Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The Simple and Irreplaceable Taste of Sunshine

My mother recently came home from a trip around Italy, and like any other vacation-returnee, she brought back a typical assortment of giftable memorabilia. There were some tea towels, aprons and t-shirts but the real treasures were epicurean in nature. Among these priceless jewels were some sundried tomatoes. Dried with some salt to within an inch of their lives, these once voluptuous scarlet pomodoro were ripe and juicy have taken on a whole new persona as intensely dark and rich, twisted, tightly clenched nuggets of deep burgundy fruit that are smoky and earthy but still thrust through with a sharp tang.

As per directions, I soaked a handful in warm water for a few hours. The smell was intoxicating. Like a concentrated tomato consommé brewing, the tomatoes steeped in the water and created a thick burnt sienna tea from which wafted wondrous whiffs of wholesome tomato essence. I sliced some garlic, tossed it with some liberal lashings of olive oil, some fresh tomato and the now softened and sliced dried tomatoes and then let it simmer while I cooked my penne rigate to a couple minutes short of the package directions. Then leaving some of the pasta water in the pan, I ladled on some of the sauce and allowed the pasta to finish cooking and really soak up all of those delicious flavours. I turned off the heat and then stirred in a generous handful of freshly grated grana padano. I adore this cheese. The creaminess helps to balance out the sharp acidity of the dried tomato but it still has that depth of flavour akin to a good parmigiano reggiano. The mix of the fresh and the dried tomatoes provided a playful dynamic dining experience as your senses kept being pulled in different directions: sweet, sour, salty, fresh, smoky, soft, chewy. It was a delight to eat and the pure simplicity of the dish really kept things light. The taste of the sundried tomatoes resonated throughout every morsel but never seemed overwhelming to your taste buds as much of that flavour is aromatic. There really is something magnificently magical and curiously comforting about a big bowl of homecooked pasta :)

Sunday, 7 October 2012

I Can Be Crabby But It Keeps Things Captivating

Much like Tom Yam Gung, Som Tam is likely one of the most lionized lip-smacking local delicacies of Thailand. It is a spicy, sweet and sour salad of shredded green papaya pounded in a mortar with fresh chilies, tomatoes, long beans, fish sauce and palm sugar. As with many other national iconic digestibles everyone seems to have their recipe, but there are some standard variations from the tourist-friendly Som Tum Thai.

If you have noticed the crawly critter in the corner, DON'T PANIC. Allow me to introduce the often overlooked Som Tum Poo (no, not that, poo as in “bpuu” meaning crab in Thai), procured posthaste from the purveyor of portable “papaya pok-pok” who parks at a spot preceding the precincts of my domicile. I also added a portion of Khanom Jeen, a soft white fermented rice noodle often eaten with spicy sauces and raw vegetables (which transforms the salad into Tum Sua). The simple addition of the small crustacean is akin to slipping a sliver of white truffle into an unembellished salad. The result? Sensational alchemy. The fresh piquant flavours of the tangy green papaya, lime juice, hot red chillies sweet tomatoes and palm sugar and the refreshing crunch of juicy long beans can start to fight against each other as the shout for space to scintillate the same senses, so the earthy savoriness of the seafood umami emitted by the tiny crab is a welcome deep undercurrent that dramatically expands the depth of flavour of the dish as a whole. Some may be squeamish at the sight of spindly legs and shiny black shells peeking through your fresh clean veggies but I assure you it is not as extremely exotic as you may think. As a scrumptious shropshire blue is to a plastic wrapped sliced of processed cheese, or a fragrant black truffle is to a can of brine soaked button mushrooms, Tum Poo has a prodigious flavour profile to the straightforward Tum Thai (sans crab) even though both can be as equally satisfying in the right place and at the right time. Besides, isn't it fun to just run around in the streets shouting to strangers that you have crabs?

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Fresh Fruitiness Frolicking Over Lusciously Milky Lamellae

I’ve been craving thick heavy silky smooth dairy products for a while now. Craving like a starved dehydrated dog in the middle of a barren desert staring up a thorny cactus at a fat juicy house cat fanning itself beneath a golden parasol sipping a Moroccan mint tea frappe though an oversized bendy straw from a tall frosted glass. So my friend suggested a quick stop at the Amor kiosk as we foraged the walkways of Central Bangna.
Her suggestion was the neatly assembled Mille Crepe with Strawberry Sauce. The pale yellow of the wafer thin crepes set off the clean milky white of the cream delicately sandwiched between each layer. The slice was not particularly large. I would say it was a sensible size though. I ordered one slice to go and was thrilled to see the generous pot of deep red strawberry sauce taped to the top of the slice box.

The slice lifted out very easily. The delicacy of the crepes and cream beguiled the seemingly absent structural sturdiness. Even unwrapping the protective plastic film from around the perimeter left little lickable residue upon its see-through surface. After taking a moment to admire the soft cleanliness if the alternating white and yellow stripes, it was time to ramp up the volume with the viciously vivid rich red strawberry sauce. It was the foodgasm-inducing food porn money shot. The seed-speckled pulpy coulis of fresh ripe strawberries poured out beautifully from the petit plastic pot. It was not a cheap corn starch concoction of coloured gloop devoid of any sign of actual fruit. It had the naturally sweet fragrance of fresh strawberries and it tasted even better. It was smooth and sweet but not too sweet. The fresh flavour washed over and cleansed your pallet so it was the perfect accompaniment to the creamy crepes. There were about 20 neatly stacked crepes held together by a fluffy Chantilly cream. The crepes themselves may have been ever so slightly underdone, so they could have been too soft if they were meant to stand on their own. But with safety in numbers, the multi-layered culinary construction created a titillating texture for your tongue to play with and the thinly spread cream was sparse enough to let each crepe to be fully experienced in every bite. Some mille crepes are assembled with fewer crepes and thicker layers of cream slathered between them to create greater height with less effort. I must say that Amor has done a delightful deed by deciding to deal with the trouble it takes to stack each crepe upon one another with the optimum amount of subtly sweetened cream without sacrificing structural or textural integrity. Soft and light but still sinfully satisfying, the sharp sweet strawberry sauce and the delectable crepe cake slice are highly recommended for anyone seeking a scrumptious treat.

Friday, 15 June 2012

The Sultry Silk Road to Bracing Ant Bites

Most people out there have had nightmares or seen or heard horror stories about creepy crawly critters so it is fairly understandable that many would find the prospect of putting these petite partitioned pests into their protected pie holes. Of course, your environment plays a big part in your tolerance for unique ingredients. If you’re in Seattle, you’ve got Starbucks. If you live by the sea, you’ve got seafood. If you’re in the forests of South East Asia, you’ve seen silk worms and red ants.

Both dishes were brought down to Bangkok from North East Thailand. These miniature morsels have been lightly seasoned and fried. The silk worms are, as the name suggests, the cute chubby worms that spin cocoons of pure silk which are processed to make your silky soft shirts, skirts and ties. They also make a dainty delectable dinner. The fat and soft contents are encased in a thin crisp capsule that bursts with a lighter force than that of salmon caviar. The flavour is very comparable to prawn, or more specifically prawn heads. They have a savoury sweet shellfish umami swirled in with the musty hums of tiny dried shrimp. I would even describe their texture as akin to a dried shrimp that has been soaked or rehydrated in a cooking process.

These red ants have been cooked, dressed and tossed into a simple Thai style salad. Their tough exteriors have been softened but still provide texture when you bite through their soft bellies, much like a soft boiled pea. The delicate body structures have taken on a lot of the flavours of the salad dressing which is rich with the fragrant flavours of South East Asia. The ants themselves were sweet, salty and savoury with the freshness of lemongrass and the herbal hum of aniseed and nutmeg. You may have to overcome the visual challenge of placing a bug you would usually beat with a baseball bat between your teeth and swallowing but I assure you, the flavour experience is not something to be feared. The textures on your tongue and between your teeth are very much like eating peas, beans or pulses and the flavours provide a welcome wake-up call, interesting but not offensive, to your palette.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Chicken goes Cluck-Cluck, Camel goes Moo

Recently came back from a trip to Abu Dhabi. It was my first time in the Middle East and I was looking forward to stuffing my face with ample array of Arabic eats. For me, the reason why travelling is worth the effort of packing up a boiled-down reduction of the essentials in your life and subjecting yourself to the torturous turmoil of commercial air travel and the moody bipolar whims of airport staff and those who supposedly enforce security by not looking at their screen when a passenger puts their bag through a scanner and forgot to discard her bottle of water and subsequently has a neat souvenir from the UAE that also provided some needed hydration in the car on the way home in Thailand, is the fact that we can experience first-hand a fundamental fragment of a foreign culture by simply sampling the local food.

Extending this idea further, you can find the basic building blocks of a cuisine and culture by looking at the base products and ingredients on hand which is why I love exploring supermarkets to see what the locals favour. I must say, walking the isles of a big supermarket somewhere in Abu Dhabi, the one section that made my jaw drop was the cheese counter. Or counters I should say. Never in my life have I seen such a large and varied selection of cheese on a commercial level. I am certain their repertoire could rival many specialty cheese stores out there. Of course I am still speaking on a commercial scale, so if you want that one type of homemade cheese they make in that one place in the world, by definition, you will not be able to find it anywhere including this vast library of cultured cow juice creations. Cows –now we come to the main subject of this particular post. We are no longer talking about cheese. We are going back one more step and talking about that primal provider of life for all of us mammals: milk.

Step back for a moment and recall where we are in the world. We have landed in the United Arab Emirates. Aside from the ridiculously indulgent 7 star hotels and the most expensive, tall, large, ornate (etc. etc…) structures in the world, what do we think of? Sand dunes, endless desert, sand storms, sand surfing, sand skiing, sandy beaches, sand, sand and sand. And what do we envision ourselves riding across these surreal sand swept landscapes? Jerboas! … Ok, I didn’t have the opportunity to go camping and encounter these adorable desert mice as they bombard you during the night, but I am determined to meet them next time. But seriously, we are talking about the iconic camel. If you have cows, you have cow milk. If you have goats, you have goat milk. So if you have camels, yep, you have camel milk. I was ecstatic to have the opportunity to sample some fresh camel milk plucked off a fluorescent-lit supermarket shelf next to the comparatively boring basic bovine variety.

The inconspicuous plastic packaging in a sense diffused some of the exotic mystery but it also emphasised that wonderful feeling of being somewhere new. I could not walk into a Big C in Bangkok or a Sainsbury’s in London or a QFC in Seattle and grab a petite plastic bottle of camel milk from the refrigerated shelves. Before cracking it open, you can already see that the colour looks like most varieties of milk. A clean opaque pearly white peeks up at you when you pop off the top. It has the faintest blush of a rich cream. Putting it up to my nose, I could smell a rich dairy scent with only a very light hint of a fresh game protein. This experience was reflected in the flavour. I was anxious and excited as I brought it to my lips and took a sip. I let the liquid spread across my tongue and slowly inhaled through my nose to try and experience as much of the taste as possible. It was a rich and heavy milk, akin to the thicker cow milks you find in England, but still not crossing over in to the consistency of cream. The initial hit is a luscious creamy dairy that morphs from a familiar milky taste as it enters your mouth to a grassy game meat scent as it slides down. As you swallow, you notice a salty savouriness which is the stronger flavour in the yoghurt culture finish. The salted yoghurt taste lingers and melds with that fresh grass fragrance to create a unique aftertaste. It was quite an intense experience so I was more than satisfied with the small portion. It is highly recommended for those who are fond of goat, ewe or alternative milk sources but also for anyone curious or wanting to step out of their box, or in this case, milk carton.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Banqueting at Bangna Bacco's and pondering the Baritone of the Bandersnatch

The respect and admiration for the cuisine of Italy is apparent across the world. The wide range of styles, ingredients and flavours provides gentle bridges for people coming from more isolated gastronomic environments. Italian restaurants are a dime a dozen, the challenge is finding a genuinely good one. But, as with any restaurant, I find it a tall order to judge a restaurant as a whole purely based on your meager selections on a single dining experience. People are quick to pass judgement, good or bad, even if based on a single experience at a single point in time. We are back in Bangkok now and Bacco's are nice mid-level Italian restaurants, with the branch near Thonglor having a more boisterous family style atmosphere and the one in the Bangna area emulating a more adult and intimate setting with stylish dim lighting and cozy covered tables. 

There are a few dishes on my”frequent retrieval” shelf of sensory food porn for recreational use. This truffle soup is one of the well thumbed entries. It's a creamy soup that is simultaneously bold and delicate. The smokey tones of truffle are evenly dispersed in the rich creamy and offset by sharper twinges of sweet and salty. This is a definite must for any fans of the funghi. Deep and broad, the multifaceted flavour and all-encompassing aroma swallows your entire being and reverberates through your very soul, burning sultry scars of orgasmic sensory delight like warm bath on a cold winter's day. Or the delicious voice of Benedict Cumberbatch - lol :) xx. And suddenly I've completely lost my train of thought... 

Nothing quite as indulgent as carb on carb action. Whoever decided on smushing soft floofy spuds into their pasta dough was a bloody genius. Gnocchi, for those innocent souls that have yet to encounter it, are little pasta dumplings that usually (not all the time, as I have been told) include fresh potatoes in their mix. It is one of my favourite pasta options, so it was easy for me to decide on this gnocchi and pesto dish for the evening (these little dumplings may appear small but they are dense and very filling so I prefer having them accompanied with a lighter fresher sauce). These gnocchi were made in house. The appearance was nice enough, generously portioned and vibrant and appetising. Sadly, I felt they were a bit too squishy. The flavour, although pleasant, felt diluted and lost as each bite seemed to melt into nothing. Bacco usually satisfies my cravings for Italian without  breaking a sweat but on this particular occasion I was left wanting more. Alas, having been raised by a mother obsessed with not wasting food, I could not abandon my plate for another order. That's just mean. It wasn't bad, just not up to par with some of the other creations I've sampled from their kitchens. And the mome raths outgrabe...

Friday, 10 February 2012

Over-ordering English Indian Takeaway Treats

Ah the delightfully spiced concoctions of Southern Asia. One of the reasons I return the UK is to seek out their national cuisine, Indian food. As with any national food, there is a wide range of regional styles and delicacies. The one in question here is the mystical realm of the British Indian takeaway. As you should know very well by now, I value comfort. Perhaps it's my often suppressed sociopathic tendencies that lead me to feel such successive stresses in daily life and consequently seek the soft warmth of a humble and satisfying meal. Perhaps I just encounter one too many stupid people per day and the frustration just makes me want to bite things. Whatever it is, every one needs some sort of relief – or indeed stimulation – to alter the otherwise linear course of their existence. 
What better way to escape than to curl up under a fluffy duvet and await the nice delivery man's arrival at the door with a smorgasbord of piping hot ready-to-eat delicacies from the exotic reaches of the not-so-far East. Indian takeaway – the salvation of those with un-stocked pantries and zero motivation to step back outside into the world for a meal in a more social setting. 

So one lazy night whilst I was residing on my not-so-little brother's floor, we decided to indulge and over order from one of his new favourite internet-order-enabled Indian takeaways, Pukka Tiffin in Chertsey. Our initial order plan would probably have fed the entire street with leftovers for the next day. We are easily excited by the promise of mouthwatering magic food that appears at your door. After some vaguely sensible order slashing, we decided on the Chicken 65, Tandoori Chicken, Aubergine Masala, Gurkha's Revenge, Keralayan Fish Curry, Fish Masala, Mushroom Rice, Lemon Rice, Garlic Naan and Lychee Lassis (is that the plural for lassi?) – which I think were changed to Mango Lassis due to unavailability. Just the thought is making me salivate again. Damn my addiction to food porn. The total added up to about fifty quid. For three people, seventeen sterling each for a massive supper with plenty leftover for another meal the next day plus the added comfort of having to do naught but sit on out lazy arses playing video games? Yes please. 

Chicken 65 was the osusume number one super sparkling recommendation from my dekke otouto (big little brother). He had me at lime. I'm a sucker for citrus. We were obviously craving copious portions of protein with the double orders of chicken and fish. Even through our vigorous screening process of filtering out unnecessary orders we settled on both a Chicken 65 and the more common takeaway staple of tandoori chicken. It would give us the chance to conduct a comprehensive comparative analysis of the two varieties of grilled poultry. Yes. Not just being greedy bastards, I swear. The plethora of spices that adorned both portions naturally had similarities, but they still remained unique in their own respects. 

That's the glory of good Indian cuisine which I adore. That ability to harness the subtleties of hundreds of flavours and meld them into one sensationally titillating cohesive culinary experience that does not overwhelm all of your senses and make you blind for a day. In regards to the Chicken 65, I would describe this as an Indian variation of honey-lemon chicken. The citrus flavours are quite apparent, but not in an alarming manner. I find some dishes that advertise the promise of tart lemony tantalisation for your tongue fail to deliver. or indeed rape your tonsils and leave you gagging for a glass of water. The balance of spices and citrus in this chicken was beautifully infused into the succulent flesh and provided plenty of excitement for my ever eager taste buds. The smokey depth from seasonings and the tandoor preparation was apparent in both, with the basic tandoori chicken emanating a stronger barbecued savoury fragrance and the 65 providing a brighter sharp splash of refreshment. 

I adore aubergines. I get ecstatic about eggplants when I see them on the menu. From baba ganoush to grilled miso, the soft and juicy flesh of a nice fat eggplant in any style is hard to resist. The sponge-like qualities of the pale vegetable is perfect for absorbing and mellowing out flavours. The delicate custard texture adds a creaminess on your palette but the fibers create just enough structure to retain its structural integrity even when submersed in a rich curry sauce. Sensational saucy dish but I would recommend caution for those with a fear of the squishy. 

You can have so much fun when ordering from an Indian takeaway menu, especially because  there is so much variety in the components of your meal. My carbohydrate choice for the evening was the mushroom rice. I have a fungal fetish. Also, who doesn't feel a flash of excitement when the fluffy foliage of rainbow pilau rice sits sparkling on a platter in front of your face? Steamy and soft, the long grains hold their succinct shapes but unify in a magnificent flurry of delicate flavour in every mouthful you take. The generous sliced button mushrooms add that extra umami punch and lends a hand in calming and aspirating the stronger flavours of the rich curries for a fuller prolonged experience. 

It's always a pleasure to order fish from a restaurant or takeaway. I find the convenience of the already filleted and mostly boneless slabs of seafood so deliciously convenient. The Keralayan fish curry consists of fried cod chunks covered in a copious coating of piquant curry. With plenty of spices to last you till next Tuesday, the potentially tumultuous menagerie are tamed by the coconut milk base and reawakened by the tart tang of tamarind. The delicate white cod pieces are shielded by their deep fried casing which allows the flaky white flesh within to stay as such despite the fervent surroundings. It is a pleasant dish, quenching my craving for both a juicy stimulating sauce and a nice hefty bite of lean protein.

This last order was made out of curiosity more than an actual craving for any of its features in particular. Gurkha's Revenge. Is that a challenge? Consider it accepted, sir. This particular curry is advertised as a dangerously spicy entity that should only be approached by professional fire eaters in hazmat suits. With such potential volcanic heat, we decided on lamb as the sacrificial meat of choice as it is far stronger in texture and flavour than its companions. Perhaps it would appease the curry gods and they would not burn us from the inside out. We were excited. The excitement continued when we lifted the lid and gazed upon the whole dried chili nestled menacingly atop the fiery red sea of sauce. Our forks penetrated the glossy crimson surface and eased into what we could only assume was a morsel of mutton. We retracted our prongs with the samples firmly attached and braced ourselves. After a final glance towards each other with looks telling of the mutual respect, fear and courage we shared in the face of the imminent torture we were about to inflict upon ourselves, we lifted our forks and bit down. 

Nothing. Nothing? Perhaps it was a delayed heat. We proceeded with caution. There were definitely some strong tastes coming through, but I think we were too distracted by the overwhelming anticipation of Scovillian suicide to concentrate on the subtle qualities of the sauce. It was not hot. This wasn't just coming from two palettes that were raised in the fiery kitchens of Thailand. No. It was not hot. In terms of pure heat, it was on par with Keralayan curry providing only a faint susurration on the Scoville scale. A bit of a tingle but definitely not the roller coaster ride we were expecting. A sharp sourness was strongest presence in the dish. After forgetting about indulging in our masochistic tendencies, the lamb and the sauce was reasonably enjoyable, although it may have been a touch too tart. It was quite nice as leftover lunch the next day. Gurkha's Revenge was indeed a dish best served cold.