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Sometimes, good food comes from the Ready, Steady, Cook approach. I’ve been enmired in one of my busiest work weeks of the year, and came out alive at the other end to discover that Mr Lemur had bought some more-or-less random ingredients for me to cook at the Lovely Local Butcher and the Overpriced Local Greengrocer. Of course, the ingredients weren’t quite random. Faced with a panoply of organic and sustainable meaty wonders in the butcher’s shop, it’s better than even money that he’ll come out with pork belly. And, to be fair, these were some healthy slices of pig. Read the rest of this entry »

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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 »

The last time I went into my awesome local chili store Chili Pepper Pete’s, I discovered a new ingredient: green Sichuan peppercorns. I’ve only ever seen red ones before so I asked the guy behind the desk what was up with the green ones. This was definitely the right question as it unlocked exactly the type of conversation you dream of having with your local food purveyor. He told me not only what they are (young unripe peppercorns) but how they source them in Sichuan province and how they’re used there in different dishes. Turns out one of the owners is married to a woman from there and, as he rather smugly told me, he doesn’t go to any of our local Sichuan restaurants as he gets really great Sichuan food cooked for him nightly. (I kid, he was lovely. I’m just jealous…) Naturally I bought a bag of the little wonders and then had to spend some time figuring out what to make to bring out their ‘greener’ flavour.

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Three Treasures is one of our favourite Chinese vegetable dishes: we order it regularly at Lucky Star, which is of course our most favourite Chinese restaurant. It’s a simply and homey dish of braised aubergine, potato and bell pepper and a soothingly mild contrast to their many spicy Sichuan options. When Mr Lemur brought home aubergine and pepper last night, and realising I had a bag of potatoes going spare, I wondered if it might be possible to work out how it’s made. (I am not usually a big potato person but I had bought some in an aborted bacalao experiment and, of course, hadn’t figured out what to do with them instead.) A bit of research got me nowhere: I don’t know if the dish is usually called something else, or if Lucky Star just makes a very particular version, but the interwebs had very little guidance to offer me. So, I decided to try and retrofit the dish just based on the flavour. Read the rest of this entry »

We wanted to fit in some dim sum on Sunday, because really what’s an urban Sunday without dim sum? When I lived in New York, I ate dim sum all the time in a proper old fashioned palatial banqueting space with mean ladies pushing carts around. The anticipation of what might come next was part of the pleasure, backed up with the knowledge that you could always go up to the various stations for emergency potstickers, greens, or snails if hunger overtook you. The disadvantage was that they didn’t bother offering the more Chinese dishes to western diners. You could probably flag the ladies down and insist on chicken feet if you were determined enough, but my experience was that nothing too alarming was shown to me. Things were a little different in London, where the Crocodiles took me to Golden Dragon, a favourite haunt of theirs for many years. Read the rest of this entry »

Apologies for my radio silence: I’ve been away from the blog for a while, largely because work has been getting a bit overwhelming of late. But I’ve also been getting in some major blog research for you, gentle readers. This weekend took me far from the concerns of my job and into an all-out festival of overindulgence in London. Friday night set the tone with a raucous 40th party for a good friend. You get a bunch of Glaswegians together with money behind the bar and before you know it a chandelier is broken* and we’re dancing to Betty Boo. By Saturday morning I was hungover and ready for a serious ingestion of Asian food. This is where the Crocodiles came in. Who are the Crocodiles? They’re London friends who are also serious foodies and, in particular, Chinese food fiends. This weekend they took us in hand (ooh matron!) and, in between film screenings at the London Film Festival, they took us to some of the best restaurants I’ve been to in ages.

First up is Bar Shu, which won’t come as a surprise to any Asian food lovers in London. It’s long been regarded as the best Chinese food in London, Fuchsia Dunlop consults on the menu, and it’s really the place that kick-started the Sichuan food trend across the UK. I was massively excited to eat there, but also trying to temper my anticipation a little. Just because a restaurant has a strong reputation doesn’t automatically mean it’s going to be good. I needn’t have worried: Bar Shu served some of the best Chinese food I’ve ever eaten.

We were a fairly big party, so after a couple of appetiser suggestions, we sat back and let one of the Crocodiles order. He had what seemed like an involved consultation with the waitress in Cantonese, so we had no idea what was coming. This is a very unusual situation for me, since usually I’m the one who takes over and orders all the food. I can’t help it: I’m a restaurant top! This time, it was surprisingly relaxing to let someone else take charge. More food arrived than we could possibly photograph before hungry chopsticks attacked it, and also we only had a phone camera, so the pics aren’t great. This is just a rough sketch of the deliciousness that appeared…

Appetisers included the pea starch jelly with black bean sauce at the top of the post, some amazing gourd scented with orange, and these delicious pork rolls in garlic sauce. The rolls, filled with thinly sliced carrot, had a beautiful light spicing that the Crocodiles tell me is a speciality of Bar Shu.

We also had some little whelks in chili-studded broth, marinated cucumber, and Three Silken Threads: julienned papaya, mange tout and radish in mild chili oil.

All of these were fantastic, but merely an introduction to the wonders to come. First up was lamb ribs with lashings of chili (their description), which came as a whole rack of lamb ribs, expertly sliced up tableside, and covered with a sticky sauce topped with fresh chilies and preserved mustard greens. The meat was soft and richly flavoured, and vanished in a flash.

There was also a light shrimp and peanut dish that, to be honest, wasn’t entirely to my taste, and some delicious cold shredded potato. But the piece de la résistance was Fragrant Chicken in a Pile of Chilies. The dish arrived as a huge pyramid of dried Sichuan chilies, studded with a few visible chunks of chicken. The idea is that the chicken is buried treasure and you spend happy and relaxing time poking at the mound with your chopsticks, searching out nuggets of crispy fried chicken.

I’m still dreaming about this dish. It was soooo good. It wasn’t crazily spicy – quite hot but not overwhelming. The chicken was richly flavoured and crunchy with bits of fried skin, and burrowing in the chili pile was just lots of fun. I could go back and eat this weekly, and I honestly might.

The Bar Shu people had to throw us out eventually, since we sat around picking at our vast mounds of food and drinking till well after 11pm and could have hung out longer. The whole evening was a joy – eating delicious food with good friends. And, really, it wasn’t that expensive. It was pricier than crappy Chinese food in Chinatown but for such amazing Sichuan cuisine, it was actually super reasonable. As the centerpiece to my weekend of Asian gluttony, I don’t think I could have done better.

*Not us, honest. No, really, it just happened. Totally mysteriously.

Bar Shu, 28, Frith Street, London W1D 5LF

I haven’t seen Lemur friends R and S for far too long, especially given they only live in London. So when we finally got in touch, I was thrilled at their suggestion to eat Northeast Chinese food at Manchurian Legends in London’s Chinatown, which is as far as I know the only Dongbei restaurant in the UK. Dongbei describes the region of Northeast China that is also known in English as Manchuria, and because it’s a poor and conceptually distant region to those accustomed to Cantonese food and culture, it has been little explored in the West.

By one of those weird coincidences that seem to bring subjects forcibly to your attention, I’d just been reading about lesser-known Chinese food cultures in Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford’s book Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China. I had no idea how much of China’s vast area was inhabited by non-Han people, and it’s not hard to see a history of subjugation in the contemporary dominance of the Han regions in Chinese politics. Duguid and Alford explore a fascinating range of culinary traditions in the book, and though they don’t include much about Dongbei (since it is actually within the eastern seaboard area of the Great Wall), its native Manchu culture has much in common with the Mongol, Kazakh and other ethnicities that they do discuss. Having read about the very different ingredients and flavours found across China, I was eager to try some of them out at Manchurian Legends. Read the rest of this entry »

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