Malaysian Lamb Shank Curry

Hearty lamb shank dishes are a winter staple in Australia, but this dish is a great one for times like now just as the weather starts to warm. We often think of lamb shanks as a hearty winter dish, but lamb curries in South East Asia work fantastically well in warmer weather.  This dish crosses the boundary of the seasons and takes advantage of the great spring lamb that we have in Australia, and matches it with the nostalgic Malaysian flavours I grew up with.

Malaysian Lamb Shank Curry

Curry Paste

  • 3 brown onions (or 6-8 red schallots)
  • 15 small dried red chillies, seeds removed and soaked in hot water until soft
  • 2 stalks lemongrass, white part only, sliced
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 2 tsp grated ginger
  • 2 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground fennel seed
  • 1 tsp ground turmeric
  • 1 tsp ground white pepper
  • 1 tsp belacan
  • 5 candlenuts
Curry Ingredients
  • ½ cup neutrally flavoured oil
  • 1.75kg lamb shanks (about 6 shanks), (Alternatively, you could use 1.5kg lamb chops, or 1kg boneless lamb leg, cubed)
  • 400ml coconut cream
  • 400ml water or White Chicken Stock
  • 6 cloves
  • 2 sticks of cinnamon
  • 1 star anise
  • 1 tsp caster sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3 kaffir lime leaves
  • a handful of curry leaves, picked

Make the curry paste by processing all the paste ingredients together to a fine paste. If you have time, I recommend doubling or tripling the recipe freezing the paste in portions for later use.

Heat the oil in a large casserole dish and fry the paste for 5-10 minutes until it is coloured and fragrant, stirring frequently so that it doesn’t stick to the bottom. Add the lamb shanks to the paste and oil and lightly brown on all sides. Add all the remaining ingredients to the pot, bring to the boil and simmer covered for about 1.5 hours, stirring occasionally. Remove the lid and simmer for a further 1 to 1.5 hours until the meat is very tender, pulls away easily from the bone and the liquid has reduced to a thick gravy.

Cover the curry and allow it to cool on the stove. Refrigerate overnight if possible. Reheat and adjust seasoning before serving. Serve with white rice and sliced cucumbers.

Dragon Yee Sang

Chinese New Year is coming up in a few days and I so I thought I’d share with you one of my favourite CNY dishes.

Yee Sang is a very popular Chinese New Year dish around Malaysia and Singapore (Do people eat this in China or Hong Kong? I really don’t know), and my family usually eat this on the eve of Chap Goh Meh, which is the 15th and final day of the new year festival.

Yee Sang is a colourful salad of prosperous ingredients, which are tossed together with a sweet dressing. Everyone around the table puts their chopsticks into the salad and tosses it high in the air. The superstition goes that the higher the salad is tossed, the more luck that will come in the new year. It’s can get a bit messy, but tossing the yee sang are some of my favourite memories of my childhood.

There are lots of recipes for Yee Sang around, and most of them use raw salmon or smoked salmon but I thought that this year, because it is the year of the Water Dragon, I would use lobster sashimi instead. Of course, if you want a more traditional yee sang, just substitute the lobster sashimi with another raw fish.

Chinese new year foods are full of symbolism – Fish symbolise wealth because ‘yu’, the Chinese word for fish, is synonymous with the words for wealth and abundance. Long noodles signify a long life. Oranges signify good luck, and pomelos or grapefruits also signify wealth and prosperity. One of the most popular areas of symbolism is the balance between yin and yang, or the dragon and phoenix. In food the dragon is often symbolised by lobster or prawns, and the phoenix is often symbolised by pheasant or chicken. In this year of the Water Dragon, what could be more fitting than a celebratory dish paying homage to the symbolic Water Dragon, the lobster.

Dragon Yee Sang


  • 1 live lobster
  • 6 wonton wrappers
  • Oil for deep frying
  • 1 tbsp white sesame seeds
  • 1 carrot, peeled and julienned
  • ½ Continental cucumber, peeled, deseeded and julienned
  • ½ daikon white radish, julienned
  • 6 leaves Chinese cabbage (hakusai, lombok), shredded
  • 1 cup pomelo or grapefruit, torn into small pieces (peel, pith, seeds and any membrane removed)
  • 1 bunch fresh coriander, leaves picked
  • 2 tbsp Japanese red pickled ginger (benishouga)


  • 150ml plum sauce
  • 2 tbsp honey
  • juice of 2-3 limes
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 tbsp peanut oil
  • ¼ tsp five spice powder


  1. Slice the wonton wrappers into thin strips and deep fry in batches in hot oil until crispy, then set aside to drain. Don’t fry too many at one time or they will stick together. Also, it’s best not to slice the wrappers all stacked together, or they may clump on the board. Toast the sesame seeds in a dry frypan until golden brown and then set aside to cool.
  2. Julienne the cabbage, daikon, carrot and cucumber. Arrange these on a large platter and separately place on the pickled ginger, coriander and wonton crisps around in separate piles.
  3. To prepare the lobster, chill the lobster in the freezer for about 2 hours until it is asleep. Kill it quickly with a spike through the head and separate the meaty tail from the head. Cut down either side of the soft underside of the lobster and remove the flesh from the shell using your hands, and using a paring knife if necessary. Remove the vein from the lobster as neatly as possible and wipe away any residue. Although I don’t recommend this, if the lobster meat is very dirty and you feel that you have to, you can rinse the meat very quickly in a mixture of iced water and salt (using enough salt to give the mixture the saltiness of seawater).
  4. Heat a large pot of water until boiling and add the lobster head and tail shell to the pot and boil until the shell changes colour. Clean the shells and remove any meat that was clinging to the shell, reserving it for another purpose (an egg white omelette with cream and spring onion is perfect, or you can just dip it in a little yuzu kosho tabasco – but that’s a recipe for another time…)
  5. With a very sharp knife, slice the lobster into very thin slices and arrange over the centre of the salad.
  6. If you would like to use the tail for presentation, clean it well with a paper towel and, if it’s looking a little dull, polish the outside with a small amount of oil.
  7. For the dressing, mix together all the ingredients.

To serve, gather everyone together and give them a pair of chopsticks each. Pour over the sauce and scatter with sesame seeds. Everyone reaches in with their chopsticks to toss the salad. Toss it as high as you can for good luck!

Huevos Coreanos


If you ever felt inclined to make a list of “food trends” for the past couple of years, “adding kimchi to everything” and “Mexican-Asian fusion” would both certainly be near the top. It seems that everywhere you turn these days there’s a kimchi quesadilla, spicy pork burrito or bulgogi taco. David Chang and Roy Choi should be getting royalties for this stuff.  Paying too much attention to food trends is a often a dangerous thing to do, but  love them or hate them, there’s no doubt that a tasty dish is a tasty dish. Let’s not take ourselves (or our food) too seriously.

I love breakfast, but as a meal it’s often overlooked as a source of variety. Day in and day out we turn to toast, cereal, bacon, the occasional pancake, and then add some eggs – fried, poached or scrambled. Even the simple and delicious breakfast dish of Eggs Benedict has lately been co-opted by brunch, that most mystifying and indefinable of meals. But such is the lack of respect we in the West tend to afford our breakfast. It’s ironic really, considering just how versatile eggs can be.

It’s easy to see where we get disillusioned by breakfast. We are constrained by time, ingredients, appetite and nutritional value.  We need something that’s fast, nutritionally balanced, not too difficult on the stomach and which will carry us through to lunch (forget brunch). But in the face of this adversity, we form solutions. I think the constraints of breakfast can be a source of great creativity, as we are almost forced to think outside the box.

Taking the old Mexican favourite, Huevos Rancheros (Cowboy’s Eggs) and combining it with some very good kimchi and enoki mushrooms resulted in this dish, which will definitely be taking its place in my kitchen’s breakfast repertoire.


Huevos Coreanos – Korean Eggs (Cowboy Style)

Serves 1


  • ½ cup cherry tomatoes, quartered (80g)
  • ½ cup enoki mushrooms (50g)
  • ½ cup kimchi (with juice), roughly sliced (100g)
  • ¼ cup tomato passata
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • ½ small red onion, sliced
  • 1 tsp rice wine vinegar
  • 2 free-range eggs
  • 1 tbsp fresh coriander leaves
  • 1 large red chilli
  • Grated cheese (optional)
  • Salt (to season)
  • Black pepper and buttered crusty bread, to serve


Preheat your oven’s overhead grill. Heat a small cast iron or other ovenproof pan until very hot. Add the olive oil and sautee the onions, tomatoes, chilli, mushrooms and kimchi until all are softened and nearly cooked through. Add the tomato passata and vinegar and cook for a further 1-2 minutes. Taste and season.

Make two small wells in the mixture in the pan and crack an egg into each. (If you wish, you can now scatter the top with a little grated cheese). Transfer the pan to your grill and grill the top for about 3-4 minutes until the whites of the eggs are set but the yolks are still runny. The heat of the pan will continue to cook the eggs from the bottom.

Grind over a little black pepper, scatter with some coriander leaves and serve with some buttered crusty bread.

Note: For a more mild version, you could reduce the amount of chilli or substitute with thinly sliced red capsicum.

Smoked Banana Ice Cream

The things on the left are the smoked bananas

I came back from the gym and a long bike ride today and immediately made ice cream. I think there is something fundamentally wrong with my approach to exercise… Still, the results were delicious. This is actually one of the best ice cream’s I’ve ever made.

Smoked bananas are a snack food around Asia, and can be found in some Asian grocers. Small bananas are sliced, strongly smoked and partially dehydrated. The flavour may not be to everyone’s taste. A friend recently described the taste as ‘chewing on a wet cigar’, but don’t let that ringing endorsement put you off. The flavours and aromas are strong and complex with rich tobacco, vanilla and molasses notes, the sweetness of brown sugar and a mellow banana flavour. Those elements tempered and adjusted in ice cream form create a beautiful combination. I’ve used a heavy custard base here to stand up to the very strong flavours in the smoked banana.

This ice cream has a thick, creamy texture (it actually holds without melting for 5-10 minutes at room temperature) which matches extremely well with the smoky sweetness of the banana. The strength of it is that you probably couldn’t sit and eat a whole tub in a sitting – it’s more of a ‘one-scooper’ – but it would work well as an accompaniment in a multi-element dessert. In the future I might be tempted to serve this with a slice of toasted coconut cake, or even some croutons of banana bread for texture. Either way, I think I’m going to need to go to the gym again…

  • 70g smoked banana
  • 350ml full cream milk
  • 125g caster sugar
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 400ml cream
  • ½ tsp vanilla paste

Roughly chop the smoked bananas and place in a small saucepan with cold milk. Bring to the boil and then remove from the heat and leave to cool and infuse for 30 minutes. Puree the banana and milk in a blender until very smooth.

Beat the egg yolks and caster sugar together until foamy, pale and tripled in size. In a saucepan, bring the cream to the boil and then quickly whisk half of the hot cream into the egg mixture. Transfer the whisked egg mixture back into the remaining cream in the saucepan and whisk over low heat until it forms a loose custard that will coat the back of a spoon. Strain the custard into the banana mixture and fold together. Transfer to a metal bowl sitting inside another larger bowl of ice and water and cool the mixture quickly by continuing to stir it for 5-10 minutes. Freeze in an ice cream churn until set.

The Ramen Po’boy

Ramen is a family of Japanese noodle dishes that takes its name from the Chinese noodle soups featuring the pulled ‘la mian’ noodles. Basic ramen usually features a shio (seasoned chicken stock), shoyu (stock with soy sauce) or miso soup base, with alkaline noodles, tender pork chashu (from the Chinese ‘char siew’), menma (simmered bamboo shoots), nori and seasoned eggs. It’s usually eaten in the late evenings either as an after-work dinner for neighbourhood salarymen or at the end of a night of drinking. Yes, ramen is the Japanese answer to a regrettable kebab on the way home from the pub.

More than just a dish, ramen is an icon of Japanese culture and lines for the more famous ramen stores can stretch for literally hours. Each store will add their tiny signature to a bowl of ramen – an infusion of yuzu, a specific seasoning on the chashu, or even preparing their broth with mountain water from a specific spring.

In this dish, the elements of ramen meet the traditional New Orleans po’boy. Sorry there are no step shots to accompany the recipe, but I wasn’t intending this as a blog post really. It was just Sunday lunch.

The Ramen Po’boy

(makes 1)

  • 1 x 12-inch half baguette
  • 4-5 slices chashu (recipe follows)
  • 1 nitamago (recipe follows)
  • 2 small sheets Korean toasted nori
  • Kewpie mayonnaise
  • 1 cup shredded iceberg lettuce
  • 2 tbsp chopped chives
  • unsalted butter
  • dijon mustard (you can use seeded mustard or American mustard if preferred)
  • 1/4 cup menma (to serve, commercially available from Japanese grocers)
  1. Cut the baguette in half almost all the way through, butterfly and grill on both sides until toasted. Spread the base side with butter and the top side with dijon, seeded or American mustard (seeded and American are more traditional for a po’boy but I prefer dijon).
  2. Scatter the base half with shredded lettuce, liberally top with the Kewpie mayonnaise and then crumble over the Korean nori.
  3. Fry or grill the chashu slices until warmed and browned and layer onto the sandwich.
  4. Slice the egg into half and then each half into thirds. Cover the chashu slices with egg and scatter with chives.
  5. Serve the po’boy with the menma on the side.


  • 1.5kg pork belly

Stock A

  • 1.5L strong chicken stock
  • 1 sheet kombu
  • 5 shiitake mushrooms

Stock B

  • 500ml water
  • 250ml light soy sauce
  • 100ml sake
  • 3 tbsp caster sugar
  • 1 tbsp salt
  1. Remove the skin from the chashu and roll it lengthways. Tie the roll with string at 1cm intervals and cover with cold water in a large stockpot. Bring to the boil and simmer for 30 minutes. Discard the water and with your hands wash the pork in warm water to remove any blood or scum. Chill the pork in the fridge for 1 hour.
  2. Bring Stock A ingredients to a simmer and immediately remove the kombu. Add the pork and simmer for 1.5 hours. Remove the pork.
  3. Bring Stock B ingredients to a simmer, add the pork and simmer for a further 30 minutes until the pork is quite tender and a skewer can be inserted through the centre easily. Remove the pork and chill in the fridge until ready.


  • 5-10 free-range eggs (as many as you like)
  • 500ml water
  • 250ml light soy sauce
  • 1 sheet kombu
  • 5 dried anchovies
  • 3 shiitake mushrooms
  • 40g katsuboshi
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp five spice powder
  • 1 extra star anise
  • 1/2 small onion
  1. Bring all ingredients except the eggs and katsuoboshi to a simmer and remove the kombu. Add in the katsuoboshi and allow to stand for 30 minutes. Strain the mixture and reserve the liquid.
  2. Boil water and plunge in the eggs for 7-8 minutes. Remove and immediately shock in iced water. Peel the eggs and steep in the liquid for 1.5 hours. Remove from the liquid, cover and chill in the fridge.

Blackstrap Banana Cake

This year has been a crazy one for me for a number of reasons – in the past few months I’ve been trying to adjust to (1) a new career, (2) some pretty serious public recognition, (3) moving countries, (4) a truly ridiculous travel schedule (averaging 1 flight every 2.5 days for the past 4 months) and on top of all that I’ve been trying to fit in writing a book  as well.

My friend Danny and his wife Mel have been lifesavers throughout all of this; helping me out and supporting me with every aspect of these numerous transitions. They even understood when I had to leave straight from giving a speech at their wedding (where I was Danny’s best man) to fly to Shanghai to cook some banquets there for the World Expo a couple of months ago. I wanted to give them each a bit of a special Christmas present this year so I decided to write a recipe specifically for Mel, cook it and give it to her together with a copy of the recipe.

I love banana cake but I sometimes find it too sweet and a bit boring. This is a super-moist ‘adult’ version of a banana cake made with less sugar and the addition of organic blackstrap molasses. The molasses gives the cake a real complexity and a slight sourness that I think is wonderful. This is Mel’s recipe now, but I thought I’d share it here with you all too (I’m sure she won’t mind).

Blackstrap Banana Cake


  • 125g softened unsalted butter
  • 90g caster sugar
  • 100g beaten egg
  • 8g bicarbonate of soda
  • 280g plain flour
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 75ml full cream milk
  • 75ml pouring cream
  • 55g organic blackstrap molasses
  • 3g vanilla paste
  • 280g banana puree (about 2 large overripe bananas)


  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (fan forced). Cream the butter and sugar together, then add the beaten egg a little at a time until all the egg is incorporated.
  2. Sieve together the salt, bicarbonate of soda and flour. Separately, mix together the milk, cream, molasses and vanilla paste. Add half of the dry mixture and half of the wet mixture to the egg mixture and fold until incorporated. Repeat with the remainder of the mixtures and then fold in the banana puree. Do not overbeat.
  3. Pour the batter into a greased loaf tin and bake for 45 minutes or until an inserted skewer comes out clean. Allow to cool in the tin, then turn out and wrap in plastic. Leave overnight before eating.

I also gave her a card I made with the recipe printed on it.

Adding a copy of one of her favourite books in the iconic Penguin Classic style makes it a more complete gift.

So that’s Mel’s present taken care of, but you’re probably wondering what Danny is getting. It’s this…

Butter Baked Cabbage

Cabbage is wonderfully in season right now in the Northern Hemisphere so let me ramble on about that for a bit. Cabbages and other members of the brassica family contain defensive chemicals (enzymes and precursors) that combine in times of stress on the plant (cutting, cooking, being eaten etc.) to create bitter flavours and pungent aromas. This is the plant’s way of protecting itself. These defensive glucosinolates are at their minimum in the cold and wet, which is why cabbages (and other brassicae like brussel sprouts) are at their mildest and sweetest during winter. Glucosinolates are more concentrated towards the centre of the vegetables in the fast growing areas and are highly water soluble, so boiling cut brassicae allow these to leech out, leaving them sweeter still.

For the actual dish itself, it’s just quartered cabbage boiled in stock for about 10 minutes and then slathered in enough melted butter to kill a hors.  It’s then seasoned and baked at 200C for about 25 minutes until it becomes blackened and awesome.

There’s also a variation I make for eating with roast pork where the only difference to what has been done above is to add a single star anise to the water as you boil the cabbage. This changes the character of the dish substantially. Anise is flavoured by a chemical compound called trans anethole. It’s a super-sweet natural chemical (13 times chemically sweeter than sugar – so sweet in fact that we hardly recognise it as so un its undiluted form – chew a star anise and you’ll see what I mean) that acts on the sulphide glucosinolates in the cabbage (also in onion) to create robust, sweet flavours. Adding the anise to the boiling cabbage may seem like not much at all, but it makes a huge difference to the final flavour.

Better eating through chemistry!

Dumpling Day!

I’m crazy about dumplings of any kind, and one of my favourite things to do on a rainy weekend is to make a whole bunch of dumplings of various flavours.  They freeze extremely well and after a relaxing afternoon of dumpling making, you have a well-stocked freezer and the security of knowing that for the next few months you are just minutes away from a delicious homemade dumpling feast at any time.  Dumpling Day should be a national holiday.

The secret to a good dumpling is the texture of the filling.  The filling should be firm, consistent and springy.  Too many homemade dumplings suffer from fillings that are separate and grainy, and which do not offer sufficient resistance to the teeth.  To make a delicious, springy dumpling we need to look at a chemical process called thermogelling.  In a nutshell, muscle fibres in meat and fish contain myofibrillary proteins known as actin and myosin.  In solution, these proteins form a gel which, when heated, traps water, fat and starch creating a springy and tender texture.  Creating a strong gel depends on a number of factors, including the concentration of these proteins, the temperature of the solution, its acidity and its salt content.
So how does this translate to Dumpling Day? It’s all about creating the right environment for the formation of the gel, and ensuring that your filling has the right amount of water, fat and starch to create the right texture.

First, we need start in the morning with a basic pork mixture.  Take minced pork (I used about 1.5 kilos of medium fatty mince and ended up with more than 100 dumplings).  The No.1 complaint with homemade dumplings is that they turn out grainy.  This is usually due to the mince being too coarse.  If you are buying mince, run it through a mincer once or twice more to make sure it is very fine, or if you don’t have a mincer just put it in a food processor and pulse it a few times.  The mince should also have a good amount of fat through it.  The fattier the mince the more tender the filling will be, but if the mince is too fatty then there will not be enough actual meat (muscle) to release its myosin for creating the gel that gives the filling the right springiness.  Once the meat is the right texture, you can make a basic dumpling mix.

Add to the meat some white vinegar, finely chopped spring onion garlic and ginger, salt, white pepper, and cornstarch.  Using your hands, mix everything together and knead the mixture very firmly for about 20 minutes.  The kneading process is vital, as it releases the myofibrillary protein from its muscular organisation and allows the creation of the gelatinized network that gives you a springy filling.  Set this aside in the fridge.

The dumpling mixture is fine as it is, but if you like you can flavour the plain dumpling mixture with anything else you like. Here’s some food for thought:

  • Prawn
  • Chinese Chives
  • Shiso (perilla)
  • Chinese Cabbage
  • Shiitake Mushrooms
  • Water Chestnuts
  • Fresh Herbs
  • Chili Paste
  • Pea Shoots
  • etc. etc. etc.

Separate your flavourings into separate bowls and add to them the basic pork mixture.  Now take turns with each flavouring, transferring it to your big mixing bowl and kneading until the flavourings are all combined and the mixture becomes springy – around 5 minutes for each batch.  Transfer all your bowls of mixture to the fridge and let it rest for a few hours to allow the gel network to form.  The saltiness of the mixture and the acidity of the vinegar provide a suitable environment for this process.  With the prawns, you have added additional myosin from the prawn meat, so you may notice this mixture becoming very springy, almost to the point of being ‘bouncy’.
After a few hours it’s time to make your dumplings.  I won’t go into dumpling folding methods (maybe another time), but you can make wontons, jiaozi, pleated gyoza or simple dumplings for boiling… whatever takes your fancy.  For me, I usually make these dumplings in broth so I use a very simple fold that looks fine in soup or boiled.  If you wanted to make dumplings for frying (like gyoza) or steaming (like xiaolongbao/shourumpo), then you may prefer a slightly more attractive shape.  You can even just leave them as half moons, like some Japanese or Korean dumplings.

Bought gow-gee wrappers are fine, but I prefer to make my own with a very simple boiling water dough.  Take 4cups of plain flour and mix with 2 cups of boiling water.  Bring the dough together with a spoon and then turn out onto the bench and knead for about 5 minutes until the dough is silky.  Cover with plastic wrap and rest for about half an hour.  Roll the dough out into long snakes and then pinch off into balls about half the size of a ping pong ball.  Roll each ball out to a circle, rolling from the centre to the edge and turning the wrapper 90 degrees after every roll.  It should be about 8 rolls until you have a perfectly round wrapper.

My method is to take a gyoza wrapper, place about a teaspoon of dumpling filling in the centre.  Dip your finger in a bowl of water and wet the top half edge of the wrapper and fold the bottom half up into a half-moon shape, making sure that the filling is centred, and that there is no air trapped in the wrapper.  Then wet the very top of the half-moon and fold each end up to the centre.  Store on a tray (making sure they don’t touch each other) and then when each batch is finished, transfer the tray to the freezer.

When they’re well frozen, transfer each batch to a large ziplock bag marked with the corresponding flavour and continue to store in the freezer.

To cook, you can boil the frozen dumplings in salted water or stock for about 10 minutes, or steam them for about 12-15, or even fry them (as for gyoza) or deep fry them.  Bear in mind though that the difference between these and commercially frozen dumplings (aside from tasting much better and not containing any of the chemical additives) is that firstly, they don’t contain preservatives so they will not last as long in the freezer and secondly, the filling is not pre-cooked, so you need to make sure they are cooked all the way through.

Personally, I usually steam or boil them for a snack served with some chili oil and black vinegar, or add them to broth for a dumpling soup breakfast.  There’s nothing quite like a homemade dumpling, so set aside a day of your weekend for the mental therapy of Dumpling Day.

Umeshu Ambrosia

The area under my kitchen bench is slowly filling with homemade pickles, jams and various other kitchen concoctions.  One of my favourites is Umeshu.

Umeshu is often called “Plum Wine” in English, but in truth ume are not actually plums (more like an apricot), and the resulting liquor is more like an infused spirit (like a flavoured vodka or spiced rum) than a fermented wine.

The two main uses of ume are as a salted and dried condiment (umeboshi), or alternatively steeped in alcohol to make the popular umeshu. Around the umeshu bottling season, ume and the other ingredients are readily available all around Japan.  Unfortunately, I think those of you in other countries might struggle a little to find what you need. If you can get ume, make sure to use the unripe green fruit, not the yellow fruit which is more commonly used for umeboshi.

The basic method for umeshu is very simple.  You need the ingredients listed and a large glass container of around 5L in capacity.  Again, in Japan umeshu jars are readily available but if you can’t find them a very large pickling jar would be fine.

The sugar should be rock sugar (or ‘ice sugar’ in Japan). It looks like solid white crystals the size of a coin.  Normal sugar will not do, although as you see in the variations you can add a number of different sweeteners together with the rock sugar.

The spirit used also varies greatly.  In Japan, people will use shochu or the commercial ‘White Spirit’ sold in liquor stores at around 35% alcohol by volume.  Brandy and vodka are also relatively popular.  I will definitely make this with rum one day (whether rum alone or blended with other spirits).

  1. Wash the ume and leave in a colander to air dry.  Do the same with your jar.
  2. Using a skewer, remove the stems from the ume.  These should come out quite easily.
  3. Layer the sugar and ume in the jar (there is no need to prick the ume, although some recipes do call for this) in alternating layers and then cover with the spirit until fully submerged.
  4. Leave in a cool, dark place for at least 3 months, but it is better after 6 or more.  You can swirl the container every week or so for the first few months if you like, but this is also not important.

It really is that simple.  I usually drunk this over ice or mixed with soda water for a very sweet and refreshing apertif or digestive.

I made the Cumquat and Honey version in 2007 and I am enjoying it immensely now, and the Black Sugar version last season in 2008.  The Black Sugar version took a little longer to mellow in flavour, but after about 12 months was aged nicely.

This year I was unfortuantely out of the country for much of ume season so there is no 2009 vintage resting under my bench, but thankfully this infusion method works for all kinds fruits.  I am still on the lookout for what try for 2009.  The current front runners are strawberry and pepper, or lemon and red shiso, but I haven’t quite decided yet.

Basic Umeshu

  • 1kg Green Ume
  • 300g Rock Sugar
  • 2L White Spirit

黒糖梅酒 – Black Sugar Umeshu

  • 1kg Green Ume
  • 150g Rock Sugar
  • 150g Black Sugar
  • 2L White Spirit

金橘と蜂蜜梅酒 – Cumquat and Honey Umeshu

  • 1kg Ume Plums
  • 200g Honey
  • 150g Rock Sugar
  • 2L White Spirit
  • 500mL Cumquat Liqueur (from Chinese groceries)
Salt Crust Nagoya Cochin

A friend called me last night to invite me over to his house for lunch to play some records and discuss names for a new restaurant that he’s opening up here in Tokyo.  I said I’d bring over some supplies, and in the end decided on roasting a chicken.

There are a lot of recipes for salt-crusted chicken that you see, but until today I’d never before tried any of them.   In truth, my feeling was that if you were going to roast a chicken, why would you want to miss out on the delicious salty, crispy skin that everybody loves.  I decided to try this anyway because it is so easy to transport, and now I am a total convert to the salt crust movement.  I have honestly never had chicken that succulent and juicy before, and the flavour is achieved without eating the skin, or adding any butter or oil whatsoever.   I don’t know if I’m kidding myself, but I think this is a pretty healthy recipe.

First you start with the dough.  Mix together the flour and the rock salt on the bench, and then into a well in the centre add the egg whites and about half a cup of water.   Draw the dough together and knead until it is all combined.  Cover with a tea towel and set aside.

Then to the chicken.  I used a Nagoya Cochin, a Japanese chicken that was first bred in the 1800s as a cross between the native Nagoyan chicken and the black-boned cochin chickens from China.  The meat is tender and the flavour strong and sweet.  The Chinese breed is also supposed to have curative properties, if you believe in that kind of thing.  If you can’t get Nagoya Cochin (and 99% of people reading this probably can’t), I would recommend spending a little extra on a great quality free-range bird; the taste of battery-farmed birds is so weak it is cannot be compared to the real thing.  Quality matters with any ingredient, but with chicken more so than any other meat, commercial farming has sacrificed quality for yield and we are all the poorer for it.  (Other contenders for the title of “Common Food Most Ruined by Commercial Production” are tomatoes, milk, sausages and bread  – but that’s just my opinion.)

Wash and dry the bird and trim any visible fat, and the neck and feet (with many organic birds the neck is left on and the feet are trimmed at the ankle rather than at the drumstick joint.  With the Nagoya Cochin the ankle is a  deep black colour).  Rub the skin with the paprika and then add half the herbs, zest and garlic to the cavity, grinding in a generous amount of black pepper.  In a Jamie Oliver recipe I saw for this once he added the entire lemon to the cavity.  I have always found that this creates an overpoweringly wet and acidic lemon flavour from the juice that drowns out the delicacy of a good bird.  In my opinion, it’s best to stick to the zest only.

Roll out the dough to slightly thicker than 0.5cm and make sure it’s large enough to wrap the entire bird.  Place the bird breast down in the centre of the dough and then stack the rest of the herbs, zest and garlic on top (i.e. the wing side that is facing up).  Fold the dough around to totally enclose the bird and pinch together any holes.

Lightly oil your baking try and turn the package folds down, so that the breast is now facing up.  Glaze the top of the dough with the reserved egg yolks and put into a pre-heated 220C oven for 1.5 hours.  The glaze will give a nice even browning and shine to the dough for presentation.  Relax and tidy up your mess.

That is honestly how easy it is.  When everything was done I threw the entire case into a bag (lined with a little newspaper just in case of any leaks) and headed off to my friend’s house with some raw asparagus, a bottle of Veuve Cliquot and a six pack of Heineken in a cooler bag.  We served the chicken with chargrilled asparagus (white, green and purple asparagus just salted and chargrilled with organic lemon wedges on the side, some salads my friend had made and some beautiful sourdough another friend brought.  We also had a quiche, and sweets from a local patisserie rounding out the meal.

To serve the chicken, use a serrated bread knife to open a “lid” in the dough.  Do this at the table to really appreciate the aroma that’s released.  Then just carve the chicken as usual and discard the dough (don’t eat this, please).  It was almost an hour and a half from the oven to when we were eating, but insulated by the dough case the meat was still warm and tender.

A few bottles of nice red wine later (Montes NapaAngel) later and we were all very full and satisfied.  I need more afternoons like this.

Salt Crust Nagoya Cochin

1 Nagoya Cochin (or other good quality free range chicken), about 1.5kgs
A good handful each of fresh rosemary, thyme and marjoram
Zest of 1 lemon, taken with a peeler
1 tsp paprika
6 cloves of garlic, skin on

For the crust:
1kg plain flour
4 eggs (separated)
500g rock salt