I’m on a bit of a Malaysian kick at the moment. I’ve not been back in six years, and it’s getting to me. The best thing to do in these circumstances is to head for Rasa Sayang in London’s Chinatown, where, if you half-close your eyes and relax, you can imagine you’re eating in Kuala Lumpur. (In one of the clean bits.) Failing that, you can get out your wok.
To serve four, you’ll need:
1 jointed chicken OR 200g chicken wings
2 tablespoons soft brown sugar
4 tablespoons coconut milk (this is an occasion on which the brands with emulsifier work best)
2 heaped tablespoons curry powder
2 inches ginger, grated and squeezed for the juice
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
50g rice flour
Oil for deep frying – I used grape seed oil, which has a very high smoke point and a neutral flavour
Try to find a Malaysian curry powder like Linghams which is meant for chicken – they have a very specific and delicious flavour. Failing that, Bolst’s Madras curry powder is always an excellent fallback.
Marinate the jointed chicken or wings in the sugar, coconut, curry powder, ginger juice and soy overnight in the fridge. If you were in Malaysia, you’d take the chicken outside at this point and lay it in the blistering hot sun for half an hour or so, until the marinade had dried onto the meat, and then fry. Fat chance of that in Cambridgeshire. So I use a tip I picked up from one of my cousins, and dredge the wet, marinaded meat with rice flour. Rice flour gives this dish a fantastic crunch, and also retains that crunch when the chicken is cold, making this a brilliant selection for a picnic.
Heat enough oil in your wok to half-submerge the pieces of chicken (or use your deep fryer), and bring to a frying temperature (about 180°C/360°f). Fry the chicken, turning regularly, for about 12 minutes, until cooked through and tender.
Serve immediately, or cool and eat as part of a cold supper or picnic. Worcestershire sauce is a common accompaniment for this, but I much prefer a bowl of soy sauce with some green bird’s eye chilli snipped into it to dip the chicken pieces into.
It’s my firm belief that every culture in the world has at least one dish which looks like something the cat dragged in, ate, digested, and left as a gift on the hall carpet twelve hours later. Beef rendang is Malaysia’s offering to this noble pool.
I’ve not come across a dish like rendang anywhere else in the world. Beef is simmered in a thick mixture of spices, browned coconut and coconut milk until nearly dry, soaking up huge amounts of flavour during the simmering process; the cooking method turns from simmering to frying as the mixture reduces and the oils from the coconut leach out. You end up with a thick, rich, dark brown sauce, packed with herbs and sweetness from shallots and roasted coconut. It’s a dish that takes a while to prepare, so make plenty and freeze what you don’t eat immediately.
You’ll need to tackle a raw coconut for this recipe. Opening coconuts doesn’t have to be anything like the palaver we seem to make of it in the UK – all that business with towels and hammers. As you can see from the picture, my coconut was bisected neatly. All you need to do to achieve the same thing from yours is to hold it over a bowl, and, using a meat cleaver or large knife (cleavers are available very cheaply at Chinese supermarkets, if you have one in the neighbourhood), tap hard with the blunt edge along the equator of the coconut – the pointy tuft at one end and the three “eyes” at the other are your north and south poles. Keep tapping with the blunt side, not the blade, as hard as you can, turning the coconut as you go, and once you’ve circled it about five times (by which point you will be sweating and swearing that all this work hasn’t made a blind bit of difference) the coconut will split neatly in half, the juice inside falling into your cleverly pre-positioned bowl. It’s magic. Give it a shot.
A word on that coconut juice. It’s not the same thing as coconut milk (the stuff you find in a can), which is the grated white flesh of the coconut, moistened and squeezed. Coconut juice is very pleasant on a beach somewhere when your coconut is green and straight off a tree, a nice man has sliced the top off it with a machete, and you have a few shots of rum and a straw; but once your coconut has turned brown and been shipped to the UK, it will be bitter and horrid. Drink it if you must. If you’re smart, you’ll pour it down the sink.
Coconut milk is a different matter. For this recipe, it’s more important than ever that you buy some without emulsifiers – you’ll be using the thick, creamy part of the milk separately from the more watery part. I always buy cans of Chaokoh, a Thai brand. If you’ve difficulty tracking it down locally, you can find it (and a paradise of other Chinese, Malaysian, Korean and Japanese ingredients) at Wai Yee Hong, an oriental supermarket in Bristol with an internet shopping arm – I order from them every couple of months, and they’re super-reliable.
To serve four, you’ll need:
600g beef topside
1 tablespoon soft dark brown sugar
1½ teaspoons tamarind block (surprisingly enough, I found some at Tesco)
10 blanched almonds OR 2 candlenuts, peeled
2 teaspoons turmeric powder
2 Kaffir lime leaves
2 stalks lemongrass
1 in piece galangal
1 in piece ginger
10 small shallots
3 fresh red chillies
8 dried red chillies (look for Malaysian cili kering in an oriental grocer)
2 cloves garlic
1½ tablespoons palm sugar (or soft dark brown sugar)
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
1 can coconut milk
Salt and pepper
Open the coconut according to the instructions above. Pry the white flesh away from the shell, and use a sharp knife or a vegetable peeler to remove the brown skin from the flesh. Grate the white flesh and dry-fry, stirring regularly, until dry and dark brown but not burned.
While the coconut is frying, soak the tamarind in enough boiling water to cover, poking with a fork until the tamarind is soft. Pick out the seeds.
Cut the beef into pieces and marinade in all but 2 tablespoons of the toasted coconut, the tamarind and its liquid, two teaspoons of sugar and a teaspoon of salt. Set aside while you prepare the other ingredients.
Put the remaining toasted coconut in the bowl of the food processor with the almonds, turmeric, lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal, ginger, peeled shallots, chillies and garlic. Whizz until everything is reduced to a fine paste. Put the paste in a thick-bottomed saucepan with the runny, milky part of the coconut milk, 100ml boiling water, the palm sugar, another teaspoon of salt, a generous grating of pepper and the dark soy sauce. Stir well and bring to the boil over a moderate heat. Add the meat with any juices, and bring back to a simmer. Continue to cook, without a lid, for an hour, stirring frequently to prevent burning. Most of the liquid will have reduced away by this point.
After an hour, add the creamy part of the coconut milk to the mixture and stir well. Add a lid and continue to cook over a reduced heat for another hour, stirring occasionally. The finished rendang should have a thick, dense sauce, and look oily, the fat having come out of the coconut, almonds and coconut milk to fry off the other ingredients.
Regular readers of Gastronomy Domine will be aware of my vintage cookery book habit. I’m hoping to make something of a semi-regular feature of posts about some of these books; if you’ve an interest in food and in social history, an elderly cookery book is a goldmine. Cookery for Invalids, written in 1900 (mine is a later edition), is a book of “recipes and diet hints for the sick room”, and will make you gladder than you’ve ever been that you live in an age of antibiotics, insulin and ubiquitous refrigeration.
Senn, born in 1862, was a chef and a prolific writer of food books, producing 49 books in his lifetime – a remarkable feat given the limited scope of the Victorian and Edwardian kitchen in England. (He had an eye for a new angle; I would love to get my hands on a copy of his Cooking in Paper Bags and Ye Art of Cookery in Ye Olden Time.) By far his most successful book was Cookery for Invalids, first published in 1900, which ran to many editions and seems to have been published at least until the 1930s. (Penicillin was finally purified and tested on humans in 1941, and, of course, many presses closed for the Second World War – I haven’t seen any evidence of printings of the book in the 40s.) Senn himself practised as an early nutritionist as well as a chef, working as Examiner in Sick-Room Cookery at several London hospitals; he was also employed by the government to set up training for army, navy and prison cooks. This was a time when nurse training at the larger hospitals included short courses in what was termed Invalid Cookery, to be practised on their convalescent charges. A wealthy family would employ a children’s nurse for their perfectly well offspring. While dandling, disciplining and doing a bit of mild educating, she was also expected to produce nutritious and stimulating meals for the children; training in dietetics was considered a great boon in such a nurse.
Diet was recognised as a contributing factor in illnesses like diabetes and gout, and was believed to be an efficient treatment in illnesses like neurasthenia (a disease we don’t recognise any more – it was that which affected swooning ladies in the drawing room) and rheumatism. There was a vogue for nutrition, and a huge industry in patent foods like Benger’s (a nourishing wheat and milk preparation); we still recognise plenty today, like Horlick’s, Bovril and Lucozade.
Cookery for Invalids contains a brief explanation of the make-up of foods: protein, carbohydrates, fat, salts (what we would describe as minerals), vitamins and water; a discussion of the suitability of various styles of cooking for the sick (horrible imprecations on those preparing fried food here); a series of recipes; and a list of special diets for those suffering various named, and usually pretty horrible, illnesses. Some of this stuff is curiously modern. I was particularly surprised to see that the daily calorie intake dictated by Senn is, at 2500 kCal, exactly the same as that the NHS tells us to keep today in 2010 – although admittedly, Senn’s patient doing “hard work”, when a lot of what is done today with machinery was still done by people, was allowed to increase his daily intake to between 4000 and 9000 kCal. Writing a good 70 years before Dr “Fatty Fatkins” Atkins, Senn suggested that carbohydrates were the most important part of the diet to cut out in slimmers. His approach to the sick is compassionate, kind, and non-patronising; the pretty tray on the book cover (above) is illustrative of his insistence throughout the book that food should “please the eye as well as the palate”; lack of appetite is a hurdle in most of the illnesses being treated. “The patient’s wants should be studied, and their wishes gratified as far as possible…in feeding a patient do it gently and neatly.” Cleanliness is paramount. NHS hospitals could learn a thing or two.
The Edwardian invalid’s lot was not, all that said, a happy one. While the awful drinks made from burned toast soaked in warm water that you see in the sickroom sections of Victorian cookery books don’t get a look-in here, the Edwardian convalescent was still expected to be bibbing heartily at mug upon mug of beef tea; it was thought to be easy to digest and full of delicious nourishment while “preventing the digestive organs from doing undue work”. As such, Senn recommended it for all patients.
The method is shudder-inducing. The nurse would shred a chunk of lean beef with a couple of forks, discarding gristle and fat, and soak the resulting beef tartare in a big jar of cold water for an hour or so before straining the resulting mush through muslin “with a tiny pinch of salt added”. Lucky invalids might have their beef tea warmed through. “Beef tea must never boil. If it approaches boiling point it is spoilt.” There are eight recipes for beef tea (slow method, raw method, quick process, iced, jellied and so on) here. Variety may not be the spice of life after all. Spice, in fact, was out of the question – far too stimulating. “Stimulants are in many cases positively harmful…spices should be avoided, and where pepper is allowed it must be used sparingly.” Wine, however, might be allowed with the doctor’s permission; “it often tempts the appetite…when other and more solid food would fail”.
Gruels were easy to digest, and this archetypical invalid dish is given its own section. Click on the picture to enlarge this page of gruel recipes to a readable size – besides what you can see here, there are several more pages of gruels, one of which has a wine-glass of sherry poured into it. Thoughts of Oliver Twist aside, sherry gruel sounds abominable. When you’re done with your gruel, “A raw egg beaten up and mixed with a cup of milk, tea or coffee, makes an excellent and nourishing drink.” I shall refrain from comment.
It’s not all so bad. There are palatable and light fish and chicken preparations, a nice little quail on toast, and a herby poached rabbit in Bechamel; unfortunately, there’s also a sandwich filled with raw mutton and sugar, and a custard made with Marmite. I can imagine the patients of owners of this book conniving to die early just to get away from the cooking.
So far, so frivolous. But all your sniggering postmodernity counts for nothing once you get to the final part of the book, which discusses specific illnesses. By the time Senn was writing, the control of type II diabetes through diet (as we do today) was well understood. His diabetic menu would stand up to scrutiny today; and saccharine, discovered in 1878 and commercialised very shortly afterwards, was a real blessing for the Edwardian diabetic. The diet for gout is also similar to what a doctor might suggest today, and the “reducing” diet for the obese is dull but looks effective. But what we will understand as the futility of trying to cure tuberculosis in the pre-antibiotic period through diet, fresh air and rest, is heartbreaking. The week’s menu for the consumptive here on the right (again, click to enlarge) is, as long as you were able to stomach calves’ brains three times a week, pretty palatable, but entirely useless for curing the patient. The massive weight loss that was one of the outward signs of the disease is all the diet tries to address; an earlier page on TB clings to the ancient superstition that red fluids like wine were good for replacing the blood coughed up, along with minced raw meat.
I’ll leave you with some of the advertisements from the front and back of the book – judging by the prices on the products and the graphical style of these ads, I think this edition is from the 1930s. You may recognise some of the products here – you can still buy Shippam’s meat and fish pastes (I used to love the fish paste in my school sandwiches), Borwick’s baking powder and McDougall’s flour. God only knows what became of the Stuffo stuffing company, and you won’t see isinglass outside the brewing process these days; it would have added a distinctly fishy tinge to your jellies, but was much cheaper than gelatine.
An earlier edition of the book (there are very few differences – the most notable one is probably the substitution of the word “corpulency” in the older text with “obesity” in the one I own) has been digitised and can be read online here. If you decide to try any of the recipes from the book, do drop me an email or leave a comment – especially if you tried any of them out on ill people. I’ll be interested to hear whether they ever recovered.
The fine folks at Kinvara smoked salmon sent me a big goodie bag full of their organic Irish salmon last week. I get through quite a lot of smoked salmon at home (damn the expense, it’s full of brain-feeding, joint-lubricating goodness), and I was enormously and very pleasantly surprised at just how good the Kinvara fish was. The smoke is a gentle one, letting the flavour of the salmon itself sing, and the firm slices of fish have a robust and delicate flavour all at once. I don’t mention all the foods I get sent to try on this blog, but this one was a doozy, and I’ll be ordering more from them (smoked salmon by post – how splendid is that?) shortly.
Something this good deserved a special-occasion recipe, so here, just in time for the next party you host that’s posh enough for canapes, are some classy little nibbles to impress your boss with.
To make 20 canapes, you’ll need:
100g smoked salmon
50g pancetta cubes
1 x 125g tin laverbread (for more on laverbread, see this post – I am charmed by the fact that my spellchecker suggests that what I really wanted to type here was “weaverbird”)
75g medium or fine-milled oatmeal
1 large onion
1 jar salmon roe
1 jar lumpfish roe (or caviar, if you really want to push the boat out)
250g crème fraîche
Bacon fat (you really should be keeping a jar in the fridge; it’s amazing stuff for adding flavour) or olive oil to fry
Dry-fry the pancetta in a large, non-stick frying pan until golden, and remove to a mixing bowl, keeping the fat it has released in the pan. Chop the onion finely and saute it over a low to medium heat until dark gold and sweet. Dice the salmon and add it with the onion, laverbread and oats to the pancetta bowl.
Use a spoon to stir the mixture until everything is well blended. If you want to serve these canapes in the evening, you can prepare the dish up to this stage earlier in the day and refrigerate the mixture until you are ready to assemble them later on. Use your hands to make 20 little round patties from the mixture, and fry them in a couple of tablespoons of hot bacon fat or olive oil until golden, turning once (about ten minutes).
Arrange the crisp patties on a serving dish, and put a dollop of crème fraîche on top of each one. Spoon some salmon roe on half of them, and some lumpfish roe on the other half. Serve warm.
Of all the bajillion little bottles and jars of stuff littering my fridge and kitchen cupboards, the jar of XO sauce is probably my favourite. You know – the one you’d take to a desert island to make all those coconuts more interesting.
XO originates in Hong Kong, and gets its name from the Hong Kong taste for cognac. In cognac terms, XO means “extra old”; in Hong Kong terms, it means “really very delicious and pricey, like cognac”. The sauce itself doesn’t taste like or contain cognac; it’s made from dried seafood and preserved meat (usually scallops, shrimp and wind-dried ham), garlic, chillies, shallots and oil. Until fairly recently, you’d have to make your own or go to a restaurant to try it, but good XO sauces are now available bottled; I like the Lin Lin brand, which you should be able to find at a good oriental grocery. If you’re interested in making your own, the superb recipe from David Chang at Momofuku in New York is online at this tribute blog. Despite all that dried seafood, the resulting sauce isn’t particularly fishy; it is, however, a wonderfully savoury, spicy, rich and flavourful thing to cook with, and it’s a good way to pack flavour into a dish quickly. This should take you all of ten minutes to make – a great dish for an exhausted end-of-the-week supper.
To serve four, you’ll need:
500g boneless chicken, cut into bite-sized pieces (I like thigh best here – brown meat carries much more flavour)
5 tablespoons plain flour
½ teaspoon Madras curry powder (I like Bolsts)
6 spring onions
100g sugar-snap peas
100g baby corn
3 cloves garlic
50ml Chinese cooking wine or sherry
3 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 heaped tablespoons XO sauce
Salt and plenty of black pepper
Mix the flour with the curry powder, a good pinch of salt and several grinds of the peppermill, and toss the chicken in it in a large bowl. Set aside while you chop the other ingredients. Cut the white parts of the spring onions into coins, and put in a bowl with the chopped garlic. Cut the rest of the spring onions and the baby corn into pieces on the diagonal.
Heat a couple of tablespoons of ground nut oil (or another flavourless oil) in a wok over a high heat, and fry the spring onion bottoms with the garlic for a few seconds until they start to give off their scent. Add the chicken to the pan and stir-fry for about 2 minutes, until there is no pink visible. Add the green parts of the spring onions, the baby corn and the peas to the wok, stir-fry for about 30 seconds and throw in the Chinese wine and soy sauce. Stir-fry for another 30 seconds and stir in the XO sauce. Put a lid on the wok and cook for another minute or so, until the chicken is cooked through.
Having spent decades energetically trying to purge itself of any traces of its colonial and pre-colonial past, Shanghai had a turnabout just in time for the 2010 Expo. Two years ago, there wasn’t a tree to be seen in the city; today, most of the main streets are lined with thousands of plane trees which all look to be about 20 years old. It’s amazing what you can do with a command economy; there was, it seems, a forest of the things somewhere inland which have been carefully uprooted and planted wholesale along Shanghai’s bare roadsides. We visited the Jing’an temple, the original building long obliterated but now being newly rebuilt for tourists and worshippers (in approximately that order), the finishing touches being installed as we walked around by artisans. The core of the old city, by the Yu Yuan gardens and the City God temple, has been sanitised and rebuilt in antique style, all carefully paved with concrete and lined with tourist information booths, resulting in a sterilised pedestrian precinct clad in red lacquer and glossy varnished wood.
It all feels very disjointed. You’ll still find pockets of the old city in there (the streets around the pedestrianised area are untouched, the Yu Yuan gardens are gloriously crumbly and the City God temple, despite a restoration about five years ago, feels much less Disney than the surrounding area), and areas like the French Concession keep much of their colonial atmosphere. Best of all, though, for those looking for colonial Shanghai, is the Bund.
Until a couple of years ago, the arc of neo-classical and deco buildings curving alongside the Huangpu river wasn’t somewhere you’d want to walk, with an eleven-lane road eating up the space where the promenade gardens used to be, a huge flyover blocking much of the view and a large concrete bridge. Miraculously, the whole thing has been swept clean – the road narrowed, the flyover pushed into a tunnel, the bridge demolished – and the promenade is now open again for the first time in decades. It’s heaving with people, especially at sunset, when the view of the lights over sci-fi modern Pudong contrasts so extravagantly (and really rather wonderfully) with the classical sweep of the Bund. Rents are high here, so the Bund is packed with luxury goods shops and some of the city’s pricier restaurants. We were celebrating, so we headed for the Whampoa Club, in the gorgeous surroundings of 3 the Bund. You’ll find classical Shanghai cuisine here (fifteen pages of it) alongside regional specialities from other parts of China, in a lavishly decorated space dense with lacquer, gold leaf and bronze – and the inevitable wall of awards.
We were here to sample some traditional Shanghai dishes, and ordered the Legendary Su Dong Po Braised Pork: fat, braised belly in a sweet, glossy red bean and soy sauce. It’s a fatty dish, but the many hours of braising result in cubes of tender, intensely savoury pork, the fat carrying the velvety flavour to every corner of the mouth.
The atmosphere can’t be beaten. What I thought was a piped recording of extraordinarily delicate Chinese music turned out to be sound drifting from two ladies with a flute and a dulcimer in the corridor leading to the restaurant entrance. And part-way through the meal, an oddly magical power cut left us illuminated by candles glinting off the chandelier in the centre of the room and the weird glow of Pudong slanting through the window. “This,” said Dr W, “Is a super-romance-peak-experience.”
Smoked Old-Fashioned Shanghaianese Pomfret is a Shanghai cuisine A-lister. It comes in bite-sized pieces, fried crisp with a caramelised coating and more sweet, soy-based sauce. It’s another classical dish, and the name is misleading; the fish itself is never actually smoked, but is cooked in a wok of fuming oil. A dish of gai lan (mustard greens) in XO sauce made in-house, thick with wind-dried scallops and pork, offered a respite from all the protein and fat – just as well, because we’d also ordered a Beijing duck.
Portions at the Whampoa club are huge – this is probably somewhere you’re best off visiting in a large group if you want to sample more from the long menu – and we’d already eaten a lot, so we passed on the stir-fried meat of the duck, just concentrating on the skin in little egg crepes. In texture, the skin was very different from what we’d eaten in Beijing (and much more traditional – I’ve never seen the puffy, popcorny skin at Da Dong replicated anywhere else). Molten fat gushed from under the skin as it was carved by the table. The skin on this duck was less crisp than the specially prepared skin at Da Dong, but ultimately rather better tasting, presumably because of the lubrication from all that fat. The duck sauce was also more up my alley, with a strong taste of rice wine and a dark sweetness.
We drank very pricey medicinal tea from the lengthy tea menu, in an attempt to clear our heads of the accumulated smog and traffic fumes from a few days in Beijing. “Clearing Sputum” tea does not have a pretty name, but it’s a beautiful drink; dark apricot in colour, with notes of orange, camphor and osmanthus. I am not at all sure it worked, but nothing ventured and all that. Tsing Tao beer, on the other hand, worked splendidly to do that thing that beer does.
The menu is available in English, and while not all the members of the very attentive staff speak English, you’ll find that a little miming, pointing and smiling go a long way. If this fails, there’s always someone on the staff who does speak the language, so you won’t get stuck. We didn’t get as far as dessert; the other dishes were in that space where things taste so good you can’t stop eating even though you are bloatedly, lumpishly full. We were, and we couldn’t.
The duck and the tea were both on the pricey end of the menu, and we’d drunk several beers; the eventual bill of RMB 900 (£90) is a hideous price for much of China but pretty much what you’d expect at one of the restaurants on the Bund. And do you know what? It was worth every penny.