Asian, Tasting

Kaleem (Pakistani slow-cooked lamb and lentil dhal)

This, my fine fettled friends, is the best darned dhal recipe ever. Yes, I know, that is a big claim. But this is very tasty. Slow cooking with the lamb adds a tasty dimension. Some of the pulses hold their shape, unlike the many times I’ve made dhal, which normally ends up being 100% thick mush. Tasty mush you could build a house with.

Kaleem isn’t like that. It’s a thick sauce, yes. What dhal wouldn’t be like that? But it has distinguishable pulses dotted throughout and melt-your-mouth lamb. It’s not too heavy either, although I don’t think it’s a summer dish for you lot in the northern hemisphere.

I hope you give it a go.

Check out the recipe here.

Asian, Tasting

Five spice pork belly with steamed eggplant and garlic

I first moved to Hong Kong in 1995, when I was 24. I went on a whim. As a Brit before 1997, you didn’t need a visa to work.

I was very wet behind the ears. Frankly I didn’t know where Hong Kong was, let alone what the food and cultural values would be like.

My experience of Chinese food to that point was based on local takeaways. A typical dish was sweet and sour pork. Cubes of grey overcooked pork in soggy batter with sweet (no sour or spice) glump. Lumps of tinned pineapple swam in a fluorescent orange glue-like sauce.

Living in Hong Kong opened my eyes to a whole new culture, values and culinary tastes that simply blew me away. Everything was so different. Chinese food was so varied. And so was South East Asian.

So I adore Asian cuisine. I know that sounds very general, but that’s what I love. The variety. The spiciness of Sichuan, the comfort of Beijing dumplings, the straightforwardness and sophistication of Shanghai food, the freshness of Vietnamese, the complexity of Thai and everything else in between. It’s so exotic.

So this weekend, as a nod to the past and a wink to my love of Asian cuisine, I cooked a modern, sophisticated version of sweet and sour pork. It’s a recipe from Christine Manfield’s Fire and is vastly different from Chinglish version of sweet and sour. In fact, if Christine knew I was comparing the two, I think I’d receive a lifetime ban from her restaurant. So let’s call the link tenuous at best.

Fire is an eclectic mix of recipes from around the world. I don’t cook too much out of it, because the recipes tend to be involved, with lots of mini recipes within recipes. There are a few simple dishes though, such as Firecracker Chicken,  straightforward, hot and numbing .

Today’s recipe is Five Spice Pork Belly with Steamed Garlic and Eggplant. The eggplant is finished in a spicy and slightly (but not overly) sweet sauce. It’s involved, but there are also opportunities for shortcuts.

For example, the recipe calls for grinding your own five spice, making your own chilli oil and chilli jam.  If you buy good quality versions, I don’t think it would be a problem. I did everything apart from the chilli jam, because you have to make so much of it. I didn’t see the point, so I bought some.

The recipe also calls for suckling pig. Now, in Hong Kong, suckling pig is just that, young and small. However, laws in Australia prohibit selling of pigs so young. So a suckling pig in Australia is more like a teenager. Too much for a family of four and too big for my oven (as well as a little controversial). So I plumped for pork belly. The recipe in the book is for 12, but below are the correct proportions for four people.

The end result was lovely. Enjoy.

The recipe (for four people)

Sea salt

2kg pork belly

30ml vegetable oil

20ml of kecap manis (sweet soy sauce)

2 tablespoons of freshly ground Chinese five spice

  • 5 star anise, 1 tablespoon fennel seeds & Sichuan peppers, 2 teaspoons of cloves, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon.
  • Grind spices and pass through a fine sieve to remove husks

Steamed garlic eggplant

2 x 250g eggplants, deep-fried (cut into chucks and deep fry until golden brown)

2 tablespoons of fried garlic slices (deep or shallow fry until golden brown)

20ml of light soy sauce

20ml oyster sauce

60ml tomato puree

1 tablespoon of caster sugar

1 tablespoon of chilli jam

10ml of sesame oil

1 tablespoon of chilli oil (heat vegetable oil to simmering and add chilli flakes. Turn off the heat and allow to steep)

12 roasted cherry tomatoes (cut cherry tomatoes in half and put in a roasting dish. Add oil, salt, pepper and roast on 180 C for 20-25 mins)

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

2 spring onions

chopped coriander

The method

  • Rub half the salt to the skin of the pork belly and leave for 30 minutes
  • Preheat the oven to 200 C and lightly oil a roasting dish
  • Combine the oil, sweet soy sauce, five spice and the rest of the salt. Massage in to the pork

  • Lay the pork skin side up in the roasting dish. Cook for a couple of hours until the meat is succulent (skewer the meat and the juices should run clear) and the skin crispy. Let it rest for 30 minutes and cut into 2 inch squares.
  • Lay the deep-fried eggplant on a flat plate. Sprinkle with half of the fried garlic slices
  • Steam in a bamboo steamer for 10 minutes
  • Combine the soy and oyster sauces, tomato puree, sugar, chilli jam, and sesame and chilli oil in a saucepan and heat to simmering point
  • Stir in roasted tomatoes and pour over the eggplant, mixing gently. Sprinkle with white pepper and finish with spring onion, remaining garlic slices and coriander.
  • Serve the eggplant and add the pork on top.
Asian, Tasting

Mrs Chen: old crone, pockmarked-face, tofu legend

By all accounts, Mrs Chen wasn’t blessed with good looks. She had a face so disfigured that she was thought to have leprosy. She was often described as a lady who had been stung by a plague of wasps and had an acid tongue to go with it. She was also a widow.

Mr Chen died early. On the one hand, he couldn’t live with being vilified by a society unforgiving of Mrs Chen’s looks. On the other, his brittle heart couldn’t stand the daily lashings of his wife’s stinging words. He died a broken man.

Mrs Chen, penniless, was banished to the outskirts of Chengdu city in Sichuan, to ensure she didn’t spread disease to the wider population.

But out of adversity came opportunity. Mrs Chen was banished to a busy trading post; a well-trodden road frequented by hungry workers earning their living transporting goods. With no restaurant in sight, they often brought food for Mrs Chen to cook for them. For poor weary travellers, this was mostly tofu and meat. As time went on, Mrs Chen perfected a unique way to cook tofu and her restaurant became well-known for it. Travellers came far and wide to sample her dish. Even Mrs Chen’s constant profanity weren’t enough to keep hungry travellers away.*

The dish she created became known as ‘tofu cooked by the old pock-marked woman called Chen’, or Chen ma po tofu.

We know it today as ma po tofu.

The finished dish

Ma po tofu is probably Sichuan cuisine’s most recognisable dish. Silken tofu is cooked with chilli bean paste, minced pork and Sichuan peppers to combine for a sizzling, spicy, numbing flavour. The numbing comes from the Sichuan peppercorn, which is not related to black pepper at all. The plant is part of the citrus family.

Make no bones about it, I am not a fan of tofu. On its own it’s tasteless and bland. But it’s like a sponge and carries flavour so well. In this dish it is the hero. The pork is the support act.

And until this week I had never cooked it from scratch. I have used the recipe from Neil Perry’s Balance and Harmony, probably my favourite cook book.

The ingredients

Note: the bottle of tsing tao is for oiling the chef’s wheels

  • 300g silken tofu, cut into 2cm cubes
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 200g minced pork belly (or minced pork will do it)
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 spring onions, sliced (I didn’t have any, so I garnished with coriander)
  • 2 tablespoons hot bean paste
  • 125ml fresh chicken stock
  • 1 teaspoon shaoxing rice wine
  • 1 teaspoon light soy sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon dark soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon sea salt
  • A good pinch of Sichuan pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil


  • Grind the Sichuan pepper in a pestle and mortar until fine (ground to perfection here by my handy assistant and daughter).
  • Heat a wok until smoking.
  • Add the vegetable oil and, when hot, add the minced pork and stir-fry until browned.
  • Then add the garlic, spring onions and bean paste and stir-fry until fragrant.
  • Add the stock, shaoxing, soy sauces, sugar and salt.
  • Bring to the boil, add the tofu and reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, allowing the liquid to thicken slightly. Add the Sichuan pepper and sesame oil and gently mix together.
  • Serve with jasmine rice.
*Note: I have slightly stretched the original story, but I promise no wasps were harmed in the writing of this post.

Asian, Tasting, Uncategorized

Spicy Saturday: Pork shoulder curry (Thai style)

Pork curry: sour and hot, but not that hot

After the Laksa success – a dish of simplicity and spicy sophistication – it would have been easy to think I could tackle anything again. But with the Indian ignominy still haunting me, I decided baby steps is the way to go.

Pork shoulder curry is a recipe from Neil Perry’s fantastic Balance and Harmony cookbook. It’s an elegant book, which includes ingredient-based chapters, and also chapters based on cooking techniques (for example tea smoking, steaming, braising and stir frying). There is also menu advice for banquets (another 1,000 baby steps before I get to that stage I think).

In this curry, the sweet, sour, salty and spicy flavours come to the fore – less sweet, more sour because of the addition of lime juice at the end.

Don’t be put off by the long list of ingredients (see the list below). The dish is easy to assemble and although time consuming, it’s relaxing and methodical rather than frenetic and last minute. I also chopped and changed a few things and the finished dish was still fab.

I bought pork shoulder on the bone. As the recipe states, I removed the skin, and then cooked it, covered, in water and a quarter of the coconut milk for a couple of hours. I then removed the pork, let it rest and chopped it into bite-sized chunks.

The key – as with any Thai curry – is making your own spice paste. There is plenty of good shop bought spice pastes available, but in my view they don’t cut it compared to the home-pounded version. It is quite therapeutic to bash and pulverise the ingredients into a smooth paste. The process also releases the fresh flavours and fragrances. The results are always amazing if you are willing to put in the effort.

Spice paste: before...

For the spice paste, add all the ingredients to a pestle and mortar and pound until you have a smooth paste. It’s tempting to stop early, leaving a few ingredients still a bit chunky. The dried chillies in particular can be stubborn.  Persevere though, and pound it to an even paste. The final curry will be much more wholesome and consistent.

...and after

Then add oil to a large heavy duty pan, add the coconut cream and lime leaves, then the paste and cook until the curry base become fragrant (about 15-20 minutes).  Add the remaining coconut milk, sugar (I used castor), fish sauce and eggplants (I used green beans) and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat, simmer for five minutes and then add pork and chillies to stir through. At the very end, squeeze over the lime juice and sprinkle with Thai basil (I used mint instead). Enjoy! 

Pork shoulder curry

500g pork shoulder, skin removed

750 ml coconut milk

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

250 ml coconut milk

5 kaffir lime leaves

2 tablespoons of grated palm sugar

3 tablespoons fish sauce

160 g Thai pea eggplants

5 long red chillis, halved lengthways

juice of 2 limes

1 small handful of Thai basil leaves



1 teaspoon fennel seeds

1 teaspoon white peppercorns

a pinch of salt

8 dried long red chillis, deseeded and soaked in warm water for 30 minutes

2 lemongrass stalks, tough outer leaves removed, chopped

1 knob of ginger, peeled and chopped

2 teaspoons Thai shrimp paste, wrapped in foil and roasted until fragrant (5-10 mins)

3 red shallots, chopped

12 garlic cloves, chopped

finely grated zest of 1 kaffir lime leaf

Asian, Tasting, Uncategorized

Spicy Saturday: Laksa

The finished spicy, yummy Laksa

After the Indian Banquet debacle (bread like wood, one recipe didn’t even get to, another as sweet as jam), I decided to keep it simple(r). So I plumped for a tried and tested recipe from my favourite cook of all time Rick Stein. It’s a seafood Laksa; a cross between a spicy soup and a curry. It’s simple, it’s delicious and I picked it as a confidence booster for my dented  ego.

There are only three steps. The first is the stock and it’s made all the more flavoursome by first frying the prawn heads and shells, adding stock and letting it simmer for 10 minutes or so. Strain the liquid and set aside. Dead easy.

Fry the prawn shells

Then you make the paste. Roughly chop  (see exact amounts below) dried & fresh chillies, cashew nuts, lemongrass stalks, garlic, galangal or ginger, and shallots to a hand blender or pestle and mortar. Add turmeric powder, shrimp paste and a couple of tablespoons of water. Blend to a paste. Fry the paste in oil until fragrant (about 5-6 minutes) add the strained stock and simmer for 10 minutes.

Fry paste until fragrant

Then finally add the coconut milk, prawns, squid, fish sauce and sugar. Cook until the seafood is tender.

Add cooked noodles and beansprouts to the bottom of noodle bowls, pour over the laksa sauce and garnish with coriander, mint, chopped chillies, spring onions and batons of cucumber. Voila. This has to be one of my favourite dishes because it is easy and very tasty. Serve with ice cold beer or Pinot Grigio.

The recipe

250g raw unpeeled prawns
Vegetable oil, for shallow and deep-frying
400ml coconut milk
2 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp palm or light brown muscovado sugar
300g dried rice vermicelli noodles
100g beansprouts
3 spring onions, trimmed and thinly sliced on the diagonal
A handful of mixed mint and coriander leaves

The paste

3 dried red kashmiri chillies, split open and the seeds shaken out
2 medium-hot fresh red chillies, deseeded and roughly chopped
20g nuts (macadamia, unsalted peanuts or cashew nuts)
2 stalks lemongrass, core chopped
3 fat garlic cloves
3cm piece peeled galangal or ginger, roughly chopped
1 tsp turmeric powder
75g shallots, roughly chopped
2 tsp blachan (shrimp paste)
1 tbsp vegetable oil

Asian, Tasting, Uncategorized

Spicy Saturday: An Indian banquet (not) fit for a king

Looks great in the photo

I started this blog a month ago and I admit, I’ve let it go to my head. I’ve become starry eyed and delusional. In my head I’m a top chef, food writer and photographer. By some quirk of nature – like John Travolta in Phenomenon – despite all those years of failure, I have suddenly learnt to cook Asian like David Thompson, take photos like Lord Bailey and write with the wit of Oscar Wilde and the imagination of Roald Dhal. I am male Sophie Dahl (and as Englishly beautiful).

I was sure my blog would become an internet sensation. I’d give up my day job; be wined, dined and whisked away to weekly five star resorts and be a household name. The world was my oyster. Until yesterday. You see, last night’s attempt at an Indian feast brought me crashing down to earth. With a hefty bang. Crater sized.

I did it to myself.

Thinking I was something I’m not, I bit off a lot more than I could chew. It didn’t help that we’re trying to sell our flat and had our first viewings. And my daughter had her swimming lesson in the afternoon. So we were a tad busy. Because of this, I rushed a few things, forgot one or two other things and ended up with something not quite what I was hoping for. In fact, it was well short of what I was hoping for. This is what I intended to cook:

  • Twice cooked beef masala
  • Prawn and pea patia
  • Carrot chutney
  • Coriander and coconut relish
  • Pullao rice
  • Paratha bread

If you are eagle eyed, you’ll notice that there is no twice-cooked beef masala in the photo. There isn’t even once cooked beef masala. Why? Well, sweating like a racehorse and my missus asking me whether dinner would be finally served today or the next, I thumbed through the recipe and realised that I had to cook the beef twice (the clue is in the title I hear you say). After marinating for 20 minutes, you have to steam the beef for 45 minutes, and then cook as normal. At 7.30, with my wife looking rather forlorn and her glistening, sad looking doggy eyes staring at me as if to say ‘if I don’t eat now I don’t think I’ll make it’, I made to decision to forgo the beef masala.

The other contributing factor to my demise was the carrot chutney. I don’t know why I did it, because in Some like it hot I advise the world to buy chilli jam instead of making it. You have to make so much of it and it takes so long. Why oh why didn’t I listen to my own advice?

I can’t prioritise you see. Given it’s standing in the feast (it’s a chutney, not even an entrée, side dish or a main course, so bottom of the pecking order) I should have either left it until last or left it out completely. Instead I devoted most of the afternoon to it.

Given way too much air time

Why did it take so long? Peeling and dicing a kilo of carrots didn’t help (the carrots filled up a medium saucepan and after adding the rest of the ingredients, I had to change the pan because it was overflowing). And being the typical cook that becomes obsessed with new dishes, I stood over it every second of cooking time, and I didn’t do anything else. Yes, before you say it, I can’t multi-task either.

Then I decided to make Paratha bread. I hardly ever make flour based recipes because pastry and bread are two areas that I rarely get right. I put it down to hot hands (I’ve tried cold water, ice cubes, dry ice and even a stint in the freezer but nothing works).

Maybe I’d fallen for the romance of cooking Indian bread. Maybe it was because supermarket bought is so disappointing. So I gave it a go.

Paratha is sort of like naan, but you shallow fry it after you’ve kneaded it and folded it like puff pastry (I didn’t even heed the warning signs when the recipe mentioned folding like puff pastry). I used wholemeal flour, added warm water and ghee (I didn’t have any ghee so I attempted to make my own).

The recipe calls for an elastic dough. And this is where I started to become delusional. It was more plank than elastic; more chewing gum straight out of the pack than masticated; more brittle muscles than stretched and warmed up. But I convinced myself otherwise. When it came to it, I fried the plank, and served it. Looks great on the picture, but it needed two people to lift it to the table. You needed a hacksaw to get through it.

So with things going horribly wrong in every department, I made the prawn and pea patia. This went ok, as per the recipe. But I expected the final dish to be hot, sour and spicy. What I got was sweet, thick and, well, sweet. My wife, who has a very sweet tooth, commented that it was sweet. I think my three-year-old daughter would have liked it on a lollipop stick.

Anything for desert?

Even my reliable Pullao rice cocked up. You can’t really go wrong with frying a few spices and then adding rice and water, covering and leaving it for a few minutes with the lid on. I’ve done it a gazillion times. And the result has always been fluffy, tasty, and authentic. Not today. I got spicy rice pudding. No idea why. I just did.

So my friends, I humbly apologise if I’ve acted like a rock star front-man when I can’t even make the school quire. This weekend has been a very humbling experience. Something I’ll remember for a good while.

But you don’t become a skilled mariner by sailing quiet seas.

Asian, Tasting, Uncategorized

Spicy Saturday: A Thai feast

Southern Thai Curry and Papaya Salad

Today was a good day; a day of achievement; a day of activity; a day when you get to the end of it and think, ‘that went pretty quickly and I have achieved something good.To do list ticked off, spent time with the kids and got to do self indulgent stuff’.  In my book, that’s the perfect the perfect ten. Actually, that’s a nine. A ten is too rude to mention on this blog.

Why a nine? It started with a cycle to all the amazing eastern beachside suburbs of Sydney, possibly the greatest backdrop for a local, semi-causal ride in the world. Then, and to my amazement, I was given the green light from the Ministry of Home Affairs* to cook an authentic Thai meal.  Does life get any better?

Some of the ingredients

I kept it to two dishes because I didn’t have a lot of time. So I paired a classic papaya salad that I have made many times with a curry I’ve never tried before. The curry is a southern Thai dish. The curry paste is neither a green nor a red curry. It’s a fiery Geng Gati# curry paste – fiery and dry.  All recipes are by the legend of Thai cookery, David Thompson (he even has a Michelin Star in London at his restaurant Nahm). The recipes I cooked today are from his beautiful Thai Street Food cookbook. This book – unlike Marcella Hazan – is full of fantastic street photography. This is a classic coffee table book. If you’re not bothered about photos, then buy his authority on Thai cookery, Thai Food. He takes you through the heritage of Thai cookery. There are photos, but not many. If you are into Thai food and are thinking of buying a couple of cookbooks, buy both of these and that’s all you’ll need, forever.

The papaya salad

Papaya salad

This salad is rustic, and that’s why I love it. It gives me a chance to used my prized pestle and mortar. My wife went to Bangkok with friends (without me) and as a gift, she brought me back a large, sturdy, granite pestle and mortar which cost A$5. It’s my pride and joy. Forget gadgetry such as blenders, mincers and grinders. This is the heavyweight of the kitchen. It will be with me forever, probably outlasting me. My epitaph might say ‘if only he were made of granite, like his pestle and mortar’.

For the salad, get all the ingredients ready mis-en-place. Then throw the garlic, salt, dried prawns and roasted peanuts into the pestle and mortar and grind, pound, stir and bash until you get a coarse paste. Don’t worry if there are a few solids still in there. I think it adds to the rustic-ness of the dish (is there such a word?). Then add the rest of the ingredients. One thing I have learnt from Mr David Thompson; the more you bruise a chilli, the hotter it is. It’s a really good way to regulate the heat other than the amount of chillies. Hit them with a feather and you’ll have a mild dish. Bash the chilli to death and you’ll have a smouldering volcano in your mouth. So, bruise the chillies depending on how hot you like your papaya salad.

The curry

Curry close up

I cheated with the curry. David Thompson’s recipes are meticulous. If you are using a pestle and mortar, you should pound in the order of the listed ingredients. In small print he says use a blender. Because I was pounding the papaya salad, I opted for the blender.

The paste calls for 13 dried chillies and ten bird’s eye chillies. I used the full amount and it was hot, but still tasty. My wife and I were sweating, but it was manageable (although we drank the first bottle of wine very quickly!). If that amount of chillies frightens you, then tone it down, especially the dried chillies. Maybe half them.

The curry is simple. Bring the coconut milk to a simmer in a wok. Add bruised lemongrass and half the lime leaves. After a few minutes, add the fish. Cook until tender. Don’t worry about overcooking the fish slightly. In this kind of dish, it’s forgiving. After the fish is cooked, add the paste and cook for a few minutes. Then add the seasoning ingredients (pinch of palm sugar, 2 tablespoons of fish sauce, a few bird’s eye chillies, lightly bruised, and a squeeze of lime juice). Add the rest of the leaves  and serve with Jasmine or long grain rice.

We drank a bottle of Pinot Gris for starters and moved on to Pinot Noir. Not sure the second choice was the right pairing. I’d like to hear advice from Italian Wine Geek for a red good wine with very spicy Asian food.

Even though David Thompson’s recipes are meticulous, they are thoroughly gratifying to cook. And so different from anything you’ll find in a standard Thai restaurant. I feel like I am cooking history, for a king and his suitors. They take a lot of effort, but that’s what makes them special. Rather like appreciating how clean your clothes are after using a mangle. Hard work, but it’s your own hands that get the results (apart from me using the blender of course).

#Gen Gati paste

  • 13 dried bird’s eye chillies
  • 10 fresh bird’s eye chillies
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 heaped tablespoon of fresh glalangal
  • 2 tablespoons chopped lemongrass
  • 2 teaspoons chopped garlic
  • 1 teaspoon chopped turmeric
  • 1 tablespoon ginger
  • 1 tablespoon dried shrimp paste

*The Ministry of Home Affairs was originally coined by someone from the Dream Team Cycling Club. It refers to our wives.