Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Chinese Burns

It is Burns Night, an all too familiar event in hospital A&E wards up and down the country, peaking on November 5th, but on this occasion a celebration from Scotland which recognises Britain's other bard - the one Jeremy Paxman refers to as 'doggerel'. Much haggis, poetry, whisky. and dancing.
It's also Chinese New Year, the year of the Ox, and the two have conjoined as twins.

Burns is 250 this year, which the Scottish Executive - those guys in Edinburgh who call themselves a 'government' - have evolved into a thing called 'homecoming' which purports to attract exiled Scots back home. In the middle of a recession. When the biggest bank bailouts have been for financial institutions whose names include the word "Scotland". No matter, the recession knows no borders really, it's just unfortunate that the Executive didn't see it coming. Like everyone else.

Anyway, we kick off credit crunch style with the bargain of the day, where your humble blogger scores a bottle of Highland Malt for £14 - at least ten British pounds (or a few Euros) under the normal price - and although it's Aberlour that's good enough for the Sassenachs who'll be drinking it. They won't know it's from the Co-op. The Burns Night is a party and those stupid enough to be drinking wine and then agreeing to a 'wee half' (they were warned) are quickly dancing in the living room while the rest of us are scoffing haggis neeps and tatties in the kitchen, MacSween's Haggis don't you know, and it goes down well with the Aberlour. Wee nips of it, not great gulps. That way lies dancing to Abba and Jimmy Shand, before curling up and falling asleep on the carpet.

In the kitchen we also have Tablet, one of Scotland's great health foods. It basically has two ingredients - sugar and condensed milk - left to mix, settle in the fridge, and then be broken into chunks and eaten. It is single handedly responsible for the rotting teeth of several generations but is irresistible. I put several people off by telling them tales of horror, thus securing more for myself. Yum.

The night descends into mayhem, with grown adults wondering why they're whirling and reeling around the living room (they have forgotten the whisky already) and hangovers starting before cabs have been entered.

Sunday is a very quiet day.

But it's not only January 25th (Rabbie's proper birthday) it's also Chinese New Year. However because of the slowness of human movement, let's just call it lethargy, we eschew London's vibrant and no doubt overcrowded Chinatown for Brighton's Good Friends where you can have normal Cantonese or enjoy jellyfish with ham hock, pigs trotters, duck tongues, and a whole variety of soups and savoury dishes which delight the palate.
And halfway through, in from the pouring rain and wild winds of Brighton's seafront, enters The Dragon, a pantomime horse with bells on, followed by a noisy band of players whose determination to play loud puts them up there with the pipers who mark the entry of the haggis at 100 decibels and the announcers on the London to Brighton commuter trains.

Last night's haggis, neeps and tatties (at least two helpings) is followed by at least four courses of astounding Chinese food. Which is why I'm relieved that my two lunch companions the following day, fresh from Beijing, don't really feel like Chinese. They want Greek.

We order the full meze, a whole tableful of plates piled with humous, prawns, chickpeas, then grilled and fried fish then kebabs, which defies all attempts at restraint by the Chinese and Scottish contingents. We hoover it up.

Sadly, I have to leave my greek coffee as I'm late for another Burns Night, where the haggis, neeps and tatties are served by maidens in mini kilts who exhort excessive consumption. They then dance the night away, having eaten nothing themselves except the ice cubes in their whiskies.

A late snack of last night's Chinese doggie bag goes down well as I remember that there are two more Burns Nights this week, more meetings with Beijing execs and no doubt celebratory dim sum lunches for, oh, anything really.

Note to self: stop eating you fat bastard.

And Happy New Ox Chinese Year and Rabbie Burns 250th Birthday Homecoming thingy.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Peas, peas, more if you please...

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I like a pea, me.

Maybe it's just midwinter, freezing, miserable dog days after festive merriment, which turn thoughts inexorably to the summer pea. Or possibly it was that pulao rice. Always ask for peas pulao, even if it turns out to be a few desultory thawed out bullets mixed in the microwave. Last night I was lucky: egg, beans, and lots of little bright green peas.

Peas are one of the joys of spring, but frozen peas are just as good. Picked young and fresh they taste fantastic when heated up (DO NOT cook them). They have a myriad of uses. Straightforward greenery with melting butter. Whizzed up for soup and ham. Braised with little onions, lardons and lettuce. Apparently northern people like them mashed with vinegar (yuk). Or kept in the bag and used as a relief for bad back/ injured knee / hangover (apply to sweaty forehead).
As a kid in the back garden if I managed to get 50% back to the kitchen that was a good day. Most of the young pods I picked would be clicked open and their contents rolled straight onto the tongue. They were then, and are now, the perfect snack food. In cinemas, 500g of fresh peas beats chocolate peanuts any day.

But I find myself in regular argument on the M25.
ItalicMe: (driving roofless with paper bag of peapods on lap, throwing emptied pods into the air while munching happily) "They are NOT rubbish! They are organic! Biodegradable! Whatever"
She: "They are litter! Don't be so disgusting!"
Me: (munching). "Not"

There is nothing quite like scarfing handfuls of fresh peas from the pod (on the M25 they must be opened with one hand, otherwise it gets dangerous. Especially if you're on the phone at the time and don't have hands free). Even late in the season, big, starchy, peas are still better than snackfood wotsits.

When the sun shines, peas should be served with every meal. On their own, with asparagus, in omelettes, in a primavera risotto with fresh beans, cold in salads, warm with chicken. With mint, with onion, with bacon, with fish and chips. In winter no dinner is complete without the pea.

In a two star Michelin restaurant in France recently a sashimi of raw langoustine was accompanied by a disc of aspic jelly, looking for all the world like a paperweight, in which were suspended a few reminders of summer - mostly peas. Delightful.

In pasta it is obligatory. A friend in the Groucho Club will cause trouble, not the drug fuelled drunken variety, but gastronomic when his pasta arrives unadorned with the little green jewels. Some chefs have had the temerity to disagree. Pea-inspired shouting generally ensues.

In the curry last night, a Goan chicken dish was warming, juicy and just the ticket for sub zero temperatures. But the rice was spiked with tasty, juicy, freshly thawed petit pois. Joy. It won the plate competition.

The only thing I hold against the genius of John Lloyd and his Spitting Image puppetry magic was the association he drew between Prime Minister John Major's grey, boring private life with Norma, and peas. Damaged their image forever. Peas, I mean. Turned out, I am relieved to say, to be complete fiction. But the reality came a little late. Peas were boring.

I suppose that's more for me.