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We've been in Malaysia for a few days now, but we're still reeling from the amazing food onslaught that was Penang. We arrived in the mid afternoon, when Georgetown is hot and sleepy. I was eager to get out and eat, but not unreasonably, a lot of the street food focuses on actual mealtimes, rather than being ready to feed foreigners at random moments of the day. So, we pootled around looking at the city's truly gorgeous shophouse architecture until Mr Lemur called time on our mad dogs and Englishmen perambulations and we went back to our hotel for a siesta. (Our hotel, by the way, was the fantastic Campbell House, about which more later. Seriously, if you go to Georgetown, you should really stay there.) Anyway, we didn't quite have our bearings yet in terms of navigating the city, so we didn't want to stray far for dinner. I had a long list of food ideas, but the only one very close to our hotel was the wonderfully named Sky Emperor Chicken Feet Kway Teow Soup on Lebuh Kimberley. Come on, how could you not want to eat at something called Sky Emperor Chicken Feet?
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I already wrote about the putu piring, but there was so much more going on at the Geylang Serai pasar malam. Blocks and blocks of tents were set up for a giant market that runs through Ramadan, adjacent to the hawker food centre where we ate. Outside, the streets are decorated with lights and in lots of places, decorative ketupat holders. Inside you can buy most anything, but if you are in the market for some spiffy new headscarves, then you have really come to the right place. We spent a happy couple of hours wandering around the stalls.

red rice plate

Lovely lemur friend M gave us some dried chilies for Christmas and when the cold snap hit, it seemed like the perfect time to use them in something deeply warming and savoury. It turned properly cold here last week and I think everyone had some version of the same idea: comfort cook meats! There was an unprecedented queue at the local butcher and he told me everyone had been buying braising meat to the point that they had actually run out of pork belly. I swithered a bit and decided on a chicken and a few plump house-made chorizos. Nothing makes me feel quite so thrifty as using every part of a chicken and the chorizos reminded me of the Mexican chilies awaiting me at home.

Red rice is a hearty and very unassuming dish. It can be as simple as rice cooked with a tomato-based salsa and as such, you might think of it as a side dish rather than the main event. But it’s a palette made for variations and additions, and I like to add a bit of meaty flavour and a load of dark greens (it absorbs seemingly limitless amounts of them) to turn it into a one-pot meal. Besides, Mr Lemur has a bred-in-the-bone Latin American love for plain rice dishes and, after all, some of the world’s great dishes begin from nothing more than rice and chicken. This is one of those dishes that seem to involve a lot of steps but few of them call for close attention. It takes more time than effort so it’s the perfect thing to make over a weekend and it will feed you happily for days. Read the rest of this entry »

By the time Mr Lemur and I hit Saigon on our tour of Southern Vietnam, you might think we’d have been all marketed out, but Ben Thanh market revitalised us. At first it felt a bit unwieldy with lots of stalls selling cheap clothes, fake plastic fruit and assorted tschotschkes, not to mention the Viet ladies who have no problem whatsoever grabbing you and pushing you aside if you are in their way. (Seriously, they make little old Italian ladies seem reticent.) But we soon warmed to the cheery rudeness of the atmosphere and enjoyed a pretty good pork chop bun for breakfast. Since we were nearing the end of our time in Asia, I felt justified in attempting a bit of food shopping. While it was sadly not feasible to carry home any of the pickled fish I enjoyed in Chau Doc, it did seem reasonable to pick up some dried shrimp and spices. Ben Thanh had some lovely looking shrimp stalls where I’m fairly certain I was ripped off, and pushy coffee vendors who clearly dealt with tourists a lot. But the spice stall was not set up for tourism and, as you can see above, its proprietor was just a little daunting. Read the rest of this entry »

Image by Tichan on Traveljournals.net.

Here’s part 2 of LocAlien’s guest post from Singapore. Thanks again, LocAlien! I will totally go hunting for grimy biryani parlours with you if I ever get the chance…

I suppose that Anthony Bourdain has done more than most to introduce this street food culture to the world. I believe that he honestly tries to find its genuine elements, while evading and even subverting the manufactured gimmickry and antiseptic options that the tourist promotion board pushes on innocent food tourists. But he can unnecessarily overreach, as when he asserts that chicken rice has the strongest claim to being the national dish. (Check out a clip here.) The problems: One, other dishes have more justified claims to the title. Two, ethnic hegemony. The chicken rice he eats on tv is the Chinese version, which you’ll never see Malays or Indians ever eat. The less famous Malay version of chicken rice can be very well executed, especially if you prefer the chicken more roasted-y rather than poached, and the rice drier. Nevertheless, Chinese chicken rice can be superb, especially if the initial thought of boiled chicken served cold grosses you out. The gelatinous skin alone is gold. Three, over-selling it. Telling people that chicken rice is the national dish, convinces them to buy the first plate they see, and they will see it everywhere. Most chicken rice isn’t worth the hassle, and will make you think Bourdain is a moron. Pick the wrong place, and you’ll be gagging on rendered chicken fat. I’d venture that only 40% is decent, and the best handful of sellers would serve you a plate that might just be worth half your airfare. Four, he just plain eats it wrong. Whatever you do, don’t douse it in soy sauce for fuck sake. If you know enough about sushi to know that soy sauce disrespects the chef, you should know that the same about the chicken rice cook. Oh, and fun fact: Pay close attention to the guy chopping your chicken with the cleaver. Count his fingers, and see if you reach 10. If you do, he might not have being doing this for long enough. 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

If you listened to the more cautious advice on eating in Southeast Asia, you would eat only cooked food, only hot food, only food prepared in front of you, only food in proper restaurants, no raw vegetables or non-peeling fruit, and definitely nothing you find down an alley. Food safety is an important thing and I definitely don’t want to catch hepatitis or food poisoning while I’m on holiday, but the problem is that if you followed all of these rules, you would basically eat nothing interesting in Thailand or Vietnam. So, I am breaking these rules one by one and instead following the advice of food bloggers like Eating Asia who know a lot about street food and balance culinary adventure with food sense. I’m eating street food at busy stalls, where I can see from the local clientele that standards are high. I’m choosing stalls with a lot of product and hence a lot of turnover – nothing is sitting for too long when a vendor is popular. I’m trying to go at busy times – kanom jeen or jook at breakfast, somtam at lunch, grilled meats early in the evening market hours. You can tell when food looks forlorn, stale, or, in one horrifying case, covered in bees. Really, it wasn’t a major piece of deductive reasoning to decide that bee-covered fruit is not the healthy way to go.
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My trip to Brixton market last weekend yielded some beautiful vegetables including these amazing okra and scotch bonnet chilies. I can buy okra easily enough in Brighton, but it is often over-large and/or a bit blackened around the edges. But in Brixton market there were vast bins of young, small okra with nary a mark on them. I know okra is a divisive vegetable: while American Southerners tend to love it, people from other places find its sliminess offputting. (Even Southerners often deep fry it to dry it out.) I, however, embrace the gloop. I find the texture of okra to be completely alluring and I love using it in Indian bhindi masala and in Southeast Asian curries.

My favourite use of okra, though, is in the Senegalese casserole mafé. Mafé is a Wolof groundnut stew that is usually made with lamb but can be done in various versions with beef, chicken, fish, or just vegetables. The vegetables also seem to be fairly open but I always make it with okra and cabbage. Something about the combination of okra, peanuts, tomatoes and hot citrusy chilies is really addictive and I make this dish quite a lot. I remember an episode of Top Chef in which the judges found the combination of peanut sauce and tomatoes to be weird. On the contrary, the combination is fantastic and what’s more easy to do with store-cupboard ingredients…

Most versions of this dish include meat, but it would be very easy to make a vegetarian (and also vegan) version using only the vegetables.

Senegalese chicken mafé

  • 4-6 chicken pieces
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 4 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 1 tin of tomatoes (or 6 fresh tomatoes plus a spoonful of tomato paste)
  • 1/4 cup smooth peanut butter
  • 1 scotch bonnet chili
  • 2 large handfuls okra
  • 1/2 a green cabbage, sliced into chunks
  • 1 sweet potato or 2 carrots, cubed
  • oil, salt, pepper

First, season the chicken pieces well with salt and pepper and brown in a large frying pan with a lid, or a big pot. Put them aside and use the same pan to fry the onion until it is slightly browned, then add garlic. Sauté for a few seconds then add tomatoes. Cook over a medium heat until the tomatoes break down. Meanwhile, put the peanut butter in a bowl and add about 1/2 cup of water. Whisk until you have a smooth paste. Once the tomatoes are good and saucy, add the peanut paste and mix well.

Next, put the chicken back in, along with your scotch bonnet, cut in half. (If you want it less spicy, just poke a couple of holes in the chili with a knife but leave it whole.) Add a bit more salt and pepper and simmer gently for 30 minutes. Stir relatively often, as the peanuts make the sauce stick.

Next, add your cubed sweet potato or carrot and cook for 15-20 mins. Then add okra and sliced cabbage. Stir carefully and cook for another 15-20 mins, until everything is cooked and soft. Be especially careful to stir at this stage, as you want to prevent the sauce from sticking but also keep the vegetables from breaking up. You can add more water if things seem to be drying out.

Before serving, season with more salt (this will be very variable depending on how sweet your peanut butter is) and remove the chili.

Serves 4.


Since Mr Lemur was born in Brazil, he has a particular soft spot for Brazilian foods. It’s probably impossible to feed him black beans too often – we even have a local butcher from Brazil who offered to save us pig’s ears for feijoada – and my experiments in pão de queijo (little cheese breads) have been enthusiastically received. We even buy guaraná soda, which reminds him of his childhood in Rio and reminds me, weirdly, of Scottish Irn Bru, so everyone’s happy there. My favourite Brazilian dishes to cook, though, are the Afro-Brazilian flavours typical of Bahia: deep seafood stews like moqueca and vatapá, thickened with nuts and dried shrimp, and based on the rich foundation of palm oil or dendê. I love West African food (I was thrilled to find great Senegalese food in Paris recently) and so it makes sense that the Afro-Brazilian combination of West African nut-based stews with New World chilies, tomatoes and fruits would hit my food buttons. Xinxim de galinha is a classic Bahian dish, combining chicken and shrimp into an earthy stew that feels warm and reassuring even if you didn’t grow up with it.

The main things that you might not have to hand to make xinxim de galinha are dendê and dried shrimp. The shrimp are easily found in any Chinese or Asian store. Look for fairly big shrimp that are nice and pink in colour – brownish and dull shrimp are probably older and the small ones are cheaper and less flavourful. Dendê oil can also be found in many ethnic markets and maybe even the supermarket if you live in a diverse neighbourhood. It tends to separate in the jar but don’t worry, that’s normal. This bright orange oil makes all the difference to the colour and flavour of the dish.

Xinxim de galinha (Bahian chicken stew)

  • 4 chicken thighs
  • 1 onion
  • 4 spring onions
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • juice of 1 lime
  • 2 inches of ginger
  • 1/2 cup of cilantro (i.e. a very generous handful)
  • 1/4 cup of peanuts
  • 1/4 cup of cashews
  • 1/4 cup of dried shrimp
  • 1 small can of coconut milk (165ml size)
  • 3 small green chilies (serranos or similar)
  • hot sauce
  • 2-3 tbsp dendê oil

Roughly chop the garlic, ginger, spring onions and cilantro, place in a food processor with the lime juice, and process till fairly smooth. Pour this mixture over the chicken and marinade for an hour or till you are hungry.

Meanwhile, toast the nuts on a cast iron skillet till golden and process to fine meal. Next process the dried shrimp in the same way until fluffy.

Dice the onion and fry in a heavy-based pan in a generous amount of dendê. Scrape the marinade off the chicken and pat it dry, then brown chicken pieces in the same pan. When the chicken is browning nicely, add the marinade, nuts, shrimp paste and coconut milk and stir well. Add a little water to loosen. Cut the chilies in half and add them, along with hot sauce to taste. (The dish isn’t really spicy but you want to give a little green chili flavour.)

Cover and cook for 30 minutes, turning and stirring often. The sauce will stick easily so you need to keep quite a close eye on it.

Serves 4.

Recipe adapted from The South American Table by Maria Baez Kijac.

Mr Lemur has had a bit of a cold and, since I am Jewish, I naturally turn to chicken soup as a curative. But the old style Jewish penicillin doesn’t really do it for me as a culinary project and besides, I firmly believe that the best things for a cold are ginger, chilies, garlic and citrus. Like all cold remedies, they’re not going to cure it but they do make you feel slightly better about being sick. So I decided to make soto ayam, the Malaysian/Singaporean/Indonesian version of chicken soup that is about as soulful as a chicken soup can get.

I’ve made soto ayam before with noodles and with rice, but my Singaporean friend G suggested I should try it with ketupat, which are pressed rice cubes. G is a fellow foodie and is always sending me interesting nuggets of Southeast Asian food lore to consider. He knows exactly what’s going to pique my interest and ketupat, with their very specific twist on an ordinary ingredient, are right up my alley. They’re made by cooking rice inside a woven basket of coconut leaves. The rice has little space to expand and so cooks in a compressed form, making little rice cakes. Neat, huh? The only problem is that many Asian cooks buy the baskets ready made and weaving them oneself looks rather challenging, even assuming you could get hold of coconut leaves.

Frankly, it looks like the kind of craft project I’d make a total arse of. Luckily,  Sunflower Food provides a cheat’s guide to ketupat, which involves cooking rice then mashing it with a potato masher, forming it into a block, and pressing it under weights. Since I’ve never had the original, I can’t say how close this version comes, but it is certainly easy and the resulting blocks had a good texture.

As with the various starches that can go into a soto ayam, the soup itself has many variations. Most involve turmeric that turns the soup a lovely yellow colour, but I’ve seen versions that are pale and milky looking too. What they all have in common is chicken cooked in a spice-scented broth that then forms the basis for the soup. The cooked chicken is shredded and added back into the soup, along with an array of possible toppings. My version draws from James Oseland’s method of frying the spice paste before adding it to the broth (a method that I’ve found really useful in cooking Malaysian-style dishes) but I have a somewhat different balance of spices. Mr Lemur is still looking a bit peaky but I think he’s much better for the soto ayam.

Soto ayam / Singapore style chicken soup

  • 2 chicken leg and thigh portions
  • 1 litre or so of filtered water
  • 8 shallots
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 3 inches of fresh turmeric
  • 1 inch of ginger
  • 1 inch of galangal
  • 4 stalks lemongrass
  • 1 tbsp coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp black peppercorns
  • 2 cloves
  • 2 star anise
  • 3 lime leaves
  • 1-2 limes
  • 1/2 a long red chili (or 2 smaller red ones)
  • a handful of cilantro
  • a handful of beansprouts
  • 12 or more blocks of ketupat
  • salt and cooking oil

Pour the water into a large pot. I got the filtering tip from Oseland also, and it makes sense that for a clear soup, you really want the water to taste good. Add the chicken pieces, star anise and lime leaves. Bash up the lemongrass a bit with the back of a knife and add. Add a good pinch of salt. Bring to the boil, skim the surface and simmer for about 45 minutes, till the chicken is beginning to fall off the bones. Remove the chicken and set aside to cool. (Make sure your cat doesn’t eat it.) Discard the flavourings from the broth but keep the broth. When the chicken is cool enough to touch, pull it apart into fine shreds.

While the chicken is cooking, prepare the spice paste and toppings. First, slice four of the shallots thinly and fry until brown. Set these aside for later. Slice the chili thinly, wash the beansprouts, and pull the leaves off the cilantro. Put all these toppings aside.

Next, put the peppercorns, coriander seeds and cloves in a mini prep or spice grinder and process till powdered. Roughly chop the remaining shallots and add to the ground spices in a mini prep along with the garlic and the peeled and chopped ginger, galangal and turmeric. Process till smooth and then fry for five minutes or so in the same pan used for the shallots. You’ll want to be quite generous with the oil as this paste drinks it up, and stir often to avoid burning. When the paste doesn’t smell raw any more, add it to the broth along with the shredded chicken.

Now simmer the soup for another 10-15 minutes, to give the flavours time to meld. When the soup is ready, take it off the heat and squeeze in the juice of 1 lime (or more) to taste. Check for salt now too. To serve, put several ketupat blocks in the bottom of a bowl and ladle over the soup. Top with beansprouts, cilantro leaves and fried shallots. Other possible toppings include mint, pineapple cubes, shrimp crackers and sambal oelek.

Serves 2

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