Tasty London: Asian Wonder
Speaking about “London cuisine” we have long stopped talking about fish-and-chips. New flavours, textures, products, spices and culinary trends are brought to London by people from all over the world . It seems, however, that none of the foreign-borne trends are so dear to the British gourmand’s heart as trends coming from the Asian cuisine. Today I am going on an exclusive trip to the “Asian London” together with a fashionable Malaysian Chef Guan Leong Chua. The original Russian interview with Julia Varshavskaya of Russky London can be read here:http://russkylondon.com/post/1654
Anna, could you, please, tell me about the special guest of this blog. Why did you decide to talk to Guan?
Well, first of all he comes from Malaysia, which represents the South-Eastern part of the Asian cuisine. Secondly, we have a very similar career path: he too was an investment banker and then developed a passion for food and cooking. We studied together at Le Cordon Bleu. However, he took a different path in his gastronomic experiments. Instead of opening a cookery school, he started a supper club: Malaysian Nyonya Supper Club. We have already written about the trend in one of the previous blogs of Tasty London. Essentially, the chef cooks at home and does not charge a set price - each guest pays as much as he deems appropriate.
Guan became well known among London foodies especially due to his blog about food and then even more so after taking part in the culinary show Taste, where he became one of the six finalists. But, for our present blog, the most important thing is actually, that Guan is an expert in the London Asian food scene. This is why the moment we thought about the topic for the present blog I decided to invite Guan to be our expert.
Ok, let’s start with a vital question. Why is the Asian cuisine so popular in Britain?
This trend came to London with the immigrants from China (when we speak about China, we are mainly referring to the South, from Canton), Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan. Initially small restaurants and take aways opened to offer homeland food close circle of friends and family, but with time stalls selling Asian street food and offering dishes like stir-fries and spring rolls with spicy sauces became more and more popular with a wider population.
Asian cuisine quickly became popular and in the last years, the Asian gastronomic tradition started coming to the plates of haute cuisine restaurants. Guan mentioned that a lot of chefs nowadays travel the world looking for inspiration and discover a world of bright, spicy and diverse Asia cuisine on the way. Take, Rick Stein, who has travelled throughout all Asia looking for inspiration. As London always readily absorbs all new interesting trends from other cultures and mixes them with it’s own, London fusion cuisine is a queer mix of mediterranean diet combined with asian influences. Seeing ingredients like ginger or tamarind on the menu of fashionable restaurants is nothing special any more. Take Alan Ducasse and you will often see a consomme of langoustines - we often forget that clear broth essences are widely used in the Asian cuisine. Even such French to the bone marrow restaurateurs as Michael Roux welcomes the trends of Asian cuisine in the menu at La Gavroche.
I was really surprised to hear that a large number of our readers asked us to write something about the Asian cuisine in London. The most frequent question was about places where you can buy the “authentic” products to cook an Asian meal at home. Have you found out anything about shopping for ingredients from Guan?
London is full of authentic Asian stores. First of all you can head straight to China town. There you can check out Seewoo, New Loon Moon, LoonFung. In North London there is Wing Yip. Hackney renowned for its vietnamese community has Longdan.
If you are too busy to travel these shops you can also buy a lot of ingredients online in Ocado, visit one of the Chinese online shops, for example www.WaiYeeHong.com or simply go to www.SousChef.co.uk
So which products are indispensable for Asian cooking?
There is a myriad of products, and each type of Asian cuisine has its favourites, but I think there are some used widely across the board.
Take lemongrass, a plant with lemony/gingery taste. I was often puzzled as to how to cook it, so you could actually chew it afterwards - it does not matter how long you cook it, it always stays very tough. So often I cooked it and took it out after the dish is ready. Guan had a secret for me - if you cut it really small across the grain and then puree it in a blender or with mortar and pestle you can use it without taking it out.
Apart from lemon grass there are tamarind, galangal with its citrusy taste, coconut milk, chilli, palm sugar and ginger.
One ingredient I have recently discovered for myself is fermented soybean - which has a very strong and salty taste and should be used sparingly for that reason. Also shrimp paste (which you can find from Belacan brand and which gives dishes a pungy taste. Try adding dried shrimp or dried squid to your pork broth and you will be surprised as to how the taste changes (dried shrimp/squid add umami taste to the broth).
Guan told me a lot about candle nuts, which I had never heard before: they are pureed with mortar and pestle and then added to curries to make them thicker. I had never heard about morning glory, which is a mixture between spinach and kale which you could serve stir-fried with chilli and shrimp paste.
Next one is okra - which I experimented a lot with myself - it is very tasty, but becomes very slimy when overcooked. To avoid it blanch okra for 30-40 seconds and serve it whole in the curry.
Pandan leaves are often used in desserts - you can wither wrap your dessert in them and steam it. Or as Guan does it: blitz it in the blender, squeeze the juice out and add to your dessert (for colour and taste - for example adding it to glutenous rice).
Maybe I will loose all respect from our readers, but I have never managed to cook an authentic asian dish. Is it just me, or is it really so difficult?
Don’t worry, I do not think it is easy to cook an authentic Asian dish at home using conventional stove top! But our expert Guan did reveal some secrets: First of all, in the European cuisine, we often cook meat and vegetables and add spices or herbs to them. In the asian cuisine, it is different - the crux of the dish is the spice mix. After being crushed and well mixed the spices are heated to caramelize sugars and heat the oils. Only then all the ingredients are added. Once you have heated your spice mix its taste changes dramatically. Just try unheated coriander seeds in a a dish and then heat them slightly before adding - what a difference in the flavour.
Second important point is that high temperature is essential in the preparation of a large number of dishes. Thanks to cooking it briefly at very high temperature, Asian chefs manage to retain the flavours of the products and their healthy qualities. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to reach the required temperatures at home, and often if you use a wok at home, the food turns out stewed instead of stir fried. By the way, it is important to actually throw the food in the air from time to time (that is why it is called stir fry and not simply fry) - this way you prevent food from burning (when in the air the ingredients cool down a bit and do not burn). So Asian cuisine also requires extra physical strength from the chef.
Not sure, that our readers are ready for this… So we need your help, have you talked about restaurants we could go?
Well, first ones which come to mind are the well-known ones:
Wong Kei – you go there if you want to experience proper Chinese service. some time ago it was called the rudest restaurant in London. In 2014 its management completely changed and the restaurant became a bit more polite, but out of curiosity it is interesting to have a look.
Royal China – it is a large chain of Chinese restaurants. They are well-known for their dim sum and traditional Hong Kong cuisine.
Worth mentioning is a favourite place of London glamorous public – Hakassan. Not speaking about the price tag coming with it, I will just say that they offer an upmarket variant of Cantonese cuisine. In connection with a glamorous interior it looks slightly like a modernised opium den of the last century.
A bit beside a well-trodden path there are for example three other places:
A.Wong – in his menu they invite you to try dishes from different regions in China. There are dishes with a strong Vietnamese influence, there is lamb with spices used in Arab countries or sea-creatures, which live in sea regions of China.
And certainly we talked about Malaysian cuisine so dear to Guan’s heart a lot. Who if not he knows where to find the most authentic cuisine of his motherland.
In Roti King – you can find the best curry and delicious handkerchief bread. In C&R Cafe you can taste some authentic street food as you would find in Malaysia. And go to Kualalumpur Cafe for the best laksa, coconut rice and nasi lemak.
And just to add a bit, for if you are interested in Korean food, try Koba, which I would call smart Korean food and Cah Chi famous for their marinaded meat and flavoursome stews and go to Bi Bim Bap, to try the traditional food with the same name.
Where it concerns gastronomy, you can travel Asia without leaving London! So off you go and, please, share your experiences and discoveries with us!