Food can take you all around the world. So it’s no coincidence that, as a Scottish chef on a recent trip to the US, I found a fruit native to tropical Southeast Asia that I’d never seen, tried, or even heard of before.
These plump rambutan berries were a welcome reminder for the new year that the culinary world will always find fresh ways to surprise me.
A little about me
I’m a classically trained chef who teaches people how to cook at the five-star Cook School in Kilmarnock, a town in the Scottish county of Ayrshire. I was raised here, in a region known for its cheeses, potatoes, game meats, and seafood – especially mussels, scallops, salmon, and lobster. I’m probably biased, but Scottish salmon is by far the best in the UK.
My love of cooking was learned from my mum – she makes everything from scratch with care and devotion. If I’m honest, I was a fussy eater as a child, preferring only to eat mac and cheese. But when I turned 13 and finished the mandatory home economics courses in school, I became more confident in the kitchen and started to enjoy cooking for myself.
I was never especially encouraged to be a chef, but after a few years of doing meaningless jobs in my early 20s, I decided to change direction and pursue my interest in cooking.
While enrolled in the UK’s top-performing culinary program at the City of Glasgow College, I was lucky enough to be mentored by the current MasterChef UK winner Gary MacLean. He’s very true to Scottish cuisine and uses a combination of classic and modern cooking techniques to modernize every dish.
My love of cooking has also enabled me to work in some of the top restaurants and hotels in Glasgow, including Mar Hall and the Rogano, one of the restaurants where Anthony Bourdain dined during the Glasgow episode of CNN’s Parts Unknown.
My exotic find in Los Angeles
I came to Los Angeles for a holiday, not intending to seek out exotic food, but every time I would go to the market I was amazed by the eclectic variety of produce there was to be found.
I decided to make a conscious effort to find and cook with a brand-new ingredient. So I took a trip to the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market, where I discovered a very unusual-looking fruit that turned out to be part of the lychee family.
I’m familiar with lychee, but I’ve never come across rambutan. It wasn’t sold individually, but I simply had to have some, so I purchased a five-pound box and brought it back to my brother’s house, beaming with excitement.
My style of cooking involves using fresh ingredients and I believe dishes only need five components. Basically, I prefer to keep flavors as simple as possible.
I was excited to experiment with rambutan not only because it’s a new fruit to work with but because in the last couple of years I’ve developed a real love and respect for Vietnamese cooking. I’m currently teaching a Vietnamese cooking class, and I’ve found that cooking style to match my penchant for simplicity and freshness.
After a quick search online, I discovered that rambutan, which is grown in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta area, can be used as an ingredient for puddings and dessert soups. (Thailand is the leading producer globally, and rambutan also grows in other tropical regions, including parts of Africa, Central America and the Caribbean.)
As a chef, I would prefer the rambutan to pack more of a punch, but it’s a very diverse fruit that would be easy to infuse flavor into. Although it’s a tropical ingredient, I decided to merge a little bit of Scottish influence and make a dessert.
Now that I’ve got a taste for rambutan, I’d love to maybe someday track it down at the source. Maybe my next holiday will be somewhere tropical. I’ll have to pack plenty of sunscreen!
I’m very pleased with how the dessert turned out. I love exploring new ingredients and sharing my passion for food with people. Don’t be afraid to try new things in this new year – you never know what foods you’ll discover while traveling or just visiting your local market.
RAMBUTAN PANNA COTTA
- 10 fresh rambutans (remove leathery skin and seed; watch how I cut open the fruit in the above video). * You can use lychee in the place of rambutan
- 1-cm / appx. ½ inch piece of fresh ginger (optional)
- 250ml / 1 cup milk
- 150ml / ½ cup heavy cream
- 1 vanilla pod
- 2 tsp granulated sugar
- ½ tsp of gelatin powder
- 200g / 7 oz caster sugar
- 3 tbsp golden syrup
- 2 tsp bicarbonate soda
- Blueberries, blackberries or raspberries
- Fresh mint leaves
- In a pan, combine milk, cream, vanilla pod, sugar, ginger, and 8 of the rambutans. Place on a low heat to infuse for 10-15 minutes.
- Add the gelatin without any water and leave for 1 minute to dissolve.
- Strain the mix through a fine strainer into a jug, then pour into two serving glasses.
- Refrigerate for 2-3 hours to set, then serve.
- For the honeycomb, place sugar and syrup in the pan with 1 tablespoon of cold water. Place on a high heat and boil for 3-4 minutes until the sugar has dissolved and starts to bubble and look golden.
- Whisk in 2 tsp of the bicarbonate soda. After it bubbles up, pour onto a heat-proof mat until the mixture cools and firms up. Break off small pieces to garnish along with your choice of berries, mint leaves and diced pieces of fresh rambutan.