Ask Alex

Ask Alex number one

What is your favorite cookbook or recipe? – Dave, via Twitter.

As I prefer recipes only preserved through oral tradition, I don’t have an extensive cookbook collection. But I do have a closely guarded favorite in my collection of vintage books and Penguin Classics; a 1929 first edition of Le grand livre de la cuisine as authored by Prosper Montagné that I found at the Porte de Clignancourt whilst searching for food photography props. Montagné is probably best known for Larousse Gastronomique, which earned him his place alongside Careme and Escoffier as one of the three most influential culinary Frenchmen, but I, like many, consider Le grand livre de cuisine his masterpiece. In the preface, written by Henri Beraud, we even see traces of the first MasterChef episode: ‘A big flame. The door opens. We enter, and straight ahead, we see a stove, and behind this machine, a majestic cook. That’s him. This is Gary Mehigan gleaming like his finest pans … he appears the celebrity.’

My favorite recipe could not be further from this book steeped in culinary tradition. It was taught to me by a battle hardened Chinese woman from Pakistan who I met along The Great Trunk Road. As it turns out Chinese migrants to Pakistan have developed a distinct Pakistani-style Chinese cuisine that I fell in love with, particularly the special fried pulao. My friend’s method of making this rice employed a hearty use of soy sauce, ajino moto, vinegar and chilli sauce with keema (minced meat). Now even my quickest meal has a rich cultural heritage to draw upon.

Who are your culinary heroes that have inspired your interest in food? – Amanda, via Facebook.

My interest in authentic food, comes from the inspiring people who work amongst the diesel fumes and dust to prepare quickly obtained, reasonably priced and flavorful street food. It follows that my culinary heroes are not those wearing chef’s whites and toques, they’re people like Phuong, a coffee maker in Hanoi’s old quarter, who taught me the intricacies of preparing cà phê sữa đá. In my travels, I’ve staged with several hawkers and street food vendors like her; real food heroes not interested in celebrity or Michelin stars. Although, I’ll make an exception for Peter Gilmore the Executive Chef of Quay restaurant in Sydney. I just love his chubby cheeks.

What is one of the most authentic cuisines you’ve had? – Blair, via the sad pig.

Food made in the traditional and original way is the cornerstone of much of my writing, and as such I have experienced so many authentic meals. But nothing is more authentic than cooking close to the earth over coals or hot rocks in a Hangi. A Hangi is a traditional New Zealand Maori method of cooking food using heated rocks buried in an earthy oven. Interestingly, as part of the Earth themed Masterclass at Melbourne’s CERES Community Park, Kiwi Ben Shewry of Attica fame demonstrated laying a hangi. Authentic?

What is your single most favourite ingredient, and single most favourite utensil in the kitchen? – Doonks, via the sad pig.

My favourite ingredient is hand-rendered fat, I’ve written about my collection before. My fridge is full of mason jars brimming with luscious lard; membrane-y blobs of kidney fat, suet, goose fat and Schmaltz – a down-to-earth Bavarian fat served on rye. To me, fat is the candy of meat. I use a lot of goose fat in my cooking as I also adopt Jewish traditions that forbid me to fry my meat in butter or lard; butter being derived from milk, cannot be used with meat, and lard is derived from pork, an unkosher meat.

To make schmaltz, I cut the fatty tissues of a goose into small pieces, melting the fat over a low heat with onions, and collect the drippings through cheese cloth. I prefer this method to others as it leaves behind the gribenes – kosher goose skin cracklings, somewhat similar to pork rinds. They’re best served on rye or pumpernickel bread with salt, but I also enjoy them as a textural element in chopped liver.

My favourite utensil in the kitchen is my shrimp deveiner.

Is it true you are working on a book called “fifty shades of ghee” a tale of eroticism in the kitchen? – Clytemnestra, via the sad pig.

This is true, but don’t be put off by the title if you’re not a fan of tempering with ghee, it also contains a few sordid stories about other fats.

What is something you never want to taste again? – Kent, via the sad pig.

Mass produced cheese.

Thank-you for the questions – keep them coming. I’d also like to thank bass-nroll for making his picture of the washoku available under a creative commons license. Don’t forget I’m also on Twitter and Facebook. Follow, like or subscribe to the sad pig for authentic food and stories of provenance.