London smells OK, has all the functions expected from a first-world country (like trash collection and 24-hour electricity) and def has some good food, but I'd still trade it for the smelly streets of Asia. Roaches and all, I'd rather be eating fresh seafood in Bangkok right now, or char kway teow on the streets of Singapore. One thing Charlie and I really grew to love in Malaysia was greens – kang kong, morning glory, anything green – tossed with sambal belacan, a typical chili sauce with the salty, pungent addition of shrimp paste.
All of the best foods I ate in Asia this past year initially seemed really complex and involved, but in reality, some of my favorite dishes are really easy to make at home. Shrimp paste is kind of something that I usually have hanging around from making green curry (and you can buy it at any Asian grocer or even Wholefoods – it never goes off, but don't hold me accountable for that statement) and the only other ingredients in belacan are lime, sugar and fresh chili peppers. So when I happened to come across some fresh looking morning glory shoots in London's Chinatown recently (which was shocking, but there actually are about two decent pan-Asian grocers down there), I picked up some tiger prawns to match and my dinner plans were set.
To get started, chop up your red chilis (a mix of hot, skinny bird's eye chilies and some larger reds to fill things in) and throw them into a pestle and mortar, seeds and all. Don't get impatient – pounding these guys down can take a while, but the further you can get towards a paste, the better.
Meanwhile, toast about a tablespoon of shrimp paste in a pan over heat. When it's gotten a bit of color on both sides, throw it in with the chili paste and add the juice of half a lime. Keep pounding all of this together until it reaches a paste consistency – the sambal doesn't have to be completely smooth, but it's good to get the pepper skins broken up if possible.
Now, put some of your sambal into a pan over high heat and cook for a minute or two before adding and flash frying the prawns. I leave the shells and heads on my prawns because I eat the whole thing, and because that's where the most prawny flavor comes from! I haven't googled it, but I'm convinced that those shrimp shells MUST be good for the digestive system. The best.
Set the prawns aside when they've gotten color on both sides and add your morning glory. I chopped the long shoots in three, and had to cook the bunch a little at a time. Morning glory will cook down a lot, so buy more than you think you need. Work the rest of your sambal into the morning glory and toss until the greens are coated and wilted. Add more sugar, salt and lime to taste, and you can add water too if you want to loosen things up.
Add prawns back into the pan and cook through for a few more minutes. I covered the prawns with greens just to get a lick of heat into them before serving.
This dish smells like feet and is definitely pungent to taste. It's for a niche market. That chili sauce is supes hot, a little sweet and a lot fishy – the shrimp paste is accented even more by the addition of prawns. It's a simple dish, but it brought me right back to the steamy streets of Malaysia and for that daydream, I can deal with a stinking flat for a couple of days.