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A new cookbook shines a spotlight on the pioneering female chefs shaking up the food industry in Britain. From plaintain omelette to fried rice, these recipes will broaden your culinary horizons.
If you’re a fan of Anna Jones, Gizzi Erskine, Zoe Adjonyoh, Ravneet Gill or Asma Khan, then chances are you’re tuned into the incredible crop of female chefs in the UK. But although the food industry is filled with changemakers, according to an ONS headcount, only 17% of chef positions in the UK are held by women, while only 11 of the places on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list are run by women.
While the industry’s gender imbalance is far from solved, one thing that is in our power is to discover and elevate the stories of women at the forefront of modern food. Enter The Female Chef, a new cookbook collating evocative stories and personal recipes from women shaping the British food industry.
As food journalist and presenter of BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme, Sheila Dillon, notes in the book’s foreword, food is at the heart of the revolution of society’s rigid gender divides. These days, it matters not whether the chef transforming ingredients is helming a restaurant or in their own domestic sphere – what really counts is knowledge, experience and passion.
Despite this, preconceptions around cooking, cheffing and gender continue to linger. Frustrating to say the least, given that, as Dillon points out, “though the rarefied world of gastronomy has been – and continues to be – male dominated, the work of nourishing and sustaining families and communities has historically and biologically been ‘women’s work’ – rendering womanhood and the act of feeding inextricably linked.”
The Female Chef, however, puts the spotlight firmly on chefs in Britain who have carved out a space for themselves in the kitchen. Though word chef is synonymous with maleness and whiteness – and for some female chefs, hierarchy and inequality – many are reclaiming it on their own terms, as well as celebrating “the experience of womanhood across a spectrum of backgrounds, identities and cultures” as they forge ahead in the culinary realm.
To celebrate the leaders shaking up the narrative of what it means to be a woman and a chef in the British food industry, we’ve three delicious recipes for you to recreate at home.
First up, Ixta Belfrage, a protégée from Yotam Ottolenghi’s test kitchen touted for her vibrant fusion food. Drawing upon her Brazilian heritage, Befrage’s upside-down plantain omelette combines caramelised slices of fruit with a creamy egg mixture to create a moreish brunch-ready dish, finished with a side of zingy scotch bonnet salsa.
If you’re a fan of Asian cuisine, meanwhile, bookmark Julie Lin’s lap cheong fried rice. A former contestant on Masterchef and founder of Malaysian and South East Asian restaurant Julie’s Kopitiam in Glasgow, Lin’s rice is infused with delicately smoky flavour and makes a great alternative to a weekend fry-up.
Last but by no means least, sous chef at Rosewood London and head pie maker at Holborn Dining Room, Nokx Majozi, shares her recipe for fish curry and pumpkin maize. Inspired by memories of her childhood growing up in South Africa, its warming spices will enliven your weekly meal rotation.
Ixta Belfrage’s upside-down plantain omelette with scotch bonnet salsa
Ixta says: “My mother, a Brazilian who grew up in Cuba, is obsessed with plantains. She grew up eating them alongside pretty much every meal and brought my sister and me up in the same way, so now my fruit bowl is never without a pile of blackening plantains. There is a plantain recipe for every stage of ripeness, from hard and green to soft and black. This recipe calls for plantains that are ripe and sweet, preferably nearly all black, with only some yellow marks. In truth, I only ever use plantains at this stage of ripeness. Unripe plantain is no substitute here because you won’t achieve the sweet, caramelised layer we’re looking for.”
Serves 2 as a main or 4 as part of a spread
For the omelette
- 120g full-fat coconut milk, from a tin not a carton (at least 75% coconut extract)
- 6 eggs
- ½ tsp fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated (or ¼ tsp ground ginger)
- 1 small garlic clove, finely grated or crushed
- 1 tsp lime zest
- ¾ tsp fine salt
- 5g chives, finely chopped
- 5g coriander, finely chopped
- 40g spring greens (or spinach or kale), very thinly sliced
- 100g feta, broken into medium chunks
- 2 very ripe medium-sized plantains (460g) – they should be nearly all black and quite soft, with only some yellow marks
- 30g ghee or unsalted butter
- 1 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for drizzling flaked salt, to serve
- lime wedges, to serve
For the salsa
- 200g extra-ripe sweet cherry tomatoes
- 1 tsp lime zest
- 1 tbsp lime juice
- 1½ tbsp olive oil
- ½ tsp flaked salt
- 1–2 Scotch bonnet chillies (or a milder chilli if you prefer), to taste
Preheat the oven to 200°C (180°C fan). Before measuring out your coconut milk, take all the contents out of the tin and whisk well to combine the solid and the liquid then weigh out the 120g.
Add the coconut milk to a large bowl with the eggs, ginger, garlic, lime zest and fine salt and whisk together. Stir in the chives, coriander, spring greens and feta, then set aside.
Peel the plantains and slice into 3⁄4cm rounds. You need about 320g peeled slices.
Place a 28cm ovenproof, non-stick frying pan on a medium-high heat and add the ghee (or butter) and the oil. Once the ghee has melted, layer the plantain slices to cover the bottom of the pan, then set a timer for 3 minutes, and cook without stirring or flipping the plantain, to create a caramelised, golden layer on the bottom of the pan. Lower the heat, then pour over the egg mixture to evenly cover the base and leave to fry for another minute undisturbed. The omelette should be set around the edges but still liquid in the middle.
Transfer the pan to the oven and bake for 8–9 minutes, until the omelette is just set on top, with a good wobble in the centre. Don’t be afraid of this wobble, the omelette will set a little as it cools, but also we (or at least I) want the omelette to have a soft, oozing centre! Leave to cool for 5 minutes, then use a spatula to release the sides of the omelette from the pan.
While the omelette is in the oven, make the salsa. Finely chop the cherry tomatoes into very small pieces. Transfer to a medium bowl, using your hands as a natural sieve so you don’t take all the liquid and seeds with you (otherwise the salsa will be quite soggy). Stir in the lime zest, lime juice, oil and flaked salt. Very finely chop the Scotch bonnet; they vary substantially in heat level so start with ½ a chilli, removing the seeds and pith if you prefer milder heat. Add to the salsa, stir and taste, then add up to 1½ more finely chopped chillies, to taste.
Place a large plate on top of the pan, then quickly flip the whole thing over so the omelette ends up on the plate. Hopefully all the plantain pieces will end up on the omelette, but if not just peel them from the pan and place them back on top.
Drizzle with a little oil and sprinkle with more flaked salt. Serve with the salsa on the side, and some extra lime wedges for squeezing.
Julie Lin’s lap cheong fried rice (腊肠炒饭)
Julie says: “This is the first dish my mother ever taught me to make. I used to call it breakfast rice because we would have it in the mornings at the weekend. My mother doesn’t enjoy the greasiness of lots of sausages in the kitchen so this was our alternative. The dish is so incredibly simple yet imperative when learning how to wok-fry rice. There’s a subtle art to getting smokiness into the rice that comes from patience; she taught me so much of this when mastering wok hei.”
- 2 eggs, whisked
- 2 spring onions 3 lap cheong (Chinese sausages)
- 3 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 tsp light soy sauce
- 400g cooked jasmine rice
- 1 tsp dark soy sauce
- 100g peas
- 1 tbsp oyster sauce
- salt and white pepper
Begin by thinly slicing the lap cheong on a diagonal. Then mix together the soy sauces and oyster sauce with a pinch of salt and white pepper (to taste) and 2 teaspoons of water.
In a non-stick pan set over a low–medium heat, scramble the eggs with a pinch of salt and white pepper then set aside. Chop the white sections of the spring onions into 3cm chunks. Finely chop the green part and set both parts aside separately.
Add the vegetable oil to a wok over a medium heat and tip in the sliced lap cheong and the chunks of white spring onion. Fry for around 2 minutes until fragrant. Add in the rice and peas, then immediately pour over the soy sauce mixture. Turn the heat up to full and wok-fry until smoky and all of the sauce has been incorporated.
Add in the scrambled egg and the green part of the spring onions and mix through. Mould the rice into bowls, then flip out onto plates. Serve with fresh, sliced cucumber and chilli paste, if you like.
Nokx Majozi’s fish curry and pumpkin maize meal
Nokx says: “This is a recipe my late father used to make. He worked in the harbour and right beside it there were fishmongers. He often used to come home with fresh fish for dinner, so it’s a fond memory and one of the first recipes I ever learnt. I’m from Durban in South Africa; a city that is huge on curries.”
Serves 4–6 people
For the fish curry
- 15g curry powder
- 10g ground cumin
- 30g fish masala spice mix
- 1kg fish steaks (you can use a fish of your choice)
- 50ml vegetable oil
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 15g garlic (around 2–3 average-sized cloves), grated
- 15g fresh ginger, peeled and grated
- sprig of curry leaves
- 200g tomato purée
- 10g sugar
- 150ml coconut milk
- 15g fresh coriander leaves
For the pumpkin maize meal
- 1 tsp salt
- 1kg peeled pumpkin (or butternut squash), cooked and mashed
- 250g maize meal (or polenta)
For the salsa
- 1 carrot, grated
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 1 tomato, chopped
- ¼ cucumber, chopped
- ½ lemon, juiced
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
To make the fish curry, first mix together the spices and divide in half, then rub the fish with half of the mixture until well coated. Heat the oil in a saucepan over a medium heat and add the fish, frying on both sides until browned. Remove the fish from the pan and set aside.
In the same pan and oil, cook the onion, garlic, ginger and curry leaves until the onion and garlic are translucent and the rest are browned. Lower the heat, add the other half of the spices and stir well. Add the tomato purée, sugar and coconut milk and bring to a boil, then add the fish back in, lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the pumpkin maize meal. steaks Place 1 litre pints water in a pot (that has a lid) over a medium–high heat, add the salt and bring to a boil. Add the pumpkin (or butternut squash), maize meal (or polenta) and stir until all is combined and smooth. Reduce the heat, put on the lid and simmer for 10–15 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes.
To make the salsa, mix together all of the ingredients and season to taste.
When ready to serve, scatter the coriander leaves over the fish curry and enjoy with the maize meal and salsa.
The Female Chef: 30 Women Redefining The British Food Scene by Clare Finney and Liz Seabrook (£28, Hoxton Mini Press) is out now
Photography: Liz Seabrook
Christobel Hastings is a London-based journalist covering pop culture, feminism, LGBTQ and lore.