Wednesday, April 29, 2009

How to cook rice the Asian way - moist and fluffy (ご飯の炊き方)

I remember how surprised I was to taste fluffy unsalted rice served at my Japanese teacher's place. It was almost two decades ago and then I only knew the traditional Russian way of making an uninspired and not very popular side dish of it: by cooking it into salty semi-gruel.

Seeing my appreciative amazement, Che Cheun Suni-sensei (she was, well, still is, of Korean descent) was kind enough to teach me the secrets of real Asian rice. Later I learnt many more from my Thai, Chinese and Japanese friends. I will share this unwritten Asian wisdom with you.

First of all, you need to find the right kind of rice. There are three main types of rice used in Asian cuisines:

1) short-grained Japonica;
2) long-grained Indica;
3) glutinous or sticky rice.

Japonica and Indica are cooked the same way, except Japonica, which because of its higher protein content benefits from soaking for half an hour beforehand. Sticky rice is altogether another kettle of fish, I will deal with it separately.

Finding good quality rice can be a doozy. It all looks white and grainy and how the heck do you know the difference? There are so many producers and varieties out there. Some brands and types are pretty actually pretty bad and best be avoided. Your supermarket shelving boys will, in all likelihood, just stare blankly if you ask them what rice is the best, so you be better off going straight to
people actually who deal in it - ethnic grocery shopkeepers. I did my rice research in Brixton and I am very happy with the results. I advise that you do the same.

nce you have found the right kind, it is time to get down to cooking. This is how you do it:
  1. Normally, about 160 ml dry rice (a small cup) is enough for one good helping for one person. Multiply that by the number of expected diners.
  2. Rinse the rice 7 times in running cold water until it runs clear. This is to remove the starch and ensure that cooked grains do not stick together. There are also other opinions about why we need to do that.
  3. Cover there ice with cold water. The old-fashioned Korean way is to stick your finger upright in the rice and fill as much water as there is rice using your finger at the yardstick.
  4. If you use a rice-cooker, use the measure cup and follow the notches on the inside the cooking bowl. You will need to make adjustments though depending on the altitude and humidity. For example, in the humid maritime climate of Amsterdam my house sits 3 metres below sea level, therefore I fill the rice-cooker with water a couple of millimetres below the designated notch.
  5. If you use short-grained Japonica, let the rice soak for half an hour. If you use long-grained Indica, proceed to cooking.
  6. If you use a rice-cooker, just choose the desired cooking mode. Sit back and watch some crap on TV, your job is done. Otherwise proceed to Step 7.
  7. Put the pot with rice and water on high fire and bring to boil. Turn the heat to low. If you use an electric stove, turn the heat to low BEFORE it starts boiling.
  8. Let the rice to gently simmer and steam away. Now it is your chance to learn to bridle your curiosity as, under no circumstances, you are to open the lid and see what is going on. The rice is steaming now and letting the steam out will interfere with the process.
  9. Depending on the amount of rice, humidity, altitude and such, it takes about 15-20 minutes for the rice to get steamed. The rice-cooker will switch off automatically but if you cook rice in a pot you will know it is ready by the dryish, nutty smell of rice starting to get seared where it touches the pot. The trick is to stop the cooking process right there before it get actually burned. If you use an electric stove you will need to turn the heat off a few minutes earlier or completely remove the pot from the stove.
  10. After you've turned the heat off, let the rice to sit about 10 more minutes. This is yet another opportunity to learn how to keep your curiosity in check.
  11. When you open the lid you will see what the Japanese call the kani no ana, crab holes, in the rice, because the look exactly like the holes that sea crabs makes in the beach sand. It's the first sign of a correctly cooked rice. It means that you did not put too much water and turned it into mashy gruel.
  12. Now, gently fluff the rice with a wooden spatula. The rice grains will not be sticking (too much) to each other.
  13. If at the bottom of the pot you find an aromatic brownish rice crust, feel free to come and collect your prize at the Ricecookers Hall of Fame! This crust, called koge in Japanese and tahdeeg in Farsi, is a sought-after delicacy in a number of cultures. Iranians are even known to serve it separately as a dish in its own right.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Jjam-bong: udon, Korean style (매운우동)

Long before people in Korea and Japan started calling themselves Korean and Japanese, people in Nagasaki and Pusan knew that culturally they had more in common with each other than with their respective political capitals in Edo (Tokyo) and Seoul. One of the things they shared was this dish, jjambong or champon. It is served as soup that comes in a multitude of flavours and accompanying goodies.

I fix it the Korean way. It takes exactly 15 minutes and costs under 1 quid to fix a flavourful, healthy and delicious lunch. This is how it goes.
  1. Slice thinly a couple of pre-soaked shiitake. I normally keep some soaked shiitake in the fridge so that I always have it handy. Feel free to follow my suit.
  2. Next thing is to soak black kikurage, white kikurage and golden needles 20 g each in water for at least 20 minutes. I f you can't get hold of those, just skip this step.
  3. Then peel and slice a few cloves of garlic.
  4. Heat a frying pan, add 1 tbsp odourless vegetable oil. Sprinkle some black and white sesame (third a teaspoonful each), wait until it starts sizzling.
  5. Fry the garlic in the pan until fragrant (light yellow in colour), then add 3 very finely sliced medium onions. When those are nice and fragrant too, add the sliced shiitake. Fry until the mushrooms are fragrant too.
  6. In the meantime, bring to boil exactly how much water you need for your udon. I use the bowl you can see on the picture as the measure.
  7. When the water boils, add one pack of udon. Bring to boil again, reduce the heat and simmer for a couple of minutes.
  8. Tip the frying pan into the sauce pan and add the kikurage, golden needles, and half a handful of whatever leafy vegetables you have: spinach, pakchoi, kangkong, Chinese broccoli. Dissolve 1 tbsp gochujang in the broth. You will need to find this delicious chilli paste as it is defines the taste of the whole dish.
  9. Let boil for a minute or so. Mind that the udon does not get overdone, it should be cooked just one notch beyond al dente.
  10. Serve with a sprinkle of chopped spring onions.
This spicy dish, also known as jjam-bong (짬뽕) if cooked with thinner noodles, when consumed regularly is known to boost your sexual drive.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Bi Won: or Be Warned and read the fine script

ndreas is a German volcanologist who has spent a lot of time in New Zealand walking into craters and analysing billion-year-old rocks. He also happens to be my neighbour in Brixton. Today we went to celebrate his imminent assignment in Singapore. As he knows the true meaning of hot", I thought I would take him to a Thai restaurant.

But as we walked around London from Southbank to Russell Square enjoying the sunny day, we stumbled upon a Korean place, Bi Won. Bibimbap - that is a magic word for me. Andreas did not mind. It was one hour before the dinner opening time but I betted with Andreas that Koreans would open the place a few minutes earlier. It is amazing how what Confucius said 2,500 years ago still matters to them.

I was right. Ten minutes to six the shop was open and ready to feed anyone with enough quid in their pocket.

We both went for a bibimbap set in a hot claypot (
£9.50). Served on a plate that would be 1 pound cheaper but what the heck, claypots are nice. I was a tad disappointed that the bibimbap served would be a plain one. The sunchae kind, archetypal for Korean cuisine, with toraji (bellflower root) and kosari (fiddleheads), that you always get in any Korean restaurant worth its kimchi was not to be had in Bi Won. Well, I should have read the menu more carefully.

"Well", I told Andreas, "at least we get to taste all little panchan, Korean pickles and salads that come in wee bowls to accompany the bibimbap." That way, what is essentially a bowl of rice topped with veggies and a few stripes of meat, becomes a satisfying meal. We happily dug into our bibimbap bowls, letting the raw egg get cooked by the heat of the clay pot and the crust form where the rice touches the pot. Well worth the extra quid. But my heart was crying out for the panchan that still was not arriving. I reminded the proprietress of it. Her steely look told me the truth even before she put it in words.

Eat your heart out. They only serve panchan at lunch. Phew! I felt I let Andreas down. Polite as ever, he kept dutifully explore his pot. The volcanologist in him did show as he carefully avoided the fiery gochujang.

Two grown men won't get full from two bowls of rice, no matter how great it may taste. I ordered a namul platter (£6.20): kongnamul (cold boiled bean sprouts with sesame oil), musaengchae (finely julienned white radish in a sweet vinegar sauce), young zucchini namul (usually, it would be cucumbers) and sigeumchi namul (sesame-flavoured blanched spinach). It all was very lovely, crispy fresh, lightly parboiled just to give a nice crunchy texture and gently flavoured with sesame oil, garlic and soya sauce.

Pro's: Fresh good quality ingredients.
Con's: Wee bit on the pricey side. Read the fine script too.
In a nutshell:
Good quality Korean food, if not the cheapest you can get.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Russian smoked capelin roe (икра мойвы копчёная)

ussians are big on fish roe. If you go to any Russian supermarket, you will see tens of various sorts of it ranging from lowly pike's to princely sturgeon's. Smoked capelin roe is my favourite. In Japan it is called masago and used in its plain form but Russians like everything mayonnaise-looking, so here we go.

It is very affordable, just under two euros a jar, and makes a wonderful bread spread. I like to top such a sandwich with cucumber slices for the extra crunch and fresh aroma.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Moules à la marinière: can classics be improved?

Just when I thought there is no way to improve a classic, there we go I did just that!

Moules à la marinière is perhaps the most popular way to cook mussels: after all, who knows how to do it better than the fishermen (les marinières )! The basic recipe guarantees best results and seems wanting no improvement.

However, after years of sticking to the authentic recipe, I have discovered the added twist of fresh Florence fennel. It gives the molluscs a warm, faintly anisey aroma. And the fragrant broth at the bottom of the pot is to die for!
  1. Wash 2 kg mussels in running water. Remove the remaining beards, if necessary.
  2. Melt 50 g unsalted butter in a mussels pot (you can use any other type of pot but then it would be like drinking wine out of a tea mug!).
  3. I give it a generous dash of freshly ground black pepper at this point for the sake of intensity but this is optional. It's just that my pleasure threshold is somewhat high, I need more stimulation.
  4. As mussels are naturally salty, you will need not add any salt.
  5. Sweat one stalk of leek, thinly sliced and half a Florence fennel, thinly sliced, with (optional) one carrot, peeled and thinly sliced .
  6. Add the mussels and cook them on medium heat, stirring periodically.
  7. When the mussels start opening add a cup of white wine.
  8. Once all mussels are open it's time to serve!
Pommes frites are the traditional side dish for mussles but I never used those. It is the 21st century and we should know better than deep-fried food! I make low-fat oven-baked potato chips myself. The delish brown colour comes from a wee dab of French Caribbean liquid cane sugar, normally used for rhum-based cocktails. A sprinkle of herbes de Provence gives a herby tone, while a piece of charcoal in the oven ensures an appetizing smoky scent.

As it goes,
moules frites are best accompanied by good friends and a bottle of white.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Chazuke: making use of yesterday's rice (お茶漬け)

very national cuisine has great ways to deal with yesterday's leftovers. In Italy they top pizza, the British "devil" them, in Japan cold rice is made into a flavourful breakfast called chazuke, or to sound daintier, o-chazuke.

It is a simple dish: pour some green tea into a bowl with cold rice and sprinkle it with a few condiments. Cha stands for "tea" and zuke for "submerged". Kind of makes sense, innit. Depending on the region or individual preferences it can be anything:
  • tsukemono pickles;
  • salted plum umeboshi;
  • nori (seaweed);
  • furikake (savoury rice sprinkle);
  • roasted sesame seeds;
  • tarako (鱈子) (salted cod roe);
  • mentaiko (明太子) (marinated pollock roe);
  • salted salmon;
  • shiokara (pickled seafood);
  • nozawana (野沢菜) vegetable;
  • and, last but not least, wasabi.
However, the Japanese made it even easier: most chazuke these days is instant. That is, all it takes is to open a pack.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

So let it be known as "snow ear" (雪耳)

I sometimes think how I would contact Chinese export companies and offer my services in developing (or just using) proper English names for Chinese food ingredients. After all it's all about, in my friend Yasmin's words, "branding, branding and once again branding". Give something weird and unknown an attractive name and watch it sell like hot pies.

In the Chinese shop where I do my groceries this lovely mushroom is unpretentiously called "dried white fungus". I can vividly recall the expressions of puzzled disgust on the faces of my good friends Muhabbat and Jitte, when I suggested they add some to their shopping basket. Not many people want to eat what sounds like something you get on your toe-nail in a public bath.

A fancy name would make it so much easier to sell. You don't have to be very inventive: just translate the Chinese name directly into English: "snow ear" (雪耳). Got your attention, huh? Or "silver ear" (銀耳). Same reaction, innit?

It is mostly used for desserts. Prized for its gently crunchy texture, it hardly has any taste of its own, so I use it in some savoury dishes like spicy seafood noodles or Korean udon. In Chinese medicine it is considered a longevity booster, mainly for its blood-vessel de-clogging working.

Brown Sugar Pub @Holborn: yes, you can have great Thai food in a London pub!

Thai food can be a huge hit-or-miss. The tricky thing is that sometimes Thai restaurants are run by people who became cooks because they couldn't find any other job, just like Russian police. Another trap is eateries where the grub is watered down to suit the local punters' tastes. In such establishments, tom kha tends to lean towards the taste properties of leek soup. In a very popular Thai takeaway in Amsterdam's Jordaan, coconut milk was completely abandoned in favour of cow's milk. Every dish there featured chopped bell peppers and bean sprouts, the essential ingredient of "Oriental veg mix" in every Dutch supermarket.

When Barry recommended me a great pub with Thai food in Holborn, my reaction was more along the "Duh?" lines. Sure he knows a great chippie in the area but to buy kaeng khiao waan on a white-haired Englishman's advice? I sure know better than that!

The only reason why I ended up there was because Jen, Patricia and Ian dragged me there. See, we had an assignment to work out a cross-cultural awareness training in the course of lunch, so I simply had no choice but to succumb to the majority of my team.

And, boy, weren't I glad! It turned out to be the best green curry since Thailand. Rich and unctuous coconut broth sweet from burapha (Thai holy basil) and
flavourful from kaffir lime leaves coupled with jasmine rice cooked to perfection. As it is after all a pub, you need to order at the bar, so don't sit around waiting for your order to be taken, it won't happen.

Pro's: As authentic tasting Thai food as it gets in London.
Con's: Can get drafty if you sit next to the back door, which the waiters use to bring food from the kitchen.
In a nutshell: A great place to have Thai lunch in Holborn.

Brown Sugar Pub, 146 High Holborn, Holborn, London, WC1


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

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Tobanjan: hot bean sauce (辣豆瓣酱)

ot bean sauce" just does not cut it for me.  It sounds bland and unimaginative. Toubanjan is the name. It tastes just like its name: "Thud-bang-shhhaaa!!!" Your mouth stays widely gaping at this very open "a", while you are dashing around looking for some water to douse the fire.

I came across it in my student years in Japan and I call it by its Japanese name. However, t
his mighty sensual assault on your taste buds was invented in China's Southwest, Szechuan, as dou-ban-jiang (豆瓣酱).

There are two types of it: plain and spicy. I am no big fan of the plain version (it is just smelly and salty), but the spicy one la-dou-ban-jiang (
豆瓣酱) is one of my favourite condiments. It is indispensable in mapo dofu (麻婆豆腐), the Szechuan numbingly hot toufu, mince and aubergine stew, as well as dandan noodles (擔擔麵). I also like to top steamed rice with it when I am going through a cook's block. It works superbly plain as dressing for avocado.

Korean gochujang looks and tastes somewhat similar to it but had a different flavour because in Korea they use ground sticky rice instead of beans and the fermenting process is different.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Kikurage: the mushroom of many names (キクラゲ, 黑木耳)

Known in the past as Jew's ear, these days it is safer to call it kikurage (キクラゲ) by its Japanese name. Its alternative name, jelly ear, is not very widely recognised, while the Latin name, Auricularia auricula-judae, is too cumbersome. The Chinese name hei mu er (黑木耳) will hardly ever catch on, will it?

Once I had to ask Floyd to buy it for me in a Chinese shop. None of the names seemed to work although hei mu er proved outside Floyd's linguistic abilities. Finally, he gave up on seeking help from the shop's people and, after quite an effort, managed to locate it himself. The bag said "Black Fungus".

Kikurage is sold dry in most Asian stores. It expands a lot when soaked in water (takes about 30 minutes). The pictures below is the same mushroom as above before soaking! It has a faint earthy flavour and gently crunchy, agaric texture for which it is mostly prized. I don't know what kind of coincidence it is, but kikurage is only popular in the traditionally Confucian countries - Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan and Vietnam. It is not particularly click with the rest of Asia.

In traditional Chinese medicine hei mu er is believed to possess anti-thrombosis properties, that is, it de-clogs your arteries and veins. By extension, it is believed to promote longevity. Polysaccharides that it contains have a tumour-preventive effect.

I use it in a variety of dishes: from sashimi (it is one of the few mushrooms you can eat raw) to noodles and sweet-and-sour chicken. It does not need much cooking and can be added just a couple of minutes before the dish is ready.

Victoria and Albert Museum dining rooms

The dining rooms at the Victoria & Albert Museum were the first of the kind in the world. Nobody before had come up with the idea of having refreshments in a museum. To that end, there were designed three spaces: Elizabethan Green, Renaissance Centre and tiled Grill. They managed to survive the Blitz bombardments so what you get to see there is all original. Pay heed to the intricate stained glass windows exhaling the virtues of arts and crafts.

In the Victorian times, one would make do with sipping daintily on lemonade but these days you can get a full-blown meal here. And not shabby at that, as it turned out.

There are a few food stations in the airy hallway outside the rooms: sandwiches & salads, Italian, dessert, drinks and what is normally called "international", i.e., bastardised variations of French classics. We decided not to bother with lightweights from the Apennines or breads with fillings and went beeline straight for goldie oldies.

s we were in for a long day of meandering through the never-ending halls of the museum, we went for two legs: lamb's for Floyd and duck's for me. Floyd's order was oven-roasted and rosemary and garlic flavoured, and so was mine was. The difference was that the lamb was accompanied by a blob of mint sauce (far too sharp to my liking
and a tad sourish on top of that), the duck was served with a piece of lovely sage stuffing. Both were served with the only choice of sides: roasted potatoes and English boiled veg. That's how you make French food "international", by stripping the finer extras.

As always, we shared our plates to be able to exchange opinions. Even Floyd, who notoriously does not usually have a good word for restaurant cooking, this time appeared content. Simplified editions as they were, both dishes tasted the way they should. No less, no more. The lamb has some fat chunks (the assistant at the counter refused to change it for a leaner piece), but well at least that is a proof the animal had been fed well.

Pro's: The atmosphere of "period" dining.
Con's: Smells like a school canteen. (Did Victorians know of air fresheners?)
In a nutshell: Robust quality classics in authentic Victorian interiors.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Lipton's Caribbean infusion: good things come from corporations too!

Call it a commercial concoction, I don't care! This Caribbean infusion is made by Lipton and, as it goes, I have never seen it on sale outside France. It has a corruptingly sweet, tropical smell yet there is not a wee dram o' sugar in it.

They brand it as "hibiscus and papaya flavoured" but it also contains orange blossoms, lemon grass, orange rind, licorice and rose petals. Quite a mix, innit?

If I have any left over (hardly ever, truth be told), I add liquid cane sugar and cool it in the fridge. Served with ice on a hot day, it is superbly delectable.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

French cheese platter: the taste of adult life (assiette de fromages)

Too much sweet can be too much. That's why the French invented the assiette de fromages. It is a grown-up way to finish dinners: not with some puerile sugar-laden confection but something decadently smelly, as if showing that pleasure still could be found somewhere close to repulsion.

It is also one of the few classy, luxury pleasures that vegetarians can indulge in. In my vegetarian days, I would have rewarded myself for my well-intentioned suffering through soya steaks, Tofurkey and fishless sushi with a glass of nice wine and a cheese platter.

Tonight cheeses from three different regions had a nice get-together on my plate: Burgundian Chaource, Bleu d'Auvergne, and Tommette de Savoie. They all are very different.

Chaource tastes like Brie made from goat's milk although with just a hint of sharpness as it is, in fact, made from cow's milk. It is pristinely white and could be very well from the Loire Valley. But it isn't.

Bleu d'Auvergne
is, perhaps, the least aggressive of all blue cheeses. It tastes as if it didn't want to be one. Its mild, creamy and not at all as salty as, say, Rocquefort.

Tommette de Savoie is hard and nutty. You would be if you came from the mountains too. It smells funny because water is scarce in the Alps but it makes good for that in the taste department. I have never seen it on sale outside France. The hardy montagnard just won't take to travelling!

Mung bean sprouts: the pure energy of life (もやし, 豆芽)

Truly, truly, one man's food, another man's poison. I remember how I scared my Moscow friends when I brought a bag of bean sprouts to fix some Chinese food for them. They decided they were in for a feast of creepy Asian worms.

Bean sprouts are widely used in Pacific Asian cuisines. They are known as moyashi (もやし) in Japan, dou ya (豆芽) in China, kongnamul (
콩나물) in Korea, tauge in Indonesia (and Holland), thua ngok (ถั่วงอก) in Thailand. In Iran, they are traditionally prepared for the New Year's festival Navrooz. There they symbolize the power of new life.

In Thailand, folk wisdom has it that bean sprouts, when consumed raw, increase sexual drive. It come as no surprise if you consider all the life energy of enzymes and vitamines of freshly sprouting seeds!

I use them for a number of dishes: from Indonesian gado-gado to Chinese mapo-dofu. I can chew them raw much to the consternation of my friends. But I don't mind as it defo gives me a huge perk once in between the sheets! +wink wink+

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Hanami picnic in London: the best of Japanese gastronomy and aesthetics (ロンドンの花見)

The Japanese custom of hanami, enjoying the beauty of cherry blossoms, came about under the influence of China's refined Tang Dynasty in the 8th century AD. It originated as a sacred ritual for the imperial court: Shinto priests would offer sake to sakuras so as to divinate the new year's harvest.

Before too soon, the Japanese figured out that pouring sake on trees was a waste and that is how gastronomy replaced religion. By the 12th century the custom of having meals under blossoming cherry trees spread to all the walks of life of the Japanese society.

There is a philosophical meaning attached to this pastime: the empirical observation of the transience of youth and beauty allegorised by the cherry blossoming lasting but a couple of weeks a year. However, as the laconic Japanese saying goes "Hana yori dango", "Dumplings before flowers", that is, "To hell with blossoming spring flora, let's tuck it away!"

This week Victoria and Ekaterina came to visit me from Moscow. We had planned a picnic since a while ago but were very unsure about the weather. Luckily, today turned out a glorious day. We bought our Japanese grub at Rice and Wine Shop and Kulu Kulu Sushi on Brewer Street and moseyed on over to St. James's Park.

There is no set menu for hanami. Perhaps, the only seasonal entry would be hanami-dango: a skewered trio of rice flour dumplings with sweet red bean filling. For our picnic we had:
  • miso-shiru;
  • a big order of nigiri-zushi;
  • o-nigiri: nori-wrapped rice dumplings with various savoury fillings;
  • chuuka-wakame: shredded seaweed salad with Chinese sesame dressing;
  • loads of edamame, soybeans in the pod;
  • boiled spinach in peanut sauce, certainly a newcomer to the Japanese diet, yet none the less enjoyable
  • hanami-dango and Japanese green tea to polish them off with.
All this Oriental exuberance set us back mere 38 pounds for three. Not shabby at all for Central London, is it?

My Moscow banker girls also indulged in a bottle of Australian semillon. The wine got them in a very cheerful mood and we went on to gorge on some very nice cake from Patisserie Valerie on Piccadilly Street. A hunky Turkmen guy in the Prêt-a-Manger next door supplied us with free coffee (thanks to our ladies' charm) and we finished our dessert just on time to catch our Handel's Royal Fireworks Music at St. Martin-in-the-Fields.

I had spent about a month looking for best hanami spots in London. Although there are a lot of cherry trees in the city,only a few locations are suitable for picnics. Email me for a list!

It is quite funny to recall just how much negativity I experienced when trying to put together a hanami event in London. I failed to interest a single Japanese person. My guess that there are two types of Japanese in this city. First, those who came here out of their will tend to distance themselves from their native culture: they would rather go to a pub than eat sushi in a park. Second, expats who were sent here and who are way too busy for anything else but sleeping it out after a week of hard labour.

I have also noticed that the Japanese are very sceptical about the non-Japanese being able to appreciate the finer aspects of their culture. Truth be told,
to an extent it has proved true. However, luckily for me, Victoria and Ekaterina overwhelmed me with their enthusiasm for the whole undertaking. It is to their pro-active curiosity and positive energy that I owe most of the success of my first hanami picnic in London.

Friday, April 17, 2009

O Cantinho do Portugal: the taste of the deep brine

The Portuguese are famed seafarers. They kicked off the Age of Discovery, found the way to India around Africa, circumvented the earth and spread the Portuguese genetic pool all across the globe.

Perhaps it is down to all those centuries spent in the sea that Portuguese food contains so much salt. Or so it was in O Cantinho do Portugal, an unpretentious cafe-like restaurant in Brixton's Little Portugal on Stockwell Road.

I had seen the place packed with the local Portuguese at any given time of the day and that is why I had no doubts about entering its rather unattractive pastel green interior in search for authentic Lusitanian grub.

The grilled goat shoulder I fancied was not available so I went for goat stewed in white wine. Floyd opted for seafood and rice, which turned out a soggy paella although not without its charms: the seafood was fresh and abundant and the rice was the right kind of paella rice. My goat came in equally satisfying quantities, garnished with boiled potatoes and wee bits of broccoli and cauliflower. The rustic earthenware dishes in which our dinner arrived were lovely.

Simple and nice stuff as it all was, probably half its chemical composition was pure unadulterated salt. In bewilderment, I was watching Portuguese families around me gleefully working on their plates. Surely, their food came from the same kitchen, so this salt level must be normal for them!

We went through our meal with the help of a jug of water. By the end of it we were so bloated we did not feel like dessert at all. Oh, just as well.

Pro's: Apparently, as authentically Portuguese as it gets.
Con's: Industrial quantities of NaCl. A bit depressing interior. Beware: olives and bread served before you order are not complimentary.
In a nutshell: Good for a one-off visit on your quest to try as many world cuisines as possible.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Mandioquinha: a root veg from Brazil

As it always go with me, an innocent trip to buy some sesame seeds ended up with me walking away with 4 bags of foodstuffs. Such is Brixton Market, a serendipity outlet where you never know what you are in for.

This time my lucky find was Brazilian
mandioquinha (aka arracacha in Spanish). It is a root vegetable indigenous to South America. Its taste is a cross between parsnip and chestnut.

I fixed it in the authentic Brazilian way: boiled and mashed, with fried spinach and bife de tira, baby beef steak. No condiments but salt and pepper not to mess with natural flavourful goodness!

The spinach they sell at the market is more robust and has a stronger, faintly bitterish taste than what you get in supermarkets.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Groninger koek: Dutch succade cake

ou won't hear me (or anyone else for that matter) raving about Dutch food. The typical Northern European fare is, if put it charitably, unexciting. However, like in every dung heap (really?) there are a few pearls.

Groninger koek is one of those. Hailing from the Northern province of Groningen, it is made from rye flour, spices and bits of candied fruit. The Dutch usually will have a slice for breakfast with a cup of coffee. I can eat it any time of the day. In fact, I like it so much that I even bother my friends who come to visit from Amsterdam bring a couple for me.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

It's happened: I am a shoyu whore

Today I committed adultery. All my adult life I was a Kikkoman man. Kikkoman is one of world's most popular and definitely best marketed brand of shoyu, the Japanese soya sauce. You will hardly ever see me declaring my allegiance to brands but in this case I am not ashamed. Kikkoman delivers a superbly manufactured condiment. Its shoyu can be compared to a wine, as it is brewed and contains 0.5% alcohol. You can smell an unmistakeable whiff of alcohol from a freshly opened bottle. (The first character in the Japanese word shoyu (醤) signifies that it is a kind of alcohol.)

But today I went astray. I saw a Yamasa brand shoyu in Wine and Rice Shop on Brewer Street at almost half the price. The shop assistant kindly explained that in fact Yamasa brand has a better pedigree (由緒正しい) as it was established in 1645 as opposed to Kikkoman's 1917. A longer noble line at half the price, how could I resist that?

Yamasa's shoyu turned out to be good quality with a bit drier taste and less heady aroma. I am not sure that I will keep buying it because I think I do miss Kikkoman's delightfully rankish flavour.