Saturday, 25 February 2012

A lesson in Laksa (Laksa Lemak, Indonesian spicy seafood noodle soup)

Poor Chris. He’s been my friend for 18 years. He could have committed an armed robbery, gone to jail and been let out by now. And in all probability, the imprisonment may well have been easier than being my friend for all these years. We met at university where we socialised together, drank together, watched telly together, occasionally studied together, and cooked and ate together. Once we threw a Shrove Tuesday party where we took over a 4 ring hob and cooking on 2 rings each, made dozens of pancakes. We got in each other’s way, nearly burned each other, but had a great laugh.
Somehow Chris has stuck around and I’m very glad he’s done so. From our early days of cooking student food back in the day, we’ve continued to collaborate in the kitchen. Making trays and trays of canapés for his Christmas soirees doesn’t sound like fun to most people, but we always have a good time, and the fruits of our labours always get scoffed.
Recently Chris went on an Indonesian cooking course at Lapan Cooking in East London. Their website, in case you are interested is  

Chris learnt how to make several interesting dishes at his class, and the curry puffs he made for his most recent Christmas party (learnt at the class), were absolutely exquisite; fluffy on the outside, moist and squishy on the inside with a spicy kick full of spice and effective heat. So when he told me he had also learnt to make Laksa Lemak, I was burning with curiosity. Having eaten a few lunchtime laksa soups at a variety of places and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, I wanted to be able to recreate it. 

To me, cooking is a life skill. And the best thing about it is that it can be passed from person to person. So the knowledge is shared as is the joy. Chris is to be thanked for his time and patience in teaching me how to make Laksa Lemak. The results were spectacular, spicy, fresh and warming. The list of ingredients is daunting, but well worth the time taken to track them down. 

Laksa Lemak

The somewhat daunting collection of ingredients
(For 3 people)


Spice paste ingredients:
Fresh Galangal, fresh turmeric, Thai shallots, dried red chillies, sambal Belachan powder, lemongrass stalk, ground coriander, groundnut oil

For the soup:
Fresh noodles
2 tins mackerel in brine
3-4 Curry leaves
3 pieces dried tamarind skin
210-230 ml coconut milk
Brown sugar
900ml water (or homemade fish stock)
9 tiger prawns (I’d recommend more)
1 fish stock cube

For the garnishes:
Julienned Cucumber
Julienned fresh Pineapple
A big handful roughly chopped coriander leaf
A big handful roughly chopped mint
A packet of beansprouts, blanched in boiling water for 1 minute, then rinsed in cold water
Thin slices of white onion
1 lime, quartered


Prepare your spice paste ingredients by roughly chopping the shallots, turmeric, lemongrass and chillies.
Top tip: wear gloves when preparing the turmeric!

Shallots and galangal being prepared

Collecting up the paste ingredients in the blender
Grind down the spice paste ingredients. Not as easy as it sounds. We tried to do so in a blender, and it took ages! We had to keep rocking the blender from side to side to get the blades to do their stuff. If you have a mini chopper, that may be a better tool for the job.

Fry the spice paste until it is deeply fragrant, about 10 minutes. You will need to lower the heat as time goes by so that the paste does not burn.

We used frozen peeled uncooked tiger prawns. These need rapid blanching in boiling water. 2 minutes will be ample.  Remove the prawns and set aside. Don’t throw the water away, since the fishy flavours will make a stock base for the soup.

We used tinned mackerel in brine, so we didn’t need to cook it in advance. You can use fresh, which you poach in boiling water. You may as well use the same water as for the prawns since that will add fish flavours to the broth.

If using tinned mackerel, remove from tins, mash up and then quickly boil in the water.

Add your spice paste to water along with a crumbled fish stock cube, dried tamarind skin, curry leaves, and sugar. Add salt and pepper to taste, but be careful as the stock cube, if used, may be quite salty. Simmer for 15 minutes.
At the start of the simmer time
At the end of the simmer time
Put on another saucepan full of water to cook the noodles. Cook according to pack instructions. The lady who helped me with my shopping in See Woos in Chinatown was adamant that fresh noodles should be used for Laksa Lemak (and I was happy to rely on her), but you can use any medium egg noodles (sometimes called yellow noodles). Strain and set aside.

Add the coconut milk and simmer for another 3 minutes.

Get your soup bowls out. Put a portion of the cooked noodles at the bottom of each bowl.

Fish out equal portions of king prawn and add to the bowls.

Top with the Laksa soup.

Now serve up with a plate of the garnishes.

Leave everyone to top their dish with garnishes as required, with a squeeze of lime juice on the top.
The finished dish, with all the garnishes

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Courgette and Mushroom Soup

Him Indoors and I recently visited a lovely little local French restaurant in Dulwich called Le Chardon. (Anyone interested in their website will find it here:

Full of character, it is an informal French bistro converted from an old David Grieg grocery store with all the fin de siècle tile work and shopfront retained. Even though all the tiles have thistles on them (hence the name, as un chardon is a thistle in French), it has a homely and welcoming Gallic feel. I can’t explain it, but if you are ever in this neck of the woods, check it out and you’ll see what I mean.
The menu was full of variety, with fresh seafood, French country style dishes and bistro favourites. Sadly there was no cassoulet, but then given how long it takes to cook, you can’t blame them.

Anyway, after scouring the menu we turned our attention to the specials board. The rabbit stew wasn’t what I had wanted to eat for my main, and Him Indoors isn’t a rabbit kind of guy.  What we did notice was that the soup of the day was Courgette and Mushroom. It appealed to us, but firstly, we probably wanted to eat some of the other starters a lot more and secondly, soup with bread can be very filling and can spoil your appetite for the main. So we ordered other starters, but kept the idea in mind that perhaps we could have a go at making a French influenced Courgette and Mushroom soup all of our own.

I am sure those of you more well-versed in French cooking may find this isn’t the most authentic recipe. I don’t claim to have any expertise in French food. But hopefully some of you will give this soup a go and enjoy its herby mellow creaminess. We certainly did.

Serves 4


2 courgettes, very finely diced but unpeeled
60ml Double cream
3 cloves garlic, very finely diced
2 echalion (banana) shallots, peeled and finely diced
300g mixed  mushrooms (I used 2 portobello, with the remainder being chestnut mushrooms), very finely diced
1 tsp finely chopped fresh thyme
700 ml Vegetable (unless you prefer Chicken) stock
2 x 2 tbsp olive oil
2 x 15g unsalted butter
Salt and pepper to taste


Put the first batches of butter and olive oil into a large saucepan and heat gently until the butter melts.  Add the diced courgette and fry on a gentle heat for 10 minutes. 

Remove the courgette from the pan. Put the pan back on the heat and put in the second batch of butter and olive oil, and again, heat gently until the butter melts.

Now add the chopped shallots and fry for 5 minutes.

Add the garlic, thyme and mushrooms and fry gently for a further 10 minutes. You want all the veg to ‘sweat’ rather than brown.

Now put the courgette back in the pan and heat through.

Put all the veg in a blender, topping up with the chicken stock. Blitz until you have a soupy consistency.

Return to the pan.  Add the cream slowly, stirring as you go. Depending on the remaining water content of the courgettes and mushrooms, you may need less cream or perhaps much more (I’d say up to 100ml). You want a creamy smooth texture with some richness of flavour.

When you are happy with your texture, taste and season if necessary.

Put on a gentle heat to warm through the soup, (only about 3 minutes).
Serve up in bowls with a small swirl of cream.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Cheating at cooking: Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup

About 5 or perhaps 6 years ago, a mysterious new restaurant opened in Catford, where I live. The glass front was all frosted, so you couldn’t see inside, and outside it declared itself to be a Vietnamese restaurant. Now, in the London Borough of Lewisham (particularly in the north of the borough) there is a large Vietnamese community. They run the majority of Chinese restaurants in the Deptford/New Cross area. I’d been to several of these establishments, but had not tried Vietnamese food. Curious, Him Indoors and I decided to investigate. We found a totally unique cuisine with fresh, clean tastes. The use of large amounts of fresh herbs to lend texture and subtle flavour was something we’d never come across. The kindly old man who ran the place was always keen to explain the dishes and generally chat.

Sadly, it was not a success. Local people were not either curious or adventurous enough to visit. The old man and his restaurant disappeared. We don’t know where to.  But his gift to us was the desire to know more and try more of this wonderful food.

Kingsland Road in East London is known as the ‘Pho Mile’ because of its high concentration of Vietnamese restaurants. It is a vibrant street, and having eaten at Cay Tre, it is possibly the best place to get Vietnamese food in this country. Deptford High Street is what I call the ‘Mini Pho Mile’; a clutch of small restaurants catering for the local Vietnamese community and a specialist Vietnamese grocers. Special mention goes to Le Gia, a former pub converted into a Vietnamese restaurant with a very varied menu and food prepared with love and care.

Of course, the next step from sampling Vietnamese food is trying to make it. Those of you who are regular readers may recall my experiments  this Summer at making the classic Summer Rolls with Nouc Cham dipping sauce. (Summer rolls recipe is here, and the sauce here). The trouble is that my ambition outstrips my ability. I just don’t have the knowledge or skill to know how to make many of the amazing dishes I’ve tried when eating out. And even though I avidly followed Luke Nguyen’s two series where he travels around Vietnam learning about the traditional dishes and recreating them, many were very fiddly and involved ingredients I can’t seem to find in London.

Then there’s the time factor. Much as I’d love to make homemade Pho, I don’t really fancy putting a stock pot on before going to bed and leaving it on all night. A dish which takes 14 hours to make? Sorry – I love you, dear wonderful Pho – but perhaps I am just destined to slurp your goodness when I am out and about. 

So here is an attempt to cut a few corners but create something which approximates real Vietnamese food. I found the soup base in a Vietnamese grocers in Greenwich, but it should be available in either See Woo or Longdan.  Here is what the jar looks like:

Vietnamese style Chicken Noodle Soup (for cheats)

Serves 2

1 sheet Chow Mein noodles or Yellow Noodles
3 spring onions sliced diagonally
1 birds eye chilli very finely sliced
2 handfuls cooked (I used leftover roast)  chicken (about 2 breasts worth)
2 heaped desert spoons of Vietnamese Chicken Soup base
3 mugs of boiling water

1 lime, cut into quarters
1 handful beansproats, quickly rinsed in boiling water
Sweet white onion, finely diced
Small handful of mint leaves
Small handful of mint leaves         

1. Prepare your garnishes in advance.

2. If using raw chicken, then either roast in the oven or poach in boiling water, but using leftover roast chicken is the easiest. Shred the chicken up into small pieces, and put to one side.

3, Cook the noodles according to the pack instructions. Mine needed boiling for 6 minutes. 

4. Drain, rinse with cold water to arrest the cooking process. If the noodles are likely to stick together (particularly so with supermarket egg noodles), dress lightly with groundnut oil. Put to one side.

5. Put the boiling water and the soup base in a saucepan. Maintain on a simmer for 2-3 minutes to let the flavour infuse.

6. Now chuck in the spring onions, chilli and allow another 2-3 minutes for the oils in both to seep out into the soup and impart their flavour. Add the noodles and allow to warm through, about 2 minutes.

7. Now add the chicken.  If shredded into small enough pieces, it will only need another 3 minutes to be heated through until hot and safe to eat. 

8. Dish up the soup (you will have to fish out the chicken or it will all stay towards the bottom of the pan). Share out the spring onions, noodles and chicken.

9. Top with the garnishes – except for the lime, which you squeeze over the soup.