Sunday, 31 August 2014

Bau wow

By: Mrs Robot

Today I made Chinese dumplings - bau. I love bau, but until today I've only ever bought frozen ones.

Let's go back in time, back to when I was a 15-year-old squirt with my first Saturday job, doing food prep in the kitchen at the local Chinese. I wish I could say I learned to cook there, but in truth I mainly learned how to chop buckets of mushrooms and onions! But I did get to try things like mooncake, and learned to reduce ingredients to paste with a cleaver. Knowing I was working there, some elderly friends of my mum gave me a Chinese cookbook, which they'd bought in Hong Kong. It's called The Cuisine of Cathay by Genia Lee, and it was scary. Such strange ingredients, the likes of which you'd never find in the tiny town supermarket. No matter how many onions I'd chopped, I wasn't about to try anything from the book, though I'd look at the pictures and dream of making such delicious things.

Fast-forward a quarter of a century. Mr Robot and I have been exploring Asian cookery more, and have amassed all sorts of ingredients. Suddenly, The Cuisine of Cathay isn't scary at all. In fact, it's probably more user-friendly than a lot of Asian cookbooks we own, as it was made in a time when a lot of Westerners hadn't had much experience of cooking Asian foods, so Genia Lee starts out by describing various ingredients in depth, from various kinds of rice to different types of bamboo shoot (gwei-giew, spring, fuzzy and more) to melons and gourds and more greens than I'd know what to do with. She doesn't make too many concessions to western tastes, though: sea cucumbers and fish maws are in the ingredients section, and the very first recipe calls for a dozen duck feet.

We get through buckets of spring onions nowadays...
Looking at her recipe for bau, I realised I could make them. I only needed to buy pork and spring onions; we had everything else already. The dough is remarkably similar to the one I used for pizza; it calls for 'all-purpose flour' so I used bog-standard plain. The filling is an easy blend of pork, spring onion, soy sauce, sesame oil and a few other things. Just as she very carefully shows you all manner of Chinese ingredients at the start of the book, alongside each recipe Genia has step-by-step walkthroughs of unfamiliar techniques, and she has very precise instructions and a sequence of photos explaining how to make the bau. Mine rose less than the ones I'd bought in the shops, but perhaps I just need to give them more rising time next time. They certainly tasted delicious.
You have to make the dough thinner at the edge, so it's not
too thick when all pinched together.
So, now I can have bau whenever I like, with whatever fillings I like. And now I'm no longer scared of The Cuisine of Cathay, I look forward to trying many more of the recipes in it, starting this week with Szechuan-style shredded beef. Bau? Such wow, as the doge might say...

Monday, 25 August 2014

Food and roots (not vegetables!)

Mogok pork curry, MiMi Aye's recipe. 

By: Mrs Robot

This post comes about as the result of a drunken (on my part) conversation I had over Twitter with Kavey and MiMi Aye on Friday night on exploring other cuisines to connect with my roots. Twitter is not the best place to try to talk about anything meaningful, especially when you've had a few pints, and Kavey asked if I'd done a blog post on it. I hadn't, so here it is.

I am basically white English. By which I mean, an awful lot of my ancestry isn't English and some of it isn't even European. And to me, that is English; we're a nation mostly made up of mongrels, all with the restlessness and drive that comes from being descended from all sorts of people who decided get up off their backsides and make their lives better. But I have always had a curiosity about my granddad McDonald's family, partly because it was never really talked about. I knew he was born in Burma, and I remember him writing things in Burmese to show me, but that was pretty much that.

Most of my memories of Granddad Mac are of two things, war stories and food. I'll spare you the army pathologist tales, though I will say I was possibly the only eight-year old in East Anglia who knew how to remove a brain. On the food side, Granddad grew tomatoes, big fat beefsteak ones. He grew other vegetables when he was more agile, but in later life I can only remember him growing tomatoes. I, too, grow tomatoes every year. Outdoors on our patio they don't do well, but I do it anyway and they always make me think of him. Then he got ill, and talked more and more about Burma, and then he died.

After the funeral, there was a wake, with plenty of sweet sherry. I got talking to one of my great-aunts, and she reminisced about their childhood in Burma, in a little town called Maymyo - now Pyin Oo Lwin. (Mr Robot and I visited there last year, the first members of my family to do so in decades.) And things rolled round to food. My great-aunt spoke of how they'd have mangoes for pudding. The fruit would be in a bucket of cold water, and no-one could take one until they'd finished their main course. All the children would race to finish so they could have first pick of the mangoes, and they'd always pick the largest one and it would always be woody. Granddad, being a slow eater, would inevitably get a small but juicy one. My great-aunt also spoke with regret of not being able to get fresh tamarind in this country. I thought to myself, "What did granddad miss?" He spent half a century living a completely British life. Did he eat many mangoes in later life? What on earth did he think of British curries, made with curry powder and raisins?!
My great-grandmother in Maymyo

I've done digging around in the family tree, and I'm pretty sure we're part Burmese on my grandfather's father's side - often, with Eurasian family history, you are working with three things: information, no information, and a significantly-shaped absence of information. It's working out whether you know nothing or whether you know the nothing means something that's the tricky bit! My grandfather's mother was Anglo-Indian, from Calcutta. She must have grown up with that community's unique cuisine, which over decades blended European and Indian favourites to come up with something all of its own, but I know nothing of it.

And so I developed an interest in Asian food, partly as a way of connecting to these people and places in the absence of names and faces and stories. I can't reach out to them in person, and few physical things remain, so sharing food is my only way to make a connection.  I still know very little about Burmese or Indian food, and to be honest it's taught me nothing concrete about Granddad or the nameless Asian ladies in my family tree, any connection is purely an emotional one, and only in my mind. If I wanted to connect with family through food in a tangible way, I'd do better to eat some de Solminihac oysters, as they would at least be farmed by a distant relative. (The connection there is via India - my Anglo-Indian great-grandmother was a de Solminihac.) But I have enjoyed some very tasty meals, and visited some wonderful places, and met some kind and knowledgeable people, online and off, so I will continue to explore Burmese and Indian cuisine.

And I still wish I could ask Granddad what he thought of British curries!

Monday, 18 August 2014

Recipe Review: Biryani a la Mamta

By: Mr Robot

Dunno about you but I love Biryani. There's a certain mindset that says it's too simple or you're somehow inauthentic for ordering it (as opposed to the hottestly inedible thing you can find guv, with extra nasty). Personally I reckon  it's one of those dishes that shows the true quality of Chef.

So when I stumbled across Kavey's Mamta's recipe for Biryani - and read it closely - I was massively excited. It's pretty simple but quite involved, which if I'm honest, is exactly what I want from a favourite; I set aside a whole Sunday with roughly 3 hours cooking pencilled in.

We start, sez Kavey, with frying onions for at least half an hour. Now happily I habla a bit so that fazes me not and, believe me, it's not a step to skimp on.

With onions cooked to approximately Van Food darkness, and scooped out of pan, we sling in lambkin, whole spices, garlic, ginger & chilli, and brown until happy. Then goes in more chilli goodness with yoghurt & herbs, and simmer to proper curry. You may be tempted to try it at this point, and I'd urge you to do so. Pokey? You're doing it right then.


That's going to simmer for a while, and get mellow. In the meantime you're going to cook rice - with herbs - badly. As in, all those times you're too impatient and you end up with rice that looks properly fluffy but has a horrible crunch inside? That.

Believe it or not, we're basically there.

For lack of a better word, Golly

Oil up a BIG dish and layer rice, saffron juice, rose water, those onions, and the curry a couple'a times and you're away. Oven hottish, Half an hour. The rice will finish cooking without getting gluey; the flavours will spread unevenly; almonds top it for crunch (and almond, of course).

Get your bib on because you WILL dribble.

Go on - pretend you're not dribbling

Realistically? I think I got the 3hrs thing from Kavey but I was pretty well sorted in an hour and a half before the oven - however as she says much of that will depend on the quality of your meat. Obviously I have quiveringly good meat...

More honestly I did spend most of a Sunday on this, but it was so worth it. The Biryani is a recipe done in stages and between those steps I made both Tinga de Pollo and a Shin o' Beef stew for later in the week. So in my world, time to cook is about 3 hrs but actual work-time is maybe 1.5 hrs.

Rose water is sprinkled over the rice. Being a bit wanky, I also sprinkled rose petals

The result is, beyond doubt, delicious. To me the value of making this at home was the whole spices kicking small explosions: chilli BOOM and a cardamom tickle and then some saffron snuggle before a CURRY PUNCH, and that amazingly sweet nuggety (or perhaps nougaty) onion running throughout.

Kavey reckons it'll serve 4 and I believe that to be true. Luckily there were only two of us...

One of the best things you'll ever eat

We are not in the business of giving away other folks' recipes. If they're in books, we'll say buy it. In this case, it's available online so get it from the source.

All images (c) PP Gettins

Friday, 15 August 2014

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Monday, 4 August 2014

Retro Recipe: Trench Cake

By: Mrs Robot

If you're in or near Britain right now, you can't have failed to notice the events, displays, services and other public commemorations of the First World War. Frances Quinn, winner of last year's Great British Bake Off, has been promoting a 1916 recipe for 'trench cake', rereleased by the government, which during the First World War would have been baked to send to soldiers at the front. She's been doing a good job of publicising it; Mr Robot and I both love Test Match Special (live cricket programme on the radio), and it's common for listeners to send in cakes to the presenters. Frances Quinn even popped up there to talk about the cake.

Anyway, the Trench Cake recipe is over at The Telegraph if you want it, though it irritates me beyond belief that they've written 'baking soda' instead of 'bicarbonate of soda'. AUGH! WHICH SIDE OF THE ATLANTIC ARE YOU ON, TORYGRAPH?
So, the recipe. This is an egg-free recipe. I'm not a free-from cook, but it looks to me like if you swapped the milk for nut milk or water and used soya margarine, you could make a vegan version of this cake. You start by rubbing the margarine into the flour, then add the other dry ingredients, then the liquid. Bicarbonate of soda mixed with vinegar acts as the raising agent. As with any rubbing-in recipe, I don't believe you can overdo the rubbing in. Rub, rub and rub, get the fat really well worked in and keep it all nice and airy.

I was a little surprised by the recipe's combination of currants, spices and cocoa. Currants and spices, yes, but with cocoa? Chocolate cakes are a relatively late development in British baking, with fruit, nut or seed cakes being more commonplace historically. However, there's not enough cocoa in the cake to make it taste massively chocolately, rather it adds a pleasing richness and colour, and the combination works.

When I got mine out of the oven, I was a little annoyed that it seemed to have pale speckles and blamed myself for not rubbing in enough, but looking at the photos of Frances Quinn's cake, hers has the same speckles. In fact, mine looks pretty much the same as hers. On cutting, the cake is very light in texture, which is more surprising as you can't imagine it being robust enough to survive a trip across the channel and down to the front lines. That said, there's no time stated for how long you should beat the mixture once the liquid has been added, so it's possible that a longer beating would have led to the gluten becoming stickier and my cake being less crumbly.

I don't know if I'll make this cake again. It's pleasant enough, but if I'm going to cook with cocoa I want a more chocolatey cake, and if I'm making a fruit cake I want more spice and a crumblier, denser texture. Still, it's an interesting curiosity, and makes me wonder how many men received one, and dreamed of being back at home...

All images (c) PP Gettins