Thursday, 6 December 2012

Milton Keynes, Eat Independent

It’s a shame Milton Keynes has a bad reputation amongst it’s non-inhabitants. Most only come to Milton Keynes for retail therapy, which generally means indoor shopping and pit stopping in places not unique to the city. The majority of visitors dare not explore further out of their comfort zones, as god forbid… they could end up lost on our confusing grid system. Going loopy round our many roundabouts. A general assumption is that Milton Keynes is a modern town/city with seemingly no culture or character cursed/blessed with a high concentration of high street chains and restaurants.

If one does dare to venture past this superficial façade, one may notice Milton Keynes is changing. Since its creation 35 years ago, Milton Keynes has matured and is developing it’s own identity. It is an homage to post-modern Britain. The town is inspiring a new generation, and unlike other towns in the country, our inspiration is rather unique. With the majority of the city’s residents having roots outside the county and even the country, the diversity and multiculturalism of Milton Keynes is rather unique.

So how does this relate to food? Well, as I’ve been living in Milton Keynes on/off for most of my life, I have made observations the best way I make them… by eating.
Filter pass the Wetherspoons and Nandos and you will see a town that reflects the stories of the people who live in this unique city.  My story of Milton Keyes will be told through the eye’s of the eateries that have withstood the competition from the big chains that dominate Milton Keynes. Concepts that have been chosen by the people over the big names. The survival of these establishments over the years speaks volumes for what this city is about. Owning a food business anywhere in the world is difficult, but I think this is especially hard in a city where capitalism and corporations have had a huge part to play in the development of the city.
The following places deserve great recognition, and play a vital role in making Milton Keynes a unique Foodie’s town.   

All eating establishments are within a 5mile radius of the city and they are all INDEPENDENT. Please send forward any other suggestions you may have. My chosen eating establishments goes as follows:


Concept: Mouth watering American BBQ food delivered to your door
Must Try: Pork-Which, Pulled pork in flat bread
Average price: £10 per person

Chipotle bean burger, hand pulled pork in a flat bread, home fries, Percy's slaw

Percy’s is a small company established only a year and a half ago. It is doing extremely very well given the economical circumstances, however this is not at all surprising. The concept is a winning idea and has been designed cleverly to appeal to the Milton Keynes market. This has deservedly been recognised by the Natwest Smarta Awards; which named Percy’s one of the top 100 small business in the UK for 2011. For such a young business to be so successful in it’s early stages is rare. So what are they doing right? Well, firstly, Percy’s isn’t your usual takeaway. The American BBQ themed company deliver great quality food to your door. Their menu has a great range without being annoyingly extensive, and even better, there are things on the menu you would be hard push to find anywhere else in Milton Keynes without paying a price. Generous fillings, innovative food, and great quality makes Percy’s a brain child built out of love for good food. Percy’s cleverly fills the missing gap in the Milton Keynes food market and it’s defiantly catching on fast! 

Tai Pan

Concept: Authentic Chinese food, Dim Sum Lunch
Must Try: Crispy cheng fung, Black been and chilli spare ribs, Crispy prawn dumplings 
Average price: £7 per person

Dim Sum at Tai Pan

Not many people know Tai Pan do Dim Sum lunch seven days a week. The people who do know are regulars, and regulars at Tai Pan tend to be Chinese. This can only be a good sign as Milton Keynes has had its fair share of boom and bust Chinese restaurants. Tai Pan has stuck around for a while, and has witnessed great change around it. Situated in the Theatre District, it has a prime location, especially for an independent restaurant.

As lovers of Dim Sum know, it’s a light affair, mainly consisting of a few dishes and essentially accompanied with tea. It’s delicate, flavourful and doesn't leave you feeling sluggish. These attributes make it a perfect lunchtime treat. The waiters are friendly and helpful, and do their best to explain what some of the stranger items on the menu are. If, like me, you enjoy taking risks with your food, there is plenty to experiment with. One of the more surprisingly nice risks I have taken in the past is Crispy Cheng Fung, which can only be described as an inverted spring roll: soft on the outside and crispy on the inside. If the next time you’re in town and you fancy Wagamamas… please re-think. Walk a little bit further and get the real deal. You wont have to wait in a horribly long que, you’ll more then likely have some extra change left over and you will be pleasantly surprised.

The Swan Inn

Concept: Fine country pub and dinning
Must Try: Sunday Roast
Average price: £20 per person

The new interior of The Swan Inn

Although The Swan Inn is known by most Milton Keynians, it is not know by all. Since it’s re-opening in November this year The Swan Inn has a growing fan base.  This could have something to do with the revival of good British food. But I also think it’s because The Swan Inn is the only independent pub in Milton Keynes that serves locally sourced, great quality grub in a family friendly environment. I believe that a good pub is a pub that's been around for a while; a place that is welcoming; a place that has history; and a place that is run by the locals for the locals. With the exception of The Swan, this criteria is not met in Milton Keynes, this maybe due to the fact it is a relatively new city and that most of the pubs are chains.

The Swan Inn is the oldest pub in Milton Keynes, and I think this has a great deal to do with it’s success. It is a proper pub… yes it may be bordering on to gastro pub, but that's the only way it’ll every get people in from further a field. The food is great, portions are generous, there’s a great selection of beers and wine, and the service is always friendly. If you’re tired of sitting in faux Tudor interiors (when really nothing can hide the fact that your in an angular 60’s cube) and you want to escape from the horribly dubious fact that your Sunday roast has been cooked by a microwave technician; get yourself over to the Swan Inn and get your smackers around some proper substance.

Veggie World

Concept: Pure-Vegetarian oriental cuisine
Must Try: Veggie crispy duck, Rendang curry, Crispy shredded beef
Average price: £10 per person
Veggie crispy duck
Salt and pepper tofu, crispy shredded beef, Rendang curry,  fired rice

This is my risk taker. I now most non-vegetarians reading this will be like “Errr, no thanks. Why have veggie Chinese when I can have a meaty Chinese?” Well, my argument is: why have cheap second quality meat from a takeaway and play twice as much when you can get something ten times taster? And yes… I did say taster. The meat substitutes here are cunningly designed soya or gluten products, which most people see as tasteless, but in truth absorb flavours well and particularly versatile in texture. Nothing like Quorn nor Linda McCartney’s questionable sausages. I can confidently say, some of the meat substitutes are actually better then the real thing. For example, the crispy shredded beef at Veggie World is actually crispy and comes in the most amazing ziny sauce. I know from many disappointing Chinese takeaways that shredded beef can more often then not be tough and chewy, which isn’t very nice at all.

I’ve been going to Veggie World for nearly four years now and have seen it grow in popularity. I know for a fact that a great deal many of their customers are not vegetarian. I also know that people do travel to come to Veggie World. It’s just one of those places: a unique concept in a bizarre location – Bletchley! Alcohol is not served, but you are allowed to bring your own bottle.  

Milton Keynes Market

Concept: Odd bits, new bits and some very tasty bits
Must Try: Jacket Potato Man, Middle Eastern Stall, Dosa Van
Average price: £5

Jacket Potato Man

Sweet stall
Karachi Grill
Dosa Stall

Milton Keynes Market is older then me! And that's old for Milton Keynes. Under the bridges and amongst the pillars is the Milton Keynes market. A compact cluster of vans, stalls, and temporary shops. It’s nothing fancy and it’s defiantly not pretty. But that doesn't matter, cause Milton Keynes market is an electric hub of activity. It reflects the local community and Milton Keynes’s cultural diversity, as markets should. You could easily travel the world with your taste buds at Milton Keynes market: from South Indian dosa; to Middle Eastern wraps; big jacket potatoes cooked in a proper jacket potato oven; quick Chinese take-away; old school sweets and treats; to even a full English fry up. You can get it all at Milton Keynes market. As nice and as fashionable farmer markets are at the moment, I honestly believe home is where the market is, and MK market without it frills is my kind of market. The market is run by locals and it shows the diversity and uniqueness that Milton Keynes has to offer. I highly recommend having a little wonder around, because there are defiantly a few hidden gems and some proper characters lurking amongst the stripy tarpaulin. 

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Mercy’s Jallof Rice

Typical Ghanian Food stall selling Jallof

It’s always the simple things in life that make life worth living. In the case of most Ghanaians, one of these simple things comes in the form of Jallof rice, a classic accompliment to most meats and vegetables. Sold pretty much everywhere it’s a workingman’s food, using simple cheap ingredients to make the country’s staple, rice, more exciting. The red rice, which is sometimes specked with Green peppers and yellow maze, mirrors the colours of the Ghanain flag and patriotically stands as the National dish.  

My first taste of Jallof was a few years back at a Nigerian take away in Hackney. I liked it, but didn’t really make all too much of a fuss about it. The second time was at a Nigerian wedding, and in my ravenous state I chomped down two portions worth. When first coming to Ghana I was happily surprised to find Jallof on most menus… this is when my true love affair with Jallof started. I sampled jallof from different establishments, from stalls to fine restaurants, jallof with shrimp, with vegetables, with chilli peppers… I tried them all. When my farther’s housekeeper, Mercy, heard about my new obsession, she said to me, “Eh! Dipa, you eat too much jallof rice, you’re tummy will burst. If you are going to eat Jallof rice, you should do it properly, eat mine, and you will not eat another Jallof again.” Big statement, but I wasn't going stop her.


She set about cooking, but was adamant I didn't watch her cook. I sat impatiently in the dinning room. First the smell of onions and garlic came wafting through the house, then the sound of sizzling fresh tomatoes. Soon after a distinct aroma of Rosemary then the sharp pungency of Shitto (a shrimp, soy, chilli and palm oil sauce used by Ghanains in cooking and for dipping). Then everything went quite for a bit. The smell became more complex as time went by. I knew I was in for a treat. As I drifted away with the aromas and thoughts of what was too come, I was suddenly snapped back into reality by a sharp burnt smell. I ran to the kitchen and Mercy turned around to me with a huge pot of red rice: “Here, my Jallof is ready.”

The tangy, shrimpy, tomato rice was delicious. The sides were a little burnt, but this brought out a really nice combined charred taste of the tomatoes, onions and startch. The jallof was dotted with peas and diced green peppers that gave the rice another sensory dimension. Most of the Jallofs I had had before were stodgy and slightly over cooked, but Mercy’s rice was light and fluffy. It was delicious, and distinctly different from my previous Jallof experiences.

Mercy's Jallof and Chicken

So now every time I go back to Accra, I ask for Mercy’s Jallof. She’s more then happy to make it and thankfully doesn't mess around with the recipe too much. Although, the underlying taste of the rice differs depending on the meat it is served with. In the case of the above picture, Jallof rice and Chicken, Mercy steams the chicken first before frying it, then in the same pan uses the juices and fat to cook the rice in. These flavours pass through the rice, which is almost like cooking the rice in stock. When cooking vegetarian Jallof, Mercy adds a branded flavour sachet when cooking of the tomatoes. Although I’m not allowed to look, I have been told the tomato “gravy” in which the rice is cooked is essential to giving the right Jallof flavour. This flavour can only be described as tangy, salty and a little bit charred.

I have tried to make Jallof back home, but there is something about African tomatoes. You just don't get toms like them back home. They have an intense earthy, truly tomato flavour unique to Africa. I think this is exactly the reason why when I first tried Jallof in the UK it didn't really sing to me the way Ghanaian Jallof sings to me of the flavours of the country. I must add though, Mercy’s warning about my tummy bursting is very much so true. Eating Jallof is bad for the waistline, not only is it made with copious amounts of palm oil, but it also tends to be laced with Ajinamoto. For that reason, I truly advise trying home made jallof, there is no better jallof then that made by the hands of a true Ghanaian Mammy.  

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Hooked in Takoradi

 Captain Hook's Legendary Fish Platter

Long journeys suck. Long journeys in the heat suck even more. Long journeys in the heat on endlessly bumpy roads suck the most. But when a long journey in the heat on endlessly bumpy roads have a pit stop at Captain Hooks… well, that's a journey worth making.

Since I started coming to Ghana a couple of years ago, I have grown to love the local fare, and have found the best food to be outside the capital, especially along the coast. The one thing I really look forward to is our visit to Captain Hook. This normally happens on the way to Axim or Cape Cost (West coast of Ghana). The journey can take anywhere from six to nine hours, and because of this we tend to start our trip early in the morning. By lunchtime we’re lagging, cranky and bored of hearing the loop on the World Service. The only thing saving our sanity is to know we have a Captain Hook fish platter to look forward to. A Burger King at a service station on the M1 in no match for what is probably the best pit stop lunch there is. A no frills indoor/outdoor establishment, the restaurant is popular with South African expats working in the mining and oil industry that dominates the port city of Takoradi. For that reason the menu is very South African friendly, with such brands such as Red, Savana Dry, Castle and Amstel dominating the drinks menu.

South African Friendly Menu

The fish platter is ordered and the wait begins. This is not for the impatient. We have waited up to an hour before. Beer after beer after cider after beer, the wait is agonising. It’s almost temping to order a few things to nibble on, but one has to remember the immensity of what is about to bestow the table. Before the platter emerges from the kitchen, selections of condiments are placed before us, almost as a test of willpower. Trust me when I say, it is futile, and a great waste of suspicious pink liquid. The only condiment worth really paying any attention to is probably the chilli salsa, but then again that's a given for a chilli lover.

Condiments for the Platter

The platter is a thing of beauty. It is hard to describe the feeling you get when seeing all the fish cooked in a variety of ways and served in such a generous manor. I suppose a rough sense of emotions can be described as: overwhelmed, hungry and a little bit delirious! I’m a great fan of seafood platters, and have had ordered many over the years, but I have never had a platter that I’ve been in awe of. The variety on the platter gets me excited and a little confused, because I just don't know where to start! The rice and potatoes are a nice little addition, but honestly, I feel are as pointless and as much of a waste of space as the condiments. So this is what goes on a Captain Hook Fish Platter:

1.     Grilled rock lobster with garlic and parsley butter
2.     Grilled Chab Mackerel
3.     Grilled Tilapia with Tomato
4.     Red Snapper in a spiced batter
5.     Potatoes & Rice
6.     Curried Grouper and peppers
7.     Steamed Fish in butter, garlic and ginger
8.     Steamed Snapper in a garlic butter sauce
9.     Tempura Prawns

I thought it'd be interesting to show the before and after of a Captain Hook Platter. It gives an idea of what is most enjoyed… but also shows how gluttonous two people can be over a four person platter:


A Captain Hook Fish Platter leaves one feeling stuffed, happy, and well…. still delirious. Finishing the last leg of the journey is easier, mainly because we’ve fallen asleep, and know that when we wake up it will be to a beautiful golden coast beach like this one.

Cape Coast 

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Woburn Venison

I personally think it’s shameful when British supermarkets import ingredients that are perfectly available in the UK and then sell them for a high price. The ingredient, or rather the meat that’s got my blood boiling is the humble venison. Gaining popularity and growing in demand with the health conscious foodie: venison is lean, packed full of iron and an unconventional but safe meat to impress dinner guests. Supermarkets have obviously picked up on this, and for a few years now have been stocking a range of venison products… from New Zealand! Yes, even though we have an ample amount of deer running around the British countryside, we still import the meat from New Zealand. It boggles my mind as to how this could be a cheaper option, but also, why there is no Bristish Venison on sale in our four largest British supermarkets.  

So the following recipe has been inspired by the seasonal ingredients available to us at this time of the year (even though it’s been rather rainy) and have all been sourced locally, just to prove seasonality isn’t always just about fruit and veg:

Peppered venison steak, roasted parsnip mash and field mushrooms, with a blackcurrent sauce

Seasonal ingredients have a great way of complimenting each other. The recipe isn’t fancy, but just a basic, great tasting combination of flavours. Initially I couldn't decide between roasted or pureed parsnips, so I decided to puree roasted parsnips and have the best of both: the roasted flavour and the pureed texture.

I can guarantee that most butchers or local farm shops will stock local venison. I decided to go the source and drove thirty minutes to Woburn, where I bought my venison from Woburn Country Foods. The deers came from the 3000acre of woodlands on the local Woburn Abbey Estate. The venison steaks were also half the price of New Zealand Venison steaks available at the supermarket… Go figure!? I’m unclear of the breed, but I was assured only seasonal meat is sold in the Farm Shop. 

1 Venison Steak
3 Large Parsnips, peeled
½ Potato, skin on
100g Field Mushrooms
Glass of good quality Red Wine (I used a Malbec for it’s smoky/fruity flavour)
2 tbsp Black Current Jam
2 Gloves of Garlic
½ Cup of Full Fat Milk
Few sprigs of Parsley
Salt & Pepper to taste
Olive Oil

Roasted parsnip mash:
Heat up a large pot of water.
Chop up the parsnips and potatoes into equal sizes, and once the water starts to boil, add the potatoes.  After five minuets, add the parsnips.
Meanwhile, turn the oven on to 200°c. Liberally oil a roasting tray, season, and add two whole roughly smashed garlic cloves still in their skins. Place in the hot oven.
Once the parsnips and potatoes begin to soften, drain and add to the hot oiled roasting tray and place back in the oven on the middle shelf.
After 40 minuets, the vegetables should be beautifully roasted.
Place the nips, tattys and the roasted garlic in a food processer, add some butter and milk then blitz till you reach your desired consistency. Be careful not to over work as this could result in a glutinous mash.
Add salt, pepper and parsley to taste

To cook the venison:
Turn the oven on to 180°c.
Heat up a frying pan, and add olive oil and some butter.
Once the pan starts to smoke, add the venison. It should only take a few minuets to brown on each side.
Once browned, place in the oven for about 15 minuets. This should give you a medium rare stake.
Leave for a further five minuets for a well-done steak. As venison is quite lean, it takes less time to cook compared to other red meats.
Leave the venison to rest under some foil before serving or slicing.

For the Sauce:
Add a glass of red wine to the pan the venison was cooked in whilst the pan is still hot. Reduce, then add the black current jam. Season and finally add a knob of butter if desired… I did.

Sautéed Field Mushrooms:
Add some butter to a hot pan. Add the mushrooms, careful not to crowd the pan. Season once the mushrooms turn brown.

It does require a bit of carful planning to get the timing right. I made the mash in advanced and heated it up just before serving. I had to add a little bit more milk, but the consistency was no different. The sauce and the mushrooms were made whilst the steak was resting. I slicing the steak as I thought it made the plate composition more appetising then plated up and served. I had a friend over for dinner, and as I always do after making something for the blog, I spend a good 10-15 minuets taking pictures form different angles, with different compositions, giving me about 40-50 images to look through. This time, because of my eagerness to tuck in, I only had five images…  I say no more. 

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Philippino Chicken Adobo

Chicken Adobo with Bean Sprout Salad and Garlic Rice

Since my return to the UK I haven’t actually made any Philippino dishes. It’s not that I haven't thought about it, it’s just that there is massive pressure to impress and choosing the right dish is crucially important to make the right impression for Pinoy food. So after much debate I thought I’d try to make what is probably the most popular Philippino dish there is, Adobo. Now for those unfamiliar with Philippino gastronomy, I think this recipe is a good starting point at understanding the main flavours of the cuisine: salty, sour and sweet. This is the national dish, and for that reason I think it represents Philippines on a plate. Always cooked in soy sauce and vinegar, the other components of the dish can vary depending on the type of meat you are Adoboing: different regions have their own take on the dish and every family in the country has their own recipe which has been passed down over generations. So as you can imagine there are a fair few adobos to try.

The following recipe is my version. I have taken the best bits of the recipes I have tried and have adapted a few things according to my taste. For example, the Lutong Bahay (home cooked) style stalls I used to visit for lunch every day had what I consider to be the best Adobo I have had the pleasure of tasting. The dark, sour, sweet sauce was lip smackingly delicious, but, as like most meats in the Pines, it was a little over cooked and tough. Now this is cultural thing, and I have the same issue when I go to Ghana. Salmonella is a huge problem, and cooking chicken/eggs within an inch of their lives is a sure way of avoiding the bowel destroying bacteria. I have tried to recreate this taste as best as I can, whilst retaining the dignity of the meat so I tenderised my chicken using a simple Chinese technique of marinating meat in soy and corn flour overnight.  Normally, the chicken would be cooked on the bone, but my animal loving/slightly delusional friend for whom I’m cooking for tonight, refuses to eat meat on the bone. Belly pork is a good substitute for chicken in this dish and is probably more “Philippino” then using chicken. But again, my friend is on a diet… gosh, the lengths I go to, to please!

Along with the adobo, I’m serving very traditional garlic rice. Although my bean sprout salad isn’t very traditional, it provides a fresh accompliment to the salty sauce. As you may notice there is quite a lot of garlic in all three dishes. I found this to be a popular ingredient in Philippino food. Many a time did I have the lingering taste of garlic in my mouth after a meal, or noticed others did…

I think the best thing about this dish is the simplicity of cooking it. Like most recipes, a fair bit of preparation goes in before hand, but all in all, this dish took me 40mins to put together… although I must admit I’m pretty organised in the kitchen.

Adobo Chicken:
400g Chicken pieces off or on the bone
4 White parts of the Spring Onion, sliced into thin rings
5 tbsp of rice vinegar
1 tbsp Honey
6 Peppercorns
1 Bay Leaf
2 tbsp Canola oil

For the marinade:
2 tbsp Corn flour
5 tbsp Dark Soy Sauce
4 tsp Crushed Garlic
2 tsp Crushed Black pepper
2 tsp Crushed Ginger

Firstly marinade my chicken pieces over night. This ensures a strong flavour, but also means you don't have to add extra soy during cooking.

Heat up a large wok and added the canola oil. Quickly but lightly fried off the whites of the spring onion. Whilst the wok was still hot, add the marinated chicken pieces and pour a quarter cup of water into the wok to prevent burning, then turn the heat down. cover and let cook for about five minuets. Once the chicken is has cooked, add the vinegar and cook off thoroughly. Add the honey, pepper corns and the bay leaf. Mix, then half cover and leave for a further 10 minuets for the flavours to mingle.

Bean Sprout Salad
100g Bean sprouts
100g The Greens of Spring Onions, sliced vertically into thin strips
1 Sliced large Green Chillies
2 tbsp Sesame Seeds, toasted
1 tsp Crushed garlic
5 tbsp Rice Vinegar
1 tbsp Sugar

Blanch the sprouts for no more then 30 minuets. Drain, and run under cold water to prevent further cooking. Mix with the greens of the spring onions. In a small frying pan, add the vinegar, sugar, chillies and garlic. Heat until the sharpness of the vinegar had cooked off. Pour over the salad and sprinkle over the sesame seeds. Place in the fridge, and eat cold.

Garlic Rice
450g Cooked Rice
3 Gloves of Garlic thinly sliced
2 tbsp Canola Oil
Crushed Pepper to taste

Heat up the oil in a wok. Add the garlic till it turns golden brown. Stir in the rice, mix and season with pepper. 

Friday, 29 June 2012

Ethical Food of the Future

Recent experiences in my life have made me change my mind about the future we all face. Some believe the future will be a fight for survival, every man for them selves, whilst others believe the future will be the creating of like minded communities, where “local” and “support” are the reoccurring buzz words. I have always been a believer in the second, but found it rather romantic, and unachievable in a world where everything seems to be a competition. But after leaving the UK, and coming back with a new perspective on the country, had made me realise that there is much potential to head the “right” way, and this could all be thanks to the recession…

The shift we see in the global economy can also be seen in cultural habits: as the west becomes more conscious with what they’re eating and where their food comes from, the east is becoming more concerned with convenience and price. As we become more educated in food, the big companies begin to accommodate this. For example, Cadburys now makes Fair Trade chocolate for the western market, as there is now a demand for it by chocolate consumers. They don't do it out of ethical choice, but to increase profit margins. This is called the halo/Fairwashing effect, and more and more big brands are doing this. The small fraction of Cadbury’s product range that is Fair Trade gives an illusion that Cadburys are entirely Fair Trade, where as most of their other chocolate is probably produced in unethical ways, and their Fair Trade chocolate probably only just meets requirements. If you went to Asia you would not be able to find Fair Trade Cadburys anywhere, as there is no demand for it. Big companies follow fads, trends and consumer behaviour closely, and getting sucked in is very easy by savvy marketing. So what is ethical food?

Well, as an “Ethical-Food Designer” I have been trying to find the answer to this for a while now, and there are many traps that one can fall into, such as the one mentioned above. I have always felt, that certification marks the value of a product of produce, but again, this can be another trap as sometimes companies only pass the bear minimum requirements for certification, and with so many certifying bodes for Organic, Free-Range, Environmental, Ethical, Fair Trade etc, it is hard to remember what exactly each one stands for and what their requirements are.  From a design perspective, I feel it is important to know what process your food goes through to get from ground to plate. The way the produce has been cultivated, manufactured/processed, packaged, transported, stocked and even marketed all play a part in the journey of our foods. Personally, the shorter the chain, the better.

New certifying bodies are introducing a first party certification system for small scale farmers and producers, which involves the local community checking up on, working closely with and trusting the farmer in the claims they make about the produce they deliver. This works particularly well in countries where small-scale farming and production is common. The model for this type of certification was actually drawn up and experimented on in Brazil, with such success, that it has been put in place across the world, and is now even creeping in to the UK.

Small scale, and community supported agriculture aren’t just “fads”, it’s a movement that has been seeing positive results world wide. Social enterprises that focus on an aspect of food, be it food security, healthy eating, dinner clubs, all see great results, as it is a topic to which most people can relate, using food as a powerful tool for which to bring people together, and using it as the bases of developing creativity, business skills, environmental education and most importantly self worth.

A handful of social enterprises exist in the UK that use food as a bases of bettering lives. Their aims and goals are to educate and help develop and even strengthen communities. Reform into the social responsibilities large companies have could help small social enterprises start off, with professional help and advice, maybe even seeing collaborations on projects in the future.

I can’t see a better time in which to develop Food projects within Social Enterprise: as we see the desperate need for job generation, and the need to strengthen local economies. People now want to make more educated decisions about what they consume and I believe social enterprise can capitalise on this, and use it as a way of making food even more ethical, what’s better then buying food that’s good for the people who make it, for the environment, and for the consumer. It seems like the obvious answer that could bring back a community’s identity, economy and ethicality where everyone benefits.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Chai Tea, FYI the proper way

I love the ceremony involved with making tea and coffee. The wait, the patience and the routine makes the process unique to every individual. Whether it's you're early morning caffeine hit or a warming mug of herbal tea after a meal, every cup has a comforting quality. The “ummms” and “ahhhhs” that follow after the first sip are evident of the pleasurable and familiar aroma that warms our cockles and helps us deal with whatever may be thrown our way.

Those who know me, will know I love a tea. The two shelves in my kitchen dedicated to a wide variety of teas and coffee is ever growing is now spewing over to the third shelf. Without a fail, though, I will always have my regular four cups of chai a day.... with lots of brown sugar. Every time I make chai, I do it from scratch in a saucepan with lose tea and fresh spices, the way it should be done. This may be seen as time consuming to some, but to me it’s a ritual I look forward to, and if you are lucky enough to be around when my Chai clock strikes, then I'd be more then happy to provide a cup of spicy sweetness.

I've been asked how to make chai tea many times, and I always explain my precise tried and tested method, but I think this scares people. I have friends who have tried to chase the authentic flavour of chai they've tried in India, and end up buying pre-packaged cheap tea bags that claim to be “chai tea”… no… this is not right, and I am telling you now, you will never find the true taste of chai in a pre packaged box in any supermarket. The only brand I found to be pleasing is Clippers Chai Tea, and even though it isn't truly authentic, it has the right spice blend, and has a milder taste to true Indian Chai. But, the proper way to make chai follows a few simple, but very essential dos and donts:

Use a saucepan, non-stick is good as this prevents the milk from burning
Use lose black tea, Fair Trade always and only
Use fresh spices or Chai Masala
Use a tea strainer

Use tea bags
Use a kettle
Use the microwave (yes… I have seen it be attempted)
Use skimmed milk… why would you really?

So why so strict? Well, to understand the actual science behind a decent cup of chai, you have to look at the essences of flavour infusion:

1. A saucepan allows for a decent amount of space for the flavours to permeate and mingle.

2. Lose tea contains essential tannic acid which gives tea it’s slightly bitter but moorish quality. This flavour potential isn’t fully released when packed closely together in a semi porous bag. The longer the tea is brewed, the more the tannins are released. This gives the tea a darker bitterer taste.

3. Fresh spices have more flavour then dried spices. Chai masala is a blend of spices, which can differ from manufacturer (if bought) and households (if blended at home). The spice blend is a personal reference, and because of this, I think it is better to blend your own spices. I also vary my combination of spices depending on my mood and the time of the day. For example, in the morning I like a fair bit of lemongrass, ginger and cloves in my chai blend as I feel this helps wake me up. But in the evening, I prefer my spice blend to only include cinnamon and cardamom, as I find this to be more relaxing. It is entirely up to you what you want your chai to taste like, some people even like mint in their chai tea. 

Chai Masala Blend (foreground) and typical spices that
go into a Chai masala Blend (background)

The method bellow is how I make chai. The ratios don't have to be followed to the “tea”… and can vary depending on personal taste, so experiment till you find your perfect mixture. You could even grind down your individual spice selection and make your very own Chai Masala. Chai is a great digestive after a meal and is a perfect accompaniment to Indian nasto (spicy snacks). You could even try cook with chai in cakes, porridge, or even ice-cream. 

The following method has been tried and tested by my own fair hands. I believe this method brings out the right amount of flavour and aromas from the ingredients, without "over cooking" the tea.  

Ingredients (two cups):
1 cup Water
1 cup Milk
1 tbsp of Fair Trade Lose Tea
20 Cinnamon seeds (not pods)
Pinch of Grated Nutmeg
4 Cardamom Cloves 
2 Cloves
Quarter inch Grated Ginger
Fair Trade Brown Sugar, According to taste

Place the water, milk and the lose tea in a saucepan. Place on the hob on full heat. You could add more or less water/milk depending on your taste.

Either use a pestle and mortar or a grinder to crush the spices. Add to the saucepan.

Add the sugar if desired. I think 2 tsp is enough, although traditional chai is a great deal sweeter then this.

I personally think it is essential to stir only once all the ingredients are added, but only once, as this can disrupt the heating process and allows for oxygen to escape.  Oxygen is very important in any liquid as it helps carry flavour

Allow for the tea to boil. Once the chai has boiled, you should turn down the heat and not boil to the boil again, as it makes the tannins from the tea too strong and bitterly over powering.

Once the tea has simmered for about a minuet, strain into individual mugs. In India chai is normally served in small glasses in cafes, and in small clay cups on the streets, almost like little shots of sugary, milky, spiciness. A ceramic mug is just fine though. Enjoy your Chai with a pista cookie or a couple of Palle-Gs, or spicy Indian Nasto.