Tuesday 23 January 2018

Get down to wok: Rachel Allen's love of Asian food

A trip to south-east Asia almost 20 years ago for Rachel Allen sparked a love affair with the region, particularly with its food.

Rachel Allen
Rachel Allen
Nasi Goreng

Rachel Allen

After a few months spent travelling round south-east Asia with my two girlfriends in the mid 1990s, we all swore that we would never be able to eat nasi goreng ever again.

Don't get me wrong – we had an absolutely incredible time trekking around paradise, with our bags on our backs, and a daily bed-and-board budget of 10 Irish pounds – yes, it was that long ago. It's just that the ubiquitous street food, nasi goreng – which literally means "fried rice" in Indonesian – was so good, and so cheap, that we ate industrial amounts of it. Every day. I long to go on an adventure like that again, but with my husband and children in tow.

That trip really did ignite in me a love affair with Asia and all things Asian, not least the food. Since then, I have worshipped the tastes that so much of south-east Asian food seems to encompass: the hot, the sour, the salty and the sweet. The best bite to be found was, almost without exception, the food of the street, which was lucky because, on our budgets, that was all we could afford anyway!

I often dream about the sweet, sticky chicken hearts that we ate from one of the many hawker stalls in busy, bustling Bangkok, where woks of this and bowls of that fly about with amazing speed.

Or the ultra-recuperative tom yam on Koh Phangan after a full-moon party, or even the super-spicy potato rosti served at the shack on the then-deserted island of Lombok, which, by the way, has the most heavenly beach in the world.

Rachel Allen

So, it's now almost 20 years on, and I find myself travelling to Asia regularly for work. I've just come back from a quick trip to Bali and Singapore, where I reignited my love for nasi goreng. Because there's not a chance that I, or anyone, would be able to extract a recipe from one of the hawker stalls – as there are no recipes; this food is in their DNA – I've gone back to a recipe by Rick Stein that he cooked at a food show in the UK a while ago. This recipe takes a bit of time to make up the various components, but, believe me, it is worth every minute of work – and you can ask the photo-shoot crew for proof!

Chilli crab is famous in Singapore. I don't think I've ever been there and not eaten it. The last time I returned, yet again, to a big, bustling, family-run restaurant that I love, Hua Yu Wee. They serve fabulous, authentic food that you can enjoy perched on plastic stools in the steaming, humid temperatures outside, or you can sit indoors, too, though it's not much cooler inside! I ate my body weight – as did the crew I was working with – in chilli crab, black pepper crab (another local delicacy) and wok-fried morning glory (water spinach). We also ate a new one for me – sweet fried sotong, which is the most delicious baby-squid dish; I promise to deliver a recipe after my next trip!

Singapore chilli crab

Serves 4.

This is an adaptation of one of John Torode's recipes.


1.4kg (3lb 3oz) cooked brown crab

2 tablespoons sunflower oil, for frying

3cm (1¼in) piece fresh root ginger, peeled and cut into matchsticks

1 tablespoon caster sugar

1 teaspoon fish sauce (nam pla)

1 teaspoon cider vinegar

For the chilli and black bean paste, you will need:

20g (¾oz) dried red chillies, half deseeded and half left whole, soaked in boiling water and drained

50g (1¾oz) salted black beans, soaked and drained

3 garlic cloves, peeled

100ml (3½oz) sunflower oil, warmed

For the ginger and chilli paste, you will need:

1 large piece fresh root ginger, peeled and shredded

8 garlic cloves, peeled

6 fresh coriander stems

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

3 tablespoons caster sugar

1 large dried bird's eye chilli, chopped

To garnish, you will need:

2 tablespoons fresh chives, chopped

2 tablespoons fresh coriander, chopped

Nasi Goreng


Separate the cooked brown crab's head from the body. Discard the dead man's fingers. Cut the body into four pieces. Cut off the claws and split them, without removing the meat. Cut the head into two, reserving any juice from the crab.

Next, make the chilli and black bean paste. In a food processor, blend all the drained dried red chillies, the drained salted black beans, the peeled garlic cloves, and the warmed sunflower oil together to form a paste, then set it aside.

Then make the ginger and chilli paste. Blend the shredded ginger, the peeled garlic cloves, the fresh coriander stems, the ground turmeric, the caster sugar and the chopped dried bird's eye chilli in a food processor until it forms a paste, and set it aside.

Heat a wok until it is hot and add the two tablespoons of sunflower oil. Add the chilli and black bean paste you had set aside and stir, cooking for 30 seconds, then add the ginger and chilli paste that you made earlier.

Next, add the ginger matchsticks and cook for another 30 seconds. Add all the cooked brown crab pieces and toss everything together in the sauce.

Next, add the caster sugar, the fish sauce and the cider vinegar, followed by any reserved crab juices. Taste for seasoning, adding more sugar, fish sauce or vinegar, if you feel it necessary.

Divide the chilli crab up between serving bowls and garnish with the chopped chives and the chopped coriander.

Sauteed morning glory

Serves 4.

You will need:

300g (10½oz) water spinach

2 tablespoons sunflower oil

4 cloves of garlic, crushed

2 spring onions, sliced

2 tablespoons water

4 tablespoons soy sauce

2 fresh red chillies, sliced

Starting at the stems, cut the water spinach in pieces of about 5cm (2in) in length all the way up to, and including, the leaves. Put a wok on a high heat and add the sunflower oil.

Allow the sunflower oil to get quite hot, then add the crushed garlic and the sliced spring onions, and toss until they are just browned, then add the pieces of water spinach and toss well.

Add the two tablespoons of water, followed by the soy sauce and the sliced red chillies. Allow to cook, tossing occasionally, for about 5 minutes, until the water spinach is tender, but the stems are still crisp. Serve.

Barbecued Chicken and Nasi goreng

Adapted from Rick Stein's nasi goreng with lime and sugar barbecued chicken. Serves 4.

For the barbecued chicken, you will need:

3 garlic cloves, crushed

1 teaspoon white peppercorns, crushed

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1 tablespoon Thai fish sauce (nam pla)

Juice of 1 lime

500g (1lb 2oz) skinned boneless chicken thighs, each cut into 2.5cm (1in) strips

For the spice paste, you will need:

2 tablespoons sunflower oil

4 garlic cloves, roughly chopped

50g (2oz) shallots, roughly chopped

50g (2oz) roasted salted peanuts

6 medium-hot red chillies, roughly chopped

1 teaspoon belachan (shrimp paste), see Rachel Recommends, below

1 teaspoon salt

For the nasi goreng, you will need:

300g (10½oz) long-grain rice

Sunflower oil, for frying

6 large shallots, thinly sliced

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 eggs

1 tablespoon tomato puree

1 tablespoon ketjap manis, or light soy sauce

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

5cm (2in) piece cucumber, cut into quarters lengthways, sliced

8 spring onions, trimmed, thinly sliced on the diagonal

First, soak 8-16 bamboo skewers 18cm (7in) long in cold water for 1 hour.

Next, make the marinade for the barbecued chicken. In a bowl, mix the crushed garlic, the crushed white peppercorns, the granulated sugar, the Thai fish sauce and the lime juice together. Add the chicken strips and place in the fridge to marinate for at least two hours, or overnight. Once the chicken has marinated, preheat the grill to its highest setting (or prepare the barbecue). To cook the chicken, thread the marinated chicken pieces on to parallel pairs of the soaked bamboo skewers – this helps to stop the pieces from spinning around as you turn them. Grill or barbecue the marinated chicken pieces for 6-7 minutes, turning regularly, until they are golden brown and caramelised on the outside, and cooked through (no trace of pink should remain). Slide the chicken strips off the skewers, cut into chunks and set aside.

To make the spice paste, in a food processor, blend the sunflower oil, the roughly chopped garlic cloves, the roughly chopped shallots, the roasted salted peanuts, the roughly chopped red chillies, the belachan and the salt to a smooth paste.

To make the nasi goreng, cook the long-grain rice in boiling, salted water for 12-15 minutes, or according to the packet instructions, until it is just tender. Drain, rinse well with boiling-hot water from the kettle, and drain well again. Spread the rice out on to a large baking tray and set it aside until it is cold (but do not refrigerate).

Heat 1cm (½in) of sunflower oil in a large, deep-sided frying pan until a breadcrumb sizzles and turns golden brown when dropped into it.

Add the thinly sliced shallots and shallow fry them, stirring now and then, until they are crisp and richly golden brown. Using a slotted spoon, remove the fried shallots from the pan – reserve the cooking oil for later – and set them aside to drain on plenty of kitchen paper. Sprinkle the shallots lightly with salt and set aside until they are cold and crisp.

Beat the eggs in a bowl with some salt and freshly ground black pepper. Heat a couple of tablespoons of sunflower oil in a small frying pan over a medium-high heat, pour in one third of the beaten egg and cook it until it has set on top. Flip the egg over, fry it for a few more seconds, then turn it out on to a chopping board or plate, roll it up tightly and set it aside until it is cold.

Repeat this process twice more with the remaining beaten egg. When the egg rolls are cold, slice them into thin strips. Heat a wok over a high heat until it is smoking hot. Add two tablespoons of the oil left over from frying the shallots, then add the spice paste and stir-fry for 1-2 minutes, or until it is fragrant.

Add the tomato puree and the ketjap manis, or light soy sauce, whichever you are using, and stir-fry for a few seconds, then add the cold cooked long-grain rice and stir-fry for a further 2-3 minutes, or until the rice is heated through.

Add the cooked chicken pieces, the fried shallots and the strips of egg roll, and stir-fry for another minute. Add the light soy sauce, the sliced cucumber and most of the sliced spring onions, and mix together well. To serve, spoon the nasi goreng on to a large warmed platter. Sprinkle over the remaining sliced spring onions and allow people to help themselves.

Rachel recommends

Ketjap manis is an Indonesian version of soy sauce, with spices, but it's thicker and sweeter. You should be able to find it in Asian food shops, but, if not, use soy sauce. Belachan is more easily available and harder to replace. It is dark-brown shrimp paste that, used in small amounts, adds a gorgeous extra dimension to Asian cooking.

Rachel's clothes: Brown Thomas Jewellery: Loulerie Make-up by Roisin Derrane for Lancome, using the Lancome Spring 2014 Colour Collection Hair by Amanda Darcy Sloan, Sugar Cubed

Photography by Tony Gavin

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