Monday, 13 October 2014

Kohlrabi Som Tum and a rant on 'Authenticity'


Last Saturday was the day of the The Last BBQ.

The day started the way you would expect a British barbecue to– with grey skies, wind and rain. Thankfully, the skies cleared a couple of hours before the event and we were kept more than warm indoors chopping and frying by the busy stoves. I had not drunk a single drop of alcohol the night before (even though it was a Friday night and my birthday- how's that for self control), so we set about slicing and shredding and chopping kilos of fruit and vegetables right after a few gulps of coffee/ tea. Funnily Sean had about every single wok, pot, pan, and obscure ingredient you could think of in his kitchen– but no food processor. So it was back to a mortar and pestle and a sharp knife, good ol' Asian chef way. Miraculously we got everything done bang on time, and even got the dreaded coconut custard (for 50 people!) to set. 

And everything went wonderfully. 'Wonderful' included the biting chill outside, the grill that wouldn't heat up, the policemen who came because of noise complaints (but who went off happily gnawing on sticky charred ribs), and the homemade bench that collapsed on one end. It was weird but I didn't feel frazzled at all. The pace was quick, no doubt– one moment I could be flipping corn and brushing them with Thai basil butter, and the next crushing peanuts over platters of kohlrabi som tum– but I remember feeling a sense of thrill rather than nervousness. We were feeding people out of a makeshift back alley kitchen and they were digging in messily with their hands, and for a moment it felt like I was back on the streets of Bangkok again, but this time as a hawker.


I didn't get the chance to grab photos once the doors opened to let the hungry crowd in.
From the menu-testing night: friends enjoying food and getting their hands dirty.

That's the main reason I loved the night. I loved that there was nothing pretentious about it– no fancy plates, nor, on the other hand, claims of "100% authentic" fare. The goal was to put together food that people would enjoy eating, and that we would enjoy cooking. We pulled together flavours from home, and just had fun matching them with ingredients we could get here.

A lot of times 'authenticity' becomes a sort of benchmark or judgment criteria for ethnic food, so I sometimes get flak for using British produce when I'm doing something Singaporean. People seem to seek out that exact same dish they had in their hometown/ on their holiday to Asia. If I mess around with a recipe it seems I'm trying too hard or just am not very good. Just to clear things up, I'm never of the romantic notion that my food will be fully local (I will die without fish sauce), nor am I hoping to go down the route of the modern fusion chef. But it does makes a lot more sense to cook with what's fresh and available here rather than something flown all the way from another continent at thrice the price and a fraction the quality. I don’t know if this makes the dish unauthentic, but to me, there is nothing more real and Asian than making do with the best ingredients you can get hold of near you. Plus– loosen up!– cooking should be fun.
And with that rant bit out of the way, here's the recipe for the kohlrabi som tum. Som tum is a signature Thai salad, normally made with shredded green papaya. 

KOHLRABI SOM TUM
Ingredients
serves 2-4
2 medium kohlrabis
2 cloves garlic
4-6 red bird's eye chillies 
2 tbsp dried shrimps
8 sweet ripe cherry tomatoes, halved
3 tbsp fish sauce
3 tbsp unrefined light palm sugar (or unrefined light brown cane sugar)
1 to 2 limes
handful of coriander, roughly torn
handful toasted peanuts

Note all measurements are largely guesstimations. Your fish sauce could be saltier, and your limes juicier. Taste and adjust along the way like a good Asian cook.

You can also add chopped green beans to the mix, as is traditional. We just missed summer i.e. fresh bean season. 

Method
1. Peel and shred the kohlrabi into long fine shreds on a mandolin.
2. Add the garlic to a mortar and smash with the pestle. Follow with the chillies, and dried shrimps, crushing them to release their flavours. Add half the cherry tomatoes, and pound lightly so they release their juices.
3. Add the seasonings- the fish sauce, palm sugar, lime juice. Sort of grind it against the sides of the bowl. Keep tasting and adjust. You can do this in advance, but don't make the actual salad until you are ready to serve, or the vegetables and nuts will go soggy.
4. Finally, toss the shredded kohlrabi, rest of the tomatoes, coriander and toasted peanuts in the dressing. You can add this straight to the mortar but if it's not big enough (especially in the case for 50 people), you can combine them separately in a large bowl. Finish by crushing some peanuts over to serve.

If making this without a mortar and pestle, you can make the dressing by finely chopping the garlic and chillies, lightly bruising the dried shrimp, and squeezing the tomatoes, before combining all with the lime juice, fish sauce and sugar. 

Kohlrabi is a fantastic local substitute for green papaya. It's crisp when raw, with a clean mild sweetness that's very refreshing with the dressing– a powerful combination of sweet, sour, salty, spicy and pungent. Finished off with coriander for floral freshness, and crushed roasted peanuts for a fragrant crunch, this salad is pretty much a perfect balance of flavours and textures.





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Essential Southeast Asian herbs and things


Before I end off, multiple high-fives to: my ace co-chef Sean; our front-of-house, the ever-professional restaurant manager Tulisa; and the banging tunes from Ed and his band). 

And a big thank you to Wholegood for supplying the fruit and vegetables. They've been working with organic producers for years, supplying many top restaurants and retailers, and have only recently launched into veg boxes. A lot of the produce going into these boxes are the same one going out to the shops- top stuff. I'm really happy to be working with them.

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Recipes and related reads:
Announcement for The Last BBQ – menu and a little peek into our menu testing fun
Foraging at Hampstead Heath with Sean and recipes for Foraged wild green pancakes and Any flower syrup
Ayam pang gang – Nyonya grilled chicken, marinated with coconut and spices (recipe for The Sunday Times)
Sweet and spicy tamarind dressing – tossed this time with celeriac, apple and mint
DIY flavoured/ herb butters- great melted over bbq corn, a steak, sourdough toast, or anything roasted toasted or grilled really

Join the mailing list for some exclusive recipes like the dill-spiked nam pal prik, and roast fennel crab and pickled dandelion bud salad.



40 comments:

  1. Now I regret that I didn't get the kohlrabi yesterday when I did grocery! I totally love the add of dried shrimps and the photos are amazing.

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    1. Thanks Angie!! I love kohlrabi- I always get it. You can probably tell from last few posts haha. They work so well in salads!

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  2. The dish looks amazing. I love the vibrant colours in the top photograph. I've never cooked with or eaten kohlrabi before but now I'm thinking I'll have to buy some on my next trip to the market. I completely agree with you, cooking should be fun and using what's available and in season is surely the way to go. Glad the barbecue was a success complete with authentic British weather ;).

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    1. Thanks Caz! iPhone photo at that haha! I didn't have time to grab any proper photos during the event. You will love kohlrabi. It's got a very mild fresh taste that's great with most salads. And hi five, glad to hear you agree. Sometimes the dish changes a lot when you switch an ingredient but in a good way- not the same anymore but still delicious. And most of all it's fun and natural!

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  3. Firstly, birthday blessings! And WOW, 50 people for dinner - that is amazing. I am so with you on using local produce. I only relent when I want to use Parma ham in a dish, as that has to come from Italy :)

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    1. Thank you! It was such a weirdly sane birthday because I kept having to keep in mind that I have to wake up early tomorrow and I cannot go near a fire hungover. And high five! Yes some things just can;t be replaced. Fish sauce like I said- I will die without the stuff.

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  4. First off, you're a star – you happily fed 50 people, that's amazing and will scare the hell out of me.

    On authenticity – I wholeheartedly agree with you. Sometimes, trying less hard and enjoying the creative and convivial process is the key. Plus, one might find unusual yet brilliant flavour combinations just by losing it up and adopting new (local) ingredients.

    Love the sound of this salad and the fact that I can get kohlrabi much easier than green papaya! x

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    1. Wow thanks Valeria. I don't know why i wasn't scared- really helps that Sean and Tulisa were pros. But it was still madness on the day! So much fun though!

      High five! That;s exactly what I was saying! Sometimes the flavours of a dish changes a lot when you swop an ingredient but in a good way- you discover a whole new dish!

      Yes you definitely can get this much easier- probably from work ;) No need to trek to chinatown. Which is the point!

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  5. Awesome! I adore Som Tum but yeah, where will I find a green papaya (in Surbiton!)?! Will DEF try this!

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    1. Thanks Catherine! That was exactly what prompted me to do this with kohlrabi! Good luck!!

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  6. Hooray for food bribes {is there anything better}? I always learn so much from your posts and you're a superstar for feeding so many people well!!

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    1. Thank you! It was madness. Big kudos to Sean though- think he did most of the work HA. Food bribes are the best hehehe.

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  7. I have made "faux" green papaya salad with chayote squash. Works well and is readily available to me. Please lose the "robot" test. Just set things up so that you approve postings. If you choose to reply I will only see it at scrout1944@msn.com

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    1. We don't see chayote squash around here too- it sounds like a wonderful sub too! I know- just not have had much time to do blog admin, sorry yikes! Thanks for dropping by anyhow and will drop you a note later too Stephen x

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  8. Your photos and recipes are honestly food magazine material it's only a matter of time !

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    1. Haha thanks wince.. something might be on its way soon.. shh ! ;)

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  9. I am crazy for kohlrabi (in fact I used to eat tons of it as a child, simply as a snack; I was thrilled to discover it sold on every market in Switzerland too). I love the green papaya salad, but I must say that after an article stating that many fresh products imported from Thailand were thrown out after controls because they contained too much of chemicals or chemicals that are forbidden here... I buy green papaya really rarely.
    I'm thrilled to discover this version and without you I'd never think about good old kohlrabi instead of papaya... I must start considering it as something else than just a snack ;-)
    What a wonderful atmosphere there must have been during the cooking and especially eating process! I see you are still having fun ;-)

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    1. Exactly. I love the stuff. I can eat it raw sliced like less-sweet apples. I use it so much in salads because it has the perfect crunch and fresh texture.
      That's the thing- a lot of produce that's imported are not of good quality, or even if good, lose quality after all that cold storage and travel. The really good ones - organic if you can find- will be really expensive. Probably can buy a whole bag of kohlrabis for an organic green papaya. Hope you enjoy making this! You probably have all the rest of the sauces and ingredients anyway in your larder, knowing you ;)

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  10. This was A-MAZING! The food was so delicious and the atmosphere was so friendly. Maybe it was the band, your amazing food or that it was a pop up event, or all of it! But it was so different from a normal restaurant meal and my friend and I are dying for your next event! :) Congrats to you for such a successful night and I hope we meet again... preferably with some more of your food ;) (I can bring the chocolate!) xx
    And no worries about the bench - we got free beer! :)

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    1. HAZEL! So so wonderful to see you that day! I am so happy to hear you enjoyed! Kudos to the rest of the team that day too- everyone was ace!
      I really want to do something soon again- let's see. And yes chocolate please. You're nuts. That one time I tried making it from cacao fruit to bar, I think the only thing that came out from that was the greater appreciation for chocolatiers. P.S. Paul a young is hiring. Check his twitter. xx

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    2. Yes, thanks! We've been in touch ;) he tried some of my choc and said he'd stock my bars if I get round to making and selling them, which will be wayyy into the future. But very cool! Please keep me updated on your events, I'm craving your super delicious food! Xx

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  11. Damn delicious som tam salad!!!
    worth to try recipe, great job my friend...

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  12. Love the look of this kohlrabi som tum salad! So clever and so authentically contemporary. Sounds like a great/fun BBQ too! Best wishes! :)

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    1. Padaek it really makes me happy to hear you call it authentic- and I love the idea of it being authentic but just contemporary. It was awesome fun! Thank you!

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  13. I rarely buy green papaya but have been recently getting into kohlrabi. This recipe is such a clever use of this much misunderstood vegetable. Lush images, too.

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    1. It's hard to get hold of green papaya here but I use kohlrabi a lot because its much more accessible plus I love its mild taste and versatility! Hope you try this one Kellie! x

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  14. The term "authenticity", in relation to ethnic food, seems so misused. Part of what makes a cuisine is that is evolves and changes and home chefs improvise.

    On another note, the kohlrabi sum tum sounds intriguing...and delicious!

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    1. THANK YOU that perfectly summed up what I was trying to get at! Cheers Joyti!

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  15. This som tum salad sounds so good and what a great way to use kohlrabi (something I always struggle to find a use for!). Lovely photos as always.

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    1. Thanks Caroline. Haha that's funny because it's one of my favourite vegetables! It has such a mild flavour that's so versatile and suited for so many dishes- salads and pickles especially.

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  16. When it comes to authenticity in cooking I tend to think to myself is usually "This is delicious" followed closely by, "Well, somebody's grandma probably makes it like this... or would if they were restricted to the ingredients available".

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  17. Well done, it mustve been a great night! I totally agree about authenticity by the way. Do whatever is tastiest!

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    1. It was fantastic! Quite mad at first but then everything sorted itself out. And glad you agree about the authenticity bit. Grr!

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  18. My mum used to make som tum with carrots because we couldn't get green papaya in most of the countries we lived in and it's one of our favourite dishes. I love it when substitutes work and I'm going to go and find some kohlrabi to try!

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    1. I used kohlrabi in this one because its flavour is quite mild, like green papaya, but the sweet carrots would definitely be fantastic with the salty spicy dressing. Cheers to your mum! Love it when I find a good substitute too!

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  19. What a simple salad! What's your favorite thai dish? Share it on your besty list! http://www.thebesty.com/mummyicancook

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  20. This is BRILLIANT. What a terrific way to use winter veg. I've got kohlrabi in my fridge and will give this a go. :)

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  21. Wow! Fantastic pics! Love the presentation! Your birthday is in October? Mine too! I mentioned in Sissi's post but I have never tried kohlrabi before but the recipe is enticing.

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