I go through phases with noodle dishes. For a long time it was pad Thai, after I learned the tricks for making it properly (cook the noodles in the sauce, not separately) at a cookery school in Chiang Mai. Then I transitioned to the even easier pad see ew, a deeply-flavoured tangle of thick rice noodles in a silky oyster and soy sauce with scrambled egg and vegetables – perfect once I discovered that ‘having a job’ and ‘spending three hours making a meal each night’ are not always compatible. My ‘diet food’ is a wholesome bowl of Vietnamese chicken pho, sipped soothingly at the end of a strenuous workout, although since I gave up meat I’ve struggled to replace the deep flavour of chicken broth. Then there is tom kha, Thai coconut broth, which always hits the spot no matter what mood you’re in, and to which I add a big handful of rice noodles, though it’s not entirely authentic. When I could afford crab (i.e. before I moved to Denmark), my noodle fix of choice was a bowl of shimmering glass noodles dressed with galangal, yuzu, soy and lime, into which I’d stir fresh crab meat, edamame beans and chunks of pomelo.Read More
I'm thrilled to say that I'm now a writer for Great British Chefs, a fantastic food and recipe resource featuring inspirational chefs and bloggers from all over Britain, coupled with mouthwatering photographs of beautiful dishes that you can recreate at home. I'll be contributing recipes inspired by my garden and my travels on a regular basis, featuring some unusual and exciting ingredients. One of my first recipes is this gorgeous soba noodle salad, featuring dark, nutty buckwheat noodles tossed in a tangy, vibrant dressing of citrussy yuzu juice, shredded galangal, lime juice and soy sauce, topped with garlic seared prawns, pomegranate seeds, cucumber, avocado and grapefruit mint, a fantastic herb from my garden with the unmistakeable zesty flavour of grapefruit. It works beautifully in this zingy, tongue-tingling salad full of contrasting flavours and textures. It's one of my favourite ever recipes, healthy and beautiful and incredibly satisfying to eat. Head over to Great British Chefs for the recipe, and don't forget to have a look at some of my other recent contributions, including blue cheese crusted pork chops with roasted apple and pineapple sage!
Most food writers, cooks and chefs worth their generous seasoning will tell you that their vocation stems from a desire to feed people. It’s hard to argue with that comforting, coddling domestic image of the buoyant, buxom feeder, apron stretched over a reassuring bulk (never trust a skinny chef), oven gloves at the ready as they dish out tray after tray of mouthwatering treats to a table full of rapt admirers armed eagerly with forks and the appetites of adolescents, guests who nurse that most fundamental and primal of human instincts: the desire to be fed. That’s why we cook, we’d have you believe: our life’s purpose is to be the smiling matron bestowing hearty, homely manna upon our loved ones, like a plump bird in a nest surrounded by plaintive little open mouths.Read More
A fabulous combination of soft, comforting noodles bound together with an incredibly complex sweet-sour-citrus dressing, brimming with the tang of lime and the fiery rasp of fresh galangal and the richness of soy, brown sugar and tamarind. There are bright, moreish edamame beans for crunch, chilli for heat, and then the rich, sweet taste of fresh crab meat, all topped off with chunks of sweet pomelo and toasted sesame seeds. I’ve essentially thrown all my favourite far-Eastern flavours into a pan with some noodles and some crab, and it emerged as something far more than the sum of its parts. It’s very loosely based on an incredible dish of glass noodles with crab and garlic that I ate in Vietnam, but with an added arsenal of punchy flavours that magically work beautifully together: the sweet pomelo and yuzu brighten up the rich crab, while the toasted seeds and edamame beans add earthy depth and texture. Go visit the AO at Home blog for the recipe!
There's a recipe in Yotam Ottolenghi's book Plenty, I forget the name of the dish. It's a spicy Asian creation of some sort, the breakfast of choice in a certain far Eastern country. In the blurb at the top of the recipe, Ottolenghi says something along the lines of "Breakfast is the one meal that doesn't cross cultural boundaries." This had never occurred to me before, but upon reading it I realised how true this is. No matter what is offered to me for the breaking of my fast in a country other than my native England, I always find it slightly difficult to begin the day with anything other than my usual, rather English, breakfasts: porridge, granola or homemade bread with jam.Read More
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.
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.