Turan teaching his food smoking class

Turan teaching his food smoking class

A relaxed and genial figure, Turan T. Turan is accustomed to the idea that his day job – a fireman – coupled with his hobby – food smoking – causes amusement. “The guys at the station tease me,” he laughs, “My colleagues say why don’t you take food in with you when you go into a fire?!”

Such is Turan’s fascination with food smoking that he runs courses on the subject and is the author of a book on food smoking, a characteristically practical how-to guide. Turan kindly invited me to attend one of his day courses at Hackney City Farm in October 2013. Here I got to see him in action demonstrating how to smoke an assortment of foods, passing on his enthusiasm, which he did with commendable clarity and in an appealingly down-to-earth way. The group of would-be food smokers are transfixed when Turan announces “I’d like to teach you how to smoke food in a cardboard box” and, true to his word, brings out a cardboard box which he has adapted into a smokebox and used as such for three years.

Turan with cardboard box smoker

This rooted, humorous approach continues through the day; “We need to use a damper. I use something technical, like a flowerpot!” As a fireman, safety is obviously very important to Turan; “food smoking is an outdoor pursuit” he emphasises, as well as explaining about the need to have a damper to slow down the combustion process. In a fascinating session, he takes us outside and demonstrates by burning various woods the different aromas they have when burnt, from the light sweetness of apple wood to the distinctive scent of hickory. The aromatic fragrance of burning bay shavings (de-barked, dried and planed by Turan) evokes ‘oohs’ of appreciation. It was a fascinating and engaging day, offering a real insight into the principles of hot and cold smoking, hospitably rounded off by a chance to sample all the foods we have watched being smoked, including Turan’s excellent smoked salmon.
Talking to Turan after having seen his practical nature amply demonstrated during the course, I am not surprised to learn that as a boy Turan “had a fascination with how things worked. My dad came into the garage one day and discovered that I’d pulled his red leather radio apart to see how it worked. My hobbies were all about building stuffing and making things.” This hands-on aspect is a theme throughout his life; “I built my first car, built my house.” He began his working life as a sixteen-year-old electrical apprentice. A few years later he applied to London Fire Brigade and has worked there ever since, currently in the position of a Station Manager.
An interest in food has been part of Turan’s life ever since he was a boy growing up in West London. His Turkish Cypriot father worked in the restaurant business all his life – “some of that interest in food rubs off.” Turan’s first attempt at smoking food was, in fact, prompted by a conversation with his father. “It was in the 1990s. He was saying that smoked salmon in the supermarket was a joke and simply didn’t taste nice, so I thought I’m going to have a go at making that. I got a whole salmon, cured it in salt and smoked it in a rudimentary box I’d built. I made a mess of it the first couple of times because I over-salted the fish. I persevered and worked with the tail end fillet until I got it right. You know what, it was the simplest thing. I just used salt, allowed it to cure for a short time, for a tail end typically around 4 hours, then exposed it to smoke for 6-8 hours, which gave it the chance to dry out and firm up, improve the texture. When I carved it and tasted it, my dad said it was the best smoked salmon he’d ever tasted. That meant a lot to me. That’s what got me started on smoking food.” Even now, so many years later, there is a warm pleasure in Turan’s voice as he relives this moment in his memory. “My dad died a couple of years ago and when we were visiting him in hospital we’d take in plates of food because he didn’t like the hospital food. I would bring him smoked salmon on triangles of nice brown bread, served with cracked pepper and slices of lemon. You’d see the people around the ward looking to see what he was eating. My dad would say, ‘This is the smoked salmon my son made. It’s the best smoked salmon in the world.’ It was quite embarrassing!”

Turan with his freshly smoked salmon

Having become interested in food smoking, Turan, in his own words, “got a bit geeky about it!” Asked by a friend to show him how to make a food smoker, he spent 2-3 months putting together the drawings for the food smoker he’d made. “He said I should put them on the Internet and I did. They went online in 2008 and today I must have sold 700 plans. I get photos from people who’ve built the smoker, showing me what they’ve done.” A few years later, Turan was invited to run a course on food smoking at Hackney City Farm, where he has since taught two courses a year ever since.

Turan demonstrating hot smoking

Turan demonstrating hot smoking

Although initially rather nervous at the idea of teaching, he obviously relishes the chance to communicate his knowledge. “I love seeing people going oh right, that’s not hard is it? The point I make with the cardboard box is that it is simply an enclosure to hold smoke in an environment where your food is. It doesn’t have to be a very expensive, fancy, stainless steel smoker. To me, demystifying it is very satisfying. Teaching my course gives me pleasure because it means that people will go away and do food smoking for themselves and it will be nice and safe and easy for them to do.”
Details of Turan’s courses can be found on his website:


Turan's hot smoked trout

Turan's hot smoked trout



Turan carving his freshly smoked salmon

The Remarkable Cookery Teacher

Rosalind Rathouse


Good teachers are special. Which is why we always remember them – they have the capacity to touch our lives. The best teachers engage with people, transmitting their own personal enthusiasm for a subject in an infectious way. Known simply as ‘Ros’, Rosalind Rathouse – warm-hearted, genuinely interested in people, always courteous and with deeply-held core values and high standards  - is one of these teachers.

Teaching has been part of Ros’s life for 50 years. Born and brought up in South Africa, she came to London as a young woman when her husband won a scholarship to come  study architecture at the Architects Association and has stayed here ever since, working for many years as a study tutor. Listening to her talk with deep affection of the children she taught, her pleasure at having helped them progress shines through. One of the boys she was teaching to read– a troubled adolescent who was being sent off to a borstal – asked her to show him how to cook, which she did. “We used to buy cheap ingredients and I showed him some easy dishes. A few years later on a Sunday night I got a phone call and it was the same boy –‘Hello miss, do you remember me?’ He said ‘I just wanted to say thank you for teaching me to cook. When I got to the institution, cookery was an option and I did it and now I want to be a chef, so thank you.’”

Ten years ago, in 2003, Ros, inspired by her love of food as well as of teaching, fulfilled a long-held personal ambition to set up her own cookery school – Cookery School, tucked away on Little Portland Street, just off Oxford Circus.  “When we started there were just a few cookery schools in London, now there are more than 40,” she laughs. “I knew it would lovely to enthuse people and get them cooking. First we did demonstrations but I realised quickly that wasn’t enough – people have to do things for themselves in order to learn. What we offer here is home cooking – I feel really strongly about it. I also feel strongly that all this media circus about food means that people think if they can’t chop like a chef, they can’t cook. That’s rubbish! My mother couldn’t chop like a chef but she was a wonderful cook. I think it’s important to show people how easy cooking is. We believe that what we do is offer learning that lasts – we get people to do it and that way they really learn.”

A recent addition to the courses on offer at Cookery School was the new Cook’s Certificate course, a six weeks full-time course. “It’s aimed at people who want to get a cookery a qualification quickly – so very focussed. From the time they get in in the morning to the end of the day when they leave they are not sitting around doing theory – they don’t do any washing up here because that’s a waste of teaching time. Every few days we do an assessment where they get three hours to turn out a three-course meal and see how far they’d gone and the skills they’d learnt.” Intrigued by this characteristically practical approach to spreading cookery knowledge in a meaningful way, I met the first batch of students to do the Cook’s Certificate as they started the course. All of them, as one might expect, were keen to learn more about cooking and to build up their confidence, some with a view to setting up their own businesses, while others simply wanted to be better domestic cooks. I returned after the six weeks were up to ask how the Cook’s Certificate course had gone.  The students were sitting around the table, palpably relishing the chance to rest after a busy six weeks. “The weeks have gone by very fast – we’ve learnt a lot,” said Suzanne, one of the students. “I think I can say that for the whole table, there was a lot of deepening of what we already know and a tremendous amount of new things. Highlights for me were baking-  it’s taken away the anxiousness of dealing with baked things – and skills like boning meat . . . I feel more confident.” The others agreed. “They’re so good here at making sure you learn the right techniques,” comments Rebecca another student, “and if you don’t they go over and over until you do.”  Ros is delighted with how the course went. “By the end of it their kitchen etiquette was brilliant, they understood about hygiene, about using good ingredients and the most important thing for me is how they were tasting everything.”

For the last eight years, Ros’s teaching and communication skills have also been put to the test  in an imaginative way with Cookery School’s participation in Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s African Leadership Institute, a not-for-profit organisation which aims to nurture good leadership in young Africans. “We do cookery-based exercises with them to alert them to the issues they’ll face, such as corruption. They are these paragons of virtue and we corrupt them!” explains Ros with relish.

Not one to sit back and rest, Ros is looking beyond Cookery School at the state of the nation and is concerned by what she sees. “I feel very strongly,” she says emphatically, “that we’ve lost cooking skills as a country and that saddens me. There have never been so many cookbooks but people aren’t cooking. It’s so important for kids to cook – they need it for survival. They should be taught about nutrition, so that we can cut down on obesity and also they need to learn to eat well with regard to the environment. I would love to see every child being taught how to cook while at school. We worked with a beacon school on a programme preparing the kids for university. They all had to cook a dish which represented their families. It was so successful we’re doing it again this year. They Loved, with a capital L, the cooking. We had a group of enthused 17-year-olds. Given the opportunity, kids want to cook.”

FOOD, BOOKS, MEMORIES: An Interview with Diana Henry


Salt Sugar Smoke by Diana Henry

The cookbooks which have a special place in my affections are those with a human voice, a sense of the personality behind them – cookbooks by Jane Grigson, Margaret Costa, Simon Hopkinson and Nigel Slater come to mind.  Diana Henry’s Salt  Sugar Smoke definitely falls into that category. Reading it, I found myself beguiled not only by the delectable recipes – Aubergine, cardamom and pomegranate ‘jam’, Beetroot-cured Gravlax,  Maple Vinegar – but by Diana’s vivacious authorial voice,  conveying an infectious enthusiasm.

Having visited Diana’s house for a wonderfully hospitable tea party to launch the book and seen the long, living room bookshelves lined with cookbooks, old and new, it was obvious that her love of both books and food runs deep.  “All my cookbooks are in my living room,” she explains. “The other books are elsewhere; the place is coming down with them! I just adore them. I don’t think cookbooks in the printed book will go. Recipes are things that intersect our lives. Even if I just look at the spines of my cookbooks, I get a warm feeling from them. My whole life is there – different decades, different times. It’s a bit like smelling a perfume, it evokes a time.”

She grew up in Northern Ireland with a mother who was an excellent cook; “to be honest, she’s more skilled than me,“ says Diana candidly. “Mum started to go to night classes in the 70s where they taught dishes like moussaka, lasagne – exotic then, especially in Northern Ireland. My god, the hunt we had to get Parmesan cheese  . . .” Diana began cooking as a girl –  “The first grown-up cookbook I bought was Prue Leith’s Cooking For Friends when I was 12” – and cooked through her teens. “I was giving dinner parties when I was sixteen. I really wanted to create  – and my friends just laughed at me! I think I’m quite a selfish cook, to be honest. People always think cooking is about sharing and I think it’s only partly that for me. It’s about making stuff and making stuff that is beautiful; there’s no question about that. I’m thrilled by the act of creation and I’m quite a visual cook. That’s why I like Middle Eastern food a lot. I spent three days cooking for my husband’s 50th birthday party.  All Middle Eastern and it looked beautiful and I can’t tell you how thrilled I was.”

Diana’s fascination continued through her student years at university at Oxford, though she remembers her interest in food being regarded as odd. “Other women thought you shouldn’t be interested in food. I was kicked out of my consciousness raising group because my conscious wasn’t raised enough!” she laughs. Undaunted by being out of step with what was considered fashionable, Diana continued to cook, drawing much comfort from her beloved cookbooks. “I discovered Elizabeth David at university but I’m not a massive fan. Sacrilege I know. I think she’s a bit cold and bit snobbish. I’m much more into Jane Grigson. She had a big influence early on. I bought her Vegetable and Fruit book. Those are really well-thumbed.” Having moved to London as a post-graduate and while living in a little basement flat in Islington, Diana vividly remembers buying two cookbooks “which both made my spine tingle”.  One was Claudia Roden’s Middle Eastern Cookbook and the other was Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Cookbook. “I used to lie on the sofa and read them. Claudia’s was fully contextualised, with the stories and history. The Alice Waters was ‘my god, you can give people fillet of pork with char-grilled peppers for supper, that’s brilliant!’ My goddesses are definitely Jane Grigson, Claudia Roden and Alice Waters. It’s been added to over the years – Stephanie Alexander, Skye Gingell.”

One of the appeals of Diana’s food writing for me is the open-minded way in which it draws  inspiration from many cuisines – Scandinavian, Middle Eastern, Indian, Japanese, South East Asian influences all manifest themselves in Salt Sugar Smoke. While growing up, however, she wasn’t well-travelled. “I didn’t leave Northern Ireland until I was sixteen. The first time I went abroad it was by myself on a French exchange. It was very simple but had an amazing effect on me.” At the age of 22 coming to London, where she now lives, was another key experience in terms of opening up new culinary worlds. “You get to London and it’s not just London you find, but the whole world. It blows your mind!” she exclaims. “ At the end of my road in Islington there was a Turkish shop and then I went to Edgware Road . . . I remember going to Ridley Road in search of Turkish peppers but finding a shop that had five different types of feta cheese in tubs, which all tasted different.”

Salt Sugar Smoke was, like all her books, “years in the making”, with Diana suggesting the idea eight years ago to her publisher. “I always have a list of books I’d like to write,” she explains, “and it changes. This was on the list for ages. I didn’t come up with the title for quite a long time. In fact, I’d nearly finished the book before I thought that would be a great title. I wish my books could be VAST; there’s so much I want to put in! But I do think if a book’s too long and overwhelming, people don’t use it as much. Cookbooks shouldn’t feel encyclopaedic. I think they need to be huggable!”

Diana’s enjoyment of the culinary exploring she did while working on Salt Sugar Spice comes through both in the book itself and her affectionate memories of working on it. “I’d been making gravlax before, but I’d never done bacon, never done bresaola. I felt so proud. Indian chutneys are amazing. I’d never realised how important pickles are in Japan. Using pickles is a brilliant way of accessorising dishes. The work’s been done in advance and you can serve them with something quick and simple and they bring dishes to life.” Characteristically, she relished pushing the boundaries of what goes into a preserving book. “So often, jam kind of begins and ends with strawberry,” she observes.  Diana’s recipes for jams, which include recipes such as Melon, lime and ginger, white peach and raspberry, summer pudding jam evoke the Mediterranean, the Middle East and summer living.  She herself is enjoying cooking from Salt Sugar Smoke. “It’s when you have a cookbook out with all the recipes gathered there, that you can use them too. I love that,” she says with satisfaction. What is her hope for the book? “I hope that it captures people’s imagination. I want people to look at preserving in a fresh way and think this is great. It’s not hard to do. This notion that certain areas of cooking can only be done by people who’ve been doing it for 20 years – it’s nonsense.”

Salt Sugar Smoke


Salt Sugar Smoke cookbook



Pandan rice pudding

Home-made rice pudding, gently baked for hours in the oven, has long been a favourite comfort food of mine. The recipe my mother used was from her copy of Bee Nilson’s Penguin Cookery book. As a child, I was always amazed that such a small amount of rice could swell and expand to create a whole pudding; in fact, it still amazes me.

When making rice pudding, I’ve always stuck to traditional flavourings – a grating of nutmeg, a touch of finely pared lemon zest or a fragrant vanilla pod. The other day it struck me, however, that pandan leaves would work well in a traditional British rice pudding. There is an affinity between pandan and rice. Pandan leaves and pandan juice are traditionally used to add flavour and colour to rice in the making of various Malay kuih (Malay cakes). So, I experimented, adding coconut milk, freshly-made pandan juice and a whole knotted pandan leaf to a classic milk-based rice pudding, which I baked for three hours in the oven.

Flavouring the milk with pandan juice

I was very pleased with the result – creamy, soft-textured rice, ever so easy to eat, with a wonderful, grassy pandan fragrance which lifted the whole dish. Comfort food with a tropical twist.

Serves 4-6

70g short grain rice
1 pandan leaf, tied in a knot
600ml full-fat milk
50ml water
6 pandan leaves, chopped
1 x 400ml can coconut milk
60g caster sugar
pinch of salt
Preheat the oven to 150° C.

Place the rice, knotted pandan leaf and milk in a saucepan. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the pandan juice. In a food processor, blitz together the water and chopped pandan leaves into a green sludge. Strain through a fine-meshed sieve to extract the green pandan juice.
Stir the pandan juice, coconut milk, caster sugar and salt into the simmered rice.
Transfer the rice mixture to a buttered ovenproof dish. Bake in the oven for 3 hours.

Pandan rice pudding

Serve warm or at room temperature, rather than hot, as this enhances the flavour.

Pandan rice pudding

Pandan rice pudding

British Street Food Awards 2012

Fish Hut at the British Street Food Awards 2012

Street food has always had a special place in my affections. My earliest and most vivid food memories are of hawker stalls and night markets from my time as a child in Singapore – hungrily watching the satay man fan the flames as he grilled skewers of beef satay, watching the roti canai man deftly stretch and spin out the dough to form a flatbread, served with a side of curry sauce, crunching into freshly deep-fried pisang goreng (batter-coated fried bananas) . . .

The rise of street food in Britain, therefore – witnessed by the Eat Street collective and the sudden presence of stalls selling interesting, tasty food at food markets – is to be celebrated. This weekend sees the British Street Food Awards taking place in London for the first time, in the cobbled street outside Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant, so I went along to see what was going on. The sun was shining, the music was blaring and the place was heaving with people who were either about to eat, eating or had eaten an assortment of food from the street food traders there. Mexican burritos, kedgeree, artisan ice cream, bhel puri, mussels, rendang . .. the choice was huge and the queues were long.

Journalist Richard Johnson, founder of the British Street Food Awards, explained to me how about nine years ago how, following a heavy night’s drinking session with Marco Pierre White in New York,  he and Marco “in the need for serious sustenance”  had come across “the best burger I’d ever had in a park in Manhattan”  and wondered why there was no equivalent good street food in Britain. “I started looking into it and there was the beginnings of something coming out of the farmers’ markets’ movement, where people were selling foods like sausages from rare breed pigs. The idea of presenting food in interesting trucks and trailers came over from America. I thought ‘Hang on, let’s get some awards going as a benchmark, a line in the sand to say this is what can be done.” Now in their third year, this is the first time the British Street Food Awards have taken place in London. “The easy thing to do would have been to make it a London fad, so at the beginning we went to Ludlow Food Festival, which is rooted in the community, in local produce, that felt important. The second year we were in Suffolk at Harvest at Jimmy’s. Next year we won’t be in London – I want to take the Awards up north.”

As Richard talks about the  traders taking part in the Awards – explaining why what the food they are offering tastes so good, one can hear the relish in his voice. “There’s been a huge upturn in street food. People are getting more imaginative, mixing flavours, trying extraordinary ways to sell their street food. I think the next Jamie, the next Gordon, the next Heston will as likely come out of street food as from a restaurant. These people have to be costmongers, have to be big mouths, have to be enthusiasts – miserable gits don’t do terribly well in street food.”

At Fish Hut from Southwold, Suffolk, Nick Attfield is doing a roaring business in his trademark fish and chips, using day boat, line-caught cod freshly fished from off the Suffolk coast, coated in a melt-in-the-mouth crisp batter. “I started selling fish and chips from a beach hut to publicise the run-down pub I’d bought” explains Nick, “and it’s taken off! Why do I do this? It’s fun!”

Cathy of Lullabelles at British Street Food Awards 2012

Over at Lullabelles, keen baker Cathy McConaghy is serving cakes and cups of tea to an appreciative crowd. “We’d only been going for 3-4 months when we were nominated for Street Food Awards in the first year they started. We were absolutely over the moon just to be nominated and we thrilled when we won.” Summer is Lullabelles’ busy season, with Cathy touring the festivals. “Winter is quieter, which is fine, because we work so hard in the summer. It’s long days, long weekends in the summer, but it’s fun. You have to be tough. To be honest, nothing stresses me out any more. This VW van is 53 years old and breaks down every two minutes – you just have to go with it and get on with it.”

The judging panel will be served “a banquet of street food” from which to pick the category winners and the overall winner. “The winner gets a sit down with Marks and Spencer and a sit down with Wahaca,” explains Richard, “They want to be of help, whether it’s putting something in their stores for M & S or something on the menu at Wahaca, they’re hugely experienced and can offer a lot.”

As the turn-out for the British Street Food Awards demonstrates –  with long queues at each and every stall there –  the public appetite for good street food in Britain is certainly there.

Fish Hut Fish and Chips - so good!

Sorbitium Ices at British Street Food Awards 2012

Manjit's Kitchen at British Street Food Awards 2012


Claudia Roden in her garden

Claudia Roden’s cookbooks often evoke cuisines from sunnier climes – Middle Eastern food, The Food of Italy, Mediterranean Food  and, now, The Food of Spain– so bright sunshine and clear blue skies seemed very appropriate weather in which to visit her north London home. Indeed, the spring weather was so lovely that Claudia, I and the other invited writers and bloggers  -Catherine Phipps, Niamh Shields and Ginny Light- ended up sitting at a table in her garden, eating dishes which Claudia had cooked for us from her new Spanish cookbook while she conversed with us about Spanish food, with petals falling down onto us and birdsong in the background –  a truly pleasurable and memorable experience.

Ever since I first came across them while working in a bookshop, her books have been a source of great pleasure to me. I have used them for research, for recipe ideas and read them for the sheer pleasure of enjoying her ‘voice’. Claudia’s distinctive approach to her cookbooks, in which she elegantly weaves together history, culture and food to form a rich tapestry, stems directly from the experience of writing her first book Middle Eastern Food.

Claudia was already living in London studying art when the Suez crisis broke. The consequent expulsion of Egyptian Jews from Egypt meant that she became caught up in charting this exiled community, collecting recipes from them.  “I realised that one of the things that mattered very, very much to people was their food. People were moving all over the world and by keeping their recipes we would have something to remember them by. Because we thought we’d never see them again, never go back to Egypt again, it was a very forever thing. In Egypt people would never give a recipe to another family, but because we all separating we were not going to be competition! I never thought the dishes were important before but suddenly people were asking for recipes, giving me recipes and so that was my reason to start collecting over 50 years ago. I was collecting, doing it for love. For ages I didn’t think I was doing a book. People were glad that I was doing it seriously and they felt that when I was published someone had recorded them.”

Claudia’s links to Spain reach back into her childhood in cosmopolitan Egypt. “Spain was always in my life,” she explains, “because one of my grandmothers, who came from Istanbul, spoke medieval Spanish, Ladino, to her friends.”  When writing her book The Food of Spain, Claudia brought her detailed knowledge of Jewish and Middle Eastern food to her research, recognising dishes and their roots. “Because of my personal history, there were words for dishes which I recognised from my childhood.” The contributions of Spain’s historic Jewish and Muslim communities to Spanish cuisine are charted in the book; Claudia is ideally placed to do them justice and this tracing is obviously deeply important to her.

While conventional Spanish history focuses the expulsion of the Jews and the Moorish community, Claudia points out that many of Spain’s Jewish community stayed on as ‘conversos (’ (Jewish converts to Christianity) and Spanish Muslims as Moriscos  (Muslims converted to Christianity), with the eating of pork a key part to being seen as Spanish Christian. One of the ‘startling’ dishes from this converso heritage is suckling pig with cumin.  “When they converted, they started cooking pigs the way they cooked the lamb, so rubbed it with cumin. I came across a couple of cumin seeds in the suckling pig they serve at Fino –  just a few seeds are a clue as to what happened all these years ago. Another dish I came across was an apple stuffed with minced pork, fried onions, pine nuts and raisins. I have the same apple dish in my first book, an Iranian dish, but it was stuffed with minced lamb, instead of pork. The Jewish and Arab influences on the food are all there. I see something and I know from the smell and the way they are doing it where it comes from, which might be from 500 years  ago.”

A self-confessed ‘technophobe’ Claudia’s research is far removed from sitting at a desk and Googling. Meeting people, talking to them and learning their recipes, just as she did all those years ago for Middle Eastern Food, is at the heart of how she works. Initially, she found the prospect of researching this book on Spanish food daunting. “At first I thought I can’t do this because I can’t travel easily any more.” Through her considerable network of friends in Spain, however, she was able to explore the country, visiting people, staying with them and meeting their contacts “For me the best thing is the travel, the meeting. I know a lot of people now, have it all done by researchers and go at the last minute, but for me, it’s the discovering of the country, of the people, the whole inter-connecting and communicating. My research is asking people about their lives, their grandparents, which region they come from in Spain, their ideas of history, but then I go and study at the British Library to back it up. Wherever I went, what I learnt fitted together like a puzzle,” she says delightedly.

Claudia Roden's coca

Claudia Roden's coca

We’d been invited to tea with Claudia, but, as we sat there in the garden, talking and laughing, a series of dishes, served in generous quantities, were brought out, turning afternoon tea into a feast. First came  rich Spanish-style hot chocolate thickened with cornflour, prompting Claudia to muse on the difference between hot chocolate and coffee, the latter ‘always the drink of revolution’, next flavourful slices of coca, ‘a Catalan one’ resembling pizza, topped with red peppers, artichokes and salty anchovies, but ‘never cheese’, salty-sweet, soft deep-fried aubergines drizzled with honey, a flavourful salmorejo – a version of gazpacho – topped with tuna and hard-boiled egg (when we complimented Claudia on finding tasty tomatoes she replied that she’d added ‘oil, vinegar and a touch of sugar – it was good olive oil’), then an elegant, syrup-soaked walnut cake ‘from Asturias, where they do have walnuts’ and a wonderful raisin ice cream flavoured with Pedro Ximenez sherry with more PX poured over to complete the decadence.

Auberghine fritters with honey

Aubergine fritters with honey



Thinking back to the experience of researching the book, Claudia talked affectionately of the hospitality she’d encountered. “The pleasure was not only in talking to people but of eating with them too. The conviviality of eating together, the banquets, the music, the dancing.” Experiencing her hospitality in her north London home, eating this vividly flavourful, colourful food and, above all, hearing Claudia talk, in her distinctive accented English, wittily, knowledgeably and with a deep-rooted passion for history, about Spanish food was an experience that brought The Food of Spain wonderfully, and convivially, to life.

The Food of Spain by Claudia Roden

The Food of Spain by Claudia Roden



A Trifle of Trifle

Rhubarb & Rose Custard Trifle

Rhubarb & Rose Custard Trifle

One of my favourite English desserts which I enjoy making is a trifle. I like the fact that when it comes to making a trifle, one can play around with the ingredients and textures – adding a syllabub layer instead of whipped cream, using passion fruit pulp as a topping,  layering in ginger cake and mango slices instead of trifle sponges and sliced banana . . .

The starting point for this particular trifle recipe came from seeing long, slender stems of beautiful, pale pink, forced rhubarb on sale at Andreas’s Chiswick-based cornucopia of a greengrocer’s shop and simply having to buy some. Inspiration came from an earlier Twitter mention from Sarah Moore of how she had made rhubarb and custard ice cream. I’d promised to bring the dessert for my book group and wanted to use my lovely rhubarb. This Rhubarb & Rose Custard Trifle was the result. And I can report back that it went down extremely well with my book group . . .

Rhubarb & Rose Custard Trifle

(serves eight)

400g rhubarb stalks, trimmed of any leaves and cut into approx 4cm pieces

Juice of 1 orange

2-3 cardamom pods

Sugar, to taste

2 egg yolks

70g caster sugar

40g plain flour, sifted

300ml milk

½ tsp good quality rose water

3-4 trifle sponges

3-4 tbsp rose, raspberry or strawberry jam

2-3 tbsp dessert wine

300ml double cream

Crystallised rose petals, to decorate

Preheat the oven to 180ºC. Place the rhubarb in a layer in a heatproof dish, pour over the orange juice, scatter over the cardamom pods, sprinkle with sugar to taste, cover with foil and bake for 25-30 minutes until tender, but still retaining its shape. Remove and set aside to cool.

Baked rhubarb

Baked rhubarb

To make the pastry cream, whisk together the egg yolks and caster sugar until pale yellow and thickened. Whisk in the sifted flour. Heat the milk to boiling point. Whisking as you do so, gradually add in the hot milk to the yolk mixture, mixing well. Place the egg yolk mixture in a thick-based saucepan and, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, bring to the boil. As the mixture thickens, continue stirring vigorously so as to prevent any lumps forming. Once thickened, add in the rose water and mix in well. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

Once the rhubarb and pastry custard are cool, assemble the trifle. Slice each trifle sponge in half lengthways, spread one half of each trifle sponge with rose jam and sandwich with the remaining trifle sponge half. Place these in the bottom of a deep serving dish and pour over the dessert wine.

Layer over the baked rhubarb, adding some of the rhubarb juices. Spread the custard over the rhubarb in a smooth layer.

Whip the cream until fluffy and spread this gently and evenly over the custard layer. Cover and chill until serving. Decorate the cream topping with crystallised rose petals just before serving.

Rhubarb &  Rose Custard Trifle

Rhubarb & Rose Custard Trifle

In Praise of Pandan

Fresh pandan leaves

Fresh pandan leaves

The long, glossy, dark green leaves of the pandan plant (prosaically known in English as the screwpine) are a key flavouring in South-East Asian desserts. They are used to add both a distinctive green colour and a subtle flavour to sweet dishes ranging from dainty cakes to chendol (an intriguing coconut milk concoction). Pandan leaves are also used simply as a flavouring; tied in a knot and simmered with palm sugar or coconut milk in the way that bay leaves are used to infuse a white sauce. The flavour of pandan is subtle yet distinctive – for me it has a grassy sweetness, reminiscent of freshly-squeezed sugar cane juice.

Here in London I can buy packets of fresh pandan leaves in Thai supermarkets or in Chinese supermarkets, such as See Woo in Lisle Street. I often use them when I make sago gula melaka (see my previous post), but this time I decided to make a childhood favourite of mine called kueh dadar in which pandan leaves take a central part. These are pandan pancakes, flavoured and coloured with pandan ‘juice’ made from the leaves and filled with coconut coated in palm sugar syrup. They are served neither hot nor cold but at room temperature, which brings out the pandan flavour. To be honest, making them is something of a labour of love as there are a few stages to the recipe..

The result, however, is a truly tropical dessert. To start with, there’s the glorious bright green colour of the pancakes, obtained not by adding food colouring but by using pandan juice – a colour which in South East Asia signals ‘dessert’. The combination of flavours and textures is very satisfying: soft pancakes with a subtle pandan flavour filled with chewy coconut, coated in an intensely dark caramel-flavoured palm sugar syrup. I also add in a few pieces of chopped banana – not traditional, but I feel it works.

Banana pandan pancake

Banana pandan pancake

 Pandan Pancakes aka Kueh Dadar
 Makes 8

Pandan juice:

10 fresh pandan leaves
150ml water

Palm sugar syrup:
150g palm sugar (gula melaka)
150ml water
1 pandan leaf, scraped with a fork and tied with a knot

140g plain flour
pinch of salt
2 medium eggs
200ml tinned coconut milk (stirred well so as to mix it)
oil for shallow-frying
200g shredded coconut (fresh or frozen, thawed and squeezed to get rid of excess moisture)
2 bananas, finely sliced

First make the pandan juice. Trim off any wilted parts from the pandan leaves and snip them into short pieces. Place the pandan leaves and water in a food processor and blitz into a green sludge.Sieve the pandan sludge, pressing down to extract as much pandan juice as possible. You should end up with around 150ml deep green pandan juice.

Now make the palm sugar syrup. Place the palm sugar, water and pandan leaf in a small saucepan. Heat gently, stirring now and then, until the palm sugar dissolves. Bring to the boil and cook for a few minutes until the syrup reduces slightly. Set aside to cool in its pan, then remove and discard the pandan leaf.

Next, make the pandan pancakes. Sift the flour into a mixing bowl. Add in the salt and break in the eggs.Gradually add in the coconut milk, whisking well with each addition. Whisk in the pandan juice, resulting in a pale green, thick, smooth batter. Set the batter aside to rest for 30 minutes.

While the batter is resting. gently heat through the palm sugar syrup in its pan. Add in the shredded coconut, mixing well to coat it thoroughly in the syrup and set aside.

Heat a medium-sized, non-stick frying pan over medium heat. Add a touch of oil. Pour in a ladleful of the pandan batter, tilting the pan to spread it out evenly. Fry for a couple of minutes until set, then turn over and fry for a further 1-2 minutes. Remove from the pan.

Frying a pandan pancake

Frying a pandan pancake

Repeat the frying process until all the batter has been used up, making 8 pancakes in all. Allow the pancakes to cool.

Place a portion of the coconut mixture in the centre of a pandan pancake, add a few pieces of sliced banana, then roll up the pancake over the filling, Repeat the process with the remaining pancakes. Serve.


A Savoury Snack from Singapore: Ikan Bilis Goreng

I often feel that the world divides into those who love strong, salty, fishy flavours such as anchovies and those who loathe them. I am very firmly in the former camp, perhaps because that salty fishy taste is a key flavour in South-East Asian food; one only has to think of blachan (shrimp paste) or fish sauce to see what I mean.

This recipe for ikan bilis goreng uses ikan bilis, tiny, dried whole fish which in London one can find sold in packets in Chinese supermarkets or Thai food shops. For those who baulk at the idea of eating whole fish (however small) they are sold both head on and headless. During my guided tours of Chinatown’s food shops I often point them out and explain that these little silvery-grey dried fish can be transformed into a tasty snack – whereupon waves of polite scepticism radiate back at me.

Malay anchovies

Ikan bilis


Let me, therefore, share with you how to cook ikan bilis goreng (ie ‘fried’ ikan bilis). It’s a very simple dish in which the ikan bilis are deep-fried. I deep-fry them twice to really crisp them up. Often ikan bilis are served simply deep- fried, then seasoned with salt and sugar. They can also, however, be given extra flavour by frying them with a chilli sambal paste. I like using a simple, traditional flavouring paste, made from onion seasoned with chilli powder and turmeric and a sprinkling of sugar as the ikan bilis fry.

Frying ikan bilis with onion paste

Frying ikan bilis with onion paste

I serve ikan bilis cooked this way with drinks at parties and they always vanish. There is something extraordinarily more-ish about them. It’s to do with the salty-sweet flavour, created by adding sugar to salty dried fish. The chilli kick, lurking in the background, adds to the allure. There’s also something about the texture – the yielding peanuts combined with the crisp yet tough texture of the dried fish – which is deeply satisfying.

ikan bilis goreng

ikan bilis goreng

Ikan bilis goreng

Oil for deep-frying

100g ikan bilis

1 onion, peeled and chopped

1 tsp chilli powder

½ tsp ground turmeric

3 tsp sugar

200g roast peanuts

Add oil into a saucepan or a deep frying pan to a depth of around 2.5cm and heat through.

Add in the ikan bilis and deep-fry for a couple of minutes over a medium heat, then remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper.

Return the ikan bilis to the hot oil and fry again until golden-brown and crispy. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper.

Blend the chopped onion, chilli powder and turmeric into a paste (I use my trusty Waring ProPrep for this).

Heat 2 tbsp of the oil used for deep-frying in a large, heavy-based frying pan. Add in the onion paste and fry, stirring, for 1-2 minutes until it smells fragrant.

Add in the ikan bilis and fry, stirring, to coat the fish in the onion mixture. Add in the peanuts, mixing well.

Sprinkle the sugar evenly over the fish and peanuts and fry, stirring, for 3-4 minutes, making sure that all the fish and peanuts are thoroughly coated in the onion paste. Spread out the ikan bilis mixture on a tray lined with kitchen paper and set aside to cool.

Serve the ikan bilis a pre-dinner nibble with drinks such as a sprightly gin and tonic with ice and or use in nasi lemak, a Malaysian coconut rice dish (for which recipe watch this blog!).

A Passion for Mangoes

Mangoes have been a favourite fruit of mine ever since I was a child. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love them. Growing up, as I did, in Ghana, Trinidad and then Singapore, mangoes were the fruit of my childhood, plentifully and lusciously available. Documentary proof of my long-held delight in mangoes is contained in the family photo albums.

Me as a toddler reaching for mangoes in our garden in Ghana
Mangoes from our tree in Ghana – I look triumphant!

Finding mangoes when I lived in Florence as a teenager was rather harder, so they became a rare treat. I remember the thrill of finding a mango miraculously nestled in my Christmas stocking one year. Living in London, the mangoes found in British supermarkets were a disappointment: expensive, stonily hard and lacking in flavour. Chinese food shops in Chinatown proved a much better source and that was where I would go to buy mangoes, such as elegant, distinctively curved, smooth-fleshed pale yellow Thai mangoes with a pine note to their flavour. While researching my shopping guide Food Lovers London, I discovered that Indian food shops stocked boxes of mangoes called Alphonso – briefly in season during April and May. This was the mango as I remembered it – orange-fleshed, voluptuously textured and juicy.In one of childhood books, My Friend Mr Leakey, the magician Mr Leakey advises: “The only proper place to eat a mango is in your bath. You see it has a tough skin and a squashy inside, so when once you get through the skin all the juice squirts out. And that would make a nasty mess of people’s white shirts.” The author J.S. Haldane must have had Alphonso mangoes in mind.

A journey to Ealing Road in Wembley, Goodeats in Finchley Central or the Spice Shop in Drummond Street to buy boxes of Alphonso mangoes had become one of our springtime family rituals. Served after a meal with family and friends the most I might do in terms of preparation is slice the cheeks off, cut a criss-cross pattern and transform them into a mango ‘hedgehog’ for ease of eating. My favourite part of eating a mango, however, is eating the soft flesh off the hard stone – “cook’s perk” I called it in one of my books – the flesh somehow seems to taste more intensely here, rather like meat close to the bone.

A box of Alphonso mangoes

When it comes to inspiration for using ingredients imaginatively, creatively and deliciously one of my favourite chefs is Yotam Ottolenghi, so I asked him for his thoughts on mangoes. Ottolenghi, too, has happy memories of mangoes from childhood. “We had mangoes in Israel when I was growing up. A different variety from the Alphonso, larger, firmer and not as sweet. I’ve always loved mangoes. We would always simply peel it and eat it; perhaps, at the most, we might use a mango in a fruit salad. It would never have been used in savoury dishes. My family wouldn’t have dreamt of doing the outrageous things that I do with it!”

One of the culinary appeals of the mango for Ottolenghi is its texture. “Mango is a fruit that you can cook with,” he points out. “Unlike papaya which simply disintegrates, it’s got a low water content, so you can cook with it. It really keeps its identity in the dish – sometimes you want ingredients to soak up all the flavour, like a sponge, so like aubergines. Other ingredients retain their character in a dish – and every time you meet it in a bite, it’s there.”

“Because the Alphonso grows in India in the heat it has an extreme sweetness, perfumed from so much sun. Does really take you to India when you eat one. One of my recipes using Alphonsos was a curried chickpea salad – behind the dish was the idea of where the Alphonso mango comes from – so the chickpea salad was flavoured with mustard seeds, coriander seeds and turmeric. It’s a lot about texture. I wanted the chickpeas to be very soft to go with the soft Alphonso mangoes.” With his characteristic eye for the details of his dishes, Ottolenghi is very discriminating when it comes to which variety of mango to use. “For some of my salads that contain mango, I wouldn’t use Alphonso as it could be too dominant, a little bit too much,” he observes.” There’s a butterbean, cashew nut and rice noodle salad I make – Asian flavours, with lots of mint – I use normal mango in it, not Alphonso, for that dish I want a mango that blends in.”

Ottolenghi also enjoys using mangoes in sweet dishes. “Alphonso mangoes are one of the best fruits for ice cream,” he recommends. “It’s very easy to make an ice cream that’s not icy as it doesn’t have a lot of water in it. You can make it easily at home, even if you don’t have an ice cream maker. At Nopi we’ve just introduced a new dessert which is very popular, thought of by John our pastry chef there. It’s a combination of mango with lime: a little glass with a layer of mango at the bottom, kaffir lime curd in the middle, mango tapioca and diced Alphonso on top. All the different types of sweetness – the sheer sweetness of the meringue, the fruity sweetness of the mango – work very well.”

We’re not the only ones to enjoy a box of mangoes . . .