"I didn't want any of what I was observing to slip away. I wrote down how Iman extracted tamarind pulp, how she carefully coaxed coconut milk from grated coconut flesh and warm water, how she balanced the spices that would go into her curries so they wouldn't overwhelm one another. It began to dawn on me that cooking a meal didn't have to be what I'd experienced in my mom's kitchen: a chore performed on a schedule. What I saw in the Alwis' kitchen was a soulful, relaxed act more akin to painting."
- James Osland in Cradle of Flavor
With that revelation, Oseland opens his expansive exploration of homecooking in what he calls the cradle of flavor: Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. It makes sense to me that the miracle of coconut milk, the art contained in tamarind, a nobbled husk unlikely to inspire poetry that none the less offers up incomparable flavors, all experienced in the dense heat of equatorial lands brings Oseland to this moment of powerful understanding. It was in Malaysia that I too first fell in love with food. The markets, piles of gorgeous, alien fruits and vegetables, the stalls, steaming with spice-laden delights, they all dimly opened up an early insight for me into our potential for connection to ingredients and the transformative power that the act of cooking can provide.
I don't really remember foods before Malaysia in the same way that I remember sitting at Restoran Mungo Jerry's eating bak kut teh, resplendent with spices I'd never tasted before, heaped with slices of yu char kway and garlicky wilted lettuce. When I think hard, I can come up with some ghosts: bowls of Cheerios, my dad's lasagna, my mom's cornbread, baked potatoes with cauliflower and broccoli. But it is without hesitation that I can call up memories of slurping bowls of mee and polishing off little paper bags of fried sweet potato balls, watching greedily as the crispy pancakes, apam balik, filled with coconut and peanuts, bubbled in their griddles. I remember clearly the transfixing arc of teh tarik, the freshly pressed foamy green apple juice, the lychees, rambutans, mangosteen, the rice, the satay. Would that I could have learned to cook in Malaysia, but it really wasn't until years later in college that I started trying to figure it all out, unlock the secrets of flavor and rediscover those dishes that made me love food for the first time.
It is my thank you card to Malaysia that every year I like to grab some galangal and ginger, buy a pound of garlic, a dozen stalks of lemongrass, a sack of shallots, tons of turmeric and tiny Thai chilies to do up a Malay-inspired feast.
The first dish I cooked this year was my veggie version of bak kut teh, a soup cooked long and slow that is usually full of unidentifiable animal parts. For authenticity's sake, I filled mine with mysterious faux meats from Super 88 (the buying of which is somewhat of a tradition for this celebration). I also cooked it for hours, letting it sit overnight to deepen the flavors. Bak kut teh means something like "bone tea," a little unappealing from a veg perspective maybe, but the idea of a deeply steeped, flavorful tea-like broth translates well as a vegan dish.
The other slow, long-cooking dish featuring faux meat that I did was a rich festival dish, beef rendang curry. In its traditional preparation, the beef is cooked over the barest flame for hours until the coconut milk is all gently absorbed, along with the nutmeg, turmeric, lemongrass, galangal and chilies. In my version, veggie beef strips were cooked in the just the same way, slowly taking on the coconut cream and spices, breaking down into a tender, spicy mash just the same way the meat-version does. This preparation is really interesting one that changes from boiling to frying as the coconut milk is absorbed and it's a good one to start cooking a feast with because it demands time, consideration and care in just the right measure to create the kind of meditatively focused space that I like to cook in.
spicy tamarind dressed jicama, pineapple, cucumber salad
Malay meals are typically served all at once in a great array of dishes, selected to balance and complement each other. So I knew that I needed to create harmony for the royally rich bak kut teh and rendang with something cooling, light and crunchy. Enter, rojak, a wonderful salad, simple on all fronts but flavor, filled with the tang of tamarind, the fire of chilies, the earthy salt of fermented soy and the mellow sweet of jaggary (palm sugar). Jicama is a favorite...vegetable? fruit? of mine, which occupies a kind of lonely territory somewhere between water chestnut and green apple. Its watery crunch pairs nicely with cucumber and pineapple for a refreshing Malay salad.
With the rojak in place, it was back to a richer dish, this time a creamy eggplant curry full of tender, slender bruise-purple Japanese eggplant. I like eggplant more than most, as I'm sure I've mentioned, but this dish can make a confirmed detractor reconsider their position.
Recognize the pattern yet? We're back to crunchy and sweet with fresh water chestnuts, lightly sauteed snow peas and sugar peas, red pepper and bean sprouts. Jazzed up with some fresh tofu puff from a local producer, this is a straightforward, uncomplicated stirfry that relies on the natural flavors of fresh ingredients tossed together in the right proportions; a sweetly simple complement to the dramatic dishes that surround it.
Even when tossing together a simple dish, it pays to take the time and add something special. When I saw these beautiful purple-streaked onions with their long, tangled roots, I knew I had to do something to highlight them in a dish.
baby bok choy with fried Chinese onions and Thai chilies
So, a quick slice and deep fry later, the crispy rounds dressed up a platter of lightly cooked baby bok choy dressed in vegetarian oyster sauce. Along with a sprinkle of fresh ground Thai chilies, the onions transformed a potentially forgettable little dish into a beautifully simple surprise.
Though Massaman curry is now considered a Thai dish, this sweet curry fit perfectly into my spread. The name "Massaman" is thought to derive from an old word for "Muslim," the idea being that this curry originated in a Muslim nation, like Malaysia, where traders brought spices from India and the Middle East. The traditional spices in Massaman curry vary from many typically Malay dishes, but the core flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and bay provide a welcome warm, sweet tone that blends in beautifully.
Nonya-style lemongrass braised beans
A favorite dish of the evening was this citrusy braised bean dish with lemongrass and macadamia nuts, straight from Oseland's Cradle of Flavor. Nonya cuisine is a seemingly under-represented element of Malay culture, one that illustrates with creative and delicious results, the melding of traditional Chinese cooking with the available ingredients and flavors of the Malay Straits. The distinct sour notes in this dish are a core feature of Nonya cooking, especially in dishes that originated in Penang, closer to Thailand where sour citrus and tamarind are essential elements of flavor. Making food like this is an opportunity to reflect on how our environment and traditions, when we aren't so divorced from them, can shape what we eat and why.
Mee gorang, the national noodle dish of Malaysia, is always a central feature of this celebration meal for me. Bitter greens, scrambled silken tofu, fried tofu, shredded seitan, curls of non-egg wheat noodles, lime and bean sprouts, handfuls of basil, it's a meal in and of itself.
In times of celebration, even rice must get special treatment. Cooked with a bit of coconut cream, star anise, fresh ginger, cinnamon, lemongrass and knots of pandan leaf, a favorite ingredient of mine that can be found frozen in many Asian markets, this rice comes alive with sweet spice and herb.
This rice, a paired down version of another traditional Nonya dish, nasi kemuli, which calls for a great many more spices such as fennel seed, cumin, nutmeg and cardamom as well as shallots, chicken and poppy seeds, makes a good accompaniment to the great variety of dishes without overwhelming them. To improve upon my usual celebration rice, I took note of a bit of advice shared in Cradle of Flavor and switched from my standard jasmine rice, a reasonable pick, to an Indian basmati. Rightly, Oseland's friend advised this switch, commenting that the floral quality of jasmine takes away from the potential exploration of other delicate flavors here while the slight nuttiness of basmati rice serves as a better backdrop.
While I may have been able to avoid overwhelming my rice dish with flavors, I couldn't avoid overwhelming my dessert table with a huge fruit salad of persimmons, lychees, starfruit and fresh pineapple, decorated almond cookies, a pandan-scented cake filled with sweet red bean paste, topped with a rambutan cream cheese frosting and decorated with toasted sesame seeds, as well as traditional Chinese orange wedges, done up a little fancy with temple oranges, blood oranges and cara caras. As the Malay proverb goes though: Alang-alang menyeluk pekasam, biar sampai ke pangkal lengan. The saying is actually about pickles, but the gist is: if you're going to do something, do it all the way.
I can't wait until next year to do this all again and luckily, I don't have to. I'll be teaching several of these dishes in my Vegetarian Malay cooking class at the CCAE on Saturday, April 4th. I've had great fun teaching lately and am looking forward to this one a lot!