Saturday, 20 February 2010

The Case of the Curious Vegetable

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself in East Laandan in a ramshackle building that ordinarily provides rehearsal space for preening drama types and work areas for creative whatnots. No I wasn't auditioning for the role of Grant's long lost half brother Dave in EastEnders (although they do need to replace the recently expired ginger soon). No I was there in my capacity to help out at The Hart and Fuggle, one of the capital's most recent pop-up restaurants which has now popped off elsewhere. A shout had gone out over Twitter asking for spare pairs of hands and I thought it would be good fun to get involved. And it was. The whole place had this wonderfully bohemian vibe going on with mismatched furniture, abstract art dotted about and open plan kitchen. It was a great place to work in. The only downside was that it was facking freezing in the cavernous room that Alice Hart and Georgina Fuggle had taken over for this 10 day installation. It was my intention to stay well into service but possibly because of my whinging about the temperature, Alice insisted that after 4 hours or so of peeling and chopping veg I go home. Although it is also quite possible that after witnessing my carrot shredding technique, the girls may have considered that I was a liability. I did carve up my hands somewhat and perhaps they felt this didn't bode well for later in the evening when customers turned up and the missing heat would finally arrive in the kitchen. So it was with a heavy heart that I bade them farewell and wandered off back home.

But wait a minute, I forgot to tell you about the omyfackinggodwhatthefackhaveijusteatenohmygodamigoingtodofackingdie incident!

The theme of the menu on that particular night was to be Vietnamese and shortly before I left, Alice had been preparing a peculiar looking Asian vegetable. I asked her what it was and she gave me it's name in Vietnamese which quite naturally floated in one ear and out the other but she held up a sliced piece showing it's unusual looking structure. And I promptly took it and popped it into my mouth. Within seconds, I felt this pin-prickle sensation at the back of my throat and my lips contracted so tightly that they resembled the proverbial cat's arse. Clutching my throat and thinking I was going into anaphylactic shock, I glared frantically at Alice who glared back with a "shit! you're not supposed to eat it raw!" look. She dashed to the fridge, grabbed a bottle of milk, some amaretti biscuits from the side and then force-fed me both asking all the while if I was alright. After a short while, the sensation subsided and I said I was and then a kind of embarrassed lull fell over us after which nothing more was said about the matter. And then I went home.

Ah right so that's why I was asked to leave.

Still for days after, I was perplexed by this vegetable, what it actually was and what indeed it was called. After some searching online and quizzing of knowledgeable people on Twitter, I've come to the uncertain conclusion that I had made an acquaintance with bitter melon*, which apparently is very very very bitter. The hint is in the name. But where am I leading with all of this? And what has this latest episode of idiocy got to do with Where's My Pork Chop? Well, having made contact recently with Kok-Loong Wong who writes the very exotic sounding (or should that be erotic) Only Nature Food Porn blog, he told me that he would be well up for taking part in this project. He even had a bitter melon dish for me to try.


Having gone through a recent drought of participants, I left a message on the UK Food Bloggers Association website forum asking would anyone like to take part in WMPC and this is how I got in touch with Loong. In fact he is the only one to have got in touch so far which surprised me. I mean what is wrong with the idea of feeding a total stranger? It seems that those UKFBA members are either far too shy and retiring or I don't look thin enough in my profile picture. Pah! Come on, where's your sense of adventure??!

No matter, I was very happy that Loong emailed me especially since he said he would rustle up some Chinese food, what with it being Chinese New Year and all. Originally from Malaysia, Loong's blog covers a whole spectrum of Eastern cuisine with also a healthy nod to traditional British food. His blog is more of a personal record of recipes but along side his very nifty food photography, they certainly got my mouth watering. So last Thurday, all I had to do was make the quick drive down to sunny Southend. Except it wasn't sunny, it was freezing (again!) and I got slightly lost. Loong did say that I should call him for directions but male pride got the better of me. I was certain that Cliffs Pavillion, our rendezvous point, was more towards the town centre but it turned out that it was in Westcliff, 20 minutes away from my parking spot. When I finally found him, he was calmly looking out to sea and so I shook his hand whilst trying to suppress heavy breathing and casually wipe the sweat from my forehead. We went down to a small cafe on the front where I bought some hot chocolates and we had a nice chat. I have to say that he was a fairly shy fella and I hope that he didn't find my quizzing too intrusive, although I could tell from his giggling reaction when I told him that I eaten bitter melon raw, that you really really shouldn't. We went through the contents of the bag he brought along much to the amusement of our fellow patrons and then it was time to make a move and make the 20 minute run back to the car.

So what did Loong make and how did it taste? Well, yet again an absolute feast was provided in the form of Chinese sausage pastries, Hakka Stuffed "tofu", Chicken and tofu pieces braised in five spice sauce and Apple tarts with cloves. The little sausage pastries were surprisingly sweet but delicious nonetheless with hopped shiitake mushroom and asparagus, really nice little morsels to get things going. The Hakka stuffed tofu was apparently a variation where Loong had opted to use aubergine, chili and bitter melon over fresh tofu. This was definitely unfamiliar territory for me but the results were very good indeed. The vegetables themselves were soft and tender with a lovely minced pork and fish stuffing which was intensely flavoured and succulent. As for the bitter melon, it was fine, perhaps slightly astringent still after cooking but this combined well with the meat mix. Loong's chicken, enveloped in a thick fragrant sauce was fantastically savoury and may well have been a little too salty for me had he not mixed in the five-spice which lightened things up a bit. Interestingly though, it was the rice that had the biggest impact. I think I've mentioned before the fact that Oriental home-style rice tastes so much better than that from restaurants and takeaways and Loong's was no exception. Coated in a shimmering gloss of chicken stock and fat, simply put, the rice was perfect, I could have eaten a lot more. The apple tarts were very pretty to look at and it seemed a shame to eat them but I soon overcame this and they rounded off the meal nicely.

This was a real cracker Loong and I still feel uncomfortable that you wouldn't accept anything in return for this wonderful meal. I think that perhaps that one day soon, I should meet up with you again and hand over something that I've prepared, how does that sound? And I'll make sure I'll park nearer next time.

Chinese New Year Feast

Chinese sausage pastries

Hakka Stuffed "tofu"

Chicken and tofu pieces braised in five spice sauce

Apple Tarts with Cloves

*I am still unsure whether this is what I actually ate raw that day so Alice or Georgina, if you ever read this, put me out of my misery. But not by making me eat it raw again OK?


  1. The apple tarts look so cute! Although "recently expired ginger" - how dare you besmirch the memory of the lovely Bradley Branning in this way???

    Was it this that nearly killed you?

  2. I got in touch! Don't I count?!

    Looks like the bar is set very high... hope you won't be disappointed with whatever culinary escapade I manage...

  3. Looks like a fabulous meal!
    Bitter melon raw, snort giggle!