Saturday, 27 February 2010

Chilli Crabs, Fish Heads and other stories

The feasting begins at 7.30 Saturday night and wraps at 1 Sunday morning.

Thinking about what we eat - I can now see why...

7.30pm - ‘Loh Sang’ salad
8.00pm - Grilled fish heads

BREAK (We’re pretty full at this point, and this is only the beginning)

9.00pm - Chilli crabs
9.45pm - Steamed crab shells
10.15pm - Baked pomfret with chilli pepper and fried noodles

ANOTHER BREAK (Walk, breathe)

11.15pm - Garlic and spring onion prawns
11.45pm - Pomelo and satsumas

On the seventh day of Chinese New Year falls ‘Everybody’s Birthday’- a day in the Chinese calendar apparently more important than your own. Cue excessive eating back at the Lee family household. My mother has commissioned me to cook chilli crabs, and her school friends who also whip up some prime seafood (and whose grilled fish head dish makes its way onto this post).

I’m only posting recipes for Malaysian Chilli Crabs and Grilled Fish Heads, but special mention must go to the evening’s opening salad, the extraordinary ‘Loh Sang’ - which I’ve only ever seen Malaysian Chinese make. Everyone round the table must toss the ingredients - a variety of shredded vegetables, like carrot, fruit, pomelo, raw fish (symbolising life) and peanuts. A sweet dressing is poured over it, and everyone grabs their chopsticks and tosses the salad altogether. Permissible playing with food. We're beginning to enjoy ourselves.

Adding the dressing then mixing the salad.

Thinking of chilli crabs evokes outdoor restorans in the cool of a Kuala Lumpur evening - piles of crustacea lacquered with sauce, mucky hands grabbing the next leg, hearing the crack of teeth against shell and the satisfying sound of the suck of sweet crabmeat from the claw.

It’s such a wonderfully communal dish and there are infinite ways of making chilli crabs – but this particular recipe has been cooked countless times for hawkeyed Malaysians who leave not a scrap, which I guess is a good sign. I’ve experimented with brandy, extra tamarind, and even vermouth (big mistake) but the ingredient that makes the difference is actually lashings of Sriracha hot chilli sauce (discovered by accident when a friend up-ended a bottle into the wok). And when I didn’t have the chilli sauce, the understudy was ketchup, which worked as lickably well – both add a sweetness and depth that cut through the spices of the base paste.

And then fish heads. They provoke strange behaviour in the older generations.

Imagine you’re at dinner. You’re having a perfectly normal conversation about the demise of Cheryl and Ashley over a plate of whole fried fish, and all of a sudden, passionate spatting erupts, and chopstick-wielding parents and uncles fight over the fish head in the way teenage girls squabble over a spotty pubescent boy.

And I’ve noticed that whoever wins is silent for the next 15 minutes as they work to reach then savour every morsel of cartilagey goodness and soft meat and cheek that nestles in the head.

I realise this may not be to everyone’s taste, but I can say with a surety a fish head is an absolute treat as it yields so much flavour and tender meat. The Chinese talk about whether you ‘know how to eat’ something. Fish heads are something you have to ‘know how to eat’ because it’s a maze of bone which you expertly nibble around. My very English boyfriend does amazingly well amongst such seasoned cranium-eaters. But he can’t bring himself to eat the eyes. He’s still got a way to go.

And, as you can imagine, the heads are also terribly terribly cheap. I once went to Billingsgate market after 2 hours sleep (post-night- out). Marvelling at how little everything cost, I bought five huge salmon fish heads for £2.50 (as well as 3 lobsters, 5 cheeky crabs who terrorized my kitchen, 3 sea bass and 5 sea bream all for 35 quid. To say I got carried away is beyond understatement). Bargainous.

I wanted to post this fish head recipe – it’s so simple, so cheap, and such a tasty starter that I salute anyone brave enough to make it.

Grilled salmon fish heads

Serves 4


- 4 salmon fish heads, cut in half down the centre between the eyes (get your fishmonger to do this for you if you don’t have a sharp enough knife)
- Lots of salt


Preheat grill to the highest temperature.

Wash the fish heads, and if there are still scales on them, give them a quick rub with a knife to take the scales off. Pat the heads dry with kitchen roll – the skin should be dry.

Salt the fish heads by rubbing the entire surface of the heads, skin-side and flesh side, with plenty of salt.

Place the heads on a wired baking tray, skin side up and put under the grill for about 15 minutes, or until the skin has JUST turned black. You want the skin to be a little blistered and blackened.

Take the baking tray out and turn the heads over so it’s flesh-side up.
Grill for another 5 minutes until the flesh is just cooked and still tender.

Serve immediately.

Chilli Crabs

Serves 4

You’ll need a good wok, or a deep frying pan


- 2 large live crabs. Buy on the day you want to cook them. You can keep them in the fridge in wet newspaper until you need to use them.
- Plain flour seasoned with salt and pepper
- Sunflower, vegetable or groundnut oil
- 1 teaspoon tamarind paste mixed with ¼ pint water and 1 teaspoon sugar
- 4 large squirts of Sriracha hot chilli sauce OR tomato ketchup and chopped fresh chillies

For the paste:

- 1 stalk lemongrass
- 12 shallots
- 6 cloves garlic
- 4 cm ginger (or 2 cm galangal, 2cm ginger)
- 1 level teaspoon turmeric
- 1 teaspoon shrimp paste
- 10 birdseye dried chillies


- 2 spring onions finely sliced
- 2 sprigs coriander


Chop all the ingredients for the paste. If you have the energy, forgo the gym and pound all the ingredients in a pestle and mortar. This seems to yield a better texture and taste. You can magimix the paste instead though - put all the ingredients in and whiz until an ochrey yellow paste. It won’t be smooth, but you want all the bits small enough so that there aren’t individual bits of lemongrass that get stuck in your teeth. Set aside.

Prepare the crabs.
Clean the crabs first under running water. An old toothbrush is best for a thorough scrub.
Place the crabs on a solid chopping board. Hold the crab on its back (shell side down) and stick a sharp knife into the crab directly behind the eyes to kill it.

Pull off the tail flap from the underside and discard. Then, either press down on the centre and legs and pull off the shell, or, if you’re having difficulty, insert the knife under the shell to give yourself some leverage.

Pull off the gills (dead man’s fingers) and throw away the spongy sand bag, which sits behind the eyes.

Using a sharp knife, cut the crab in half, and then cut off the claws. Use a mallet or rolling pin to bash each piece so that it’s easier for those eating to get to the meat.

Dip these parts (claws and legs) into the seasoned flour and make sure they are dusted all over.

Heat about 200ml of oil in a wok or a deep pan. You know the oil’s hot enough when you stick a chopstick in and the oil furiously bubbles.

Fry 4 pieces at a time, 2-3 minutes each side. The outside of the crab should be bright red and the flour crispy. If the oil turns brown at any point, use fresh oil.
Set the crab pieces aside on kitchen roll.

Heat the wok again. Using 2 tablespoons of fresh oil, fry the paste in the wok for about 2 minutes, until the spices smell amazingly fragrant. You do not want the paste to burn.

Add the tamarind-water-sugar mixture. Bring to the boil, then tip in the crabs back into the wok. Stir to make sure all of the crab is covered in sauce. Then cover the wok for about 5 minutes, giving the crabs a stir every now and then, so that they steam a little.

Open the wok, and add the ketchup and chillies/chilli sauce. Stir and cook for an extra minute.

Add the spring onions and coriander.

Stir once more, then serve.

If you’re at a loose end with the crab shells, which have the roe inside, you can either cook them the same way as the claws and legs, or you can steam them just as they are, and eat with a spoon. They are an acquired taste, but absolutely delicious.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

London’s new Colony

Opening of Atul Kochhar’s new restaurant

In advertising, you know you’ve stumbled on a chin-plummeting idea when it seems so obvious you think – why the hell has this not been done before?
Animalistic joy evoked in a drumming gorilla. Can you get any more joy than that?

And this is how I feel about Colony, Atul Kochhar and restaurateur Carlo Spetale’s new venture in London’s Marylebone Village, the champagne-fuelled opening for which was last Wednesday night.

I mean - serving dishes inspired by street-food from the myriad of British colonies, street-food honed from centuries-old techniques. These global influences all in one place. What a great, steamingly obvious idea. And with a ridiculous amount of street-food out there in the world, there is also a ridiculous amount of room for Colony to evolve.

And then there’s the idea of bar-snacking this food.

Nothing whets the inebriant appetite more than a good injection of savoury spicy nibbles, and with Colony bringing over the head chef from Michelin-starred Benares, one would hope for particularly good spicy nibbles. Their speciality is in nashtas, which they call Indian-style tapas, usually eaten in India as elevenses. My personal favourite of the canapés was the paneer with a vibrant verdant herb sauce.

I’d just arrived as Jimmy Choo, the revered shoe designer, was leaving and was told that Kochhar and Choo are soon off on a jolly jaunt together to Malaysia for culinary research. Mmmmm. The master of spice with the master of shoes. Not the most obvious choice of travelling companions until you realise that Choo is fortuitously Malaysia’s ambassador of tourism. Will he intensify Kochhar’s already far-reaching interest in multi-cultured Malaysian food?

Kochhar will also be venturing to other former colonies, including South Africa, to compile these recipes for a book, and there are rumours of a TV programme too.

Time will tell whether this concept will fly, but I’m willing to wager success.

Colony Bar and Grill: 7-9 Paddington Street, London W1U 5QH
020 7935 3353

The Hoxton Pony
Quick word on where NOT to go. I had to scoot off to the Hoxton Pony afterwards for a masquerade ball. Surly service, soggy nuts and general all-round disappointment – Hoxton’s very pony bar.

104-108 Curtain Road, London EC2A 3AH
020 7613 2844

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Check out my Pomelos

I first tasted a grapefruit aged 10 - my mother only brought it home as a novelty English product. Blissfully unaware of its bitter fruitiness, it was only through reading Enid Blyton and visiting friends’ houses that I realised the English had such a penchant for grapefruit that there was cutlery specially devised for it.

Ignorance of grapefruit meant knowledge of the pomelo. The pomelo is a bigger, sweeter, juicier fruit than its grapefruit descendant. My mother grew up right next to “the best pomelos in Malaysia” in Tambun which, in my mind, qualifies her as a surefire expert.

The Thais know how to work this fruit; they dip it straight into sugar, salt and chilli or tart it up in a salad with dried shrimp and fish sauce. The Chinese candy the peel.

But it’s honestly so good that it should just be eaten on its own, unadorned with sugar, naked - as part of breakfast, a refreshing end to a rich meal, or even down the pub (the lads feasted on pomelo and peanuts as they watched England lick the Welsh in the six nations last Saturday…).

Pomelos are in season until the end of February and you can buy them in most good Chinese supermarkets. The pomelo in the picture is from China, and is a honey pomelo. Sweet, but faintly bitter, the flesh is pale golden.

Here's how to peel a Pomelo:

Score the thick skin with a sharp knife into quarters.

Grip the pith and strongly peel the skin from the segments.

Pull apart the segments, and they are ready to be peeled and eaten straight away.

It is a big fruit, so if you do want to eat some then keep some without ripening further, then just keep the segments wrapped in an airtight container or in clingfilm, and keep in the fridge.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Wit and Widgeon

Mark Gilchrist relishes all things game. Loves hunting it, killing it and cooking it. The two main things my companion and I know about Gilchrist prior to visiting his pop up restaurant is that he is the head chef of ‘Game for Everything’, and that he can skin a rabbit in 45 seconds (check youtube). Great ammunition for small talk.

The ‘restaurant’ is actually his friend’s flat, down a sweet cobbled mews with Bentleys peering at us as we amble down. When we arrive, my companion and I peer into the kitchen. Affable Gilchrist has a murderous swipe of blood on his whites. He is cooking in wellies, a habit cultivated at home as he walks straight from cull to kitchen. He is unapologetic in his fervour (he tells us he shot his first gun when he was 7)– and we are rewarded with solid English fare, crafted all by this professional enthusiast.

25 of us sit happily on communal tables – we happen upon a friend of Gilchrist’s from university who regales us with salubrious stories from his youth and reasons why he should be kept away from vegetarians.

The menu

Home Smoked Widgeon with wild rocket and lime dressing

Braised Pheasant Breast with beetroot gratin, a parcel of confit’d thigh of pheasant and black pudding wrapped in Parma ham served with Savoy cabbage and a thick tarragon cream sauce

Chocolate layered cake. Layers of vanilla and coco sponge with white and milk chocolate and creams.

The widgeon (what a great word), is the star of the show. What a wonderfully simple dish, the bird is not overpoweringly but subtley smoked, the texture springy yet tender, and so moreish it could fly solo sans rocket and the token spritz of lime. Hats off to the home smoker. Over the pheasant, our table swaps recipes (We are told to try pot roasted pheasant on a base of apples, and topped with streaky bacon). The rich pheasant confit and black pudding is a rich mix of meaty flavours, which balances the mildness of the breast. Another solid dish, true and hearty.

The dessert is a pity. It is a bit too dense, and there is honestly a bit too much of it (although this doesn’t stop my companion from eating all of it).

But then, Gilchrist is a game chef. And game is what he excels in. He chooses what he will serve from the moment he lifts that gun, and that’s what makes him different from other chefs. Now to watch him skinning a deer under 5 minutes…

For more information on Mark Gilchrist visit: