TGIFOOD

COOK WITH THE CHEFS

Chef Rowan Larkin’s Szechuan-style chilli, cumin and lamb noodles

Chef Rowan Larkin’s Szechuan-style chilli, cumin and lamb noodles
Chef Rowan Larkin’s spicy lamb rump with Asian noodles and ‘Tasty paste’. Māha Cafe, Durban, May 2024. (Photo: Rowan Larkin)

Let’s meet a Durban chef who free dives with sharks and turtles, swims over rocks in search of tidal treats, and is mentored by ‘JoJo’ (I’ll explain). His name is Rowan Larkin, he’s cooking at Māha Cafe in Durban, and the eyes of the food world are on him.

Rowan Larkin’s cooking turf is Māha Café in Durban’s Point precinct, where he approaches his craft with the spirit of an adventurer, fiddling and fine-tuning, foraging and pushing the frontiers of what can be turned into food we would love to eat.

A Pietermaritzburg boy, he says food was never really something celebrated around him when he was growing up. 

“My love for food came from a desire to experience and being forever curious as an individual, but it was more my love of eating wonderful and weird things that led me to the kitchen so I could create what wasn’t available to me.”

He took to travel. “Forever searching for more, I found that the best places for new and wonderful things were within the rich, diverse cultures and communities that thrive around food all over the world, and I seek to experience it all… to share it all with others. 

“Along the way, I’ve met some amazingly talented and interesting people to whom I owe a part of my gratitude for their openness.”

Much more detail of his exploratory travel, and a stint in Cape Town, can be found in this piece by Wanda Hennig.

He has a passion for Asian flavours and finds himself with a lot of freedom at Māha Cafe to explore any avenue. 

Chef Rowan Larkin of Māha Cafe, Durban. May 2024. (Photo: Supplied)

“I’m finding a lot more diversity and leaning towards nature in all its glory more and more, with less interference with ingredients. 

“Currently, I’m reconnecting with nature through growing and foraging mushrooms and other edibles in the natural world, gardening, swimming into and over rocks in search of tidal treats… free diving with sharks and turtles has brought me closer than ever to a more local-focused appreciation for the true artist that is nature.”

He puts it in an unexpectedly frank nutshell: “Bluntly, I’ve stopped giving a shit what other people think, and create food that is more reflective of who I am.”

That is often the point at which ‘just another chef’ starts to evolve into the kind who steps out from the pack and attracts notice.

It wasn’t really surprising, then, when he offered a shoutout to “the JoJos” for their inspiration and guidance when asked to share a recipe with us in this series. 

‘The JoJos’ are Johannes and Johanna Richter of the now-famous LivingRoom at Summerhill, in Cowies Hill, Durban.

“I’m lucky enough to have a close relationship with Johannes and Johanna from The Livingroom at Summerhill, who without a doubt are not only influencing my work but are inspiring an entire industry with their hyperlocal, thoughtful and honest approach.”

The dish he chose for us is lamb rump with Asian noodles, but it’s somewhat more involved than that.

“I am a lover of many things, with noodles and Asian flavours being highly valued,” he says. “This dish has it all: rich, nutty, buttery, full of umami, spice, contrasting textures, a vitalising kick of heat, and pops of flavour all over the place, which come together beautifully with the tender and slightly fatty lamb rump. An easy 20-minute anytime pick-me-up or a show-stopping centrepiece on the table.

“Eyeball all the ingredients,” he urges, referring to what he calls his “tasty paste”. “No need to be accurate here; if you like more of a particular ingredient, get heavy-handed; just don’t take liberties with the white pepper; it gets ugly fast. Smush everything together in a pestle and mortar, blitz in a blender to form a paste, or break out the knife skills.”

Of the noodles, he says, “Large flat noodles work great (think pappardelle type), some are a bit lighter, ramyun (wheat flour) or egg noodles work in a pinch, or my favourite thin kanto-style noodles have such a beautiful texture that works well with the spice. (I’ve used our in-house, hand-stretched, flat egg noodle for this one.)”

Szechuan-style chilli, cumin and lamb noodles

(Serves 4 or so)

For the chilli oil:

3 Tbsp Szechuan peppercorns

2 individual star anise

2 green cardamom

3/4 cup neutral oil

Tasty paste:

1 small knob of ginger, peeled and grated

2 cloves of garlic

2 ground green or red chilli

1/2 cup stalks (white part only) spring onion

Pinch of salt

Pinch of white pepper 

Spice mix:

4 Tbsp cumin seeds

2 Tbsp chilli flakes

1 Tbsp gochugaru (Korean chilli flakes – sub for smoked paprika)

1 Tbsp coriander seeds

Lamb:

500g lamb rump, thinly sliced against the grain (don’t trim the fat!) 

Melting onion: 

2 brown onions, halved and sliced (reserve a handful raw for later).

1 knob of butter

2 Tbsp oil

1/2 cup water

Pinch of salt

Noodles:

500g of noodles or pasta 

Other:

1 large knob of good butter

50 to 100 ml of soy sauce

The reserved raw onions from above

Oil for cooking

50g of each sunflower, sesame, flax, and chia for garnish

Method

Get a pot large enough for the noodles and bring it to a boil. Cook the noodles per the packet instructions, stopping just short of cooking time to retain some chew. Strain the noodles, shock in ice water, and strain again, then work a teaspoon of oil (I like sesame for flavour) into the noodles to prevent any sticking. As we are frying the noodles, they need to be cooked, cooled and preferably rested before going into the wok so we can get a crust and not stick to the pan. 

Put a small pot with the oil on medium heat until the oil shows signs of swirling movement; add the peppercorn and star anise; take off the heat to steep for 10 or so minutes; then strain the spices, reserving only the oil.

While the chilli oil infuses, let’s move on to the spice mix and the tasty paste. Firstly, to get them out of the way and make space in the kitchen, but more importantly, time is often the keeper of deeper flavours. Simply mix spices together and bring tasty paste together as described above.

Bring the strained chilli oil back up to temp as before and add the tasty paste. Turn the heat down to low and let it simmer gently until fully aromatic. Take off the heat, add half the spice mix, and set aside.

For the melting onions, our friend here again is time. Halve your onion, skin it, and all that. I like to slice thin slivers running long ways, parallel to the onion lines, but it’s fine however you choose to slice the onion — you’re cooking after all. 

There are many methods, but the easiest for the best results I find is to place my onions in a heavy pot, season with a pinch of salt, oil and a knob of butter, add just enough water to cover half or so of the onions and leave on medium-low heat to simmer and par-cook the onions once the water evaporates. Then slowly fry them, stirring occasionally, on low heat until you have a beautiful dark brown and sweet onion.

Thinly slice lamb against the grain and marinate (for 10 minutes or so) in a couple of tablespoons of the combined tasty paste-chilli-oil-spice mix, which shouldn’t be too hot at this point. 

Heat a wok or heavy-based pan on high heat, add the remaining spice mix first – act quickly so as to not burn the spices – add a splash of cooking oil, followed immediately by the reserved raw onion, toss to coat, then add the lamb. 

Flash fry for about 45 to 60 seconds, tossing constantly, until the fat starts to look translucent. Then add all the tasty paste-chilli-oil mix, the noodles, a knob of butter, and 50 ml of soy sauce. Toss to combine and continue tossing until the sauce and oil are coating the noodles. Take off the heat.

Serving in bowls, finish with a light-fingered drizzle of soy sauce (50 ml) to add a cleaner element to the layers of umami you’ve just built. Sprinkle generously with those nutty, toasted seeds and the crisp spring onion. 

Other great ways to finish off the dish are with a chilli crunch or Chinese chives, more caramelised onions, steamed broccoli, shitake or bok choy. 

Now take your bowl filled with attention-seeking sensations and deep, rich tones and dig in. Best enjoyed alone, in the kitchen with a loved one, or even around a table of your favourites.

For a garnish, Rowan toasts, in a dry pan until popping, 50g of each sunflower, sesame, flax, and chia seeds (or use a seed mix, he says), with a touch of sea salt.

“Sliced spring onion, coriander, Chinese chives, and chilli all work; in this version, I used seeds, spring onion, coriander, fresh red chilli, and dried red chilli from my sister-in-law’s garden.” DM

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