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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Milk Rice (Kiri Bath කිරි බත්)

Kiri bath කිරි බත්, or milk rice, is a very popular dish in Sri Lanka, carrying a deep symbolic weight as a representation of good fortune and prosperity. Kiri bath is often served during special cultural celebrations such as Singhalese New Year (which falls on the 13th and 14th of April) and at the event of feeding a baby its first solid food. Some very traditional families serve kiri bath on the first of every month and every year to usher in prosperity and good luck for the coming month and year. While it is most commonly consumed for breakfast, it could be eaten for lunch and dinner.

“Kiri bath” කිරි බත් literally translates into “milk rice” in Singhalese (“kiri” කිරි means milk and “bath” බත්  means “rice”).

Lunu miris sambola ලූනු මිරිස් සම්බෝල is a very popular hot condiment served with kiri bath. Other popular accompaniments include fish curry, seeni sambol සීනි සම්බෝල  and katta sambol කට්ට සම්බෝල.

Kiri bath is traditionally made with brown rice, known in Sri Lanka as “red rice” (rathu haal රතු හාල් or rathu kekulu haal  රතු කැකුළු හාල්). Brown rice is widely accepted to be healthier and more nutritious and white rice is generally frowned upon by traditional Singhalese.

For best results, use only fresh coconut milk squeezed from freshly grated coconut. While canned/UHT/reconstituted coconut milk can be used, this convenience comes at the expense of taste and nutrition.

Traditionally, all Sri Lankan dishes such as this milk rice dish were cooked in clay pots known as “hattiya” හට්ටිය over a firewood fire. These organic, unglazed earthen cooking pots coupled with a firewood fire, which together were known as a “dhara lipa” දර ලිප (“dhara” දර meaning “firewood” and “lipa” ලිප meaning “hearth”) impart a distinctively appetizing, earthy flavor and smoky aroma to the food.

Nowadays, modern day kitchen utensils and equipment such as rice cookers and stainless steel cooking vessels have found their way into Sri Lankan households. However, these utensils do not offer that unmistakeable flavor and aroma of food simmered in an earthen pot heated over a firewood fire. For maximum flavor and nutrition, the traditional, time-tested claypot and firewood fire are still the best options.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups brown rice
  • Water as needed to cook rice (quantity depends on variety of rice)
  • 1 cup thick coconut milk
  • Sea salt as desired

Method:

Wash the rice till water runs clear.

Combine water as required and cook rice as usual.

Add pinch of salt to coconut milk and stir.

Once rice is well cooked, pour coconut milk.

Stir well and cook until liquid evaporates and the result is a thick mass akin to pliable clay.

Take out rice and spread on a serving dish.

Use a knife to cut into diamond shapes.

Serve with condiments and curries.

Thandai ठंडाई

Thandai ठंडाई as it is known in Hindi, is a festive drink, creamy thanks to full fat milk, rich thanks to an assortment of nuts, aromatic thanks to rose petals (or yellow marigold which is used in some regions such as Braj), cooling thanks to ingredients such as melon seeds, refreshing as it’s usually served chilled and intensely flavorful thanks to sweeteners as well as an orchestra of spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon and fennel. A wholesome beverage rich in flavor and culture, it is often served on the Hindu festivals of Maha Shivarathri and Holi.

Maha Shivarathri मह शिवरात्रि is a Hindu festival dedicated to Lord Shiva (“maha” मह = “great”, “Shiva” शिव = “(Lord) Shiva” and “rathri” रात्रि = “night”) who, according to Hindu legend, on this special day saved the world from a pot of highly toxic poison that emerged from the ocean.
Devotees would observe fast (known as “vrat” व्रत in Hindi) on this auspicious day when after sunset of Maha Shivarathri day, no meals would be consumed until sunrise the next day after performing a special religious prayer known as a “pooja” पूजा.
While some opt for a full fasting, abstaining from consuming even a drop of water, for some this avenue is not an option for reasons such as illness or old age. In such situations, non-cereal, nutritious dishes of milk, fruits and water are prepared. This rich, creamy “thandai” is one such example. It is believed that Lord Shiva liked this milky drink, and on this auspicious occasion, the creamy beverage is sometimes spiked with “bhang” भांग which is an edible form of cannabis.
Although treated as a narcotic drug and is punishable by law to hoard and consume, this law is temporarily lifted in countries which celebrate this festival such as India and Nepal where holy men would be allowed to smoke it to imitate Lord Shiva.

According to legend, Lord Shiva had saved the world from the pot of poison by holding the toxic substance in his throat. This made him turn blue and generated substantial heat inside. Efforts to cool Lord Shiva were numerous, and one of them was calming him down with “bhang”.

Thandai (sometimes laced with “bhang” in some areas of India, particularly Varanasi, formerly known as Banaras, which is India’s thandai hub) is also a traditional beverage consumed during the Hindu festival of Holi. Also known as the “festival of colors” or the “festival of love”, Holi is a spring festival which celebrates the passing of winter and the arrival of spring and is celebrated amidst a highly charged atmosphere of vibrant colors, showering petals of fragrant rose and marigold, wild laughter and joyful play.

With temperatures rising in India with the arrival of spring, thandai, which is believed to have cooling properties, helps the body combat heat and so it is a tradition for festive merrymakers to drink refreshing, chilled Holi thandai to cool themselves down.
The name of this cooling beverage “thandai” ठंडाई literally means “coolant” in Hindi, and that word in turn is a derivative of the Hindi word “cool” which is “thanda” ठंडा.

Certain ingredients in thandai such as fennel (“saunf” सौंफ), saffron (“kesar” केसर), poppy seeds (“khus khus” खसखस), melon seeds (“karabhooje ke beej” खरबूजे के बीज, “karabhooje” खरबूजे = “melon”, “beej” बीज = “seeds”) and rose petals (“gulab ki phankudiyan” गुलाब की पंखुड़ियाँ, “gulab” गुलाब = “rose” “phankudiyan” पंखुड़ियाँ = “petals”) are believed to be “cooling” while black pepper is believed to help ward off cold-related infections.

Bhang thandai (or “bhang ki thandai” भांग की ठंडाई in Hindi) however must be consumed with caution, as an overdose could have negative consequences.

Although thandai is particularly popular in northern India (where the country’s thandai hub, Varanasi is located) the drink is relished in other states as well.

Like most dishes throughout India, thandai recipes vary region to region and from family to family with perhaps the only commonality among all recipes being fresh whole milk (known as “doodh” दूध in Hindi), a combination of nuts (usually almonds, cashews, pistachios) and a combination of spices traditionally ground in a traditional Indian stone grinder known as a “sil batta” सिल बट्टा.
Some recipes add cashews, some add pistachios, some add both. Some add fennel, some others add freshly ground black peppercorns (“kailee mirch” काली मिर्च), some have cinnamon (“dalachini” दालचीनी), some have green cardamom (“elaichi” इलायची) and some have saffron.
Some like their thandai thick while some prefer a more runny consistency.

Unlike in the West where there is a growing preference for skimmed milk / 2% fat etc, in India, milk is generally consumed whole, i.e. full fat and all. And it has been that way for generations in India which is the largest milk producing nation in the world. Most of India’s milk production is from buffaloes with cow’s milk coming in second.
Unlike in the United States where milk is produced in organized, large-scale dairy farms and the animals are milked through mechanical means, in India over half of the country’s milk is produced from free-roaming buffaloes and cows who are patiently hand-milked by small farmers in rural Indian villages.

While most modern recipes use refined sugar to prepare thandai, the following recipe uses honey (“shehad” शहद), which is significantly healthier and more flavorful than refined sugar. It is possible to add jaggery (an unrefined form of sugar known as “gur” in Hindi) however it may result in a untraditionally dark brown colored drink (when it’s traditionally a pale yellow or pale green if “bhang” is added).

Serves 6-7
Ingredients:

1 1/2 litres or about 6 cups fresh whole milk
4-5 tablespoons almonds – soaked overnight
2 tablespoons cashew nuts
1 tablespoon poppy seeds – soaked overnight
2 tablespoons melon seeds – soaked overnight
3/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
4-6 green cardamom pods – husks discarded, seeds retained
1/2 cup or as desired honey
3/4 cup spring water
1 teaspoon rose water or 3/4 teaspoon dried rose petals or 1/2 teaspoon fresh rose petals plus a few more garnishing
A few strands saffron
1/2 – 2/3 cup pistachios – crushed

Method:

Drain off water from all three soaked ingredients. Peel almonds.

Into a heavy-bottom sauce pan, pour milk and add honey. Stir well.

Bring to a boil over medium heat.

Stop heat and set aside to cool.

Crush peeled almonds, poppy seeds, melon seeds, cashew nuts, fennel seeds, peppercorns, green cardamom seeds and rose petals (if using) into a rich paste. For grinding needs such as this, ancient Indian kitchens feature a traditional grinding tool known as a “sil batta” सिल बट्टा.

Add 1/4 cup of water and rose water (if using) and grind further to a smooth paste.

Add the ground paste to the milk-honey mixture and mix well.

Cover and let it sit for about 15-20 minutes.

Strain the mixture through a cheesecloth.

Set the strained milk aside.

Add 1/2 cup water to the residue and grind again.

Strain this mixture through a cheesecloth.

Add the strained liquid to the previously strained milk.

Add saffron strands and give a quick stir.

Chill in the refrigerator for at least 3-4 hours to allow the flavors to develop.

Pour into glasses.

Garnish with crushed pistachios, slivered almonds, a few saffron strands and rose petals. Serve chilled.

Chinese Style Asian Greens With Oyster Sauce And Garlic Oil

Asian greens prepared with oyster sauce and garlic oil is a popular dish in Chinese cuisine. Asian greens such as bok choy (known as “xiǎo báicài” 小白菜 in Mandarin), choy sum (“cài xīn” 菜心 in Mandarin) and Chinese broccoli (“jiè lán” 芥兰 in Mandarin and “gai lan” 芥蘭 in Cantonese) can be used.

Chinese woks (known as “chao guo” 炒锅) are traditionally made from cast iron and these woks, coupled with a very strong, high flame tend to give the best results. Cast iron woks retain heat better than other materials and the temperature does not fluctuate much compared to woks of other materials. Consequently, once the greens are thrown into the boiling water, some woks may see a sudden drop in heat levels which generally does not happen when cooking with cast iron woks. This sudden drop in heat level means the greens take a longer time to cook which does not produce the best color, aroma, texture and taste compared to greens that are cooked quickly at a high temperature.
This advantage of providing a uniform and stable heating level is a key reason cast iron woks produce superior results when cooking Chinese food.

Additionally, well-seasoned woks impart a distinct “wok flavor” to the food known as “wok hay” 鑊氣 in Cantonese (usually spelled “wok hei” but the pronunciation is closer to “wok hay”) which literally means “wok energy” (wok qi). However an intense flame is necessary to achieve this effect and thus may be extremely difficult to achieve with home stove top flames.

A well-seasoned cast-iron wok is highly durable and could last for generations and there are families today that cook with cast-iron woks passed down from the grandmothers or great-grandmothers of the family. For instance, the cast-iron wok used by my maternal grandmother (who was born in 1928) is still treasured and frequently used by her children.

When blanching the greens, an overcrowded wok must be avoided; if the wok is overcrowded, the leaves don’t cook quickly and end up “sweating” and slow cooking instead, resulting in greens that are limp, discolored and bland.

Chinese food tastes best when consumed hot and freshly cooked, so serve straight away.

Serves: 2
Ingredients:

  • 1/2 lb Asian greens such as bok choy or choy sum or Chinese broccoli
  • 1/2 teaspoon oil
  • 1-2 tablespoons oyster sauce
  • 2 teaspoons light soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons boiling hot water
  • Freshly ground white pepper as desired (optional)

For garlic oil:
2 tablespoons oil
4-5 cloves of garlic – very finely minced

Method:

In a small glass / ceramic bowl, combine oyster sauce and light soy sauce. Mix well and set aside.

Prepare the garlic oil. Heat up a wok over high flame. Do not add oil until the wok is well heated up.

Pour 2 tablespoons oil and let the oil heat up.

Swirl the wok to evenly coat the oil around the wok.

Add minced garlic, fry till garlic turns brown and fragrant. Stir frequently. Do not burn the garlic.

Pour this garlic oil into the bowl of oyster sauce and light soy sauce. Stir and set aside.

Wash greens thoroughly to remove dirt and grit. Optionally, cut into halves or quarters lengthwise.

Have a bowl of cold water ready. Set aside.

In a cast iron wok, bring some water to a rolling boil over high heat.

Add salt and 1/2 teaspoon oil.

Then add the washed and drained greens.

Toss quickly then cover with a lid, until greens are cooked through yet retains its vibrant green hue, fresh taste, crunch and texture. This usually takes just a few minutes, depending on the strength of the flame and the type of wok (cast iron woks retain heat better than other metals and hence generally require less time).

Once cooked, immediately take out the greens and soak them in the bowl of cold water set aside earlier.

Once cooled, arrange the greens neatly on a plate.

Pour two tablespoons of hot water (some take two tablespoons from the boiling water used to blanch the greens) into the bowl of oyster sauce mixture prepared earlier. Mix well.

Drizzle the sauce over the freshly cooked greens.

Serve straight away with rice.

Unohana 卯の花

A bowl of Unohana, alongside a pair of chopsticks.

Unohana 卯の花 – a good source of protein for vegetarians

A feature on Japanese dinner tables since ancient times, unohana 卯の花, is a wholesome Japanese side dish of “okara” おから sauteed with mixed vegetables and seasonings. “Okara” おから (which literally translates into “beancurd refuse”) is the mushy pulp which is left over after making soymilk or tofu. It is believed to be highly nutritious, low in fat, rich in proteins, calcium, fiber and other nutrients such as iron, riboflavin and niacin. Its high fiber content could potentially prevent some types of cancer such as intestinal cancer.

Okara is gluten-free and a good source of protein for vegetarians. Okara is very susceptible to spoilage and hence should ideally be used fresh. Even under refrigeration, its shelf life is usually no more than 2-3 days.

Unohana should be sweet rather than salty. Like most traditional dishes, there are no strict recipes for unohana. While the key ingredients (okara, carrots and “negi” 葱 which refers to scallions or Japanese leeks) are usually unchanged, other ingredients are added or omitted (such as shiitake mushrooms, konjac, burdock root, chikuwa and abura-age) and the quantities of each ingredient (such as the vegetables) tends to vary based on individual preference and is usually estimated rather than strictly measured out. Some families traditionally do not use onions to make unohana, while others enjoy the additional flavor onions contribute.

Used for over a thousand years in Japanese cuisine, konjac, known in Japanese as “konnyaku” こんにゃく, (also known as konjaku, devil’s tongue, voodoo lily, elephant yam) is a flavorless, jelly-like starch made from a plant bearing the scientific name Amorphophallus konjac. It is believed to have a host of health benefits such as controlling diabetes, cholesterol levels, eliminating toxins and helps maintain a healthy digestive system hence the Japanese moniker “broom of the stomach” 胃のほうき (“i no houki”).

An equal quantity of dashi だし, can be used in place of the “shiitake water” or a 50/50 combination of both can be used. Vegetarians can use the “shiitake water” and omit dashi altogether.

Okara is quite flavorless on its own so dried shiitake 椎茸 mushrooms (“shii” 椎 is the Japanese name of this particular type of mushroom while “take” 茸 means “mushroom” in Japanese) are preferred over fresh as the dried ones have a stronger flavor and aroma.

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil
  • 1 cup tightly packed fresh okara
  • 1/2 medium-sized onion – sliced (optional)
  • 3-5 dried shiitake mushrooms
  • 1/2 carrot – chopped, diced or julienned
  • 4-5 tablespoons konjac – chopped or julienned
  • 3 tablespoons shoyu
  • 2-3 tablespoons honey
  • 1 tablespoon mirin or sake
  • Pinch of sea salt – optional
  • 3-4 green onions or 3/4 Japanese leek – julienned or thinly sliced

Other optional ingredients:

  • 1/2 burdock root – scrubbed and cut to thin shreds
  • 1 chikuwa – cut to short strips
  • 1 abura-age – cut to short strips

Method:

Soak dried shiitake mushrooms in 1 cup spring water for about 3-4 hours.

Drain shiitake mushrooms and reserve the “shiitake water”.

Slice shiitake mushrooms.

Mix shiitake water (or dashi if using), shoyu, mirin or sake and honey in a bowl.

Heat oil in a pot over medium heat.

Cook sliced onions until translucent. If not using onions, proceed to next step.

Add shiitake mushrooms, carrots, burdock root (if using) konyaku and saute.

Add okara and cook until crumbly.

Add chikuwa (if using), abura-age (if using) and the mixture of shiitake water (or dashi), shoyu, mirin or sake and honey.

Reduce heat and cook until liquid evaporates, stirring to prevent the mixture from sticking to the pot.

Add salt (if using).

Add sliced scallions or Japanese leek and turn off heat.

Serve either at room temperature or cold.

The unohana tastes better if allowed to sit in a refrigerator for 6 hours or overnight to let the flavors develop.

Spicy, Hot Sri Lankan Dhal/Red Lentil Curry (“Miris Parippu” මිරිස් පරිප්පු)

“Miris parippu” is a Sri Lankan red lentil dish, hot due to a generous addition of red chili powder and spicy due to raw curry powder. “Miris” මිරිස් means “chili” in Singhalese while “parippu” පරිප්පු means “red lentils”, so taken together, the dish “miris parippu” මිරිස් පරිප්පු literally means “chili dhal” (“dhal’ being the more popular name in Sri Lanka for red lentils) or “chili red lentils”.

The red lentils are often soaked for at least 2-3 hours, or overnight if possible as when soaked they are easier to cook and easier to digest. Red lentil curries are quite popular in Sri Lanka where meat consumption is relatively low by world standards, particularly among vegetarians as it is believed to be a good plant-based source of protein.

As with most Sri Lankan dishes, there are no fixed recipes and ingredient ratios may vary depending on the individual’s preference. For instance, some cooks add tomatoes, while some leave it out. Some add a cinnamon stick while some may omit this. Some may like adding a few drops of juice from a freshly squeezed key lime while some prefer the dish without this (other varieties of lime such as kaffir lime are usually not used. Other citrus fruits are never used).

Regular Sri Lankan coconut oil, simply known as “pol thel” පොල් තෙල් in Singhalese (“pol” පොල් meaning “coconut” and “thel” තෙල් meaning “oil) results a in very flavorful and aromatic dish and it is strongly recommended to use this type of oil. Virgin coconut oil is has a very delicate flavor and aroma and as it thus usually not used to make this dish. Other types of flavorless oils such as canola or palm oil could work while delicate oils such as olive oil or robust oils such as peanut oil, sesame oil or soybean oil are not suitable. For the most authentic outcome, regular Sri Lankan coconut oil is the only choice.

Red onions, known as “rathu luunu” රතු ලූනු (“rathu” රතු meaning “red” and “luunu” ලූනු meaning “onion) in Singhalese are usually used for most Sri Lankan dishes. They are believed to be healthier and more delicious than their larger cousins, the onions commonly known as “Bombay onions” among Sri Lankans.

Good quality raw Sri Lankan curry powder (known as “amu thuna paha kudu” අමු තුනපහ කුඩු, “amu” අමු = “raw”, “thuna paha” තුනපහ = “three five” in reference to the three to five spices that go into making a curry powder, “kudu” කුඩු = “powder”) is imperative for a quality outcome. Sri Lankan curry powder is comprised of a distinct concoction of spices and as a consequence, curry powders from other cuisines such as those from Malaysia or India would not produce an authentic outcome. Curry powders lose their flavor and aroma with age, so fresher powders produce better results and older curry powders may require larger quantities to have the same result.

Preparing the dish according to traditional Sri Lankan coooking methods where food is cooked in an organic, unglazed clay pot, over a firewood fire, stirred and ladled with an organic, unglazed Sri Lankan coconut shell spoon is generally believed to produce a far more flavorful, nutritious and aromatic dish.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup red lentils – washed and soaked for at least 2-3 hours, preferably overnight
  • 3-4 tablespoons coconut oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon black mustard seeds
  • 8-10 red onions – peeled and sliced
  • 4-5 cloves garlic – peeled, sliced lengthwise
  • 2 dried red chilies – cut to 1-inch pieces, soaked in a concentrated salt water solution
  • 2-4 fresh green chilies – slit down the middle
  • 3-4 sprigs fresh curry leaves
  • 1 fresh pandan leaf
  • 1- 1 1/2 tablespoons red chili powder
  • 1/2 tablespoon red chili flakes
  • 1 – 1 1/2 tablespoons raw Sri Lankan curry powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • Salt as desired

Method:

Lightly heat a clay pot over medium heat.

Add coconut oil and let it heat up.

Add black mustard seeds and let splutter.

Add shallots, garlic, red chilies, green chilies, curry leaves and pandan leaf. Cook until onions and garlic are fragrant and slightly brown.

Lower heat to low.

Add red chili powder, red chili flakes, raw curry powder and turmeric powder. Roast, slowly over low flame until the spice powders are aromatic, stirring frequently, be careful not to burn. The mixture should turn into a deep, brownish-maroon hue.

Once spice powders are roasted, add lentils and water as required, to completely cover the lentils plus just a bit more.

Cook until the lentils are soft and mushy, stir every now and then.

Once cooked, add salt as desired.

Serve hot with rice, roti or bread.

Note:
For a version with coconut milk, follow the recipe as above but add about 1/4 cup of fresh, thick coconut milk after the red lentils have been cooked till soft and mushy. Let stew until the mixture thickens slightly then add salt as desired.

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.

 

Szechuan Fish Fragrant Eggplant 鱼香茄子 (Yu Xiang Qiezi)

A plate of Szechuan Fish Fragrant Eggplant "Yu Xiang Qiezi" 鱼香茄子 served with white rice and Chinese tea.

A plate of Szechuan Fish Fragrant Eggplant “Yu Xiang Qiezi” 鱼香茄子 served with white rice and Chinese tea

Featuring a fusion of salty, sweet, sour and spicy flavors, fish fragrant eggplant or “yu xiang qiezi” is a signature Szechuan (or Sichuan) dish prepared with Asian eggplants flavored with a hot garlic sauce.
“Yu xiang qie zi” 鱼香茄子 literally translates into “fish fragrant eggplant” (“yu” 鱼 means” “fish”, “xiang” 香means “fragrant” or “flavored” and “qiezi” 茄子 means “eggplant”, or “aubergine” as it is known in the UK or “brinjal” as it is commonly known in South Asia).

Despite its name, the dish contains no fish and so is actually vegetarian. The meaning behind the name stems from the seasoning mixture which is known as “yu xiang” 鱼香 (which literally means “fish fragrance”). Dishes that belong to the “yu xiang” family, i.e., prepared with “yu xiang” seasoning ingredients typically have “yu xiang” affixed to their name, in this case “fish fragrant eggplant” is “yu xiang qiezi”.

A very common ingredient in traditional Szechuan dishes, doubanjiang 豆瓣酱 is a salty paste of fermented broad beans and soybeans.

Chinese rock sugar, known as “bing tang” 冰糖 is milder than the granulated refined sugar popularly consumed in the West. Bing tang usually comes in irregular-sized lumps which must be broken into pieces before they can be used.

It is generally accepted among Chinese that bing tang is healthier and produces a superior appearance and flavor when used for cooking. While some recipes for this dish may call for regular granulated sugar instead of bing tang, for a quality and authentic outcome bing tang is recommended.

Ingredients:

  • 500 grams Asian eggplants/aubergines/brinjals
  • 3 Szechuan pickled red chili peppers – sliced
  • 1 tablespoon doubanjiang
  • 1 1/4 cups (about 300 ml) cooking oil if deep frying / 2-6 tablespoons cooking oil if shallow frying
  • 1 tablespoon ginger – minced
  • 2 garlic cloves – minced
  • 2-3 spring onions – white and green parts sliced separately

Sauce:

  • 1 tablespoon light soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon black vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine
  • 3/4 teaspoon potato flour mixed with some cold water to form a thick paste
  • 1 1/4 teaspoon Chinese rock sugar “bing tang”
  • Sea salt as desired

Method:

Wash and cut eggplants into 3 inch slices ensuring every slice has skin.

If deep frying, soak eggplants in cold water for about 15-20 minutes. This helps to remove any bitter tastes.

If shallow frying, sprinkle salt over the eggplants and let it sit for about 1 hour to let it release moisture.

In a small bowl, combine ingredients for sauce. Mix well. Set aside.

Heat up a cast iron wok over high flame.

Add cooking oil and let it heat up.

Carefully dip a pair of wooden cooking chopsticks into the oil (ensure the chopsticks are dry. Water droplets could make the oil splatter violently potentially causing burns). If it sizzles, the oil is ready.

Add the eggplant and fry until golden on the outside but soft inside. The flesh will be creamy white color (not roasted) and the skin will be a vibrant purple hue.

Take out eggplants and drain on paper towels.

Drain out oil leaving about 1 tablespoon.

Add garlic, ginger, Szechuan pickled red chili peppers and white portions of green onions.

Stir fry till aromatic.

Add doubanjiang and roast until red oil seeps out.

Add fried eggplants.

Add the sauce. Stir to coat the mixture evenly.

Take off heat, garnish with sliced green onions.

Serve hot with white rice.

Indian Mango Chutney आम की चटनी (“Aam Ki Chatni”)

Indian mango chutney आम की चटनी is a fine accompaniment to rice and pappodums.

Indian mango chutney आम की चटनी is a fine accompaniment to rice and pappodums

Chutney is a general term for spicy relishes and condiments in Indian cuisine. The word “chutney” is derived from the Hindi word “chatni” चटनी which in turn was derived from the Sanskrit word “chatni” which literally means “to lick”. Chutneys originated in India and was used as a method to preserve fruits and vegetables that were in season.

Mango chutney (known as “aam ki chatni” आम की चटनी in Hindi) is a popular type of Indian chutney featuring a harmonious medley of sweet, sour, hot and spicy flavors to tempt the palate. The chutney is served as an accompaniment to rice, roti, chapati, paratha etc.

Traditionally, Indian chutneys are made with jaggery which is an unrefined form of sugar known as “gur” गुड़ in Hindi. Jaggery imparts a distinct flavor that refined sugars cannot match and because of its unrefined nature, jaggery contains micro-nutrients and minerals which refined sugars lack as they have been stripped off during the refining process.
Furthermore, jaggery’s deep brown color lends a richer hue than refined sugar. Consequently, the addition of jaggery yields a better finished product in terms of nutrition, appearance and flavor. Some modern recipes replace jaggery with refined sugar. However, for a more authentic and wholesome mango chutney, use jaggery.

Adjust the quantity of jaggery as required; a good mango chutney should have a good balance of sweet and sour. If it is too sweet it would feel too heavy on the palate (akin to a “sickly sweet” jam) and if it is too sour it would be too unappetizing and neither extremes of tastes are desirable; the sweet and sour tastes balance each other. The more raw and sour the mangoes, the more jaggery may be necessary to balance the sourness. The spices should complement rather than overpower the mangoes.

The mangoes themselves can be cut to wedges, chunks or grated. Wedges and chunks give the chutney body and bite whereas grated mangoes result in a more pulpy and soft chutney. Whether the mangoes should be cut to wedges, chunks or grated is a personal preference. Prepare the mangoes as desired.

Panch phoron পাঁচ ফোরন (also known as panch phoran) literally means “five spices” in Bengali a language spoken in West Bengal (a state in eastern India) as well as in Bangladesh. “Panch” পাঁচ means “five” and “phoron” ফোরন means “condiment” or “spice” in Bengali.
This exotic whole spice mixture which is often featured in Bengali and Bangladeshi cuisines
is comprised of equal portions of cumin seeds, fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, nigella seeds (also called black cumin or kalonji) and wild celery seeds.

Ingredients:

  • 3 medium-sized sour unripe mangoes – washed, peeled and sliced to 1 cm wedges or cut to 1 cm cubes or grated
  • Grated jaggery as required (adjust quantity depending on how sour the mangoes are – it could range from a 1/2 cup to more than 1 cup)
  • 1 – 1 1/2 tablespoon oil
  • 1/2 – 1 teaspoon panch phoron – a mix of cumin, fennel, fenugreek, nigella, and wild celery seeds in equal ratios
  • 1/2 – 3/4 inch piece of fresh ginger – very finely crushed in a pestle and mortar
  • 1 –  1 1/2 tablespoons red chili powder
  • Pinch of garam masala powder
  • Pinch of black salt
  • Salt as required
  • Half a lime – juiced – adjust quantity depending on sourness of mangoes

Method:

Over low flame, heat oil in a non-reactive pot such as an unglazed clay pot.

Roast panch phoron spices until fragrant. Do not burn.

Add crushed ginger and fry till aromatic.

Add chopped mango.

Add red chili powder, garam masala and black salt.

Stir with a wooden spoon to coat the mixture around the mangoes.

Add jaggery, salt and a bit of water if needed. Stir and cook for a short while.

Add lime juice.

Cover with a lid and allow to simmer until the mangoes soften. As the mangoes cook, juices will be released. If the mangoes release very little juices and are too dry, add some water. As it cooks, taste the sauce and make any adjustments as needed. Adjustments should not be made after the chutney is done as that could affect the taste and shelf life of the chutney.

Cook until the sauce thickens slightly and the flavors have melded together.

Take off heat and allow to cool. As it cools, the sauce will thicken further.

Serve at room temperature. Keep refrigerated.

Cubed Korean Radish Kimchi (Kkakdugi 깍두기)

Cubed Korean radish kimchi (Kkakdugi 깍두기) in a white square dish, with a pair of silver chopsticks.

Cubed Korean radish kimchi (Kkakdugi 깍두기)

Cubed Korean radish kimchi, known as kkakdugi 깍두기 in Korean, is a popular type of kimchi made with Korean radish, which is a variety of radish native to Korea known as “mu” 무or “joseonmu” 조선무 in Korean. Korean radish is often mistakenly referred to as daikon radish which is native to Japan (hence the Japanese name “daikon” 大根). Korean radish and daikon radish are both white color, however, Korean radish is shorter and rounder whereas daikon is distinctively long and cylindrical. Additionally, the upper portion of a Korean radish tends to have an unmistakable pale green tint whereas a daikon radish tends to be white all over. Korean radishes have a stronger taste and denser texture compared to daikon. While daikon radish can be used in place of Korean radish to make kkakdugi, for the more authentic outcome, stick to Korean radish.

There are no fixed recipes for kkakdugi; different families in Korea have different family recipes passed down from generation to generation and hence the taste of kkakdugi varies from family to family. Some families include fresh fruits such as apples and pears (instead of sugar), some add in fresh julienned red chilies, some add in sweet rice flour while some leave it out.

Good quality coarse sea salt (known as “gulg-eun sogeum” 굵은 소금) and good quality Korean red pepper flakes (known as “gochugaru” 고추가루 in Korean) are critical for a good quality radish kimchi. The brining process takes longer using coarse sea salt compared to fine particle salt and this results in a crunchier and more flavorful radish kimchi. Iodized table salt or salt with additives such as anti-caking agents are not recommended as the additives may interfere with the fermentation process. Korean red pepper flakes are milder than regular red pepper flakes. Adjust the quantity of chili flakes according to personal taste.

Since ancient times, the gochugaru along with other seasoning ingredients would be finely crushed in a Korean pestle and mortar known as “hakdok” 학독. For over two centuries, this organic, kitchen utensil has been used by the ancient Koreans to make their kimchi seasoning pastes. Nowadays, modern cooks turn to a food processor, however the traditional method of crushing the ingredients in a “hakdok” yields better results taste-wise and nutrition-wise, as the sheer speed of the food processor blades destroys the nutrients and flavor of the ingredients.

Traditionally, Koreans would make radish kimchi during the fall (October to November) since Koreans consider radishes harvested during this time as the most flavorful.

Large quantities of radish kimchi would be prepared in the fall and stored in traditional breathable earthen pottery known as “ong-gi” 옹기 which were then buried underground, thus maintaining the ong-gi and the contents inside it at a temperature that was higher than the freezing winter temperatures that prevailed during the winter months. This provided the optimal temperature for the fermentation and preservation of the radish kimchi thus providing a reliable supply of food during winter. Before the invention of mechanical refrigeration systems, this was the method Koreans depended on for food preservation.

It is accepted among Koreans that kimchi fermented according to this ancient and traditional method is the most flavoful and wholesome. Modern day recipes may accelerate the kimchi fermentation process by placing the kimchi at room temperature for a few days before transferring it to the fridge. However, a slower fermentation at the optimum temperature of around 32 – 35 °F or 0 – 1.5 °C, as was practised in the olden days would yield a tastier and healthier kimchi. A minimum of 20 days would be needed for the kimchi to fully ferment and the longer it ferments in this constant temperature the more flavorful it becomes.

Nowadays, households have switched from these traditional vessels to modern-day kitchen containers made with materials such as ceramic, glass and plastic. While these containers are functionally adequate, it is generally accepted that kimchi produced in an ong-gi is superior taste-wise and health-wise than those produced in such modern containers.

Ingredients:

  • 2 lb Korean radish
  • 1 tablespoon sun dried coarse sea salt
  • 1/2 of a medium-sized Asian pear – skin peeled, roughly chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 inch piece ginger
  • 4 stalks scallions (aka green onions) – chopped
  • 4 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1/2 – 2/3 cup or as desired Korean hot pepper flakes

Method:

Wash the radish with water thoroughly and pat dry. Peel the radish if desired, however some Koreans leave the skin intact for its texture and nutrients.

Slice Korean radish into 3/4 inch discs.

Then cut the slices into 1/2 – 3/4 cubes. Be wary of cutting the cubes too small as the radish cubes shrink as they ferment.

Place the radish cubes into a glass bowl.

Sprinkle coarse sea salt and mix well using hands or wooden spoon.

Set aside for about 2-3 hours. Every 30 minutes or so, toss the radish cubes to ensure they are evenly salted.

After an hour, the radish will be sitting in a puddle of its own juice. Taste the radish, it should taste slightly saltier than acceptable. As the radish ferments, the saltiness will decrease while the sourness increases.

Drain this juice into a cup or small bowl.

Into a Korean pestle (“hakdok” 학독), finely crush ginger and garlic.

Add fish sauce and mix well.

Add Korean hot pepper flakes and mix thoroughly.

Add chopped Asian pear. Crush finely.

The mixture would resemble a thick paste. If it is too dry, add just enough of the radish juice drained earlier into this finely ground seasoning ingredients to form a thick, rich paste.

Mix thoroughly.

Add this thick seasoning paste to the radish cubes. Add chopped scallions.

Mix thoroughly preferably with hands (use gloves) or with a wooden spoon. Ensure all radish cubes are well coated with the seasoning, giving the radish cubes a juicy, rich and appetizing appearance.

Transfer the contents into an ong-gi or fermenting jar. Press down as tightly as possible to remove any air pockets between the radish cubes. Cover the lid.

It can be eaten fresh or fermented. To ferment, place the ong-gi in the fridge, ideally at a temperature of 32 – 35 °F or 0 – 1.5 °C. Allow to ferment for at least one week.

Serve cold as a side dish.