Friday, July 08, 2016

Food Banks And What The West Could Learn From Asian Cooking

There is a lot of talk about obesity and healthy eating in the West. There is also a lot of talk about rising food prices, food banks, unemployment, benefits cuts and other austerity measures sparking dubious claims from millionaire, silver-spooned Tories that they could survive on £53 a week, while maintaining a reasonably nutritious and varied diet.

Now comes the news that a staggering 500,000 people in the UK - the seventh richest country in the world, it’s worth remembering - are relying on food banks to survive as welfare cuts bite and food prices continue to rise (having already soared by 35% over the past five years, far outstripping wage increases).

And the way things are going, it’s only likely to get worse. As John Harris wrote this week in The Guardian about the growing use of food banks in Britain, there is a perception that “hunger is something that happens only to the poor and unfortunate overseas. It’s now here: outside everyone’s door, gnawing away, ruining lives.”

Overseas places like Cambodia, for instance, where I am currently working. A third-world country ranked as one of the poorest in the world, where many villagers struggle to get by on less than $2 a day.

There is no doubt that even the poorest Britons live a much better life than the poorest Cambodians. But it makes sense that the hundreds of thousands of Britons now struggling with “destitution, hardship, and hunger on a large scale”, as key poverty charities warn, could learn a thing or two from SE Asia’s most vulnerable - who for years have had to cope with extreme hunger, and have become skilled at getting the most out of the little food they have.

A good start would be removing the ‘meat and two veg’ mantra and embracing an Asian diet and Asian cooking techniques - none more so than the wok: an extremely versatile cooking pot that can be used to fry, steam, and braise, and is very useful for serving up tasty, nutritious food on a tight budget.

Asian cooking, in general, uses more fish and has a higher ratio of vegetables per serving - and vegetables are often overlooked in the meat-obsessed West as an excellent way to naturally boost flavour. Likewise, wok cooking uses little oil, making it healthier. It’s also blindingly quick - meaning it takes less of a chunk out of gas or electricity bills. And I say this without sarcasm or irony in these days where you can’t switch on the telly without hearing the word sustainability - something that may help save the planet.

As food and fuel become more scarce, populations grow, and climate change pushes up temperatures and leads to more flooding, making traditional staples like rice less and less of a staple, people will be forced to eat less meat and more vegetables, fruit, and perhaps insects - which happen to be a very good source of protein and nourishment. It’s unavoidable - there aren’t enough resources to go round as it is.

People in the West could do themselves a lot of favours if they simply ate less, and saw meat as less of a main ingredient and more of a flavouring, as it is in SE Asia. When I arrived in Cambodia in 2011, I tipped the airport scales at a whopping and technically obese 93kg. I’m now 77kg, and feel a lot better for it.

Yes, I miss meat feasts and dirty kebabs. But after a while your stomach and appetite changes, it takes less food to fill your belly, and the endless discussions about double cheese burgers and monstrous steaks leave you frankly bored, if not a little disgusted, by the gluttony so often espoused on foodie havens like Twitter.

Read any interview with someone surviving on food aid in the US or Europe and they will say the same thing - that they have been forced to abandon, or heavily cut down on, meat for cheaper ingredients like pasta, rice, noodles, pulses, cereals, and vegetables.

Over the next few blogs, I’m going to post a few recipes I’ve picked up on my travels through SE Asia - not gourmet meals, far from it, but delicious all the same. They are meals that can be made in minutes and are extremely cheap to make.

It’s one of the many things people in the West could learn from the far flung East, along with swapping toilet paper for bum guns, the importance of families and spirituality, and being less obsessed with celebrity, to name but a few.

The first is a dish that comes from a great Chinese-Cambodian street food stall in Phnom Penh. It’s called char trey cor compong (fried tinned fish). Doesn’t sound great does it, but it’s a wonderful meal. All you need is a tin of mackerel in tomato sauce (or tinned pilchards or sardines), tomato ketchup (tuk peng pong - the Hong Kong influence in the dish), onions, chillies, rice, and a few minutes with a wok.


(serves 2)

400g tin of mackerel in tomato sauce
1 large or two medium onions
3 tablespoons tomato ketchup
2 spring onions
1 teaspoon fish sauce
Salt, Pepper, Sugar
Juice of two limes
Two red bird eye chillies
1/2 tablespoon vegetable oil

As with all wok dishes, it’s important to prep the ingredients first - the best cooks over here say 90% of the cooking is done on the chopping board, and 10% in the wok. But they also say the blacker the wok, the better the chef, so knife skills are very good by that stage.

Open the tinned mackerel, and carefully fork out the fish and put on a plate. Half fill the tin with water, and using a wooden spoon scrape up the tomato sauce from the sides and bottom. Chop the onion in half, then finely slice. Cut the white part of each spring onion into two pieces, then finely chop the green part to use as a garnish. Finely slice the chillies and put in a small saucer or dipping bowl. Cut the limes into six pieces, and squeeze each piece into a bowl.

Heat the wok over a high flame until the metal begins to smoke, then add the vegetable oil. Toss in the sliced onion, and stir continuously with the wooden spoon until the onion is soft but not browned - this will take about two minutes. Then throw in the liquid from the tin, and the spring onion whites, and boil for a minute.
Add the ketchup, lime juice, and fish sauce, and boil for another 30 seconds, topping up with a little more water if necessary, until you have a sauce about the thickness of double cream. Add salt, sugar, and ground black pepper to taste.

Turn off the flame and put the fish in the wok, and cover with the sauce. Put the lid on the wok and then leave for a minute. The fish should be warmed through but not hot. Tip the fish on to a flat serving dish and scatter with the spring onion greens (the stall uses chopped Chinese chives as a garnish - so use those if you’re lucky enough to have them). Serve with sticky rice and the saucer of chopped chillies.

:: My new, bestselling food book Down And Out In South East Asia is an adventure story, spiked with a heavy dose of backpacker noir, through the eateries, street food stalls, and hazy bars of Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Chicken And Asparagus Pie

The pastry for this pie comes from one of the apprentices on my cheffing course. He modestly says he's only good at turning potatoes, and jokes that if he was a superhero his one special power would be the ability to instantly turn vegetables into perfect, seven-sided barrels. However, he's pretty good at making pies as well.

He should be really, because the rest of the week, he works at a gastropub that specialises in pies. Every morning, he makes the pie dough using this recipe below. The chef assessor spent a few hours in his kitchen, ticking off units in his apprenticeship file, and came back raving about the pie crust.

It was deemed so good, he asked the apprentice to fill in for our masterchef lecturer one morning to show us how to make the perfect pie. "I don't want to blow smoke up your arse, but that's probably the best rough puff pastry I've ever tasted," the masterchef told him afterwards before trying to sell us the pies we'd made at a fiver a pop, pointing out that they'd probably be £25 in a deli.

At the gastropub, they use shortcrust pastry for the bottom of the pie and rough puff for the top. But we used rough puff for both. It rises very well and is deliciously crispy owing to all the butter in it. The pies in the picture above should probably have been cooked about five minutes less, as the pastry is a little too brown, but some idiot, uh hum, forgot to put the timer on the oven. I had nothing to do with the ludicrous Man U decoration though.

Rough Puff Pastry

1kg plain flour
750g butter
Cold water

Cut the butter into cubes, about the size of Oxo cubes. Sieve the flour into a bowl and add the butter cubes. Mix briefly with a wooden spoon until the cubes are evenly covered in flour. Add cold water, a little at a time, and stir until the pastry comes together in a ball. Don't over mix it - you still want pieces of butter in the pastry.

Cover the pastry in clingfilm and chill in the fridge for 20 minutes. Take out, flour the work surface and roll out into a long rectangle. Fold the top third into the middle, the bottom third into the middle. Fold in half, then turn 90 degrees and roll out into a rectangle again.

Repeat this three more times, then put the pastry back into the fridge. Chill for another 20 minutes, then take out and repeat the procedure. Chill until ready for use. If you have more pastry than you need, wrap it in clingfilm and freeze.

Poached Chicken

I whole chicken
2 onions
4 sticks celery
3 bay leaves
10 peppercorns

Put your fingers under the skin at the neck end and carefully pull the skin from the chicken. Chop off the feet and pull the leg skin off. Put the whole skinned chicken in a stock pot and cover with water. Add the celery, onion and spices. When the water starts to boil, turn the heat down and cook for one hour.

Take the chicken out, and using a probe, check the inside of the thigh is at least 65C. Even when it is 85C, the chicken meat is still moist because it has been cooked in a wet heat rather than dry heat. But I find about 70C is the best.

Pick the meat from the chicken carcass, and lay on a tray then chill in the fridge. Return the chicken carcass and bones to the stockpot. Continue simmering the stock until you are ready to make the veloute sauce (see below).

Cut off the bottom inch or so of the asparagus. Then boil the spears for two minutes. Take out and refresh in iced water. When cold, slice into discs, about the thickness of £1 coins. Put in the fridge.
Onion Veloute Sauce

1 large onion
100g butter
100g flour
1 litre chicken stock

Chop the onion very finely and fry in the butter over a low heat until the onion has 'melted'. It should be soft and very yellow. Add the flour and stir well. Cook the roux over a low heat for three minutes until coloured slightly - make sure it doesn't catch on the bottom of the pan.
Heat up the sieved stock from the chicken if it has gone cold, and add a ladle at a time to the roux, stirring constantly, and adding the next ladle when the water is absorbed. Then whisk the rest of the stock in, and simmer for 10 minutes. Add salt to taste. Chill the sauce in the fridge.
Pie Filling

When the chicken meat, asparagus and veloute sauce are all chilled, mix together in a bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Making The Pie

Lightly flour the work surface and roll out the pastry to about 1/2cm thick. Cut out a circle three inches wider than the pie dish's circumference. Grease the pie dish with butter and sprinkle with flour. Then lay the pastry circle in the dish, pushing down into the corners. Leave the extra pastry hanging over the edge of the dish. Fill the pie with filling.
Roll out another circle of pastry the same thickness as before, and lay on top of the pie. Push it down on the pastry beneath. Then hold the dish up with one hand and with a knife in the other, neatly trim off the excess pastry. Crimp the edges together using your thumb and index finger on your left hand (if right-handed) and thumb on your right hand. Glaze the top with beaten egg yolk.
Baking The Pie

Put the pie dish on a tray. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 180C - or 160C if you've got a fan-assisted oven - for 45 minutes.