Lockdown is hurting everyone except the chickens. I have bought them a conservatory because Philippa, a Light Sussex, looks like ancient pants in rain. It is really plastic sheeting to hang under the henhouse; they need it because the rain is horizontal. They stare out like chickens from film noir.
I have exhausted local take-aways, and you cannot get fresh hampers here. Someone sent me stock cubes for beef stroganoff in the post, which feels joyless, but everyone is selling condiments — you can lick them, call it lickdown — or chocolates or alcohol, as if for a loveless Valentine’s Day.
What do I seek? Thai food. I spent my theoretical house deposit in the Little Thai in Hampstead; it is literally part of my body; no cuisine, for me, is as fragrant and as nourishing. The nearest good Thai restaurant is in St Ives, which is too far to drive at night. There is also a wacky Thai van at Boleigh, the mythical site of Arthur’s last battle, which emerges from the rain like a ghost, a Beautiful Laundrette: why here? But it closed at the end of October, after I visited at night, fearing death and cursing my greed.
Att and Air own the Cher Thai Eatery near Clapham Common. I went there in springtime and loved it because it was bright, warm, and served superb food. It opened three weeks before the first lockdown.
They are selling takeout, they say, and are busy at weekends. Locals are supporting them, and they should, if they want to eat at the Cher Thai Eatery in future times; meanwhile they will give me a cooking lesson.
My husband loves chicken satay, but it is apparently too complex for a novice to attempt, and that pleases me: I am fond of expertise. Sticky rice, too, is considered beyond me.
We choose instead a soup — tom kha — with chicken. I cannot make Jewish-style chicken soup in Cornwall, because there are no boiling chickens unless I decapitate Philippa, which I won’t. I like to watch her eating strawberries while imagining she loves me, this emotionally isolated pants-hen. Sometimes my mother brings a boiler down on the train but not lately. Jewish-style chicken soup is really stock anyway; we worship, and are emotionally dependent on, stock. We will also cook a stir-fry of beef with basil, chilli, green bean and onion.
Only two ingredients on the list evade me: fresh galangal, which I buy dried instead, and fresh lime leaves. I do the prep — I make a broth from onions and carrots for the soup — and contact Att and Air through Zoom. I will not use Zoom as a verb. Nothing is ever that bad.
We heat coconut milk and broth. We add herbs — Air rejects dried galangal — and poach mushrooms and chicken. Then we add fresh chilli and lime juice. It is surprisingly easy if you bother to shop and do the prep, but cooking is like sewing: you first need patience. It takes 20 minutes, which is nothing for such a soup. Jewish-style chicken soup takes 14 hours, but it is stock, and fierce. This one, rather, plays a tune.
The stir-fry is faster — six minutes — and even more lovely. We fry chilli and garlic and good beef in strips. We add onion and green beans; then the sauces (two types of soy, oyster and fish) and, at the end, and only for seconds, basil.
It is one of the best things I have ever cooked — deep, tart, sweet — and it is also beautiful. It has something too that I find rare these days, and lack myself, and so wonder if it is why I love Thai food best: it is balance.
Tom kha chicken and mushroom
200ml coconut milk
- Prepare vegetable broth by boiling onion and carrot. (To reduce sodium from chicken broth we use vegetable broth instead.)
- Combine coconut milk, broth, lime leaves, coriander, galangal and lemongrass and bring to boil over high heat. Add chicken, mushrooms, salt, fish sauce, sugar, and chilli. Reduce heat and simmer until chicken is firm and opaque, 5-10 minutes.
- Turn off the heat and add lime juice.
Stir-fried beef with basil leaf
1 topside beef (about 200g)
- Cut the beef into small bite-sized pieces.
- Rinse and peel the garlic and chillies, then mince them with a knife.
- Heat your pan on high heat, and add about 1 tablespoon of oil to the pan.
- When the oil is hot, add the chillies and garlic. Stir-fry them for about 20 seconds or so until they get really fragrant, but don't let them burn or get too dry.
- Toss in your beef. Keep stir-frying continuously. At this stage you want to continue to stir and cook your beef until it's just about fully cooked all the way through (depending on the size pieces of beef and how hot your pan is, it should take about 2-3 minutes).
- Then put onions and fine beans into the pan and keep stir-frying. If it starts to get dry, add just a tiny splash of water.
- Add 1 teaspoon of oyster sauce, ½ teaspoon of light soy sauce, ½ teaspoon of sugar, 1 teaspoon of fish sauce and finally 1 teaspoon of dark soy sauce. Keep stir-frying for about another 30 seconds.
- Grab a handful of holy basil, toss it into the pan, fold it into the beef, and then immediately turn off the heat. The holy basil really only needs to cook for about 5 seconds. This step is important because if you cook the basil for too long, it loses some of its glorious flavour and gets slightly chewy.
Cher Thai Eatery, 22 North Street, London SW4 0HB, tel: 020 3583 3702.