Cookbook review: Malaysian Food

Is the proof of the pudding in the eating – or the reading?

Malaysian Food

When it comes to cookbooks, probably the answer should be both but being an armchair cook seems a perfectly reasonable approach to finding out about an unfamiliar cuisine.

I’ve been reading Malaysian Food by Norman Musa, the chef at Manchester’s Ning restaurant, but I’ll own up to not actually having cooked anything from it as yet.

Apart from the fact I’ve been travelling a lot recently, one of the reasons is sourcing some of the specific ingredients for this cuisine. But here, Musa proves to be exceptionally helpful, not only explaining what some of the ingredients are, but also including pictures and even his recommended brands.

I don’t know about you, but I find locating ingredients in Chinatown stores is often bewildering, so having some idea of what Belacab (shrimp paste) or Kari Ikan (fish curry powder) might look like in the shop, takes some of the fear of the unknown out of the experience.

And Musa provides a very patient commentary of Malaysian custom and his own experiences throughout the book. Such as this description of a street market, which not only informs the reader about some of the ingredients, but also evokes a colourful sense of the place.

“If I am with my mum, she would always get Nasi Lemak, Malysia’s national dish of coconut rice served with boiled egg, peanuts, crispy dried anchovies, cucumber, chilli sambal paste and sometimes chicken. While I eat, the street cats roam around vying for attention and scraps of food.”

The book is also full of evocative photography – from those market stalls of his home country to the individual dishes being created – everything is presented in a vibrant and engaging way.

Reading this has certainly whetted my appetite to get cooking – after a quick stop off at Manchester’s Chinese supermarkets for supplies.

Malaysian Food is on sale through Amazon or direct from the Northern Quarter restaurant and Ning can also be found on Twitter @itsaningthing.

Note: The cookbook was provided free of charge for review purposes.

Chocs away for Valentine’s, sleeksters

At least winter gives chocoholics the chance to indulge. After the gawdy wrappings of the Christmas pile-it-high variety packs, Valentine’s Day signals a fresh chance to get serious with those chocs.

And this Hotel Chocolat selection is one serious box of excuse to indulge with a loved a one.

The Sleekster Season of Love Selection box is made for sharing – look at the size of it for a start.

Inside, these are adults-only territory with many a tipple to be sampled. But we’re not talking a gritty globule of spirit hiding inside, these truffles are whipped to a blended frenzy.

There’s girly fluffy concoctions such as the impossibly light white chocolate encased Cosmopolitian with its vodka, orange liqueur, cranberry, orange and lime truffle centre.

But there’s also some more robust flavours – a dark chocolate blended with chilli which even the most macho man won’t mind picking out its sweetheart shape to try.

My personal favourite, being a dark chocolate fan, was the raspberry and prosecco heart – a truly divine ganache with raspberry juice, Prosecco di Grappa and raspberry liqueur.

In all there’s different 15 chocs featured in different multiples for that shared moment, should you decide to be that generous.

It’s a beautiful selection with the only thing that struck me a slightly incongruous being the ‘sleekster’ name. Maybe it’s just me, but I always think the addition of “ster” to a word belongs in the land of the TV sit-com.

It brought to mind Smithy handing over a selection box to Nessa in a tender moment on Gavin and Stacey, or even Ricky Gervais describing his own post-diet figure to colleagues in The Office!

But that’s a small diversion from the whole experience of sophistication which the generous box provides.

Roll on February chocolate lovers – the sleekster is here!

* The Hotel Chocolat Sleekster Season of Love Selection is available here for £19.50.

NOTE: The chocolates sampled here were provided free of charge for review purposes.

Fat chicks and fact checks

What happened to the idea that the customer is always right? When it comes to dining out, if this one woman’s experience is anything to go by, simply being able to request a meal prepared as you’d like it seems to be a prospect so terrifying, that all manner of excuse is employed.

In an attempt avoid a fattie meal in a British restaurant, diners on the forum three fat chicks on a diet suggest solutions which include  pretending to own dogs in order to take home leftovers and inventing mystery serious illnesses in order to be able to select off the children’s menu? Eating out really shouldn’t be this difficult, should it?

For those interested in Manchester’s food scene, The ManchesterConfidential top 26 restaurants provided some tasty morsels – and some blindingly obvious but much-debated omissions (not least Harvey Nicks, which has since been inserted into the list, and Gaucho).

These inconsistencies fuel the regular accusations from commenters that the site is biased to advertisers, an accusation which the editor and publisher vigorously deny and which this week led to this remarkable challenge to readers:

Now here is a challenge from Confidential. If you, or indeed anyone else, can tell us of a restaurant who have ‘bought’ a good review or influenced editorial because they are an advertising client, we shall apologise on the front page, donate £1000 to a charity of your choice and pay for a slap up dinner for the whistleblower at a restaurant of your choice.

Meanwhile, a little bird tells me that one of those that didn’t make it onto the main list (but that was noted as ‘very good’), the Malaysian restaurant Ning, is soon to lauch a web TV platform.

Already active on social networks including Facebook and Twitter, I’m told the professionally produced Ning TV! will be coming soon on You Tube, after the restaurant secured funding from Creative Credits.

For diners the other side of Pennines, the handywork of LeedsGrub blogger Katie makes for an intuitive, easy-on-eye restaurant venue browsing experience. Her Googlemap of every review for food and drink in the happening-est Yorkshire city is building into an excellent point of reference.

Behind the scenes of the F-word

Gordon Ramsay’s hunt for the best UK restaurant has had us couch cooks on the edge of our seats – but what is it really like in the heat of the TV kitchen?I caught up with SweetMandarin‘s Lisa Tse, whose hopes of getting the Manchester Chinese restaurant into the final were dashed this week, to get the insider’s view.

First of all, the question everyone wants to know the answer to, how scary is it being up close with Gordon?

Lisa didn’t seem to find him daunting at all:

“Gordon Ramsay is actually very different in real life to his TV persona. In real life he is friendly, charming, polite (i.e. no swearing) and smiles a lot. I think his swearing is all for the camera – but he’d probably do better without the swearing. I was amazed that he didn’t swear at me ! If he did, I probably wouldn’t have been able to cook!”

But surely when the heat is on, that kitchen must be hell?

“The F word kitchens are very hot because an Aga is constantly on. There are cameras pointing at you in all directions. There was only one sink – which was a bit awkward as both teams needed to use the sink at the same time.”

Lisa has become well-known among Manchester’s digital community, and spread the word of her Northern Quarter restaurant further afield, by utilising Twitter, and she told me that her followers had played a part in the selection of recipes for the programme.

“Gordon requested that for the starters we had to use squid as our ingredient.  So we opted for our bestseller, salt and pepper squid – and one of the Twitterer’s favourites.  For the mains we were allowed to choose anything from our menu – so opted for the house special (our Mum’s dish), the Mabel’s Claypot Chicken.

“I have always loved this home cooked rustic dish with its chunky chicken, lapcheung, bak choy and chinese mushrooms. I was so happy when 42 out of 50 of the F word diners voted to pay for this main course – throughout the series, we scored the highest main course vote.  For the desserts we were instructed by Gordon to cook Banana Fritters.”

The support the restaurant received from the local community, as well as those online fans, has been remarkable – even causing the Sweet Mandarin restaurant website to collapse at one point.

“The level of public/community support has been phenomenal. We’ve had 180,000 hits per minute on the website (which has caused it to crash). The phone has had at its highest level 250 calls a minute. Its been crazy and a brilliant response. “

And although viewers will have seen her knocked out of the running earlier this week, Lisa said she remains open for similar opportunities in the future and is not downhearted.

“”I learnt that our customers are really the best and I will do as much as I can to help them and continue to feed them my good food. I learnt that if you really believe in your offering, and continue to work hard and improve every day, then it will be recognised.

“I think that the scores speak for themselves. We scored 82 out of 100 and came second on the leaderboard, winning the title the Best Local Chinese Restaurant in the UK and I’m really proud of that achievement – its is an accolade of a lifetime and a huge honour which I dedicate to all of Manchester and to all Twitterers, as well as my Mother and Grandmother.”

Sweet Mandarin is at 19 Copperas Street, Manchester, M4 1HS. 0161 832 8848. @sweetmandarin on Twitter. The F-word website is here.

Bins, booze and the rightful return of small

Yes it’s backlash week! After the cooking and eating being dominated by the main event (Christmas Lunch) with all the chocolate, booze, pastry and other overload that entails, it was inevitable.

First the waste of it all. After discovering that  230,000 tonnes of food ends up in the bin over the Christmas period – that’s equivalent in weight to 4.6 million whole turkeys which often end up in landfill – I was taken aback to read that Wales now exports some of its food waste to England.

And not just over the border either – it travels all the way from Cardiff to Derbyshire!

As WalesOnline calculated;

An average of 500 tonnes of the waste a week are transported 140 miles in 25 lorry loads emitting 128 tonnes of CO2.

Then there’s the inevitable hangover. January is the month of the liver clean up in our household so for the rest of this month, I’m going to be seeking out the alcohol-free options.

Not being a fan of fizzy drinks (unlike this guy who has been collecting such things since 1985), it seems tricky to find soft drinks which go well with food. I’m going to try out various options and will post a review of what I find here in a few weeks. Any recommendations gratefully received.

And of course there’s the diet. Daft diets are already hitting the TV schedules and will undoubtedly be padding out the Sunday supplements today, so what a relief it was to read the interesting thoughts of Susie Orbach on the subject during her lunch interview with the FT this week.

The author of Fat is a Feminist Issue more than 30 years ago has a new book out (Bodies) which points an accusing finger at the beauty/health industry or “the merchants of body hatred”.

William Leith, her lunch companion, writes:

“Her point is that, if people are anxious and needy, they make better consumers; if they are anxious about something as fundamental as their bodies, they are easy prey for marketers. And things are getting worse. “In my mum’s day”, she says, “you needed to be beautiful for a very short time to catch your man. It didn’t start at six and go on until you’re 75, right?”

Finally, I was delighted to see the year start with the Plain English Campaign getting stuck into one of my personal bugbears – the use of word ‘regular’ to describe drinks.

As The Telegraph reported;

The Plain English Campaign – which battles against the use of gobbledegook – says cafes should stop offering ”regular” coffees but merely ask customers if they want ”small, medium or large”.

A campaign spokeswoman said cafes were pointlessly using a meaningless term when describing a drink size as ”regular”.

Hurrah! OK, I know I’m a grumpy old woman, but finally I feel vindicated having for years asked for “just a small one”, often to annoyed mutterings from serving staff.

Five New Year’s resolutions for foodies

New Year’s Resolutions don’t work. Everyone knows so and last week a study proved it . But, as I reflect on the fact that another year has started and I’m still unable to speak Mandarin (or Italian, or Spanish), I’m thinking that maybe the failure rate is in part because resolutions are very personally focused, made around our own inadequacies or based on those niggling guilty areas – exercise, sensible diet, drinking, smoking etc.

Perhaps it’s time for change in the approach, so in the spirit of the new decade, how about resolutions which are based around collective effort?

Here’s five resolutions around food which are easily achievable on an individual basis, but which would have a far greater impact if adopted by a group.

  1. Grow something edible.
    Anything really. Even growing a pot of herbs in the kitchen means one less trip to the shops and a better taste than dried.
  2. Cut down on meat.
    Not just for the sake of personal health, but also because a reduced demand would go some way towards cutting the UK’s carbon emissions, according to the latest reports on this issue.
  3. Support the free range movement.
    If meat becomes a weekly treat, the cost of free-range or organic is less prohibitive. The Chicken Out campaign  started following the television series of the same name has already got almost 17,000 supporters and sends out regular newsletters about the cause.
  4. Get fussy about fish.
    According to the UNFAO, about 70 per cent of our global fisheries are now being fished close to, already at, or beyond their capacity. – The Earth’s Carrying Capacity – Bruce Sundquist.Find out if your fillet is sustainable via the website which also rates fish restaurants on their sustainability
  5. Cut down on waste.
    Throwing away a third of the food we buy is clearly a waste of time and money. Making tasty meals with leftovers and buying less to start with are a start but the website has plenty of inspiring ways to help cut waste too.

What do you think, of this list? Any more resolutions that should be on it? Let me know through the comments below , and here’s to a happy, foodie 2010!