Malaysian

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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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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Sambal Goreng (Fried Chili Sambal)

An everyday sambal with a myriad of uses, sambal goreng is as common in Malaysia as ketchup is in the West. From nasi lemak to Penang Hokkien Mee, this essential sambal adorns and flavours many of our favourite meals, and is the ideal condiment to a wealth of dishes.

Simple to make, adaptable and easily replicated at home, this handy sambal can also be used as a marinate for any meat destined for the grill. It can also be used as a stir-fry sauce for just about anything – simply add a splash of water and you’ll be good to go.

With a shelf-life of a couple of weeks, this tangy classic is bound to become a pantry favourite!

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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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Nasi Lemak (Malaysian Coconut Rice)

 

It perhaps goes without saying, but we Asians do love our rice. From fried to steamed, fermented to ground; we work everyday miracles from this most humble grain.

Naturally my native Malaysia is no exception; in fact, in addition to an array of odes to rice, we have even concocted rice dishes of every colour and hue, covering the spectrum from a mellow yellow all the way to an alarming blue. The variety and choice are, frankly, dizzying. Nevertheless, ask a Malaysian what their favourite rice dish is and the most likely answer would be – nasi lemak!

Most commonly associated with breakfast, nasi lemak is arguably the nation’s favourite way to start the day. Fragrant with heady aromatics such as pandan leaf, this coconut enriched rice is the perfect soothing foil to the spicy condiments which are traditionally served alongside it.

At its most basic, nasi lemak bungkus (take-away) comes portioned into small mounds of rice, which are then topped with either a prawn, egg, or ikan bilis (dried anchovy), sambal. Each portion is then expertly wrapped up in a banana leaf and magicked into a three-sided dome – making for the ultimate Malaysian breakfast on-the-go. Aside from its simplistic bungkus variety, nasi lemak can also be an altogether extravagant affair. Served up each morning to queues of customers, a good nasi lemak place comes with a multitude of side dishes, from the classic beef rendang to assam prawns, and almost everything else in-between!

Regardless of the side dishes available, nasi lemak is almost always served with half a boiled egg, sliced cucumber, crunchy peanuts and a generous dollop of sambal goreng.

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Nasi Lemak with the basics: sambal goreng, peanuts, boiled egg & sliced cucumber

Substitutes: Pandan is scarce outside Asia, and although it can be found in some major cities around the world, it is still not widely available to most of us. In the absence of fresh pandan, there are “essences” you can use instead – at a push these are actually fine, though fresh is always best. Unfortunately there is no substitute for pandan, so if you can’t source either, but still want to make nasi lemak, please do. Just omit the pandan altogether and use the galangal and lemongrass instead.

Note: In this post I’m focusing solely on the basic nasi lemak recipe, but if you would like to know more about what else to serve nasi lemak with, please follow the links to my recommendations at the end of the recipe.

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Sambal Kacang Goreng (Malaysian Spicy Fried Green Beans) 

It never ceases to amaze me how our tastes can change over time and through circumstance. What was once maligned becomes much loved, and benevolence finds itself curing into something of an obsession. Though it is embarrassing to admit now, this was very much the case with this recipe.

It’s fair to say that I haven’t always been a fan of this wonderful Nyonya dish. It’s not that I’ve ever actually disliked Sambal Kacang Goreng (green bean sambal). It is, after all, a true Malaysian classic, and justifiably so. But growing up in Penang meant never having to settle for anything less than what you actually wanted to eat, and for me there was only ever two sambal dishes worth ordering – Sambal Kangkong and the almighty Sambal Petai. Blinkered by such delights, I never really even considered many of the other amazing sambal goreng dishes out there…until, that was, I left Malaysia and her bounty of fresh ingredients.

Culinarily speaking, it was a calamitous time in my relationship with Malaysian food, a make or break moment that ultimately culminated in starting The Muddled Pantry. Indeed, the availability of fresh Asian ingredients has always been, and continues to be, the greatest challenge for many Asian expats the world over. And though access to fresh exotic ingredients has improved considerably, supply remains frustratingly erratic. Even if you do find a source of fresh produce, it is often short-lived . If there’s anything my 30’odd years as a Malaysian expat has taught me, is that you have to learn to make the most of what’s available. Admittedly I am blessed to call South Africa home, so I have no shortage of great local produce all year-round; and one thing we do certainly have a bounty of are green beans! Affordable and (more importantly) freely available, green beans were naturally on the top of my list of substitutes. It didn’t take me long to buy a bag of beans and give them the sambal treatment.

Oh what a foolish child I’d been. At first bite I knew I was tasting a delicious slice of humble-pie. I had to look no further, I had found a worthy contender. By the second mouthful, King Kangkong was off its perch. Come the third, I was completely sold! What a revelation. Heady, spicy, and evocative, the dish was everything I had hoped it to be. Cooked through just enough to retain an essential bite, the beans more than held their own against the spiciness of the robust sambal – something that is key to the dish.

Though it is a remarkably easy dish to make, and is ready in just 15 minutes, just be mindful not to add too much water. It is important to only add splashes of water around the sides of the hot wok. This gradually steams the beans in the sauce and will help retain their bite – if you add too much too quickly, you’ll dilute the sambal and risk boiling the beans instead.

Undoubtedly at peak crispness straight from the wok, this dish can also be served later at a tropical room temperature; or reheated even (just add another splash of water to loosen the sauce). Resting and reheating will result in a tougher bean, but equally it gives space for the flavours to evolve. Both options are as different as they are delicious; a matter of taste really. Not that I’m trying to sway you either way, but my personal favourite is to have it slightly warm, between two slices of fresh white bread.

For me at least, in South Africa, it’s become the best thing between sliced bread.

Note: Traditionally made with yard beans, and these being considerably harder than the variety many of us are accustomed to, using fine green beans would not be recommended; they lack the robustness of an older bean, and would succumb to the sauce.

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Inche Kabin (Nyonya Fried Chicken)

Inche Kabin (Nyonya Fried Chicken)

A delectable Nyonya classic, Inche Kabin will have you licking your fingers and asking for more! Deep fried chicken morsels, marinated in a thick coconut and spiced rub, Inche Kabin is bursting with flavour and always goes down a treat.

Though not personally au fait with the origins of Inche Kabin, the reigning queen of Nyonya Cuisine Pearly Kee, refers to the dish as lipstick chicken and speaks to its importance in Nyonya culture. Often served when presenting debutantes to the society, these bite-sized pieces of chicken were the perfect option to keep the young ladies feed, allowing them to maintain their poise and dignity whilst nibbling on tasty snacks. After all, heaven forbid your future wife be seen chewing in public! Oh how the world has changed…And as to why it’s also known as lipstick chicken? I’m still not sure. It may well be poetic license, but I can only surmise that the residue of oil from the deep fried chicken upon the lips has something to do with it. I guess glossy lips have always been in vogue, even if its just a bit of grease from too much Inche Kabin!

As with all deep fried chicken, the key to a good Inche Kabin is, rather unsurprisingly, the frying. Three times seems to do the trick, resulting in a crispy crust of spices. Traditionally chopped up chicken legs are the cut of choice, but I also like to use chicken wings for the recipe. Though obviously not as meaty as the leg, the wings are nonetheless delicious and not prone to drying out. Either would work, its really up to you.

Another key component to the dish is the dipping sauce. Never served without it, the simple piquant sauce adds just enough ‘zing’ to cut through the spice crust, making the Inche Kabin even more irresistible!

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