Friday, 26 August 2011

Nasi Lemak (Coconut Milk Rice, with Sambal Chilli and Crispy Roasted Anchovies and Peanuts)

Google Translate never fails to confuse/amuse. I don't know why I bother, since almost everyone knows this famous Malay rice dish, whether you come from Singapore/Malaysia or not. Well, nasi lemak literally translates to something like fat rice, nasi being rice and lemak being fat. In actual fact, lemak here refers to coconut cream, the key ingredient in this rich and fragrant Malay rice. I guess google translate isn't that far off here, because coconut milk is infamous for its high amount of saturated fat and calories-- both of which I cannot be bothered with. Saturated fat is in fact good for you, and coconut in particular is heart-heathy and figure-friendly. So, no more guilt trips by the Health Promotion Board, eat away!

There's another ingredient in nasi lemak that isn't getting the attention it deserves, and that's pandan (screwpine leaves). Pandan is used to add that very distinct and unique fragrance I can't even begin to describe, to all manners of sweet and savoury Singaporean/Malaysian food. And I have it growing in my backyard. When meant to be brought about or eaten later ie. takeaway, nasi lemak is also often wrapped in banana leaves (also in my garden heh heh), which impart even more fragrance.

Our pandan plant on the right, sparse because I've just plucked the leaves

NASI LEMAK (Coconut Milk and Pandan Rice)
serves 4-8
2 cups of broken long grain rice or basmati (used because these grains are dry and light) 
1 cup coconut milk
1 cups water 
6 pandan leaves, loosely tied into knots
generous pinch of Sea salt

1. Rinse rice with water until water is almost clear. 
2. Put all ingredients into the rice cooker. Let cook. Then do the "close and wait, open and fluff, close and wait, open and breathe". It's also the same when you cook rice in a pot.
(i.e. When it's done, do not open for 10 min. Then open, give a fluff through with a chopstick or fork but no spoon. then close and let steam for another 5 min. Then open for a min or so to let excess moisture evaporate, take the time to breathe in the wonderful fragrance. You can then eat or let it stay warm in there for a while longer till you want to eat.)

Nasi Lemak actually refers to the coconut milk rice, but is often used to describe the whole dish served with its side dishes. There are many many accompaniments, from the more elaborate fried ikan (little fishes)/ chicken wings, beef rendang, otak otak (grilled fish paste in banana leaves) and achar (sweet, sour and spicy pickled vegetables), to the most basic hardboiled/fried egg and cucumber slices. All faff aside, there's just 3 things you really need, in order of importance:
1. The rice
3. Crispy ikan bilis (dried anchovies) and peanuts

We've got 1 and 2 settled. Ikan bilis is slightly different from the anchovies we're used to seeing in Italian food. These little fishes are dried but pack just as much salty flavour with less of the fishiness, and are dirt cheap in most Asian dried foods stores. Roasted along with the peanuts (also dirt cheap), this is a super addictive combination of salty nutty umami that I find myself snacking on even without the nasi lemak.

Ikan bilis, dried anchovies- you eat it bones and heads and all- excellent delicious source of calcium and iodine

1 cup ikan bilis (dried anchovies) + 1 tbsp unrefined cane sugar
1 cup raw peanuts, shelled, skin-on

1. Rinse ikan bilis, drain well and dab dry.
2. Oil roasting:
Heat peanut/coconut oil in a hot wok. Add the ikan bilis and fry till crisp and golden brown, about 8 min. Scoop out to drain on kitchen towels. Dry roast the peanuts but remove from heat just after you smell their aroma because they'll continue to cook and will burn. OR
Oven roasting (less messy):
Preheat oven to 180 degrees celsius. Spread ikan bilis on a baking tray and bake for about 10 min, till dry, before adding in the peanuts and baking for another 15-20 min till all are crispy and golden and aromatic.

Some people like to go on to fry the roasted ikan bilis and peanuts with the sambal, but I quite like them separate so I can smear the sambal chilli over the cucumber and egg too.


Though easy to make and nothing much to look at, nasi lemak is extremely flavourful. It's a very simple but powerful combination- the fluffy fragrant rice together with the nutty salty aroma of the roasted crispy peanut ikan bilis, and of course, that sweet spicy all-important sambal belachan chilli. But do also add the cucumbers for a refreshing contrast to all that richness and spice, and an egg just because everyone likes a fried egg (I usually go for runny, but for nasi lemak, I like it fried all over.)

Monday, 22 August 2011

Sambal Tumis- Very Important Belachan Chilli Paste

This is not any ordinary chilli paste. Yes, you use this as a dip at the side, but you also use this as the base for creating so many Singaporean/ Malaysian classic stirfried noodles/barbeques/curries/sauces. That said, it's an extraordinary dip, and nasi lemak is not nasi lemak, fried hokkien prawn mee is not fried hokkien prawn mee, without this sambal chilli on the side.

What's unique about this chilli paste is belachan- a potent-smelling fermented ground shrimp. I still remember cooking with it last year when I was still staying in halls and my Turkish flatmate kind of flew out of the kitchen. But don't judge, because I guarantee you'll love its salty savoury flavour. Plus like all fermented foods, belachan is great for health. I would, however, suggest doing this in an outdoor kitchen, or with all your windows open, and preferably with friendly, out-of-town, or Southeast Asian neighbours.

makes 2 cups (always make extra because it takes so much effort!)

1" length of a block of belachan
400g (~2 1/2 cups) shallots
30g (~30) dried chillies
50g (4-5 large ones) fresh chillies
5 cloves garlic
2 stalks of lemongrass, white part only
8 candlenuts (if not available, can replace with macadamia nuts, or just skip it)
3 tbsp tamarind pulp, soaked in equal amount warm water
1" slice (~4 tbsp) of gula melaka (unrefined coconut/palm sugar)
1/2 cup of groundnut/ palm/ coconut oil (I know it sounds like a lot but you need to really fry the paste, and you won't be eating all that oil actually)

1. Toast the blechan in a dry pan, chopping at it with your spatula to break it up, till aromatic and powdery. You can also do this in the oven for less fuss/complaints from next door.

2. Blend/ pound the toasted belachan, shallots, chillies, garlic, lemongrass and candlenuts till you get a smooth paste.

I was so sure I'd never subject myself to such physical torture again after the Thai curry paste. But my mum insisted saying it's much easier to wash out a mortar then a blender... Right.

3. Over a medium-low heat, fry the paste, keep stirring once in a while so it doesn't burn. 10 minutes in, add the assam water.
This is to give you an idea of how small the flame should be.

5. Add the gula melaka, allowing it to melt and cook into the hot sambal chilli, and stir to combine.

6. You can stop stirring when you see the oil separating from the mixture, at least 30 minutes (yes, at least. I usually do it for 1 hour.).

The sambal will turn a deeper red and you'll see the oil oozing from it

6. Leave to cool before storing. The sambal will keep about 1 month in the fridge, with the layer of oil on top to keep it from spoiling, or freeze for months in smaller containers.

This chilli is sweet, spicy, salty, savoury, and just a tiny bit tangy, with a hint of smokiness plus an oomph of flavour and aroma from the toasted belachan. The smell of it while it slowly roasted was enough to make all that pounding and sweating by the wok worth it.

There are many variations for sambal tumis, some calling for a long list of ingredients but mine is simpler, hence more versatile, and not in any way less awesome, well at least imo and in my mum's opinion (which is rare). This is adapted from 2 sources, Mum Loves Cooking, who's got her sambal tumis to taste like her grannies (and grannies know best), and an old Malay family helper who taught my mum to use gula melaka (unrefined coconut palm sugar that adds an amazing caramel toffee-like sweetness) instead of normal white sugar.

Like most Asian cooking, everything's usually a guesstimate. You can adapt this to become sweeter by adding more gula melaka or shallots, spicier by adding spicier/more chillies or use birds' eye chillies, more pungent by adding more garlic, but for me, this recipe (sweat included) is pretty much my definite sambal tumis.

f it's not clear enough, I also made a video (cringe):


See this sambal in:
Bak Chor Mee (Noodles dry-tossed in crack)
Sambal Telur (Boiled, Fried, then Chilli-Smothered Eggs)
Sambal Grilled Aubergine Stack
Sambal Grilled Stingray on Banana Leaf
Nasi Goreng "Special" (Malay fried rice)
Nasi Lemak (Coconut Rice with Sambal Crispy Anchovies and Peanuts)

Friday, 5 August 2011

Peppers and Cashew Chicken (not-your average) Stirfry

Following my 101, here's a very typical chinese stir-fry, with the very seasonal sweet bell peppers and cashews for a nutty crunch. This was done using all the "secrets" to a great chinese stirfry that I've fshare here. This is not your (or my) average throw-in-too-much-into-a-small-nonstick-skillet stirfry. Nowhere near the tzechar stalls in Singapore yet, but definitely really good, and I'll get there one day I hope.

Peppers and Cashew Chicken Stirfry
serves 2
250g chicken (I used thighs, probably a better idea to use breast if you really want to test the effect of velveting)
1 handful of toasted cashew nuts
1/2 small red bell pepper, chopped into even pieces
1/2 small green bell pepper, chopped into even pieces
5-6 slices of ginger
2 tbsp palm/coconut/groundnut oil

For marinating
1/2 tsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp unrefined cane sugar
1/2 tsp chinese shaoxing rice wine 
1/2 tsp water (or stock)
1/2 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp tapioca/cornstarch

For sauce
1 tsp oyster sauce
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp chinese shaoxing rice wine
1 tbsp stock
white pepper

1. Prepare the chicken by slicing across the fibres into even-sized cubes. 阿基師 has a tip of slicing horizontally across the thick part of a chicken breast fillet first, kind of butterfly-ing it, so you can get chicken of even thickness. Marinate the chicken for about 10 min.
2. Heat wok to highest heat, add 1 tbsp of oil to the wok. When hot, sear the chicken. Push aside.
3. Add another tbsp of oil. Add ginger, followed by the peppers and bottom thirds of the spring onion and stir-fry (keep everything moving or they will burn!) until you can smell them.
4. Add the chicken back with the toasted cashews.
5. Lastly, add the sauce, continue stir-frying till everything is cooked and coated and the sauce slightly thickens. Serve immediately with rice.

Try this! You'll be surprised how tender and flavoursome the chicken is! Perfect against the crunchy cashews and peppers. No overcooked vegetables, just nicely seared, the trinity of soy sauce, sesame oil, and rice wine making everything smell so Chinese-kitchen-yummy. No MSG either, or overly sweet and gooey jam-like sauce. This is real chinese food!

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

The Secrets to a Chinese Stir-fry

Following my mum's top tip, here's more top tips for good asian food. This is a repost, an updated one with bits that I've learnt after my experiments!

Whenever people think of Chinese food, they naturally think of stir-fries. It's like the equivalent of Chinese cooking, but I think there's so much more to Chinese food. A lot of effort goes into the food, all the careful steaming to get everything done to perfection, the braising, the slow-cooking for tender and flavoursome food. It's not all quick, easy stir-fries. Chinese restaurants (or even hawkers) in Singapore are so so different from many of the Chinese restaurants in London which serve up MSG-laden sticky and oily deep-fried food.

That said, a good Chinese stir-fry is not that easy. Even with the exact same ingredients and recipe my stir-fry can never match up to that of my favourite tze-char stalls in Singapore. But no harm trying and everyone loves a hardworking student (I know, this is not exactly my schoolwork here but still), so here's the research compiled from surfing a lot of forums, watching a lot of Youtube videos, googling a lot of master chefs, and quizzing my mum.

Having fun properly stir-frying in a real wok with an open flame in an outdoor kitchen.

1. A wok
The heat distribution of a wok is quite different form that of a frying pan. If done right, that's how you get ever-elusive x factor called wok hei ("breath of a wok"). Also, because it curves in at the base, you can "deep-fry" garlic, shallots and ginger without having to use much oil.

I don't have this in London so I am forever inadequate but maybe not for long. I am seriously considering getting one when I get back in fall. It doesn't cost much, just a cheap one from Chinatown would make so much difference. My mum uses a cast iron one (see first photo; thin cast iron, not the thick cast iron Western-style casserole pots which are slow to lose heat but also slow to heat up) but a lot of people say a much lighter, cheap carbon steel one does a fantastic job for tossing your food, especially if it comes with a stick handle. You don't need a fancy non-stick one, and in fact you do NOT want a fancy non-stick one. That Teflon coating will burn at high temperatures and produce very harmful chemical compounds.

When you get a wok, you should always season it, and it'll last you forever. My mum has been using the same wok for..well, ever since she first moved into where we live now, which is almost since the day I was born, which is I guess about 20 years?

2. High heat
That intense heat is what brings about wok hei. The Malliard reaction when you caramelise meat and vegetables and noodles over a hot flame gives you that smoky depth to chinese food at tze char stalls or restaurants.

My flat comes with an electric stove, which definitely gives less than ideal results compared to an open flame. I guess I will forever be inadequate after all, at least while I'm still staying in that place. There is however a way to mimic the high heat you get from a fire, by heating the wok at the highest stove setting for 10 min before cooking (of course, you can't control the temperature as easily with an electric stove, so have another hob ready for transferring to when you need to lower the temperature).

Sautee-ing slowly over low-heat doesn't sear the meat and vegetables the same way, everything needs to be done fast, which brings me to the next point. 

3. Fast
It's not always the more the better, in this case, more time is not better. It always amazes me how much time goes into the prepping of the ingredients but the actual stirfry is over in a matter of minutes. The best pad thai (I know it's not chinese, but it's an example of a stir-fried noodle dish) I had was done in less than 30 seconds.

4. The Marinade
With meat, I've always wondered how Chinese chefs get the meat so tender and smooth. So anyway, Ken Hom revealed the secret to this on an episode of Saturday Kitchen:
You coat the chicken or whatever meat pieces in egg white, cornflour and some rice wine, before cooking in warm (forums say hot. but the Ken Hom says warm..) water or oil, take it out before it's cooked, because it'll continue cooking on slowly, and then add it back to the dish at the end for a final heatshock. I was so fascinated I trawled the forums and found out some people use baking soda instead too.

6 months later, after experiments with all the techniques (baking soda/eggwhite, water/oil, warm/hot, velvet/not):

First of all, I think baking soda does work as a tenderiser, but I don't really like the effect of it.. The meat can feel mushy, and really, there's no need for disguising if you start with good, well-sourced, quality ingredients. 

So, the basic marinade goes like this:
Seasoning, usually soy sauce, pepper, sometimes oyster sauce or fish sauce
Chinese shaoxing rice wine (something mildly acidic which tenderises the meat)
Tapioca/ Cornstarch. I prefer tapioca.
Sesame Oil.
And if you're doing beef, a pinch of sugar and a little stock helps it stay juicy as it reabsorbs the liquid.
And to finish, swirl in a slurry made from a combination of the above minus sesame oil to get a sauce.

I usually eyeball the amounts (like most Asian cooks do) so I can't say for sure, but look at Peppers and Cashew Chicken for a rough idea. You only need to marinade it for 10 min, usually while you prep your other ingredients. That's usually good enough, as long as you use the right cut of meat and follow the above other principles i.e. not overcooking it. Sear on high heat before tossing with the other ingredients.

Velveting is another technique to get a really smooth, glossy texture, which I reserve for more delicate combinations. Instead of marinating in dark sauces, I stick to salt (and the rice wine and tapioca starch still), so the chicken remains pristinely white. Then I toss to coat with lightly beaten egg white and oil (you only need a bit, 2 tbsp, 1 tbsp, for 500g), for about 10 more min. Instead of searing, poach it in barely simmering water with a tiny glug of oil added, till cooked on the outside. Drain, set aside, finish stir-frying your vegetables and making the sauce etc, before adding the meat back. Look at Velvet Chicken and Sugar Snap Peas

Also, you can velvet prawns. This is not just for stir-fries. Ever wondered how Chinese dimsum restaurants get super bouncy 'crystal' prawns in your chee cheong fun? Credits to rasamalaysia for her extensive research into this. Prepare the prawns by slitting the back and de-veining, then submerge in ice water with 1 heaped tbsp of baking soda, for about 30 min. Rinse off thoroughly in cold water, then pat dry. Marinate 1h or overnight in a mixture of 1 small egg white and 1 1/2 tsp tapioca starch for 500g prawn.  But again, I'm iffy about baking soda and am usually more than happy with the results from using fresh or freshly frozen prawns. 

5. The Cut
For meats like beef, a good sirloin or a much cheaper flank steak will do.  Slice against the grain, and slice thinly. A tip is to freeze partially so you can slice really really thinly but I don't recommend that because you're more likely to end up overcooking it. Another tip is to slice at an angle so you get what looks like a larger surface area, which also absorbs more of the marinade.
For pork, use shoulder or butt, ditto.
For chicken, slice across the fibres of the meat instead of along, so you get short fibres, making the meat nice and tender. I like the dark meat because it's much more tender, and of course, cheaper!

5. Not forgetting the vegetables
Stir-frying intensifies the natural flavours, textures and colours of vegetables, so cook with vegetables that are in their prime. Seasonal, local from the farmer's market means quality plus cheaper value. Some tips: Dry your veggies well after rinsing, or the moisture will turn your stir-fry into a soggy braise, plus spatter all over and scare you. Cut into as equal-sized pieces as possible so they cook evenly. Fry vegetables in order of their texture e.g. hard broccoli stems/cauliflower/carrots , before peppers/asparagus/mushrooms, before spinach/tomatoes/broccoli florets. If necessary, blanch in boiling water for a min and then drain and refresh in cold water. 

Lastly, Stir-frying to the Sky's Edge by Grace Young is a brilliant book. Everyone should go check it out. I really enjoy doing research like this.