Chinese New Year with Ken Hom

Published on BespokeRSVP on 19th January 2012:

Billions of people around the world will be welcoming in the Year of the Dragon in Chinese New Year celebrations this year on the 23rd of January. The celebrations can go on for as long as 15 days, with different traditions followed each day, or can be as small as a family gathering on New Year’s Eve.

In my family the celebrations have always involved copious amounts of food, including dumplings and stir-fry (an amalgamation of our northern and southern China influences), and watching the CCTV (that’s China Central Television) New Year Gala.

Whatever the celebration though, it will always involve food – it’s just such an integral part of Chinese culture. So to celebrate a little on the Bespoke Blog, we decided to explore the Chinese New Year with Ken Hom OBE, one of the most internationally renouned personalities in Chinese cuisine.

Hom came to prominence in the UK when he was commissioned to do a TV series on Chinese cooking for the BBC in 1984. It was greatly received as it was the first time that food was cooked in real time and of course it was a very healthy and different way of cooking. The TV series was syndicated worldwide, with many more series and accompanying books produced since.

Hom took some time out from his busy schedule (currently in Brazil) to answer our questions…

What do you think Chinese New Year is all about? It is all about celebrating with family and friends, especially over meals. It is also a time of family reunion and looking forward to the New Year.

Do you have any family traditions when celebrating Chinese New Year? I remember we cleaned our house before New Year’s Eve and talked about planning the family dinner.

Are there any dishes that are Chinese New Year essentials? Yes, dried oysters with sea moss…. Good things and prosperity. A whole fish for prosperity and dumplings for good luck.

How are you celebrating Chinese New Year this year? With friends in London

What’s your outlook for the year ahead and are there any new projects coming up? So far it looks good as I am filming a new series for television. I am supporting Action Against Hunger, and I will be supporting the Prostate Cancer Charity for the London Marathon. And who knows what else the year will bring?

Are there any ingredients which are must haves for Asian inspired dishes for the Year of the Dragon? It would be the usual dishes but we are always weary about the Year of the Dragon because it will be a strong year with consequences for many years to follow! But I am positive!

Georgia on my mind, Georgia for the wine

Published on BespokeRSVP on 2nd January 2012:

Man by grape crusher in vinyard

Somewhere in the back of my mind was always the idea that knowledge should have solid foundations; maybe it’s a philosophical thing about justified true beliefs or maybe it’s the way I’ve always been taught. But when I began exploring wines more extensively, it seemed apt to start from its origins – Anatolia.

Often referred to as Asia Minor, Anatolia is the ancient region comprising the modern day countries of Turkey, Armenia and Georgia. A place that’s fertile in soil, accommodating in climate and rich in cultural history, Anatolia has been shown by scientists and archaeologists alike to be the oldest region in the world where grapes have been cultivated and wines produced.

With hundreds of varietals and thousands of years of wine making history, where do I start?

Georgian flag, blue sky

I travelled to Georgia to begin my journey.

Hailed as the cradle of wine, and that of natural wines in particular, Georgia claims to boast some 8,000 years of history in wine making. With a plethora of indigenous varietals and a landscape of terroirs, the scope for interesting and unique wines is a connoisseur’s dream. Wine is also an integral part of Georgian culture and economy and the thing which links the country’s history to its present day affairs.

Lunch feast in Georgia

The majority of Georgians make wine at home for personal consumption but it also helps to ease the economic burden of regular toastings during Supras (Georgian feasts). After all, no guest is truly welcomed until they’ve experienced the hospitality of a Georgian fare complete with toasts made by the Tamada (toastmaster). Naturally, no toast would be complete without wine and Georgians are very hospitable people.

As a nation, Georgia also made wines for export. In fact, wine was consistently one of the top three products for export. During the Soviet era, its wines were distributed across the rest of the USSR and was recognised as being of the highest quality. After the dissolution of the USSR, Georgian wines continued their popularity in Russia and Central Asia. Over 80% of the wines exported from Georgia went to Russia so it came as no surprise that when Russia banned all import and sale of Georgian wines, the two came to blows.

Qin Xie at Alaverdi Monastery

Georgia is no stranger to conflict of course – its history is peppered with battles. It is said that the statue of Kartlis Deda in the capital Tblisi bears a bowl of wine in her left hand to greet those who come as friends and a sword in her right for those who come as enemies – the perfect personification of Georgian character.

But it was really the traditional Georgian method of wine production that caught my eye and enticed me to learn more.

Qvevris, giant handmade vessels of rounded clay amphora with a pointed base and no handles, are buried up to the rim in the earth. Crushed grapes – stems, pips, skins and juice all go straight into the qvevri which is then covered by a stone slab and sealed with wet sand. The subterranean conditions maintain a stable temperature in the qvevri and fermentation occurs thanks to the natural yeast found on the grapes.

Six months to a year later, occasionally even longer, natural wine is produced – nothing added, nothing taken away.

Grapes and wine in qvevri

Wines produced in this way are very different to its European-style counterparts. Red wines, typically made with Saperavi grapes, produce a deep plum stain. White wines, made with Rkatsiteli grapes alone or blended with Mtsvani grapes, take on an auburn hue. Then of course there’s the spectrum of colours created by the other indigenous varietals. Tasting the wines straight out of the qvevri at the Pheasant’s Tears vineyard in Kakheti, it’s impossible to deny the vibrancy of the fruit and natural sweetness of the wine. And there’s really few phrases which would describe that feeling well, except perhaps “the overwhelming sense of being alive”.

Is it just because it’s a natural wine? Having tasted a sizeable selection of other natural wines and  non-qvevri Georgian wines, I’m not so sure. There was definitely something about the qvevri which gave the wine its special characteristic, unrepresented anywhere else. Perhaps that’s why qvevri wine production has gained increasing popularity outside of Georgia with Josko Gravner in Italy being one of the most well known amongst the international wine crowd. Sadly, production and export is so limited that it’s extremely rare to find qvevri wines for sale.

Returning from Georgia, my mind was filled with abstract ideas on wine – the trip has certainly whetted my appetite. Tours around Pheasant’s Tears vineyard, Schuchmann Winery, Twins Old Cellar and Alaverdi Monastery all offered detail and perspective on the Georgian wine story. But have I found the wine grounding I was looking for? Perhaps a little, but mostly on natural wines.

I was sure of one thing though – my next learning destination will be Turkey, a lesser known wine destination offering even more indigenous varietals.

Word on the East-Street, the pan-Asia(h) experience

Published on BespokeRSVP on 20th December 2011:

Pushing past a crowd of excited Asians, I spot a familiar looking blonde sitting at a low slung metallic table. As I was about to pull up an electric blue plastic stool, the screwed up face I saw was one of confusion. Upon closer inspection, this wasn’t a familiar face at all. Embarrassed, I quickly apologised and shuffled a couple of tables down, narrowly missing the low hanging light, before perching against another booth. Hoping that the neon adverts overhead will provide enough of a distraction from that little mishap, I surveyed the scene.

Soy and chilli sauce decorated the table, travel paraphernalia pasted the corrugated iron walls and the odd Lonely Planet guide was spotted lying around. Lined up against the simplistic tables were an eclectic selection of colourful plastic, wipe clean and metal chairs. This was the quintessential backpacker’s food stop – just where one needs to go on a gap-yah.

Heavy into the lunch hour, the place was a hive of activity. The tables around me were all heaving and laden with food. The open kitchen certainly did its part too, to fill my nostrils with exotic scents of chilli, tempura and a hint of ginger. A queue of people short of time soon formed at the crowded counter for takeaways. I almost felt sorry for them for having to take their food away when my fine feast of street food arrived.

The gentle crunch of the tempura vegetables offered contrasting textures to the goi cuon (rice paper rolls) while the coconut prawns cooled the fire of the kimchi served with the Bulgogi (marinaded grilled beef). Then just for the satisfaction of a full platter, gyoza and tod man khao pod (corn fritters) were served up too. Someone on the next table orders a cocktail, it arrived in a bucket with straws. Novel.

Snacking over, it was on to the more serious business of a beef panang curry with steamed jasmine rice – addictive stuff. That or the laksa (noodle soup), pad Thai, com Hué, bo luc lac (shaking beef)… You get the picture. Somehow the high flavoured power selection allowed room for something a bit sweeter. The bubor pulot hittam (sticky black rice pudding) wasn’t quite the sugar hit I was after so I was glad to be able to dip into some caramen chuoi ran (fried bananas) as well.

Lunch over and a pit stop at the on-site mini-mart later, I was out of the door and heading towards Oxford Circus.


I guess I forgot to mention that I was somewhere between Fitzrovia and Soho. East-Street on Rathbone Place in fact – the latest venture and seventh restaurant from Nick Jeffrey and David Fox, the restaurateurs behind mini Asian chain Tampopo. Jeffrey and Fox had both backpacked extensively through East Asia and fell in love with the food and culture, which then became the inspiration behind their restaurants.

Packed within days of opening, there were clearly many who came to relive their backpacking experience at East-Street but many more to just have interesting food. Within the habitat of that typical East Asian street food set up, I can understand why. After all, I had dined from Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan without ever leaving central London.

East-Street 3-5 Rathbone Place London W1T 1HJ

Charity Mince Pie Project

Published on BespokeRSVP on 6th December 2011:

It’s December, it’s cold and there’s even snow in some parts of the country – Christmas is definitely almost upon us. And while ’tis the season to be jolly, let’s not forget those who are less fortunate than us.

Just for the pre-Christmas season, 9th to 16th of December to be exact, some of the UK’s top chefs and bakers have donated their time to The Mince Pie Project in order to raise money for Action Against Hunger and the Jamie Oliver Foundation. That’s everyone from the Michelin-starred Raymond Blanc, Michel Roux Jr and Marcus Wareing to the super bakers Eric Lanlard and Edd Kimber, just to name a few.

Each chef will be baking a batch of 50 mince pies, with their own unique spin on the classic, to be sold through an online auction. You can bid for the mince pies on from 9am on the 9th, with the auction closing at 6pm on the 16th. The winning bidder will then receive their freshly baked mince pies, made on the day, via courier on the 22nd of December, just in time for Christmas.

Lend your support at from 9th December.

A snap shot of New Delhi

Published on BespokeRSVP on 6th December 2011:

Smog in New Delhi

Smog; dense, heavy and sepia-tinted; it veiled my eyes with its dusty haze.

Was I still in foggy London?

The lightly suffocating humidity, the foreign exchanges in the background and the landing card in my hand all told me otherwise.

This was New Delhi, a capital built on seven ancient cities and some 5,000 years of history.

The eight-hour flight from Heathrow and 5am arrival to this exotic land had rendered me somewhat unreceptive to my new surroundings. Still, I was awed by the grandeur of my hotel as I was driven up its winding path.

Breaking dawn in New Delhi

The Grand, recently renovated but still somewhat a work in progress, had all the classic indicators of five-star luxury. A mandatory airport-style security check greeted me before I was permitted the experience. The entrance extended to a decadent bar and the Crystal Lounge, where a grand piano resided. The floor-to-ceiling window showcased the water feature outside, nestled within the well manicured garden, now faintly illuminated by the breaking dawn.

The bright lights in the reception proved to be too much and I escaped to my luxurious room for a heavy slumber.

A short few hours later, after much needed rest, I ventured out of my palatial surroundings to find a slice of New Delhi.

Congested traffic in New Delhi

Right across the road from the hotel was a mall supplying all the Louis Vuitton, Dior and Harry Winston that one might need. Yet just a short drive later, a shanty town, painted vibrant blue and orange, had sprung out of the soil at a junction in the road; its residents completely oblivious to the passing traffic on either side.

The embassy district was the postcard for orderly calm. Trees and green lined either side of the road, politely sign posted to different countries. As I ventured closer to India Gate, the national monument of India, traffic seemed to increase seven fold and constant beeps from the horns created a growing din. An endless queue of cars crawled along while motorised rickshaws darted into the spaces in between and pedestrians weaved dangerously.

The market at twilight, New Delhi

A short ride on one of the basic rickshaws, through the bustling market district of New Delhi, delivered a potent shot of the city as it was for the average man. Heavy glare from shop lights came from the tiny establishments that paved either side of the busy road, selling everything from jewellery and watches to car parts and dental care. Dogs, goats, cows and even monkeys in the streets seemed the norm. Intriguing aromas from the mobile food stalls blended with the less savoury smells of congested city living. This was a city that yielded everything and hid nothing.

No ammunition sign at Park Balluchi, New Delhi

The jostle was a sharp contrast to dinner at Park Balluchi, a fine dining restaurant housed in the luscious green of a deer park, where good food was served to the tune of live ethnic music. This wasn’t the real New Delhi but it felt a whole lot more comfortable. Well, that is, until I’m pushed into a whole different kind of unease by the sign which read “arms and ammunition is not allowed inside the restaurant”.

Back at the hotel my jetlag allowed me time to reflect.

I had seen a city so at odds with itself despite being asleep for over half of the 24 hours I had been in New Delhi. Here was a developing country with an abyss between its rich and poor – that part was nothing profound and nothing new. Yet some how, seeing it myself, I felt distinctively uncomfortable. Still, as I laid back into the pile of pillows on my bed and allowed the luxury mattress to swallow me up, sleep came quickly.