On a perfect summer day there is nothing better than an Asian meal that breaks a sweat; sometimes I forget how cooling a spicy meal can be.
When I feel slightly over indulged or run down I always turn to a meal that can offer me balance, it should have the perfect proportions between hot, sour, sweet and salty. Dishes that can execute this flawlessly have true healing powers and bring a certain equilibrium back to my life. Mastering this balance is a basic skill but once learnt and applied to all cooking, it can make a difference between a good and a great dish.
Asian-inspired cookery is heavily based on the concept of balance, and with simplicity, they showcase it in the majority of their dishes. They have a way of using extremely aromatic ingredients and yet, not one will over power the other. It is not only Asian cookery that uses balance of ingredients as the foundation of their flavours, a French vinaigrette would overpower the flavour of lettuce if it was not balanced and a Moroccan Tagine would not sing without the addition of the acidity from preserved lemon. It is these classic combinations that are organically developed from people expressing cultural identity, which often provide the best examples of how people find balance and comfort in what they eat.
One of my favourite things to do is walk through the isles of my local Asian grocer and explore without hesitation. Experimenting with products that normally would be reserved for people who are in the ‘know’ is one of the best ways to learn and create dishes that you proudly call your own. One of my favourites is chilli paste with soya bean; it is perfect from the jar or creates the most flavoursome chicken marinade when mixed with a squeeze of lime – instant nourishing fast food! On closer inspection even the staples can provide you with a new level of flavour, first run fish sauce, light soy and aged plum vinegar. Spending time on choosing a selection of quality pantry stables will give you the tools to create flavoursome and harmonious marinades, dressings and dipping sauces with ease.
On nights when a cooked dinner is beyond me, a perfectly dressed bowl of salad greens with sourdough croutons and crispy pancetta can make my night. It may be boring and easy but the simplicity is strangely fulfilling and the balance of a good dressing is oddly comforting to me. Sticking to one-third acid (lemon, vinegar, lime) and two-thirds fat (extra virgin olive oil, light walnut oil), salt and freshly ground black pepper is the recipe for a perfect dressing and this basic principle should be followed even when adding your own embellishments.
Like families, countries use food to represent identity but more importantly the flavours and combinations are what provide groups of people with a sense of home and nourishment. National dishes are often organically formed and are developed from hundreds of external factors, farming, weather and even religion. Not only does this provide an amazing way for a country to share its culture with the rest of the world but it also creates a blueprint of how to cook likeminded dishes. When only perfectly balanced flavour will do, quality ingredients, simplicity and taking inspiration from others will provide a truly healing meal.
Spicy Prawn Sugar Cane Skewers (makes 8)
This is the ultimate barbeque dish; it is quick, easy and full of flavour. Fresh sugar cane is best but it is available in tins from good Asian grocers, either way, it provides the perfect amount of sweetness when grilled on the barbeque.
Ingredients 8 x sugar cane skewers 300g prawn meat ½ egg white 2 kaffir lime leaves (finely chopped) 1 tbls chopped ginger 1 clove chopped garlic 1 tbls chopped coriander leaves 1 tsp lemongrass (finely chopped) 1 tsp fish sauce
Method 1. Place prawn meat and egg white in a food processor and lightly pulse until a rough mousse like consistency has formed. 2. Transfer the prawn mixture to a large chilled bowl, fold through the remaining ingredients, leave in the fridge to chill for 10 minutes. 3. Cut sugar cane into 8 x 12cm long sticks. 4. Mould prawn mixture onto the bottom third of the sugar cane sticks and refrigerate for at least an hour before cooking. 5. Heat a heavy based pan with a splash of neutral oil or BBQ on a hot grill plate. 6. Turn whilst cooking for approximately five minutes or until golden brown on all sides and cooked through.
Tamarind Nahm Prik
Ingredients 1 tbls shrimp paste 1 hot Thai chilli (to taste) 1 tbls palm sugar 1 kaffir lime leaf (julienne) 1 sliced eschalot 1 tbls tamarind paste 1 roma tomato (deseeded) 120ml lime juice 90ml fish sauce
Method 1. Wrap the shrimp paste in foil and bake at 150 degrees for five minutes. 2. In a mortar and pestle pound your chilli, lime leaf, eschalot and tomato flesh to a chutney consistency. 3. Add toasted shrimp paste, palm sugar and tamarind, continue mixing until all combined. 4. Season to taste with lime juice, fish sauce and chopped coriander.