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.)