Sunday, December 27, 2009

Custard apple or bullock's heart (น้อยหน่า)

I don't call this fruit either custard apple or bullock's heart. Both names are utter nonsense. For the former, I can very well imagine how early European explorers were lost for words when they tasted this for the first time and picked up a word from their very limited frame of reference. For the latter, the bullock's heart, I just can't follow the line of associations. For me this fruit is forever Noy Naa. Removing the green scales with fingers, I love sinking my teeth into the white flesh that manages to be flaky, crumbly and juicy at the same time. It is full of black stones that are such a pleasure to spit out because they are so hard and slippery.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Chuka iidako: best way to cook baby octopi (中華いいだこ)

The only time when paedophilia is cool is when it comes to food. Think lamb and mutton. Or young chick and old cock. Although there may not be nothing wrong with old cock, we all still do prefer young blood to old tuskers in our kitchen.

Chuuka iidako (中華いいだこ) is the Japanese idea of a Chinese recipe for baby octopi (in my opinion, that's the most decent sounding plural for octopus). Call me weird, that was as close to turkey as I got for my Christmas 2009 dinner. The rest was mostly raw fish.

Anyways, here's the recipe you were looking for:
10 baby octopussies (there you go!)
one can kidney beans
one can diced tomatoes
400 g minced beef
one onion
one stalk of celery
3 big chili peppers (quantity varies depending on the hotness factor of the peppers you are using)
salt, pepper, allspice powder, bouillon cube
  1. Rinse the octopi well in running water. Smash the heads and remove the intestines. Bring a pot of water to boil, put a few tea leaves and the octopi for about 30 seconds.
  2. Stir-fry the mince with a bit of oil in a frying pan, when the meat is done, add finely chopped onions and celery as well as the de-seeded and chopped chili peppers, crushed bouillon cube and the seasoning.
  3. Drain kidney beans and add them to the pan together with the tomatoes.
  4. Cut the octopi lengthwise and add to the pan. Stew on low fire for 30 minutes.
Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Mimino revisited: never enter the same river twice

There is a golden Buddhist rule: never try to recreate the same sensation. You are bound for disappointment because you can never enter the same river twice. I thought I knew better but I did let exactly that happen with Mimino, a Georgian restaurant in London's swanky Kensington. My initial visit was enveloped in warm glow and scintillating sparkle that Olga puts on everything with her magic touch. After a schmooze party at the RBCC we only had time - and available stomach capacity - for sampling a platter of starters and, boy, were they not utterly scrumptious! For months on I was longing to go back. My imagination pictured feasting on the gifts of the Caucasus mountains, full of herbs and charcoal flavours, and washing them down with treacly Georgian wines.

And finally the blessed moment arrived on a chilly December evening. Hot and noisy Mimino packed to the rafters with Russian Londoners and a sprinkling of their local friends, Kirill and Sasha waiting up for us over a bottle of Tarkhun, a tarragon-flavoured soda drink from the Soviet days. As we tuck in the salads platter (სალათები, £15), the frosty chill outside swiftly fades away from our minds: we are in the land of the Golden Fleece, Queen Tamara, the Knight in the Panther's Skin and One Million Scarlet Roses. Certainly a line of associations that speaks more to a Russian than a Westerner.

Sprinkled with ruby-like pomegranate arils exploding in your mouth with sour-sweet juice, this assorted goodness proffers:
  • Badrijani - grilled aubergine rolls with creamy walnut sauce;
  • Espanakhi - a ball of minced spinach delicately flavoured with herbs so that they do not overpower the strong grassy note of fresh spinach;
  • Adjapsandali - a ratatouille-esque sauté, served cold, with the accent on the aubergines that really taste grilled;
  • Pkhali - a leek-and-walnuts ball with a heady fragrance of aromatic herbs;
  • Lobio - stewed red beans with walnut sauce, fresh coriander and dried herbs;
  • Imeruli khachapuri - fragrant thin-dough flat-bread stuffed with piping hot cheese.
The thick and spicy kharcho (ხარჩო, £7) soup made from lamb, rice and finely chopped vegetables has a nice kick and a good tomato-based flavour. It is certainly one of the most known Georgian gastronomic exports to Russia, a staple of many a factory canteen and street corner café. Our demure and taciturn waitress Elena adds to kharcho a few pieces of delicious home-made rye bread that is not on the menu.That's because Sasha and Kirill are friends with her.

With the arrival of the mains, however, all this culinary exuberance turns into a culinary non-event. A huge flop, to put it straight. Floyd who's never quick to criticize food murmurs that the mains have no flavour at all. No, nothing is bad enough to send back to the kitchen but nothing is a match to the divine starters.
I cannot believe they came from the same kitchen.

Tsyplyonok tabaka (წიწილა ტაბაკა, £12) is another Georgian dish probably more popular in Russia than in its country of origin. It comes in the shape of a quail-sized chicken generously salted, flattened and fried accompanied by a heap of deep-fried matchstick potatoes, the ideal shape to absorb grease. No wonder they taste like starch ampoules bursting in your mouth with the unmistakably smelling mini-fountains of frying oil.

Kalmakhi (კალმახი, £12), a battered trout, salty as the Black Sea that licks the balmy shores of Georgia, arrives with a tablespoonful of mashed potatoes and an equal quantity of sliced cucumbers and tomatoes. All as bland as a roll of toilet paper.

Mtsvadi (ქაბაბი, £15), is the Georgian shish kebab gently flavoured with liberal amounts of salt. I start suspecting that all this salt abundance could very well be management's ploy to trick us into ordering more drinks. Who knows. Georgian barbequed meat is famous in Russia as shashlyk, the most popular weekend picnic fare. Here it tastes just slightly better than if it were made by a bunch of not very sober Moscow office workers at a weekend corporativchik (a company-sponsored team-building event involving colleagues in a countryside setting). The sides of pickled cabbage, fried potato wedges and a tablespoonful of salad are just as forgettable.

The only animating feature that, to a very slight degree, redeems the lacklustre mains is classic Georgian tkemali (
ტყემალი), a dip made from tart cherry plums alycha: refreshingly sweetish-sour but invariably same for chicken, fish and meat. Unknown parties seem to have strongly impressed upon the owners that customers might very much enjoy their conversations completely drowned out by some seriously loud noise. So half an hour into our dinner, a keyboard-and-crooner duo starts churning out Russian pop hits and criminal ballads adding a note of demi-monde decadence to the already deafening din of voices and clanking cutlery. We have made sure to ask for a table "as far away from the band as possible" but in Mimino's petite dining hall there's no escape from this post-Soviet cultural ambassador. Back in Russia this obligatory song-and-dance routine used to annoy the bejesus out of me, but these days I have learnt to laugh it off as a quirky and mildly entertaining post-Soviet "ethnographic" flavour.

Kinzdmarauli, a saccharine red wine made from the endemic Georgian Saperavi variety was allegedly Stalin's libation of choice. It used to be a big hit in the former Soviet republics, sold in Russian supermarkets in 5-litre boxes at quite a premium price - until a spate of hostility between Russia and Georgia found Georgian wine imports halted. Its syrupy mellowness with not a wee hint of tannin is quite a departure from your regular European-style red, owing to grapes for Kindzmarauli being harvested later than for any other wine, when they are fully ripe and, perhaps, even frost-bitten. I imagine that it probably tasted the same when the Argonauts visited Colchis, an ancient Georgian kingdom in their search of the Golden Fleece, so here it is really part of the 'authentic experience'.


Pro's: Splendiferous starters.
Con's: Highly disappointing mains. Noise levels on busy nights.
Great place to replenish your salt levels.
In a nutshell: Come on a weekday when there is no minimum charge per table and no band to torture your ears. Order the salatobi platter, you won't regret it. Skip the rest.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Giant African land snail: everything is big in Africa

I thought they were a legend. By the time I moved to Brixton they had certainly become one. Thanks to an animal rights campaign, Giant African Land Snails were banned from Brixton Market, as "animals with feelings, just like us". Although I do sympathise (to a degree) with the campaigners' cause, why not then go down on trade in crabs and mussels right next door? Be consistent.

But today I spotted them again. They do look quite surreal, somewhat like giant overgrown bigorneaux. Ghana Tiger Snails , as they are also known, grow up to 30cm. The gastropod, or the foot muscle, is what is used for consumption. Snails being hermaphrodites, it contains both the penis and the vagina.  The shells need to be cracked, the meaty part scrubbed with alum and boiled in water until it becomes dribbly. Stir-fry with chopped bell peppers, tomatoes and onions. Use palm oil and Scotch bonnet pepper (SUPER hot!) for authentic West African flavouring.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Goose fat

This Christmas season I won't blame if you think of goose fat looking at Nigella Lawson's voluptuous curves. After all, it is she who is credited with re-introduction of this traditional product to the British market.

Goose fat has a high burning temperature which means that you can fry you potatoes on a very high fire without acrid fumes smarting your eyes. And the results are spectacular. It is a sort of a known fact that quick cooking is best: compare succulent Thai vegetable stir-fries to multi-hour North European stews where you'd be pressed hard to recognise the original ingredients.

When I was a kid, goose fat was the best remedy for chapped lips - we go a lot of those when the red-tinted alcohol in thermometers - mercury would have already frozen! - used to hit -65 Celcius. It is a half-forgotten method now that we have all these fancy lip balms.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Kwanga: African cassava wrap

Brixton Market always abounds in wonders. When in the mood for a bit of serendipity, I just take a stroll there. This time I stumbled upon another mystery edibles that even the grocer did not know what it was. "Kwanga ya tempe" said the sign. Sounded inviting enough to me. So I got me one - to the amazement of everyone in the shop.

- Do you know what it is?
-No idea. I'll look it up.

So I bought myself a culinary adventure for one quid.

Turns out kwanga is just on of the names for this cassava cakes wrapped in dry banana leaves. It is also known as chikwangue, miondo, mounguele and baton de manioc - depending on where you come from. It is a kind of savoury bread that you have with your mains. It works very well to offset the spicy flavours of African stews.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Abu Zaad@Edgware Road, London

bona fide member of the US Department of State's Axis of Evil, Syria is an ancient country in the Fertile Crescent that boasts a fine indigenous cuisine. It is also home to world's oldest continuously inhabited city, Damascus, as well as, perhaps, most hospitable and genuinely friendly people you will meet in this part of the Universe.

From my observations, Syrian restaurants offer only a fraction of the variety of Syrian home-made dishes but I yet have to happen upon any poorly cooked one. We (my friends Kirill and Sasha as well as yours truly) wondered into Abu Zaad on Edgware Road, near Marble Arch because it looked good. It is neither deliberately exotic, like typical tourist traps where food is bland and forgettable, nor is it homely and grotty like many an ethnic eatery, where food may be good but you keep asking yourself if the kitchen is as grimy as the dining area. It is also not like one of those trendy place where they use an "ethnic theme" as an excuse to overcharge you in a bid to redeem the interior designer's outrageous fee.

Abu Zaad looks recognisably Arab yet definitely 21st century. It is full of "right (i.e., Arab-looking) people", which also tipped the balance in its favour as we were peeping in from the cold outside. Our haunch was right.

We picked the Holy Trinity of Levantine starters - tabouleh (تبولة), moutabal (متبل) and hommous (حمّص) - for our platter (£6). Moutabal is known as baba ganoush outside Syria. In Syria, however, ordering baba ganoush will land you an aubergine and green pepper salad sprinkled with coriander and lemon juice.

Kibbeh (كبة) is a quintessential Levantine snack - a deep-fried bulgur croquette stuffed with minced beef, pine nuts, mashed onions and herbs. I can't help but wince when I hear "deep-fried" but these did not have a wee dram o' fat between the four of them. The menu specifies that their kibbeh (£3.75) is shamieh, that is, Damascene. Authenticity closely guarded.

Mixed grill (مشاوي مشكلة) is always a good way to try a bit of major mains (£9.50). Lamb and chicken cubes marinated in olive oil and lemon juice came with a skewer of spicy kabab halabi (kebab Aleppo style), all juicy, smokey and flavourful. The grilled tomato was cooked to perfection: with taut charred skin and melting inside.


By the time we finished the mains we were stuffed to the rafters but we could not resist the temptation to sample Syrian desserts.

Halawet Al-Jeben (حلاوة الجبن) on the left is a specialty of Hama, Syria. It is prepared from semolina, Ackawi cheese, sugar syrup and orange blossom water, there are two versions: stuffed with qashta - a kind of Middle Eastern mascarpone, and plain without qashta.


Umm Ali (ام علي) on the right is a trademark Egptian dessert made from filo pastry, milk, sugar and raisins. Umm Ali was the wife of a ruler from the Ayyubid dynasty. Her rival Shagaret El Dorr was his second wife. When he died, Shagaret El Dorr arranged for Umm Ali to be murdered by her servants, and to celebrate, she distributed bread with milk and honey.

The coffee was superb, strong and aromatic even though I could only take a sip - caffeine after 3PM gives me insomnia until the next morning. I hope next time I will be able to gather enough a crowd to order a whole lamb for 160 quid, for the Lawrence of Arabia kind of experience.

Pro's: Authentic Syrian food at very reasonable prices. Friendly service. Great desserts.
Con's: A bit crowded - but then again, it's a sign of popularity.
In a nutshell: Highly recommended.

Abu Zaad
128 Edgware Road, London, W2 2DZ
Tube: Marble Arch

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Dolsot bibimbap: Korean stone bowl fried rice (돌솥 비빔밥)

Bibimbap to Koreans is what pizza is to Italians, a beloved staple. A bowl of rice topped with stripes of vegetables, meat or seafood. Like pizza toppings, the variety is limitless.

My favourite one is sanchae bibimbap (
산채비빔밥) that I yet have to find in London restaurants. Sanchae (산채 or 山菜) stands for "mountain vegetables". Every year lively packs of chirpy Korean pensioners venture out into the mountainous areas to look for looking for gosari (고사리) or fiddleheads, immature fronds of bracken fern, and an array of various edible leafs that only have Latin names in English.

But here I am on about a less exotic and more widely available type of bibimbap, dolsot bibimbap (돌솥 비빔밥). Most of times it features raw, uncooked toppings because it is served in a piping hot stone bowl. The toppings get cooked as you stir them with the rice and douse with the liquid version of gochujang. I like to see shock and bewilderment on the faces of my friends when they are served a bibimbap bowl with a raw egg on top and how it changes to as it gets nicely cooked right in front of them.

Saba no misoni: mackerel simmered in miso (鯖のみそ煮)

Misoni has nothing to do with the fashion house Missoni. It is a Japanese method of cooking in miso paste. Perhaps, the most popular misoni recipe is saba no misoni.

The recipe is simple, inexpensive and healthy. Here how it goes:
  • De-bone 2 mackerel fillets and cut them in squarish pieces (like in the picture).
  • Finely slice an inch piece of ginger, mix it with half a cup water, 4 tbsps sake, 4 tbsps mirin (or caster shugar) and 4 tbsps of miso in a pan and put on medium heat.
  • Add mackerel and simmer for about 10 minutes on low heat. Make sure the fish is submerged in the sauce all the time.
  • Add 2 tbsps of miso in the sauce at last, stir well and remove from the heat.
  • Serve as a main dish with steamed rice or to accompany beer.

Sujeonggwa: Korean cinnamon & persimmon tea (수정과)

Koreans are big on teas. There exists an astounding variety of ingredients to make a culinary experience out of a simple cup of tea. By tea here I mean any kind of infusion that is served like tea.

Sujeonggwa is a Korean traditional fruit punch. It is made from dried persimmons, cinnamon and ginger, and is often garnished with pine nuts. I bet you have never thought of this combination before but it tastes utterly scrumptious!


Sunday, December 6, 2009

Takoyaki: Japanese octopus balls (たこ焼き)

Fried octopus balls and fried ram balls may sound similar but there's a world of difference between the two. Despite its English name, there is nothing testicular about takoyaki. In fact, they are pieces of octopus deep-fried in a ball of batter.

A highly popular street food, they are as indispensible to Japanese innumerable and ubiquitous local festivals as candy floss to British fun fairs. Osaka, Japan's second largest city, is the country's takoyaki capital to the point where the takoyaki grill pan (takoyaki-teppan or takoyaki-ki) is said to be a part of every Osaka bride's dowry.

These days every fishmonger seems to carry octopus and the rest of takoyaki ingredients can be easily procured in your local Asian grocer.
  1. Mix 2 cups of flour, 2 and half cups of dashi, and 2 eggs in a bowl. The flour/dashi proportion may vary depending on what kind of flour you use but the resulting batter should be as thick as drinking yoghurt.
  2. Heat a takoyaki grill pan real well and brush every cup with a bit of vegetable oil (it should start giving out some smoke).
  3. Fill the cups with batter to the brim. Put bite-size pieces of pre-boiled octopus, red ginger, dried shrimp (sakura-ebi) and come chopped green onion in each hole.
  4. When the bottom half of each ball is nice and brown, turn it over with a toothpick and grill until the other half is the same colour.
  5. Takoyaki are not supposed to be cooked till hard, a degree of softness (called torori in Japanese) is normally sought after.
  6. Serve with takoyaki sauce (okonomiyaki sauce is an permissible substitute), a wee bti of mayonnaise (the lusciously unctuous Kewpie brand is the best)Top with a sprinkle of bonito flakes (katsuobushi) and ao-nori.

Friday, December 4, 2009

African onions

Life is full of surprises. Just when you think you've seen it all, wham, it blows right in your face!

The other day at Brixton Market I bought what I thought was a bag of common-or-garden red onions. They were marked African onions but I took it was the grocer's trick to sell more of those to his numerous African clientèle. Turns out wrong. I felt the mighty difference just when I started peeling one. It was like the second power of your regular onion punch. Same went for the taste: onion on steroids and amphetamines! Nothing to do with the gentle sweetness of red onion. Appearances are deceptive. Now I know better.

P.S. I just found out that these onions are also known as Bombay or Nasik or Pune and are also popular with South Asians.

Real Nip grub: Asakusa@Camden, London

E
very Tom, Dick and Harry now have sushi lunches. Even the most culinarily challenged have at least tried miso soup. Wasabi is not italicised any more and even countryside supermarkets carry proper soya sauce. However, there is infinitely more to Japanese food than California-maki and grilled eel. To discover that you need to leave your high street takeaways and head out straight for Japanese expats' favourite hangouts.


Izakaya is the Japanese equivalent of the pub. It is where white and blue collar workers get together for a few drinks after office hours. However, unlike the English whose evening beers land right on top of lunch sandwiches, the Japanese eat before and while they drink. Your typical izakaya menu will feature not less than a hundred entries. That is real daily Japanese food, not sushi that are reserved for special occasions.


Asakusa, right around the corner form Mornington Crescent Tube station, is where you can find authentic Japanese cuisine as enjoyed in the Land of the Rising Sun. I find very charming its looks of a typical Tokyo watering hole back from the 70s. Even its name, Asakusa, is very becoming: in Tokyo, it's a very traditional, folksy area in the centre where Edokko, real Tokyoites, come from.

In Japan there are no starters, main courses and such. All food is served at once and shared between the eaters. The izakaya menu, hence, is broken down by the type of the dish: grilled, deep-fried, salads, marinated, liquid and so on. You order one or two of each type, some booze - normally beer or sake - and there you go. The Japanese hardly eat rice when they drink, I guess it gets in the way of getting tipsy.


All the traditional Japanese dishes we ordered came expertly cooked, if a tad on the smallish side. We went for:
  • edamame (えだまめ)- steamed beans in pods with coars sea salt; half a hadful, really;
  • sashimi moriawase (刺身盛り合わせ) - a platter of raw fish slices; kinda skimpy for the price;
  • tempura moriawase (てんぷら盛り合わせ) - a platter of vegetables and shrimp deep-fried in light batter; very well done not a wee hint of oil!
  • kurage no aemono (くらげの和え物) - lightly marinated jellyfish; slurpy and crunchy at the same time, just about 5 gram of it;
  • korokke (コロッケ) - deep-fried mince and mashed potato croquette; crisp and moist where it matters;
  • takoyaki (たこ焼き) - deep-fried octopus balls (not the testicles, but ball-shaped cakes!);
  • ageashi-dofu (揚げ足豆腐) - tofu fried in light batter served with katsuo flakes; prefectly done but about 2/3 of the regular Japanese portion;
  • nasu dengaku (なすでんがく) - aubergine broiled in miso; in Asakusa they make it glazed in sweet miso, very appealing to the eye!
  • hiyayakko (冷奴) - silky tofu served in light dressing with katsuo flakes; the simplest dish of all, about half of what you'd be served in Japan;
  • kaisou sarada (海草サラダ) - seaweed with a very light dressing;I expected the clear sourish ponzu-style dressing but it came with something faintly milky and mustardish that, nevertheless, was a very good combination;
  • saba no misoni (さばの味噌煮) - mackerel stewed in miso; one and half very well made pieces;
  • gyuniku no tataki (牛肉のたたき) - rare beef slices with marinade; the ground ginger and garlic dip was exquisite!
All that, two cups of tea, a bottle of bear and a glass of umeshu set us back 70 quid. My three mates insisted they were full (which I believe) but I left with a slight feeling of unfinished business. They say it is healthy to stand up from the table a tad hungry. Well, thanks for taking care of my health, Asakusa!



Pro's: An extensive menu of authentic Japanese food.
Con's: Miniscule portions. Not really cheap. Downstairs smells faintly of cats. The Big Izakaya Three are not on the menu: tsukudani, o-den and chawan-mushi.
In a nutshell: Gritty but great place for some real Nip grub.

Asakusa
265 Eversholt Street
London, NW1 1BA
020 7388 8533

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Rustic delight: marmite de lentilles au lard fumé

Surprise: this has nothing to do with the masterpiece of British culinary genius, the shoe-sole-tasting Marmite. Marmite is the French for cooking pot and also stands for anything cooked in it. Most of times it's something hearty and rustic. I call this dish marmite to get away with not calling it either soup or stew, because it is neither, being somewhere in the delicious between and combining the best of both so you have the whole dinner in one pot.

True to its bucolic origins in peasant France this dish is simple, filling and tasty. If you use pre-cooked beans from a can it will never take you more than an hour to cook and for most part you will only need to stir it occasionally. So here how it goes, marmite de lentilles au lard fumé (skip stages 1 and 2 if you use canned beans):
  1. Soak 2 cups of beans in cold water overnight. Changing the water once every few hours helps to reduce the musical side-effects of eating the beans later.
  2. Cover beans with twice cold water and bring to boil. Reduce fire and allow to simmer until nice and soft. This may take anywhere between 40 minutes and a couple of hours.
  3. In the meantime, peel and chop 3 onions. Heat some olive oil in a pan and slowly fry the onions till golden yellow. This is called caramelisation and brings a whole dimension to the taste of the marmite.
  4. Peel and dice 3 potatoes and let lay them around to dry: this will keep them whole in the soup without disintegrating into mash.
  5. Peel and dice a carrot.
  6. Add about 150 g smoked bacon bits and the diced carrot into the pan with onions and fry until it give sout a nice flavour.
  7. Add the mix and the potatoes to the beans (they must be cooked by now). Allow to simmer until everything is cooked. Add salt, pepper and your favourite herbs. The classic bouquet garni tastes perfect here.
  8. Served wth grilled garlic bread, grated cheese and chopped parsley.