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Sunday, November 30, 2003

Pim cooks London

Yesterday was indeed fun. Thanks to the collective effort of my friends Max, Vanessa, and Simon, we put out quite a spread of nine dishes for sixteen people. I really couldn't have done it without them.

The cooking, or the preparation for the meal, rather, started in San Francisco, where I made my grandmother's famous Nam-prik Pao (roasted chilli paste) and two kinds of curry pastes, green and red. They were carefully concealed in jars and encased inside many layers of ziplock bags to evade the sniffing dogs Tony mentioned.

Max and Simon accompanied me to Chinatown the day I arrived in London to survey available ingredients before we finally settled on the menu. I had a menu in mind, but was so inspired by the abundance of Asian ingredients in London that I decided to add a few dishes to celebrate those things I couldn't get in San Francisco. Those Asian grocers in London have everything I tell you--wild gingers (Krachai), Prik-thai on (fresh green peppercorns), fresh baby corns, proper green mangoes, betel leaves, etc. I'll cook Thai food in London any day!

The next day, Saturday, I met up with Simon very early in the morning at his place so he could drag me to his favorite butcher and fish monger out in Islington, where fabulous terre and mer ingredients were procured for the meal. Then Max joined us on a trek to Borough, where we also met Vanessa. I really didn't need to get anything from Borough, but how could I start my week in London without a proper visit there to eat everything in sight first? So there we were, it was only after I'd eaten half the market that we could move on over to Chinatown to do some real shopping.

Shopping in Chinatown was fun. We went to at least four different markets to get the best of everything. I must commend my army of bag carriers, Vanessa, Max and Simon, for following me around from place to place with only a snide comment or two. We bought enough food to feed an army, or at least a whole gang of hungry OA Londoners. One stop was made at a new dimsum place to rescue Simon from an otherwise certain death.

Next stop was chez Mr.and Mrs Finch, who had kindly, and perhaps unwittingly, agreed to let us use their kitchen for this mad enterprise. In the manner of Iron Chef Morimoto, I sat down to write the menu in longhand, in Thai. My sous chefs found it quite useful I later learned.

Tom Yum Goong
Hot and sour shrimp soup. There are so many versions of how this dish is made in Thailand. I always do it my aunt's way. Making first the stock with lime leaves, lemongrass, a couple knobs of galangal, and shrimp shells, the stock is then strained, and at the last minute add the shrimps, heads and all, some mushrooms and some more lime leaves and lemongrass for garnish. The pot is removed from the heat before lime juice and fish sauce is added. It is finished with my grandmother's secret roasted chilli paste. A few chillies are thrown in whole to be crushed to taste in each serving.

Goong Gra-bueng
Crispy pancakes of minced and spiced prawns.
Yum Talay
Spicy seafood salad, with squids, octopus and haddock filets. The dressing was made with a base of my roasted chilli paste with lime juice, fish sauce and a bit more fresh chillies thrown in for good measure.

Main dishes:
Gang Kiew Wan Gai
Green curry chicken with apple aubergines. This is my aunt Chawiwan's specialty. And my version was definitely pale in comparison to hers. The paste was made in San Francisco and smuggled into the UK specifically for the event.
Pad-ped Moo Nor-mai sai Prik-thai On
Dry curry of pork, young bamboo shoots and fresh green peppercorn. I was inspired to make this dish after spotting the fresh green peppercorns in Chinatown. I've never seem them in the US, probably due to some stupid import law. The base for the stir fry sauce was red curry paste, made at home and smuggled into the country. I used a huge piece of pork knuckle that Simon's butcher cut specifically for us, with ample fat and skin for good texture contrast. Also thrown in were some fresh young bamboo shoots that had been cut into bite size and blanched for a few minutes. The stir fry was finished with a handful of green peppercorns and Thai basil. This was my favorite of the whole meal.
Hoy-lai pad Nam-prik Pao
Clams stir-fried with roasted chilli paste, some extra garlic and chillies and a handful of Thai basil to finish.
Pla Todd Gra-tiam kab Nam-prik Pao
Garlic fried fish served with roasted chilli paste. This is my version of comfort food, simple deep fried fish with plenty of garlic, served with a side of the roasted chilli paste.
Nam-prik Long-rua
A spicy and pungent relish of garlic/shrimp paste/lime/chilly/etc, served on top of crispy fried haddock and smoked haddock flakes. If there's such a thing called Royal Thai dish, this is it. It is definitely my favorite relish. The relish is very pungent, sour, salty, and spicy all at once. It is served with fried flakes of fish. Traditionally the crispy fish is made with grilled catfish, but for this meal it was made of fresh haddock mixed with some smoked haddock. This Nam-prik is to be eaten with plenty of rice and fresh vegetables, which in this case were some fresh apple and pea aubergines, cucumbers, and wing beans.
Caramelized belly pork. This is a traditional accompaniment to the Nam-prik described above. The interplay of flavors and texture is what truly sets royal cuisine apart from simple street food, so this dish of extremely sweet and tender Moo-wan is to be eaten with the pungent relish, the crispy fish, and the fresh and crunchy vegetables.

All of these dishes were cooked the Thai way, that is to say, by instinct rather than by strictly adhering to recipes. I have in the past written up a recipe for the Tom Yum Goong and Gang Kiew-wan Gai. Just follow the link to them.

When I have the time I will make another Moo-wan and write down the recipe to post here. It's actually quite easy to make. You first marinate the pork belly with some fish sauce, coriander roots, and white pepper, then slowly braise it in the marinade and some water. The pork belly is braised until just this side of done, then sliced thinly and added to the caramelized sauce made of fish sauce, palm sugar, shallots and white pepper and stewed a bit longer until fork tender.

Simon and I promised poor Robin who was too sick to attend the dinner that we would keep some food for him. Unfortunately the gang finished everything. There wasn't even a bite of ANYTHING left at the end of the meal. Poor Robin.

For desserts we had some sweets from the Tayyab, and some fantastic truffles from Sam.

A jar of Nam-prik pao each was offered to Tony for kindly letting us demolish his kitchen, to Simon for organizing the whole thing, and to Max and Vanessa for the much appreciated and skillful Sous-Chef-ing. I also have to thank John and David for helping to clean up. I guess I owe those two some chilli paste next time I'm in town.

All in all, it was definitely a fun evening. I'm sorry we couldn't fit the whole lot of you Londoners. I guess we'll just have to do it again, don't we?


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