Handy with hanzi? What do those symbols, that writing, on the menu even mean?

If a menu isn’t in a language I’m able to — however slowly — stumble through, with at least a vague sense of how 3 or 4 words in the description sound maybe slightly familiar, how then to choose a meal that I hope will be good (or even great)? Often, just pointing and taking pot-luck (see what I did there?) works really well. It’s a fun leap in the dark, even if at the end of the meal, you’re still not quite 100% sure what everything was that you’ve put in your mouth. Sometimes, once or twice, I gotta say, I’ve regretted my choice…

Today I picked up a rather excellent tip from Harley Spiller, a New York resident, who, for the past 40 years, has been collecting Chinese restaurant menus, amassing a collection numbering now more than 10,000 (I do like me a monomaniacal collector, don’t you?) who suggested looking closely to see those menu items that had a blue Biro tick or ink marks next to them — those were, he said, “the ones that the waiter had pointed to with his pen to recommend”.

Chinese menu biro marks

I kinda think that after all these years and all these menus, that’s not a bad idea to follow. That, or learn some Chinese. Which actually is on my list of things to do…

I’ve recently found myself becoming more and more interested in diaspora food & by the immigrants and children of immigrants who’ve written so eloquently about these meals, the ‘traditional’ ones as well as those new ones that they’ve put together in their new country and their importance to their very identity, with some of them still feeling “strangers in a strange land”, some apparently completely integrated, yet still aware of how the food and the cooking had moulded them and their parents and grandparents.

I came across a film about the history of “General Tso’s chicken” (左宗棠雞, pronounced tswò), a sweet, spicy, deep-fried chicken dish to be found all over North American Chinese restaurants, one whose origin story is more than a little murky and mythologised.

The very wonderful guru of all things Chinese, Fuchsia Dunlop (and if you don’t already have at least one of her books, what even are you doing?)…

©Apartment Therapy

…posits that it only dates back to the 1930’s/40’s and was introduced into New York, via mainland China, Kuomintang forces and Taiwan, as a way to encourage white people to start using Chinese restaurants and pay to eat something that they’d be able to call “exotic” and congratulate themselves on their daring cosmopolitan palate but that one didn’t overly challenge their taste buds too much.

For what it’s worth, I think that sounds very likely.

And by the way, if you’re England based and you’d like a similar one of those cleavers she’s showing — without having to travel to Hong Kong to pick one up — she’s recommended buying from the See Woo company, based in London’s Chinatown.

There’s a long piece coming in the next day or so on some of these books I’ve been reading but, in the meantime, set aside an hour to watch this fascinating investigation.

 

 

I commend Coopersale Pt. 1

Bear with me; there’s going to be a series of old Bulow family history pieces for the next few posts, with pretty scanty references to food, although some pigs do make an appearance every now and then.

I was born in August 1957, in Shepherd’s Bush at 354 Goldhawk Road, W6, only a few doors down from the Shepherd’s Bush Club that The Who went on to play at. It took me a further 13 years to actually see them live, in December 1970, gigging at The Roundhouse (they’d earlier that same year played The Isle of Wight Festival and on my bloody birthday no less, but I couldn’t convince my parents that I should be allowed to go or and most importantly, pay for the train fares etc).

They always were the guvner band for me, from the same manor, home town boys, you know? Shame how it all turned out…

We’d later left the Bright Lights and The Big City environs and moved eastwards into Essex, around about when I was 4 or 5 I think and then later, further south, to a couple of places in mid-Kent, then another dog-leg back into Essex, until finally winding up on the Kent coast near Deal. And it was in Essex that we started living on a series of farms.

[UPDATE: Funnily enough, if you’d have asked me a few weeks back to drop pins into the map showing where we’d lived, it would have looked different to what in the past 24/48 hours I’ve realised had to be the correct timeline. I’ve made a few changes to this post, added a few notes and memories for each of them, those that I can remember from around that age; clicking on the name will drop you into a Streetview image of how the places look now with my description as a contrast.]

My Dad had graduated from The Royal College of Music as a pianist and started as a music teacher but with 5 kids arriving in rapid succession, that wasn’t going to cut the mustard in paying them there bills “that no honest man could pay”, so he’d re-trained as an accountant; his father had been one as well (as a job, it never appealed to me). But he’s always said that the countryside was where he felt most alive and happiest, so had decided to throw up the accounting gig and headed for the joys of the fields. I’m not sure my mum was as convinced…

Coopersale Common

Right here on this combined playing field/common/cricket pitch was where I found out that a kids training bike couldn’t, just couldn’t, make a sharp 90° turn without the rider, me, falling off. I tried a number of times, with Dad patiently righting me each time, until the lesson finally sank into this thick head and I accepted this manifest reality of physics.

I can’t work out though which or even where the farm was located, but I’m assuming he was farming by then.

I’m glad to see that the oak trees in the small wood at the back are still there, producing conkers galore, which went on to baked in the oven or soaked in vinegar, in an attempt to make them the hardest in the gang. With no pre-school or nursery options all our time and play was spent in or around the house, so lunchtimes and the oven were an easy destination to find. It was only when looking at the map recently that I realised that not far to the east now runs the M11, probably not even planned back then. A quieter environment then…

Coopersale Common house

…usually, although here was also where vividly I remember Mum screaming — at the very top of her voice —  unusually for her (so we must all have been real little shits that day), “just you all wait until your father gets home”. To make things a thousand times worse, whilst frustratingly slamming the back door, the glass panel that took up most of it, dropped out and shattered at her feet, with bits of glass skittering across the floor, under furniture and, probably, even lodging in our hair. We looked at her face. We saw our death there. We were silent.

Not even I thought it was a good time to laugh. I was too terrified of what Dad would do. Memory however tells me “not much”. Neither of them hit their kids. Neither of them were shouters. Well, not often anyway. But I’m pretty sure in retrospect that Bar had downed more than couple of medicinal sherries by the end of the day, before telling him just what we’d done and his silent “more in sorrow than anger” treatment was hugely effective. At least for a day or so I guess

I also remember there was a rather ramshackle cottage house (thatched? draped with roses? Not sure, I’d like to think that memory is right, but…) on the opposite side of the road — which looks to be long gone now, replaced by a small cul-de-sac estate — where, one exciting day, the ancient owner’s old petrol lawn mower apparently spontaneously combusted, bursting into towering flames that licked even at the eaves of our house; I think that fire, one to rival London and 1666, could have germinated anyone’s fascination with pyromania…

I do however remember much better the next houses, the surrounding areas and the farms in Kent. Which is what the next piece on here, will cover.

And so to end this one, I just want to apologise to the Shepherd & Dog pub in Stambridge, Essex. About 50 years ago — I’d have been 9 or 10 by then — my parents used to go to this pub, no more than ½ mile along the road from Stambridge and maybe only once or twice a month (money was tight), always at lunchtime & usually on a Sunday as Dad wasn’t expected to work that day, to meet up with village friends (& as sure as bears shit in the forests, certainly to get a temporary respite from me & my 4 siblings).

We’d be left to sit outside in the beer ‘garden’, with just a couple of packets of crisps or peanuts sent our way, to stave off hunger pangs, told to amuse ourselves, whilst they went inside, into this dark, exotic place, which, through the curtained back door, we could see was full of laughing people & glasses clinking and smoke and fun and noise.

See those two cars on the right, at the back of the pub? That’s where we were ‘parked’. Dumped…

Shepherd & Dog pub Stambridge
Always hated that pub. The fucking Shepherd & fucking Dog. I didn’t manage to start sneaking into pubs as a very underage drinker until I was 12 or 13 but my inability to go into this particular one has always rankled. I’m here to admit however that I’ve finally moved on. I’ve forgiven them. Even if their food pricing looks more than a little, shall I say, courageous for this neck of the woods...

And, finally, one recipe for this piece, comes via that estimable Essex boy, Paul Cunningham, of Denmark’s Henne Kirkeby Kro, his take on sausage, mash & onion gravy. A plate close to both our hearts.

Sausage, mash & onion gravy

And here it is. Oh, didn’t I tell you it’s in Danish? Come on, you can work it out! And even if you can’t, why would you even need a recipe for this classic?

Ingredients:

(Pølser, mos og løgsovs)
6 løg
12 gode pølser (evt. flere) – se PS
4 kviste timian
2 laurbærblade
1 dl balsamicoeddike
2 dl hønsefond
smør og olivenolie til stegning
havsalt og friskkværnet sort peber

Prep:

Start med at pille løgene og snitte dem på langs. Steg pølserne i smør og olivenolie på en pande. Læg dem over på en tallerken og stil dem til side. Steg løgene på den samme pande med skyllet timian og laurbær. Når de er godt stegt, hældes balsamico ved. Lad det karamellisere. Hæld fond ved og lad det koge ind. Kom pølserne tilbage på panden og lad dem braisere lidt i løgsovsen, til de er lunet godt igennem. Smag til med salt og peber.

Server med helt almindelig kartoffelmos og sennep eller med rosenkålsmosen fra grøntkapitlet.

PS – FOR AT DENNE OPSKRIFT SKAL LYKKES, SKAL DU HAVE FAT I EN RIGTIG GOD, GROV PØLSE, FX SALSICCIA, CUMBERLAND SAUSAGES ELLER DEN BEDSTE FRA DIN EGEN SLAGTER. HVIS DU BRUGER ITALIENSKE PØLSER, SÅ BRUG BALSAMICO. HVIS DU BRUGER SPANSKE PØLSER, SÅ ANVEND SHERRYEDDIKE. BRUGER DU DANSKE ELLER ENGELSKE PØLSER, ER ÆBLEEDDIKE BEDST.

Cull the pigs

By “pigs”, I mean the Tories. And all their enablers. The sociopathic Pritel, the moronic Truss, the sentient wet-wipes that are the rest of their cabinet. Off with them all.

In response to the realisation that 100k pigs are set to be culled and burned in Britain, due to Brexit and labour shortages, the UK PM repeatedly asks a journalist if he’s ever eaten a bacon sandwich.

This is a ‘let them eat cake’ moment.

Marie Antoinette

A total pre-revolution disdain not only for farmers, but an insult to anyone who eats, to anyone in the food chain. It says “fuck you” to principles of care, of ethics, of compassion.

Well fuck you too. We’re coming for you.

Guillotine

Room with no view; but you’re fed

Val is in Peterborough hospital as the previous op wasn’t successful in getting rid of the infection in her badly fucked up finger. She tested positive for MRSA. The tissue around the earlier splinter wound was necrotic. As I write, she’s waiting for a second op to try and fix her; mention was made by the consultant that “you may lose that finger”. Not optimal for a right-handed artist.

Anyway, this was her menu from Hinchingbrooke hospital

A menu from Hinchingbrooke hospital 2021

where she took the celeriac & apple soup and fish with mashed potatoes.

A meal from Hinchingbrooke hospital 2021

Unlike my memories of hospital food back in the previous century, this really is good.

She’s on “nil by mouth” at the moment, so hasn’t had a chance to explore the menu from Peterborough hospital. If the op goes ahead this afternoon, she gets to eat later today…

Peterborough hospital patient menu 1

Peterborough hospital patient menu 2

Yakking about grilling; or maybe nattering about natto.

So, less talking about things, more doing, eh? A good plan, says Val.

Chef Tim Anderson, mentioned here on previous occasions, has a new book coming out in October, called “Your Home Izakaya“.

Your Home Izakaya: Fun and Simple Recipes Inspired by the Drinking-and-Dining Dens of Japan by Tim Anderson

It looks another definite buy, covering, as the title goes on to indicate, “Fun and Simple Recipes Inspired by the Drinking-and-Dining Dens of Japan” and will be added to the book-shelf of already purchased items authored by him:

Nanban: Japanese Soul Food (2015)
Japaneasy: Classic and Modern Japanese Recipes to Cook at Home (2017)
Tokyo Stories: A Japanese Cookbook (2019)
Vegan Japaneasy: Classic and Modern Vegan Japanese Recipes to Cook at Home (2020)

In advance of that, I booked an online class with him via the very fine folk at The Wasabi Company, in an attempt to sharpen up my chicken butchery break-down skills. Mind you, when he says “simple”, you kind of expect the butchery to be equally easy. Not true. And I’m still at the Carl Clarke (he of Chick ‘n’ Sours and Future Noodles fame) end of things when it comes to sectioning a chicken carcass. In his recent book, “The Whole Chicken“…

Front of The Whole Chicken by Carl Clarke

…Carl aims to get it divided into 10 pieces. No slouch he, as a cook (ex-Fat Duck and DJ as well), this is nonetheless totally fine, if you’re only aiming for the larger chunks needed for fried chicken or grilled wings but….

The Whole Chicken by Carl Clarke

…once you start looking at the yakitori experts, just getting 10 out onto the cutting board is really rather pathetic.

Yakitori chicken recipe books

Take Matt Abergel of Yardbird in Hong Kong

Yardbird, Hong Kong

…whose menu I crave everyday…

Yakitori Yardbird, HK, menu

…who manages 39 pieces from one bird and that’s not including cartilage or any unfertilised eggs you might find.

Matt Abergel & his 39 pieces of chicken

Then there’s Toshi Sakamaki of LA’s Yakitoriya, who even seems to find sections within these sections.

Toshi Sakamaki, chef and owner of Yakitoriya, prepares yakitori outdoors for customers

© Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times

So, some way to go for me, I think you’ll agree? But, determined to make a good fist of this, I’d got all my mise in place by the hob & the binchōtan charcoal hot in the grill, in plenty of time, ready for the off. And I’d had a couple of drinks to start the evening off. Which may, on reflection, have had a little to do with how quickly I fell behind Tim. How the rest of the class did, I have no fucking clue. It went to Zoom full-screen Tim shortly after the start. And that’s how it remained for the next 2+ hours. And me, so deep in the weeds, that they were blocking out the light, decided to just kick back, cut what I could, cook what bits I fancied on the grill and have a few more drinks and watch as Tim proved that making things look easy is what experts do.

Luckily, they recorded the whole thing (recorded Tim I mean, not me, thank fuck) & there’s a video available here which I am slowly freeze-framing my way through, determined to eventually recognise and isolate the parts he so easily removed.

Mind you, the tare I put together — the recipe I used via Yardbird below, a little involved, but really worth the effort — was banging. And that, brushed over my skewers of various ‘cuts’ (some, unkindly, might call them ‘hacks’. They can do one), meant I recovered a little from the battering I’d inflicted on my bruised ego.

Tare recipe via Yardbird HK

I’ve another book I bought some time back, Andrea Fazzari’s “Tokyo New Wave“; it’s more than a little high-end, the stuff I’ve less and less time for now, highlighting the very cream of the Tokyo cooking scene — no simple izakayas here — but some of the yakitori photos just had to be clipped into this piece, these via Yoshiteru Ikegawa…

Yoshiteru Ikegawa yakitori

whose 1-star Torishiki restaurant in Meguro uses chickens resembling a cross between the French Bresse but a domestic Japanese breed (called Nagoya Cochin名古屋コーチン), from a farm near Iwate Prefecture, in the heart of the mountains, where they roam the open grassy spaces; the water is pure and the insects plentiful and the chicken houses are layered in sawdust made from domestic cedar and mulberry trees.

Nagoya Cochin名古屋コーチン

There’s a very simply shot one that I particularly love.

yakitori filled skewers & tools

Working from left to right, there’s some lovely skewered cuts, ready to go onto the grill inc. tamahimo たまひも — also called kinkan キンカン or chochin, lantern 提灯 — eggs. These are unfertilised eggs, harvested from the hen when she’s slaughtered & can be found at various stages of development. Older ones come with egg white and an almost fully formed shell, whilst the more immature eggs are basically just yolks with a firm layer enclosing them which allows them to be handled and pressed without bursting. I’m told they taste like a concentrated duck egg yolk, with a much brighter orange colour and a richer and sweeter mouth feel when compared to standard egg yolks.

They are usually supplied by the butcher with the Fallopian tube intact and these too are skewered on a bamboo stick along with other cuts of chicken meat and/or the liver. The eggs are only lightly grilled and then placed off to the side — to prevent it from overcooking — whilst the tougher Fallopian tubes have earlier been pre-cooked in a soy, sake and mirin sauce, before they’re added to the skewer for their final charcoaling.

Next comes a well used shark-skin wasabi grater. Following that is a knife, a honesuki, a boning knife, specifically designed for de-boning and breaking down poultry, but also very capable of filleting fish and red meat (although it’s recommended you don’t try to split poultry or cut through thicker bones) or the larger garasuki which shares the same overall blade profile as the honesuki, but thicker and heavier, making it a better choice when tackling the larger sized poultry and other carcasses. With both, the reverse tanto tip design increases the tip strength, whilst still allowing it to easily pierce skin or make precise cuts in tight spaces such as when wiggling into complex joints to ‘pop’ them apart. It is also narrow enough to be able to turn quickly when cutting around or along the bone and is great for trimming connective tissue (‘silverskin’) and fat.

Lastly comes the Saibashi (long cooking chopsticks), traditional in Japanese kitchens, these ones more designed for industrial use, metal and topped with wooden handles.

None of these utensils are cheap. A large grater can come in at close to £150, the honesuki upwards of £120 whilst the saibashi is a more modest £75.

My recent purchases have been (comparatively) cheaper. A small but beautifully formed wasabi grater from Osaka for less than £20 inc. postage

Wasabi shark-skin grater unboxed Wasabi shark-skin grater boxed

…and some stunning stainless steel BBQ spikes and skewers and two ‘black’ stainless steel butter knives via blacksmith Alex Pole. ‘Black’ stainless is created when the steel is heated to over 850° forming a dark oxide on the surface, which is then lightly polished and oiled but not completely removed. He’s got some fascinating YouTube videos on the various processes he uses for these items, which are well worth your time.

One last thing: I think the right-wing fever swamp obsession with ‘diet as masculinity’ is pretty fucking hilarious. Like, the diet of the samurai was primarily vegetarian and heavy with soy. I mean, if you wanna go back in time and call Oda Nobunaga a “soy boy” to his face, you’re more than welcome. Knock yourself out. Because, sure as shit, he’d have so, so easily taken you down. Go find out. And for fucks’ sake, stop pretending that eating meat somehow makes you a real man…

And finally, finally?

Finally, the daily piece by Tatsuya Tanaka entitled “Steakphone” that came out on my birthday yesterday. Sheer delight.

Steakphone by Tatsuya Tanaka