Ayam Masak Lemak Putih

A common perception of Malay food is that it is an invariably spicy affair; for the most part it’s absolutely true – we do love our chilies and we certainly aren’t shy about using them in eye-watering quantities.

Nevertheless, Malay food is a diverse cuisine and there are, in fact, a number of delectable dishes for those of us looking for something a little less “pedas” (hot). Despite bearing all the hallmarks of a classic Malaysian curry, Ayam Masak Lemak Putih (Coconut Milk White Cooked Chicken) is, in fact, perhaps one of our mildest offerings, and is a great option for introducing your non-Malaysian friends to our incredible flavours. Of course, mild in no way means meek, and this wonderful dish is every bit as alluring as beef rendang and kari kapitan.

Brimming with nuance, on the face of it Ayam Masak Lemak Putih resembles a traditional Indian korma. Both mild and comforting, despite their inherent similarities what really sets these dishes apart is their flavour. Unlike its more famous doppelgänger, instead of cream or yogurt, Ayam Masak Lemak Putih is braised in a fragrant brew of coconut milk and classic South East Asian aromatics such as galangal, lemongrass and lime.

Another distinction between the two is the consistency of the sauce.

Unlike a korma, which is typically thick, Ayam Masak Lemak Putih‘s rich and moreish sauce is both looser and lighter; making it perfect for either drowning your rice in it, or as I love to do, moping up it with good white bread or, better still, some flaky roti canai.

Admittedly, despite its name my version of Ayam Masak Lemak Putih tends to err on the side of gray as apposed to actually being white; please don’t get hung up on the colour, or its name – especially when it’s something that tastes as good as this! The “white” is a product of using a copious amount of lemak (coconut milk) in the sauce, but outside Malaysia this can be an extravagance too far, and frankly it’s unnecessary. Of course if you do happen to have a glut of coconut milk available, by all means increse the quantity for a truly authentic look.

Note: Like most Malaysian curries, this dish will benefit from a rest before serving. As there is little or no chili in the sauce, a couple of hours resting time should suffice, though overnight is, of course, always ideal.

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Caldo Verde (Portuguese Kale, Chorizo & Potato Soup)

It’s Soup Season here in the wintry Cape, which of course means it’s once again time for Caldo Verde! Though not really a soup-person per se, this Portuguese classic nevertheless remains a perennial winter favourite of mine.

Made with just a few key ingredients, Caldo Verde nevertheless makes for a surprisingly satisfying meal. Indeed, hearty and nutritious this humble dish is everything a rustic soup needs to be, making it the perfect antidote to winter’s chilly bite; and, when the mood takes me, I can eat bowls of the stuff for many a dark day on end.

Literally meaning “Green Soup”, Caldo Verde is very much about the kale.

Though wondrously healthy, kale isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but the soup’s other flavours definitely do help mitigate these contentious greens, making Caldo Verde a great way to add some kale to your diet. The key is to cut the leaves into thin strips before shredding them as finely as possible. It is important to take your time doing so, lest you want to end up with a tangle of kale, and not the spoonable soup you should be aiming for.

Admittedly, I do have a bit of a phobia of thin watery soups, and on paper Caldo Verde should be exactly that. But thickened with potato, and blitzed with a blender, nothing could be further from the truth. Caldo Verde actually has a surprisingly comforting viscosity and weight to it. To further enrich the soup, I also like to add a couple of strips of pork fat into the mix before blending. Of course this is entirely optional, but it gives the soup a satisfying mouthfeel it could otherwise lack.

Using a good quality chorizo is also a must, as most of the soup’s flavour comes from the spices rendered from the sausage. To that end it is essential to use cooking/soft chorizo as the smoked version will not yield as much flavour when sautéd. Along with the addition of the pork fat, I also like to blend half the chorizo along with the potatoes. Some recipes frown upon doing so, but I prefer the additional flavour it adds to the dish.

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Mamak Mee Goreng (Malaysian Indian Fried Mee)

A veritable melting-pot of cuisines, Malaysian food is almost quite entirely a product of fusion. Indeed, like most other confederacies of mostly-migrants, much of modern Malaysia’s food has evolved from the crucible of colonially-induced diversity.

Incubated in the minglings of ethnically-polar groups, Malaysia’s unique schism-cuisines ultimately emerged from these culturally blended kitchens. Chinese noodles discovered Indian spices, whilst Malay ingredients found Western sensibilities; each evolving into their own distinct cultural identities, and ultimately resulting in some of our most acclaimed and cherished dishes. Unfortunately, most of the world has yet to discover the delights of these culinary culminations, but thanks to heritage ambassadors such as Pearly Kee that is beginning to change, with Nyonya flavours (at least) gaining international acclaim. By contrast, however, Mamak food remains relatively unknown outside Malaysia. A marriage of Tamil and Muslim heritage, Mamak food is a heady halal blend of “exotic” spices and local ingredients, and is mostly associated both with the wildly popular Nasi Kandar, Murtabak and, of course, Mamak Mee Goreng.

One of my late father’s favourite roadside treats, Mamak Mee Goreng is a powerhouse of fusion flavour. Consisting of thick yellow noodles fried in a spicy sauce with egg and potato, then lightened with lime – this is a true thug of a dish!

Indeed, this humble meal has it all…quite literally; this is kitchen-sink cooking at its best! With such a dizzying list of ingredients, it is easy to be intimidated, but don’t be. No one version of mamak mee goreng is ever the same, so variations are perfectly acceptable. As long as you stick to a few key ingredients, and nail the sauce, I guarantee you’ll still be tucking into a decent plate of noodles come makan-time.

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Marmite Chicken 妈蜜鸡

I’m not sure why, but recently I’ve been in a distinctly Marmite state of mind.

Perhaps its the riots and lockdowns talking, but I think we can all agree these are dark and polarising times. Indeed, seen from that perspective 2020 is turning out to be the most “Marmite” year of them all! Dividing more than it unites, this dark concoction of Brewer’s Yeast claims no middle-ground; making it the pantry poster-child of this “love it or loathe it” culture we seem to find ourselves living in. Alas I adore Marmite, but as a Year, it can go straight to the back of the shelf…but not before I drone on about one of my favourite recipes: Marmite Chicken!

Arguably one of the last ingredients you’d associate with Asian food, Marmite Chicken is a surprisingly popular dish in the Chinese restaurants of Malaysia. Robust, and un-apologetically marmity, this dish isn’t for the fainthearted – but then again neither is Marmite! Much like Horlicks Chicken, there is naturally an element of the novel in play here, but don’t let that put you off. Of course it goes without saying that non-Marmite lovers beware: this may not be the dish for you!

This surprisingly easy dish is, in fact, a triumph of crispy deep-fried chicken morsels, contrasted with, and smothered in, an addictive umami sauce. Balancing both sweet and salty, this certainly isn’t the dubious fusion hash you’d expect it to be. As with similar dishes, Marmite chicken is best plated on  some fresh lettuce, sliced cucumber, and even tomato – anything that will absorb that wonderfully sticky sauce!

Serve with: plain rice, mapo tofu and something “neutral” like Sichuan Cabbage, or egg foo young,

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Daging Kicap Manis (Beef with Sweet Soy Sauce)

It’s hardly surprising given the circumstances, but just six months in and I think we can all agree that 2020 is officially the Year of Comfort Food. Whether it be baking, barbecuing, or brewing, many of us have sought solace through one of the few things left we can control – food.

Under Lockdown, my own desire to wring comfort from food has meant making a lot of  my favourite Malaysian dishes – specifically those from my childhood, which naturally leads me back to my grandmother’s cooking. A prolific feeder, Amah was a classic agak-agak cook – meaning there were never any recipes, and her cooking was always a case of “a little of this, a little of that“. Of course it made for some great food, but unfortunately it meant that many of my favourite childhood dishes were lost when she passed. Undeterred, and with the taste of her food still fresh in memory, I have tried over the years to recreate some of Amah’s best dishes, and I have finally cooked my way to what is perhaps my all time childhood favourite – Daging Kicap Manis (Beef with Sweet Soy Sauce)!

A simple dish, for a simple palate; daging kicap manis is often considered a child’s dish as it is both sweet and salty, without any notable spiciness to speak of. It is the prefect choice for a fussy eater – which explains why it was a regular feature at Amah’s dining table! As a kid I was incredibly picky, and this (along with green bean omelette) was one of the few dishes I would eat without the need for bribery…or threat!

Unlike most other “chunkier” versions, Amah’s daging kicap manis was always made with thin strips of beef, and the only semblance of a vegetable was a whole lot of sliced onion. As a result, her version was pretty much devoid of any real nutritional value, but I suspect her motivation was altogether basic: she had a fussy grandchild to feed, and all else was padding. Indeed, who hasn’t had a childhood favourite ruined by an errant chunk of carrot! After all, agak-agak isn’t always about “a little of this” – sometimes its actually about “a little less of that”.

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Green Bean Omelette

A mainstay of many a family meal, green bean omelette has been a feature of most Malaysian’s childhood for decades.

Personally, there are few recipes that remind me more of my late Amah than this simple and humble omelette. My grandmother was a great home-cook, and along with her famed daging kicap manis (Beef with Sweet Soy Sauce), this was perhaps my favourite addition to her nightly dinner-spreads.

Like many extended families in Malaysia back in the 80’s, the Ghanis were a large and ravenous bunch, with at least ten hungry bellies to fill at any one time! Nevertheless, Amah was an undeterred and prolific cook, and in spite of our numbers, family dinners were invariably generous affairs. With so many mouths to feed, it was only natural that she was always keen to supplement her main offerings with easy and nourishing dishes…which explains why this classic omelette featured so regularly. Cheap and nutritious; this easy dish is ready in minutes and is the perfect dish to “bulk out” an otherwise meager supper.

Made with just 3 basic ingredients (and some seasoning), this simply flavoured omelette works well with almost all other Malay dishes. Unlike other Asian omelettes such as Egg Foo Young, this dish is dense and almost “chewy”, making it a great foil for lemak rich dishes such as beef rendang and kari kapitan.

Traditionally made with yard beans, and being considerably harder than the variety many of us are accustomed to, it is best to use regular green beans as a substitute. Fine green beans would not be recommended as they lack the robustness of an older bean, and won’t give the omelette the weight and bite associated with the dish.

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Penang Hokkien Mee/Har Mee (Prawn Noodles)

When I eventually rule the world, one of my first decrees would be to outlaw throwing your prawn shells away – to do so should be nothing short of criminal! Along with pork and chicken bones, prawn shells are the humble building blocks of that lifeblood of cooking: stock.

A prolific and self-confessed Bone Collector, I freeze every scrap that comes my way; and reckon any home-cook would be remiss if they didn’t have at least one bag of bones lurking in their deep-freeze! For all my boney odds and ends, by far my most prized is my horde of prawn shells.

Pure crustacean gold, these precious cast-offs are where the flavour is really at, and are the foundation of one of my all time favourite dishes – Penang Hokkien Mee. Also known as Har Mee in the rest of Malaysia, this simple prawn noodle dish is a masterstroke of hawker food. Made with a combination of bee hoon (rice vermicelli) and yellow noodles, Penang Hokkien Mee is actually all about the broth.

Made with a base of fried prawn shells and heads, the stock is then lightened with either pork or chicken stock. Add to that a dollop of sambal goreng for kick, and crispy shallots for depth, the broth is almost akin to a bouillabaisse on Asian crack, and its just as addictive!

Like all good stocks, the broth takes its time; but other than that, Penang Hokkien Mee is a surprisingly easy meal to make at home. Though the ingredient list may seem intimidatingly exotic, the dish is actually achievable with even a limited Asian pantry,      I was able to reconstruct this hawker classic without needing any specialist ingredients. Other than substituting the traditional topping of kangkong with watercress, the only challenge you might have is the sambal goreng, but this can easily be made at home. There was a time when crispy shallots/onions were difficult to find in South Africa, but thankfully these days they can be found at Woolworths, saving us the effort of frying our own. The hokkien noodles can be sourced from Checkers, but if you can’t find them, feel free to just use the rice vermicelli on its own.

Aside from that, I suggest you start collecting as many prawn shells and heads as soon as you can – because once you’ve tasted Penang Hokkien Mee, there’s no going back!

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Sayur Lodeh (Vegetables in Coconut Milk)

Ah, the classic conundrum of Malaysian vegetable dishes. 

A perennial quirk of the cuisine, the vegetable dishes of Malaysia are rarely actually vegetarian, with the omnipresent threat of the odd bit of dried shrimp turning up in your plate of veggies. To many Malaysians, a dish’s vegetarian credentials are entirely a matter of meat to vegetable ratio – making dinner a meaty-minefield for those of a vegetarian persuasion!

Unfortunately, Sayur Lodeh (Vegetables in Coconut Milk) is no different.

Popular in both Malaysia and Indonesia, Sayur Lodeh is often  considered a “safe” vegetable option as it is mild enough not to inflame younger, or foreign, palates. Simply flavoured with galangal, turmeric, and (unsurprisingly) a sprinkling of prawns, this coconut milk sauce works well with almost any other Malay dish. 

Traditionally eaten with lontong (banana leaf rice cake), sayur lodeh also works well with regular rice. As it is very mild, it is best to pair it with something spicy like Ayam Lada Hitam (Pepper Chicken) and, of course, some sambal belacan

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Ayam Lada Hitam (Malaysian Pepper Chicken)

For better or worse, sometimes you can smell your dinner a mile away, as is certainly the case with Ayam Lada Hitam (Malaysian Pepper Chicken)!

Fragrant, fiery, and flavoured to the extreme, Asian pepper dishes are often divisive; with most of us either loving or loathing it. Deployed sparingly as a form of seasoning, the use of pepper in Western cooking is actually quite limited – perhaps a relic of the days when the spice was highly valued, and its use judicious. At its abundant source, however, pepper can be added with abandon and is often used to add heat to a dish, instead of just being a seasoning to enhance flavour. Unlike the heat produced from chilies, pepper’s burn is slower, deeper, and more aromatic – adding a pervasive undertone to a dish that chili does not. Personally I’m an avid fan, but I have to admit that when it comes to pepper, you can easily have too much of a good thing. Like most things in life and cooking, balance is key and in this recipe that is somewhere in-between the toasted spiced oil and the heat of the pepper.

Adapted from an early recipe from my Aunt, the acclaimed food writer Rohani Jelani, Ayam Lada Hitam is old-school Malaysian cooking at its best. Packed with flavour and simple to make, this dish doesn’t require any specialist Asian ingredients – making it a great option for those of us with limited access to such.

Ayam Lada Hitam remains a home-cooking classic, albeit one that is rarely mentioned in the culinary lexicon of modern Malaysia. It’s a shame really, as this spicy dish is worthy of its place at the table, and easily holds its own against stalwarts such as beef rendang and curry kapitan. Best served alongside a mild vegetable dish like sayur lodeh, or something sweet like kari nenas (Pineapple Curry), Ayam Lada Hitam makes a great addition to any Malaysian meal.

A word of warning though: come makan-time, just be prepared for a knock at the door, as your whole neighbourhood will have smelt what’s cooking for dinner!

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Prawn & Ginger Egg Foo Young

I never thought I would say this, but omelettes aren’t just for brunch!

As perfect as they may be for soaking up bubble-heavy mimosas, or stilling those flat-white morning jitters, these eggy envelopes deserve so much more than the standard fare we stuff them with. Quick and versatile, an omelette can pretty much be anything you want it to be, and this is especially true when they are cooked Chinese-style!

Egg Foo Young (Chinese Omelette) is a dish most of us know from our local takeaway, but very few of us realise how easy it is to make at home. If you can make an omelette, the chances are you can make this classic Cantonese dish too! Though similar in almost every way, Chinese “omelettes” are, in terms of flavour, a world apart from their western counterparts. Added to very hot oil, Egg Foo Young is crispy and, as such, benefits from that elusive wok hei (‘breath of a wok’). Add to that an umami laden sauce, and their irresistible flavour is almost complete…

But, of course, what’s an omelette without fillings?

The options for filling your Egg Foo Young are virtually endless, and go way beyond the generic takeaway options you are probably used to seeing. Seasoned with a dash of soy sauce instead of the usual salt and pepper, the egg mix is the perfect foil for anything from the classic char siew (Chinese BBQ Pork) to julienned vegetables. 

For this recipe I’m pushing the boat out and using prawns. It might seem like a waste to use them in something like an omelette, but rest assured it’s not. I love the sweet meatiness of the prawns with the fresh bite of the gingery eggs – its a classic combination and makes the perfect addition to a larger meal, or (if you want to spoil yourself) just have it on its own with some plain rice.

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