CHICKEN POWER

In the second part of our occasional series of dedicated dishes, the French chef Bruno Loubet, of Bruno: Soho, concocts a stir-fry with attitude for the Spice Girls DEDICATED DISHES 2: SPICE GIRLS STIR-FRY
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The Independent Culture
The month's Dedicated Dish is Five Spice-Girl Chicken with Prawns. Continuing our occasional series in which a top chef creates a dish for a famous group or person, we asked Bruno Loubet to create a dish for the world's best-known girlie group.

You might just think of the Spice Girls as lively, likeable and a lot of fun. And probably air-heads. "A lot of people make that mistake," says Rebecca Cripps, who edits Spice, the official fanzine. "I was with them when an interviewer from Radio Five came to meet them and obviously she assumed they were a bunch of idiots. By the end she was on her knees."

The American writer and academic, Kathy Acker, has just published a long paean in their praise, concluding that through the Spice Girls, and girls like them, feminism in Britain will grow, "transforming society as society ought to be transformed, with lightness and joy."

Their power to influence the young will not be news to parents of Britain's younger teenage girls, among whom the Spice Girls have enjoyed supergirl status since Virgin launched them last year. Chef Bruno Loubet, father of 12-year-old Letitia, feels as if he's been sharing his home with them. The music is the least of it. These are girls with attitude, girls to preach independence.

"The Spice Girls are feminists," says Cripps, "and they see themselves as evangelists. They are saying to teenagers, we all come from ordinary backgrounds, look what you can get if you try. Just be yourself." Individually, they are the kind of girls who might live next door, she continues, but brought together as a group they generate an explosive energy.

Loubet agrees and this was the spirit he hoped to capture in creating a dish for them. "Each has their own special character, as you know. Posh Spice, Baby Spice, Sporty Spice, Scary Spice and Ginger Spice. So I was looking for a dish in which I could match each of them to a spice and create the same powerful effect."

Loubet is pretty spicy himself. He created Bistro Bruno (now Bruno: Soho), devoted to the whole gamut of Mediterranean and North African flavouring. And now he is in partnership with Swedish Baron Otto Stromfelt to give the Chelsea Hotel in Sloane Street a make-over. It is here that he is putting the dish together. There was the fond hope (later dashed) to bike the finished dish, meals-on-wheels style, to catch the girls at a break in their world itinerary. In a few helter-skelter weeks it had taken them to New Zealand (where they outraged Maoris with their version of a haka dance), to London to ham it up in Pepsi Cola dresses, from there to the Cannes Film Festival and then to the United States.

How did Bruno decide on a stir-fry? "Well, I didn't think a too sophisticated dish would be right. I doubt if they know what foie gras is."

Starting with the spices, he needed something which would easily take on their flavour. Chicken breast was the obvious choice. "Then I thought of a Chinese stir-fry. Frying spices in oil brings out their character."

All that remained to be done was to conduct some hands-on research with his daughter, determining the characteristics of the fivesome. He decided he could match Victoria, known as Posh Spice, with the rather superior spice, Szechuan pepper. He then picked star anise to match Emma, who is Baby Spice, innocent and sweet.

For Mel C, who is known as Sporty Spice, Bruno thought an up-front flavour like fresh chilli would be appropriate. And for Mel B, Scary Spice, who comes over as a complex character, he chose black peppercorns; they can sting at first but then they diffuse into a warm glow. He didn't need to find a spice for outspoken ginger-haired Geri, who is already known as Ginger Spice.

It took Bruno minutes to prepare the ingredients, and soon he was frying the chicken in hot oil, not in a wok, but in a huge frying-pan. One by one, the spices sizzled, the fresh ginger first, then the Szechuan peppers (giving off slightly mentholated fumes which catch the breath), then powdered star anise with its pungent sweetness, the tingle of the black peppercorns and, finally, the pieces of fresh chilli with their invisible vapours reaching for your eyes.

It's a colourful and appetising plateful, with its crunchy green mangetouts (blanched in boiling water, eaten almost raw) and pink prawns, part shelled, so that you can eat them with your fingers, picking them up by their tails. "I suggest it's served in a bowl in the middle of the table, so everyone can help themselves," said Loubet.

It is explosive. And the verdict from Rebecca Cripps: "Inspirational. Chinese is their favourite food, and chicken and prawns best of all."

SPICE NOTES

Bruno's five spices: (fresh ginger, fresh chillies, star anise, Szechuan pepper and black peppercorns) include only two of the five spices of the famous Chinese five-spice powder (that is, powdered cassia, fennel seeds, cloves, star anise and Szechuan pepper).

Szechuan pepper: Dried berries of a small Chinese tree, the prickly ash. It is actually known to spice experts as fagara, but because so common in the cooking of Szechuan province, the Szechuan name has now stuck. The berries need to be dry-heated in a frying pan to bring out their flavour, which is hot, tingling and woody.

Star anise: The star-shaped fruit of a Chinese tree. The dried pods contain beautiful, shiny seeds, but these actually have very little flavour. One of the most important ingredients in Chinese cooking, it's used to perfume dishes of duck, chicken and pork. You can always find it in specialist Asian stores.

Ginger: Powdered ginger has been a standby of the British kitchen since medieval times, but it's only in the last few years that fresh ginger has been available. Peeled and finely shredded, it's an essential ingredient (with garlic and spring onions) in a Chinese stir-fry.

Black peppercorns: The most used of all spices, and once extremely valuable; a peppercorn rent was no mean rent. Black peppercorns have overtaken white in popularity, powdered white pepper now being associated in our memories with staleness. But equally, black peppercorns need to be freshly milled.

Fresh chillies: One of the newest additions to the British table, initially creeping in as the essential ingredient of a salsa, but now being used with great brio in the Asianisation of home cooking, in Chinese and Indian-style dishes. Contrary to frequent claims that the seeds are the hottest part, they are not; but the membranes to which they cling most certainly are. So wash fingers in cold water after cutting chillies.

SPICE GIRLS SPICY STIR-FRY

Serves 5

3 de-boned chicken breasts

250g/9oz tiger (large) prawns, in the shell

1 bunch spring onions

200g/7oz carrots

100g/31/2oz mangetout

1 bunch asparagus, peeled and cut in 5cm/2in pieces, blanched for 2 minutes in boiling salted water

2 yellow peppers

20 baby corn

4 cloves garlic

50g/2oz fresh ginger

1 tablespoon finely crushed Szechuan pepper (available in any Asian speciality shops)

3 pinches ground star anise

a few ground fresh peppercorns

1 teaspoon fresh red chilli (or depending on your taste!), finely sliced

3 tablespoons dark soy sauce

2 tablespoons honey

juice of half a lemon

1 tablespoon fresh mint, chopped

2 tablespoons fresh coriander, chopped

5 tablespoons sesame oil

Asparagus, baby corn and mangetout should be blanched in boiling salted water - asparagus for two minutes, mangetout and corn for 30 seconds only. Peel the carrots, then shave long strips of carrot with a vegetable peeler (these do not need to be cooked ahead of time). Chop the spring onions (white with a bit of green) into about three pieces. De-seed the bell peppers and slice them into long strips. Cut the chicken into fine strips, chop the garlic finely and slice ginger into julienne strips. Leaving the tail on the prawns, slice the body in half but do not separate.

Heat oil in large frying-pan or wok. Add the chicken strips and cook until white. Add prawns, and toss them with chicken. Add carrots and all the spices and toss. Then add all the other vegetables. Toss for 30 seconds. Add honey, and toss for two to three minutes as everything starts to glaze. Finish with soy sauce and lemon juice. Then add herbs at very end. Serve immediately. !

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