sticking a pinky into the jar and tasting it, and I immediately thought the sweetness would go well with the char of a steak.

So I made something very simple. I wok-seared some thin steaks, then used the beef fat in the work to stir-fry bok choy and red pepper with garlic, soy sauce and a touch of Shaoxing wine. I got both the meat and the bok choi nicely charred with wok hei, then added a good dollop of ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb. It was delicious and made us extremely happy to have such generous and warm-hearted friends. Sharing the chili love – hurrah!

V gave me some chili plants for my last birthday, which she nurtured from seeds and eventually relocated to my garden. The whole enterprise has caused great hilarity and consternation, as Mr Lemur and I try to keep the damn things alive long enough to fruit. We’ve now brought them in for the winter and have a living room full of giant, unruly bushes which might or might not provide us with chilies one day. However, scarcely remarked in the great chili experiment is V’s rau ram plant which arrived in the same birthday present and is now going great guns. While we tried unsuccessfully to provide sunshine for the chilies, the rau ram was drinking up our wet and disappointing summer. Native to the swampier parts of Southeast Asia, rau ram or Vietnamese coriander is endlessly thirsty and apparently thrives on benign neglect. I only noticed how much it had grown when I brought it indoors. It was time for some soulful Vietnamese braised meat.

The cilantro-y flavour of rau ram is often used in salads, or as one of the fresh herbs topping pho, but I thought it would be nice as part of a more autumnal dish. I bought some shoulder pork from my lovely local butcher and decided to braise it in an aromatic light broth with star anise, cinnamon and cumin.  I once made a Luke Nguyen braise that used Sichuan peppercorns alongside more traditional Vietnamese flavours and I borrowed that idea to give a little kick to this aromatic dish. It came out rather nicely, with a pleasing slurry of spices. You could crush them if you wanted a more refined texture (or do as Nguyen does and isolate them in a muslin bag) but I rather wanted the homeliness of leaving them whole.

Although I wanted to emphasise the flavours of rau ram, you could make the dish with cilantro if you don’t have rau ram available. If you did that, then add some black pepper to the braise. (I’m really curious as to how my friends who hate cilantro respond to rau ram. The flavours are a bit similar but I don’t think they’re botanically connected, so perhaps that soapy sensation wouldn’t occur?)

Braised pork with rau ram

  • 1/4 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 – 1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns (to taste)
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
  • 3 cloves
  • 4 star anise
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • a generous glug of fish sauce
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tsp thick soy sauce
  • 4 shoulder or spare rib pork chops
  • 20 rau ram leaves
  • 1 cup water
  • 3 small red chilies, or to taste

Begin by toasting the spices (cumin, fennel, star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, cloves) one at a time in a cast-iron skillet until fragrant. Set aside.

Brown the pork chops in a large heavy-bottomed skillet in vegetable oil and then add chopped garlic. When garlic begins to colour, add a decent whack of fish sauce, dark soy and enough water to semi-cover the meat. Add whole spices, cinnamon and sugar and stir. Bring to the boil and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes, turning occasionally. After 15 minutes, add thinly-sliced rau ram.

After a half hour or so, the sauce should be reduced somewhat: still thin but nicely brown and beginning to be sticky. Garnish with chopped chilies (or more rau ram if you’d rather it not be too spicy) and serve with quickly wok-tossed vegetables. I made these amazing purple carrots with mange-touts.

Serves 4.

At the Brighton Fiery Foods Festival, I made the acquaintance of Jenny Song, entrepreneur and killer Sichuan cook from Chengdu. Jenny and her partner John run China Spice, a company that imports peppercorns, chilies and other traditional foods from Chengdu to the UK. The stall was doing a brisk business with eager customers trying out John’s claim that their Sichuan peppercorns put what we currently have in the UK to shame. John explains that the peppercorn business shares some tricks with importers of certain less legal products: the real peppercorns are cut with the cheaper, tasteless shells of other bushes and often dyed to look the part. Morevoer, even the real peppercorns we see tend to have hard black seeds inside – a pain to dig out – whereas well-picked peppercorns will be almost seed-free. The proof of the peppercorn is in the tasting and I cheerfully agreed to eat one – just one – peppercorn. It was astonishing. You start with the expected citrusty notes and numbing sensation, but these familiar experiences are just the beginning of a several-minute sensory play that includes fizzing and a dreamy feeling that’s actually a bit like being on drugs. In the nicest possible way. John was dead on: these are like tasting Neapolitan bufala mozzarella for the first time when you’ve only ever had string cheese. Read the rest of this entry »

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