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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 »
I was quite excited to see the Masterchef finalists go to Thailand the other week. Obviously, this was mostly so that I could feel superior to their bungling attempts to make somtam, since the Chiang Mai market cooking challenge was one of the few I could reasonably imagine doing well on. For foreign readers who have not experienced the pleasure of watching Greg and John shout at hapless cooks, I should explain that many of their challenges involve cooking buckets of sponge pudding for soldiers or making high-end dinners for picky aristocrats. Even though some of my favourite past contestants have focused on Thai or Japanese food, the show does tend to emphasise knowledge of ‘honest’ aka British cuisine. Watching them battling with khao soi in Chiang Mai was a rare moment of ‘hey, I can make that!’.
Even better, though, was their trip into the mountains of Northern Thailand, where the food they cooked looked really delicious. One dish began with fermented fish in a curry paste – although I don’t have fermented fish to hand, I really liked the idea of a curry with fish as a base flavour rather than as a main ingredient. I loved the Northern-style curries we ate in Chiang Mai so the episode prompted me to experiment. What I came up with was a properly spicy vegetable curry infused with the umami richness of smoked fish and fermented soy. The recipe is pretty flexible: you could add meat or reduce the chilies. But it is meant to be spicy rather than sweet so don’t hold back too much…
I love my local butcher. I went in for some beef for a Vietnamese salad, but noticed while I was there some lovely fresh looking oxtail. I have a general policy of buying things like this, that you don’t see all the time, whenever I have the chance, so I had him parcel me up several meaty chunks of tail. He asked if I’d been to The Chili Pickle restaurant – I have, of course, and blogged about it to boot – and said they do a great oxtail madras and I might consider an Indian approach to my oxtail. Brilliant!
As luck would have it, I found The Chili Pickle’s oxtail madras recipe when I was poking around for inspiration, or at least some version of it. It looks amazing but a bit cheffy. There’s not really a world in which I’m going to braise meat for hours and then strain the liquid, only to start again making a whole new sauce. I mean maybe, for company, but not on a weeknight. The whole fecking point of a braise is that you can go away and forget about it and then, magically, there’s sticky delicious meat and a sauce. Also, given that I couldn’t start cooking till after work, we’d have been eating at midnight if the end of the braise was just the starting point of a whole new cooking phase. So in the interests of Mr Lemur’s stomach, I decided to make a simpler take on the oxtail madras. I’m not sure that it still qualifies as a madras after my tinkering so I’m just going to call it an oxtail curry. Read the rest of this entry »
The south end of Banglamphu quickly sloughs off the frat boy reek of the Khao San Road and becomes a rather charming neighbourhood. Apparently there are some trendy parts, which we made a foray into by going to a couple of rather cool bars (of which, more later) but mostly it feels quiet – or as quiet as you can reasonably get in an Asian metropolis. We came down this way partly to eat at Chote Chitr, an old shophouse restaurant that’s been written up in a lot of venues. Unusually, it features both in budget travel guides and in very upscale publications. My friend K gave me a fancy culinary journal that featured it and since my Bangkok guide also listed it with a helpful map, we figured it would be worthwhile but possibly very touristed. By here’s the odd thing: while Chote Chitr does cater to foreigners with an English language menu and distinctly tourist-oriented prices, neither the restaurant nor the leafy square it abuts are overwhelmed with tourist business. Read the rest of this entry »
Before summer made a last-ditch effort to appear this year, giving us a few blissful days of 79 degree weather, we had a more normal southern English autumn of sun and showers. Mr Lemur and I decided to take a popular local walk along the base of the sea cliffs from Brighton to Rottingdean. It’s easy to forget what a beautiful place I live in, and this walk was the perfect reminder. Plus, we had an ulterior motive: we’d heard that a regular looking pub in nearby Rottingdean had a Jamaican chef who made really good Caribbean food. Clearly, this was a necessary research excursion… Read the rest of this entry »
This week I’m excited to have posts from two guest bloggers, both of whom are not only great cooks but also share my love of learning about new culinary cultures. First up is Chris, who usually blogs about cinema but has a secret life as a brilliant vegetarian cook. I more or less beg him to make me his Southern biscuits with mushroom gravy every time I see him. Since I know I have some (long-suffering) vegetarian readers, I’ve persuaded him to share his south Indian-inspired vadai curry. Over to Chris…
Like many vegetarians, I have long privileged Indian food in my diet. In fact, certain Indian dishes are comfort food for me, and I’m not of South Asian descent. However, the dishes I crave most are not necessarily the Moghul standards that Indian restaurants specialize in here in the US but rather the homier dishes that I have learned from friends, cookbooks, and the occasional restaurant serving more regional food. Vadai (or vadi, plural of vada, sometimes transliterated wada or bada) are just the sort of thing I don’t often see on restaurant menus. Basically they’re lentil fritters, typically served as a snack with coconut chutney, and you could do the same or even treat them as an appetizer. But I find them a bit more trouble than I want for anything other than a main dish. So I make a curry with them, inspired by the vadai curry I first had at the excellent Madras Cafe, tucked into a stretch of strip-mall hell in Atlanta. Read the rest of this entry »
No, I didn’t accidentally type the word ‘orange’ twice: I really did make an orange orange curry. The thing is this: when reading about Thai curries, I’ve often come across recipes for orange curry or even sour orange curry. Perhaps because of my familiarity with Latin American cooking, the first time I read this, I thought it was a curry made with sour oranges. Makes sense, right? But of course, it’s not. Orange curry is orange the way red curry is red and green curry is green. It’s not connected to fruit at all. But that first misreading stuck in my head and when I was shopping in a fairly crappy supermarket the other day and had few options for fresh ingredients, I thought hey, why not make a Thai fish curry with actual oranges? Thus was born the idea for the orange orange curry. Read the rest of this entry »
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.)
A friend commented the other day that I hadn’t cooked any Thai food yet – well, I say commented, but it was more of a complaint. But he made a good point. I cook a lot of Thai food and it’s overdue some representation on the blog. Unlike him, I haven’t just come back from a fantastic looking trip to Southeast Asia (sob), so I can’t draw on memories of the genuine article. But I have eaten some amazing Thai food over the years: the most flavourful green curry I can imagine in an Andalucian village of all places, sublime pork relish with crackling in David Thompson’s Michelin-starred Nahm in London, and, perhaps best of all, coconut and shrimp rice in Jitlada, an unassuming strip-mall restaurant I would cheerfully fly back to Los Angeles just to eat at again. We take popular Thai dishes for granted these days, but it’s easy to forget just how genuinely exciting a cuisine it can be.
My Thai cooking is nowhere near the level of complexity of those restaurants, but I did learn a thing or two from food shopping in New York. As I’ve mentioned, Chinese supermarket workers in Chinatown don’t tend to speak much English, but the Thai store people do and some kind shopkeepers were willing to help teach me what to cook with the things I brought to the counter. I got some great tips from the lovely Nong in Bangkok Center Grocery (whose homemade nam prik pow is delicious, by the way, if you’re in the area). She guided me in cooking with frozen coconut, Thai pea eggplant and pomelo, and in my first forays into homemade curry pastes. Thai curry pastes are an absolute breeze to make, with just the labour of peeling and chopping standing between you and fresh, brightly flavoured dishes a million times better than using a jar. This red curry paste can be used in lots of recipes, including the noodle dish below.
Thai red curry paste
- 15 dried red chilies (about 2 inches long)
- 5 fresh red chilies (the next size up from birds’ eye)
- 10 cloves of garlic
- 5 lemongrass stalks
- 1 knob of galangal
- 1 tbsp coriander seeds
- 11 tsp cumin seeds
- 1 tbsp cilantro leaves and stems
- the zest of a lime
- 1 tsp shrimp paste
- a glug of fish sauce
Soak the chilies in warm water for 10-15 minutes. Meanwhile, dry roast the coriander seeds and then the cumin (separately) in a frying pan, then pound them in a mortar and pestle. Transfer to a small food processor. Chop the fresh chilies. Peel and chop the galangal. Peel off the rough outer layers of the lemongrass and chop the tender insides. Chop the cilantro. (This should really be cilantro roots, if you can get them, but I never can so I use stems and leaves.) By now the dried chilies should have softened up a bit and you can chop them too. Pound the garlic cloves, lemongrass, galangal, both sets of chilies and cilantro. Add lime zest and shrimp paste and transfer to the processor. Pulse with a tablespoon of fish sauce if necessary to produce a paste that’s mostly smooth but with flecks of colour and texture remaining. Taste carefully for balance – eaten raw it is going to be quite hot. And remember you’ll be adding sugar and lime to whatever dish you put it in, so don’t worry if it seems a little salty.
Note: If you want a vegetarian version, just omit the shrimp paste and replace the fish sauce with light soy sauce. Similarly, you can make the noodles veggie by replacing the fish sauce with soy (half light, half dark) and using Thai eggplant, tofu, or zucchini instead of chicken.
Red curry chicken noodles
- 1 tsp oil
- 1 tbsp palm sugar
- 1 whole chicken leg
- 1 1/2 tbsp red curry paste
- bunch of kai lan, torn into large pieces
- a thick handful of flat rice or wheat noodles
- 3 spring onions, sliced
- 2 cups beansprouts
- 1 lime
- fish sauce to taste
- handful of cilantro, chopped
(I’ve separated out the curry paste from the noodle recipe since you might want to make the paste on its own, but if you plan to make the noodles, then begin with the chicken or vegetables and make the paste while you wait for them to cook.)
Place the chicken in an oven-safe dish, splash with fish sauce and sprinkle with black pepper. Cook at 190 C / 375 F / gas mark 5 for about 45 minutes or until the juices run clear. Cut the chicken into bite size chunks, including the crispy skin, and retain the fat and juices in the pan. Boil the noodles for 4 minutes (or just soak them if they are thin enough rice noodles). Drain and keep them in a colander.
Heat the oil to medium and fry the red curry paste until sizzling. Pour in some of the chicken fat and juices. (Be careful, the pan will spit a bit.) Add the palm sugar and mix well. Keep stirring and scraping the paste to prevent sticking for 2-3 minutes. Add spring onions, stir, and then add kai lan. Keep stirring.
Add a tbsp or so of water to loosen. Add chicken, noodles, and a glug of fish sauce and toss well for another couple of minutes. Turn off the heat. Add beansprouts and half the lime juice and mix. Taste and add more lime juice and/or fish sauce until the flavours balance. Top with cilantro leaves and serve immediately.