Prawns

Assam Prawns (Tamarind Prawns)

A common complaint about many Malaysian recipes is that they are usually complicated and often have a long list of intimidatingly exotic ingredients. Whilst the resulting meals are invariably worth the effort, for the most part this particular gripe about Malaysian food isn’t completely without merit.

Assam PrawnsLike most expat Malaysians, I am forever seeking out viable substitutes for ingredients that we just take for granted at home. Candlenuts (buah keras) get substituted with blanched almonds, galangal (lengkuas) with ginger, bokkoms for salt fish and so on. For the most part the integrity of the dishes are rarely compromised, but there are some ingredients for which there are simply no substitutes and the meal invariably suffers for their subsequent omission.

Thankfully, however, there are some great Malaysian dishes that defy these inherent pitfalls and are surprisingly easy to make, Assam Prawns being a case in point. Requiring just a few basic ingredients and a very short cooking time, Assam Prawns pack quite a punch for its meagre effort level. Provided you can source some tamarind pulp, this dish offers an authentic taste of Asia without any of the usual hassles and exotic ingredients associated with Malaysian cooking.

Beyond being ridiculously simple to make, Assam Prawns are a true Nyonya classic and were, with good reason, a firm family favourite at my grandmother’s dinner table. This dish has it all! Sweet prawns, slavered in a simple tangy tamarind coating; what more could you want? This is truly finger-lickin’ good food, Malaysian style!

Note: Whilst the thought of it might seem strange to non-Asians, part of the joy of this dish is eating the prawns with their shells on. Encrusted in all that lovely sweet tamarind sauce, the prawn’s soft shell is perfectly edible and is, in fact, a great source of calcium. A word of warning though, don’t eat the sharp tail-shells and don’t forget to suck the prawn’s head. I’m serious, the tail-shell will totally choke you and the head is amazingly sweet and tasty when sucked. Trust me, your ultimate enjoyment of this incredible meal depends on both of these tips, so get sucking!

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Penang Char Kuey Teow 炒粿條

Universally the Noodle-World is typically divided into two distinct camps: soupy or fried. Every great noodle-eating culture has its own unique fried classics – in Thailand the ubiquitous pad thai reigns supreme, whilst yakisoba proudly flies the flag for Japan, but in both Malaysia and Singapore the undisputed king of fried noodles has to be Char Kuey Teow.

Penang Char Kuey Teow 炒粿條Literally meaning “fried flat rice-noodle”, Char Kuey Teow enjoys enduring popularity through-out both Malaysia and Singapore, manifesting in many delicious guises, accommodating a variety of tastes and dietary restrictions. Sliced fish-cake and bean-curd are popular variations, especially with halal interpretations of the dish, but Char Kuey Teow is at its best when eaten in its most authentic form – Penang-style! Like all hawker-fare in Penang, everyone has their favourite Char Kuey Teow stall, the most popular of these can immediately be identified by the snaking queues that lead to them. In Malaysia one should never be put off by a queue for food – invariably they end in a tasty delight that is always well worth the wait!

Stripped back, Penang Char Kuey Teow is a very simple dish made with just a few well chosen ingredients. With the exception of the noodles, the dish is made up of just 6 vital ingredients: prawns, beansprouts, Chinese chives (garlic chives), egg, Chinese sausage (lap cheong) and blood cockles (see hum), although the latter is often omitted locally due to health concerns (and many a runny tummy!). Lap cheong is an acquired taste and is therefore sometimes left out at the request of the customer. Whilst some of the ingredients may sound intimidatingly exotic, they are easily found at most well-stocked Asian supermarkets, although the blood cockles can be trickier to source. These can be left out altogether or substituted with a less exotic mollusc! I often use tinned clams as a substitute.

Another important component of the dish is the cooking sauce. Even though only a few teaspoons are added to the noodles, the sauce can make or break the dish. Given that Char Kuey Teow is classic hawker-fare, authentic recipes for its soya-based sauce are hard to come by, as the exact quantities and ingredients are often a fiercely guarded secret! I have tried a myriad of recipes over the years, but the nearest I have found to the real thing is from Rasa Malaysia, although I prefer to use slightly less dark soya sauce. Although the below recipe’s quantities are for a single serving, the sauce recipe will yield enough to make at least 10 plates of Char Kuey Teow and can be kept in the fridge until needed.

Ingredients aside, the key to making a decent Char Kuey Teow is technique and a hot, hot wok. A wide, well-seasoned wok needs to be kept searing hot throughout and as a result, only individual portions can be cooked at a time. Given the dish’s ferociously short cooking time (just a few minutes per portion), preparation of all the required components is vital – everything needs to be ready and to-hand when you start cooking. A moment’s hesitation can be the difference between success and ultimate noodle-failure!

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