The Cartoon is Mightier than the Keris

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Zunar’s cartoon of Mahathir pre-Iraq, 2003. Dr M had just rushed back from holiday, hence the camera, hat and Hawaiian shirt

My latest for the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent:

A city like Kuala Lumpur changes a lot when you’ve been away eight years, but the Coliseum Cafe does not. A still centre in the whirlwind, it’s much the same as in colonial times when it was one of KL’s smarter hotels, the haunt of rubber planters and station officers, military men and tin towkays – or bosses. Of late its battered leather chairs have been reupholstered and there are new faces behind the bar but Mohammad Nor Khalid’s cartoons still hang on the walls from the days when he used to stop by.

His name might be unfamiliar to most Malaysians but mention LAT, his nom de plume, and almost every face from eight to 80 will light up. LAT has been chronicling Malaysian life since the early 1970s. His first book of cartoons, Kampung Boy, a deeply affectionate depiction of rural life through the lens of his own childhood, and his many others taught me much. But LAT’s real genius, and I do not use that word lightly, lies in his ability to say the unsayable about the issues of the day with a generous humour and an absence of malice.

Great cartoonists are great truth-tellers and, in a country like Malaysia where the truth is often unwelcome, telling it without getting slated is a real skill. It’s one LAT has in spades. Even the irascible former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was a fan, despite LAT capturing his grumpy impatience perfectly.

The other Malaysian cartoonist of whom I’m an admirer is rather less concerned about giving offence. I chatted recently with Zulkiflee Anwar UlHaque, better known as Zunar, as he flitted between London and New York drawing attention to the fact he’s been charged with sedition. One of his cartoons hangs on my wall at home – Mahathir in Parliament on the eve of the Iraq war – a day when I, as the only foreign journalist present, provided a convenient stand in while Mahathir berated the entire wicked western media. It’s my favourite souvenir of my time there.

Zunar is as spiky as LAT is emollient. His work is fuelled by anger and a burning sense of injustice at corruption in Malaysian public life. At times he has a viciousness worthy of a James Gillray or Thomas Nash, founding fathers of British and American political cartooning. And though Malaysia always offered the likes of Zunar plenty of targets, the current Prime Minister, Najib Razak, has proved something of a gift.

Mr.Najib is a thoroughbred political animal. His father was Malaysia’s second Prime Minister, his uncle the third. A mutual acquaintance claimed Mr Najib, an MP at 23 and premier since 2009, told him he felt as at home in Simpson’s-in-the-Strand – a rather fusty London restaurant – as on the streets of Kuala Lumpur. I can well believe it. He was privately educated in England. His style and grooming hint at Saville Row and Jermyn Street, London’s sartorial heart. Indeed he appears as much the English gentleman as the Malay political princeling.

And as a gentleman I would of course take his word for it that he was in no way involved in the murder of a Mongolian model, linked to his former right hand man, nor with various procurement scandals during his tenure as defence minister. And then lately there’s the small matter of 700 million US dollars that allegedly ended up in his personal bank accounts that, Mr Najib maintains, came from donations and not from a deeply indebted state investment firm he chaired.

Mr Najib may be wholly innocent on all counts. The trouble is that a growing number of Malaysians, including some in his own party, have their doubts. Zunar has been merciless. So merciless his books have been banned. But rather than charge him over his cartoons, he’s to be tried over social media posts accusing Malaysian judges of corruption. It’s a common allegation but prosecutions are rare. I ask him if he’d appear in court to answer the charges. ‘Of course,’ he replies before heading back to face up to 43 years behind bars. That’s the price one pays in Malaysia for daring to pull the tiger’s tail.

As we while away a sultry Kuala Lumpur evening over a curry, swaddled by the heat, my old friends talk of little else but Mr Najib. They fear for the relaxed, inclusive, multicultural, Malaysia they love. They blame the Prime Minister and his woes for the growing reach of Islamic fundamentalists, the religious police and far-right thugs. And with a sweeping new security law giving Mr Najib unprecedented powers now, more than ever, Malaysia needs its truth tellers to illuminate the way – among them LAT with the feather end of the quill, Zunar with its point.

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Prawn, Avocado and Watercress Salad

IMG_5046Another day, another recipe.

I have a bit of a dilemma. I tend to use cooking for others as a love/nurture thing. But, especially at this time of year, that can mean stodge, carbs and comfort food.

But that just risks ensuring that love and nurture equates with feeding someone up until they turn into Miss Piggy. This is not the way forward. Love and nurture doesn’t have to be unhealthy. And so I have resolved to explore more salads.

I think this one originally popped up in The Graun and I’ve always liked it. The interplay between the watercress, avocado and the lime juice and yoghurt dressing is great. I’ve adapted it very slightly, partly to make it a little more indulgent. But not much.

It’s this simple. Find a nice fresh bunch of watercress, pull out and woody stalks, soak in cold water to refresh and then wash and dry. Peel and slice a couple of small ripe avocados or one large one.

IMG_5042Grab a generous handful of prawns. I prefer unshelled tiger prawns. These I fry with butter and chopped garlic and then, when they’re almost ready, tossing in some brandy and flaming them.

 

Combine the prawns, watercress and avocado in a bowl and make a quick dressing from natural yoghurt and lime juice. A little of the zest would add more limeyness.  A splash of tabasco would also give things and additional kick if you like things a little spicy. Season to taste.

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I’m hopeful that a nice salad says ‘I love you’ just as much as, for instance, a huge tiramisu…

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Smoked Cauliflower Soup

IMG_5050There are some meals that just linger in the memory. One such I ate in Paris a couple of years ago with a friend. We’d booked ourselves into Les Papilles on Rue Gay-Lussac. It operates a single menu. You get a set four courses, no choice.

I remember it vividly not least if was one of the first times I’d eaten meat in years. The duck that constituted our second course seemed oddly chewy and hard work, if artfully done. I had no point of comparison and I’m told that the French like to chew hard on duck. Apparently. Then there was a sublime piece of Roquefort served with a prune cooked, I believe, in port that served as a perfect counterpoint and which I tried to recreate subsequently if not as well, and finally a passion fruit panna cotta that was… nice. However the first dish was revelatory; a cauliflower soup that transcended mere soupiness. It was simply the best soup I’ve ever eaten.

I had a first go at doing something similar a few weeks back and added parmesan to roasted cauliflower soup which simply produced an effect not unlike liquid cauliflower cheese. It was OK. No more.

So the other day I had a second go. I conferred with my dining partner and we agreed that smokiness was the thing, she recommending smoked bacon or bonito.

IMG_5049So I set about building proper smokiness  into the soup. That meant roasting the cauliflower over an open fire. This is preferably best done over embers rather than flames so I set up a trivet and turned it a couple of times. It was charred a tad more than I’d have liked (as you can see there were flames) but not so badly that I wanted to lose the blackened bits. Then I cut up the cauli- head, tossed it in olive oil and popped it in the fan oven at 160C (180C conventional).

While that was doing I gently fried some smoked bacon lardons in butter in a pan to release the fat, chopped up a shallot, added it to the bacon and when the cauliflower was more or less done popped it in with the shallots and with three medium small potatoes all sliced up. To these I added a quarter to a half teaspoon of smoked paprika (the sweet rather than the hot one).

After these had very slightly browned I poured in the stock; I’d added chicken concentrate (stock-pot) to boiling water and roughly chopped an onion, carrot and a stick of celery and tossed those in to boot and left it all to simmer.

Finally I blended it and added creme fraiche. It was pretty damn good. As good as the soup at Les Papilles as remembered at a remove of two years? Hmmmmm, not quite. There was something elusively wonderful about that soup, but this one was pretty damn good.

So what would I do to improve it? Well it was a little to thick for my taste so less potato and possibly some milk. I’d also consider sieving it to make it silkier. I’d roast the cauliflower slightly more carefully over the fire so it cooked rather than blackened. I might experiment with a splash of truffle oil. And if I had veggie dining companions I’d happily dump the bacon and use purely vegetable stock though I might add more butter for richness.

Ingredients:

1 medium head cauliflower

1 shallot

1 medium potato

butter

smoked bacon lardons or similar

1 carrot, 1 onion, 1 stick celery for stock + chicken or vege stock (cube, gel, powder or liquid) or make fresh.

creme fraiche

salt, pepper

smoked paprika

 

 

 

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The Passing of Seasons

IMG_5905 (2)One of the things I missed about England when I was in SE Asia was the passage of time marked out in seasons. Malaysia was one long, deathless summer. Everything was constantly green. The only change was the coming of the rains. From November until January, with a regularity that would have impressed John Harrison, the rain would begin at four, cry its heart out for an hour, and finish at five.

It doesn’t seem to be much discussed but I’m intrigued by the effect that seasons, or the lack of them have on culture.

I’m not just talking about culture in the sense of the arts. We barely need reminding of Vivaldi and Keats or of Monet or Bruegel.

I’m interested in how seasons shape the way we think, feel, act, because what they do in microcosm is remind us of the cycle of birth, life and death, that we have a beginning and an end just as the seasons do.

In being able to count out the passing years do we gain a sense of urgency?  Does the brevity of summer high in the northern hemisphere remind us that life is short and that we must act now if we’re to do anything with what we have? Does the lack of seasons subtract that same sense of urgency from life in the tropics?

There are plenty of counter arguments; that Angkor and Calakmul arose close to the equator, that northern European Protestantism drove development and industrialisation rather than hard winters and the need to keep busy to keep warm.

Perhaps it’s just this time of year and my time of life, that I feel time speeding up and autumn coming round again with all too little to show for another year.

In my next post I’ll consider the role that whisky has played in fuelling melancholy writing…

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The Bestest Ever Fish Pie Recipe

IMG_7443Fish pie! It’s comfort food pure and simple. There’s nothing very elegant about fish pie. You can make individual ones and serve them up in individual oven-to-table bowls. That’ll give you an authentic pub-kitchen look. Or to can just say ‘bugger it’, make a large dish and slop it out onto a plate.

If you do that you’ll have to put up with the fact that it tends to look awful; a splodge of potato and a spew of fishy sauce. But it tastes great. No nouvelle cuisine chef ever attempted fish pie, unless it was to produce something ironically post-modern, that needed to be examined with a microscope and popped on the tip of one’s tongue. Voila!

This is home cooking where no one waits around while they contemplate ‘presentation’. You simply can’t dress this one up.

But comfort food is too often a little bland and fish pie, which is essentially fish in white sauce topped with potato, risks being very bland.

So flavouring is everything. But you have to be careful because it’s so easy to overpower the fish. So rather than go overboard with herbs or spices I prefer to point up fishy flavours.

I reckon Felicity Cloake’s ‘perfect fish pie’ recipe in the Graun is a good starting point. But it’s not there for me. So let me offer my small twist on this.

Quantities for two (generous) portions:

500g potatoes, variety according to whether you like them mashed or scalloped
25g butter
Splash of milk

Salt /pepper
250ml vegetable stock
100ml (dry) cider or white wine
Small bunch of parsley, divided into leaves and stalks
400g fish fillets – smoked haddock/cod/salmon
200g whole, shell-on tiger prawns
40g butter
25g plain flour
100ml double cream
2 anchovies, finely chopped
Handful of white breadcrumbs

Grated Parmesan or Pecorino

There are three distinct stages – potato topping, fish, sauce.

Potato first. I went with mashed in which case it’s just a case of steaming the potato until cooked and mashing it with a big knob of butter and some milk. Salt and pepper here work well. The alternative is to steam the potatoes until almost done, slice them into scallops and put them to one side so you can arrange them on top of the pie later.

Then the sauce. This is the key bit; take the heads and shells off the tiger prawns and throw them into a non-stick pan with the butter. It’s the prawn shells that give the dish its sumptuous flavour. When they’ve been properly cooked add the cider (or wine), parsley stalks (having pulled off and reserved the leaves) and the stock and reduce a little. I should stress that I use my father’s unpasteurised cider, made from Bramleys, Arthur Turners and a few other varieties (Tom Putt, Michelin, Blenheim Orange) thrown in. Sweet commercial cider might not work very well. If in doubt try a dry white wine.

Next strain the liquor, throwing away all the prawny bits and keeping the liquid. To the liquid add the fish, cubed, and prawns and cook for five minutes. Use a slotted spoon, take out the fish and prawns and put them to one side, ideally in the dish the pie will be cooked in.

IMG_7446Then make a roux with 25g of butter, the anchovies and an equal amount of flour and gradually add to it the liquor from the prawns and fish. When that is all mixed in (and don’t forget to add the juices that have drained from the fish) add the cream, the parsley leaves, salt and pepper. You could add a pinch of cayenne or chilli but go easy. The main flavours of this dish should be the prawn stock sauce and the smoked fish.

Tip the sauce over the fish and then put the mashed potato on top. If you’re using scalloped potatoes toss them in olive oil or melted butter first and pepper them, then arrange them hither and thither over the top. Put it in the oven at 180C for 35 minutes (stepping in with 10 or 15 minutes to go to add blended cheese and breadcrumbs).

I reckon serve with a salad or broccoli, something green for Pete’s sakes, to take the edge off the brownness. Oh, and try not to look at it too much… just eat.

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Fresh Fig and Goats Cheese Quiche

Quiche, innit!

Quiche, innit!

Hey – a quiche, is a quiche, is a quiche, right? Absolutely. Except when it’s an excuse for a discussion about masculinity.

Let’s put that aside long enough to talk about fresh fig and goats cheese quiche for a moment. Basically it’s very simple. Go look at my recipe for goats cheese and caramelised red onion quiche.

There you’ll find the puff pastry recipe (and yes, making your own is not hard – it’s just a case of needing a bit of time for re-rolling it half a dozen times popping it in the freezer for 20 minutes between each re-roll).

The filling is likewise simple eggs and cream (50ml double cream per egg) and then your flavouring of choice.

This time dump the onion and combine the goats cheese with fresh figs. Thyme works extremely well with both. You could chop in some fresh fennel fronds too or even finely chopped fennel root itself. I played around with honey but it rather messes with the egg and cream mixture. Try to use nicely stinky goats cheese and very ripe figs. Oh, and invite me round…

That’s the quiche. Now the gender issues. Quiche? Gender issues? Of course, because real men don’t eat quiche, right?

One of the most interesting developments over the last couple of decades, certainly in the UK, also across the west and, to a certain extent globally, has been the rapid change in attitudes towards different orientations and gender identities.

Gay people still face prejudice and in some parts of the world they face outright persecution, abuse and even state sponsored violence. But across much of Europe and North America the centre of gravity in the debate has shifted decisively. You might have been shouted down for proposing the idea of same sex marriage twenty years ago. Now I suspect that you’d get a much roughed ride for opposing it.

As for transgender rights, that debate has moved on with breathtaking speed, even without the whole Caitlyn Jenner shebang. Now Germaine Greer finds herself pretty much pilloried for, frankly, pig headedness and a signal lack of humanity and generosity of spirit.

So – what has this got to do with quiche? It all stems from a 1982 book, Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche, which became somehow totemic in the debate, such as it was then, about masculinity. Interestingly one of the more recent memes in the debate has centred on Chuck Norris, whose personal views and on-screen propensity to settle nuanced or complex matters with his fists, (or feet, because Chuck Norris kicks stuff!) has made him an icon of a certain sort of masculinity.

The trouble is if you treat gender as a binary – male and female – and set Chuck Norris up as an archetype for one of those poles, then lots of people are going to struggle with it. I look at Chuck and see less a man than a pile of animated beefsteak. I don’t connect any substantive part of my identity with Chuck. I connect more with ET or various aliens from Star Trek. Chuck is alien, to me, on a par with the Borg and a good deal less cute than some of them.

The joy of the debate about gender identity is that we’re starting to see gender as more than binary, more than multi polar, more even than a spectrum. I’d go so far as to say that it seems increasingly irrelevant. I have a Y chromosome. So what?

And plenty of my friends seem to feel the same way. I pointed one old mate to a dating website and he was completely gobsmacked by the range of gender identities listed. I talked him through it and then we had a great conversation about how he didn’t really see himself as emotionally masculine – meaning that he doesn’t buy into the whole cliched trope of guys being cut of from their feelings. And why should he? Or another of my friends who really doesn’t feel female in the conventional sense.

So there you go – you thought you were simply getting a quiche recipe and you’re getting a diatribe on how damnably blurry gender and orientation are becoming. Personally I reckon people are starting to get a whole lot let stressed about whether they conform to some putative norm and a whole lot more comfortable about just being themselves. And if it gets any better  than that it’s because they’re eating really great quiche at the same time. Or cake. Let’s not forget cake.

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In Search of Sacred England – Part 4

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Man and tearoom in harmony…

The fourth and final day of our tour of sacred England was, on reflection, the most special. It didn’t take in any grand cathedral but it did connect, in one case unexpectedly, with the essential simplicity of our connection with the great unknowable.

We set off early from Bath and headed for Bradford on Avon. Despite having tramped around much of Wiltshire, Somerset and Dorset over the years I’d never visited Bradford before. It’s a picturesque former industrial town set on steep hillsides along a river – an eighteenth century premonition of the industrialisation of the north decades later.

And, perhaps appropriately, the Bridge Tea Rooms reminded me of that Yorkshire institution Betty’s with the waiting staff in frilly aprons and wearing lacy things on their heads. I reflected on English tea rooms when I was in Paris earlier this month. The Parisians have their patisseries and their grand salons but the tea room, rather like the pub, fulfils a function that seems quite alien to our Continental neighbours.

Urban culture has never quite taken hold in Britain. While Paris or Barcelona or Berlin offer the chance to promenade, to see and be seen, to indulge in cultured delights, English cities are either overgrown villages or, like London, dozens of small settlements that have simply grown together.

St Laurence's Church

St Laurence’s Church

When the Saxons settled London they eschewed the Roman city and built out to the west from Aldwych (old port) along the Strand (beach) to Westminster. Like the Celts whom they displaced or assimilated they appreciated space.

Around my part of Sussex the South Saxon villages of The Weald are spaced just far enough apart to discourage frivolous ‘dropping by’ without being too remote from one another. Four or five miles apart seemed about right to them – an hour and a half’s walk each way.

Paris owes a great deal to Rome. London owes a great deal to Wadhurst, Ticehurst, Lamberhurst and their ilk. And by the same token while the salons of continental Europe come from the urban tradition, the pubs and tearooms of England come from its villages.

Both are essentially the same place; at best they are like a communal parlour or living room, one with beer and pickled things, the other with tea and cake. It’s akin to being in your own front room but with warmth, company, entertainment and food on tap. Of course the likes of Starbucks have tried to recreate this third space but they seem to be unable to grasp what the best publicans, tearoom owners and Miss Blennerhassett all know; that the place is made by its patrons. They shape it. The landlord or proprietor is merely the custodian. You could visit nowhere in England bar its pubs and tearooms and still have a good grasp of the place and its constituent parts.

So what I think Paris really needs is a proper English tea room. I have a name for it; ‘Let Them Eat Cake.’ I’m convinced it would be a hit.

Interior: St Laurence's Church

Interior: St Laurence’s Church

Bradford’s roots are at least as old as the Roman occupation. We didn’t see the Roman mosaic but we did visit the Saxon church of St Laurence. After the grandeur of Wells, the magisterial might of Winchester, the elegant pomp of Salisbury, St Laurence’s somehow captures what, for me, the spiritual should be about – a quiet, uncluttered, unfiltered relationship with the ‘her’, ‘him’, ‘it’ – however one thinks of the encompassing totality of the universe.

IMG_6289-1I get the same at Avebury, but in a different way. Stonehenge has a powerful and intangible pull, but Avebury is somehow welcoming. How many stone circles have a pub in the middle, after all?

I was at Avebury at the beginning of February, the Celtic festival of Imbolc. The bloody cold Celtic festival of Imbolc. A couple of friends had a handfasting in a stand of trees on the earthworks. It was seven a.m., there was snow on the breeze, I lost all feeling in my fingers as toes. It was beautiful and romantic. Frostbite notwithstanding….

IMG_6292I first visited Avebury with my primary school and have returned periodically. For me Avebury says something about our ancestors’ spiritual relationship with their environment and it still stands, the village at its heart, as a reminder that our relationship with the world around us should never lose sight of that. If the notion of the spiritual doesn’t sit well with you  simply think of it as the symbiosis between ourselves and the natural world, our dependency, our impermanence and insignificance against the infinite sweep of time and space. That’s a little of what Avebury means to me.

And having left we popped into The Barge Inn at Honeystreet, which hosts several good beers and the Centre for Crop Circle Research all overlooked by the Westbury White Horse. It’s quite special. I first came here with an old friend twenty odd years ago. It’s barely changed other than to get even more rock n roll with a picture of Frank Zappa over the fireplace and a selection of other great rockers adorning its walls.

Then we made for Uffington stopping off briefly at Aldbourne where the Dr Who story ‘The Daemons’ was filmed, dead scary when you’re about five (I suspect my parents wouldn’t have allowed me to watch) and the source of the immortal exchange:

Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart: Jenkins?

Jenkins: Sir!

Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart: Chap with wings, there. Five rounds rapid.

IMG_4687Uffington meanwhile is one of my favourite places. It was the first time I’d visited in years but that’s partly because it had such strong memories. It featured in one of my favourite television programmes when I was growing up, The Moon Stallion, and it’s a place I’ve always tried to visit with my favourite people. I finally decided it was time to make some new memories.

IMG_4658Again it’s difficult to describe what it means to me but a lot of it is again about our relationship with the landscape. The Uffington White Horse is the most ancient of our remaining hill figures dating back to the bronze age and making it some three thousand years old, give or take a couple of hundred. It’s one of my favourite pieces of art, ancient or modern – it could be either, its lines are so contemporary. But I like the idea that the Britons of Caractacus would have known it, and Alfred (who fought the battle of Ashdown nearby – the Danes apparently camped at Uffington Castle) and perhaps Arthur (who perhaps triumphed here too at Mount Badon, a subsequent second Battle of Badon in the C7th was also linked by chroniclers to Ashdown, a name apparently liberally applied to the Berkshire Downs).

After the Horse we wandered down to Waylands Smithy and then back to the car for a grinding journey home along the modern successors to the Ridgeway. These four days were, all in all, amongst my best ever, never to be forgotten.

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