Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Do They Know It's Christmas

Many years ago, during the famous Band Aid concert to raise funds for Africans dying of starvation, there was a popular song with the refrain "Do they know it's Christmas time at all?" Of course not, most of them are bloody Muslims, was the comment of a cynical English friend.

Since we're flying to NZ late on the afternoon of Christmas Day, I was going to ignore Christmas, a cultural rather than a religious celebration for us here at Ridge House. But then that seemed so mean-spirited (and lazy), so I put out a few token decorations a week ago, and today, with our Christmas CD playing full blast, I started cooking for Christmas Eve dinner and lunch on 26th.

Before this, I'd bought a Chinese roast duck, full of flavour and sold with a sauce made from the liver and another little plastic bag containing mixture of Chinese sauces. Add a liberal splash of Cointreau or Caracao, some orange juice, reheat the duck et voila: Canard a l'Orange Chinois. The cold left-overs will be wrapped in rice paper with hoi sin sauce and cucumber for lunch before we leave for the airport on Christmas Day.

Braised red cabbage has been a family tradition since my children were babies. The special flavour and melting smoothness of my version comes from sautéing the red onion and cabbage in goose or duck fat, or better still, fat from a tin of foie gras. The sautéed cabbage is then simmered ever so slowly with a splash of balsamic vinegar, a tiny bit of water, salt and black pepper. After about 1 1/2 hours and a few more splashes of water , add a spoonful or two of guava (or red currant) jelly. Taste and adjust so it's slightly more sweet than sour. My Norwegian friend, Tova, adds a red apple and Ribena — probably works just as well.

For Christmas morning, we'll be having a Pannetone, that wonderful brioche-like Italian bread. It's rich in eggs and butter, with golden raisins and home-made candied orange peel. Plus, of course, lemon and orange zest and orange essence. My still-warm loaf smells divine. Perhaps we won't wait until Christmas morning after all.

Christmas will truly be with us, however, only when we meet up with Tiffany, Andrew, my gorgeous grandchildren and James for a holiday in NZ's Marlborough Sounds. It will be four days after the official Christmas Day, but sharing Christmas or any festival (even belatedly) with those you love is what it's all about. Non?

This blog will resume mid-January, no doubt with an overload of NZ photos and stories. Merry Christmas one and all!

Monday, December 08, 2008

A Cosmic Joke?

Last Monday night, I looked up at the sky from the back door of our rented house in Kudat and it seemed like the moon was smiling down at me.

I have never before seen two stars (actually, the one on the left is, I think, the planet Venus) placed above a sickle moon. It seemed to me as if the moon was laughing at some cosmic joke. Wish I knew what it was!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

How to Create a Kitchen God

Just before Chinese New Year (no, don’t panic, it’s not until 26 January), traditional housewives make offerings of a sticky round rice cake, cunningly designed to glue the lips of the Kitchen God on his annual visit, thus preventing him from making any negative reports to heaven on what’s been going on in the kitchen over the past year.

My Kitchen God is a little less celestial: it’s my heavy cast-iron wok, seasoned by at least 35 years of cooking and loving treatment. It doesn’t need to be tricked to make good reports back to heaven, only to be treated with care before and after each usage so that whatever is cooked inside will sing its praises.

How do you get a Well-Seasoned Wok, where you can cook a spice paste in a minimal amount of oil without it sticking? Well, you start by buying a heavy carbon steel or cast-iron wok — never be tempted to buy a non-stick wok. Your new wok will probably be covered by lots of nasty gunk designed to prevent it from rusting, so when you get it home, wash it several times with lots of hot soapy water to get rid of every trace of industrial oil.

The next stage is the heating and absorption of cooking oil to produce a glossy black patina and make the inside of the wok feel like silk when you stroke it (yes, I do have a rather intimate relationship with my utensils). You need to repeatedly heat the dry wok, which makes it “open its pores”, then coat the surface with oil and burn this in so that it does deep into the metal.

Here’s how you do it. Put your washed and dried wok (or an old rusty one you’ve had in to cupboard but not used for ages) over heat — preferably gas — and let it get really hot; this will take a few minutes. Use either a brush or a wodged-up piece of paper towel dipped in non-virgin olive oil or canola oil, and smear the oil generously over the entire inside surface of the wok. Cook over maximum heat, turning the wok slowly so that every part of the bottom is touched by the gas flame, and burn the oil for about 5 minutes. It’ll smoke, so be sure to open your kitchen windows first.

Now leave the wok to get completely cold. Wipe out any trace of remaining oil, and repeat the entire heating, oiling, burning and cooling process for as many times as your patience permits.

Each time you use your wok, heat it first, before adding any oil, to make it “open its pores” and permit the oil to penetrate slightly before you start cooking. (Think of it as moisturising your face before adding make-up.)

As soon as you’ve finished cooking, slosh lots of water into the empty, still-hot wok. Leave it standing while you eat, and when you’re reading to clean up, just wash it with hot soapy water and a cloth (never a scourer), dry with a cloth, then put it over heat to thoroughly dry it. Rub an oil-soaked bit of paper towel over the entire inside surface, heat it for about a minute, wipe with clean paper towel and when the wok is cool, store it. Don’t worry about cleaning the bottom of your wok. Any traces of dribbled oil or burned on food carbonise and add that “wok hei” or inimitable wok flavour to your food.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Indecent Proposal

Last night, I was offered — absolutely free — the use of a brand-new, luxurious apartment in one of the swankiest condominiums in town, for the next 30 months. Since I'm not exactly the sort of woman a sugar daddy would stash away, you may well ask why.

It was nothing less than a bribe to buy my silence, offered by the contractor building 3 monstrous apartment blocks in the once-lovely green valley to one side of our hill. I have been complaining constantly for the past year, threatening the developer with press exposure, complaints to High Places, and to the police, in order to get an agreement that there's no work after 7 pm (the din starts daily at 7.30 am) and no work on Sundays. Mon Capitaine has already been to the police, so they know we are serious.

So here was the contractor, asking us to move out of our house so we wouldn't hear the noise, and so he could work until 10 pm daily. I asked him what he was going to do about the dozens of other people on the other side of the destruction site, but he claims "they don't complain". Well, we do. We're staying put (imagine leaving our haven in the forest for a nasty apartment!) and the fight continues.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

To Market, to Market, to Buy ...

I went to the market in Kudat this morning, the best day of the week with lots of small local fruit and vegie growers selling their wares, along with tribal Rungus squatting over piles of tobacco, herbal medicines and copies of their much-loved beads. Here is what I bought for the day:

Apart from the usual tiny sugar bananas, lychee-like rambutan and papayas,and some corn (which turned out not to be the nice sweet hybrid but a boring maize), I brought back my favourite seaweed with we eat with lots of shredded ginger, shallots, chopped tomato and lime juice.
Some cleaned fresh anchovies which I'll stir-fry with lots of garlic, some bird's-eye chillies, then splash with fish sauce and lashings of juice from the limes in the garden here.
Lovely fresh squid which I'm still dithering about how to cook for this evening.
Soybean junket with syrup, for a late afternoon snack.

Did I ever tell you how spoiled we are for options here?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

My Family & Other Animals

Unfortunately, I live with only one member of my family, but the animals in our life are a numerous and often surprising cast.
For example, when I got up at 5.30 this morning, a tiny blinking light high up in the living room proved the be a firefly, the first we've ever had in this house. It was like a star trying to avoid the dawn — so lovely I watched it for about 5 minutes before going on to the lawn and doing my Chi Kung exercises as the sun came up.

As the windows in our house are never closed, and as there are open ventilation panels at the top of the walls, almost anything can (and does) come into the house. Over the years — apart from the everyday insects, moths, grasshoppers, bugs etc — we have had:

* snakes: harmless grass snakes but they do give you a surprise when you're reading on the couch and suddenly realise you're sharing it with a serpent.

* big black scorpions: these I DON'T like, even though they will only give you a very painful sting but won't kill you. They used to be fond of scuttling across the floor in the dead of night — not nice if you're padding barefoot to the bathroom in the dark. Fortunately we haven't seen one inside for several years.

* a Copper-throated Sunbird that was nesting in the jasmine bush against our verandah; she following insects attracted by the light inside and unbeknown to us, spent the night perched on our bedroom ceiling fan (luckily it wasn't on). She survived, the egg hatched and all lived happily ever after.

* a small bat that has been scooting in and out of the living room these past few nights, obviously chasing insects that were invisible to us.

Even though mon capitaine is up north in Kudat for 4 evenings each week, I'm never really alone here.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Triple Treat

We are now in the midst of what the locals call the fruit season. Not that we can't get a huge variety of tropical fruit year round, but that there are certain highly prized fruits that appear just once (or sometimes twice) a year, depending on subtle changes in temperature and rainfall. The entire house is almost vibrating with the smell of durian (on the left of the fruit tray) and tarap, the hedgehog-like brown fruit at the back, although the oblong green soursop (right) doesn't smell.

We both agree that the durian is unsurpassed in terms of overall sensory experience. Its pungent odour (like that of a latrine, according to durian haters) becomes ambrosial once you love the flavour. But it's not just the taste. The sticky creamy flesh clings to your fingers, forcing you to lick them for every last bit of the unique caramel-sherry-onion flavour, and all the while, the fragrance is making your head spin. You don't eat a durian, you have an intense relationship with it.
The soursop is another matter entirely. The sparkling white flesh has an incredible balance of acidity and sweetness, but the multitude of shiny black seeds means it is best to squeeze out the pulp and turn it into a sorbet or jelly. To be eaten with little sighs and murmurs that maybe, just maybe, it's almost as good as durian.

The humble tarap must be eaten with the fingers, the seed-filled white globes of flesh carefully savoured as you try to describe the flavour. Is it a hint of pineapple, or peach, with perhaps an overlay of turps? It's a waste of time trying to describe it. Just go ahead and enjoy!

Friday, October 10, 2008


My lovely La Rossa has just been murdered. Our evil dog Bisou, who looks like a thoroughbred dingo, grabbed her this morning shortly after she was let out for her daily forage around the garden. Despite having lived amicably with the hen for more than a year, Bisou suddenly grabbed her by the neck and ran around with her. Every time I tried to catch Bisou, she raced under the house with poor La Rossa hanging from her mouth. So now I'm left with a grazed knee and elbow (I slipped on the wet path), and a heavy heart. I really DO NOT LIKE DOGS and keep them only for security reasons.

Poor La Rossa, such a sad end for an unusual companion.

Thursday, October 09, 2008


Some of my favourite recipes just happen to be of the Keep It Simple Stupid variety. As I keep my kitchen well stocked with spices and special flours such as besan or chickpea flour, I can make recipes such as this (based on a recipe by the wonderful Madhur Jaffrey) without having to make a run on the shops.

500-600 g skinless chicken breast or boneless thighs, in 2-3 cm cubes
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons lime or lemon juice
melted butter or vegetable oil for basting
3 tablespoons plain yoghurt
1 tablespoon chickpea flour (besan)
1 teaspoon very finely grated ginger
2 cloves garlic, crushed to a pulp with 1/4 tsp salt
1/2 teaspoon cumin powder, preferably freshly ground
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
1/4 teaspoon chilli powder

Sprinkle the chicken with the salt and lime juice and set aside while you prepare the marinade.
Put the yoghurt in a bowl and add all other ingredients, mixing well. Put in the chicken pieces, stir to coat thoroughly then set aside for at least 15 minutes. I usually refrigerate the chicken for an hour or so, but it really depends on what happens to be convenient; you could even leave it overnight.
Thread pieces of chicken onto the skewers, brush with melted butter or oil and grill under moderately high heat for about 7-8 minutes, basting a couple of times and turning to cook until golden brown all over. Serve hot with lime wedges.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

La Rossa & The Chicklets

No, it isn't the name of an all-girl band but the residents of our Istana Ayam (Chicken Palace). La Rossa has been with us more than 3 years, the sole survivor of barnyard accidents, dog attacks etc. She was once injured by a falling frame (entirely her own stupid fault for trying to perch on it) so I took her to our vet then hand-fed her pain killers til she recovered.

So I'm sure you can understand (even though the pragmatic locals can't) why we haven't consigned her to the pot even though she's passed her egg-laying phase. She struts about, free-range except at night, like a Chelsea Pensioner, resplendent in red coat and living on the past.

The Chicklets represent the egg-laying future: three little hens past their cute fluffy stage but kind of appealing in a gangly, brainless, adolescent way. We're hoping by the time we return from our NZ holiday in January, they'll be laying their first eggs. The difference in flavour and texture of organic, free-range eggs makes it all worthwhile. And to be honest, we've rather come to like our feathered friends, and even our two dogs have come to accept La Rossa — provided she doesn't help herself to their food until they decide they've had enough.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Pins & Needles

It may seem somewhat strange that even though I've lived among the Chinese in Southeast Asia for 40 years, until now, I've never tried Traditional Chinese Medicine, or more specifically, acupuncture. The reason is that I have been blessed with good health and never needed it, but about a month ago, an X-ray showed I have "mild to moderate" spinal degeneration with bone growths on a couple of vertebrae pressing on a nerve and causing leg pain.

Through a series of incredible good luck and coincidences, we were introduced to a TCM doctor from northern China, who has a "clinic" here. He and his wife don't speak any English or Malay (despite 4-5 years in Kota Kinabalu) but we've been lucky to be introduced to a very kind woman who not only speaks Mandarin and English, but Malay and a few Chinese dialects. she acts as our go-between with Dr Wong.

Today is day #10 for both JF and I. Amazingly, my leg pains diminished after the first treatment and only once have I had to resort to pain-killers since starting the course of acupuncture. JF is feeling less shoulder pain and starting to have relief from his chronic insomnia, so we're both delighted.

The "clinic" inspires less confidence than the doctor himself, trained at a Beijing university, 30 years experience, understands Western medicine and asks you to bring in X-rays and MRIs. He has a strong northern accent, which makes me giggle as it reminds me of someone from Somerset. The clinic is room 6021 in the Ruby Hotel, on the edge of the old Kampung Air (Water Village) district. It consists of 1 double bed (the conjugal bed after hours); 1 single bed; 1 proper massage table and 2 armchairs, all separated by curtains. However, one day I found myself sharing the double bed with an elderly lady having treatment for a stroke! At least a pillow was placed in the middle to mark a separation!

Although I hate needles and injections, the insertion of the acupuncture needles (we have our own set, sterilised after each use) isn't painful. They only just pierce the skin, then are connected to electricity for light impulses over a 20-minute period. The only discomfort — no, dammit, it was pain — was a couple of times when the needle must have been touching a nerve and when the power went on, I felt I was being electrocuted. I realised that I would have been a lousy member of the Resistance — no way I could have withstood torture, especially if it involved electric shocks!

As well as the acupuncture and acupressure massage, I've embarked on Chi Kung, the ancient art of energy management which can be very effective for degenerative disease (such as my back problem). So after four decades, I'm fully embracing the Chinese approach. But regretably, I'm still not speaking Mandarin.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Shrimp In a Bottle

The mantis shrimp is fairly common in Sabah’s seafood restaurants, but instead of swimming live in an aerated tank like other prawns and shellfish, each mantis shrimp - normally about 20 cm in length — occupies its own small plastic bottle filled with seawater. Obviously, the tiny shrimp are popped in the bottle which is partially closed until they’re too big to force their way out, so the unfortunate creatures sit there growing until someone chooses them for dinner. Stir-fried with salt and black pepper is the recommended cooking style here.

Until a couple of days ago, I’d never seen mantis shrimp in the fish markets, so when I spotted fresh (but not live) ones at a remarkably reasonable price yesterday, I bought them. They weren’t very big or fat, but I figured that once they’d been steamed, the flesh would be good with pasta for lunch.

I don’t know if it was a question of their age or freshness (they looked and smelled fresh), but it was impossible to remove the flesh in one piece, as with a prawn. It was a really fiddly business to scrape out every morsel of the soft flesh, which I put into a pan with finely chopped garlic sautéed in olive oil, and a dash of chilli flakes. I boiled the empty shells with water and used this to cook the linguine, extricating as much flavour as possible. The result was very tasty, but I just wish there’d been more shrimp meat.

When we saw a mantis shrimp doing acrobatics off a coral reef during a dive trip a few years back, my dive buddy remarked they were “so sweet” she wouldn’t eat them. Being a foodie almost as much as a conservationist, I replied that I eat them precisely because they are sweet. Would I buy them again and go through the hassle of digging out the flesh? Probably not. I’ll save mantis shrimps for the next time I see them in a bottle at a seafood restaurant.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Not Just Desserts

Isn’t this the most gorgeous looking pineapple? Can’t you just imagine the sweet juice dribbling down your chin as you bite into a succulent slice?

Sorry to go on a bit, but I’m really proud of this home-grown pineapple, which represents victory in my on-going battle against our horde of marauding squirrels. Each and every pineapple in our garden has to be enclosed in a wire mesh cage, “stitched” at the bottom with fine wire, to keep it from these rats with furry tails.

Pineapples grow easily in this climate. When I asked our Timorese friend a few years back how to plant the pineapple crown I’d twisted off a ripe fruit, he took it from me and tossed it down the grassy hillside. When I looked shocked, he reassured me that it would take root on its own, no need to dig a hole, put fertiliser or anything like that. He was right, of course, and two years later, the plant bore fruit.

Although in the West pineapple is most commonly eaten fresh as a fruit, or made into desserts or cakes such as the excellent pineapple upside-down cake, in this part of the world, pineapple frequently appears in salads, soups, stir-fried dishes and stews. Here are some of the ways we enjoy pineapples such as this beauty (apart from biting into that succulent slice I mentioned):

∑ chunks blended with Asian pennywort (daun pegaga or gotukala) and iced water to make a healthy green juice
∑ fine dice mixed with cucumber (ditto) and sliced shallots, seasoned with rice vinegar, sugar and salt
∑ chunks mixed with sliced shallots and bird’s-eye chilli, tossed with a mixture of sambal belacan, lime juice, sugar and salt
∑ slices dipped in sweet soy sauce with sliced red chilli
∑ slices sprinkled with salt (to heck with blood pressure problems!)
∑ my favourite Laotian fish, beansprout and pineapple soup (recipe in my Green Mangoes & Lemon Grass)
∑ Vietnamese-style slivers of beef seasoned with oyster and soy sauce, stir-fried with garlic and pineapple, then splashed with lime juice and fish sauce

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Magic Grain

These days, most of us eat far more exotic grains and starchy products than the familiar wheat, rice and barley. There's polenta, which is made from corn and which is regarded in Italy as poor folks' food, definitely not trendy as it is or was in many Australian restaurants. Then there are couscous and burgul (yes, I know they're made from wheat, but in different forms) and the magic grain of the Andes, quinoa.

I’d eaten quinoa only once before we went to Peru, and found it pleasant, light but unremarkable in flavour. The tiny pale grains are actually the seeds of a leaf green veg, and as well as being high in protein, are full of all sorts of valuable minerals. No wonder the Incas could toil away in the potato fields at 3,500 metres or more!
When we were in the Sacred Valley last year, we noticed that most locals ate soupy stews in the markets, often with quinoa, vegetables and sometimes a few shreds of chicken. A small Peruvian cookbook I bought in Lima has a recipe for quinoa soup, which I’ve adapted slightly. The lack of spices and minimal use of herbs makes it almost like nursery food after the Asian and Middle Eastern food we most often eat, but it’s certainly healthy!
You should crumble in fresh white cheese, the sort shown in the photo here, but I find Gruyere a perfectly adequate substitute.

1-2 tablespoons pork lard or vegetable oil
1 medium red onion, chopped
4 cups chicken stock
1/2 – 3/4 cup quinoa (depending on how thick you want the soup)
1 medium potato (or sweet potato if you like), sliced
1 medium carrot, sliced
handful of spinach leaves
1 cup milk
1/2 cup crumbled white cheese or grated Gruyere
salt and pepper to taste
flat-leaf parsely or fresh coriander leaf

Heat the lard or oil and sauté the onion until soft. Add the stock, bring to the boil, then stir in the washed and drained quinoa. Cover and simmer 10 minutes. Add the potato and carrot and simmer until tender, Put in the milk and spinach leaves and cook til the spinach wilts. Add the cheese and when it has melted, season and serve with chopped flat-leaf parsley or fresh coriander.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Sausage that Got Away

I don't know what went wrong with Blogspot, publishing the code for the photo on my last posting rather than showing this gorgeous Italian sausage in all its juicy glory.

Down by the River Side

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There’s something about a barbecue that seems to bring out the cave woman in me. I am a real pyromaniac, and love gathering firewood, twigs, dried bamboo leaves or casuarina needles to make a blaze. Last Sunday, however, I diplomatically left it to the chief caveman and his (male) assistant to get a good fire going while I concentrated on the food (yeah, I know, sexual stereo-typing).

Our favourite picnic spot is along the Kiulu river, where there’s a wide grassy stretch on one side. The water is deliciously fresh and clean, fed by streams tumbling down the Crocker Range from Mount Kinabalu. It is the perfect spot for lazing about, keeping cool with a dip in the river aided by the occasional beer, and playing a spot of boules or petanque. During our picnic, a few young local guys turned up for a swim and the universal game of skipping flat river stones.

The main event for our picnic (after Belle’s pakhora) was Italian sausage, which I’d decided to stuff into one continuous coil rather than bother twisting and tying to get small sausages, and then risk them falling through the grill into the fire. I held the coil together by piercing it through with thick rosemary stems (saved in my freezer for months). Thanks to Belle and Jim, who carried back sausage skins from England, and to Markus, whose parents carried a giant jar of skins in brine from Germany, I’ve enough sausage skins for at least a couple of years. Just as well, as you simply can’t buy a decent sausage in Sabah.

In case you are also crazy enough to make your own sausages, here’s the best of the recipes I’ve tried since becoming an amateur charcutier.

1 kg minced pork (at least 15% fat)
1 1/2 tablespoons fennel seed, toasted
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 tsps freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp paprika
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup dry red wine
chilli flakes with abandon

Mix minced pork together with all other ingredients and leave refrigerated for 4 hours or overnight for the flavours to blend. Stuff the sausages and then poach in barely simmering water for 10 minutes or (preferably) steam over water in a covered wok. Drain and refrigerate, freeze or grill right away.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Careless Omnivore

I forgot to say that in the Omnivore food list I just posted, items I have NOT tried are in italic type.

Are You an Omnivore?

There's nothing like a deadline to encourage you to do everything except finish that article/ad/book. This morning's distraction was an amusing list of things an Omnivore should try at least once. I have tried 77 of the 100 items, missing out on American rubbish like McDonald's and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (it took me a while to figure out what PB & J was!, and I still don't know what S'mores is (I doubt it's the Dutch Eurasian Smoore!; ditto for Hostess Fruit Pie. The latter sounds like something Hannibal Lecter would relish.

Here's the list, in case you're interested.

1. Venison
2. Nettle tea
3. Huevos rancheros
4. Steak tartare
5. Crocodile
6. Black pudding
7. Cheese fondue
8. Carp
9. Borscht
10. Baba ghanoush
11. Calamari
12. Pho
13. PB&J sandwich
14. Aloo gobi
15. Hot dog from a street cart
16. Epoisses
17. Black truffle
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes
19. Steamed pork buns
20. Pistachio ice cream
21. Heirloom tomatoes
22. Fresh wild berries
23. Foie gras
24. Rice and beans
25. Brawn, or head cheese
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper
27. Dulce de leche
28. Oysters
29. Baklava
30. Bagna cauda
31. Wasabi peas
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl
33. Salted lassi
34. Sauerkraut
35. Root beer float
36. Cognac with a fat cigar
37. Clotted cream tea
38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O
39. Gumbo
40. Oxtail
41. Curried goat
42. Whole insects
43. Phaal
44. Goat’s milk
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more
46. Fugu
47. Chicken tikka masala
48. Eel
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut
50. Sea urchin
51. Prickly pear
52. Umeboshi
53. Abalone
54. Paneer
55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal
56. Spaetzle
57. Dirty gin martini
58. Beer above 8% ABV
59. Poutine
60. Carob chips
61. S’mores
62. Sweetbreads
63. Kaolin
64. Currywurst
65. Durian
66. Frogs’ legs
67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake
68. Haggis
69. Fried plantain
70. Chitterlings, or andouillette
71. Gazpacho
72. Caviar and blini
73. Louche absinthe
74. Gjetost, or brunost
75. Roadkill
76. Baijiu
77. Hostess Fruit Pie
78. Snail
79. Lapsang souchong
80. Bellini
81. Tom yum
82. Eggs Benedict
83. Pocky
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant.
85. Kobe beef
86. Hare
87. Goulash
88. Flowers
89. Horse
90. Criollo chocolate
91. Spam
92. Soft shell crab
93. Rose harissa
94. Catfish
95. Mole poblano
96. Bagel and lox
97. Lobster Thermidor
98. Polenta
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
100. Snake

Sunday, August 03, 2008

I adore yoghurt (home-made, of course) in every way possible, but for some reason, I'd never tried to make a yoghurt ice-cream. A famous Asian iced yoghurt chain is now strutting its stuff in Kota Kinabalu but their ic-cream is sickly sweet and 1 scoop costs as much as 1 1/2 litres of home-made yoghurt.

When I was in Singapore last week, Julia and I visited the superb Singapore Garden Festival, where we spent 5 hours drooling over orchids, pitcher plants, "fantasty gardens" (plus, I admit, indulging in a bowl of piping hot rice porridge with century egg and chicken to warm us up after 2 hours of freezing temperatures). One of the exhibitors kindly gave me several kaffir limes, those small, bumpy-skinned fruit from the tree whose double leaf has the most heavenly fragrance and is used in Thai and Nonya cuisine. I have a tree in my garden but although the providesmore leaves than I need, it has never flowered and given me fruit.

Anyway, I put the singapore kaffir lime and yoghurt together in the following recipe. By the way, the sickly colour of the lime in the photo is because I'd deep-frozen it. They're lovely bright green for the first hour or so after they defrost (but can be grated while still frozen) but then they take on this awful colour. The yoghurt ice tastes great, sort of herbal or even reminiscent of newly cut grass. You could, of course, substitute lemon rind and lemon juice for the lime. And if you have an ice-cream maker, you don't have to keep processing and re-freezing it as I do.

400 ml plain yoghurt (home-made or the best quality you can find)
grated zest of 1 kaffir lime
60 ml lime juice
130 ml sugar syrup* or a mixture of honey and sugar syrup
a liberal splash of limoncello or light rum

* I make mine with by boiling water with several chunks of Chinese yellow rock sugar, which is a mixture of cane sugar and honey and gives the syrup an unctuous texture and delightful flavour

Whisk all ingredients together in a bowl, then taste and add more syrup if needed; remember, when it's frozen the sweetness is less noticeable. Put in a freezer until it starts setting along the edges; whizz in a blender, return and freeze again. Whizz once more to break up the ice crystals, returning to your freezer container, cover with foil and return to the freezer until about 20 minutes before you need it. Then transfer it to the lower part of the fridge to soften. Serve, preferably with crisp sweet wafers.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

We went to see The Dark Knight last Sunday. It was stunning, the only really impressive film version of that totally unreal comic strip, Batman. Heath Ledger's performance as powerful as all the critics said. However, I thoroughly agree with the reviewer from the Daily Telegraph who said:

The Dark Knight may well be judged the best of this summer's blockbusters. It's a thrilling action movie laced with psychological subtleties, its haunting crepuscular images underpinned by an edgy, nerve-jangling score. And at its heart is a spine-tinglingly incandescent performance from Heath Ledger as Batman's crazed arch-nemesis the Joker. Without doubt, this is a major cinematic achievement. And, without doubt, it's not for kids.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The One that Got Away

When I wrote about my saffron debacle earlier today, I had a problem getting my photos the right size and in the right place. If you upload a photo with blogger, you get 6 lines of computer gobbledegook with countless other symbols (which I daren't typoe here in case I muck things up again). Then you have to move these lines into the appropriate spot in your text. As I was hurrying with the post (we were off to see The Dark Knight, with a brilliant performance by Heath Ledger as the Joker) so I screwed up.

I hope this time I upload correctly 2 photos that deserve to be seen in full glory.

I Should Have Known Better

I decided to prepare an Indian vegetarian meal for lunch today: carrot pachadi (with coconut, spices & yoghurt, one of my favourite recipes from Singapore Food); dhal; cucumber with yoghurt & mint;poppadums and Basmati rice. Why not improve the rice with some of the saffron I bought in a souk in Fes?
It was a spur-of-the-moment purchase from a general mini-grocery/hole in the wall while I was buying some argan oil, which works wonders on dry skin. At the time, it seemed to me a real bargain, saffron for such a cheap price!

If I'd bought it in Marrakesh in the wonderful specialty store with spices, dried rose buds, flower essences & nuts, I'm sure it would have been great.

Today, however, when I put a pinch of strands into a little warm water, the water suddenly turned pink. It should have been deep yellow, with a heavenly aroma. This fake saffron liquid looked like a pale version of Fanta Grape (one of Tiffany's childhood favourites) and totally lacked any fragrance.

It's not the second time I've been fobbed off with fake saffron in an exotic location. The first time was in Mapusa market in Goa, more than twenty years ago. A gramme of saffron is literally worth more than a gramme of gold — when will I learn?!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Desert Dreams

Did you know that the splendid version of Lawrence of Arabia, starring Peter O'Toole, was actually filmed in southern Morocco, around this old outpost of Ait bin Haddou?
No, I didn't either.

As I sit here in humid north Borneo, I keep thinking of the dry heat of southern Morocco and of the sandstorm at the edge of the Sahara, where my camera lens got covered in junk (sadly visible in my photos). And where, despite my tucking it under my shirt, my lens got a grain of sand trapped in the extendsion tube and is now in Kuala Lumpur for intensive care.

How anyone but a camel could stand this type of wind, which can blow non-stop for 7 days (so I was told), is beyond me. And to think they used to ride from Zagora to Timbuktu, a mere 52 days' journey.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Slowly Does it

Last night, we enjoyed braised lamb shanks cooked in much the same way as I usually prepare them with tomatoes, a little white wine and chicken stock. Jean-François commented — after finishing every morsel of meat (poor dogs, only bare bones to chew on) and mopping up every drop of sauce — that it was the best version of this dish I had ever made. What did I do differently?
Nothing, I replied. I always add the seasonings agak-agak, not measuring them — something I do only when testing recipes for cookbooks. Then I realised the difference was that I’d slow-cooked the meat in my terracotta Romertopf dish in a low oven, rather than speeding things up in the pressure cooker as I normally do.

Now don’t expect me to explain the science of it all, why the texture of the meat is so much more melting and the overall flavour so much better when it is cooked slowly in the Romertopf (which the English call a “chicken brick”). But as I remarked in an earlier post, using terracotta to make a sort of clay oven for my bread works wonders.
The recipe for the meat? Slowly brown all over a couple of whole lamb shanks (for 2 people) in a little olive oil in a frying pan. After about 10 minutes, transfer them to the Romertopf or a heavy oven dish (Le Creuset or similar). Add about 1/2 cup dry white wine (or 1/4 cup each dry vermouth and water) to the pan and let it bubble and reduce for a few minutes. Add 2-3 large ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped, and simmer until they soften a little. Add 1/2 cup really good quality chicken stock, salt and pepper and pour this mixture over the lamb shanks. Bake at around 150 C for about 2 hours, until meltingly soft. Check the meat a couple of times and if the sauce is drying out, add more chicken stock.
You can sprinkle the top with a mixture of very finely chopped parsley, garlic and grated lemon zest when serving. I normally do, but although I prepared this mixture last night, I forgot to add it to the meat. Tant pis —no problem — it was superb anyway.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

A Moroccan Feast

You might think that our most memorable meal in Morocco was the lavish spread we enjoyed (10 "salads", which were mostly cooked vegie dishes, to commence; chicken tajine; pastries and mint tea & fresh fruit) served in an opulent Dar in Fes with rugs, coloured tiles, mirrors, brass and copper everywhere. But no. It was in a simple café opposite the ruins of the ancient Roman town of Volubilis, once the biggest Roman post in north Africa.

When I went into the gloomy interior of the café, where old men sat sipping black coffee, I asked the young owner what he proposed for lunch (since there wasn't any menu). How about salad followed by tajine of meatballs in tomato sauce? Sounded great, so we sat on the terrace overlooking the café garden and the Roman ruins. A few moments later, after giving us the inevitable bowl of olives and flat Moroccan bread, our host, Mohammed (who else?) walked a couple of paces and cut a lettuce from the garden. He then went and picked a ripe orange, and made us a superb salad seasoned with oil, vinegar and lots of black pepper.

The meatballs were bathed in a really rich tomato sauce, simple but incredibly good. Time and again in Morocco, we found the fresh produce (which had never seen a refrigerated storage room or a supermarket chiller) intensely flavoured and ripened to perfection. Even the meat always looks good, and you can see which part of the beast it has come from.
After we finished our meal, Mohammed asked us if we'd like to see a special place. Why not? So we followed him into his orchard where two pomegranate trees meeting overhead formed a shady spot. "Would you like to have a siesta here?" he asked, indicating the large mat under the trees. Alas, we didn't have time, but we did have time to enjoy the bowl of freshly picked figs that he gave us. "I don't charge you, they are a gift because I like you". Now that is true Moroccan hospitality, and what turned a simple but delicious meal into a feast.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

And then there was ...

You'd probably think I was crazy if I told you one of the things we brought back from Marrakesh is a loo roll holder. But if you saw the washbasin that inspired us you'd understand.
In all the riads and well-off homes (as far as we could tell), bathroom fixtures are in brass or copper. Drool. But even though we brought back a card table from France (for camping and picnics) wrapped in my Moroccan rug, we drew the line at a washbasin. Instead, we compromised with the holder, which JF has just attached to the bathroom wall after some nifty drilling and screwing. My hero! (In case you think I was being lazy, I was making Claudia Roden's Sephardic Jewish orange cake for dinner tonight, using some of the orange flower water I bought in the souk.)

Friday, July 04, 2008


I have finally unpacked everything after my 5-week trip to Singapore, France, Morocc and London. In doing so, I reflected that you can know a lot about a person by the contents of their suitcase, especially the goodies they have brought back from a trip.
From our idyllic travels in Morocco (11 days which we wish could have been more) I brought back:
• A typical mat made by a tribe from the High Atlas mountains, south of Marrakesh. The carpet shop was great (see photo), the mint tea routine reminded me of buying donkey bags in an Afghan bazaar 35 years ago, and the rug itself I find charming: simple, unassuming, a colour which goes well in our bedroom and cheap too!

• An old silver pot for making mint tea, bought in the souk in Fes. Lacking wine and beer during our stay, we became addicted to this drink and the heavenly aroma of mint permeating the vegetable souks.
• A simple blue and white bowl bought at the pottery of Tamegroute, way south near the start of the Sahara.
• Alas, I couldn’t add a heavy pottery tagine to my luggage, so bought (in the same pottery at Tamegroute) a turquoise-coloured mini-tagine which holds a tea light.
• Purple olives bought from an old man in the Fes souk; he assures me they’re the best type to add to tajines.
• A wooden spoon for scooping the olives out of their liquid.
• Several beautiful brass and copper spoons and cookie cutters from the medina where we stayed in Marrakesh.
• A hand-crafted wooden water mug with brass bands bought from the artisan in one of the souks in Fes.
• Ras el Hanout, the ultimate spice blend, bought with the help of Jamilah from our gorgeous riad in Marrakesh. The whole spices were weighed out then ground in front of me. Can’t wait to cook with them!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Suspended Until Further Notice

This blog is suspended, not so much because of lack of interest (although the deafening silence cause by lack of comments is disheartening) but because I'm going away for 5 weeks. France for family, Morocco for adventure (and food) and London for culture (West End and V&A, here I come). Be warned, this blog will probably bore you with photos and stories from Morocco in July — still, it'll be a change from Borneo.