Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Week 32: A Journey to Malayasia

As I began researching Malaysian cuisine for this week’s dishes, I quickly discovered how much the Chinese and Indian cultures have influenced Malaysia’s flavors and combination of ingredients.  The history of this region’s connection to China and India dates back to the first century BC when trade routes were established between the countries.  Most uniquely “Malaysian” dishes would be more appropriately deemed as Nyonya or Peranakan cuisine.  Nyonya dishes developed as a result of early Chinese migrants settling in Malaysia and marrying local women.  This cuisine blends the ingredients and cooking techniques of the Chinese with the flavors of the Malaysian/Indonesian community, such as coconut milk, peanuts, coriander, turmeric, cumin, fenugreek, cardamom, clove, cinnamon, star anise, chiles, galangal, candlenuts, pandan leaves, tamarind, lemongrass, ginger, jicama, and kaffir lime leaves.  I set out to explore Malaysian cuisine’s blends of flavors and ingredients in order to better understand its unique flavor profile.

Making Tamarind Paste
Tamarind Pods
Tamarind is a popular fruit often used in Malaysian cuisine as a sour component.  When I began reading recipes for Malaysian dishes to prepare, I quickly recognized that Tamarind Paste would be an essential ingredient for this week’s project.  Living in South Florida, I am fortunate to have access to many tropical fruits like tamarind, and I’ve often considered picking up some fresh tamarind pods at the grocery store just to see what I could do with them.  This week, I took on the challenge.

I purchased a pound of fresh tamarind and set out to make tamarind paste.  I began by shelling the pulp from the pods.  I tasted a bite from the end of the pod and found the raw flavor quite lovely actually.  I added the pulp and one cup of water to a sauce pan and began warming it over medium heat.  I stood over the pot smashing and mashing the pulp until the seeds started popping out.  Eventually, I had a mixture that looked similar to apple butter with large seeds in it.  I pushed the mixture through a strainer and returned it to the saucepan to cook down into a paste.  It was actually very simple.

As a side note, I saved some of the mixture that looked like apple butter before I reduced it into a paste.  I added a touch of honey to it and, voila….tamarind butter!  I spread it on toast, and I must say it was quite delicious.

Saturday Night Dinner:  Laksa, Nasi Lemak, and Rendang

Curry Laksa
Laksa is a quintessential example of Nyonya cuisine as it closely resembles a Chinese brothy noodle soup, but its ingredients and garnishes reflect the flavors of Malaysian cuisine.  Although an appropriate definition of Laksa may be simply “spicy noodle soup,” the number of variations on this dish is extensive.  Wikipedia alone sites eighteen fully defined versions.  In general, laksa falls into two categories:  Curry Laksa, based with a coconut milk and curry broth, and Asam Laksa, based with a tamarind and fish broth.  I chose to follow a Curry Laksa recipe in Mark Bittman’s The Best Recipes in the World.  The broth begins with a curry paste of garlic, shallots, ginger, fresh chili peppers, tamarind paste, turmeric, and coriander.  This paste is fried until fragrant, and then lemongrass and stock are added to simmer. (Based on other recipes I read, I think that use of a fish broth here would be most authentic.  I used a vegetable stock because that’s what I had on hand, and I didn’t want to muddle the fresh flavors from the curry paste and lemongrass by adding a heavier chicken or beef broth.)  After the broth simmers for fifteen minutes, coconut milk is added, and the soup simmers for just a few more minutes.  To serve, I place cooked Chinese egg noodles and bean sprouts in the bottom of a bowl, ladled the curry broth over them, and garnished with hard-boiled eggs, cucumber, and tofu.  Without a doubt, the freshly-made curry paste enhanced the complex flavors of this dish and was highlighted by the heat of the chiles and creaminess of the coconut milk.  The only change I will make next time is to add a little more heat.  The chiles I used were not very spicy, and I know that to be authentically Malaysian, my dish needed more kick. 

Beef Rendang and Nasi Lemak
Nasi Lemak holds the rank of Malaysia’s National Dish.  Although, its name appears to simply refer to rice cooked in coconut milk, the actual “National Dish” is more likely the name of the common breakfast platter of the coconut milk-infused rice, fried anchovies, roasted peanuts, hard-boiled egg, and sambal (a spicy chile sauce).  Street vendors also serve this combination of ingredients wrapped in a banana leaf as a “fast food” option.  It is traditionally a breakfast dish, but restaurants and street vendors alike serve it for lunch and dinner.  For dinner in a more formal environment, restaurants often transform the dish into a more elaborate presentation by including a meat curry or rendang with the coconut milk-infused rice.  I opted to serve it with rendang.

From the moment I read the description of beef rendang, I knew it was a dish that must be included in the project.  Rendang refers to a spicy meat dish that is dry-braised in a chile paste and coconut milk until it is dark and tender.  Again, I chose Mark Bittman’s The Best Recipes in the World as a guideline for preparing this dish.  I made a paste of ginger, scallions, garlic, turmeric, lemongrass, coriander, chiles, and tamarind paste.  I slathered chunks of beef chuck with this paste and let it marinate for about an hour.  Then, I browned it in a skillet, added coconut milk, and sautéed it until most of the sauce had dried up.  I covered the dish and let it simmer over low heat for another thirty minutes.  The result is a rich, tender beef dish perfectly complemented by the creamy, coconut milk-infused rice.

Sunday’s Malaysian Grill:  Otak Otak and Tauhu Bakar

Otak Otak
Otak-Otak is a fish mousse steamed inside a grilled banana leaf.  The most commonly used fish in this dish is mackerel, but I substituted halibut as it was more accessible.  I followed Steven Raichlen’s recipe from Planet BBQ to make the fish mousse.  I began by blending a paste of shallots, garlic, ginger, macadamia nuts (for texture, because I did not have candlenuts available), lemongrass, turmeric, tapioca flour, and coconut milk in a food processor.  Then, per Raichlen’s instructions, I added chunks of the fish and pulsed just until the entire mixture combined.  He notes that a proper otak-otak should not be completely smooth.  Instead, there should be small, soft pieces of fish within the cake.  To prepare the cakes for the grill, I put about ¼ cup of paste in a small oval on a banana leaf and folded two sides of the leaf over the paste securing them with toothpicks.  The leaves are then grilled over high heat for about three minutes per side.  The final result is a moist, flavorful fish cake.

Malaysian Grill:  Otak Otak in
Banana Leaves & Tofu brushed
with chile peanut sauce

Tauhu Bakar
Tauhu Bakar, Malaysian-style Grilled Tofu with Chile Peanut Sauce, is another Malaysian dish that caught my attention in Planet BBQ.  After reading so many accounts of the spiciness of Malaysian dishes, I wanted to make something that really highlighted that aspect of the cuisine.  This was actually my favorite dish of the week!  The sauce is delicious, and it would be good with shrimp, chicken, beef, lamb….pretty much anything.  The sauce is made with garlic, shallots, ginger, chile paste, sugar, hoisin, chopped roasted peanuts, and sesame seeds.  It is lightly brushed on the tofu, and then the tofu is grilled for a few minutes per side.  When served, more sauce is spooned over the tofu, and the plate is garnished with cucumber, fresh pineapple, and bean sprouts to add a fresh, light element.  Delicious!  I loved it so much that traded the hubs some of my otak otak for half of his tofu.

This week’s Malaysian dishes offered an interesting twist on familiar preparations and ingredients.  The highlights of the week were definitely the beef rendang and the grilled tofu with chile peanut sauce.  The combination of influences from China, India, and Indonesia came together in a pleasing manner and definitely gave me a better idea of what Malaysia’s dishes offer.

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