Food isn't like fashion: you can't mix clashing styles (curried baked beans excepted)

Some of the astonishingly inept and frivolous tampering that has, over the last five years or so, been inflicted upon the traditional cooking practices of the Far East - ie, the "Pacific Rim" and all that this neatly named melting pot cares to absorb into its out-of-control whirling bowl - has now become so commonplace that even those whom I used to think of as having the utmost integrity have now gleefully embraced that slippery edge, nonchalantly seeing their wayward views and misuse of indigenous ingredients as some sort of achievement. This, truly, is a very sad state of affairs.

Some of the astonishingly inept and frivolous tampering that has, over the last five years or so, been inflicted upon the traditional cooking practices of the Far East - ie, the "Pacific Rim" and all that this neatly named melting pot cares to absorb into its out-of-control whirling bowl - has now become so commonplace that even those whom I used to think of as having the utmost integrity have now gleefully embraced that slippery edge, nonchalantly seeing their wayward views and misuse of indigenous ingredients as some sort of achievement. This, truly, is a very sad state of affairs.

Just one example of the many peaks - well, strictly speaking, troughs - in this respect was the serving of lemon-grass stalks as part of a colourful collection of crudités in a London restaurant recently (there were stalks of raw asparagus, too). I only hope that a few brazenly sensible folk took it upon themselves to slip these stalks into their top pockets, take them home and use them in a nice Thai chicken and coconut soup recipe for a piquant Saturday lunch. To dip them? I dare you. Mind you, I wouldn't be surprised if a few of those asparagus were bravely munched ...

As a young Egon Ronay inspector in the late Seventies, I recall spending two weeks eating exclusively in London's Japanese restaurants, and a further four weeks doing Chinese and Indian restaurants. And, back then, once my friend Alastair Little had introduced me to Chiang Mai (the Thai restaurant next door to his place in Soho, as opposed to Thailand's large northern city) in the early Eighties, I couldn't get enough of that, too. In fact, if I have ever been addicted to anything, I would have to say that the chicken, coconut and galangal soup served there came pretty close to initiating a most delicious overdose.

So, as a professional cook (off and on for nearly 30 years now) I did, occasionally, mess around with all sorts of Asian ingredients, hoping to flatter both myself and an unsuspecting paying public with my trifling efforts. But I am not so sure that I would do so now. There are simply too many excellent ethnic restaurants to choose from nowadays, not just in London or the larger cities, but also up and down the country. And, although it was quite a nice thing to find a carefully made curry in west Wales back in 1975 or, dare I say, even my attempt at that Thai soup in South Kensington as recently as 1983, I think that attempting to recreate Far Eastern dishes is just a bit silly in the year 2000.

I attempted nothing, however, until I had voraciously read various cookery books written by experts in their field. In particular, I would cite Jennifer Brennan's Thai Cooking (Jill Norman & Hobhouse, 1981, first British publication) as one early inspiration. And, for as long as I can remember, whenever Dad carefully made one of his curries, it would be to a well-scuffed, small, green paperback written by EP Veeraswamy that he would refer. (Forty-odd years ago, of course, there was no other reliable Indian cookbook available, Madhur Jaffrey being but a sweetly blushing gulab jamun of a girl at the time.)

I also devoured a book called Kaiseki: Zen Tastes In Japanese Cooking, by Kaichi Tsuji (first published in English in 1972). It was given to me by a friend long ago and I marvelled at its strict discipline, precision and seasonal importance - as well as the extraordinarily beautiful colour plates throughout. Foods From The Far East, by Bruce Cost (first published in 1988 - and yet another excellent book from the Jill Norman stable at the time) became yet another eye-opener, especially after I had been to the restaurant he once owned, called Monsoon, in San Francisco. His Chinese recipes in particular are some of the most reliable ones I have ever come across.

As far as I am concerned, it now seems quite potty to find British restaurants taking the trouble to make a Thai green chicken curry, for instance, when there is a perfectly acceptable Thai restaurant at the other end of the high street (I mean, isn't there always?), or to offer "sashimi" of tuna or farmed salmon when the young chef who's making it probably can't even sharpen a knife properly, let alone think about what the Dickens he is doing in the first place. As a Japanese sashimi chef's apprenticeship lasts for several years before he is let loose upon the paying public, this point is worth a mention; pedantic I may be, but I think I really care and he just slightly doesn't, that's all. And then there's the ubiquitous "stir-fry" and the "Asian seasoned" this, that and the other. }

But, controversially, you know what I really, really enjoy? It's the mulligatawnies, the kedgerees or the scampi in a curry cream sauce that they do at Harry's Bar in Venice (see page 51). I love sweet-and-sour sauce with fried chicken and chips and the tasty grilled lamb chops that Eugene McCoy calls "Lamb Tjitske - with Javanese overtones" and which he has served to great acclaim in his North Yorkshire bistro for yonks (excellent with chips, too). Cold curried apple soup is another one and has been hailed by one particularly loyal customer of Bibendum over the years as being "the loveliest liquid that has ever passed my lips!" A more recent addiction of mine has been to stew mussels with a generous smearing of Thai green curry paste and a can of coconut milk. A little risqué, I grant you, but just try it the next time you fancy a change from à la mariniÿre. Stew a few chunks of floury potatoes in the copious, leftover juices and pass all through the mouli-legumes for an incredibly good soup, adding some chopped coriander leaves and a touch of cream for, respectively, extra flavour and smoothing.

In essence, I suppose what it is I'm trying to say is, well, just that, you know ... I mean, come on, didn't everyone, once, simply just adore Heinz curried baked beans? I certainly did. However, I know I can hear thousands muttering out there just now, as I write, "Well, darling, I think it's time for me to go and snuggle myself down in the spare room now, if you don't mind."

Homemade curried baked beans

Serves 4

"To include the sultanas or not?" was the first question I asked myself. But I soon realised that this paltry dilemma was a matter entirely for the cook: do I want it to taste exactly like the contents of the familiar turquoise can (I vaguely recall that the "curried baked beans" label was trivially different to that of the standard brand - a touch more green or a little more blue, perhaps)? Or do I reject, out of hand, this additional sweetness once so favoured by confused families of the British Raj as a temper for that new thing called curry?

I might even suggest that it could have been some of those bewildered ex-pat wives who were the very first food tamperers of all. Pioneering Pacific Rimmers? World Cuisine Wives? Well, undoubtedly, the menus initially offered up to them from equally bewildered Indian cooks must have been looked upon as shocking to begin with. And, as the Lady of the Big House had long been used to instructing cook as to how she wanted all things to be, she then blithely began to bully in Bengal - or wherever she might happen to find herself ... Dar es Salaam, Dakar or Darjeeling, it mattered not a jot to her: "Now, look here. Be it in Mount Street or here in Madras, I do know that Hector enjoys a nice rice pudding from time to time. Reminds him of Nanny. What's that? With cardamom, cloves and saffron? Haven't the foggiest. Well, all right, but make sure you cook it very slowly. He likes a buttery skin, you see. Ghee? What on earth is that? Never mind. Have you ever cooked rice before?"

For the tomato sauce

40g butter

50g fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 large hot green chilli, chopped (seeds removed if you wish)

1tsp ground cumin

1/4tsp ground cardamom

10 ripe, fresh tomatoes, cored, peeled and chopped

salt

75g creamed coconut dissolved in 5-6tbsp boiling water

squeeze of lime juice, to taste

freshly ground black pepper

 

2 x 400g (approximately) cans of haricot beans

1 heaped tbsp sultanas (optional) or, as an alternative sweetener, possibly a couple of tablespoons of Green Label mango chutney, reduced to a paste

(Interestingly, as I write, Jason Lowe has just returned from an extensive trip to India - photographing everything from flowering cardamom pods to freshly dug turmeric rhizomes - and informs me that such a thing as mango chutney simply does not exist there; certainly, it is manufactured in India, but then promptly exported to Great Britain and other English-speaking nations. I happen to love it.)

Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed, shallow pot. Add the garlic, ginger, chilli, cumin and cardamom. Allow the spices to stew gently in the butter before adding the tomatoes. Lightly salt and spoon over the loosened coconut cream. Partially cover the pan and set upon an extremely low light (use one of those heat diffuser pads if you can). Much of the juice from the tomatoes will now flow out and form a sauce, helped along by the creamed coconut. When this has begun to come along nicely - after about 25-30 minutes - you will notice that the sauce becomes slightly separated, but remains creamy in parts. (If it seems too dry, simply add a little water.) Add the lime juice and the pepper and liquidise all until very smooth.

Pass this sauce through a fine sieve and into a clean pan, then tip in the beans (un-rinsed). Add either the sultanas or the mango chutney, stir in and heat through until it all simmers gently. Continue cooking for a further 15-20 minutes, and then serve with nostalgia.

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