Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Food Poisoning Link Probe In British Couple's Death In Chiang Mai, Thailand

Police are investigating a possible food poisoning link between the deaths of a British couple and a New Zealand backpacker in Thailand.

Pensioners George and Eileen Everitt died in the same hotel in Chiang Mai where Sarah Carter, 23, and her two friends collapsed after eating at the city’s Night Bazaar food market.

The pair, from Boston, Lincolnshire, were found dead in their room in the three star Downtown Inn. Mrs Everitt, 74, was found lying on the bed. Mr Everitt, 78, was in a sitting position on the floor, with his face falling on to the bed.

Police said no drugs, medicine or poison were found in the room. And there was no evidence of violence or wounds on their corpses. Tests are being carried out on their bodies at Maharat Chiang Mai Hospital.

A police spokesman said: “We do not want to speculate on the cause of death but if there has been any poisoning it should be revealed in medical tests.”

The couple had been staying at the hotel since February 9, the same day Ms Carter (below centre) died from food poisoning. She and two friends were struck down hours after eating at a street food stall.

Amanda Eliason, 24, (below left) recovered after emergency heart surgery. Emma Langlands, 23, (below right) who ordered a different meal from the stall, also suffered food poisoning but later recovered.

Initially police said Ms Carter’s death was caused by eating toxic seaweed. Her father Richard said this has now been ruled out as the cause of the food poisoning but tests are continuing.

Thai police are now investigating the hotel’s kitchen and ventilation system.

In August 2007, 15 people died and more than 100 were taken ill in Thailand after eating poisonous puffer fish, which had been coloured to look like salmon.

The month before, police arrested a man in Samut Songkhram province who was planning to sell more than a ton of the illegal fish. They were to be sold to restaurants and made into fish balls.

Although puffer fish – called fugu in Japan - was banned in Thailand in 2002, it continues to be sold in markets and restaurants. Its ovaries, liver and intestines contain a deadly poison. It is prepared by highly-trained chefs in Japan and consumed by thrill-seeking gourmets.

A spokeswoman for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) said an investigation has been launched to try to establish how the couple died. She added: "We are in touch with the family and are helping them through this very difficult time."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Chef Loses Restaurant Battle To Jay-Z

Imagine the confusion. It could happen to anyone. You pay millions to global rap star Jay-Z to perform at your celebrity-studded wedding and then an outdoor catering firm from Newcastle turns up instead.

What would your guests say, let alone your in-laws? How could you live with the embarrassment? And how could you ever stop such a dangerously likely event from ruining your big day?

Well, it’s exactly for this reason that the UK’s Intellectual Property Office has ruled in favour of Jay-Z in his battle with Tyneside chef Terry Miller to stop this devastating catastrophe ever happening.

The pair have been wrangling since 2006 after the American rapper’s music label Roc-A-Fella Records launched a writ against Miller’s Rockafella restaurant in Newcastle, claiming it breached its trademark rights.

Originally, Miller, winner of the Hell’s Kitchen reality show in 2005, won a ruling granting him a trademark for his Rockafella restaurant and food catering firm that gave him exclusive rights to its use in the UK.

Roc-A-Fella Records brought in heavyweight lawyers from London-based Forrester Ketley & Co to fight its case, claiming that people would be confused into thinking the two enterprises were somehow connected. (I’m not sure what sort of people they were talking about – perhaps people that appear on the Jeremy Kyle show.)

Now, surprise, surprise, the US label’s appeal has been largely upheld at a hearing in London. The bad news for Miller is he will now have to change the name of his outside catering business. The good news is he can use it for his restaurant, which he opened with his £250,000 Hell’s Kitchen winnings, even though it closed in October 2008.

In her judgement, Professor Ruth Annand said the original IP Office case manager was wrong to say the two names would not clash as a record label’s live entertainment events were not dissimilar to the catering trade.

But IP Office expert Oliver Morris said in his original ruling, which is now overturned: “There is a large degree of dissimilarity between restaurant and catering services on the one hand and the services relating to record production on the other.”

Funny how experts can disagree. (By the way, in case you’re confused, the internationally famous music star Jay-Z is pictured top, and Miller is pictured second next to Gary ‘Twat’ Rhodes. And in case you’re confused further, Rhodes is the one with hair.)

Monday, February 21, 2011

Thailand: Hallucinogenic Fish And Cobras

Yesterday I had a great day in Thailand’s Rayong Province – an area where tourists are thankfully as rare as nine baht notes. I travelled there with my ex-pat friend John and his heavily-pregnant wife Pla, and on the way we stopped at Khao Chee Chan, which also goes by the name Buddha Mountain (above). Standing at nearly 400ft tall, it's the biggest Buddha image in the world, and was carved into the cliff using lasers and then filled with gold leaf.

Later, we saw a couple they knew, who had built a beautiful house on a piece of land overlooking lily fields near Rayong. When they bought the land it was completely overgrown and home to a pond that the neighbours had stocked with fish. They cleared the jungle and left the tallest trees, and built a prefab house in the middle of the plot.

I was very jealous. Although they were cut off, Jim and his Thai girlfriend Fi were living the good life and had filled the garden with vegetables and fruit tree saplings. Two years later, they were living off the land, eating bamboo shoots, lemon grass, basil, galangal, tomatoes, aubergines, bananas, huge mushrooms grown in boxes, and eggs from their hens and ducks.

When they fancied a change, they caught a few fish from the pond and fried them in breadcrumbs or made Thai curries. They were living there happily with their three huskies and two cocker spaniels, and no children.

As I say, I was very jealous and envied the fabulous climate they lived in and the oranges they picked each morning from the trees. Until they told me about the snakes that is. They were being plagued by cobras from the wet lily fields at the bottom of the garden. They had put up fine mesh fencing, but still they came in.

Only the day before, Fi had screamed as they were letting the dogs out and Jim turned to see a 6ft black cobra a few feet from them. Jim had killed quite a few with his hoe, but this was much bigger. He threw a heavy stick at the snake, but missed, and it rose up and made lunging motions at them. Fi kept screaming and eventually it slithered away into next door’s garden.

The dogs had been less lucky at times. Despite their size, the huskies gave snakes a wide berth but the bravest cocker spaniel liked to grab them and shake her head violently, and batter the reptiles to death. A couple of months before she had run into the house howling in pain and pawing at Jim’s leg, her eyes swollen after an encounter with a spitting cobra. They had just got her to the vet in time, but she still lost an eye.

But it was the stories of the king cobra that most worried them – and whether it had any offspring. Years before they moved in, the neighbours said they had seen a 20ft-long monster near the pond. They were alerted by the sound of frogs being eaten – apparently frogs make a particular shriek when eaten by snakes. Knowing how deadly and fast the world’s biggest venomous snake is, and its enormous striking range, they took no chances and blasted the thing to death with a shotgun.

Poor Jim and Fi were clearly still shaken by the cobra encounter when they showed me round their land, but then I suppose it was one of the downsides of living in a beautiful country.

We fed the fish and I promised to catch a few and barbecue them that evening. Then we packed up the cars and headed out to Khao Chamao National Park to visit the waterfalls. We stopped on the way to buy food for the trip - beautiful roast duck and rice that came with bags of satay sauce and soy sauce with chillies.

And then we bought dried, salted pork similar to biltong and parcels of rice, minced pork and lily seeds wrapped in leaves.

But when we got to the park, the guards on the gate spotted the food and confiscated it. They were flabby and greedy-looking and looked like they hadn’t bought a meal for years. We handed over our delicious food, and my beloved ice box full of Chang beers, and the guards went through the motions of writing down our number plates saying they would return it on the way out. They even said we weren’t allowed to take water in, which considering the heat was ridiculous.

We paid the entrance fee (which was seven times more for foreigners) and prepared for the steep ascent into the jungle. Thai families were openly carrying water bottles and huge picnic hampers up there. Some even had ice boxes. I thought about those guards and my lovely ice cold beers. The buggers would probably be on their second one by now – can in hand, munching on a duck drumstick, waiting for the next farang to arrive.

I hadn’t come prepared and had to walk through the jungle in flip flops. After 20 minutes of climbing over rocks and vines, the sweat was pouring off me, and I thought about those lovely cold cans again. Ten minutes later, I had a pounding headache from dehydration and began to lag behind after stubbing my toes numerous times. I tried not to think about cobras. If they were that common in Jim’s garden how many would be out there in the jungle? They're not in the trees - they ARE the trees! Flip flops would offer no protection. If I was bitten, I’d be dead by the time I got to the bottom.

Eventually, we got to the Khao Chamao waterfall, stripped off our clothes and plunged into its deep ponds. The water was filled with black fish, which I found out later were a species of carp called tor soro. There were so many of them, you brushed against them as you swam, and if you sat on the rocks by the side they came up and nibbled your skin. Some must have weighed 6lbs and would easily have fed a family of eight.

But their numbers and size were down to the fact the Thais didn’t touch them. The locals said if you eat the fish you become dizzy, which is how the waterfall got its name Khao Chamao - meaning “to get drunk” in Thai. The fish apparently eat berries from overhanging trees, which don’t affect the fish but cause humans to hallucinate.

Now, I’ve always considered myself an adventurous cook, and it would have been easy to catch one of those fish. And I did think about getting some wood together and cooking one by the side of that waterfall just to see what would happen. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Maybe someone a lot madder and braver than me, like Anthony Bourdain or Bruce Parry, would have done it. Or at least have got one of their film crew to try it first. But I was too worried about getting back in flip flops as it was without running around being chased by imaginary cobras.

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Friday, February 18, 2011

North Thailand's Khao Soi: Falling In Love With Chiang Mai's Street Food

I am writing this as I wait to board a plane back to Bangkok after spending eight days in Chiang Mai chatting to monks, visiting temples and narrowly avoiding becoming a Buddhist. Oh, and eating. I’ve been doing lots of that.

I thought about heading north up to the sleepy Mekong River towns of Chiang Rai Province and the famed Sukhothai ruins, but I thought the food wouldn’t change too much, and would be disappointing compared to northern Thailand’s gastronomic capital.

I wanted to leave the north’s most famous dish – khao soi – to last. And I wanted to order it in what most locals agree is the best restaurant to try it in – the Thai Muslim-run Sophia restaurant tucked away in a back alley near the night bazaar. But both times I cycled there, they had run out.

Instead, I tried posh and peasant versions in and around the walled city, and I have to say the latter won hands-down. There was something vital and hearty missing in the expensive restaurant offerings. They appeared too processed and precise.

Confusingly, khao soi comes with a range of spellings in different parts of Thailand – but means “cut rice” after the way the rice dough is traditionally steamed over a cloth and then rolled and cut into noodles. And there appear to be almost as many ways of making it too.

Mostly, the seasonings are already mixed in – and that is the way it is served in the city’s Night Bazaar food centre.

But look carefully and you can get it the traditional way, where garnishes of pickled mustard greens, cucumber, and beans as well as chopped shallots, fried chillies, lime slivers and coriander are served separately and mixed in by the diner.

You also get a range of types: the usual contenders of chicken, prawn, pork and fish, and sometimes beef, and in one Chinese-Thai restaurant, I had frog khao soi, which was revolting. I won’t write about it further, or mention the elastic bands, because you might be about to eat.

Yet however it comes, the basic components of this Burmese-influenced meal are the same: crispy fried egg noodles on top of boiled noodles and meat or fish in a spicy coconut gravy, similar to a massaman curry sauce. You notice how sweet the sauce is when you taste it without the pickled vegetables, which are fiery hot and as sour as wormwood. Thais love their fermented vegetables and often order them as a side dish (which explains why so many have taken to roasted pork knuckle and sauerkraut served in German restaurants in Thailand).

But as chef @granthawthorne pointed out when he gave me some great food advice on the city, you get an explosion of flavour when the garnishes are mixed in - and it immediately takes away all the sweetness. The dish really comes alive and you can see what the fuss is about. Or as Gregg ‘The Egg’ Wallace (I can’t believe I’m missing Masterchef!) would say: “It grabs you by the ears and gives you a great big smack on the lips.” Presumably he’d be talking about a conventional kiss and not a Glasgow kiss, but both would be appropriate.

The steamed beef khao soi I had during the Sunday Walking Market, when roads are closed off and the town is filled with traders selling art and crafts from the local hill tribes, was the best of the lot.

It came with a pair of tongs and three plastic boxes of garnishes – containing pickled veg, limes and shallots.

The beef was incredible, but due to an appalling lack of my Thai and their English, I couldn’t get them to explain how they got chopped nuggets of shin that succulent and soft and so full of flavour. And the sauce was blisteringly hot – or at least it was when I stirred in a second helping of the soused green beans, cabbage and cucumber.

In the night market, I had another good peasant version of khao soi kai, with a honey chicken drumstick nestled on top. The gravy, with its turmeric and cardamom more beholden to Indian curries, was sublime and had a much deeper flavour than many thin, fragrant Thai sauces.

The pricier versions in restaurants are usually served with much thinner noodles, which to my mind aren’t as good, and are unnecessarily Westernised.

You get chicken breast rather than with bone – just as the tourists like it. But you are much better off going to a street food stall (when they haven’t sold out) and getting a superior dish for a fifth of the price. It’ll give you a much truer taste of Thailand. If you want to cook it, chef Shane Brierly (@chefshane) has a great step-by-step recipe with pics...CLICK HERE TO VIEW

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Twitter Solves Thailand Green Plant Riddle

Whenever I go abroad I like to eat what the locals eat. It gives you a much truer reflection of a country’s cuisine and eating habits. Sometimes I go into a fancy restaurant to try a skilled chef’s interpretation of a local dish, but I’m a great lover of rustic food and when you go off the tourist map there are always some surprises.

It was during one of my jaunts around the back streets of Chiang Mai that I came across a plant I’d never seen before. It resembled sprouting broccoli that had gone to seed or perhaps unripe elderberries, and was bubbling away in a pork belly and pig’s tail stew and was absolutely delicious.

Thanks to some very helpful food bloggers on Twitter – including @meemalee, @granthawthorne, @chezpim, @essexgourmet, @applelisafood and @NorthernSnippet - I eventually found out it was called sadao, and is the fruit and leaves from the neem tree.

I especially owe @pearcafe a big drink for badgering a Thai chef in Bristol. He scribbled its name in Thai - and it matched the hieroglyphics pencilled by a passer-by in my notebook. "Man thought I was very strange coming in off street to ask!" she said.

Apparently, you can get it in jars back in the UK, but I’d never seen it, and I was lucky to be in Thailand when it was in season. At first I thought it might be green peppercorns, but as the stew was 30 baht (about 60p) and peppercorns are relatively dear, there was no way they could make it at that price. I grabbed a plastic stool and waited as the dish bubbled away on a calor gas burner.

I watched as the locals queued up for their evening meal. It reminded me how much of a takeaway nation Thailand is. Food at street stalls is so cheap, healthy and delicious that many Thais say they don’t bother to cook themselves – it’s cheaper to buy it.

They carry the dishes home in little plastic bags and then eat together. Walk past an open window at supper time and you can often see a Thai family crouched down on the floor picking through bags of brightly coloured food.

Another thing I love about Thailand is the way street food sellers sometimes have a little Buddha shrine tucked away they can pray to. This one was at the back of the stall, near the tarpaulin, and perched on a little tiled plinth.

As the locals ordered their barbecued fish, minced pork and vegetable curries, and batter cakes made of tiny fish, I tucked into one of Chiang Mai’s famous spicy sausages.

It was like a good chorizo in texture, with little squares of moist fat. The heat hit me straight away and then the lime and coriander. It was wonderful and had all the salty meatiness of a good banger. I’ve had some fairly poor sausages since I’ve been here – including one that was sickly sweet that I gave to a beggar. But the sausages at that stall were the best of the lot.

Eventually, the stallholder came over and handed me a polystyrene tub full of pork sadao. It reminded me slightly of the peasant soups and stews they serve in South America, designed so that a little bit of meat goes a long way. There were slices of green beans, onions and tomatoes in there, as well as pig’s tail and a chunk of pork belly.

But it was the sadao that was the star. It was slightly bitter and had a faint taste of celery – one of my favourite flavours. The broth was thin and moreish and fairly subtle compared to many Thai dishes. It had been pepped up with a little red chilli, garlic and fresh basil leaves, but only a touch. Most of the flavour came from the white pepper that had been added - which was another reason I intitially suspected it was green peppercorns. I sat there and sucked the bones and then had another helping.

When I got back to my hotel I had a chat with a chef I’ve met and she told me how sadao grows near temples in the city and is revered for its medicinal qualities. I described the dish to her and she gave me the basics on how to make it.

She said you start by frying pounded red chillies and garlic, and then when they have cooked down and coloured the oil, you add slices of onion and the pork. You add water and boil it rapidly for ten minutes, and then add the tomatoes and the basil leaves. You boil it again, and then throw in the sadao for the last five minutes.

It was a great dish, and the thing I loved most was it didn’t have that ubiquitous citrus flavour of lemon grass and lime leaves, or coconut, or fish sauce for that matter, which can get a bit samey at times. I’ve no idea what sadao tastes like in jars, but if you ever get a chance to try it fresh, I urge you to do so. If you ask nicely, I’ll smuggle some home in my suitcase.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Michelin Restaurant Yauatcha Pays £21k To Waiter Who Had Nipple Tweaked

I am continually flabbergasted by what goes on in restaurants. I’ve seen and heard about things in kitchens that would never be accepted in any other trade. Sexual abuse, racism of the vilest kind, knife fights with saucepan lids used as shields et al.

Why does the catering trade so openly flout employees’ rights, whether it is forcing chefs to work 18-hour days in some form of indentured servitude or turning a blind eye to sexual harassment? Is it the hours, theatre and mad pace that warps people’s minds, or does it just attract staff who find this sort of behaviour acceptable?

Compare this to other work places and kitchens appear stuck in the stone ages. Of course, you can take political correctness too far. A friend of mine, who works for a children’s charity, was recently reprimanded for swearing in the office – and all he said was “bloody bollocks” loudly on the phone. This wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow in a restaurant – whether it was in a kitchen or front-of-house.

Sure, some restaurants have cracked down hard on lewd or aggressive behaviour. Heston Blumenthal, for instance, disciplines anyone who shouts at other staff members – something that is almost a pre-requisite in most kitchens.

But clearly other Michelin-starred restaurants are years behind. The latest is Yauatcha Chinese restaurant in London, which has had to pay a gay waiter who had his nipples tweaked £21,500 in damages.

Vincent Ma won his discrimination claim after an employment tribunal heard how two male managers simulated sex acts and fondled each other in front of him, and sang Madonna's 'Like a Virgin' to him.

When a customer pinched his nipple as he served, his boss asked him: “Did you like it?”

Hakkasan Limited, which owns the celebrity-magnet dim sum teahouse, was told to pay the 31-year-old £21,571 for lost earnings and injury to feelings.

Mr Ma, who joined Yauatcha in October 2009, told the Daily Mail after the hearing: “I am delighted to have won but the money cannot compensate me for the harassment and humiliation I experienced at work.

“It has been a long process from raising my claim to the main tribunal hearing and remedy hearing and my health has suffered a lot.

“Hakkasan will pay the money to me and for them it will solve the problem. But I do not think they have learnt any lesson from what happened to me.”

It is the whole industry that needs to learn a lesson – and perhaps it should start by not turning a blind eye to the bullies and sex pests.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Jamie Oliver's 'Dream School' Backing Of 18-Hour Days For Chefs Is Modern Day Slavery

I have some sympathy with Jamie Oliver when he talks about Britain’s youngsters being work-shy, "wet" children who get their mothers to stick up for them. But what he says about the need to work 18-hour days cooking in restaurants is frankly mediaeval.

He made the comments in an interview in today’s Observer newspaper to launch yet another TV series, this one with the slightly disturbing title Jamie's Dream School, where he invites celebrities (come on, it wouldn’t be a TV programme without them) and academics to try to help 20 school drop-outs.

Oliver describes the problems of recruiting staff for his restaurants, saying he uses “bulletproof, rock-solid Polish and Lithuanians who are tough and work hard” because British youngsters no longer know the meaning of hard work.

"When you're unleashing students into an economy where there's trouble with jobs, the ones who haven't got academic verve, they need to have a basic approach to physical work. You need to be able to knock out seven 18-hour days in a row... I had that experience. By 13, I'd done 15-hour days in my dad's pub," he adds.

What utter tosh. For a start, there is a huge difference between working in a kitchen when your dad’s the owner to working for some bullying head chef you have no hold over. When will chefs stop promoting this ridiculous idea that 18-hour days in kitchens are acceptable? And it is even harder to stomach when it comes from a celebrity chef who doesn’t actually work in his own kitchens, but instead throws himself in front of every passing TV camera, while getting paid a fortune to promote supermarket products.

It reminds me of when I had an interview for the position of commis chef at Gordon Ramsay’s flagship Royal Hospital Road restaurant in London. I went along to Ramsay’s headquarters near Victoria, and was given some forms while I waited for the human resources manager. They took a photocopy of my passport, and eventually the HR woman arrived. She was short and tough-looking, and immediately made me feel ill at ease.

“You know the chefs work 18 hours a day here?” she said almost immediately.

I shrugged and pretended to let the news flush over me. I said that in the run-up to Christmas I’d done a few 18-hour days.

“Well, it’s 18 hours EVERY day here,” she said, studying my reaction.

She told me to think about it and said they were looking for staff at the Boxwood CafĂ© in Belgravia as well as Royal Hospital Road. I wasn’t in the least bit surprised. Then she phoned the kitchen and said I could do a trial on the Saturday. I shook her hand and walked out. We hadn’t even talked about money.

By the time I’d reached the front door, I’d made my decision. Even at 18 – the generation Oliver hopes to put right in his slightly Orwellian ‘dream academy’ - the hours would have killed me. I’d have to start work at 8am and finish at 2am. In the six hours between shifts, I’d have to get a night bus home, sleep, wash, feed myself, and then get back into work. I’d probably be lucky to get three hours sleep before I had to do it all again.

I knew I wouldn’t even last a day so I emailed Ramsay’s office and cancelled the trial. It wasn’t that I am work-shy, it’s just that I have a brain, and it seems far too much like modern day slavery to me.

Indeed, it is about time restaurants started looking after their staff better, and worrying about their health. We only have to remember the tragic case of Nathan Laity, who moved up to London from Cornwall to pursue his dream of making it as a top chef.

Nathan, 23, became so exhausted after working 100 hours a week as sous chef at the Tate Modern, he died after contracting tonsillitis. He came down with a sore throat but continued to work 14 hours a day - 98 hours a week - for 27 straight days without any time off.

He died in his sleep, and doctors say his immune system had simply shut down. Is this really the sort of future for Britain’s youth Oliver is proposing?

It’s true there are many work-shy youngsters out there, but 18-hour days are not the way forward. And giving youngsters the idea that by working them they will one day be as rich as Oliver is appalling. The huge majority will simply get burned out and spat out by the restaurant industry, and be on the scrap heap by 30.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Cheffing In A Restaurant In Thailand

Last night I spent the evening working in a restaurant kitchen in Chiang Mai with my two new cheffing chums (let’s call them Dave and Si because they deserve their own TV show - more than the Hairy Bikers anyhow). Si wore a wolf hat for some reason while we cooked. It was a novelty take on the traditional chef hat, and I didn’t ask why he was wearing it. I can only guess it might have had something to do with the Changs we’d been drinking.

But as I was a guest in his kitchen, it was none of my business, and quite frankly would have been rude of me to ask. It was his kitchen, and if he’d decided to don a Pope mask, then it was absolutely his right to do so. One thing you learn in cheffing is never to question a chef’s judgement - or even his fashion sense - if you’re on his turf. It’s just not done.

Anyway, it was a simple exchange – I showed them how to cook a couple of European dishes and they taught me some Thai cooking in return. Like many restaurants in tourist areas in Thailand, the place had a British food section for people who like to eat sausage, egg and chips wherever they are in the world.

Their restaurant, in the old walled city, already had steak and ale pie on the menu, which was selling like hot cakes, so I showed them how to make a decent steak and red onion pudding (get me) and one of my favourites, Irish stew.

When I taught them how to make pizza – and how ridiculously profitable it is – they were delighted. There are mugs in Chiang Mai who happily shell out £6 for a distinctly average pizza, when they can get a bowl of brilliant khao soi or massaman curry for less than £1.

But don’t get me started on that. I wanted to show you the two meals they cooked for me at the end of the evening – fried enoki mushrooms and prawns in oyster sauce, and the goddamned hottest tom yam soup I have ever tasted in my life. They said it was how they ate it, but they were grinning away when I tucked in. Thais have a great sense of humour, and find it extremely amusing tricking chubby farangs into eating ludicrously potent dishes. And as chefs very much share the same level of schadenfreude, Thai chefs really should not be trusted.

I was pretty drunk by that time in the evening, and I’m not going to detail the exact ingredients because the last thing the internet needs is another recipe for tom yam soup. But it was interesting seeing how they cook in restaurants in Thailand. I once did a short stint at the Dorchester Hotel in London, and used to watch the chefs in the Oriental Kitchen, and it reminded me of that – blindingly fast. Faster than any chefs I’ve seen.

If you wonder how your tom yam soup arrives five minutes after you order it in Thailand, then this is how they do it. The Chang beers didn’t seem to slow them in the slightest, or the wolf hat. So two wonderful dishes in a few minutes. Eat your heart out Jammy Oliver – but then these were REAL chefs.

They lit up the stove and got a wok and a metal soup pan on the go. They put about a tablespoon of vegetable oil in the wok and a pint of water in the pan. Soon the oil was smoking and the water bubbling. In the mean-time, Si finely chopped about eight fiercely hot red and green bird eye chillies.

Dave prepped the ingredients for the oyster sauce dish and put them in a bowl – chopped spring onions, sliced red chillies, enoki mushrooms, raw prawns, roughly chopped shallots and oyster sauce.

Si moved on to other soup ingredients – putting lime leaves, lemon grass, basil leaves, galangal, sliced button mushrooms, spring onions and the chopped chilli into a bowl. He chucked the contents into the soup and let it bubble away for a minute.

He then chopped up big chunks of a white fish, which had a very similar texture and flavour to haddock, and sliced a large red chilli. While he did this, Dave put a generous spoonful of tom yam paste into the soup. There was no stirring; he just let the heat of the water do the mixing.

He then poured in about a tablespoon of condensed milk (this is common in Thailand, some chefs put in coconut cream, but it is far better without coconut, which to my mind turns it into a completely different soup). The condensed milk amalgamates the flavours, lends sweetness and thickens the soup slightly. He then put in a small ladleful of lemon juice.

Si, meanwhile, chopped a large unskinned tomato into eight pieces, and roughly chopped a couple of shallots and put them in yet another metal bowl (I felt sorry for the potwash). They then went into the soup.

He let this bubble away and then put in the fish, which in that heat needed less than a minute to cook.

There was then an explosion of flames as Dave threw the enoki bowl into the smoking oil, and tossed the wok a few times, before stirring it all round with a ladle.

And that was it – the meal was pretty much done in the time it had taken me to gulp down a big bottle of ice cold Chang (which isn’t long). Si then chopped up some coriander and spring onion tops and chucked them into the soup and served it. I was glad I ate the enoki dish first – it really was wonderful and melted in my mouth – and I wouldn’t have been able to taste it otherwise.

Needless to say, the tom yam was extremely hot, and reminded me of the time I'd been talked into eating a phall by a notorious curryhead, and soon I was weeping away as Dave and Si smirked.

Just breathing air into my mouth afterwards was painful, let alone smoke. But although I can’t pretend I didn’t suffer the consequences, it was fantastic. Next time though I'll remember to leave a toilet roll in the fridge.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Thailand: Sea Snails Cooked In A Clay Pot

I have just got back from a rather mercurial evening involving delicious sea snails and the evil tuk tuk drivers who plague the streets of Chiang Mai. I’d headed out to the night bazaar a little concerned about the major food poisoning investigation there over the tragic death of a New Zealand backpacker on Sunday.

But any concerns were put aside, and perhaps put into context, by the journeys to the market and back. I wanted to walk there, really I did, but the food market was much further than I realised and after the 58th tuk tuk driver had slowed down and beeped his horn at me, I relented.

I slid into the back and the driver sped off, cutting up two mopeds, narrowly missing a stray dog, and taking the first bend at such a speed that it made the back wheels wobble.

It soon became obvious that the contraption’s brakes were down to the metal when we hurtled over a canal bridge and almost into the back of a passing car. When the driver did actually stop at a red light, he looked at me in his rear view mirror, cranked up his radio, and said: “Why you want to go to night market? Many ladies, many bars here!”

At another stop, he tried again: “You want lady massage? I take you there.”

Finally, after another test of wills and his shot brakes, he dropped me off at the night bazaar. The place was packed with tourists and I headed around looking at the stalls, and then stopped off at a restaurant called Seafood Mho-O-Cha boasting “the best and fresh seafood in Chiang Mai”.

The fish and shellfish were packed in ice and looked as fresh as anything you’d get on the harbourside, even though Thailand’s second city is hundreds of miles from the sea. There were the usual mud crabs, blue crabs, lobsters, prawns and fish, and then I saw something I hadn’t seen so far in Thailand, and knew I had to have them.

The sea snails were piled up in the corner, like fat brown conches, and the manager only wanted 200 baht (about £5) for half a kilo. I asked how they cooked them, worried that they might turn out dried to foul-tasting grit like the cremated cockles I’d had in Bangkok. She said grilled, or something I didn’t understand. I asked how she would have them and she said something I didn’t understand, so I went for that.

After taking more pictures of the seafood, she wrestled me back to my table and I sat down and looked across at the next restaurant, which also boasted the “the best and fresh seafood” in town. Trying to put Chiang Mai’s seafood scare out of my mind, I bought a cold beer and a sang som, and then a steaming pot arrived at my table.

The waiter removed the lid and I was hit by a delicious smell of lime leaves, chillies and the sweet scent of fresh and best seafood. I hadn’t eaten all day, apart from three mussels a barman had given me that were as small as my tiny fingernail, and got stuck in.

The broth the snails were cooked in was absolutely fantastic. It was hot and sour, and filled with whole pink shallots, lime leaves, fresh basil sprigs, lemon grass, thick coins of galangal, and slices of red chilli. The snails themselves were beautifully cooked, and much firmer than whelks. There was no chewiness though, just like you get when you order fresh whelks at a decent seafood restaurant in Europe. They really were superb.

The shells weighed a tonne and were quickly scattered across an empty plate. They were so sturdy, I imagine if you dropped one on your foot you’d be hopping round for weeks – beholden to those merciless tuk tuk sharks. I finished the meal and drank the soup and sat there wondering whether to have another pot full.

The manager returned and I thanked her for her recommendation and asked her the name of the dish again. She asked someone else and said it roughly translated to “Thai-style sea snails cooked in a traditional clay pot” and was a speciality of the restaurant, and the only place you could get them in Chiang Mai.

Full and content, I headed out through the market again, but my good mood was quickly destroyed by another evil tuk tuk driver. It was obvious he hadn’t heard of my hotel, but kept insisting he had.

I knew it was all going to go horribly wrong and sure enough it did. After another Grand Theft Auto race through the streets, he headed the wrong way past the canals and kept ignoring me when I told him to turn round.

He took me up a couple more dark streets, and suddenly I was outside a neon-lit building in the middle of nowhere. It looked more like a boutique hotel than a go go club, but it was obvious what it was from the scantily-clad young women waiting outside. In fact, surrounded by dark warehouses and no witnesses, it looked exactly the sort of place you’d be lucky to get out of with your kneecaps intact.

The driver turned his engine off and the girls descended. The trouble with tuk tuks, apart from the criminal bastards who drive them, is they offer no protection to pulling arms. There are just three chrome poles, which means you can get attacked on three sides. But after a few minutes, I managed to get him to drive off again.

Then it was another chicane through the canal area, and more areas I didn’t know, and this time he dropped me off in the centre of Chiang Mai’s red light district.

“Bar here,” he kept saying. “Many beautiful ladies for you!” I’d had enough. I’m not a prude, but there was no way he was going to get his free gasoline bar kickback from me. I slid myself out of the tuk tuk, scowled at him, and told him I wasn’t going to pay him and walked off down the road.

I went into a bar and ordered a drink, and the driver followed me in, trying to get commission off the owner, who pointed out that all I’d ordered was a Pepsi Zero, and there was no money in that. Eventually he left, and sat outside in his tuk tuk staring at me darkly for 20 minutes, and waiting for me to leave.

When I left, he shouted at me again, and things looked like they were going to turn nasty, so I jumped in another tuk tuk and kept looking round half expecting him to be following.

But what might have saved me was the complete ineptitude of the new driver, who quickly got lost and after a few minutes we were on the city ring road. I started getting panicky thinking he was in cahoots with the other driver, and we were going to end up in some horrible Tarantino lock-up.

But there was no gimp, thank Buddha, and after another 20 minutes of dark alleys, he somehow found my hotel, which by then had closed. I eventually managed to find my way in, past the air conditioning units and rubbish bags at the rear of the guesthouse, and thankfully my key fitted the back door.

I headed off to bed trying to restore my good mood by wishing excruciatingly painful deaths on all tuk tuk racketeers, and thinking about what a splendid meal I’d had. There is only one thing for it though – tomorrow I hire a mountain bike.