Monday, October 29, 2012

The Perfect Dirty Kebab: A Recipe Created On Twitter

This is a dish I came up with over the summer in the UK, before I flew back to Cambodia. Well to be fair, Twitter created it. You see I’d got bored of cookbooks, even the ones all boxed up in the attic and lovingly revisited one afternoon before I had to say goodbye to the house again.

And I was pretty flat out of ideas, what with the culture shock of being back in Blighty and all. It had become much more fun looking in the fridge to see what needed using up, and then asking people on Twitter for recipe ideas. That night, it was the mince that was going green at the back of the fridge.

“I have a pound in both weight and price of lamb mince, and zero inspiration. Any recommendations of what to do with it gratefully received,” I wrote.

Unless you’re Egg Wallace with his big, brass bed, throwing requests into the Twitter pond is a bit like fishing, in my experience - mostly you hardly get anything. But I had a good response that night.

Chef Dave Ahern (@CorkGourmetGuy) - who I’d met the day before when he did a cooking demo at Maltby Street Market, near London Bridge, where I was flogging my book  - suggested lamb chilli. Dino J (@Gastro1) recommended keema mutter or lamb kofte. Mikey Davies (@tucksontour) went for koftes with pitta and tzatziki, or lamb burgers, as did Linda Galloway (@daffodilsoup). And Judy Olsen (@judycopywriter) recommended Greek meatballs with lemon sauce, which she remembered making in the 1980s.

There were more calls for kofte, and then pub landlord and kebab aficionado Oisin Rogers (@Mcmoop) suggested an adana kebab, and sent a link to a recipe from New York restaurant Turkuaz. Everything from the onion to the parsley to the red pepper to the garlic was ‘minced’, except the mince which was ‘ground’. Oh, how I love American English.

Mix, squeeze on to skewers, and hope it stays together. But I didn’t like the idea of a tablespoon of coriander seeds, whether lightly crushed or not - the nearest kebab van was miles away, and I was craving something truer to the simple lamb and onion notes of a true, dirty kebab. Oisin wrote back, saying: “I had one made by a mate in Antalya that ONLY used ground pepper and salt. Sumac on the salad, garlic yog and chilli sauce. A*”

I liked the sound of that. I put the pound of lamb mince in a bowl, and added one small grated onion, two finely chopped garlic cloves, salt, pepper, and then trudged out into the dark to pick a handful of fresh coriander, which I chopped up and threw in to disguise the colour of the mince.

I mixed the meaty dough with my hands until it was well blended and then rolled it on a board into a sausage shape. I know some chefs who scoff at the idea, but I’d always been told to roll minced kebabs in flour to help them stay together, so I threw some flour on the board and rolled them out until they looked like saucissons you see hanging from the ceiling of French delis.

I poured a glug of vegetable oil into a frying pan and fried the babs over a fairly gentle heat for 15 minutes or so, rolling them around to ensure they were evenly browned. They looked so good, I got a bit carried away at that point.

I pilfered half a bottle of blended Scotch, with ‘medicine’ written on the bottle, that was hidden at the back of the cupboard, threw some in and flamed it. I’m not quite sure why, it didn’t do anything for its Turkish authenticity. But if you’ve got a well-stocked booze cupboard, then you might flame a few glugs of raki or arak, or perhaps not bother at all.

While the kebabs were frying, I got on with the rest of the meal. I found an old pitta bread that was crumbling slightly in the freezer, and then headed back out into the dark, taking fright again at the will-o-wisp glint of the CDs hanging in the cherry trees to scare away pigeons, and snagged a cabbage from next door’s garden. They’d probably just think the rabbit had escaped again.

I soon had my sliced cabbage, onion, cucumber and tomato together. I had my bottle of delicious African Volcano peri peri sauce from Maltby Street Market at the ready, and then just as it was all going so well, I moved on to the garlic sauce and found the only yoghurt I had was fucking probiotic peach and mango flavour.

So I thought bollocks to the wellingtons, and just covered my kebab with the fiery sauce, just like they used to make them at the legendary Sphinx kebab shop in Brighton. It was a splendid late-night, home-made kebab, and didn’t cry out for the toasted cumin and coriander seeds that many of the tweeted recipes asked for. In fact, it was a lot better without them. But then, that’s the beauty of Twitter.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Heston Blumenthal Finally Jumps The Shark

Heston Blumenthal has been touring the UK for his latest TV programmes, taking part in increasingly ridiculous stunts in the chase for ratings, and ultimately more exposure for his brand, which now stretches to everything from airline grub to supermarket meals to hawking spectacles for Vision Express.

But the celebrity chef’s latest culinary trick of sucking on tampons seems a tad on the ludicrously trite side even by his own standards. Clearly revelling in his nerdy image, he comes across as a hot-breathed schoolboy who’s found his way into the women’s’ changing rooms, as he talks excitedly about how stuffing his mouth with a tampon to remove saliva helps improve the taste of food.

"If you drain the moisture in your mouth you experience richness, creaminess and sweetness more intensely," he told The Guardian. "If you have a spoonful of ice-cream then put a tampon on the tongue for a couple of minutes, when you eat the ice-cream again the taste will be richer."

He says he was put on to the idea in a Dutch food lab by oral physiologist Don Prince. Before long the pair were "playing around with different tampons".

Why he finds tampon munching a useful experiment is anyone’s guess because tampons won’t be featuring at any of his eateries he never cooks at. You won’t see diners at Dinner or the Fat Duck with pieces of string dangling from their mouths, like mouse-eating lizard people from V, iPod headphones clamped to their ears as they listen to the sound of toilets flushing.

Back at his lab above his prep room at the Fat Duck, he’s already been tinkering with yoghurt and tampons for an “interactive presentation”. He glosses over why he uses tampons rather than any other equally absorbent material, or one of those mini vacuum cleaners dentists use to suck saliva from your mouth. But then that’s because tampons are far more of a gimmick, and there wouldn’t be nearly as much publicity if he just used a wad of kitchen roll.

He’s been described as either one of the world’s most talented, innovative chefs or one of the biggest confidence tricksters of his generation - with some who have eaten the Fat Duck tasting menu left wondering whether the joke is really on the customer. But the way his gastronomic stunts have been going of late, he’s beginning to resemble one of those creepy TV magicians.

What will he do for his next trick? Starve himself for a month in a glass box, suspended over the Thames, to see how nice a doner kebab tastes at the end of it? As for the tampons, as an Aussie friend pointed out on Twitter: “How on earth is Waitrose going to market this one...” Heston from Waitrose tampon palate cleansers? What’s next a bin bag, and an amyl nitrate-filled hidden orange pudding in his mouth?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Cambodia: ‘King’s Face Appears On The Moon’

I got back to Cambodia a few days after King Sihanouk’s death. The country was holding seven days of mourning to celebrate his life. It was easy to be cynical at a time like this. Much of the media have portrayed him as a Khmer Rouge puppet who stood by when his people were murdered in one of the bloodiest genocides the world has ever seen.

He certainly moved with the political tide from peacefully obtaining independence from France to assisting Pol Pot’s rise to power, and has his own place in the Guinness World Records as having a greater variety of offices than any other politician. But the people were genuinely moved by his death, and there were shrines to him everywhere and flags at half-mast across Phnom Penh.

The taxi driver taking me from the airport to the Central Market sighed as the traffic came to another stand-still. “Everyone come to celebrate the King,” he said. “He was a good man. The people are sad. His son not so popular.”

I’d been warned the bars had been closed for seven days but it didn’t seem to have stretched to the neon bars on Street 51 or anywhere else I could see. The only sign of enforcement was the absence of music.  

As I walked further on, I kept seeing huddles of people gazing upwards, pointing and chattering. I looked up at a building, half expecting someone to be up there preparing to jump. But there was nothing. Just a sickle moon with a faint yellow halo round it.

I carried on walking. More people were gazing upwards. I asked what they were looking at but they just pointed and looked slightly embarrassed. The only ones not looking were the gang of tuk tuk drivers on the corner.

“Hey! Hey sir! Hello, motorbike?” they shouted. I’d forgotten about the relentless hisses and calls from the taxi drivers. It didn’t matter if you walked past six of them, politely declining each time, the seventh would still ask anyway. They had mouths to feed. I was determined to keep my cool this time in Asia. I was determined to remember how it all worked.

The next morning, I found out what all the staring had been about. The Cambodian social media was full of it, but opinion was heavily divided. Was it really the face of the King or just the crescent-shaped moon staring down at them? From the photos it looked unlikely, but I knew from staring at the moon, and its cracks and shadows, or cloud patterns, after a while you can see anything you want.

And for ordinary Cambodians, what they wanted in their time of grief was to stare once more at their former King and hope it was a sign of better times to come. Rather than the increased power of the politicians they’d been left with.

I walked down to the Royal Palace, where the King’s body would be kept for the next three months, embalmed for all to see. Thousands had gathered outside, praying and buying lotus flowers, as the street kids mingled between them begging for hand-outs.

The air was thick with incense smoke. They had given up burning the joss sticks individually and had set fire to bundles, pouring water on from time to time to control the flames. Tears were streaming down the mourners’ faces as the perfumed smoke billowed towards them, filling the dimming light with a spectral haze.

I returned to my hotel as the heavens opened and waited for the monsoon to stop. Then I waded across the road, two feet deep in water. The stench of the sewers was overpowering. The tuk tuks were holding up a computer print-out of a photo one of them claimed to have taken. One of them held a 10,000 riel note next to it, showing King Sihanouk’s face. They kept pointing excitedly and were still going on about it five minutes later when I returned with my iPhone to take a picture.

They might have been half hysterical, they might have been on the pipes, they might have doctored the photo, but as they held the note closer, there was a resemblance. I pointed to the eye shadows on the note, and nodded my head with the rest of them, and then pointed at the corresponding shadows on the moon. It was the King - the man on the moon. I even half believed them.

I waded across the road back to the hotel. The girl on reception was walking up the stairs. “Did you see the moon?” I asked her. She stopped and shrugged. “I tried...I looked for five minutes, but I couldn’t see the King.”

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Bangkok: Water Spinach And War

When I land in Bangkok on my way to Cambodia, the first thing that hits me is the stifling heat and the smell of fish sauce as I emerge from my airport taxi into the warrens of Thailand’s biggest city. I sit down at a street stall on a Saturday afternoon, an hour before sunset, and order one of my favourite Asian meals of chicken noodle soup, but they haven’t got it.

“Pork!” snaps the noodle cook, jabbing a finger at her spidery-scrawled sign. She doesn’t do anything else, and nor does her husband, who’s crouched at the back, busy prepping a grimy tub of water spinach.

I perch on a stool by the roadside, my knees up to my ears. My bowl arrives in seconds. There are a few slices of pork, tandoori red around the edges, a scattering of sliced spring onion greens, a few slivers of crisped garlic, golden brown in colour, angel hair noodles, and beansprouts. The nod to vitamins is the single piece of kale that somehow found its way into my bowl on the back of a spoon.

Four pots of garnishes are thrust at me - pounded dried chillies with what looks disconcertingly like a pube sticking out, an explosive chilli vinegar, sugar, and crushed peanuts. A bottle of fish sauce, toothpicks, and a plastic drum of napkins complete the street food decor.

Except I was wrong about the lack of greenery. As I delve deeper into the last loop of noodles, a piece of water spinach appears in the bowl. For some reason, I think of a story I heard about the Vietnam War, or American War if you live in Vietnam. About how the Americans were literally hoist with their own petards when they bombed the vastly underequipped but ruthlessly cunning Viet Cong making their way from north to south through the mountain passes of the Ho Chi Minh trail.

The passes were marked and American bombers flew over blowing holes in the mountainside. The men with their shoes made from old truck tyres were slowed but still they came, clearing the rubble and finding other trails. And as the monsoon rains started, the bomb craters became pools.

Messages were passed and the next group of Viet Cong brought live fish with them and stocked the pools, and the fish slowly multiplied in their new mountain home. Then they planted water spinach cuttings, which quickly spread - long, hollow stalks with a few leaves at the top, delicious when fried with garlic and fish sauce. As each unit of National Liberation Front militia arrived, they found pools full of fish and swamp cabbage to feed them.

I bite into the tube and imagine those fighters sitting around a pot, sleeping off their evening feast provided by the bombs that were meant to kill them. I sip away at my ice-cold Singh beer as the last of the light fades, the car lights come on, and Bangkok puts on its neon clothes and waits for the hustle and shrieks of night.

The noodle cook sends her young son to fetch more beer from a nearby store. Outside it is a newspaper stand packed full of today’s editions of German and British tabloids - they know their tourist market in Bangkok. At the bottom is The Sun. “Pleb And Buried” is the headline. “Cop slur minister quits at last.” London seems a long way away.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Cheesed Off: Complaint Letter To A London Cheese Shop

Letter to La Cave a Fromage - a "wonderful cheese retailer" in London...

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am writing to say how disappointed I am with a cheese I bought from your stall at the Thame Food Festival. It was particularly annoying because I’d read somewhere that you were decent cheesemongers and only sold the finest cheeses, and I’d gone there especially to sample your wares and restock my cheese selection for a supper I was hosting that night.

This certainly wasn't the case with the slab of Somerset Blue I had the misfortune to purchase. In short, it tasted and smelled of pear-flavoured ammonia, giving it a disconcerting whiff somewhere between nail varnish and a skate that’s been left in a plastic bag at the back of a broken fridge for two years. Even the wonderful crackers I'd purchased for the occasion couldn't cut the foul flavour.

Let me give you the background. When I examined the cheeses on display at your stall, a very chipper chap quickly directed me to your Somerset Blue - which he described, quite wrongly, as a “luvva-ly stilton we make ourselves”. It certainly looked mature, but I had no idea how much until I was unfortunate enough to try a mouthful. I should have been suspicious because I wasn't offered a sample to try, but at the reassuringly expensive prices foodie outfits like yours confidently charge these days, there is usually an assumed trust between purchaser and fleecer.

Instead, your cheese chap quickly got down to business and no sooner had his back been turned for a second to weigh a slab (was it a switch?), he said: "I tell you what mate, as it's the end of the day, you can have the whole piece for £6." He said it in such a cheery, and as I know now underhand way, that it seemed like he was doing me a favour.

How he wrapped it so tightly that the putrid smell of ammonia didn't seep out into the car, or poison ducks in passing villages, I have no idea. But as soon as I unwrapped it at home, the house was filled with an unearthly stench that reminded me of prahok, a fermented fish paste made in Cambodia, that had been soaked in tramps’ urine for a few days.

Words are useless for occasions like these, and I really can’t do justice to how repulsive it was. In fact, the unpleasantness of the smell was only matched by the revoltingness of the taste I had the misfortune to experience before I promptly spat the offending cracker out. When I checked with a cheese expert friend, a curd nerd if you will, he said it was obvious the cheese hadn't been stored properly, and the best place for it was the bin. Or perhaps an underground nuclear bunker designed for storing such biological abominations?

It is quite obvious that your cheese chap knew quite well how revolting the Somerset Blue was in the invidious tactics he used in disposing of his repulsive produce. But I would expect more from a supplier that immodestly, and unattributably, hails itself as a "wonderful cheese retailer".

On your website, you add: "Cheese is simple, it is mainly made of milk, but, at the same time complex..." Perhaps you mean toxic? Having re-read it a couple of times, you then really do go on to say: "Cheese is totally integrated in nature and based on secular savoir faire and human skills. We simply want to keep up with traditions and bring them into our modern world."

Well, you have certainly done the latter, and created something so contemporaneously hazardous, it warrants its own page in any good modern warfare manual. As for secular savoir faire, I imagine if Saddam Hussein was still around, it’s the sort of thing he’d use to terrorise the Kurds. Or perhaps even he wouldn’t have gone that far?

Yours sincerely,

Alex Watts