6. Dec, 2014

My favourite dishes: Asia & Australasia

To most Western foodies Asia, Australasia and the Pacific islands are uncharted waters. While most of us could name several Chinese and Indian dishes, the art & science behind them is not that well understood by “Westerners”. The ANZACs have obviously inherited plenty of European dishes and tastes, and their so-called “fusion” food reflects the growing Asian dimension of their population. The white and yellow settlers are so predominant that the literature on indigenous cuisines is at best patchy. Here are the results of my trials and errors:

Asia:

  • Singapore Chilli Crab. Visitors to the island state usually fall in love with this dish soon after arrival. The dish is traditionally made with mud or mangrove crab (Scylla serrata), aptly named after one of the two deadly sea monsters mentioned by Homer in the Odyssey. Specimens of up to 10 lbs (4.5 kg) have been reported, and these giants lumber around mangrove swamps and estuaries like latter-day Tiger tanks. The fiery chilli and the sweet crab meat make for a delightful – if somewhat messy – starter.
  • Thai Prawn Tom Yum Soup. Thai cuisine is all about balancing sweet, sour, salty,  hot/bitter and umami (savoury) flavours to achieve a harmonious whole. This soup is all balance, and is wholesome as well as light. It combines the sweet prawn meet and coconut milk with the acidity of lemon grass and lime leaves, saltiness of chicken stock and fish sauce, the heat of Green Thai Chilli and the umami of the mushrooms. Garlic and coriander leaves round it off.
  • Cantonese Steamed Fish with Ginger. This dish has great cultural significance, and is often served as one of the final courses at a traditional Chinese wedding reception.  A whole medium-sized fish with white flesh (sea bass is a favourite) is rubbed inside and out with ginger and allowed to absorb its flavour. It is then steamed until just on the point, and placed on the serving dish. It is sprinkled with chopped scallions and soy sauce, after which smoking-hot peanut and sesame oil is poured over it to add the final touch.
  • Madras (now Chennai) Lamb Curry. The king of South Indian meat dishes epitomises all that is good about slow food. Lamb on the bone is simmered for several hours, and while all the usual suspects go into the sauce to me the “secret weapons” are cinnamon, cardamom and plenty of ginger.  Experts are adamant that the best result is achieved if it is made 2 days in advance; this gives the flavour more time to develop. Who am I to argue?
  • Ghulab Jamun. These tasty fritters are ubiquitous all over South Asia, and have also made their way to Mauritius, South Africa and the Caribbean thanks to the Indian diaspora. Small kneaded balls of milk solids are first deep fried and then soaked in a syrup flavoured with rose water and spices like cardamom and saffron. They are often served with natural yogurt, and feature prominently at weddings and birthday parties.

 

Australasia:

  • Grilled Yabbies with Mango Lime Mayonnaise. The Yabby (Cherax Albidus) – also referred to as the Redclaw Mudbug - is Austalia’s answer to the better-known French Ecrevisse. The subtle, sweet flavour of these freshwater crayfish is enhanced when poached Yabby tails are served coated in a mayo sharpened by finely chopped mango, lime juice and lime zest. Because of their fresh water habitat, they should be poached in a strongly salted broth.    
  • Maori Boil-up. The New Zealand riposte to “Potjiekos” is based on stewing pork tenderloin (or salted pork) in stock, along with sweet potatoes, onions, tomatoes, watercress and any other wild herbs at hand. When the meat is melt-in-the-mouth tender, it is removed, cut into pieces and returned to the pot. “Doughboys” (flour dumplings) are also added at this stage, to be cooked when the rest of the Boil-up is done.
  • Pan-fried Barramundi. The Barramundi is an estuarine fish, endemic to Australia’s northern coast. Its adaptability (not to mention great taste!) has made it a popular species among fish farmers, and its succulent white flesh is now available in many countries. As always, the “wild” fish tastes better than the farmed product, but beggars can’t be choosers. Barramundi comes into its own when cooked as plainly as possible – rolled in seasoned flour, lightly pan-fried and served with sauce tartare and a starch.
  • Kangaroo Filet with Pan-fried Mushrooms. Simplicity itself, yet very, very tasty! Just as with Oryx, a “‘Roo” doesn’t look like an animal whose meat melts in the mouth, yet it truly does. It has a distinctive, yet surprisingly mild taste and its filets are tender if not overcooked. The best result is achieved by seasoning only with salt and pepper, and pan-searing the meat until medium-rare. Mushrooms sautéed in butter and a helping of starch is all one needs with it.
  • Peach Melba Pavlova. How is this for name dropping! Chef Auguste Escoffier of the Savoy created the peach-raspberry-and-ice cream classic in honour of Dame Nellie Melba, the famous Australian soprano. Pavlova, on the other hand was created in New Zealand in honour of the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, and is essentially a meringue dessert with a crusty exterior and creamy interior. The pan-ANZAC dish consists of the Melba  part served on top of the Pavlova – no pun intended...

I trust you’ve enjoyed reading these columns as much as I did compiling them.  Good luck and bon apétit!