Sunday, 29 November 2009

Barbecued Pig Tails and Crunchy Sparrows


So we've just arrived in Burma and have had about 12 airline meals in the space of 24 hours. Of course, my family immediately tries to feed us, but what should we have when we're feeling so delicate?

I decide we can just about nibble some light bites, so we pile into the car and head to the latest favourite
a'gin zein (literally "grilled stuff shop") called "The Prome".


Located on Pyay Road, Yangon, The Prome is much like all the other barbecue huts I've been to in Burma (though a tad more upmarket ie expensive).

After perusing the menu for a few minutes (there's soups and salads as well as ... sushi), I think "sod it" and I wander over to the BBQ pic'n'mix.


There's tonnes to choose from, but I manage to restrain myself from grabbing too much, and stick to the goodies in the basket above.

Quails, sparrows, a curly pig tail, pig ears, chicken gizzards, squid, a massive prawn, pork belly and some lurid pink square salami.

And for veggies, there's lotus root, oyster mushrooms, garlic cloves and danyinthee aka jengkol - a type of bean I adore even if it does cause djenkolism (jengkol bean poisoning), symptoms of which include "spasmodic pain, gout, urinary obstruction and acute renal failure".

And just to add insult to injury, it also gives you unholy flatulence. But no gain without pain, right?


So a short while after I hand my basket of goodies to the nearest waiter to be grilled, dish after dish begins to arrive.

Particularly good are the crunchy chunks of pigtail, as well as the separately ordered wet-thar dohto ("pig on a stick" ie piggy innards).


I'm also digging the crispy little sparrows which we crunch down, bones and all.


As expected, the danyinthee is wonderfully more-ish (similar to the sator bean you can get in this country), although hubby eyes it warily, identifies it as the "poo bean" and refuses to try it. More for me then.


To finish our relatively ascetic meal, my a-Ma (Burmese for "older sister", here referring to my cousin) orders us yay-gè thohk - literally "ice salad".

Yay-gè thohk is a little like ice kachang, but without the disturbingly savoury kidney bean/sweetcorn element. Sweet and peanutty, it's a good palate-cleanser, and a nice, refreshing end.


So after paying the somewhat hefty bill, we pile back into the car and pootle off to bed before it's time for the next round of competitive feeding ...


The Prome Restaurant
Pyay Road

Friday, 27 November 2009

On the Road to Mandalay


By the old Moulmein Pagoda,
Lookin' eastward to the sea,
There's a Burma girl a-settin',
And I know she thinks o' me
Less than a fortnight ago, I found myself on Kipling's fabled road to Mandalay.

Hubby and I had landed at Mandalay International Airport, about an hour's drive from Mandalay proper - "international" being a mildly amusing misnomer as the only planes which fly in and out of this white elephant come from within Burma itself, apart from the occasional flight to Kunming.

The journey to the centre of town is a joy - noisy, dusty, beautiful and bumpy with all manner of picturesque traffic like sidecar rickshaws, scooters and beasts of burden.

I love Yangon with all my heart, yet it's not till I get to Mandalay that I feel that I've truly come home.
But that's all shove be'ind me -- long ago an' fur away,
An' there ain't no 'busses runnin' from the Bank to Mandalay;
An' I'm learnin' 'ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:
"If you've 'eard the East a-callin', you won't never 'eed naught else."
Mandalay was never actually home for me, but it's where my beloved grandparents lived all their lives, and I've been back and forth since I was eight years old, so in some ways I feel like I grew up there.

My father and both brothers were all born in Mandalay, but to my everlasting chagrin, I first opened my eyes in the rather more prosaic Margate.


One of the other reasons I adore Mandalay is the plethora of street eats.

Safety rules and regs are few and far between in Burma (for example, car seatbelts have yet to manifest themselves), but a few years back in Yangon, some jobsworths saw fit to sweep away all the roadside vendors and most of the street cafes.

But in Mandalay, such places persist and for this I am truly grateful.


Our first port of call is this Indian tea shop called ပန္‌းသခင္‌​ (Hbun Thakin or Flower Lord), where we hunker down on tiny stools to be served one of the finest breakfasts known to man - a metal platter of aloo poori.

First thing in the morning, nothing beats dunking huge, crispy, fresh-fried puffbreads in luscious curried potatoes, tamarind sauce and okra stew.

On the side, there's samosas to snack on, cabbage shreds and onion chunks to crunch, lime to squeeze, and tiny chillies and mint leaves to chew.


My father plumps for his favourite dish of samusa thohk - samosa salad, about which the great Madhur Jaffrey had this to say:
"One of the most unusual Burmese-Indian creations in the market is a samosa salad. Two very Indian snacks, deep-fried, savoury pastries and split pea fritters, along with boiled potatoes and tomatoes, are crumbled and dressed with lime juice, as well as a sauce made with dal, rather like a thin, south Indian sambar".
Madhur Jaffrey's Ultimate Curry Bible (Ebury Press, 2003)


No! you won't 'eed nothin' else
But them spicy garlic smells,
An' the sunshine an' the palm-trees an' the tinkly temple-bells;
On the road to Mandalay . . .


And now we're actually home, back in cold and blustery Blighty, and I'd give anything to be back on that roadside, sipping cups of hot green tea and chewing on sprigs of mint.
I am sick o' wastin' leather on these gritty pavin'-stones,
An' the blasted English drizzle wakes the fever in my bones


ပန္‌းသခင္‌​ Tea Shop
Junction of 80th and 35th Street

Watch take-away samusa thohk being made:

(Excerpts from Mandalay by Rudyard Kipling

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Sophie's Choice

For the love of God, woman - don't look at the menu, just look at the name ...

Much apologies for the radio silence - I've been in Burma for the past two weeks with zero access to interwebs, phone or newspapers.

Lots to tell you about, but in the meantime, I give you the lovely little restaurant above.

I can't help but wonder if the owners have ever actually seen the film ...

NOOOOOOO - don't go in, Granny!

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Coco by Phaidon - Worth Missing the Last Train For

COCO book shot

10 world leading masters choose 100 contemporary chefs

What is Coco? The latest in the Cream series by Phaidon, creators of the eminently desirable Wallpaper Guides, Coco may best be described as a beautiful, zeitgeisty snapshot of Who's Who in the cheffing world today.


The rising culinary stars which make up this beautifully illustrated, distinctly modern encyclopaedia have been selected by 10 of the world's genuine uber-chefs: : Ferran Adria (El Bulli, Catalonia), Mario Bateli (Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca, New York), Shannon Bennett (Vue de monde, Melbourne), Alain Ducasse (Le Louis XV), Fergus Henderson (St John, London), Yoshihiro Murata (Kikunoi Kiamachi, Kyoto), Gordon Ramsay (Gordon Ramsay, London), Rene Redzepi (Noma, Copenhagen), Alice Walters (Chez Panisse, San Francisco) and Jacky Yu (Xi Yan Sweets, Wanchai).

And the talent hasn't just been picked from Michelin star kitchens, the chosen few even include an ice cream maker (La Grotta Ices).


It's not just an encyclopaedia though - as well as intros by the 10 super-chefs and short biographies of the nominees, there are also signature recipes and a tasting menu to distil just why each chef is a talent of today (and tomorrow).

There's also a directory of all the featured restaurants by location, and even a glossary of more recherche cooking terms at the end.


So Coco works on several different levels: as food porn, pure and simple, with lush, vibrant photos accompanying every entry; as an academic text for those interested in contemporary culinary trends; as a hip, coffee table book; and as a cookbook for those keen on recreating recipes in their own kitchens. It's pretty much a must-have and even has multi-coloured ribbon dividers for you to bookmark your favourite bits.

I've used these ribbons to mark all the London-based chefs - though I adore Glynn Purnell, who's also in Coco, I'm unlikely to make it up to Birmingham any time soon. There's over a dozen London chefs (mainly picked by Fergus Henderson and Gordon Ramsay), and last night I was invited by Phaidon and Sauce Communications to go on a bloggers' Gourmet Gallop to visit some of their establishments.


My blogging compadres were Gastrogeek, Scandilicious, Food Urchin, Essex Eating, Mathilde's Cuisine, Laissez Fare and Gastrogossip. The plan was simple - we'd be taken around London to enjoy each course of our gallop at a different place. We started off at The House of St Barnabas where we were were treated to amazing canapes by Lyndy Redding of Absolute Taste and our first Coco alumni. Lyndy was picked by Gordon Ramsay to represent the best in event catering today and in my opinion she certainly deserves this accolade. We had tender salt-and-pepper crusted beef tenderloin skewers with horseradish cream; gorgeous fresh tuna tataki with radish apple and mustard served on chopsticks; sweet pea and mint tartlets with feta and mint; fab, crunchy-battered haddock goujons with a zingy caper aioli; more-ish parmesan shortbread with buffalo mozzarella, slow-roasted cherry tomato and pesto; and huge, umami-laden cheese straws.

Lyndy was also genuinely friendly and extremely passionate about her food, and she seemed just as interested in us as we were in her - in fact, I didn't immediately twig that she was one of the Coco stars as she was so welcoming and acted like she was one of us.

We were sorry to leave the warmth and beauty of the House of St Barnabas and those lovely canapes, but we had to move on for the starter. As we set off, I briefly pondered the wisdom of boarding a minibus with more-or-less complete strangers, but hell, I'd had a couple of mojitos by then and threw caution to the wind. Next stop was Maze and Jason Atherton!


Maze was very busy, very chic but also quite murkily lit - the bane of the food blogger who wants to capture every morsel for posterity. We slid onto leather banquettes to be served our first course of Cornish red mullet, rabbit bolognese, cuttlefish tagliatelle, squid paint - the recipe for which happens to be in Coco. Each dish was pretty as a picture (TM Michel Roux Jnr) and we were about to tuck in when the waiters came up brandishing silver gravy boats. "What is this? What? No, seriously? You're pouring spag bol sauce onto my fish? Really?"


Every element of the dish was beautifully realised - the mullet firm and meaty, the cuttlefish tender, the squid ink savoury. The bolognese was a fine example of everyone's favourite sauce and if I'd had that ladled onto a bowlful of tagliatelle, I'd have been as happy as a pig in clover. But rabbit sauce and fish together was discordant - the rich, tomatoey, meaty ragu smashed straight through the delicate, sweet fish, overpowering the whole.


Suddenly it was time to move on, and we were all rather crestfallen to hear that Jason Atherton was too busy to see us. Before we'd begun, we'd joked that at the end of this course we'd rise in synch and throw our napkins onto the tables with a flourish, but his no-show meant our feigned pique was in danger of becoming real. Oh well - next was Theo Randall at the InterContinental.

Maze on Urbanspoon


Despite being in a hotel, Theo Randall's place bears little resemblance to the standard soul-less hotel restaurant. It's warm and inviting, if a little too trendy for my tastes (exhibit 1 - crayzee multicoloured striped prints; exhibit 2 - crayzee multicoloured vases; exhibit 3 - random vegetables placed on random surfaces). We were met by the Intercontinental's PR team before being led to a table where we were immediately given some bruschetta and ciabatta.


Then Chef Randall himself came out of the kitchen to see us (Jason Atherton Nil, Theo Randall One) and to give us a little background on the dish we were about to eat. I think most of us there were ardent carnivores and so were a little disappointed to hear we were having another fish dish, but those doubts were totally unfounded.


Chef Randall gave us up another recipe from Coco - wood-roasted Cornish monkfish with parsley, capers, Roseval potatoes, globe artichokes and prosciutto di Parma, The monkfish was definitely the star of the show, magnificently meaty, with a firm yet tender texture, and a squeeze of lemon and scattering of capers just served to crank it up another notch. But the other ingredients held their own - the potatoes were beautifully seasoned, the artichokes just so and the parma ham the optimum balance of salt and sweet.


When we were done, Chef Randall came out to see us off and he was kind enough to sign our menus which he'd had specially made for us, and to have photos taken with us. A true gentleman as well as a culinary star.

Theo Randall on Urbanspoon


Last but not least, we were whisked off to Launceston Place to visit Tristan Welch. Now, I've had a tiny fan-girl crush on the man ever since Great British Menu where he was the perfect combo of charm and cheekiness, and I'd tasted his legendary rhubarb and crumble ice cream at Taste of London earlier this year so I was looking forward to this already, but Launceston Place is also the home of Steve Groves, winner of this year's Professional MasterChef and my latest food hero.

So I could barely contain myself when we reached our final destination, and was even more excited when Tristan Welch himself was there to greet us as we entered Launceston Place. Danielle from Sauce Comms introduced us all to him one by one and then we were led to a beautifully laid table with perfect intimate lighting - still too dark for a proper photo but at least I could see my plate.


When Essex Eating and I'd finished stroking the wonderfully tactile chargers (seriously, I want them), Chef Welch brought out pre-desserts for us of raspberry jelly and lemon sorbet topped with a black pepper tuile. The moussey jelly was a perfect palate cleanser and the pepper perked my tastebuds up no end. Suddenly we were very awake and ready for more.

Meanwhile our sommelier Mickey from Chicago was charm personified and reminded me a little of Demetri Martin. He actually made wine sound interesting which is a first for me. He chose a brilliant dessert wine (please don't ask me what it was) which enhanced rather than overpowered everything we tried.

When our actual dessert arrived, we were completely lost for words - all we could do was "Ooh!" and "Aah". Vast slate platters of dazzling sweet treats were laid in front of us - so many different delights, I felt a bit like Charlie Bucket in the chocolate factory.

PB050049 - Copy

photo copyright Laissez Fare

I was so overwhelmed that when the pastry chef himself came out to explain what was in front of us, I barely heard the poor man. It was almost too much when Chef Welch then brought out a huge tarte tatin with hand-made clotted cream and very matter-of-factly said "Well, I couldn't let you leave without trying this".


Of course he was right - that tarte tatin was a sticky dream (now, now) but the platter of delights gave it stiff competition. From memory, there was rice pudding souffle, a playful twist on comfort food; amazing dark salted caramel drops and squares; caramelised popcorn; lavender panna cotta; a whipped raspberry and cream pot; an ephemeral jelly like parma violet air; Steve's Guinness ice cream and banana pudding; and my favourite - toffee apple cream coated in a brown sugar carapace. To be fair, that last one looked like a Scotch Egg but that just made it more attractive.


As we gorged ourselves silly, Chef Welch chatted to us and it soon transpired that he'd actually had a look at our blogs before we'd arrived - he knew Essex Eating had just been to a Sheen Supper and he even knew that Food Urchin had twins (Chef Welch has twins himself). Though it was a tiny bit unnerving, it was also immensely endearing - if he was trying to make us love him he was succeeding, goddammit. Although our MasterChef winner Steve wasn't working that night, we didn't feel shortchanged as Chef Welch was so attentive and welcoming. I mentioned that I'd met him briefly before and he said "Oh yes, at Taste of London". I don't for a second believe he remembers me, but it does mean he's read my blog and that's good enough for me.


Launceston Place on Urbanspoon

All good things must come to an end and as the witching hour approached, we reluctantly gathered our things.

After exchanging business cards and thanking our hosts Phaidon, Sauce Comms and Chef Welch himself, we all said our goodbyes and Essex Eating, Food Urchin and I rolled off to Gloucester Road tube station to catch our trains (not all of us live in London, you know).


As I got to Charing Cross at twenty past midnight, my poor husband (who'd been waiting for me after having been kicked out of a pub) sadly informed me that we'd just missed the last train home. But you know what - even that didn't bring me out of my sugar-buzz high.

Because thanks to Coco, I'd had a bloody brilliant night and yes, it was worth missing the last train home.


Coco (Phaidon, 2009)

Monday, 2 November 2009

Autumn Squashes


Clockwise from top left - Spaghetti Squash, Harlequin, Munchkin, Onion
(also Butternut, not pictured)

There is an absolutely wonderful abundance of all things squash-like at the moment.

I've treated myself to the ones shown above, but there are many more different varieties available.

I'm now going to rack my brains and the interwebs for some tasty, squashey things to concoct.

And if you have any suggestions, please drop me a line below.