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After a long train journey north, we spent last night in Sukhothai. Our first night out of Bangkok was a bit of a blur of brightly lit stores, birds congregating at Hitchcock levels on electrical wires, dilapidated buildings and busy night streets. We ate dinner at a sidewalk cafe, which sounds a lot more fancy than it was. Our table was on the street, sandwiched between teenagers on Vespas hanging out on one side and a Thai soap opera playing silently on the other. In other words, it was pretty much my ideal eatery. After missing out on pad krapow for breakfast, I had it for dinner, with our guide Aom ordering it properly pet, or spicy for me. Mr Lemur had wide noodles that were revelatory: their relationship to noodles at home being the difference between pasta by Buitoni and pasta fresh made by your Italian grandmother. But the highlight of the evening was watching the hawker cart ladies at work. We followed up our meal with Thai roti: puffed up roti dough filled with banana, crisply fried on a griddle and then – wait for it – doused in chocolate sauce and condensed milk. Yeah, you think Thai food is all light and healthy with the salads and all, but there are enough fried things to keep any sweet lover happy. 

 

Her speed throwing the roti out was astonishing. She flips the dough back and forth till it’s paper thin. It’s a joy to watch her work.

Next comes the magic of puffed bread, with a generous helping of banana in the centre.

Can you tell we were awaiting our roti with excitement?

Just look at the condensed milk! This is the part that had Mr Lemur drooling. 

The finished article. The chocolate sauce is homemade, and the whole thing was a decadent treat. It’s possible that I’ll come home from Asia a couple of sizes larger…but it will totally be worth it.

 

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My colleagues who read this blog are beginning to wonder if I am actually at the conference I’m supposed to be attending. I promise I am going to panels in between meals, some of them even at 8am…but yesterday was too beautiful to work through lunch and my New Orleanian friend L kindly agreed to take me for a traditional crawfish boil. The crawfish boil is a warm childhood memory for L, from fishing for the critters with special nets to cooking them up in a stock flavoured with spices, whole garlic heads, and sometimes corn and potatoes too.

We went to Frankie and Johnny’s, another low key local hangout, this time further uptown, near the Garden District. The vibe is somewhere between a diner and a dive bar, with extremely friendly waitstaff who were enthusiastic advocates for the eating of crawfish. We kept it simple with 2lbs of crustaceans – which is to say an enormous pan, easily enough for two. L taught me the basics of crawfish eating, which is to say twist off the head (sucking the juices optional), then pinch the tail and pull off the shell. They’re funny looking buggers but delicious in their peppery garlicy broth.

We added another local specialty: artichoke stuffed with garlicky breadcrumbs. This was not a meal for those uncomfortable eating with their hands. Mr Lemur, who freaks out eating anything messier than a pizza without silverware, would not have approved.

After the crawfish, we clearly hadn’t consumed enough fat and sugar for the day, so L took me to another local spot, Tee-Eva’s, for dessert. Tee-Eva’s is a tiny storefront on Magazine St, with a shaved ice-making machine in front for the local treat called a snowball and a tiny kitchen in back, in which we could see one of the staff stirring a giant pan of caramel for the pralines. It’s the epitome of a local institution, complete with in-joke posters of the staff and postcards sent by loyal customers. We ordered a snowball, which is is a summer cooler in New Orleans consisting of shaved ice, sugar-water, flavoured syrup and an optional topping of condensed milk. (Optional, but really the correct choice. Why would you say no to condensed milk?) However, apparently you have to know to ask for it, as it wasn’t offered. This, apparently, is an extra that demands local knowledge.

The snowball was tooth-achingly sweet but also rather yummy. We also had a praline, but that wasn’t terribly photogenic. After all that sugar, we went for a walk in the beautiful Garden District to recover. And then I went back to the conference. Honest.

Along with Seville oranges, late January brings the first young spears of forced rhubarb into the shops, in a vivid pink that brightens up the vegetable basket. We always had rhubarb growing in my back garden when I was a child. Truth be told, it was about the only thing that grew reliably and the giant leaves completely took over a whole section of the yard. These weren’t the delicate pale pink stems of Yorkshire forced rhubarb but monster stalks, assertively red and triffid-like. I always loved them, whether dipped in caster sugar and eaten raw or cooked in my grandmother’s buttery shortcrust pies and swimming in heavy cream. I found it sad when I lived in the States that American culture had not really embraced rhubarb, mixing it with strawberries and trying to tone down its sour-sweet pleasures. So one of the great pleasures of British life for me is its January appearance, heralding a long season of rhubarby breakfasts, desserts and even savoury uses.

This recipe for a fragrant rhubarb compote has lots of potential uses. You can use it to top french toast, as I do here, or pancakes, or it would be lovely with yoghurt, honey, and granola. It would work as a dessert with ice cream and ginger cake, or on a lemony cheesecake. It could even be served with cold roast pork, in which case I might add star anise to the cooking mix.

The french toast, meanwhile, is the specialty of Mr Lemur. What makes it Chilean? It’s all about the condensed milk. Chileans are obsessed with condensed milk and find ways to put it into everything. Cooked, it becomes manjar, which is a variant of dulce de leche, and is also a popular breakfast item. (I know it seems faintly horrifying, but try it on toast with bacon. Then come back and thank me…) Anyway, Mr Lemur came up with this neat method of sweetening french toast effectively and making it more custardy at the same time. It produces a rich, unctuous toast that is cut nicely by the sour-sweetness of the rhubarb. If you are feeling ambitious, you might even try making your own condensed milk – Almost Bourdain has a great recipe. Even with storebought condensed milk, though, this recipe is a decadent pleasure.

Chilean french toast with rhubarb compote

  • bunch of 6-8 rhubarb stems
  • tbsp honey, preferable orange blossom or similar
  • 3 cardamom pods
  • loaf of brioche or challah bread
  • 3 large eggs
  • 3 tbsp condensed milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/4 tsp cinnamon
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • pinch salt
  • butter for frying

First, make the compote. Wash and slice the rhubarb into 2cm slices. Heat the honey in a heavy-bottomed pot until melted. Add the rhubarb and cardmom, stir well, bring to a boil and then turn the heat down low. Cook for about 20 minutes, or until the rhubarb has become very soft but still has some shape. Remove the cardamom seeds. You can do this part in advance and refrigerate until needed.

For the french toast, whisk eggs, condensed milk, vanilla, cinnamon, salt and milk in a rectangular container (a small brownie tray or lasagna pan works well). Slice your loaf thickly. Heat a flat, non-stick skillet and melt a small knob of butter. When butter is sizzling, dip the slices one by one into the milk and egg mix, turning several times to soak thoroughly. Fry the bread until nicely browned, turning once.

Serve immediately and top with warm compote. I don’t think maple syrup is needed here, but hey, knock yourself out…

Serves 3-4

Civet coffee, known in Vietnam as cà phê chồn and in Indonesia as kopi luwak, has become popular in recent years despite or perhaps because of its alarming production method. As you probably know, Asian civets eat the beans (in their ‘cherry’ or fruit form) and, after processing them with intestinal enzymes, they poop them out whole. Southeast Asian coffee farmers harvest the poop, retrieve the beans, and from there go on to make the smoothest, richest coffee in the world. First viewed in the west as scary or hilarious, civet coffee has taken off as a luxury product.

Look how cute they are!

I’ve tried civet coffee (or, as it is called around our house, weasel-butt coffee) a few times and enjoyed it, but wasn’t sure if I was getting the real thing or one of the many fakes that are exported. After all, it didn’t cost that much more than a regular Viet coffee and to be honest, it didn’t taste that much different either. It’s a bit like Blue Mountain coffee: if you’re not drinking it in Jamaica or paying an unreasonable amount, it’s probably not the real thing.

Moreover, friends alerted me to the cruel conditions of many civet coffee farms. While the beans are traditionally foraged, the popularity of the drink has led to civets being kept in tiny cages where their, erm, processed beans are easier to collect. I don’t eat battery chickens and I don’t want to think of my coffee involving cruelty either.

I was thrilled, therefore, to read Karen Coates’ recent article about a scientific breakthrough (ok, slight exaggeration) that has enabled coffee-makers to copy the civet’s digestive enzyme process chemically.  Vietnamese coffee company Trung Nguyen are selling this synthetic civet coffee online in the US and Europe, and they’ll sell you the little metal filters you need to make Viet coffee too. I probably can’t compare Trung Nguyen’s coffee to real cà phê chồn but it was undoubtedly better than the other versions I’ve had: rich, chocolatey, sweet with condensed milk.

Until my trip to Vietnam (hopefully later this year), I’ll be adding un-civet coffee to my regular afternoon routine.

Civet photo by W. Djatmiko. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike 3.0 Licence.