Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Birthday cook-up round up 4: Laab

Photo courtesy of Lea at Aloha Malaho

One great thing for the foodie working for a big advertising agency with offices around the world is the yummy treats that folk from those offices bring when visiting head office (us!). Being firmly in the saffron side of the culinary world, choccies, nougat, stuffed dates and the nutty things from Dubai and parts around there are especially welcome (g).

But over the years, I've discovered other favourites: Champagne chocolates from Germany, dried fruit from Malaysia and Indonesia, and especially the Chinese and Thai-produced versions of Japanese confectioner Glico's "Pretz" biscuit stick snacks.

And especially, especially the larb version from Thailand. The box says "Thai-style spicy salad" with a picture of a chili and a dish that looks more like mince than a salad.

Here's a picture nicked from an interesting-looking blog in an unknown (Northern European?) language.

The Pretz themselves have a lot going on. They are sort of fishy and chili-y and sourish at the same time: totally addictive. We don't have anything snacky as hot in Japan (except maybe Tyrant Habanero and its sibling snacks, which taste okay, but are built on one of those dodgy unidentifiable chip bases (like Pringles) that are not actually a chip).

So back to the birthday. I was flipping through the current Donna Hay magazine looking for some menu inspiration, and what should I come across but a recipe for larb (or laab, I think it was spelled). Next thing, I'm thinking, well if the replica in biscuit form is that good, how much better must the real thing be??! And wouldn't that be something to surprise my guests with, particularly when one of them is practically an honourary citizen of Thailand, having visited there so often.

Anyway, I wanted an authentic version for my first attempt, hence this recipe from ThaiTable, rather than Donna Hay's.

I did a few things differently (of course (g)). One thing is the shallot, which in the recipe appears to go in raw. But when I tried it raw, it tasted a little hmmmmm-ish to me, and had a grainy and slightly slimy but dry texture (a bit like roll-on deodorant on the tongue!), so it got cooked with the mince in my version.

I would also say that slightly under-cooking the mince (as is traditional but not recommended by the recipe authors) would be better, as this will allow the flavours to soak in more easily, with residual heat finishing the cooking off. I would also suggest draining off most of the liquid that forms when you cook the mince, so that your finished dish is not soaking in the liquor (and so you don't dilute the sharpness of the lime! (g)).

Next time I will be adding plenty more herbs than the recipe says (perhaps they mean stems rather than sprigs??) and garnish with some largish red chili rings (as in the DH mag picture). Large so that they can be taken out easily by those that don't want to eat them.

Also, I left the "toasted rice" out because I've no idea what it is (g).

Note that the recipe yields only a small amount. I doubled it, and it served 6 (alongside various other dishes).

We used salad greens as wrappers for the larb, and a dipping sauce would have been nice with it as well.

Laab: Spicy Thai mince and herb salad

Laab, also known as Larb and Laap, is a northeastern food. It usually eaten as a part of a set (laab, papaya salad and sticky rice.) The set is accompanied by string beans, sliver of cabbage, water spinach and Thai basil. It can be served as an appetizer. It can also be served as a main course along with other non-northeastern food. There are variations of laab, duck laab, chicken laab. Some people like my brother love to include a few pieces of liver in laab.

1-2 Servings

1 tablespoon toasted rice
1/4 shallot, thinly sliced
1-2 limes
1/2 lbs ground pork (beef or chicken)
1/4 tablespoon ground dried chili pepper
3 tablespoons fish sauce
5 sprigs cilantro [coriander], sliced
3 sprigs spearmint
1 green onion [spring onion], sliced

Tips and substitutions
Substitute any ground meat for ground pork. Substitute red onion or just onion for shallot if you like. The spearmint adds zing to the laab.

Squeeze juice from 1/3 of the lime on to the ground pork. Mix well and let it marinade for just a couple of minutes until you are ready to cook it.

For this dish, people normally use a small pot; I use my cast iron pans because they can be heated up really hot, they retain heat well and heat evenly.

Heat up a pan on high until it is very hot. Add two tablespoons of water and then immediately add your marinated pork [S: and shallot or onion, if you prefer them cooked like me] and stir. The pork will stick to the pan at first, but then the juice will come out and the meat will loosen from the bottom. Keep stirring until the pork is well done. Traditionally, the pork is undercooked, but I do not recommend undercooking pork for health reasons.

Put the pork in a bowl a large mixing bowl that will hold all the ingredients. Add fish sauce, green onion, shallot, cilantro, the rest of the lime juice, ground chili pepper and almost all of toasted rice into the bowl. Save some toasted rice to sprinkle on top for garnish. Mix well and taste. It should be a little bit hot. You should be able to taste tartness from the lime juice and the fish sauce. If you need to add more fish sauce or lime juice, don't be afraid. Getting the flavor balance right is a trial and error process.

Put the mixed ingredients in a serving bowl, garnish with spearmint and sprinkle the rest of toasted rice on top. Serve with vegetables like cabbage, green beans, lettuce and Thai basil.


Birthday cook-up round up 3: Kanu Festival tamarind & coconut pullao

Photo courtesy of Lea at Aloha Mahalo

A few years back, when back in Scotland for a sad occasion, one of my uncles had an jolly Easter BBQ and we were invited. It was a bit of an eye opener, as I don't recall even knowing what a barbecue was back in the 1970s, before we emigrated to Australia where, of course, barbecuing is a way of life (g). Well, it seems the Scots have taken to barbecuing in a big way. And not just in terms of slapping a steak on the grill. My uncle's spread had all manner of Indian goodies as well, including a potato dish that I may be reduced to begging to get the recipe for (g).

Anyway, Indian food has been creeping into my repertoire ever since, and I knew I wanted something Indian on the menu for my big party this year. I toyed with a lemon rice dish sharpened with citric acid that I found in a treasure of a book called The Indian Kitchen. But I held back because I had a sharpish recipe in doro wat and injera.

I also thought about Bombay potatoes, which I have promised, but not quite got round to making for my dear friend H. But I just knew that my Japanese and Iranian guests would miss their rice if I didn't have it on the menu.

So instead, I went with this lovely sweet and sour stir-fried rice dish with the works from Najmieh Batmanglij's inspirational Silk Road Cooking: A Vegetarian Journey. Najmieh khanom tells us that the dish is offered for thanksgiving at the Kanu Festival in January. Well, February is close enough, right? Plus who can resist tamarind and spices? Not me, anyway.

The dish is also chock full with sesame seeds, desiccated coconut, sultanas and fresh coriander, making every mouthful an adventure. It also contains asafetida, a flavouring agent that's a bit on the nose (hence the "fetid"), but like all these things, brilliant in small quantities. It is available in Japan from Ohtsuya in Ueno, but can be left out if you can't find it.

Kanu Festival tamarind & coconut pullao

2 cups of rice (long-grain basmati, for preference)
4 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 cup raw peanuts (or salted peanuts, rinsed of their salt (g))
1/2 cup sultanas (or raisins)
1/2 tsp ground asafetida
3/4 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp coriander
2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup raw sesame seeds
green chillies, seeded and sliced, to taste
1/4 cup tamarind paste
1/4 cup sugar (or to taste)
2 tsp salt
1 packed cup unsweetened dessicated coconut
2 cups chopped fresh coriander

1. Cook rice by the absorption method .

2. In a wok or medium-sized non-stick pan, heat 1 tbsp oil over medium heat, add the peanuts and raisins, and stir-fry for 20 seconds. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.

3. In the same wok, heat the remaining oil over medium-high heat until very hot and add the asafetida, mustard seeds, coriander, cumin seeds, black pepper and sesame seeds, and cook for 10 seconds until aromatic (keep a lid handy to catch any seeds that try to pop out). Add the chillies and stir-fry for 20 seconds.

4. Add the tamarind, sugar and salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, add the cooked rice and dessicated coconut, and stir gently with a wooden spoon until the sauce blends thoroughly with the rice [S: this can take a while; be patient]. Adjust seasoning, adding more sugar or tamarind paste as necessary (the rice should have a distinct sweet and sour flavour). Cover and cook over low heat for 5 minutes longer.

5. Remove from heat, uncover, and add the nut mixture and chopped coriander. Fluff the rice gently with a fork. Transfer to serving dish.


Birthday cook-up round up 2: Doro wat & injera

Photo courtesy of Lea at Aloha Mahalo.

A few years ago, the YM and I went to an African Fair organized by JETRO, the Japan External Trade Organization. It was a great event, a sort of trade fair cum tourist promotion cum concert cum fashion show. While we were doing the rounds, we bumped into one of the YM's classmates and her guardian and decided to have lunch together.

There were at least 20 food stalls, so the hardest thing was deciding what to eat! In the end I went for doro wat, the Ethiopian chicken stew, with injera--an Ethiopian "bread"-- rather than rice. As I remember it, the first taste of the stew nearly brought tears to my eyes it was so hot, but deeply flavourful and slightly tart, too. The injera, which looked and tasted to me more like a buckwheat (as in Japanese soba noodles) pancake than a bread, was a sharply lemony revelation. Right up my alley! By now, you probably know me well enough to know I wasn't going to sit still until I had tracked down the recipe.

I immediately ordered The Africa Cookbook: Tastes of a Continent from Amazon, but was disappointed that it did not have a recipe for doro wat. So the Ethiopian project got put on the back burner for a while.

However, some culinary Googling got me a recipe for injera, which in Ethiopia, it seems, takes the place of your table cloth and plate, with whatever dishes you may be having served right on top. I chose this recipe because it has lemon in it, and there is no way you could get the sour taste that really got my tastebuds going without it, I think, even though it is not in the authentic version, apparently.

A recipe for doro wat was not far behind, at an amazing Net resource for all things culinary from the African continent, The Congo Cookbook. I also found an adapted-for-Japan recipe on a site by a Japanese blogger who's even more of a gastro-explorer than me (!!), one Shin-san at Eline Saglik. If you can read Japanese, his food blog is a veritable treasure chest of recipes from virtually every corner of the world. I found his amazing site when looking for stockists (or another recipe) for berbere, the ubiquitous fire powder that gives Ethiopian cooking a kick. He has a recipe for the spice mix here.

Anyway, back to the injera. I know that it is customarily made with a flour called teff, but am not sure if the buckwheaty taste and colour of the version I tried at the African Fair was the result of substituting buckwheat flour for the teff, or whether this teff does actually taste like buckwheat. But given that the YM and I recently took a little trip to a hot spring in Nagano, Japan's buckwheat central, I naturally had to have some fresh buckwheat flour in my first go at injera. The type I bought, however, was white, which resulted in snowy white injera, rather than grey, but they did have a lovely springy texture that you wouldn't get from a regular pancake batter.

I only used the juice of 1 lemon, which was enough to brush one side of each injera with, but I will be brushing both sides next time.

I used the recipe for berbere in The Congo Cookbook. It calls for a "cupboard-full of herbs and spices". With two cupboards, a countertop and a drawer full, I didn't need to buy anything new, but I know not everyone is such a spice junkie, so do check the recipe before you start cooking, just in case (g). I used 1 tsp of cayenne and 4 tbsp of paprika in my mixture, which gave a mild and less red version than that of my first taste, but with Young People in attendance, I didn't want it too hot. As always, I had cayenne on the table for anyone who wanted to spice things up some more (mainly me (g)).

I didn't manage to take any good photos of the doro wat, but my good friend Lea did and put it up on her blog here. It's the second photo. The injera was reheating in the microwave at the time, but I'm sure you can imagine a white "holey" (from the addition of soda water in addition to baking powder!) pancake without too much effort (g).

Doro wat

One of the best-known of all African recipes, Doro Wat (Doro Watt, Doro Wot, Doro Wet, Doro We't, Dorowat) is a spicy Ethiopian chicken dish made with Berbere (a
spice mixture or spice paste) and Niter Kibbeg (or nit'ir qibe, a spicy clarified butter). Berberé and niter kibbeh, basic ingredients in many Ethiopian recipes, are usually made in large quantities and kept on hand for some time. No doubt using berberé and niter kibbeh gives a special quality to Doro Wat. But a very good result can be
obtained by adding the same spices directly to the Doro Wat, instead of indirectly in the berberé spice mix and niter kibbeh.

What you need

juice of one lemon
two teaspoons salt
one chicken (about 3 pounds), cleaned and cut into serving-size pieces...remove skin and score or pierce the meat with a knife to facilitate marinating
two (or more) onions, finely chopped
four tablespoons niter kebbeh (or butter)
four cloves garlic, finely chopped or minced
one piece fresh ginger root -- cleaned, scraped, and chopped (about a teaspoon)
1/2 teaspoon ground fenugreek
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon berberé -- or -- 1 - 2 tablespoons of a combination of cayenne pepper and paprika (if berberé and niter kebbeh are not used) [Saffron: I used 1 tsp of berbere, but will use more next time]
1 small tomato, chopped or a few tablespoons tomato paste or tomato sauce (optional)
1 cup chicken stock, water, or dry red wine
hard-boiled eggs (1 per person), pierced with a toothpick or the tine of a long fork.

What you do

In a glass bowl, combine the lemon juice (some cooks use lime juice), half the salt, and chicken pieces. Let chicken marinate for 30 minutes to an hour.

Cook the onions over medium heat for a few minutes in a dry (no oil) pot or dutch oven large enough to eventually hold all of the ingredients. Stir constantly to prevent them from browning or burning; reduce heat or remove the pot from the heat if necessary. (Some cooks add the niter kebbeh at the start, but dry-cooking the onions for a few minutes gives the dish a distinctive flavor. )

Add the niter kebbeh or butter to the onions, along with the garlic, ginger, fenugreek, cardamom, nutmeg, remaining salt, berberé (or cayenne pepper and paprika), and tomato. Stir and simmer for a few minutes. The onions should be soft, tender, and translucent, but not browned.

Add the chicken stock, water, or dry red wine. Bring the mixture to a low boil while
stirring gently. Cook for a few minutes, then reduce heat.

Add the chicken pieces, making sure to cover them with the sauce. Cover and simmer for 30 to 40 minutes --or until the chicken is done--turning the chicken a few times.
After the chicken has been cooking for 20 minutes, gently add the hard-boiled eggs and ladle sauce over them.

Serve hot. The only traditional way to serve doro wat is with a spongy flat bread called injera, which can only be properly made with difficult-to-obtain teff flour. While it's not the way Ethiopians would serve it, doro wat is very good with couscous, rice, or Middle-Eastern or Indian style flat bread.

The wine and tomato seem to be recent non-Ethiopian influences, but they are so widely used that they need to be reported here, even if their use is not traditional.


Berberé (or Berbere) is an Ethiopian spice mixture that is the flavoring
foundation of Ethiopian cuisine, a basic ingredient in Dablo Kolo, }Doro Wat, and many other dishes.

Berberé is made from a cupboard-full of herbs and spices, fresh-ground, pan-roasted, and then packed into jars for storage. Among Ethiopian cooks there are many variations of which spices and what amounts. (In the recipe below, ingredients marked "optional" seem to be the least common.) Basic berberé is made by combining roughly equal amounts of allspice, cardamom, cloves, fenugreek, ginger, black pepper, and salt with a much larger amount of hot red (cayenne) pepper. The combination of fenugreek and red pepper is essential to berberé; while one or two of the other ingredients may be left out, the fenugreek and red pepper are must-haves. Milder berberé can be made by substituting paprika for some or most of the red pepper. Berberé is sometimes made as a dry spice mix, and is sometimes made with oil or water to form a paste.

What you need
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander (optional)
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin (optional)
1 teaspoon ground fenugreek
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg (optional)
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
4 to 6 tablespoons of a combination of ground cayenne pepper (red pepper, dried chile peppers, or red pepper flakes) and paprika
1 tablespoons salt
1 teaspoon ginger, fresh (peeled and grated) or dried (ground) use dried ground ginger if making dry berberé
2 tablespoons finely chopped onions or shallots, omit if making dry berberé (optional) 1 teaspoon minced garlic, omit or use dried garlic if making dry berberé (optional)
1/4 cup oil, water, or red wine (omit if making dry berberé)

What you do

In a heavy skillet over medium heat, toast the dried spices for a few minutes -- stirring or shaking the skillet continuously to avoid scorching. Remove from heat and allow to cool. If making dry berberé powder: grind the mixture in a spice grinder or blender, or use a mortar and pestle. Store the berberé powder in a tightly-sealed container.

If making berberé paste: combine the toasted spices with the fresh ginger, onions or shallots, garlic, and oil (water, or wine). Grind together in a blender or with a mortar and pestle. Store the berberé paste in a tightly-sealed container.

Starting with whole spices, the various nuts and seeds and dried red chile peppers, then pan-roasting, grinding and mixing them will produce the most authentic berberé. However, perfectly satisfactory results can be obtained using already-ground or powdered spices.


Quick Injera (Ethiopian crepe)
Yield: 6-8 each

1 1/2 cups all-purpose [S: plain] flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour [S: or buckwheat flour or teff, if you can find it]
1 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2-2 1/2 cups club soda
2 lemons, juice only

Mix all dry ingredients together well. Stir in club soda and mix to a smooth batter. Should have the thin consistency of a pancake batter.

Heat a large cast-iron skillet over a medium-low flame. Wipe with a paper towel soaked in a little oil. Pour about 1/2 cup of the batter at a time into the skillet and spread with a spatula to make as large a crepe as possible. Let bake in the skillet till all bubbles on the top burst and begin to dry out, about 2-3 minutes.

Carefully turn the injera and bake on second side another minute or two. Try not to brown. Remove the injera to a warm platter and repeat with the rest of the batter,
wiping the skillet clean with the paper towel each time.

After the batter is used up, brush each injera all over with the lemon juice. Serve immediately, or hold covered in a warm oven.

You can substitute buckwheat flour for the whole wheat flour if you like. Or you can just use all white flour. If you can find teff flour at a health food store, by all means use it.
This recipe approximates the true injera, which is made from a
fermented sourdough. Most recipes don't call for the lemon juice, but I find it
necessary to supply the essential sour flavor that injera adds to a meal.


Monday, 18 February 2008

Birthday cook-up round up 1: Pavlova

Alright, I confess, the big cook-up I've been on about the last while was to mark the passing of another year in my life and the start of a new one. For the last few years, I've cooked up a storm with an mix of food from different countries. Sometimes old favourites, like ab-gusht, appear on the menu, but more often it's new recipes that took my fancy at the time for whatever reason.

One year, I came across this recipe for pavlova, one of my favourite desserts from Australia, just as I was planning the menu for the big day. Now, pavlova might be totally bog standard in Australia, but I don't think I've ever seen it in Japan, and the reaction of my friends certainly confirmed this. My good friend and blogging sempai (mentor) Lea over at Aloha Mahalo has been kind enough to feature my pavs on her blog a few times (in the second link you will see that the Shoe-Box Kitchen has total counter space as wide as a chopping board is long (g)), and the response was so good she had to translate the recipe into Japanese for her readers.

The ideal pav is crisply meringuey on the outside, and moist and fluffy on the inside. But if you've made a pav before, you'll know that it's a tempremental beast. It can look marvelously rotund in the oven, but when you take it out the next morning (as I tend to do as it has to be left there until it is cold, and overnight is pretty much the only time you can safely tie up the oven for such a period of time (g)), it has shrunk to a shadow of that glorious mound you were salivating over the night before!

Or, you could attempt it in June--smack bam in the middle of the Japanese rainy season--as a birthday surprise for your best mate's hubby, and discover that a crisp, biscuity finish is just not going to happen in all that humidity (why do these things seem so obvious only in hindsight?? (g)).

Anyway, whatever trials and tribulations may befall you, the good new is it will taste great regardless, especially topped with unsweetened whipped cream (perhaps with the addition of some rose water, as I did one time, but certainly no sugar as the pav is sweetness personified) and any tart fruit you can think of (passionfruit, strawberries and other berries and kiwifruit being the favourite choices in Australia). Only don't put the topping on until right before you serve your pav, or you won't get the meringuey crunch that makes a pav.

And on the topic of the origin of this light and airy confection, I find myself swayed by arguments put forth by Bron over at another favourite foodie haunt of mine, Bron Marshall Classic & Creative Cuisine, that New Zealand may hold the honour. Do go and check out what she has to say because even if she doesn't convince you with her prose, at least you can die and go to culinary heaven having seen her lusty and luscious pavlova pictures. Now that's how you make a pavlova!

Incidentally, I have discovered that passionfruits freeze really well in the skin (as nature intended (g)), for thawing out and topping pavlovas at a later date. This might help anyone in Japan looking to make a pav in deepest, darkest February as I do. Passionfruit pickings can be pretty slim at this time of year--unless you want to fork out for a posh one from an upmarket grocer's (g). One or two is enough for me, but go for the 3 in the OR, if that floats your boat (g).

Margaret Fulton's pavlova

4 eggwhites, at room temperature
pinch of salt
1½ cups castor sugar
1½ tsp vinegar
1 tsp vanilla
300ml cream, whipped
pulp of 3 passionfruit or 1 cup sliced strawberries

· Preheat the oven to 200-210C. Place a piece of baking paper on a baking tray and mark out a 20cm circle (the pavlova will spread a little).
· Beat the eggwhites and salt in an electric mixer until they stand in stiff peaks. Sift the sugar and gradually sprinkle in 1 tablespoon at a time, beating at full speed only until all sugar has been added. Lastly, fold in the vinegar and vanilla.
· Spoon large dollops inside the circle on the baking sheet and smooth over the top lightly.
· Place in the oven (reducing the temperature to 150C) for 1 hour. Turn off the heat and leave pavlova in the oven until cold. If using a gas oven, bake at 150C for 1 hour,
reduce heat to 120C for a further 30 minutes and then turn oven off and leave the pavlova in oven until completely cooled.
· When pavlova is cooled, slide onto a large, flat cake plate and remove the baking paper [S: I find peeling the baking paper off first the way to go]. Don't worry if the pavlova collapses slightly; also expect cracks on the surface. Whip the cream until stiff and spoon over the top of the pavlova. Spoon over the passionfruit pulp or strawberries to serve.
Serves: 8-10

Recipe from The Margaret Fulton Cookbook - revised and updated edition of the 1968 classic.


PS There is no significance to the number of candles on the pav. That was the number of "girlie" ones left over from a box bought for the YM's 13th birthday party.

PPS Photo credits for this go to the YM. I was too busy getting ready to blow the candles out (g).

Friday, 15 February 2008

Valentine's treat

Despite an unpromising start, Valentine's Day was not a total culinary washout. Landmark Tower was was jam-packed with Valentine's goodies galore. The only problem being what to pick. This time I went with some yummy looking cookies and muffins, the latter topped with--dare I say it?--salt caramel!! (It seems the trend is still going strong, despite my earlier prediction of its imminent demise (g). Not that I am complaining, mind (g).)

Although I don't have the recipe, I really like the festive feel of this photo, so I am posting it anyway in the hopes that your Valentine's Day was just as sweet.


Pad Thai: Thai spicy noodles

Since I had a couple of hours to spare after my annual physical, I decided to hunt down a specialist Thai food shop I had sussed out on the Net (actually it was listed in the stockists section of the web site of a local cooking school. Japan-based foodies, you might want to have a look...).

I was planning on making a Thai salad for my big cook-up at the weekend and, knowing that a certain area of Isezaki-cho has a number of Thai restaurants and thinking (rightly!) that a supply shop could not be far away, I had managed to get the ingredients I was going to need. But, with 3 other Thai recipes in my hot little hand, and a couple of hours to spare just days before my cook-up, I decided I really should give one of them a test-run. To check that the recipe writers knew what they were talking about (g). So I took the most direct route to this shop (with my trusty map downloaded from the Net), and found, of course, that it was the exact same shop I had visited a few days before! (g)

Anyway, I got a few more Thai goodies, including my very first shallot. And what a strange vegetable it is. The pear-shaped bulge is the result of little fronds lined up somewhat like picket fences tucked in between the layers of the shallot (the dark bits you can see in the photo). My shallot didn't have any particular smell, so I didn't know what to expect from it taste-wise, but I took a leap of faith, and chopped the whole lot up and stir-fried it as instructed.

This, and the recipe I chose for my cook-up are from a lovely Thai food site, ThaiTable, which I am sure to visit regularly whenever the mood for Thai food strikes.

Pad Thai

1/2 lime
1 egg
4 teaspoons fish sauce [S: The brand with the oyster on the label seems to be the best for begginers like me]
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon ground chili pepper
ground white pepper
1 shallot, minced
2 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoon tamarind [S: I used tamarind paste]
1/2 package Thai rice noodles
2 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2-1/4 lb prawns (optional) [S: about 3 big prawns each should do it]
1/3 cup tofu - extra firm (optional) [S: I used the firm Japanese kind, but it could have done with a bit of draining with a plate or other weight on top]
1-1/2 cup Chinese chives, green (optional)
2 tablespoons peanuts (optional)
1-1/3 cup bean sprouts (optional)

Tips and substitutions
By far, the trickiest part is the soaked noodles. Noodles should be somewhat flexible and solid, not completely expanded and soft. When in doubt, undersoak. You can always add more water in the pan, but you can't take it out.

Shrimp can be substituted or omitted.

In this recipe, pre-ground pepper, particularly pre-ground white pepper is better than fresh ground pepper. For kids, omit the ground dried chilli pepper.

Tamarind adds some flavor and acidity, but you can substitute white vinegar.

The type of extra firm tofu called for this recipe can be found at most oriental groceries in a plastic bag, not in water. Some might be brown from soy sauce, but some white ones are also available. Pick whatever you like.

The original Pad Thai recipe calls for crushed roasted peanuts. Many people in Thailand avoid eating peanuts because of its link to cancer.

Soak the dry noodles in lukewarm water while preparing the other ingredients, for 5-10 minutes. Julienne tofu and cut into 1 inch long matchsticks. When cut, the extra firm tofu should have a mozzarella cheese consistency. Cut up Chinese chives into 1 inch long pieces. Set aside a few fresh chives for a garnish. Rinse the bean sprouts and save half for serving fresh. Mince shallot and garlic together.

Use a wok. If you do not have a wok, any big pot will do. Heat it up on high heat and pour oil in the wok. Fry the peanuts until toasted and remove them from the wok. Add shallot, garlic and tofu and stir them until they start to brown. The noodles should be flexible but not expanded at this point. Drain the noodles and add to the wok. Stir quickly to keep things from sticking. Add tamarind, sugar, fish sauce, chili pepper and preserved turnip. Stir. The heat should remain high. If your wok is not hot enough, you will see a lot of juice in the wok at this point. Turn up the heat, if it is the case. Make room for the egg by pushing all noodles to the side of the wok. Crack the egg onto the wok and scramble it until it is almost all cooked. Fold the egg into the noodles. Add shrimp and stir. Add bean sprouts, chives. Stir a few more times. The
noodles should be soft and very tangled.

Pour onto the serving plate and sprinkle with peanuts. Serve hot with a wedge of lime on the side and raw Chinese chives and raw bean sprouts on top. As always, in Thailand, condiments such as sugar, chili pepper, vinegar and fish sauce are available at your table for your personal taste. Some people add more pepper or sugar at this point.

The YM declared this recipe a winner (9 out of 10, apparently; the point off being for the raw spring onions on top (g)), and I have to admit I was pretty proud of my very first forray into Thai cooking--until the YM came home with the ego-bruising news that his classmate, who is not long back from a holiday in Thailand, reckons it's nothing like what he had there. Perhaps that's because he had the "red, oily pad thai...that is common in many western Thai restaurants"?? Never having been, I can't say for sure...


Thursday, 14 February 2008

Gastro this and gastro that

I had the day off work today. Lucky you, you might be thinking; Valentine's Day off work! But there was a catch. I only got the day off to go for my annual physical (or "human dock" as it is called in Japan). Depending on your point of view, Japanese companies are either very generous in giving you a paid day off to get a check-up once a year, or very pushy in requiring that you actually do so. I'm in the former category, and why wouldn't I be as, in addition to checking that all my bits and pieces are in good working order, I get funny money to spend on lunch at one of around 20 nearby restaurants!

Normally I just go to a cheap and cheerful Italian chain restaurant that is actually pretty good. But seeing as it was Valentine's, I though I would splurge and go for "Modern Mediterranean" at a cafe in a swanky hotel. The restaurant itself was very classy, with massive windows offering post-card views of Yokohama Bay, the ferris wheel, and other Minato Mirai area landmarks. Being a crisp but sunny day winter's day, the view was lovely.

As it turns out, the place does a buffet lunch, which looked very yummy, but wasn't really something you would enjoy on your own. So I went the a la carte way with some spaghetti pescatore.

Bearing in mind that nothing had passed my lips since 9 pm the night before (nothing I would choose anyway; I did have to suffer through a humongous beaker of barium). And hunger is the best sauce, right? You wouldn't think there'd be any complaints from me, would you?

Things were certainly looking good when they brought round two rolls and some mildly peppery olive oil for dipping them in. Lovely!

Unfortunately, though, I have to say that I was decidedly underwhelmed by my pasta. It certainly looked good, but it was not a patch on the marinara I used to get as a staff dinner at the food court I worked in as a student. Tosca's effort was just kind of flat, and no amount of parmesan or chilli oil seemed to lift it beyond mediocre. Damn. I just don't see the point of eating out, really, if the food's not better than I could make myself. But that's just me.

There was good news on the the other gastro front, however. After all the pin-pricks and x-rays, eye tests and rolling around on the barium x-ray machine, the doctor told me that my stomach has "lovely clean lines", and pronounced it to be "beautiful". Hooray!!! (Or something (g).)

Let's hope it stays that way, because I plan on giving it gastronomic workouts for many years to come (g). But hopefully not with food that disappoints. Life's too short for that.


Thursday, 7 February 2008

Albondigas di Prasa: Turkish leek meatballs

This past weekend, we had a Young Lady stay with us while her mum and dad went out for an early Valentine's celebration. To celebrate at this end, the YM and I took our guest out to our favourite local izakaya (Japanese tavern) for what I reckon is the best Japanese pub grub you're likely to get, and huge glasses of Calpis (a fermented milk drink) that the YL just about had to climb up on the chair to drink. (Not being a huge fan of Calpis, I had my usual perilla plum wine instead.)

Ichinokura, as the izakaya is called, has been my favourite feeding and watering hole for more years than I care to remember. While Japan is full of fabulous eats, you generally have to loosen the purse strings quite a bit to partake of them. Good food that won't break the budget is less easy to find. But we have consistently enjoyed great food and super-friendly service at Ichinokura since before the YM was even born (he's 13 now). When he was little, the huge scary-looking mask they have on display near the cash register somehow became an obake (ghost), so the restaurant has been known by one and all in our circle as Obake Restuarant ever since. The Young Lady was, it seems, immune to the goul's scare tactics, but certainly not to the food: she gobbled up her fair share.

Overnight, Yokohama was treated to snow (again!) and the Young Lady's mum and dad had to trudge through it all to pick her up. Which was all a good excuse for some more fun in the kitchen, really. This time a leek and potato meatball recipe called out to me, so I gave it a go.

I adapted this from a recipe in The Book of Jewish Food. The original recipe called for deep frying the meatballs, but I am not a huge fan of deep-frying, so I tried shallow-frying them instead. I was so-so about the end result, but when I fried up the remainder of the batch as patties a little later, they were creamy and delicious, just like Claudia promised.

I am fascinated by the name of this dish, which appears to be from Izmir, or Turkey, at least. But Claudia tells us that Albondigas is from the Arabic. I don't know about the di prasa bit, but it sure doesn't sound Turkish to me!

And if any Turkish people reading wonder if this is actually a Turkish dish, Claudia tells us that it is rarely to be found outside of Jewish homes, but it is available from a Muslim-run Jewish restaurant called Kaser Levi Lokantasi. Now that is fusion cooking!

Albondigas di Prasa: Turkish leek meatballs

500 g leeks
2 small potatoes, weighing about 250 g
250 g chicken mince
1 egg
salt and pepper
oil for frying

Trim and wash the leeks and cut them into pieces, then boil them with the potatoes until they are very soft. Drain, and when the vegetables are cool enough to handle [S: note the last point well!], press them between your palms as hard as you can to get all the water out that you possibly can [S: I found wringing them in kitchen paper did the trick]. This is very important in order to make the meatballs firm.

Now put the leeks, potatoes, meat and egg into the food processor with about 1 tsp of salt and pepper and blend to a soft paste. [S: I found my paste a bit "wet", so added some flour to stiffen it up]. Shape into little round flat cakes about 6 cm wide and pan-fry in oil, turning them over once. Drain on kitchen paper and serve hot.

Claudia tells us that the creamy meatball/fritters are often served with a fresh tomato sauce made a little sharp with lemon juice. Does that sound like our garlicky and minty sauce from the Iraqi meatballs?? You bet. So this is how we peacefully merged Turkey and Iraq on a plate.

And the response: Cleared plates from everyone except the YL, who was not really in the mood for trying Auntie Saffron's weird culinary creations and had to be brided to try just one little bite (g). Not to worry, though. Mum managed to down the extra portion and the YL "made do" with rice and furikake (dried fish and vegetable flake topping) to fortify herself for the snow-slowed trudge home.