Tag Archives: fish sauce

Crab Spag Nam Jim

A crab shell with red chillies and a halved lime

Inspired by a classic salad from Skye Gyngell – not someone I’d automatically associate with Asian food, but what the heck – I turned this into a pasta supper. It might sound odd to include Parmesan here, but it works. Honest! The key to this is to use only the best quality fish sauce* you can find. A traditional Nam Jim dressing would include coriander roots and stems, and if you wish to ruin the dish please feel free to do the same – can you tell I’m not a fan?

Feeds Two

  • 220g Spaghetti
  • 120g Crab [mixed brown and white meat]
  • 1 Banana Shallot
  • 2 Red Chillies
  • 1 Clove of Garlic
  • Juice of 1 Lime
  • A pinch of Palm Sugar
  • 3 tbsp Fish Sauce
  • 60g Parmigiano Reggiano [grated]

Whilst the pasta cooks, finely dice the shallot and chilli and soften with the crushed garlic in a little oil. Add the rest of the ingredients and a ladle of the pasta water. Allow the al dente pasta to finish cooking in the sauce.

*Readers of my recent Vietnamese adventure will remember that Uyen recommends the Three Crabs brand.

In Her Vietnamese Kitchen

Dried birds-eye chillies in a jar

I’ve been back in the classroom again, and whilst the cuisine is a close culinary neighbour of my last lesson [see the posts from my Cambodian experience] the schools concerned are over 6,000 miles apart as Uyen Luu runs her Vietnamese cookery class and her hugely successful supper club from her home in Hackney.

Uyen [pronounced Ewan, as in McGregor we’re told at the start] is multi-talented individual being a writer, photographer, food stylist, film maker, supper club host and – as when we visit – teacher. Her first recipe book has been published [available everywhere but also through her website, see below], the seemingly inevitable TV appearances have begun, and in today’s Observer Food Monthly you’ll find a seven page spread [or see it online].

The cover of "My Vietnamese Kitchen", a cookbook by Uyen Luu.

You are advised when attending the class not to have a hearty breakfast, advice I would urge you to heed! We prepared and ate over a dozen different dishes, and took samples of several home in a doggy bag. I won’t list them all [book your own class!] but highlights for me were:

  • Beef in Betel Leaves – will be on all my canapé menus from now on.
  • Beef Pho – which I now know to pronounce feu, as in pot au feu.
  • Chicken Salad with Banana Blossom – very similar to the Cambodian version.
  • Bánh Xéo – heavenly savoury crepe eaten with herbs, lettuce and dipping sauce.
  • Summer Rolls – learning to make them properly, rather than give up and serve the contents as a salad as I had the week before!

And you won’t just be learning to cook. We were taught what is eaten at different times of day; what constitutes a breakfast, a snack, a meal; what to eat to rebalance your yin and yang, and cool heatiness; which brands to buy [bamboo tree logo rice paper, cockerel logo sriracha chilli sauce, boy and woman fishing logo oyster sauce]; Vietnamese table etiquette; and tips like slicing and drying your own chillies to make chilli flakes if you find yourself with glut – I had, thanks to shopping for the summer rolls / salad the week before, so I did! [see photo at the top of this post]

Part way through the afternoon, and partly I suspect to allow us to digest the first half dozen dishes whilst Uyen’s mum finished preparation of the rest, we were taken shopping at a local Vietnamese supermarket where we could stock up on perilla, cockscomb mint, coconut caramel, black cardamom, etc. Another top tip – go with shopping bags and ready to carry home plenty of goodies!

Uyen generously and graciously shares such a wealth of information it’s hard to single out a highlight, but perhaps the biggest revelation of the day for me was an introduction to proper fish sauce [three crabs brand if you’re interested]. Made in traditional wooden vats, filtered multiple times, and allowed to mature properly, the best stuff loses any rancid overtones and you’re left with a deeply savoury, umami-rich, mushroomy, meaty aroma and flavour that’s as far removed from the usual rubbish as a bottle of supermarket plonk is from a Chassagne Montrachet Premier Cru. My bottle of cheap crap went straight in the bin and Uyen, I will be eternally grateful!

I’ll leave you with a look at my own attempt at Bánh Xéo. My pictures can’t hold a candle to the beautifully posed, strangely tranquil shots Uyen shares on her facebook page, but the dish disappeared pretty sharpish nonetheless.

Banh Xeo, a Vietnamese rice flour pancake coloured yellow with turmeric and filled with pork, prawn and bean sprouts. Traditionally eaten wrapped in herbs and lettuce, and dipped in a spicy sauce.

Fancy a go? Then book here!

Pot Thai

Chicken in a pot with a selection of Thai spices

Perhaps it’s the unseasonably warm and sunny weather we’ve been enjoying of late, or maybe it’s got something to do with my having done two whole weeks of full-time work [I know, poor me!], but I’m yearning to get on a plane and head for distant shores. And with my own planned odyssey to explore the food of Indochina currently on indefinite hold it doesn’t help that you can’t turn on the TV at the moment without seeing a certain bum-chinned, potty-mouthed chef trampling all over South East Asia and its peoples and cuisines. Ah well, if departure lounges must remain a distant dream for now there’s nothing to stop me rustling up a mini-break from the comfort of my own kitchen.

Last July I wrote about the versatility of a simple chicken pot roast and this is yet another variation on the theme, though this time conceived with thoughts of a cold Tiger beer on a Thai beach at the forefront of my mind.

Follow the same basic method as before [you can substitute water for the wine if you think it feels more ‘authentic’, but I didn’t] but this time add the following:

  • A couple of bruised lemon grass stalks and the stems of a handful of basil [reserve the leaves for later] these to be inserted into the cavity, the rest strewn about the chicken in the liquor…
  • Two small shallots, finely chopped
  • A thumb of ginger, peeled and grated
  • Two or three red chillies, chopped
  • Strips of the peel of half a lime
  • Three or four crushed cloves of garlic
  • Half a teaspoon of ground turmeric

Season well and cook as before. Once the chicken is done allow it to rest and strain the juices into another pan. Reduce by a third. Add a tin of coconut milk, simmer for a few minutes more, and check the seasoning. Add some previously steamed and refreshed green veg to the sauce and warm through. I used new season asparagus and some pak choi, but green beans, peas, spinach, pea aubergines, etc. would all be fine.

Finish the sauce with a squeeze of lime, a splash of fish sauce, the reserved basil leaves, and a few further strips of freshly sliced chilli if you fancy. Serve chunks of the chicken in bowls on a bed of warm noodles and with plenty of the sauce.

Now then, where did I put my postcards…?

Fish Amok

 Fish Amok

‘Fish Amok’ is not a verbally economical headline trailing the story of a school of barracuda gone berserk, but the best known of Cambodia’s national dishes. You can also make Amok with chicken, pork or tofu for a vegetarian version, but fish is the most common and can be found everywhere from market stalls to the menus of Phnom Penh’s best restaurants. It will also be the centrepiece of your day on the Cambodia Cooking Class run by chef Heng of Frizz Restaurant [a must for any foodie visitor] where you’ll make not only the ‘kroeung’ [the paste at the heart of the dish] from scratch, but even the banana leaf bowls in which to cook it. It seems that others are catching on to foodie tourists’ desire to roll up their sleeves, with a couple of new courses now appearing in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, but it would be difficult to beat this, the original, for value – US$20 buys you a day of tuition in the rooftop classroom, all ingredients [and therefore ultimately all your food] and the market visit I described elsewhere. To say nothing of the fact that Heng is a thoroughly affable and very patient teacher. You’ll also get a recipe booklet to take home at the end of the day, though I’d recommend making your own notes too as you go.

If you’re going to do this on a regular basis you might want to consider investing in a serious pestle and mortar, perhaps whilst in the country – suitcase permitting. The ones we used had deep wooden bowls [at least 20cm] and big wooden pestles with the weight and heft of a squat baseball bat. My typically puny English version, which in any case normally sits on a shelf looking pretty and holding the garlic, needed three times the effort produce a smooth paste. And whilst you could feasibly steam your Amok in small ceramic bowls you really should go to the effort of making the traditional banana leaf cups. All in all something of a labour of love, but then if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly. Isn’t it?

Like traditional dishes everywhere you can find any number of variations to the recipe. The good people at Romdeng Restaurant produce a pared down, simple version with minimal spicing. Whilst Luu Meng of Malis, as you might expect from this rising star of Cambodian cuisine who recently played host to Gordon Ramsey, finesses his dish with smoked fish roes. Prahok [a paste of matured, fermented fish] is often included, but we didn’t use it on the day and I have not included it here as you’ll not find it easy to come by outside of Cambodia. It’s also something of an acquired taste if you haven’t grown up eating it at every meal.

The quantities I’ve given here are for one portion of Amok, simply scale as required.

For the kroeung

  • 1.5 cm galangal, peeled and chopped
  • A thumbnail sized piece of kaffir lime zest
  • 2 cm fresh turmeric root, peeled [or half a teaspoon of powdered turmeric]
  • 1 clove garlic
  • Half a small shallot
  • 4 cm of the thinner parts of lemongrass stalks, finely sliced
  • 1 or 2 mild red chillies [to taste] finely minced
  • A pinch of salt

For the rest

  • 120 g firm fleshed fish such as cod, sliced or diced as you prefer
  • 70 ml coconut milk
  • 1 tbsp fish sauce
  • ¼ tsp shrimp paste
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 dsp roughly crushed roasted peanuts
  • 1 tbsp coconut cream
  • Red chilli and kaffir lime leaf finely sliced to garnish

For the bowls

  • Enough banana leaf to make 2 x 25cm circles for each bowl
  • Cocktail sticks or toothpicks, cut in half

Begin by pounding the lime zest and galangal until breaking down. Next add the lemongrass and pound again. Then add all the other kroeung ingredients and pound until you have a smooth, thick paste. As you can see there is much pounding to be done, but this can be very therapeutic and with the right kit should take no more than about ten to fifteen minutes. Once smooth add the finely minced chilli and stir to incorporate.

Kroeung with chilli

In a separate bowl mash the shrimp paste into the coconut milk until dissolved, then add the fish sauce, egg yolk and peanuts. Combine this mixture with the kroeung and the fish and mix well. Pour the resulting mixture into your banana leaf cup, top with the coconut cream, and place in a steamer for twenty minutes. The end result should still be moist but slightly set by the egg, like a wobbly, spicy, fishy custard, yet infinitely more pleasant than that description sounds! Serve with plain boiled rice, and garnish the Amok with finely sliced chilli and kaffir lime leaf.

To make the banana leaf bowls

I managed to buy banana leaves at a local Thai mini market and they can usually be found without too much hassle. Wash and dry the leaves. For each bowl cut two circles about 25cm in diameter – a saucepan lid and a craft knife will come in handy.

Chef Heng, cutting disks of banana leaf

You need to soften the leaves slightly which can be done by blanching in boiling water. Alternatively [Heng’s way] light a gas ring and using tongs lay on a leaf circle, quickly flip over, and remove. You’ll see the leaves soften almost instantly, and they should not burn or colour. Lay one disc on another, placing the rough sides of the leaves together, shiny surfaces facing out. Fold up the sides to make a pleat in four or five places, securing each pleat with a half cocktail stick ‘pin’, to make a cup shape. This can take a bit of practice, so the first time you try it you might want to arm yourself with a few extra leaf circles.

The – frankly poor – example pictured below [my own] is clearly not a masterpiece of the genre, but is offered merely as a visual example of the techniques described!

Banana Leaf Cup

Salad of Banana Blossom

Banana Blossom Salad

If you plan to go shopping in the smaller local markets of Phnom Penh my two top tips are 1) do so with a local guide and 2) plan things such that you don’t go with a hangover. My one day Cambodian cooking course began with a nine o’clock tuk-tuk ride to Kandal Market and being accompanied by our teacher and chef Heng took care of number one. A thorough and comprehensive introduction to the bars of the Cambodian capital the previous evening however is why I am able, with some authority, to offer the second piece of advice.  Cambodian markets are lively, colourful, noisy places and there is no shortage of stimulation for all the senses. Most Cambodians will make daily visits as fridges are a rare luxury, but some of the sights and smells can prove something of a shock to an unsuspecting westerner who’s had one or two too many the night before. Fruit and vegetable stalls will be piled high with produce both familiar and not, with herbs like fresh caraway a real revelation, and shouldn’t overly challenge the constitution, unless of course you’re surrounded by a large quantity of ripe Durian on a hot sunny day.

Cambodian Market Stall - Vegetables

Venturing further into the narrow alleyways [and avoiding the motorbikes which people will ride down them] the atmosphere ripens amongst the stalls selling poultry, pork and fish – alive, dead, dried, or despatched to order – until you come across the highly prized ‘Cambodian cheese’, Prahok. Prahok is crushed, salted, fermented fish which is allowed to mature for up to three years. It is added to soups and sauces, or just eaten raw as a dip with vegetable crudités. It’s a rich, heady brew, and is your first real reason to avoid this trip whilst worse for wear.

Cambodian Market Stall

After the Prahok baskets of sulphurous charcoal aged eggs [similar to a Chinese century egg] will barely raise a nostril. My first visit though was rounded off by a visit to a frog stall. A steel tray held deep layers of frogs, all freshly skinned, beheaded and shining in the morning sun. It turns out that a recently skinned and decapitated frog doesn’t need any encouragement from Mr Volta to flex its muscles, and two of the beasts leapt out and onto the street and began hopping blindly about. A lady intent on her morning shop didn’t notice and stepped on one – the headless frog of course had precious little chance of seeing her coming. This is when you really wish you’d gone to bed early with a cup of tea the previous evening.

Cambodian Market Stall

Whatever else you stumble upon one thing you will find is banana blossoms in abundance. They resemble purplish brown elongated cabbages around 45cm in length. The tender creamy white inner layers are the edible parts, and as you strip away each layer to get to them you’ll find little proto-hands of bananas between each. The petals are rolled and thinly shredded, but discolour quickly so need to be immersed in water acidulated with lime juice as soon as they are cut. Whilst they’re slightly less abundant here they are by no means impossible to come by; my local Thai supermarket has them in stock ‘from time to time’ and recommends that if you see one you should buy it, but they also stock a tinned version which I had to buy but am yet to try. If you absolutely cannot track one down then use finely shredded hard white cabbage instead.

Flowers of the banana plant on a Cambodian market stall

You will need around half a large or one whole small petal layer per person.

Serves two

  • Banana Blossom
  • 2 tablespoons of roughly torn mixed herbs including mint, basil and coriander [Asian varieties if available]
  • A handful of torn spinach leaves
  • 1 large mild red chilli cut into thin strips
  • 1 tablespoon of roasted peanuts, slightly crushed
  • Juice of 1 lime added to a shallow bowl of cold water
  • 150g to 180g of poached chicken or any leftover poultry

For the dressing

  • 1 or 2 mild red chillies
  • 1 small birds eye chilli [optional]
  • Juice of 2 limes
  • 3 cloves of garlic.
  • 1 shallot finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon Cambodian fish sauce [or two thirds that amount of Thai Nam Pla]
  • 1 tablespoon palm sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 4 tablespoons water

The dressing can be made a few days beforehand and stored [covered] in the fridge. Chop the chilli finely and crush the garlic, then smash together a little with a mortar and pestle but do not reduce to a paste. Mix all the other ingredients and stir to dissolve the sugar, then add the chilli and garlic.

To make the salad roll the banana ‘petals’ into cylinders and slice finely across to produce strips about 1mm wide. Place these into the cold water with lime juice to prevent browning. Drain after five minutes. Tear the meat into thin strips with your fingers. Toss everything together in a bowl and add the dressing bit by bit until you are happy with the balance of flavours. It should be sprightly and fresh, lively with herbs and with a kick from the dressing.