Monday, March 30, 2009

Tom yam kung: zing-zest-bang! (ต้มยำกุ้ง)

om yam kung is the ultimate Thai soup.
A liquid explosion of aromas it is Thailand's punchy answer to the more sedate charm or bouillabaisse.

Curiously enough, tom yam kung literally means boiled shrimp salad and that is what it in fact is.

There is really nothing to cooking it as long as you can get hold of right fresh ingredients.

  1. Bring water with galangal root, lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, Thai phrik khee noo chilies and some fried chili paste to boil.
  2. Add whatever seafood you have, some green beans and a few champignons. I sometimes embellish it with lotus roots but that might be slightly apocryphal. A glug of coconut milk at this stage turns your soup into the tom yum nam khon (ต้มยำน้ำข้น) variety.
  3. When it boils again, it is ready. Never overcook!
  4. Regulate saltiness with fish sauce.


Thai language school and translation agency in Bangkok, Thailand offering Thai, Chinese, English, Japanese, Russian and Laotian (Lao, Isarn, Isaan) language courses.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Negril @ Brixton: Jamaican classics remixed

There are so many reasons why one could love London. For some, it is a place to gain fame and fortune. For others, it is an endless source of entertainment. For me, London is an exciting place where ideas, influences, cultures and backgrounds converge, collide and thus the new is born.

Sometimes new is upgraded old. There is nothing wrong with that. Many remixes sound way better than original versions. Food in my neighbourhood star eatery Negril is just like that: enlightened versions of old Jamaican classics.

I discovered
this place last December. Driving back from Brighton I heard Floyd cackling, "He-he-he, look at what those brothers came up with!" Although Wikipedia says that Negril is a beach resort in Jamaica, I like Floyd's version of "Negro grill" better.

On a cold spring day
three months later, Floyd popped by on a layover to Texas. After watching the sunset from Brockwell Hill, we went for a walk around the daintier parts of Brixton where swarms of Victorian and Edwardian architecture have somehow managed to escape the latter-day "development". This is how we stumbled over Negril again. The temptation of a nice spicy meal to warm up our chilled bones was irresistible.

We went for Jamaican classics. Floyd had half a jerk chicken with fried plantain (£
10.95), yours truly - salted fish with ackee (£6.95) and roti (£2.25). I was half curious and half apprehensive about my order - can bacalao be really turned into something nice? - but the friendly proprietress let me try a bit of it. I was converted on the spot. Creamy from stewed ackee and intensely flavourful from fresh thyme, never had lowly cod tasted so delicious. Floyd's chicken was lean, smoky and spicy, the plantains: crunchy on the outside, nicely cooked on the inside and, most importantly, very light on oil.

I am very sensitive to details. One thing off and my dining experience can be ruined On the other hand, nice touches can make my day. In Negril I noticed quite a few.
  1. It is not common at all that you can try food before ordering. I really appreciate this. It also show how (rightly) confident they are about their cooking.
  2. They use free-range chicken. I'm far away from my vegan animal rightist days, I just think that eating a bird that could happily roam around is much better for your health.
  3. When we entered the waiter turned down the music to the just-right unobtrusive background level.
  4. There a lot of deliciously sounding vegan (ital) entries, so no headaches when inviting veg(etari)an mates for a dinner out.
  5. I saw the waiter polishing glasses over a tub of steaming hot water - the kind of finesse you expect in much pricier establishments.
  6. There is a spacious terrace with proper chairs and tables outside. I will definitely come here again on a sunny day!
Pro's: See the above numbered list.
Con's: A 10-minute uphill walk from the Tube station.
In a nutshell: Great remix of best Jamaican goldies with a generous touch of urban sophistication.

Negril, 132 Brixton Hill, 0208 674 8798

* * * * *
One of the cheerful chefs who is behind the creation of all this delectable goodness:

Friday, March 27, 2009

Poiré: French pear cider

hoa, this smells like pears!" Floyd's first gulp of what he thought was cider ends up in a surprise. Not an unpleasant one at that.

Poiré is cider's less known cousin. Also known as perry or pear cider, predictably, it is made from pears. In France it is only 2 percent alcohol as opposed to cider's 5, although British perries can be as strong as 8.
I discovered it by accident shopping for regular apple cider in Brittany, although Mantilly in Norman department of Orne is the unofficial capital of poiré in France.

A distinction needs to be made between real perry and commercial perries. The former is produced to strict standards and uses natural ingredients and brewing techniques allowing no additives. On the other hand, commercial varieties are full of enhancers that do nothing but messing with the original taste to make more marketable to the masses.

Real perry is made from tart sorts of pears rich in tannin (the substance responsible for the astringent taste of red wine), which are not meant for eating. It has a somewhat sharp, dry taste. Because of its low alcohol content I use poiré as a picnic booze to accompany salads.

Bulmers pear cider is heavily advertised all around London these days. I am very curious to try it and share my impressions.

Divo: a quest fulfilled

ussian food notoriously does not lend itself to restaurant cooking. Laborious time-consuming recipes involve lots of handwork and are normally reserved for home use. Having lived all my adult years away from Russia, I went on my quest for a real Russian meal from Japan to Bulgaria but it only brought me disappointment each and every time. There is always something terribly off, be it watered down recipes, substituted ingredients, liberally invented dishes, or the horror of it all: the replicated fare of a Soviet workers' canteen. Even in Moscow, which these days may boast fine restaurants representing nearly every corner of the world, Russian food is mostly limited to house parties coming from the loving hands of mothers, wives or sisters.

I was not expecting to fall over myself when I went to Divo, a Russian-Ukrainian restaurant on Waterloo Place, 12. The exuberantly sumptuous interior, reminiscent of fin-de-siècle rich merchant houses in Kiev and Odessa, suggested more a beau-monde hangout rather than a culinary-oriented experience. The fully-stocked giant bar with sleek bartenders and hip house music downstairs only seemed to confirm my fears.

Olga and me tried to put the first impression past us and ordered each different dish to try as many as possible. Olga is a professional business psychologist from an uppity Saint-Petersburg family and is very picky about food so I was very curious about her forthcoming verdict.

For the starters, we had two grande dames of the Russian festive table: "herring in a coat"(£6.50), and "olivier" (£7.50). The former is a salad consisting of layers of finely slivered salted herring, beet roots, boiled potatoes, carrot and boiled eggs spliced with mayonnaise. My Mom also adds peeled apples but Divo's version was none less tasty. The latter, "olivier" is a mix of diced boiled potatoes, carrots, meat, pickles and peas bound in the ubiquitous mayonnaise. To the credit of Divo's chefs, they substituted the horrendous Soviet bologna sausage, which Olga thinks is indispensable to the dish (Shock! Olga how could you?!), with lean chicken breast. Also, to celebrate olivier's noble origins in the Hermitage, one of Moscow's most refined restaurants of the 1860s, they top it with red caviar.

A traditional Russian or Ukrainian meal always features soup but we were glad we did not order any because the volume proved enough to feed your average Slavic bloke. That is a trademark feature of our cuisines: we may be drinking cultures but we do get together to eat before we drink. And the amount of food should match the copious amounts of vodka that will be flowing later.

For the mains, I had bliny stuffed with sautéed button mushrooms (£4.50 - technically, it's a hot starter, hence the price). Doused in creamy and unctuous sauce béchamel, it's a hark-back to the finery of the 19th century's Franco-Russian cuisine. Olga had duck oven-baked with apples (£20.50), or rather the enlightened low-fat version of it, probably a bow to the latter-days health-conscious tendencies. Cooked à point, delicate slices of duck breast are drizzled with cranberry sauce.

When the dessert arrived, Olga threw the towel in so I had to work on both. Varenyky, boiled dumplings with cherries (£15.00), are a Ukrainian speciality. I really liked it that they were served with a much leaner than usual whipped crème fraîche. A nice touch! Our waitress kindly explained what a struggle it was for the chef to source the right kind of cherries, the same as they use for this dish in Ukraine. Olga's choice was something I never expected to see in a restaurant: Russian Napoleon cake (£7.50). It takes at least 24 hours to soak the wafer-thin layers of puff crust in custard cream. Napoleon is considered the ultimate Mamma treat and that is perhaps why Russian pastry chefs never bother to bake it.

It appears Divo also offers quite a fancy European fare but this time we wanted to focus on Russian/Ukrainian favourites.

Pro's: Leaner versions of Eastern Slavic classics. Home-baked bread.

Con's: You won't hear this from me very often but this time I found nothing to pick on.

Summary: The closest approximation to Russian home cooking I could find so far.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Chorizo colombiano: a gutful of goodness

on't let me anywhere close a food market! I just received a shipment of exotic foods from Amsterdam - 3 packs of REAL tempeh, dry gado-gado sauce and a bag of quinoa among oodles of other goodies, but I still went to Brixton market and committed a careless thing. On my way home I happened on something I could not resist. At 80 p a pop how could I? This time it was chorizo colombiano, home-made Colombian sausage.

The people at the shop did not seem very willing to divulge the secrets of their trade, so the only thing I found out about chorizo colombiano that it is made of half pork, half beef with garlic and herbs.

Some things need no additional touches. This sausage is one of them: it's chunky succulency only takes a quick fry and some garnish, arroz con coco (coconut rice) and ensalata mixta. This chorizo is hand-made at the butcher's, so unlike its cousins of factory provenance, meat in it occurs in discernible chunks. As you cut through the sausage, out bursts a heady aroma of garlic and fresh coriander followed by surprising quantities of rich juice.

I first took out a bottle of red but then change my mind in favour of some gorgeous Chilean white. This Pedro Jimenez from Chile's Coquimbo Valley has a fresh vigorous taste with a final nose of passion fruit. It goes perfectly with the herby fragrance of chorizo colombiano.

Carniceria Los Andes, 1st Avenue, Brixton Market, London.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Mrs. Doubtfire's chocolate sponge: the art of frugal trickery

call this a Mrs. Doubtfire dessert. If you have no inkling about the art of patisserie you can still surprise your guests.

This principle works with almost any commercially available ready-made dessert. The principle is that anything can be improved with:
  • chocolate,
  • nuts,
  • berries/fruit,
  • alcohol.
The original product, a one-quid sponge from Lidl, which by the way does carry some better quality products than most mid-range chains, already contained chocolate. I only had to add
  • some peeled pistachios,
  • some pitted cherries,
  • a glub rhum,
  • a sprig of mint - I was in a rush so I totally forgot to add but I know you won't!
This way you achieve the sour-and-sweet balance, the alcohol cuts off any last trace of greasiness and the nuts add the crunch and the flavour. I have been practising this kind of trickery for about 15 years now and it never fails to impress.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Hui Sup tea: the drying by drinking paradox (去濕茶)

am always on the lookout for new herbal teas. This time I spotted this bag in a Chinese supermarket. Its strange name was what caught my eye: Dehydrating Tea (去濕茶) .

Now you drink tea to replenish liquid in your body, not the other way around. I consulted my Singaporean friend Han-sheng, aka Hon-sang, if you choose to call him in his native Cantonese. He is an accomplished graphic designer and a very erudite man, versed in both Oriental and Western cultures.

According to him, the Chinese drink this herbal tea in summer, when our water intake understandably increases. As a result, our yin aspect, the moist and inactive element, goes up. This makes us feel battered and listless.
Hui Sup tea (去濕茶) is made of herbs that increase the dry and vigorous yang aspect without depriving our body of the essential liquid. Quite a trick , isn't it: drying up by drinking?

"So what do you do living on the equator, where the summer never ends?", I kept quizzing. "We just drink it year around." There is no outwitting the Chinese.

For those of you who can't get hold of it where you live but want to fix a yang-boosting infusion themselves here's the ingredients breakdown:
  • Artemisia capillaris (20%)
  • Flos gossampini (30%)
  • Flos puerariae (17%)
  • Rhizoma dioscoreae (13%)
  • Honeysuckle (7%)
  • Juncus effusus (4%)
  • Rhizoma alismatis (9%)
Bombax ceiba or wood cotton flowers (木綿花) can also be added to the mix as they clear excessive heat from the internal organs and help regulate the kidney function.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Lemon and pepper flavoured Greenland shrimp

hen I was a kid, this was our extended family's pastime: three generations would gather around the table over a huge bowl of steaming Greenland shrimp. The grown-ups would have beer, the children had to do with lemonade.

This kind of shrimp is sold cooked and frozen so you only need to re-heat it. Make sure not to overdo otherwise the meat will become rubbery. Greenland deep-water shrimp is naturally much sweeter yet less chewy than any other kind of shrimp. Just like with lobster, it is paramount not to overpower it with condiments or excessive cooking.

I just squeeze a lemon and add its ground zest as well as a very generous grind of black pepper. Or you can fix it the French way, crevette mayonnaise. And luckily, I can have it with beer now. Adult life does have its advantages!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Miso shiru: a Japanese staple (みそ汁)

There is no going about it: the base ingredient for this soup, miso paste, looks dodgy. Real dodgy. It is made from fermented beans and ground rice and it only takes a tablespoonful for a bowl of delicately aromatic broth.

A Japanese staple on par with European toasted bread, miso shiru is soup that can be served with any meal.

It is hard to call this cooking but here is the recipe anyway:

  1. Put a 5-6 cm piece of kombu into a pot with cold water and put the pot on medium fire.
  2. When the water is close to boiling take out the kombu. Let the water boil and reduce the heat.
  3. You can also skip steps 1 and 2 by simply adding katsuobushi extract to boiling water. Alternatively, use water wherein dried shiitake mushrooms were soaking overnight.
  4. Scoop miso paste (about 1 tbsp per cup of water) and mix it with a cup of hot stock. Make sure there are no clumps left.
  5. Pour the mix back into the pot. Turn off the heat.
  6. When you add make sure there is not more one strong-tasting (negi) and one mild-tasting (tofu, daikon, wakame) ingredient. Also one should be sinking and the other should be floating. Cluttering your miso soup with too many is against Japanese aesthetics.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Feel like a real Londoner: Rock & Sole Plaice

White-haired and softly articulate, Barry is an accomplished writer, cross-cultural trainer and broadcaster. But even more importantly, he is a born-and-bred Londoner, a rare breed these days. I couldn't think of a better person to recommend a good chippie, fish and chips shop. Today, to celebrate the last day of our training, he took us to Rock & Soul Plaice, reputedly the Big Smoke's oldest, established in 1871.

On a sunny day the pickings were slim on the terrace, but it is none less enjoyable inside thanks to the wall-size windows. There is a typical choice of deep-fried cod, halibut and skate on the menu but, on Barry's advice, I ordered a London-only treat of fish cakes and fried cod roe. It's £5.50 for one, £6.50 for two - guess how many I went for! If you order the same to take away and without chips, it's mere £1.50! Who said multinational chains have unbeatable prices?

The fish cakes are pleasantly lean and mildly herby, but I like the fried cod roe even more, it's much smoother and gentler. Although deep-fried food is by far not at the top of my list, this is probably as good this English classic ever gets.

Funnily enough, all the staff seem to be foreign in this traditional shops but then again it's typical London for you too!

Rock & Soul Plaice, 47 Endell Street, Covent Garden, London WC2H 9AJ

Friday, March 20, 2009

Young Cheng: the Neither-Nor Land

Contrary to what you might think Young Cheng Restaurant on Shaftsbury Avenue was not named after the Chinese youth who founded it back in 1993.

In fact, it's the Chinese nickname for Guangzhou City. So there is a clue: here you get mainly Cantonese fare.

It is easy to write ecstatic or indignant reviews: words just flow and flow. With Young Cheng neither is the case. The lamb and ginger hot plate and lemon-crusted shrimp we had were... okay, I guess. There was really nothing to tip the balance between good and bad here to the either side. Just one thing: the portions were quite smallish. But then the rice bowl was just big enough to make good for that. The seating was crammed but the service was prompt. For every minor drawback there was a tiny compensation, freezing the overall experience in the twilight limbo of nothingness. Even the bill was neither cheap nor hefty.

All in all, it falls into place with all my impression of London's Chinatown so far that fluctuates somewhere between hideous and utterly forgettable. There might be some great Chinese restaurants there but I am yet to discover them.

And as always, the dinner was saved by delightful company. Rie is a multilingual business culture trainer. For all her stellar education and career, she is a spiritual person. It is so much fun talking to her, switching between languages and topics from reincarnation and pantheism to branding and. Driven and passionate, she's the exact opposite of neither-nor. Next time we will find some place that won't block me for words to describe it.

Young Cheng Restaurant, 76 Shaftesbury Avenue, London, W1D 6ND Tel: 0871 0759124

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Khao pad talay:Thai seafood fried rice (ข้าวผัดทะเล)

Thai seafood riceThai fried seafood rice - khao phat thalay (ข้าวผัดทะเล) - is a main course in its own right. It was the second dish after sushi that had lured me away from my dogged vegetarianism back in Bangkok.

It is a true magic how you can turn leftover rice from yesterday into a gorgeous meal. But fear not, the magic is actually quite simple and does not even cost much.
  1. Chop and peel half a head of garlic.
  2. Wash well and chop a small Chinese cabbage and half a bunch of pak bung (kangkong) or kai lan (Chinese broccoli) into 3-4-cm pieces.
  3. If you don't have rice from yesterday, cook it afresh but add less water than usual.
  4. As it always goes, heat a thick-bottomed wok. If you don't have one, buy it: it has been known to turn mediocre cooks into kitchen geniuses.
  5. Depending on how much rice you have, add a few tablespoonfuls of odourless vegetable oil. As a rule of thumb, it's about one tablespoonful per 2 cups of rice.
  6. When the oil is hot, add chopped garlic and a few dried anchovies. Fry until the garlic is golden brown.
  7. For every two cups of rice add one cup of fresh seafood: shrimp, squid rings, baby octopuses, shelled mussels and clams, anything you have.
  8. Add the chopped vegetables, a couple of beaten eggs and a generous glog of fish sauce.
  9. When the eggs have just curdled, add the rice and mix gently but thoroughly.
  10. Fry until the rice is hot and has absorbed all the liquid in the wok.
  11. Serve as in the picture above: with spring onions, chopped fresh coriander, fresh lime and fish sauce chili dip.


Thai language school and translation agency in Bangkok, Thailand offering Thai, Chinese, English, Japanese, Russian and Laotian (Lao, Isarn, Isaan) language courses.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Gari foto: West African polenta

Yesterday I was rummaging the shelves of an ethnic grocer in West Norwood. Some object to using the word 'ethnic' but how else can you describe a store that carries Indian, Middle Eastern, African and Caribbean food. I call this kind of shops "serendipity outlets": they always have something amazing in store for you.

This time a bag saying GARI on it caught my eye. It turned out to be a sort of cassava cereal. How could I resist the temptation!

The recipe is very simple:
  1. Moisten 2 cups of gari with half a cup of water. Let it sit in the bowl.
  2. Peel and chop 2 onions. Fry them in a pot until soft.
  3. Add 2 peeled and chopped tomatoes and 1 tbsp tomato paste. Add some salt. Fry a few more minutes.
  4. Fold the moistened gari into the mix until its pink colour and turn the heat off.
Voilà, here's gari foto for you! The colour of a gentle sunrise, in West Africa it is common breakfast dish.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Baked yam: simple pleasures of life

amn, this is NOT a carrot!" But I just won't have it. It looks and tastes like a baked carrot!

Of course, Floyd knows better. Hailing from Tennessee he was brought up on yam, aka sweet potatoes. In the Soviet Union,
yams were not a part of our menu: we had to sustain mostly on frozen cabbage out of toilet bowls (joke!). At any rate, this is my first encounter: under the starry Malaysian sky, in the midst of cool and foggy Cameron Highlands. The night is young. We pick baked veggies from the bonfire ashes: potatoes and these, what think are carrots.

There is really nothing to add to a baked yam, just some butter and salt, the Southern way. Wash it well, rub with a wee tad of oil and bake it in the oven or microwave. When it is soft, it's ready. I scoop out the sweet flesh with a spoon. You can also serve it as a perfect side dish for a Southern or African meal.

This is where I lost my yam virginity:

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Russian salmon roe sandwich (бутерброд с красной икрой)

Russians who have a very good (affluent) life are said to have "enough money to put butter and ikra on your bread". Ikra can means both salmon roe or caviar. I can't have caviar too often, but thanks to visiting friends and family I have a steady source of salmon roe. It used to be one of the most sought-after delicacies in the USSR's product deficit economy. Along with black "Volga" sedans and smoked salami, it was a status symbol of the Soviet nomenklatura. My parents did not belong to the number, so my Dad had to go to great lengths to make sure we would have some on the table at least for the New Year's. I still remember how wonderful these fishy drops of goodness tasted, a rare, very special treat.

These days ikra is a frequent guest on the tables of the Russian middle class. It is not cheap but if you want some you can just buy it in the supermarket. Mom and Dad are retired now and their cat Musya is very fond of it. We like to laugh now that in the olden days the Communists must have eaten it all up so that nobody else would have it.

I upgraded the traditonal Russian salmon roe sandwich by halving the butter amount and using it to grill the bread. I find the contrast of the crunchy crust and unctuous roe is highly delectable.

Moules à la bretonne: Breton mussles with oven-baked potato chips

first tried mussels when I was 6. On my last pre-school vacation in the Crimea, my Mom made friends with a Muscovite couple who spent their whole summer living in a tent on top of a seaside cliff. The husband had an aqualung that he used to swim to an underwater rock far in the open sea and pick wild mussels. Then they would cook them on a bonfire and wash it down with beer. I wasn't really impressed with this Robinson Crusoe culinary. The mussels on their own are too bland and the Muscovites tended to overcook them for food safety reasons.

It was much later in my life that I discovered how to cook mussels. It's a breeze. First make the taste base.Then steam well-washed mussels in it. As soon as the shells open, they are ready to serve!

More often than not I fix them à la marinière but this time I used a different recipe I picked up on my trip to Brittany: à la bretonne, the Breton way. There is a disagreement as per what constitutes Breton style. In St. Malô I had a bit of an argument with the proprietress of a brasserie we had lunch at. I wanted my Breton mussels aux lardons (with fried bacon specks) but she insisted aux oignons. We concurred however that there will be crème in it.

When back home, I dug myself into cookbooks and culinary encyclopaedia and discovered that there is a great variety of opinions on the subject. Some even claim that the recipe requires an andouille (chitterling suasage). Oh, c'mon! Why not stuff then a whole chicken in the pot and douse it with a gallon of cider, really, why not?

At any rate, I used my own impression of everything I saw of Breton cuisine in Brittany and created this wonderful recipe. It seems long but, in fact, is very simple and quick:
  1. Before you even get down to the mussels, pre-heat the oven to 220 degrees. If you use a gas oven, cover the vents with aluminium foil to prevent burning.
  2. Wash and cut 6-8 unpeeled potatoes into thick pieces (see the picture above).
  3. Mix a glug of olive oil, a smidgen of honey, a dash of aceto balsamico bianco, some freshly ground pepper and some sea salt.
  4. Drizzle the potatoes with the mix. Line on the oven grid making sure there is some enough space between them for the hot air.
  5. Wash well 2 kg mussels. De-beard, if necessary. Discard open ones.
  6. Peel and chop one onion.
  7. Melt a blob of butter in a big pot (I have a special one for mussels only, very handy and highly recommended!). Give it a nice grind of black pepper.
  8. Fry about 125 g smoked bacon and half the medium-sized onion until fragrant.
  9. Reduce the heat and add the rest of the onion. Sweat for a few minutes.
  10. Turn up the heat and add the mussels. Keep stirring to make sure all shells get exposed to the heat equally.
  11. Add a cup of single cream and a cup of white wine or cider. Wait until it boils, reduce the heat to minimum and allow to simmer for the alcohol to slowly evaporate. Stir the mussels to let them get drenched with the mix.
  12. Serve hot with the oven-baked potatoes.
At the bottom of the pot you have a most delicious seafood broth, unctuous, luscious and slightly smoky with a heady flavour of white wine or cider, whichever you choose to use. The potato chips come out lean and deliciously brown from the honey. You shall never want to go back to the deep-fried monstrosity any more.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Winter treat: Apple cinnamon infusion tea

There is a strict 3PM caffeine curfew for me. I can't have even regular tea past that deadline else I stay awake with my eyes glowing in the dark until next morning. This is how I got into the habit of buying herbal teas wherever I go.

This apple cinnamon infusion is produced by Lipton but I saw it on sale only in France. It is a perfect companion to a warm blanket and a nice book on a cold winter evening.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Mapo dofu (麻婆豆腐): numbing hot Szechuan stew

Talking about Chinese cuisine is like talking about European cuisine ignoring the difference between, say, Norwegian, French, Polish and Greek food. In China, culinary varies enormously from region to region. On my first trip to China, I would move on to a new place every 2-3 days and I could never get the same food that I liked in the city before. A weirdly enjoyable kind of frustration.

There are eight main cuisines in China if we leave ethnic varieties like Tibetan or Uighur as well as urban fusion styles from Beijing or Shanghai out of the equation. One of the Eight Great Traditions is that of Sichuan (Szechuan).

It hails from the Southwest of China and is the spiciest of them all. There is even a special word for Szechuan kind of spiciness, numbing hot: 麻 (má). This comes from the use of
the so-called Szechuan pepper - dried flowers of a special tree that however is not related either to black pepper or chili peppers. They cause a mild numbing sensations to the taste buds.

Mapo dofu is perhaps the most famous Szechuan dish. I first tried it in Japan but my real encounter with it took place in Laos. The country's capital Vientiane is more of an oversized village with a handful of colonial French buildings. Laotian people love, nay, can only eat spicy food so the scraggy man from Chengdu who runs the only Szechuan restaurant in a thatched shack never runs out of customers.

Those were still my vegetarian days so after short negotiations in broken Chinese and Laotian he agreed to cook mapo tofu in front of me. Here I will share his recipe with you. It can be made either vegetarian or with meat.

The basic requirements for this dish are that it should be: numbing hot (麻), spicy hot (), hot temperature (烫), fresh (鲜), tender and soft (嫩), aromatic (香) (aromatic) and flaky (酥). This is achieved with a succession of the following.

  1. Cut a medium sized aubergine into longish (5-6 cm) slivers and put on a plate to dry.
  2. Cut a 400-500 g block of hard tofu into 1 cm cubes. Allow to drain and dry a bit.
  3. Heat a thick-bottomed pot or wok. Add 4 tbsp odourless vegetable oil and wait until it's hot.
  4. Add the tofu, gently stir and make sure it's all covered by oil.
  5. While the tofu is frying , peel and slice a few cloves of garlic.
  6. Once the tofu is blonde yellow, scoop it out in a bowl and add garlic to the oil.
  7. Once garlic is golden yellow, add half a teaspoonful of Szcechuan pepper, one tsp of white and one tsp of black sesame. Fry briefly until fragrant.
  8. (This is optional but I really love this touch: add 5-6 pre-soaked and julienned dried shiitake and fry until they start giving out flavour.)
  9. (Also optional but it gives the dish a smokey flvaour: add a nice dash of qingjiang vinegar and let it boil out.)
  10. Add 100 g minced meat: pork, veal or beef. Fry briefly until it's not red any more. Make sure it does not end up chunky. Vegetarians: use pre-soaked TSP (texturised soya protein) mince and soya sauce instead of fish sauce.
  11. Add the aubergines and fry for another 5 minutes. Add the tofu.
  12. Dissolve 2 tablespoonfuls corn starch in half a litre of water. Add into the pot and gently mix.
  13. Add 4 tablespoonful of doubanjiang and a glug of fish sauce and a glug of Chinese rice wine. Gently mix. Bring to boil, then reduce the heat.
  14. Add a handful of bean sprouts and half a handful of pre-soaked golden needles.
  15. Allow to simmer for 15-20 minutes more on a very low heat. Allow all the juices to dissolve and mix. It is even better to let the stew sit on the stove for an hour or so.
  16. Serve with freshly cooked rice.
It is very easy to make it veg(etari)an: use TSP (texturised soya protein) mince and soya sauce instead of fish sauce.

et Sa Ding Ding's Mantra accompany this fragrant meal:

Turkish sweets (Türk tatlılar)

he other day I was in Shepherd's Bush and happened upon an Afghani grocer. The owners have lived in Moscow in the mid-90s so we had a nice chat in Russian. They had all kinds of amazing stuff among which I recognised a familiar sight.

The translucent ones are chewy and called lokum. The speckled white blob is full of spices and called macun. They all are very sweet and taste great with black coffee.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Abenkwan: Ghanaian palm nut soup with foufou

Abenkwan: Ghanaian palm nut soup with foufou recipeGive me head!" I point to a coolbox with freshly cut salmon heads. My fishmonger laughs. "What good is one, take two!" An excellent point. And I am so glad his English is not on the idiomatic level yet.

Even before I get down to cooking, I derive a huge kick from shopping for African ingredients in Brixton Market. Now I only need to buy some garden eggs and okra to fix abenkwan, Ghanaian palm nut soup. It is popular throughout West Africa and known as ngonya mosaka or mbanga in Cameroon, amiedi or obey-ekpo in Nigeria, moambé in the Congo, banga in Sierra Leone and nyembwe in Gabon.

The main ingredient that defines the flavour of abenkwan is palm nut oil. Without the oil you end up with a generic stew. It is squeezed out of boiled fruit of Elaeis guineensis. I go for convenience and buy ready-made one. It is imported from Ghana, so as authentic as it gets.

I have been fascinated with the cuisines of the Cradle of the Humankind ever since I heard a song by a New Yorikan poetess Dana Bryant. It was titled Food, an ode to home-made meals that trace their lineage back to "five thousand years of history on the Nigerian countryside". The tastes and flavours of the places I have never been to, what can be more exciting! So here we go, abenkwan soup with foufou! Yeeppie-ho!

The recipe is simple:
  1. Fry 3 tablespoonfuls of palm nut oil in a pan for about 10 minutes. Traditional recipe calls for a whole cup but here I prefer to give precedence to post-modern health-conscious trends.
  2. Add one chopped onion and one de-seeded chili and fry 10 minutes on medium heat.
  3. Add meat or fish that you use and fry it until fragrant.
  4. Add okra, garden eggs and tomatoes and stir-fry briefly.
  5. Pour cold water until it covers everything and bring to boil. Reduce heat and allow to simmer 10-15 more minutes. The traditional recipe requires a whole day of sitting on hot coals but I think in the olden days it was more about food safety.
  6. Mix foufou flour with water: half a cup flour with 3/4 cup water. Knead well. Make dough balls the size of a regular meat ball. Add to the simmering soup. Cook 5-8 more minutes.
It comes our robust, unctuous and flavourful. Thank you, Mama Afrika!

Here is some nice music to accompany this gorgeous meal: