In the 1990s Masterchef was a rather campy TV cookery competition hosted by a presenter who was perhaps uniquely skilled in torturing vowels as he spoke – American Loyd Grossman. It occasionally passed the time on boring Sunday afternoons, but was hardly compulsive viewing. Then in 2005 the format was radically changed and now versions of the show have spread across the civilised world and America.

One key requirement of the new format is two judges, one bald, one with hair, and both very shouty.

Masterchef UK judges
Masterchef UK judges

Masterchef Australia judges
Masterchef Australia Judges

New Zealand got it a bit wrong with three judges, all of whom have hair – they’re still shouty, though.

Masterchef New Zealand judges
Masterchef New Zealand judges

America surpassed itself with three judges, including the obligatory baldy, and the shoutiest judge of the lot: Gordon Ramsay.

Masterchef USA judges
Masterchef USA judges

Perhaps the weakest version of the show is the American one. The contestants seem to be chosen more for their back stories than their cooking ability or passion for food.

Also quite poor is the British version. Some of the competitors surpass the judges in their knowledge about food, so the judges can't fairly judge or critique.

The New Zealand version is better, but by far the most gripping is the Australian version. In fact, I can hardly believe I've watched 86 episodes over the last 3 months and been kept glued to the screen. (The show is on six days a week at prime time in Australia, but is filmed over 8 months, so is very gruelling for the contestants, separated from their families, including young children, and loved ones.)

The judges are both top-knotch professional chefs, and every Friday edition is a masterclass in which the chefs show how some of the dishes made by the amateurs could have been done much better; no case of the pupils surpassing the masters here.

The contestants do rather seem to have been selected as a selection of stereotypes: there's the blond surfer dude, a plump Irish guy, a ditzy blond, a middle aged housewife, an elderly Sri Lankan, a young man with scary tattoos, a well-padded girl with maquillage and dress sense from the 1950s, a hippy chick (called “Sun”), a gay Asian man, and so on. Seeing them almost every night on TV you feel you get to know them as people as well as sensational cooks.

What has also been sensational has been the guests. There have been some of the world’s leading chefs: Daniel Boulud, Marco Pierre White, David Chang (Momofuku), Heston Blumenthal, Neil Perry. For the final they had the head chef from what has officially been the world's best restaurant for the last two years: René Redzepi of Noma.

There has also been a great selection of TV chefs and cooks: Rick Stein, Kylie Kwong, Curtis Stone, Anthony Bourdain, Chef Wan (a very camp Malaysian celebrity chef) and Nigella Lawson amongst others.

I don't think Maggie Beer's very well known outside the antipodes, but to Australia she's a national treasure, a lovely woman with the demeanor of a kindly grandmother who’s sold more cookery books than you could shake a stick at. Also not so well known is Adriano Zumbo who creates the most incredible, fantastical patisserie. An amazing master craftsman.

The absolutely blow-your-socks off moment for me, however, was when a particular special guest walked through the kitchen doors: His Holiness the Dalai Lama!!! It was enough to have me squirming in my seat and squealing with delight.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama holds the hand of a Masterchef Australia contestant
His Holiness the Dalai Lama holds the hand of a Masterchef contestant as she offers him food

Now how am I going to fill the hours of the day without Masterchef Australia? Perhaps I should look into the Croatian, Greek, German, Indian, Indonesian, Israeli and Malaysian versions.


Rev. Sydney Smith said that his idea of heaven was eating foie gras to the sound of trumpets. Being a strict trinitarian I’d settle for goose foie gras, belly pork and duck confit, but could well do without the trumpets.

Duck confit tends to be something most people don’t make at home. Though it’s pretty simple to make, it takes a long time and requires vast amounts of duck fat. In my household any fat that comes off a roasting duck is destined for frying potatoes. There’s never enough left for confit. I was therefore intrigued by a recipe by Michael Ruhlman (an American cookery writer, though perhaps better known for being a good friend of Anthony Bourdain, he’s also the inventor of the chicken fried confit belly pork caesar salad , a recipe that I’m still not sure whether serious or a joke) that confit’d duck in olive oil. That seemed more feasible, but olive oil here is very expensive. I therefore decided to experiment using cheap vegetable oil (soya bean oil to be precise). The results were phenomenal.

Duck confit with salad

Here’s my version of the recipe:


  • 4 duck legs
  • Salt
  • 6 black peppercorns, lightly crushed
  • 6 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
  • 4 bay leaves
  • vegetable oil as required, about 1 litre


  1. Wash and dry the duck legs.
  2. Liberally salt the duck legs on both sides.
  3. Press the peppercorns into the duck legs all over.
  4. Press the slivers of garlic onto the duck skin and flesh.
  5. Sandwich two bay leaves between pairs of duck thighs, with the duck skin on the outside.
  6. Put in a ziplock bag, expel the air and seal. Leave in the fridge for 24 hours.
  7. Rinse the duck legs to remove all the seasoning and then pat them dry.
  8. Place the duck legs in an ovenproof bowl which fits them snugly.
  9. Pour over enough vegetable oil to completely cover the legs. The legs might float. This isn’t a problem. They’ll sink once they start to cook.
  10. Put in an 80ºC oven, uncovered, for 10 hours. After this time the legs should be fall-apart tender.
  11. The legs can now be kept in the fridge, either in the oil, or without the oil in a tightly sealed container until you’re ready to eat them.

To Serve

  1. Remove the legs from the fridge an hour or so before you’re ready to cook them to allow them to come to room temperature.
  2. Preheat an oven to 220ºC.
  3. Take the legs from the oil and put on a baking tray. Cook for 15-20 minutes until the skin crisps and the meat is heated through.

Duck confit with vegetables

Simply delicious!


31. May 2011 · Write a comment · Categories: Food

Last weekend The Daily Telegraph published a clutch of so-called Thai recipes. Let’s look at one of them, by Rose Prince. The ingredients start OK with monkfish. Local Thai fish aren’t going to be readily available in the UK, so the substitution is fine. Lemongrass – that’s Thai. Then things start to go awry: pink peppercorns (never used in Thai cooking), parsley (never used). Rice vinegar – OK. Muscavado sugar – no! Half a washed, chopped anchovy!!! My Thai acquaintances universally loathe tinned anchovies. They’re sometimes called plaa raa farang. Plaa raa is a foul fermented fish that most westerners find virtually impossible to eat, and certainly impossible to enjoy. Thai people feel the same way about anchovies.

The recipe continues with lemon. Lemons are virtually unobtainable in Thailand – there isn’t even a Thai word for them. Thai cooking only uses limes – never lemons.

The recipe plunges into further depths of absurdity in calling for “white radicchio castelfranco”. Needless to say, this is not a staple of Thai cuisine.

I’m not saying that this dish isn’t delicious. In fact, I respect Rose Prince as a food writer, so if you’re tempted to try it the recipe’s at But why, oh why, oh why is it necessary to call this “[one of] our top Thai recipes”?


03. May 2011 · Write a comment · Categories: Food

In his book The Anatomy of Disgust William Miller argued that when we are disgusted we are trying to impose limits in a chaotic universe and attempting to keep disorder at bay. However, each culture has its own set of the disgusting. In Britain we don’t eat snails, frogs or horses, but it’s but a short hop across the Channel to the land of Frogs where these things are considered a delicacy.

Historically, in Thailand, people have eaten a wide range of meats. Not horses (they aren’t common in Thailand), and some people don’t eat snails (in their mind they are associated with toilets), but frog is still quite popular, along with fish, prawns and other shellfish and wild birds. In the past chicken was a luxury – you wouldn’t want to kill an animal that provided you with a steady stream of eggs. So was pork – it took a long time to raise a pig, and then you had to put from your mind that in its lifetime a pig will have eaten a lot of rather revolting stuff (yes, including human poo).

Cows and buffalo held a particular place in the affections of the Thai farmer. They did a lot of the hard work on the farm, and were treated with great affection. A farmer wouldn’t usually eat his own beast, but would rather give the meat to neighbours, or sell it in the local market. A particularly belovėd animal would be buried and its skull mounted on the wall of the house.

City dwellers were somewhat less sentimental about the cow and the buffalo: beef was a delicious meat, to be enjoyed salted, dried, grilled, or eaten in a curry or soup.

Bangkok’s building boom of a few years ago triggered a massive influx of labour from Isaan (the high plateau in the north east of Thailand). Life as a peasant farmer was hard; working long hours on a dangerous building site in the capital seemed like an easy option. Soon there were food stalls – and later restaurants – all over Bangkok selling Isaan food: grilled chicken, barbecued pork, somtam (spicy green papaya salad) and sticky rice, as well as laap (spicy salad made from barely cooked minced meat with lime juice, coriander and mint). Thankfully such local delights as red ant eggs and part digested buffalo stomach contents dipped in blood were left on the plateau. However, in travelling to the capital the food mutated. It became less spicy and beef was increasingly used. Dishes such as nam tok neua (literally “waterfall beef”, a salad of grilled, sliced beef with herbs in a spicy, sour sauce containing ground roasted rice named after the drops of moisture that fall off the beef as it grills), seua ronghai (grilled beef, but literally “crying tiger”, named after the sound the dripping fat makes as it hits the barbecue coals) and neu tun (beef tendon soup). (Winnie the Pooh fans will be relieved to learn that seau ronghai was never actually made from Tiggers.)

More recently beef has started to disappear from the menu. Nam tok is now more usually made with pork and laap is more commonly seen made from chicken, duck or pork.

It’s not only Isaan food that has seen a cutback in the use of beef. Other Thai dishes have changed radically to eliminate beef: gaeng khiaw waan (green curry) was traditionally made with beef, but is now rarely seen made with anything other than chicken or fishballs; gaeng kii lek (curry with a distinctive local leaf) used to be made with beef, but now is usually found with pork; and panaeng neua (beef in a thick curry sauce) is now almost invariably made with chicken or pork. Curries, soups, yams, noodle dishes – all have changed.

With this decline in use, beef has become harder to find. Of the two big supermarket chains, Tesco-Lotus usually has a small selecion on its shelves, but Big C doesn’t stock it at all. And in the local markets, in smaller ones beef’s unobtainable, though larger markets might have a stall or two selling it.

Why the decline? In part, I suspect, it’s because of price; beef is much more expensive than pork or chicken. And in part it may be because of Mad Cow Disease. However, there’s also a significant feeling that large animals such as cows are more sentient than smaller ones, so consuming them is more “sinful”.

How long before the only place you can find beef in Thailand is under the Golden Arches?