in the kitchen with noon

in the kitchen with noon

Because a visit to the local market did nothing but whet my appetite for Thai food, I press-ganged Chef Noon into a brief cooking lesson in the show kitchen at Paresa. Three courses plus dessert sounded a little daunting at first but with lots of room to spread out, ingredients at the ready, and the guiding hand of Chef Noon leading me step by step, it was enlightening. Nothing too fancy; just a beginners excursion into Rattanakosin, the modern era of Thai cooking, which happens to feature a strong Chinese influence: woks, deep-frying, noodles. Goong Sarong would be our starter, a simple yet visually impressive prawn marinated in pepper, salt, and coriander root, wrapped in vermicelli noodles and deep-fried. Next, we moved on to a red curry. The secret, I learned, is to first cook the curry paste in a little oil, add your meat – we used duck breast – then coconut milk and bring it to a boil. Take it off the heat and stir in eggplant, grapes, pineapple, to allow the flavors to be drawn into the soup. Bring it to a boil a second time, adding chilis, basil, and a soupcon of ever-present fish sauce and remove from heat again. The whole process takes about five minutes. Letting the curry rest infuses the broth with the fruits and herbs, giving it a heady smell and marvelously rich taste. (And in so short a period of time – I was amazed.) Chicken stir-fry was the most easily accessible of the courses: deep fry lightly breaded chicken pieces until golden brown and allow them to drain on a paper towel. Heat a little oil in a wok, quickly frying peppers, onion, chili, and cashews. Season with oyster sauce and soy before mixing in the cooked chicken and voila, dinner is done. The results were more impressive than I had imagined, but dessert is where things really got creative. Tiny sweet Thai bananas battered in rice flour and coconut, deep-fried and served with a scoop of ice cream. There was enough batter left over that I thought I might show the chef a few tricks of my own. Thickening the batter with a bit more coconut I tossed spoonfuls into boiling oil, rolling the resulting pillows in a mix of white sugar and coconut. Beignets, I told her: fried dough balls. A bit frightened at first, Chef Noon and Fern, the curious Sales Manager who stopped in to watch us, soon gobbled them up, proving that in the kitchen we’ve all got something to learn.

mise en place

curry, soy sauce, spices, sugar

vermicelli wrapped shrimp

thai red curry with duck

chicken stir fry with cashew

deep fried banana

my beignets

fern with chef noon

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nahm

A few years ago at The Halkin in London, I had the pleasure of enjoying a most extravagant lunch at Nahm, the only Thai restaurant in the world to be bested with a Michelin star. Australian chef David Thompson is an accidental authority on Thai cuisine – a chance holiday in Bangkok ignited a culinary obsession – and his first cookbook, Thai Food, is a meticulous investigation into the multifarious flavors of the kingdom as well as a bible of food porn for gourmands. The success of an additional outpost of the restaurant in Thailand was recently realized earlier this year when it was named one the The 50 Best Restaurants in the World, so naturally this second Nahm moved high atop my list of must-eats in Bangkok. More casual than what you’d find in London, it was nevertheless equally meticulous, with layer upon layer of flavors surprising the palate on a continuous loop. Rarely does a Thai meal have a repetition of tastes, so a curry, a salad, a relish, some soup and a stir-fry all combine to make a varied dining experience. This isn’t food you shovel in with a pair of chopsticks, however; chef Thompson’s dishes – complex and floridly herbaceous – demand you take the time to savor each bite from the chew to the swallow. Served Thai-style, meaning family style and all at once, it also makes for one fragrant and heady feast.

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the first pad thai (& nam phrik num)

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the best of breakfasts (spicy edition)

This being the UK tradition generally dictates that breakfast at a B&B is equally important, if not more so, than the bed. To be considered proper it must be cooked, too: eggs, bacon, sausage, tomato, mushrooms and invariably some type of fried bread. But if you look at the small letters at the bottom of the breakfast menu at Harbour View B&B you can also opt for a Thai Breakfast, which turns out to be a mutable thing, dependent on the whims of the market and the chef for that matter. (This being an island off the coast of an island off the coast of continental Europe, creative substitutions for certain Thai ingredients must often be made) After expressing an interest in Thai food, however, my hostess, Swan Tomkinson, took a certain vested interest in me. “It’s spicy, you know,” she told me on the first morning, trying to warn me off a plate of scrambled eggs with rice and curried rashers. “I love Thai,” I countered. “The spicier the better.” And with that she recognized a kindred spirit: “I will cook you real Thai food.” Over the next five days a challenge ensued. Each day I would ask for something unattainable for breakfast the following morning - green papaya salad one day, pad prik king another – and she would counter with a pretty good approximation, for example substituting cucumbers in place of the green papaya and adding an extra dose of the Thai basil which grows prodigiously in her garden. On day four I was surprised with a plate of larb, the spicy ground pork salad popular in northeastern Thailand. “I’ve been craving larb but had nobody to share it with,” Swan confided, revealing a pang of longing every stranger in a strange land must eventually feel. “Cooking for people makes me happy,” she was quick to add. “Especially food that they like.” Like Thai, I gestured, pushing a plate of freshly picked herbs out of the way, inviting Swan to join me in the most unexpected – and tastiest –  breakfast of my life. “One time, a Russian couple came into the kitchen as I was cooking dinner for me and Alan,” she began. “I was making Beef Stroganoff and they said the smell reminded them of home. ‘Could we have the leftovers for breakfast,’ they asked me.” She laughed at the memory. “Yes, I said, I will make you Beef Stroganoff for breakfast.”

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dragonfly

Because you can’t gather dinner in Central Park everyday, it’s nice to have a local to keep you in comfort food when the urge arises. Though the doorway of Dragonfly looks more like a crime scene than a reputable restaurant, inside Chef Cornelius Gallagher – late of Oceana and Lespinasse – is cooking up his own personal riff on the flavors of Thailand, Vietnam, and Hong Kong. And it’s infinitely less grisly than the door handle might suggest. My favorites from a recent serendipitous drive-by: giant wasabi-infused tater tots and a signature curry coconut shrimp with fresh pea shoots. Come the next rainy day I’ll be tackling the cleverly-themed Street Cart menu. The thought alone of Fresh Sriracha Bacon, Hot Roasted Foie Gras, Kim Chee Tempura, and Marrow Dumplings is making me want to cuddle.

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indian superfood

Exec Digital is a new digital-only magazine that randomly dropped into my in-box earlier this month. Although more geared toward “executives” – whatever that means – it nevertheless features an interesting pastiche of travel, food and lifestyle writing. One piece in particular really struck me where it counts: the belly. Chef Gurpareet Bains’ favorite curry houses around the globe made for a quick read yet left me with a fistful of notes-to-self for future reference. You can read it below or catch it in situ HERE, courtesy of the folks at Exec Digital.

International House: The Best Curry by Gurpareet Bains

Gurpareet Bains, chef to A-listers and royalty, author of Indian Superfood and most recently winner of the 2011 Chef of the Year ‘Curry Gong’ at the English Curry Awards, takes a breather from his book tour to share a select handful of his personal favorite Indian restaurants dotted around the world.

Devi, New York, USA - Average $60 per head

Only in the last few years have dapper Indian restaurants started popping up in New York. And although it is most definitely the pioneering days of curry in the US, New York just had to deliver in style…

Devi is America’s only Michelin star Indian restaurant, and accordingly worth a visit. Chefs Suvir Saran and Hemant Mathur are sure to whip your taste buds into a frenzy with traditional Indian home cooking fused with the bold flavours of the new world.

I’m salivating just musing over fond memories of the grilled scallops with roasted pepper chutney and bitter orange marmalade, and the signature Tandoori lamb chops with pear chutney. Or for something a little more traditional, how about Phool Makhanee Kee Sabzee (lotus seeds and cashews in a creamy sauce) or the all-time-favourite, and must have Indian street food, Bombay Bhel-Puri?

With an ambience akin to an old worldly Rajasthani boathouse palace, this is the place to entertain and astonish. Be sure to invite your Indian business clients to a dinner at Devi. Deal done and dusted!

Cinnamon Kitchen, London, England - Average $60 per head

With London widely recognised as the curry capital of the world, restaurants on this side of the pond have a mighty high bar to aspire their standards upon – and the Cinnamon Kitchen doesn’t fail to astound. Right in the heart of London’s financial district, the Cinnamon Kitchen is located in a courtyard abuzz with activity. Start with a Cinnamon Spiced Martini in the Anise Bar, sipping it just to the left of the main dining room.

When you’re ready, the main dining room is a converted warehouse with 20 foot ceilings that reverberates a debonair ‘007’ style.  With an exceptional wine-list, a flawless brigade of staff and most importantly, award-winning chefs Vivek Singh and Abdul Yaseen on-hand, you’re really in for a spectacular night.

The menu is short; instead, it focuses on a select few dishes that they get right every single time. Although the meals are presented in an aptly contemporary fashion, with subtle hints of fusion, the food is truly Indian at heart. To start, I’d recommend the Fat Chillies with Spiced Paneer or Hyderabadi Lamb Mince.  As an entree, try Scottish Angus Fillet with Masala Chips or Seared Sea Bass with Kokum Curry and Rice (kokum is slightly sour, although less so than tamarind). The dessert menu is as equally as spectacular – so remember to leave room.

Dhaba, Claridges Hotel, New Delhi, India - Average $30 per head

Dhaba specializes in Punjabi Highway Fare. In the Indian state of the Punjab, locals consider highway eateries – better known as Dhabas – to serve up the best food…and they are absolutely right. It’s rather a kind of street food for people on wheels, who miss home cooking.

Dhaba’s menu is comprised of many traditional family recipes handed down generations. Try something suitably rustic, and typically Punjabi, such as Baingan Ka Bharta (spicy barbecued eggplant), Dahl Makhini (lentils slow cooked overnight, until rich and silky), and accompany this with flaky Tandoori Rotis and some of the more familiar suspects such as meat kebabs and  balti curry dishes – and you will be eating just as heartily as any Punjabi farmer. If you’re not sure what to order, or if you want to try a bit of everything, go for the Thali, which is the chef’s taster menu, and is very much the avant-garde thing to do.

But at Dhaba, it’s not only about the food. The ambience is also of the classic rural highway eatery, complete with a truck fresco, rustic interiors and waiters dressed in traditional Punjabi dress. There is even a thatched ceiling and walls replicating the irregular mud painted texture of a village hut. An old wireless belts out golden oldies from the silver era of Indian cinema, putting the final touches on a perfect evening. 

Ravi’s Restaurant, Dubai, United Arab Emirates - Average $10 per head

Ravi’s on Satwa Road (near Satwa Roundabout) is an institution, and arguably Dubai’s number one curry house. Set amidst the hustle and bustle of old Dubai, and bounded by spiraling minarets and the haunting sound of muezzins’ calls, this is the place to eat curry.

It’s very much a rough-and-ready diner style restaurant with Formica tables; fortunately, the tacky decor only enhances the experience of Dubai before it became an international tourist destination.

Ravi’s is frequented by the legions of Indian and Pakistani expats living in Dubai – which is always a good sign of authentic food. If you can imagine classic dishes, such as Butter Chicken, Tarka Dahl, Biryani and Naans, all served up in monumental portions, and for just a few dollars – this is Ravi’s!

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the loves of a bengal lancer

The Bengal Lancers date their beginnings back to 1787 when the Nawab Wazir of Oudh created Bengal’s first regiment of cavalry and then further developed his horsemen into a whole army of cavalry regiments.  In 1865, by then under control of the British Indian Army, the force was expanded and reorganized with five regiments of cavalry becoming classified as proper Lancers.

While the majority of cavalry regiments carried guns, the Lancers were unique in that they were armed with bamboo lances between ten and eleven feet long and weighing just four pounds.  Lancers were able to jump hedges, cross ditches, scale walls and other obstacles and thus simply armed they were able to fight with an elegance that became legendary throughout the Empire.  From Abyssinia to Peking and Egypt to Persia the Bengal Lancers drew distinction as a fighting force but by the beginning of the 20th Century the needs of the Empire were changing and Lancer regiments were being decommissioned.  The last regiment of the Bengal Lancers left the service of the Crown in 1903.

The Lancers themselves may be a thing of the past but a trace of that legend lives on in the Stockbridge area of Edinburgh.  Of the many thousands of Indian restaurants in the UK, Lancers Brasserie has been called one of the best Indian restaurants in Great Britain as well as voted Best Indian Restaurant in Scotland.  Unassuming and incredibly friendly, the gorgeous dining room alongside the Water of Leith is a spot to seek out when you get a craving for a real curry or the intricate flavors of North Indian cuisine. (trust me:  the iPhone failed me here; these dimly lit photos do not do it a shred justice.)

Sabzi tikka:  shallow-fried vegetable fritters.

Chana on puri:  chick peas cooked with green herbs, medium-hot spices, and served with puffed fried bread.

Sabzi pakura:  deep-fried balls of flour, vegetables and spices.

Misti sag:  fresh butternut squash, cooked with green herbs, garnished with a touch of fresh ginger and green chilies.

Chingree massalam:  freshwater king prawns cooked with sliced garlic, fresh green chilies, coriander, chopped green peppers, spices, herbs and butternut squash.

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