Tasty Mould: Quorn, Tempeh, and Huitlacoche

Many vegetarians probably have heard of these protein alternatives (Quorn and Tempeh) but I find it surprising how it is not actually common knowledge what sort of process has gone into the invention and production of these popular vegetarian protein foods. I am not a vegetarian, but I have been very interested in cultivating fungi and soy-product production methods. I think a useful starting point for my research would be to find out how these interesting vegetable proteins are made.

Quorn

This is a piece of quorn from the dinner I had yesterday


In the 1960s it was believed that there would be a shortage of protein-based foods by the 1980s due to the growing world population. This did not happen. The saprophytic fungus (mould) known as Fusarium venenatum was discovered growing in Marlow, Buckinghamshire in 1967. Saprophytic means that it obtains food osmotically from dissolved or decaying organic material such as soil. For a decade it was originally misidentified as Fusarium graminearum (which alarmingly, is another mould which is considered a serious plant pathogen, producing mycotoxins in cereal crops). (Source) Through a joint venture between Rank Hovis McDougall and Imperial Chemical Industries, a particular strain of the fungi known as Fusarium venenatum, PTA-2684 was produced, after a ten year evaluation program to select and produce the best mycoprotein product for human consumption. Mycoprotein is the name of the product itself, derived from PTA-2684, in which the ribonucleic acid (RNA) content of the fungi has been reduced.

Oxygenated glucose syrup (the food-grade carbohydrate substrate) is poured into a fermentation vat and inoculated with a pure culture of F.venenatum spores (axenic fermentation). It is oxygenated so that the F.venenatum can respire, and excess CO2 is removed from the vat. Nitrogen is added in the form of ammonia to simulate the production of protein, and vitamins and minerals are added to improve the growth of the fungus. The temperature of the vat is kept at a constant to ensure the optimal growth of the fungus. It can grow very fast, doubling its mass every five hours. Finally it is treated with heat to remove excess levels of RNA as excessive DNA or RNA can result in uric acid (from the nucleic acids) being metabolised in the human body when the quorn is digested (which can eventually result in gout).

The hyphae (long, branching filamentous structure of the F.venenatum fungus) have a high length-diameter ratio and are morphologically similar to animal muscle cells, making it suitable as a muscle fiber replacer. Its nutrient profile is favourable and 100g of mycoprotein typically contains about 11.25g of protein, 6.258 of fiber, 3.258 of fat, 2.5g of carbohydrate, and 85kcal of energy.”

Food grade specifications of Mycoprotein (Source):


The two partners RHM and ICI invested on patents for growing and processing the fungus and other intellectual properties in the Quorn brand. The product was named after the village of Quorn in Leicester. Sainsburys agreed to stock the brand in 1985, which was its big break into the UK market – and later expansion into the Europe and North America market. All the Quorn in UK and Europe is produced in Marlow Foods’ factory in Stokesley.

In 2002 Marlow Foods was told by the British Advertising Standards Authority to delete the claim that it was a “mushroom protein” unless it “also gives equal prominence to either the ingredient’s fungal origin or explains its technical origin as a mycoprotein, found naturally in the soil but then put in a glucose medium and fermented.” (Source)


Searching on the internet yields images of advertising for Quorn back in the early 2000s with the description of Quorn as a “mushroom protein”. Perhaps it would be useful to try to discern the difference between Mushrooms and Fungi here. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi, and only certain types of fungi produce mushrooms. Technically speaking if a mushroom is a banana then a fungi would be the banana tree, so if we call a mushroom a fungi that would be a bit like calling a banana a banana tree instead. A slightly confusing thing is that the word “Fungi” comes from the latin word “Fungus” which literally means mushroom. But when we say fungi today it should mean things like mould, yeast, mildew, mushroom. I haven’t put Lichen in the list because they are technically composite organisms consisting of a fungus and an algal species capable of photosynthesis growing together in a symbiotic relationship.

Tempeh

Tempeh [Image Source: Ivan Lian on Flickr]


Tempeh is usually made using the mould known as Rhizopus olligosporus. The Rhizopus genus fungi are very common and include the common mould you see on top of spoiled food (Rhizopus nigricans is the common bread mould). Rhizopus olligosporus is the main mould used because this mould has the “strongest protease and lipase activity which are ideal for breaking down the soybean’s abundant proteins and fats), combined with the weakest amylase activity, making it excellent for producing tempeh from cereal grains or grain-soy mixtures.

To produce Tempeh, whole soya beans are first soaked and dehulled because the soya hulls are fibrous and not digestible for R. olligosporus. After that the beans are cooked, and then inoculated with R. olligosporus. Eventually the incubated beans and R. olligosporus will turn into one whole cake with the white mycelium (the vegetative mass of hyphae produced by the fungus) binding all the beans together. It seems that tempeh could also be made on other starchy beans but the traditional bean used for Tempeh is soy bean.

I could not find how tempeh was originally made or how it was invented. No story about how a tea leaf fell from a tree into someone’s glass of hot water, just some rumors about indonesians leaving a bunch of cooked soybeans out until they got moldy (but tasty). There is a book written in 1985 titled “History of Tempeh and Tempeh Products (1815-2011)” by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi and this very comprehensive account of tempeh does not quite elucidate its very first origins, only the scientific attempts by western/japanese scientists to identify and define the mould that is used to create tempeh. Where did the the mould come from then? Where did the indonesians get the mould in the first place? Was it all a matter of trial and error, or of leaving their beans out and hoping the right mould would come along and infect their soybeans? Surely there was a slightly more organised history to this fermented bean product? The term itself “tempeh” originates from Central Java and is not derived from the Chinese which also have many soy foods which usually start with the prefix tau/tao.

What makes it harder to find out more about the traditional origins and methods of producing tempeh is that scientific research on methods of producing tempeh through the years – particularly that of the method by Martinelli and Hesseltine (1964) in which partially cooked, inoculated soybeans are incubated in a perforated plastic bag and frozen after incubation – is apparently responsible for influencing methods for producing tempeh commercially in Java as well as in smaller domestic quantities in homes today.

Huitlacoche

Corn Smut [Image source: International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center on Flickr]


I’m also morbidly fascinated by Corn Smut or Huitlacoche, a terrifying corn dish I once ate in Mexico. It was introduced to me as the “mexican truffles” at a posh hotel restaurant, and my friend Luis had waxed lyrical about the amazing taste of these “mexican truffles”, but I was still very shocked when I cut open my omelette and saw these unholy white-grey corn tumours slowly oozing out in a puddle of little black spores. They had a rather… um… “interesting” cheesy taste but their visual appearance, to the uninitiated, is admittedly hard to get over.

Corn smut is apparently one of the oldest plant diseases to be illustrated in drawings – first being figured in the Florentine Codex which was prepared soon after the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1519 (cue an hour’s futile digression into looking up aztec codices…). The Aztecs also apparently consumed them and painted them in early murals.

[Image Source: Tania De la Paz on Flickr]


Ustilago maydis is a dimorphic fungus which grows in two ways: one as a single-celled haploid form on dead plants, and another as a parasitic, filamentous fungus which invades a living plant. It is a plant pathogen which affects seeds and flowers of cereals, wheat, corn, and grasses – and mainly corn, which is an important staple crop in Mexico. The Ustilago maydis relies on other plants like corn in order to complete its lifecycle.

When corn is infected, the normal kernels of corn on the cob are replaced by grossly inflated tumors which are the palpably swollen and enlarged cells of the infected corn plant, along with fungal threads and blue-blackish spores on the inside. Eventually the spores or teliospores burst out and fall off the corn, spreading in the wind. When it is being cultivated for human consumption, it is harvested before the teliospores burst out and becomes too mushy. Huitacoche has a short lifespan and has to be consumed within a short bracket of time. Although I am not sure if people eat it specifically for nutrition, when infected, the corn does have an increase in lysine which is an important amino acid for humans.

It is hard to decide whether the U.maydis is a detrimental or positive parasite for farmers. It can cause severe crop loss, yet in Mexico the swollen corn tumors are popular luxury foods. Farmers have been known to intentionally infect their crops with the fungus by scratching stalks of corns at their base with infected soil. It significantly increases the value of their corn when it is turned into corn smut, and it seems it is being researched as a solution for generating potential employment and income for farmers living in rural areas that already traditionally grow corn but are facing economic difficulties.

The etymology of huitlacoche is also particularly interesting. It comes from the Nahuatl word “cuitlacochin” which is thought to be from the Nahuatl words “cuitla” (excrement) and “cochtli” (sleeping). This is significant to the Nahuatl excrement does not only have the significance of waste but is often considered to be a distillation of food and wealth – for example, the Nahuatl word for “Gold” is teocuitlatl which is from “teotl” (god) and cuitla (excrement). I have always found this conjunction of waste/consumption and wealth/power to be of fascination to me.


Mould + Food = PROFIT???

The makers of Quorn seem keen to brand it as a mushroom-related product rather than as something that comes from what is basically mould from soil. Could it be because mushrooms are more palatable than mould? Most of my instinctual revulsion towards huitlacoche is that it looks like a mutated mouldy cob of corn – mainly the terrifying mouldy spores that burst out of the cells. Those who know my food idiosyncrasies will also know that I absolutely cannot consume blue cheeses or anything that is conspicuously mouldy, and am extremely cautious around fermented foods (especially dairy) that are meant to be intentionally sour (I am still very nervous about sour cream and vinegar). I see the presence of mould and a sour taste as possible indicators that a food has gone bad and should be disposed of. Logically, I can understand that they are not dangerous and perhaps even nutritious, but the fear of such foods (and of being sick because of consuming them) is a completely a physical reaction for me. I guess the idea of eating mould or a “waste” product, and even treating a “waste” product as a delicacy, is physically revolting/appalling even if I can identify it as being quite ideologically interesting.

In “The Accursed Share”, Bataille writes, “On the whole, a society always produces more than is necessary for its survival; it has a surplus at its disposal. It is precisely the use it makes of this surplus that determines it: The Surplus is the cause of the agitation, of the structural changes and of the entire history of society.” According to his theory of consumption, the accursed share is this excess portion of the economy that is destined to be spent in one of two ways: (1) to be spent as luxurious without gain (in the arts, in non-procreative sexuality, in lavish spectacles and monuments or (2) in outrageous and catastrophic outpourings (war, sacrifice, religion; a sacrifice so great that it even threatens the prevailing system).

Corn smut is a blight on corn and can lay waste to the entire crop if not controlled, so in effect it is a luxury in corn-centric Mexico where corn is the most important staple crop and is usually cherished and protected in most other circumstances. The corn plant is intentionally sacrificed through infection by the fungi, which kills the corn and makes it eventually no longer able to reproduce as corn. The infected corn cannot be used as staple crop; by being useless it is free, not subordinated to the normal demands of useful production; its price rises to that of a luxury good. Perhaps I am saying this only because its appearance makes me not exactly want to put it into my mouth – so I like to think that people came to love its taste because they associate it with luxury. Although I suppose in reality not everyone might be governed by such complex rules… what if for the most part people actually, really, really, just like the taste of it?

Bataille on the sacrifice: “The victim is surplus taken from the mass of useful wealth. And he can only be withdrawn from it in order to be consumed profitlessly, and therefore utterly destroyed. Once chosen, he is the accursed share, destined for violent consumption. But the curse tears him away from the order of things; it gives him a recognizable figure, which now radiates intimacy, anguish, the profundity of living beings.”

Some Burning Questions that may never be answered

Quorn: What were the circumstances under which they discovered the soil fungus that was to be used to make quorn? Were the researchers simply looking all around nearby natural environments close to their laboratory for stray cultures of mould? Where exactly did it come from, and where can i find this mould in nature today? Did they really study 3000+ fungi before selecting this particular fungus? Is there more of this fungi in the world today because it is being so intensively cultivated and examined in labs today?

Tempeh: How did the first tempeh get made? How were tempeh starter cultures consistently put together before western and japanese scientists started investigating it and meddling around with it? Was it really just some human leaving out some old beans and them getting infected with fungi and people discovering that mouldy soybean cake was tasty?

Huitlacoche: What was the motivation behind the first human who decided to eat huitlacoche? Why would anyone eat a horrific looking corn – driven to it by hunger or desperation or madness? Does the revolting appearance add to the frisson and people’s overall enjoyment of huitlacoche?

How the Coulibiac disappeared, and discovering Egg Nests

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Russian Coulibiac – still a mystery on the inside (Image Source: wikimedia commons)


Recently I was reading an article in the New Yorker – “Notes of a Gastronome: Cooking with Daniel” by Bill Buford, in which he describes his painstaking attempts to recreate various ‘lost’ recipes, such as the dish known as the “coulibiac”. By all accounts, the coulibiac sounds like a very complicated thing to put together well – consisting of a fish pie that has been meticulously assembled with layers of rice, hardboiled eggs, mushroom, and a pastry shell “which prevents you from knowing what is going on underneath”, but which still requires that all must be timed perfectly in order to “catch fish and pastry crossing a finishing line in different degrees of doneness at the same time”. It was brought to France and rose to its fame in the culinary world when it was selected for inclusion in the masterpiece “The Complete Guide to the Art of Modern Cookery”, penned by the famed French Chef Auguste Escoffier, where was popular in the 1870s.

The article describes various attempts to recreate the dish from a state in which its description is nothing other than vague and for the highly trained chefs trying to make it from its original description in Escoffier’s book, even they begin to suspect that something must be wrong with the dish’s architecture, because of the seeming difficulty of getting both pastry and fish to agree to work together at the same time. A hilarious passage in the article describes the master chefs becoming increasingly more frustrated with each successive failure, and how the hapless coulibiac is “touched, poked, turn this way, turned back, bumped, and in every possible manner fussed with…”

From the article: “I found, in all this, a resoundingly obvious lesson: if cooking knowledge is not carefully passed from one generation to the next, it doesn’t last. For instance, if you look up coulibiac in the 1938 edition of Larousse Gastronomique, you will find plenty, including an intitial account of the dish’s origins, a warm pastry with fish inside, an acknowledgment of its Russianness, and a grainy photograph of a loaf-like entity, twelve steam slits on top, sitting bluntly on a platter, emanating rustic veracity. From the entry, you may not be able to replicate the dish, but you’ll understand what it is. In the recent Larousse Gastronomique, published sixty-nine years later and edited by Joel Robuchon, a high prince of nouvelle cuisine, the passage has been rewritten. It has no picture, makes no mention of the vesiga, doesn’t specify the pastry, and describes the dish in terms that suggest a sack that can be filled with meat, vegetables, fish, yesterday’s newspapers, whatever (…) I felt like a witness to a disappearing food history. When a dish falls out of the repertoire, the know-how goes with it. In less than seventy years, it was going, it was almost gone: pfiff…”

The rest of the account of the Coulibiac is about how they trace the origins of this lost recipe; its russian roots and the French coulibiac it inspired which might take some cues from the Russian original but yet would not be obliged to follow the recipe to a tee. It appears the Coulibiac’s success was all down to an obscure ingredient, the vesiga or “vyaziga” – the dried spinal marrow of a sturgeon fish in particular which will practically melt in the mouth when cooked properly, and the use of kasha buckwheat of slavic origins rather than rice. And if you look up vesiga on the internet or coulibiac you will only find too much information on an ingredient you can’t find anyway.

The shifting sands of food history! I suppose food history is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately ever since I got more and more excited about cooking (or about food science). I like to think I am interested in wild culinary experimentations, but simultaneously also interested in understanding traditional origins of food and making it the basis from which I experiment or deviate from – or improve on, with the power of SCIENCE! and… a trusty kitchen timer and food thermometer…

Nids d’oeufs / Egg nests

Which brings me to the story of the egg nest. One of the ingredients I have been obsessed about cooking for the last few years would be eggs. Over time, I have developed my own methods for the perfect omelette (high heat, sufficient oil, press gently with spatula in centre so the browning is perfect and even), the perfect sunny side up (break into well-oiled pan at very high heat, place pot lid over immediately, allow steam to cook the top while the bottom is perfectly browned and crisped), the perfect hardboiled egg (place egg in pot of room temperature water, bring to a boil and count four minutes from that point, then remove immediately and run under ice water so that the yolk will remain soft and slightly runny but the white will be firm but very delicately cooked). Had I the money to invest in a waterbath and a sous vide setup I would, because I would be really interested in experimenting with the temperature at which the various components of the egg cooks. And beyond the sous vide, I am a fan of the maillard reaction and the flavour it imparts to foods – and the necessity to brown certain foods in order to bring out a specific flavour. You could say that I’ve obsessed over the methods in which one can cook a simple egg for many years.

So it comes to my surprise that eventually after all this time I have finally encountered a recipe for an “Egg Nest”. The website describes that the recipe comes from a children’s cookbook “La cuisine est un jeu d’enfants” by Michel Oliver, in which egg whites and egg yolks are seperated and the egg whites are beaten into soft peaks, after which grated gruyere cheese and a pinch of salt for each egg is introduced into the whites and folded in.

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The fluffy nests of egg whites are arranged on a baking tray and baked for 3 minutes on their own at 230ªC, after which the yolks are introduced back into the centre of the nests and baked for another 3 minutes. After which you can invite it to the party in your mouth…

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The result is an airy, puffy egg with the mildness of the gruyere with gorgeously browned peaks as the proteins in egg whites and the gruyere cheese are wont to do. How can it be that there is no other common term for this method of cooking eggs? I can understand how Chinese-style steamed eggs may not be as popular in the western world, but the egg nest itself seems so fiendishly simple and logical to prepare in a western kitchen, so why hasn’t it become more popular? Why don’t we have a special name for it, like how we do have a name for devilled eggs?

In any case, I think the discovery of the recipe of the Egg Nest fills me with hope that since even the well-explored territory of egg cooking has clearly not reached its limits, surely there must be so many more methods and recipes to be discovered, either through experimentation or the rediscovery of lost recipes….


In the interest of people who may find my food shenanigans out of line with the general theme of this blog, here’s a summarised description of my recent notable bakes/cooks (so you will only have to see it once and all in one post):

Japanese Cheesecake

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I made this for George’s birthday the other day – the main weighing scale was broken so I guesstimated everything using a tablespoon. Surprisingly it did not fall apart. Usually how these things come about is that I read a few recipes from books or online and then make up something logical from the lot of them and what I understand from the purpose of each ingredient. The amounts I had been aiming for were:

5 egg whites – to be whisked into soft peaks
60 g unsalted butter – warmed until melted
5 egg yolks
250 g cream cheese (in the UK this is called SOFT CHEESE) – warm it until soft
60 g plain flour
20 g corn flour
130 g castor sugar
1/2 tsp cream of tartar

Combine all without flattening the mixture too much and pour into cake pan lined with many layers of tinfoil on the outside. Find an EVEN BIGGER baking tray and half-submerge your cake pan in a waterbath of boiling water and bake this entire precariously watery cake bath setup in the oven at 160ªC for 1 hour, then reduce to 150ªC and bake for another half hour, then finally take out of the water bath and let it rest for at least fifteen minutes before serving. It may be better served chilled depending on your preferences.

Potemkin Apple Pie

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What is an apple pie? Surely the basics of it must be sugar, and apple, and pastry. And besides the pastry, sugar and apples are common things to be found in the average kitchen. So why couldn’t we make an apple pie on the spur of the moment, if we had the pastry also sorted? I noticed recently that there were pre-made pastry rolls available at the Sainsbury’s, since our flatmate Salsa has been making lots of tasty Boreks with filo pastry. I bought a roll of shortbread pastry the other day for food emergencies and sure enough there came a day when the George desired a sweet dessert, and I was sure that I could invent an apple pie out of whatever we had in the house.

You just need:
1 apple
A handful of raisins
Dark muscovado sugar
A dash of cinnamon
Pre-made Pastry

In a small pastry dish, assemble a pastry sculpture which resembles the stereotypical image of a lattice top apple pie. Inside this pie, liberally smear the sugar all over the apple slices and the raisins. With some luck it will look a bit like an apple pie and actually taste similar to a primitive apple pie. With some luck you’ll have everyone fooled that you know what is an apple pie in no time.

Banana Cupcake

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This was the maddest banana cupcake ever. There were two very sad and very soft bananas languishing in the food cabinet. So i decided to bake them into a cupcake. It is unreal that two sad and old bananas make twelve very awesome banana cupcakes. Are cupcakes really so simple?

125 g caster sugar
125 g unsalted butter
125 g plain flour
2 eggs
2 tsp baking powder or sodium bicarbonate
2 or more ripe bananas, mashed with a fork
Some nuts if you fancy

Mix everything together, pour into cupcake trays and bake at 180ªC for about 20-25 min or until golden on top.

Chinese Braised Tau Pok (Tofu Puff)

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This was more of a hit than I expected. I wanted to illustrate to George how people often cook tau pok in Singapore – sliced into triangles and simmered until soft in a soy-based sauce, and this vegetarian adaptation turned out excellently well as I recall it.

Onions, carrots, potatoes, spring onions
1 veggie stock cube in 500ml water
1 tsp five spice powder
1/2 cup light soy sauce
2 tbsp dark soy sauce (I substituted it with some kicap manis)
1 tsp sesame oil
4 soft-boiled eggs
A bag of tofu puffs
Some vermicelli (I used shirataki noodles because they happened to be at hand)
+ 1 tbsp cornflour dissolved in about 50ml water to thicken

Cut tofu puffs into triangles. Fry all the vegetables until soft and then pour the sauces over and leave to simmer slowly for at least 20 minutes or however long you can humanly stand. Finally, when almost ready to serve, add the cornflour and water to thicken it into a sauce. Stir and cook for about 5-10 minutes more until sauce thickens.

Mie Goreng Jawa (Indonesian Fried Noodle)

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I used to be crazy about Mee Goreng. Sadly I’m not in a place where I can go around the cornershop to get one made for me, but the recent discovery of kecap manis has enabled me to recreate a pretty decent (vegetarian) version of Mie Goreng Jawa. I think this works. (I also find that Oyster mushrooms can be useful for adding some depth of flavour in asian dishes which typically call for meat/seafood, especially when making a vegetarian version…)

400 g yellow egg noodles
Oyster Mushrooms
1 large onion
Handful of spinach, bean sprouts, pak choy, etc
120 ml kecap manis
50 ml light soy sauce
Black or white pepper
2 beaten eggs

Cook the onion until almost caramelized, stirfry the mushrooms and vegetables separately first until they are already cooked to the point where you want them to be later, and scramble the egg in advance separately. Remove them from the fire temporarily and pan fry the egg noodles with the onions and then add all the other ingredients back into the pan. Finally, add the sauces, mix well and stir fry for a few more minutes and that’s it.

Vegetable Lasagna

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I don’t even really have a recipe for this. Basically, I think of this as a kind of rich tomato stew that is placed inbetween layers of lasagna, mozzarella cheese, and bechamel sauce. Go and make any sort of inventive random vegetable stew that has a tomato in it. Use some premade italian tomato passata for the vegetable stew if you will, but for the rest, you must not stint on the bechamel sauce or the cheese! YOU MUST NOT STINT ON THE SAUCE.

Basic Bechamel Sauce:
60g butter
500ml milk
3 tbsp of plain flour
6 tbsp grated parmesan cheese
Pinch of salt
If you are very good, you will also add a pinch of nutmeg (muscade!)

The only problem with this recipe is that it will take about 2-3 hours for the average human being to prepare, even though the steps are fiendishly simple. The results however, are delicious and worth repeating…

Aubergine and Portobello Lasagne / Pineapple Tarts

There was a big storm up in Britain recently which resulted in my having to take a detour at Seven Sisters because the overland had stopped running for the entire day. This resulted in me walking past the Tescos at Seven Sisters which then led to my discovery of LASAGNE SHEETS! And I thought that since we have been eating lasagne at Grodzinski’s in Stamford Hill, why shouldn’t we also try to make it ourselves?

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Aubergine and Portobello Lasagne

Aubergine Sauce
1 large aubergine or 2 smaller aubergines
half a box of mini portobello mushrooms
some tomatoes
handful of spinach
onions or shallots
3 or more cloves of garlic
extra virgin olive oil

Bechamel style white sauce
50g butter
50g flour
500g milk
4 tbsp grated parmesan cheese

You will also need lasagne sheets and a square baking tin.

Aubergine Sauce
Slice the aubergine and steam for about 15-20 min. In the meantime, in a heavy pan with a splash of extra virgin olive oil, fry the garlic and onion until fragrant, then the mushrooms and spinach. when the aubergines have been steamed sufficiently soft, transfer them to the frying pan and pan fry them till they are brown as well. The browning imparts a much desired taste (Maillard reaction) so it is important to brown the ingredients after steaming (which is done to quicken cooking time and improve the tenderness of the aubergine). Finally, add the tomatoes. if you have tinned plum tomatoes use that, otherwise a fistful of fresh tomatoes with a bit of tomato paste and a generous dash of sugar and water will replace that just fine. The sugar helps cut through the inadvertent tartness of fresh tomatoes, a feature which is often not present in tinned tomatoes. Season to taste. And that’ll be the aubergine sauce.

White Sauce
Melt the butter in a pan on low fire and add the flour. It’ll froth and bubble up and you’ll have to keep stirring so that the flour is evenly distributed throughout the roux (a combination of fat and flour, which is traditionally used as the thickening agent for our sauce). Then gradually stir in the milk and cheese. The parmesan cheese is not traditionally added in béchamel sauce and I have omitted a dash of grated nutmeg as I do not have any nutmeg, but I find that the sauce still turns out very agreeable this way.

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Lasagne Assembly
Butter the square tin and put in alternate layers of aubergine sauce, followed by white sauce, followed by sheets of lasagna. You usually don’t have to precook it the noodle. Top with some cheddar and white sauce and bake for about 25-30 min at 200 deg c.

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Lasagne with a salad of mozzarella cheese, basil and tomatoes.


Pineapple Tarts

I also recently made a batch of Pineapple Tarts. This is something that is commonly eaten around Chinese New Year in Singapore. A few years ago I made pineapple tarts from scratch but because I lacked the distinctive tart cutter, the outcome did not look not very professional. I think I’ve gotten to the point of where I would like to make some seriously kickass things but also be quite detailed about it.

Pineapple Jam
2 Pineapples (about 1.2kg after removing the skin)
200g golden caster sugar

Pastry Base
200g butter
pinch of salt
260g all purpose flour
2 tbsp cornflour
30g icing sugar
2 egg yolks

You will also need baking parchment, a food processor, and a pineapple tart cutter.

pineapplecutter

The pineapple tart cutter is really key to the look of this pineapple tart. This time around I’ve been collecting cookie cutters and moulds and I got a pineapple tart cutter when I was in Malaysia earlier in the year.


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We start with fresh pineapples. Some people also think its hard to make the pineapple jam from scratch (it can be bought pre-made in Singapore, so I guess people are wont to say “why make your own if its already available?”). I personally find that its quite easy and foolproof to make, just takes a bit more time but at least you know what’s in every tart!

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Slice the pineapple in this manner to get MAXIMUM PINEAPPLE. It is quite manual work but this seems to be the best way to cut a pineapple – other methods can be a bit wasteful – so you should cut it out in the round like this. The way a pineapple grows is quite standard – each prickly segment is from a single carpal of the flower and if you count the spirals there will actually be 5 spirals if viewed from a vertical angle, and if you look at it from a slightly more horizontal angle, it will have 8 spirals in one direction and 13 from another direction (Fibonacci Numbers!). The main point is to cut along one of these spiral directions to remove the prickly parts of the pineapple. Either will do, whichever direction is easier for you to cut.

After you do that, blitz all the pineapple in a food processor to make it into a paste. Boil this pineapple paste with the sugar. The jam takes a long while to come together, so let it reduce until it is very viscous and behaves like a kind of thixotropic paste.

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Pastry Base
While the jam cooks, make the dough by rubbing ALL the pastry ingredients together until it forms a dough that is quite soft yet malleable. The purpose of adding in the cornflour is actually to give it a sharper crunch. If you search around for recipes, many don’t mention this cornflour but from my experience of following various Scottish Shortbread recipes, I’ve realized that the addition of cornflour or rice flour to the mix really makes a difference in how the final bake turns out, making it taste significantly lighter.

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Roll out the dough and cut out the dough shapes with the cutter.

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Top with the jam and you’re ready to bake. I didn’t glaze my tarts with a beaten egg but if you are feeling fancy you can do that to give it a more glazed appearance. Bake at about 165 deg c for about 20-30 min. I think my oven has a tendency to be too hot so you should adjust accordingly – when the dough is golden it is done – a visual check is the best determining factor, as you really don’t have to let it go too brown.

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Use a wide-mouthed jar to store the baked tarts when completely cool. Cut out a stack of baking paper circles which are the size of the jar lid and use these paper circles to divide the tarts up into layers. If not, without the baking paper, these open-topped tarts might stick to each other.

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Pineapple Tarts!


I must admit that I’ve been enjoying learning the reason for certain cooking methods in terms of how the ingredients react chemically to temperature or the other ingredients. And knowing the precise way in how an ingredient reacts also means I can make more logical variations on recipes….

The Lost White Rabbit of Stamford Hill

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We found a rabbit on the road a few weeks ago. It was just walking up and down the road all day long and it was clear from its colourations that it was probably too pretty to be just any wild rabbit. No one expects to look out of the window and see a beautiful white bunny hiding under the car. We eventually took it in with a large printer box in the house, and it actually took about 7 adults to get the rabbit into the box because it was so skittish and nervous about coming out from under the cars on Stamford Hill. It was funny to see all the different neighbours and the jewish children and random passerbys coming out of their houses and working together to put the rabbit in the big box so we could take off from the roads. We were afraid it might get run over or eaten by one of the many foxes that prowl these streets at night. We cut holes in the box and fed it spinach, carrots and celery, because that was what we were going to eat too – its nice to imagine having a pet that will eat more or less the same thing as you (except the hay part of its diet). Apparently, rabbits also like to eat kale. Kale! My newest obsession ever since they fed us CRISPY KALE at the RCA canteen. But I can’t seem to get it anywhere except at the Whole Foods. And its more pricey than other things. We also had got apples because George was going to feed the rabbit with the apples, but then when I thought about it, I actually really wanted to eat those apples; it was a funny thing to feel like you’re competing with a rabbit for food.

Well, the rabbit has since gone to the RSPCA shelter before it is to be rehomed because no one responded to our “LOST YOUR RABBIT?” adverts; so I can only hope that now its safe and warm in a new home…

Which brings me to…

CRISPY KALE

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Ordinarily I should be posting my food explorations on my other food blog, but this obsessively-making-endless-arrays-of-blogs situation needs to end. So this is my note on making Crispy Curly Kale. First you obviously need to find some kale. After sampling the unbeatable taste of Crispy Kale I suddenly realise why people sometimes go crazy about Kale. It seems a bundle of Kale might cost about £1.99 at the Whole Foods (I went to the one at High Street Kensington) and that’ll make plenty.

Spray/toss with olive oil and a bit of salt or spice (coriander? paprika?) to taste. Bake in the oven at about 125-150 degrees for about 8-10 minutes depending on the vagaries or eccentricities of your particular oven – or just take it out when the edges start to almost get brown. Don’t let it get too brown and don’t over-salt it.

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Bell Pepper Soup Spaghetto

[Post migrated from makingtastythings.blogspot.com]

We are taking our food to the next level. We are starting our experiments with agar and alginates (spherification). We received various strange white powders in the post and combined it with a syringe and tubing kit brought from Singapore. The first thing we made was Bell Pepper Soup Agar Spaghetto.

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We roughly cut 3 bell peppers, a few cloves of garlic, some onions, and a liberal sprinkle of paprika, and fried them until they caramelised. We fried it hard. Then we added water and one vegetable stock cube and put it into a pot. We continued to simmer this for half an hour.

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Then we blended it. Here is the sous chef assisting with the blending process. We blended it in batches because we were blending boiling hot ingredients. A cloth held on top of the lid helped prevent accidents. At this point we already had an awesome soup. We ate a bowl of it and agreed that it was already awesome. We could have called it a day at that point; we could simply eaten all the soup, but we had much bigger ambitions for our soup.

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Next, we mixed 300g of soup with 6.4g of plain white Agar Agar powder. This was based on a random unattributable calculation I had found on the internet stating that 150g of liquid should be mixed with 3.2g of Agar to jellify the liquid. Actually I can’t recall where I read it or why I thought it was accurate. Anyway. It sounded like a plan. We loaded up the syringe and tubing with agar soup, doused the tube in a wok of cold water for 2 minutes, and then tried extruding it.

But hold on. Let me explain something here before we go further. When we started cooking, I had envisioned making a beautiful, smooth red pepper soup and a bright red spaghetto. But when I opened the fridge I realised that the sous chef had purchased Assorted Peppers instead of Red Peppers, so half the bell peppers we had were green. No big problem, so we made a slightly brown coloured soup instead then. Yeah, the brown, it would be a completely acceptable colour for a soup, why would anyone say otherwise?

Photo by georgepooney


Okay, but maybe it did remind us of something else in the end. Especially when our first attempts were slightly watery and admittedly extruded with a bit too much flatulence. We did not have a cheesecloth with which to strain the soup of its larger fibrous material, and this material was probably was interfering with its ability to gel uniformly. So I adjusted the amount of agar to 10g and reheated the soup before attempting the extrusion process. For your information, Agar turns solid at around 35°C and returns to a liquid form at 85°C.

Photo by georgepooney


This time the extruded Spaghetto looked acceptable. After we wiped the tears away from crying-laughing at our initial flatulent extrusions, and after we coiled our one single painstakingly-made Spaghetto into a shapely form, we settled down to eat our soup, now in jelly spaghetto format. We would be lying if we said it went down smoothly, because jellied soup does take some getting used, but the point of this entire endeavour was, of course, to make challenging food and that would run contrary to the ordinary notions of how food ought to be prepared and served, and this we had accomplished.

Adventures in Hong Kong: Chinese Surveyors, Basement Food Courts, Mongkok Police Station, and Kowloon Walled City Park

Recently TEAM FIRE visited Hong Kong, a foggy grey city that for the most part, of which many parts smelled a lot like fried fish and stinky tofu shops, and other parts looked like they came out of some part of Grand Theft Auto (like the very generic sounding “harbour city”). It was generally a leisurely exploration, in which we mostly meandered around parts of Tsim Sha Tsui, occassionally wandered up to Mong Kok, crossed the waters on the train or ferry to eat lots of egg tarts near Central/Soho. Here are a couple of the highlights:

Chinese Surveyor Markings

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This being the first chinese country I have ever gone to, I am delighted to report that construction workers / land surveyors / civil engineers in HK sometimes actually use chinese characters in their markings on the ground! Here is one exemplary example that seems to be saying “400 BAMBOO”, spotted near the waterfront along Tsim Sha Tsui.

All Shopping Malls Have Food Courts in their Basement Floor

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Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade
It was near lunch time when we encountered the “400 BAMBOO” marking above along Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, but we were already starving, and there were bleak prospects for finding cheap roadside food places in that area. Not far from that point, I saw what appeared to be a mall-type departmental store in the distance. Despite never having been to any buildings from that chain, I felt compelled to make a beeline for it. And I was gratified that my hunch had been correct – that here in HK they also had the convention of installing a food court at the lowest basement level (much to G’s amazement). I realised that this is something so predictable in Singapore that I instinctively expect every shopping mall and multistorey department store to have a food court at either at the very top roof level or the bottom basement floor (or sometimes even on both!). Can anyone explain why this convention is as such?

Unfortunately, we could not find any vegetarian options at the aforementioned food court. The only “vegetarian” dish there was not really vegetarian either. This was to be the running theme throughout our food adventures through Hong Kong. To be affixed with the puzzled stares of random food sellers and waiters scratching their heads in confusion and muttering in chinese, “WHAT??? YOU DON’T WANT MEAT OR FISH? HOW ABOUT THIS LITTLE MICROSCOPIC PRAWN ON TOP OF THIS VEGETABLE? OR THIS FISHCAKE??? I MEAN, THAT’S NOT MEAT, RIGHT??!”

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Speaking of vegetarian options, for any vegetarians or vegans visiting HK, I’d recommend Kung Tak Lam Shanghai Vegetarian Cuisine (功德林上海素食) at located at the 7th floor of 1881 Heritage (1 Peking Road, Tsim Sha Tsui). Even people who eat anything and everything will find this restaurant very fascinating; its menu has hundreds of items, and we went back twice and ordered completely different things but everything we tried there was really exciting and exceptional. I think a lot of the best vegetarian restaurants are like a lot like food/flavour labs; forced by necessity to innovate in order to compete with the maddening hordes of meat dishes (especially in Asia where seafood and the use of ground prawn paste as an seasoning ingredient is virtually ubiquitous). Above is a picture of their classic Cold Shanghainese Noodle with seven sauces from Kung Tak Lam.

Mong Kok Police Station

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According to the Guinness Book of Records, Mongkok (旺角) is apparently the most densely populated place in the world. Just north of the Tsim Sha Tsui area, this was certainly the most crowded area we saw in Hong Kong. The one thing in my mind was: WHY IS EVERYONE ON THE STREETS INSTEAD OF BEING AT WORK? Were a lot of these people standing around Mongkok also tourists like we were? (There sure were a lot of PRC tourists) I mean, population density could refer to towerblocks with more cramped dwellings than usual, like perhaps due to buildings housing “cage people”, but the roads themselves were indeed crazy.

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Of course, for all you aficionados of Category III Anthony Wong type films, a trip to Mongkok would not be complete with a souvenir photo outside the Mongkok Police Station…

Kowloon Walled City Park

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We visited the site of the Kowloon Walled City (九龍寨城), which was completely demolished by 1994 and replaced by some sort of a landscaped park. From documentaries I had watched in the past, the idea of a “vertical urban village” built out of super-dense city of interwoven high-rise tenements that had developed without real foundations and without centralised authority was of mythic proportions.

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List of things you can’t do at the Kowloon Walled City Park
Sad to say the park that has replaced it was not in its best condition when we visited it, thus making it feel slightly like the Kowloon Walled City’s demolition was all for naught; like an administrative exercise that had cleaned it up but left it with a gaping, unoccupied hole.

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This is a picture that I had taken on the way to the park – a mossy stone with the words “Kowloon Walled City”, with a huge crack over the word “city”. I wondered if this crack over the word city was intentional, so I set about looking for other pictures of this particular stone plaque to see if it had been cracked in other photos.

Stone Plaque – Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons (2006)

Stone plaque of "Kowloon Walled City"

Stone Plaque – Image Credit: asianfiercetiger (2011)

I didn’t actually find any other pictures of that particular stone I had seen, but whilst searching on Wikipedia and Flickr I did find a picture of a different stone plaque with a crack over the exact same word – right over the word 城 (”city”)! The above pictures are of the main stone plaque by the South Gate. I like how it hasn’t been moved in all this time although in all possibility these fragments might not have been cemented down to the ground.

Because of this, I think the cracks on both stone plaques are very much intentional: maybe a bit like how when chinese graves are exhumed, the gravestones must be broken into pieces so as to symbolise that whatever the stone once stood for is no longer there… A symbolic memorial for a broken city.

Here is the first of a great four-part documentary on the Kowloon Walled City: