Wednesday, April 25, 2007

the last supper

having just been to the holocaust exhibition at the imperial war museum had put our bible study group in a rather introspective mood, and on our way to surrey quays on the bus, we started chatting about what we'd like to have as our last meal. in roald dahl's cookbook, dahl includes a whole chapter "hangman's supper", detailing the last meal wishes from inter alios p.d.james, francis bacon and john le carre.

last meal choices usually veer along two main themes - comfort or extravagance. some want to spend their last meals parktaking of victuals which comfort them and remind them of safety, cosiness, log fires and a warm duvet. others prefer michelin starred luxury. i went for the luxury option in the end during our bus ride (and for the record i thought it wasn't fair because i wasn't allowed to choose an amuse bouche, first course, pre-desert, bread basket, apertif, wines for each course, or coffee and petit fours - only one main and desert). i am indecisive at best of times and such a choice in reality would probably have taken me a month to construct a first draft. the short bus ride didn't afford me the luxury of pondering time. i did however, remember two vastly different meals i had in singapore last month with one of my fondest mates M, memories of which i constructed my final feast.

my last meal de luxe would have been like our lunch at iggy's. specifically the strip of wagyu beef which had been seared to medium rare perfection and served with a side of spinach. each mouthful of juicy, marbled beef goodness brought complete ecstasy - the type which made you close your eyes and groan in pleasure because you know it can't be good for your arteries. i chose for my hypothetical final desert, a pear tarte tartin with vanilla ice cream, but at iggy's, they didn't have pear tart, so i went for their vanilla panna cotta with basil ice-cream and sundried tomatoes, which did sound a little odd, but was pleasantly surprised. the ice-cream had a just a hint of basil, so it tasted more herb garden than pesto, and the caramelised sundried tomatoes were like little wisps of cranberry which added a nice chewy foil against the softness of the panna cotta and the creaminess of the ice-cream. i had started my meal with squid ink cappellini with baby octopus which was beyond yummy but had the annoying trait of leaving us with rather black lips. M had gone for the tasting menu which included a lovely dish of sakura ebi over angel hair pasta.

had i chosen the comfort option that day, i would have gone for bak chor mee pok. this is a dish, ONLY to be found in singapore. the malaysian peninsula proffers up some close clones, they are but impostors of this noodle dish as it exists in singapore. bak chor mee pok is a hawker dish of teochew origins which literally means minced pork flat noodles - it is simply blanched egg noodles dressed with black chinese vinegar, chilli paste, soya sauce, oil and a splash of stock and topped with poached minced pork, pork balls, a fried dumpling, slices of liver, shards of fried lard and served with a bowl of anchovy and pork stock which has been simmered for days. M ate hers dressed with ketchup which i thought was a travesty. my dad passed his affection for this dish to me, and introduced me to his favourite stalls and while we do share the love of this noodley nirvana - where we do differ is our opinion on which mee pok man is the best. we just so happen to live where within a 3 mile radius of our house is in public opinion, 3 of the best mee pok men in singapore and i have fond growing-up memories of ringing my parents on their mobiles beseeching them to bring a packet of this home for dinner, eating them out of the polythene bag they were packed in, not bothering with the fuss of proper bowls, conscious that if i had delayed consumption, the noodles would tip past their prime state and that perfect point of peace that comes from eating these noodles would be lost. it was all very important. this dish to me, reminds me of the simple fact that my parents love me, because each time i go back to singapore, my dad gets me a pack of mee pok on his way home to combat my jetlag munchies (and usually a pack for himself too). to die with the certainty that one is loved, that is a good thought to die with.

because i am certain of where i'm going after i die (not because of who i am, but only because of what Christ has done for me), i know that my last meal will be a joyful one - not filled with fear, or uncertainty, or frustration. i'm certain i'm going to be spending eternity in heaven and i'm sure the culinary fare there (if any) will consistently be perfect.. i suppose, in the grand scheme of things, it won't really matter exactly what i'm eating.for my last meal as long as it's a happy meal with people i love and it doesn't involve brussel sprouts.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

brilliant belly

i’m very proud of my belly – well, it’s not so much my not-quite-six-pack abs, but rather this brilliant slab of pork belly.

i love roast pork belly. there’s nothing like anticipating that strip of crispy bubbly crackling over a moist juicy hunk of pig that warms my heart. growing up back home, roast pork belly was always readily available from the roast meat hawkers and mostly were of more than decent quality even from the most ordinary of purveyors. if i had my way, i’d airlift one of these roast meat hawkers (and while I was at it, a whole hawker centre) to canary wharf in place of the ubiquitous prêt-a-mangers. fat hope.

the best bit about making this was that it was actually not as complicated as I thought it might have been. I tapped into the wisdom of gordon ramsay, nigel slater and lily ng on this matter, and they said similar things. the trick to crispy crackling seemed to lie in scoring the skin sufficiently, drying it out with rubbed in salt and an overnight rest in the fridge. the meat beneath was rubbed with a mix of five-spice powder, soya sauce, sesame oil and pepper and left to marinate. where they differed was the actual roasting of the pork belly – I eventually went for a first hot blast at 220C for 30 minutes, followed by a further 30-40 minutes at 180C.

I ate the pork belly with rice noodles and a fried egg as george watched, overcome with jealousy. he must have thought it was good too as any politeness gave way to feline fearlessness and jumped up, swiped the last piece off my plate with his little paw and carted it away to eat it gleefully. greedy git.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

abalone in zhuhai

zhuhai (珠海) literally means "pearl sea" and is located on the pearl river delta. it borders macau and is 140km southwest of guangzhou. it was designated as a special economic zone in 1980 and its outstanding geographical location and deep-water port serve as an attractive location for foreign capital. at least that's what wikipedia says. my parents sold the idea of a long weekend in zhuhai to me somewhat differently.

their sales pitch involved, among other things, full body massages, budget shopping and loads of food and dim sum (my parents know me well), and travelling there couldn't be simpler - one merely needed to walk across the border from macau via the gongbei customs. The focus of my dad's pitch however was one main thing: abalone.

for the uninitiated, this is what fresh raw abalone looks like. not entirely a thing of beauty, but neither were the many other types of wierd and wonderful sea creatures being plied on the zhuhai city curved young (wanzhai) seafood street (literally translated from 珠海弯仔海鲜街). at one end of the pedestranised street was a bevy of oyster shucking women in black rubber boots, at the other, a myriad of traders selling dried salted fish and sharks fin. in between, the turf was occupied by gutsy fishmongers plying their sea creatures on wooden tables. once you got over the sensory deluge of the rousing tones of fierce trade negotiation and the tables of frankly rather strange looking sea creatures, getting your seafood was a rather straightforward affair: go up to any fishmonger whose goods take your fancy, decide how much you want to pay having done a brief round of market research on the day's prices, and begin a firm and fast paced negotiation which may or may not sound like it is about to erupt into fisticuffs. this isn't a market for wimps. my dad is probably one of the best bargainers i know, and his bargaining powress served us very well. once you've bought the creatures, you will be attacked by one of the restaurant vultures who will draw you into letting their establishment cook your purchases with promises of free soup and desert.

the seafood street market isn't tsukiji or billingsgate, but it does have a charm of its own. zhuhai's proximity to the fish farms means that the fish sold were all locally sourced. buying your purchases alive meant that it couldn't get much fresher. however, it also meant that your purchases might decide to plot their escape by jumping out of the bag. while we weren't given the run by any sly shrimp, i did get peed on by a mollusc.

if you've managed to survive all that, the meal is an absolute pleasure. when asked how some of the more unusual sea creatures should be cooked, suggestions were usually made along two lines: steamed with scallions and soya sauce, or stir fried with black beans. not entirely michelin star creativity. but when seafood is as fresh as we got, it should be cooked simply. and we were fortunate that the chefs who did our sea creatures did a fantastic job with our meals.

we started with free soup as promised. the pork rib and corn broth had been simmered for hours and the corn gave a sweetness to the meaty broth. first up was deep fried white bait. it was served straight out of the wok and was light and crunchy with a good amount of spicy heat from its sheer flour and curry powder coat and the sprinkling of deep fried chillies.

steamed prawns were next. i think prawns should always be eaten this way - fresh, steamed, and with a soy/chilli dip to counteract the sweetness of the prawns.

this was followed in close succession by steamed turbot with scallion oil. the fish was so fresh and sweet it flaked easily off the bones. the light dressing of oil added to the smooth glide of the fish which disappeared down into our tummies with much ease.

the third course was an omelette of bamboo clams in a light oyster/soy sauce dressing. though a little on the salty side, the chewiness of the bamboo clams went well with the soft savoriness the fried egg.

finally, the two star shellfish of the day - the scallops and the abalone. we had requested that they be cooked the same way, and they were brought to us, steamed with a light paste of garlic, sesame oil, scallions and chinese chives. what did surprise me was that they served them beneath a bed of mungbean noodles. eating my way through the dish, i soon realised why. the sweetness of the scallops and the abalone were complemented nicely by the savouriness of the garlic oil, but as the garlic oil dribbled its way through the bed of mungbean noodles into the shellfish, the transparency of the noodles took on the full flavour of the garlic oil and chives, and it brought the noodles to a whole different level, not entirely unlike very well made spaghetti aglio e olio.

we returned again the day later for dinner and decided to try a different restaurant. we picked one that had a penchant for serving up everything on paper doillies. it was along the same lines as our lunch the day before and it was just as delicious. we did also order a serve of scallion pancakes, also served on a paper doilly. i interrupted my meal halfway to go out into the street to watch this man perform what looked like surgery on a shark. his customer had ordered a fillet, and the man simply took his cleaver and made a cut round the circumference of the shark, taking care not to cut through the stomach, and voila, pulled off a fillet for his customer while keeping the stomach whole. not often you see the man at the waitrose fish counter do a manouvere like that.

zhuhai isn't glamourous, though i'm sure if one so desired, one could seek out being spoiled rotten at one of the luxury hotels catered for the tourist and expense account dollar, though i'm not sure why you'd want to. my parents and i went to local stores, local cafes and my long suffering parents were even kind enough to come with me to a rather industrial looking part of town in my quest for a poul christiansen le klint reproduction. we met some rather pleasant locals, including the young proprietress of a tea store who charmed us with giving into our many requests for tastings and entertained us with her rather comprehensive knowledge of tea and its various traditions, and a really sweet lady who gave us directions to the aforementioned industrial bit of town. we're planning to return there as a complete chia unit sometime this summer for dad's birthday, and this time round, i'm starving myself for a month before i go.


i love having lunch. especially if its not at my desk at slavedrivers inc. i had been wanting to go to marcus wareing's petrus for a while, but i'm a lazy git and the trek to knightsbridge and battling the inevitable crush of tourists outside harrods contributed to a large amount of inertia. still, it had to be done, and what better day to do it than on bank holiday easter monday when you're allowed to make lunch a long leisurely affair, catch up properly with a friend, and eat fabulous food. embarrassingly, i got lost in the berkeley once i got past the top-hatted doormen but a lovely waitress from petrus rescued me from the marbled lobby and steered me right to my table next to the windows.

soon after being seated, fussed over and plied with sparkling water, two miniscule crucibles were brought filled with tiny toasts and a smooth liquid chickpea homous with topped with a sprinkling of paprika and olive oil. this was soon followed by an amuse bouche in the form of a shot glass filled with a thick creamy mushroom veloute topped with a light cep foam. the shot went down smoothly and was a perfect medium for dunking the crisp garlic breadsticks. not exactly civilised behavour when presented with such elegant food, but it had to be done. the slenderness of breadsticks ensured that there was as proportionate crunch to cream ratio, and it was the type of savoury pre-starter that left you lusting for the stuff to come.

our first course was a poached quail salad. the breast of quail was stuffed with foie gras, sliced and tossed with mushrooms and micro greens in a truffle vinagrette. despite being a crash course in protein, the salad was surprisingly light. on the plate also was a roasted clove of garlic which squeezed easily out of its shell and added a slight nutty sweetness to the salad.

for our mains, we both chose the slow cooked pork belly. the oblong of pork belly had supposedly been braised for 24 hours and was served rested on a bed of confit shallots and lemon. a swipe of black olive tapenade, a crisp sliver of crackling and a splash of jus completed its presentation. the braised pork had been softly cooked and was moist throughout with just a hint of crisp on the surface from having been finished in a pan. i personally thought the topping of capers and the black olive tapanade were a little gratuitous since the pork, potatoes and confit shallots were in a little perfect tasty triune symbiosis, but they did no offensive harm. the sliver of crackling added a lovely crunch and i would have happily eaten a whole bowl of the crushed potatoes on their own. the crushed potatoes had been cooked to a happy point where they toed the fine divide between mush and undone, and were seasoned just so with a sprinking of parsley.

though i was almost reduced to throwing a mini tantrum with our rather charming waiter when told that THE custard tart was not available, i was secretly pleased because it meant i did not have to make the very difficult decision of having to forgo the tarte tatin. while waiting for pudding to arrive, a shotglass layered with a honey and sauternes jelly, vanilla cream and granny smith apple sorbet helped to ease the pain of waiting. the tarte tatin finally arrived with a flourish in a copper pan which was presented before us before being cut into equal halves (NB: i was keeping an eye - i love you L, but pudding is pudding). served with lashings of clotted cream and banana ice-cream topped with a caramelised sliver of banana, it was a lovely way to end the meal. the apples were caramelly and moist and went rather nicely with the pastry base which was comfortingly sticky in the centre but crisp on the base and edges. the ice-cream had just the right hint of banana and wasn't overly banana-ish which might have clashed a little unceremoniously with the apples. clotted cream, as ever, was an unadulterated pleasure which but for the calorific horror that it is, is sadly far too often restricted to cream teas and holidays in cornwall.

having refused coffee due to the fact we were really rather full at this point, a rather large bon-bon trolley was pushed round and we were brought face to face with a seduction of chocolate truffles on tiered trays and hanging baskets. we exercised a rather mature dose of self-control and declined yet again, and the waiter accepted our rejections with grace and packed us a delightful selection of truffles from the tray to go in a dainty black box embossed with a P, for perfection.