Although I first read about A Wong on the (sadly now defunct) Eat Love Noodles blog back in spring 2013, it wasn’t until this year that I finally visited, in the company of Mr Noodles himself, as well as fellow blogger, the Insatiable Eater and his partner. It was the innovative dim sum that I was so keen to try, as it’s rare to see the dim sum classics so cleverly modernised.

We met at the restaurant one sunny Saturday lunch time at the beginning of March, buoyed by the earliness of spring sunshine and with empty bellies at the ready.

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One of the things I really appreciate about A Wong’s dim sum menu is that items are priced (and ordered) individually, making it easy to order the required number whether you’re dining alone or in a group. The usual multiples of three makes it difficult to order for parties of two or four, but here, we simply ordered 4 pieces of most of the dim sum on the menu. In addition, we ordered a couple of items from the snacks section and, later, some noodles and dessert.

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On the table, chilli oils and goji berries (respectively, too fiery and too sharp for me) but I think my friends enjoyed the chilli.

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First to arrive was the smoked duck and jellyfish and pork crackling salad (£4.95), a beautifully balanced blend of textures and tastes. This perfectly whetted our appetite for what was still to come, and didn’t last long at all!

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Pickled cucumber (£2) was less immediately exciting but I loved the freshness of cooling crisp cucumber against the heat of the chilli and the sesame dressing.

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I’ve never come across Shanxi province honeycomb noodles with coriander and chilli dip (£4.50) before; I was fascinated by the presentation, for which sheets of pasta had carefully been folded into tubes and arranged within the confines of a bamboo steamer. For me, the noodles themselves were a little dry and chewy, but the dipping sauce was a genuine highlight.

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Quail egg croquette puffs (£1.75 each) feature the familiar delicate wrapping of a taro croquette (one of my default orders for any dim sum meal). Here, the lacy coat surrounded a perfectly soft-boiled quail egg, providing another superb taste and texture combination. The ginger and spring onion dipping sauce was a winner too.

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Time for sui mai, another dim sum classic, this time updated with a crispy curl of crackling. The pork and prawn dumplings, pork crackling (£1.30 each) were pleasant enough, but for me, it was not feasible to eat the dumpling and crackling in a single mouthful. I’d prefer plain sui mai and a bowl of crackling as a side dish.

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Baked roasted pork buns with a sugared coating (£1.50 each) were a riff on pork puff pastries and crunchy-topped bolo bao (pineapple buns). They were OK, but the pork inside lacked depth of flavour; I’d rather have the regular barbecue puff pastry version or a steamed char sui bao.

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Crab, seafood and beancurd cannelloni, pickled cockles were £3.50 each but our waiter advised us to order two portions, as each one is served cut into two pieces. These looked pretty but I found them a little bland compared to many of the other dim sum.

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Har gau (shrimp dumplings) are another regular dim sum order for me. These clear shrimp dumplings, sweet chilli sauce, citrus foam (£1.30) arrived wearing bubble bath robes – pretty as a picture but the foam didn’t add much to the eating experience. Still, the "oooh" moment when the bubbles caught the sunlight was fun!

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Probably one of the most striking dishes, visually, was the scallop puff with XO sauce (£2). These vibrant orange blooms were super crunchy, and the XO sauce packed a punch, though I’m not sure I could detect much of the scallop flavour inside. Still, its silky texture was much in evidence. I enjoyed these!

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I didn’t know what to expect of foie gras sticky sesame dumplings (£2 each) so I was very happy to discover they were essentially small jin doy, a sweet pastry treat that I often buy from Chinese bakeries. The spherical shell is a sticky, chewy delight and there’s usually a pellet of sweet red bean paste inside; in this case, the red bean paste was replaced by a (sadly very tiny) piece of foie gras. I liked the aesthetic impact of using both black and white sesame seeds but the foie gras was too small to give much flavour against the glutinous rice wrapper.

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There were two variations of sui long bao on the menu – Shanghai steamed dumplings, ginger infused vinegar (£1.50 each) and Yunnan mushroom, pork and truffle dumplings (£1.75 each). All of us audibly sighed in appreciation at the heady aromas of truffle that wafted across the table as soon as the latter were delivered. With very careful lifting, I managed to retain the broth inside mine, though the wonderfully thin wrappers meant this was a challenge not all of us passed. The dumplings were utterly delicious, one of the best of the meal. The ginger vinegar dumplings were pleasant but I’m a overly sensitive to sharper flavours, so personally, I’d have preferred the vinegar relegated to a dipping sauce.

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This rather alienesque little number is the deep fried prawn ball with abalone and chilli vinaigrette (£1.75 each). These are deeply savoury, bouncy balls of protein that, once again, contrast nicely with the texture of the crunchy threads around them.

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By this stage, I was thoroughly stuffed, and had I been sensible, I would have stopped there. But I was far too easily persuaded by my eager companions, that we should continue on to some noodles and dessert. Well.. they didn’t have to twist my arm too hard!

Mr. Mak’s tossed noodles with oyster sauce and shrimp roe (£8) came with a pipette of sauce and a side dish of broth. While I enjoyed the shrimp roe flavours, I found the noodles a bit dry and the accompanying broth quite bland.

The noodles in the won ton noodle soup (£8) were better, but again, I found the dish a little lacking in depth of flavour. I would have liked more greens and wontons, both.

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Beijing yoghurt with chilli barbecued pineapple and sichuan pepper ice cream (£6.50) came with a certificate of authentication for the yoghurt, which is apparently a very highly respected brand in China. The yoghurt was OK, though I didn’t find it anything special to justify the hype (or import). But the barbecued pineapple was delicious; it paired superbly with the sichuan pepper ice cream, but what a shame the portion of ice cream was so tiny! Even if we hadn’t been sharing desserts, I’d have been disappointed in this tiny pellet.

(Incidentally, if you like the sound of sichuan pepper ice cream, here’s my own recipe for it, from last summer).

Our second dessert was tobacco smoked banana, nut crumble, chocolate, soy caramel (£6.50). This was presented with pomp, the hot caramel sauce poured onto a chocolate sphere from great height, until its warmth melted through the chocolate shell to reveal the ice cream within, Bob Bob Ricard style. For me, the overall taste was far too sweet; cloyingly, tooth-achingly so. Having enjoyed tobacco chocolates from Artisan du Chocolat, I was also disappointed that the flavour and kick of tobacco didn’t come through more clearly. Still, it was eagerly eaten by my friends, so it’s a matter of personal taste.

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Stuffed to bursting, we finally requested the bill, noticing that the previously packed-to-the-rafters dining room was virtually empty by the time we finished our long and leisurely lunch. With service, the bill came to just under £32 per person. Dropping noodles and desserts from our order (which would still have left me comfortable satiated) would bring that down to £23.50 per person.

Finally, a great and reasonably-priced dining choice in the vicinity of Victoria station!

Although I’ve expressed minor reservations about some aspects of a few of the items we ordered, in the main part, I found the meal very enjoyable indeed. The dim sum was as innovative, exciting and delicious as I’d been promised and I’m keen to visit for more soon. Based on the two noodle dishes, I’m curious about how well the rest of the menu performs; if you’ve been for dinner, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

A. Wong on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

 

The generation of cooks before me bemoan the price of lamb shanks. Lamb shanks were once a really cheap cut, they say, but chefs made them trendy and demand and costs went up and, oh no, now they are just so expensive. And I nod, because I didn’t discover them in the days when they were cheap as chips, so their change in fortunes doesn’t really affect me.

But ox cheeks? That’s a different matter. For the last few years, I’ve become more and more single-minded about ox cheeks being the best cut of beef for braising and, simply put, no other stewing cut will do. So imagine my distress when I noticed that ox cheek is now £7.49 a kilo at Waitrose – yes, the price is creeping up. It’s no surprise really, given ox cheek’s popularity on restaurant and pub menus, but there’s still a part of me selfishly wishing that more shoppers would carry on dismissing it as some odd or offal-ly cut.

And yes, I do realise there are those who’ve been cooking ox cheek for years and years and years; I’m still a Johnny-come-lately in their eyes!

I don’t help my case in hoping the enthusiasm for ox cheek will die down again – when I bought the ox cheeks for this recipe, another customer came to the meat counter while the butcher was carefully cubing it for me (far faster with his sharp knives and experience than I am at home); I ended up telling the waiting customer how wonderful a braising cut ox cheek is and, when she expressed more interest, we chatted about potential recipes. Now I’m torn between hoping she’ll go ahead and discover for herself just how good it is and wanting her to dismiss it as the ravings of a talk-to-strangers crazy lady. Hey, I’m a contradictory creature, what can I tell you?

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A couple of weeks ago, when we made baked chorizo, cod and potato, I mentioned foul weather being the inspiration for hearty dishes. As we move into March it’s still pretty cold, though the rain has been punctuated by some gloriously sunny days. I’m still craving comfort food.

We made this simple Chinese-Style Braised Ox Cheek for visiting friends and it was utterly delicious. We followed this BBC Good Food recipe almost exactly, but added button mushrooms; mushrooms work so well with Chinese flavours plus they’re a favourite of mine in any meat stew. One of the things that drew me to this recipe was its recommendation of ox cheeks as a perfect cut for the dish.

Please note, this dish makes no claims to be authentically Chinese – the technique of flouring and browning the meat is a firmly European method of stew-making, as far as I’m aware. However the Chinese five-spice, anise, garlic, ginger and soy sauce create a distinctly Chinese flavour profile that is very satisfying!

Chinese-Style Braised Ox Cheek

Serves 6

Ingredients
3-4 tablespoons cooking oil
6 garlic cloves, crushed (or equivalent good quality garlic puree)
Large thumb-size piece fresh root ginger, peeled and shredded (or equivalent good quality ginger puree)
1 bunch spring onions, cut into 4 cm lengths
1 red chilli, deseeded and thinly sliced (or equivalent good quality chilli puree)
1.5 kg ox cheek, cubed (or other braising beef)
2 tablespoons plain flour, well seasoned
1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
2 star anise
2 teaspoons muscovado sugar (or any sugar you have in stock)
3 tablespoons Chinese cooking wine (or dry sherry)
3 tablespoons dark soy sauce
500ml beef stock (from cube or melt pot)
200-300 grams small button mushrooms, washed

Note: ox cheek is the common name for this cut of beef, but it’s also sold as beef cheek in some shops.

Note: I was introduced to Gourmet Garden’s herbs and spices last year. These are pureed and packed into tubes, genuinely do taste just like using fresh, and last for 90 days in the fridge after they’ve been opened. We’ve really loved using them in our cooking and I’m really pleased they’re now available in some of the major supermarkets.

Method

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  • Heat two tablespoons of cooking oil in a large casserole and fry the garlic, ginger, spring onions and chilli for a few minutes until soft. Tip into a bowl and set aside.

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  • Toss the beef in seasoned flour, add more cooking oil to the pan and brown the meat in batches, adding more oil as and when needed. Don’t try and brown too much meat in one batch as this causes it to steam. It took us 4 to 5 minutes to brown each batch. Put the browned beef into a large bowl or plate and set aside.
  • Add the five-spice powder and star anise into the pan, add back the spring onion mix and fry together for a minute. Add the sugar and all the browned beef. Turn the heat to high, add the Chinese cooking wine or dry sherry and mix vigorously, scraping any meaty bits at the bottom of the pan into the liquid.
  • Preheat the oven to 150 C.

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  • Pour in the soy sauce and stock, bring to a simmer, place the lid onto the casserole and transfer to the oven. Cook for 2.5 to 3 hours, stirring after the first hour.

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  • An hour before the end of the cooking time, add the button mushrooms and stir them in.
  • If the stew has a lot of liquid, remove the lid half an hour before the end of the cooking time, to allow it to reduce a little.

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  • When the cooking time is up, the beef should be very very soft. Taste, season if necessary and serve.

We followed the original recipe’s serving suggestion of pak choi (which we stir fried with a little garlic and sesame oil) and basmati rice.

As we were cooking for four, we had some leftovers. These were delicious the next day, re-heated, the beef shredded into small pieces and served mixed into big bowls of pasta!

Does winter weather make you long for hearty stews too? If so, what’s your favourite recipe and which cuts of meat do you like to use?

 

Guest post by Diana Chan.

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Chinese New Year falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice, which this year is on the 31st of January. In Cantonese-speaking Chinese communities everywhere, people greet each other with a hearty Kung Hei Fat Choy! to bring prosperity to the new year.

Chinese New Year is the most intensely celebrated festival in the lunar calendar. It is important that the year starts right, as the beginning of the year influences what comes next. Kung Hei Fat Choy! 恭喜發財literally means wishing you to make a fortune. While I think the English greeting Happy New Year contains the essence of all good wishes and is an excellent example of less is more – happiness is ultimately what matters most – the Cantonese prefer to be more specific.

Kung Hei Fat Choy! can be followed by good wishes that are relevant to the recipient, and there are dozens of commonly used ones to choose from. Just like receiving gifts that have been thoughtfully chosen, receiving a good wish for a desired thing is a joyful feeling indeed.

A Chinese New Year greeting for women: may you be forever young 青春常駐; a greeting for the career ambitious: may you have unobstructed ascent to the very top 平歩青雲.

The first time that we see children in the new year – one’s own children whatever their age, and the unmarried offspring of family and close friends – we give them small red envelopes with money inside for good luck. There are wishes for them too – be healthy 快高長大for the very young and do very well 步步高升for the others.

Desirable things are not only wished to others. Good wishes written in brush and ink calligraphy or neatly printed on pieces of red paper would be prominently displayed around the home to bring the desired blessings to the family. Red is the colour of celebration and good luck.

Cantonese new year customs are a practice in the power of positive thinking and the belief that more is more. In addition to saying, hearing, seeing and giving – good wishes are also delivered via food. An ingredient with a name that sounds like something desirable is used to increase the chances of achieving the hoped-for outcome. Because it is a monosyllabic language, many Chinese words have the same or similar pronunciation. This is a feature that allows much play on words, although not across dialects. For example, two words might have the same pronunciation in Cantonese but not in Mandarin.

Many Cantonese restaurants offer a celebration menu throughout the new year period. When a dish is brought to the table, a well-trained server announces its fortune-bearing name to the guests. Banquets to celebrate the new year are held throughout the first month of the lunar new year, especially for business entertaining. Dishes typically include expensive ingredients, not only as a sign of respect for the guests but also because it is important to the host – being lavish in entertaining encourages prosperity to continue.

Families that enjoy celebrating the new year in traditional ways eat food with names intended to bring blessings of good health, success, prosperity, happiness, togetherness and harmony.

Here is an example of a Chinese New Year dinner in a Cantonese family. Literal translations of the names of the dishes will not convey their meanings so I will not attempt it, except for the key word that associates the name with the key ingredient. The association of a blessing-bearing name with a dish is completely at the discretion of the cook. If you have the occasion or the interest to make such a dinner, you do not need to prepare these same dishes; as long as you use the same key ingredient, you can give the same name to your own creation.

I would like to convey my wishes to you, too, via this virtual celebration meal.

May you have:

美景生輝 Fantastic opportunities to show off your talents

Soup of ox tail, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, onion, dried tangerine peel, ginger

Key word: 美, beautiful. Key ingredient: tail 尾

A Cantonese family meal on any important occasion such as new year, mid-autumn festival or a birthday includes a soup that takes hours to simmer. These soups are believed to have health-enhancing properties. The addition of dried tangerine peel and ginger is what makes this ox tail soup Cantonese.

Diana CNY-oxtail soup

 

龍馬精神 Abundant energy and good spirits

Lobster in a ginger, spring onion, garlic, and black bean sauce

Key word: 龍, dragon. Key ingredient: lobster 龍蝦

Lobster in Chinese literally means dragon prawn. The dragon symbolises power and vitality. The name of this dish can be used in any preparation that contains lobster.

Diana CNY-lobster

 

喜氣洋洋 Many celebrations and joyful occasions

Filet of lamb stir fried with leek, garnished with red chilli

Key word: 洋, abundant. Key ingredient: lamb 羊

This is an everyday dish given a festive name. It does not require any special ingredients and is super easy to make – see Diana’s Stir Fry 1-2-3 for how-to. If you would like to get into the spirit of Chinese New Year but not cook Chinese food, then you can give the same name to roast leg of lamb, grilled lamb chops or any dish with lamb.

Diana CNY-lamb

 

金玉滿堂 Money money money

Chicken stew with lily buds, hair moss, dried mushrooms on a bed of silver fungus and lettuce

Key word: 金, gold. Key ingredient: lily buds 金針

If I was unable to make a special trip to a Chinese grocery store to buy lily buds, silver fungus and hair moss, all three of which have names associated with money, I could make a stew of chicken and pumpkin 金瓜 instead. Lettuce 生菜 is also a fortune-bearing ingredient in this dish; it rhymes with money grows 生財.

Diana CNY-chicken

 

花開富貴 More and more money

Broccoli with a sauce of crab and salmon roe

Key word: 花, flower. Key ingredient: broccoli 西籣花

The name of this dish literally means blossoms and wealth. It is customary to have colourful fresh flowers in the home during Chinese New Year. While the crab sauce is delicious, white is not a celebratory colour and something red is needed as a garnish. When it is not possible to get crab with red roe, I scatter salmon roe over the sauce instead.

Diana CNY-broccoli

 

幸福團圓 Many blessings and harmony in the family

Sweet dumplings with sesame filling in a brown sugar and ginger broth

Key word: 圓, round. Key ingredient: round dumplings 湯圓

A circle symbolizes completeness and perfection and such a dessert is associated with a sweet life. It is customary to eat this kind of dumpling on the evening of the first full moon of the new lunar year, when couples celebrate being together.

The new lunar year’s first full moon happens to be on 14th February, Valentine’s Day. What a good occasion to offer and share a variety of chocolate truffles!

Diana CNY-dumplings

 

If you like the idea of consuming a blessing-bearing dinner but find the logistics of preparing a six-course Cantonese meal daunting, try combining two or more key ingredients in the same dish and get the same outcome with much less work. Here is an example of a three-course menu:

龍馬精神 美景生輝 Abundant energy and fantastic opportunities: a starter of lobster tail

花開富貴 喜氣洋洋 Prosperity and numerous joyful occasions: a main course of broccoli and lamb

幸福團圓 Blessings and harmony: a dessert of a perfectly round scoop of ice cream

 

May you have all of the above in a Happy Chinese New Year: good health, good luck, success, prosperity and harmony.

 

Guest post by Diana Chan.

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Fried rice is a joyful food! A one-dish meal of rice, colourful bits of meat and vegetables, it is basically cold rice quickly reheated in a frying pan, to which you add tasty ingredients to make a fast and enjoyable hot meal.

Fried rice is my favourite food for lunch at home on the weekends, or on weeknights when I am eating dinner by myself and have some cold rice in the fridge. It is the perfect food to eat alone – there is nothing in it that requires cutting so you can eat it with a spoon or fork, leaving one hand free to swipe a tablet or turn a page. While a salad or sandwich has similar virtues, there is something much more comforting for me in a hot meal, especially in the evenings.

One thing I like about making fried rice is the process of assembling contrasting textures, colour and flavour from whatever suitable that happens to be around. To make fried rice attractive, think confetti. Yang Chow Fried Rice, a classic Cantonese dish served in many Chinese restaurants, is a tri-colour affair made with red-tinted diced barbequed pork, yellow egg, and green peas or spring onions.

Fried rice in restaurants is often very greasy because a lot of oil is needed to stop rice from sticking to the iron woks. You don’t have this problem when you make fried rice at home. Making a delicious fried rice is quicker than boiling an egg, and requires not much more effort.

There are 3 easy steps: soften, cook and mix.

First step – soften the rice

  • Put a little oil in a non-stick frying pan over medium heat and add the quantity of leftover rice you would like to eat. Cold rice will be in clumps. Let the rice heat while you prepare anything else that will go in later. When you start to hear a sizzle and pop from the pan, after about a minute or so, sprinkle a teaspoon of water over the clumps; it will generate enough steam to soften the rice. Do not use more water as it can turn the rice soggy. After about another minute when the steam has done its work, press on the clumps with a spatula to break them apart.

Set 1, 1 Soften

Second step – cook what needs cooking

  • When all the lumps have been dealt with, make a clearing in the middle of the pan, add a few drops of oil and fry anything that needs cooking, such as an egg. Break and mix up the yolk and white, and sprinkle some salt all over the egg and rice. Use the spatula to break the cooked egg into rough pieces.

Set 1, 2 Make a Clearing Set 1, 3 Cook

Third step – mix in anything else

  • Lastly, add anything you are using that is already cooked or is fragile or heat sensitive. While the rice (below) was heating I opened up a tub of pulled ham hock to toss in, and then snipped some spring onions with kitchen scissors right into the pan. Mix everything together, taste and adjust seasoning. The rice is now done: an attractive, tasty, piping hot meal that takes no more than 10 minutes to cook from start to finish.

Set 1, 4 Mix Set 1, 5 Done!

I often make minimalist fried rice with just egg and some fresh herbs. I then over-season the egg to get a flavour contrast.

Fried rice can be made with many colourful and tasty ingredients, as long as they do not ooze moisture and make the rice soggy; I would not recommend raw meat or tomatoes for this reason. Things which disintegrate easily are not a good idea either, unless they just need warming up and can be stirred in last. The added items are preferably in small bits, so that there is some of everything in every mouthful. There are exceptions, of course – I will make an exception any time for chunks of lobster meat, for example.

You can add as many things to the fried rice as you want, but bear in mind that the more things you add, the longer it will take to prepare. Also, the more ingredients you add, the less quantity of each you should need – fried rice should be predominantly rice, in my opinion.

The sequence in which you add the ingredients within the basic three steps of soften, cook and mix depends on how much time an item needs to be cooked or warmed up. Depending on what you use, you may also want to switch or combine the first two steps of soften and cook. For example, you could sauté a chopped onion first, before you add the rice to the pan to soften.

The less effort required to make something delicious, the more enjoyment I get from eating it. That’s why, to me, fried rice is a fast feast.

When I like some cooked vegetables on the side, I cook them first in the pan before making the rice, to avoid having one more item to wash. Usually I will start by choosing something tasty, then something aromatic and, if needed, something else to add texture and colour to the fried rice.

Set 2, Crab

Crab, Ginger, egg white, chilli flakes

  • Sizzle the chopped ginger in a bit of oil before adding the rice; the oil will help carry the fragrance of the ginger throughout. Fry a leftover egg white if you happen to have one. While I would not encourage dumping any old leftovers into your fried rice, it is an opportunity to make good use of some odds and ends. Stir in a tub of white crab meat to heat through, and sprinkle over chilli flakes.

 Set 2, roast beef

Rare roast beef, garlic, leek

  • Sauté the garlic and sliced leek before adding the rice. While the leek is cooking, chop up some leftover rare roast beef. Stir the beef in at the end so it warms up but doesn’t really cook further, to preserve its colour. Scatter with some chilli flakes, or give it a few grinds of black pepper.

 Set 2, chorizo

Chorizo, fresh thyme, onion, egg

  • Sauté the onion before adding the rice. Meanwhile, cut the chorizo into small pieces. When the rice has been heated, mix in chorizo and thyme and stir until the juices from the chorizo gives the rice a lovely colour.

Set 2, ham

Pulled ham hock, onion, sugar snap peas

  • Sauté the onion before adding the rice. While the rice is heating, snip sugar snap peas straight into the pan with kitchen scissors (if you likewise prefer to avoid washing a chopping board). Let the rice cook a little longer than usual so the sugar snap peas have time to become crisp tender. You can sprinkle an extra teaspoon of water over the rice to create some more steam. Stir in ham last, just to warm up.

Set 3, palette Set 3, roast chicken

Roast chicken, roughly chopped ginger, fresh chilli, coriander, sultanas

  • Sometimes I like to assemble a palette of colours before starting to cook. Start with sautéing the ginger. Add the sultanas to the rice at the beginning so they benefit from the steam and get plump. The sultanas give a burst of sweetness somewhere in every bite, and makes this fried rice especially delicious.

Set 4, onion Set 4, egg
Set 4,peas Set 4, Done!

Shrimp, ginger, onion, egg, peas and soy sauce

  • If you like the taste of soy sauce, you can always add a teaspoon or two of it to the rice instead of water at the beginning of the process. This fried rice is comparatively complicated as it has many ingredients, including frozen ones straight from the freezer. Cook the ginger and onions first, then park frozen shrimp on the rice to defrost while the egg cooks, and finally add frozen peas to the mix and stir the mixture around until everything is piping hot. If you used only one teaspoon of soy sauce, you would probably still need to season the rice with some salt.

The next time you have some rice left over, freeze it in individual portions. When you want to make fried rice, blitz it in the microwave for a minute or so and you are ready to go.

 

Huge thanks to Diana for her wonderful post on making quick and delicious fried rice.

Do let us know your favourite combinations to add to fried rice and if you follow Diana’s instructions, let us know how you get on.

 

On a Saturday lunchtime, as I make my way from tube station to The Courtesan restaurant, Brixton is buzzing. I love walking down the long curve of Atlantic Road, peering at all the fish mongers, butchers and grocers, particularly fascinated by the number of items on sale that I don’t recognise and can’t identify. Only a short walk past the food shops, market and ever-vibrant Brixton Village, I find what I’m looking for.

Named for the Lady of the Court, the restaurant offers “modern dim sum” alongside selected teas, wines and cocktails.

Owner Hammant Patel Villa, a professional industrial designer with a passion for oriental food, was captivated by the stories and traditions of the original Chinese courtesan (and is at pains to dismiss the crasser modern meaning that the word has taken on). Originally, courtiers and courtesans were simply those who were regularly in attendance at the royal court. Many were nobles, but there were also members of the clergy, soldiers, business men and agents and even clerks and secretaries. Political lobbyists are perhaps the closest modern-day equivalent.

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For Hammant, the Lady Courtesan is a figure of mystery and elegance, power and knowledge, perhaps also a little romance and sadness. Her portrait hangs at one end of the main room and the decor of the restaurant pays homage; he points to a patterned wallpaper – he chose it to represent the tears of the courtesan, he explains. There is much dark wood, some a little worn with the patina of age, and the space is hung with elegant light fittings. The Birdcage bar is appropriately themed, with shelving units designed to mimic the real cages displayed above. Downstairs is the “Boudoir”, a dark and intimate space with its own bar, used for special events and available to book.

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I am really impressed by the drinks menu. For wine drinkers, nearly all the wines listed can be ordered by the glass or the bottle. There are three “desert wine” [sic] listings, though one is a plum wine and one a very dry sherry, so this section needs more attention. The beer list is short but more interesting than many, with a regular Brew, IPA and Chocolate Porter from Chapel Down Winery’s Curious beer brand and Imperial Lager and Cerne Dark Lager by Krusovice in the Czech Republic. There are champagnes and proseccos and a long list of inventive mixers for them. The usual comprehensive list of spirits, liqueurs, etc. is available. There’s even a sake. Soft drinks include a better range of juices than normal, though none are specified as fresh. The choice of teas is pleasing, ranging from Jasmine, Chamomile and White Peony & Rosebuds to Pu Erh, Lapsang Souchong and Iron Goddess of Mercy (£4.90), which I enjoy with my meal.

The cocktail list is particularly appealing; instead of following the same clichéd path of bitters this and vermouth that it offers more unusual creations such as China Ghost (£7.90, Wyborowa Vodka, Rose Liqueur, Lychee, Rose Peony) and Wang Zhaojun (£8.80, Violet Liqueur, Jasmine Tea, Beefeater 24 Gin, Wyborowa Vodka). Hammant says he likes to think of these as flavours the Courtesan might like, but that are also “ethereal, life and death in the same glass”. Both are utterly delightful!

I’m pleased both by the inclusion of tea in some of the cocktails and the pleasant change of there being some sweeter combinations for those of us that aren’t so keen on sour or bitter. There are also a few non-alcoholic cocktails, based mainly on the tea menu.

Once drinks have been ordered, the dim sum starts to arrive.

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Char Siu Puff (£3.90) are decent in texture but the pork is a little under-flavoured.

Pan Fried Pork Dumplings (£4.20) are excellent. The filling is juicy and very delicious, wrapped in a thin skin which is soft in places, crispy in others.

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Trio of Steamed Dumplings (£5.80) include one each of Prawn & Crab Dumpling, Wasabi King Prawn Dumpling and Scallop & Shrimp Dumpling. The wasabi nearly blows my head off, it’s incredibly potent, but once my eyes stop streaming, I enjoy the set.

Cheung Fun Tri (£5.20) comes with one each of Roast Pork, Prawn with Beancurd and Vegetables With Beancurd. Surprisingly, the vegetarian one is my favourite, with a perfect balance of tastes and textures.

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Char Siu Buns (£4.20) have an unusual style of dough, but are enjoyable nonetheless.

I ask for an order of Taro Croquettes (£3.90), one of my dim sum stalwarts and a good judge of a kitchen, I think. They are tasty, but the inner casing is far thicker than usual, leaving less room inside for the pork filling.

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Peanut Celery Salad (£3.50) is served warm. I hate celery, but do try the peanuts and love how they are soft rather than crunchy. Others enjoy the dish as a whole.

Stormy Seaweed (£3.90) is doused in a fiery dressing, a touch too fierce for me, but simple and a good match with the seaweed.

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Described as “spare pork ribs, first braised, then fried with Szechuan batter”, the Szechuan Style Ribs (£6.50) are fabulous. I’m not sure I’ve had spare ribs that have been breaded and fried before, but it works superbly well. Again, these are fairly hot on the chilli front, as I expected from the name.

Hot Frogs Legs (£7.20) are also utterly delicious, served hot out of the fryer. But beware – Hammant instructed his chef that he wanted the frogs to kick hard, so the chilli quotient is not for the faint hearted.

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I’ve always loved Black Sesame Balls (£4.50) but order them only rarely; they are so rich I can’t eat more than one and few of my friends like them. So it is a pleasure to have them here. The soft glutinous coat around a gooey black filling is spot on.

At the end comes Rose Peony Chocolate Truffles (£4.70). The ganache is made from cream infused with the white peony and rosebud tea. They are rich and dark and perfect to have with coffee, though the tea flavour hasn’t permeated much, that I can detect.

 

I am pleasantly surprised by the range and quality of the dim sum, having wondered ahead of my visit whether a design-lead space with a strong drinks focus would really do justice to the food. But I needn’t have worried, the dim sum is, in the main part, very good. Prices are reasonable too, especially for the cocktails list which is great value.

My visit also reminds me how easy it is to get down to Brixton, and a visit to those fish mongers, butchers and grocers is on the cards soon.

 

Kavey Eats was a guest of The Courtesan.

Courtesan Dim Sum Bar on Urbanspoon

Aug 072013
 

Guest post by Diana Chan.

Chinese Seal MINI

This evening I had dinner by myself and made a dish the way my grandmother would have done – simple, nourishing and delicious.

We are Cantonese, from the south of China.  After living many years in Europe I have observed that the Cantonese and Italians share a common approach to good food – take the best quality, freshest ingredients and do as little to them as possible. This time I made stir fried breast of duck with onion.

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Stir frying is easy – the 3 things to get right are cutting, seasoning and timing.

And you don’t need a wok – unless, of course, you happen to already have one or want a reason to get one.

First, cutting.  Duck and chicken breast, skinned and boned, and pork fillet are the easiest to cut into even-sized pieces for stir frying because they come in relatively neat blocks that you can just slice across.

  • Slice your meat into large bite-sized pieces.

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Second, seasoning.  To make a delicious marinade for the sliced duck (or chicken, pork, etc.) you need only add 3 ingredients to the duck and mix everything together well:  two swirls of soy sauce, a little sugar and some corn flour.

  • For those who prefer more precision, I suggest you use for each 150 grams of duck 2 teaspoons soy sauce, a pinch of sugar, and a half teaspoon of corn flour.  Let the duck marinate for 10 to 15 minutes while you are busy with another part of the meal – but if you are really in a hurry, then marinate for as long as the time you have.

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Soy sauce, sugar and corn flour make the perfect foundation for stir fried meat. I always use Kikkoman soy sauce – it tastes good, is naturally brewed and is widely available.  Cantonese cooks add a little sugar to enhance the flavour of savoury dishes, while other cuisines could achieve a similar effect with the sweetness of chopped onions cooked with the main ingredients.  Corn flour absorbs some of the meat juices and clings to the meat, making it feel more succulent to the bite.

Third, timing.  A meat stir fry needs the addition of a vegetable or something else to become interesting, and an onion is the best companion.  In the context of timing, an onion is the perfect stir fry vegetable:  it cooks quickly, but even for someone without any sense of timing it is difficult to really overcook.

  • While the duck is marinating, cook a sliced onion in a frying pan over medium heat with a little oil and some salt until it is translucent or becomes as coloured as you like, then put it onto a serving dish.  By this time the frying pan has become nice and hot.

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  • Add a bit of oil, then the sliced duck, and immediately toss and turn the duck about in the pan until most of it has lost the raw appearance.  Use for this task a spatula, wooden spoon or any tool you are most comfortable with – for me, it is a pair of bamboo chopsticks.
  • Then return the onion to the pan and stir around the mixture over medium heat until the duck is cooked to your liking.

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That’s it – done!

  • Put the mixture onto the serving dish, including any tasty bits sticking to the pan, and garnish as you like – scatter over a few sprigs of coriander, chopped parsley, or some crushed chilli flakes.

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To garnish my dinner – since we had been away for a long weekend and there was nothing much in the fridge – while the onion was cooking I microwaved some frozen spinach, plopped it onto a plate and placed the duck in the middle.  I thought adding the spinach would make a better photograph, although I would have been perfectly content eating just duck and onion with some steamed rice.

A stir fry is best made with not more than about 300 grams of meat, enough to serve two people with some vegetables and rice.  Once you have mastered the basics of this stir fry with soy sauce, sugar and corn flour, you could use other vegetables and add all sorts of aromatics at various stages of cooking and other seasonings as well.  The combinations are endless.

 

With thanks to Diana Chan for her first guest post. Please leave a comment to welcome her to the world of blogging!

 

Back in June I spent a lovely weekend attending the Oxford Food Symposium, held in St Catherine’s College, Oxford. It’s very remiss of me not to share the experience here on the blog, as I had a wonderful time attending delightfully diverse lectures, meeting fellow delegates and appreciating the excellent catering. But I made few notes and took no photographs, so it’s unlikely to make it onto the blog…

One of the best things about the weekend was making new friends. Diana and I discovered we had a huge amount in common: not only our interest in food, which was a given for all those attending the symposium, but our style of eating and cooking and much about how we view life and choose to live it.

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When we meet again in London, the week after the symposium, we exchange home made preserves. I am very taken by the beautiful hand-printed card Diane has slipped inside the cellophane around her kumquat marmalade.

I ask her to explain the design. She tells me about a well known proverb in Chinese that goes, “eating a small amount of something increases the enjoyment of its taste”. Diana adapted this to create her own motto, “knowing how to eat increases the enjoyment of tasty food”. When she talks about it, it’s clear how well it encapsulates her passion for food and the way that learning more about the history, traditions, techniques and recipes of the world enhances her enjoyment of food.

Chinese Seal

As for the stamp itself, that’s another lovely story: During the years she and husband Tack lived in Brussels (where they met), the Imperial Palace Museum of Beijing was invited to show an exhibition of cultural items at the Belgian Royal Museums for Art and History, which lasted for 6 months. One of the staff accompanying the exhibition from China was a master in traditional seal carving. Tack persuaded the master to take him on as a student and attended lessons with him every day until he, and the exhibition, returned to China. In the years since then, Tack has designed and carved many beautiful seals including this stunning one for Diana.

During some of our many rambling chats at the symposium, Diana mentioned how she loved the idea of sharing some of her own recipes and cooking tips but didn’t want to start a blog of her own. So I cheekily asked if she’d be interested in being a guest writer for Kavey Eats.

Tomorrow’s post is her first contribution and I hope there will be many more. Please take a moment to leave an encouraging comment for her and if you give her stir fry recipe a go, let us know how you get on!

 

A food blog will rarely give a full picture of a blogger’s eating habits, not least because of repetition of favourite recipes, which are cooked often but only blogged once, naturally.

But the other reason is that we seldom blog takeaways. I’m sure a few bloggers do, now and then. And I imagine there are even a few blogs dedicated to nothing but  takeaways. But most of us tend to ignore, in our writing, the nights in with a delivered pizza, Indian or Chinese.

Pete and I have always enjoyed takeaways, no doubt too many of them when we were younger, though we eat fewer of them these days. Pizza, Indian, Chinese… yes and also Thai, Turkish / kebabs and fish’n’chips.

Where once we used to call to place an order, and swear darkly when we realised we’d lost the leaflet (with both menu and phone number) of the place we’d fancied on a particular evening, these days we go online. Phone orders were always my job but when the digital revolution happened, Pete took over.

He’s been using Just Eat to place our orders for several months now, and has found it very convenient. After entering your postcode, the site provides a list of all the restaurants it has on its books which make deliveries to your address. You can easily filter these by cuisine and sort them by which are closest to you or which have the highest user ratings.

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The site takes into account which are open at the time you access the site, and lists those first. You can choose to also view those that are closed, with many allowing you to pre-order for when they do open.

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Click on a restaurant to view the full menu and use the straightforward “+” buttons to build your order. It’s easy enough to cancel something if you make an error or change your mind.

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Many restaurants also list special offers, such as free items based on the value of your order, though read carefully as some require you to make mention of these in the comments field to claim them.

Ordering online means you can pay with a card, which makes life easier if you don’t have the cash to hand.

There are weaknesses – when I usually order from a favourite Indian place, I ask them to make me an egg curry; it’s not on the menu but they are always happy to make it for me. There’s (quite fairly) no mechanism to do this online, as there’s no way to establish a price and include it in the payment. And some restaurants have forgotten to include their drinks offerings online so if you fancy the beer or cola you usually add to your order, you’re stuck! Both fairly minor issues.

Payment is straightforward, but do make sure you wait until the order is confirmed. As the Just Eat system needs to send for and receive confirmation from the restaurant, this does take a little more time than we’re used to in today’s world of click and confirm a second later.

The subjectof the confirmation email put a smile on my face by thanking me for not cooking!

One reason takeaway reviews don’t much feature on blogs is that they’re definitely not photogenic, as you can see.

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However, this takeaway from local Xian restaurant was excellent. Xian is the priciest of the Chinese takeaways in our area, by some margin, but the food is good and worth the extra.

Given the sheer cost of printing and delivering regularly updated takeaway leaflets through the doors of all their catchment neighbourhoods, I’m guessing that local restaurants are very glad of increased custom via sites such as this. From our point of view, we’ve found it more convenient too.

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COMPETITION

Just Eat have offered one lucky Kavey Eats reader a £50 credit voucher to use on their site, so you can enjoy a great local takeaway on them!

Their coverage across the UK is excellent. Type your postcode in to see if they list any restaurants in your local area.

 

HOW TO ENTER

You can enter the competition in 3 ways:

Entry 1 – Blog Comment
Leave a comment below, telling me which kind of takeaway is your favourite and why.

Entry 2 – Facebook

Like the Kavey Eats Facebook and leave a (separate) comment on this blog post with your Facebook user name.

Entry 3 – Twitter
Follow @Kavey on Twitter. Existing followers are, of course, welcome to enter!
Then tweet the (exact) sentence below.
I’d love to win £50 to use on @JustEatUK from Kavey Eats! http://goo.gl/TusfM #KaveyEatsJustEat
(Please do not add my twitter handle into the tweet; I track entries using the hashtag. And you don’t need to leave a blog comment about your tweet either, thanks!)

 

RULES & DETAILS

  • The deadline for entries is midnight GMT Friday 26th July 2013.
  • The winners will be selected from all valid entries using a random number generator.
  • Entry instructions form part of the terms and conditions.
  • The prize is £50 credit to use against one or more orders placed on the http://www.just-eat.co.uk/ website.
  • The prize cannot be redeemed for a cash value.
  • The prize is offered and provided by Just Eat.
  • Where prizes are to be provided by a third party, Kavey Eats accepts no responsibility for the acts or defaults of that third party.
  • One blog entry per person only. One Twitter entry per person only. One Facebook entry per person only. You do not have to enter all three ways for your entries to be valid.
  • For Twitter entries, winners must be following @Kavey at the time of notification. For Facebook entries, winners must Like the Kavey Eats Facebook page at time of notification.
  • Blog comment entries must provide a valid email address for contacting the winner.
  • The winners will be notified by email, Twitter or Facebook. If no response is received within 7 days of notification, the prize will be forfeit and a new winner will be picked and contacted.

Kavey Eats received a credit to cover a complimentary order from Just Eat.

 

Sedap is a small neighbourhood restaurant along London’s Old Street, offering Chinese-Malaysian cuisine. With a well-priced weekday lunch menu, it was a good budget choice for meeting up with a friend who works nearby.

The space is small and has an informal cafe vibe. Service is efficient and helpful.

Priced at £7.80, the lunch menu gives a choice of four starters, vegetarian spring roll, sweetcorn soup, kerabu vegetable salad or crispy chicken skin and then your choice of beef, chicken of vegetable dish from the regular menu, served with steamed or egg fried rice. You can choose prawn, duck or fish main dishes for £1 more.

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I loved my choice of crispy chicken skin, a chicken version of pork scratchings, served with a sweet chilli dipping sauce.

But I was surprised at at the very tiny size of the spring roll served to my friend. Two bites, and that’s if you’re being dainty!

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My lemak prawn curry was decent, but packed too much chilli heat for me. Nice flavours though, reminding me of Thai coconut curries. My friend enjoyed her beef rendang. Again, portions were on the small side, though reasonable for a weekday lunch.

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Afterwards, my friend and I shared a portion of Nyonya Kui (£2) (traditional Malaysian desserts) and I absolutely loved both the gelatinous, chewy offerings.

Were I looking for food in the area, I might visit again, but this isn’t a place I’d make a special trip for, even though the food was (so I’ve been told) a decent representation of the cuisine.

Sedap on Urbanspoon

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