Food: Fish fakes

Some ethnic delicacies you must never buy from a supermarket, says Annie Bell
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Hunger has a habit of being untimely. In my case, it was bank holiday hunger aggravated by an empty fridge. I had popped in on some friends and their new baby in the evening, and developed an insatiable craving for Thai fishcakes as I left. Fortunately, I was in the vicinity of Sabai Sabai, which is one of west London's best Thai restaurants, so it was only a matter of minutes before the craving was attended to.

What is it about Thai fishcakes? As David Thompson says in his book, The Top One Hundred Thai Dishes: "Fishcakes are fishcakes are fishcakes unless they are Thai fishcakes." It's the blend of flavours that is so quintessentially Thai: garlic and coriander roots, galangal, kaffir lime leaves and chillies, and then the dip of a hot and sweet liquor containing minute pickles of carrot, onion and cucumber. I like them best of all when I am in a Thai restaurant, but they are easy to produce elsewhere, and are welcome enough on the menus of other restaurants and pubs.

They are less than welcome, however, when they crop up in supermarkets. Any food that is fashionable invariably ends up on the shelves, but it is a dismal misjudgement to think Thai fishcakes can be successfully reheated. They are good only when they have emerged freshly from the deep-fat fryer and are eaten as soon as they are cool enough. Any later and they lose their succulence and have all the appeal of a Kwik-fit tyre. It is the egg white that is crucial to the taste: this is part and parcel of a Thai fishcake and creates an altogether different texture from the creamy salmon sort.

I am not sure why supermarkets sell spring rolls, either. I bought some prawn ones yesterday, if only to remind myself of just how bad they can be. The pastry was literally dripping in oil, they were a long way from being crisp and there was no firm division between the inner layers and the filling, which had fused into a mush. The fact that there are subtle differences between Thai spring rolls and those from Vietnam, Canton and Shanghai, is of little relevance to the greasy sausage that comes under the same name here.

I had also bought spring rolls from Sabai Sabai. These were perfectly crisp on the outside and filled with glass noodles, Chinese mushrooms and water chestnuts, with a splash of fish sauce and oyster sauce - a Thai interpretation of the Chinese spring rolls from which they derive. They also came with a sweet and hot dipping sauce which was a far cry from the gloop that resides with the chilled-down version. Sumitra Darninsung, who owns Sabai Sabai with her brother, says that now and again they buy Thai food from supermarkets, including M&S, and are always disappointed that "it doesn't taste like Thai food. Is it food at all?"

One of the reasons for buying ready-made spring rolls is the difficulty of making them at home. Chinese food doyenne Yan Kit-So gives a recipe for Shanghai spring rolls in her book Classic Food of China that goes on for three pages, taking in one marinade for the shrimp and another for the pork, as well as a soy dipping sauce, and that's before testing your origami skills. Unlike their supermarket cousins, however, her spring rolls are crisp on the outside and juicy to the point of being soupy when you bite into them.

The same problem extends beyond Thai fishcakes and spring rolls to things such as bhajis and pakoras, sesame toast, samosas and dim sum, which seems to be one of the fastest-growing areas, especially when it comes to party food. Look at it this way: if you were preparing all the food for a party, would you consider serving up food that you had fried, cooled, chilled and left to stand around for days before reheating it in the oven? Not unless you wanted to lose friends. The bottom line is that none of these items was ever intended for the convenience market.

As a city dweller, I feel I have no great excuse for buying such food. Being within 10 minutes of Chinese, Indian and Thai restaurants, with a menu from each tucked away in the drawer, it is easy enough to ring through an order and pop down and pick it up a few minutes later. Outside big cities there is more of an excuse: even Red Star can't deliver crisp spring rolls overnight. Perhaps it is best, in that case, to save such food as a treat for when you are eating out. The only way these items are likely to disappear from the supermarket shelves is when people stop buying them. Until then, we are doomed to live in a divided society of real spring rolls and others that no self-respecting Chinese would touch with a pair of chopsticks

Sabai Sabai, 270-272 King St, London W6, 0181-748 7363