Malaysian

Sambal Belacan

Sambal belacan is one of the most popular condiments in Malaysian (Malay) cuisine often served as an accompaniment to rice, which is a staple food for Malaysians.

In its simplest form, the basic ingredients for sambal belacan are fresh chilies (usually red while green is also used though to a considerably lesser extent), belacan (a fermented shrimp paste) and kalamansi lime juice.

More often however, Malaysians opt to jazz up the simple version with a variety of ingredients such as shallots, garlic, lemongrass, tomatoes, tamarind juice and fermented durian paste (known locally as “tempoyak”) to name a few. This has resulted in an endless array of sambal belacan “varieties”. There are no fixed ingredients for sambal belacan with different families having their own sambal belacan recipes.

Regardless of ingredient variations, fresh red chilies and belacan are key ingredients, without which, the condiment would no longer be “sambal belacan”. Malaysia offers a wide variety of chilies, and for sambal belacan, most often it is ripe fresh red chilies (not green) that are used.

These ripe, fresh red chilies are known as “cili merah” in Malay (“cili” = “chili”, “merah” = “red) and in elsewhere in the world, these chilies could be identified as red cayenne peppers. They are soft to the touch, a vibrant red in color, about 3 ½ to 4 inches in length and about ½ to ¾ of an inch in diameter at their thickest section.

Since this particular red chili variety does not rank too high on the Scoville scale for the average Malaysian, it is common for some fresh bird’s eye chilies (known locally as “cili padi”) to be thrown in as well for extra heat. Although bird’s eye chilies are considerably smaller than “cili merah”, these seemingly-innocent chilies pack substantially more heat.

Belacan is a paste of fermented shrimp and salt. A good belacan is imperative for a quality sambal belacan.

To make sambal belacan, traditionally, belacan is first lightly toasted over a charcoal fire until it turns aromatic and powdery. Next, this is combined with fresh chilies and other ingredients in a traditional pestle and mortar, known as a “lesong” or “lesung” which may be made of wood or granite. The ingredients are pounded and then the sambal is ready to serve.

For convenience and efficiency, modern day households may opt for modern electric appliances such as food processors instead of Malaysia’s traditional kitchen tool, the “lesung”. However, good things take time and usage of these modern equipment may come at the expense of quality, nutrition and authenticity.

Pounding the ingredients in the traditional pestle and mortar is believed to better extract the flavors as well as mix the flavors together which results in a far more authentic outcome than when modern kitchen tools are used.

Consequently, sambal belacan produced according to the traditional method is generally accepted to be more flavorful and wholesome compared to those produced in a haste.

Version 1 (classic, traditional)

Yield: ¼ cup

Ingredients:

  • 5-6 fresh red chilies – discard stalks
  • 1-2 fresh bird’s eye chilies (add more for extra heat) – discard stalks
  • 1 – 1 ½ tablespoons belacan
  • 1 fresh kalamansi lime – juiced

Method:

Over a low flame, toast the belacan until it dries, turns powdery and is aromatic. Do not burn.

Combine the toasted belacan with the chilies in a stone pestle and mortar. Pound until fine.

When ready to serve, add kalamansi lime juice and mix thoroughly.

Taste and make adjustments if necessary (usually this involves adding salt or kalamansi lime juice).

Serve immediately.

Version 2 (“Sambal Belacan Tomato”)

Yield: 1/3 cup

Ingredients:

  • 5-6 fresh red chilies – discard stalks
  • 1-2 fresh bird’s eye chilies (add more for extra heat) – discard stalks
  • 1 ½ – 2 tablespoons belacan
  • 2 shallots
  • 1 semi-ripe fresh tomato – roughly chopped
  • 1 kalamansi lime – juiced

Method:

Over a low flame, toast the belacan until it dries, turns powdery and is aromatic.  Do not burn.

Combine the toasted belacan with the chilies and shallots in a stone pestle and mortar. Pound until fine.

When well pounded, add roughly chopped tomato and pound again. The tomatoes should retain some bite, not be too mushy.

When ready to serve, add kalamansi lime juice and mix thoroughly.

Taste and make adjustments if necessary (usually this involves adding salt or kalamansi lime juice).

Serve immediately.

 

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Kue Wajik / Kuih Wajik / Kuih Wajid

Kue Wajik / Kuih Wajik / Kuih Wajid decorated with pandan leaves, served on a white rectangular plate.

A healthy Southeast Asian dessert – Kue Wajik / Kuih Wajik / Kuih Wajid

Popular in Indonesia (especially in Java where the sweet holds great cultural significance), Malaysia and Brunei, kue wajik / kuih wajik / kuih wajid is a traditional chewy sweet rice cake made with glutinous rice (also known as sticky rice), palm sugar, thick coconut milk and pandan.

The cake is believed to have originated in Indonesia. It is particularly popular in Java, where wajik is held as a symbol of harmony and thus is often served at weddings.

In Indonesia it is known as “wajik ketan” (“ketan” means “glutinous rice” in Indonesian), “kue wajik” or just “wajik” (“kue” means “cake” in Indonesian), in Malaysia it is known as “kuih wajik” or just “wajik” (“kuih” means “cake in Malay) and in Brunei it is known as “kuih wajid” or just “wajid”.

In all three countries, the sweet is made with exactly the same ingredients – glutinous rice, coconut milk, palm sugar and pandan leaves. In all three countries, there are no fixed recipes for this sweet rice cake, with different families having their own variations to the preparation method passed down from generation to generation. Ingredient quantities were also rarely strictly measured out and instead involved guesswork and estimations.

While the ingredients are the same, the manner of serving the cake differs – in Indonesia and Malaysia it is usually served cut into diamonds (in connection with the name of the cake – “wajik” means “diamond” in Indonesian) whereas in Brunei individual bite-sized pieces of the sweet cake are painstakingly enveloped in rectangular banana leaf packets.

In Brunei, wajid is traditionally made with a Javanese variety of rice known as “beras Jawa” (“beras” means “rice” in Indonesian and Malay) and the resulting wajid is referred to as “wajid Jawa”.

Fresh, good quality ingredients are paramount for a quality outcome. While canned, UHT, powdered coconut milk can be used, freshly squeezed coconut milk yields a considerably superior result. Palm sugar (known as “gula jawa” in Indonesia and “gula melaka” in Malaysia) contributes a distinct flavor and color to the sweet which refined sugar or brown sugar cannot match. Palm sugar, being unrefined by nature is considered to be healthier than refined sugar thus making this sweet a relatively healthy treat to enjoy.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup glutinous rice
  • 5-6 tablespoons hot water
  • 1/3 – 1 cup palm sugar
  • 1/2 cup thin coconut milk
  • 4 pandan leaves – tied to a knot
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 cup thick coconut milk
  • Banana leaves

Method:

Wash glutinous rice.

Soak glutinous rice overnight.

Drain water from soaked glutinous rice.

Steam glutinous rice with 2 pandan leaves.

When glutinous rice is about 3/4 cooked, add about 5-6 tablespoons of hot water and let steam again until the glutinous rice is cooked and soft.

Once glutinous rice is cooked stop heat.

Grease a tin or baking tray.

In a heavy-bottom pot, boil thin coconut milk and palm sugar until the palm sugar is completely dissolved.

Strain this palm sugar syrup to remove any impurities.

Return palm sugar syrup to heavy-bottom pot, add salt and the remaining two pandan leaves.

Cook for a while, stirring continuously until it bubbles.

Add coconut milk slowly and stir continuously.

Reduce heat and simmer, stirring continuously until mixture thickens.

Transfer cooked glutinous rice into the mixture.

Cook, stirring frequently until the liquid evaporates and the mixture is a glossy, thick, pliable mass.

Immediately pour the mixture into the tin / baking tray.

Using a banana leaf, press down the cake.

Cover the cake with banana leaves.

Set aside at room temperature to cool.

Cut into diamonds.

 

Agar-Agar Gula Melaka (Agar-Agar Dessert Flavored With Gula Melaka)

Agar-agar gula melaka, served in a glass, rectangular dish.

A healthy and delicious Malaysian dessert – agar-agar gula melaka.

Agar-agar gula melaka is an aromatic and flavorful local dessert from Malaysia, made with agar-agar and thick coconut milk, fragranced with pandan and sweetened with gula melaka. The two-tone layers of the dessert make for a pleasing appearance, requiring no extra effort; the coconut milk fat is lower in density than water and hence it floats to the top.

Gula melaka,as it is known in Malaysia, is an unrefined form of palm sugar, made from sap extracted from the date, coconut or sago palm. The sap is boiled over low flame until it thickens and is left to solidify in hollow bamboo tubes, usually 3-5 inches in length, thus forming a cylindrical block of natural sweetener with a rich, complex flavor and aroma that refined sugar cannot match. The color of gula melaka varies from golden brown to a rich, dark brown. Gula melaka is extensively used throughout Southeast Asia as a flavoring agent for various culinary delights; rendang for instance, a very popular meat-based curry in Malaysia and Indonesia often includes a pinch of gula melaka. More often however, gula melaka is predominantly used for sweets and desserts. Agar-agar gula melaka is one such dessert.

Gula melaka, being an unrefined form of sugar is generally considered to be healthier than refined sugar since unrefined sugar retains more minerals. Consequently, this dessert could be considered to be relatively healthier than refined-sugar-based desserts.

Good quality thick coconut milk (known as “santan” in Malay) is imperative for a successful outcome. While canned/frozen/UHT coconut milk can be used to make this dessert as is done in modern-day households,  freshly-made coconut milk is strongly recommended, not just to ensure a quality finished product taste-wise and appearance-wise but also for health purposes as fresh is always better than unfresh. Stale coconut milk can curdle when boiled, resulting in a relatively unappetizing finished product, taste-wise and appearance-wise. Coconut milk that is too dilute i.e., the water content is too high, may result in a finished product where the coconut layer is disproportionately too thin.  Hence, it may be necessary to make adjustments to the ratios specified in the recipe depending on the quality of the coconut milk.

Pandan leaves lose their aroma and flavor as they get old. Hence, use only fresh pandan leaves, the fresher the better. The quantity can be adjusted as desired, for a stronger aroma and flavor use more, for a milder version use less.

 

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups (about 500ml) water
  • 1 3/4 cup loosely packed agar-agar strands (or as required for the above quantity of water – follow directions on the package)
  • 110 grams – 150 grams (about 1/2 – 3/4 cups loosely packed) crushed gula melaka
  • 2-3 fresh pandan leaves – tied to a knot
  • 1 1/4 cups (about 300ml) thick coconut milk
  • Pinch of salt

 

Method:

In a heavy-bottom pan, combine water, agar-agar and gula melaka.

Over medium heat, bring to a boil.

Lower heat and simmer until agar-agar dissolves completely, stirring continuously.

Remove pandan leaf.

Add pinch of salt to the thick coconut milk.

Pour thick coconut milk into the pan of dissolved agar-agar.

Increase heat to medium-low and bring the liquid to a boil, stirring continously.

Once boiling stop heat immediately.

Pour the mixture into a mould, and leave to set undisturbed.

The agar-agar can be eaten now, but it tastes better when chilled; once cooled completely, place the container in a refrigerator. The agar-agar will separate into to two neat and distinct layers – a rich brown clear layer at the bottom, and an opaque, caramel-colored coconut milk fat layer at the top.

Unmould the agar-agar and cut to neat rectangles. Serve chilled.

Mung Bean Porridge (Bubur Kacang Hijau / Bubur Kacang Ijo)

Bubur Kacang Hijau (sometimes known as “Bubur Kacang Ijo” in Indonesia), is a creamy and comforting sweet mung bean porridge. “Bubur” means “porridge”, “kacang” means “beans” and “hijau” means “green” in the Malay language which is the national language of Indonesia and Malaysia. Although Indonesian Malay and Malaysian Malay are essentially the same in that they are derived from the original Malay language, the two languages have slight differences with some words having different meanings, spelling and syntax.

Like many other dishes such as satay and rendang, this mung bean porridge is a “shared dish” having a place in both Indonesian and Malaysian cuisine although it is more popularly consumed in Indonesia. Often eaten warm, it is an ideal dessert for cold/wintery days although it could also be enjoyed chilled on hot days.

Nourishing mung beans, creamy coconut milk (known as “santan” in Malay) and fragrant pandan leaves are combined and sweetened with an unrefined form of palm sugar (known as “gula jawa” in Indonesia or “gula melaka” in Malaysia) to bring out a dessert that is not just delicious but nutritious as well. Gula jawa or gula melaka not only sweetens but adds a very distinctive flavor which cannot be replaced with modern-day refined sugar. Add gula jawa / gula melaka to your taste, some like the porridge very sweet while some like it mildly sweetened. The coconut milk may curdle when boiled together with the gula jawa / gula melaka so add it after boiling the milk.

Ingredients:

  • ½ cup mung beans
  • Gula jawa / gula melaka – as desired
  • 2-3 pandan leaves – tied to a knot
  • 1 cup thick coconut milk
  • Water as required to cook mung beans
  • 1 cm piece ginger
  • Pinch of salt

Method:

Wash and soak the mung beans in water for at least 12 hours or overnight. Soaking helps soften the beans and reduce cooking time.

Bruise the ginger or pound in a pestle and mortar till bruised but not finely crushed.

Combine the soaked mung beans, ginger, padan leaves and water as required to cook the mung beans.

Cook the beans over medium heat until beans are well cooked and very soft. If it’s too dry, add a bit of water.

Once beans are softened, pour coconut milk, pinch of salt, and bring to a boil over low heat.

Once boiling, stop heat.

To serve, dish out some mung bean porridge into a bowl and sweeten with crushed gula jawa / gula melaka as desired.