Published: May 29th 2012April 29th 2012
I took a sniff and thought of a small restaurant. The kind that lines short stretches of empty beach with unpolished wooden tables and uneven chairs. The kind with a one-, or at most, two-page menu. You have to order the coconut because they're clumped all over the place and, well, it's the symbollic drink of paradise, right? The large (not one of those puny, immaturely plucked ones
) coconut comes with a straw and, forget spoons, you use a part of the hacked coconut top to scoop out the meat. It's the kind of place where, even if you're surrounded by friends, you remain silent because the moment is perfect as is
and any chatter would only take you away from this place and moment. It's impressive what a smell can trigger. Fatimah smiled and showed me the coconut flakes inside the bag and we both nodded with happy approval.
We were nowhere near a beach, but the sweet aroma could have easily deceived me had I been blindfolded. Instead, we were in my kitchen where Fatimah had proposed to teach me how to cook Chicken Rendang and Sago Gula Melaka, two traditional Malaysian dishes that often appear around the
holidays or for special occasions.
She grabbed a handful of fresh flakes with her tiny hands and filled an empty pot. Once the bag was empty, she filled 1/3 to 1/2 of the pot with water and began squeezing the flakes. The water quickly turned into pearly white milk. One, two, and three, she filled the bowls -- the first containing the highest concentration of coconut milk -- continually squeezing and mixing until she poured the last bowl, which was most diluted.
She looked at me and said, "Air tangan
. You hear this before?" She opened her hand where faint white coconut milk drained in rivulets down the sides of her palm. "It means, 'water from the hand' or I say to my children, 'mother's sweat.' It makes the food taste better." She grinned in the way a mother does when she's passing something down, possibly something that her own mother taught her. There's something incredibly tender and precious in words like these, and they reminded me of my own mother when she teaches me Korean words without a precise English counterpart.
When she asked me if I would be interested in learning the traditional dishes before
we left Kuala Lumpur, I was taken by surprise while the foodie in me said without hesitation, "Yes, of course." You see, Fatimah's chicken rendang is one of the tastiest rendangs I've eaten in Asia, competing with a restaurant in Pulau Weh that required a 24-hour advance order--well worth the wait. She said she would cook while I watched and took notes and photos. The only condition was that I should use the leftover ingredients to cook the rendang on my own after her lesson.
She insisted on buying the ingredients at her local store because the prices were cheaper and she could hand-pick the best produce for the exact quantity needed. She bought the coconut flakes, red pepper paste, prawns, carrots, green beans, sago, kerisik, gula melaka and more for approximately 16RM (~$5) whereas if we had bought the same from our local stores (often located at the bottom of the many malls that dominate the city), the cost would have rung up higher than 50RM for equivalent or lower quality, pre-packaged produce. The prawns alone would have been over 15RM. I rarely bought fish and never once bought prawns at the store because of the steep prices,
so this was a rare treat.
The few pastes and packaged ingredients she showed me contained no added sugar or preservatives and tasted remarkably fresh. I was surprised to recognize the red pepper paste as it is also popular in Korean dishes (called go chu jang
). It made me think of the ahjumas
(older women and grandmothers) who line the Korean sidewalks and grass with hundreds of red peppers in order to dry them for the paste. The paste seems to be equally popular in Malaysian, Turkish, Armenian and many other cultures - a key, secret ingredient for many.
Sago is a curious ingredient drawn from a palm tree. The starchy white pearls hold little to no nutrients and is mostly carbohydrates, very similar to tapioca pudding and sometimes interchangeable. It composes the base of Sago Gula Melaka, a traditional Malayisan dessert. When Fatima poured the dry pearls into boiling water, they puffed and expanded into a translucent cloud as she stirred and stirred. When finished, we placed it in a container to cool and eventually chilled the contents in the fridge. The gelatinous goo was almost impossible to wash off of the utensils until we
had soaked them in water for a while.
In another pot, Fatimah melted the gula melaka, a delicious and sugary sap also extracted from palm trees that looks very much like a dark wax candle. It melted into a malt-like liquid into which she added ginger and knotted pandan leaves for flavoring.
The completed dish consisted of a large clouds of the sago pudding topped with a few spoonfuls of gula melaka and coconut milk. It's a deliciously unhealthy dish and will add to your belly like most holiday desserts. I really enjoyed it, especially the gula melaka syrup, but my boyfriend seemed to choke the sago down. The texture was a bit too gooey and gelatinous for his taste and I admit it took some getting used to.
The Sago Gula Melaka may be difficult to make without the right ingredients, so I've included three recipes for making mouthwatering rendang instead. It includes suggested substitutes should some ingredients be hard to find. This includes Fatimah's instructions as well as my experience when I recreated the dish. I give apprximate times and quantities because I prefer experimentation. Allow a few hours if you want to do all
three recipes. If you're short on time, it would be better to buy some packaged ingredients and skip to the rendang recipe.
Kerisik (toasted coconut)
• 1 handful of coconut flakes (preferably fresh, but desiccated works)
• (optional) cooking oil
• (optional) mortar & pestle
1. Slow-fry coconut flakes in a pan -- leave on low heat and stir occasionally to avoid burning the thin flakes.
2. The flakes will gradually brown (a kind of reddish brown). It takes some time and is the final ingredient for the rendang, so if you're good at multi-tasking, you can go ahead and prepare other ingredients or dishes as you occasionally stir the kerisik.
3. You can also add a little oil (Fatimah said any kind. Coconut oil would taste best, but tends to cost more). I didn't use any oil and it came out fine.
4. If you do have a mortar and pestle, grind the flakes after they are toasted - this releases more flavor and aroma. I don't own a mortar & pestle, so I skipped this.
1. Place the coconut flakes in a pot, add 25-50% water and begin mixing it with your hands. Add more water if you feel it's necessary.
2. Mix and squeeze the coconut flakes with your hand to extract the coconut milk. Mix them apart with your fingers, grab a handful and squeeze above the water. Repeat until you've extracted as much as possible.
3. Strain the milk into bowls. It's okay if a few flakes escape into the milk.
4. Fill 3 small bowls of coconut milk (~1 cup/bowl) and keep track of the 1st
, and 3rd
bowl as this will decide the order of use for the rendang. You can refrigerate any leftovers or use it all as you wish.
5. The flakes are of no use or taste once you have squeezed all the milk out, so you can throw them away.
• 1 1/2 Onions
• 1 - 2 heads of Garlic (depending on how much you like it)
• Thumb-Sized Old Ginger (more yellow and soft compared to young ginger)
• 3 Stalks Lemongrass
• Thumb-Sized Langkuas(in Bahasa Malaysia and commonly found in Sarawak; related to ginger; aka galangal)
• 1/4 - 1 cup of red pepper paste(should be available in most Asian or Middle Eastern grocery stores, otherwise, I've added some potentially good links below on how to make it from scratch)
• Kerisik(directions above)
• 2-2 1/2 Cups of Coconut Milk(directions above)
• Chicken(200-400 grams depending on how soupy or spicy you want the curry. Whole pieces with bones do seem to taste better, but boneless is fine, too)
• Salt & Pepper
• (optional) sugar
• (optional and very tasty) fresh saffron leaves or powder
1. Blend 1 1/2 onions, ginger, garlic, two stalks of lemongrass (if unavailable, you can use lemongrass powder. If that's not an option, you can sprinkle some lemon juice to get some of the citrus flavor), and langkuas
- part of the ginger family. If unavailable, you can cook without it or add more regular ginger as substitute). The blend should look like a paste. It's okay if there are some chunky bits.
2. Fry the mixture from step 1 without oil.
3. Add the red pepper paste. You can add more
paste later if you want more spice. Fry it for a little bit then add enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan.
4. When the mixture seems to need some liquid, add a bowl of coconut milk. If you made coconut milk, add the most diluted 3rd
batch. If you purchased coconut milk, go ahead and dilute it so it is about 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup coconut milk and add the mixture.
5. Bring the contents to a boil and add the chicken. Flip the chicken over on occasion to cook all sides thoroughly.
6. Use your best judgment regarding the rendang sauce (when it seems in need of more liquid) and add another batch of coconut milk. This would be the 2nd
batch if you made coconut milk or the remaining half of the purchased coconut milk.
7. Continue boiling and mixing.
8. Fatimah took the remaining lemongrass stalk at this time and banged it flat with the handle-end of the knife. This split the stalk open and allowed the lemongrass flavor seep into the curry when it was thrown in. Otherwise, use lemongrass powder. If you don't have access
to any lemongrass, you can sprinkle in some lemon juice.
9. Rinse the saffron leaves and take out the leaf blade (aka the midrib that divides the leaf into two halves). You can either put in the saffron to eat, or you can tie it (with one of its own leaves) just for flavor. We ate it and it was delicious. If this ingredient is too expensive or unavailable, just leave it out.
10. Continue boiling. The smell should tell you whether you're getting the recipe right or not -- a balanced aroma of sweet from the coconut, spicy from the red pepper paste, and tangy from the lemongrass.
11. Sprinkle some salt (if in doubt, add more later when you can sample it).
12. Add sugar. Fatimah added a ton of sugar, which made the curry delicious. I cooked without sugar since we try to avoid it and it still came out tasty.
13. Keep boiling and mixing until the meat seems well-cooked.
14. Add the kerisik and mix it in. Keep the heat low and cover the pan allowing the contents to steam for a while (I like doing this with most
dishes because these extra minutes of patience seem to make meat more tender).
If you want a soupy curry
, add the kerisik earlier or add a smaller amount.
If you want thick curry
, you can either cook longer or add more kerisik.
Fatimah recommends eating it with Indian Chapatti or rice.
You can chop up any vegetables you want to cook. We used carrots, french beans, red peppers (thin slices without seeds), onions, chunks of garlic, and Fatimah even threw in some prawns. Go ahead and fry this up in a second pan with oil whenever you want (it should be cooked at a level between frying and steaming for the right consistency). Add salt and pepper as you like.
Since we're moving, I don't know how available some ingredients will be in local stores. Fatimah suggested planting saffron, lemongrass and pandan leaves because this makes them fresher, cheaper and more accessible. We'll see how feasible a garden (and how agreeable the climate) will be wherever we end up.
I've never made red pepper past, so I researched some recipes online. Here are a few that sounded good. Armenian: Short Version
& Long Version
. Here's a good Korean recipe
for red pepper paste, but this takes up to three months and, as much as I love Korean food, I would say that the Armenian recipe does have healthier ingredients. I'll return later after I've tried both styles to say which recipe tastes better.
There are more photos below