Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Fabulous Finnish Foodstuffs Part 1 - Salmiakki

Salmiakki - a foodstuff so loved by Finns and Scandinavians, it's hard to think that many people in the UK have never heard of it. Fortunately for me, I have.

I've been a big liquorice addict since my Mum bought me sickly sweet panda sticks to chew on, in the vain belief they were healthier than sweets, just because the health food shop sold them. Over the years I moved on to harder stuff - the catherine wheels with their brightly coloured centres, the Bassets sticks so hard you can chip a molar on them and finally on to liquorice root. A chance encounter with a Finnish Landscape Architect on a train to Liverpool (true story) introduced me to the wonder than is Salmiakki - or salty liquorice as it's known (or as it's easier to pronounce!).

Salmiakki and vodka - what perfect combination!

Salmiakki isn't just liquorice and salt, it's actually flavoured with aluminium chloride - hence the moniker, a take on sal ammoniac, which is the chemical's Latin name. The addition of the chloride has been described as 'like licking the sea' 'stinging' and 'tongue stripping' amongst other things. It's definitely an acquired taste, I'm just happy I acquired it.

I'm actually a huge fan, something that tickles my Finnish friends as they're not used to Brits liking this - indeed our first night in Helsinki was rounded off by them buying us salmiakki shots and laughing to themselves as they expected us to spit it back out. They weren't too pleased when I a) already knew what it was (thanks Finnish Landscape Architect) and b) really enjoyed it, ordered another round and beat them in a drinking competition. Whoops.

Visiting or living in Finland you see there's more than just salmiakki in vodka and chewing gum - it's in ice cream, chocolate, drinks, sweets and probably lots of other things I don't realise because I don't read Finnish very well. If you're in Helsinki, pop along to the little coffee hut on the lush green corridor of the Bulevardi and pick up a salmiakki cone, the cream sweetness balances out the salt perfectly. However if it's the middle of winter with a thick blanket of snow of the ground then you can just pop in to the local supermarket and pick up a salmiakki ice lolly - yes indeed - but unless you're a salmiakki addict this might be a step too far, as for me this gets overpowering and almost tastes like licking hair dye once you're about half way through.

Hair dye on a stick - I mean salmiakki ice lolly
There's a lot to be said to the astringent salty tang, especially when paired with the milky sweetness of chocolate - we had a brilliant dessert at Mami in Turku, which paired chocolate ice cream with salmiakki sauce and toffee shards - inspired. So much so I've created my own Salmiakki sauce at home, so I can recreate this pudding and many others like it.

Scandilicious - first attempt at salmiakki sauce

I started off using Signe Johansen's (Scandilicious) recipe for salmiakki caramel - which includes melting down salmiakki sweets and adding them to the caramel recipe. However I'm not very patient and these took forever, plus they didn't yield the right flavour for me, so I reverted back to my Mum's recipe for caramel (which is actually my grandma's and could actually be my great-grandma's) and then popped in salmiakki vodka and some salt to get the right taste.

Melting the salmiakki sweets - didn't work

Salmiakki Caramel Sauce

1 1/4 cups unrefined caster sugar
2 1/2 cups boiling water
1 dessertspoon full unsalted butter (the salmiakki is very salty so unsalted is best here)
1 tbsp cornflour
50ml salmiakki
Pinch of salt (optional)

1. Melt the sugar in a heavy based pan until it has turned an amber colour (keep your eye on it so it doesn't get too brown or catch)

2. Take off the heat and very carefully add the boiling water - but be very careful as it will spit at you

3. Put back on the heat to boil, until all the sugar has dissolved

4. Cream the butter and cornflour together and then stir into the caramel mixture until it thickens up slightly

5. Take of the heat and add half the salmiakki, stir and VERY CAREFULLY taste (watch out, caramel is extremely hot - I tend to keep a little glass of water by the stove, put some sauce on the spoon, dip it in the water to cool and then taste it). I usually use about 50ml of salmiakki, but it can be more/less so just keep adding, tasting and stirring in

6. Once the taste is right, add a little salt if you think it's necessary

7. Add back on to the heat to get it to the right consistency - but be careful not to ovrecook as you don't want toffee, but a pouring caramel

8. Enjoy over ice cream or on bananas or with chocolate mousse - or however you fancy it!

NB - the sauce will keep in a jug in the fridge (covered) for about two weeks, but will solidify a bit, so you may have to take it out a long time before you want to use it and then pop it back on the heat for a minute or so.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Farang - Helsinki

There's been a lot of noise about Farang lately; consistently good reviews, votes of best restaurant by professionals and pundits alike, plus a general buzz amongst the food cognoscenti; as I was in town, I thought I'd better pay them a visit.

The understated entrance off the Aionkatu in the historic Kunsthalle Helsinki, hides a buzzing interior serving a modern, fresh take on South Asian cuisine. The main dining area is simple, clean and modest - a clever design consideration ensuring everyone's focus is on the food created by head chefs Matti Wikiberg and Tommi Bojrk.

After all the hype our first experience was a little disheartening - having booked two months in advance and having had a wonderful email conversation with the staff, we were informed our booking was unfindable. In an action I can only describe as wonderfully insightful, we were believed by the staff, whisked through to a comfy seating area by the long, heavily stocked bar and given most of a bottle of champagne, gratis, while we waited for a table. Checking the menu, we hadn't been given the cheapest bottle either - maybe other establishments should take a leaf out of Farang's book on customer service?

After a little wait, whilst the staff quickly organised a table in the already full to bursting restaurant, we were seated on a raised dais overlooking the main dining room. This was a great vantage point to spy on the buzzy commotions below and see well trained staff gliding in and out of the hub bub as if on casters.

Farang's dining room

We'd booked the Ao Nang tasting menu; this being a celebration of a pregnancy. Once the staff were aware of the situation they were extremely considerate, asking if each menu item and ingredient would be ok and letting our companion change things to suit - this is usually unheard of for a tasting menu, it's an all for one, one for all type arrangement. (We had called ahead, but seeing as our reservation couldn't be found, I doubt the staff would have known about this in advance).

Ao Nang is the largest tasting menu at Farang, a sumptuous wander through nine courses; each one a careful balance of flavours and a delightful assault on all the senses. Don't be fooled by the size of each course, by the end of the meal we were more than stuffed.

First was the Green Shell Mussel; a plump bivalve nestled in a rich and creamy curry sauce, a well conceived combination of flavours - the sweetness of the shellfish and the silky, spiciness gently waking up our tastebuds.

Green curry mussels - down in one!

Swiftly out next was a Chu Plau Leaf with Farang Sausage; a salty hunk of meat livened up with spanking fresh herbs, fragrant red chillies and some added texture from the sweet, sugary peanuts on top. Served on a chu plau leaf it was the perfect size to roll up and fit into eagerly awaiting mouths.

My mouth waters thinking about the amazing flavours in the Chu Plau dish

We moved on to tiger prawn and pork on a banana blossom salad - a classic surf and turf combination given a sexy, Asian makeover; the belly pork cut thin and crisped up, topped by a delicately cooked prawn and pepped up with a fresh salad.

Things got serious with the crispy pork. We bit through hunks of crispy, crunchy pork to a soft interior oozing salty porcine juices that mingled with the syrupy, sweet caramel sauce. We did initially fear a sweetness overload, but the dish was rescued by the contrasting chili and fresh herbs served on the side, which cut through what could have been cloying sweetness to create a dish with such perfect harmony - which I'm sad to say this was not mirrored by the fights for the last tasty morsels or us drinking the sauce out of the bowl with our spoons.

Crispy pork - before the spoon fight (note, spoon at the ready!)

A slate bearing the seared scallops in the half shell was both easy on the eye and the mouth. Expertly cooked, the plump shellfish were caramelised on the outside with a super soft centre. Bathed in a citrusy curry sauce, the dense scallops were lifted and the dish refreshed our mouths for further gastronomic assualt.

Well presented, poorly photographed

The previous dishes in the menu had concentrated on exceptional bits of meat and (unsurprisingly for a coastal city) fish, with the veg sidelined to enhance dishes or add clever contrasts; to keep the menu balanced the next course was a big pile of morning glory and deep fried tofu. Cooked so the stalks still had bite whilst the leaves were wilted; the watery vegetables were bathed in a salty, fishy stock that added depth and body. The accompanying deep fried tofu was actually alright (I’m not a fan of bean curd), it added peppery element that was further enhanced by the liberal addition of chillies. The morning glory was served with a large bowl of sticky rice – when people say it’s all about the rice, they’re right. This was sticky without being claggy, warm without being hot, moist without being wet – a true testament to the skill in the Farang kitchen.

We were up to the last savoury dish, a lamb shin curry, which was a real taste pinnacle. Large chunks of lamb fell apart into silky soft strands, cooked for a long time the dish’s flavours had mingled and come together to create a deeply savoury gravy with a big, punchy bite of spice that the meaty lamb took well.

Final savoury dish, a beautiful lamb shin curry

Both puddings were served at the same time; a smaller ‘soup’ of fresh fruit, coconut milk and lychee sorbet, which was an intense hit of exotic sweetness that conjured all sorts of images (or maybe the bottle of red I’d drunk did…). The addition of fresh pea was an interesting and brilliantly considered addition, adding a savoury freshness that lightened the whole dish; however my dining companions didn’t like it, maybe an acquired taste?

Pudding two was a millefuille of caramelised banana cream, almond satay and an astringent tamarind ice cream. This dish was much more successful, but as with most Asian food, I find the pudding is always an afterthought and never seems to outshine or even stand up to the quality of the other dishes, even at somewhere as proficient as Farang.

Puddings x two

Each and every dish at Farang was a hit and stuck to the Asian principles of salty, sour, sweet and hot - right through to the balance of flavour in the puddings. Each course has been designed to run on from the one before, creating a delicious harmony of flavors and taking you on an epic and very enjoyable gastronomic journey.

Service throughout the night was slick and faultless, the staff dealt well with having to explain to a mainly English speaking table and didn’t rely on our Finnish companion to translate for us; even down to giving us the thorough (and only slightly faltering) background to the wine we were drinking (unfiltered and organic red – pretty good seeing as it was one of the cheaper ones on the wine menu).

Very drinkable wine at the bottom end of the price scale

No wonder Farang is top of Helsinki’s food scene; the staff, the food, the setting and the unpretentious way in which it's all delivered, makes it pretty top in my books too.

Food – 10/10
Atmosphere – 9/10
Service – 9/10
Value for money – 8/10

Total – 36/40

Go again – yes, I think it’d like to try the a la carte next time and investigate what other delights Farang has to offer.

Ps So sorry for the poor photos, the light's not very good in Farang and I'm just starting to get used to this phone!

Farang, Ainonkatu 3, 00100 Helinki, Finland - +358 10 322 93801 -