The Way of Nigella
What Jamie Oliver does for young ladies with his pestle, Nigella Lawson does for men who love a summer’s plump tomatoes. But, as Pitchaya Sudbanthad explains, what Lawson does with monkeys is a whole different story.
An Ocean of Instant Gratification
As much as I love seafood, I wasn’t always one to care for where it came from. I trusted my fishmonger, and that was that. Recently, though, as the tide of seasons changed, something in the air made me think about shrimp. Ever since I was a little girl, I have adored the taste of shrimp. I can taste the ocean in a shrimp nicely grilled over coals; the flesh is taut, plump, and divinely sensual.
I’ve found that it is hard to find good shrimp, and so I’ve started farming them myself. To the inexperienced onlooker, two-phased intensive shrimp farming might seem like a daunting task. While it is hard work, I always feel rewarded. How I just love the marine smell of raw feed on my hands. From hatchery to grow-out pond, I am responsible for keeping out disease, looking after salinity conditions, and making sure that there is enough circulation in the water. When I look into my special concrete larval tanks, I am looking at thousands, if not millions, of potential shrimp-kabobs. It is the perfect blend of embracing naturemy private bountiful seaand expectantly knowing that I’ll be feasting on lemon-buttered scampi over linguini that results ultimately in blissful domestic satisfaction.
Sometimes I like to swim with my darlings. Wearing my ivory-colored two-piece, I slide into one of the tanks and swim gentle laps. I love the feel of thousands of shrimp flowing over my body, their little legs flicking lightly against my skin. It’s good to set aside time to enjoy this kind of activity, because it makes you feel so unbelievably human in such a rushed modern world. And I hear that certain Madagascan tribes believe brine is good for detoxifying your pores.
Shrimp from the backyard has a different taste. It is guaranteed fresh. The meat is juicy and succulent, never rubbery. Some people may be more puritanical about where they get their shrimp. They say shrimp raised in a phalanx of converted deluxe massage-jet hot tubs could never taste as good as shrimp from the sea. But I don’t think that they’ll ever realize the raw pleasure of coming home to a luxurious tank full of shrimp, of starting from scratch, of seeing millions of nauplii, and eventually larvae, seductively whirl before their very eyes. As they grow into adult shrimp, I see so much beauty in their changing form. Shrimp are very sexy. I can taste them, even before I plop one in my mouth, and then another, and then another, until my voracious appetite is fully and absolutely sated.
On Primal, Deep Cravings
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in life is that there is never a wrong time for anything. I can’t begin to count how many times I have had a dollop or two of ice cream in the winter. Every now and then, I am guilty of imbibing a piece of creamy, runny éclair before dinner. Then there is that kind of wanting for which there is no name. It’s like a pulsing inside of me. My mouth literally froths. I might search the pantry, rummaging through all the cupboards, and I might or might not find whatever it is that I need. But there is one thing I can count on to squelch that craving, and always leave me fulfilled. Nothing satisfies me like monkey brains.
Despite London’s being a place where live primates are often hard to come by, my favorite zoologist manages to find the best monkeys. Frozen ones will never do, and be sure to ask for what’s in season. Whereas many prefer only rhesus monkeys, all kinds, new world and old, have a special place in my heart, and of course, my tummy. People often have the misconception that the only way to eat this delicacy is to scoop it directly from the live head. If you insist on eating this way, there’s nothing wrong with that methodology. Believe me, I have my fair share of girlhood memories dotted with the romance of fresh brains melting at the soft tip of my tongue. The main precautions are to be mindful that the hacksaw is sharp and, more importantly, that the monkeys are sufficiently inebriated.
My advised preparation, however, is this: zucchini and monkey brain quiche. I love it for a light lunch or an afternoon snack. Reheated, it’s one of my favorite midnight munchies. The best part is that it’s a snappy recipe. Prepare a quick pastry shell, pour the egg and milk mixture over layers of zucchini and brains, and then bake. If possible, use a sharp cheese, as its flavor complements the rich aroma nicely. Be prepared for the wonderful smell in your kitchen as the quiche bakes to a firm rise. It’s impossible not to squirm a little bit as you cut off a slice and open your mouth wide. You will know that it is exactly you’ve been looking for.
Dinner at Hunan Palace
Who knew that one can eat a full lunch for $4.95? On a recent trip to New York, I made a discovery just around the corner from my hotel, tucked into a secret wedge between a shoe-repair shop and a mobile-phone vendor. It’s a completely unpretentious storefront; I found the lack of artifice so welcoming in a time when a restaurant is judged more by how it looks than the way its food tastes. The menu is simple, printed on plain paper, the kind any workingwoman might use to print out a corporate report. Overhead, the backlit plastic pictures of the dishes hovered like an ancient sky ready to drop treasures upon me. There are no waiters or waitresses. The Chinese long ago figured out that the customer should speak directly to the chef, who on this occasion effortlessly switched from spatula to pen to take my order. The experience was intimate. There was a tense and ready connection between me, the chef, and the food he was preparing behind him. The love triangle was complete, crystalline, pure. How I wish every restaurant could be like his.
Despite the obvious artistry that beamed from every corner of his restaurant, the chef was a man without much patience for the frivolous. I could tell that he was wholly devoted to his meals. There wasn’t any time for pleasantries when the point, the raison d’être, was the food. He simply asked me what I wanted, and all that I was allowed was my total submission to his question. When I looked into his eyes, I suddenly realized that those were eyes that had seen everything. In that moment I was alone with him, confined by the beautiful intensity. Slowly, the orders trickled out of my mouth. He told me to sit down and wait, and all I could do was comply with his wishes. Around me, most customers ate alone in silence. The space encouraged reflection and noble thought. I felt like I had entered a precious Taoist garden in the midst of this rambling American city.
In the blink of an eye, my lunch arrived, rounded out by a complementary drink and a wrap of delicious sautéed vegetables in a fried pastry. The food was complex and exotic. The egg foo young was a delectable ball of eggs, sprouts, onions, water chestnut and a cured Asiatic pork similar to what we commonly call ham. General Tsao’s chicken was a simple heirloom dish not to be missed. Each piece was a delightful nugget that blurred the line between heaven and earth. The most remarkable and unique dish was the lo mein. I loved the slight hint of sesame fuming from the veneer of caramelized soy sauce that coated every round noodle. I couldn’t help but giggle each time a slippery mouthful dropped from my chopsticks. Food should be fun to eat, lest meals become merely a lifeless regimen of sustenance. A perfect meal should make one moan in pleasure, as I nearly did at Hunan Palace.