REVIEW: Easton White Horse's weekly south-east Asian menu
PUBLISHED: 15:30 11 January 2019
ARCHANT EASTERN DAILY PRESS (01603) 772434
For one day each week Easton's country pub, the White Horse, goes even further east with a delicious menu of warm and spicy south-east Asian dishes | Words: Tessa Allingham - Photos: Sonya Duncan
The Easton White Horse has all the credentials of a Suffolk country pub. The authority of age (16th century) and the fresh beauty of white roses that wriggle through summer trellis.
Pale-painted exterior, and an Insta-perfect interior of beams, fireplaces, wonkiness, simple posies on tables, and sunlight through leaded windows.
There’s a polished bar with stools, and there’s room for a snooze of Labradors. Tick, tick, tick.
Close my eyes, though, and I could almost be not in a village near Framlingham, but somewhere in south east Asia, so spicily warm and savoury are the smells coming from the kitchen – satay, soy, sambal with its shrimp-chilli-garlic pungency, fresh ginger and coriander, sour tamarind, sweet coconut.
Open my eyes, and the menu promises to whirl me round the vastly varied food of this geographically vast region, one where culinary ideas move easily, flow across borders absorbing influences and developing their own identities as they go.
The steamed bao buns with minced pork nod to China, a dry beef rendang is Indonesia on a plate, okra – here grilled and skewered – is a vegetable as familiar in southern Indian and Sri Lankan cooking as Malaysian, and there is of course the more typically Malay nasi goreng and nasi lemak.
The latter is the country’s de facto national dish (served traditionally for breakfast on a pandan leaf) of coconut rice, sambal, cucumber, hard-boiled egg and either chicken or fish. I’m told there are protests when nasi goreng is off – the dish of fried rice and meat with shallots, garlic, sambal, egg, cucumber and roasted peanuts is a standout favourite.
You see, it’s Tuesday at the White Horse – or Chiu’s Day – the day of the week when chef patron Vernon Blackmore cooks lunch alongside his Malaysian mother, Chiu. They’ve done it before of course, at Satis House in Yoxford which the family owned for 20 years until 2007, and which was a launch-pad for Vernon to open The Spice Bar in Woodbridge (now closed) and then his two current businesses, The Anchor and The Table, also in Woodbridge.
Food that tracks back to his Malaysian heritage has never been far from any of Vernon’s menus – Asian dishes at The Table, particularly on his summer street food menus, are always popular.
“The White Horse is a traditional country pub, but I knew there was an appetite for this sort of food,” he says.
“But I’m 75. I should be retired!” Chiu chips in, reminding her son of this several times during our onversation, to gales of laughter.
“Actually, it was Mum who suggested it,” Vernon corrects, smiling. “And I jumped at the idea. Mum loves cooking – she has to cook! She’s like Pascal [Pommier, head chef at The Table], they are both ‘feeders’!”
Chiu and Vernon are joined in the kitchen by operations director and former head of catering at Ipswich Town Football Club, Mike Rieder.
Having grown up in Penang and worked as a chef throughout south east Asia, Mike is delighted to pitch in when there’s Malaysian food to be cooked. He brings out his cookery bible, Charmaine Solomon’s hefty Complete Guide to Asian Cooking. It’s clearly well-loved – pages are tagged, folded, thumbed, scribbled on, favourite recipes splattered with ingredients.
Together, the trio feed us skewers of grilled okra, the sweetest duck hearts, chicken and king prawns with a smooth satay sauce, then the steamed bao buns which are soft, giving pillows, fluffy beds for minced pork that tingles with spice rather than smacks.
The beef in a dry rendang has been braised to falling-apart submission for a full nine hours – “I started it yesterday at 2pm and Vernon took over today,” says Mike. Plain rice and a perky Asian salad – “If any more love was put into that salad, it would wilt,” Vernon says to more gales of laughter – are served alongside, and the whole dish is a rich, aromatic balance of chilli heat, galangal-lemongrass freshness, softness and crunch.
It’s made in the milder style of Malaysia, Indonesia and Borneo, rather than the spicier, less reduced version typical of more eastern regions.
“For me my food has to be authentic, I can’t do it any other way!” says Chiu, who cooks in the classic Nyonya style, a fusion of the culinary influences of China, Malaysia, Thailand and India. Mike agrees – he would put Chiu’s fiery melaka beef, a famous Satis House dish uncompromising in its chilli heat, on the menu at the drop of a hat.
Cue more riotous laughter, as Vernon remembers a Christmas party at the hotel when a group of engineers came to celebrate, all wearing T-shirts printed with ‘I’ve eaten Chiu’s melaka beef and survived’.
Vernon is more forgiving with the spice, ready to relent a little to accommodate more tender palates, so that a gulai chicken curry, or fish laksa, is perhaps more coconutty than an authentic recipe would prescribe.
“I’ll reduce the amount of chilli, or put in more coconut milk and stock,” he says.
“People can always add more chilli if they want, but you can’t take it out.” They joke about putting on a fish head curry, popular in Malaysia but that requires the diner to get past fish eyes, teeth and lips before reaching the prized cheek flesh. “It might not be for everyone,” Chiu concedes.
It’s fun in the kitchen, they agree, and I feel they aren’t just saying that for my benefit. “When all three of us are in there there’s banter, it’s busy, bossy,” says Mike. “And everything works which is nice!” It works, Vernon adds, because the whole pub was refurbished – and a brand new kitchen installed – just three years ago by the Chestnut Group which ran it previously.
“When we took the White Horse on [in February 2018], we didn’t open Monday and Tuesday,” says Vernon. “But I wanted to build midweek business. That’s when I got mum in. I thought we’d offer something completely different just one day a week.”
He launched the idea in June and some five months on is regularly serving 30-40 meals on a Tuesday lunchtime, not bad for a rural location dependent largely on people making the journey. Conventional dishes are available – the likes of steaks, sausages, and fish and chips – but a full 95 per cent of the checks are for the Malaysian food. “We hit the ground running with it,” Vernon says.
“It seems to be the right ingredient to make this pub sing again.”
Easton White Horse, Easton, Woodbridge, IP13 0ED | eastonwhitehorse.co.uk
From the menu
- Crisp wonton filled with prawn, pork, chicken
- Chicken and beef satay skewers, mango salad
- Bass fillet, tarka dhal, greens, coriander chutney
- Hoi fun chow – stir fried flat rice noodles with chicken and pork
- Nasi goreng – Malaysian fried rice, chicken, pork, egg, vegetables
- Roti canai – fried pancake with curry sauce dip
- Hainan chicken, rice, broth, cucumber, dipping sauces
- King prawn laksa – curried noodle soup with fresh herbs
Other reasons to visit
- Conventional pub food is always an option – Dingley Dell sausages, mash and onion gravy; crayfish Caesar salad; minute steak, fries, slaw, salad; spiced chicken fillet burger, garam masala yoghurt, fries
- A suntrap terrace at the front is a perfect spot to catch precious autumn-winter rays
- A play area in the back garden and separate children’s menu makes it a great family choice
- It’s at the heart of a pretty village but easy to reach from the A12
- Dogs are welcome!