Mama used to say: never apologise for your cooking. (She also used to say: the cook gets to eat the mango stone.)*
Never admit to your mistakes. At least, don’t point them out. Maybe your guests won’t notice, maybe they are not perfectionists like you. So I didn’t mention that I had forgotten the garlic. Or toasted the cashews too enthusiastically. I didn’t mention the half-kilo of clingy glass noodles abandoned in the rubbish bin. I made more peanut noodle salad with our best spaghetti. (Mama used to say: don’t buy value pasta.) And no-one did notice.
No-one noticed because my chicken and mango salad was so damn spicy it seared away most of our tastebuds. I only used one chili, as warned by the chatty man in our Indian corner store. Even so, the boys picked through it manfully. “It’s not that hot.” They even had seconds; that’s friendship for you. The girl nearly died on the sofa, drank litres of water. (Like the time we thought we had given our Japanese exchange student a heart attack with our spicy curry.)
Such a shame, because it is a perfect summer salad otherwise. It follows the Thai principles of sweet, salty, spicy, sour and fishy. The latter sounds a bit odd, but it is the splash of nam pla (fish sauce) that gives it an extra savoury edge. Sweet mangoes, sharp lime juice, tender chicken. Green leaves and herbs. A crunch from the cashews. Ralph made us this, his signature dish, numerous times in the summer term at Regent Street. I clearly remember stabbing at a bowl of it while sitting on our trampoline. Every now and then some joker would bounce up and down a little. We had to hold onto our plates as if we were sailors being shipwrecked.
So make sure to take your greengrocer seriously when he warns you about the strong strong chilis. Prepare your salad ahead of time, nibble on the mango stones, then relax and drink a gin and tonic. Pretend that you are a student again, a student with only a very few deadlines but important discussions about webcomics and the meaning of life to solve over supper.
*Also not apologising for half-drawn illustration. Hungry guests arrived, I got distracted. You have to imagine the rich orange, crumpled green and flashes of hot red.
Ralph’s Thai Chicken and Mango Salad
(in his words, because they are funny words)
3 chicken breasts, cut into strips
6 spring onions, sliced (I like to do it lengthways for shards of onion, rather than what my friend Giles used to call ‘roly-polies’ when he was much younger)
4 cloves garlic, sliced very thinly
2 mangos, sliced (apparently they’re meant to be underripe, but if they’re too underripe they’re too chewy and dry, so ripe ones will do)
4 chopped, seeded red chillis
a bunch of watercress
a very slightly smaller bunch of coriander, chopped
a considerably smaller bunch of mint leaves, chopped also
juice of 1-2 limes
1 tbsp nam pla (fish sauce)
1 tbsp caster sugar
1 tbsp groundnut oil (in addition to frying oil)
peanut and cashews
Fry the chicken, then saute the garlic and onions in the same pan. Throw everything into the biggest bowl you’ve got and mix it up a bit. Have more nuts around to add if you want them. That’s it!
(Ed. note: Try serving with peanut noodles for a more substantial dish: add several spoonfuls of peanut butter to this amazing dressing)