Monday, 12 May 2014

Fragrant Heart: A Tale of Love, Life and Food in South-East Asia - A review

 Fragrant Heart
Food and travel are two of my favourite things, so when Miranda Emmerson, author of Fragrant Heart, asked me to take a look at her latest book (a memoir guessed and travel!), I was very happy to do so. I received my copy just a few days before going on holiday to Portugal, so I read the book lying under the Portuguese sun. A perfect combination!

Fragrant Heart tells of Miranda and partner Chris's travels through China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia during a 'gap year' which they decide to take before settling down to start a family (they've since had two children). Miranda, a  regular contributor to BBC Radio 4, interweaves her exotic travelogue with tales of her family background, her relationship with Chris and her worries of renting her house out, back home in Wales. 

The book takes the reader on an adventurous journey through S.E Asia, painting a picture not only of the sights of interest, but also of the culture, history, art, politics and cuisine of each region. Some parts of the book are touching, some fascinating and some are laugh-out-loud funny. 

Miranda, a long time vegetarian, struggles to find 'safe' food in countries which regard meat and fish an essential part of any meal...
"Are you a vegetarian? Want some advice? Don't go to China. No. Wait. Scrub that. Do go to China. Just don't try to be a vegetarian once you're there."
Detailed descriptions of the foods they discover on their travels are so vivid that you can almost smell the food cooking and taste the flavours as you read...
"Bolou fan is a sweet and sticky and imparts a feeling of childish decadence to any meal. A whole pineapple is served to the table stuffed with berry-black, steamed short rice. Lifting the spiky lid you uncover a pirate's chest of delight. Candied peel curls in little crystalline caterpillars on top of glistening, sugary delight."
Although not a cookbook, each chapter ends with one or two recipes from the region with both a meat-based and a vegetarian version of each recipe. I tried out the rather confusingly named fish-fragrant aubergine, which contains no fish at all! Fish-fragrant apparently describes the combination of seasonings which would traditionally be served with fish, but work equally well with vegetarian and vegan dishes:

Yuxiang Qiezi or Fish-Fragrant Aubergine (Vegan)
Sichuan cuisine is full of different preparations, ways of cooking things and sauces to cook them in. Fish-fragrant is a description given to this particular sharp and sour sauce classically served over aubergine. There are no fish products used in it. It is very spicy, so cautious first-time cooks might want to halve or even quarter the amount of chilli bean sauce they put in. Served over boiled rice with a handful of chopped spring onions and maybe some nuts on top, I think it makes the perfect winter lunch.

Serves 2 
Preparation and cooking time: 30 minutes
  • 5 Sichuan peppercorns 
  • 2 small aubergines 
  • 2 tbsp groundnut oil 
  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped 
  • 2-cm piece of ginger, finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine 
  • 2 tbsp Chinkiang black rice vinegar (available from most Asian grocers)
  • 2 tsp sugar 
  • 1 tbsp light soy sauce 
  • 1 tbsp dark soy sauce 
  • 2 tbsp chilli bean paste (this can be found in Asian grocery stores and some supermarkets, under the Lee Kum Kee brand) 
  • 3 tbsp vegetable stock 
  • 1 tsp cornflour
  • 3 spring onions, sliced
Toast Sichuan peppercorns in a dry frying pan for a minute and then crush. Set aside.
Make the sauce by mixing the rice wine, vinegar, sugar, soy sauces, chilli bean paste, stock and cornflour together in a small bowl.
Cut aubergine into bite-sized cubes.
Heat the groundnut oil in a wok over a medium to high heat. Add the aubergine and stir-fry for 3 minutes or until the outsides have browned. Add the garlic, ginger and reserved ground peppercorns and stir-fry for another 30 seconds. Pour the sauce over the aubergine mixture and cook on a medium heat for 4 minutes, until the sauce has started to thicken.
Remove from heat and serve with spring onions sprinkled over.

I couldn't find rice wine, so left this out. The resulting dish was amazing, if a little on the spicy side, as I used the full 2 tbsp of chilli bean sauce; I made 2 versions: one as above and one with Quorn and mushrooms, which were equally tasty. Miranda recommend using different combinations of vegetables depending on which you prefer.
Fragrant Heart: A Tale of Life, Love and Food in Asia by Miranda Emmerson is published by Summersdale and is available from Amazon  and all major bookstores. 
I have a paperback copy of the book to give away. Just enter the Rafflecopter below by Midnight on 22nd May:

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  1. Oh it sounds like a book I would love to cook from as well as have on my bookshelf. I'm not that into Oriental cuisine, but I would still love to try some recipes and see if I am converted. Just I don't have much of an income at the moment to buy cook books for treats, so this one would be on my wish list, unless of course - my name comes out of the hat - so lets hope I win. I don't think my library will get it in, they very selective with what books they order - to my annoyance 3 copies of Jamie Oliver, don't get me wrong I don't mind the guy, but three books for a tiny library! So my wish list may have to wait.

  2. Russia ( Melanie McNair )

  3. it would have to be australia

  4. I recently got the chance to visit Hong Kong and it was amazing!! So I would really like to visit Tokyo next.

  5. I've always wanted to go to the South American countries, I'd love to see the Aztec and Inca monuments and learn more about the culture there


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