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Monday, October 17, 2005

Cooking Thai in London

It's a good thing I find cooking Thai food in London such fun –there are always rare ingredients that I couldn't find in America- because I am always made to work when I am here. My London friends insist on a meal, but luckily they are also happy to help me shop and chop and pound and do all the things required for a proper Thai meal.

Finding a kitchen for me to cook in is a different story. I have a history of demolishing nice kitchens and leaving indelible marks of oil spatters on ceilings, chilli stains on aprons and tablecloths, imprints of a mortar on the hardwood floor, to name but a few damages I've left behind. And I'm not even mentioning the garlic burn on poor V's fingers –I didn't even know one could get garlic burns. Miraculously, this time the mad scientists John and David volunteered their kitchen, to the resounding cheers of the other friends cowering in the corners for fear that their kitchen might have to be sacrificed.

It is really a lot of fun to shop and cook with these friends, because they are real foodies, and so interested in everything regarding Thai food. Unfortunately for them, I am a cook and not a chef, so I am horrible at planning anything, from the menu to the shopping and the cooking itself. David -no not my David, not the other David either, this is another one entirely- tried to sit me down on two different occasions at Monmoth café to write down what we were going to cook so he could make a shopping list. The menu was finally haphazardly drawn, only to be changed on a whim as soon as I found an intriguing ingredient at the market.

The day began, as all my Saturdays in London, at Borough Market. There are so many wonderful things about this market that it surely is worth its very own post, perhaps one day soon. But one of the best things about this market is the array of butchers and fishmongers, selling the most amazing quality meat, poultry, and seafood, and that's where we headed first. We procured a massive slab of pork belly and three beautiful wild boar tenderloins from the darling John at Sillfield Farm. The original plan was to get a nice piece of pork butt to do a dry curry stir-fry with green peppercorn, but I had a change of mind when I saw the gorgeous wild boar tenderloins on the shelf. In Thailand we use true wild boar in a very similar dish, also with green peppercorn. As for the belly pork, it seems the size of the slab gets bigger with every meal I cook in London. In Thailand, caramelized pork (Moo Wan) is served as a small side dish to sooth the palate after the attack of the spicy relish, we would take a mouthful here and there, and so only a small bowl's worth is enough for a table. But here in London, amongst these friends, serving a little bowl of this will surely cause a bloodbath at table.

We also found great looking huge squids, so I got them to cook with my homemade chilli paste, Nam-prik Pao, that I brought with me from the US. Also some great looking prawns, which I wasn't sure yet what to do with but was certain I would think of something.

The next stop was London Chinatown, heading directly to the market where I know to have plenty of Thai ingredients. Besides the usual Thai/Asian items, we found two types of green mango, one for cooking and the other eating, fresh green peppercorns which are not available in the US, fragrant Krachai, wild ginger. But the one item that got me the most excited was Pak Gra-shade. I don't even know what it's called in English, but it is a type of morning glory that grows in the water. I remember seeing my grandfather's old cook carefully removed the fluffy, white-ish, foam-like substance that clinged on to the vegetable. The ones I found Saturday were happily de-foamed so I didn't have to do that icky task myself. (According to this website I found Pak Gra-shade is called Water Mimosa in English.)

One of my favorite curry soups is called Gang Som, a sour, coconut free curry made with a paste based on fresh red chilli instead of the usual dry variety. The Pak Gra-shade I found was a classic component of that dish, so I decide to do it. I had no recipe with me but I wanted to cook it so much I did it from memory. This particular paste was a simple one anyway, using fewer ingredients than the other, more well-known, curries. I also remember one crucial detail which Aunt Chawiwan stressed with me. At our house, she said, we always add shrimp meat in the curry paste, pounded right with it in the mortar. Doing that would give the soup another dimension of complexity she claimed. I kept true to these nuggets of wisdom, and the soup turned out beautifully, even if I had to say so myself.

Besides Gang Som, we also made two other curry pastes, a green curry paste, for beef and apple eggplant curry (Gang Kiew-wan Nuea), and a spicy red curry paste for the wild boar. Yes, even I thought it was a little mad to do three curries, especially because I always insisted on making the pastes fresh, but the wonder woman who was our friend Akiko volunteered to do all the pounding. And a lot of pounding she certainly did, that iron chef Aki-chan. The red curry paste I did for the wild boar was a little different than my usual recipe. I used a little bit more dry spices, star anise, cumin, coriandar, clove, and cinnamon, than usual, because I wanted the paste to have a bit of heft to stand up to the wild boar. On the subject of the green curry paste -yes, yes, I'm sure you have heard me before- I don't know how this ugly trend of making "green" curry paste green by adding cilantro leafs got started in the West. In Thailand we only use the roots in cooking, the leafs are for garnish and eating outright as they pick up a very soapy, green taste if heated. The "green" curry paste is not even supposed to be bright green, getting the slight green hue from the fresh green chillies which form the base of the paste.

The funniest moment of the night came when I nearly, very nearly, killed the entire table while cooking the wild boar. You see, cooking the dry curry required stir-frying the curry paste with just a little bit of oil in the hot wok until the paste was properly fragrant. Considering how much spice was in that thing, you could imagine the fume it created. The cloud of pungent fume traveled very quickly to the adjacent dining room, and the next thing I heard was the sound of friends swearing and hacking and choking nearly to death. I thought it was murderously funny, and the pun here is certainly intended. Happily, all was forgiven once they had a bite.

I made a few other things, you could see them all on my Flickr, but the first thing that disappeared from the table was the ever popular caramelized belly pork. A lot of people have asked me to write a recipe, but let me tell you, it's so easy it's hardly worth it! I am not kidding you, this is what I do. Take a piece of belly, remove it from the skin if it's still attached, lay it out on a baking dish, a casserole, a cazuela, a Le Creuset pan, whatever you have. Then you make the braising liquid, by dissolving some palm sugar with water and adding to it some fish sauce. Taste it, the liquid should have the balance of sweet/salty you want in the final dish, but it should be about three times as thin as you want your resulting caramelized sauce to be. Pour the liquid over the slab of belly, get it to come up to nearly cover the top. Add to the pan a handful or two of sliced shallots. Bake that baby in a slow oven, for however long it takes until it's done. I never bother to measure or time it, but it comes out beautifully, every time.

Despite my misgivings and incompetence, the dinner went off without a hitch, and we didn't even have to wait till 10 to sit down to eat, thanks to the help of some seriously competent friends, like Aki, David, John (who made a gorgeous –if slightly architecturally unsound- lemongrass mousse with green tea gelee and coconut tuille for dessert), V, and Max (who took such care to peel the prawns so as to leave the pretty little tails on, as per my instructions, only to be told once he was nearly done that I, in fact, didn't need the tails on this batch of prawns –which were to be pureed into the curry paste- but on the other batch –to be added later in that same soup). Another merry band of friends got their fix of Thai food, and I got to see my friend Juls before the birth of her baby to be named Foie Gras (long story, but isn't is so fashionable to give your baby an odd name?).

Until next time I suppose….but considering what weird ingredients I insisted on buying on sight that went unused that night and have been left chez John and David, the next time might come sooner than any of us expected!


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