Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Of Mice & Men

The best laid plans of mice and men oft gang awry. My plans for today have been ganging awry or getting side-tracked big time. Today’s plan was for some serious work on a book I’m writing about Tabin Wildlife Reserve (a place twice the size of Singapore, in eastern Sabah). However, when I tried to turn on my computer, I found my back-up battery/stabliser was kaput, so I had to drive down to my computer whizz and leave it in intensive care.

Since I was already downtown, it made sense to do some essential shopping. While in the market, I caught sight of some parkia beans or petai, long pods which grow on a huge tree in the jungle. I adore these bitter beans, also known as stink beans for what they do to your urine afterwards (yes, I share everything with you).

I adore petai cooked with a spicy prawn sambal, so that meant going across to the fish market for the prawns, where I happened to spy some lovely fresh tuna. I bought a large slice, then when I got home, decided it was too much for one meal so figured it was time for an indulgent lunch. I therefore made a tuna carpaccio, which was wonderful with a bit of baguette and a big bowl of mountain-grown beans that taste incredibly like scarlet runner beans.

This makes enough for 1 happy luncher; multiply by 4 or 6 as needed
100 g absolutely fresh tuna, thinly sliced
1 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 teaspoon fish sauce
lots of freshly ground black pepper
scaterring of chopped fresh coriander leaf

Put the tuna in a wide bowl. Mix the oil, lime juice, fish sauce and pepper together, then pour over the tuna. Toss gently, cover with clingfilm and refrigerate 20-30 minutes. Serve with the coriander leaf on top and more pepper. You can drain off the marinade but I like to dip a chunk of baguette into it.

Of course, as I was preparing the carpaccio, I had to run for my camera a couple of time to take some photos of one of the scarlet sunbirds that visits our garden daily to sip nectar from the tiny purple flowers on a young pineapple, and from the brilliant heliconia flowers.

So here it is, early afternoon and not a word written on the Sumatran rhino, the mud volcanoes and other delights of Tabin. I was about to start work then it occurred to me I should do a web search on the maker of the gorgeous blue porcelain plate I used for my tuna. It has a crest saying “Leonard Livada & Co, Constantinople” with London printed below. I couldn’t find anything on line. Can anyone help?

Friday, March 14, 2008

Eat Your Heart Out

Why do I have this idea that just because someone is from a country which has stunning food, they’re bound to be a good cook? I was rather disillusioned last night when a Thai friend (a lovely girl who shall remain anonymous for obvious reaons) cooked a meal for us. Three dishes plus steamed rice, and all three dishes contained coconut milk! Where were the salty, sour and hot flavours?

And wouldn’t you know it, the salad I volunteered also contained coconut milk! My salad was made with fresh heart of palm, prawns and coconut cream flavoured with freshly made nam prik pao (a mixture of hot chilli, shallot, garlic, shrimp paste, fish sauce, palm sugar and lime juice).

The heart of palm came from a Brazilian peach palm I’ve been nurturing for about 10 years. With this specie, when you fell the palm to extract the heart, you’re not killing the goose that laid the golden egg, as is the case with coconut palms. Cut the palm and that’s it. However, the Brazilian peach palm obliging produces lots of small palms which sprout around the mature one, so in theory, you have a regular supply. In reality, we get about two per year. Perhaps their rarity makes them taste even more special.

My Thai friend certainly thought the salad was special. She ate more than the rest of us combined!

Please note this entry is ROA (Recipes On Application).

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Romancing the Love Apple

I'd like to think that the apple with which Eve tempted Adam was the love apple or pomme d'amour, better known as the tomato. So much lovelier and more seductive than a Granny Smith or Gala. However, unless the Garden of Eden was in Central America, there wouldn't have been any tomatoes around. Luckily, we can get really tasty tomatoes here, grown on the slopes of Mount Kinabalu, and we must consume about 1 1/2 kilos per week.

Last night, I made one of my favourite tarts, one which doesn't contain cream so it's not quite as cholesterol-laden as your average quiche. When the French "haven't a thing in the kitchen", they claim airily "on peut toujours faire une tarte". Well, maybe you can always whip up a tart easily if you live in France or Australia or somewhere else that sells ready-made short crust pastry, all rolled out and ready to simply push into a tart pan before filling. Here in the wilds of Borneo (ok, slight exaggeration), I always make my own pastry. For savoury tarts, I really like a mixture of oats and flour; it gives a better texture and more flavour to the pastry crust. As for my favourite filling (based on a Provencal recipe), just try it and you'll see why we love these tarts so much.


125 g oatmeal
125 g plain flour
generous pinch of salt
125 g chilled butter, diced
water as needed
6 small tomatoes (60-80 g each)
6 heaped tablespoons best French mustard
125 g gruyere or cheddar cheese, grated
fresh or dried thyme, salt, pepper and extra virgin olive oil

Put the oatmeal in a food processor and pulse a few times to break it up a bit. Add the flour, salt and butter and pulse until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add 2-3 tablespoons iced water and pulse until it forms a ball. Pop in a plastic bag, chill about an hour in the fridge, let it come to room temperature then roll it out. Line 6 small tart tins (preferably with a removable base) with the pastry. You can let them sit at room temperature (even in the tropics), lightly covered, for at least an hour.

Heat the oven to 200C. Cut each tomato in quarters and squeeze lightly to press out the juice. Sprinkle with salt and leave in a colander to draw out more juice, otherwise the pastry will be soggy. When the tomatoes are well drained, spread a heaped tablespoon of mustard on the bottom of each pastry base. Add 1/6th of the cheese, then top with 4 tomato quarters. Sprinkle with herbs, pepper and a good dribble of olive oil, then bake at 200C for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to about 180C and continue cooking until the tarts are done, about another 30 minutes. Serve hot or warm. Mon capitaine thinks they're even better cold.

Friday, March 07, 2008

So Long and Thanks for all the Fish

JF sent me this view, taken not far from his "office" (c'est a dire, son bateau) in Kudat Harbour yesterday: a sizeable sailfish being delivered to the nearby market by the latest transportation equipment.

It's sad to size the profusion of small reef fish sold here. There is no enforcement of catch size — not surprising that the amount of fish here is dwindling rapidly. And the best fish go straight to the expensive seafood restaurants to be bought by the Taiwanese, Korean, Chinese & Japanese tourists. It's a lucky day when the average shopper finds slipper or flat-headed lobsters or decent-sized crabs in the market.

There are a few non-rainy patches in between the rain, which has gone on either day or night (or both) for the past 28 days. Here's a photo of the Likas water village taken on a recent morning before the rain started.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Pithed Off

Did you know that the flesh of the pomelo (the heaviest of all citrus fruits) weighs less than half of the total, once you peeled off the very thick skin and got rid of the spongey white pith? I weighed a whole fruit (taken from "our" tree in Kudat) and then weighed the resulting pale pink flesh to learn this. (Amazing the things you do when you're not madly busy!)

I was disappointed by the opinion of Tom Stobart (The Cook's Encyclopaedia) that "the chief distinction of (the fruit) is that it is probably the ancestor of the grapefruit". He's obviously never tasted a good pomelo in Asia to give it such faint praise!

The ones from the garden in Kudat have very juicy, palest pink flesh, not very sweet which is why they're good in this Thai salad. You can try it with grapefruit if you can't get pomelo.


1 medium pomelo or 2 grapefruit, peeled and flesh broken into small segments
1/2 cup freshly grated or dessicated coconut, lightly toasted in a dry wok
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon castor sugar
2 tablespoons lime juice, or more to taste
1 tablespoon crisp-fried shallots
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced and slowly fried in oil until crisp
fresh coriander leaves

Put pomelo flesh, coconut, fish sauce, sugar and lime juice in a big bowl, stirring to mix well. Taste and add more lime juice if needed. Just before serving with rice and other dishes, scatter with the shallots, garlic and fresh coriander.