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Singapore is famous for its hawker food centres: since the government cleared hawkers from plying their trade on the street, they have been moved to what are essentially food courts. However, they're not food courts in the way you might imagine them if what you are used to is European or North American mall food courts. These hawker centres are mostly open air, with a covering roof but no walls, doors or, crucially, air conditioning. The stalls have access to plumbing and there are hygiene certificates prominently displayed (this is Singapore, after all), but they are still decently grimy, hot and chaotic. Kenny and Alan ramped things up by taking us to Chomp Chomp, a hawker centre that's a bit further out and less touristed than the Chinatown ones. The neighbourhood is tony, with gentrified wine bars and posh bakeries nearby, but Chomp Chomp remains unabashedly traditional, and packs in crowds of mostly (but by no means all) young people. Read the rest of this entry »
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mackerel-2

I’ve been very remiss on the blogging front in the last few months, partly in response to a what has been a stressful time on the work front. When I’m too tired to cook interesting things, it doubles down on being too tired to blog: even if I had the energy to write, I couldn’t really make a blog post about my endless diet of rice and dal or beans and greens pasta. But I was given a bit of a nudge by hearing about readers out there who missed the blog. A couple of times people I know (or, indeed, am related to) mentioned that they hadn’t seen updates recently but on one occasion Lemur friend T told me her friends––whom I have never even met––said they’d missed the blog. It was kind of a boost to realise that I have an actual audience out there. I’m not kidding myself that anyone cares significantly about my updates, but still, even knowing that some complete strangers to me are enjoying the blog enough to miss it gave me the impetus to get back to cooking and writing about it. So thanks, readers, and welcome back!

Meanwhile, it is finally, finally summer here in the south of England. I honestly feel like we’ve waited three years for a solid week of warm weather and I am taking full advantage. (Example: I am writing now from a deckchair in my back garden.) So I was thinking about lighter summery fare when I saw a shiny pile of locally caught mackerel in the fishmonger’s display. I love mackerel – its stronger flavour and buttery texture can stand up to some punchy combinations and it’s also easy to cook. I’ve been thinking about Malaysian food a lot recently, and though this recipe isn’t at all Malaysian in overall conception, it uses some of the ingredients of the region to give a summery dish a tasty twist. Read the rest of this entry »

xo fish

I’ve long been a fan of XO sauce, possibly because Dim Sum Go Go restaurant in New York makes an amazing spicy-fishy-umami version to slather on its otherwise light and delicate shrimp dumplings. As a 1980s invention designed to connote luxury, it’s probably a terribly déclassé aspect of Hong Kong food culture, but I don’t care, I love it. Still, I’d never have thought to make it if not for a coincidental series of events. First, I was given the Momofuku cookbook for Christmas. It’s a fascinating read and a lovely book but incredibly cheffy: many of the recipes require you to have made a bone stock that takes three days and some special dashi before you even begin. It’s unapologetically impractical. But one thing did stand out – a recipe for XO sauce that required two things I just happened to have: lots of good quality dried shrimp and lots of good quality leftover ham. As it happened, I had a big bag of plump pink shrimp I’d brought back from Vietnam and a vacuum-sealed pack of 5-acorn Serrano ham scraps I brought from Barcelona. It was kismet! Thus began the XO sauce experiment. 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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I was part of a fascinating conversation on Facebook recently, in which an American Jewish friend made a disparaging comment about gefilte fish. Lots of other Americans piled on with the disgust toward these unappetising jarred fish balls floating in gloopy liquid. One person even revealed a childhood with canned gefilte fish, even more questionable than the giant jars. But something funny happened in this thread – both of the British Jews who responded had very different memories of gefilte fish; positive memories of a tasty dish, much looked forward to on special occasions. I have always loved these light fish balls, and during the period that I lived abroad, it went without saying that when I came home for a visit, my mum would cook me gefilte fish as a welcome home treat. I don’t know if there is a transatlantic difference here (obviously it was a pretty small sample and I’ve already encountered one American friend who actually likes the stuff in the jar) but the discussion prompted me to look out our family gefilte fish recipe for Passover. 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…

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Before I flew to Vietnam, I did some research on places I didn’t want to miss and top of my list of sources was of course Anthony Bourdain. I’m a big fan of his – some of my foodie friends find him sexist but I have actually found him to be pretty aware of the gender politics of growing, cooking and selling food – and his love for Vietnam is well known. So, I watched his Vietnam episodes of No Reservationsagain and made some notes in the bible of my travels, a little black moleskine notebook. I marked out several places that Tony recommended in Saigon for my attention, a couple of which also came up on food blogs. Great, all very organised. When we arrived in Saigon, I noted that I had starred Côm Niêu as especially interesting. The trouble was, I didn’t at all remember why! Thus began one of our more perplexing evenings…


This is my 100th post! I can’t believe I’ve made it to a century – though as these things always work, I feel at once as if I’ve been doing this forever and like I only started last week. We’ve got into a new rhythm, Mr Lemur and I, of cooking and photographing together, and of categorising meals as either ‘bloggable’ or ‘not bloggable’. The categories can be easy: weekend culinary adventures that start with ambitious shopping lists are always bloggable. When friends come to dinner, they usually have to sit around having their food photographed before they get to eat it. If I cook something I’ve written about before, it is automatically not bloggable, but more ususally not bloggable means too simple to be worth writing up, or too unphotogenic. There are a lot of pastas with beans and greens that don’t make their way into these pages. Sometimes deciding that something might be bloggable feels like an effort when you really just want to slob on the sofa and it’s those nights that finding the energy to cook something nice is really valuable. The effort of organising ingredients, getting out the camera and thinking about what exactly to prepare turns a chore into a creative process – which is why I love cooking in the first place.

I was wondering this week what to make for my 100th post but I’ve been working so late recently that I haven’t had time to plan anything elaborate. So I decided to go back to the kind of Thai cooking that I learned in New York – recipes I’ve been making and playing with for years. This recipe is one of those whose original is lost in the mists of time. I thought I remembered it from a book, but I’ve searched through all my cookbooks and it’s not there. Once upon a time I must have read a recipe for a Thai spicy salad with deep fried tofu skin, and I’ve certainly seem many recipes for Thai fish with raw vegetables. But quite how these things came together in my head I don’t know. What I do know is that the richness of smoked fish and the crispness of fried tofu skin are a marriage made in heaven, especially when you contrast them with significant quantities of ginger, lime and chilies. This is a dish that makes me happy, so I hope it appeals to you, my lovely readers, out there in the blogosphere. Here’s to another 100 posts… 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 »

Another day, another spicy salad. With the gorgeous weather continuing, at least intermittently, I’m still feeling the urge for bright summery food. I really like the Thai way of combining fruits into savoury dishes, and I have a particular love for citrus. The original idea for this dish comes from yam som-oh, a dish based on pomelo that I make in colder weather with nam prik pow and chicken. But the pomelos in the store this week were from China, wrapped up in plastic wrap and suspiciously brown and mushy looking under their plasticky pink skin. Hmm. I’m suspicious of anything from mainland China, what with all the poisoned pet food, baby food, toothpaste, etc, not to mention Fuschia Dunlop’s claim that many middle class Hong Kong residents buy their food imported from elsewhere in Asia. So, no dodgy Chinese pomelo for me. But the grapefruit were nice and heavy so I thought I’d take advantage of their juiciness to make a lighter main course salad with the bitter and sweet flavours of grapefruit, smoked mackerel and endive.

Thai smoked mackerel and grapefruit salad

  • 2 smoked mackerel fillets, skinned
  • 1 grapefruit, segmented, leftover juice collected
  • 100g green beans
  • 1 endive, leaves removed whole
  • 4 small shallots, thinly sliced
  • 2 inch knob of ginger, finely chopped
  • the zest and juice of 1 lime
  • 6 small red birds’ eye chilies, chopped (or to taste)
  • 1 tbsp fish sauce
  • 1-2 tbsp caster sugar (depending on the bitterness of the grapefruit)
  • handful of mint leaves

Blanch the green beans for three minutes, or until not quite cooked. Cool and place in a large bowl. Break up the mackerel fillets into bite sized chunks and add to the bowl, along with the grapefruit segments, shallots, ginger and chilies. Grate the lime zest into the bowl and add the mint leaves.

To make the dressing, add the lime juice and fish sauce to 1 tbsp of grapefruit juice. Add 1 tbsp of sugar and taste. Depending on the grapefruit, this might be enough sugar or you may want to add a little more. You might need a bit more fish sauce too. Once you have the dressing balanced, add a little warm water and stir well, making sure the sugar is fully dissolved.

To serve, carefully toss the dressing into the salad and pile into endive leaves.

Serves 2.

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