Feeds:
Posts
Comments

ECUADOR IN LONDON

Ecuadorean chef David Reyes Prieto in Chatica

Ecuadorean chef David Reyes Prieto in Chatica

Living as a child in countries including Singapore and Italy made me understand the power of food to connect one to a place, especially when one is an ex-patriate. It was my personal nostalgia, the desire to cook with ingredients such as lemongrass or fresh ricotta, which inspired my first ever book, Food Lovers’ London. Researching the first edition of the book – in those long ago, pre-Internet days – gave me an insight into the multi-cultural richness of London’s food scene and how important food was for communities living here as a source of identity – and comfort. I was, therefore, very pleased to be approached by the ProEcuador team and invited by them to learn more about Ecuadorean food –a cuisine of which, as I explained candidly, I knew nothing at all.
The first port of call on my Ecuador in London journey was Chatica, a lively café, bakery and food shop, tucked away near the Elephant and Castle shopping centre. Stepping inside the door I am assailed by the sound of people talking, Latin American music playing in background, the clatter of cups and plates, and a lovely scent of baking. “That’s my land,” says Juan Carlos Yepez Franco of the ProEcuador team, appreciatively; “it smells like home.” As I sit and talk over breakfast with Juan Carlos and Ecuadorean chef David Reyes Prieto it becomes apparent that while many ingredients are shared, the differences between national cuisines in Latin America are at once nuanced and important.

Chatica cafe, Elephant and Castle

Chatica cafe, Elephant and Castle

Humitas, Chatica

Humitas, Chatica

While the café is predominantly Colombian, it offers Ecuadorean dishes, among them humitas, a type of dumpling made from sweetcorn. “We steam them, but in Brazil they boil them” David tells me. The sweetcorn for the humitas “mustn’t be too young or too ripe, it has to be in the middle.” The corn kernels are “put in a mill and you grind it, grind it – it’s a wet paste.” The paste is seasoned, filled with cheese, garlic and annatto, then wrapped in the corn husks to make a parcel. “There’s a special way to fold it– it’s quite tricky, though it looks simple. We eat them with coffee and a chilli sauce – every household makes one – spring onions, chilli, onion and tomato, finely chopped or blitzed” We breakfast companionably on freshly baked pan de yuca – light-textured, mild in flavour – and humitas, which remind me of a moist cornbread, both definitely comfort foods that one would pine for. “Once you start eating them, you can’t stop,” says Juan Carlos happily
David talks me through important Ecuadorean ingredients both in the deli section of the Chatica and also in the nearby Chatica food shop, impeccably neat, with gaudy pinatas hanging from the ceiling. Annatto – either seeds or a puree – is an important ingredient – “it gives colour and makes the dish taste different.” Annatto is often used in the alino, a flavouring which can be made from onion, garlic, annatto, cumin seeds and coriander stalks. “Every grandmother or mum would have this in her fridge and when she fries a piece of meat or makes a soup she uses it for flavour. Everyone has their own version. My mum’s is different from my grandmother’s.” Grains, pulses and starchy vegetables, such as yucca or plantain are fundamental in Ecuadorean cuisine. Corn is widely used, “for us corn is the big white one, not the small yellow one.” Among the unfamiliar ingredients, I recognise one familiar one – a homely packet of Quaker Oats, used David tells me to make a drink, usually with pineapple. “It reminds me of home,” he says, “since I was little I know that brand.” “Me, too,” I tell him.

Ecuadorian cuisine I realise is characteristically frugal, with nothing wasted. “My grandmother never uses stock cubes. She would make oxtail soup or chicken soup with the legs, the feet, the heads, we use everything.” When it comes to protein, David tells me that it is “important for an Ecuadorean to have a piece of meat or chicken or fish in a meal. When you go to the market you ask for one kilo of meat with bones or one kilo without bones. That’s it. Two options.” He was surprised at all the cuts of steak he found when he came to England. “Fillet steak, sirloin – I had never seen them before.”
Both the Chatica café and food shop are owned by Cesar Balbuena, a Colombian who runs a successful business importing foods from South America. “When we started it 15 years ago, nobody was bringing them in, so we saw the opportunity. It was hard work and we made mistakes. I brought in one tonne of yellow potatoes by air and that was too expensive. That was the first mistake; we made others,” he laughs. Where once there were only a handful of three or four South American shops, he now supplies 500 customers. The Chatica shop at Newington Butts is widely known within the Latin American community; an important resource for people looking to cook the dishes of their homelands. “As I was importing the ingredients, I thought well, why not open a café and use our products? That’s how Chatica started. It’s a bit of mixture – mostly Colombian, because we are Colombians, but also Ecuadorean and Peruvian and we’re looking for a Bolivian chef. Every country has their own way. People miss their food and they come here and they find a little taste of their country.”

David, Cesar and Juan Carlos at the Chatica shop

David, Cesar and Juan Carlos at the Chatica shop

Pinatas hanging up at Chatica shop

Pinatas hanging up at Chatica shop

Following my visit to the café and food shops, I meet up with Juan Carlos and Priscila Nava of the ProEcuador team for an Ecuadorean lunch. Hidden down a narrow Soho side street, right in the heart of London, is Tostado, a recently opened Ecuadorean restaurant, an intimate place, with an appealingly rustic décor, with tiled floor, a wooden bar and whitewashed walls. This is my chance to try ceviche, prepared the Ecuadorean way. While Peruvian ceviche classically uses the acidity of lime juice to ‘cook’ the fish. “we don’t do this,” David had told me. “We cook the prawns or fish or chicken and then we use a marinade of tomato, lime and orange, and use some of the water from the cooking too.” It is a dish associated with the beach, where you find people making it. “It’s irresistible,” chimes in Juan Carlos, “to have a little ceviche at the beach. It’s a must!”

Ecuadorean Prawn Ceviche

Ecuadorean Prawn Ceviche

 

Popcorn and toasted corn

Popcorn and toasted corn

 

Ecuadorean prawn ceviche with popcorn

Ecuadorean prawn ceviche with popcorn

Sitting in Tostado, we have a long and pleasurable discussion on ceviche. Usually, ceviche is served cold, but there are warm versions, Juan Carlos tells me. “I remember my mum doing one where the prawns are freshly cooked and she mixed everything together and served it at once.” In Ecuador, ceviche is often served with maiz tostado (roasted corn) after which the restaurant is named. “You often have ceviche with popcorn which is very, very popular. The popcorn goes on top and soaks up the juices.” He gestures and I notice the popcorn machine in the corner. . Whereas in Peru, fish ceviche is more popular, in Ecuador, says Juan Carlos emphatically, “prawn ceviche is the one. We have the best prawns in the world. The prawns have to be fresh. In Ecuador people know whether a ceviche has just been made or has spent three or four hours in a fridge.”
The Ecuadorean prawn ceviche when it arrives lives up to the pride with which it has been talked about. It is at once subtle yet flavourful. The juicy prawns, flavoured with tomato, orange juice and red onion, are very good indeed, as is the light, fresh-tasting juice – which for Juan Carlos, “is the best part.” It arrives with both popcorn and toasted corn, which has a delicious nuttiness to it, irresistibly more-ish.
Acknowledging the rich Spanish heritage which is part of Ecuador’s culture, we also enjoy a special Easter dish called fanesca, traditionally only eaten during Holy Week. Around 80% of Ecaudor’s population is Catholic and the custom of fasting days has influenced the cuisine, which contains many fish dishes. It is a special dish, rich with symbolism, which although from Quito is very much a national dish, eaten even on the coast. Appropriately to a cuisine so rich in grains and pulses, fanesca contains twelve grains, which represent the Apostles and salt cod, soaked for several hours before cooking. Juan Carlos has vivid memories of his grandmother making the dish on a grand scale to feed her large family at Easter. “It was a labour of love. She wasn’t making it for herself, she was cooking it for her sons, her daughters, her grandchildren. All the grains needed to be soaked. I remember seeing all these bowls with grains in it soaking for days.” The fanesca at Tostado is subtle yet rich – a comforting dish with a delicious nuttiness to it from the assorted grains and salty savouriness from the salt cod.

Ecuadorean fanesca, a traditional Easter dish

Ecuadorean fanesca, a traditional Easter dish

Like other Ecuadoreans in London, Juan Carlos is delighted that Tostado has opened, showcasing Ecuadorean food in the heart of the city’s West End. “I’ve been here several times. I think it’s the best place for Ecuadorean food. When it opened, even the Ambassador came to the opening,” he tells me. I think back to my conversation with Cesar. I’d asked him whether he thought people in London were becoming more aware of South American food. “Now they know about Peruvian food. The rest of the countries not much, but Peruvian food yes!” We have a lot more interesting food exploring to do. Pleased to have learnt something of Ecuadorean food – and very happy indeed to have sampled it and in such convivial company – I step out into Ecuador into a Soho side-street and yet again marvel at London’s capacity to contain many worlds.

Jenny and Juan Carlos -happily dining at Tostado!

Jenny and Juan Carlos -happily dining at Tostado!

Image

Fish Hut at British Street Food Awards 2012

 

Street food has always had a special place in my affections. My earliest and most vivid food memories are of hawker stalls and night markets from my time as a child in Singapore – hungrily watching the satay man fan the flames as he grilled skewers of beef satay, watching the roti canai man deftly stretch and spin out the dough to form a flatbread, served with a side of curry sauce, crunching into freshly deep-fried pisang goreng (batter-coated fried bananas) . . .

The rise of street food in Britain, therefore – witnessed by the Eat Street collective and the sudden presence of stalls selling interesting, tasty food at food markets – is to be celebrated. This weekend sees the British Street Food Awards taking place in London for the first time, in the cobbled street outside Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant, so I went along to see what was going on. The sun was shining, the music was blaring and the place was heaving with people who were either about to eat, eating or had eaten an assortment of food from the street food traders there. Mexican burritos, kedgeree, artisan ice cream, bhel puri, mussels, rendang . .. the choice was huge and the queues were long.

Journalist Richard Johnson, founder of the British Street Food Awards, explained to me how about nine years ago how, following a heavy night’s drinking session with Marco Pierre White in New York,  he and Marco “in the need for serious sustenance”  had come across “the best burger I’d ever had in a park in Manhattan”  and wondered why there was no equivalent good street food in Britain. “I started looking into it and there was the beginnings of something coming out of the farmers’ markets’ movement, where people were selling foods like sausages from rare breed pigs. The idea of presenting food in interesting trucks and trailers came over from America. I thought ‘Hang on, let’s get some awards going as a benchmark, a line in the sand to say this is what can be done.” Now in their third year, this is the first time the British Street Food Awards have taken place in London. “The easy thing to do would have been to make it a London fad, so at the beginning we went to Ludlow Food Festival, which is rooted in the community, in local produce, that felt important. The second year we were in Suffolk at Harvest at Jimmy’s. Next year we won’t be in London – I want to take the Awards up north.”

As Richard talks about the  traders taking part in the Awards – explaining why what the food they are offering tastes so good, one can hear the relish in his voice. “There’s been a huge upturn in street food. People are getting more imaginative, mixing flavours, trying extraordinary ways to sell their street food. I think the next Jamie, the next Gordon, the next Heston will as likely come out of street food as from a restaurant. These people have to be costmongers, have to be big mouths, have to be enthusiasts – miserable gits don’t do terribly well in street food.”

 At Fish Hut from Southwold, Suffolk, Nick Attfield is doing a roaring business in his trademark fish and chips, using day boat, line-caught cod freshly fished from off the Suffolk coast, coated in a melt-in-the-mouth crisp batter. “I started selling fish and chips from a beach hut to publicise the run-down pub I’d bought” explains Nick, “and it’s taken off! Why do I do this? It’s fun!” 

Image

Lullabelles at British Street Food Awards 2012

 

Over at Lullabelles, keen baker Cathy McConaghy is serving cakes and cups of tea to an appreciative crowd. “We’d only been going for 3-4 months when we were nominated for Street Food Awards in the first year they started. We were absolutely over the moon just to be nominated and we thrilled when we won.” Summer is Lullabelles’ busy season, with Cathy touring the festivals. “Winter is quieter, which is fine, because we work so hard in the summer. It’s long days, long weekends in the summer, but it’s fun. You have to be tough. To be honest, nothing stresses me out any more. This VW van is 53 years old and breaks down every two minutes – you just have to go with it and get on with it.”

This morning the judging panel will be served “a banquet of street food” with the winners announced this afternoon. “The winner gets a sit down with Marks and Spencer and a sit down with Wahaca,” explains Richard, “They want to be of help, whether it’s putting something in their stores for M & S or something on the menu at Wahaca, they’re hugely experienced and can offer a lot.”

As the turn out for the British Street Food Awards demonstrates –  with long queues at each and every stall there –  the public appetite for good street food in Britain is certainly there.

Image

 

Image

Fish Hut at British Street Food Awards

Fish Hut

Mangoes have been a favourite fruit of mine ever since I was a child. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love them. Growing up, as I did, in Ghana, Trinidad and then Singapore, mangoes were the fruit of my childhood, plentifully and lusciously available. Documentary proof of my long-held delight in mangoes is contained in the family photo albums.

Me as a toddler reaching for mangoes in our garden in Ghana

Mangoes from our tree in Ghana - I look triumphant!

Finding mangoes when I lived in Florence as a teenager as rather harder, so they became a rare treat. I remember the thrill of finding a mango miraculously nestled in my Christmas stocking one year. Living in London, the mangoes found in British supermarkets were a disappointment: expensive, stonily hard and lacking in flavour. Chinese food shops in Chinatown proved a much better source and that was where I would go to buy mangoes, such as elegant, distinctively curved, smooth-fleshed pale yellow Thai mangoes with a pine note to their flavour. While researching my shopping guide Food Lovers London, I discovered that Indian food shops stocked boxes of mangoes called Alphonso – briefly in season during April and May. This was the mango as I remembered it – orange-fleshed, voluptuously textured and juicy.In one of childhood books, My Friend Mr Leakey, the magician Mr Leakey advises: “The only proper place to eat a mango is in your bath. You see it has a tough skin and a squashy inside, so when once you get through the skin all the juice squirts out. And that would make a nasty mess of people’s white shirts.” The author J.S. Haldane must have had Alphonso mangoes in mind.

A journey to Ealing Road in Wembley, Goodeats in Finchley Central or the Spice Shop in Drummond Street to buy boxes of Alphonso mangoes had become one of our springtime family rituals. Served after a meal with family and friends the most I might do in terms of preparation is slice the cheeks off, cut a criss-cross pattern and transform them into a mango ‘hedgehog’ for ease of eating. My favourite part of eating a mango, however, is eating the soft flesh off the hard stone – “cook’s perk” I called it in one of my books – the flesh somehow seems to taste more intensely here, rather like meat close to the bone.

A box of Alphonso mangoes

When it comes to inspiration for using ingredients imaginatively, creatively and deliciously one of my favourite chefs is Yotam Ottolenghi, so I asked him for his thoughts on mangoes. Ottolenghi, too, has happy memories of mangoes from childhood. “We had mangoes in Israel when I was growing up. A different variety from the Alphonso, larger, firmer and not as sweet. I’ve always loved mangoes. We would always simply peel it and eat it; perhaps, at the most, we might use a mango in a fruit salad. It would never have been used in savoury dishes. My family wouldn’t have dreamt of doing the outrageous things that I do with it!”

One of the culinary appeals of the mango for Ottolenghi is its texture. “Mango is a fruit that you can cook with,” he points out. “Unlike papaya which simply disintegrates, it’s got a low water content, so you can cook with it. It really keeps its identity in the dish – sometimes you want ingredients to soak up all the flavour, like a sponge, so like aubergines. Other ingredients retain their character in a dish – and every time you meet it in a bite, it’s there.”

“Because the Alphonso grows in India in the heat it has an extreme sweetness, perfumed from so much sun. Does really take you to India when you eat one. One of my recipes using Alphonsos was a curried chickpea salad – behind the dish was the idea of where the Alphonso mango comes from – so the chickpea salad was flavoured with mustard seeds, coriander seeds and turmeric. It’s a lot about texture. I wanted the chickpeas to be very soft to go with the soft Alphonso mangoes.” With his characteristic eye for the details of his dishes, Ottolenghi is very discriminating when it comes to which variety of mango to use. “For some of my salads that contain mango, I wouldn’t use Alphonso as it could be too dominant, a little bit too much,” he observes.” There’s a butterbean, cashew nut and rice noodle salad I make – Asian flavours, with lots of mint – I use normal mango in it, not Alphonso, for that dish I want a mango that blends in.”

Ottolenghi also enjoys using mangoes in sweet dishes. “Alphonso mangoes are one of the best fruits for ice cream,” he recommends. “It’s very easy to make an ice cream that’s not icy as it doesn’t have a lot of water in it. You can make it easily at home, even if you don’t have an ice cream maker. At Nopi we’ve just introduced a new dessert which is very popular, thought of by John our pastry chef there. It’s a combination of mango with lime: a little glass with a layer of mango at the bottom, kaffir lime curd in the middle, mango tapioca and diced Alphonso on top. All the different types of sweetness – the sheer sweetness of the meringue, the fruity sweetness of the mango – work very well.”

We're not the only ones to enjoy a box of mangoes . . .

Sago Gula Melaka

“Frog spawn!” said my husband when I told him what I was writing my next post on. He’s right. There is no getting away from it, cooked sago does indeed resemble frog spawn. Tiny, slippery, translucent globes, which even clump together in the way that floating frog spawn in a pond does. In England, the mere mention of sago arouses strong emotions, usually negative ones. Memories of school dinners and being forced to eat slimy, tasteless sago puddings . . .

My memories are from Singapore, where sago is served in a delightful pudding called sago gula melaka which consists simply of chilled cooked sago served with coconut milk and palm sugar syrup. The gula melaka refers to the sugar syrup poured over the sago, made from gula melaka, the hard, dark brown sugar made from palm sap and named after the Malaysian port of Malacca. When prepared properly, sago gula melaka is flavoured by the pandan leaf, the long, glossy, dark green leaf known in English as screwpine which adds both flavour and a distinctive light green colouring to many South-East Asian desserts. Although not aromatic in the way that, say, a bay leaf is, the pandan leaf adds a very subtle, yet distinctive flavour. As a child in tropical Singapore, a serving of sago gula melaka was a treat to be savoured: the bland, cool, refreshing, jelly-like sago with rich, creamy-textured coconut milk contrasting with the dark, bitter caramel flavour of the palm sugar syrup.

In England I never quite know how it will do down with my guests or, indeed, if it will go down at all. One charming friend to whom I served it said politely “I like the coconut milk and the palm sugar syrup . . .” On the other hand, when I taught a cookery class on Singaporean food at Rosalind Rathouse’s Cookery School and demonstrated how to make sago gula Melaka then served it up, fully expecting rejection, the young women in the class – none of whom had ever come across sago– all loved it! Now so unfamiliar as to be positively exotic, maybe sago’s time has come.

Sago Gula Melaka

200g fine sago or tapioca pearls
200g palm sugar (gula Melaka)
2 pandan leaves
1 x 400ml tin of coconut milk
a pinch of salt

Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Add in the sago pearls and, stirring, return to the boil. Cook for 10 minutes stirring now and then. Remove from direct heat, cover and set aside for 10 minutes. Uncover the pan, by which time the sago should be translucent, and drain in a sieve. Rinse the sago under cold running water and set aside in a sieve to drain thoroughly. Transfer the sago to four bowls rinsed with cold water, allow to cool, then chill until serving.
Place the palm sugar and 200ml of water in a heavy-based saucepan. Tie a pandan leaf in a knot and add in. Bring to the boil and simmer until the palm sugar has melted into a syrup. Strain into a jug and set aside to cool.
Shake the can of coconut milk thoroughly, then pour the coconut milk into a pan. Tie the pandan leaf in a knot and add to the coconut milk with a pinch of salt. Bring to the boil, then simmer stirring until slightly reduced. Strain into a jug, cool and chill.
To serve, slide a knife around each portion of sago and transfer onto serving dishes. Pour over some coconut milk and a little of the palm sugar syrup and enjoy!

A Liking For Laksa

Jenny's Laksa

On the list of foods I turn to for comfort eating, laksa comes pretty high. This South-East Asian, fishy noodle soup always reminds me of Singapore, bringing back happy memories of meals with my family there. While laksa is simply a one-pot meal, it’s the contrasting flavours and textures contained in that one bowl which make it special. The rich, spicy soup contrasts deliciously with the plain noodles, the cool pieces of cucumber and slightly crunchy bean sprouts. There is something very pleasurable about slurping up the slippery noodles and hunting for a juicy prawn or bouncy fish ball.

As is characteristic of South East Asian dishes, there are many, many recipes for laksa. One broad distinction is between ‘laksa lemak’, made with rich, creamy-textured coconut milk, and the tangy Penang laksa, made from a tamarind-flavoured fish stock, which I ate at Gurney Drive esplanade in Penang. A truly memorable laksa I enjoyed was chef Peter Gordon’s smoked chicken laksa, served in small bowls as a sensationally flavourful canapé at a smart drinks reception.
The recipe below comes from my Singaporean uncle, Kim Bong, who cooks a vast pot of laksa for family get-togethers, nipping out to pick the laksa leaf from his garden as a garnish just before serving it. Ingredients such as galangal, blachan, dried shrimps and Chinese fish balls can all be bought in Chinese supermarkets. The addition of dried shrimps – finely ground in a food processor – both thickens the broth and gives a fishy sweetness. I sometimes make this using home-made prawn stock as the base for an extra punch of seafood flavour. You can add in fried tofu, chunks of salmon, chopped up squid or different types of noodles as you wish. It’s one of those dishes that lends itself to experimenting with.
Uncle Kim’s Laksa
(serves four)
3 stalks of lemon grass
2 small onions, peeled and chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
a 5 cm piece of galangal, peeled and chopped
1 tsp blachan (dried shrimp paste)
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground chilli
4 tsp ground coriander
225g of bean sprouts, blanched
450g fresh thick round Chinese noodles
2-3 tbsp oil
2 x 400ml tins of coconut milk
75g dried shrimps, finely ground
200g Chinese white fish balls
8 raw peeled tiger prawns
salt
1/2 cucumber, peeled and cut into short fine strips
a handful of laksa leaf (Vietnamese coriander) or coriander sprigs

Peel the tough outer casing from lemon grass and finely chop the white bulbous part of the stalks. Blend together the lemon grass, onion, garlic, galangal, blachan, turmeric, chilli and ground coriander into a paste.
Divide the noodles and bean sprouts among four deep serving bowls.
Heat the oil in a large,, heavy-based saucepan. Fry the onion paste, stirring often, for 10 minutes till fragrant. Mix in the coconut milk and, stirring, bring to the boil. Mix in the ground dried shrimps and simmer for 5 minutes. Add in the fish balls and tiger prawns. Simmer gently until the fish balls are heated through and the prawns cooked; a matter of minutes. Taste and season with salt, if required.
Pour the coconut soup over the noodles and bean sprouts. Top with cucumber shreds and coriander and serve at once.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: