As you might’ve noticed, it’s been hot. Very hot. And when it gets hot, I want food which both heats me up and cools me down (as the Shirley Lites almost sang). You could plot a graph showing a direct correlation between outside temperature, and my yearnings for salads and chilli. When we were growing up (and unexposed to hot, spicy food) I didn’t fully understand the concept of hot food actually cooling you down. I’ve come to appreciate it more over the years, and now many of my favourite foods in hot, humid weather are liberally laced with chillies.
My first chilli experience was… instructive. When I was nine, I watched a chilli-eating contest on a BBC TV programme called ‘Zoo 2000‘*. They made it all look fun and easy, so I went to the fridge and took out a green chilli I’d previously spotted. Biting off a decent chunk in one go, my reaction to the subsequent heat caused the rest of the family to dissolve with mirth.
What turned it from a minor distraction into a family legend, though, was our dad laughing in that slightly condescending way adults can do, then eating the other half in one go. He probably thought my young palate was overly sensitive… but when he turn scarlet and grabbed the milk bottle from my hands to douse the fire within, comedy reigned. I learned two things that day: to treat chilli with respect, and that milk tempers capsaicin better than water. One reason I prefer lassi to beer in a curry house.
Anyway, weather like this tends to suppress my appetite, so an array of light but spicy food is perfect to nibble on. Recently I’ve been enjoying two of my favourite different south-east Asian dishes, each with a bit of fire in them. Hope you enjoy trying them out.
First, a Vietnamese-style salad. I first found this years ago in a generic ‘all-of-Asia-in-one-cookbook’, written for a US audience without access to Vietnamese ingredients. Since then I’ve been really inspired by Andrea Ngyen’s recipes and writing (I highly recommend her ‘Into the Vietnamese Kitchen‘ book too) but I have a soft spot for the gherkins in the less ‘genuine’ version. Plus, I this was the first dish I cooked for my girlfriend several years ago when I was trying to woo her. Thankfully it worked and we’re still together… so this is my own riff on the recipe… complete with gherkins.
- half a Chinese leaf cabbage, finely shredded
- 2 carrots, julienned
- ½ cucumber, julienned
- 3 chicken thighs (skinless and boned) or 2 chicken breasts
- 1 small onion, thinly sliced into half rings.
- 3-4 gherkins, chopped into matchsticks
- 1 garlic clove, crushed
- 3-4 Thai bird’s eye chillies, deseeded and finely sliced
- 1tsp sugar
- 3tbsp of the gherkin pickle liquid
- 2tbsp rice vinegar
- 1tbsp fish sauce
- half a bunch of coriander
- 50g roasted, lightly crushed peanuts (optional)
Cook the chicken: you can poach it if cooking specifically for this recipe, though I often use thighs from a bigger batch I’ve baked and grilled beforehand. Let it cool, and slice it into strips. If you’re going to use peanuts, roast them for 20mins in the oven, then then let them cool and rub the skin off them, before lightly crushing them.
Place the sliced onion in the vinegar & pickle liquid and leave it for 10-15 minutes to take the edge off the raw flavour. Meanwhile mix up the cucumber, carrot and cabbage in a large salad bowl. Toss them together, then add the gherkin and chicken slices and mix. Remove the onions from the liquid and add them to the bowl.
To make the dressing, mix the reserved soaking liquid with the fish sauce, garlic, chilies and sugar. Pour over the salad, lightly toss, then finish with torn coriander and peanuts before serving.
Second, Oi Muchim, which is a spicy Korean cucumber banchan… a side dish you’d normally have alongside boiled rice. A muchim is a simple, hand-mixed dish made from vegetables and sauce, and this exhibits many of the characteristics of Korean food I love – sweet, sour, garlicky and spicy – all playing off cool cucumber.
Miss South and I first came across it a couple of years ago, at the then newly-opened Baekdu in Manchester. They have a simple, canteen-like vibe but their food’s great… and this was one of the sides which made a lasting impression. It’s since become a staple in my kitchen, and I’m not adverse to having some served simply on top of boiled rice and nothing else. Dead easy to make too.
Makes side portions for around 6
- 1 cucumber (standard, big English… although a couple of smaller Kirby or gherkin-y ones would probably have a bit more substance and bite)
- 2 spring onions (scallions) – green bits only
- 2-3 minced garlic cloves
- 1tsp rice vinegar
- ½tsp sesame oil
- ½tsp sugar
- 1tsp toasted sesame seeds
- 1 tbsp Gochujang (Korean chilli paste) or 2tbsp Chilli Bean sauce (I normally use Lee Kum Kee as it’s easily available)
Mix up the other ingredients in a bowl, adding chilli to taste. Korean gochujang is pretty fiery, so go easy on if you’re using it. The Sichaun-style stuff is milder, so you can use a bit more. I sometimes forgo the sugar, and although some recipes call for added salt, I find there’s normally enough left over from earlier to give it a savoury tang. Season to taste. From what I understand, this should be gently mixed by hand. Wear gloves if you wish to avoid chilli-infused surprises later, or use a spatula to coat everything. Job done. This’d last for a couple of days in the fridge, but I tend to find it rarely hangs around that long. As well as with rice, it’s great in a beef sarnie.
Last time I made this I served it with some Asian-style stuffed courgette flowers: mixing silken tofu, spring onion, shichimi, a splash of lime and a touch of gochujang. All added together and stuffed in the flowers, before dredging in a flour/water batter and shallow frying. Easy and very pretty.
*Presented by Jeremy Cherfas, who I just discovered via an online search has changed remarkably little in the last 30 years. Unlike me. Biologists must be less susceptible to entropy than the rest of us.
** Also seen this spelled O-e / Oee.