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budapest-square

Budapest is full of courtyards, beautiful corners hidden in plain sight and joining magnificence with a bit of romantic decay. I am a sucker for this kind of architectural detail and when a tenant arrived and took an old lift up to one of the upper floors, I imagined living in such dubious splendour. The courtyard was typical of our Budapest trip – although we certainly enjoyed the fancy restaurants and the famously splendid buildings, the best parts were the slightly down-at-heel places and the simpler eateries. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think we uncovered insider’s secrets or got totally off the touristed paths. We were only in the city for a few days and Mama Lemur quite reasonably has less relish for trekking down alleys than I do. If we turned off the main trails, it wasn’t by far. Still, it’s an illustration of how easy it is to find moments of quiet beauty in this city, as well, as it turned out, of sublime meaty enjoyment. Read the rest of this entry »

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ear-salad

Things have been a bit quiet on the blogging front as it has been a busy old time, chez Lemur. Mr Lemur has been finishing a major project and I have been organising a series of events that have eaten up a good deal of my usual cooking time. But we’re finally into Spring break and I thought I should come back with a bit of a culinary experiment. And what’s better to get the juices flowing than pigs’ ears? No, really, you have to trust me on this: pigs’ ears are totally delicious.

I’ve always enjoyed cold pressed pigs’ ears in Sichuan restaurants; the softness of the outside skin followed by a just yielding crunch of cartilage is a pleasing texture sensation and the long slow braising imbues the slices with deep umami flavours. When I was in my lovely local butcher the other day buying some pork shoulder, I noticed his assistant breaking down some pig legs at the back of the store. I remarked how nice it was to see the butchering being done right there and my butcher said, yes, we got three pigs in this morning. Maybe those amazing Sichuan restaurant ears popped into my head, because I asked him, without thinking, ‘do you have ears then?’ ‘Sure,’ he replied, ‘how many do you want?’ Then, he went off to the back of the store and came back a few moments later with a some ears wrapped up in paper. He didn’t even charge me for them! So off I went with my little bag of ears: what an adventure! Read the rest of this entry »

maw curry

The Lemurs spent the holiday season home in Glasgow and while it’s nice to relax in the bosom of one’s family, it’s also really important to me to get out and spend some time in the city. We were en route to a festive party but wanted to have dinner first – we anticipated a long and alcohol-fueled night and didn’t want to drink on empty stomachs. Sadly, we failed to realise that our host was making vast piles of delicious food, so we ended up eating twice, but that’s another story. We fancied Malaysian food and we’ve eaten at both formica-tabled Rumours Kopitiam (famously rude staff but good roti canai and laksa) and the slightly classier Asia Style (good, but tones down the Malaysian flavours). Neither were quite what we wanted, but I discovered that a new Malaysian restaurant has opened in the last year or so, called Banana Leaf. It’s been getting good notices online, and, located on Cambridge St, couldn’t be more convenient, so off we trotted. Read the rest of this entry »

chard salad 3

With a birthday very close to Christmas, I don’t tend to get very many presents (in contrast to the Geek Goddess who is infamous for receiving gifts from her many admirers months in advance of her birthday). But Lemur Mama came through with something I really wanted: Naomi Duguid’s new book Burma: Rivers of Flavor (Artisan, 2012). I’m a huge fan of Naomi’s writing––and of her approach to culture and food more generally––so I’d been looking forward to the publication of this new book for months.

naomi book cover

For this book, she’s been travelling in Burma for years, opening up ways of life and complex political situations from the ground up, in places mostly closed to westerners. The book doesn’t address Burma’s recent political history too directly but rather it is suffused with understanding of Burmese lived experience: what mindset you develop when you have to be careful what you say, what tools people use in the kitchen, what food traditions displaced tribespeople bring with them to a new home and what kids snack on at the market. It’s what Duguid calls an immersive approach to culinary cultures: she pokes around markets, getting to know people through their everyday routines, but she also deploys a huge amount of knowledge with a light touch, keeping curiosity and respect for people’s lives at the forefront. In the same way, the book’s many anecdotes and brief cultural analysis sections are fascinating but the point is to learn about Burmese culture by making the recipes, working yourself into a new way of tasting and enjoying familiar Asian ingredients. Read the rest of this entry »

ragu-bowl-cu

Happy New Year, Lemur readers! Soon, I’m going to be all about lighter and more colourful food to brighten up the dark days of January and look forward to a healthy Spring…but right now I’m still in hearty December mode. After my trip to Italy, I wanted a proper ragú to warm me up on these dreary English nights. Ragú is one of those things that most everyone makes but that it’s easy to take short cuts with. I don’t actually cook it all that often, but when I do, I’m all about the slow simmering of meats. I firmly believe that a good ragú needs both pork and veal. Often, I’ll spend contemplative time chopping the meat by hand but sadly, the supermarket only had minced veal, so this actually a rather easier version of a traditionally laborious process. Using pork cheeks means you can cook them whole and then pull the meat apart later. It gives a lovely unctuousness to the ragú, along with the rich flavour offered by the veal. You can’t really get easier than a ragú, where all the magic is worked by slow cooking rather than by any effort on the part of the cook. Later today, I’ll be cooking New Year’s fava bean soup, another slow-cooked Italian wonder. Happy 2013! Read the rest of this entry »

V gave me some chili plants for my last birthday, which she nurtured from seeds and eventually relocated to my garden. The whole enterprise has caused great hilarity and consternation, as Mr Lemur and I try to keep the damn things alive long enough to fruit. We’ve now brought them in for the winter and have a living room full of giant, unruly bushes which might or might not provide us with chilies one day. However, scarcely remarked in the great chili experiment is V’s rau ram plant which arrived in the same birthday present and is now going great guns. While we tried unsuccessfully to provide sunshine for the chilies, the rau ram was drinking up our wet and disappointing summer. Native to the swampier parts of Southeast Asia, rau ram or Vietnamese coriander is endlessly thirsty and apparently thrives on benign neglect. I only noticed how much it had grown when I brought it indoors. It was time for some soulful Vietnamese braised meat.

The cilantro-y flavour of rau ram is often used in salads, or as one of the fresh herbs topping pho, but I thought it would be nice as part of a more autumnal dish. I bought some shoulder pork from my lovely local butcher and decided to braise it in an aromatic light broth with star anise, cinnamon and cumin.  I once made a Luke Nguyen braise that used Sichuan peppercorns alongside more traditional Vietnamese flavours and I borrowed that idea to give a little kick to this aromatic dish. It came out rather nicely, with a pleasing slurry of spices. You could crush them if you wanted a more refined texture (or do as Nguyen does and isolate them in a muslin bag) but I rather wanted the homeliness of leaving them whole.

Although I wanted to emphasise the flavours of rau ram, you could make the dish with cilantro if you don’t have rau ram available. If you did that, then add some black pepper to the braise. (I’m really curious as to how my friends who hate cilantro respond to rau ram. The flavours are a bit similar but I don’t think they’re botanically connected, so perhaps that soapy sensation wouldn’t occur?)

Braised pork with rau ram

  • 1/4 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 – 1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns (to taste)
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
  • 3 cloves
  • 4 star anise
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • a generous glug of fish sauce
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tsp thick soy sauce
  • 4 shoulder or spare rib pork chops
  • 20 rau ram leaves
  • 1 cup water
  • 3 small red chilies, or to taste

Begin by toasting the spices (cumin, fennel, star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, cloves) one at a time in a cast-iron skillet until fragrant. Set aside.

Brown the pork chops in a large heavy-bottomed skillet in vegetable oil and then add chopped garlic. When garlic begins to colour, add a decent whack of fish sauce, dark soy and enough water to semi-cover the meat. Add whole spices, cinnamon and sugar and stir. Bring to the boil and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes, turning occasionally. After 15 minutes, add thinly-sliced rau ram.

After a half hour or so, the sauce should be reduced somewhat: still thin but nicely brown and beginning to be sticky. Garnish with chopped chilies (or more rau ram if you’d rather it not be too spicy) and serve with quickly wok-tossed vegetables. I made these amazing purple carrots with mange-touts.

Serves 4.

The Lemurs have left behind the architectural overload of Rome and we're spending a week with good friends K and L in the countryside of Lazio. We're in the village of Sutri, not far from the city but offering a whole other experience of Italian life. We're doing some serious relaxing here, with twice daily trips to the fruit lady, the baker and the salumeria being our most strenuous activities. This is the view from our roof terrace as the sun goes down – as Anthony Bourdain likes to say, this does not suck.

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Sometimes, good food comes from the Ready, Steady, Cook approach. I’ve been enmired in one of my busiest work weeks of the year, and came out alive at the other end to discover that Mr Lemur had bought some more-or-less random ingredients for me to cook at the Lovely Local Butcher and the Overpriced Local Greengrocer. Of course, the ingredients weren’t quite random. Faced with a panoply of organic and sustainable meaty wonders in the butcher’s shop, it’s better than even money that he’ll come out with pork belly. And, to be fair, these were some healthy slices of pig. Read the rest of this entry »

Lest anyone think I only go to fancy Mexican restaurants, another really huge thing I miss from New York is the kind of taquería one finds in the back of some bodegas. Cheap, hearty and unfailingly delicious, the everyday Mexican lunch is a real madeleine for this former New Yorker. Yes, I know, LA friends will scoff and insist their taquerías are better. Sure, ok, you’re probably right. And it’s definitely the case that when I first moved to New York in the 1990s, you couldn’t find proper Mexican food in as many places as you can today. Puerto Rican food, surely, Cuban food yes, but not so much Mexican. All the same, the porky, fatty, spicy pleasures of really good tacos, tortas and other street foods were a distinctive part of my life in NYC and, it must be said, my life in Iowa City. Anywhere with a Mexican immigrant population is going to make this stuff very well indeed and you can’t really understand the craving for Mexican food until you’ve eaten this way. It’s something L and I discussed as we sat in the slightly chilly back garden of Fast and Fresh Burrito Deli in Boerum Hill: savvy entrepreneurs may have opened up a few chic Mexican restaurants in London, but because most Brits don’t have the everyday experience of cheap and good Mexican fast food to compare to, it’s not quite the same market. They’re selling a new ethnic cuisine, not an upmarket version of something that people already eat frequently.  Read the rest of this entry »

Saigon can be a confusing place. There’s the whole Communism thing, for a start. Everywhere you look are reminders of the country’s revolutionary politics, from old-style posters of Uncle Ho to the ubiquitous red star flags that decorate the streets. And yet, in conversation with a Vietnamese guide, we learned that neither education nor healthcare are free here, which doesn’t seem terribly leftist. Then there’s the enthusiastic embrace of consumer capitalism, which suffuses the wealthier parts of the city. There’s so much building work going on, it’s going to be a totally different place in a few years. I suppose it’s something close to the Chinese model which can be perplexing from a Western political perspective. That said, I find Saigon completely charming: it has a combination of laid back urbanism and youthful energy that makes it an exhilarating place to just walk around.

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