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.”

http://www.cookeryschool.co.uk/

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

A TASTE OF SPAIN WITH CLAUDIA RODEN

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

Salmorejo

Salmorejo

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 . . .

In Defence of Sago

Sago Gula Melaka

“Frog spawn!” said my husband when I told him what I was writing my next post on. He’s right. There is no getting away from it, cooked sago does indeed resemble frog spawn. Tiny, slippery, translucent globes, which even clump together in the way that floating frog spawn in a pond does. In England, the mere mention of sago arouses strong emotions, usually negative ones. Memories of school dinners and being forced to eat slimy, tasteless sago puddings . . .

My memories are from Singapore, where sago is served in a delightful pudding called sago gula melaka which consists simply of chilled cooked sago served with coconut milk and palm sugar syrup. The gula melaka refers to the sugar syrup poured over the sago, made from gula melaka, the hard, dark brown sugar made from palm sap and named after the Malaysian port of Malacca. When prepared properly, sago gula melaka is flavoured by the pandan leaf, the long, glossy, dark green leaf known in English as screwpine which adds both flavour and a distinctive light green colouring to many South-East Asian desserts. Although not aromatic in the way that, say, a bay leaf is, the pandan leaf adds a very subtle, yet distinctive flavour. As a child in tropical Singapore, a serving of sago gula melaka was a treat to be savoured: the bland, cool, refreshing, jelly-like sago with rich, creamy-textured coconut milk contrasting with the dark, bitter caramel flavour of the palm sugar syrup.

In England I never quite know how it will do down with my guests or, indeed, if it will go down at all. One charming friend to whom I served it said politely “I like the coconut milk and the palm sugar syrup . . .” On the other hand, when I taught a cookery class on Singaporean food at Rosalind Rathouse’s Cookery School and demonstrated how to make sago gula Melaka then served it up, fully expecting rejection, the young women in the class – none of whom had ever come across sago– all loved it! Now so unfamiliar as to be positively exotic, maybe sago’s time has come.

Sago Gula Melaka

200g fine sago or tapioca pearls
200g palm sugar (gula Melaka)
2 pandan leaves
1 x 400ml tin of coconut milk
a pinch of salt

Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Add in the sago pearls and, stirring, return to the boil. Cook for 10 minutes stirring now and then. Remove from direct heat, cover and set aside for 10 minutes. Uncover the pan, by which time the sago should be translucent, and drain in a sieve. Rinse the sago under cold running water and set aside in a sieve to drain thoroughly. Transfer the sago to four bowls rinsed with cold water, allow to cool, then chill until serving.
Place the palm sugar and 200ml of water in a heavy-based saucepan. Tie a pandan leaf in a knot and add in. Bring to the boil and simmer until the palm sugar has melted into a syrup. Strain into a jug and set aside to cool.
Shake the can of coconut milk thoroughly, then pour the coconut milk into a pan. Tie the pandan leaf in a knot and add to the coconut milk with a pinch of salt. Bring to the boil, then simmer stirring until slightly reduced. Strain into a jug, cool and chill.
To serve, slide a knife around each portion of sago and transfer onto serving dishes. Pour over some coconut milk and a little of the palm sugar syrup and enjoy!

A Liking for Laksa

Jenny’s Laksa

On the list of foods I turn to for comfort eating, laksa comes pretty high. This South-East Asian, fishy noodle soup always reminds me of Singapore, bringing back happy memories of meals with my family there. While laksa is simply a one-pot meal, it’s the contrasting flavours and textures contained in that one bowl which make it special. The rich, spicy soup contrasts deliciously with the plain noodles, the cool pieces of cucumber and slightly crunchy bean sprouts. There is something very pleasurable about slurping up the slippery noodles and hunting for a juicy prawn or bouncy fish ball.

As is characteristic of South East Asian dishes, there are many, many recipes for laksa. One broad distinction is between ‘laksa lemak’, made with rich, creamy-textured coconut milk, and the tangy Penang laksa, made from a tamarind-flavoured fish stock, which I ate at Gurney Drive esplanade in Penang. A truly memorable laksa I enjoyed was chef Peter Gordon’s smoked chicken laksa, served in small bowls as a sensationally flavourful canapé at a smart drinks reception.
The recipe below comes from my Singaporean uncle, Kim Bong, who cooks a vast pot of laksa for family get-togethers, nipping out to pick the laksa leaf from his garden as a garnish just before serving it. Ingredients such as galangal, blachan, dried shrimps and Chinese fish balls can all be bought in Chinese supermarkets. The addition of dried shrimps – finely ground in a food processor – both thickens the broth and gives a fishy sweetness. I sometimes make this using home-made prawn stock as the base for an extra punch of seafood flavour. You can add in fried tofu, chunks of salmon, chopped up squid or different types of noodles as you wish. It’s one of those dishes that lends itself to experimenting with.
Uncle Kim’s Laksa
(serves four)
3 stalks of lemon grass
2 small onions, peeled and chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
a 5 cm piece of galangal, peeled and chopped
1 tsp blachan (dried shrimp paste)
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground chilli
4 tsp ground coriander
225g of bean sprouts, blanched
450g fresh thick round Chinese noodles
2-3 tbsp oil
2 x 400ml tins of coconut milk
75g dried shrimps, finely ground
200g Chinese white fish balls
8 raw peeled tiger prawns
salt
1/2 cucumber, peeled and cut into short fine strips
a handful of laksa leaf (Vietnamese coriander) or coriander sprigs

Peel the tough outer casing from lemon grass and finely chop the white bulbous part of the stalks. Blend together the lemon grass, onion, garlic, galangal, blachan, turmeric, chilli and ground coriander into a paste.
Divide the noodles and bean sprouts among four deep serving bowls.
Heat the oil in a large,, heavy-based saucepan. Fry the onion paste, stirring often, for 10 minutes till fragrant. Mix in the coconut milk and, stirring, bring to the boil. Mix in the ground dried shrimps and simmer for 5 minutes. Add in the fish balls and tiger prawns. Simmer gently until the fish balls are heated through and the prawns cooked; a matter of minutes. Taste and season with salt, if required.
Pour the coconut soup over the noodles and bean sprouts. Top with cucumber shreds and coriander and serve at once.