In a breakfast state of mind…

menu - Copy (2)We are already into March and here I am writing my first post for this year. It has been a busy few months… along with the usual suspects of work, six year old starting school after the Christmas break etc. etc. I have just taken up an exciting new project, and the icing on this cake is that it has something (if not everything) to do with food! More on that later.

Let’s talk breakfast first.

It would be an understatement to say that it’s my favourite meal of the day, although it’s a rare, twice-in-a-week indulgence. On weekdays it’s just eggs on toast, a Sri Lankan hopper (a rice pancake) or the extra bits and bobs from my son’s packed school lunch, and not being the punctual type I’m always running out of time (I’m a bit of a night owl, though it may contradict my obsession with breakfast), so these are just wolfed down along with my morning coffee.

Picture2A few weekends ago, my husband and I and our six year old popped by the Creekside café by the Dubai creek for breakfast. The café does not talk much about their food – their focus is more on creating a cultural hub of sorts for tourists and residents alike, basically anyone who would like to get a taste of the arts, culture, music and such likes, in a very contemporary yet traditional setting.  I usually don’t write about restaurants I eat at (I might also add that we paid for our meal) but the food there was so good that I just had to gush about it somewhere (and I don’t seem to be the only one in love with Creekside café, check out this wonderful review by IshitaUnblogged  which appeared in her Hidden Gems of Dubai series).

Perched right along the bank flanking the busy creek, the café blends in so well with the surrounding buildings of old Dubai with stone washed walls and a massive wooden brass studded door which is kept open with the help of what looked like an old gas-cylinder-turned-door-stopper. Huge umbrellas and rickety metal chairs and tables are set up outside, the setting reminiscent of a street side café in Paris, and a couple of waiters in black aprons and big smiles wait at the doorsteps to take in the orders.

IMG_6600You need to park your car and walk a few kilometres through the labyrinth of the Dubai souk to get to the café – a walk I would not complain about – the quaint little shops selling rainbow pashminas, spices and Turkish lamps lining the sides of the narrow lanes are a real feast for the senses. Having been living in Dubai for over nine years, it’s a pity I rarely visit this part of town….to think what I’ve been missing!

DSC_2875IMG_6628IMG_6686IMG_6661The glorious weather and the equally glorious (if not better) view prompted us to sit outside. There was a cold wind blowing but the English breakfast tea we ordered came to the rescue, and pretty fast too. It was just wonderful to sit there holding warm cups of tea in our hands and watch the almost chaotic but beautiful scene of colourful abras chock-full of people floating by and screaming gulls swooping into the water to catch an unsuspecting fish.

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The food took rather long to come but it did not disappoint. The highlight of the meal for me was the shakshouka which they call ‘Posh Beith Temath’; two poached eggs in a delicately flavoured tomato sauce with swirls of creamy yoghurt, a sprinkling of chopped parsley and a golden lump of butter melting right in the middle and a plate of little triangles of crisp homemade pita bread to mop up all that deliciousness. The egg yolk was a bit overcooked and didn’t ooze out when I prodded it apart with the fork, as you would expect from a poached egg. So sadly there was no dunking the little pitas in egg yolk, but the dish in its entirety was ridiculously delicious!

Hubs had the Creekside breakfast sandwich (another lovely creation of corn-beef hash patties and scrambled eggs on a fresh muffin with a lovely little sauce drizzled over it) while six year old had a bowl of fries and the crème brûlée which came with a crunchy pistachio biscotti on the side; a weird combo for breakfast but being the weekend I let him indulge a bit, and I took bites of everything, of course!

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Gallery4 A couple of weekends later, I woke up craving shakshouka or shakshuka – however you spell it, it’s got me trapped in its tomatoey, eggy concoction of sunshine and happiness. The chilly morning breeze (which sadly won’t last long) was whispering in my ear ‘Shakshouka, shakshoukaaa, shakshooooooukaaaaa……!’– I just had to try and recreate the dish at home, challenge myself and make everything from scratch, including the pita bread!

And it all turned out…perfect.

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Pita Bread

adapted from a recipe from King Arthur Flour

This was my first attempt at making pita bread but this recipe was so easy to follow and the results were absolutely amazing!
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Makes 8 pitas

3 cups strong white bread flour
2 tsp instant yeast
1/4 tsp baking powder
2 tspsugar
1 tsp salt
1 cup water
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (or olive oil)

Combine all of the ingredients, mixing to form a dough dough. Knead the dough by hand for 10 minutes. Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl, and allow it to rest for 1 hour- it will become puffy (but won’t double in size).

Turn the dough onto a lightly oiled work surface and divide it into 8 pieces.

Roll two to four of the pieces into 6″ circles (the number of pieces depends on how many rolled-out pieces at a time can fit on your baking sheet).

Place the circles on a lightly greased baking sheet and allow them to rest, uncovered, for 15 minutes, while you preheat your oven to 500°F. Keep the unrolled pieces of dough covered – this is very important as I left mine uncovered and they didn’t puff as much as the first batch I baked. Roll out the next batch while the first batch bakes.

Place the baking sheet on the lowest rack in your oven, and bake the pitas for 5 minutes; they should puff up. (If they haven’t puffed up, wait a minute or so longer. If they still haven’t puffed, your oven isn’t hot enough; raise the heat for the next batch.)

Transfer the baking sheet to your oven’s middle-to-top rack and bake for an additional 2 minutes, or until the pitas have browned.

Remove the pitas from the oven, wrap them in a clean dishtowel (this keeps them soft), and repeat with the remaining dough.

Store cooled pitas in an airtight container or plastic bag.

Shakshouka
adapted from a recipe by Yotam Ottolenghi, inspired by Creekside’s version of the dish

I have shamelessly copied Creekside’s shakshouka, right down to the lashings of yoghurt and butter it was served with, and that’s just because theirs was so damn good!

IMG_7320Serves – 4

1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp olive oil or vegetable oil
12  medium white onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 red and orange bell peppers, chopped
4 tsp muscovado sugar (or brown sugar)
4 ripe tomatoes, chopped
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 tsp chilli powder
1 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp paprika
2 bay leaves
6 sprigs of thyme, leaves picked, chopped
pinch of cayenne pepper
pinch of sugar
4 eggs
2 tbsp chopped coriander
2 tbsp chopped parsley
salt and pepper to taste

In a heavy bottomed large pan dry-roast the cumin seeds on a high heat for 2 minutes. Heat the oil and add the onions. Fry gently till onions begin to soften. Add garlic and fry for a minute longer.  Next add the peppers and herbs and continue cooking on a high heat for 5-10 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, chilli powder, cumin, sugar, cayenne pepper, paprika, salt and pepper and simmer over a medium heat for 5-7 minutes. Add a little water to loosen the mixture so you get a sauce like consistency. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Make four holes in the mixture and carefully crack an egg into each, sprinkle with a little salt. Cook over a gentle heat for about 10-12 minutes till the eggs are set and the sauce is slightly reduced (if you want the yolks to firm up cover the pan with a lid and cook for a further few minutes).

Serve hot with a drizzle of whipped yoghurt (I used whipped labneh), a scattering of chopped parsley or coriander and a generous pat of butter over the top, along with some pita bread to mop up everything!

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The celebratory bird

Chicken rev bSunday lunch used to be quite an elaborate affair in our home when I was growing up, and the star of the meal was my mother’s roast chicken.

It was almost a ritual – Sunday lunch was incomplete without a big juicy bird with crisp golden skin gracing the table. After lunch, my mother would sit under this big shady mango tree in our garden and read the Sunday paper while I pottered around close by, sulking at the thought of school the next day. Memories…I can almost smell the savoury scent of that chicken roasting in the oven and feel the warmth of the late afternoon sun on my skin.

2014 is drawing to a close and it’s been a year since I started blogging (hurray!). Instead of baking a cake to celebrate, or a loaf of bread (my second choice), I thought it would be nice to make my mom’s chicken with the best possible ingredients I can find in the market. And that meant a free-range chicken, organic veg and the best butter and seasoning which the dish calls for.

First up the chicken – a lot is being said about ‘free-range’ and ‘organic’ and I would sometimes wonder if it’s just a fad or a passing phase like most food trends, which come and go. That’s until I read about industrial poultry farming and what these poor birds are subjected to by the big commercial poultry producers just so they can meet the rising demand for cheap chicken and eggs. The sad truth is, with increasing food prices and with more and more people struggling to feed themselves (not forgetting the fact that organic produce costs three to four times more than ‘non-organic’ produce) will there ever be a solution to this? What we can do however, is make a conscious effort to eat fresh, healthy and ethically produced food – if not organic, you can always buy locally produced meat and eggs, and fruit and veg which are in season.

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I digress… so…there I was on a Friday morning at the Organic Foods & Café in Dubai looking for the perfect bird. It’s a wonderful store, carrying a huge range of organic produce, family run, with several branches across the UAE. The chicken did look a bit different from the frozen ones you find in the supermarket – it was plump and pink with cushions of pale yellow fat in all the right places.

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A few organic tomatoes, some onions, a bag of new potatoes to accompany the roast, a box of sea-salt and shopping was done. While heading out of the store armed with these beautiful ingredients I made a mental note to fill the pepper-mill with fresh peppercorns (the chicken has to be seasoned well). I may add that these peppercorns aren’t ordinary shop-bought ones; they have been freshly picked from organically grown vines in Sri Lanka and dried to perfection in the hot tropical sun. When you grind these beauties they release such a wonderful peppery perfume!

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I have made this dish many times but this one is probably the best by far – a happy husband and a six year old son, who happens to be a picky eater, were in complete agreement. The fat in the skin had penetrated the flesh underneath making the chicken extremely succulent and it had this lovely delicate taste which was subtle yet savoury. Mom, your roast chicken never disappoints!

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Well then, Happy Birthday Stove & I, you are and always will be my second baby (six year old being my first!), and a massive thank you to all my readers, without you blogging would make no sense at all.

Wishing everyone a wonderful Christmas & a fabulous New Year! Till next year! xxPicture1


My mother’s Sunday roast.

This is such an easy dish to make with a few simple ingredients which you will always find in your pantry. The chicken has a delicate flavour since there are no heavy spices or seasonings used (which can overpower it) so make sure to buy a good quality chicken – it does make a difference.

If you are feeling too lazy to roast a huge turkey for Christmas, give this chicken a try, it looks and tastes beautiful and you won’t have to bother with any leftovers (meaning no turkey sandwiches for seven days in a row following Christmas!)

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Ingredients

Free-range, organic chicken (I also prefer fresh over frozen), weighing around 1 Kg
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
2 medium or one large red onion, chopped
6 cloves of garlic (I like to use lots of garlic, you can use less if preferred)
1” piece of ginger, julienned
3-4 tbsp unsalted butter and another tbsp for browning the chicken
1 tbsp tomato ketchup
1 tsp of sugar
3-4 tbsp water
salt and freshly ground pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 180° C.

Wash and trim the chicken, do not remove the skin for this adds flavour and keeps the meat moist and succulent. Pat dry with a paper towel.

Mix the butter, salt and pepper together and rub this mixture all over the chicken (under the skin and inside the cavity as well). Leave to rest for at least one and a half hours.

Heat a big pan (big enough to fit the chicken) and melt the remaining butter. Once the butter is nice and hot add the chicken. Brown the bird all over, till the flesh is no longer pink.  Remove the bird and keep aside.

Next, add the garlic and ginger (add a little more butter if the pan has become dry). Gently fry for about a minute, till you get that gorgeous garlicky aroma. Next add the chopped onion and tomato. Gently fry for around a minute and then add the ketchup, sugar and just enough water to create a thick sauce (it should not be watery). Cook the sauce for a further 2 minutes till the tomatoes are cooked through and are soft and mushy.

Transfer the bird to a roasting pan and pour the sauce over, spoon some of it inside the cavity. Cover with foil (make a few tiny holes in the foil) and place in the oven.The chicken needs to roast for an hour and a half. After one hour, remove the foil and place it back in the oven for the remaining 30 minutes so the skin browns and crisps up nicely.

Remove the chicken from the oven and leave to rest for at least 15 minutes before serving. This allows the juices to redistribute through the chicken, making it tender and moist.

You do not need to make a sauce to serve this with as the onions and tomatoes turn into a lovely caramelised gravy.  Spoon some of it over the carved chicken and serve with roast potatoes (I made mine using Ina Garten’s recipe) and a salad or a selection of steamed seasonal veg.

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A jolly good pie!

IMG_0857The sun has disappeared behind huge gray clouds and a bone-chilling wind lashes against our faces as we step out of the mini tour bus. Our guide Chris however grins from ear to ear and tells us we have an hour to lunch after which he will take us on a tour around the city (it’s optional of course!).

My eyes take in a panoramic view of the surroundings – rows of stately Georgian buildings in weathered shades of ochre, narrow cobblestone streets lined with charming little shops, an ornate steeple rising above blackened chimney tops, and in the distance, resembling a faded watercolour suspending from the sky, the breathtakingly beautiful Pulteney Bridge with the River Avon flowing gently beneath it. We are in Bath – a perfectly preserved time capsule of a bygone era… DSCN0752 ?????????? DSC01616?????????? gallery 12gallery 6??????????Around AD 60 the Romans built a temple and the baths which gave the city its fame and during the 18th century, or what is known as the Georgian period, it became a popular spa destination for the upper echelons of British society (an allusion often found in Austen’s novels). Bath was declared a World Heritage site in 1987 (possibly why those blackened chimney tops never got a fresh coat of paint- and hopefully never will!), making it one of just two cities in the world to be given this status. Picture2 We start exploring, cameras clicking non-stop, a trio of snap-happy tourists, marvelling at the old world charm of the city centre. However, having being born and raised in Dubai with all its glittering modernity and 365 days of warm weather, there is so much history and cold wind my two sisters-in-law can take, and restoratives are in order. You see, we were on one of our ‘mommy’s time out’ jaunts – a four day trip to London with a day tour to Stonehenge and Bath thrown in, and one of the must do items on our To Do list was to have an authentic pub experience.
So, following Chris’ recommendation we head towards the The Lamb & Lion which is close to the Roman Baths. But a few twists and turns along the way we stumble upon The West Gate (there seem to be a pub around every corner!). We find it hard to resist the warm glow which shines through its front windows and a few seconds later, we find ourselves sitting inside downing pints of Lilley’s Bee Sting pear cider and tucking into some amazing pub grub (that cider is to die for! Crisp, light and golden with delicious notes of sweet juicy pear, and pretty potent too!). DSCN0775 gallery 7 DSCN0787 We have such a roar of a time that Chris’s instructions to meet in an hour becomes a distant echo in our woozy minds. In contrast to the cold, dreary streets outside, it is warm and cosy inside the pub with its overstuffed chairs, oak panelled walls and huge floral lamps effusing a deliciously mellow light, and of course that tall sparkling pint of pear cider…

So there we stay, drinking and eating and drinking some more…

Well in the end we missed the city tour (which was such a pity), had a quarrel with our guide, saw the magnificent Bath Abbey with its walls lined with the most romantic epitaphs dating all the way back to the 1700’s, popped in to see the Roman Baths and even managed to gulp down a glass of its healing (and vile-tasting) water which a restaurant overlooking the baths was generously giving out to all visitors, my sisters-in-law got lost (I was obliviously clicking my way back to the mini bus and lost them along the way, they took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up walking around in circles), made a quick stop at the awe-inspiring Royal Crescent and The Circus and caught a fleeting glimpse of the white front door of Jane Austen’s house, where she lived between 1801 and 1806, while heading back to London in the fading light of the evening.rev 7 DSCN0854 gallery 8 gallery 13?????????? ????????????????????DSC01694??????????????????????????????? ?????????? Glorious Bath! With its wonderful history and magnificent architecture! But what stands out most in my mind when I think back of our trip is the few hours we spent in that lovely little pub, feeling warm as toast and getting happy-high on pear cider. There is something very endearing about British pubs – the relaxing atmosphere, the history (each place has got its unique story), the unpretentiousness  – staying true to its name; a public house, the food, the ale and the cider (it really is to die for) – a 1000 year old tradition which has changed very little over the years. Rightly described as ‘the heart of England’ by Samuel Pepys in his diary, pubs are a fundamental part of the British culture and it’s sad to see this tradition slowly dying out with more and more pubs closing down each year in Britain.
gallery 10 Oh, and there is one more reason which makes our first ever pub experience that little bit extra special. I was doing some Google research on The West Gate for the purpose of this post when I found out that the pub dates back to 1611 when it was one of the original coaching inns in the city, and about Alice – its resident ghost. There is not much written about her but the fact we spent a few hours in a haunted pub gives me goose bumps, especially when I think of the time I visited the pub’s bathroom. It was down a narrow flight of steps and seemed like a re-purposed cellar with cold stone walls and pull chain toilets – I was the only living soul down there and while washing my hands I had this eerie feeling that someone was watching me…could it have been Alice?

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Paying homage to the wonderful pubs of Britain and Alice (may her soul rest in peace) I made the ultimate British pub classic – steak and ale pie (apparently The West Gate does a good one too). I was also waiting for an opportunity to use these lovely little enamel pie dishes which were sitting in the cupboard, brand spanking new and begging to be used.
My pie-tin lining and crust decorating skills may require some honing but it sure was a jolly good pie!

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Comforting Beef Pie
(adapted from a recipe in BBC GoodFood magazine)
Serves 4

1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 small celery stick, trimmed & chopped
1 carrot, sliced
A handful of brown mushrooms, sliced
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp plain flour
700 g beef shin, featherblade or stewing steak cut into large chunks
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 beef stock cubes
2 sprigs fresh thyme
540 ml dark ale or beer
1 egg beaten, to glaze
1 pack of ready-made, all butter shortcrust pastry (I’m all for short cuts but you can make your own)

Heat oven to 160 C. Using a flame proof casserole dish with a lid, heat some of the olive oil and add the beef. Fry the beef cubes for a few minutes till they turn brown and set aside.

Lower the heat and add the remaining olive oil and butter. Add the onion and fry gently for about 10 minutes – try not to colour them too much. Turn up the heat and add the carrots and celery and scatter in the mushrooms. Stir in the flour until it has disappeared. Mix everything together before stirring in the beef and Worcestershire sauce. Crumble in stock cubes, add thyme and season well. Fry fast for 3 or 4 minutes, then pour in the ale, stir in the flour and add just enough water to cover. Bring to a simmer, then cover and cook in the oven for 2 1/2 hours. Remove lid and cook for another 30 mins – this should thicken the sauce nicely (we are looking for a rich, dark, robust stew).

Increase oven to 200 C. Roll out the pastry and use it to line a 20-22 cm pie dish (you can also use small, individual pie dishes). Spoon in the meat and pour over the sauce until the meat is just coated. Roll out the remaining pastry and use it to cover the pie. Using a small, sharp knife trim the edges and crimp with a fork to seal. Brush top of the pie with beaten egg. Bake for 30-40 minutes until golden brown and crisp.

If there is remaining sauce, reheat and serve with the pie along with mashed potatoes and peas.
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Say it with flowers or a Thai beef salad.

A post Valentine’s Day post.

Picture1Roses are red, violets are blue…and blue is exactly what I’m feeling this Valentine’s. My husband has gone away for three weeks to the North Pole – OK not exactly the North Pole but it’s around -20°C where he is at the moment. While he is freezing away in icy cold Canada I’m basking in the warmth of the beautiful winter sun in Dubai, and as a virtual Valentine’s Day surprise, I thought of making one of his favourite dishes – a Thai beef salad. 

I love Thai salads. They fall into 4 main categories based on the way they are prepared, which are Yam, Tam, Lap and Phla (trust me, I didn’t know this till I started writing this post. Follow this link to Wikipedia to read more about it). I particularly like the Lap salads – crunchy veg and morsels of juicy, tender meat tossed in a perfectly balanced sweet-sour-salty dressing, light and refreshing yet bursting with flavour. I won’t call myself a connoisseur of Thai food (my interest in the subject hasn’t gone beyond shovelling the delicious stuff into my mouth) but I do make two killer Thai salads, if I do say so myself – the beef salad and a chicken salad in peanut dressing. I have my doubts about the origins of the latter but it doesn’t really matter because it tastes so good.

And here’s my Thai beef salad, in pictures…

DSC_1905It all starts with fresh ingredients…

DSC_1868And my five year old who insisted I put this pic in my post.

DSC_1870Mise en place…shredding fresh papaya. There’s an easy way to do this, all you need is a sharp knife and a vegetable peeler (check out this video on how to get perfect, crisp papaya strips).

DSC_1901A beautiful sirloin steak which has been marinating overnight…

Picture9Freshly roasted peanuts and fresh mint from my balcony garden…

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Picture8After some shredding, chopping, pounding, grilling and mixing…voilà!

DSC_1947My Thai beef salad, bursting with colour, flavour and freshness! This one’s for you honey! x

Celebrating Valentine’s Day is not at the top of my To-Do list but I do miss my husband. After the first couple of years of your marriage your spouse becomes very much a part of you. I wish I had a better reference, but it’s like your favourite sweater – familiar and comforting and something you simply cannot live without. We are on our ninth year now so I do feel his absence, even though he’s gone for only three weeks.

Well…here’s to our ninth Valentine’s together and many more to come! Chin-chinOh, and hubs please don’t be offended by the favourite sweater reference – the one I’m talking about is gorgeously luxurious and cashmere xx

PS: Valentine’s Day was not so bad after all as I still had my other Valentine to celebrate it with. And boy did we celebrate…we made heart shaped cards and went out for Italian and had his first taste of lasagna (he’s been pestering me for lasagna after watching Garfield wolf down copious amounts of it on TV). The day ended with my Valentine saying ‘Mummy I want to give you a ‘Balentime’s Day’ kiss’ and planting a big sloppy one on my cheek.

PPS: Hubs came back from the cold bearing loads of maple syrupy goodies and something quite unusual – Icewine tea (more on that later). Happy days!


Thai Beef Salad
adapted from a recipe by Darlene Schmidt

1 to 2 sirloin steaks, depending on the amount of meat you prefer.
Marinade:
2 tbsp oyster sauce
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp lime or lemon juice
2 tbsp brown sugar

For the salad:
1 large bowl salad greens
1 cup bean sprouts
handful of fresh mint or basil leaves, lightly chopped or torn
1 cup fresh coriander
1 cup fresh papaya, cubed or cut into spears (see video above on how to shred papaya)
1 cup cherry tomatoes, left whole or sliced in half

Dressing:
1-2 tbsp fish sauce (available at Asian food stores)
3 tbsp lime or lemon juice
1+1/2 tbsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp brown sugar
1 clove garlic, minced
1-2 fresh red chillies, chopped
2 tbsp toasted and ground sticky rice,or 2 tbsp roasted, ground peanuts (I used peanuts)

Mix marinade ingredients together in a cup or bowl, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Pour over the steak(s), turning meat to coat. Set in the refrigerator to marinate (you can leave it overnight).

For the ground sticky rice (if using, instead of peanuts): Place 2 tbsp uncooked sticky rice in a dry frying pan over medium-high heat. Stirring continuously, dry-fry the rice until it starts to pop and is lightly toasted. Remove rice from the pan and allow to cool slightly before grinding it up with a coffee grinder, or pounding into a powder with pestle & mortar.

Combine all dressing ingredients together in a cup or mixing bowl, stirring until sugar dissolves (adjust fish sauce and lime juice according to your desired taste). Then prepare the bowl of greens and other salad ingredients.

Grill the steak over a hot grill, turning only once or twice to retain the juices (meat should still be pink in the centre).

While steak is cooking, toss the salad with the dressing. Taste-test for salt, adding more fish sauce if not salty enough, or more lime juice if too salty for your taste.

When ready to serve, portion out salad onto serving plates or bowls. Slice the steak as thinly as possible and top each portion with a generous amount of sliced sirloin and a sprinkling of ground rice or peanuts.

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The Hongs of Phuket and Tom Yum Goong from scratch – Gin Khao!

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Gin Khao is Bon Appétit in Thai, although Google says otherwise – it means “eat rice” or “eat food”. If it does mean the latter, pardon my ignorance. I’m starting off my themed posts with a taste of the orient.

I chose Thai food for two reasons: one of my most memorable holidays was spent in Thailand, and it’s one of my favourite cuisines, I love the combination of salty, spicy, sweet and sour flavours which is the hallmark of Thai cuisine.

Before rambling on about all things Thai, I must say a special thank you to La Petite Panière for nominating me for the Dragon’s Loyalty award. To start the New Year with an award for my 3 month old blog… I’m elated! Do visit her gorgeous blog where you will find authentic, mouthwatering Algerian recipes.

I won’t attempt to describe the geographical, historical and cultural data of Thailand because it is too vast a subject to squeeze into a (not so) tiny post but I will talk about the bits and bobs that made my holidays there truly special. I have vacationed in Bangkok and Phuket on two separate occasions. My stay in Bangkok was too brief to thoroughly enjoy what the city had to offer. Nothing special comes to my mind except the touristy floating market which was a lovely experience, I especially loved bargaining with the boat vendors and the palette knife paintings of the market which some of them sold.

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Phuket on the other hand was a holiday of dreams – we (my husband and I) did not gorge on Thai food or get pampered at a spa but spent the entire five days exploring the natural wonders of the islands’ neighbouring Phang Nga bay (I’m afraid this is not going to be a post on culinary travel!).

Phang Nga bay is situated in the Strait of Malacca between the island of Phuket and the mainland of the Malay peninsula of southern Thailand. This shallow bay has around 42 islands and around 400 sq km of it belongs to the Ao Phang Nga National park, which is protected land. The bay is famous for its spectacular limestone cliffs which vertically jut out of the deep green waters creating a surreal landscape.

Picture 046 iInside some of these cliffs there are hidden caves known as Hongs, which are open to the sky and surrounded by towering limestone walls, some which can be accessed by canoe during low tide through narrow openings in the cliffs. There are many tour companies offering sea kayaking trips around the bay but I personally recommend  John Gray’s Sea Canoe tours which we booked for two days.

The first tour took us around the bay on a ‘long-tailed’ boat with a few stops along the way. The first stop was at James Bond Island where, as the name suggests, the Bond movie ‘The Man with a Golden Gun’ was filmed in 1974. It was too touristy for my liking except the remarkable limestone cliff which was made world famous by the movie.

After a light lunch and some free time to do some exploring on our own (you get your own canoe to test your canoeing skills) we stopped at the little fishing village of Koh Panyee. Surrounded by limestone cliffs and built entirely on stilts over the shallow water of the bay, the village is comprised of a closely built network of wooden huts and shops, a mosque and a school and is home to just 315 families. It was fascinating to wander around the village and catch a glimpse of their life – a little old lady drying rice in front of her weathered hut, another selling fried chicken in a street corner, scruffy wooden shops perched dangerously on wobbly stilts selling seashell necklaces and pungent dried fish, school children zigzagging through the maze of rickety huts and shops. There were times I felt like an intruder, that I had no right to be there and some of the villagers did not hide their annoyance at having some goggle-eyed tourist invade their privacy (like that old lady who was drying rice. As we approached her hut, she quickly got inside and slammed the door shut).

We also had a chance to explore a Hong – but this was just a taste of what lay in store for us the following day…

The tour on day two was aptly named ‘Hong by starlight’- you explore one of these caves by day and then, the same cave by night. Our guide Khao was an absolute delight. He had elfin features which reminded me of a forest spirit and he knew so much about the caves and showed us some of his best kept secrets. The same long-tailed boat took us to the cliffs where we anchored and hopped into individual canoes. The canoes were then manoeuvred through a narrow opening in the cliff into a pitch-dark tunnel, its ceiling thick with bats (definitely not for the claustrophobic!). This was called the Diamond cave owing to the glittering stalactites and stalagmites hanging from its walls which sparkle when you hold a flash-light to them.

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After gliding in the dark a few minutes, the tunnel opened out into what I can only describe as Paradise…

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The previous day’s Hong seemed like a miniature in comparison to this mammoth of a cave, I wonder if you can even call it a cave as it is open to the sky. It felt like canoeing in a huge pond surrounded by soaring green walls – the limestone walls were covered by not just shrubs but by actual trees, like a vertical forest, complete with a group of chattering monkeys. It was hard to imagine we were actually in the middle of a lagoon…

Gallery 7Gallery 8Towards midafternoon the tied ebbed out of the cave leaving behind a muddy slush. That was when the mudskippers appeared. These are a type of amphibious fish which can walk on land using their pectoral fins – fascinating little creatures! There were hundreds of them sliding and slapping around in the mud and this was one of Khao’s secret surprises.
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We canoed back to the boat and had one of the best Thai meals I’ve ever had, freshly prepared on the boat by Khao’s team. There was a fiery and fragrant Tom Yum Goong, whole steamed fish, fragrantly spiced with lemongrass and Thai herbs, a Pad Thai garnished with deep fried quail eggs and some delicious stir-fried squid. While waiting for the sun to set to begin our night expedition we made Krathongs to float inside the cave (Krathongs are little flowery floats which are set adrift on a river during the Loi Krathong festival in Thailand). These are of course collected back before leaving the cave – another reason I recommend John Gray’s as these guys have a great eco-friendly policy (as the caver’s motto goes “Take nothing but Pictures. Leave nothing but Footprints. Kill nothing but Time”.)

It wasn’t long before we were navigating around in our canoes, tracing the same path we took in the morning.  The night was ink black, broken only by strange, shimmering, neon blue ripples in the water which trailed behind our canoes. It was the bioluminescent plankton  in the water which glowed with a million luminescent lights when disturbed, it looked as if the sky had turned upside down. Khao mentioned that on certain days you also find thousands of fireflies lighting up the cave but we weren’t lucky enough to see even one.

The Hong was devoid of all sound except the chirping of the cicadas and we drifted in the darkness in complete silence. Undisturbed by the noises and lights of human civilisation, it felt like travelling through space – you are overwhelmed by the serenity of it all. The Krathongs were lit and released into the water and there was a collective sense of peace as we watched them float away into the night. Khao, who was on our canoe, took us further into the cave and we managed to get out just in time as the tide started rising fast – we had to lie flat on our backs to pass through the cave opening, talk about narrow shaves! It was the perfect ending to our amazing time in Phuket.

Having relived the wonderful experiences we had in Phuket while writing this post I decided to round it off with this beautiful Tom Yum Goong soup, made from scratch.

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Tom Yum Goong (Thai hot & sour soup)
adapted from shesimmers.com
Serves 1-22 cups stock (I used prawn broth)
7-8 medium sized prawns, peeled with tails intact
5-6 fresh kaffir lime leaves, torn into pieces with centre vein removed
2 lemongrass stalks, cut into 1 inch pieces and bruised with the blunt end of a knife
4-5 very thin slices of fresh galangal
1 tbsp coriander roots, cleaned well
½ cup straw mushrooms (or fresh white mushrooms), halved
1 tbsp Nam Prik Pao – Thai chilli paste (recipe below)
2 tbsp fresh lime juice or to taste
2 tbsp fish sauce or to taste
4-5 small red chillies, sliced
¼ cup lightly-packed coriander leavesMake the prawn broth by adding the prawn heads and shells, a bay leaf, a few peppercorns, a dash of rice vinegar, half a sliced onion and a pinch of salt into 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil and simmer for about half an hour. Strain the broth through a sieve and leave aside.

In a medium saucepan, bring the broth to a very gentle boil over medium heat. Monitor the temperature so that the liquid is not boiling but barely simmering (the broth needs to be infused with the fresh herbs, similar to making tea).

Add the lemongrass, galangal, coriander root and kaffir lime leaves to the broth  and simmer for 4-5 minutes till the broth becomes fragrant. Add the mushrooms. Stir in Nam Prik Pao. Add the fish sauce, followed by the sliced red chillies. While the broth is gently simmering, lower the prawns into it while monitoring the temperature, the prawns should be poached so they remain nice and juicy and not rubbery (1 minute should be enough). Give the broth a few stirs.

Once the prawns have firmed up and turned opaque, remove the saucepan from heat. Season with lime juice, taste. Add more fish sauce or lime juice if necessary. Stir in the coriander leaves and serve the soup piping hot with steamed rice and a couple of lime wedges on the side. Gin Khao!

Nam Prik Pao (if you cannot find these ingredients, you could use ready-made Nam Prik Pao)
Makes 4 cups

34 g dried red chillies, de-seeded (Thai long peppers or arbol chillies) – make sure you weigh the chillies after they have been stemmed and de-seeded. The amount of seeds you add back into the paste when you grind it determines the level of heat. More seeds, more heat (50% of the seeds have been added to this paste).
64 g peeled garlic cloves
84 g peeled shallots
20 g Thai shrimp paste
190 g palm sugar, chopped into small pieces
24 g dried shrimp
4 tbsp tamarind paste
4 tbsp fish sauce
1 cup water
½ cup vegetable oil

Cut the garlic cloves and shallots lengthwise into uniformly thin slices. Separate the two. Spread them out on two cookie sheets to dry. Heat up about ½ to ¾ cup of vegetable oil (this amount of oil is in addition to the ½ cup of oil that will be used later to fry the chilli paste) in an 8- to 12-inch frying pan over medium heat. Fry the garlic and shallot slices, separately, until light brown and crisp; set aside. Do the same with the dried shrimp; set aside.

In a dry skillet over medium-low heat, toast the dried chillies until they turn brittle. Be careful not to burn them.

In a granite mortar or food processor, pound or grind the garlic, shallots, dried shrimp, and dried chillies into a fine paste; set aside.

Put the paste and the remaining ingredients, including the ½ cup vegetable oil, in a shallow and wide pan set over medium heat. Cook everything, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes until everything has dissolved and you get a fried paste that is somewhat runny.

Remove the pan from heat and let the mixture cool completely. Check for consistency. If the paste is still too thin, reduce it some more over medium heat. When you have achieved the desired consistency, store your Nam Prik Pao in a clean glass jar. No need to drain off the oil.

If you are planning to go sea kayaking in Phang Nga bay and see the magnificent Hongs, do give these guys a try:

John Gray started commercial sea kayaking tours in Hawaii in 1983, and moved to Phuket six years later, setting up the first sea kayaking operation, the multi-award-winning ‘SeaCanoe’, in Phang Nga Bay. Today he runs John Gray’s SeaCanoe, also based in Phuket. For more information call Tel: 076-254506. www.johngray-seacanoe.com

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