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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 »
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 »
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.
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 »
I’ve been on a bit of a spelt kick lately. I know some of you will be nodding enthusiastically and others grimacing and preparing to click away. Spelt has a bit of a bad rap as cardboard-like health food and that honestly hasn’t been helped by any of the mealy and disgusting spelt bread I’ve eaten in my time. But you know I don’t like ‘health food’ – I do like food that is healthy but deliciousness is my main motivation and spelt (whisper it) is pretty darn tasty. I found this brand, Amisa, in our local international food store, and not only is it organic but it is dried over beechwood, which gives it a slightly smoky flavour.
Vietnam is obviously not a country with many Christians, although we did pass through some Catholic villages in the Mekong that were prettily decked out with bunting and sparkly stars. But these few religious observances aside, Christmas is a huge sparkly secular party here. And in Saigon the party is epic – everything is decorated, and absolutely everyone is on the streets. It’s like New Year’s Eve in Times Square or Hogmanay on Princes Street – multiplied by massive motorcycle madness!
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 »
This weekend featured both a bank holiday and lovely warm weather, with the result that apparently every single person in Brighton had a barbeque. Since we’d opened the doors to the garden, our house smelled of grilling meat for three days straight. I’m not an outdoor grilling kind of gal, and I don’t even like burgers especially, but since I had the lovely and vegetarian Thrifty Gal to stay, I wasn’t eating any meat at all and by Monday I was starting to crave flesh. Regular readers will know that I am far from a traditional carnivore – or rather, I have a relationship to meat that is actually very traditional for many cultures. I eat non-meat meals as often as I eat meat ones, and when I do cook with meat it is usually one ingredient among many rather than a giant hunk of animal flesh. But I do really appreciate the meat I eat and after a weekend smelling the stuff, I was ready for some omnivorous cooking closer to my heart than clumps of ground beef on bread.
I knew I wanted a spicy salad featuring beef – something like a Thai Yue Num Tok – but I also couldn’t resist buying some more local asparagus. I considered for a moment switching to a stir fry dish of beef and asparagus when it hit me that the answer was to keep my salad plan and use the asparagus raw. There’s been a bit of a trend for thinly sliced raw asparagus in the last couple of years, from Jonathan Waxman’s use of it in Barbuto to blog posts like this asparagus and manchego recipe at Yum Sugar. Asparagus isn’t a traditional ingredient in Southeast Asia but I’ve heard it has become popular there, and it makes perfect sense as an addition to the type of Vietnamese salads that combine cooked meat with crunchy raw vegetables. Despite the reservations of Mr Lemur, who quite likes his asparagus cooked thanksverymuch, I couldn’t resist the combination of a new technique with the reliable pleasures of hot meat and plenty of chilies.
Vietnamese beef and asparagus salad
- 1 steak, not an expensive cut
- 2 Spanish red peppers
- 1 bunch of asparagus
- 2 tbsp rice vinegar
- 4 shallots
- 7 small red chilies (prik kee noo) or to taste
- 1 little gem lettuce
- handful of cilantro
- handful of mint
- 4 tbsps lime juice
- 4 tbsps fine sugar
- 2 tbsp fish sauce
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1/2 lemon
First slice your asparagus in a mandoline or with a potato peeler. (Honestly, I’m not sure I’d want to do it without the mandoline as it’s fiddly enough with it.) Do this part vewwwy carefully! Really, I’ve heard stories that would make your hair curl about mandoline accidents. I generally advocate buying and using a substantial hand guard but the asparagus require such careful guidance that you have to dispense with the protector and just be super careful. I’ve seen pictures of spears immaculately sliced with the tips still on them, but mine started to crumble immediately, so I chopped the tips off and cooked them separately. While you’re working, place the sliced spears in a bowl of water with the lemon squeezed in to keep them green. Once sliced, replace the lemon water with 2 tbsp of the sugar and the vinegar, plus a little water. You want the minimum water needed to cover them.
Next, slice thinly all but one of the chilies, the red peppers, shallots and lettuce. Pick leaves off herbs. Put them in a bowl.
Now it’s time for the steak. I don’t post a lot of raw meat pics but this one seemed rather deserving.
Fry the steak in a little oil, along with two of the garlic cloves, chopped, and the asparagus tips. Cook till you like it but this recipe should err on the rare side. Let rest and then slice very thinly. Meanwhile, make the dressing: mix the lime juice, 2 tbsp of sugar, fish sauce and one garlic clove and one chili, crushed and pounded. Discard the vinegar mix, wash the asparagus, and add to the mixing bowl, along with the sliced meat. Pour over the dressing, toss well and serve over jasmine or sticky rice.
A while ago, I wrote about using desiccated coconut instead of fresh in an Indonesian urap. I use dried coconut all the time in my South Indian cooking and I don’t feel terribly guilty as it’s everyday food and it tastes pretty darn good that way. And yet…I do have a sneaky sense of guilt when I put store-bought dry coconut into a dish where it doesn’t get toasted or cooked down into a sauce. How much brighter would this taste with fresh coconut? It was time for a coconut experiment: cook a dish I usually make with desiccated and see how much better it is with fresh. I decided on a staple of my Thai cooking, yam som-o, or pomelo spicy salad.
Both coconuts and pomelos are now regularly found in supermarkets. Only a few years ago, pomelo was impossible to find outside Southeast Asian markets (at least in the cities I’ve lived in) and even coconuts were irregular items. Now, both are commonplace, though many people have never cooked with a pomelo. It’s easy: the whole point is that the flesh is firmer than that of a grapefruit and the membranes peel off more cleanly. It’s thus less appealing as an eating fruit, but keeps its shape well in a salad.
Prepping the coconut is a bit more involved, but not difficult so long as you have either an axe or a hammer to break it open. (While very interested in hunting coconut, the cat proved sadly unhelpful in the actual grating process.) First, using a corkscrew, make two holes through the eyes on top of the coconut. Pour out the water into a bowl. Have a delicious glass of coconut water while you do the next part! Now put the coconut into a low oven for 15 minutes to help separate the flesh from the shell. Once out of the oven, put it on the floor on some newspaper and either whack it open with an axe or tap more carefully with a hammer till it breaks. In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that I had somebody else do this part for me. Now prise away the hard shell – it should come away quite easily. Peel off the brown skin with a vegetable peeler. Now you have just the white meat. Chop into pieces and grate in the food processor until fine and fluffy, a minute at most. You can freeze any leftovers, and one coconut yields several cups, so it’s actually not as crazy as it might seem at first.
The recipe itself is a variant of yam som-o, a Thai spicy salad I’ve read about in several very different versions. Some are rich with coconut milk and nam prik pow, which others are light, featuring grilled shrimp and lime dressing. This variant mixes chicken with pomelo and fresh coconut, and makes a hearty but very light flavoured dish. And, I must admit, the freshly grated coconut really does make all the difference.
Yam som-o, or pomelo and coconut spicy salad with chicken
- 1 pomelo
- 4 chicken thighs
- 1 carrot
- 1/2 a small cucumber
- 2 handfuls watercress
- 4 big or 8 small shallots
- 5-6 fresh red chilies
- 4 cloves of garlic
- 2 tbsp palm sugar
- 2 tbsp fish sauce
- 2 tbsp lime juice
- 1 tbsp dried shrimp
- 2 handfuls fresh grated coconut
- a handful cilantro
First, roast the chicken pieces. Once cooked and cooled, tear them apart into strips. Cut the carrot and cucumber into matchsticks. Cut the pomelo into segments. Chop the chilies into very small pieces. Put all of these in a large bowl. Slice the garlic and shallots thinly. Heat a little oil in a small frying pan and sauté each in turn until turning yellow. Add to the bowl. Grind the dried shrimp in a mini-prep until fluffy. Mix this, the coconut and the cilantro into the other ingredients.
To make the dressing, pound the sugar in a mortar and pestle until melted. Add fish sauce and about 1/4 cup warm water. Mix well and add lime juice. Taste for balance and add more of anything required.
To finish the dish, put the watercress into a large serving bowl and add the chicken and pomelo mixture. Pour over the dressing and mix well.
One of the hardest things in learning about Asian food from my white European perspective is getting to grips with the astonishing array of herbs and greens used in each cuisine. For one thing, many Asian herbs just aren’t available in the west, and at a certain point, substitutions leave you feeling you’ve lost the spirit of a dish. Even when Asian greenery is available, it’s hard to know what’s what. My favourite Hong Kong supermarket in New York had a pretty simple English-language labelling policy: everything that came from an animal was labelled “fish” and everything else was labelled “chicken”. Entertaining, to be sure, but not super helpful in distinguishing your kai lan from your pak choi. This combination of beautiful produce and language barrier taught me to shop differently, to pick what looked fresh and test out flavours at home. This was an important lesson in starting from first principles, being led by the ingredient, but I still wanted to learn the traditional combinations of the cuisines I enjoyed so much. How to bridge the gap between the ingredients described in books and those piled up in stores remained a challenge.
I was hugely excited, then, to see an array of international herbs at the UK Fiery Foods Festival in Brighton this summer. Now, I am not a gardener, or I’d probably have thought of growing my own herbs before. Seriously, I do not have green fingers. I killed a cactus once. But coming upon a display of fresh lemongrass, Thai basil and Vietnamese coriander was too much temptation to resist and I went home with a giant bag of pot plants. I wasn’t exactly sure at the time what “Vietnamese coriander” was. The woman who sold it to me said it was extremely pungent and I should use only half a leaf at a time. This seemed kind of crazy, since its taste was somewhere between cilantro and lemon verbena. I couldn’t think of a good reason not to throw handfuls into my next spicy salad.
When I got it home, I figured out that I had bought the herb called rau răm in Vietnam, pak pai in Thailand, and daun laksa in Malaysia. It’s an important Southeast Asian ingredient, essential for laksa, as its name suggests, and used in Laotian larb as well as Vietnamese salads, summer rolls and noodles. It also grows enthusiastically, despite my incompetence, so I’ve been testing it out in a range of dishes. It doesn’t quite work in Thai salads where you want the more forcefully perfumey top-notes of Thai basil, and it seems to fight with fruit. It does marry well with meats, though, especially beef, and it combines well with mint and cilantro. Given these affinities, I tried it out in a Vietnamese beef salad that would usually be made with sawtooth herb.
Vietnamese beef and rau răm salad
- 3 tbsp lime juice
- 2 tbsp palm sugar
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- 4 garlic cloves
- 4 birds eye chilies (or to taste)
- 2 tbsp tamarind water
- 1 steak, trimmed and sliced very thin
- 1/2 cucumber
- 1 carrot
- 1 tbsp caster sugar
- a good handful of rau răm – 20 or 30 leaves
- a smaller handful of mint leaves
- 3 tbsp peanuts, toasted and crushed
Peel the carrot and cucumber and then slice into very thin long strips with the peeler. Put them in a bowl and add a tablespoon of caster sugar. Mix well, leave for ten minutes, then drain and squeeze out the excess liquid.
Make the dressing: pound one garlic clove and one chili in a mortar and pestle, then add palm sugar and pound till softened. Add lime juice, fish sauce, and taste for balance. You might need more of one thing or another.
Chop the rest of the garlic finely, and fry in vegetable oil in a hot wok. Add the meat and cook, stirring constantly, for a couple of minutes until just coloured all over. (Another good option is to grill the steak till rare and then slice it thin and mix with the fried garlic.)
In a bowl, mix the meat with tamarind water. Add the vegetables, remaining chilies, sliced, and herbs. Dress, mix, and garnish with the peanuts. Serve with rice.
Recipe adapted from Luke Nguyen’s The Songs of Sapa: Stories and Recipes from Vietnam.
Having finally vanquished my giant work project, I decided this weekend it was time to spend some quality time in the kitchen. I’ve been exploring Malaysian and Indonesian food recently, and one inspiring source has been James Oseland’s Cradle of Flavor, which is one of those rare cookbooks you can read for pleasure as well as cook from. It’s not just a list of recipes but a real education in the foodways and culinary techniques of the Southeast Asian Spice Islands. I played around with a few dishes this weekend but my favourite was a variant of the cooked vegetable salad urap.
I might have mentioned my love of chilies. Asian spicy salads are probably my favourite thing to cook because the flavours stay bright and separate, and the textures of different vegetables (and sometimes meats) contrast in the mouth. Thai pomelo and chicken salad, Vietnamese grilled beef and lime, and Indonesian gado-gado are some of my longstanding favourites. These salads are main dishes not sides, and once you have a sense of some of the basic structures, you can easily branch out and create new variants.
This recipe is for a slightly simplified version of urap, which you can make with more or less any vegetables you have available seasonally. Dark greens like spinach would be a nice addition, but I went for red cabbage for colour contrast. In some versions of this dish, the coconut is cooked with a spice paste to give a rich, toasty flavour that can also include shallots and shrimp paste. Made that way, you get more of a sambal quality, but I wanted to keep the lightness of the lime flavour and fresh veggies.
Urap (Indonesian vegetable coconut salad)
This salad is properly made with fresh coconut, which does make a big difference to both taste and texture, but I find grinding up coconuts not to be conducive to everyday cooking if you don’t have company coming. It’s a different dish with desiccated coconut, but still a delicious one. You could up the sugar levels to compensate, but I have instead made the whole thing less sweet to create a more lime and chile oriented dish.
- 5 or 6 lime leaves
- 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
- 4 long red chilies, roughly chopped (Holland or similar, not small Thai ones but not so big as to be overly mild either)
- 4cm chunk of fresh turmeric, chopped
- 4cm chunk of ginger, sliced in thin matchsticks
- 2 tbsp palm sugar
- 4 tbsp lime juice
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 2/3 cup desiccated coconut
- 1 cup (or more) breansprouts
- a big handful of green beans
- 1-2 cups of red cabbage, shredded
- 1/2 cucumber, in matchsticks
- a big handful of Thai basil
To make the dressing, first cut out the centre strip from the lime leaves then slice them finely. Put them in a mini-prep food processor with the garlic, ginger, turmeric, chilies, palm sugar and lime juice and blend till smooth. Put in a bowl and add coconut and salt to taste. (Be careful with the salt: you might need less than you think.)
Now blanch the veggies: set a pot of water to a rolling boil, and throw in the beansprouts first. Blanch for just a few seconds, scoop them out and drain under cold water. Blanch the green beans for a couple of minutes at most and drain the same way. Then do the cabbage for about 30 seconds to a minute. If you use other vegetables, blanch for as short a time as seems reasonable. Once they’re all drained and cooled, dry them off gently with paper towels (or a clean teatowel if you’re feeling green) and put in a big bowl with the cucumber and Thai basil.
Now mix in the dressing, which will be fairly thick. Taste for salt and lime juice and serve immediately. (Actually, I’ve been eating it happily for a day or so – it’s probably not optimal but it’s still pretty darn good.) You could eat urap on its own with just steamed rice, but here I’ve paired it with a lamb and coconut milk curry. It would also be nice with a homemade sambal belacan, to add some of those funky shrimpy notes in contrast to the freshness of the vegetables.
Recipe adapted from James Oseland’s Cradle of Flavor.