Vietnamese Prawn Noodle Salad

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It’s the same old story, or at least it is for me: I come home from a holiday, all sun-tanned, rested and full of good intentions, and declare that I only want to eat the cuisine of the country I just arrived home from. If you go right to the back of my food cupboards, you could probably find enough evidence to guess everywhere I’ve been on holiday in the past five years.

Cooking these dishes at home is easy enough, especially when you live in London and have access to speciality food shops for almost every country in the world, but eating out is a little trickier. Mainly it requires research: if you’ve just arrived home from a holiday exploring the ruins of Chichen Itza, walking into the first Mexican restaurant you find back home is unlikely to recreate your holiday gastronomic experience, because, let’s face it, a lot of restaurants in the UK offering ‘foreign’ cuisines are crap. That being said, if you do your homework, the more authentic places can easily be found (incidentally usually away from the tourist spots.) When I came home from a trip to Vietnam in 2009, I went straight to the Kingsland Road in, what was then a far shabbier, Hoxton to find the best place to satisfy my new-found love for Vietnamese food. Almost everybody I know has a favourite restaurant on the Kingsland Road, and most are fiercely loyal to theirs. I actually have three that I always go to: Mien Tay for pho, Song Que for grilled meats and the Tay Do Café for their tofu with chilli and lemongrass, which is, hands down, the best tofu dish in London.

If south-east Asian food is your thing, it is easy to be satisfied in London; with noodle bars and bahn mi stands in most neighbourhoods. Most are cheap and authentic, and many let you bring your own booze. The one thing that I have to say here, though, and my only real sticking point: the salads are never hot enough.

South-east Asian salads are typically shredded vegetables, and occasionally green mangoes, with a soy-lime-fish sauce dressing, some roasted nuts and a lot of chilli. It is easy to be fooled into thinking that they are completely innocuous, for they look like nothing, but they often pack more of a punch than most of the stir fries and noodle dishes. Once, I watched open-mouthed as a street food vendor threw a handful of chopped red birds-eye chillies into my comparatively small salad, seeds and all. In UK restaurants, the salads are far, far tamer. All of the elements are present and correct, but they will add considerably fewer chillies, presumably to better suit a western palate. I mean, they’re not wrong, for I have many friends who start panting on eating the tiniest bit of sriracha; but I do find myself underwhelmed by most of the salads I’ve had in London. The best one, for me, was the pomelo salad at Smoking Goat on Denmark Street, which was probably the closest to anything I ate in Asia.

This recipe is one that I developed some time ago. The vermicelli noodles makes it part south-east Asian salad and part summer roll filling, but I’ve come to like it very much. The dressing follows the main principle of south-east Asian food: balancing the sweet, salty, sour and spicy flavours. I almost typed ‘perfectly’ on to the end of that sentence and then realised that the perfection in this balance is found in your own personal taste. As you will have already gathered, I like a lot of heat in my salads, so have added five birds-eye chillies: two in the dressing and three in the salad . Do scale this down if the mere thought of it is making steam come out of your ears. Similarly, if you are a braver person than I (or you’re cooking dinner for my husband,) then add in one more. I tend to remove the seeds but, again, do keep them in if you wish. If you don’t like prawns, sub in any other leftover cooked fish or meats, or leave it out altogether.

My inlaws came to visit recently and we had this as a side dish alongside some bream baked with ginger and spring onion. And a lot of sriracha.

Vietnamese Prawn Noodle Salad

For the dressing:
2 tbsp dark brown sugar
2 tbsp fish sauce
90ml lime juice
2 birds eye chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely grated

250g fresh vermicelli noodles
75g beansprouts
1 large carrot, cut into thin batons
1 cucumber, deseeded and cut into thin batons
3 birds-eye chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
300g cooked small prawns
2 tbsp basil, finely chopped
2 tbsp mint, finely chopped
2 tbsp coriander, finely chopped

Combine all of the dressing ingredients in a bowl, whisk to dissolve the sugar and set aside.

Stir fry the noodles according to packet instructions, along with the beansprouts, and transfer to a large bowl. Add the carrot, cucumber, chillies, prawns, basil, mint and coriander. Pour over the dressing and toss to combine.

Serves two as a main, or four as a side dish.

Chicken and Broccoli

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If you grew up in the nineties and routinely ordered from a certain kind of Chinese restaurant, you could be forgiven for thinking it was all MSG-laden bright orange sugary sauces and mystery meat. Even now, and even in London, those places still exist and I avoid them as much as possible; but there is the other side of Chinese food that I adore: the side with Xinjiang lamb and cumin skewers, with Sichuan peppercorn-spiked twice cooked pork and fluffy bao with sticky pork belly and loads of chilli.

I’m also a sucker for those dishes whose names give little away about what they actually are. For example, who knew that Silk Road‘s ‘home style aubergine’ would be the best aubergine dish I’ve ever eaten? Slippery sweet aubergine flavoured with a little bit of chilli and a lot of garlic. Being the unfussy eater as I am, taking a punt on a dish that has no real description is part of the fun of eating out. I even once ordered ‘saliva chicken’ to the tune of some rather appalled looks from my fellow diners, only to discover that the translation is that it is mouth-watering, rather than containing spit, and was, naturally, delicious.

Even though seeing ‘chicken and broccoli’ on a page will leave you under no illusions about what the dish contains, it seems somewhat simplistic as it really is so much more than that. It’s not really a common dish in the UK, although I have seen it on menus once or twice, but it was in America that I first fell in love with it. It may have been because it came in one of those cardboard boxes with a ton of noodles and some red chopsticks, and I ate it on the street, ticking another one of my American food cliché boxes, who knows, but since I have been back I have made it many times. According to my husband, it is the most comforting food ever and he always asks me to make it for him when he is ill, of course in his favourite noodle bowl with the extra hot sriracha on the side.

Whilst being far from an expert on the vast subject of Chinese cookery, this dish always seems like an anomaly amongst Chinese stir-fry dishes as the flavour is pure savoury, without any sweetness or spiciness at all; which is why my husband, a chilli fiend, always adds the sriracha. Yes, it may be somewhat inauthentic, and it’s origins could be more Chinatown than China, but there is something about its simplicity that keeps me going back to it again and again. When it comes to choosing between this dish and ringing for a takeaway, this wins every time. It takes about half the time that a delivery does and there is no bright orange sauce anywhere to be seen.

Chicken and Broccoli

3 chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch pieces
3 tbsp vegetable oil
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp granulated sugar
2 tsp cornflour
1 tbsp dark soy sauce
1 large broccoli, cut into florets
75ml light soy sauce
2 tbsp dark brown sugar
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tbsp plain flour
1 tbsp rice vinegar
Sesame seeds

Place the chicken breasts in a large shallow bowl.  In a separate bowl, mix together 2 tbsp of the vegetable oil, bicarbonate of soda, granulated sugar, cornflour, dark soy sauce and 1 tbsp water, and pour over the chicken. Leave to marinate for half an hour.

Steam the broccoli for three minutes and set aside. Meanwhile, mix together the light soy sauce, dark brown sugar, garlic cloves, plain flour, rice vinegar and 2 tbsp water to make a sauce.

Heat the remaining oil in a wok and add the chicken with its marinade and a quarter of the sauce. Saute until the chicken is golden and cooked through. Add the remaining sauce and stir in the broccoli. Cook for another couple of minutes.

Top with sesame seeds and serve with rice or noodles.

Miso Aubergines

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One of the recipes I’ve fiddled about with the most is for miso aubergines. Perfecting them has been an ongoing project since I came back from Japan eight years ago, until about last week, when I think I got it right. The first time I tried them was in a little café in a Tokyo side street, I forget where exactly, but they were so good, I’ve been trying to emulate them ever since. I’m finally happy enough with the recipe to post it, but don’t be surprised if an updated one appears here in the future. I’m notorious for not being able to leave things alone.

I was a vegetarian when I travelled around Japan; so there was no sashimi, salmon teriyaki, chicken katsu or pork ramen, things I have since discovered. Instead, I was happily eating miso aubergines, agedashi tofu, sweet potato tempura and, most bizarrely, those hot dog buns with cold soba noodles you can buy from the 7-11. Being now omnivorous, and living in a city with a myriad of Japanese restaurants, I can enjoy all of these things on a regular basis, except for the noodle buns, which I have yet to find here.

Up until a few years ago, finding miso in London was a bit of a ballache, and really you had to order it online or get it from the Japan Centre in Piccadilly. Now it’s more or less everywhere, which means that my quest for the perfect miso aubergine has subsequently ramped up a gear.

As with anything, it’s finally finding the right balance of ingredients that leads to the eureka moment you’re looking for. I tried out a number of miso aubergine recipes, from both books and restaurants, but never found any of them to be quite right. Then I added a little pinch of chilli flakes one day and knew immediately what was missing. I also found that although I love the flavour of miso, if the ratio to the other ingredients is too high, I’m just not into it as much.

There are two ways you can cook the aubergines: you can slow-roast the aubergines with a miso glaze, or you can cook the aubergines in a wok with the miso sauce until it cooks down and caramelises. It’s up to you whether you salt the aubergines first to remove some of the moisture, but I always find it gives a better result, and means that you won’t need to add any salt during cooking. I prefer the cooking-in-the-wok method, but this is really because it creates more of a nostalgic, side street Tokyo cafe dish.

This is the recipe I’ve come up with. Do cook it if you have the time, as I think it’s wonderful. Or just use it as a basis for your own adaptation.

really need to go back to Japan.

Miso Aubergines

2 large, or 3 medium, aubergines
5 tbsp sesame oil
2 dried red chillies
4 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
4 tbsp mirin
4 tbsp caster sugar
3 tbsp rice vinegar
4½ tbsp miso paste

Cut the aubergines into bite sized pieces and place into a colander. Sprinkle with sea salt and leave for about half an hour. Wipe away any moisture with kitchen paper.

Heat the sesame oil in a wok and, once hot, crumble in the red chillies. Add the aubergine and stir fry for about eight minutes until the aubergine is tender and golden. Turn the pieces occasionally with tongs.

Meanwhile, combine the rice wine, mirin, sugar, rice vinegar and miso in a bowl and whisk to a smooth sauce. Lower the heat under the wok and pour the sauce over the aubergines. Cook over a medium heat for a further eight minutes. In this time, the sauce will reduce and form a glaze over the aubergine pieces.

Serves 2-3.

 

Mo Pho, Brockley

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Last week, when the dreaded cold was hampering my ability to do anything, my husband had the most brilliant idea: “let’s go out and get some phò, it will do you good.” See, reader, that’s one of the many reasons I married him: he never underestimates the power of food to cheer me up, even when I am in sniffly, red-nosed hell.

The provider of this remedy was the amusingly named Mo Pho in Brockley. Until recently, most of my phò-eating was done in and around the Kingsland Road in Hoxton, bar, of course, the three weeks I spent in Vietnam. Finding Vietnamese food south of the river has been a long time coming, especially for days when a trip up the Overground is somewhat beyond our capabilities.

Mo Pho, a little canteen-style place just around the corner from Brockley Station, has been open for about a year. It’s more of a cafe than a restaurant, with a menu consisting largely of the popular noodle-based items and omitting some of the more unusual dishes you would expect to see on the enormous menus uptown. That being said, if it is the classics you are after, it is perfect. Plus, they have a BYOB policy, which meant that I could take along the most medicinal and cold-busting of all drinks: the prosecco I had in the fridge.

We ordered classic starters of chagrilled quail with lemongrass and pork belly summer rolls. The quail, a dish I almost always order, was barbecued to crispy perfection and had a strong flavour of chilli and lemongrass, but I missed the sweetness of the honey that is often added to the marinade elsewhere. The dip that accompanied the quail, however, spiked with chilli and sesame, was one of the best I have ever tasted. The pork belly summer rolls were excellent and generously sized but were missing the fresh coriander and mint that characterises them, so therefore lacked that vital freshness.

Chargrilled quail with lemongrass (front) and pork belly summer rolls (back.)
Chargrilled quail with lemongrass (front) and pork belly summer rolls (back.)

The phò came, as phò should, in enormous steaming bowls with plates of beansprouts and chilli for throwing in afterwards. We ordered the rare beef pho, which arrived at the table with slithers of barely cooked beef which later browned in the heat of the broth. The broth itself was deep in flavour and, again, one of the best I’ve had, and the noodles suitably slippery and plentiful. My only small gripe was that the coriander was already stirred into the phò before coming to the table, and subsequently there was none to add. For me, it was not quite enough and I would have preferred to add it myself. Similarly, a dislike of coriander is fairly common and I know many who choose to leave it out entirely.

Despite a few small snags, I enjoyed my meal at Mo Pho enormously. The service was good and we had two courses for less than £15 per head, including the corkage of our drinks. And my husband was right about the phò; at least it revived me enough to manage a couple of G&Ts in The Brockley Barge afterwards.

Mo Pho, 10 Coulgate Street, London SE4 2RW.