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In my last post I mentioned Eating Asia's Robyn Eckhardt. We were lucky enough to take her walking and eating tour of Georgetown, and she passed on a slew of tips for places to eat on our own time. Our plan for the late afternoon was to potter around town and then try some Penang laksa. Robyn dismissed most of the supposedly “best” laksas in town and gave us directions to a far superior but unheralded hawker. This place doesn't open till the mid-afternoon, though, so we had time for some proper touristing first. And yes, we totally planned our day around the time the laksa stall opened.
As we wandered the historic centre, though, we began to notice something. Cats. Cats painted on walls. As a huge fan of the late Chris Marker, cats on walls are of particular interest to me. I knew that Georgetown had a bunch of street art but the cats were an extremely pleasing surprise. Suddenly, they were appearing everywhere, in small scale and writ large. Read the rest of this entry »
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We've been in Malaysia for a few days now, but we're still reeling from the amazing food onslaught that was Penang. We arrived in the mid afternoon, when Georgetown is hot and sleepy. I was eager to get out and eat, but not unreasonably, a lot of the street food focuses on actual mealtimes, rather than being ready to feed foreigners at random moments of the day. So, we pootled around looking at the city's truly gorgeous shophouse architecture until Mr Lemur called time on our mad dogs and Englishmen perambulations and we went back to our hotel for a siesta. (Our hotel, by the way, was the fantastic Campbell House, about which more later. Seriously, if you go to Georgetown, you should really stay there.) Anyway, we didn't quite have our bearings yet in terms of navigating the city, so we didn't want to stray far for dinner. I had a long list of food ideas, but the only one very close to our hotel was the wonderfully named Sky Emperor Chicken Feet Kway Teow Soup on Lebuh Kimberley. Come on, how could you not want to eat at something called Sky Emperor Chicken Feet?
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 »
Yes, the Lemur trip to Singapore and Malaysia is underway! We arrived in Singapore yesterday morning after a sleepless thirteen-hour flight, but luckily the energy of being here carried us through, at least till a much-needed afternoon nap. More to the point, our desire to be out and eating won out over tiredness, and we met up with Lemur friend Kenny* for a late breakfast. Our first stop was the Chinatown Hawker centre, which is a sprawling, labyrinthine food hall on the second floor of a concrete mall. It's nominally indoors but open to the elements, not air conditioned, but with breezy balconies around the edges. We wandered a lot, weaving through colour-coded sections, sometimes ending up walking in circles past the same kway teow stall or the same family with a giant fish on their table. It was the perfect introduction to Singapore food and possibly an extension of our feverish jetlagged minds. Eventually, we settled on mixed meat noodles with fish balls and fried wonton. The broth was spicy and tasty, and the tangle of noodles included delicious secrets like little cubes of deep-fried lard. So. Very. Good.
 

I was thrilled to be Freshly Pressed on my last post – that’s included in the WordPress editors’ daily picks. And welcome to new readers who liked the Vietnamese Chicken Curry post and have decided to stick around! I hope you enjoy the blog. Unfortunately Mr Lemur is away shooting a film so I am without both camera and photographer for a few weeks. Boo! For now, we will all have to put up with my iPhone photography. I know, it’s a hardship, but we soldier bravely on…

I came across black rice noodles in our local ethnic food store the other day and was intrigued. I love black rice but I don’t cook it very often as it is fairly time consuming and many of the uses I know for it are desserts. (I adore Malaysian pulut hitam, or black rice pudding with coconut milk, for instance, but I rarely make it myself.) I was immediately drawn to these deep black noodles. I knew they wouldn’t produce the exact satisfying chewyness of a black rice grain on the teeth but I figured they might combine the glutinous qualities of glass noodles with a deeper, wholegrain flavour.

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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 »

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 »

My very wonderful friends K & L bought me a present last time they visited: David Thompson’s Thai Street Food. Now, I know everyone’s been heaping praise on the book for a while now, so I’m a bit late to the party. Some of my favourite food bloggers like Andrea Nguyen love it, and it’s been reviewed everywhere from the New York Times to Entertainment Weekly. It’s as much a cultural moment as a book, finally bringing Thai street food into the cultural mainstream, courtesy of the chef many people see as Thai cuisine’s answer to Julia Child.

It’s certainly a handsome book: far too big to fit on even my tallest bookshelf and with enough glossy full-page colour photos to make the recipes sometimes hard to find. A cynical soul might imagine it to be a coffee-table cookbook for the kind of foodie that doesn’t actually cook. Certainly, one could spent happy hours leafing through its beautiful pictures of Thai street food culture (my favourite might be the man hugging a rather large dog, who seems to be looking at the camera thinking ‘yeah, he loves me, what of it?’). But you’d be missing the point if you didn’t realise that these are some seriously good recipes.

Now I know a more normal person might have started with a substantial curry dish, or perhaps checked out how Thompson riffs on a well-known dish like pad thai. But for some reason what caught my eye was a dish of kanom jin with dried shrimp and pineapple. Kanom jin are rice noodles usually served in the morning, but this mix of savoury and sweet was hitting all of my Thai buttons and I had to have it for dinner. Pineapple and noodles for dinner? I know, it sounds totally perverse but Thompson’s recipes don’t steer you wrong, and this dish was vibrant and ridiculously moreish. The ginger, garlic and shrimp cut the sweetness and provide an amazing savoury setting for the pineapple flavour to shine.

This version is based on Thompson’s recipe but I didn’t have all the ingredients to hand, so I’ve switched a couple of things around. For instance, I replaced green mango with carrot – Thompson also suggests apple or cucumber.

Kanom jin sao nahm

  • 1/2 cup white sugar (I know, this seems alarming but have faith)
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp fish sauce
  • 3 bird’s eye chilies, pounded
  • squeeze of lime juice
  • 1/2 cup coconut cream
  • pinch salt
  • 250 g kanom jin noodles
  • 1 cup chopped fresh pineapple
  • 1/2 cup shredded ginger
  • 1/2 cup shredded carrot
  •  1 tbsp thinly sliced garlic
  • 1/4 cup ground dried prawns
  • some more small chilies to taste
  • dash of fish sauce

Begin with the dressing: simmer the sugar with 1/2 cup of water, salt, fish sauce and chilies until slightly reduced. Take off the heat and add lime juice – I put in half a lime. The sauce is sweet (no shit, 1/2 cup of sugar) but also salty and nicely tart. It’s also already crazily delicious. I wanted to drink it.

Thompson instructs that you simmer the coconut cream but I didn’t bother as it was already pretty thick. I just stirred in a pinch of salt and put it aside for later. Grind the dried shrimp in a mini-prep until fluffy. Thinly slice the garlic, chilies, ginger and carrot. Chop the pineapple into small chunks. Boil the noodles until ready and cool to room temperature. Now you’re ready to serve.

Start with a pile of noodles in a bowl. Thompson recommends wrapping them like yarn around the fingers into skeins, which does produce a pretty effect. Add a handful of pineapple, ginger and carrots to each bowl. Add garlic and sliced chilies. Spoon on some dressing. Sprinkle generously with dried shrimp. Drizzle fish sauce over the top and lastly, spoon on some coconut cream.

I can’t tell you how delicious this dish was. Thanks again, K&L, your present rocks!

Serves 2. Mildly adapted from David Thompson’s Thai Street Food.

 

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.

Serves 2-3

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