Once, when I was studying at Oxford, I found myself staring blankly at the ready meal aisle of M&S for over an hour. I’d come down with some horrible bug and was feeling exhausted and sorry for myself. Convinced I had no energy to cook, I thought that once, just this once, I would ‘treat myself’ to a nice ready meal. Except it turned out to be not such a treat after all. They all looked so soulless and tragic in their sterile little boxes, the portions stingy, the ingredients congealed, with the kind of matt, pallid hue that only a flimsy black microwaveable box can bestow. They all had unnecessarily unpronounceable ingredients in them. They were all far too expensive to justify their meagre contents. Paralysed with indecision, probably exacerbated by my increasingly ill and fuzzy mental state, I stood there for over an hour, wandering the aisles, trying to find something I fancied, trying to justify spending five pounds on a tiny tub of ravioli that I was convinced would only leave me hungrier, trying to urge myself to just get over it and stop being so precious about what I was going to have for dinner (I have urged myself to do this on a daily basis for nearly a decade now, incidentally - it never works).Read More
Few people seem to know what to do with a persimmon. In fact, most people I know have never encountered them before. They’ll either hear me mention one and say ‘what’s that?’, or they’ll glance over at it in the fruit bowl and look confused. I can kind of understand why: persimmons do resemble large, squat orange tomatoes, so seeing them nestled there amongst the bananas, apples and pears might seem a little odd (even though the tomato is, of course, technically a fruit). I explain the unique qualities of this fine fruit, tell them how good it is in a variety of dishes…and then of course they say ‘Oh right’ and promptly forget, assuming this is another of my mad fruit whims to be humoured and then quickly disregarded.Read More
When I was in Cambodia last September, I took more than a passing interest in the food. In between sitting down, chopsticks in hand, to gorge myself on its robust flavours, I would read up on the cuisine of this fascinating country in my guidebook or on the internet. The same sentiment kept recurring. In between mouthfuls of spicy fried rice with pineapple and seafood, creamy coconut and papaya shakes, stewed beef with pineapple and tomato, banana flower salads, black sesame ice cream and succulent spiced fish steamed in banana leaves, I would read the same words:
"Cambodian cuisine isn't as sophisticated as its Thai or Vietnamese neighbours."
Which, me being a PhD student and all, got me thinking about definitions and objectivity. What does it even mean yotsay a cuisine is 'sophisticated' or 'not sophisticated'? Who decides these arbitrary definitions? Moreover, does anyone have the right to dismiss something as nuanced and sprawling as an entire country's gastronomic heritage with the word 'unsophisticated'? Issues of authority aside, sophisticated is an entirely relative term; food cannot simply exist in isolation as 'sophisticated' without a point of comparison.
Cuisines are complex beasts, each one carrying within itself a vast array of dishes that will inevitably vary in terms of their sophistication. Not all French cuisine is fine dining and Michelin madness, for example - they also have the much-loved croque monsieur, which I think you could argue is fairly unsophisticated, in that it essentially comprises carbs, fat and more fat. While Japan has the highest proportion of Michelin stars in the world, Japanese cuisine also features what is perhaps the simplest meal known to man: a bowl of earthy miso soup.
Comparing Thai, Vietnamese and Cambodian cuisine (I've never been to Thailand but I cook and eat a lot of Thai food and I have been to Vietnam), I really cannot fathom this completely thoughtless dismissal of Cambodian cooking, nor can I comprehend the authors' definitions of the word 'sophisticated'. For a start, there is a lot of overlap between these three cuisines. They all feature staple ingredients such as lime, coconut, lemongrass, chilli and garlic. They are all based around small amounts of meat or fish, and plenty of rice or noodles. Fragrant soups feature heavily, as do spring rolls in various guises.
Some of the best food I've ever eaten was served to me in Cambodia. I am particularly in love with their 'national dish', amok, which involves steaming fish in a fragrant 'custard' made with coconut milk, spices and eggs, often wrapped in a banana leaf. The fish stays moist and delicious, enriched with the spices and softened by the coconut that surrounds it. I also loved a stir-fry of chicken, tomato and pineapple which hit the spot on a sickeningly humid and exhausting day exploring the temples of Angkor Wat. In the same vein, few words can express the delicious and satisfying nature of sticky rice cakes filled with gooey banana, wrapped in banana leaves and grilled so that the outside of the rice turns crunchy and caramelised while the inside is sweet and gooey.
Wash those down with a pineapple and coconut shake from a street stall, perhaps, or visit one of Siam Reap's chic modern ice cream parlours for flavours including durian fruit, lemongrass and 'four spice'. At the market you can pick up fluffy steamed buns filled with egg, meat and vegetables for less money than a bottle of water in the UK, while various street vendors set up stalls at night and offer cheap and cheerful fried rice and noodle dishes.
My experience of Cambodian food (which was limited to a mere three days in Siam Reap - not enough!) was thrilling, satisfying, nourishing and a complete adventure. Sophistication, or lack thereof, is irrelevant.
Since that memorable trip, I've been experimenting with Cambodian food in my own kitchen. I quickly discovered that the backbone of many Cambodian dishes is kroeung(don't ask me how to pronounce it), a spice paste used in the same way as Thai curry pastes - fried at the beginning of cooking until fragrant then mixed with other ingredients before further cooking.
Kroeung is a generic term for a spice paste, so there is no real 'standard' version (just as with Thai pastes), but my Vietnamese/Cambodian cookbook uses the same version for its recipes, so I started with that. I've tweaked it a little bit to result in something I'm perfectly happy with, adding a little more of flavours I particularly love (think lemongrass and lime leaf).
Kroeung is easy to make. You basically put everything in a blender and blitz it up to form a coarse paste, flecked with vibrant marigold from turmeric (fresh if you can get it), scarlet from chillies, green from shredded lime leaves, and pale yellow from the lemongrass and galangal. If you haven't used galangal before, try and track it down at an oriental supermarket - it's a pale, woody root with a similar peppery flavour to ginger, but sharper and more astringent. Ditto lime leaves - the dried ones in the supermarket are not worth bothering with; try and find frozen leaves in oriental supermarkets, which defrost almost instantly and are ideal to keep on hand for curries - the flavour they impart is just incredible. I've listed substitutions for some of the more exotic ingredients, though, should you be unable to find them.
I'm sharing this with you because there are a few Cambodian recipes due to appear on this blog over the next few weeks and months, and this recipe is the backbone for all of them. If you don't want to wait for those, you can try my Cambodian aubergine curry (it's amazing), or get creative - use kroeung as the basis of a Thai-style curry, simply adding some coconut milk, a splash of fish sauce to season, a little brown sugar, some shallots and the vegetables or meat of your choice.
Kroeung (makes enough for 2-3 curries, about 300ml):
- A 2-inch piece fresh galangal (or fresh ginger), peeled
- a 4-inch piece fresh turmeric (or 2 tsp dried turmeric)
- 6 garlic cloves, peeled
- 3 lemongrass stalks, tough bits removed
- 2 shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
- 10 lime leaves (or zest of 2 limes)
- 2 hot chillies
- 1 tsp black peppercorns, crushed
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp shrimp paste (or Thai fish sauce)
- 3 tbsp flavourless oil, such as rapeseed or groundnut
Method: put everything in a blender and go crazy. Store the paste in the fridge or freezer.
Banana flower salad with chicken and sweet-sour dressing
Cambodian cuisine is often referred to as being “less sophisticated” than its Thai and Vietnamese neighbours, which seems to me a highly unfair accusation. For me, Cambodian food is just as exciting as Thai or Vietnamese, particularly its curries. These are often based on a spice paste called kroeung, a heady mixture of galangal, turmeric, garlic, lemongrass, lime leaves and chilli, given a savoury kick by fermented shrimp paste. To this is added coconut milk, more lime leaves and a little sugar, resulting in the most delicious sweet-sour-salty-coconutty curry sauce, fragrant with lime and lemongrass, hot with chilli and deeply savoury from fish sauce and shrimp paste. For a delicious introduction to the cuisine, try out this stunning vegetarian curry recipe - my latest post on the Appliances Online lifestyle blog. For the recipe, and a little bit more about Cambodian food, click here!
Have you ever discovered an amazing recipe a bit by accident? Say, found yourself with random ingredients to use up and located a recipe in one of your cookbooks that you wouldn't normally make but since you have all the ingredients you may as well? Or, at a loss for culinary inspiration, simply turned to a random page in said cookbook and picked something you wouldn't normally try, only to find it a wonderful addition to your repertoire? Or decided to give something a go because it sounded weird and used an odd combination of ingredients, and you were curious to know how it would taste?
This recipe came about a bit like that. One night, I was cooking amok (a Cambodian coconut-based fish curry steamed in banana leaves - it's insanely delicious) for a friend. Feeling guilty over a fresh pineapple languishing in the fridge and starting to turn a little brown in places, and sure that I could turn it into some kind of side dish to accompany the fish, I flicked through one of my Vietnamese recipe books, certain I had seen a recipe for a stir-fried pineapple dish.
Now, I love pretty much all fruit-in-savoury-dishes combinations, but I think pineapple has to be a particular favourite. In Vietnam, one of the absolute highlights of my travels was a dish of stir-fried seafood with onions, tomatoes and pineapple. It had a delicious sweet-sour flavour and the seafood was fresh, tender, sweet and succulent. Pineapple adds wonderful flavour to south-east Asian dishes, since they're often quite sour and spicy; the sweetness and caramel notes of fresh pineapple add a delicious dimension to the mix, particularly if there's coconut in the sauce - like a piña colada, only savoury and chewable.
This recipe is simple but so much more delicious and rewarding than you would expect for its simplicity. You stir-fry chopped ginger, garlic and chilli in a hot pan. This alone is going to make it good - nothing like that beautiful triumvirate of flavour to get a dish going. You then add fresh pineapple, keeping the heat high so it starts to caramelise on the outside. The colours are beautiful and golden, the fruit streaked with dark toffee colour, the fiery red of the chilli dotted throughout.
Then, the best bit. You pour on a dark and potent mixture of fish sauce, soy sauce, and dark brown sugar. This sizzles and bubbles in treacly waves, coating the pineapple and turning it a dark bronze, the smell of salt and toffee wafting up from the searing pan. As you continue to stir the sauce thickens and caramelises. You then add a squeeze of lime juice, to brighten everything up.
You can keep it simple and serve it just like this, as a side dish, sprinkled with toasted peanuts. The deep savoury flavour of the nuts contrasts beautifully with the sweet, sticky, slightly sour, salty pineapple. I like to stir in some spinach just as the sauce has thickened, where it wilts in the pan and is coated with the sauce. It adds fresh green colour, another texture, and also one more of your five a day - surely a plus.
Since I discovered this recipe a few weeks ago, I've made it at least ten times. This is a clear indication of its wonderfulness, because I rarely cook the same thing twice. But there's something about this dish I just can't get enough of. The flavours are incredible - the glaze on the outside of the pineapple is salty and slightly sour in your mouth, but when you bite into the pineapple it releases wonderfully sticky, toffee-scented juice. The peanuts are rich, toasty and nutty, providing crunch. There's heat from the chilli and ginger, just enough to make your lips tingle.
At the end, I like to scatter over some herbs. Mint and coriander work well, as does fresh basil, but my new love of late is sweet basil. I found this in an Asian grocer, and was not quite prepared for what would happen when I opened the packet and took a sniff.
I didn't think I'd tried sweet basil before. It turns out, I basically lived off the stuff when travelling around Vietnam. It's common when eating in a Vietnamese restaurant to be presented with a big plate of fresh herbs, water droplets clinging to the leaves, to add to your meal or just munch on as they are. Sweet basil leaves - darker green and more pointed than regular basil, with a purple tinge - were a staple. They have a very strong, assertive flavour, quite unlike Italian basil; it's hard to describe, but it's almost minty, somehow, with a hint of aniseed. One sniff of that bunch of leaves and I was back in Vietnam.
It's amazing how smell, more than any other sense, I think, has such a profound and involuntary effect on memory. There have been a few occasions in my life where I've been unexpectedly jolted back to a certain event or period of time, all through the sniff of a certain aroma. It sometimes leaves me reeling, particularly if the memory is an especially emotional one (and aren't they all, in a way?). This was no exception. I've been cooking with the sweet basil for days now, but the effect hasn't lessened in any way. Its scent is inextricably tied up with images, emotions, ideas from far away in my head. I actually went to the fridge and just stood there, inhaling the packet. A little weird, perhaps, but I am still pining for Vietnam and this is the closest I can get. A bunch of leaves. Strange how it's the small things.
But let's put aside the nostalgic meanderings of my mind. Sweet basil is also very good on this pineapple dish.
I would really urge you to try this soon. It's excellent as a side dish with various Asian recipes - it was amazing with the amok - but would be good with any kind of Asian-spiced fish dish, or with chicken or pork. Although it's quite assertive in its flavours, its sweetness provides a fresh, pleasant contrast to anything spicy, creamy or meaty. I also think it would be very good with cubed firm tofu, fried in a hot pan until golden and slightly crispy around the edges, and served over rice or noodles. Or with seared spicy lemongrass prawns.
One of my favourite ways to eat this, though, is simply poured into a big bowl of cooked rice noodles, where the juices coat the slippery strands, their comforting blandness a welcome foil to the hot, sweet, sour, sharp, salty flavours of the caramelised fruit and wilted spinach. I scatter over the toasted peanuts, squeeze over some lime, and pile shredded sweet basil over the top. I sit down with this big bowlful, some wooden chopsticks that I bought in Vietnam, and am a little bit in love.
Chilli and ginger stir-fried pineapple (serves 1 as a lunch with rice/noodles; 2 as a side dish):
- 1 clove garlic
- Half a red chilli (or more, depending how spicy you like your food)
- 20g fresh ginger
- 1 tbsp rapeseed or groundnut oil
- Half a medium pineapple
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- 2 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tbsp dark brown sugar or palm sugar
- A large handful spinach or baby spinach
- 2 tbsp peanuts, toasted in a dry pan and roughly chopped
- The juice of half a lime
- A few leaves of Thai/sweet basil (or normal basil if you can't find it), shredded, to serve
Finely chop the garlic, chilli and ginger. Remove the skin and woody core from the pineapple and chop into small chunks. Heat the oil in a non-stick frying pan or wok and fry the ginger, garlic and chilli over a medium-high heat until starting to colour. Add the pineapple and cook until starting to caramelise.
Mix the fish sauce, soy sauce and sugar in a small bowl or jug, then tip into the pan - it should sizzle and bubble. Stir to coat the pineapple in the mixture, then cook for a minute or so until everything has turned dark and sticky. Add the spinach and cook for a minute or so until wilted.
Squeeze over the lime juice and stir well, then serve garnished with the toasted peanuts and shredded basil.
I sampled my first pomelo in rather insalubrious surroundings. Perched unceremoniously atop a wall, sweat clinging tenaciously to my shoulders and brow, overlooking a rubbish-strewn ditch with the sickly aroma of rotting fruit permeating my sinuses, I hacked off its mottled green skin with a penknife and proceeded to prise away at the flesh within, the hand sanitizer I'd zealously rubbed over my fingers doing little to assuage my feelings of filthiness. Its pearly pink flesh and sweet, tart flavour stood in sharp contrast to the ambience, and I spent a few happily relaxed moments concentrating on pulling apart its rosy segmented lobes, deaf to the madness of motorbikes and hawkers around me.
This was in Hué, Vietnam. I'd purchased a pomelo from the main market, having been intrigued for years about these gigantic grapefruits and finally deciding to bite the bullet and get one. I probably should have tried it first in the UK, sitting down at a table with a nice chopping board and serrated knife rather than perched on a crumbling wall doing my best with a blunt penknife and a complete absence of plate or napkin, but that's life for you. Besides, I was doing my bit in terms of food miles - better, surely, to eat a fruit in its country of origin rather than thousands of miles away from it?
The pomelo is like a grapefruit, but bigger, and possessing none of that sour astringence that makes people dislike grapefruits. They're quite sweet, no sharper than oranges, but with a lovely floral citrus flavour. In Vietnam I was often served wedges of pomelo as an after-dinner snack; you would just take a big bite and suck the fragrant juice out of the pithy membranes. They were delicious.
However, one of the most famous pomelo dishes is the pomelo salad. Found all over south east Asia, this is an incredible combination of sweet pomelo pieces, crunchy vegetables, and a classic south east Asian salad dressing: a fusion of hot, salty, sour and sweet flavours, usually comprising lime juice, chilli, fish sauce and brown or palm sugar. It might sound an odd combination, but the sweet, bursting pomelo against the zingy dressing, coupled with the crunch of vegetables is amazing.
There are often other ingredients too. In Hoi An I had a pomelo salad with chicken and prawns, a combination that works very well indeed - the mellow flavours of the meat and seafood provide a perfect foil to the zesty pomelo madness going on around them. Often, toasted peanuts are scattered over the dish, both to add texture and a delicious rich toasty flavour that works so well with the other very zingy ingredients. The vegetables may vary, but usually you find carrot and cucumber, in shreds. Sometimes peppers, or beansprouts. There are sometimes shallots, for a savoury earthy flavour. Lots of fresh herbs - mint and coriander, mostly, but perhaps Thai basil.
I knew I had to recreate a pomelo salad, having enjoyed it so much in Vietnam.
I decided to render it a more substantial meal by adding noodles. Specifically, cooked slippery rice noodles, to provide a calming squidgy backdrop to all the other intense flavours. The rest is all there, though - crunchy julienned vegetables, loads of vibrant fresh herbs, a zingy dressing of lime juice, rice vinegar, fish sauce and brown sugar, and the ever-important scattering of toasted peanuts. Then there are big chunks of torn pomelo flesh, lending their sweetness and juicy yet crunchy texture. I decided to go down the prawn route, because they have a lovely sweetness and a meaty crunch that is excellent paired with the other ingredients. To keep the flavours Asian, I pan-fried the prawns with ginger and lemongrass.
I've generally never felt very comfortable cooking Asian food; it's one of the cuisines I'm least familiar with. This has changed recently, though, as I've started cooking more and more of it. To get to the point where I can invent my own Asian-inspired recipe is a pretty big achievement for me.
Even more so, this thing is absolutely insanely delicious. If you can't imagine how it would all work together and taste, make it and be blown away. It's just got the perfect combination of textures and flavours, as south east Asian food so often does. Mellow slippery noodles, zesty dressing, juicy prawns, sweet pomelo, perfumed herbs and toasty peanuts. That's the best I can do to describe it, so if you want to know more, get into the kitchen and make one yourself. You can often find pomelos in big supermarkets and Asian grocers.
Asian pomelo salad with lemongrass prawns and peanuts (serves 2-3):
- 100g thin, flat rice noodles
- 1 carrot
- 1/4 cucumber
- 3 spring onions
- A large handful chopped mint
- A large handful chopped coriander
- 100g mange tout
- Half a large pomelo, or one grapefruit-sized one
- 1 stick lemongrass
- A 1-inch cube fresh ginger
- 200g raw prawns
- 1 tbsp garlic-infused olive oil, or sesame oil
- 3 tbsp peanuts, toasted in a dry pan then roughly chopped
For the dressing:
- 2 tbsp fish sauce
- 3 tsp brown sugar
- 2 tsp rice vinegar
- 1 tsp garlic-infused olive oil
- 1 red chilli, finely chopped
- 1 tsp chopped fresh ginger
- Juice of half a lime, plus extra lime wedges to serve
First, soak the noodles in boiling water until soft (5-15 minutes, depending on your brand/thickness). Drain, rinse in cold water and set aside.
Slice the cucumber into thin batons. Grate the carrot. Thinly slice the spring onions lengthways. Place them all in a large bowl with the herbs. Steam or boil the mange tout for 1-2 minutes then finely slice lengthways and add to the bowl. Add the noodles and toss together well.
Prepare the pomelo by slicing it into quarters, slicing off the thick skin with a knife and then using your fingers to prise the flesh away from the pithy membranes. Tear the flesh into bite-sized chunks. Add it to the noodles and mix together well.
For the dressing, mix all the ingredients together in a small jug. Pour it over the noodle mixture and toss together. Divide the mixture between 2-3 plates or bowls.
Finely chop the lemongrass and ginger. Heat the garlic/sesame oil in a non-stick frying pan, then add the lemongrass and ginger. Cook for a minute or so, then add the prawns, cooking on each side for a couple of minutes until cooked through. Place the prawns on top of the noodle salad, then scatter over the peanuts. Serve immediately, with lime wedges to squeeze over.
What would you do with forty limes?
A question I'm sure most of you will not have given much thought to. I admit it isn't something that had ever crossed my mind before (although I was in the enviable position a couple of years ago of speculating the uses for twenty mangoes). I tend to have, at most, five limes in the fridge at any one time. I use them a lot more frequently now than I used to, having fallen in love with south east Asian food during my trip to Vietnam and Cambodia last year, and it's rare that a lime doesn't get squeezed over most of my meals prior to eating.
I love the fragrant zing of a fresh lime, that beautiful perfume that emanates as you scrape the flesh with a grater or squeeze the skin between your fingers. Limes have a magic about them that lemons just don't possess for me; maybe it's their association with more exotic climes, and more exotic cuisines. They seem to have fragrance as well as sourness. I also think their colouring is far more beautiful than that of lemons, particularly when you find a ripening specimen that is mottled, blushing yellow, promising bountiful juice within.
Although, as I write this, I wonder if that 'fragrance' I keep attributing to limes in my mind is more to do with the fact that one of my favourite ways to have limes is sitting in a glass of gin. Hmm.
I use limes in many ways in my kitchen. Their juice gets squeezed over a Thai curry, along with a scattering of fresh basil and coriander, just before eating, where it lifts all the flavours and makes everything riot. It also gets sprinkled over a bowl of fresh papaya, one of my absolute favourite breakfasts. Like rhubarb and ginger or apple and cinnamon, lime and papaya for me have a deep affinity that is almost primal. There's something gorgeous about the contrasting colours as you mingle the two - that beautiful vibrant green against the deep orange flesh of a succulent papaya.
Lime juice also makes an excellent addition to salad dressings, when you want a really zingy snap of freshness. This works particularly well in salads of the Asian variety, mixed with a little fish sauce for the salty element, chilli for heat, and brown sugar for sweetness. However, it's also a good substitute for lemon juice in any other salad dressing, particularly delicious mixed with olive oil and mustard and used to dress wafer-thin sliced fennel.
I also enjoy the zest of limes scattered over desserts for a snap of freshness; it's surprisingly delicious sprinkled over peaches baked with ginger and brown sugar. The zest adds a richer, more fragrant note than the juice, so is lovely in curry pastes or cakes. The smell as you rasp a grater over the glossy skin of a fresh lime is so, so utterly worth the labour-intensive nature of the task, or any scraped knuckles.
In fact, there's very little that isn't improved by limes. I remember in Vietnam they were served with almost every meal. The limes over there are gorgeously tiny, about the size of a ping-pong ball, and are delicious squeezed over everything from fruit to noodle soup. The juice mixed with a little salt makes a fabulous dipping sauce for fresh seafood. Limes, to me, have the same culinary use as salt: they sharpen and bring out the flavours of whatever you choose to mingle them with, often negating the need for any salt at all.
The other week, I was sent a basket of Brazilian limes. These are seedless limes with thinner skins than your average, so they are plumper and juicier. I was expecting a sample of maybe ten limes, at the most, so when I unwrapped my hamper of around forty, beautifully arranged and wrapped in cellophane, I admit I did wonder how I was going to use them all (OK, I lie. All I did was glance up at my cupboard where a bottle of Bombay Sapphire was winking enticingly at me).
However, in the interests of not promoting alcoholism on this blog, and because I much prefer ingesting calories that I can chew on, I decided to take advantage of my bountiful lime supply to experiment with a few recipes. First on the list was a cheesecake, inspired by one I ate a few weeks ago in a Malaysian restaurant and have been dying to recreate ever since. I was captivated by its fabulous combination of lime, lemongrass, coconut and ginger.
If the knee-jerk partners for apples are nuts, raisins and cinnamon, or for bananas brown sugar, maple syrup, chocolate and pecan nuts, those for limes surely have to be coconut, ginger and lemongrass. I like to think of food in 'semantic fields' like this; a literature term but one I think is highly relevant to gastronomy. Certain ingredients just cry out to be paired with other ingredients with which they have a certain affinity, often because they share a climate or region. This is the case with limes: lime, lemongrass, coconut and ginger are the basic component of many south east Asian curries and stir-fries.
In fact, when one of my friends tried a piece of this cheesecake, her first reaction was 'This tastes like Thai food. In a dessert.'
Which is exactly what I was aiming for.
This is a baked cheesecake, because I wanted a properly dense, creamy texture to stand up to all the assertive flavours in there. It has a beautiful crisp ginger biscuit base. I never buy cheesecakes, always preferring to make my own for one simple reason: you can have as thick a biscuit base as you like. As it's the best part, I generally think a ratio of 1:1, base to cheesecake, is a good idea. This cake puts that into practice (however, if you want more filling, I've included instructions in the recipe to adapt it).
The cheesecake filling, lightened with ricotta rather than cream cheese, is permeated by shards of lemongrass, blitzed finely in a blender but still possessing a little crunch, and chunks of syrupy stem ginger that bring heat and sweetness. There's the mellow, creamy flavour of coconut running through the filling, and flakes of toasted coconut on top. It's a riot of beautiful zingy flavours, mellowed by the comforting sweetness of the coconut.
For the topping, I decided to be a bit fancy and make some candied limes. This basically involves simmering lime slices in sugar syrup until they soften and become sweet rather than sour. The peel still stays quite tough, but they make a lovely sharp contrast to the rich, dense cheese filling. Plus I think they look beautiful. You can make a batch of these and keep them in the fridge or freezer to decorate other types of cake.
While some cheesecakes can be cloyingly rich, this is the opposite. It takes everything that is fresh, vibrant and healthy about Asian food and transforms it into a dessert that possesses all those qualities. There's the fiery heat of ginger, the fragrance of lime zest and lemongrass, and, underlying it all, the delicious sweet creaminess of coconut. Add to that the crunch of a sweet-tart candied lime and flakes of sweet, nutty, rich coconut, and you have something that I think is pretty special.
I should add a disclaimer here: this is not the answer to 'how to use up forty limes', as it only uses four. But it's so nice that you probably should make ten, and then you'll have used them all up. Voila.
Lime, lemongrass, ginger and coconut cheesecake (serves 8):
If you want more filling compared to the amount of base, just multiply the asterisked ingredients by 1.5 (for example, you'd use 375g ricotta cheese, 300ml creme fraiche, etc)
- 16 ginger nut biscuits
- 60g butter, plus extra for greasing
- 1 stalk fresh lemongrass, roughly chopped*
- 250g ricotta cheese*
- 200ml half-fat creme fraiche*
- 90g caster sugar*
- 2 large eggs*
- 1 tbsp runny honey*
- 1 tsp coconut essence (use vanilla if you can't find this)*
- Zest of 4 limes*
- 3 globes stem ginger in syrup, finely chopped*
- 2-3 tbsp desiccated coconut, toasted in a dry pan
- For the candied limes:
- 240ml water, plus extra for blanching the limes
- 225g sugar
- 2 limes, very thinly sliced
[I would recommend making the candied limes - see below - the day before you want to decorate the cheesecake]
First, make the biscuit base. Pre-heat the oven to 180C, and place an oven dish or tray on the bottom shelf. Blitz the ginger nut biscuits in a blender until fine crumbs. Melt the butter in a saucepan or in a bowl in the microwave, then stir the biscuits into it. Grease and line a 20cm springform cake tin with a circle of baking parchment, then press the biscuits into an even layer on the bottom of it. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes then remove and leave to cool. Once cool, grease the inside of the cake tin. Lower the oven temperature to 160C.
Meanwhile, clean out the blender. Put the lemongrass in it and blitz until very finely chopped. Add the ricotta cheese, creme fraiche, sugar, eggs, honey, coconut essence and lime zest, then blitz again briefly to combine all the ingredients. Stir in the stem ginger (don't process it as this will chop it too finely). Pour the cheesecake mix over the base, then cover the tin with foil. Have a jug of cold water ready. Put the cheesecake into the oven, then quickly pour the water into the tray on the bottom, to create steam. Close the door quickly. Bake the cheesecake for 45-55 minutes, or until set with only a slight wobble (peel back the foil to have a look). Leave to cool.
For the candied limes, blanch the lime slices in boiling water for 3 minutes, then drain. Bring the 240ml water and 225g sugar to the boil in a saucepan, then add the lime slices and simmer gently for around 45 minutes, until the rind has softened. Remove from the syrup and leave to cool and dry out on a sheet of greaseproof paper, preferably overnight. You can keep the lime syrup to drizzle over the cheesecake while serving, if you like.
Remove the cake from its tin and put on a plate. Decorate with the lime slices and toasted coconut, then refrigerate. Remove from the fridge around 30 minutes before serving.
It's five months since I returned from my trip to Vietnam and Cambodia, so perhaps it seems odd to be posting this now. Recently I wasn't sure that I ever would post it. I returned to England - having not slept in 36 hours and carrying four gigantic suitcases containing everything from kimonos to chopsticks, from tea sets to boxes made out of cinnamon wood - armed with a notebook full of food-related memories and a host of noodle-related photos on my camera, determined to write an epic entry all about the food on my travels.
Then, as the days passed, I just couldn't bring myself to sit down and write it. This in part was due to laziness - one eats rather a lot in thirty-one days, and since pretty much everything I ate was worth documenting, the mammoth task of writing it all up was just too daunting. There was also a part of me that felt the memories would be ruined by putting them on here, by turning reminiscing into something too much like work.
Recently, though, I've realised how much I value posts about food I've eaten in other countries, like those on Prague, Italy, and the Middle East. Reading them over months or even years after the trips is a little like being there again. I remember dishes I'd completely forgotten, that I loved at the time, and I'm reminded to recreate them. Inextricably linked with those recollections of food are those involving places, sounds, smells, sights - all the little details you drink in while travelling but forget once the greyness of England has reclaimed your soul.
Although I may have lost something by not writing up my memories of Vietnam and Cambodia as soon as I returned, I don't feel it's too late. I still think about that trip every day, without fail, and I still feel almost crippling pangs of nostalgia and pining at certain moments - a song comes on my playlist from an album that I listened to almost continuously while out there (Ben Howard, Every Kingdom, should you be wondering); I find myself chopping up jagged shards of palm sugar that I bought in Cambodia; I go to sleep under a beautiful silken elephant bedspread, a souvenir from Siam Reap; I drink a cup of lime leaf or lotus leaf tea; I eat dinner with the chopsticks I purchased in Saigon. All these things serve to jog the memory in a powerfully bittersweet way. If something can conjure up that much emotion so long after the event itself, I feel it is worth writing about. I also hope anyone who reads it will enjoy it too - I promise not to be too self-indulgent - and maybe find inspiration to hopefully travel there themselves one day or, at the very least, cook up a new and exciting noodle dish.
I thought about the best way to arrange this post, since there is just so much to say, and I decided that the best way would be to work chronologically and geographically. I started my trip in Hanoi, so will begin there.
Well, technically, I began my trip in Saigon. After a gruelling 24-hour journey, involving two flights and a seven-hour stopover in Dubai, we arrived in Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City (I'm still not sure which name to call this city by, and find myself alternating as the whim takes me). My initial impressions were of the humidity and the chaos of the place; the taxi ride to the hotel was a constant succession of pulsating neon lights and car/motorbike horns. Said neon lights were an interesting medley of advertisements for 'Massage' and 'Karaoke' (which often implies a brothel), and the giant outlines of pagodas, often affixed to restaurant facades. It reminded me of New York, only rather more ramshackle and mad. After checking into our hotel, we wandered the vicinity for a while, but in my exhausted state I found all the sights, smells and lights somewhat overwhelming. I saw delicious food being piled into bowls on every street, but - not speaking any Vietnamese and having no prior experience of east Asian culture - had no idea how to approach any of it and found the whole thing a little too intimidating. I went to bed, figuring I'd have more energy in the morning.
Wandering Saigon for a morning, my main highlight was finding the most wonderful smoothie stall, right near our hotel. These smoothies are so far from the stuff we get in the UK in (hugely expensive) bottles that you'd barely recognise them. A poster displayed a list of every fruit imaginable, including some I'd never tried or even heard of, and you could ask for your own combination to be blended up in front of you. I played safe with mango, pineapple and passionfruit. It came in a glass taller than my own face, garnished with slices of fresh pineapple and passionfruit seeds. After the tiring journey of the day(s) before, and coupled with the intense humidity, it was like drinking nectar.
This had a profound and lasting effect on my entire trip; wherever we went next, my first priority was to find a smoothie stall. I drank at least one every single day, my favourite being a 'mango shake', which I think tastes so good in Vietnam because they add a lot of sweet condensed milk to it. I never watched as these smoothies were made, preferring to be blissfully ignorant of how fattening my beverage of choice truly was. Besides, in the exhausting heat, I figure I'd earned it.
The most incredible part was that these smoothies never cost more than the equivalent of 80p. I couldn't believe it. In England, you'd pay at least £5 for the privilege of having fresh fruit blended with ice before your eyes and put in a plastic cup. In Vietnam, where the tropical fruit is so much fresher and sweeter, it costs a fraction of the price. As an ardent lover of fruit, I could barely believe my luck. Coming a close second to a mango shake was a papaya shake, which I drank every day in Cambodia. Papaya is one of my favourite fruits, and when combined with condensed milk or - as I had in Hanoi - coconut cream, makes for basically a dessert in a cup. I never found a smoothie stall as good as that one in Saigon, though, which perhaps explains why it was always so busy. Moments spent perched in its dingy alleyway on little plastic stools, sipping sweet, cold fruit as the sweat ran down the back of my neck, were moments to be savoured.
Visiting Ben Thanh market in Saigon also prepared me for the wonder that is the Asian market. I was assaulted by the scent of dried shrimp and fish, sizzling meat on a grill, wafts of aromatic noodle broth emerging from giant cooking vats, the omnipresent aroma of the infamous durian fruit (more on that later, it deserves a whole paragraph!) and the heady scent of freshly ground coffee.
The market sold all sorts of clothes and souvenirs too, but this is a food blog, so I'll keep it gastronomic.
There were piles of translucent, vivid orange dried shrimp, in all grades and sizes; huge stiff fillets of dried fish hanging from rails; piles of vivid guava, dragonfruit, rambutans, mangoes, custard apples, bananas, pineapple; huge jars of tea leaves and coffee beans; numerous jars of different types of chilli sauce, fish sauce, soy sauce. In the middle of it all there were stalls selling food to eat there and then. Overwhelmed by it all, we followed our eyes and noses to a busy stall producing delicious-looking food. I ordered fresh spring rolls and bun cha, two classic Vietnamese dishes I was keen to try.
Once you've had a fresh Vietnamese spring roll - slightly squidgy rice paper wrapper, crunchy vivid green herbs, soft tangle of rice noodles, tender and flavoursome prawn, pork or crab, sweet-sour dipping sauce - you'll never want to touch those greasy Chinese restaurant versions again. They're a textural delight, filling and delicious. Bun cha - cold rice noodles with grilled pork, herbs, and a sweet-sour dipping sauce - is in the same vein. Everything is so fresh, crunchy and vibrant, healthy but indulgent at the same time.
This was the moment I, to be nauseatingly clichéd, fell in love with Vietnamese food. Before my trip, I'd been a bit 'meh' about Asian food. I would eat it, and enjoy it, but my idea of going out for dinner as a treat never stretched to Asian food. I considered it fuel, rather than something to be seen as special. Now, given a choice of restaurants, I will always go for Asian food. I have been completely won over by its freshness, its healthiness, its miraculous understanding of texture and contrast, all thanks to Vietnam.
We had an awful flight to Hanoi, involving huge amounts of turbulence. As a nervous flyer, I found this rather traumatic. I found it much more traumatic later, however, when we arrived in the city and saw that the storm into which we had flown had actually uprooted trees from the pavement and smashed them into houses. A spine-chilling moment if ever there was one.
Hanoi is not what you would call pretty, but I loved it. It has an old-world charm about it, with its narrow streets, even narrower buildings, bustle of shops and markets, and beautiful lake. It is full of life in a very different way to the much more modern and Westernised Saigon. It was also my first experience of tropical weather, and the first and last outing of my lovely new leather sandals on my trip. After a couple of hours trudging around deep grey puddles, they were swiftly relegated to the bottom of my backpack and replaced with a nasty cheap pair of foam velcro sandals. So constant and torrential was the rain that a maroon plastic poncho became my best friend. I like to think it helped me to blend in with the locals. Until they saw my face or the colour of my hair, that is.
Also, I know this is a food blog rather than a travel blog, but if you're going to Hanoi, I'd highly recommend staying at Hanoi Guesthouse. It's right in the centre of the city, it's a very attractive little hotel (they put rose petals on our beds for when we arrived - shame we weren't actually a couple), and the staff are beyond friendly; they will go out of their way to make sure everything is perfect for you, bringing you cold drinks every time you come back after a hot day sightseeing, arranging Halong Bay tours, booking train tickets, etc. Also, the pineapple pancakes at breakfast are delicious.
My first meal in Hanoi was at a restaurant across the street from our hotel. I had cha ca thang long, a dish of white fish cooked in a turmeric-rich broth. It was cooked in a burner placed on our table, in front of me, which was quite exciting. The fish is served with its sauce and a large amount of fresh dill - surprising, since it's not a herb I saw at any other point in Vietnam - plus a scattering of peanuts. And, of course, rice. It was absolutely delicious. The fish had been grilled first to give it a lovely caramelised exterior, and then the aromatics of the broth turned it wonderfully moist and flavoursome.
I also had an utterly bizarre plate of food at another restaurant one night. The waitress recommended the 'fish in passion fruit sauce' to me. I was sceptical, but as I love fruit in savoury dishes, and as I didn't want to doubt her taste, I ordered it. What arrived in front of me was a plate of deep-fried fish chunks, smothered in what can only be described as a passion fruit coulis. You know, the kind you get on a cheesecake or a meringue. That is where passion fruit coulis should stay. It is not made to be put on fried fish. The entire thing was totally bizarre, a strange hybrid of main course and dessert. Even I don't like that much fruit in my main courses.
The highlight of our stay in Hanoi was doing a street food tour with Hanoi Cooking Centre. This was a brilliant idea, and I'd really recommend it if you travel to Hanoi, because it demystifies the initially rather intimidating world of street food.
Food in Vietnam is very unlike our English restaurant scene. The best food comes not from restaurants, but out of tiny ramshackle stalls or buildings specialising in a single dish, often perfected over decades by the families that run the stall. I saw women sitting on the middle of the pavement, with a mat on which were placed little bowls of ingredients, shaving green papaya with potato peelers, ready to sell their papaya salads from that very spot. There were vats of noodle broth bubbling away down dark, dingy alleyways, often with a large queue of hungry Vietnamese to match. People sit on tiny stools, the kind we have for children at nursery, in the middle of the street. They don't order, there is no menu, they just sit down and are brought whatever the speciality of that stall is, to wolf down with simple wooden chopsticks from a communal pot.
If you're new to all this, though, it can be a little confusing. Our wonderful guide from the cooking school took us to his favourite street food stops over the course of a morning. We tried some of Hanoi's best street food; as a local, he knew all the best places to take us. First, we breakfasted as the Vietnamese do, with a bowl of steaming pho (pronounced 'fur').
This is often cited as Vietnam's 'national dish', and it's true, there are signs proclaiming 'PHO' nearly everywhere you go. Pho is generally available in two types, though some places specialise in just one. There is pho ga, which is made with chicken, and pho bo, which is made with beef. For both, the making of the broth is an incredibly long process, involving up to 24 hours of simmering bones and aromatics. This flavoursome, clean liquid is ladled into bowls containing a tangle of thick rice noodles, beansprouts, and the meat. It might just be shreds of chicken, or you might also get little meatballs made of chicken and sometimes chicken offal. It might be slices of cooked beef, or beef meatballs, or slices of raw steak that are cooked to rare by the hot broth. The pho is served alongside lime halves and vinegar; our guide told us that the lime is used for pho ga, and the vinegar for pho bo.
I was initially sceptical about the idea of soup for breakfast. Breakfast for me is strictly a sweet meal. Very occasionally I might make myself some eggs on toast, but almost without exception my breakfast consists of fruit with porridge, muesli, or toast. Meat for breakfast is definitely not something that would ever fill me with happiness.
Yet during the frenzy of a month's travelling, a constant medley of euphoric energy and sheer, humid exhaustion, a bowl of cleansing broth in the morning became more than welcome. I actually began to crave it. One of the best bowls of pho I ate was at Dong Hoi station, before catching a train to Hue. I'd woken at 5.45 to get to the station and hadn't eaten. We brought baguettes and jam with us, but rather than eat those, I went to a little stall outside the station and was presented with a beautiful china bowl of broth, topped with the most delicious pink beef slices. It was exactly what my tired body needed, which is perhaps why it remains in my memory as such a highlight.
Pho is more than a bowl of soup; it is the ultimate in comfort food, the ultimate one-bowl meal. Filling, nutritious and soul-saving, pho brightened a couple of very emotional and draining days in Vietnam. Sitting hunched over a wooden bench, squeezing tiny lime halves into the bowl, inhaling the meaty aroma, its steam condensing on your already-sweating face, tangling the slippery noodles around your chopsticks...it's a ritual, one I came to love, and one that I miss the most now I'm home.
The next dish we tried on our tour was one of my favourites; ban cuon. This is a deliciously squidgy pancake made from rice flour batter, which is steamed and then wrapped around a pork and mushroom filling and sprinkled with fried onions, dried shrimp and Vietnamese herbs, served with a dip of fish sauce and lime juice.
One thing that's so addictive about Vietnamese food is the contrast in textures. Here you have deliciously gooey pancake, rather like dim sum dumplings, tender, flavoursome filling, and the crunch of the fried onions and dried shrimp. It's salty and umami-rich, brightened by the sweet-sour-salty dipping sauce. A plate costs 30p, which is just insane. I watched the women at work making the ban cuon: ladling batter onto a sheet of muslin stretched over a bubbling pot, removing it after a few seconds with a palette knife and deftly sliding it onto an oiled work surface, where it was stuffed with its filling before being sliced into pieces and served. It was one of the most delicious, fresh, satisfying things I've ever eaten, and something totally impossible to truly recreate outside Vietnam.
Our guide also showed us this curious water beetle, which he chopped into pieces and put in the dipping sauce. Apparently the juice inside this bug is highly valuable, and it imparted this bizarre floral fragrance to the sauce. I wasn't so keen on it, but initially I thought he wanted us to eat the whole bug, legs and all, so I was a bit relieved (although quite up for trying it, as none of the boys were!).
Another street food dish I loved was ban xao, a rice pancake but this time fried until golden and crispy. It's folded over beansprouts, herbs and shrimp (sometimes other things too, like pork) so it looks rather like a cornish pasty, and at our stall was then cut into pieces (with a pair of rusty scissors - so far removed from the flashy chef's knives of Western cooking) and stuffed inside Vietnamese spring rolls, to be dipped in another sweet-sour dipping sauce. Again, this is all about a contrast of textures, and the crispy fried pancake against the sweet sauce is delicious.
On our street food tour we were also introduced to bia hoi, fresh beer - as a hater of beer this did not excite me, and I was not converted - and Vietnamese coffee, which is fiendishly strong and sweetened with condensed milk. I found it far too sweet, and since even the one sip I did have left me shaking for a good two hours afterwards, it's probably a good thing I didn't develop a taste for it. I did rather love the ritual of putting the simple tin coffee pot over the cup and letting the inky black liquid percolate, though.
We were also taken to a market at the beginning of our tour, where our guide demystified some of the more unusual Vietnamese ingredients. There were huge leafy piles of herbs I've never seen before, and have never seen since. We tasted Vietnamese coriander which, unlike the version we get here, had long, straight leaves. We tried Vietnamese 'fish mint', a minty herb with a strong fish flavour that is apparently an acquired taste, though I liked it. Most Vietnamese food is placed on the table with a tin plate of just-washed fresh herbs, droplets of water still clinging to their leaves. These are placed in spring rolls, scattered over bowls of noodles or immersed in soup at the table, before eating. In England it would seem bizarre to munch on bunches of fresh herbs as part of a meal, but I really enjoyed this tradition in Vietnam. It made the meal seem so much fresher and healthier.
I also got this amazing photo of a chicken for sale. Gruesome and horrible, but quite cool, I think.
Other interesting market highlights were net bags of fertilized duck eggs, i.e. with the embryo inside. I never got to try these (and I'm not too sad about it), but I did find it interesting when our guide explained that the Vietnamese eat them largely for the extra protein from the baby duck bones. Given that meat is expensive in Vietnam, and very few Vietnamese dishes contain much of it, or anything protein-rich, fertilized duck eggs are a valuable source of nutrients. The eggs are kept in a net bag rather than simply in a bowl in case the eggs hatch and the ducks crawl out, which I found a little creepy.
We also saw baskets of fresh turmeric and galangal, bags of live frogs, tubs of huge snails, big plastic bowls with live fish swimming around (the live animal stuff did upset me a bit - one major drawback to life in the far east is the decline in animal welfare standards), meat being hacked up with cleavers while rivulets of blood ran down the ground, and rows of bottled fish sauce. Apparently the best Vietnamese fish sauce is made from black mackerel rather than anchovies, which I found interesting. The key to good quality is if you shake it and see lots of bubbles, and no sediment, as our guide demonstrated for us. I nearly bought a bottle to take home, but thinking of the consequences of it smashing in my suitcase deterred me.
For someone used to buying their produce neatly wrapped in plastic bags in the sterile environment of the Western supermarket, Asian markets are something of a revelation (in both a positive and a negative way). Everything is so much more vibrant, so much more present - you can see, touch, smell and almost taste your ingredients before purchasing them. The fish are still thrashing, the frogs still crawling around - a far cry from the supermarket fish counter, which sometimes houses week-old specimens (though I'd probably prefer that to seeing my fish decapitated in front of me). The fruit is neon-bright, piled high in abundant plenty. The floors are covered in puddles, a mixture of monsoon rain, blood, and fish guts. Motorbikes zoom through aisles barely wider than a human being, up and down steps, so your shopping trip is frequently interrupted by a near-miss moment or the screeching of motorbike horns (a near-constant sound in Vietnam). I couldn't quite believe these mopeds were just screeching around the market without anyone batting an eyelid.
After a relaxing few days wandering the wonderful shops of Hanoi, eating street food, strolling around the lake, getting amazingly cheap (non-dodgy) massages and drinking papaya coconut smoothies, we had a three-day tour of Halong Bay. Nothing special to report here, food-wise - the cruise ship food was lovely, but a lot of it was quite Westernised - but photos of the scenery speak for themselves. We swam in the bath-warm turquoise water, kayaked around the amazing rock formations, and had a fun few hours jumping off the side of our boat into the sea. It was idyllic, in the truest sense of the word.
Our next stop was Phong Nha Ke Bang, a national park in north west Vietnam that has only really just opened to tourists. Containing over 104km of caves and underground rivers, including the largest cave yet discovered in the world, this park houses a treasure trove of geological and ecological interest. If you want all the facts, click the link. If you want to hear what I thought about it, well, it was basically like Jurassic Park.
We arrived at Phong Nha Farmstay, our accommodation for two nights, located in the middle of lush rice paddies near a local village, having just emerged bleary-eyed from the overnight train. We were almost force-fed breakfast (more pineapple pancakes), then rushed onto a tour of the park along with a group of other guests. I initially thought we'd been the lucky ones when we got to ride in the open-topped jeep instead of the minibus; wind blowing through our hair, rock music blaring on the stereo, incredible scenery all around...but then a tropical downpour began. Oops. It took me two days to get dry clothes again.
We spent the day walking around the jungle, exploring gigantic caves (if you think you've been in a cave before, you really haven't until you've seen something of this magnitude), constantly reapplying insect repellent, and generally marvelling at the incredible beauty of the scenery: lush vegetation, towering cliffs, rushing rivers. The park is very near the Laos border, which makes me want to go to Laos, as the scenery was just insanely beautiful. Everything was so, so green - you don't get vegetation that green in England. Cows and water buffalo were roaming everywhere, camel-coloured dots breaking up the intense green of the horizon.
We went swimming in one of the rivers, many of us finding ourselves clinging onto the safety rope to avoid being swept away by the current. The water was cold; it was a relief to find ourselves somewhere substantially cooler and breezier than sweaty, polluted Hanoi. I'm a big lover of outdoor swimming, particularly refreshing after the cramped heat of the Vietnam night train. You haven't really done it until you've done it in a sweeping valley surrounded by towering cliffs and creeping jungle.
On our second day in Phong Nha, we borrowed bikes from the farmstay and cycled to Phong Nha cave, which we accessed by boat along its underground river. It was magical and mystical and beautiful and wonderful, dark and silent except for the plash of the oar hitting the water...until our boat driver put some Asian rave techno music on his phone to accompany the return journey. Something of a mood-killer.
We passed lots of rural houses along the way, which invariably resulted in wild cries of 'HELLO!' from the local villagers. The children often came out to high-five us as we cycled past. It was a huge contrast to Hanoi, where there are so many tourists that the locals often seem quite jaded about them. I wasn't quite prepared for the ambush we experienced on passing a local school - every child in the playground rushed out to wave and shout hello at us.
I realise this was meant to be about food, and I've got rather sidetracked. Phong Nha was without doubt the highlight of my trip. I met some wonderful people there, had a fantastic time, and was surrounded for a couple of days by the most heartbreakingly beautiful landscape I've ever seen in my life. I also saw my first firefly during the second night, which was slightly ridiculously exciting. Less exciting was being casually groped by a group of Vietnamese men on a motorbike, but I tend to forget that part when reminiscing nostalgically. 'Getting away from it all' doesn't even do justice to how amazing it was to be out amongst the quiet of the rice paddies and the palm trees and the sunset.
We did eat well, too - on the way back from Phong Nha cave we stopped at a little restaurant and gorged ourselves on fish, rice and vegetables for some tiny amount of money. I forget what we ate, though, because I was too distracted by the magic of the place.
Next stop was Hue, the old imperial city. It is known for its luxurious food traditions, a relic of the days when it was the centre of Vietnamese royalty. To please the royal palates, Hue's chefs came up with a huge array of dishes, many of which were designed to be eaten as small bites, tapas-style. Our introduction to food in Hue began with a very untraditional but still delicious passion fruit jam, served with the toast our hotel plied us with when we arrived. I hadn't actually expected breakfast at 11.30am, but it was deeply welcome nonetheless. I still have a plan to make that jam at home one day.
The indisputable highlights of Hue were the citadel and the Royal Tombs. We visited the former on our first day there, emerging from the hotel to glorious sunshine and finding ourselves, half an hour later, sheltering at the entrance to the citadel to avoid the torrential rain that lasted all of the afternoon. After a while we just went with it, running shrieking through the puddles and getting enjoyably drenched. The beauty of Vietnam is that even if you do get soaked in the rain, you dry off within minutes once it eases off and the sun comes out
I also spotted my first real elephant (zoos aside, of course) in the citadel grounds, which was more than a little exciting. The citadel buildings made me feel like an extra in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; they were absolutely stunning, particularly where little purple flowers had carpeted the moats. In a way the rain made it even more atmospheric, the resplendent reds, oranges and golds of the buildings shimmering reflected in the deep puddles, the colours seeming so much brighter and more impressive against the backdrop of the gloomy skies.
Hungry after our sightseeing, we visited the giant market, where I went on a fruit-buying frenzy, keen to try all these exotic unfamiliar specimens I'd seen so far on my travels. I tried pomelo, like a giant sweet grapefruit, which is often used to make a delicious salad. I tried mangosteen, which looks like a squat brown tomato, with a very thick skin and a soft, juicy, lobed centre, reminiscent in texture of a banana, that is incredibly sweet and fragrant, tasting a little like a lychee. I tried green-skinned oranges, which were quite sour. We sat outside the market and devoured our treasure armed with a penknife and some hand sanitiser. A woman addressed us as we roamed the stalls - "Where you from?" When we replied "England", she looked surprised. "Oh but you very slim! You look like Vietnamese!"
Which I take as a massive personal compliment, and a very sad but true approximation of the state of Western obesity rates.
Hue was one of my favourite places on the trip, for reasons I can't quite place. It has a certain grandeur about it, built on either side of the huge, majestic 'Perfume River', and home to the glorious citadel and Royal Tombs. It's also full of life, but in a quieter, more understated way than Hanoi or Saigon. Maybe it was because it was the first city we'd visited that felt spacious, that gave you room to move and breathe without the constant assault of motorbikes. The food was also excellent, as you'd expect from somewhere with such a reputation. On the first day we ate a selection of dishes from a stall in the market, including some strange dumplings with an eerie translucent exterior that looked a bit like alien eggs, but I think housed prawns. They were tasty, if a strange texture. We also ate grilled pork skewers and noodle soup. On the first night we went to a restaurant called Anh Binh, and I had the most glorious vermicelli noodles with crab meat, which were richly garlicky and incredibly delicious, an Asian version of the Italian crab linguine I used to love at a restaurant near my boyfriend's house. I had something similar again in Saigon on the last day of our trip, because I loved it so much.
Incidentally, I should also mention our wonderful hotel, HueNino. If you're going to Hue, stay here. It's insanely cheap, which I can't quite fathom because it's great. The rooms are nice (although ours had a see-through glass bathroom door, which was a bit weird), but it's the staff that really make it - they're so friendly, and will greet you with iced tea or juice every time you walk in the door. Breakfast is also excellent.
Hue was also where I discovered the joy of Vietnamese motorbike riding. That is, sitting on the back of one while a much more experienced (and brave) local guide does all the driving (read: avoiding other maniac drivers). Our guides, Mr Tri and Anh, took us on a fantastic tour of the best of the tombs, which were absolutely incredible, imposing and dark and vaguely Gothic-looking in places. The real perk was their local knowledge - they took us to a fantastic restaurant where we couldn't spot a single tourist, and we ate bun thit nuong (see below), now one of my favourite dishes - cold vermicelli noodles with grilled marinated pork and a peanut sauce. They were so cool and refreshing in the heat of the day, after sitting on the bike all morning - it's surprisingly tiring being a passenger, I think because I was constantly fearing for my life and holding tightly onto Anh's shoulders for the entire morning.
It's interesting how, in Vietnam, the horn is the indicator. You use it to signal that you're about to do something that might jeopardise others on the road, so basically, all the time. I do maintain, though, that Vietnamese drivers - like Syrian drivers, as I found out two years ago - are far better and safer than English ones, because they expect people to do stupid things on the road the whole time, so are generally better at avoiding accidents than us Westerners, who are taken aback by mad driving.
Bun thit nuong I developed a love for this cheap thrill, though, so when Mr Tri and Anh offered to drive us by motorbike to Hoi An, our next stop, instead of us taking the bus, we jumped at the chance. I was incredibly sceptical about them getting all of our luggage onto two little motorbikes, though, and Mr Tri's "You don't worry, in Vietnam we carry water buffalo on motorbike!" did little to reassure me.
I watched with wonder the next morning as they wrapped our luggage in big waterproof bags and strapped it tightly to the tiny luggage rack on the back of the bikes with leather cords. The only casualty of the journey was my newly-purchased conical hat (they make special ones in Hue that have a pattern woven inside them that you can see when you hold the hat up to the light), which I'd foolishly put in my back - it got rather squashed from the straps.
Aside from the adrenaline rush, one of the major perks of a Vietnamese motorbike guide (or 'Easy Rider', as they call themselves) is the local knowledge. Constantly being marked out as a target for scams and harassment because of my obvious tourist appearance, and the victim of what I call 'tourist inflation', i.e. when prices quoted to you are approximately a hundred times more than those given to the local Vietnamese, it was a relief to be able to travel with locals. There are two main advantages: a) you pay the local price for everything, which is a plus both for financial reasons and also because it gives an interesting insight into how much things are actually worth in this country and b) you see how the locals eat - where they go, what they order, how they eat it.
Some of the best food from my trip was consumed during a motorbike stop. Many of these 'restaurants' seemed actually to be the converted living rooms of houses lining the roads - sometimes you'd be sitting at a plastic table slurping noodle soup while the children and teenagers of the house lounged around on hammocks and watched cartoons. One house we visited had a group of tiny-eyed puppies in the back yard, which couldn't have been more than a week old. On the ride to Hoi An, I ate the best rice dish I think I've ever had (see above) - fried rice with seafood and pineapple. It was a delectable combination of incredibly fresh seafood, juicy pineapple, tart tomatoes, caramelised onion, and slightly spicy aromatic rice, complete proof of the fact that in simplicity lies deliciousness.
Combine this gastronomic pleasure with the absolutely incredible views of bright, bright blue sky, emerald ocean and mountainous terrain that were also part of our ride to Hoi An, and you have a pretty memorable day. We stopped at 'Elephant Springs' along the way, for no other reason than to allow us to swim around in a waterfall and jump repeatedly off a giant stone elephant sculpture. We saw Danang, and I was glad I hadn't included this industrial beach resort town in our itinerary. I got hideously sunburnt, unable to feel the power of the midday sun, masked as it was by the wind rushing past the motorbike. This was all forgotten after a few days in Hoi An, however.
Hoi An is a beautiful little riverside town. It's the tailoring capital of Vietnam, and shops advertising personalised clothing made in hours are on every single corner. There isn't much of note to do, but you can happily pass your time browsing the huge number of souvenir shops, getting clothes made (in my case two shirts, a skirt and a ballgown, while the female Vietnamese shop assistants cooed over my 'beautiful' white skin and 'golden' hair, which in England would simply be perceived as 'pasty' and 'brown'), sipping fruit smoothies at stalls by the river, marvelling at the fresh produce of the markets, and sampling the food, which is surprisingly good and untainted for a tourist town.
Or you could also do as I did, and go on a cookery class with the Red Bridge cookery school.
After a serene ride down the river, with verdant palm-tree lined banks on both side, you arrive at a little oasis of calm and culinary accomplishment. You wander around its kitchen garden, and if you're anything like me you'll marvel at the sight of lemongrass growing out of the ground, and keep smelling curious herbs like 'pineapple basil'. You then watch as a chef demonstrates how to make a series of dishes, and - if you have the same chef as me - laugh at his ridiculous and occasionally mildly offensive banter. You try everything he makes, proclaiming how good it is, particularly enjoying the seafood stir-fry served in a hollowed fresh pineapple. You then have a go for yourself, learning how to ladle thick rice batter onto muslin over a pot of water to make squidgy rice pancakes for stuffing; learning how to stir-fry aubergine with garlic, lemongrass and ginger to make a delicious spicy stew; learning how to pour rice batter into a hot, smoking pan to make the crispy pancake you tried in Hanoi.
I had a brilliant time learning to cook Vietnamese food, and found myself barely able to eat the lunch they provided for us (mackerel grilled in banana leaf, see above), so much had we eaten over the course of the morning while we cooked. The beautiful setting of the cookery school, the fact that it has its own outdoor pool which you can use (in retrospect, not the best idea after ingesting such a huge quantity of food - I'm surprised I didn't drown) and the entertaining chefs would make it enjoyable even if you weren't that into cooking, but as I am, I relished the opportunity to attempt Vietnamese food, and learn a little bit of what makes this country's cuisine so special.
Hoi An brought more delicious food, mostly at the Morning Glory 'street food restaurant', which also has its own cooking school. This place aims to reproduce the street food classics of Vietnam, but in a slightly more formal setting, along with some other more modern dishes invented by its own chefs. On our first visit here I had a local speciality, Cao Lao - a salty broth with herbs, marinated pork and crispy flat croutons, with a tangle of very thick noodles, much thicker than I had tried before in Vietnam. It was deeply moreish and savoury, the ultimate comfort food. Apparently all Cao Lao noodles are made with water from the Ba Le well in Hoi An, but I'm pretty sure this is just an urban myth. The exact recipe is also a closely guarded secret.
On our third night we also ate at Morning Glory, where I had my first taste of pomelo salad and started a new addiction. The sweet, juicy flesh of the pomelo - like a milder, sweeter, larger grapefruit - coupled with the traditional sweet/sharp/salty/sour Vietnamese salad dressing, coupled with crunchy peanuts, crunchy vegetables and - optionally - prawns or meat, is an absolute delight for the tastebuds. It tastes healthy, nourishing, yet its contrast of textures and flavours make it a real treat. I also had a delicious smoky marinated mackerel, wrapped in a banana leaf. Wrapping meat or fish in these leaves and grilling them has an amazing ability to preserve the moist succulence of it while lending an addictive smoky flavour.
Hoi An was where I tried my first banh mi (glamorously perched on my rucksack, above - no time for food styling on holiday!) This is another classic Vietnamese street/snack food, and its exact makeup varies. Generally, however, our banh mi were usually a sturdy baguette (Vietnamese baguettes are fatter than French ones, and have a much crispier crust with a very airy, fluffy interior) stuffed with crunchy pickled vegetables, various cuts of pork, some pork pâté, salad, and - optionally - chilli sauce and garlic mayonnaise. They are, it has to be said, the ultimate sandwich. Way better than a BLT or a brie and bacon, they are again a masterclass in texture and flavour contrast, plus deeply satisfying food to eat on the go. We got ours from reportedly the best banh mi stand in Hoi An, and they didn't disappoint.
I also first tried sugar cane juice in Hoi An. I had no idea what to expect when I watched a man use a purpose-built machine to crush thick shards of sugar cane into a clear, frothy and slightly green-tinged liquid, but I was pleasantly surprised. Sugar cane juice is not nearly as sweet as its name would suggest. It has a mellow, sweet, refreshing flavour that is hard to describe - rather like one of those citrus-flavoured mineral waters you can buy. I think sometimes it's mixed with lime juice before serving. Anyway, it's possibly the most refreshing thing I drunk on my entire trip, and when we cycled the Mekong Delta a week or so later, in 36C heat and at considerable speed, it was the most welcome thing ever to pass my lips.
Hoi An provided me with my first dessert of my entire trip. Vietnam isn't big on desserts, like many Asian countries. They have their share of strange bean cakes, but generally your sweet fix will come from a smoothie or some fruit from a roadside stall, if you're desperate for it. However, one of the restaurants I ate at in Hoi An had a very Westernised dessert menu, and I couldn't resist ordering ice cream in various tropical flavours (ginger, lemongrass, and cinnamon, I think); I also returned to its cafe one afternoon, in need of sugar, and ate a delicious piece of pineapple upside-down cake and ice cream. It was nice to indulge in something a bit more unhealthy than all the virtuous lean meat, fish and noodle dishes we'd been subsisting on so far. That said, I didn't find myself missing Western desserts and cakes after a while, and returned to the UK with noble intentions to cut all such things out of my diet and maintain this healthy Asian way of living. You can imagine how long that lasted.
Onwards, to Nha Trang, apparently the party capital of Vietnam - so god knows what I was doing there. Ah yes, I went for the diving. We did two dives off the coast, which was wonderful for me because it was the first recreational diving I'd ever done. I learned to dive with the Royal Navy in Gibraltar, and as you can imagine it was pretty hardcore (as discussed in my post here), mostly safety stuff and obsessive briefing. Here we swam around and looked at pretty fishes, and there was no requirement to separate myself from my breathing and/or vision equipment - score! I saw lionfish, scorpion fish, rainbow fish, and my first octopus, which was not impressed at being poked with a stick and squidged threateningly out of his hiding place.
There isn't much to say about Nha Trang, in terms of food, as I don't really remember eating much of it for some reason. I do remember a slightly traumatic second night there, which saw me wandering around the city at night (a crazy medley of rushing motorbikes and neon lights advertising Westernised bars and drinks deals) feeling hideously emotional and unsure whether to throw myself under a passing moped or go and get some pho. I opted for the latter, seeing as the Vietnamese motorbike drivers are so good at avoiding obstacles that I'd probably just have ended up standing in the road being beeped at. The pho was your standard bowl of noodley broth, but, as chicken soup is so reportedly adept at doing, it quieted my raging soul a little and let me leave my worries behind, lost in the ritual of slurping and twining noodles round chopsticks. A true testament to the power of food.
Further escapism came in the form of a three-day motorbike tour of the central highlands of Vietnam. This would take us from Nha Trang to Dalat and back again, via, oh, just the most incredible scenery you've ever witnessed in your life. Well, I suppose that depends on how exciting and travel-heavy your life has been, but this certainly made a lasting impression on me. My photos of the central highlands don't really do it justice, because it's hard to grasp the sweeping majesty of the panoramic vistas when rendered in 2D. Suffice to say, though, that it was incredible. I've said 'lush vegetation' quite a few times above, in reference to Phong Nha, but this was even lusher, if that's a word (which Blogger spellcheck tells me it isn't).
We passed sugar cane plantations, coffee bean plantations, beautiful verdant rice paddies, towering hills lined with palm trees. We frequently had to come to a screeching halt to allow crowds of pigs, goats or water buffalo to meander at their own pace across the roads. We stopped at a huge waterfall and clambered around slippery muddy rocks to try and get closer to where it hit the river.
The downside to going up 1500m into the mountains is that we got drenched. I remember several hours of biking through thick cloud that poured rain onto us with a vengeance, thanking heaven for the visor on my helmet. Our motorbike guides had, of course, come prepared for this. I was given some very durable thick green waterproofs, which made my journey a bit of a breeze, as the only bit of me getting wet was my feet. My travelling companion was not so lucky - he was given a flimsy neon yellow rain poncho, which kept his torso dry but not much else, and that was when it hadn't ripped to pieces, as those things do easily.
Our motorbike guides were, I suspect, completely and utterly mad. They were also great fun, largely because we had no idea where we were going or what we were doing most of the time, so never knew what to expect. Our trips were frequently punctuated with stops for hot tea: the cooler temperatures of the highlands made this a real reward, and that was the only tea I managed to drink in Vietnam, it being too damn hot the rest of the time to stomach it. This also meant that our first food stop, where we ate a delicious broth with shrimp and pork meatballs and rice noodles, was also the first time I'd eaten noodle soup when I wasn't sweating profusely from the humidity.
I don't think we got the most favourable impression of Dalat. Supposed to be incredibly beautiful, like a cross between Vietnam and the French riviera, Dalat is where many Vietnamese go for their honeymoon (including our motorbike driver). However, we arrived in the dusk, in the pouring rain, and went straight to our hotel, where we shivered away wishing we'd thought to bring jumpers or socks - it was like England in temperature. We went and had something to eat, wandered around a little night market where I tried artichoke tea (as horrible as it sounds), but were so exhausted by the journey and the cold that we just went to bed afterwards. The next morning we left early.
I'm sure Dalat has its charms, but unfortunately I never saw them. It's known, though, for its flower and fruit/vegetable production - because its climate is so much cooler than the rest of Vietnam, things can be grown there that you won't find elsewhere, like strawberries, artichokes, and a huge variety of fresh flowers. We visited one of the huge greenhouses where they grow these flowers. I nearly bought a jar of Dalat strawberry jam, before remembering that I come from England, where the strawberry is pretty much our national fruit. I also remember passing lots of persimmon orchards on our journey, and seeing huge bags of them piled up by the road, waiting to be transported somewhere. For some reason they harvest them when they're green, which I presume means underripe. I wonder why - perhaps for making some kind of chutney or paste for savoury cooking, perhaps.
It does amaze me a bit that the Vietnamese use unripe papaya and mango so much in their cooking - when unripe, the taste of these is pretty similar to any crunchy vegetable, so it seems like such a waste, when a ripe, golden papaya or mango is such a beautiful thing!
On our way to the next stop, we paused to visit the 'weasel coffee' farm. If you haven't heard of weasel coffee, it's basically as follows: in the past, weasels in the wild would eat coffee beans. They were discerning, and would only sniff out and eat the best coffee beans. Some bright spark came up with the idea of harvesting the beans that the weasels had excreted, and grinding it to brew coffee. The result is hugely expensive and considered a real delicacy in the coffee world. However, the practice has become hugely industrialised, and weasels are now just kept in small cages and force-fed coffee beans. This means that they are constantly high on caffeine and unable to sleep, and the entire practice is just disgusting. I was really upset at seeing the poor weasels in their cages, some chasing their tails out of madness, some simply slumped in a corner having appeared to give up hope. I was really tempted to let them out of their cages, but figured it wasn't really my place to do that. Our guides asked us if we wanted to try the coffee, but I refused; I was so horrified by the sight of the weasels. If you do ever go to south east Asia, and are offered weasel coffee, I'd urge you to think twice about implicitly condoning something so awful.
Our next stop was Dak Lak, a beautiful lake in the middle of the highlands. We stayed in a small village there, and when I went for a walk by the lake at sunset (spectacular views), I was accosted by some of the local children. All they could say in English was 'hello', but they made up for the language barrier by shouting it with great vehemence while they waved and made the peace sign at me. I took a photo of them with my camera, and they were mesmerised to see themselves appear in the little preview screen. They also didn't seem to grasp how cameras work, that you're supposed to stand still for photos - so I have about fifty photos of various blurry Vietnamese children in a state of wild excitement. It was lovely, though - they were so friendly.
The food at Dak Lak was nothing too exciting, but very good. The best part was the stir-fried 'morning glory', a long, green leafy vegetable that frequently appeared as a side dish to meals in Vietnam. It seems to be fried with garlic until tender but still crunchy, and is really delicious - I could eat it by the plateful with just some rice for dinner.
The next day we rode an elephant, which would perhaps have been more exciting had our elephant not been the most reluctant quadruped in the history of the earth, more concerned with stopping and wrapping its trunk around various items of foliage than actually carrying us anywhere. I know this because the man riding behind us, who got on his elephant about half an hour after we got on ours, overtook us. The elephant took us through the lake, which was quite funny - its little trunk stuck up like a periscope, and every now and again it would grab at some lotus plants from under the water.
Then, a mere 240km on the bike later, we were back in Nha Trang. I remember the return journey because we stopped for some of the most amazing seafood I've ever eaten, again in one of those little roadside establishments that seems to be more like someone's house. There was a fish and tamarind soup, some spicy grilled fish steaks (I think tuna), stir-fried squid with pineapple, mango salad, and fried whole white fish. I remember our guides being apologetic, saying that because it was seafood it would be a bit more expensive than our meals had been so far. By this, they meant it would cost £2 instead of the usual £1.50. I couldn't believe it, and told them that the same meal would probably cost around £40 in England. They laughed, thinking I was exaggerating.
That night, we took the overnight bus from Nha Trang to Saigon. We stocked up on banh mi for the journey, and also these lovely little buns that were like Chinese barbecue pork buns, except they cost about 5p, not the £4 or so you pay in England. There were white ones with a meat filling, and pale green ones with a sweet desiccated coconut filling, which were so tasty - the perfect travelling food.
The bus was clearly designed with no human being in mind, and was one of the least comfortable experiences of my life. I didn't sleep at all. However, the experience prompted me to seek out a breakfast more indulgent than the baguette and eggs offered by our hotel, and for this I thank it, because we discovered a great little roadside cafe just outside the hotel that made the most wonderful fruit salads and pancakes.
Every morning in Saigon for four days we would go there, and I would order a pancake, either pineapple or mango, and a plate of ripe papaya. The pancake was a giant crepe, crispy on the outside and soft in the centre, folded around a golden mass of juicy, stickily ripe pineapple or mango. The papaya was the most incredible marigold colour, so much more vivid than I've ever encountered over in the UK, and meltingly delicious. Honestly, remembering those breakfasts makes me almost want to cry. It was such a nice experience just to sit there and watch the bustle of Saigon's backpacker district going noisily past while indulging in my favourite thing, exotic fruit. I did, though, in a nod to my native country, order a Lipton's tea one morning. Unfortunately I forgot that tea cools down to drinking temperature in the UK in about four minutes, but in Vietnam, where the air is practically the same temperature as the just-brewed tea, it takes somewhat longer. Burnt mouth.
.As an interlude during our time in Saigon, we took a two-day cycling tour of the Mekong Delta. You can do this tour by boat, but I'm so glad we cycled it. You get to see things that you wouldn't see from sitting on a crowded tourist boat, plus you completely exhaust yourself, in a good way. I think we cycled more than 30 miles each day, or around 6 hours, which when you consider the rough, often very muddy terrain, and the 36-37C heat, makes for a pretty tiring trip. There was also the rain, which made the ground almost impassably muddy in places. Mekong mud is brick-red, and I can confirm that even five washes will still not remove it entirely from a white T-shirt. I can't remember if our bikes had mudguards, but the state of our besplattered backs definitely suggested otherwise. Plus, helmet hair after all that humidity? Not an attractive thing (see photo below for proof).
Despite the lack of glamour, it was a great trip. The highlight of the first day was travelling through durian fruit orchards, where I finally got to sample this infamous fruit. If you haven't heard of the durian fruit, you clearly need to up your fruit-based knowledge. This gigantic, spiky fruit is notorious throughout Asia for its pungent smell, often described to resemble rotting flesh. So powerful is this aroma that the fruit is banned on most forms of public transport. I've seen stalls selling durian fruit in Chinatown in London, and they always display signs stating that you cannot return or refund the fruits, presumably because people buy them, get them home, and then worry they've brought Satan in fruit form into their kitchens.
Naturally, I was expecting revelations from this fruit. It certainly has a forbidding exterior. Some durian fruits reach at least a foot in size. Their spiky outer casing is incredibly sharp - if one fell from a tree onto your head, I reckon you'd definitely be brain damaged, if not dead. Inside, there are several fruits, round or oblong shaped, a pale yellow colour with a texture that slightly resembles banana and a big stone inside. Our guide cut one open and handed me a piece.
I sniffed it. There was no recoiling from the assault of rotting flesh, no wrinkling of the nose. In fact, I realised that the smell of the durian fruit was something I'd been inhaling for most of my trip in Vietnam so far. Its sickly sweet pungency pervades the markets and street stalls; although durian are usually sold intact, or peeled but tightly wrapped in cling film, so strong is their scent that it somehow gets everywhere, overwhelming anything else in the air.
It's not nearly as hideous as I'd been led to believe. I'd say the smell is more like rotting fruit - a very sweet sickliness that reminds me of the smell of dustbin trucks. It's really not that unpleasant. I tasted the fruit, which has a texture somewhere between buffalo mozzarella and banana, in that its stringy but also squidgy and mushy at the same time. I have to say, I quite liked it. The American boys in our tour group had been going on about how disgusting it was and how they'd tried it the day before and still couldn't get the revolting taste out of their mouths.
I told them to man up. It was fine, and actually quite nice. It occurred to me that its sweet, vanilla-y, almost custard-like nature would work very well in an ice cream. (And a few days later I tried just that, at an ice cream parlour in Cambodia - but read on for that...) However, it was so sickly sweet that I could only manage a few mouthfuls. It's not something I'd crave and eat by the bowlful, unlike papaya and mango, or my new favourites, mangosteens.
We also tried rambutans on our bike ride, as they were being sold in huge piles by the side of the road. These taste a little like lychees, but their texture is much firmer, they are round instead of oval, and they have much less perfume and juice about them. They're more subtle and crunchy, and a great snack for exhausted, saddle-sore, sweating cyclists. We also sampled jackfruit, which is a beautiful glossy yellow colour and has a firm, crunchy texture and delicate flavour. It reminded me a little of crunchy persimmon fruit.
The food on our cycle tour was excellent, often prepared in the homes or restaurants of the local residents. Seafood and fish were the staples: fat grilled prawns with lime juice and salt, crispy 'elephant ear' fish shredded and placed into fresh spring rolls with noodles and herbs, banh xao pancakes, lemongrass chicken, tamarind fish soup, fresh pomelo, taro chips. On the second day we watched the locals making coconut candy, which is a sort of caramel-like sweet made with coconut milk, and popped rice - like rice crispies, made by tossing rice around a very hot wok.
You can see why they call the Mekong Delta the 'rice bowl' of Vietnam - its proximity to the river and its lush, fertile vegetation, fruits burdening the boughs of their trees, suggests abundance and plenty. I'd like to have seen more of the different towns along the river, but I think our two-day preview was a good introduction. A particular highlight was on day one: sheltering from a sudden tropical downpour, we ended up packed into a sort of corrugated iron bus shelter with a load of the local Vietnamese. Unable to speak a word of English, and us barely able to speak any Vietnamese, the only logical consequence followed: the boys in our group ended up in a furious arm-wrestling contest with a strapping young Vietnamese man. Much hilarity (and shouting) was had on both sides.
After returning to Saigon and spending the morning being driven to the 'Chinatown' area and back on a rickshaw, we took a 45-minute flight to Siam Reap, Cambodia, which has the cutest airport ever - basically a little wooden hut surrounded by palm trees. After a short tuk-tuk ride we found our hotel, the wonderful Golden Banana - if you're going to Siam Reap, stay here. The rooms are beautiful, the courtyard gardens are gorgeous, the pool is fantastic and the food is great. We explored the town in the evening.
I was expecting Siam Reap to be simply a convenient location to stay to access the temples of Angkor Wat (which is why we were there), but it's a pretty little town in its own right. Quite touristy, yes, but in a charming rather than a nauseating way. The locals were much friendlier than in Vietnam, although infinitely more hassley in trying to get you to buy their stuff. After a while I managed to acclimatise my ears not to take in the constant cries of 'Hello lady, you buy something?' One shopkeeper adopted the interesting tactic of whining shrilly at us until we were forced to give in. The market is fantastic, particularly the food section, where I bought big bags of palm sugar and dried coconut powder, along with lime leaf tea which is delicious.
Apart from a visit to Tonle Sap, the gigantic lake in the centre of Cambodia where we visited a fishing village, a crocodile farm and got to hold a python, we spent pretty much all of our time in Siam Reap at the Angkor Wat complex. Suffice to say it's one of those tourist attractions that is totally worth it. You could spend weeks wandering the atmospheric ruins, pretending you're in Tomb Raider and marvelling at the ingenuity of the builders of the past. My favourite temples were those that had been completely overgrown by trees, some with roots bigger than me, snaking their way amongst the stones and causing walls to crumble under their weight.
Surrounded by unbelievably green vegetation and palm trees, the temples were quite something. My favourite was Bantreay Srei, 30km outside Siam Reap and surrounded by moats, featuring some wonderful stone carvings of monkeys. The weather was ridiculously humid the whole time, which made clambering over ruins a bit of a challenge. Fortunately, some enterprising Cambodian women had set up shop outside the temples selling sticky rice cakes - sweet banana encased in sticky rice, wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled until the outside turned crunchy and caramelised while the inside was gooey, sweet and sticky. These were the most delicious snack, sweet, filling and incredibly moreish. Better still, they cost a dollar for two (see below).
We ate very well in Siam Reap. On our first night we had fresh spring rolls and seafood fried rice with pineapple at a family-run street food stall. Our waiter was an adorable little boy who seemed to take great pride in this role. On the second night we ate at the Golden Banana, and I had my first taste of 'Amok', one of Cambodia's most famous dishes. This is basically fish in a coconut curry broth, but the hotel variation was fish steamed in a banana leaf and topped with an incredible concentrated coconut sauce; sweet, rich and spicy, it was fabulous against the tender smoky fish. We then had another version of this the next day at the temples. Sweating, exhausted and in desperate need of sustenance, we were advised by our tuk-tuk driver to eat at a little souvenir stall in front of one of the temples. It was the kind of place I'd normally avoid like the plague, being smack bang in the middle of a tourist attraction, featuring a lurid yellow 'English menu', and therefore inevitably offering inferior overpriced food. Yet when our food arrived - a huge bowl of steaming, vivid green broth, rich with coconut milk and sweet/sour/salty in that beautiful way south-east Asian broths are, containing juicy chunks of meaty fish (see below) - I was forced to eat both my lunch and my words.
That's the great thing about south-east Asia - places that in Europe would be awful eating establishments often produce the most delicious food. Our amok was fresh and absolutely delicious, just the thing for reviving our tired souls. Similarly, we had another excellent meal at a touristy restaurant near the temples - stir-fried chicken with pineapple and tomato, which sounds bizarre but is a great combination, the sweetness of the pineapple balancing the savoury acidic tomato.
We ate twice at Haven, a restaurant that provides work for orphaned Cambodian children (one of the things that struck me while visiting both the town and the countryside of Siam Reap was how many social welfare projects the Cambodians have going on). The food here was excellent: both times I had salads, the first a green mango version and the second a chicken and banana flower one. These were quite typical south-east Asian salads: crunchy vegetables with a sweet/sour/salty dressing, perfect for the humid weather.
Also perfect was the ice cream from Blue Pumpkin Café, which I'm devastated we only found on our last day. There were about thirty different flavours, so many of them unusual and incredibly enticing: ginger and black sesame; lemon and kaffir lime; banana and galangal; dragon fruit; pineapple and candied pineapple; honey and star anise...I had real trouble deciding, but eventually had a gigantic bowl of ginger and black sesame, four spice (which tasted a bit like mixed spice made into ice cream - delicious), and durian fruit. I did think when I tried the durian fruit that it would make good ice cream, and I wasn't wrong - it has a lovely sweet custardy flavour to it which works very well combined with sugar and frozen.
Our flight back from Siam Reap to Saigon was atrocious. We took off into a lightning storm, and the plane was thrown around from side to side in the turbulence. I honestly, hand on heart, thought I was going to die. Everyone else on the plane was shrieking, and I promptly burst into hysterical tears. Perhaps alarmingly, my first thought was not for the value of my own life or the inevitable grief of my family, but instead of what a shame it would be if all the beautiful things I had bought in the Siam Reap market were to end up smouldering in the wreckage of the plane. So at least I have my priorities sorted.
When we made it to Saigon alive and intact, I nearly wept with relief. I was in such a good mood I sang along loudly to our taxi driver's CD of power ballads as we zigzagged through the nighttime bustle of Saigon. There was only one thing that was going to calm my agitated nerves, and that was a big bowl of beef pho, eaten at a streetside cafe overlooking a madly busy road alight with speeding mopeds. It seemed only fitting to end our trip with that most simple but delicious Asian classic.
And that was my frenetic, beautiful, terrifying, delicious trip around Vietnam and Cambodia. It was without doubt the best four weeks of my life, and has instilled me with both a fervent desire to go back to that part of the world, and a passionate love of south-east Asian food, a cuisine I wasn't hugely keen on before I went. The combination of seriously comforting ingredients - rice, noodles, meat, coconut, broth - with sharp, vibrant dressings and crunchy vegetables is just unbeatable.
I've often found myself returning from European holidays feeling disgusting and in need of a long session in the pool or on the treadmill and a desire to eat nothing but leaves for a week; not so with Vietnam and Cambodia, where every day I felt healthy and full of energy thanks to the nourishing food. The Vietnamese and the Cambodians really do know how to make the most of contrasting textures and flavours in their food.
It's luxurious and nutritious at the same time, the perfect fuel for a life lived in the hectic, humid madness of these two incredible countries.
I've had a lot of disappointing meals out recently. There's nothing in the world that will sap you of vitality quite like a meal that promised great things and delivered very little. There are various factors that can contribute to a poor restaurant experience, and naturally these will vary depending on the diner. Some people are extremely fussy about tablecloths, background music, or the availability of branded hand wash in the toilets. I, personally, am fussy about portion size, service, balance and the dessert menu.
We had two Malaysian curries: ikan assam pedas, which was a very spicy sweet-sour salmon curry, with a strong lemongrass flavour and nice crunchy vegetables; and the classic beef rendang. The rendang was my favourite dish of the entire evening: the beef was so tender you could pull it apart with chopsticks, and it was cooked in the most exquisite sauce, sweet and rich and slightly tangy, fragrant with coconut and lime. I would have been happy with a plate of that on its own, with some steamed rice (which was also very well cooked, and came in its own little bamboo pot). It's in no way a glamorous plateful, given that it is entirely brown, but don't be put off by this - the flavour is intense and delicious.
The squid was incredibly tender - very hard to achieve with squid - and still tasted juicy and of the sea, not overwhelmed by its peppery batter. It achieved that rare thing with deep-fried food: to be crunchy and crispy but in no way greasy or cloying.
I'd like to introduce you to a new contender for my 'favourite cookbook of all time' award. It's a keeper. It's going to be adorned with sauce splatters, anointed with oil smears, christened with overkeen garlicky fingers and placed in pride of place on my shelf before the summer is out.
When I first picked up my copy of Reza's Indian Spice, kindly sent to me to review by Quadrille Books, I flicked through the pages briefly. I'm pretty good at surmising from the quickest of flicks whether I'm going to be interested in a new cookbook or not. There are several factors that contribute to this:
- The amount and quality of photography (sad to say, but I'm generally not interested if there are no photos - how are you supposed to be drawn in by a dish if you can't see it presented to its full potential?)
- The general style and layout of the pages (although I enjoy the sparseness of - for example - Nigel Slater's books, sometimes simple can mean boring)
- The way the book falls open (yes, this may sound silly, but if the pages aren't going to fall open for you to cook from without holding the book open manually, then that's a pretty useless cookbook - Dan Lepard wins points for Short and Sweet, whereas Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Every Day is severely lacking in this area, requiring the machinations of several pieces of kitchen equipment to keep the pages apart long enough to glance at the ingredients)
- The desserts section (always the one I flick to first, reading the book from back to front, rather like the way a keen sports fan reads a newspaper)
- And, of course, the titles of the dishes and whether they appeal.
Reza Mahammad is a TV chef, and also owns the 'Star of India' restaurant in London. The philosophy behind this book, as it proclaims on the title page, is 'Eastern Recipes for Western Cooks', and I couldn't think of a better summary. Reza was brought up in London, educated in India, and has a house in France. He is passionate about all kinds of cuisine, but even more so about combining them to result in new and fabulous recipes.
This is evident from many of the dishes in the book; 'Frindian' (French/Indian) ideas such as 'Paupiettes of lemon sole with saffron sauce', or a dessert combining a very English ingredient, rhubarb, with the Indian flavours of almonds and oranges. Reza adds cinnamon to a classic celeriac gratin to serve with duck and orange, takes Italian polenta and adds a hefty dose of Indian spice, stuffs a haunch of venison with dried fruit and chilli after rubbing it with anise, cardamom and allspice, puts a spin on meatballs with mint, coriander, ginger, chilli and cumin, uses the very European beetroot in a lemongrass- and lime-infused salad, and even provides recipes for an Indian High Tea, featuring crab samosas, masala tea, sweet potato cakes and saffron halva with pistachios.
The book is simply divided into sections. 'Quick and chic' dishes are exactly what they proclaim themselves to be: chilli-seared mackerel, spicy beef salad, lemon and coriander chicken, and several lassi recipes (mint and cumin, roasted fig, rhubarb, minted mango, strawberry and cardamom) which I thought was a nice touch - you can complete your Eastern feast by stretching the theme as far as the drinks. 'Slow burners' are those that require a bit more cooking time, like sweet and sour stuffed chicken, or 'Royal leg of lamb'; 'Showing Off' are those perfect dinner party dishes designed to impress, like stuffed chillies, stuffed quail, and spice-crusted monkfish; 'Classic Curries' are fairly self-explanatory - think tandoori prawns, red fish curry, chicken in a cashew nut sauce, lamb and potato korma; 'Perfect Partners' are where you'll find all the side dishes and chutneys to accompany your chosen recipe, like mooli and pomegranate salad, roast potatoes with chilli and chaat masala, saffron-roast cauliflower; and, finally, 'Sweet Like Candy' contains the dessert offerings.
So, let's go through my checklist, in case you need any more convincing as to the merits of this book.
The photography is absolutely gorgeous. Truly stunning, with a rather dark and moody aspect that really highlights the exotic qualities of the food, allowing its amazing colours to stand out. The photos of myriad spices scattered over bold backdrops and beautiful crockery are some of my favourite, as is an image of pomegranates on the contents page. Whereas some recipe books post photos of the dish simply to provide a reference point, these images are works of art in themselves, vibrant still lifes that really bring the book alive and infuse you with a zest and passion for the heady spices that are boldly used in each recipe.
The pages are beautifully laid out, with a little description of each dish (I always think this is essential - my favourite part of reading a recipe book is learning about the provenance of each dish; how it relates to others in the country's cuisine, where it originated, how the author feels about it). The font is simple and undistracting, and the ingredients clearly listed. What I particularly like is the little note at the bottom of each recipe recommending a side dish or accompaniment, ranging from simple coconut rice to something more elaborate, like 'sambal with lemon grass', or 'kidney beans with dried lime', all of which can be found later in the book. It's sometimes so hard to know what to pair complex spiced food with, especially if you are a 'Western cook', but this takes all of that stress away, while inspiring you to cook not just one but maybe two or even three dishes from the book at the same time.
Also, the book easily stays open on each page. Towards the beginning and end you might need to gently weigh it down with something (my iPhone normally serves this purpose), but generally it's very easy to cook from. Points for that.
The dessert section is relatively quite small, and I have to say I'm not hugely drawn in by any of them, but that's mainly because quite a lot of milk and cream is involved - think white chocolate, cardamom and rose pannacotta, Vermicelli milk pudding with pistachios, mango creme brulée, and rice pudding with rose petal jam. They all sound lovely, exotic and sweet, but I'm not a big fan of dairy in desserts (apart from cheesecake). This is totally personal, though - I'm sure they taste fabulous if you're a fan of that sort of thing, and once again the photography is gorgeous.
Finally, the titles of the dishes and whether they appeal. You only have to read 'Five jewels dal', 'Persian chicken with saffron and cardamom', 'scallops with coconut and ginger', 'spice-crusted monkfish in tomato sauce', 'duck breasts with orange, ginger and cinnamon', 'lamb pasanda with green mangoes', 'beansprout salad with chargrilled asparagus and coconut', and 'gingered carrots with maple syrup' to understand why I couldn't wait to get cooking. The dishes are at once exotic and familiar, putting an Eastern spin on well-loved European classics, or giving us an authentic version of things we love already - tandoori prawns, chicken masala, beef tikka.
I dived in the day after I received my book, and made the 'sweet potato and goat's cheese samosas'. These use filo pastry and are baked not fried, which Reza seems proud of - it "both makes them healthier and somehow intensifies the flavour of the filling". The filling consists of chunks of cooked sweet potato, mixed with ground toasted cumin seeds (toasting them first gives a wonderful aromatic flavour, which you just don't get with ready-ground cumin), goat's cheese, spring onions, coriander, chilli, cinnamon and garlic. This is wrapped in little filo parcels, which are brushed with butter and scattered with cumin seeds before being baked.
They were a real surprise, one of those dishes where the end result is so much more than the sum of its parts. All the filling ingredients melded together to provide a beautiful soft, rich, deeply aromatic taste sensation, given freshness by the cheese and herbs. Reza recommends serving them with an 'Indo-Italian pesto', using watercress, rocket and coriander with chilli, parmesan, lemon and pine nuts. I didn't have time to make this, so served mine with a simple watercress and pomegranate salad, which was a lovely fresh match for the rich filling. These would be a great dinner party starter; the crunch of the flaky filo against the soft, flavoursome filling is so delicious, and they're great sharing food. I couldn't stop picking them up off the baking sheet and eating them. Allow them to cool a bit, though, and don't eat straight from the oven as I did, or you'll burn your mouth. That's how inviting they are.
I was particularly intrigued by the 'Braised and Fried Beef' recipe. Reza calls it "rich, dark and reminiscent of a Malaysian rendang". It involved an unusual method, in that the beef is braised in rich spiced liquor first before being drained and fried. I couldn't resist the gorgeous combination of spices: cloves, coriander seeds, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, garlic, curry leaves, plus plenty of chilli - the recipe suggested three dried chillies for the spice mix, three fresh green chillies for the braising, then another two green ones for the frying.
I'm so glad I followed my gut feeling and used only one dried chilli and one fresh. If I had followed the original, I think I might be in A&E right now with third degree burns to my mouth. Instead, I was rewarded with a really gorgeous dish. The meat was meltingly tender, with a very deep, rich flavour from all the aromatics, particularly the curry leaves which give off a curious earthy fragrance. It combined wonderfully with the onion and red pepper during the second frying stage, though I wasn't quite sure about the method - Reza suggests frying it along with the remaining cooking liquid, which means that the meat doesn't fry properly as it's soaked in liquid. Instead, I added the liquid bit by bit and ended up with more of a saucy curry (oo-er) than a dry dish, but it was delicious nonetheless. I served it with the coconut rice from the book, which was subtle and a perfect partner to the rich dish, tempering its heat (it wasn't too spicy at all; it had a pleasant kick which enhanced all of the other flavours and I rather enjoyed).
I can think of only one improvement that could be made to this book, and that would be to have a nice glossary at the front or back explaining some of the more unusual ingredients, and giving advice on where to source them. Certain types of chilli, for example, or elusive beasts like asafoetida and fenugreek. They're not the easiest things to get hold of, but if you know what you're looking for and are given the name of a decent online stockist or a recommendation to seek out your local Asian grocer, you'll be on the right track. It's also quite nice to know about the provenance of each of these exotic ingredients, and how they are generally used in Eastern cuisine.
But that is honestly my only slight criticism. I absolutely adore this book. It's beautiful, inspiring, tantalising and truly one to be savoured and cooked from at every possible opportunity.
I'm very excited to share my first ever Daring Cooks challenge. For those of you who don't know/haven't heard of the Daring Kitchen, it's home to two groups - the Daring Cooks and Daring Bakers. Basically the idea is that one member sets a challenge each month for everyone else to follow - usually an interesting and possibly complex recipe that bloggers then work to recreate, posting about their progress on a given date. I've been lurking in the forums for months now, but for one reason or another have never been able to complete the given challenges (I was all set to do one of them, then got food poisoning, was unable to eat for a week and thus missed the deadline!) However, I finally got there and relished the opportunity to make Cha Sui Bao, or Chinese pork buns.
I first tried these on my Mum's birthday this year - we went for dim sum in Cambridge and I insisted we order these, as I'd always been intrigued and had never tried them. What arrived, nestled snugly in their bamboo steamer, wisps of steam gently curling around them, were glorious concoctions of meaty, flavoursome pork filling encased in a feather-light duvet of dough. The dough was pure white, with the incredible cloud-like texture of a marshmallow. It was slightly sweet, which went really well with the richness of the pork filling. I enjoyed these immensely, and announced to my family my intention to recreate them at some point.
Fortunate, then, that December's Daring Cooks challenge required just that.
To start with, I made the pork filling for the recipe. Sara suggested two different marinades for the pork; I opted for the first one, which used red food colouring to give an 'authentic' look. I put the pork (pork fillet or tenderloin) in a nice bath of garlic, ginger, soy sauce, honey, hoi sin, rice wine, sesame oil and five spice (among other ingredients) and left it to marinate for a day or so.
Next, I cooked the pork for the filling. Sara suggested three methods: baking in the oven, searing in a pan then baking in the oven, or barbecuing. Given that barbecues in my house take about four hours and are strictly reserved for the height of summer, I opted for method number two. I pan-seared the pork, put it in the oven for 15 minutes, and was rewarded with beautifully moist meat with a gorgeous charred exterior. It was so delicious, I ended up eating half of it while dicing it for the next step (leftovers, incidentally, were excellent the next day stir-fried with some vegetables).
Next, I stir-fried the cubed pork with more soy sauce, hoi sin, spring onions, and some stock and cornflour to thicken the mixture. It was then ready to fill the buns. I did find the pork filling a little on the sweet side - if when I make these again, I think I'll use a little less hoi sin, which is extremely sweet.
I chose to make steamed buns, though Sara also provided a recipe for baked buns. I wanted that gorgeous squishy doughiness that steaming gives, that I remembered so well from my dim sum lunch. The recipe required me to make a basic dough, using milk instead of water, along with flour, a little oil, a little sugar and some salt. This was left to rise for a couple of hours.
Filling the buns was rather like making ravioli. I divided the risen dough into 20 portions, rolled each out into a little flat circle, then put a teaspoon of filling in the centre before pulling the dough up around the pork. They looked like miniature sacks of money or potatoes when I was finished. They then were left to rest for 20 minutes before I put them in a steamer to cook them. I don't have a bamboo steamer so I used an ordinary metal steamer, and it worked fine.
The result? Wonderful. The dough was soft and light, the filling meaty and rich with a hint of sweetness as well as the punch of garlic and ginger. I served these with a big bowl of stir-fried vegetables, and it was one of the most simple yet satisfying meals I've had lately. I just adore that combination of squidgy dough with a rich, dense filling - it's why I love ravioli so much.
I think I'll have to make these again, and I'd really recommend trying them. They're not particularly difficult to make - if you marinate the pork and prepare the filling one evening, all you have to do the next day is make and fill the dough, which requires very little hands-on time (no faffing around rolling out dough through a machine, like with ravioli).
I love how sweet and self-contained they are, gorgeous little parcels of meaty goodness. The filling especially is fabulous - if you don't get round to making buns, I'd really recommend the delicious marinade for the pork - you could just serve it sliced in a stir fry or with some rice and greens. It's quite sweet, but with plenty of tang from the garlic, ginger, soy and five-spice. My Mum remarked that it tasted "very authentic". As someone with more experience of eating Chinese food than myself, I take that as a compliment.
One thing, though - my dough did not achieve that white marshmallow-like texture that I remember from the restaurant. Any idea how they get that? Mine was more the colour of uncooked bread dough, and not quite as fluffy as the restaurant's pork buns (though it was still really light and lovely).
If anyone has any insider knowledge I'd love to hear it!
For the challenge recipe, click here.
Chillies are not something I look kindly on.
Nor would you, if you had spent an excrutiatingly painful night tossing and turning in your bed, clutching a fridge-cold beer bottle, much to the apprehension of your mother, in an attempt to stem the burning pain in your left hand, reminiscent of the kind of sensation you might experience were you forced to hold on to the scalding tail of SATAN for five hours.
My bad experience with chillies occurred as a result of a batch of tomato and chilli jam. Five normal chillies went into the pot; five chillies that I had to painstakingly deseed and finely chop. Five chillies that somehow leeched their filthy fiery chemicals into my pores and left my fingers practically cremated. Five chillies that were your average supermarket type, not even a Scotch Bonnet or a Birds Eye. At least then I might have expected such an incident.
I'm just glad I hadn't done the taste test to check how hot my chillies were before I cooked with them. I rather like my tongue, it's useful, and it would have been a shame for it to have been singed off.
No, I hadn't worn gloves. Yes, I am a fool. Yes, I did try every possible remedy for the conflagration occurring in my left hand. I stuck it in half a lemon. I left it in a bowl of milk. I rubbed it with olive oil. I soaked it in soapy water. I scoured it with bicarbonate of soda. Nothing worked to alleviate the intense incineration. My mother called NHS Direct, fearing I was having some sort of allergic reaction. I eventually fell asleep from sheer exhaustion at around 4am, but that was one unpleasant night. It remains, to this day, the single most painful thing that's ever happened to me.
Which makes me a bit of a wimp, really.
Needless to say, I've never been comfortable cooking with chillies. This has extended itself to mean that I've never been comfortable with Asian cuisine. When I say Asian, I'm talking about Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese food, rather than Middle Eastern, which I feel a bit more adept at. I think this lack of confidence stems from two things. Firstly, I've made a lot of stir fries and other Asian dishes which have turned out disappointingly bland. Not in terms of heat or spice, just lacking a certain zest and vibrance which I'd expect from this type of cooking.
Secondly, as you may infer from the above,
I'm really not a fan of chilli.
When I see it in a recipe, I normally mentally discard it from the list of ingredients. Burning tastebuds just don't do anything for me. If anything, chilli detracts from the other flavours in a dish, rather than enhancing them, particularly if it's a delicate ingredient like crab or scallops. Why ruin a perfectly good crab linguine by adding a load of chilli?
I'm sure many of you will clamour to tell me how I'm oh so wrong. Maybe I haven't been trying the right recipes. Maybe I just need to man up and start toasting those tastebuds, recover from the PTSD of my chilli trauma and embrace that feisty little capiscum.
I don't know what put me off attempting more stir fries and the like, but I know what's persuaded me to give them another go, lately.
I recently got a copy of Bill Granger's Everyday Asian cookbook (don't worry, this isn't a shameless plug or a PR-endorsed post - I genuinely want to tell you all how great it is), and I've already made at least five of the recipes in quick succession. They're quick, easy, don't require a myriad of complex ingredients, and so far they have all tasted brilliant.
My favourite was a Vietnamese lemongrass chicken dish, with lots of zesty citrus notes and a golden turmeric-infused sauce. It was everything I'd expect from this type of cooking: fresh, tangy, slightly spicy, moreish, meaty. I absolutely adore lemongrass, for the same reason I adore limes. They both have the freshness of lemon, but possess a more alluring fragrance, somehow; richer, sweeter, zestier. The scent of lemongrass as you slice through its woody fibres with a fearsomely sharp knife is one of my treasured kitchen moments. I love removing its fibrous exterior to reach the tender purple heart within, whose blades can be rubbed between your fingertips to release that intoxicating aroma.
Perhaps it's also because the smell of a freshly cut lime reminds me of a freshly poured gin and tonic, which can only be a pleasant mental association. I do love a spot of gin.
Another brilliant recipe from Bill's book is the salmon marinated in soy sauce, mirin and brown sugar. It's rather like a teriyaki; you end up with beautifully moist fish that flakes apart, its skin seared and stained dark on the outside with salty soy and sweet sugar, giving way to a brilliantly coral interior. It achieves that perfect and satisfying balance between sweet and salty, and is excellent on a bed of sticky rice with some steamed greens.
Sticky rice is my new favourite accompaniment to everything. It feels much more of a treat than regular rice, somehow. Perhaps because it reminds me of sushi which a) I love and b) really is a treat because it's so darn expensive. Perhaps because it's more stodgy than regular rice, and my avid readers will know how much I love my carbs; the stodgier the better.
So a lot of my cooking lately has endeavoured to feature that unbeatable combination of saltiness, sweetness, richness, and a hint of spice. Not too much chilli, not enough to detract from the other flavours, but I'm starting to wean myself onto it. It helps that I have a friend who is an avid grower of all sorts of weird and wonderful chillies, frequently posting photos of his latest chilli-growing exploits on Facebook and regaling me with tales about the individual characteristics of each unique specimen. He's inspired me to be a bit more adventurous.
However, I still wash my hands in an OCD-style frenzy whenever I've been in close proximity to a chilli (I won't talk about the time some chilli crossed paths with one of my contact lenses...let's just say I fully expected to be blind when I finally took my eye away from the cold tap), and I always start by using about an eighth of a chilli where a recipe specifies one. You can always add more at the end if you want more spice; better safe than sorry. My boyfriend, bless his heart, once made me his favourite chicken noodle soup, and proudly dished it up only to find that - for me, at least - it was practically inedible, so hot were the chillies he had used. I spent the dinner alternately wiping the stream of moisture exuding from my nose and eyes and glugging huge gulps of water from a pint glass. In the end I picked out the solid bits of chicken and vegetables and ate them. With water.
Again, these chillies were regular supermarket specimens! The kind marked 'Medium'! (Whose idea of 'medium' heat are they working to? A volcano's?) It seems there are some rogue chillies on the loose amidst Tesco's suppliers. Perhaps the suppliers have a little in-joke about it, putting a few Dorset Nagas in there just for kicks, imagining the eye-popping pain they're going to be causing those hapless Tesco punters and cackling merrily.
Serves me right for shopping at Tesco, I suppose.
In the spirit of all recipes sweet, sticky, salty and spicy, I bring you these Asian-spiced pig cheeks. In a fever of excitement about this amazing new ingredient, I ordered ten from the butcher a while ago. They've been sitting in the freezer for ages, and a couple of weeks ago I had a sudden urge to unearth them and release their full potential. This utterly simple but incredibly delicious recipe does them full justice.
(If you're not sure about cooking with pig cheeks, read my article for lovefood.com here - it's a good introduction to a rather scary-sounding ingredient, and tells you why you really should be seeking out this incredibly underrated, and very economical, cut).
The real joy of this recipe is the marinade; it's rich with salty soy sauce and warming sesame oil, spicy chilli, sweet honey, the tang of mirin and rice vinegar, the fragrance of garlic, the gorgeous warm aniseed note of five spice, and the zesty freshness of ginger. I'm quite proud of it because I invented it myself, (based on a bit of internet scouting - the excellent James Ramsden has a simpler version here - and inspiration from Bill Granger's book). I don't normally follow recipes by the book, but I tend to with Asian ones because I have no idea about Asian food and wouldn't feel comfortable experimenting. This, however, has a bit of that good old Nutmegs, Seven experimental flair to it, in that I added a few things to jazz it up a bit.
The pig cheeks sit in the marinade for a while to soak up all that lovely flavour, then you just sear them in a hot pan before putting them back in the marinade to braise/roast for a couple of hours (it will look like a lot of meat, but they shrink more than you'd expect).
The result is a dish full of gorgeous nuggets of tender meat, so soft you can pull the fibres apart with a spoon, yet deeply rich in flavour. The marinade reduces to a sticky sauce, so dark and mysterious it can't help but promise an intense hit of flavour.
It does: it's incredibly salty, sweet and spicy all at the same time, with a really wonderful fragrance from all the different spices in the five-spice. Anise is very good at cutting through rich foods, so it works particularly well here. You really don't need much sauce - just a drizzle over the meat. Although you think the dish might be a bit dry, the sauce is so intense that a comforting canvas of white rice or noodles provides the perfect contrast. Some crunchy greens on the side are also good for texture and flavour contrast, as well as a little chopped coriander and spring onion scattered over the finished dish to add freshness.
I am really proud of this recipe. It ticks all the boxes, delivering massively on flavour but also on texture. It's rich without being cloying, leaving you feeling refreshed rather than weighed down. It's also a lot spicier than I anticipated, but I really enjoyed it because the spice was balanced by the sugar in the honey. I feel I'm finally breaking boundaries, facing my fears. Soon I might actually heed recipes that tell you to include chilli, instead of just ignoring them (although I'm a bit traumatised by a Jamie Oliver recipe that suggests putting two chopped dried chillies in a pasta dish for four. He clearly isn't using the same dried chillies as I am, because I once ruined a casserole for eight by including HALF of one).
Any leftover meat from this, incidentally, is delicious the next day (if you're not avid carnivores, you might not want a whole three cheeks each - two can be adequate, as they're so rich). I had mine warmed up and served with couscous mixed with chopped apricots and dates, coriander and a segmented orange. Sounds weird, but works really well.
Have you ever had any chilli-related disasters? Any tops tips for alleviating chilli burns?
Sticky Asian-spiced pig cheeks (serves 4):
- 12 pig cheeks
- Rice (or noodles) and greens, to serve
- 4 spring onions, finely chopped
- A handful of coriander, finely chopped
- For the marinade:
- 2 tbsp mirin
- 1 tbsp rice vinegar
- 1 tbsp sesame oil
- 1 tbsp runny honey
- 3 cloves garlic, crushed
- 2 tbsp Chinese five spice
- 3 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 thumb of fresh ginger, grated
- 1 red chilli, finely chopped
Mix together all the marinade ingredients in a shallow ovenproof dish (preferably one with a lid) and add the pig cheeks, turning in the marinade to coat them. Cover with cling film, refrigerate and leave for as long as possible - overnight is good, but even a few hours is fine.
When ready to cook, pre-heat the oven to 160C (150C fan oven). Heat a non-stick frying pan, remove the cheeks from the marinade and sear them in batches until browned all over. Return them to the marinade, stir to coat, then put the dish in the oven for two hours, covered (if your dish doesn't have a lid, use foil). Keep checking it every half hour or so to make sure the marinade isn't starting to dry out - if it is, add a little water.
When the sauce is reduced and sticky and the cheeks are tender, place the meat with the sauce on a bed of rice or noodles alongside some steamed greens (broccoli, pak choi, cabbage or spring greens all work well). Sprinkle with the coriander and spring onions, and serve.
1. This beautiful teapot from ProCook. It's made of glass with a little stainless steel mesh basket inside for the tea, and a polished steel lid. The idea is that you can let your tea brew to your preferred strength just by looking at it - it's always hard to tell in a china teapot how strong it is. This little pot probably holds enough tea for two people. It's small but perfectly formed, a simple design but one that looks rather stylish on the table. You can buy it here for £12, or there's a brushed steel version if you're not sure about glass and tea. I personally don't go in for those fancy tea glasses you can buy. To me, tea should be taken in a cup or a mug. It's not juice. However, I'm perfectly willing to accept a glass teapot when it's as pretty as this one.
2. A wonderful barbecue chicken marinade adapted from delicious magazine. Take 8-10 free-range boneless skinless chicken thighs, and marinate for up to 12 hours in: 300ml yoghurt, 1 tsp ground cumin, 1 tsp ground coriander, 4 crushed garlic cloves, 5cm piece grated ginger, zest and juice of 1 lime, half a red chilli finely chopped, 2 tbsp ground almonds, and a finely chopped bunch of coriander. Barbecue or grill for around 40 minutes until cooked all the way through (I did mine for about 20 minutes on the barbecue and finished off in an oven at 180C for about 20 minutes).
Last night we had our first, and last, barbecue of the year in my house. My family don’t really do barbecues. Even in the days where we did, the process from start to finish, from taking the barbecue out of the shed to wiping the last smear of charcoal-encrusted sausage skin from our chins, would take approximately four hours, and only about five per cent of the cooking would actually take place on the barbecue, the rest relying on the trusty oven to banish all those nasty food poisoning bugs. However, given that we have been blessed with this much-lauded 'Indian summer', I figured it was time to seize the day and see off summer in style before the grey, drizzle and general feeling of dismay set in. I made the above marinade for the chicken, found some beefburgers in the freezer, and grilled some corn on the cob and aubergine slices which I drizzled with tahini yoghurt and scattered with pomegranate seeds. The highlight was the chicken, though.
I normally think marinades are a bit of a disappointing con, that they rarely add much flavour and just tend to evaporate away during cooking. You dutifully put your meat in its marinade early on in the morning, or late at night, and spend the next twelve or so hours anticipating the flavoursome delights of your marinaded meal, only to find that you needn't have bothered, really - there's perhaps a slight hint of garlic and lemon, but you'd have been better off adding the garlic and lemon to the cooked meat. Not so with this marinade - it was utterly divine. There was a lovely tang from the lime, a mellow creaminess from the yoghurt, and a delicious hint of the exotic from the cumin. It reminded me a bit of tandoori chicken, only all the better for having a delightful barbecued exterior.
Admittedly, it's a bit late to be telling you about this now as barbecue season is likely to be over, but save it for next summer. Or just brave the weather/use a grill.
3. Local apples. We've all been there, standing in the fruit aisle at the supermarket, surveying the vast choice of apples in front of us. Braeburn, cox, granny smith, royal gala, golden delicious, jazz. We briefly consider, in a fit of patriotism, the home-grown coxes. We toy with the idea of the British braeburns. And then what do we do? We reach for the expensive bag of foreign, imported Pink Lady apples, because we know they're always going to taste nice - there's no risk of getting a horrible floury texture as can be the case with our own country's offerings. I'm guilty of it too, at times - there's nothing worse than a mushy apple.
However, I've been inspired by all the different varieties appearing at the market stall as summer turns into autumn. First there were the crisp, pink-fleshed Discovery apples. Next the Coxes with their delightful citrus tang. Now there are the Russets, whose flavour is hard to describe - more mellow than some of the tarter varieties, with a lovely crisp texture and beautiful golden skin. Not only are they tasty, they're also incredibly cheap, and come in all shapes and sizes; a far cry from the polished, picture-perfect supermarket specimens. Goodness knows how many were thrown out as 'imperfect'. If you have access to some local apples, I'd suggest you try them - you might be pleasantly surprised. It doesn't hurt to break out of the Pink Lady rut every now and again (and it'll save you money).
4. Orzo pasta. One of those ingredients I've read about and been intrigued by, but have never been able to track down. Clearly I was just being blind, because I found it in Waitrose. It's rice-shaped pasta, ideal for a quicker version of risotto, or for salads. I first ate it in my favourite restaurant in Oxford - Moya - which serves Eastern European cuisine. They have a brilliant salad on the menu with prawns, orzo, and dried cherries. It sounds odd but it's really delicious, with a lovely vinaigrette dressing that holds the whole thing together. I've made a delicious salad with the orzo that I'll be sharing at a later date.
Maybe this book does do exactly what it says on the tin, I thought - turns Asian food into something you can easily enjoy every day. No completely wacky and unsourcable ingredients, no strenuous preparation methods, just brilliant, bold, vibrant flavours. The book was a bargain on Amazon, so I couldn't resist. I'd urge you to buy it just for the absolutely stunning photography, though the recipes themselves are mouthwateringly delicious - I went through and stuck bits of paper in all the 'must-try' dishes, and ended up bookmarking nearly everything. I can't wait to try the rare beef noodle soup with star anise, or the stir-fried butternut squash, or the lemongrass chicken, to name but a few.
My food-related habits are so predictable. A couple of weeks ago I emerged from Italy feeling like I'd eaten an entire pig, and had consequently turned into one. I reached for the lime juice, ginger, chilli and Thai fish sauce to make me feel more human and less porcine. A couple of days ago I emerged from Prague, land of (more) pig and omnipresent dumplings, again feeling more like a farmyard animal ready for slaughter than my normal, relatively healthy self. The remedy? Thai food. Or, at least, vaguely Thai food, because this is in no way authentic and I'm sure would make a Thai person weep. There's just something about the freshness of lime juice, chilli, fish sauce and copious quantities of herbs that will bring life back to the most jaded and over-porked palates.
I'm a big fan of Thai papaya salads, in which unripe papaya is tossed with a zingy dressing and lots of chilli. I had it in a Thai restaurant in Oxford once; I had eaten half of it and sweat had started to bead on my brow and my mouth had started to burn, before I realised why: those lovely crunchy green beans I'd been eating in the salad were in fact whole green chillies. And as everyone knows, the smaller and greener the chilli, the greater the oral inferno. Still, it was delicious; the interplay of sour, salty, hot and sweet is a hallmark of Thai food and incredibly addictive.
I have therefore created something vaguely similar to the Thai papaya salad, but made a few additions. Firstly, some rice noodles, largely because despite feeling clinically obese I was still pretty hungry and I just knew that, sadly, vegetables alone would not cut it. Secondly, I didn't use papaya, but mango. You can substitute underripe mango for the underripe papaya, which was my intention, but the firm specimen I picked up in the supermarket turned out to be deliciously ripe and juicy. The one time I actually want rock hard supermarket mangoes, and they don't have any! Still, this did not matter, especially as I got to nibble all the bits of flesh from around the stone - cook's perk.
I also grated in some cucumber, for its coolness, added some beansprouts and spring onions, for crunch, and then tossed it all with a dressing. This was made from lime juice, finely chopped garlic and chilli, Thai fish sauce, and some sugar to balance the flavours and take the edge off the chilli. After mixing everything together I added a large amount of herbs: coriander, mint and basil, finely chopped and releasing the most delicious peppery aromas. I love all three of these herbs, but they work particularly well combined together; you get the aniseedy notes from the basil, the lemony freshness from the mint, and the lime notes from the coriander.
Finally, some protein in the form of prawns and langoustines. The former I bought cooked and ready-peeled; the latter still had shells on so I sauteed them in some olive oil until pink and crispy. They perched atop the salad, curled up like little pink commas, and it was ready to go. I think it looks great; the yellow of the mango and green of the herbs flecked with little pinpricks of red chilli and topped with those gorgeous salmon-coloured shellfish. A bowl of healthy goodness.
The different elements in this salad work together really well; the sweetness of the mango stops the dressing from being too hot or sour, and the fragrance of the herbs gives it a lovely freshness. All this goes very well with the rich prawns and langoustines, though you could use chicken or beef or perhaps duck instead. The only thing I'd do differently next time is omit most of the beansprouts, or cook them first: raw, they have an unpleasant bitterness that marred the sweet dressing and mango. It might also be easier to serve the mango, cucumber and dressing on top of a bed of rice noodles, rather than trying to toss the whole thing together; they tend to clump without mixing evenly with the dressing.
Minor issues aside, this is the perfect thing to counteract a little (or a lot, in my case) gastronomic over-indulgence. Not a pig or a dumpling in sight.
Thai-style prawn, noodle, mango and lime salad (serves 4):
- 1 medium-ripe mango, grated
- Half a cucumber, grated
- 4 spring onions, finely sliced diagonally
- 2 limes
- 1 red chilli, finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 2 tsp Thai fish sauce
- 2 tsp brown sugar
- Large handfuls of chopped basil, coriander or mint (or all three)
- A packet of beansprouts, raw or briefly stir-fried, as you prefer
- Rice noodles (enough for 4 - see packet instructions)
- 500-600g raw or cooked prawns or langoustines, or both (or use strips of chicken, beef or duck)
First, cook the rice noodles - just pour over enough boiling water to cover and leave to soak.
Meanwhile, make the dressing. Mix the juice of the limes with the chilli, garlic, fish sauce and sugar. Add the mango, cucumber and spring onions. Mix in the herbs (reserve some for garnishing) and beansprouts. Taste - you might want more sugar, fish sauce, lime juice or chilli, depending on your individual preferences.
If your prawns are raw, heat a little olive oil in a frying pan until hot, then add the prawns and cook for a couple of minutes on each side, or until pink. If they're cooked, just add to the salad as they are (you might like to warm them through).
Divide the noodles between four plates. Top with the dressing and mango mixture, then top that with the cooked prawns. Serve garnished with extra herbs and lime wedges to squeeze over.
One of the perils of being obsessed with food is that you constantly carry around with you a mental list of various food-related tasks that you intend to effect at some point in the near future, items from which will pop up in your head in the most unexpected places. You're on the tube and see an advert for pregnancy tests - naturally it immediately causes you to remember that desire to obtain some goose eggs and cook with them. You smell that artificial baked aroma wafting from a nearby Subway and your mind is forcibly recalled to the huge bag of rhubarb in the kitchen that you keep meaning to create a bread recipe for. And - I know this is quite morbid, but I can't help it - you see the deer frolicking around Christ Church meadows and remember that recipe for venison kebabs that you keep meaning to try.
One item on this vast culinary to-do list of mine is to compile a 'Top 20' of my favourite kitchen-related tasks. It seems that whenever I write a blog post, I reference at least one of these: the satisfying sizzle of a steak on a griddle pan; how much I love separating eggs; the sheer unadulterated pleasure there is to be had from driving a ridged scone-cutter into a pillowy mound of moist, fruit-studded dough; the joy of knocking back the air from a risen ball of yeasty bread mixture. I will now add another to that list: I have a little bit of an obsession with any form of pancake.
I don't necessarily mean pancakes of the brunch or dessert variety, though I do have an undeniable adoration for them; Sunday morning is just not quite right without a vast, Pisa-style stack of thick pancakes brimming with chunks of juicy fruit and drizzled with succulent sticky syrup and a sprinkle of icing sugar. But 'pancake' can stretch to cover all sorts of delights: I recently made some carrot and coriander cakes that involved mixing grated carrot and onion, fresh coriander, beaten egg, grated cheese and some cream together to form small cakes. These little orange burgers were placed gently into a pan of shallow oil, until the edges had sizzled and crisped up like an onion bhaji, while the centre remained soft and unctuous, oozing cheese. A variation of these involves grated courgettes, spring onions, dill, mint, and feta cheese, and is another of my favourite recipes and a way of making a lot of people realise that courgettes are actually quite nice.
Fishcakes are, of course, another example, and they even have 'cake' in the title. I just love the action of shaping a stiff mixture into small, flat cakes with one's hands, flouring them, then placing them in the pan and listening to their exterior become golden and crispy. I suppose it's a textural thing: the contrast between the crunchy, caramelised outside and the soft centre. Last night I was really craving that taste sensation, and, having spent the last week in Italy eating nothing but carbohydrates, pork in all its various manifestations, and cheese, I needed something fresh-tasting and healthy to wake up my tastebuds and jolt my - usually acceptable and good at hiding the fact that I am an unashamed glutton - metabolism into action.
I told myself it would be easy. A week without carbohydrates to make up for the excess of Italy, and I would be in no danger of putting on about ten stone. A week without carbohydrates. No problem. I'd done very well the night before: dinner was grilled chicken salad with roasted vegetables, and not a crouton in sight. I should clarify here that I don't mean all carbohydrates - fruit and veg don't count. I basically mean bread, pasta, potatoes and rice. The kind of stuff that, eaten three times a day for a week, will make you feel positively elephantine. At least, in my case, because I normally reserve such foodstuffs for one meal a day only, or I get too sleepy to function.
I could have made Thai-style fishcakes: nothing but fish and aromatics. But I wanted the potato. I needed it to give the fishcakes that essential fluffiness in the middle, that comforting blanket to swaddle the flakes of fish and contrast the crunchy outside of the pan-seared cake. Perhaps I have been spoilt by the fishcakes at the restaurant I work for, which are incredible (a trio of smoked haddock, cod, and salmon cakes, gorgeously crunchy on the outside and still firm and flaky in the middle, served with a tomato salsa and the best chips I've ever eaten). I just didn't think dinner would be as good without potato in the fishcakes. They wouldn't be fishcakes as I know them and fishcakes as I was craving them.
Reader, I failed. I succumbed to the lure of the carbohydrate. But it was only a small amount of potato (two potatoes in the whole recipe, which serves four people), and I feel it gave the necessary bulk to the fishcakes. Besides, if I hadn't put it in, I would only have ended up making some potato wedges and thus eating even more potato than planned. And somehow potato doesn't seem as bad as bread; it does, after all, grow in the ground, therefore it at least pretends to be a vegetable and somehow good for you. Bread, in my eyes, has the nutritional value of a sponge. This is not to say that I don't adore it. But a week in Italy is enough to make most people enact a temporary bread amnesty.
I still wanted the fishcakes to be light and fresh-tasting, so I reached for chilli. Whenever I've overindulged with a lot of heavy, rich food, I always wake up the next day craving chilli (obviously not immediately, as chilli for breakfast is just not something that registers on my Western culinary radar). When I suggested fishcakes for dinner, Jon immediately asked, "Will they have coriander in?" Thus, the addition of Thai flavours to the humble potato was born: lime, lemongrass, ginger, garlic, fish sauce, lime leaves, coriander. I call these Asian fusion fishcakes because they're not authentic Thai fishcakes, but they add an exciting Asian twist to your basic British potato-and-fish combo.
One of the many things I've learned from Masterchef is that one should never combine Asian flavours with potato. John Torode loathes it; every series a new contestant comes along thinking they can produce the definitive Asian-tuber combination, and every series they are forced to hideously and humiliatingly bow down before the mighty Torode and his fusion-food wisdom. Wasabi mash? Always fails. Every time. As does any dish that features potatoes and soy sauce within forking distance of each other. No, don't think you can get away with it because it's a sweet potato and therefore somehow more exotic. You can't. John will spot it and your Masterchef journey will be over.
So really, it was going against every Masterchef-infused cell in my body to couple Thai ingredients with potato, but I did it anyway. This is probably why I'll never be on Masterchef. That and the inevitable crushing humiliation and requirement that I should use revolting phrases such as "raise my game", "incredible journey", "pull it out of the bag" and "this competition means everything". I do, despite being twenty-two and therefore a good four years out of the teenage stage, still cry quite a lot (usually when hungry). But I don't think even my tear ducts could produce the amount of facial saltwater necessary to appear on Masterchef. I'm surprised they haven't started giving contestants a set of Masterchef-embroidered handkerchiefs as well as the trademark aprons.
Back to the fishcakes, while my Masterchef dream collapses in tatters before my (insufficiently weepy) eyes. I blitzed all the aromatics to a fine paste in a blender and mixed with a little fish sauce. I added the cooled mash and flaked cooked fish (I used Vietnamese river cobbler, which seemed rather appropriate in terms of region for Thai fishcakes, and which you can get in Tesco), then shaped the mixture into little cakes, dusted with flour, and chilled for half an hour to make them less likely to fall apart in the pan.
Oh, the sizzle. Such a perfect golden coating when I flipped the cakes over to cook the other side. They held their shape perfectly, browning nicely on each side and remaining soft and yielding in the middle. I served them with some broccoli and corn on the cob (again, not particularly orthodox, but we had some in the fridge to use up and I suddenly remembered that corn on the cob is amazing), and a big drizzle of sweet chilli sauce. I reckon they'd also be good with sticky rice (unless you too have just returned from eating your own body weight in pork and pizza) or some steamed Pak choi seasoned with chilli and soy sauce, or just as a starter with the sweet chilli.
Sorry, unrealistically-ambitious-attempt at-Atkins-diet. Sorry, John Torode. But these are just so damn tasty.
Thai-flavoured fishcakes (serves 3-4):
- 350g firm white fish (cod, haddock, coley, whiting, pollack, etc)
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- Flour for dredging
- 2 large potatoes
- 4 lime leaves (fresh if possible; I used dried)
- 1 red chilli, deseeded
- 1 inch piece root ginger, peeled
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled
- 2 stalks lemongrass, tough end removed and roughly sliced (or 2 tsp lemongrass paste from a jar)
- 2 tsp fish sauce
- Juice of half a lime
- Bunch of fresh coriander
- Lime wedges, to serve
Peel the potatoes if you like (I leave the skins on because I like the texture, and they're full of vitamins apparently), then cut into large pieces and boil until tender. Mash well and leave to cool.
Pre-heat the oven to 190C. Place the fish in a baking dish, drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper and cook for about 10 minutes until cooked through. Flake into small pieces and add to the mashed potatoes.
Roughly chop the ginger, garlic and chilli and put in a blender with the lime leaves, lemongrass, fish sauce, lime juice and coriander. Blend to a rough paste. You can chop it all by hand if you don't have a blender. Add this mixture to the potatoes and fish, and mix well. Taste - you might want some more lime juice or fish sauce.
Shape the mixture into small cakes then place on a floured plate and chill in the fridge for half an hour.
When ready to cook, heat a shallow layer of olive oil in a non-stick frying pan until quite hot (you want the cakes to sizzle when they come into contact with it). Flour the cakes on both sides and add to the hot oil - you will probably need to do this in batches. Cook for about 3 minutes on each side; the outside should be golden brown and the inside warmed through.
Serve with sweet chilli sauce, and steamed or stir-fried greens, along with lime wedges.