Monday, 31 January 2011

Potato Peel Pie

I'd never been part of a Book Club before, but I'm really enjoying our LS book group here in Brunei.  We meet once every 6 weeks and generally have 2 books to read.  We take it in turns to host the club, and I had volunteered to have the last meeting at our house. 

Our main book was the somewhat bizarrely-named The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and as the host for the evening usually provides some nibbles, what else could I make but Potato Peel Pie?!

A quick Google search revealed that I was far from the first person to think of making this for their book club!  It appears that this dish is probably not a genuine wartime recipe, and that the author invented it - but it does seem plausible that dishes such as this would have been created with the intention of using up every last kitchen scrap.  And there's nothing wrong with eating potato peel - it's just the 'jacket' after all!

The book's website helpfully contains a Potato Peel Pie recipe - although it does warn that it 'tastes like paste', especially if made in an authentic fuel-saving way.  I decided that we could do without complete authenticity, so I tried to make it a little more edible, taking inspiration from various internet discussion boards such as this one.

I made the base rather like a potato rosti - grated potato peel, grated onion, 3 tbsp flour and a beaten egg to bind it.  My first attempt at this had the consistency of rubber, so I ended up making another one, this time remembering to squeeze the moisture out of the grated potato before proceeding (thanks Clare!).

The topping was mashed potato, but laden with butter to make it more appealing.  The book also mentions that the pie includes 'beetroot for sweetness'...  This baffled me; I really wasn't sure how to include beetroot, so I decided to steam 2 beetroot until soft and then dice them.  I put them in the middle of 2 layers of mashed potato, which gave the distinct impression of a cake with a jam filling...

It gave us all a laugh, but was somewhat surprisingly (to me) quite tasty too! 

As an aside, the book proved popular with the group, although I was a little more lukewarm in my praise of it than others.  Whilst I found it fascinating to learn about the Nazi occupation of Guernsey, I found the tone of the book often rather 'twee' and several of the characters were quite frankly very irritating!  The final section of the novel (written completely in the form of letters between the characters) descended into what I can only assume was supposed to be comedy, but I found buttock-clenchingly awful, which was a great shame.  Still, I did enjoy reading it - and after all, the whole point of a book group is to generate discussion which this one definitely did.

Sunday, 30 January 2011


The pomelo is large - nay, huge - citrus fruit that grows in South-East Asia. We saw them growing when we were in the Mekong Valley in Vietnam, vast football-sized fruit with pale segments that look rather like grapefruit.  Apparently - geeky fruit-fact of the day - the grapefruit is actually a result of a pomelo-orange cross.  Who knew?!

I've always loved to try new fruits (although after the Durian episode perhaps I should be a little more careful..?!) but I have to admit that the first time I tried Pomelo I was a little disappointed.  It's difficult to peel and has a thick white pith, and once you get to the segments  they're strangely dry and uninspiring.

However, in the 6 months that I've now lived in Asia I have become a total convert.  There's the amazing Thai Salad that I ate in Bangkok of course, but I've also developed a taste for them unadulterated by anything other than a very simple condiment...

I don't tackle them whole, but have discovered them ready peeled and segmented in some of the local supermarkets, and the tray of segments comes complete with a little bag of chili sugar!

That's right, dried chilis mixed with regular sugar.  It's nothing short of a revelation to me.  You just dip the pomelo slice into the sugar and it creates the most amazing taste sensation - sweet of course, but with a gentle kick of chili heat following on.

My new favourite snack!

My first Brunei Wedding

I've just come back from a wedding!  Ainee is one of the teaching assistants who works with our year-group at school, and she invited all the Year 3 staff to her sister Aimee's wedding party today.  Here in Brunei weddings go on for many days.  The religious part of this wedding happened last weekend, but today was a large party to celebrate the marriage.

As soon as we were arrived Ainee greeted us and asked if we wanted to meet the bride.  Of course we did!  We were taken to a back room where the bride was having her make-up done.

Her dress and veil were incredible - covered with amazing beading and embroidery.  I wondered if gold was a traditional colour for Bruneian weddings, but Ainee told me that you can choose whatever colour you like - she had worn blue at her own wedding.

We then had our photos taken with the beautiful bride:

From left to right - my colleague Barbara, Aimee the bride, Ainee and me.  I felt very tall!  All of Ainee's family, male and female, were dressed in silver-grey for the occasion.

Back in the hall we sat around chatting.  I think that many of the guests were quite curious about us and lots of people came to chat to us and ask who we were.  I met a lovely lady who is also married to an Army officer and lives on the same camp as me.

The overall effect was so colourful as everyone was wearing brightly coloured and patterned baju kurongs.  I felt very plain in mine in comparison!

These chairs were set up on the stage all ready for the bride and groom.

We weren't entirely sure what the procedure for the day would be, but the timings were thrown into confusion as there was a road accident nearby and the groom and his family were delayed.  Now the Bruneians love their food - and if you know me at all, you'll know that I do too!  So I was very pleased when it was time to eat.  Apparently the groom would usually arrive before the meal was eaten, but the family decided that the guests should eat first as he was late.

Each table was laid out with 2 kinds of rice, a chicken dish, a beef dish, a fish dish and vegetables. 

Before too long the groom and his family arrived, all dressed in gold.  The groom looked most handsome, and I thought these hats were wonderful!

The bride and groom sat together on the 'thrones' and many photographs were taken.  The guests were all invited to come up onto the stage to be photographed with the happy couple too.

I felt very privileged to be invited to such an occasion - it's taking part in events like this that really make you feel part of the community in Brunei, and not just part of an expat enclave. 

I wish Aimee and Hilmi all the very best for their married life together, and many thanks for inviting us along to be a part of your special day.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Kit Kats, Japanese Style

My brother Ben has been living and working in Japan for 2 and a half years now.  Although it's a bit sad that I don't get to see him very often (except on Skype), I do enjoy getting exciting Christmas and birthday presents from him!

One feature of these presents from Japan is always the Kit Kat.  We all like Kit Kats - they seem to have been the number one selling chocolate bar in the UK for as long as I can remember...  but I can't help wondering how the UK market would respond to some of these...

Take a look at the last batch I received:

Clockwise from top - Cola and Lemonade, Bitter Almond, Apple and Carrot, Green Tea, Raspberry and Passion Fruit, er...  can't work out the last one; no clues on the box.  These boxes all have 2 2-finger Kit Kats in them, individually wrapped to save marital arguments!

They also come in the 'Chunky' size, and in miniature ball-shaped Kit Kats:

Here we have the Banana Chunky Kit Kat, strawberry Kit Kat balls (complete with Rilakkuma, the iconic Japanese teddy, on the packet) and a mini Kit Kat which I did eat but can't quite recall what it was (do you think 'TBC' on the wrapper means flavour 'to be confirmed'?!)...  I think it was some kind of milkshake flavour.

There's no holding back when it comes to the chocolate coatings ('chocolate' in the loosest sense of the word) - there's milk, dark and white...  and then any colour they fancy!  I've had pink ones and yellow ones, the green tea ones are, you've guessed it, bright green, and these apple and carrot ones are - as you can see - a very fetching shade of orange.

Believe it or not, these are the more conventional of the flavours.  In the past I've been sent English Breakfast Tea flavour (actually delicious), and I've heard that my parents were the lucky recipients of a Wasabi flavour Kit Kat this Christmas...  lucky them!  The piece de resistance this year for me was...

Yes, the CHEESE Kit Kats!  No, it's not cream cheese, or ricotta, or mascarpone, or any of those cheeses often used for desserts, it's 'real' European Cheese.  See:

And how do they taste?  Exactly as you'd expect.  Sweet, white chocolatey coating and crispy wafer with a savoury cheesy cream filling.  Pretty foul - but utterly brilliant!

Thanks Ben!

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Laab Burgers

Do you ever get a culinary idea in your head which you can't seem to let go of?  This happened to me recently after a barbecue we went to on New Year's Day.  We took along some home-made beef burgers which we really enjoyed, but it got me thinking about doing something a bit more unusual.  As we're still fairly preoccupied with cooking Thai food, I decided to use some of these flavours to make a burger loosely based on one of our favourite dishes, Laab

Pork mince, toasted ground rice, chopped mint leaves, spring onions, lime juice, chili and a splash of fish sauce, all squelched together in a bowl.  I also added some finely chopped lemongrass and some shredded lime leaves, because I had some in the fridge, and they seemed to be a positive addition.  We have a burger-press which makes short work of the job, and neat round burgers to boot.

Because I had toasted and ground rather too much rice, I ended up using some of it to make a kind of crispy coating for the burgers, pressing it into the surface of the meat just before they hit the hot pan.

I fried them until they had a golden crunchy crust, but kept checking to see that they were still juicy - but not pink - inside.

A soft white bread roll, some Chinese leaf and a generous dollop of sweet chili sauce.  Delicious.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

The Return of Flat Stanley

Look who's back!  Yes, after Polly's Flat Stanley suffered a very unfortunate injury on his visit to Brunei, another child has bravely entrusted his beloved Flat Stanley to my care!

This Stanley comes courtesy of the lovely Hayden, who was also in my class last year.  Hayden's Mum is a great photographer and creates the annual Lewknor School calendar which is sold to the parents, and she kindly put in a copy of the 2011 calendar for me, along with Flat Stanley.  I was really touched by this; how very kind.

Inevitably I have been super-careful with this Stanley - no monkeying around for us!  This sign at the supermarket seemed to sum it up very well...

Yes, we will!

However, we did have one very close shave...  Stanley was in my handbag which I had carelessly left unattended.  I looked across to see a monkey with his hand in it!?  My first thought was not for my wallet, or my phone, but that I would be mortified to have to tell yet another child that I had allowed their Flat Stanley to be attacked!  Thankfully the monkey was only after something to eat - he polished off a packet of sweets that was in the pocket of the bag:

Lucky escape Stanley!!  But not so lucky for the monkey... let's take a closer look at that packet:

In case that's a little small, they were sugar-free sweets and the packet says 'excessive consumption may induce laxative effects'.  Hahahahahahahahahahahaha!  That's what I call karma.

Anyway, Stanley's been to the beach with us,

and paddled in the sea.

He's been sightseeing at one of the city's huge mosques,

and visited Selirong Island - an island covered in amazing Mangrove swamps (reached by a rather scary hour-long boat trip.  Rather scary when there's a storm brewing anyway - we seriously thought the boat was in danger of capsizing...  another innovative way to damage poor Flat Stanley!)

He's made cupcakes with me - Funfetti of course:

 and helped with the supper preparation.

Of course, he came into school too, and was a great help with lots of our lessons!

Collecting data about the colours of Smarties to make frequency-tables and bar charts!

Looking at plants (and wildlife!) in the school grounds.

Finding seeds in various fruits (then eating the fruit of course!)

Very amusingly, and rather brilliantly I thought, the girls in the class decided that Stanley needed a new wardrobe!  Before long he had a school uniform, a PE kit, several sets of shorts/t-shirts, and a traditional Malay outfit, complete with sinjang (coloured fabric around the waist) and songkok (hat)!

Here's Stanley modelling his Malay clothing, alongside his school uniform and PE kit:

He also has a swimming costume (most kids here wear the long-legged, long-sleeve style to protect them from the sun) and, rather worryingly, a pair of what appear to be leopard-skin pants..!

Hmmm, interesting!  I'm sure Hayden will be very amused by Stanley's (flat) suitcase full of clothes. 

Stanley's off home tomorrow, complete with a diary full of photos, his new clothes, some sweets for the class to share and a few little presents for Hayden.

Safe journey Stanley!

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Thai Food - Som Tam

Many people associate Thai food with curries - Green, Red, Yellow, they're all delicious and increasingly popular in the UK.  But I think my favourite style of Thai meal is the salad.  Don't go shaking your head, thinking I'm talking about some limp lettuce leaves here, Thai salads are strong-flavoured, filling and satisfyingly savoury, despite being made with fruit.

One of the 'star' meals of the trip was this incredible Pomelo salad that I had one evening.  Already I am struggling to remember what was in it (I really should have written it down straight away, as I did ask the waiter about it), but it included Pomelo of course (the huge citrus fruit, tastes a little like grapefruit but is less juicy), toasted coconut and fried onions.  It was topped with some shrimp which were lovely, but the dish wouldn't have suffered without them.

Another exciting salad we ate was this one - Banana Blossom salad!

I've seen banana flowers for sale in supermarkets here in Brunei, but wouldn't have had a clue what to do with one, so I was keen to try this salad.  OK, I still don't know what I'd do with a banana flower, but this was really tasty - crispy, sweet, savoury, spicy, topped with fried dried chillies...  fantastic.  A project for another time.  I'll do some research.

Perhaps the most well-known of the little-known Thai Salads is Som Tam - Green Papaya Salad.  This is made with unripe, or green, papaya along with pieces of raw green bean and cherry tomatoes.  I had this dish 3 times during our holiday...  yes, it's delicious but it also had the benefit of making me feel like I was eating healthily to counteract the unhealthy amount of Beer Chang that we were drinking!

The dressing is a powerful mix of raw garlic, lime juice, fish sauce and sugar, and chopped fresh chillies are also added.  The dish is topped with a handful of toasted peanuts (or these can be stirred through).

Som Tam - Thai Papaya Salad

Make the dressing first - in a bowl mix together 2 tbsp fish sauce, 2 tbsp lime juice, 1 tbsp palm sugar, 4 cloves of garlic (crushed) and 1 red birdseye chili (finely chopped, but not deseeded).

Peel and shred one medium green papaya (although I have used a much riper, but still firm one before now to no ill effect).

Chop a handful of green beans (we use long beans here, but French beans will be fine) and about 8 cherry tomatoes (or 2 medium tomatoes).  Add the beans and tomatoes to the papaya.

Pour the dressing over and stir to coat all the fruit and veg.  Sprinkle over a handful of toasted, roughly chopped peanuts.  Or even easier, just use some salted peanuts.

This can be served with rice, but I like it on its own as I don't feel that it needs anything alongside (other than one of those beers...!)

I see from this picture that I also added slivered onion and Thai Basil leaves when I made this in November.  Both were a positive addition.  As you can see, the papaya I used was already orange,  but it was firm enough not to be too sweet and held it's shape when shredded.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Thai Food - Tom Yum Goong

So much for promising to post again soon about Thai food.  It's been the usual start-of-term hecticness (which is not a word, but should be) and somehow I find myself in the middle of the second week back at school.  Despite my lack of blogging there has been plenty of Thai cooking going on.

Our first Thai meal when we arrived back in Brunei was Tom Yum Goong.  This hot and sour soup was never a favourite of mine...  until I had it in Thailand.  Now I'm a convert.

When I first met Rob he had an ancient jar of Tom Yum paste in his fridge (he had a lot of ancient foodstuffs in his fridge and cupboards actually...) and I recall him making us Tom Yum soup for lunch one day.  It was vile!  It was so hot (temperature-wise) that you had to slurp it off the spoon (which incidentally had to be stainless steel as the soup would tarnish silver cutlery) and as you slurped it it hit the back of your throat, and the heat (of the chillies) induced a violent coughing fit!  Even when it cooled down it wasn't pleasant; too 'abrasive' in its flavours.  Not our most successful meal.

Perhaps it's one of those dishes that can be adapted to personal taste, but I've found a way that it works for me.  Maybe it's not traditional, I don't know, but it needs coconut milk.  Not too much - I find the richness of coconut milk can be too heavy - but just a little to take the edge off the strong flavours. 

The first time we had it was actually on Christmas Day, in the evening.  We sat at a waterfront restaurant and enjoyed a fantastic meal.  Rob had the Tom Yum, and I had a Green Curry.  My curry was delicious, but I have to admit that my meal was slightly spoiled by the fact that I thought Rob's was better!  I hate it when that happens.  I ate as much of his as I dared, but demanded that we return to the same restaurant later in the week so that I could have a whole portion to myself.

On our return visit we both ordered it, and it came in this great steamboat with a burner underneath to keep it warm.  Again it was delicious so we determined that we would recreate it at home.

While other people may go to Bangkok to hit the bars, we went to hit the supermarkets!  We bought several sachets of various Thai pastes with which to cook at home.  These pastes are very good - all the ingredients are natural, they just save a lot of work with a pestle and mortar!  When we arrived home we found that we already had a sachet of Tom Yum paste...  Remember those 'ancient foodstuffs' I mentioned earlier?  Well, this sachet had a 'use by' date of 1997.  That's got to be a record, surely?!

The antique one is on the left.  Believe it or not I actually tried the old one - just mixed it into boiling water and had a taste - but the overriding flavour was of stale oil, so I tipped it down the sink and started again with the new sachet.

It could hardly be simpler - just follow the packet instructions.  The packet said to use 2 cups (500ml) of boiling water, but I used about 150ml of chicken stock and about 50ml of coconut milk (made from powder - perfect for small amounts).  The recipe on the sachet said to simply add prawns and mushroom, but I went a little further and threw in large (and very mild) chillies (sliced), chopped spring onions, chopped coriander leaves, thinly sliced kaffir lime leaves (what an amazing flavour they provide), and oyster mushrooms (cheap and plentiful here), as well as some raw shrimp.

We served it with wedges of lime to squeeze over, and fish sauce to taste, as well as the obligatory mound of jasmine rice.

The paste ingredients include lemongrass which is an important flavour for this soup.  I pondered adding some more fresh lemongrass but in fact it didn't need it as the flavour came through strongly enough.  It was hot but didn't blow your head off - just right (bearing in mind that our tolerance for chilli has increased dramatically since moving to the Far East!).  We'll definitely be repeating this meal.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Back from Thailand

We got back to Brunei last Friday - but as it was back to work on Monday, of course our holiday is fast becoming a distant memory!  Isn't that always the way.

However, we did have an amazing time.  Spending time in 2 very different places was perfect - we enjoyed a few days of the busyness and bustle of Bangkok (oh so different to sleepy Brunei!) but then had the contrast of total relaxation on a beach on Koh Samet. 

We spent Christmas itself on the beach - a lovely idea... although we were a little surprised that we both felt rather odd about it.  My Australian and New Zealander colleagues disagree of course, but Christmas in the heat just feels wrong!  It's clearly just how we're conditioned - 33 Christmases spent in England plus 1 in Canada means that in my mind the festive season should be about getting cosy inside when it's chilly outside. 

This didn't mean that we didn't enjoy it - it was an incredibly beautiful place - but we did both visibly relax once we got to Boxing Day and the mental pressure to feel 'Christmassy' was over!

After 5 nights on Koh Samet we headed back to Bangkok for a further 3 nights.  Our hotel for this final part of the trip was great,  right on the back of the river so we could escape the nightmarish city traffic and hop on the water taxis to get around.  We did the tourist sights - the Grand Palace, Wat Pho, etc - as well as a bit more shopping (mainly Birkenstocks and fairy-lights!).

And of course - and there will be a LOT more to come on this topic - we ate lots of lovely Thai food!  We've always eaten quite a lot of Thai dishes, but are now inspired to cook them much more.  We live in Asia so sourcing the ingredients isn't too much of a problem, and we're determined to make the most of it.

Happy New Year to you all!