Travels & Food

Asia: The Fried Rice Miracle

Everybody loves fried rice and, for once, this actually includes my partner!

Frankly, given his flavour-phobic nature, the fact that he will even consider eating fried rice is a miracle in itself, and has saved us from many a Happy Meal whilst travelling through Asia. China, Malaysia, Thailand or Indonesia – it doesn’t matter where we are in the world, I always breathe a sigh of relief when I find fried rice on the menu! Whether it be called Khao Phad Gai in Phuket, Nasi Goreng in Java or  炒饭 in Sichuan, fried rice has been an absolute lifesaver on our travels!

However, as with all miracles, there is a strict criteria that must be adhered to before it can be fully realised: no prawn, no chilli, no garlic, no funny stuff. Wheter these “condiment commandments” are delivered verbally or on a printed card (thank God for Google Translate), these are instructions that have been communicated in a babel of tongues whilst on our many travels. Admittedly, “no funny stuff” is often lost in translation; but subsequent to the “Great Powdered Beef Floss Calamity” of ’07 in Beijing (which ruined a perfectly good plate of fried rice), this particular commandment has become almost as important as “no garlic”! For the likes of Brian it seems the world is filled with culinary pitfalls and devious chefs, just waiting to impart flavour upon their unsuspecting diners. Generally though, we seem to muddle through the minefield that is feeding Brian.

Sadly, his pedantic ordering instructions are not limited to ordering fried rice – even his beloved Big Macs are fraught with food dangers and require deconstruction. Typically the conversation goes something like this:

Me: “Please, wouldn’t you rather just have nuggets?”

Brian: “No, I fancy a Big Mac”

Me: Sigh

McD: “Next!”

Brian: “I would like a medium Big Mac Happy Meal please”

McD: “Okay. And to drink?”

Brian: “Coke Light. Okay, now on the Big Mac, I don’t want any cheese, gherkin, sauce…or mayo”

McD: “There is no mayo in a Big Mac, sir”

Brian: “That’s fine, I just want to make sure they don’t add any mayo”

McD: “Err, okaaayyy sir. So you just want the bread, meat and lettuce then?”

Brian: “Definitely, none of that other crap”

This exchange would be mortifying at the best of times…now imagine this entire conversation taking place in Japan! Ordering food has never been a highpoint of our travels.

Thankfully, through perseverance and experimentation, we’ve slowly been able to expand his list of edible foods abroad. And although still far from possessing a global palette he has, nevertheless, come a long way. Of course, the “condiment commandments” still apply to these new dishes, but we are no longer confined just to the Golden Arches or to the Colonel’s Secret Recipe! In Tokyo he ate Japanese Curry almost exclusively for 2 weeks, and in Malaysia he now merrily scoffs down roti canai (but only with sugar) and murtabak…even Banana Leaf Curry has recently been given the thumbs up.

But when all else fails, we can always rely on the tried and tested “Fried Rice Miracle”…just as long as they don’t try to add any of that “funny stuff”!

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Morocco: Lifting the Lid on Tagines

Ever since I visited Morocco back in 2000, I’ve been obsessed with tagines.

Over the years I have amassed a fair collection of these conical wonder-pots; so much so, I actually have a cupboard solely dedicated to storing my tagines! Thankfully my obsessive nature has since moved on to other kitchen oddities, but the fact remains that tagines are possibly the greatest casserole pot ever invented. Ingeniously designed to produce meltingly tender stews – tagines are to Morocco, what the wok is to China: inseparable and indispensable! Whilst I’m unsure of the exact culinary science behind the tagine’s unwavering ability to produce such tender meat, rather unsurprisingly, the key to its design lies in its conical lid. This uniquely designed lid allows the steam to rise up to the top and drip back down into the simmering stew, that is about all I know. Beyond that, it is just magic.

Traditionally made out of clay and cooked over a charcoal fire, today tagines come in a variety of guises. Pick a size or colour, cast-iron or pottery; these days there is probably the perfect tagine out there to fulfill your own specific “foodie” aspirations. Whilst I have a real soft spot for authenticity, I would avoid buying a traditional clay tagine as these are notoriously tricky to cook with, require “seasoning” and are hostile to alternative cooking methods (they may crack or worse, explode!). To my mind, what makes a good tagine is its ability to go directly from the stove-top to oven. I currently use a tagine made out of mircostoven, not very traditional I know, but what it lacks in authenticity, it makes up for in versatility! I’ve had a number of tagines that were suitable only for cooking in the oven and I found these to be very inconvenient as you had to prepare and sauté your stew ingredients in a separate pan, before adding them to the actual tagine for cooking in the oven. I’ve always found this to be detrimental to the flavour of the finished meal – any time you use two separate pans/pots like this, you run the risk of losing some of the flavour in the transfer. If that is not enough to convince you to buy a multi-functional tagine then consider this the ultimate persuasion: one tagine means there’ll be less washing-up!

So now you know what type of tagine you should buy, back to tagines as an actual meal.

Tagines in Morocco were not at all what I expected. In fact, from my own experience they’re largely indistinguishable from the complex heady concoctions we have come to expect from watching TV chefs who are drunk on preserved lemons and dates stuffed with walnuts. In the month that I trailed around Morocco, the few tagines I encountered were actually pretty plain affairs; tasty, simple and unrefined – Berber Tagine ruled supreme! I have no doubt that grander tagines were being eaten in the luxury courtyards of ancient riads or on a rooftop overlooking Marrakesh’s Jemaa El-Fna, but sadly these places, and tagines, were beyond my meagre backpacker budget.

This does not mean that I didn’t have some amazing tagines in Morocco, far from it. The best tagine I had was a simple berber tagine from a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, located just inside the main entrance to Marrakesh’s labyrinthine souk. Made in individual portioned clay tagines and eaten with chunks of soft bread, these tagines were a master class in simplicity: lightly spiced lamb with potatoes, onions and carrots, that was all it took to create tagine-magic. Our favourite part of this mini-tagine was, however, the encrusted potatoes and onions at the bottom of the stew. Whilst seemingly unintentional, these fonds, or sucs, gave the tagine an intensity that had us coming back time and again! Unfortunately, as this culinary masterstroke was unintentional, which turned the simple act of picking our individual tagine (out of the 20 or more available) into a game of culinary roulette! We would try to stack the odds in our favour by asking which tagine had been cooking the longest, in the hope this would be most likely to have formed the coverted crust, but like all gambles it was hit and miss. What was worse though was when only one of us hit the jackpot – tagine-envy is truly an ugly thing!

So whilst my time in the country gave me a greater appreciation of the potential for simplicity in Moroccan cuisine, it did not dampen my devotion to its headier flavours. I, like many before me, am readily seduced by the spiced romance of the Moroccan palette; whether the food is simple or grand, central to that allure is the tagine. Many years on, a good few tagines later, I still love making Moroccan food. Often my tagines are coddlingly sweet, other times they’re refreshingly tangy and sometimes they’re the epitome of simplicity. And if I’m lucky, and my cooking karma is just right, sometimes my tagines will reward my unwavering devotion with an encrusted potato, or two…but sssh, don’t tell my partner!

For some delicious Moroccan recipes, please click here

Malaysia: Curry Paste Confidential

I’m going to tell you a secret no Western chef wants you to hear; Asians don’t make their own curry pastes. There, I’ve said it and I’m not going to take it back. It’s my blog and I’ll tell the truth if I want to. The notion that we Asians spend our time making wonderfully fragrant curry pastes from scratch is perhaps one of the most enduring culinary fallacies about The Far East, but the simple truth is we don’t. We, like rest of humanity, have busy lives and they are too short to be spent forever grinding away with a pestle and mortar, just to make a paste we can just as well buy ready-made from the local food market…or Tesco, yes you heard me right, Tesco.

Television chefs, in particular, seem to exalt the necessity of making your own curry paste and heaven forbid you suggest otherwise. I recall one famous British chef’s utter distain for such culinary shortcuts whilst filming a segment on Penang Fish Head Curry in Malaysia. The feisty young lady, who was demonstrating how to make this classic dish, unashamedly whipped out a pack of store-bought curry paste and duly added it to the curry. Mortified he asked her why she didn’t make her own, but I think her answer confounded him even further, “Heh? Who makes their own paste? Too busy. Everybody buys from the shop”. Undeterred, he pressed her further, “But wouldn’t it taste better if you made your own?”. Oblivious to his patronising tone, she replied, “No’lah, of course I’m using the best brand for you!”. He did not seem comforted by this; after all, this cavalier attitude towards authenticism just wouldn’t fly back in Cornwall! And anyhow, what did she really know about how Asian food should be prepared, in Asia…by actual Asians.

Now I’m not dissing freshly made curry pastes, far from it. They are utterly amazing and if you have the time (and the required ingredients) to make one then great, jolly good for you, but for the rest of us they are just not really practical or necessary. There are, of course, times you have to make your own, simply because there may not be a ready-made paste available, but this is out of necessity, not choice. Outside of Asia it is easy enough to find Thai or Indian pastes at your local supermarket, but looking to make a nice Sri Lankan curry? Best you get grinding…

Growing up in Malaysia, there was always a myriad of brands to choose from, but without doubt the best ready-made curry pastes were from the local produce market. As a child I would love going with my grandmother, Amah, to the market to get the ingredients for the night’s meal, and if curry was on the menu then we would always make a stop at her preferred curry paste vendor. We would pick our way through the market’s wet concrete aisles; pass the doomed squawking chickens, bypassing the acrid meat section, lingering by the perfumed blooms of the flower stalls; all the while bargaining and buying as we went. When we would eventually make it to the curry paste vendor he would ask us what type of curry we wanted to make, for how many people, hot or not? Our dining plans duly divulged and assessed, the vendor would set about his alchemy, combining various glistening pastes to produce the required finished article. It would be paste-perfection, but this was never in doubt – making curry paste was his life’s work and he did it well.

The curry Amah would dish up that night would, of course, be delicious but nobody ever attributed its success to the quality of the curry paste; great cooking isn’t always about your ingredients but rather what you do with them. I believe that it is far more important that you learn to make a curry well, rather than worry about the provenance of your curry’s paste. Amah was an incredible cook but she, like most good Asian home cooks, would never bother themselves with something as labourious as making their own curry pastes. Such things should rather be left to the professionals…and television chefs.

To discover delicious Malaysian recipes from The Muddled Pantry, please click here

South Africa: A Land of Braais, Huiskos and Sushi

When I arrived in South Africa way back in 2000, I took it upon myself to learn about the cuisine of my newly adopted home, so of course I set about interrogating my new-found friends. I would ask, “What is South African food?” For the most part people would immediately say, “A braai!”. Okay, but that’s a barbeque, not really a cuisine. Lets try this again, “What do you braai that makes it South African?”. “Wors!” would come the answer. Okay, that’s a sausage, again not really a stand-alone cuisine. Let’s try a different tack, “When you’re not braaing sausages, what else do you like to eat?”. “Sushi!”.

For a long while I struggled to get a real sense of South Africa’s culinary identity. Given its past struggles, surely this disparately diverse nation found some sort of cultural common ground through its food? Then it hit me, ask the one person whose tastes were uncluttered by the latest food fads, whose tastes stilled lingered in the 80s; before the outside world confused the collective South African palette. Much to my dismay, I turned to my flavour’phobic partner for insight into my South African food conundrum. And so I asked, “What is South African food to you?”. The response was almost instant, “A braai…but without any of that yucky basting sauce”. Okay, not a good start but I wasn’t going to stumble at the first hurdle. Time for a different angle. “What did you like to eat when you were a child?”. “Oooh, my Aunt in Milnerton made the most delicious tomato bredie, she put lots of sugar in it”. Finally I was getting somewhere, but he wasn’t finished, “Tomato bredie with rice. Not your funny foreign rice, normal Tastic rice”. Okay thanks for that, now shut up about tomato bredie. “What else did you like to eat?”, I ventured. “Sweet potato, glazed sweet potato. With tomato bredie and rice!”. Anything else? “Oh, and bobotie…and frikkadels, with glazed sweet potato…and pumpkin fritters with cinnamon sugar! And there’s melktert and malva pudding, hmm malva pudding”. Okay, I knew he had a sweet tooth, but at this point I was amazed he had any teeth left! Deciding that I had better wrap this up I asked, “Do most South Africans like these dishes too?”. “I guess so, everyone loves malva pudding, especially with cold custard!”. Cold custard?!? I had delved enough for one day.

Armed with my new found in-sight, I set about searching out these exotic sounding dishes but they proved elusive, forgotten in amongst the pseudo-Mediterranean fare and generic offerings that cluttered the local menus of the time. Sure, bobotie was relatively commonplace, as was melktert and malva pudding, but these felt like culinary tokenism, a lazy nod to the flavours of the past. Undeterred, I took it upon myself to learn to cook the dishes that were so dear to my partner’s heart, but I gave up trying to answer the question of what South African food was. A country’s food culture is something that must be born from the current tastes of its people, it is not something that can be defined by the antiquated tastes of a passing generation. In the past when I had visitors from overseas they usually ask me to cook them an authentic South African meal which typically resulted in the obligatory bobotie and malva pudding. Afterwards my friends inevitable ask the question, “So this is South African food, what else is there?”. Defeated, my stock answer had become, “They like to braai”.

However, as the years rolled by and my glimpses into the South African psyche expanded, I discovered that these elusive dishes had been there all along, but I had been looking in the wrong places. The food I had been searching for wasn’t the sort you’d order at a restaurant, it was food that was made for you by the people who loved you the most, your family – it was huiskos. I had wrongly assumed that South Africans would want to eat the same food they loved, the food that they would feed their families, when they went out to restaurants to eat but they don’t. I asked a friend once about this South African culinary bi-polarism and her response was simple, “Hell, why would I want to eat my food when I can go out and order sushi!”. Why, indeed. After that, I stopped looking for local cuisine on the menus of fancy restaurants because real South African food can only be found where is belongs, at home…or on a braai.  

If you would like to view my South African recipes, please follow this link: https://themuddledpantry.wordpress.com/category/south-african/

Vietnam: Discovering Phở

At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking Vietnam is a country powered by phở. Phở is simply everywhere, from Hanoi in the North to the Mekong Delta in the South, phở is king.

When we decided to visit Vietnam in 2008 I was very excited about finally getting to sample its legendary cuisine first-hand. Vietnamese food was very much in vogue at the time, so my expectations were high. I had, of course, heard of phở but not being a great fan of clear soupy noodles, it wasn’t high on my list of things to try. It wasn’t until I arrived in Hồ Chí Minh City that I realized that phở was such an integral part of Vietnam’s food culture that I just had to try it. As with most countries in Asia, I figured the best food would be found in and around the local markets, so off I headed to lose my phở’ginity.

Beef PhoWell, the first thing I learnt about beef phở (Phở ) was that there are differing grades of the dish when ordering: there’s what I would term “classy phở” with thinly sliced raw fillet heaped on top and then ladled over with scorching broth to instantly poach the beef. Then there’s “poor man’s phở” which is topped with the shredded meat from the stewed beef and finally there’s my personal favourite, the “I want it all! phở”, which is a combination of the two.

The other thing I learnt about phở is that it isn’t pronounced like you’d think it would be – the ở is silent resulting in soft phonetic “frrr”. Locals seem to find particular mirth in watching tourists grapple with the simple act of ordering; you would say, “One bowl of beef frrrr, please”. And nothing. Their eyes would blink, mine would roll. A few seconds would pass and the phở vendor would flash their resplendent betel-nut smile and invariably say, “Phở? You want phở?”. Yes damn it, I want phở! Why else would I be sitting at your damn frrrr stall! Eating local food locally, isn’t always fun.

Anyway I digress. Back to the noodles. Phở wasn’t what I expected. Almost offensively fragrant, the broth was a deluge of flavours, contrasted by the silky ribbons of wide rice noodles. Adding to the heady mix, you have the zesty fresh herbs and zing of lime and then the bite of the chilli – it was a lot to process in a single bowl of noodles. I ate my noodles, paid my inflated tourist price and left feeling a little befuddled. Did I like it? I just didn’t know.

Much to my surprise, the next morning I woke up with just one thing on my mind, phở. I can only assume that during the night, my taste buds made sense of the bludgeoning they’d received. I woke up, hooked. I didn’t have to go far before finding my next phở fix. I ordered, I slurped, I sweated, I scoffed and before I knew it, I had the bowl to my mouth, gulping down the last of the fragrant beefy broth. I eventually emerged from the depths of the bowl to my partner (who had since returned from McDonalds) watching me. Bemused, he asked “I’m guessing it was good, then?” but he already knew the answer. Knowing all too well the warning signs of yet another of my food obsessions, he knew this was just the beginning.

By the end of our time in Vietnam, I had eaten my way from the South, all the way to the North. Some of it was good, occasionally it was excellent, but I found the best Vietnamese food inaccessible to your average tourist. Glimpsed in back alleys and ferociously protected by guarded vendors; this is where the really good food hides, all the rest felt like tourist fodder. Access to really good Vietnamese food takes time, certainly more time than a two week holiday; the good stuff is there, you just need to know where to find it, how to pronounce it and be brave enough to order it. And that’s what I loved about phở, it was everywhere, it was for everyone. As I slurped my noodles at one of the many phở chain restaurants, shoulder to shoulder with neatly dressed teenagers with their cellphones in one hand, chopsticks in the other and their flimsy motorcycle helmets perched on their knees; I felt accepted. Here I was just another person eating his phở.

If you are interested in making beef phở noodles at home, please follow this link to my Recipe Posts http://wp.me/p4JqRl-4h