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Friday, January 13, 2012

Eggplant with Dried Fish...Bangladeshi Baingan Shutki

Foodies the world around that enjoy cooking harbour their inspiration from many facets.  For me I would have to say my “curry culture” comes from my parents.  My siblings and I grew up at home in Melbourne.  Our family comes from India, so we spent many a dinnertime over my dad’s curry concoctions or my mother’s carefully prepared Chicken Korma or Biryani (she's very precise in the ingredients and methods).  The recipes for these dishes always seemed to elude any written form and I am quite convinced that they do not exist, on paper anyway.  Instead, the ingredients and exact specifications for these dishes are imprinted in the memory banks of home cooks alike.  Mums and dads, grandmas and aunts all seem to know just how much of each spice, and just how much salt is required to get the dish to taste exactly the same way it did the last time you ate it.  I am yet to put my parent’s recipes into this blog – it’s just a matter of letting them in the kitchen to cook, with me hovering around taking notes and pictures – stay tuned (future blog topic alert!)
One such cook that follows the same principles of cooking without cookbooks, is my mother-in-law - my Amma (আম্মা - Bengali for mother).  She is originally from Bangladesh and has been cooking almost all her life, and like my parents, her recipes are all in her head too.  For some years now I have been enjoying dishes prepared by her, and true to form, her chicken curry and beef curry always impresses – and meets the requirement of tasting the same each time.  I think that even if I had not had it in a while, I would recognise her curry in a blind taste test.  On a recent visit to “the in-laws” I was greeted at the front door with the aroma of something deliciously spicy being cooked up in the kitchen.  On closer inspection (as you do!), I was delighted to discover that it was an eggplant dish that she was conjuring up.  Over the years, I have falsely given the impression that I like only meat curries, and as a result Amma has only cooked me beef and chicken dishes, which I have loved each time.  Well I have voiced my opinion on all things vegetarian (and fishy) with her, and hopefully now I can experience some dishes from Bangladesh that will be completely new to me.   
Ikan Bilis - use these if you cannot get Bangladeshi Shutki
This highly pungent dish is a classic style Bangladeshi cuisine which uses dried fish as its flavoursome base.  Shutki, as it is known in Bangladesh, can include a variety of fish that have been dried over time, and as you would expect, they share the common characteristic of a very, very stinky smell, similar to Belachan (Dry Shrimp Paste) – that I have used frequently in Malaysian and Indonesian cooking.  In most cases I would recommend when cooking anything with dried fish, to open all the windows and doors in your house – unless you have an industrial strength exhaust fan in your kitchen.  
Despite the recipe being safely locked away in my mother-in-law's head I was able to get the ingredients and directions and decided to try my hand at some Bangladeshi cuisine.  I admit, however, that when I cooked it yesterday, it was not the same as hers, but it was tasty and came somewhat close to its likeness.  This dish is a very easy to prepare and surprisingly simple, given how good it tastes.  I have used Ikan Bilis, as they are easy to come by in your local supermarket, but to be true to her traditions my Amma sources only the finest shutki from her Bangladeshi grocer, and for authenticity I think I will use these next time as my final dish just was not fishy enough.
  • ½ cup x Ikan Bilis , soaked in warm water  
  • 1 x large Eggplant, cut into thick batons
  • Cooking Oil
  • 1 x large Onion, finely diced 
  • 6 cloves x Garlic, crushed
  • 3-4 x Green Chillies, sliced
  • 1 tsp x Turmeric Powder
  • 3 tsp x Coriander Powder
  • 1 tsp x Chilli Powder
  • ½ cup x Water
  • Whole green chillies, sliced lengthways to garnish 
Home-grown garlic straight from my garden
In a hot wok heat 2 tablespoons of cooking oil
Add the onion and cook slowly for a few minutes until soft
Now stir in the garlic and chilli be sure it does not catch
Put in the teaspoon of turmeric and combine
Squeeze and drain the water out of the soaking ikan bilis 
Discard the water and add the dried fish to the wok
Add the eggplant pieces followed by the coriander and chilli powder
Mix well, turning to coat with the mixture
Add a little water to deglaze the bottom and sides of wok
Turn the heat to low and cover the wok
Cook for about 10 minutes or until the eggplant is tender but still holds its shape
Remove the lid and allow the liquid to reduce slightly to a thick gravy
Garnish with sliced whole chillies and keep covered until serving

"Traditionally Bangladeshi food is eaten with the hand although I leave this up to the experts.  I seem to get by with a spoon and fork."
"Eggplant and Dried Fish would generally be eaten with rice but I am a big roti fan. Parathas, naans or chapatis go well with the dish too."

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Nasi Lemak. Couldn't get any better than this!!!

In Malaysia, Nasi Lemak has been proclaimed as their national dish.  It is available almost everywhere and strangely enough, at almost any time of the day.  Traditionally it was intended as a breakfast dish, but can be eaten at lunchtime as it is still classified as an informal dish and is readily available from street hawkers.  The entire contents of Nasi Lemak are parceled neatly, enveloped in banana leaves, that makes for a handy take-away package to-go.  Well, I have not been to Malaysia yet, and until then, it's a bowl of cereal and milk for my breakfast, but Nasi Lemak has long been one of my favourite Malaysian orders - for lunch or dinner that is.   
The national dish of Malaysia is a tough act for me to take on, but being the humble foodie that I am, I give it a good crack and it has always been a winner.  The wow factor is also in the simple plating up where the use of a small bowl to create that restaurant-looking mound of rice garners some attention from awaiting diners at the dinner table - it says that this is going to be one special dish!
There are four major components that bring this tasty platter together and they all co-exist in perfect harmony.

  1. The Curry, my preference is with Beef Rendang, but chicken and seafood based curries can also feature.  These curries are usually nice and spicy.
  2. The Coconut Rice, it fills your kitchen with a wonderful aroma and is perfectly balanced with the spicy curries
  3. The Sambal, this sweet, sour and hot paste is highlighted by the fishy flavour of the dried anchovies used in making it
  4. Condiments, providing extra crunch and texture additions to culminate the dish 

Coconut Rice
This is probably what makes or breaks a good Nasi Lemak for me (that is apart from the Rendang needing to be superb).  The rice needs to be fluffy and enormously fragrant.  I use jasmine rice as it puffs up really well and it is a little more glutinous than basmati so it sticks together better - but either will do.  I highly recommend getting your hands on pandan (screwpine) leaves.  For a while these were quite hard to find but now Asian grocers have them in the frozen section.  These leaves will give your rice that ultimate authentic flavour that the Malaysians love to use, even in their desserts.  Tie each leaf into a tight knot before using as this will help to bring out the flavour and infuse the rice.  
Ingredients, to serve 5
2 cups x Jasmine rice, rinsed and drained
1½ cups x Cold Water
1 cup x Coconut Milk
3-4 x Shallots, finely diced
1-2 x Slices of Ginger, thick cut
2 x Pandan leaves, each tied into a knot
1tsp x Sugar
Salt to taste

Put all ingredients into a large non-stick pot.  
Cover with a lid and place on high heat
Bring to a boil then immediately move pot to the hob with the lowest heat
Cook the rice without removing the lid for 15 minutes
Use a fork to fluff the rice then place lid back on and cook for another 5 minutes
Remove pot from the heat and allow to stand with the lid still covered
Discard pandan leaves and ginger before serving.  

Sambal Ikan Bilis 
This is a recipe for a more traditional style sambal made with dried anchovies or Ikan Bilis. You can blend the paste ingredients in a food processor but grinding it by hand has a much better consistency - and more satisfaction for the cook.  For a hotter sambal do not remove the seeds from the chillies.
1 cup x Ikan Bilis, rinsed in cold water, then drained with paper towel
1Tbsp x Brown Sugar
Salt to taste
In a mortar and pestle grind the following to a smooth paste:
8-10 x Dried Chillies, remove seeds and soak in warm water
½ x Red Onion, finely diced, (finely slice other ½ for use later in the recipe)
2 x Garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 Tbsp x Belachan
Shallow fry the Ikan Bilis in batches, in a skillet on medium heat, be careful not to burn the tiny dried fish
Drain on paper towels and keep aside
Reserve any remaining oil
Place skillet on medium heat again and add remaining onion slices and a sprinkle of salt
Cook the onions down to a golden brown, do not allow these to burn
Turn out the sambal mix into the skillet and stir fry for 1-2 minutes
Add the fried Ikan Bilis to the dish and fold through to combine
Add Brown Sugar and stir through
Season with Salt to taste

Other condiments
Roasted peanuts, these can be dry roasted in a fry pan
Crispy fried Ikan Bilis, when preparing the sambal reserve a small handful of these 
Boiled egg, cut in half
Cucumber, sliced

Assembling the dish
Start by filling a small round bowl with spoonfuls of rice.  Pack it down firmly and smooth out the top.Turn upside down onto a serving plate and tap to release a half sphere of rice.Now add a generous serve of the curry, be it a Beef Rendang or Chicken Curry.Next a dash of Sambal.And finally arrange the other condiments around the plate.You now have Nasi Lemak - Enjoy!!!

Beef Rendang. My favourite!!!

Since I am no food critic, I cannot say that I have truthfully tried every cuisine that the world has to offer to make me a total expert. I think if I gave up my day job, then being a food critic would be one of the things I would like to do. I love food and not just cooking it but every aspect of it from purchasing it fresh from the markets, to researching it and finding out what goes well together, to inventing new spins on recipes that give them the personal touch. I cook a lot of different cultural cuisine. Being of an Indian upbringing I do delve into a lot of curries and essentially – spicy food. On this blog site I have posted recipes from around the world – France, Greece, Italy, Spain and China, just to name a few. If I had to choose my favourite cuisine to cook, and eat. it would be a tie between Indonesian and Malaysian. So when it comes to my dish of choice it’s a classic that is available in both cultures - Beef Rendang.
Although Rendang has an Indonesian origin it has immense popularity in Malaysia and is a regular item on their restaurant’s menus. A recent poll done by CNN International on the world’s 50 most delicious foods ranks Rendang at the top – so I must be on to a good thing (after all, I did read it on the internet). I think a good blog topic would be to cook the top 50 over time (Stay tuned as I might just do that as a side blog one day – it would take me a while though – and I would have to quit my day job!!!)
This recipe for Beef Rendang is a Malay style wet curry. It has a well rounded spiciness and really gets me to umami heaven with its flavour hit. I have adapted the recipe as broadcasted on SBS’ Food Safari – Malaysia episode.

Ingredients for the Rempah (paste) – Place next 7 ingredients into a Food Processor and blitz to make the rempah
  • 2 x Onions, quartered
  • 6 x Cloves Garlic
  • 6 x Dried Chillies, seeded, chopped and soaked in some warm water
  • 1 inch piece x Ginger galangal, peeled and chopped roughly
  • 1 inch piece x Galangal, peeled and chopped roughly
  • 2 stalks x Lemongrass, bulb finely chopped
  • 1 tsp x Fresh Turmeric or ½ tsp x Turmeric powder
  • 2 Tbsp x Oil
  • 1 kg x Beef, boneless chuck works great cut into cubes
  • 4 tbsp x Curry Powder (If you can get Malay curry powder from the Asian grocer it works wonders in this dish)
  • 1 can x Coconut Milk (400ml)
  • 1 cup x Desiccated Coconut, dry toasted lightly in a pan 
  • 2 tbsp x Kecap Manis
  • Salt to taste
  • 7-8 x Kaffir Lime Leaves, sliced thinly
Heat a heavy pot and add in the oil followed by the rempah.
Cook for 5 minutes on a gentle heat until browned and fragrant
Add the beef and combine with rempah
Now add the curry powder a stir well to incorporate with meat and rempah
Pour in the coconut milk and bring the pot to a gentle boil
Then fold in the desiccated coconut add a little water if mixture is too thick.

Cover with a lid and cook on low heat for 1 hour
Stir in the Kecap Manis and salt to taste
Sprinkle the lime leaves into the pot and cook for a further 2 minutes
Serve immediately with steamed rice or Roti

"I love me some Beef Rendang anytime, and this recipe is my all time favourite. I used to trust in store bought pastes in packets and bottles, but not anymore. This is a real winner. At home we eat this dish as a simple rice and curry dish most of the times. There are those occasions however, when I get all fancy and serve Rendang as part of an awesome Nasi Lemak platter. Now if you dine at Malay and Indo places you know what I'm talking about- Curry, Coconut Rice, Sambal, Fried Ikan Bilis, Peanuts, Cucumber and Egg - doesn't get any better. Recipe to be posted soon - master the Beef Rendang and you are more than half way there."

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Sichuan Style Chicken...mmm Spicy!

It has certainly been a while between posts but it has been a crazy last couple of months for me, capping off 2011. 
So firstly Happy New Year! I hope 2012 is prosperous and filled with all things good, especially foodie goodness. My absence has been a combination of a few things - being extra busy at home, cooking and eating without blogging, a back injury, hospital stay for a week, recovery in bed and being on a diet of pain killers is hardly enough inspiration to bring myself to blog.
I am on the mend now so I'm back. I still walk with a limp but was today finally able to stand (in the kitchen) for long enough to prepare and cook a meal for the family. So to commemorate my return to the cooktop I felt it best to pick up where I had left off - in the world of Sichuan cuisine. 
Paying homage to the fiery crispy chilli chicken dish from Pepper Chilli here is my rendition. I have taken the crispy out of my recipe as I just cannot achieve the crunch that I remember so well when I ordered this dish from Pepper Chilli. The taste explosion is definitely there though, and you can really put some kick into the dish by the amount of chilli you use. This recipe combines dried chilli flakes, cayenne pepper powder, fresh chilli paste and chilli sauce - each adding a different element to the final taste, which you can choose to serve with the abundance of whole dried chillies as done so at many Sichuan haunts - but today I didn't, so you will notice their absence in the pictures that follow.

Ingredients, to serve 4-5 with steamed rice.

  • 1 x Whole Chicken, approx 1.2kg, skin removed 
  • 2 x Egg Whites, beaten in a large mixing bowl
  • 2tbsp x Cornflour
  • 2tsp x Chinese 5 Spice powder
  • Oil for deep frying
  • 1 x Carrot, Red Capsicum, Zucchini (Courgette)
  • 1 x Brown Onion, diced finely
  • 6-8 x Sichuan Peppercorns, toasted and crushed to a powder
  • 2tbsp x Tomato Sauce (to glaze)
  • Spring Onions or Chives to garnish
For the sauce combine the following in a bowl and set aside
  • 1tbsp x Chilli Paste (Sambal Olek)
  • 1tsp x Cayenne Pepper Powder (less if you prefer it milder)
  • 1tsp x Chilli Flakes (less if you prefer it milder)
  • 2tsp x Chilli Sauce of your choice, (I used Siracha)
  • 1tbsp x Crushed Ginger
  • 2tbsp x Shao Xing wine
  • 2tbsp x Sesame Oil
  • 2tbsp x Brown Sugar
  • 1tbsp x Dark Soy
  • 1tsp x Worcestershire Sauce

Cut the chicken down into as many small pieces as you can, use a cleaver to chop through the bones.
Combine the cornflour and 5 spice powder with the beaten egg whites then stir in the chicken pieces.

Set aside to marinate while you prepare the vegetables
Peel the carrot and cut into strips then into small dice, do the same for the capsicum and zucchini.
Heat enough oil in a wok to deep fry.

In batches, fry the chicken until cooked through (about 4-5 minutes per batch)
Drain cooked chicken pieces on absorbent paper and set aside

Remove all but 2 tablespoons of oil from the wok and bring to high heat
Stir fry all diced vegetables including the onion for 3 minutes
Add the sauce and stir through a little water to thin out slightly
Return the cooked chicken to the wok and fold gently to coat with sauce, add a little more water if necessary
Bring to the boil and add the tomato sauce, cook for 1-2 minutes
Sprinkle the Sichuan peppercorn powder and stir through
Garnish with spring onions and serve with steamed rice

"This dish is sure to pack a punch, and depending on your chilli additions it is sure to satisfy any chilli addicts palette. You can substitute the chicken for white fish fillets or even prawns for a different take.
For a (dare I say) healthier option use lean breast chicken strips and omit the battering and deep frying. Just add to the wok when the sauce is boiling and cook until done."