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So far, I haven’t had the best luck with street food unless it’s been a very detailed recommendation from a trusted source. Not that I’ve eaten anything unpleasant – just not life-alteringly wonderful. I’ve been waiting for that moment of foodie discovery, the chow hound’s Holy Grail of discovering a totally new and amazing source of deliciousness. It’s not as easy as it looks, here in a Thailand full of tourist traps, fruit shakes and ho hum pad thai. On my last day in Chiang Mai, I went for a walk on my own, across the river from the main city centre to check out a neighbourhood reputed to have quiet leafy streets. Yeah, right. Quiet and leafy in Thai terms translates to balancing on the 30 cm between main road and concrete wall as motorbikes and vans hurtle past you at a rate of knots. Maybe I never found the right turning and the pretty streets were hidden just a block away. There’s a lot in this city that you’ll never find unless someone takes you there. Either way, I had had enough and decided to make my way back to the hotel when, right on cue, I noticed something rather interesting going on across the street. Read the rest of this entry »

This trip to Paris was less meaty and heavy than previous ones, what with the not eating French food plan, but restaurant food is always a bit excessive, so I’ve been enjoying a week of Asian spicy salads to recover. There’s probably nothing I like more than an Asian salad – the mixture of cooked and raw vegetables, sometimes meats, and sparkily flavoured dressing is my idea of perfect warm weather food. This salad of green vegetables is an idea I learned from Vatcharin Bhumichitr’s great little book Vatch’s Southeast Asian Salads, and I’ve been making it in variously adapted forms for years now. Essentially, the dish involves lightly blanching an assortment of greens so that you end up with a generous bowl of vibrantly coloured vegetables, which are then dressed in a warm coconut and mint dressing. You can more or less make it at any time of year with green beans, broccoli, cabbage, whatever’s available, but it’s especially appealing in the late spring and early summer when you have asparagus and broad beans, or soon fresh peas at your disposal.

Green vegetable spicy salad with coconut dressing

  • 100g green beens
  • half a cucumber
  • 100g sugar snap peas
  • 200g asparagus
  • 300g broad beans (weight in pods)
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 garlic clove, chopped
  • 1 large green chili, chopped
  • 3 tbsp coconut cream
  • 2 tsp palm sugar
  • 1 tbsp fish sauce*
  • juice of 1 lime
  • a handful of mint leaves, chopped

*For vegetarians, add salt to taste instead of fish sauce, and a tbsp of water.

Pod the broad beans, chop the asparagus, top and tail the beans. Bring a pot of water to the boil and blanch the vegetables each for 3-5 minutes, until just cooked. After each one is done, drain well, pat dry, and add to a bowl. Keep the broad beans separate so they can be peeled when cool. Meanwhile, julienne the cucumber.

To make the dressing, heat the oil in a small pot and gently sauté the chopped garlic till golden. Remove from the heat and add the chili, sugar, coconut cream and fish sauce. When you are ready to serve, add the lime juice and mint and mix with the salad. Serve over rice.

Serves 2-3.

I’ve often bemoaned my lack of an Asian grandmother to teach me the kind of cooking that I love, but I also really value what I’ve learned from cookbooks. I had a really interesting discussion recently about how we learn unfamiliar cuisines with Eating Asia‘s Robyn and Dish a Day‘s Aaron. Aaron had just completed a fascinating project of cooking a dish every day for a month from David Thomson’s book Thai Food. Despite having lived in Thailand and knowing quite a bit about the cuisine, he found the rigour of following the recipes changed how he thought about Thai cooking. In fact, he concluded that we should all be cooking more from recipes. Those of us who love to cook often think of recipes as props for the incompetent, but in fact, we can get lazy when we throw flavours around, knowing we can easily make something tasty. Following a traditional recipe not only forces us to do things properly, but teaches us the complex foundations of a cuisine through its techniques and processes. Even with a cuisine we think we know, we can become better cooks by cooking from good recipes.

I thought of this discussion when D and J, two of my oldest friends, came to stay this weekend, because I wanted to make a Nyonya feast to celebrate their visit. Sure, I could have thrown together something vaguely Malaysian, based on what I’ve learned over the years, but I was drawn instead to cook more rigorously and to try out some more of James Oseland’s carefully sourced recipes from the wonderful Cradle of Flavor. D is a fantastic cook, and I knew he’d enjoy spending an evening in the kitchen pottering about and watching dishes gradually emerge. I’ve always been a believer in Nigel Slater’s ethos that helping the cook means keeping her company and making sure her wine glass is full, so we settled in with several bottles of red and guests in the dining room within chatting distance of the stove.

I’ve cooked quite a bit from Cradle of Flavor, and it has truly been an education in the cuisines of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Oseland has spent a long time researching the book, and many of his recipes have clearly been patiently teased out of friends and people he has met on his travels. The two I cooked for D and J are Nyonya Shrimp Curry with Fresh Pineapple and Tomatoes (courtesy of a Malaccan acquaintance called Kenneth) and Spiced Braised Nyonya Pork (courtesy of Jennifer Kuan). There’s a sense of knowledge shared here that pleases the researcher in me: Oseland’s book really delves into the foodways of Malaysia, and cooking these recipes carefully as written paid off. We were a bit tipsy by the time the dishes came triumphantly to the table but they were both spectacularly good. And the homey feel of the food (“like a great big hug” as Jennifer Kuan says) definitely translates from Malacca to Brighton. We had a lovely evening with the boys, talking, drinking, and pulling heads off shrimp around the table.


Nyonya Shrimp Curry with Fresh Pineapple and Tomatoes

I followed as close to the recipe as possible, but this is what I cooked, rather than exactly what Oseland stipulates. For instance, the original recipe calls for 2 stalks of lemongrass, but our lemongrass is kind of crappy, so I doubled it. I think if your lemongrass is not super fresh, you end up needing quite a bit more to achieve the same amount of flavour. He also offers a range of chili options: I went for the maximum numbers. For his original version, of course, you should check out the book, if you don’t already own it!

For the flavouring paste:

  • 4 stalks lemongrass
  • 3 shallots, coarsely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, coarsely chopped
  • 7 fresh red Holland chilies, chopped
  • 4 fresh green Thai chilies, chopped
  • 2 inches fresh turmeric, peeled and chopped
  • 4 candlenuts

For the main dish:

  • 3 tbsp oil
  • 2 cups fresh pineapple, cut in triangles
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 tbsp palm sugar
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 1 ld medium size shrimp (prawns in the UK) in the shell
  • 2 small tomatoes
  • 1 cup coconut milk

First make the flavouring paste. Put all the chopped ingredients into a mini-prep and blend till smooth. You may have to push down bits that remain too big and add a little water if they stubbornly refuse to blend.

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium-low, and sauté the paste. It should sizzle nicely but not aggressively, or it will stick. Cook for 5 minutes until it doesn’t smell raw. Oseland says the oil will separate from the paste but I never manage to achieve this effect. Add the pineapple and mix well. Next add the water, sugar and salt, bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for about 5 minutes.

Add the shrimp/prawns and stir. Continue cooking gently till the shrimp are cooked, a few more minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook for 2 more minutes.

Add the coconut milk and stir for another couple of minutes.

As Oseland says, at this point the dish goes a gorgeous orange colour. It’s really awfully pretty. Taste for salt, and allow the dish to rest for 10 minutes before serving. (This is easy if you are drunk and have forgotten to put the rice on until now.)

Serves 6

Vietnamese bánh xèo might be the quintessential eating out food: seemingly designed to be served to order in a restaurant environment, these stuffed rice crêpes are a little finicky to put together at home. You need to have all of your fillings and herbs washed and prepped in advance, and then the crêpes themselves must be eaten as soon as they are cooked. Bánh xèo are thus not ideally suited to relaxed home cooking, especially if the cook wants to eat with her guests. Undeterred by the one-crêpe-at-a-time serving problem, I’ve made bánh xèo a few times, sucked in by their addictive combination of fresh leaves and soft, chewy pancake. I’m also a big fan of Viet dishes that involve wrapping things in lettuce and dipping into sauce – something about the do-it-yourself quality appeals in its tactility. And bánh xèo are actually quite easy to make – pouring the batter into a perfect circle takes a bit of practice, but unlike French crêpes, you don’t have to flip them. So once you commit to having everything chopped in advance, making bánh xèo offers almost instant sizzling gratification.

When I’ve eaten bánh xèo in restaurants, the filling has always been shrimp and pork, but I’ve read that in Vietnam there are many more variants. I’ll be able to research this important question later in the year when I go on my very exciting eating trip to Southeast Asia, but for now I have been experimenting with the wide world of Things One Could Put in Bánh Xèo. As is the way with such experiments, it has often been led by things I have in the fridge. This time, I hit on a combination of lop cheong and smoked tofu along with the traditional beansprouts and scallions.

I should say that I’m a bit obsessed with lop cheong (or lap xuong in Vietnam). This air-dried and cured Asian sausage is sweet and almost winey tasting, and often very fatty. It provides some of the unique flavour in Chinese sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf and it’s a great pantry staple. The first web page I ever made was about lop cheong: I was at a deathly dull class on web design and we were asked to make a mock up of a site for work. Most of my classmates seemed to have all their material ready to go but I was recently hired and didn’t have anything to use. Naturally, I made a website about sausages, and a sample page on lop cheong. I think the class leader thought I was taking the mickey, but I did end up making friends with the woman sitting next to me, who turned out to be a fellow fan of the Chinese sausage. Anyway, the point is that it should come as no surprise that I came up with the idea of adding this air-dried sweet sausage to my Vietnamese crêpes.

Bánh xèo with lop cheong and tofu

If you wanted to make this dish vegetarian, obviously just leave out the sausage and add more smoked tofu. It’s worth getting the smoked kind for both flavour and texture.

for crêpes

  • 1/4 cup yellow split mung beans, soaked for 30 mins
  • 1 1/2 cup coconut milk
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 cup rice flour
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp turmeric
  • vegetable oil

for fillings

  • 1 block smoked tofu
  • 5 lop cheong
  • 4 handfuls beansprouts
  • bunch of scallions

for wrapping

  • 1 lettuce
  • bunch of mint
  • bunch of cilantro
  • bunch of Thai basil

for dipping

  • 1 clove garlic
  • 2 tsps palm sugar
  • 2 Thai red chilies
  • 1 lime
  • 3 tbsp fish sauce

Firstly, you want to soak your mung beans. They only take a half hour and add a really nice nuttiness to the batter. This crêpe batter I learned from Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s Hot Sour Salty Sweet, a splendid book on Southeast Asian food cultures.

While you’re waiting for the mung beans to soften, make the nuoc cham dipping sauce.

Begin by pounding a small garlic clove in a mortar and pestle along with a chili. (You might want to chop the chile finely first to make life easier.) Next, add the palm sugar and pound until it becomes liquidy. It looks like a lot of sugar but  be generous: this amount is a minimum and you might well want more. Next add the fish sauce and a good glug of warm water. Stir to dissolve the sugar well. Now decant into a bowl and add the juice of a lime. Taste for flavour balance. You might find yourself adding more lime juice or more water. Set aside.

Now make the pancake batter. Put drained mung beans and coconut milk into a mini prep or small blender and process till smooth. (Don’t do this in a big food processor as it won’t work and will look disgusting. Trust me on this.) Move to a larger blender and add the water, rice flour, salt, sugar and turmeric and process till smooth again. Now sieve the batter to get rid of lumps and let stand for a half hour.

While you’re waiting, prepare the filling and toppings. Slice the lop cheong thinly and steam for 15 minutes. Chop the scallions and tofu. Wash the lettuce leaves, beansprouts and herbs. Put the greens on a plate for serving, and lay out the fillings close to the cooker.

Now you’re ready to make the crêpes. Heat a wok or non-stick frying pan to high and wipe the surface with a paper towel soaked in oil. Pour in 1/3 cup of batter and as you pour, lift and angle the pan to make the batter run into a circle. Put it back on the heat and distribute sausage, tofu and beansprouts over half the surface. Cover, turn down the heat to medium and cook for 3 minutes. The underside of the crêpe should be browning and a bit crispy, the top side soft and bubbled. Lift the crêpe onto a plate and fold in half.

Serve immediately as you cook them, for guests to wrap in lettuce and herbs.

Serves 4 for a main course, more for appetisers.

Recipe adapted from Hot Sour Salty Sweet.

It’s been pretty cold here recently, and I’ve been dreaming of rich, warm, food that makes you feel like you are wrapped in a blanket. But comfort food doesn’t have to be bland – of course, I get nervous if there are no chilies in the fridge, so my idea of comfort may be biased. Still, Malaysian sambal offers the potential for a warming combination of coconut milk, ground nuts and a lively spice paste. I’ve been researching Malaysian and Indonesian food a lot recently, and have had some success with the kind of  strongly-flavoured sambal that you eat as a condiment. I’ll post about that type of sambal soon, but for this dish, I wanted a soupier, sweeter sambal that would work a little like a coconut curry.

Hitting the Asian grocery, I found some really fresh-looking morning glory, or water spinach. Kangkung belacan (morning glory stir fried with shrimp paste and chilies) has long been a favourite dish of mine at Malaysian restaurants, and while it can be hard to come by in the US, it’s quite often sold in Asian stores in the UK. (Apparently, it is actually illegal to possess or sell it in the United States, where it is considered a dangerous weed! Since they serve it in lots of restaurants, I’m guessing that law is not especially well enforced, but it might explain its relative rarity in stores.) In any case, I decided that morning glory would add some nice texture and greenery to the sambal.

Because the stems of morning glory are hollow, they have a slightly chewy texture, even when cooked. And because you cook the stalks whole, without chopping them up, they don’t disappear into a dish like regular spinach would. Thus, they retain their personality even when added to a soupy dish like this one. I like this combination of morning glory and chicken, but this dish is pretty adaptable. Made with shrimp or fish, I’d cut back the coconut milk to just a couple of spoonfuls and increase the fresh chilies and lemongrass. You could also swap the morning glory for long beans or chard.

Sambal ayam with morning glory

  • 4 shallots
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 stalks of lemongrass, tender insides only
  • 4 or 5 dried red chilies
  • 1 or 2 fresh red chilies
  • 1 tsp shrimp paste
  • 1/4 cup candlenuts or peanuts
  • 1/2 a can of coconut milk
  • 6 boneless chicken thighs, cut into chunks
  • a bunch of morning glory
  • a glug of fish sauce to taste
  • cilantro

First make the spice paste. Pound the garlic and lemongrass in a mortar and pestle. Chop the fresh chilies into small pieces and then pound them too. Roughly chop the shallots and dried chilies and then put them in a small food processor and pulse till well chopped. Stop before they turn totally to liquid. Turn into a bowl and mix with the pounded ingredients. Add the shrimp paste and stir well to combine. (Note: lots of people think raw shrimp paste smells bad, so put it in at the very end and put the container straight back in the fridge. As soon as you cook it, it begins to smell delicious, so if you find the raw smell a bit off, just get it cooking asap.)

Heat a wok or large pot and add a good glug of oil. When it shimmers, fry the spice paste. You want it bubbling nicely but not burning or sticking to the pan. While it’s cooking, use the same processor to grind the nuts. You want a cornmeal texture, and some bigger bits are ok. Once the paste starts to smell deeply savoury, add the chicken and brown all over. Next add the coconut milk, the ground nuts and a quick glug of fish sauce.

Simmer gently till the chicken is cooked (you don’t want the coconut milk to overheat so keep the heat low). Trim the ends off the morning glory and pick through carefully for bad leaves. When the chicken is cooked, add in the greens and stir until wilted. Taste for salt and sweetness, and sprinkle cilantro leaves on top.

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