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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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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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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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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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Sichuan Stir-Fry Cabbage 炝炒圆白菜

This may seem like a strange thing to admit, but I’m in love with cabbage.

Yes, it’s true; I’m in a lock-down love affair with arguably the most mundane vegetable out there. Perhaps it’s the prolonged period of isolation talking, but aside from some flatulence, what’s not to love about the humble cabbage?

Cheap and readily available, this cruciferous charmer is a true veggie-hero; albeit one that is too often maligned, and sadly, unsung. Aside from its incredible shelf life, green cabbage is also one of the most versatile vegetables out there. Whether it be fermented into sauerkraut, or sautéed then added to a buttery colcannon, cabbage is the star of countless recipes from across the globe, and is ripe for a comeback!

Typically most of us don’t associate a bog-standard “western” cabbage with Asian cooking; instead, we tend to think of exotics such as bok choy and napa cabbage as the staples of such cuisines. Nothing could be further from the truth! From being a key component in Sayur Lodeh (Malaysian Vegetable in Coconut Milk), and a traditional accompaniment to Phad Thai Noodles, green cabbage is a surprisingly common ingredient in many Asian dishes. In fact, if you have a wedge of cabbage lurking at the back of the fridge, you are actually halfway to making some amazing, and authentic, Asian meals.

Which brings me to this little gem of a dish! 

From wok to plate in just a few minutes, Sichuan Stir-Fry Cabbage is a true “lifesaver” recipe for when you are in a pinch and need to make a small amount of food go far – without compromising on flavour. Satisfyingly spicy and reassuringly comforting, this simple meal has all the hallmarks of a classic home-cooked Chinese dish.

This is a thoroughly adaptable recipe, please feel free to add a protein of your choice if desired. Thinly sliced pork works amazingly well and would be my preferred addition, but chicken is also a good option. Again, a little goes a long way and a small portion of meat can be stretched to feed many. Prefer a vegetarian or vegan version? Not a problem, simply leave out the meat altogether. With or without meat, this tasty and affordable recipe is cheap and nutritious, and delivers a lot of Sichuanbang for your buck, as it it were. 

Now that’s a dish worth gassing about. 

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Lai Yao Kei 奶油鸡 (Malaysian Butter Chicken)

Butter Chicken, but not as most of us know it!

Now obviously I’m a tad biased, but when I fancy some Butter Chicken it typically isn’t the Indian variety I’m hankering after. More often than not, what I’m really craving is actually something altogether different.

Indeed, Lai Yao Kei (Malaysian Butter Chicken) is about a million miles away from what most of us imagine when we think of Butter Chicken. In fact, I’d go so far as arguing this wonderful Malaysian dish, is in a league of its own. Unlike the oft mangled classic that is Indian butter chicken, the Malaysian version is an altogether different beast.

Unlike the Indian alliteration, there are no overnight or penetrative marinates here. Instead, flavoured morsels of chicken are ready for the deep-fryer in less than an hour, and smothered in a super quick creamy aromatic sauce. Infused with the unmistakable aroma of fresh curry leaves, and spiked with the heat from fresh chilies, the sauce itself is actually very simple and comes together in minutes.

Though you’d think the butter would be the star of the show here, it is actually the evaporated milk that steals the limelight. Admittedly, evaporated milk is probably the last ingredient you’d expect to find in a savoury sauce, but trust me, it works a treat and will blow your mind!

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Ayam Goreng Berempah (Spicy Malaysian Fried Chicken)

 

For better or worse, I have recently found myself an avid fan of deep frying.

In the space of a Lockdown I have gone from fretting about the obvious detriments of cooking this way, to deep frying with rather worrying abandon! Battered sausages, onion rings, and of course, an attempt at D.I.Y. KFC – all have found their way into my sizzling cauldron…and onto my ever expanding hips. Of course, the best part about my newfound love of fried foods is that I can finally bring myself to make some of my favourite dishes at home – specifically, Ayam Goreng Berempah.

Often served alongside nasi lemak and drenched with sambal goreng, this spicy deep fried chicken dish is a crispy and irresistible delight. Marinated overnight in a heady blend of spices and fragrant curry leaves, the chicken is literally bursting with flavour. Unlike many other deep fried chicken recipes, ayam goreng berempah‘s marinate actually doubles up as the batter, meaning less mess!

The “secret” to getting the chicken’s crust crispy is the addition of cornflour into the mix. It’s important to get the ratio between the wet and dry ingredients correct – too wet and the batter/marinate may not remain adhered to the chicken when fried. Personally I like to give my marinated pieces a second dredging of cornflour, a couple of minutes before cooking – just in case! Remember to add a few fresh curry leaves to the sizzling oil beforehand to infuse it with extra aroma and flavour.

Simply irresistible!

Note: it is absolutely vital that the oil not be too hot, as it will burn the crispy coating long before the chicken pieces are cooked through. Ideally you want the temperature to be around 165 to 175°c. It is also important that the meat is at room temperature before cooking.

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Palmier / Pig’s Ear Pastries

Known as palmier in their native France, but as pig’s ears to the rest of us, it is easy to understand why so many across the world have fallen for these sweet, buttery treats! After all, what’s not to love? A delight on their own or dunked in coffee, these wonderfully simple pastries are hard to resist.

Even though they may look complicated, palmier are anything but, and are actually surprisingly easy to make at home. In fact, they are quite possibly the simplest pastry I’ve ever attempted! Requiring just two basic ingredients, palmier is one of the most economical sweet treats you can make: all you’ll need is a roll of store-bought puff pastry, a cup of sugar, some folding skills, and that’s it!

As with all pastries, the temperature of the dough is essential. In this instance, it must be fully defrosted, but still chilled. If it is too warm, the butter in the pastry will melt too quickly in the oven – you won’t get a crisp finish as the butter will ooze out of the pastries and burn. It is best to defrost the puff pastry in the fridge overnight so that it is ready and waiting for teatime the next day.

Personally I don’t like to use too much sugar, instead preferring to give them a quick dab of apricot jam when they are fresh out of the oven – the sweetness of the glaze is enough for me, but this is entirely down to taste. Whilst on the topic of preferences, I like my pastries to be slightly on the “burnt” side, but if that’s not your thing then just take them out of the oven a couple of minutes early.  If you would like to expand on the traditional butter and sugar recipe, you can always add a teaspoon of ground cinnamon to the sugar.

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