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Southeast Asian Cooking

Ginger Chicken with Coconut Rice

Ginger Chicken with Coconut Rice

Over the years, I’ve been fairly adaptable at picking up the indigenous flavours to the cuisines of where I’ve lived.  The maple glazed, bacon wrapped, blueberry infused flavours of Canada. The cilantro, jalapeno, lime, masa harina, black beans and asiento of Oaxacan food.  And finally the beautiful tart & delicate English flavours of rhubarb, gooseberry, parsley, goats’ cheese and asparagus.  But I’ve never particularly understood the flavours of Southeast Asian cooking, aside from appreciating the odd Pad Thai.

However, I love someone who adores these flavours.  And so I have rolled up my sleeves, (temporarily) turned my back on my buy local principles and have struck up a relationship with the local Vietnamese shop in the last month. I’m learning whatever I can about cooking Thai, Vietnamese and Malaysian food.  I’m even considering taking a class or two.  I now can boast a cupboard stocked with fish sauce, oyster sauce, tamari, toasted sesame oil, mung bean noodles, ginger, garlic, Thai red chilies, spring onions, fresh coriander (cilantro), coconut milk and a variety of rices.  Obviously some of these things I can get as organic or local products, but some of them, I just have to bite the bullet and buy what’s available.

For the last week or so, I’ve been playing around with one of Luke Nguyen’s recipes for Ginger Chicken from his Vietnam television series, and I think I’m finally starting to get the hang of the flavours and the style of cooking.  This particular recipe has won over the heart of the one I love, all over again, and I’ve received compliments galore!  Here’s the recipe:  Vietnamese Ginger Chicken with Thai Jasmine Coconut Rice

Guacamole

Guacamole

Guacamole

There are as many ways to make guacamole as there are Mexicans to make it.  Everyone (and their mother and their dog, etc) has their own way of making it, which of course, is the best way.

Some guacamoles are runny, green and whizzed through the blender, so they’re smooth and pourable.  Others are chunky, with roughly mashed hass avocados and juicy, ripe chopped tomatoes studding it like jewels.

Some have white onions, cilantro (fresh coriander for those in the UK), parsley, jalapenos, garlic or lime juice.

I’m a fickle guacamole maker.  I’ll use whatever I happen to have that’s delicious and fresh…and happens to be in the house.  The only essentials as far as I’m concerned, are a really nice ripe buttery hass avocado and a fresh plump jalapeno.  If I happen to have cilantro and juicy baby plum tomatoes hanging about in the fridge, then that’s all the better.

Avocados are brilliantly good for you. They’re packed with all kinds of healthy stuff:

Beta-sitosterol:  This inhibits the absorption of cholesterol and promotes lower blood cholesterol levels.
Folate:  Promotes healthy cell and tissue development, so it reduces the risk of birth defects if you’re pregnant.
Potassium:  Helps balance the body’s electrolytes. Ounce per ounce, avocados contain 60% more potassium than bananas.
Vitamin E:  An antioxidant which slows down aging and protects against heart disease and various forms of cancer.
Glutathione:  Acts as an antioxidant to neutralize free radicals that can cause cell damage and lead to disease.
Lutein:  This protects against prostate cancer and eye diseases such as cataracts and macular degeneration.
Magnesium:  Helps produce energy and is important for muscle contraction and relaxation.

Here’s how I made the guacamole I ate for my supper tonight:

Ingredients:
1 ripe medium hass avocado
1 small handful of cilantro*, finely chopped
pinch sea salt
pinch coarsely ground pepper
4 or 5 baby plum, cherry or grape tomatoes, cut into quarters
1 jalapeno, finely diced
1/4 key lime

Method:  Cut the avocado in half and scoop out the buttery flesh. Roughly mash it with a fork, or if you’re lucky enough to have a molcajete**, give it a gentle mash with with the chopped cilatro, sea salt, pepper, and jalapenos.  At the very end, gently fold in the tomatoes and squeeze the lime over the top.  I’m not too keen on a lot of lime in guacamole, but a little bit cuts through the fattiness quite nicely.

Guacamole

Guacamole

You can eat this with tortilla chips, but its even better scooped up into little tacos with soft corn tortillas. Londoners can buy these fresh from the Cool Chile Company at Borough Market by London Bridge or you can get them frozen from the little Latin American food shop on Old Kent Road, near East Street. (Don’t ask me the name of it, because I have no idea if it even has one!)

*In Canada and the US, we call this fresh herb cilantro, for the Spanish name, but in UK its called fresh coriander.
**A molcajete is a Mexican mortar & pestle made from lava stone.

My Sweet Tamal

Finished Tamale

Finished Tamal

I have a million memories of eating tamales.  From the first suspicious bite when I tasted the pink and greyish mass of lumpy, raisin-speckled dough, to every time after that when I would run out into the street after the tamal man on his tricycle, pushing along a vat of steaming tamales or on Sundays when I would buy them from the old Zapotec lady in front of La Merced church in Oaxaca and eat them with a mug of hot and frothy chocolate con leche.

I had always intended to return to Oaxaca; if not permanently, then at least on a regular basis.  But after eight years, I had still not returned, and felt deprived of these sweet steamed envelopes from the city which had taught me how to taste food.  Finally I decided to do my research and learn to make them myself.

None of my Mexican cookbooks seemed to have a recipe, and none of the ones I found online were the same as the Oaxacan ones I remembered.  Obviously I was going to have to roll up my sleeves and develop the recipe from scratch.  A great resource was a clip from the Miami-based morning breakfast show, Despierta América and I was able to adapt it for my purposes.

My tamales turned out perfectly – exactly the way I remembered them, but without the splodge of pink food colouring the Oaxacan ones would have so the sellers could identify them from the savoury flavours. My boyfriend had never eaten tamales, and soon he had eaten at least half a dozen of them.  And so had I.  Before we managed to eat all 24 of them, I quickly packed some of the tamales up in a Tupperware and froze them – they can be thawed again and re-steamed.

For the recipe click here:  My Bermondsey Kitchen – Tamales Dulces

Mint Tea & Oranges

Moroccan Oranges
Moroccan Oranges

It was well over 35 degrees Celsius and our pink English skin was only now, after 3 days in Agadir, beginning to take on a golden tan. We had planned to walk to the top of the hill to visit Souk El Had, but instead, after a mere 5 minutes of slowly sweating & shuffling at a snail’s pace, Luke decided we were taking a taxi. We were dropped off by gate 9, as the concierge at the hotel had recommended to us. I think he was afraid we’d be dropped off by the butchery halls otherwise, and run away in terror.

By this point I had already grown accustomed to being served silver pots of mint tea by the pool all day long, and large glasses of freshly pressed-to-order orange juice with my breakfast. In the evenings, before dinner, Luke and I would meet on the terrace and have a gin & tonic with a small silver platter of pistachios or the black dried Moroccan olives that smell of petrol and perfume.  I was deeply falling in love with the food of this country.  The fish was fresh and plentiful and cooked beautifully.  The tables and tables of mezze at lunch and dinner had much to do with the demise of my diet.  And what’s not to love about somewhere that serves madeleines at breakfast? I was eating the best of North Africa and the best of France in one heavenly beachside location.

We had finished looking at the touristy part of the souk and by now I was getting a bit bored of alleyway after alleyway of  shops selling argan oil, kaftans and gaudy leatherwork.  I looked up from playing with the new silver bangle Luke had bought me a few moments earlier, and the small crowded alleyway suddenly opened up into a bright and sunlit food hall. I almost stopped breathing for a moment. I think it was the closest I will ever come to seeing what Les Halles in Paris would have been like before it was demolished and turned into a trendy shopping centre.

My Poolside Spot for Enjoying Mint Tea
Mint Tea on the Terrace

For those of you who, like me, make a beeline for the food markets when you travel, you will be accustomed to the sickening pong of rotting food that generally hits you from at least one corner of the market. It’s normally where cabbage leaves and bits of turnip go to die and are scavenged upon by scabby feral cats and stray dogs. But the smell was absent. The first smell that hits you is of the glorious mountains of fresh mint. Along the edges of the market hall, towering arrangements of gleaming olive mosaics in polished agate shades sparkled in the sunlight and piles of mysterious red, orange, yellow and brown spices delicately scented the air.

We walked back down the hill to the hotel that afternoon, drawn in by the smell of salt and the slight ocean breeze off the Atlantic.  We knew a plate of pistachios and chilled bottle of rose awaited us on the terrace, but we were in no rush; calm from the soporific effects of too much afternoon sun and pacified by the smell of mint for tea and a mountain of oranges.