Grilled Fish – Laksa Style

Here’s another meal that I threw together from what I had in the freezer. As I keep going on about in my cooking posts, it’s absolutely vital to have a well-stocked freezer. It will get you out of all sorts of quandaries. What you see in the picture below used to be frozen solid in my freezer. Well, except for the laksa paste, which was sitting patiently in my fridge waiting to be used up. The snapper and the various herbs like the lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, ginger and chilli had all been prepared and put away for a lazy day like today. A quick thaw and they were all ready to go. A tip on thawing – take the fish out first and make sure it’s thoroughly thawed, putting the plastic bag of frozen fish in tap water helps a lot. Change the water often and use warm (not hot!) water if you’re in a rush. Make sure the fish is bendy before you start to make sure it’s thawed thoroughly. To thaw out the herbs, you can chuck them in the foil while warming the grill to help speed things along.

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So what results do you get from slathering the fish with spice paste, stuffing every crevice with herbs and then grilling it? First, a wonderfully aromatic kitchen. Then for dinner, slightly charred and deliciously tender fish. You don’t have to use laksa paste, or any paste at all. Use what you have, maybe Thai green curry paste, or chicken rice paste or just minced garlic or mince ginger. Or plain herbs without any paste. It’s all good.

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Serve it up with rice and fried greens and it makes for a wholesome and delicious dinner. Here, I used barley for something with a bit more bite and interest. (To cook barley, cover half a cup of the grain with about 2cm depth of water in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Let it simmer till the water’s pretty much all absorbed, then turn off and cover till the fish is ready.) Sorry for the messed up fish because I was too eager and mushed it up a bit. I also undercooked it slightly and had to return the undercooked bits to the grill for a while more. Don’t worry, I make mistakes so you can benefit from them!

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Here’s the recipe, improvise as you like!

Ingredients:

1 small red snapper
2 tbsp laksa paste
2 stalks lemongrass, sliced
8 kaffir lime leaves, ribs removed
5 slices galangal
5 slices ginger
1 red chilli, sliced
2 calamansi limes, halved
olive oil

Method:

  1. Heat the grill and line an oven pan with aluminium foil.
  2. Clean the fish and check that the scales have been thoroughly removed and that the guts are washed clean.
  3. Using a sharp knife, make 4 or 5 slits across the fish, perpendicular to backbone.
  4. Slather the slits and the stomach cavity with laksa paste, then stuff each slit with one kaffir lime leaf and one slice of lemongrass.
  5. Stuff the stomach cavity so that it is full the kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal, ginger and chilli.
  6. Strew the remaining herbs on the aluminium foil and sit the fish on top.
  7. Grill for 10-15 minutes on each side, turning when the skin turns brown and starts to blister and then fins char. About 10 minutes for a 1-person fish and 15 minutes for a 2-person fish.
  8. Serve with a squeeze of lime and a drizzle of olive oil.

Serves 2.

Lombok: A Great Stay at Villa Sayang

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DC and I needed a break and we decided to really not do much at all to recuperate from all the craziness of the year. Lombok was a-calling. There wasn’t a huge lot to do there aside from hardcore mountain climbing and casual snorkelling or scuba diving and, more crucially, there were still air tickets available at short notice.

DC booked Villa Sayang at Mataram, the main town on Lombok. We made it our base out of which to explore the island and what a lovely stay it was! It was set among the padi fields at the base of Mount Rinjani and we had this lovely view from the restaurant every morning.

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There was plenty of greenery. Every morning we saw birds, like this sunbird, flitting about the trees. There were also plenty of butterflies flitting about in the trees. It was such a serene setting for breakfast.

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Until the resident cat turned up and tried to order us to give us food with its commanding stare.

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Breakfast was excellent, either a generous buffet spread when there were enough guests at the Villa or a la carte courses starting with fresh fruit…

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… followed by toast and jam, and then yummy mains such as the fantastic fried noodles a la Villa Sayang. They had a fresh vegetable garden and included lots of their fresh in-house produce in their food.

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The room was really lovely too, with plenty of space and a little gazebo-porch lounge area outside. The bathroom was such a highlight: it was divided into two, with a spectacular outdoor shower set in a granite (or was it limestone?) wall.

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Inside, there was a low bathtub and a lovely aquarium full of fish to entertain us in times of, ahem, boredom.

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We went out in the day and came back in the evenings, sometimes eating in. They were very obliging and even served us dinner in the lounge area outside our villa. They had some delightful dishes such as the fish palumera, a soupy stew with plenty of ginger, local herbs and Thai basil.

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One of the evenings, we had a delightful nasi tumpeng, compliments of the Villa. It was a very yummy combination of rice in a cone shape, representing Mount Rinjani, and plenty of dishes to go with the rice. We had fish satay – served on sticks, the fragrant herbal fish mixture was grilled to perfection; curry chicken, begedil – heavenly fried potato croquettes; spicy beef rendang; egg omelette; fried keropok – prawn crackers; dry-fried sweet-sour tempeh – absolutely lovely with sweet kicap manis, sour assam and crispy, unbelievably good tempeh; and stir-fried vegetables.

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On our final night, we had yet another evening of good food, with specialities like urap urap – a salad dish of blanched vegetables accompanied by a spicy coconut dressing, kangkung pelecing – more about that in a later post, more fish palumera, more beef rendang and yummy fried chicken.

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What made our stay extra special was the personal touch of Ibu Rosa, the lady boss of Villa Sayang. She was amazing at making arrangements for us, from getting us a rental car, to sending us to various really yummy restaurants in town (notwithstanding them being competitors to her in-house restaurant), and getting hold of our crazy shopping items. We went home with 10kg of Lombok mangoes and 5 kg of their signature belacan – again, more of that in a later post.

Villa Sayang was a lovely place to stay, a great place to eat and had such lovely people, we’d not hesitate to go back.

Villa Sayang
Jalan Sonokeling
Lingsar, West Lombok
West Nusa Teggara 83371
Indonesia
Tel: +62-370-6609022
Email: info@villasayang-lombok.com

Quick Eats: Tekka Market

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I like going to Tekka Market. Both the market and the hawker sections have such great stalls. The market side always has stuff open all the way into the afternoon on Sundays, making it ideal to catch some fantastic lunch and then buy groceries for dinner. The vegetable stalls have such a variety of ingredients that each time I go I find something I haven’t seen before. It’s a great place to get ingredients for Vietnamese or Thai food. It’s so easy to find Thai basil and other herby leaves here.

Now the hawker side is chock-full of nasi briyani stalls. Yakader is the place I go to. This was the place I had my briyani epiphany. Before this, I never understood why one would cook nuts and raisins with savoury rice. The nuts would just be soft and the raisins pulpy and sweet, which I don’t fancy in savoury food. It all became clear when I had my first spoonful of their rice. The cashews, though not crunchy, gave a lovely fragrance to the rice, and the not-too-sweet raisin gave it extra interest and texture. Now let’s get on to the mutton. It is amazing how tender this stuff is. At first, it seemed deceptively unyielding to the fork, but once a morsel was hacked off, it fairly melted in the mouth. Spiced just right, this stuff is briyani heaven.

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DC spotted some sup tulang at Hanifa’s nearby and ordered some mutton bone soup. It was very peppery and quite nice to gnaw at. I’m not super keen on chewy tendon (I like mine soft and melting), but the soup was nicely flavoured, though a bit of a shock to the system with the amount of pepper in it. It was so good that the family at the next table asked us where we got it and happily slurped up their order. I’d go back to try the mutton and tongue next time.

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Hanifa’s
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July in Vietnam: A Day in Hanoi

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Hanoi on its own was fairly charming. Near the Old Town is the famous Hoan Kiem Lake and a rundown little pagoda, Thap Rua, sits on a tiny islet close to the far side of the lake.

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On the other side stood a Chinese temple, Ngoc Son Temple,  that could be reached on foot over a bridge. While fairly pretty, it seemed very generic to me, far too much like the Chinese temples at home in Singapore.

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Inside, I was fascinated by some ornamental statues, like this rather spaced out looking phoenix.

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I thought it was pretty cool and almost cartoon-like. What do you think?

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I wandered the streets till I found an appetising looking place, striking gold when I stumbled across this stall selling spicy pork noodles. It came with a whole host of different pig parts, from mystery sausages and pork balls to intestines, tendons and other unidentifiable parts. I was very pleased to findwhat I later discovered to be the de rigueur pile of herbs and vegetables that I liberally added to my noodle soup.

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Needless to say, it was wonderful and I had to get a picture to commemorate the occasion of Enjoying Good Food.

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And I was off to wander round the Old Town, but not before gawking at this rather odd Communist sculpture, the Martyr’s Monument. I suppose it’s saying that technology is the best (from man holding plug in centre), if not guns are good too (man at side), failing which the women would wipe everyone out with swords. I’m still puzzling over the gender implications of this. If anyone could translate the words at the base of the statue I’d be grateful!

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The Old Town consists of a warren of streets, each having its own specialty product. There’s a street of nothing but stainless steel kitchen fittings, another of mirrors, a third of traditional herbs and medicine, yet another of lanterns, and a mind-boggling array of others.

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I was a little wary of the watchful eyes on me and didn’t get any good pictures of each street. A pity. However, the sight of these two trees being trucked to goodness knows where was a surprise find. It drew the eyes of everyone on the street, including motorcyclists peering round to check that they weren’t about to topple.

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And then there was the St Joseph cathedral. It’s a bit surprising to find a lovely cathedral in the middle of Communist Hanoi, but there it was! I thought the Gothic structure was pretty cool…

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… as were the sober grey granite walls on the side.

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Inside, the breathtaking view from the nave.

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It’s wonderful how they managed to get the stained glass so beautifully done I almost felt like I was somewhere in Europe.

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After all that wandering in the almost unbearably humid weather, I needed a good dinner. This came in the form of Cha Ca La Vong, labelled grilled fish on the menu, but really fish fried in turmeric oil together with local vegetables over a charcoal brazier. It was delicious and also very oily.

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There wasn’t a great deal to see in Hanoi but it was a good introduction to the rest of the country. Next stop, Ha Long Bay.

June in Thailand: The Stir-Fry Fireball and Other Cooking Adventures

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The highlight of Chiang Mai was something I hadn’t planned: cooking classes. I was intrigued by the large number of courses on offer at the various guesthouses. Cooking classes seemed as popular as day treks to the hilltribe villages. Tom and I decided that we just had to go for one. We chose The Best Thai Cookery School, run by the inimitable Permpoon “call me Perm” Nabnian, not just because of the price but also because of the almost shameless self-promotion on the brochure.

The morning started off from the back of his pickup truck, a nicely converted vehicle with fairly comfy seats at the back. He picked us all up personally, squeezed us all in the truck, and took us on a tour of a little local market. Here, he took us through the entire encyclopedia of Thai vegetables and herbs. Being Southeast Asian, I thought I’d be familiar with all he’d show us, but I was surprised when he showed us another version of ginger I didn’t know. Of course there was the regular ginger, there was blue ginger (galangal) and yellow ginger (turmeric). But there was also something called lesser or finger ginger, which he’s holding up on the left hand side of the picture. I also learned that Thai basil and holy basil were different plants, both also quite different from the sweet basil used in Mediterranean cooking.

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Aside from that, it was lovely to see the great variety of herbs and vegetables available in the Thai market. Seeing the cute rotund green brinjals made me want to set up kitchen there straight away. Along the way, Perm dispensed little tips like don’t be crazy like the Westerners and go for the largest eggs: buy only small eggs because they’re much tastier.

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And the mushrooms! I don’t know why, but fresh straw mushrooms just aren’t available in Singapore. I love this stuff in soup, especially tom yam. It really is just too bad that so far I’ve only found this good stuff in Thailand and China.

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Whirl round market over, we bundled back into the pickup and went to his house in the suburbs for the cooking lessons proper. First, we learned how to make mango sticky rice. I was surprised that it was made by steaming instead of the typical boiling my Chinese heritage is familiar with. I’ll share the recipe once I get round to making it at home.

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After a round of demonstrations, we were all obviously itching to go. We weren’t issued the aprons and dish cloths for nothing! We’d each chosen a stir-fry dish: I wanted the minced pork fried with holy basil and Tom went for the fried morning glory. The ingredients were all prepared for us and all we needed to do was a bit of minor chopping.

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After getting the food prep out of the way, we were ready for the most exciting part of the course! We took turns with our partners to do our respective dishes, for safety and also to make sure that there was a photographer to document the momentous occasion. First, we got our ingredients ready and stood by the hot woks. Perm came round adding the oil and checking our work stations.

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At his signal, it was time! With a great roar, the flames leapt up together with lots of smoke and exclamations from the more timid of the lot.

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It’s just too bad that the pictures didn’t really do it justice because the flames really went pretty high.

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They only truly died down when I added in the sauce ingredients.

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And there was my minced pork with holy basil replete with plenty of wok hei. Now this is how you do it!

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Next, Perm taught us how to make papaya salad (which I’d already learned by observing the people at the street stand in Laos!) and deep fried banana spring rolls.

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The fun tip I learned here was to use a cut up banana like a glue stick to seal the spring roll wrappers. In my greed, I later forgot to take pictures of them, so no you can’t see the finished product. However, what you can see is me grinning maniacally while making my spring roll.

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We proceeded on to making our own curries and carb dish. I made jungle curry and khao tom. Didn’t quite like the jungle curry but loved the khao tom. And I realise now that khao tom is all about the right kind of soy sauce and also the sprinkling of chinese parsley on top. Tom made a very yummy massaman curry and pad thai. Look at his pleased expression cooking it up! He had rather a short-lived (5 minutes to be exact) of going back to Wales to set up a Thai restaurant.

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As a bonus, Perm also very generously taught Tom and me to make coconut and banana soup. It’s pretty much the same as the soup we make further south in Malaysia and Singapore, just that I think our version is slightly better because we use the more fragrant gula melaka rather than white sugar. Nonetheless, we assembled all our cooking out in the patio and shared the food. It was all very very good, especially since many of my classmates were cooking for the first time. Just goes to show how good Perm is!

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Of course I had to have a parting shot with the chef himself. He was industriously preparing for the evening class already and I had to catch him at the back before he drove us back to town!

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June in Thailand: Elephants and Other Modes of Transport

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It was our last day in Ayutthaya and I went wandering the streets on my own while Tom recuperated from the heat. Along a shady area between wats, I found a little food stand and sat down to a simplet yet fabulous lunch of braised chicken with preserved salted vegetables, lots of herbs and incredible chilli sauce. Of course, all the ordering was done in sign language and it helped that I peeked at what other people were having before sitting down. There is nothing like street food for tasting what the locals eat and nothing like street food to have the true taste of a country.

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I wandered past the temples again, this time slowing down to take in the views.

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Outside one of the bigger temples, I spied a group of elephants from afar. The getup of the elephants was supremely touristy but somehow apt and nicely atmospheric for this city.

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The elephants looked so grand in their brocade and tassels.

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The mahouts perched on the elephants’ heads wore matching red costumes.

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And the tourists (Japanese?) posed cheerfully for my shots.

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They formed a very grand retinue, such a lovely sight all together.

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Soon, they ambled off as a group and it was time for me to go. I approached a nearby motorcycle-taxi driver, negotiated my price, and off I went back to the guest house to meet Tom and get to our next destination.

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Mid-Week Herb Pasta

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As always, I hoped to finish up some things languishing in the fridge. I had two sad lemons and some fairly fresh coriander waiting around. A quick trip to the supermarket got me basil instead of the flat-leaf parsley I was hoping for, but rooting around in the freezer got me some butter and chopped shallots. I meant to have some kind of meat with this but was too tired to sort that out, so it was just chopped herbs and butter in this simple clean-tasting pasta. I’m sure this would go amazingly with some grilled fish, although DC thinks it’ll be phenomenal with lamb rack. We’ll just have to try both out before deciding!

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Ingredients:
linguine
1 generous knob butter
2 tbsp chopped shallots
good splash of dry vermouth, sherry or white wine
1 pack basil leaves, finely chopped
1 pack coriander leaves, finely chopped
zest of 1 lemon

Method:

  1. Boil the linguine in plenty of salted water till just approaching al dente.
  2. In a hot pan, melt the butter then gently saute the onions till slightly coloured.
  3. Add the vermouth, turn up the heat and bubble till reduced by half.
  4. Toss in the pasta, chopped herbs and lemon zest. Stir over low heat. If the pasta is not yet al dente, add a little of the water used to boil the pasta and stir till ready.
  5. Check seasoning and serve garnished with a lemon wedge and a sprig of basil.

Serves 2.

March in Laos: Eating in Luang Prabang

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Laos in general and Luang Prabang in particular had lots of great food. Siamesecat and I started off one misty morning with a glass of thick, sweet and strong coffee chased down with a glass of steaming hot tea. Sitting on a wooden bench watching the morning bustle while sipping hot robust coffee was one of those subliminal moments of the trip.

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After having our caffeine and sugar fix, we table hopped to the next stall and tucked into the typical breakfast of foe (yup, almost exactly like Vietnamese pho). I don’t know how they make it so tasty, but thin flat rice noodles with hot broth, topped with herbs and raw vegetables to your preference hit the spot for me every day.   This morning the noodles came with pork strips and tomato. I could have noodles three times a day and not get sick of it. The trick was to experiment with the toppings provided at the table. They typically have salt, sugar, msg and chilli powder but there’s normally lime, basil, coriander, mint, sweet chilli sauce, various types of belachan (fermented shrimp paste) and fish sauce. I especially liked trying out the pongy variations of belachan at the different places.

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Foe is normally served in really small portions, which was fine with us because it gave us all the more reason to snack along the street. Here I’m stuffing my face yet again at a barbecue stand selling grilled animal parts like spicy minced pork patties, water buffalo jerky and belly pork. It was all mmm good.

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For lunch, we again had noodles, the one here a beef version with popped rice cracker-cakes on the side. If you look carefully you’ll spot the two small tubs of belachan on the table. One was the typical shrimp one and the other made of tiny river crabs. We noticed a lot of Lao people take a chilli padi, dip it in belachan, take a chomp and double dip it while waiting for their noodles. I guess the heat from the chilli kills the germs.

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Heavily fortified by all this food, Siamesecat and I proceeded to wander the streets. It was evening when we came across this vampire-phobic cat lying on a bed of garlic. It was obviously bed time.

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It looked incredibly satisfied at the end of that yawn!

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As the sun began to set, Siamesecat and I decided that we really should have something quite special. While we both loved noodles and never got tired of them, we had to try the slightly fancier food too.

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We found a restaurant along the Mekong and enjoyed the view while waiting for our food.

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This place served mainly set menus catering to tourists. We figured that it was as good as any other. Not having any locals to take us to truly authentic places, at least this would allow us to try a bit of everything.

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The set dinner started with watercress salad, a fresh minty salad with sharp watercress and other herbs dressed in a type of mayonnaise. Then it progressed to dried pork sausage with very spicy buffalo skin dip. The pork sausage was like a slightly less fatty salami with lovely smoked overtones while the dip had strips of rather tough buffalo hide bound by a fiery chilli paste. Crispy sheets of dried riverweed with sesame seeds helped to balance out the fire but the extremely spicy beef stew didn’t help things out.

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Siamesecat and I then hit the night market for incredibly cheap buys like a beautiful silk and cotton mix pair of fisherman pants for about USD2.50. There were pretty handicrafts and all sorts of ethnic and hill tribe knick knacks on sale. Apparently a lot of these items were brought over the border to Thailand for sale in their own tourist markets.

I stopped to buy something that couldn’t be exported easily to Thai tourist markets: more food. Supper that night was baguette filled with ping kai (barbecued chicken) and lettuce. It was up to me to choose my sauces again. This time it was at least three kinds of chilli sauce, two of which had some kind of fermented seafood incorporated within, and two types of soya sauce. Amazing.

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Poor Woman’s Bolognaise

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This is a rather cheap and comforting dish that freezes very well. It’s great to defrost one of these for a quick pasta dinner when really busy. I normally make a huge batch of this and freeze them in little baggies. The ingredients aren’t expensive at all, especially if you use frozen beef. Not being a fan of mystery meat, I skipped the beef mince and bought frozen beef cubes which I then minced with my food processor.

Please note that this is hardly authentic at all. I doubt it’s anywhere close to what an Italian mama would make and I make no apologies for it. I like this recipe and I’m sharing it. A warning to carnivores: it’s not very meaty because it’s bulked up by the onion, carrot and celery. To me, it’s a good thing because I don’t have to worry about including veggies, though I normally do if I’m not pressed for time. If you’re in for a meat fest, easy! Just add more meat. Cooking is that simple. Uh huh.

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Ingredients:
1 head garlic
4 large onions
3 large carrots
5 sticks celery
2 tbsp oil
2 punnets button mushrooms, quartered
500 g minced beef
2 tbsp dried oregano or mixed herbs
1 tsp cinnamon powder
2 tsp chilli flakes
2 tsp ground black pepper
2 bay leaves
½ cup red/white wine
2 cans stewed tomatoes, chopped

macaroni
cheese

Method:

  1. Peel and chop the garlic, onions, carrots and celery into tiny bits. For goodness sake, please use a food processor of some sort. I salute you if you manage to chop it all by hand.
  2. In a large pot, sweat the onions and garlic in the oil, followed by the carrot and celery. Don’t let any of it brown. Stir in the mushrooms.
  3. Turn up the heat and add the beef, stirring till coloured.
  4. Now add the herbs and spices, followed by the wine.
  5. Allow to bubble before adding the chopped tomatoes.
  6. Turn down the flame and simmer on low for one hour. Alternatively, put it in a slow cooker or thermopot for a couple of hours.
  7. To freeze, allow to cool and then pack into plastic baggies.
  8. To eat, cook macaroni till al dente, toss it in the pasta and season to taste.
  9. Top with cheese and then put under a grill to allow the cheese to melt.

Makes about 10 servings.

Southeast Asian-Style Coca Cola Chicken Noodle Soup

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This is a rather odd-sounding recipe. It’s inspired to some point by the famous Kai Tun Coke in Chiang Mai (even though I haven’t tried the McCoy yet) and from eating my way around Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. I know that most people don’t have a leftover Coke problem when they have guests over, but I do. This recipe used up my leftovers beautifully.

First, simmer the chicken in an infusion of coke, fish sauce and whatever herbs and spices you like. My recipe is a broad indication, use as many or as few of them as you like. Similarly for my soup toppings: I adore the Viet idea of having a whole herb garden to accompany each meal. Diners would then pick and choose from the basket whatever they liked and added the herbs and vegetables according to preference. I tried to replicate some of it here, so please don’t feel like you have to run out to buy every single topping/garnish. If you just want it in its most bare bones form,  try it with just mint, onion and lime.

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Ingredients:
500 ml coke
4 tbsp fish sauce
1 stalk lemongrass, sliced
1 tsp black peppercorns
2 star anise
4 cloves
2 cardamom pods
1 chicken

kway teow noodles
romaine lettuce
onion, sliced thinly
mint leaves
lime wedges

Optional:

cucumber, cored and cut into matchsticks
long bean, cut into short lengths
beansprouts
red chilli, sliced

coriander leaves
thai holy basil
spring onion

Method:

  1. Combine the coke, fish sauce and herbs in a pot and lower in the chicken, breast-side up. The breast should just about be covered by the liquid.
  2. On low heat, bring to a gentle simmer, cover and cook for 20 minutes.
  3. Allow to cool in its own liquid.
  4. Lift out the chicken carefully and divide into portions ready for serving. Reserve the cooking liquid.

To serve:

  1. Dilute the cooking liquid in an equal amount of water. Bring to a boil and season with fish sauce to taste.
  2. Add the noodles and lettuce. Bring back to the boil.
  3. Divide into bowls, top with the chicken and serve. Diners will add their own garnish according to taste.