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As I mentioned in my rambutans post, my cooking recently has been led by some unusual ingredients turning up in Asian supermarkets. On a recent trip to London, I stopped into one of the Gerrard St Asian stores in the hope of catching some winged beans. They did have winged beans but they looked nasty and brown at the edges so sadly I had to pass them by. However, what did look nice and fresh was banana flowers, an ingredient I don’t recall seeing before in the UK.

Regular readers might remember my fascination with the ready-shredded banana flowers in the Mekong Delta. At first, I had no idea what the giant piles of curling vegetable were: they looked a lot like Roman puntarelle but clearly weren’t. Eventually, someone told me what they were and the next time I was in a restaurant, I ordered the banana blossom salad. Like most Vietnamese salads, it was light and fresh, but at the same time complexly flavoured with layers of herbs and aromatics. And like Southeast Asian salads in general, it’s not like a Western salad so much as a category of main dish that’s mostly uncooked. A good Asian salad contrasts nicely with a thick curry, a crispy fried dish, a hot stir-fry. You might not come across a banana flower too often, but if you live somewhere with a good Asian market, they make for a tasty crisp side dish that uses all the fresh herbs you can lay your hands on. And if you don’t have any banana flowers, this is still a nice dish with cabbage or endive (or I might even be tempted to try it with jicama).

Vietnamese banana flower salad (Goi Bap Chuoi)

  • 2 banana flowers
  • 1 little gem lettuce
  • 1/2 lime
  • 2 shallots
  • 5 small red chilies or to taste
  • bunch of Thai basil
  • bunch of mint
  • bunch of cilantro (or Vietnamese coriander if you have it)
  • 3 tbsp sesame seeds
  • 2 tbsp roasted peanuts
  • 3 tbsp Asian fried shallots

for the dressing:

  • 3 tbsp fish sauce*
  • 1 tbsp caster sugar
  • 2 limes

* For a vegetarian version, use 2 tbsp soy sauce and be prepared to add more salt if necessary. A bit less soy sauce is good here as it can be a pushier flavour if you’re not careful – you might also want more lime.

Your first order of business is shredding the banana flower. Take off the outer, purple leaves till you are down to the fresh green ones. Now, I am going to tell you to put the slices directly into a bowl of cold water with lime in it to prevent discolouration, but the thing is you’re going to assume that this is like a pear or an apple. Trust me, it is not. These suckers turn a gross, dirty grey brown within seconds of exposure. It’s a kind of awesome and yet horrible decay in fast-motion. Also, there are flower buds in between the leaves that you don’t want to eat, so you can’t just slice through the whole thing like a cabbage – you need to take off one leaf at a time. These issues are slightly in tension with one another. So to shred the flowers, I ended up taking off one leaf at a time,  slicing it and dumping it in the water. This may not be the best way but it worked decently for me. I’m open to better suggestions…

Once that’s done, you can shred the lettuce at a more relaxed tempo. In Vietnam, they cut the banana flower with the stems of morning glory but crispy small lettuce seemed like a good alternative. Slice the shallots thinly and put in a big serving bowl.

In a cast-iron skillet, toast the sesame seeds and then peanuts till golden, then cool. Wash and tear the herbs, and mince the chilies.

To make the dressing, mix fish sauce, sugar, lime juice and a glug of warm water till the sugar has dissolved. Taste for balance and add more of anything you think is needed.

Finally, drain the shredded banana flower and mix everything in the bowl. Top with fried shallots.

Serves 4, ideally as part of a meal with other components.

One of the many bits and bobs I brought home from Thailand was a jar of nam prik pow. Or at least, I think that’s what it is. At one of Chiang Mai’s night markets, I came across a stall selling candied fruits and savoury things in jars. Obviously, I couldn’t actually read any of the labels but I was drawn to a particular set of little plastic pots. The stallholder opened some of them for me and it was clear they were variants of chili and shrimp pastes. I bought two – one an almost black, deeply fishy scented tar with a musty kick, the other a rich jewelled red colour with a lighter garlic, chili and fish sauce smell. They’re obviously mass produced, but they taste a good deal better than any of the jarred nam prik pow you can buy over here. I’ve been dying to try them out. (If anyone reads Thai, I’d love to know what it actually says…)

Unfortunately, my original plan for a variant on yam som-oh went awry at the shops, where basically nothing I wanted to purchase was available. No coconut milk, no grapefruit, etc. I think I went into a bit of a panic because I came home with a completely random Ready Steady Cook style bag of ingredients. Rump steak, portabella mushrooms, spring greens and red peppers? Er, ok. My local greengrocer (i.e. the Mean Polish Store) doesn’t exactly carry a wide range of Asian vegetables but still, I have no idea where those mushrooms came from. That being said, I ended up with a rather nice dish – lots of wok-fried greens and thinly-sliced beef with the roasty hot garlicky flavour of nam prik pow seared onto them.

To make this dish vegetarian, obviously it’s easy enough to omit the beef and just use greens and mushrooms. Likewise, soy sauce can sub for fish sauce in the usual way (use a bit less and dilute more with water as I find soy a bit saltier). More challenging is the nam prik pow but you can buy veggie nam prik pow in many Asian markets. It’s worth seeking out, or indeed making your own, as the stuff’s a wonder to have in the fridge.

Spicy Thai beef and greens

  • 1 small rump steak
  • 1 head of spring greens
  • 2 portabella mushrooms
  • 1 red pepper
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 3 long Thai red chilies
  • 1 tbsp nam prik pow (or to taste)
  • 1/4 cup measure, half filled with fish sauce and half warm water
  • 2 tbsp palm sugar
  • 1 lime

To prepare, slice the meat very thinly, cut the mushrooms and pepper into rather less thin slices, and also slice the greens. Finely chop the garlic and chilies. Get the wok good and hot before adding a glug of oil, then add mushrooms. When they’ve coloured, add garlic and chilies.

Next add the greens and the pepper. Of course, the key thing in wok frying is not adding too much volume. Greens seem pretty volumetastic at first but then cook down pretty fast. Still, don’t make this for more than two people or your wok won’t stay hot enough. You want the greens to get that toasty wok hei flavour.

Finally, add the beef and the nam prik pow and fry for a minute. You want the paste to cook and also sear into the beef and greens. Then add fish sauce, water, and sugar and stir to dissolve the chili paste and sugar into the liquid. Mix everything well. Once that’s done, turn off the heat and add the lime juice. Serve immediately.

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 »

My recent forays into the world of BBQ, both American and Chinese, has been delicious but rather meat-heavy. I noticed how brown the photography on the last few posts has been. Delicious looking, I grant you, but not so colourful. So I wanted to make something vibrant and this being me, when my thinking goes in the bright, colourful direction, it often comes up with Southeast Asian salads as the answer. The siren song of the spicy salad is never too far away from my ears…

This time, my starting point was a bag of wing beans I’d bought in the Chinese supermarket in London’s Chinatown. Wing beans (aka winged beans, or dragon beans, đậu rồng in Vietnam) are a fantastic vegetable that I wish I’d discovered sooner. They look like a combination of a runner bean and a bitter melon, but they don’t taste like either. Instead, they’re more like asparagus crossed with sugar snap peas – milder than those, but with a really lovely flavour. The beautiful pale green pods turn brown quickly, so use them up as soon as possible after purchase.

Photo by Zufanc, used under CC Attribution Share-alike 3.0 licence.

Wing beans are used to make a Thai salad with coconut cream and shrimp: I was planning more of a Vietnamese meal and I didn’t want the richness of coconut but I did decide to keep the shrimp. After that, it was just a case of putting together a gingery Vietnamese salad dressing and prepping some vegetables, herbs, and nuts to mix into the dish. We ate this alongside beef in la lot leaves, which I’ll post about next. The combination was fab, with the crisp, light, brightly spicy salad balancing the milder, aromatic beef.

If you wanted a vegetarian version of this dish, it would be easy simply to leave out the shrimp and replace fish sauce with soy. It might make it more of a side dish but it’s really all about the wing beans.

Shrimp and wing bean salad

  • 12 shrimp
  • 2 handfuls of wing beans, trimmed
  • 1/2 red pepper, sliced thinly
  • handful of mint leaves
  • handful of cilantro leaves (or rau răm if you have it)
  • 3 tbsp roasted peanuts
  • 3 large chillies, sliced thin
  • 2 tbsp ginger
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 birds’ eye chilli
  • 4 tbsp lime juice
  • 2 tbsp palm sugar
  • 1 tbsp fish sauce

To make the dressing, pound garlic and birds’ eye chilli in a mortar and pestle. Chop the ginger into small cubes then add and pound till you have a paste. Add sugar and pound again. Then add fish sauce and lime juice and mix. Taste for balance and add a little water if it is too strong.

Chop the wing beans into inch-long sections and boil for 2 minutes. Refresh in a bowl of cold water. Peel the shrimp and sauté until just cooked. At the last minute, add a tsp of dressing to the pan – as it boils off, the dressing should sear into the shrimp and caramelise them nicely.

Bash up the peanuts a bit in a bag or (very briefly) in a mini-prep. In a large bowl, combine wing beans, shrimp and peanuts along with pepper slices, herbs and chillies. Dress, toss to combine and serve immediately over regular or sticky rice.

Serves 2, or 3-4 as a side dish


My trip to Brixton market last weekend yielded some beautiful vegetables including these amazing okra and scotch bonnet chilies. I can buy okra easily enough in Brighton, but it is often over-large and/or a bit blackened around the edges. But in Brixton market there were vast bins of young, small okra with nary a mark on them. I know okra is a divisive vegetable: while American Southerners tend to love it, people from other places find its sliminess offputting. (Even Southerners often deep fry it to dry it out.) I, however, embrace the gloop. I find the texture of okra to be completely alluring and I love using it in Indian bhindi masala and in Southeast Asian curries.

My favourite use of okra, though, is in the Senegalese casserole mafé. Mafé is a Wolof groundnut stew that is usually made with lamb but can be done in various versions with beef, chicken, fish, or just vegetables. The vegetables also seem to be fairly open but I always make it with okra and cabbage. Something about the combination of okra, peanuts, tomatoes and hot citrusy chilies is really addictive and I make this dish quite a lot. I remember an episode of Top Chef in which the judges found the combination of peanut sauce and tomatoes to be weird. On the contrary, the combination is fantastic and what’s more easy to do with store-cupboard ingredients…

Most versions of this dish include meat, but it would be very easy to make a vegetarian (and also vegan) version using only the vegetables.

Senegalese chicken mafé

  • 4-6 chicken pieces
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 4 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 1 tin of tomatoes (or 6 fresh tomatoes plus a spoonful of tomato paste)
  • 1/4 cup smooth peanut butter
  • 1 scotch bonnet chili
  • 2 large handfuls okra
  • 1/2 a green cabbage, sliced into chunks
  • 1 sweet potato or 2 carrots, cubed
  • oil, salt, pepper

First, season the chicken pieces well with salt and pepper and brown in a large frying pan with a lid, or a big pot. Put them aside and use the same pan to fry the onion until it is slightly browned, then add garlic. Sauté for a few seconds then add tomatoes. Cook over a medium heat until the tomatoes break down. Meanwhile, put the peanut butter in a bowl and add about 1/2 cup of water. Whisk until you have a smooth paste. Once the tomatoes are good and saucy, add the peanut paste and mix well.

Next, put the chicken back in, along with your scotch bonnet, cut in half. (If you want it less spicy, just poke a couple of holes in the chili with a knife but leave it whole.) Add a bit more salt and pepper and simmer gently for 30 minutes. Stir relatively often, as the peanuts make the sauce stick.

Next, add your cubed sweet potato or carrot and cook for 15-20 mins. Then add okra and sliced cabbage. Stir carefully and cook for another 15-20 mins, until everything is cooked and soft. Be especially careful to stir at this stage, as you want to prevent the sauce from sticking but also keep the vegetables from breaking up. You can add more water if things seem to be drying out.

Before serving, season with more salt (this will be very variable depending on how sweet your peanut butter is) and remove the chili.

Serves 4.

Regular readers of this blog will know I’m a fan of Sichuan food, thanks in part to local Brighton restaurant Lucky Star and in part to the books of Fuschia Dunlop. I’ve always found Chinese food rather daunting in comparison to other Asian cuisines – perhaps because it’s often harder to eat something and pick out the ingredients by taste and sight – but the simultaneously spicy and reassuring qualities of Sichuan cooking are like catnip to me. Mapo tofu is a familiar dish to anyone who has eaten in a standard Chinese restaurant in the US but most of these versions are pretty inauthentic, or at least taste like a completely different dish to me. Proper Sichuan mapo tofu is searingly spicy, featuring a combination of numbing Sichuan peppercorns and hot dried chilies, balanced by the smooth cooling tofu. The dish supposedly originates in Chengdu and means pock-marked old lady tofu. Like many classic dishes, there’s an origin story about this one old lady who made amazing tofu, which all restaurants in Chengdu now promise to emulate. I’m not sure about the existence of the old lady, but like all recipe origin stories, this one promises one true dish that all others must emulate. It’s a model that places a high premium on authenticity but seems to allow for endless debate about the exact right way to do it. In other words, it’s the perfect dish for the novice to learn…

Read the rest of this entry »

Chileans take their sandwiches – or rather sánguches – pretty seriously. There’s a whole range of nationally-specific sandwiches, some named after former presidents and all made with uniquely Chilean breads, that you can eat in just about any cafe in Santiago. People are partisans of their favourites and will go a long way to get the best ave palta (chicken and avocado) or barros luco (steak and cheese). They sound simple, but something about the bread, the local cheese, the amazing avocados and the ají chilies elevates these sandwiches to more than the sum of their parts. The most exciting Chilean sandwich of all is the chacarero, consisting of thinly sliced beef, avocado, tomatoes, green beans and ají. It might not (yet) have the international recognition of the bánh mì, the torta or the croque monsieur, but the chacarero deserves to take its place in the roster of the world’s truly great sandwiches.

Oddly enough, the first chacarero I had wasn’t in Chile but in Boston. There’s a hole in the wall place in Downtown Crossing that serves nothing but chacareros, run by a Chilean immigrant who clearly knows a gap in the market when he sees one. But my real introduction to the world of the chacarero was visiting Santiago with Mr Lemur, who is Chilean and thus feels very strongly about his national cuisine. (If I ever make the mistake of asking what he wants to eat, the answer will always be chacarero. I think he views the sánguche as a basic food group.) As we visited different neighbourhoods in Santiago, I began to suspect that tourist sites were less of an organising principle than sandwich cafes. We compared chacareros in chic Providencia, in an American-style shopping mall, and my favourite version at the Bar Inglés, near La Moneda.  A major difference is the bread used, and the diner is sometimes given a choice among molde (sliced bread), frica (soft roll), or occasionally marraqueta (kind of like a Portuguese roll). I like the frica best, but it’s hard to replicate outside of Chile, so sliced bread is a good choice if you’re making your own.

The chacarero is obviously pretty easy to make, and the only real questions are which bread to use, which cut of beef, and which chiles. You can experience meat slide if you’re not careful so you don’t want beef that’s at all tough. I’ve used flank steak to good effect and also sirloin, but regardless of cut, you want to ask your butcher to slice the beef very thin. For a vegetarian version, you can just leave out the meat and still have a rocking sandwich. It would be pretty good with a fried portabella too. Bread is a little harder to replicate. I’ve found that a British soft roll is a decent replacement for frica, though ideally not the floury kind. A sourdough or chewy wholemeal loaf works well for the molde version. Burger baps are a bit too mealy, though, and baguettes can be too crusty. Lastly, the hot sauce: Chilean ají is not especially spicy but it is usually chopped fresh, which makes a brightly flavoured condiment. You could use a serrano or jalapeño instead, but since I didn’t have actual ají, I used sriracha, which is about the same spiciness level.

Chacarero sandwich

  • 1 sirloin steak, sliced thin
  • olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp paprika
  • 1 clove garlic
  • salt
  • large handful green beans
  • 2 small tomatoes
  • 1 avocado
  • a squeeze of lemon
  • small handful cilantro
  • hot sauce
  • sourdough bread

Crush the garlic and mix with a glug of olive oil, the paprika, and a good pinch of salt. Marinade the meat for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, boil the green beans till tender and then julienne. Put them in a bowl and mix with some oil and salt. Slice the tomato and salt it too.

Fry the steak in a nonstick pan for a minute on each side, or until done as you like it. Cut into 1 inch slices. Toast the bread. Mash the avocado into a spread and add salt and a little lemon juice.

To assemble the sandwich, spread a slice of bread generously with avocado, then layer on steak, tomatoes, and green beans. Top with cilantro leaves and hot sauce. Enjoy your entry into the wonderful world of the Chilean sánguche…

Serves 2

Vietnamese bánh xèo might be the quintessential eating out food: seemingly designed to be served to order in a restaurant environment, these stuffed rice crêpes are a little finicky to put together at home. You need to have all of your fillings and herbs washed and prepped in advance, and then the crêpes themselves must be eaten as soon as they are cooked. Bánh xèo are thus not ideally suited to relaxed home cooking, especially if the cook wants to eat with her guests. Undeterred by the one-crêpe-at-a-time serving problem, I’ve made bánh xèo a few times, sucked in by their addictive combination of fresh leaves and soft, chewy pancake. I’m also a big fan of Viet dishes that involve wrapping things in lettuce and dipping into sauce – something about the do-it-yourself quality appeals in its tactility. And bánh xèo are actually quite easy to make – pouring the batter into a perfect circle takes a bit of practice, but unlike French crêpes, you don’t have to flip them. So once you commit to having everything chopped in advance, making bánh xèo offers almost instant sizzling gratification.

When I’ve eaten bánh xèo in restaurants, the filling has always been shrimp and pork, but I’ve read that in Vietnam there are many more variants. I’ll be able to research this important question later in the year when I go on my very exciting eating trip to Southeast Asia, but for now I have been experimenting with the wide world of Things One Could Put in Bánh Xèo. As is the way with such experiments, it has often been led by things I have in the fridge. This time, I hit on a combination of lop cheong and smoked tofu along with the traditional beansprouts and scallions.

I should say that I’m a bit obsessed with lop cheong (or lap xuong in Vietnam). This air-dried and cured Asian sausage is sweet and almost winey tasting, and often very fatty. It provides some of the unique flavour in Chinese sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf and it’s a great pantry staple. The first web page I ever made was about lop cheong: I was at a deathly dull class on web design and we were asked to make a mock up of a site for work. Most of my classmates seemed to have all their material ready to go but I was recently hired and didn’t have anything to use. Naturally, I made a website about sausages, and a sample page on lop cheong. I think the class leader thought I was taking the mickey, but I did end up making friends with the woman sitting next to me, who turned out to be a fellow fan of the Chinese sausage. Anyway, the point is that it should come as no surprise that I came up with the idea of adding this air-dried sweet sausage to my Vietnamese crêpes.

Bánh xèo with lop cheong and tofu

If you wanted to make this dish vegetarian, obviously just leave out the sausage and add more smoked tofu. It’s worth getting the smoked kind for both flavour and texture.

for crêpes

  • 1/4 cup yellow split mung beans, soaked for 30 mins
  • 1 1/2 cup coconut milk
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 cup rice flour
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp turmeric
  • vegetable oil

for fillings

  • 1 block smoked tofu
  • 5 lop cheong
  • 4 handfuls beansprouts
  • bunch of scallions

for wrapping

  • 1 lettuce
  • bunch of mint
  • bunch of cilantro
  • bunch of Thai basil

for dipping

  • 1 clove garlic
  • 2 tsps palm sugar
  • 2 Thai red chilies
  • 1 lime
  • 3 tbsp fish sauce

Firstly, you want to soak your mung beans. They only take a half hour and add a really nice nuttiness to the batter. This crêpe batter I learned from Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s Hot Sour Salty Sweet, a splendid book on Southeast Asian food cultures.

While you’re waiting for the mung beans to soften, make the nuoc cham dipping sauce.

Begin by pounding a small garlic clove in a mortar and pestle along with a chili. (You might want to chop the chile finely first to make life easier.) Next, add the palm sugar and pound until it becomes liquidy. It looks like a lot of sugar but  be generous: this amount is a minimum and you might well want more. Next add the fish sauce and a good glug of warm water. Stir to dissolve the sugar well. Now decant into a bowl and add the juice of a lime. Taste for flavour balance. You might find yourself adding more lime juice or more water. Set aside.

Now make the pancake batter. Put drained mung beans and coconut milk into a mini prep or small blender and process till smooth. (Don’t do this in a big food processor as it won’t work and will look disgusting. Trust me on this.) Move to a larger blender and add the water, rice flour, salt, sugar and turmeric and process till smooth again. Now sieve the batter to get rid of lumps and let stand for a half hour.

While you’re waiting, prepare the filling and toppings. Slice the lop cheong thinly and steam for 15 minutes. Chop the scallions and tofu. Wash the lettuce leaves, beansprouts and herbs. Put the greens on a plate for serving, and lay out the fillings close to the cooker.

Now you’re ready to make the crêpes. Heat a wok or non-stick frying pan to high and wipe the surface with a paper towel soaked in oil. Pour in 1/3 cup of batter and as you pour, lift and angle the pan to make the batter run into a circle. Put it back on the heat and distribute sausage, tofu and beansprouts over half the surface. Cover, turn down the heat to medium and cook for 3 minutes. The underside of the crêpe should be browning and a bit crispy, the top side soft and bubbled. Lift the crêpe onto a plate and fold in half.

Serve immediately as you cook them, for guests to wrap in lettuce and herbs.

Serves 4 for a main course, more for appetisers.

Recipe adapted from Hot Sour Salty Sweet.

There’s not much excitement in the produce aisle in January, but one thing that makes my heart beat a little faster is the brief season for Seville oranges. Here in the UK, I suspect people think of them mainly as a marmalade ingredient and find their short appearance in the shops plenty of time for a batch of preserves. But, while I love a good artisanal marmalade, I think of Seville oranges instead as bitter orange or naranja agria, a key ingredient in Cuban, Mexican and some other Latin American cuisines. They must have a longer season in the Americas, where they’re much more commonly found in stores, but here in northern Europe, we usually have to fake the flavour with a mix of lime and orange juice. So, when I see these rather ugly fruits in a basket in my local market, I fill a bag and start dreaming of Cuban mojo and Yucatecan heat. There isn’t a better way to beat the January blues…

Cuban pork chops with bitter orange mojo

For this recipe, I stuck to a traditional combination of bitter orange with pork: it’s quick, and I don’t need much persuasion to break out the pig. But this sauce perks up the flavour of just about anything – other meats like chicken or even beef, starchy vegetables like mashed potatoes or cassava, or as a vinaigrette on salads, green beans and so on.

  • 6 garlic cloves
  • a heaping teaspoon of cumin seeds
  • 3 bitter oranges, juiced
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 pork chops
  • a handful of fine green beans
  • cilantro for garnish

To make the mojo, chop the garlic, sprinkle salt on it and squash into a paste with your knife. Pound the cumin to a powder in a mortar and pestle. Heat the olive oil in a heavy bottomed pot and carefully sauté the garlic. You want it to colour just a touch. Add the cumin, a little more salt, and some pepper. When the cumin releases its scent, add the orange juice. Turn the heat up and whisk for a minute, then turn off the heat and let sit for 30 minutes or so. Test for salt one last time. You want to serve it coolish.

I kept the rest of the dish pretty simple: just season the the pork chops well and pan fry them in some more oil until they’re as done as you like them. Meanwhile, cook rice and steam the green beans for 5 minutes. Assemble the dish and pour delicious mojo over everything. Top with some chopped cilantro leaves.

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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