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Middle East > Saubi Arabia

East meets West

01-Oct-2006

Spice up your life with some Eastern mysticism - but make sure you're no fusion fool, says Richard Fox

If you wanted Salsa dancing lessons would you respond to an ad posted by Mavis Shuttleworth or Maria José Gonzalez? If you were planning an incursion into the most feral parts of the Aussie outback, who's your man: Bill "the Croc" O'Malley, or Algynon Ponsonby?

Horses for courses isn't it? And yet, when it comes to food, we're still as likely to head for the Rose & Crown for our chicken tikka masala as we are the Ali Raj Tandoori.

This is probably because chicken tikka masala is about as native to Indian cuisine as the Mini Cooper is to space travel, and, therefore, we are as likely to cook it at least as well as any Indian restaurant.

However, if we are to successfully incorporate a little more eastern exoticism on our menus, it's well worth remembering that the classic dishes are as ingrained in the hearts and minds of those that cook them as their infinite variety of regional dialects.

So, to make a decent stab at things in the kitchen, there are two possible courses of action: firstly, purchase cook books such as Madhur Jaffrey's A taste of India and painstakingly follow every detail to reproduce what will almost certainly be pretty good regional recipes - and then repeat the process for every other eastern culture you wish to make a culinary exploration of; this is time consuming and expensive in books.

The alternative is to go in for a bit of East meets West fusion food. Now, the problem here is that proper fusion food is almost a regional classic in itself, hailing from the Pacific Rim where eastern cultures such as Thailand and Malaysia meet the western ones of Australia and New Zealand.

There are a few chefs, such as Peter Gordon, who have gained worldwide reputations for their expertise in this style of cooking. There are far more however, who have ended up producing a dog's dinner in the misguided belief that fusion food is simply chucking a few bits of lemon grass and galangal into a prawn cocktail - or worse still, into a Lancashire hot pot. And then there are those who reckon the addition of a few exotic flavours is going to mask some pretty ropy base ingredients.

The safest way, and the path of least resistance, to get a little of that Eastern mysticism on to our menus is by fusing popular Western service styles and concepts with those wonderfully fragrant, appetising ingredients of the East.

By using them in conjunction with

the best quality regional or national produce, we may have an opportunity to add

a little extra zest to food. The easiest and most effective ways to put these ideas into action is not to get too hung up about

traditional regional recipes, but rather,

view the Eastern influence in terms of

marinades, dry rubs, poaching liquors,

seasonings and dips. This way, you can use the ingredients easily and flexibly - with basic produce - in platters to share, sandwiches, rolls, baguettes and other popular British staples.

A simple char-grilled breast of chicken can come alive in a zesty, herbal, sesame-oil marinade. Previously plain salmon fillets can be given new meaning when poached in an aromatic broth flavoured with lemon grass, coriander and ginger, while a simple crème fraîche can be flavoured with lime juice to make an appetising dip.

Thai food features many sauces in its repertoire - and they're some of the tastiest and most adaptable to our style of cooking. It's well worth having a selection of Thai condiments in the dry stores, then all you need are a few limes and some fresh coriander to knock up tasty dips in seconds.

Your shopping list should include rice-wine vinegar, nam pla (Thai fish sauce), coconut milk and green curry paste.

For fabulous fusion fish cakes - and a great way to use up salmon trimmings - simply blitz up the salmon with a base made from fried-off onion, garlic and the curry paste. Add to this a big handful of coriander, a squeeze of lime juice, a few drops of nam pla and some fresh chillies. Add some egg whites and then fold in some double cream. Wrap the mixture in clingfilm, forming a long sausage shape, and poach for a few minutes. When cool, roll it in some chopped herbs and sesame seeds, and portion up into bite-size fish cakes for a delicious starter or sharing platter. A sweet and spicy dipping sauce would be a perfect accompaniment.

A great way to use up bits of veg is to deep fry them in a tempura batter - perfect alongside the fish cakes and the dip. Some sizzling tiger prawns on the end of skewers and perhaps a few chunks of Thai marinated chicken would finish a pretty impressive East meets West sharing platter. And it wouldn't take much to convert any of those items into pretty tasty and substantial main courses.

Indian ideas also lend themselves perfectly to many of our dishes. Take the humble potato cake, for example. Try adding some chick peas to a turmeric-infused mash

and some chopped onions fried off until golden with a little curry powder. What

a fabulous side dish to a well-spiced lamb or chicken meal. Or once again, serve up bite-size versions for a sharing platter. Alternatively, top the potato cake with

some sautéed spinach and a poached egg

for a delicious lunch offering or an exotic addition to the breakfast/brunch menu.

The key to blending East and West is to use care and restraint. Don't add flavours simply for the sake of it, but rather to enhance something. Use the technique to good effect and your dish gets a flavour lift in a favourable direction. Try experimenting, and use the fabulous array of ethnic cook books on the market to generate

inspiration.