You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Malaysian food’ category.
The Lemurs spent the holiday season home in Glasgow and while it’s nice to relax in the bosom of one’s family, it’s also really important to me to get out and spend some time in the city. We were en route to a festive party but wanted to have dinner first – we anticipated a long and alcohol-fueled night and didn’t want to drink on empty stomachs. Sadly, we failed to realise that our host was making vast piles of delicious food, so we ended up eating twice, but that’s another story. We fancied Malaysian food and we’ve eaten at both formica-tabled Rumours Kopitiam (famously rude staff but good roti canai and laksa) and the slightly classier Asia Style (good, but tones down the Malaysian flavours). Neither were quite what we wanted, but I discovered that a new Malaysian restaurant has opened in the last year or so, called Banana Leaf. It’s been getting good notices online, and, located on Cambridge St, couldn’t be more convenient, so off we trotted. Read the rest of this entry »
Here’s part 2 of LocAlien’s guest post from Singapore. Thanks again, LocAlien! I will totally go hunting for grimy biryani parlours with you if I ever get the chance…
I suppose that Anthony Bourdain has done more than most to introduce this street food culture to the world. I believe that he honestly tries to find its genuine elements, while evading and even subverting the manufactured gimmickry and antiseptic options that the tourist promotion board pushes on innocent food tourists. But he can unnecessarily overreach, as when he asserts that chicken rice has the strongest claim to being the national dish. (Check out a clip here.) The problems: One, other dishes have more justified claims to the title. Two, ethnic hegemony. The chicken rice he eats on tv is the Chinese version, which you’ll never see Malays or Indians ever eat. The less famous Malay version of chicken rice can be very well executed, especially if you prefer the chicken more roasted-y rather than poached, and the rice drier. Nevertheless, Chinese chicken rice can be superb, especially if the initial thought of boiled chicken served cold grosses you out. The gelatinous skin alone is gold. Three, over-selling it. Telling people that chicken rice is the national dish, convinces them to buy the first plate they see, and they will see it everywhere. Most chicken rice isn’t worth the hassle, and will make you think Bourdain is a moron. Pick the wrong place, and you’ll be gagging on rendered chicken fat. I’d venture that only 40% is decent, and the best handful of sellers would serve you a plate that might just be worth half your airfare. Four, he just plain eats it wrong. Whatever you do, don’t douse it in soy sauce for fuck sake. If you know enough about sushi to know that soy sauce disrespects the chef, you should know that the same about the chicken rice cook. Oh, and fun fact: Pay close attention to the guy chopping your chicken with the cleaver. Count his fingers, and see if you reach 10. If you do, he might not have being doing this for long enough. Read the rest of this entry »
I’m just back from Italy with a bunch of amazing food still to post, but first I’m going to hand over to a guest blogger. Lemur friend LocAlien has also been travelling – from the US to his childhood home of Singapore – and he’s been kind enough to write about what’s changed (often for the worse) in Singapore food culture and where you can still find authentic street food. LocAlien is a badass writer and has a real insider’s knowledge of Singaporean culture, so I’m super pleased that he’s written these guest posts. Enjoy…
Ten days in Singapore, and the food situation is dire. Whatever paradigm you use – loss of aura, pastiche, simulacra – they all apply. Neoliberalism has wrought urban renewal and franchising. Many legendary street food vendors are simply history. Malls everywhere, with their food courts modeled after colonial style coffee shops. You can’t walk 100 feet without hitting another, but they’re abominations. I can’t list all the examples, but I can cite one from personal experience. There used to be this cafe in a row of shophouses called the Polar Cafe. It served coffee (I mean real coffee) and a selection of pastries, and only that small selection of pastries. It was cooled by ceiling fans, had marble table tops, wooden-rattan chairs, and mosaic flooring. It was in the colonial downtown area on High Street, and I remember going there with my mother for tea-time snacks before walking over to city hall to ride home with my father. The restaurant is gone, of course. In its place? Franchised outlets that get their food from a central kitchen, which also stocks Polar-labelled display cases in things like the 7-11. I saw one of these glass cases the other day, moved towards it by pure instinct, then remembered the original location, and swiveled away in disgust. The website tracks the death of food culture quite ably, as a matter of fact. Read the rest of this entry »
My year of travelling continues, this time closer to home with a long weekend in Glasgow. I was there both for work and to see family and old friends, so I didn’t have a huge amount of time for culinary planning. (Please feel free to translate this as ‘I didn’t do anything in my spare time except drink terrifying quantities of gin’.) Luckily, I know the city well and even on autopilot can steer myself toward deliciousness. Glasgow is a pretty good food city, especially in the West End where I was based. There’s a strong emphasis on new Scottish cuisine, in which traditional dishes are reimagined and local ingredients blended with the flavours of the city’s South and East Asian immigrant cuisines. You can have amazing local seafood, game, and vegetables here but we never forget the importance of a good curry. As my friend D says, the nan bread up here is giant and pillowy. I did have a proper old-school Glasgow curry but, unsurprisingly, I was far too drunk to photograph it, so you’ll have to take my word on that one. After the jump, a walk through some of the highlights both Scottish and cosmopolitan.
A few years ago, I had the world’s best pork knuckle in Barcelona. It wasn’t long after the Great Portuguese Custard Tart Fight of 2007, in which Mr Lemur and I nearly came to blows in Lisbon after the ill-advised scoffing of the last custard tart by persons who shall remain nameless. Suffice it to say, I was aggrieved and ready for some revenge in the world of Iberian eating. Sweet sweet justice came along when we arrived in Barcelona and went to lunch in an unassuming bar that had been recommended to us. Sadly, I can’t remember the name of the bar, which was fairly central and nothing at all to look at, but filled up with locals at lunchtime. There were a few specials but the one that stood out immediately to me was pork knuckle in garlic.
Long-cooked meats are one of my favourite things and something about the phrase ‘pork knuckle’ just tells you it’s going to be good. Pork knuckle. Even saying it is appealing. Go on. Pork knuckle. Mr Lemur, however, did not share my enthusiasm because he hates eating meat on a bone if he thinks it might be finicky or that he’ll have to use his fingers. For him, the phrase ‘pork knuckle’ conjured up horrifying prospects of trying to wrest shards of meat from a giant bone without getting his fingers messy, and in public no less. He opted for the stuffed aubergine. I don’t think I have to tell you who won. My pork knuckle was sublime, with tender meat and a rich covering of very garlicky braising liquid. The meat fell away from the bone at the slightest touch. Mr Lemur was pissed off and the Custard Tart injustice was avenged. But ever since, pork knuckle has exerted a powerful force on my culinary imagination.
Of course, the problem is that I can never ever make pork knuckle that good. I haven’t even tried to replicate the Catalan dish because that way disappointment lies. But I often see pork knuckles at my local butcher and this weekend I decided to try something else to take advantage of all that piggy potential. Rather than a straight up braise, I cooked the meat propped up in a moat of flavouring liquid: that way, the meat gets imbued subtly with the flavour of the sauce while still remaining dry enough to produce crackling. Meanwhile, the liquid becomes intensely flavoured with rendered pork fat – you can skim most of it off at the end, but you still get a lovely rich sauce to soak the meat. After the success of the Nyonya braised beef I made a couple of months back, I thought I’d try some similar aromatic flavours for this rich pork dish.
Malaysian roast pork knuckle
- 1 pork knuckle, on the bone
- 4 shallots
- 6 cloves of garlic
- a thumb sized piece of ginger
- 3 star anise
- 3 cloves
- a chunk of cinnamon bark
- 6 dried red chilies
- 2 tbsp rice vinegar
- 2 tbsp dark soy sauce
- 1 tbsp palm sugar
- 1-2 cups water
- 4 tbsp oil
Chop the shallots in a mini prep until they become a paste. Fry in a large oven-friendly pot in the oil. It seems like a lot of oil but the shallots drink it up and you’ll be getting rid of it later anyway. Chop the garlic and ginger finely. When the shallots are beginning to colour, add them and sauté for a couple of minutes. Add the star anise, cloves, cinnamon and dried chilies and fry for just a minute until the spices release their aromas. Now add the vinegar, soy sauce and sugar, along with water to about 2 inches up the pot and stir well.
Score the skin of the pork (or have your butcher do this) and pat it carefully till very dry. Rub salt and pepper generously into the skin. Add the pork to the braising liquid, meat-side down so that all the skin remains dry. Bring the liquid to the boil and then transfer (uncovered) to an oven set very high at first (to help crisp up the crackling) and, after 15 minutes on high, turned down to gas mark 4 / 350 F / 180 C. Cook for about three hours, checking occasionally to make sure the liquid isn’t drying up.
When it comes out of the oven, the skin should already be nicely golden and fairly crispy. However, to finish the cracking, cut the skin off the meat and pop it back in the oven on a baking tray and turn the temperature right up until the skin really crisps up. (I should say that I didn’t plan this dish around crackling – if it’s your main objective, you’re probably better with pork belly and straight-up roasting it. The crackling on this dish wasn’t perfect but it was pretty good all the same.) While the meat is resting and the crackling crisping, skim most of the fat off the sauce with a spoon. Finally, cut the meat up roughly and serve pork, crackling and rich sauce along with rice and greens.
This trip to Paris was less meaty and heavy than previous ones, what with the not eating French food plan, but restaurant food is always a bit excessive, so I’ve been enjoying a week of Asian spicy salads to recover. There’s probably nothing I like more than an Asian salad – the mixture of cooked and raw vegetables, sometimes meats, and sparkily flavoured dressing is my idea of perfect warm weather food. This salad of green vegetables is an idea I learned from Vatcharin Bhumichitr’s great little book Vatch’s Southeast Asian Salads, and I’ve been making it in variously adapted forms for years now. Essentially, the dish involves lightly blanching an assortment of greens so that you end up with a generous bowl of vibrantly coloured vegetables, which are then dressed in a warm coconut and mint dressing. You can more or less make it at any time of year with green beans, broccoli, cabbage, whatever’s available, but it’s especially appealing in the late spring and early summer when you have asparagus and broad beans, or soon fresh peas at your disposal.
Green vegetable spicy salad with coconut dressing
- 100g green beens
- half a cucumber
- 100g sugar snap peas
- 200g asparagus
- 300g broad beans (weight in pods)
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 garlic clove, chopped
- 1 large green chili, chopped
- 3 tbsp coconut cream
- 2 tsp palm sugar
- 1 tbsp fish sauce*
- juice of 1 lime
- a handful of mint leaves, chopped
*For vegetarians, add salt to taste instead of fish sauce, and a tbsp of water.
Pod the broad beans, chop the asparagus, top and tail the beans. Bring a pot of water to the boil and blanch the vegetables each for 3-5 minutes, until just cooked. After each one is done, drain well, pat dry, and add to a bowl. Keep the broad beans separate so they can be peeled when cool. Meanwhile, julienne the cucumber.
To make the dressing, heat the oil in a small pot and gently sauté the chopped garlic till golden. Remove from the heat and add the chili, sugar, coconut cream and fish sauce. When you are ready to serve, add the lime juice and mint and mix with the salad. Serve over rice.
Mr Lemur has had a bit of a cold and, since I am Jewish, I naturally turn to chicken soup as a curative. But the old style Jewish penicillin doesn’t really do it for me as a culinary project and besides, I firmly believe that the best things for a cold are ginger, chilies, garlic and citrus. Like all cold remedies, they’re not going to cure it but they do make you feel slightly better about being sick. So I decided to make soto ayam, the Malaysian/Singaporean/Indonesian version of chicken soup that is about as soulful as a chicken soup can get.
I’ve made soto ayam before with noodles and with rice, but my Singaporean friend G suggested I should try it with ketupat, which are pressed rice cubes. G is a fellow foodie and is always sending me interesting nuggets of Southeast Asian food lore to consider. He knows exactly what’s going to pique my interest and ketupat, with their very specific twist on an ordinary ingredient, are right up my alley. They’re made by cooking rice inside a woven basket of coconut leaves. The rice has little space to expand and so cooks in a compressed form, making little rice cakes. Neat, huh? The only problem is that many Asian cooks buy the baskets ready made and weaving them oneself looks rather challenging, even assuming you could get hold of coconut leaves.
Frankly, it looks like the kind of craft project I’d make a total arse of. Luckily, Sunflower Food provides a cheat’s guide to ketupat, which involves cooking rice then mashing it with a potato masher, forming it into a block, and pressing it under weights. Since I’ve never had the original, I can’t say how close this version comes, but it is certainly easy and the resulting blocks had a good texture.
As with the various starches that can go into a soto ayam, the soup itself has many variations. Most involve turmeric that turns the soup a lovely yellow colour, but I’ve seen versions that are pale and milky looking too. What they all have in common is chicken cooked in a spice-scented broth that then forms the basis for the soup. The cooked chicken is shredded and added back into the soup, along with an array of possible toppings. My version draws from James Oseland’s method of frying the spice paste before adding it to the broth (a method that I’ve found really useful in cooking Malaysian-style dishes) but I have a somewhat different balance of spices. Mr Lemur is still looking a bit peaky but I think he’s much better for the soto ayam.
Soto ayam / Singapore style chicken soup
- 2 chicken leg and thigh portions
- 1 litre or so of filtered water
- 8 shallots
- 3 cloves garlic
- 3 inches of fresh turmeric
- 1 inch of ginger
- 1 inch of galangal
- 4 stalks lemongrass
- 1 tbsp coriander seeds
- 1 tsp black peppercorns
- 2 cloves
- 2 star anise
- 3 lime leaves
- 1-2 limes
- 1/2 a long red chili (or 2 smaller red ones)
- a handful of cilantro
- a handful of beansprouts
- 12 or more blocks of ketupat
- salt and cooking oil
Pour the water into a large pot. I got the filtering tip from Oseland also, and it makes sense that for a clear soup, you really want the water to taste good. Add the chicken pieces, star anise and lime leaves. Bash up the lemongrass a bit with the back of a knife and add. Add a good pinch of salt. Bring to the boil, skim the surface and simmer for about 45 minutes, till the chicken is beginning to fall off the bones. Remove the chicken and set aside to cool. (Make sure your cat doesn’t eat it.) Discard the flavourings from the broth but keep the broth. When the chicken is cool enough to touch, pull it apart into fine shreds.
While the chicken is cooking, prepare the spice paste and toppings. First, slice four of the shallots thinly and fry until brown. Set these aside for later. Slice the chili thinly, wash the beansprouts, and pull the leaves off the cilantro. Put all these toppings aside.
Next, put the peppercorns, coriander seeds and cloves in a mini prep or spice grinder and process till powdered. Roughly chop the remaining shallots and add to the ground spices in a mini prep along with the garlic and the peeled and chopped ginger, galangal and turmeric. Process till smooth and then fry for five minutes or so in the same pan used for the shallots. You’ll want to be quite generous with the oil as this paste drinks it up, and stir often to avoid burning. When the paste doesn’t smell raw any more, add it to the broth along with the shredded chicken.
Now simmer the soup for another 10-15 minutes, to give the flavours time to meld. When the soup is ready, take it off the heat and squeeze in the juice of 1 lime (or more) to taste. Check for salt now too. To serve, put several ketupat blocks in the bottom of a bowl and ladle over the soup. Top with beansprouts, cilantro leaves and fried shallots. Other possible toppings include mint, pineapple cubes, shrimp crackers and sambal oelek.
One of my favourite Malaysian dishes is sambal petai. I always order it in restaurants – it’s one of the choices that tends to get me a side-eye from the waiter, with maybe an ‘are you sure you want this?’ thrown in. I don’t know why. Despite their English name of ‘stink bean’, petai aren’t stinky and with their buttery texture and slight grassiness, they’re like a more strongly-flavoured version of British broad beans (i.e. American favas). Fresh petai are hard to come by in these parts, but when I saw the first of the season’s broad beans in the co-op, I realised that they might provide a good local alternative. My usual way with broad beans is Italian: either mashed up with pecorino, mint and olive oil or in pasta with asparagus, chilies and mozzarella. But maybe I could combine them with the embarrassingly large bag of chilies I had sitting in the fridge…
The only problem is that no matter how big a bag of broad beans you fill, what you end up with is always disappointingly paltry. This might be true with petai as well, but they’re bigger beans and the pods seem more reliably packed. With broad beans, you go home with an enormous and unruly bag of pods but by the time you’ve podded them then boiled and peeled the beans, you’re left with a harvest that’s always smaller than you anticipated. So, I knew I wasn’t going to make the version of this dish that’s almost all beans, with a little sauce and a few shrimp studded among them. Instead, I went for more of a saucy sambal, with lots of plump shrimps and the beans as a secondary element. I think if I made it again, I’d bite the bullet and buy kilos of broad beans to ensure they were the star of the show, but it was still pretty good this way.
Shrimp and broad bean sambal
- 12 large shrimp, peeled
- 2 cloves of garlic
- a small chunk of ginger
- 5 shallots
- 6 long red chilies
- 1 tsp shrimp paste
- 2 stalks of lemongrass
- 1 medium tomato, chopped
- 1 tbs palm sugar
- 1 tbs fish sauce
- as many broad beans as you can bear to pod
Pound the garlic, chilies, shallots, shrimp paste and ginger into a paste either in a mortar and pestle or with a mini-prep. (You can toast the shrimp paste first but I tend not to if it’s going to be cooked in a paste right after.) Boil the broad beans for a few minutes, then cool and peel.
Fry the paste in a good glug of vegetable oil for 5 minutes. Add the lemongrass whole, bashed a bit with the back of a knife, and the chopped tomato, fish sauce and sugar. Add the shrimp and stir until cooked. Take out the lemongrass. Lastly, add the broad beans and stir carefully to mix.
I’ve often bemoaned my lack of an Asian grandmother to teach me the kind of cooking that I love, but I also really value what I’ve learned from cookbooks. I had a really interesting discussion recently about how we learn unfamiliar cuisines with Eating Asia‘s Robyn and Dish a Day‘s Aaron. Aaron had just completed a fascinating project of cooking a dish every day for a month from David Thomson’s book Thai Food. Despite having lived in Thailand and knowing quite a bit about the cuisine, he found the rigour of following the recipes changed how he thought about Thai cooking. In fact, he concluded that we should all be cooking more from recipes. Those of us who love to cook often think of recipes as props for the incompetent, but in fact, we can get lazy when we throw flavours around, knowing we can easily make something tasty. Following a traditional recipe not only forces us to do things properly, but teaches us the complex foundations of a cuisine through its techniques and processes. Even with a cuisine we think we know, we can become better cooks by cooking from good recipes.
I thought of this discussion when D and J, two of my oldest friends, came to stay this weekend, because I wanted to make a Nyonya feast to celebrate their visit. Sure, I could have thrown together something vaguely Malaysian, based on what I’ve learned over the years, but I was drawn instead to cook more rigorously and to try out some more of James Oseland’s carefully sourced recipes from the wonderful Cradle of Flavor. D is a fantastic cook, and I knew he’d enjoy spending an evening in the kitchen pottering about and watching dishes gradually emerge. I’ve always been a believer in Nigel Slater’s ethos that helping the cook means keeping her company and making sure her wine glass is full, so we settled in with several bottles of red and guests in the dining room within chatting distance of the stove.
I’ve cooked quite a bit from Cradle of Flavor, and it has truly been an education in the cuisines of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Oseland has spent a long time researching the book, and many of his recipes have clearly been patiently teased out of friends and people he has met on his travels. The two I cooked for D and J are Nyonya Shrimp Curry with Fresh Pineapple and Tomatoes (courtesy of a Malaccan acquaintance called Kenneth) and Spiced Braised Nyonya Pork (courtesy of Jennifer Kuan). There’s a sense of knowledge shared here that pleases the researcher in me: Oseland’s book really delves into the foodways of Malaysia, and cooking these recipes carefully as written paid off. We were a bit tipsy by the time the dishes came triumphantly to the table but they were both spectacularly good. And the homey feel of the food (“like a great big hug” as Jennifer Kuan says) definitely translates from Malacca to Brighton. We had a lovely evening with the boys, talking, drinking, and pulling heads off shrimp around the table.
Nyonya Shrimp Curry with Fresh Pineapple and Tomatoes
I followed as close to the recipe as possible, but this is what I cooked, rather than exactly what Oseland stipulates. For instance, the original recipe calls for 2 stalks of lemongrass, but our lemongrass is kind of crappy, so I doubled it. I think if your lemongrass is not super fresh, you end up needing quite a bit more to achieve the same amount of flavour. He also offers a range of chili options: I went for the maximum numbers. For his original version, of course, you should check out the book, if you don’t already own it!
For the flavouring paste:
- 4 stalks lemongrass
- 3 shallots, coarsely chopped
- 1 clove garlic, coarsely chopped
- 7 fresh red Holland chilies, chopped
- 4 fresh green Thai chilies, chopped
- 2 inches fresh turmeric, peeled and chopped
- 4 candlenuts
For the main dish:
- 3 tbsp oil
- 2 cups fresh pineapple, cut in triangles
- 2 cups water
- 2 tbsp palm sugar
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 1 ld medium size shrimp (prawns in the UK) in the shell
- 2 small tomatoes
- 1 cup coconut milk
First make the flavouring paste. Put all the chopped ingredients into a mini-prep and blend till smooth. You may have to push down bits that remain too big and add a little water if they stubbornly refuse to blend.
Heat the oil in a large pot over medium-low, and sauté the paste. It should sizzle nicely but not aggressively, or it will stick. Cook for 5 minutes until it doesn’t smell raw. Oseland says the oil will separate from the paste but I never manage to achieve this effect. Add the pineapple and mix well. Next add the water, sugar and salt, bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for about 5 minutes.
Add the shrimp/prawns and stir. Continue cooking gently till the shrimp are cooked, a few more minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook for 2 more minutes.
Add the coconut milk and stir for another couple of minutes.
As Oseland says, at this point the dish goes a gorgeous orange colour. It’s really awfully pretty. Taste for salt, and allow the dish to rest for 10 minutes before serving. (This is easy if you are drunk and have forgotten to put the rice on until now.)
Sambal ikan, or fish sambal, is a subgenre of Malaysian dishes that includes both sambal ikan bilis (with the little anchovies that go into nasi lemak) and sambal ikan goreng, a popular dish of fried fish with sambal sauce. Of course, I am interested in anything that starts with funky dried shrimp sauce, but when I was recently told that I should eat more oily fish, I started thinking about how I might combine mackerel with sambal flavours. There is a Malaysian dish called sambal ikan tenggiri, which translates as mackerel sambal. However, the fish used is kingfish, which is in the mackerel family but much bigger than the kind we see usually in the UK. Thick steaks of kingfish are cooked in a sambal sauce, but that approach seemed like it would be fiddly with the smaller, bony mackerel of the south of England. So I came up with the idea of simplifying things by using smoked mackerel fillets and turning the dish into more of a deconstructed spicy salad: fish, lightly cooked greens, and fiery sambal to be mixed with rice as you eat. This approach made for an incredibly easy weeknight meal and also one that brings the richness of the fish and the deep umami pleasures of the sambal to the fore.
Smoked mackerel sambal
- 3 garlic cloves
- 8 shallots
- 3 stems of lemongrass
- 6 fresh medium red chilies
- 1 tsp shrimp paste
- 1 tbsp palm sugar
- 1 tbsp tamarind water
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- 3 fillets of smoked mackerel
- small bunch of bok choy
- 1/2 a red pepper
Roughly chop the garlic, shallots, chilies and lemongrass (using only the soft inside layers) and mix in a mini prep to a paste. Place the shrimp paste in an envelope of tinfoil, squash to a flat disk, and grill on a hot skillet for a minute on each side. Now add to the paste and mix well.
Heat a generous glug of oil in a non-stick pan and add the paste. It should sizzle nicely. Cook and stir for five minutes. Add the tamarind to taste, palm sugar and fish sauce. Cook for another minute.
Cut the bok choy in halves lengthwise and blanch in boiling water for a minute. Slice the red pepper thinly. Now arrange the fish and vegetables on a plate and serve with plenty of sambal and rice.