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veggie mapo

I’ve been feeling a bit sorry for my vegetarian and vegan readers–who impressively continue to read despite my love for all things porcine–so I wanted to post a little something meatless to start the week off. Lemur friend the Geek Goddess gave me Fuchsia Dunlop’s Every Grain of Rice as an un-birthday present (because she is the kind of awesome friend who knows you are stressed out and responds with cookbooks!) and it has a brilliant range of vegetable dishes from Sichuan province and beyond. I particularly loved her simple meatless version of ma po tofu: meat works more as a flavouring than as a main component of the dish in its traditional form, so it is actually relatively easy to replace the meat with other umami flavours. The real pleasure of ma po tofu for me is the contrast of soft, cooling tofu with the fiery, oily, tingling chili and Sichuan peppercorn sauce and this version focuses your attention on precisely that experience. I know there are people out there who are yet to be converted to tofu and I think this might be one of the dishes to do it. It’s making my mouth water just looking at the picture. Read the rest of this entry »

At the Brighton Fiery Foods Festival, I made the acquaintance of Jenny Song, entrepreneur and killer Sichuan cook from Chengdu. Jenny and her partner John run China Spice, a company that imports peppercorns, chilies and other traditional foods from Chengdu to the UK. The stall was doing a brisk business with eager customers trying out John’s claim that their Sichuan peppercorns put what we currently have in the UK to shame. John explains that the peppercorn business shares some tricks with importers of certain less legal products: the real peppercorns are cut with the cheaper, tasteless shells of other bushes and often dyed to look the part. Morevoer, even the real peppercorns we see tend to have hard black seeds inside – a pain to dig out – whereas well-picked peppercorns will be almost seed-free. The proof of the peppercorn is in the tasting and I cheerfully agreed to eat one – just one – peppercorn. It was astonishing. You start with the expected citrusty notes and numbing sensation, but these familiar experiences are just the beginning of a several-minute sensory play that includes fizzing and a dreamy feeling that’s actually a bit like being on drugs. In the nicest possible way. John was dead on: these are like tasting Neapolitan bufala mozzarella for the first time when you’ve only ever had string cheese. Read the rest of this entry »

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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Mr Lemur likes most things but for some reason he is highly skeptical about Korean food. Maybe it’s because of the infamous New York Korean gristle palace, where we managed to order giant plates of chewy tendon with no actual meat, and the waitstaff looked disparagingly at us when we asked for rice? Or maybe he’s scared of the little fishes you usually get in your banchan? I actually think of the Korean vs Japanese food divide as one of those key ones, like Italian vs French, that defines what kind of food lover you are. Everyone likes Japanese food; refined, complex, sophisticated, I get it. But I (often) find Japanese food boring and bland whereas Korean food is rustic, spicy, meaty. Mr Lemur often drags me to Japanese restaurants and I’ve learned to appreciate some aspects of that cuisine, but I rarely manage to get turnabout. It’s got to the point where one of the Crocodiles and I have been threatening to ‘cheat’ on our spouses by going off together for a lunchtime Korean food orgy. Secret Soho kimchee assignations! But this week I somehow talked Mr Lemur into lunch at Binari, the new Korean place in Brighton. Read the rest of this entry »

I’ve been proselytising my friends about my new tofu press. I get one of two responses when I tell them that my tofu press is the best thing ever. Either they ask why one needs to press tofu at all, or they ask why I don’t just use a pile of books to do it. (I admit that I might have more than usually nerdy friends –  not only do they spend their time pressing tofu but they have all lit upon the piles of books that surround them as the best means to do the job.) The thing is this: pressing tofu gives you a whole new insight into the delicious potential of this much-maligned food and pressing it evenly and thoroughly without the faff of trying not to soak your history of art books is worth a few bucks, people! Read the rest of this entry »

Last weekend, I finally caught up with Thrifty Gal and got to try out my tua nao, or fermented soy bean pods. Thrifty Gal is a vegetarian who never eats Southeast Asian food in restaurants because she also has a nut allergy and it all just seems too Russian Roulette-ish. Of course, I delight in making Asian food that won’t kill her, and I was especially excited because I’d discovered in Chiang Mai a vegetarian alternative to shrimp paste. Southeast Asian food is tricky for vegetarian cooking because fish sauce and shrimp paste aren’t ingredients but foundational flavours, imparting salt and umami to dishes. You can salt with soy sauce or plain old sodium chloride, but rich umami sensations are a bit harder to achieve. Fermented fish and shrimp are basic to Thai cooking and I’ve read that poor families sometimes eat little but rice and fermented fish in the leaner months: you can’t just omit flavours this essential to a cuisine. But in the Shan market in Chiang Mai, Naomi showed me tua nao, flat dry disks of fermented soybeans which do the same job in Northern Thai and Burmese cuisines. Perhaps because these regions are further from the sea, they developed a soy-based means of creating deeply savoury notes. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

Well, I’m home from Chile and feeling both jetlagged and ready for some lighter food. You think seafood is light, but not when it’s being used basically as a conduit for butter… Actually, truth be told the food in Chile is pretty healthy, but eating out all the time on holiday means you eat a lot more richly than at home, regardless of the cuisine.

So, for my first post back at home, I’m not making anything complex, just the slightly more rigorous food I am feeling in need of: a tofu and kale stir-fry with chilies and ginger. Now I’m not one for cleanses. Some of my more hippyish friends are inclined to really punitive diets when they’ve over-indulged but I really don’t believe in that approach. For one thing, I don’t think it’s especially good for your body to veer from one extreme to another and for another I don’t like to use food in that psychological way. It feels negative and unfeminist and just not for me. So…this dish isn’t at all a punishment for gluttony but rather a mix of some favourite flavours I didn’t get to eat for the last couple of weeks of travel.

Gingery kale and tofu stir fry

This simple dish mixes the softness of tofu with the bite of just-cooked kale, and has a Vietnamese influence in its gingery lime dressing. The trick is to be very generous with the ginger, especially the raw ginger added at the end with the lime. You could replace the kale with any other dark greens and the radish sprouts with whatever sprouts are available.

  • 1 large bunch of kale
  • 1 bag of radish sprouts
  • 1 red pepper
  • 1 block of firm tofu
  • 4-5 spring onions
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • a generous thumb-sized chunk of ginger
  • 2-3 long red chilies
  • 2 stalks lemongrass
  • 1 tbsp palm sugar
  • 1 tbsp fish sauce or soy sauce (or more)
  • 1 lime
  • 2 tbsps oil

Wash and shred the kale, dice the red pepper and thinly slice the spring onions and chilies. Chop and pound the garlic, ginger and lemongrass into a paste, leaving about a tablespoon of chopped ginger to the side. Cut the tofu into bite sized chunks.

In a wok or large frying pan, heat the oil and sauté the spice paste. Add the spring onions, chilies, and red peppers and cook for a minute. Add the kale in batches and wilt. Now add the palm sugar and fish sauce, and mix well to dissolve the sugar. Add the tofu and stir carefully.

When the kale and tofu are cooked and the sauce well mixed, turn off the heat and add the lime juice, remaining raw ginger, and sprouts and mix well.

Serve over rice – it goes especially well with Thai black rice or red rice.

Serves 2

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