You can take the boy out of Essex, but you can never take Essex out of his passport – there’s no getting away from it – Essex is where I was born and where I grew up, and even if I have been known to tell unsuspecting foreigners that I am actually from “North East London” or play the “there’s a tube station in my town, therefore it must be London” card, it doesn’t give me immunity from the stereotypes us Essexonians have to contend with.
With shows like ‘The Only Way is Essex’ it is easier than ever to mock the county of my birth, and it would be easy for me to disown my heritage and hop across the border into East London and meet Blazin’ Squad at the crossroads, or stay another day with Brian Harvey and the E17 boys, but that hardly seems better, so I am sticking to my roots, embracing my Essex-ness, and instead of bad mouthing all the ridiculous characters and supposed stereotypes, I want to present an Essex Boy who’s way of approaching his profession has inspired millions to put down their ready meals, and pick up a chopping board; I am of course talking about the true culinary genius of Essex, the naked chef himself – Mr Jamie Oliver MBE.
Jamie is one of Britain’s best known chefs, and believe it or not I am regularly mistaken for the cheeky Essex charmer; okay, that has actually only happened once (a brilliant day) but the similarities are uncanny: he’s from Essex, I’m from Essex, he drives a scooter, I have driven a scooter, he’s an internationally renowned chef who has influenced popular culture, government policies and has married an ex supermodel, and I….well I make a passable salsa. So we’re not exactly the same, but he seems like a nice enough chap, and his cooking and presentation style have made simple, healthy food available to the masses, and is responsible for introducing millions to an accessible style of home cooking.
More at ease cooking on an open fire with a knife and some tin-foil or tending to a sizzling bbq, it was Jamie’s TV programmes, cooking books, and recipes, that directed and encouraged my experimental attitude to cooking in an actual kitchen. This ‘smash-things-together-in-a-pan-and-see-what-happens’ attitude has resulted in some disasters (the homemade flapjack/cement springs to mind) but more importantly it has given me the confidence to try new things, and to adapt to use whatever you’ve got in your cupboards, which, in a place like Tuvalu, has proved to be a very useful skill to have.
Jamie’s nickname “The Naked Chef” apparently came about as a reference to the simplistic nature of his food, but in Tuvalu with the indoor temperature often reaching a toasty 35 degrees, even before you have started slaving over a gas stove, being naked seems like a perfectly reasonable option – never has the saying “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” been so true!
To fully appreciate the culinary delights Tuvalu has to offer, I invite you to turn up that thermostat, take that shirt off, and follow the recipe below to experience the true taste of Tuvalu…well sort of.
Tasty Tuvaluan Tuna Curry and Coconut Rice
What you’ll need:
•Fresh tuna – ideally brought from a weather beaten Tuvaluan fisherman straight from the boat, but if you can’t find one, then tuna steaks should be available somewhere near you (don’t try this with tuna from a can – it won’t work, and Tuvaluans will laugh at you).
• White Rice – put that organic, hand reared, extra delicious rice down, nothing fancy you hear, just your bog standard economy rice from the supermarket will do fine, especially if you want to fully re-create the authenticity of this dish.
• A couple of White Onions, ginger, and garlic – mercifully almost always available in Tuvalu.
• A handful of Red Chillies, Spring Onions, and a couple of Cucumbers – If you want the full Tuvaluan experience, then find a 24 hour supermarket, and go and buy these at 5:30am on a Friday morning.
• A Coconut – or if you aren’t able to get one (which is normally the case in Tuvalu) then buy yourself an overpriced tin of coconut cream.
• A packet of Fiji’s finest generic ‘curry powder’ – try to ensure it's a packet without a list of ingredients to add to the mystique of this dish.
• Soy Sauce – The smallest bottle we can buy here is 1 litre, but I’m sure you can do better than that.
What to do:
Step 1: Firstly if as suggested, you have brought your tuna from a weather beaten Tuvaluan fisherman, then you will need to gut it (the fish not the fisherman); take the head and tail off, and cut enough chunks off it for your curry. If you have sensibly opted just to buy tuna steaks, then cut them into delicious bite size chunks*
Step 2: If you were lucky enough to get your hand on a coconut, then now is the time to grate it. Once grated add a little water and squeeze as much of the juice out as possible putting it aside to use later. Then add the squeezed grated coconut to a pan of rice with an inch of water above the rice, and let it cook. If you didn’t get a coconut, then tough luck – just put your rice on.
Step 3: Finely chop the onions, garlic, ginger, spring onions, and chillies and fry them in a pan with oil and a little soy sauce until the onions are golden brown, and/or it starts smelling delicious.
Step 4: Add your tuna chunks to the frying pan, and check on your rice, you don’t want it burning!
Step 5: If you grated your coconut earlier then now is the time to add the juice you squeezed out of it to your curry. If you didn’t, then open your tin of coconut cream and pour it in – haven’t got a tin opener? Just as well there is one on your penknife then isn’t it!
Step 6: Add the curry powder and chopped cucumber to the frying pan, and mix well.
Step 7: Serve rice and curry together and eat before the ants get a look in – sorted!
*For an added culinary adventure, why not marinade your tuna chunks overnight in soy sauce, garlic, chilli, and a can of coke (don’t believe me? Try it! Unless you’re diabetic in which case it’s probably not advisable)
Alternatively if you are really peckish you could miss out most of the above steps and opt for the more traditional method of: catch tuna, cut tuna, eat tuna raw – remember don’t forget the heart – it’s the best bit apparently!