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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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The Lemurs have left behind the architectural overload of Rome and we're spending a week with good friends K and L in the countryside of Lazio. We're in the village of Sutri, not far from the city but offering a whole other experience of Italian life. We're doing some serious relaxing here, with twice daily trips to the fruit lady, the baker and the salumeria being our most strenuous activities. This is the view from our roof terrace as the sun goes down – as Anthony Bourdain likes to say, this does not suck.

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I’ve been proselytising my friends about my new tofu press. I get one of two responses when I tell them that my tofu press is the best thing ever. Either they ask why one needs to press tofu at all, or they ask why I don’t just use a pile of books to do it. (I admit that I might have more than usually nerdy friends –  not only do they spend their time pressing tofu but they have all lit upon the piles of books that surround them as the best means to do the job.) The thing is this: pressing tofu gives you a whole new insight into the delicious potential of this much-maligned food and pressing it evenly and thoroughly without the faff of trying not to soak your history of art books is worth a few bucks, people! 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 »

Well, my pretties, I’ve finally escaped from farang food! After I met Naomi Duguid in London, we kept in touch and arranged to meet up at the Haw morning vegetable market in Chiang Mai. We had had a lovely time in East London talking about everything from Naomi’s travels in Burma to film, philosophy and Iranian gender politics and so I was super pleased to have the chance to meet up again. This time, though, we’d have a proper food market to visit and we’d be on Naomi’s home turf, as it were. She didn’t have much time to spare as she was actually catching a plane later in the morning – I know, right, how generous to meet up and show us the market when she was on such a tight schedule – but she packed in an intensive education in a brief space of time. In between catching up with all of our lives this autumn, Naomi explained many of the market’s  treasures and introduced me to what may be my new favourite breakfast dish. Read the rest of this entry »

It’s the time of year when we all start panicking about buying holiday gifts – unless you’re my mother, in which case you finished your holiday shopping weeks ago and have already presented wrapped gifts to your incompetent daughter. There’s something about getting Christmas presents from your Jewish mother in early November that delivers that extra measure of guilt with the festive spirit. Also, I should say that really, this isn’t actually the time of year that I start panicking about present buying. That time is called mid-December. (This is why my mother thinks I’m incompetent. Surprise: she’s right!) However, as Thrifty Gal reminded me, people with blogs have to think about these things early, or early-ish. So I have roused myself from the state of complete denial with which I like to approach the festive season and investigated the delicious world of giftage for the food lover in your life. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Italian food expert K came to stay last weekend and he arrived with a plan: he’d been reading about the spicy Calabrian sausage nduja in last week’s Telegraph and thought we should try it out. (I should stop here and and remind readers that K just moved to the UK and possibly didn’t realise the implications of buying the Torygraph. Also he was seduced by a freebie that came with the weekend paper. Let’s not judge, we’ve all done that.) Anyway, by good fortune, I went to the Brighton Fiery Food Festival right after we spoke and came across a Calabrian food stall hawking several different kinds of nduja. Either this was the universe telling me to buy nduja or the Calabrian food lobby has a seriously good PR department.

The nice man from BreadTree told me that Calabrians think it is high time people got over their love of chorizo and recognised nduja as the best spiced pork sausage in Europe. To prove his case, he offered two main types of nduja: Nduja di Spilinga and Nero di Calabria. The first was a satisfyingly deep red colour (on the left below) and clearly rich with oil and dried peperoncino chillies. I liked the look of it immediately. Slightly more expensive was Nero di Calabria (on the right), which is organic and made from the famous Calabrian black pigs. I bought some of each for taste test purposes. Read the rest of this entry »

Last weekend was Brighton’s Fiery Foods Festival, an event that you can imagine is close to my heart. I’m not really invested in the boy-boy machismo of chilli eating competitions and I could do without the live music component of the day, but I am unreasonably excited about wandering from stall to stall, buying jars of this and that spicy condiment, and grazing on hot foods from around the world.

I have to say that this year’s festival was noticably weaker on the street food front. Whereas last year I ate amazing som tam (pounded for me while I watched, with levels of each ingredient open to debate), delicious Nigerian spinach and egusi (not spicy but there was hot sauce available) and more, this year the hot food was a bit insipid. There were stalls of the kind you see at every street event – burgers, sausages and so on – that have nothing to do with fiery foods, and then horrible corporate versions of Mexican food. We did eat some lovely Thai BBQ but I worry that the economic situation is driving out the small businesses that are a huge part of this kind of event.

On the positive side, the stalls selling artisanal ingredients and condiments were a joy. It’s always lovely to meet the people who make foods and in most cases at the festival, that’s exactly who I was talking to. Enthusiastic about their products and happy to talk about suppliers, recipes and more, the makers of these products made for a food blogger’s dream day out. And, of course, these delicious products are all available to buy online. Here are my top five: Read the rest of this entry »

Whenever I go to Paris I like to bring back spices. Last time, it was ras el hanout from the Belleville market and this time I found some amazing Madagascan black peppercorns in Le Comptoir Colonial in Montmartre. Dodgy name aside, Le Comptoir is a fantastic little store with dried beans, leaf teas, and gifts along the walls and a central island made up of heaping vats of spices from around the world.

I could spend hours in a place like this. There are familiar flavours, of course, like the various dried chilies and spice mixes, but even these look – and smell – more interesting when they’re fresh and not stuck in a glass jar.

This turmeric was beautifully vibrant.

There were also some things I couldn’t identify, or at least wasn’t completely familiar with. I think this is some sort of giant saffron, but really it looked like a big basket of hair. A delicious big basket of hair, but a big basket of hair nonetheless.

The assistant was really helpful. In addition to letting us photograph more or less everything in her shop, she was on hand to offer advice on the produce. I overheard her telling another customer that the Madagascan peppercorns were “a little miracle” so I couldn’t resist trying them out. She gave me a taster, grinding a bit into my hand, and the flavour really was unexpected. It’s moderately peppery, not super strong, but with a floral quality that’s quite distinctive. As you can see in the photo at the top of the post, these peppercorns are tiny ovals on stalks, much smaller than regular Indian black peppercorns, and they grow wild in the forests of Madagascar. Given my love of Madagascar’s native wildlife, I was obviously drawn to these little fruits. Perhaps lemurs were playing in these pepper vines before they were harvested and shipped to Paris!

The pepper is going to be used in my regular cooking, but I am also looking for ways to highlight it, rather than just use it as seasoning. I’ve been working up the courage to try Miss Cay’s amazing looking Strawberry Black Pepper Jam, which would surely be the perfect dish to highlight this “petit miracle” of a peppercorn. Until I trust in my abilities to sterilise jars without poisoning my friends, however, there’s the lazy expedient of just rolling fresh strawberries in ground pepper. The combination of sweetness and bite makes a pretty good early evening bite with a nice cold glass of rosé.

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