Food 2020 – The Great British Chefs Cookbook Club (Fire Islands by Eleanor Ford; Wok On by Ching-He Huang)

January/February 2020 – The Great British Chefs Cookbook Club

As if I don’t have enough to do, I’ve recently allowed myself to be sucked into a rather fun group on Facebook (I know, I know…), the Great British Chefs Cookbook Club. The idea of this is that every month a cookbook by a British chef is chosen as the book of the month, then everyone who wants to buys/borrows a copy and sets about cooking whatever takes their fancy from the book, before posting about the recipe, usually with photos.

There have now (not including March 2020) been 24 books, but I only started to join in in January this year, so I have no opinions on 22 of them as yet. There is a throwback Thursday where you can cook from/post about previous books, but I’m not going to buy them just for that, and I may well not buy every book on the grounds that a) I have more than enough cookbooks, and b) I’m not a baker! The books so far that I have not even touched on are:

The two I have used are Wok On by Ching-He Huang, and Fire Islands by Eleanor Ford. So how did that go? Well, it was a somewhat mixed bag, it’s fair to say.

I’ll take “Wok On” first. It was a winner for the UK in the World Gourmand Cookbook Awards 2020 in the Easy Recipes category and does what it says on the tin. And what it says on the tin is: “Perfect for sautéing, braising, frying and steaming, cooking with a wok is a way of life all over Asia. In Wok On, bestselling author Ching-He Huang celebrates the huge versatility of this magical 2,000-year-old cooking pot with a modern collection of recipes that are simple enough for every day as well as every cook.

Featuring dishes from across Asia, including Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Macau, almost every recipe can be made in 30 minutes or less and has been created with nutrition, taste and affordability in mind. Many are suitable for those with gluten and dairy allergies, and because Asian food typically includes lots of vegetables, many are also vegetarian or vegan too.”

So what did I make of it? On the plus side, it has some incredibly easy recipes that can be flung together in double quick time with minimal prep and one pan, usually a wok, but on the negative side, you may need to make quite drastic cuts to the amount of soy sauce used, unless that is you want to only be able to taste salt. It’s an award winning book and there are certainly some very appealing recipes in there that I have still to try, but I will be cautious about the seasoning after my initial experiences.

I discovered this issue with the first thing I tried to cook, which was Macanese Rice (with Portuguese Chouriço, Baby Scallops and Coriander). I went for that because, as some of you will know, I have a history with Macau going back to 2001, and the idea of this dish was too much to resist. I couldn’t get the correct chourico and had to settle for a Spanish chorizo instead, which I find to be slightly less intense and definitely less meaty than the Portuguese variety, but beggars can’t be choosers and out here in the sticks you sometime have to settle for what you can get. With the correct seasoning, it would have been very tasty indeed, but instead it left us in need of water, lots of water… I suggest reducing the amount of soy sauce used by half.

Another dish that suffered from too much soy was the Boozy Drunken Prawns, and again, it would probably have been fine with less soy.

By the third dish I’d decided the fault was either with the book or the brand of soy sauce I was using and not with me! As a result, the Chunky Black Pepper Honey Beef (which became venison because that was what I had to hand) was fabulous, because I only used half the soy sauce that the recipe suggested. The result had just the right amount of saltiness but you could also taste the other ingredients!

Chunky Black Pepper Honey Beef

Serves: 4
Time: 15 minutes preparation. 5 minutes cooking


  • 500g sirloin steak, cut into 5mm thick cubes
  • Pinch of salt
  • Pinch of cracked black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon tamari or low sodium soy sauce (I recommend the low sodium variety use half the quantity)
  • Small handful of coriander leaves for garnish
For the stir fry:
  • 1 tablespoon rapeseed oil
  • 1 garlic clove, whole, peeled and crushed
  • 2 large white onions, cut into 5mm chunks
  • 1 tablespoon Shaoshing rice wine (or dry sherry)
  • 2 red peppers, deseeded and cut into 5mm chunks
For the sauce:
  • 100 mls cold chicken stock
  • 1 tablespoon oyster sauce
  • 1 tablespoon tamari or low sodium light soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
  • 4 tablespoons runny honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon cornflour


  1. Put the beef in a bowl with the salt, black pepper and soy sauce and mix well.
  2. Put all the ingredients for the sauce into a small jug or bowl and mix well.
  3. Heat your wok over a high heat until smoking then add the rapeseed oil and swirl it around. Add the garlic and cook for a few seconds, then add the onions and stir fry them until they are translucent.
  4. Add the beef and sear on one side for 20 seconds, then turn them over and cook to your liking (medium is probably best). Season with the rice wine or sherry.
  5. Add the red peppers and toss for 30 seconds or until slightly softened.
  6. Remove the beef, onions and peppers from the wok and set aside on a plate.
  7. Add the sauce to the wok and cook it until it reduces and becomes sticky.
  8. Return the beef, peppers and onions to the wok and toss it with the sauce.
  9. Garnish with coriander and serve it with jasmine rice and Garlic Wok Tossed Baby Pak Choi.

Far more successful was the fabulous “Fire Islands”, which has a catch-all description of “recipes from Indonesia”, and which became an even better experience when it became clear that the author, Eleanor Ford, was happy to get involved and comment on what people had done, and how it had gone. She even agreed to a live Q&A session on Facebook where she proved most engaging. As a result I intend to lay hands on her other book, “Samarkand”, as well, especially as there is a plov recipe in it! As for “Fire Islands”, it’s already won two Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in 2020 (in the categories International and Spices), plus it won in its category (Food and Travel) in the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards for 2020 as I type this. I think those awards are thoroughly well deserved.

But first, the blurb: “Steep verdant rice terraces, ancient rainforest and fire-breathing volcanoes create the landscape of the world’s largest archipelago. Indonesia is a travellers’ paradise, with cuisine as vibrant and thrilling as its scenery. For these are the original spice islands, whose fertile volcanic soil grows ingredients that once changed the flavour of food across the world. On today’s noisy streets, chilli-spiked sambals are served with rich noodle broths, and salty peanut sauce sweetens chargrilled sate sticks. In homes, shared feasts of creamy coconut curries, stir-fries and spiced rice are fragrant with ginger, tamarind, lemongrass and lime. The air hangs with the tang of chilli and burnt sugar, citrus and spice. Eleanor Ford gives a personal, intimate portrait of a country and its cooking, the recipes exotic yet achievable, and the food brought to life by stunning photography.”

This time I got started early in the month, when I’d planned a few of the dishes for Sunday dinner (and the leftovers to be used up during the following week). An unexpected visitor meant it turned into a late-ish lunch instead. I had realised that I had all sorts of things that were suitable for use with these recipes, and thus we ended up with a veritable feast.

There was an excellent, tangy Sweet and Spicy Mushroom Tongseng, the luxuriously creamy Potato Tuturuga, a melting Sumatran Lamb Korma, with Golden Lace Pancakes, and portions of Spice Rice to mop it all up with. Our guest went back in for seconds of everything so I’m taking that as a vote of confidence! There certainly weren’t as many leftovers as I’d been counting on once we all slumped on the sofas to nurse our food babies. The only thing I didn’t succeed with were the pancakes, and that was because people were getting very hungry so I didn’t have time to mess about making them thin and lacy. I just needed to get food in front of them as soon as possible.

Sweet & Spicy Mushroom Tongseng

Serves: 4
Time: 20 minutes


  • 2 lime leaves
  • 1 lemongrass stick, trimmed and bruised
  • 2 cm galangal, skin scrubbed, bruised
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 500 g (1 lb 2 oz) oyster mushrooms
  • 3 tablespoons thick coconut milk
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons dark palm sugar (gula jawa), shaved
  • 2 teaspoons kecap manis
  • 1 1/2 large red chillies, seeded and sliced
  • 1 ripe tomato, cut in wedges
For the Bumbu spice paste:
  • 1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
  • 4 peppercorns
  • 1 small red Asian shallot, roughly chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
  • 1 candlenut or 2 blanched almonds
  • 1 cm ginger, peeled
  • 1 cm turmeric, peeled, or 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric


  1. Start by making the bumbu spice paste. For this small quantity I find this easiest to do with a pestle and mortar. Start with the coriander seeds and peppercorns, then add all the other ingredients and grind to a paste.
  2. Put the bumbu in a large frying pan with the lime leaves, lemongrass and galangal. Drizzle in the oil and stir-fry until fragrant. Loosen the paste with a ladleful of water.
  3. Add the mushrooms and turn to coat in the spices. Add the coconut milk, palm sugar and a good pinch of salt. Cook for 5–10 minutes. The mushrooms will release liquid as they fry. Towards the end of cooking, stir through the kecap manis, sliced chillies and tomato. Taste for seasoning.

Another night saw me tackle the equally delicious Javanese Sea Bream and Spinach, which became Monkfish, Water Chestnuts and Spinach because there was stuff which needed using up before I could even consider shopping for new ingredients. The Sweetcorn Rice went with it brilliantly and my version of Vegetable Urap with Dessicated Coconut was good too with all sorts of things (sausages, steak) as well as the fabulous fish dish. Again, I made changes to the recipe, and used yellow peppers and leeks in place of the edible fern tips or seasonal greens, the fine green beans and the beansprouts because that’s what I had to hand.

Vegetable Urap with Fresh Spiced Coconut

Serves: 2-4

Time: Varies according to your choice of vegetables!


  • 140 g (5 oz) edible fern tips or seasonal greens, roughly chopped
  • 100 g (3. oz) fine green beans, cut in thirds
  • 100 g (3. oz) beansprouts
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil
  • 6 small red Asian shallots, sliced
  • 4 garlic cloves, sliced
  • 1 large red chilli, seeded and sliced
  • 100 g (3. oz) grated fresh coconut or 80 g (1 cup) desiccated coconut
  • 100 g (3. oz) cooked black-eyed beans (optional)
  • juice of a kaffir lime or lime
  • 1 tablespoon crisp-fried shallots


  1. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and add the fern tips and green beans. Cook for 2 minutes or until just tender. Add the beansprouts for the last 20 seconds of cooking. Drain and leave to cool. If you have used greens that retain a lot of water, gently squeeze them dry.
  2. Set a wok or frying pan over a medium heat and add the coconut oil followed by the shallot and garlic. Cook, stirring frequently, until pale golden, then add the chilli and cook to just softened. Lower the heat and add the coconut along with a good pinch of salt. If using desiccated coconut, also add a splash of water to soften and help the flavours meld. Cook just for a minute, then remove from the heat and leave to cool.
  3. Toss the vegetables and black-eyed beans (if using) with the spiced coconut and lime juice and taste for seasoning. Scatter over the crisp-fried shallots.

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