Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Ranoush Kebab

You know those crunchy, tasty brown bits you get when you roast lamb? How they always seem so little when compared with the rest of the roast - it's almost like we make do with the soft succulent pink interior because of the tasty brown bit shortage.

Walking past Ranoush Juice, the lure of the Shawerma kebab called me. I fought it off, but when I saw what was on the vertical rotisserie my tastebuds got the better of me: an entire chunk of rotating crunchy brown bits. I waited patiently while the cashier answered the phone - another belligerant Middle Eastern man with thick black eyebrows. He spoke angrily in Arabic down the phone, then looked at me and made the smallest of gestures with his index finger: I knew what to do.

"Lamb shawerma, please."

He continued the conversation, now sounding mollified but still with a thin edge of violence. I imagined that he was organising the next White Slave auction in Yemen. I paid my £3 and the woman behind me also got the look and gesture, but she had a question so he was forced to stop his conversation and attend to her.

One of the chefs daintily patted the viscous hommous down in the cold tray while I waited for the other to make my kebab. He laid down a small piece of khobez bread, a streak of tahini/garlic sauce, two slices of tomato, a long slice of pickled cucumber and some onion. He shaved the lamb, removing the maximum of crunchy brown bits to reveal pink succulence underneath.

Biting into my kebab rewarded me with juicy pieces of lamb fringed with crispy tasty edges. The meat was marinated with a complex but subtle spice mixture perfuming each mouthful. I'm not used to deconvoluting Middle Eastern spicing so I can only guess at what was present. I detected sumac and cardamon, but also something vaguely floral, rosewater perhaps, although that seems far too delicate for the roasting process.

The way the lamb chunks are speared onto the rotisserie means that all those edges get to go brown and crisp unlike a whole leg of lamb. You can only get lamb and chicken kebabs on Edgeware Rd, unlike the beef ones in Canberra. Mind you, those were never worth getting because Ali Baba only ever used low-grade minced beef.

Ranoush Juice is part of the ubiquitous Maroush restaurant enterprise. The Ranoushes seem to be the cafés and casual affairs whilst Maroushes are sit down restaurants with varying degrees of poshness. These 'oushes are not to be confused with the Fatoush chain (which incidentally is a kind of Arabic salad) that are competitors along with Al-Dar who have three restaurants.

I don't think you can find a tastier hot meat roll for £3 in London.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Comforting Food Memories

Comfort foods soothe mini-attacks of homesickness - or in this case salve the difficulties of new cities and brutish crowds. For me, my comfort foods are a mish-mash of Chinese and Western. Traditional comfort foods such as mashed potato, roast chicken or lasagne seem exotic to me - these are what you'd eat for special occassions.

Some of my comfort foods are:
Chicken curry made with Malaysian curry powder and a hint of belachan
Fried rice with bacon and egg
Egg-rice (daan faan)
Pork with potatoes and soya sauce (lou chi yeuk)
Steamed pork mince with preserved cabbage (ching chi yeuk)

When I was growing up, my mother attended a cake-baking course in the evenings after work. The whole extended family used to look forward to her coming back because she would usually have a slice or several of what she had helped make. Western style cakes where highly prized as exotic delicacies in Kuala Lumpur during the 1980's and very expensive; mainly because the ingredients (eggs, butter, cream, western fruits) where all imported.

I remember my mother sourcing and testing all manner of ovens (well, two) in her cake making endeavours. She'd already experimented with hand-held beaters (unsatisfactory) so invested in a Kenwood Chef. She had some success with what looked like a camp-oven - a round silver dome that sat on the floor with a glass viewport. It used to get very hot and my mother always cried at us to keep droplets of water away from the glass in case the rapid cooling cracked it. Finally she found the perfect baking oven with both upper and lower elements.

This beige and brown cube sat in the store room and presided over many date cakes, chiffon sponges, pizzas and breads. My mum was especially fond of making date cake (which as a child I never saw the appeal of those brown sticky loaves) and bread. I remember once my aunts were using the oven to make a cake. My mum had just come home and asked which tin they used to put the batter in as she saw that all of hers were still in the cupboards. Suddenly my aunts rushed to the store room as they realised they'd put a bright yellow plastic container into the hot oven. It came out looking like a muffin with lurid yellow frosting on the edge. It smelled good, if a little plasticky, but health-considerations meant we threw it out.

During my stay in Australia I started a book of personal mementos and recipes. My mother gave me two of her favourite cake recipes from her baking days. Today, whilst sampling the sushi at the Selfridges food hall, I spied a Walnut and Coffee cream cake. This kind of cake reminded me of my mother and the flavours that she likes in cakes and desserts. Of course this was far too unhealthy and sweet with its sugary buttercream frosting and not nearly nutty enough according to her recipe, but I thought of her when I tucked into my slice.

Sushi at Selfridges

The proprietress at Silverside meat let me in on a little secret about fish in London. She used to be the buyer for the Food Hall at Selfridges and said that the best value sushi in London comes from that very same place: next to the smoked salmon, but not Yo! sushi (heaven forbid!).

I bought a £10 tray of pre-prepared sashimi after watching the chef prepare special trays of takeaway for a Singaporean lady. There were cheaper trays available, but I wanted to try the sweet shrimp and surf clam.

Overall the sashimi is pretty good, better than the Sydney Fish Market, but a poor second to what I've had in Japan - the only other place I've eaten sweet shrimp. In Nagoya, these were crisp, fresh, succulent and almost floral in their sweetness. Here, they were okay, albeit a touch too soft and borderline slimy. The meaty surf clam was tasty and the tuna the best I've eaten outside of Japan. Sydney Fish Market tuna is just not cut correctly and contains a lot of ligament and stringy bits. These red slabs were tender but firm yet melting in the mouth. My favourite sashimi fish is salmon, usually because it's hard to go wrong with salmon, and these large, smooth and thick slices of orange shot with white slid into my mouth meltingly. I didn't think much of the sea bream present, perhaps I should have asked for a customised plate with the wild sea bass. Sea urchin roe was also on offer, but for £5 /100g, it was a bit dear.

One thing I did find disconcerting was the intensity of the soy sauce in those cute fish dispensers. I thought it too packed with flavour enhancer for the delicate fish. I would have preferred a lighter touch.

This sashimi dealer supplies Nobu, my source at Silverside told me. So I feel assured that I have experienced the best takeaway sashimi that London can offer. I didn't find the prices exorbitant either but just in line with everything else in this expensive city.

If I were to have a sashimi party I would order here, but probably stick to tuna and salmon until I've built a rapport with the sashimi-chef and he can tell me if other fish are worth getting on the day.

Church St Market, off Edgeware Rd

We all hear celebrity chefs on TV rhapsodising about the joys of shopping in a marketplace - smelling the fruit, squeezing the vegetables. Until now, I never really understood this as marketplaces, i.e. those quaint jobs with rickety stalls, strange smells and shouting stall holders were not part of my food landscape in Australia. They've always been to me some sort of contrived ideal that didn't really exist. Besides, the closest thing to these olde marketes was the Fish Market in Sydney and even then it was very clean, covered with not a rickety stall in sight. Yes, there is the Farmers' Market in Pyrmont, but linen covered stalls pushing overpriced raspberry juice and fancy sausage isn't really the kind of marketplace I'm talking about. But perhaps the Victoria Markets in Melbourne are the closest to the real thing.

Living in London, the food landscape is very different. Supermarkets rule the roost, but the range on offer, especially in the inner city, is very small - á cause de small shops and lack of space. It's impossible finding fresh beetroot at a Sainsbury's Local or a Tesco Express - you'd have better luck at a Waitrose, but still, it's overpriced. The place for fresh fruit and vegetables is indeed ye olde streete market. Well, not quite so old because the sellers are purely there to make money with no pretence at recreating some Tudor-style shopping experience.

Church St Market near Paddington Station is open everyday except Sundays. Today as I walked down the centre avenue, Arabic women clad in black billowed past, nothing but their dark eyes shining seductively above their veils. I passed stalls selling polycotton sheets and pillowcases, household cleaners and a dubious fishmonger with a flurry of shiny flecks flying around him. A lingerie stall caught the eye of a short man wrapped up in a tweed coat and tea-cosy hat. He fingered the lacy red and gold bustier hanging cocooned in plastic above him - waiting to emerge like a butterfly on the right woman.

I saw the most beautiful eggplant in the world. £3/kg is not cheap but these deep-purple gems were shiny and perfect. The slightly flawed ones, albeit in a very minor way, were £2/kg. Large red capsicum beckoned me and I bought one for 20p. I walked past the two young boys sitting at a fold-up picnic table selling pirated CDs. "£3.50 a CD, any one you like," they called. Later on as I past them they yelled at the two girls behind me, "What you looking at, slag!" More veiled Arabic women, some in wheelchairs waving sticks; floated through the crowd looking for vegetables. The smoky scent of an incense seller wafted past and mixed strangely with that of the Tikka stall which belched charcoal and barbecue smoke around it. I wondered about the poor stalls nearby - those nylon trackpants for £6 each just absorb odours like a sponge.

At the end of the market was a Caribbean food stall selling jerk chicken, curried goat, plantain and other things for £3.50 a small takeaway. I'd just finished munching on a Manoushi (Middle Eastern bread with sesame, sumac and spices) so I was too full to partake. I located some cherry tomatoes for 40p a box and made my way back up Edgware Rd to home. Many shoppers, including myself, also patronised the nearby minimarkets. I bought some tangy Lebanese yoghurt and large flat khobez bread for lunch the next week.

Risotto et alia

The perfect risotto is effortless. With the right rice, it practically makes itself. For our pre-Valentine's day dinner I made us a mushroom and asparagus risotto with Vialone Nano rice. This I bought from the over-priced deli Raoul up the road from me. I wouldn't go there for their traiteur style meals, but they do stock an excellent, if slightly pricey, range of groceries. You can buy risotto rice with truffle, and foie gras in tins here.

I made my mushroom and asparagus risotto with Marigold vegetable stock powder - a bit of a cheat's way of doing it but it is okay, I think. Raoul sell a nice variety of cheeses and there's a crumbling of Pecorino Nero and a drizzle of truffle oil on top. I oomphed the mushroom content by using some rehydrated porcini mushrooms - perhaps a bit too oomphed as there was a hint of mustiness that I would have preferred absent in the resulting dish. Needless to say the truffle oil was also from Raoul.

Above you can see a salade composée with lebanese cucumber, tomato, olives and lebanese yoghurt. Dessert was a Syrian cheesecake I bought from the Arabic dessert place on Edgeware Rd. There is a crispy noodley topping made from semolina on the actual sweet cheese underneath.

Tonight's dinner is a fennel risotto made with chicken stock from Daylesford Organic Farm. There's a wonderful organic butcher up the road from Raoul, Silverside run by the friendliest HK proprietress I've come across. We chatted briefly about how one can place an order for fresh fish and pick it up from her shop as she partners with a Japanese chef to visit the Billingsgate markets on Friday mornings. I also bought some organic chicken marylands that I'm roasting with some lemon rind. I've always liked the taste of organic meat, but I make no illusions as to why I buy it - it's the taste. I don't buy it because it's, "Better for the animals" as a friend's acquaintance liked to justify. For if so, it would be better not to eat them in the first place, right? I vividly remember my grandmother slaughtering chickens in our backyard from childhood. The trick to removing the feathers is to blanch the whole bird in boiling water after it has been bled to death. Once, the bird had not quite died yet and was only unconscious. So, when she dipped it head first into the hot bucket of water, it woke up and screamed its head off. For years I thought that was how you killed chickens - by dunking them in boiling water - but could never figure out why it was usually so silent most of the time.

I've paired the fennel with a hint of thyme - a herb that I'm exploring at the moment. My Italian colleague informs me that finocchio, the Italian word for fennel, also means 'gay'. So here I present: Risotto al'finocchio (Gay Risotto).