Penang! restaurant, Westfield

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.

That is, portions have to be generous, and this INCLUDES starters and desserts (one of my biggest restaurant bugbears is tiny desserts - some people save space for them, you know!); service has to be attentive and friendly, but not obsessively asking if everything is OK every five minutes, and it's definitely a no-no if I've booked a table and the restaurant claim to have no record of it; the dishes have to be well balanced, with enough carbohydrates to complement the meat/fish/vegetables or enough acidity to temper a very rich ingredient like duck or cheese; the dessert menu has to include proper desserts, like crumble, tart and pie - not like creme brûlée or panna cotta, which I consider a pointless waste of calories.

Several of these issues have been involved in my restaurant trips recently. I've had distinctly average pizza, incredibly bland and stodgy 'Asian' food, a delicious but overly rich duck dish which even the beetroot salad couldn't rescue from cloying, two consecutive experiences at the same restaurant where they lost my booking, a lacklustre bowl of 'Thai-flavoured' mussels...all these recollections are hurting me a little. I'm going to stop.

All these dishes were obtained from perfectly respectable restaurants with good internet reviews, which had promised much. Despite the unimpressive food, I've at least learned something: a nice facade, branded hand wash in the toilets, friendly staff and a good ambience are no indication of good food in the restaurant world.

I haven't quite got out of this 'don't judge a restaurant by its peripheral attributes' mentality, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Penang!, a new Malaysian restaurant in Westfield Shepherd's Bush, London. Its location in one of the biggest shopping centres in the UK, its cheery yellow and blue exterior, the exclamation mark at the end of its name, a pain to use in reviews because readers will constantly think I'm joyously exclaiming at them, its slightly odd on-purpose-bad-English on the menu, with titles like 'Little dish for big smile' or 'fun food on stick!'...all these attributes left me somewhat confused, a tad sceptical as to what the food would be like.

I was pleasantly surprised, then, to eat one of the best meals I've had in a long time at Penang!

Penang! does not claim to serve authentic Malaysian cuisine. Rather, it hopes to bring Malaysia's blend of Malay, Indian, Chinese and Thai food to the mass market, to introduce some of the classics of the Malaysian street food scene (the 'capital' of which is Penang, the Malaysian coastal state) to British palates (which sometimes necessitates the toning down of what is a very spicy cuisine). While we consider ourselves pretty au fait with Thai, Chinese and Japanese cuisine in the UK, you don't find much Malaysian food.

The Penang! brand has chosen for its ambassador the character of Mr Zuhri, a 'Malaysian ex-rockstar'. His caricature decorates the menu, and his 'voice' gives a little introduction to each of the dishes. On the back of the menu is Mr Zuhri's handy guide for helping you decide what to eat - simply choose your mood from a list such as 'You no like it hot?', 'You want no meat?' and 'You look for much healthy dish?' and he offers a list of suggestions. While no one could argue that this was sophisticated, it did - against my better judgement - raise a wry smile from me as I perused the menu, which I imagine is the point. It's certainly a memorable dining experience, with your every glance at the menu set to the backdrop of the imaginary Mr Zuhri's garrulous exclamations, and while the whole thing is somewhat gimmicky, I'm willing to forgive them that, as the food is excellent.

The restaurant is bright and airy, a cheery yellow, with a casual set-up: the menus, on brown paper, are on the tables and also serve as placemats. The cutlery (both chopsticks and knives/forks/spoons) stands in holders on each table, along with chilli and soy sauce. There are small plates - as the menu is really designed to be shared, you can order several dishes between your group and help yourself to your own plate. There were lots of families eating at the restaurant when I visited, which perhaps explains the jokey Mr Zuhri aspect - given its location inside a major shopping centre, it does a good job of catering to all tastes and ages.

The menu is divided between small sharing dishes ('Little dish for big smile') and 'Big bowl plates': one-bowl main meals like laksa, steamed sea bass and grilled marinated chicken. There are also satay skewers ('Fun food on stick'), sides (roti, rice, greens, prawn crackers), and desserts. Wanting to try almost everything on the menu, we ordered seven of the small sharing dishes so we could try a selection. I did notice, though, as we were giving the waitress our order, that at around £4-7 each it would easily get very expensive to order three or four of these small plates, particularly when you want to eat everything on the menu. However, as you'd probably order just one curry (£6-7.50) and several of the smaller dishes (around £4), it might still work out fairly reasonably. It is London, I suppose, and the menu does cater for those on a budget by offering the option of a 'big bowl plate', starting at £8.50 for laksa and peaking at £12.50 for a sirloin steak.

I don't normally do pre-dinner cocktails, but if it's a mango mojito I might make an exception. Fortunately just such a thing was on the Penang! menu - a delicious blend of lime, rum, sugar, mint and mango purée. It tasted dangerously like an Innocent smoothie, and I could probably have had three. (And then passed out on the tube home). The 'Penangoska', a blend of lemongrass vodka, fresh lime and mint was also intensely refreshing, though not quite as flavoursome as the mojito. There are several other cocktails as well as a fairly comprehensive wine list. 

This is a food blog, though, so here's the stuff you really care about. I apologise for the slightly odd lighting in the photos - restaurant lighting is never particularly camera-friendly, but hopefully you get the gist.

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.

We also had two smaller dishes, often key components of your standard noodle bar menu: gyoza - thin steamed dumplings with a deliciously tender and juicy prawn filling - and salt and pepper squid, which was gloriously crispy with a spicy, peppery hit. The gyoza were perfect little parcels, slightly chewy with a wonderful fragrant filling, accompanied by a salty dipping sauce. They're one of the healthier-tasting options on the menu, but still very flavoursome.

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.

Nasi goreng, the classic Malaysian fried rice dish, had a good texture, with crunchy vegetables, slightly chewy rice and huge meaty prawns. It was very moreish and savoury, in that way fried rice always is, and was a good side dish to accompany the other treats on the menu, though it might be a bit samey to eat on its own, which I imagine is why it appears as a small sharing dish rather than a one bowl meal.

Another highlight of the menu was the itik, a steamed white bun filled with crispy hoi sin duck. This was exactly like cha siu bao, the Chinese barbecue pork bun, but with duck instead. The bun was perfectly fluffy, and its sweet, meaty filling was delicious. A wonderful contrast of flavours and textures: crunchy spring onion, soft duck, delicate chewy bun...I could have eaten several of these.

Finally, to cleanse our palates, a pomelo salad. I discovered this incredible salad in Vietnam, and the Penang! version did not disappoint, although I'm not sure about the inclusion of tomatoes - the salad itself is so sweet and acidic that the tomatoes are a bit overpowering. There were juicy chunks of sweet pomelo (like a larger, much sweeter and less acidic grapefruit), crunchy leaves and a delicious sweet-sour dressing, with the crunch of peanuts. It is a fabulous addition to a meal otherwise rich in carbohydrates and strong, meaty flavours, offering a refreshing burst of flavour. There are other salads, like mango, available too, which I really like - sometimes you need a dish that is fresh and vibrant to balance the heavier, saltier, richer noodle dishes and curries of Asian cuisine.

The menu recommends 3-4 of the sharing dishes per person, and this seems about right - after seven between us, we were comfortably full. I couldn't resist a dessert, though, since the menu looked so appetising. It's rare for Asian restaurants to offer proper desserts, so I was truly enticed by the prospect of ginger and lemongrass cheesecake, mango pudding, chilli chocolate mousse, or fried banana with ice cream and coconut sauce.

We had the fried banana and the ginger cheesecake. The banana fritters, for so they were, came with creamed sago and a scoop of ice cream. The fritters were delicious, the ice cream lovely, and the texture contrast with the sago was interesting. I'm not really a fan of sago and rice pudding-esque things, though, so it wasn't really my thing. I imagine children would love it though.

The cheesecake, however, was one of the best I've ever had at a restaurant. It was a huge portion - appreciated - of baked cheesecake, with a thick, rich, creamy texture, a crunchy biscuit base, and the most delicious sweet, citrus flavour. It was studded with small pieces of sweet stem ginger, the preserved kind you get in syrup. I've never tried a cheesecake like this before, and now I can't wait to recreate it. Some people might find the portion a little overwhelming, but I'd much rather have too much on my plate than too little. There was quite a lot of cheesecake compared with biscuit base, but again this is not really a complaint. It was gorgeous, one of the most indulgent desserts I've had in a while.

None of the food we ate was particularly fancy. Some of it wasn't much to look at, either - it's hard to present beef rendang, which is all one colour and texture, in a very dignified and elegant way - although the duck bun in its own steamer was a nice touch. But every single dish was delicious, satisfying, and unusual. It looked like food you want to eat - nothing too artful, just presented nicely in a way that invites you to dig in. There is something for everyone on the menu - light fish dishes, rich aromatic curries, healthy noodles and stir fries, grilled meat, soups - and every dish is wonderfully different, bringing its own great combination of textures, flavours and spices. Given that Malaysian cuisine is not about fine-dining faffing around with garnishes, the presentation and design of the dishes makes perfect sense. It's about sharing, digging in, and having a good time without any pretentiousness. 

The atmosphere, menu and staff at Penang! reflect this perfectly. Our waiting staff were very helpful and friendly, frequently topping up our water glasses, something often forgotten in the rush of busy service in most restaurants. The atmosphere is informal, full of people just having a good time and enjoying the food. The menu - its organisation and content - I think perfectly encapsulates the whole point of Penang! - to bring Malaysian street food to the masses. It may not be authentic, but it's a delicious change from the tired Thai and Chinese food we find all too often on the high street. Everything tasted like real effort had gone into each individual dish, rather than the mass-produced feel you can get from some chain restaurants. I hope that as it expands, Penang! doesn't lose this somewhat quirky charm.

Nutmegs, seven dined as a guest of Penang! Thank you very much to the kind people at Penang! for my meal at their restaurant. I look forward to returning some time in the future.

Reza's Indian Spice

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:

  1. 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?)
  2. 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)
  3. 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)
  4. 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)
  5. And, of course, the titles of the dishes and whether they appeal.
Reza's Indian Spice wins on every count. Honestly, I cannot stress what an incredible cookbook this is. I'm not just saying that because I'd very much like Quadrille to continue letting me review their publications; I'm saying it because I was truly stunned by this book and would heartily recommend it to everyone with vim, vigour, zest, passion and gusto.

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.

Five things I love this week

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.

5. Bill Granger's Everyday Asian. I wasn't particularly interested in this cookbook when I first heard about it. Every time I try and cook Asian food (we're talking Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese here - I can manage Indian and Middle Eastern), it ends up disappointing. I can't quite put my finger on why, but it always ends up more bland than I expect, or the noodles stick together horribly, or the sauce isn't quite right. However, out of sheer lack of inspiration I turned to one of Bill's recipes that had been published in a magazine - for sweet chilli stir-fried pork. It was a great success. I tried another - soy and sugar glazed salmon with cucumber salad. Fantastic - like teriyaki but slightly sweeter, the tangy glaze a wonderful match for the moist, rich salmon.

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.