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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 »
I’m not generally a fan of specialist kitchen equipment. Mostly, this is because I’ve spent my life cooking in tiny kitchens where finding a place to plug in both a coffee maker and a toaster is a stretch, never mind room for juice extractors, cherry stoners and the like. Urban cooking tends to focus your attention on basic kit: good knives, chopping boards and as many Le Creuset pots as can be stuffed in the cupboard without undermining the floor. I also tend to agree with Alton Brown’s rule of thumb that if a device can only be used for one thing – aka the unitasker – then it doesn’t deserve a place in your kitchen. (I should note the less well-known but equally valuable theory of my friend P, who applies this swiss-army knife rule to men.) People who don’t cook much tend to fetishise these uber-specialist devices whereas those of us who do are more likely to shrug our shoulders and attack the task with a knife or a rolling pin. But all that said, there are some objects that are so beautiful, so perfectly adapted to their culinary task, that they cannot be denied. These are not objects invented to fill the shelves of bougie culinary stores and provide unwanted Christmas gifts for foodies, but rather created to do a specific and important job in a particular food culture. These are objects that resonate, and recently, two of them appeared in my life.
The first is the device in the photograph above. Can you guess what it is? It’s a coconut scraper, a very simple thing made of metal and plastic, and it came to me from half-way across the world. Recently, I met up with inspirational food writer Naomi Duguid in London. You might know Naomi from her wonderful books on Asian food, cowritten with Jeffrey Alford, such as Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet and Mangoes and Curry Leaves. I’ve long been a fan of her writing, which combines delicious recipes with an infectious curiosity about cultures and foodways, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to spend some time with her on her trip to the UK. We poked around some East London markets, which didn’t turn out to have as much in the way of food as we’d hoped, but it was a beautiful day and the markets were full of flowers and books and interesting stuff. Naomi arrived with the coconut scraper, which she brought for me as a gift from her recent travels in Burma. How wonderful is that? It’s a humble tool but a remarkably effective one for scraping the meat out of fresh coconuts, and a really beautiful gift.
The second object is this gorgeous Thai somtam mortar and pestle. I had been reading about somtam – you know that I’m mildly obsessed with the stuff – and noted that Thai cooks use a special conical shaped mortar and pestle to create the distinctive pounded effect. I’ve also made it many a time in my standard European mortar and pestle and it is, to be honest, a bit of a faff. For one thing, my mortar and pestle isn’t nearly big enough, and for another you don’t really want to do the swirling around the bottom of the bowl hand movement when pounding somtam, so the mortar isn’t really the right shape. Then, one day we went grocery shopping in one of the Asian stores in town, and I noticed on a low shelf what looked exactly like the Thai conical mortar and pestles I’d been reading about. Holy synchronicity, Batman! They were wrapped up in newspaper and as I pulled one out and unwrapped it, I could see it was exactly that: a beautiful earthenware mortar with carved wooden pestle, carefully wrapped in Thai-language newsprint. Clearly, this lovely object had appeared in my life for a reason.
So one of these implements is definitely much more practically useful than the other. If I’m being honest, I still prefer to do my fresh coconut in the Cuisinart than by hand. The Burmese scraper does produce a fluffier result but it would take a long-ass time to scrape a whole coconut by hand. The somtam mortar and pestle, meanwhile, is just a joy to use, the shape perfect for pounding and the wooden pestle light enough not to destroy the delicate vegetables. All the same, they are both objects to treasure. I made a meal this week to celebrate both of them: Indonesian lamb shanks cooked with fresh coconut, coconut water, and coconut milk, and Thai green papaya, tomato and green bean somtam. We shared it with lovely visitors from Croatia D&I – it seemed apt to celebrate Naomi’s gift from abroad with new friends from yet another part of the world.
The lamb shanks I adapted from one of James Oseland’s recipes. It’s peppery rather than chili hot, and the three types of coconut offset the spiciness. It was a lovely long-cooked dish somewhat in the manner of a rendang, although saucier as you add in a bunch more coconut milk at the end.
The somtam was a quick papaya somtam, something fresh to counter the richness of the lamb shanks. A bit fusion mixing Indonesian and Thai, perhaps, but I tend to think somtam is never inappropriate as a vegetable dish. I dialed down the chilies because the lamb was quite peppery and because I wanted to showcase the light new Vietnamese fish sauce I bought in London.
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.
Having finally vanquished my giant work project, I decided this weekend it was time to spend some quality time in the kitchen. I’ve been exploring Malaysian and Indonesian food recently, and one inspiring source has been James Oseland’s Cradle of Flavor, which is one of those rare cookbooks you can read for pleasure as well as cook from. It’s not just a list of recipes but a real education in the foodways and culinary techniques of the Southeast Asian Spice Islands. I played around with a few dishes this weekend but my favourite was a variant of the cooked vegetable salad urap.
I might have mentioned my love of chilies. Asian spicy salads are probably my favourite thing to cook because the flavours stay bright and separate, and the textures of different vegetables (and sometimes meats) contrast in the mouth. Thai pomelo and chicken salad, Vietnamese grilled beef and lime, and Indonesian gado-gado are some of my longstanding favourites. These salads are main dishes not sides, and once you have a sense of some of the basic structures, you can easily branch out and create new variants.
This recipe is for a slightly simplified version of urap, which you can make with more or less any vegetables you have available seasonally. Dark greens like spinach would be a nice addition, but I went for red cabbage for colour contrast. In some versions of this dish, the coconut is cooked with a spice paste to give a rich, toasty flavour that can also include shallots and shrimp paste. Made that way, you get more of a sambal quality, but I wanted to keep the lightness of the lime flavour and fresh veggies.
Urap (Indonesian vegetable coconut salad)
This salad is properly made with fresh coconut, which does make a big difference to both taste and texture, but I find grinding up coconuts not to be conducive to everyday cooking if you don’t have company coming. It’s a different dish with desiccated coconut, but still a delicious one. You could up the sugar levels to compensate, but I have instead made the whole thing less sweet to create a more lime and chile oriented dish.
- 5 or 6 lime leaves
- 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
- 4 long red chilies, roughly chopped (Holland or similar, not small Thai ones but not so big as to be overly mild either)
- 4cm chunk of fresh turmeric, chopped
- 4cm chunk of ginger, sliced in thin matchsticks
- 2 tbsp palm sugar
- 4 tbsp lime juice
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 2/3 cup desiccated coconut
- 1 cup (or more) breansprouts
- a big handful of green beans
- 1-2 cups of red cabbage, shredded
- 1/2 cucumber, in matchsticks
- a big handful of Thai basil
To make the dressing, first cut out the centre strip from the lime leaves then slice them finely. Put them in a mini-prep food processor with the garlic, ginger, turmeric, chilies, palm sugar and lime juice and blend till smooth. Put in a bowl and add coconut and salt to taste. (Be careful with the salt: you might need less than you think.)
Now blanch the veggies: set a pot of water to a rolling boil, and throw in the beansprouts first. Blanch for just a few seconds, scoop them out and drain under cold water. Blanch the green beans for a couple of minutes at most and drain the same way. Then do the cabbage for about 30 seconds to a minute. If you use other vegetables, blanch for as short a time as seems reasonable. Once they’re all drained and cooled, dry them off gently with paper towels (or a clean teatowel if you’re feeling green) and put in a big bowl with the cucumber and Thai basil.
Now mix in the dressing, which will be fairly thick. Taste for salt and lime juice and serve immediately. (Actually, I’ve been eating it happily for a day or so – it’s probably not optimal but it’s still pretty darn good.) You could eat urap on its own with just steamed rice, but here I’ve paired it with a lamb and coconut milk curry. It would also be nice with a homemade sambal belacan, to add some of those funky shrimpy notes in contrast to the freshness of the vegetables.
Recipe adapted from James Oseland’s Cradle of Flavor.