Thursday, 20 June 2013

The night we invaded Yum Bun's kitchen

So I mentioned in the last post that I'll give a little update on some of the lovely edible distractions in my life. I only got round to writing about one, but perhaps one will do because I think it deserves a whole post on its own. It was a mad mad night, 31 May, in fact it was a mad mad month leading up to it.

We invaded Yum Bun's kitchen that night, armed with pots and posters and party lights. For those not living in London, or for those living in London but under a rock, Yum Bun is one of the rockstars on London's street food scene. They've recently got a permanent shop in Old Street, right at the super trendy Rotary Bar, so this is us entering hipster foodie land.

We've done buns before for plusixfive supperclubs, and my mum's pork belly bun in particular, is a recipe I just can't bring myself to post on this blog because I'm sure she's going to get rich and famous for it one day. A traditional Asian home/ street snack, kong bak pau is a soft white fluffy steamed bun shaped like a clam (called gua bao), in which a slab of triple-cooked pork belly is sandwiched, along with some crisp fresh lettuce. Yum Bun does some wonderfully creative takes on this classic with slow-roasted belly pork, karaage chicken, sticky salmon etc. We decided it's time to bring more bun love to London and throw something entirely different onto the table at that. Because I'm young and crazy and believe I can conquer the world, I sent an overexcited email to Lisa (Yum Bun) and turned up at their shop with a small batch of rendang to bribe them. And hurrah, it happened.

Well, it wasn't actually that easy. I really wanted this pop-up to be successful so we even held bun tasting sessions (thanks J, Ed Wen and Wen's entire family for the really hard work, er tasting buns that night). Think rows and rows of herbs, salads, toasted peanuts/ coconut, fried shallots/ garlic, even crushed kueh pie tee shells. In the end, we came up with the ox cheeky rendang bun, ox cheek slow-braised in coconut and heck load of spices; and the "I-can't-believe-it's veg" popiah bun, braised turnips and mushrooms topped with a fiery sweet lime chilli. And then there were all the posters and crazy tweeting and retweeting.

The day before was simply mad. I thought I was all done with my prep, ready to go for a job interview and a dinner party; but a sudden flurry of ticket sales because of some last minute features on a couple of popular London lifestyle sites meant a grocery run between the two events, turning up at the party carrying See Woo bags (best dressed award, definitely), and returning home at midnight, half-drunk, to cook up a second batch. The day itself, was even more mad. If you had one or three or maybe even six of the 500 ++ buns we sold that night, thank you so much for the support. And big thanks and love to the team that night especially, Jason my co-chef/ fellow plotter, Wen the beer lady/door bitch/ cash machine, Javier our saviour (thanks for being there on such short notice), and the fabulous Lisa and her yummy team and shocking (terrible) playlist.

Yes, one giant distraction over, but a lot more up my sleeve I hope. I finally finish with Central Saint Martins; last night was the opening night of my degree show. I'm excited and relieved and scared all at once that I'm graduating, but hopefully more exciting things come my way, edible or not. SOMEONE HIRE ME.

For more,
See more photos of the night on my instagram. And a few other people's.

Recipes for the night (adaptions to suit buns but pretty similar):
Ox cheek rendang
Soon kueh

Photo credits to the brilliant Ming.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Otak Otak, Barbecued 'Fish Brains'

The sun is shining and I haven't seen a grey cloud for a week (touch wood). It hardly feels like London anymore. I  really do need to get my ass off the couch and start preparing for my degree show, but life's been full of lovely distractions lately. I'll dedicate a proper post to all these distractions (a little sneak peek about that here) but right now, the sun in itself is a pretty lovely distraction.

I know that's one paragraph just on the sun, but when you stay in a place that's almost perpetually grey and/or cold and/or wet, the sun is a big thing. In London, when the sun is out during the week, you find a spare moment to sneak away from work and throw yourself, half-naked, on any patch of green you can find. When the sun is out on a weekend, you find yourself a group of hungry friends and get a barbecue going.

There's already been a handful so far (see asparagus and chicken skin yakitori), and the last one, was a wonderful seafood-based one. It was a very hungry group so I pretty much cleared out all the fish lady's catch of gorgeous new season mackerels. My favourite way with really fresh mackerel, is nothing more than just a good sprinkling of sea salt and a sizzling hot grill– yum. If you do want to get a bit more adventurous with your mackerels (or just bought too many), you can try making otak otak.

Otak, or otah as is called in Singapore, literally means brains in Malay. Thankfully though, this just describes the soft, mousse-like texture of the spicy fish paste and has nothing to do with grey matter. (Though I do enjoy eating grey matter, #asian.) Otak otak takes quite a bit of effort; scraping the flesh off the mackerel fillets, peeling all the shallots, pounding and frying the rempah spice paste, and then carefully wrapping the fish paste with banana leaves to form parcels, before finally grilling over hot coals. But the fragrant, charred results are often delicious enough to bribe your friends into helping you anyway, and it keeps them occupied while you get the rest of the food going.

Makes 15-20

20 (8" x 5") rectangles of banana leaves

Rempah (spice paste)
500g shallots
8 large dried red chillies, soaked for 30 min
4 candlenuts (can replace with macadamias)
1 tbsp belachan, dry-toasted first
2 tbsp ground coriander
1 tbsp turmeric
2 tbsp unrefined sugar
1/2 tsp sea salt (adjust if needed)
3 tbsp groundnut oil or coconut oil

800g mackerel fillets
4 free range eggs
200ml thick coconut milk
4 kaffir lime leaves
1 tbsp tapioca flour or cornstarch

For the rempah
1. To make the rempah, pound the shallots, chillies, candlenuts, belachan and spices till you get a smooth-ish paste. You can also use a blender, it's less ideal but I won't judge.
2. Heat the oil in a wok and fry the rempah over medium heat. Be patient and slowly fry it, stirring often; you want the paste to be dry and the flavours to intensify. Add the sugar and salt, tasting and adjusting if necessary.
3. Remove the wok from the heat when the oil separates and the rempah smells amazing, about 30 minutes. Set aside to cool.

For the rest of the filling
4. Scrape the flesh off the mackerel fillets, being extra careful to leave behind the bones and skin (You don't want anyone to choke and die/ sue). Finely mince the flesh either with a knife and strong biceps, or a food processor, until a smooth paste is formed.
5. Beat the eggs and coconut milk in a bowl until well-combined. Add the fish paste, finely chopped kaffir lime leaves, tapioca flour and rempah and mix well. The consistency of the mixture should be like (american) pancake batter.

To assemble and grill
6. Soak the banana leaves in hot water for 5 minutes until soft. Drain and wipe dry with a paper towel. Place a leaf on a clean work surface, positioning it such that its veins run vertically, so it's easier to fold.
7. Scoop 2 to 3 tbsp of the filling onto the middle of the leaf and spread evenly so that it forms a rectangular strip about 1/2 cm thick. Fold one side of the leaf over the filling, covering it fully, followed by the opposite side, then secure the ends with toothpicks, to get a long thin parcel.
8. Grill over a hot barbecue, with the folds facing up as the filling may expand and burst open (especially if you have been greedy). Grill for about 10-15 minutes, flipping once, or until you smell burnt banana leaves. If it's shitty weather, you can do this in the oven too, on the grill setting at the highest temperature your oven can go.

Oh, I think in certain parts of Malaysia, they do their otah by simply steaming the fish paste in a whole tray, and I'm sure it's delicious too, but you miss the wonderful fragrance of burnt banana leaves and the drama of picking apart your own little parcel to reveal a golden orange fishcake, all soft and delicate, and wonderfully sweet and salty and fragrant with spices. I should write more but the sun is shining outside, so I'll just end here.

Other recipes for the barbie:

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Going hungry (The Big IF)

I love food (I think everyone probably knows by now). I love the chemistry between ingredients, the magic that happens in the pan, the happiness you get on a plate. I fuss over my food, how they look, how they taste.  I get excited about cucumbers, hunt for wild garlic and turn my nose up at tomatoes in winter.

I've never really given the whole idea of hunger a proper think. I have always had food, mostly good, and often too much. There are probably a handful of occasions when I forgot my lunch money in primary school, but I only really stayed hungry for a few hours before I was back home and slurping down a big bowl of Mum's pimped-up noodle soup. As a college student, I don't earn enough from my part-time/ freelance gigs to always eat at the fanciest places, but I've never had a bad meal thanks to foodie friends and my okay skills in the kitchen. I blush now as I remember how I  complained about having to eat sandwiches al desko. I am such a lucky bastard. 

A few days ago, I went for an event to raise awareness for Save The Children. It was a gathering of food bloggers and we had a lovely dinner prepared by the River Cafe head chef Danny. Funny though, because the one dish that made the most impact on me was the spoon of ugali we were all made to eat at the start. It was the most bland, flavourless, textureless, colourless thing I have ever eaten- not offensive, but not pleasant nonetheless. But three spoons of the mush that I hurriedly swallowed would have been dinner for a small family in Ethiopia. I felt very small at that moment.

I'm not asking anybody to pull out your credit card or empty your pockets of loose change. I think what the Save The Children people really need right now, is just for enough people to create a big enough noise to get the world leaders at the upcoming G8 summit to listen up and tackle hunger. I don't know how much of a noise I can create with my little blog but I'm giving a shout anyway. You can tweet (#IF) facebook, stamp your feet, whatever. The Big IF event is happening at Hyde Park this Saturday 8 June.

I know I'm just a tiny peanut so here's a very hot David Beckham asking you to do the same: