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. 

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. 

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.


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.


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

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