In 1988, in my early days of food writing, I was invited to the opening of Huashan Lu's Hilton Hotel in Shanghai. This was the first Hilton to open in mainland China and, back then, a one-night stay would have cost the average worker the equivalent of 20 months' salary.

I arrived to a red-carpet welcome (literally a metre-wide red carpet was rolled out as I exited the cab and I had to pace myself to not walk faster than they were laying it out). The PR manager, Rosa Lau, escorted me to a suite with a stunning view looking out to the newly forming city below. At that stage the Hilton was the tallest building on the landscape.

A bottle of Cristal Champagne sat chilling in a flashy ice bucket, and a five-layered black lacquered tray set of intricately sliced meats and vegetables formed into collages of various animals awaited my enjoyment (these were halcyon days in which to be writing about food).

On the second night of my visit the hotel threw a spectacular cocktail party to announce its opening. Some 500 people were packed into a glamorous State Room. A tray came around, stacked high with tiny golden fried things, so I popped one into my mouth. A millisecond after the initial crunch, every ounce of my being went into rebellion as the crispness disintegrated into a limpid slime in my mouth. Rosa beamed. "Roasted silkworms," she said, "such a delicacy." I returned her look blankly, a mouthful of worms rolling around in my mouth. There was no chance to run, the room was packed tight. Grabbing a neatly pressed linen napkin from the hand of a passing waitress, I emptied the contents of my mouth before they could make any further headway into my body. The memory is so potent, it almost makes me puke just to recall it.


When it comes to what we consider okay to eat or not okay to eat, what is a delicacy and what is an abhorrence, it all comes down to culture. In the case of my worm experience, never has the adage "one man's poison is another's pleasure" been truer.

Within my own cultural boundaries, the notion of what stands as acceptable when it comes to texture rarely reaches slime or slither. Seaweed yes, jellyfish not really, worms no. Crisp and crunchy, on the other hand, pretty much tick every box. The addition of a pleasing crunch – be it chopped peanuts or crispy shallots, a crunchy lettuce leaf wrapper, or crisp pickles – creates a textural counterpoint in a dish that never fails to please. This week's recipes are a celebration of the crunch factor.

Walnut Salad

Walnut Salad. Photo / Annabel Langbein Media
Walnut Salad. Photo / Annabel Langbein Media

Ready in 15 mins
Serves 8

2 cups fresh walnut pieces
1 large spring onion, finely chopped
2 tomatoes, cored and finely diced (discard seeds if tomatoes are very juicy)
1 small-to-medium cucumber, very finely diced
1 green pepper, very finely diced
½ cup coarsely chopped parsley leaves
½ cup coarsely chopped mint leaves
2 Tbsp boutique extra virgin olive oil
3 Tbsp pomegranate molasses
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste

Mix all ingredients together in a bowl. Serve within 3-4 hours.

Annabel says: This brilliant salad has everything going for it – it's crisp, crunchy, juicy and melting all in one mouthful. I discovered the idea in a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Fethiye in Southern Turkey, and now I make it whenever I can get my hands on fresh walnuts.

Croque Monsieur

Croque monsieur. Photo / Annabel Langbein Media
Croque monsieur. Photo / Annabel Langbein Media

Ready in 15 mins
Serves 4

8 thick slices sourdough bread
A little butter, to spread
4 tsp grain mustard
450g shaved ham
300g grated gruyere or tasty cheese
1 pear, cored and thinly sliced
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste


Butter bread on one side, then flip so the unbuttered side faces up. Spread with mustard and top with ham, cheese and slices of pear. Season to taste with salt and pepper and sandwich another slice of bread on top, buttered side up. Cook in a preheated frying pan over medium heat until bread is golden and crispy and cheese has melted (about 5 minutes).

Annabel says: If you can access a toastie pie maker or a sandwich press you will get an even crisper, crunchier result. As variations, use sliced tomato instead of pear, mix a little bechamel sauce or good-quality mayonnaise into the mustard, or use chutney or relish instead of mustard. To make a Croque Madame, fry eggs in butter and serve an egg on top of each sandwich.

Green Bean and Peanut Noodles

Green Bean and Peanut Noodles. Photo / Annabel Langbein Media
Green Bean and Peanut Noodles. Photo / Annabel Langbein Media

Ready in 15 mins
Serves 6 as a side dish

6 handfuls (300g) green beans, stalk ends trimmed
250g rice stick noodles
½ cup roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped
3 Tbsp coarsely chopped coriander leaves
1 Tbsp sesame seeds, toasted
2 cups bean sprouts
½ tsp salt
Ground black pepper, to taste
Lime wedges, to serve

Quick Sesame Dressing

2 Tbsp neutral oil
1 Tbsp sesame oil
1 Tbsp fish sauce
1 Tbsp rice wine vinegar
1 tsp chilli oil
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp sugar

Cut the beans in half and boil them in salted water for 3 minutes. Refresh in cold water to retain their crunch and bright green colour. Drop the rice noodles into a large pot of boiling water. Remove the pot from the heat immediately and allow to stand and cool for 10 minutes or longer. Drain the noodles then rinse in cold water. Transfer the beans and cooked, drained noodles to a large serving bowl with the roasted peanuts, coriander, sesame seeds and bean sprouts. To make the dressing put all ingredients in a jar and shake to combine. Toss the dressing through the noodles and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve as a salad at room temperature or toss in a hot pan for 2-3 minutes for a stir-fry side dish to serve with meats. Garnish with lime wedges to serve.

Annabel says: Rice stick noodles require almost no cooking and are an inexpensive and useful pantry staple. You can also use soba or udon noodles if preferred, but you will need to boil them rather than just soak them. Their slipperiness is nicely offset by the crunch of peanuts, bean sprouts and al dente beans in this handy side dish.